Sunday, September 15, 2002


For a majority of the baby boomers that make up the Western commentary elite, the 1960's were their defining moment. The first television war, large scale public protests, cultural upheaval. They were in high school when Kennedy was shot, and were radicalised by the time King went down.

Many student leaders that leapt to prominence then have remained place with a strong hand on the cultural tiller. Even to the point that many still see the world through that prism. Last week Howell Raines, the editor of the New York Times no less, used Vietnam to twice trump discomfiting questioning on The News Hour, when asked why the NYT was running a campaign against the war, instead of just reporting it. Can you imagine the scorn a young Raines would have heaped on some 60 year old in 1964, who was trying to use a 40 year old war to explain Vietnam? But that is what Raines wants to do. His credentials as an anti-Vietnam protester have somehow proofed him against irrelevancy and fogiedom.

Home-grown Australian hipsters are still trading on their fame of decades past. It’s as if they refuse to realise the world has moved on. No, Che is still glamorous, Bush is the same as Nixon, they’re all in on it together. And if they use the occasional reference to acid and The Man, it will delay the onset of Relevance Deprivation Syndrome. Here’s a thought fellas: if you have to keep reminding your audience of how cool and revolutionary you were 35 years ago, people are entitled to wonder of what use you are today.

But my question is this: what kind of thinking is the war of today creating? And how are the pensioned-off Radicals coping?

In the 60’s, Uncle Ho (shades of “Uncle Joe” Stalin) was a wrinkled, cuddly folk figure. Like an exotic little doll. Che was neither fat, nor dead. Fidel was macho. The Revolution was a foregone conclusion, and would lead to freer behaviour, looser sexual mores. Now the old icons have failed, and the new ones don’t measure up.

Now the defenders of the Movement are lining up behind crazies who are happy to bomb abortion clinics and would hunt gays for sport. Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden are not Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know. They’re just nuts. And they smell baaad.

There are complaints that the war resembles a video game. Occasionally there is a whiff of something like nostalgia from peace-pushers, when they declare the Western way of war to be impersonal, or even cowardly. It’s as if they hanker for the days when steely-eyed commandoes slit enemy sentry throats, and glassy-eyed GI’s lit up the ‘ville. The art of war has simply progressed so far so fast, that it has caught up to futuristic imaginings. The old images of grunts on patrol in the deep green are as outdated as going to battle with a crossbow and sling.

Armies have always fought as far away from each other as possible. The entire history of military technology has been killing at greater and greater distances. Because that makes it harder for the other guy to kill you. No commander has an obligation to his men but to kill the enemy at the longest distance he can arrange. Anything else is dereliction of duty, and any talk of a “fair fight” displays a fundamental lack of understanding of tactics.

Hand to hand combat isn’t honourable, or desirable. Killing up close is men in the dirt scared out of their minds, biting, scratching, gouging to get a grip on eyes, balls, ears anything you can get at. It’s screaming as he turns the knife back on you and it presses closer. It’s begging sweet Christ to make it stop and let you go home and talking to rubber muscles to force it back and down. It’s stabbing a man one inch at a time, a man whose face you will see every day for the rest of your life. So close you can feel his breath fall away, and smell his shit. It’s crying in the blood and the stink because you’re alive and you’ll have to do it again.

There are no more draftee soldiers wasted on acid, no more draft card burnings, no moratorium marches. No-one cares if you’re a Conscientious Objector. Today’s military specialist is likely to be a college graduate with skills so rarified to be near magic. The soundtrack of the war will not be Hendrix or Joan Baez on a transistor. It’s industrial-techno downloaded at the base internet café, played on a personal MP3 player. Or maybe a Spanish language course for a final college credit. These are motivated, angry volunteers who fought hard and long to get where they are, and are as far removed from a conscript army as they are from Venusian Amazon women.

The only conscript soldiers that feature are the poor bastards in the enemy front lines. They know the score, because they heard it from the few that were lucky enough to live through the first Gulf War, and unlucky enough not to surrender. They understand that when the elite army is staying home, and their own officers are shooting deserters on the spot, the clock is ticking.

There are others involved who have no say. The passengers of jet liners turned into flying bombs. The office workers looking up from their spreadsheets to see religious bigotry at its finest hour. The beat-down families of Baghdad that stare dully as the cream of their army parks an anti-aircraft battery next to their kindergarten. The slaves of the Sudan. Starving North Korean parents eating bark so their children can live another day.

How can a 60’s radical make themselves relevant to an audience that has seen all the horror the Taliban has to offer? How do you stick up for the sovereign rights of a government that gleefully demands a new stadium as the condition for not using the UN-built soccer stadium for public executions? Where is the My Lai anger at seeing the sponsors of mass murder get pounded into jam?

Simple: shift the rules, and keep shifting them. The People’s Revolution has moved out of the basement and into the newspapers and the Senate Committee Room. Power to the People is now served by delay, equivalence, exploiting the balance of votes on the floor.
DEMAND PERFECT WAR. No civilian deaths. No civilian injuries. A thousand-fold decrease is not enough. Any civilian death is proof of aggression.
DEMAND PERFECT KNOWLEDGE. No action without proof to Western legal standards. No targeting without absolute certainty.
DEMAND Perfect Foresight. No action without a replacement government ready to go. Risk is uncertainty. Uncertainty is death. Don’t destabilise. Avoid quagmires. The future is unknown, therefore certain to be worse.
DEMAND Clean Hands. Don’t fight anywhere you have an interest. Don’t fight anywhere you have no business in. Failure to condemn is support. Failure to support is racism. Failure to intervene is corruption. Intervention is interference. The enemy is bad, but we are tainted too.
DEMAND Full Disclosure. Endless hearings. All secrecy is conspiracy. The ghost of Nixon stalks the earth.

The old revolutionaries need to keep an image in mind before they put their hand up: Eisenhower. No-one could fault his ability at war, his patriotism or his intellect. So outflank him call him outdated, out of touch, a relic. But consider: his war was only 25 years out of date when JFK ordered the troops into Vietnam. You war is older than that, and much more obsolete.

Antiwar activists are correct when they say it takes to sides to make a war, and if one side (ours) will refuse to fight, there can’t be a war. This is true. Lay down your arms in the face of aggression and it becomes a beating. Or a rape.

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