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The Coming of World War III: An Open Letter to My Stepdaughter
By Robert Karl Manoff

Thursday, September 14, 2001

Dear Kate,

In this morning’s New York Times, Tom Friedman is drawing the logical conclusion from two facts that have emerged over the last two days: (1) Our leaders are calling this an "act of war," and (2) the bin Laden organization apparently has its people in 55-60 countries. Friedman concludes that we are now in the midst of World War III. He put it even more succinctly on Gwen Ifill’s PBS roundtable last night: "This is World War III. This is what World War III looks like."

That observation really shocked me. It quietly subverts our perception of the very normality of everyday life. I’m reminded of the fact that grandmother went to work in her Navy uniform as a WAVE during World War II somewhere downtown not far from the World Trade Center, and that life for her, as for most people in uniform (as for civilians) was very normal, too. Life goes on in wartime. As it does today.

Friedman’s observation is all the more shocking since it could be true. It’s certainly a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t know whether you have had time to watch all the coverage, but what is already being treated as a fait accompli is that this country is heading off to war. The White, House, the Congress, and the political class have all come to this conclusion. Warren Rudman, who recently co-chaired a blue-ribbon commission on terrorism, said (on Jim Lehrer) that ground troops and many, many American casualties will be necessary. Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher agreed. Talking heads speak knowledgeably about a war that will last for years. JFK’s prophetic vision (actually Ted Sorensen’s) of a "long twilight struggle" against Communism was invoked by someone, and within 24 hours became a cliche. Joe Biden (on ABC) spoke about the World Trade Center attack having "inoculated the American people" against objecting to the necessarily high casualties from this necessary war. As you know, it was precisely fear of the public’s response to TV images of body bags returning home that led to the Powell Doctrine that has prevented the use of American forces in any but the least lethal circumstances.

To someone of my generation, the specter of high casualties immediately raises questions such as, Will World War III lead us back to the draft? Could my 16-year-old son Morgan end up fighting in some jungle, desert, or mountaintop? If it goes on for many years, will your Ian have to serve, too? (Why am I only thinking about the boys? In a post-feminist world the draft would call up women, too: will my Alix fight alongside your Isabella?) Far-fetched? Perhaps. But, then, I remember the Vietnam War all too well.

One of the lessons we should have learned from the last few days is that manifestations of war that seemed inconceivable three days ago were actually inevitable all along. Panels of experts have been warning us about such attacks for years, even decades. So here’s the next thing that is "inconceivable," but actually inevitable: a biological, chemical, or nuclear attack by terrorists on the United States. The next time we are glued to our TV sets, it could be to watch some city glow in the dark. Bet on it.

The only question is: What we do now in light of such inevitability? The only defense, such people as Friedman and Bush and our leaders and advisors and eminent journalists are arguing, is to fight and win World War III quickly, before Osama bin Laden can strike again. Fair enough. But here’s another inevitable thing: Because of what we as a country do around the world, and because of what we are -- and what we represent -- to the rest of the world, another bin Laden will appear in place of this one. (No, I’m falling into a trap here. What is really inevitable is that we always fall into the trap of thinking that mass social movements are really the work of malevolent individuals, the proverbial "outside agitators" we invoke when our usual explanations fail us.) So here’s what’s actually inevitable: World War III may eliminate bin Laden, but what of the thousands, or millions, or even tens of millions who already see his struggle as their struggle, and who will prosecute it and carry it home (our home) with or without him?

They hate us. And to begin to understand why we need only recall that Jefferson, reflecting on the consequences of slavery for the future of his new nation, recognized that inequity breeds violence: "I tremble for my country when I reflect upon the fact that God is just." He was right to do so. Lincoln concluded that a country half slave and half free could not long endure, but he did not do so until millions of men on both sides signed up to fight a war also deemed inevitable, and not until we Americans had loosed upon ourselves the greatest violence that humanity had ever inflicted on itself.

There are many in the world today who now believe it to be half slave and half free, and the problem with thinking about responding to Tuesday’s attack by means of World War III is that although we have just become familiar with defeat, no one has any idea of what victory could possibly look like. And how do you "win" a war of the kind that is now being planned by the President, the government, and the political class if you can’t envisage the victory that would end it? Yes, we can say that we will have achieved victory when the U.S. is safe from terrorism, but do we seriously understand what we will have to do to other peoples, and possibly ourselves, to achieve this objective? Was it Tacitus who said of the Romans after their victory over Carthage, "They made a desert and called it peace"? Will we become the new Centurions, and what will we have to wreak on the world in order to declare it pacified?

Reading back into history, I have always been puzzled by the pages that spoke to me of the sense of expectancy with which so many wars seemed to have been greeted. The Civil War, World War I, World War II -- by the time the first shot was fired, there seemed to be a sense of inevitability about their coming, and a palpable relief that they had finally arrived.

Kate, this is what, finally, came back to me last night, when, late into the morning, I sat in the dark watching our American people sit around the "campfire" that Peter Jennings rightly remarked that the TV has become and discuss the coming of war. There in the dark, finding myself almost convinced by the weighty arguments being offered by men and women of evident experience, I suddenly realized that I had heard such words before, had encountered the inevitability with which wise men sat contemplating the immolation of themselves and their societies with equanimity, with reason, with justice, and even with care. These were the words I had puzzled over in my books, in accounts of how the Blue and the Grey, the "Frenchies" and the "Krauts," the "Yanks" and the "Nips," willingly, deliberately, rationally, brought down the temples of their own civilizations in the very same dust that now coats the streets of Manhattan.

I sat there in the dark, Kate, and trembled for us all.


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So what Reynolds? Tell me something new. The grape is always tastier than the should perhaps remember Hiroshima!
Ewen Carmichael, 01.10

Well, it's 2 and a half weeks later. Is there a war? Is Afghanistan a glazed over parking lot? The last I heard, the UN, with mainly US support, was trying to figure out how to get food to Afghanis, just like they were before. The people that are responsible for murdering 6,000+ innocent civilians in New York are still not brought to justice, but I expect that at least some of them will be in the next month or so.So what's your problem? Don't want to offend Bin Laden or the Taleban, or Hamas or Hizbollah or Islamic Jihad. Don't want to be rude or politically incorrect. Or is it that you don't want to piss them off, make them really mad, because they might hurt you. After all, that's what they do to people that disagree with them. They're thugs. You're old, so am I. I've been in a war. I still startle easily and have unwanted mental images of killing and a strong sense of my own vulnerability and I'm somewhat paranoid. They can't do that to me, I've already got it. Screw them. I can empathize with your wanting to spare your children from those things though. Good luck.In your readings, what did you get out of pre-WWII? Was pacifism the answer to Hitler or did it empower him, or was NAZI Germany a desperate victim of the Versailles treaty?
Don Reynolds, 28.09

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