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A Tale of Two Wars

By Howard Williams

The attacks in the morning of September 11, 2001 changed America more than any other event since the end of World War II. More than 2,900 people died in the day's attacks. A recession, suspension (permanently?) of various Constitutional rights, a government commission, two wars  one against a country which had nothing to do with the attacks  have resulted from the events of that morning. A major political realignment of the world's strongest nation may result with effects to last for a generation or a century  or longer. Whatever ills the terrorist attacks caused, provoked, and excused, they have compelled us as Americans to examine ourselves and our society far more than we have since our Civil War. Instead of blue against gray, we are now divided blue against red. Now as then we debate about how we will live while enemies abroad eagerly seek to destroy our nation.

Then the European powers occupying Canada and Mexico hoped for a Confederate victory to regain their hegemony in North America. Today extremists in the Middle East hope for a right-wing victory to guarantee endless war and our continued dependence on their oil.

Now the USA is fighting two wars. We often ask what war in general and what these specific wars say about us. In one war, Al Qaeda had a strong infrastructure in the country at the start and now their base there is severely weakened. In the other, Al Qaeda had no strength in the country at the start of the war and now they have a widespread infrastructure there. In one war, the USA set out to conquer the country but the people liberated it before we got there. In the other, we set out ostensibly to liberate the country but the people call us occupiers. In one war, after three years America has lost more than 130 soldiers. In the other, more than 1,000 Americans have died within 18 months. In one war, less than 10,000 civilians have died after three years of war. In the other, at least 12,000 civilians have died after one and a half years. In one war, we don't spend enough to rebuild the country. In the other, we spend tens of billions more in a country that opposes our presence. In one war, after three years, most Americans support the war effort. In the other, after half that time, most Americans oppose it. In one war, our popular goals remain unattained but possible. In the other, all our military goals have been achieved and we can declare victory and leave. In one war, we have the support of numerous allies giving us strategic support. In the other, we get less help from our allies and we continue to alienate potential supporters. In one war, the mass murderer who attacked us remains at large and is confident enough to arrogantly lecture us on our national conduct. In the other, we have captured the mass murderer and his closest henchmen. In one war, the president of the native country is a respected man from a respectable family. In the other, the leader is a former Baathist henchman.  

Obviously "one war" is the war in Afghanistan and the "other" is the one in Iraq.

For all our friendly fire and other blunders in Afghanistan, our presence there is based on a cause supported by most Americans. Those who oppose the US military presence usually do so out of sincere concern for the Afghans. However, it must be remembered that, unlike Iraq, on September 11 a war was already happening in Afghanistan. It was a war in which Afghans were being tortured and killed by the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Not only did most Americans cheer the downfall of the Taliban/Al Qaeda regime; so did most Afghans and often more fervently. By helping oust the Taliban, the US military action in the autumn of 2001 probably led to a decrease of Afghan lives lost in warfare. The US intervened in the war in Afghanistan; we did not start it.    

The comparison of these two wars speaks volumes about the moral laxity of the Bush regime. We are treating our ally Afghanistan like we treat our other allies as an expendable nation with no oil or intrinsic value. Unlike Iraq, there is no talk about Afghanistan becoming a standard for democracy in the Muslim world. The Afghans were vital Cold War allies. And let's remember that for them the Cold War was quite hot more than one million Afghans died during the Soviet occupation. After the Afghans evicted the Soviets in 1989, the Bush I and Clinton administrations promptly forgot the Afghans. Al Qaeda stepped into the ally vacuum created by Bush I and Clinton, opportunistically building roads, orphanages, and mosques. All we did was sow the perils of ignoring our proven Afghan allies.

On September 11, the Afghans didn't do anything against us; they just didn't do enough against Al Qaeda, though not because they weren't trying. Bin Laden gained enough influence with the Taliban to gain the ability to attack us on September 11.

On that day the tragic perils of neglecting a proven ally were cruelly visited upon us. But though we now know that peril, Bush still does little about it. Aid for Afghanistan falls far short of the amount needed to rebuild the country. The US has never properly credited the Afghans for their vital roles in winning the Cold War or ousting the Taliban both at steep cost.

Meanwhile the US continues to spend more attention on Iraq, all in the name of its liberation and well being. Whatever other attitudes the Bush regime has toward Iraq, neglect isn't one of them. Iraq is being treated as a nation with oil.

All these facts will not be lost on the rest of the world. The lesson is clear: alliance with America is unilateral based only on what is good for the US and never on our allies' past-proven help for us. This is the sad lesson of September 11. In this regard September 11 changed nothing. George Bush had the chance to change this ugly paradigm . . . and did not.

Is America's conduct in these two wars a symbol of our destiny? Since declaring our independence in the same year that Adam Smith's capitalist manifesto The Wealth of Nations was printed, America has managed to have in varying ways both democracy and capitalism. But we cannot pretend that freedom and corporate capitalism will continue to co-exist. The long marriage between democracy and capitalism has become rocky and is now bad for the kids (us). Capitalism has changed and not for the best. It has become something fundamentally different. It is now a multi-national corporatist system ready to dump democracy for a younger model. For us as individual Americans, it is time to make a choice: liberty or consumerism.

Each nation of the two wars offers a rich metaphor for this choice.

The Afghans are economically poor and have nothing except their independence. They are by far the poorest nation in Asia. But their independence, protected so many times from the most powerful enemies, is the source of riches that the Afghan would die for rather than surrender.

These riches are the courage to live and die for their beliefs, the honor to grant hospitality to a complete stranger and death to an invader, and the knowledge to live in relationship with nature and reality, however imperfect and struggling. And these riches have been expressed by Afghans of each gender and all ages. These riches are not romantic notions. They are facts of history. They have existed consistently for hundreds of years. Those of us fortunate enough to have been to Afghanistan have written volumes about these historical facts, yet our words are but an insufficient medium for conveying this message. Afghanistan is not a utopia, nor is it on its way to becoming one. But it is an independent country and an ally.

Iraq is a nation with the world's second largest proven oil reserves. For all the Bush regime's claims to free Iraq and find WMD, talk radio war supporters claimed the invasion's real goal was cheap gas. Has the rising price of gas helped fuel the rising unpopularity of the war?

The comparison of these two wars demands that we ask ourselves where our priorities lie. For many years we have had the opportunity and luck to be both free and rich. Yet we may find that freedom in this century will be a package that offers honor and risk but no longer wealth. And already we are finding that the package of consumerism offers the illusion of security with the indulgence of greed at the cost of learning reality and preserving liberty.

In neglecting our Afghan allies, do we sell out our own aspirations to freedom? And in prioritizing the oil wealth of Iraq over the alliance of the Afghan people, do we elevate our consumerism and commodity fetishes over our liberty?


This article first appeared in Crazy 8s, a monthly publication edited by Howard Williams and available at fine bookstores throughout San Francisco.