An Alternative to Anti-War Foolishness

by Alex Wednesday, Sep. 26, 2001 at 9:02 PM

While I have some specific suggestions, which I'll make below, it is my opinion that solving this problem - how to oppose the war successfully - is what September 29/30th should be about. The movement should find a solution the upcoming war that is both practical and moral, and it should start the business of political mobilization around that idea.

Several people have quite appropriately taken me to task for failing to suggest an alternative to the peace marches I oppose. I've also been asked about my suggestions for September 29/30 in DC given that the IMF isn't going to show up. I have already made suggestions about these issues, but they're usually buried toward the bottom of my articles, or somewhere in replies I've made to my critics. Today's rant will not focus on why I think peace marches are tactically unsound. (Click this link to open that article in another window.) It will focus on my solutions to the problem of war.


I'm going to define the problem as follows:

America is about to engage in unlimited war against a poorly defined enemy. Thousands, perhaps even millions of lives are at risk. We must do something.

I realize that this is not a full statement of the problem, but I'm trying to keep things from getting too complicated. I think that speculation about such issues as whether this war was planned long ago, or whether the war is being fought to control the heroin/oil/weapons trade is fruitless. Such side issues complicate the search for a good solution. On the other hand, consideration of these "side issues" will be essential should someone attempt to implement one of the solutions I propose.


What tests would any proposed solution have to pass to be considered a "good" solution?

There are really only two tests; morality and practicality. Sadly, these two considerations are usually opposed to each other. Frequently, a very practical situation isn't moral, and a very moral suggestion isn't practical.

The morality of each proposed solution can be measured in the number of people we expect any given solution to save in the long term. We can't foresee casualty lists from the future, so obviously these are not a real numbers, but we can evaluate which ideas will save more people than other ideas and we can rank them.

The practicality of any given idea can be defined in terms of how difficult it will be to get the government(s) and/or other bodies to actually implement them, how the public will feel about them, how easy it will be to attract allies to that position, whether the idea is technically feasible, whether the movement can propose the idea safely.

You could even graph this. (E-mail me if you want a terribly technical read and I'll explain)

While I have some specific suggestions, which I'll make below, it is my opinion that solving this problem - how to oppose the war successfully - is what September 29/30th should be about. The movement should find a solution the upcoming war that is both practical and moral, and it should start the business of political mobilization around that idea. In my opinion this is also what individual activists and groups not associated with the protests in DC should be working on as well.


Just so we've got a number to play with, let's assume that we can expect one million people to perish in the upcoming conflict. There are practical approaches to saving some of them, such as reducing the area in which conflict will occur, or limiting the objectives and tactics of the war, but such approaches will only save 300,000 people. Sadly, taking a practical approach means acknowledging right now that we will have to accept 700,000 deaths.

Just as sadly, the "purely" moral approach (no war at all) is impossible to implement in any practical terms. If you don't believe me, read a few polls. For some, however, this purely theoretical exercise is much more satisfying. It sounds far more noble and ethical. In taking the purely moral approach we can raise our "Peace Now" signs high and insist that this theoretical, moral approach entitles us to feel really good about ourselves. After all, we won't be the bad people letting 700,000 people die. But will we save anyone? Taking the purely moral approach means that unless there's a miracle, one million of our hypothetical people will die.

So which solution is actually the one to agitate for? Do we go with moral purity or do we go with the practical approach? Is it possible that in this existing situation saving only 300,000 people is actually the best case scenario? That's my opinion, so none of the suggestions I make will look very nice from a purely moral standpoint. They all have to do with mitigating the damage.

Before you dismiss me as a monster, let me remind you about the kind of things that happen around doctors who won't perform triage.


We must push for a real declaration of war, and it must be limited to as few organizations and countries as possible.

This sounds like the opposite of saving lives. How do we declare war and save people? Allow me to explain. The current war effort is not operating under a declaration of war. It is operating under simple congressional permission for Bush to go after terrorists and an appropriation of money to finance the effort. Essentially, Bush can declare any person, organization, company, or country a terrorist and shoot at them. Obviously there are political and military limits, but he nonetheless has an obscene amount of latitude right now.

