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Snapshot of 2004: Can war work?

December 17, 2008

One evening in early September I decided to do my laundry. I had just set up the wash cycle and was returning to my apartment when something in the free magazine pile caught my eye. Believer. The fantastically entertaining and notoriously expensive literary magazine. Goldmine! Yes, this issue was from April of 2004 (ah, freshman year of college), but I never pass up free culture and pretension.

I picked up my treasure and perused the cover as I walked upstairs. One title screamed out at me: “On antiwar ambivalence and a belated reading of The Gulag Archipelago by Tom Bissell.

The reading that followed was partly enjoyable and partly infuriating, but most notably a time machine back to rapidly darkening but generally optimistic days of early 2004. I was engrossed by his description of The Gulag Archipelago, a three-part book about the horrors and injustices of the Soviet Union, hearkening back to when I spent my Tuesday afternoons in seminars with titles like “Life under Communism.” When I neared the end of the article Bissell somewhat inexplicably turned to his own anti-war ambivalence. This is when I began to grow skeptical and frustrated. This passage crystallizes his take on the early Iraq War and the antiwar movement:

“I found myself less antiwar than anti-antiwar, which did not make me prowar but left me much less antiwar than I wanted to be. For The Gulag Archipelago had told me this: one must fight totalitarianism and never apologize for doing so. The sick brilliance of totalitarian regimes is that they are beyond diplomacy. They are removable only by war…”
Believer, April 2004, p.15)

This passage frustrates and frightens me because it demonstrates a kind of reverse idealistic belief that war can fix totalitarian regimes. Of course I have the benefit of knowing what transpired in Iraq in the years that followed this article. War introduced a new injustice and horror into Iraqi life. But is that chaos really better than the freedom crushing regime of Sadaam Hussein? Neither is good, and clearly war is not the answer for dealing with totalitarian regimes. As Bissell himself points out, when a society has lived under a controlling regime for many years, it is not effective to “liberate” it by throwing the doors open and announcing freedom. Totalitarinism inflicts severe pschological wounds — wounds that are not healed by subjecting the sufferer to war.

I agree with Bissell that, “one must fight totalitarianism and never apologize for doing so.” But does war fight totalitarianism? No! If we use 1920s and 30s Germany as an example, one could argue that it in fact promotes totalitarian regimes.

Bissell’s attitude in this article is ‘totalitarianism happens. We have a resposibility to stop it.” But totalitarianism doesn’t just happen. Conditions of inequality, chaos, and unrest allow dictators and controlling regimes to rise to power. We shouldn’t waste time feeling ambivalent about the antiwar movement — we should be over the moon about removing the causes of war. People should get out in the streets demanding more money for the State Department and civilian control of foreign relations.

Think out of the box Bissell! Iraq is just another example that the “stop injustice with war” model doesn’t work. Try prevention. Try diplomacy, economic development, education, equality, and cooperation among nations. Then you will stop totalitarianism and war in one move.

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