A novel of psychological suspense from the Editor of MCR
Although this is the uber-context in which virtually everything that occurs today is analyzed in the mainstream media, the term itself has gone largely unexamined. It has been used with equal frequency to refer to both literal combat, and the figurative struggle against fear, radicalism, "Islamo-fascism" and a minor cosmos of other threats both real and imagined. However, this important distinction between the figurative and the literal is rarely made in public discourse, and our ability to offer a clear anaylsis of policy decisions made in the name of the "War on Terror" has suffered as a result.
Let us then embark on just such an analysis, beginning with the first word, "war." I don't think I need to whip out the dictionary on this one. We all know a war when we see one. A war is a conflict between states, usually over territory or resources. Often there are ideological differences as well, and sometimes these differences alone are enough to set off a conflict. More often than not, however, ideologies arise out of material conditions, and become the means by which "hearts and minds" are mobilized in service of the Cause.
Some wars are begun by official declaration - this, I suppose, is the preferred and more sporting method. At other times, when two or more states or "states-within-states" have been in a condition of conflict or elevated alert for an extended period of time, wherein skirmishes may break out at the slightest provocation, it will eventually occur to all parties involved that they are "at war."
Wars usually have specific goals. These goals may shift over time, but at any given moment it is usually the case that combatants on either side of the conflict can fit the essence of their goals on a single postcard, as in: "We seek the withdrawal of country X from our land, the control of ports Y and resources Z, and the release of all prisoners from enemy jails." The specifics of implementation may be vastly more complicated, and the historical precedent long and torturously complex, but the essential goal of any war is something easily imagined and embraced - a simple pseudo-utopia that awaits once the material fact of victory has been accomplished. However long the war may in actuality last, its conclusion must at least be possible and to some degree imminent in theory.
There is, of course, another kind of war not touched upon in the above description - the metaphorical war. An evangelist may be at "war with Satan," a welfare activist can wage a "war on poverty," and a recovering alcoholic may declare "war on alcohol." Many people are even admittedly "at war" with themselves. This is a different kind of war. It is not a military confrontation, but a struggle of social and spiritual dimensions. It refers, not to violent conflict per se, but to a struggle or project upon which great amounts of energy must be expended. Sometimes, the goals of the metaphorical war fall, as they do in actual wars, within the limits of material reality and towards specific goals with a visible endpoint. More often, however, they take on the character of the transcendent, the eternal. One wins simply by fighting the war, not by concluding it.
There is nothing wrong with either definition of "war," so long as you know the difference. Into which category does the "War on Terror" fall? One might be inclined to say "both," but before we accept this ready-made answer we must overcome one minor hurdle - it is logically impossible. "Reality" and "metaphor" are discrete entities, wholly unlike one another. There is no region in which the two overlap. One is either describing a phenomenon of reality, or a phenomenon of the imagination. A "war on homelessness" may describe a real struggle, but it is not a realwar. To describe it as a "war" is an appeal to an imaginary representation of the struggle - it ennobles the material project with epic grandeur and importance.
Accepting, then, that a thing is either real or imaginary, but never both, let us revisit the question: into which category may we place the War on Terror? In light of the above limitation, the question becomes a bit more uncomfortable. We shall proceed with greater caution. We certainly cannot claim that the War of Terror is imaginary, can we? We have spent billions of dollars, mobilized multi-national infrastructures, and sacrificed thousands of lives in this "war." And yet... what are its goals? Where might it meet its end? Have its perpetrators - our leaders - come forward at any point to give us some easily comprehended description, some specific, empirically meaningful picture of reality as it would appear at the moment of victory? In fact, they all-too-readily admit that the War on Terror is likely to last decades - that, in fact, it has no visible end-point at all. Whereas in the days following the attacks of 9/11 it became clear that we would soon be at war with the Taliban, the years that have followed have seen our state of "war" pushed to ever-greater levels of abstraction. War with any country that allegedly threatens us is now part of the War on Terror, as is every questionable act perpetrated in its conduct, and every subsequent alteration and imposition on our domestic life. Even long-standing conflicts which pre-date the War on Terror by decades, such as that between Israel and Palestine, are now covered by this planet-sized umbrella called the War on Terror.
In fact, taken at its surface meaning, the War on Terror must be imaginary - as it is a war waged upon an abstract concept: terror. Like a War on Sin, or a War on Hate, a literal "War on Terror" is a war waged upon an aspect of the human condition with which humanity has never been wholly without. And do we not in fact find that, amongst those leaders most enamored of the term, the language tends to the metaphorical? This, we are told, is a war fought to ennoble ourselves, and we win by fighting it, not by ending it.
Now we have a real conundrum. The War on Terror cannot be both real and metaphorical - and yet it is. But this state of quantum uncertainty need not endure long. There is a resolution. It is this: there is more than one war going on. We have the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, and who knows what other wars yet to come. Connected to and yet above all these specified conflicts is the uber-war, the war-in-conception, our oft-mentioned War on Terror. This need not trouble us in principle (however much we may rightly object to the reality of it), again, as long as we can tell the difference.
