My most trusted ally thinks I shouldn’t call us “hawks,” and maybe she’s right—it’s catchy, but misleading. We’re not hawks as that label was understood in the Vietnam era, much less in terms of the current government, where Colin Powell, Lord help us, is a dove. Moreover, I’m not even sure we’re hawks in the context of a loosely defined left stretching from, say, the ACLU to Earth First! Certainly I know many such leftists who are more enthusiastic about Bush’s terrorism initiative than my wife and me. What’s the percentage who’ve favored its Afghanistan phase the way we have? Thirty? Forty? Fifty? Large enough, certainly, to render doubly difficult the labor of marshaling any kind of visible counter-offensive.
It’s not my purpose here to argue the rightness or wrongness of the self-evident political fact that a lot of us like this war. This being the American left, however, there’s no denying another political fact, which is that we can’t stop bitching at each other. So rather than detailing disgusting tidbits from Jonathan Schell and Noam Chomsky, I’ll conjecture briefly about why I find it a deprivation to pass up the chance. In part it’s that most American leftists spend a lot of time inside their own minds. We’re passionate about ideas, hence rather too fond of disputation for its own sake, as well as committed proselytizers. But much more important is that we’re afraid nobody else really gives a shit. We talk among ourselves so much because it’s hard to get anybody else to listen. And if you’re waiting for me to end the paragraph with a solution to this nagging little problem, then you’re too naive even for the American left.
So perhaps it’s equally naive for me to wish out loud for some kind of protest movement (a lily-livered adjective attached to a grand noun, and anyone with a better catchphrase should unveil it pronto) that would not only establish common ground for progressive hawks and (more terminology problems, we’re all so sensitive) unreconstructed peaceniks, but also provide us all with, if not full-scale visibility or credibility, at least the beginnings of something like influence. The end of the war in Afghanistan proper is unlikely to be the end of progressive hawkism. Even if bin Laden and Mullah Omar are out of commission soon, which is unlikely, my guess is that most of us take Al Qaeda’s network seriously enough to favor a continuing policy of aggressive pursuit. Yet however much we detest Saddam, few if any of us favor direct military action against Iraq, and the same probably goes for Somalia. Putatively cooperative targeted missions in the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, etc., might garner more support, I hope after case-by-case scrutiny.
Pakistan, Jesus—even the atheists among us pray about that one, and Palestine God throws up his hands at. In general, progressive hawks are much more blowback-sensitive than convinced warmongers. The fatuity of peaceniks proffering military critiques of military strategy has been amply demonstrated by the rapid downfall of the Taliban. All those realistic-looking analyses of how bombing wouldn’t bring victory (which sure had me wondering in early November) were dead wrong. But beyond the Bonn talks, there are no indications that we’re waging peace in Afghanistan with anything like the same efficacy. Now that the U.S. has demolished more infrastructure and shrugged off more civilian death, it’s in our national interest to see to the well-being of the citizens we claimed to be liberating, just to mitigate the hate factor. But seeing to any poor person’s well-being doesn’t come naturally to our CEO, who has also shown no belly for risking American lives in any phase of the war, forget the mundane business of protecting deliveries. So the U.S. has been quite casual about feeding and clothing Afghanistan’s displaced and destitute. And that’s not to mention aid or education in the myriad other hotbeds of Islamic fundamentalism, of which I have yet to discern the merest symbolic hint.
Even worse, barring the nuclear scenarios none of us ever fully forget, are the domestic consequences. Bush and his henchpeople clearly planned from 9/12 to use 9/11 as a smoke screen for their give-to-the-superrich agenda, and it’s worked. In the face of welfare for airlines, insurance companies, and of course the oil companies, massive corporate tax givebacks predated to 1986, and a gutted Social Security surplus, the Democrats, exhausted from their battle to federalize airport security, have scarcely raised a peep. Even more than John Ashcroft’s Christian-fundamentalist assault on the civil liberties that are the spiritual core of secular democracy, this could be the terrorists’ most terrible legacy.
Politically, I’m a fellow traveler. I bring my leftism to my own field of writerly expertise, popular music, where it pertains readily and revealingly. But as an activist I’m just a foot soldier, ready to march in a crisis. So on Friday, September 21, before Bush had given much inkling of his relatively contained military plans, I showed up for the first announced demo against war in Afghanistan.
Union Square in those emotional early days felt to me like a be-in—way too sentimental and an inspiration nonetheless. But surrounded by a gaggle or two of scruffy contemporaries and their punk-inflected children, I felt like I’d stumbled into some nightmare Richie Havens concert, and after not many minutes of soapbox abstractions left to join a family party already in progress.
Except perhaps in academia, I see no sign that the peaceniks I rubbed shoulders with that evening and continue to read on the Internet, in The Nation, and in the Voice have any chance of catalyzing effective protest, much less an effective movement. That leaves it to the progressive hawks. Given the complexity of the issues, I doubt street action makes sense, but like I say, I’m a foot soldier. If and when anger over Ashcroft’s detainee policies reaches the proper boil—in my feckless fantasy, American Muslims of pronounced secular (and feminist) (if also, quite possibly, anti-war) bent would lead the charge—I’ll try to be there. Meanwhile, I’ve just sent an e-mail to www.moveon.org/constitution urging my elected representatives to speak out against Ashcroft’s policies. I have serious doubts about electronic protest, but this one came my way, and to me it’s clear that shoring up the meager mettle of our legislators is essential work. It’s also conceivable that public supporters of the war in Afghanistan can make a difference in such work.
The same applies to all the other outrages we still react against as leftists—the ominous foreign-policy options and the class warfare in this country. I don’t know who can put it together, but somebody must have some ideas—that’s our specialty, right? The fight against Al Qaeda’s brand of terrorism pits the party of this world against the party of the next. That’s a polarity that trumps even the capitalism-versus-communism we grew up on. In this world there’s far more righteous work to be done than there was on September 10. We can’t let our sectarian principles, our reconfigured patriotism, or our fear that nobody gives a shit stop us from it.