Fair Warning

As college Freshmen, my roommates liked to climb up to the roof of our dorm to throw water balloons at the band, who assembled just outside loudly, early and provocatively every Saturday morning during football season. One weekend the powers-that-be had had enough, and an adviser crept in to scrawl a semi-conspiratorial note and posted it on the door leading up to the roof: FROSH NOT ALLOWED ON ROOF--ESPECIALLY NOT TO THROW THINGS OFF. He signed it "Fair Warning." We got the hint, and when the campus police materialized in our room at dawn we were dutifully sleeping off the previous night's indulgence. I think of that note often when I talk with my countrymen--or rather, don't talk to them. The pastime sweeping the country right now is not to talk about the war, as if it will somehow magically go away. Surprised by a friend's nominal pro-war stance, I tried to explain what a terrible mistake it was. She would have none of it: "You're not going to get me in this trap--I will not discuss this with you." Ah, so this is what Robert Byrd was talking about when he said the Senate was "ominously, dreadfully . . . hauntingly silent." He must be feeling the same frustration as millions of us as we try to give Fair Warning to our fellow citizens. I was talking with a friend whose son is likely to ship out soon about this anxiety, which I shared--a real gut wrenching fear that keeps so many of us awake at night--and I thought of a line a more quick-witted writer than I had penned recently: "Who's flying this plane?" It is that same sense of powerlessness, of not getting through, that pervades our sense of impending doom--and yes, anger. At--ourselves? Bush and his gang of thieves? The press? Our dumbed down and plumped up diet of fast food and reality TV? We are on a runaway train (trains, planes, or automobiles--the metaphor hardly matters) and the overwhelming feeling is that the conductor doesn't care. World opinion, the sincere warnings of military and intelligence experts, our allies--nothing can penetrate the dense fog of allegedly faith-based resolve of a junta about to drive us off a cliff. And when the war comes, when perhaps hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis are dead, along with up to 10,000 of our own, boys and girls most of whom just wanted a shot at an education--what then? We have failed to learn powerful lessons of history, lessons which Americans take enormous pride in having helped teach. Many in the antiwar movement, whom I applaud, are rightly pointing out that parallels between Nazi Germany and Iraq are inaccurate, and that the abuse of this misapplied historical parallel is hardly justification to strike. After agreeing, I point out that the parallel is also backwards, if not in scope or kind, then in the simple mechanics of international law. Robert Jackson, the Chief Justice at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, wanted to make sure above all else that the Nazis know that what they did wrong "was not that they lost the war, but that they started it." This act-unprovoked aggression against a fellow sovereign nation-state was the first and most reviled of all war crimes, precisely because the chaos of war makes all others possible. If we allow our government to launch this war in our names, we can expect no different than other countries who have started wars: sanctions, boycotts, embargos, frozen assets. Of course, it should go without saying that this will be the result of others' judgment, not our own. There is not a single war in history where the aggressor does not claim to have been provoked. Nobody cares what kind of forged documents we can cook up, or how many Americans the government can dupe. All the childish, macho, swaggering crap, all the "Freedom Fries" and "Liberty Toast" in the world won't wash the bad taste it leaves it the mouths of World Opinion. Mark my words: This war signals the beginning of the end of the U.S. as a world power. Over the next few decades, our standard of living will slide as the world community recoils. Why should it be otherwise? As Paul Simon sang of a different war a generation ago, "You can't expect to be bright and bon-vivant so far away from home/so far away from home." In the intervening generation, however, nothing of the sort happened. So why am I peddling doom today? The simple answer is They Don't Need Us Anymore. After the world recoiled from the horror that was Vietnam (and recoil they did), we were still in the grip of the Cold War. People needed--or at least we could convince them they did--things we had that they didn't: the balance of terror in an age of Mutually Assured Destruction. Everything was colored by the rhetoric of an age of which we are well rid--one which the current Bush and his self-crowned regents would have us revive. The difference is that the insane nuclear standoff is a dangerous relic in changing times. Terrorism (assuming we are not talking about the massive state terror inflicted by governments on their own and others' populations in the name of "democracy," the "war on drugs," "war on terror," etc.) is a far different problem. States in Europe and elsewhere have been battling terror on their own for decades, and they rightly feel we have nothing new to teach them, especially if it consists of using a 10-pound sledge to drive a 10-penny nail. Economically, the U.S. is just another player on the field already, before the coming explosion as the Chinese and Indian economies develop to their potential. To put it in simple terms Bush and his CEO friends can grasp, pissing off your customer base is bad for business. Alas, is there really nothing left to us but to listen to the braying of Angry Old Men who cut off our every attempt to follow a different path and now have the audacity to suggest we have nowhere else to go? The fearmongers and warmongers delight in shooting down our hopes and dreams about what is possible. How dare they? What have they wrought, with all the blood they have spilled, all the brainpower misapplied to their killing technology, all their trillions misappropriated for "defense" while millions starve and die of easily cured diseases. Perhaps Ronald Reagan, King of Simpletons, was right after all about there being simple answers. Just as the monsters learned to make energy out of giggles instead of screams in "Monsters Inc."--we must learn to spend our almost limitless energy on changing our lifestyle instead of propping it up on the bones of the world's children. Are those who have mortgaged our grandchildren's future for the sake of their wars and profit really going to tell us we don't have the money? I know quoting a Hollywood cartoon may be simplistic, and deliberately so. But what obstacles can they summon to block our pursuit of a different future, obstacles they themselves have simply wished into the cornfield for the sake of their own mad pursuits? Who dares stand up with a straight face, having squandered our past in the pursuit of cheap oil, and say that changing course is more than a matter of will? To be fair, the Bush Junta didn't cause all of this--though their ilk played a starring role in the bad movie whose final reel is now playing out. But they are making a colossal mistake, an incredible wrong turn at one of the most crucial forks in history. As we choose to follow or not to follow them over the precipice, we must do so with our eyes open. As we head into the home stretch, fighting and hoping against hope to stop this nightmare, we must be blunt about what is at stake. I feel like the psychiatrist who told Carmella Soprano to leave her husband, knowing full well she was too wedded to The Life to take sound advice. "Well," he said finally, bluntly, "at least you can't say no one ever told you."

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Daniel Patrick Welch's picture
Columns on STR: 15

Writer, singer, linguist and activist Daniel Patrick Welch lives and writes in Salem, Massachusetts, with his wife, Julia Nambalirwa-Lugudde. Together they run The Greenhouse School. His website is at danielpwelch.com.