In strategic terms (for the movement) this is bad for us because we want to express an opinion contrary to the government's opinion without being called terrorists. In tactical terms (saving lives) this means that Bush can bomb anyone he pleases.

On the other hand if he is only allowed to bomb (for example) Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, and is only allowed to undertake actions against Al Quaeda and the few banks and businesses that support bin Laden, he can't invade Syria, attack IRA members, or declare us terrorists and shoot us without congressional permission. If we get a real declaration of war against as small a number of targets as possible we've done something like "containing" a forest fire. It can't spread beyond it's containment area and the other trees are safe.

What we're currently hearing about the war powers Bush has been granted is ridiculous. Can we really be expected to believe that a war against "terrorism" in general (which a well-educated Arab has to know is "code" for Muslim) is more likely to reassure our Arab allies than a war against specific countries? If you're the ruler of an Arab nation you have to know that a general war against terrorism could wash up on your doorstep with no warning. If we're only aiming at Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, that's a real relief.

We need to get a limit put on objectives and tactics.

This could be worked into the declaration of war or other enabling legislation. What does America really need from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and other "terror supporting" nations in order to feel safe and victorious? Probably we want an Afghani surrender, an Iraqi change of leadership, and enforceable treaties with Iran and Syria stating that they will not arm terrorists. We also want to destroy the various organizations that really are terrorists or terrorist supporters, such as Al Quaeda and any banks, businesses, and "charities" which are part of their support structure. We need to advocate a carefully written document that defines the minimal objectives of the war and states that the war will be over when these objectives are met.

Also, what about the weapons and tactics to be used in this war? Do we really need large scale bombing campaigns concentrated on the civilian population? Do we really need weapons of mass destruction? Should we ever have to attack civilians to destroy "terrorists." Absolutely not, particularly if we really want to stop terrorism forever. Do we have sufficient military abilities to win a war against lightly armed irregulars without destroying everything in our path? We do, and with a little work educating the public I suspect that limitations such as these can also turned into policy.

The two ideas above can definitely be worked into an intelligent campaign. While success would certainly not come easy, there is a real chance of pushing the two major points above into the public consciousness, and possibly having them passed into law or made into policy. If made into policy they each have the capability to save numerous lives and they substantially cut down on Bush's power to make war on anyone he pleases. Policies such as these won't be scary to the average American, making these suggestions won't damage the movement, and there are some real possibilities of picking up allies both from left leaning moderates and people who have specific axes to grind, such as the substantial minority of those who believe that the President has too much power.

Remember that each restriction we place on the war in terms of time, place, tactics, and objectives has the capacity to save lives. Going back to our (totally hypothetical but not unreasonable) assumption that a million people will die if we don't do something, a ten percent reduction in the general scope of the war will save 100,000 lives - and that's nothing to sneeze at.

We can attack the nature of the war

This won't show up on the political radar for a little while, but careful listening to the news makes it clear that what we're looking at is a "dirty" war something like the wars in Vietnam, Nicaragua or Columbia... guys in camo coming down out of mountains and shooting up a village, proxy countries carrying out assassinations against anyone we don't like, helicopter gunships killing fleeing children... nothing really effective on a military scale, but something more like the drug war. In fact, in moments of paranoia, I think that we're having this war because America has become so cynical about the drug war.

We've talked a lot (on Indymedia among other places) about how the war on terrorism is a bad thing for us, that we can be declared terrorists and become military targets just like some Pakistani peasant. What we haven't talked much about is how vulnerable the whole "making war on a word" concept makes GWB. From a PR point of view, I suspect that making the war on terrorism into another war on drugs is child's play.


There's a big problem with the approaches I suggest above. The practical proposals I outlined probably won't save everybody, and that severely limits their appeal to the hard core anti-war types. If you really, passionately believe that everyone should be saved do you have to abandon your hopes and work for something less? I'm not sure you do. Obviously the very best solution from a moral standpoint is to not have a war. But how do we manage this? Pure anti-war activism is utterly impractical and thus fails one of our most important tests. You can click this link to read my "anti-peace march" reasoning with copious commentary. It will open in another window.

