Don't you know there's a war on?

Posted: Jan 28, 2004 12:00 AM

A French writer living in America has written that "this war is not a war in the ordinary sense of the word. ...There are two series of conflicts going on at the same time: conflicts (involving military action) and conflicts which are ideological, political, social and economic. The latter transcends boundaries ... The very confusion of the situation has often served as an excuse for recommending a policy of aloofness." The writer was Raoul de Roussy de Salles. The date of publication was 1942. And the war was World War II.

Now, of course, we recall WWII as a classic, all out, necessary war. But in the spring of 1942, in America, Raoul de Salles, the patriotic citizen of a defeated France, could feel the need to explain that "It is only recently that America has lost the belief that she had a choice. Up to Pearl Harbor, the Americans were made to think not only that they could decide between peace and war but that they could decide how much war they would accept. This capacity of choice was an illusion ... Although he is fully at war now, he cannot forget overnight the point of view of the spectator, which he so recently was. The American still believes that it is his peculiar privilege ... to discuss from a more impersonal angle the social, political and economic future which will come out of this war."

As I was reading this old volume from my father's library in Los Angeles last week, I was struck by how fresh sounding was the author's description of an American public still tentative in its acceptance of the reality of total war. Today's soundbites from news coverage of the presidential election campaign are filled with candidates for president, and their supporters in the public, discussing exit strategies, turning the war over to the United Nations, focusing on the more pressing needs here at home for federal dollars, etc.

Listening to all the aspiring commanders and chief (except for Joe Lieberman), I don't hear any campaign promises related to winning the war on terrorism. They make a few obligatory references to getting bin Laden rather than wasting our time with Saddam, and then they get on to their real campaign message, which is the conventional, peacetime Democratic argument to tax the rich and give the proceeds to their likely voters. I am tempted to respond to these candidates with the snappy WWII era retort to complainers: "Don't you know there's a war on?"

Of course domestic life and politics go on today as they did during 1941-1945. But it is striking that the challengers for president have virtually nothing to say about the central event of our time. If they think President Bush is fighting the war badly (and they could do a better job), they should be shouting both their criticism and their better plan from the rooftops.

In nine months, one of these men could be elected president. It doesn't particularly surprise or worry me that the candidates are just making what they judge to be useful political chatter. But I don't get the feeling that any of them (again, except for Joe Lieberman) sit up at night worrying how they will protect America from the terrorist threat if they get elected president. It would show in at least the tone, if not the words of their public oratory.

Rather, I get the sense that, as Raoul de Salles described too many Americans 60 years ago at the beginning of WWII, today's candidates for commander in chief still think the war is optional. They still think they can select "how much war they would accept." They let the confusion of the situation "serve as an excuse for recommending a policy of aloofness."

Whatever each of the candidates may think of the wisdom of the Iraq war and democracy project, as the next president, he will be obliged to play the hand he has been dealt. Manifestly, the United Nations and the international set have neither the military nor the will to fight on to total military and political success in Iraq, Thus, when all but Mr. Lieberman recommend turning Iraq over to the U.N., they are in reality aloofly washing their hands of the matter and are willing to let political nature take its course. The terrorists across the Middle East and around the world would be greatly heartened by such a capitulation by the West.

In the coming weeks and months, reporters ought to feel obliged to closely question the Democratic candidates on the implications that would flow specifically from their Iraq policy. It is not enough for them to say they would have done otherwise. They must explain how what they would start doing on Jan. 22, 2005, would make the country safer, not more dangerous. It is a deadly illusion for either the reporters or the candidates to think they have a capacity for choice on whether America must succeed at the Iraq venture. We are no longer mere spectators to the human butchery that has long plagued the world.