The Coming of World War III: An Open
Letter to My Stepdaughter
By Robert Karl Manoff
Thursday, September 14, 2001
In this mornings 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 Ifills 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.
Im 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.
Friedmans observation is all the more shocking
since it could be true. Its certainly a self-fulfilling
prophecy. I dont 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. JFKs prophetic
vision (actually Ted Sorensens) 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 publics 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 heres
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 heres 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, Im 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 heres whats 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 Tuesdays 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 cant 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
So what Reynolds? Tell me something new. The grape
is always tastier than the vine....you should perhaps
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