Virtual War

Virtual War

SF Examiner

March 2, 2001

It is a truism that war is hell. Uncountable generations of young people have given up their lives at its terrible altar, and civilizations have vanished in its wake. Victors and vanquished alike carry its mark, and all bury their dead. It is why we recoil from it, why war is a state to be avoided.

But suppose one side never got hurt?

That is the disquieting question we should be asking ourselves in the wake of the Feb. 17 bombing of Iraq. It is the disturbing question journalist and historian Michael Ignatieff asks in his book “Virtual War” about the 1999 Kosovo intervention: “If war becomes unreal to the citizens of modern democracies, will they care enough to restrain and control the violence in their name?”

President Bush described the attack by two dozen American and British war planes on radar sites near Baghdad as “routine,” another day at the office suppressing Iraqi anti-aircraft fire in the defense of the “no-fly zones” in Southern and Northern Iraq. One could quibble with the term “routine.” It was the first such attack in two years and has drawn the ire of virtually every European and Arab country. But, in a sense, the term did sum up a deeply distressing reality. We are at war, and no one, most of all the media, seems to know it.

While the recent attacks went front page, their prominence seems to have more to do with the fact that it was the first foreign policy action by the new administration than with its representing something new.

But by any sensible definition of the word, we have been at war with Iraq from the moment we unilaterally established the no-fly zones in 1992. Since January 1999, British and U.S. aircraft have attacked Iraq on at least 184 days and given that there are no figures for sorties during the an eight month period in the southern no-fly zone, that figure is likely to be considerably higher. The bomb tonnage released on Iraq is now about the same as that dropped by NATO on Serbia.

And yet not only would most Americans be puzzled by the idea that we are at war, so would some of those involved in the fighting itself. One American pilot involved in attacks on Iraqi anti-aircraft sites told Time, “Having someone shoot at me…makes me feel like I am at war.” In his post-attack press conference, President Bush seemed slightly outraged that the Iraqis would defend their airspace from foreign warplanes.

But why should Americans feel they are at war? Congress has never declared it. There are no flag-draped body bags coming home, no tarmac interviews with weeping relatives, no graveside photo ops, except, of course, for the Iraqis, and they hardly count.

This business of fighting wars without losing soldiers looks like the wave of the future. It certainly seems to be the thrust of the new Administration’s military budget. Speaking to the troops on Feb. 13, Bush called for a “new architecture” for the military, harnessing “new technologies that will support a new strategy.” Meaning? “In the air we will be able to strike across the world with pinpoint accuracy, using both aircraft and unmanned systems.”

First off, one needs to be careful of the hype like “pinpoint accuracy” that goes along with these new weapons, and the vocabulary that makes them seem more like medical procedures than war. Phrases like “laser guided, surgical strikes” sound like no one get hurts. At least two Iraqis were killed Feb. 17 and scores of others were wounded.

In fact, if Kosovo is any measure of virtual war, it does very little damage to soldiers and equipment, but devastates the civilian infrastructure. High tech weapons might have missed Serb tanks and artillary, but they did an excellent job of taking out the power grids, which in turn shut down everything from water pumping stations to hospitals.

If “virtual war” gives us the illusion that we are not at war, it also gives the “illusion” that something good comes of it. Besides a lot of dead Iraqis, what has 10 years of bombing accomplished? What did the Kosovo War achieve? There is no peace in Kosovo. “Ethnic cleansing” continues, only now the targets are Serbs and Romas, not Albanians. The Jews of Pristina have fled to Serbia proper and most ethnic Turks and Albanian Catholics have been driven into Bosnia and Macedonia.

A war without casualties on our side is also an illusion. While it is true the U.S. military is virtually invulnerable, the rest of us are not. Ask the relatives of the 220 people who died in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania if there are no “casualties’ in virtual war. We can go after people like Osama bin Ladin, pounding the Afghans and Sudanese with risk-free cruise missiles, but the idea that that somehow solves anything, or won’t eventually come back at us, is a mirage. It didn’t take fancy, high-tech weapons to blow a hole in the U.S.S. Cole and kill 17 sailors, just a speed boat with explosives and some people prepared to die.

But isn’t the object of war to kill the enemy? Didn’t George Patton once say the whole point was not to die for your cause, but to get the other guy to die for his? Great line, but wrong headed. War, according to Karl von Clausewitz, the great theoretician of modern war, is the practice of politics by other means. We have been bombing a lot of people over the past decade, but I am hard put to figure out how it has advanced any political solutions.

Ignatieff asks the question: “If Western nations can employ violence with impunity, will they not be tempted to use it more often?” It is a good question, and lest you think other countries are not thinking about the implications of virtual war, U.S. invulnerability and what to do about it, ponder what an Indian general said about the chief lesson of the Gulf War: “Never fight the Americans without nuclear weapons.”

Now there’s a chilling thought for the week.

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