Gore Vidal's War on War

We are, as George the Younger tells us, “at war,” and having unpopular opinions during times of war is likely to get one shouted down, or worse.

Fortunately, the War on Terror isn’t a real war; it is a “new kind of war,” otherwise its critics might find themselves in jail, as did critics of Lincoln’s and Wilson’s wars, never mind that pesky First Amendment.

Yet the chilling effect is real, so real that when Gore Vidal, America’s greatest living man of letters, weighed in on the War on Terror, not even his friends at The Nation would publish him.

Vidal holds a view that is beyond the pale, or so the Conventional Wisdom would have us believe. He believes that the United States may actually have done something to provoke the hatred of the Islamic world.

He explores that possibility in fine detail in his new book, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated, a slim but substantial collection of essays, including the one that The Nation wouldn’t touch.

His central (and reasonable) thesis is that, contrary to what President Bush told a joint session of Congress, the Islamic world doesn’t hate us because of our freedoms. Rather, it hates us for exactly the reasons Osama bin Laden himself claimed: our military presence in Saudi Arabia, our continuing war of sanctions against Iraq and our “unconditional” support of Israel.

Vidal writes, “Since V-J Day 1945…, we have been engaged in what historian Charles A. Beard called ‘perpetual war for perpetual peace.’ I have occasionally referred to our ‘enemy of the month club’: each month we are confronted with a new horrendous enemy at whom we must strike before he destroys us.”

Saddam Hussein’s longevity has made him the “enemy of the month” for a decade, replaced only temporarily by the Serbs.

Ironically, we bombed the Serbs into submission, in part, for their war against the very same Islamic terrorists we now face.

Our friend today is our enemy tomorrow and vice versa, and both are our enemies the day after that. Saddam was our ally against Iran. Then, briefly, Iran was our ally against Saddam. Now, both are two-thirds of the Axis of Evil, and the North Koreans are as perplexed as anyone.

Vidal also provides a “scoreboard” of American military adventures, many of which are ongoing “even though many of us have forgotten about them.”

Of course, our leaders tell us that these military engagements are all justified. However, those bearing the brunt of our bombs don’t necessarily see it that way. Nor should the American taxpayer, who is paying to a vast arsenal and getting even less security in exchange.

Ultimately, it is hard to imagine that Islamic terrorists spend much time worrying about the freedom Americans enjoy to eat at McDonald’s or watch MTV.

As it is, Americans are losing their freedoms, Vidal writes.

Following 9-11, Congress passed and the president signed so-called anti-terrorist legislation that gives the federal government sweeping new police powers.

The perception that the United States is becoming a police state breeds hatred on the home front, too. So, Vidal moves on to the case of our indigenous terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, who was forged in the fires of the Gulf War, where so many of our recent troubles began.

McVeigh, a decorated veteran, became a mass murderer in order to retaliate against what he saw as the federal government’s own acts of murder, directed at the Branch Davidians and others.

Vidal maintains that McVeigh’s concerns were justified, although his actions were not.

But those who approve of America’s current foreign and domestic policies like to wave bin Laden and McVeigh like bloody shirts, implying, and sometimes saying flat out, that to criticize American policies is to take the side of the terrorists. This guilt by association is meant to keep critics silent.

But just because bin Laden is evil doesn’t mean that the United States’ policies toward the Arab world are justified, nor does McVeigh’s evil mean that America should become the police state he feared.

Hopefully, Vidal’s little book will prompt more of us to reflect upon our country’s role in the world.

It was, after all, no less than George Washington who warned us of the dangers of overseas entanglements.