Fear easier to sell than truth


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

I wish I had a nickel for every time I have heard people like me (i.e., supposedly unpatriotic ingrates) reminded that “we are at war.” I would buy my critics a set of medals from the wars they never went to or a set of history books about wars they don’t remember.

What do these guys mean when they say “we are at war”? What they really mean is that they want anyone who expresses doubt about the war in Iraq, in particular, to shut up.

“We are at war” translates into “you can’t argue with the commander in chief when we are at war,” which, conveniently for him, won’t ever end.

My problem is that I am not personally at war, but the peace in my time is not about appeasement. In common with most Americans, I think the terrorists are an evil group that ought to be fought and defeated but that we need to be smart about it. I don’t think any of us has to shut up.

Instead, President Bush sent Americans to fight in a snake pit called Iraq for reasons of such childish naivete and optimism that only the Tooth Fairy may be able to extricate us now that the snakes aren’t cooperating.

When Bush was asked recently what 9/11 had to do with invading Iraq, he said, in a fit of candor, “Nothing,” and went on to say that “nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack.” (Say what you like about our president, but he has a great sense of humor.)

He went on to make the grand-theme case about changing the conditions that breed terrorism and the necessity of pre-empting threats. This theory has proved persuasive with many Americans. Why, it made me feel like I should go over to my neighbor’s house and punch him in the nose, just in case.

Since then, Bush and his team have taken their message on the road, and it has been amplified by all branches of the administration (i.e., Fox News and all the radio talk shows).

The collective message is that this is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century! It is the Cold War! It is World War III! No, it is World War IV! It is like the 1930s when dictators were being appeased! It is an Intergalactic War! (Actually, nobody has said that, but I thought it worth pre-empting.)

Really? Well, I am not at war and I expect you are not either.

The fact is that I feel rather proprietary about the word “war” ever since I was in one (Vietnam). I don’t think the word “war” should be devalued by wannabe warrior politicians.

Some Americans are at war in our names — God preserve them — and, yes, “we are at war” in that sense.

But what war requires in my book is public sacrifice across the board _ and not just the possibility of danger. Taking off our shoes at the airport security gate does not qualify, nor does the shopping we were urged to do after 9/11.

As for me, I played golf on the Labor Day weekend. I saw no troops guarding the bridges or industrial plants. I did not have to cut back on lunch because of rationing or rush to do fire-warden duty.

Yes, I know, it’s a different sort of war — it’s World War III!

The real difference is the yawning chasm between the reality and the rhetoric. If this were World War III, this administration would be behaving in a way that reflected the seriousness of the situation. That it does not is the dog of war that does not bark in the night.

If Iraq (population 26.7 million) is so important to the war in terror, how come U.S. troop strength is only about one-third more than the number of fans that attend an average University of Michigan or Penn State home football game? Got things under control, have we?

And how come no draft? The draft was used in both World War I and World War II, but somehow it’s not needed in World War III, because out troops signed up, so it is morally right that they be sent back time after time no matter at what terrible personal cost because we support the troops and — did we mention? — they signed up for it. This is the cowards’ rationale for sending heroes to their fate.

When did the terrorists become “Islamo-fascists,” anyway? Islamo they may be, evil, bizarro and nutto they are, but fascism is a philosophy from a distinct time and place, and, besides, the Islamo-fascists don’t have well-tailored uniforms.

The answer to these questions ought to be obvious to the smallest readers of “My Pet Goat.” Fear is easier to sell to voters than sacrifice, especially when most of what you have done has proved incompetent. The spin is the thing, not the reality.

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com.)