However, all is not lost if you want to take the purest moral line. At least one potential event makes that solution practical again, and that is the Taliban turning bin Laden over to either the US government or any of several nations and organizations. (I think a hefty bribe and lots of food aid would probably do the trick. Click here for a longer discussion of this idea.)

Another possibility would be finding proof that the exact scheduling of the attacks was known about by our government in advance and that we could have halted the attacks.I'm starting to take this possibility seriously, in part due to the article at this link, which deals with some of the questions that need to be asked and has some intelligent commentary. There's actually a huge mass of data pointing (rightly or wrongly) in that direction which should be looked into.

Even if it can't be proved that the government knew about the attacks in advance, this is a good talking point to parade in front of the public in a general sense: "We're about to give the agencies responsible for this massive intelligence failure more power to violate our privacy even though they can't competently work with the information they already have?"

I can't think of anything else right now that could happen to make pure anti-war activism practical again, (other than lots of body bags and no military success) but someone else might spot a possibility that I have missed.

If the September meetings can make either of these things happen I suspect that a pure anti-war approach then becomes practical. After all, our strategy doesn't have to be a one step process. We can "set up" the correct circumstances for a pure anti-war approach. Thus, my second suggestion. Both the DC convergence and individual activists should have workshops on these two issues - getting the Taliban to hand bin Laden over and proving that the government knew about the attacks in advance. A large demonstration provides a great forum for spreading such ideas - and imagine the press that ten thousand people carrying signs that say "Bribe the Taliban" would generate!!

I won't harp too much on the obvious issue here. Both of these approaches could turn out to be dead ends, and progress on achieving either of these goals should be subject to continuous review.


One of the many problems with agitating against this war is that no groundwork has been laid for a public understanding of many of the issues involved. Thus, the best move at this point may well be to engage in "education" rather than "activism." Getting a good piece on the recent history of Afghanistan published in your local paper or putting up a web site about that country and what's been happening there could do more for changing public opinion than a hundred signs.

Consider educating on the following issues:

The oppression of the Afghani people, the root causes of terrorism, the link between terrorism and globalization, CIA support of bin Laden, the intelligence failures involved with letting this happen, etc.

Also, educate on the military history of Afghanistan, which is a country that has been chewing up invaders and spitting out their bloody remains for centuries. No one in his or her right mind really wants to fight there. This issue can be exploited

Click here for an article on war in Afghanistan and some suggestions on how to use this issue in an anti-war campaign. Much intelligent commentary.


Consider that the movement has some objectives beyond agitating against this war. Some of these issues may be more important than anti-war activism and some may even save more lives than anti-war activism.

Consider that the most important issue facing the left at this time is simple survival. We desperately need to make sure that our organizations, philosophies, and people make it through the coming war intact. A long-term perspective is important here.

Consider that this war is just one more symptom of the diseases that are capitalism and globalization, and that fighting against these diseases is more important than fighting against war - indeed that ending global capitalism is probably the true path to ending war.

I think that the continuing critique of capitalism should be our first priority. If we can't stop the globalizers our future is a war on ordinary people. Forever.

Lastly, consider the issue of civil liberties. I suspect years from now we'll feel that we've won a victory if we can simply keep such liberties alive.


Where does this all leave us? A simplistic anti-war stance just won't do. Unless we can create special circumstances, such as convincing the Taliban to hand over Usama bin Laden, such a campaign is doomed to failure. Trying to limit the damage has some practical appeal, but requires the building of alliances and some sustained effort. Education efforts will go a long way toward making either strategy work.

Ultimately, there isn't really a solution to this that will satisfy everyone - just a vast gray area somewhere between rejected ideas that are too moral to be practical or too practical to be moral. This gray area needs to be navigated with wisdom, skill, and some measure of speed. There are lives in the balance. Please don't blow it.


Original: An Alternative to Anti-War Foolishness