We must consider the following: that legislation has been drafted and enacted granting extraordinary executive powers to our president, and assuming extreme unilateral privilege for the United States, not on the basis of the war in Afghanistan or the war in Iraq (both real), but for the War on Terror (imaginary). Let's be as clear about this as possible. Real powers and real privileges, of at least debatable necessity in times of real wars (which, along with said powers and privileges, are of limited duration, and end at the completion of specified material goals) are being granted in the name of an imaginary, metaphorical concept (which is, for all intents and purposes, without an end). We do not yet know how many more countries must be invaded, and how much "blowback" defended against, before the possibility of terrorist activity - and all activities we call "terrorist" - is permanently removed from the world. It has not even been argued, much less demonstrated, that such a thing is possible. Nonetheless, that this endeavor will occupy us for a length of time beyond any empirical calculation or informed guesswork is without question. Even the most ardent defenders of the War on Terror shy away from prophecy, such as that "The War on Terror will end when X, Y, and Z occur."
What, exactly, is happening here? There can be only one answer: "war" (literal) and "War" (metaphorical) are used interchangeably by our leaders. This is not sloppiness on their part. It is quite deliberate. To be fair, there need be nothing dishonest in finding a metaphorical dimension in a real war. If we describe the war in Afghanistan as, for instance, a "War for Democracy", we are (leaving aside the question of the actual veracity of that claim) engaging in a kind of wartime rhetoric, an appeal to idealism, that necessarily colors all wars. In a certain sense, we are projecting our real struggles into the metaphorical realm of values and ideals. But what if we were to practice the reverse? A president might declare War on Sin or War on Violence, and then claim all sorts of special wartime powers in order for that war to be waged. "This," says the president, "is the nature of War," as his minions listen silently to your phone conversations, in search of sinful utterances. This, then, would be a reverse-projection of an abstract notion into material reality; a literal imposition - upon the world - of a figurative struggle. It is this latter phenomenon that has occurred in the name of the War on Terror.
In his essay, aptly titled "The War on Words," the British author Philip Pullman has written convincingly that conflation of metaphor with reality is a trait of religious totalitarianism. In the act of this conflation, it is not the metaphor whose integrity survives the conflation. Instead, all becomes literal. The political effect of this is to entrench concrete executive authority for potentially epochal stretches of history.
Perhaps this is why, in our mainstream discourse, the enemy is ascribed motives for their attacks based only on ideology and emotion. That "they hate us for our freedom" speaks to immortal greivances, wholly divorced from any material considerations. If it is the goal of the Administration to fight the War on Terror indefinitely, then it is to their advantage to portray "the enemy" in this manner. The moment that it is acknowledged that "they" have material grievances and goals, and hence that some basis for rational engagement may exist, the war waged against them seems more conventional and less permanent. By extension, the executive powers used to wage the war also become less easily justified.
We have seen this before in America, most notably and alarmingly in our decades-long "War on Drugs." Here too, we spend tens of billions of dollars annually, sacrifice thousands of lives to death or incarceration, re-interpret or circumvent the Constitution as befits the needs of enforcement, all in the name of a war which has no visible end. Just as our War on Terror has increased the number of terrorists by both literally promoting the rise of political radicals willing to commit acts of terror, while drastically broadening the definition of terrorism to include what were previously considered normal combat tactics (such as fighting and soldiering on the side of the enemy), the War on Drugs has overseen a substaintial rise in the number of states - both official and "rogue" - which produce and export drugs with ever more expansive, technological, and logistically-expert infrastructure. Entire countries such as, interestingly enough, Afghanistan (responsible now for 90% of the world's opium), base their entire farming economies on huge drug profits which would be impossible in a decriminalized market. And, it seems, we all know this, and go along for the ride anyway. When a politician speaks of "winning the War on Drugs" we know, on some level, that this is a War without end. What he in fact intends, so we believe, is to support policies that maintain a discrete and inviolable boundary between "us" and "them" - those who use drugs and those who do not. It is the "integrity of our communities" and the "innocence of our children" with which we are concerned, not all drugs and drug users everywhere. The goal of the "War on Drugs" is to keep these social imbalances intact and inviolable. The fact that "our communities" are not at all kept clean by these policies, that children may still acquire hard drugs with greater ease than they do booze, and that the incarceration of nonviolent criminals domestically and the support of authoritarian regimes abroad which inevitably result from the War on Drugs have ruined millions of lives matters little to us. We prefer the ennoblement of a metaphorical war above all else - even if it is waged with vast material costs.
Finally, then, we can look at the War on Terror as it will truly exist. The year is 2031, and our campaigning politicians on both sides of an ever-narrowing aisle are paying lip-service to the War on Terror, which is now an entrenched policy of endless conflict with a wide array of ever-shifting states and groups. The cost of waging the war still numbers hundreds of billions of dollars per year. Our military and intelligence services are permanently stationed around the globe. Tens of thousands of lives are lost in combat each year. Our phones and emails are still monitored, and trangressors in Word are punished before Word becomes Deed - we have gotten used to it, because we are "at War," and sacrifices must be made. And we will not actually be any safer - with our ever-growing list of "enemies", the rise of Terror becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The attacks continue, in greater scale and with greater technological (possibly nuclear) proficiency, and with each attack we state again to one another the need for ever more vigilance. Because the fight ennobles us. Because "giving up" is not an option.
This is what happens when you go to war with an abstract concept. Abstractions, emotions, fears - these things are part of our internal lives, our mythologies about ourselves. A war waged against a state or organization - whether just or unjust - can one day end. A war against an idea can not.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Andrew S. Taylor. All rights reserved.
hether they wanted to be or not, every nation on the planet is now in some way subjected to the U.S.'s latest and purportedly most urgent endeavor - the "War on Terror."