Pollitt, Katha, The Nation
We've been at war "against terrorism" for a month now. Do you feel unified, patriotic, full of eager collective purpose? Writing on the New York Times Op-Ed page ("A Better Society in a Time of War," October 19) Robert "Bowling Alone" Putnam hopes Americans will say goodbye to lonely nights dropping gutter balls down the lanes of life and come together in "civic community" as they did during World War II. (World War II? Uh-oh. Wasn't this supposed to be one of those little quickie mini-wars?) He writes nostalgically of "victory gardens in nearly everyone's backyard, the Boy Scouts at filling stations collecting floor mats for scrap rubber, the affordable war bonds, the practice of giving rides to hitchhiking soldiers and war workers." Those would be certified heterosexual, Supreme-Being-believing scouts, I suppose, and certified harmless and chivalrous hitchhiking GIs, too--not some weirdo in uniform who cuts you to bits on a dark road.
Putnam quotes approvingly a passage from an oral history of the war: "You just felt that the stranger sitting next to you in a restaurant, or someplace, felt the same way you did about the basic issues." Like the importance of keeping black people out of that very restaurant, perhaps, and of putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps. As for war bonds, give me a break! You'd have to be a true masochist to buy war bonds today, given that President Bush has just engineered, under the guise of economic stimulus, another gigantic tax cut for wealthy corporations and the rich, and an airline-bailout package that underwrites the multimillion-dollar salaries of industry executives while offering nothing to the nearly 100,000 who've lost their airline jobs.
Whatever the war may do for, or to, the miserable Afghan people, it's certainly putting lots of fiber in the breakfast cereal of the liberal intellectual classes. This is a popular war with the pundits and talking heads and recovering Vietnam protesters--even more so than the Gulf War, which featured such hard-to-ignore drawbacks as the fact that the United States was defending a feudal monarchy (did women ever get that pesky vote in Kuwait? Not so far--maybe next century). This war has much grander ideological themes: West vs. East, modern vs. medieval, forward vs. backward, good vs. evil, us vs. them. You can spend so much time defending the moral legitimacy of bombing Afghanistan and damning Noam Chomsky to hell that you never need to get around, really, to the question of what the real-world consequences of this war are likely to be. Five and a half million Afghans starving, as predicted by Oxfam, if the military campaign prevents delivery of humanitarian relief? Thousands of new Taliban fans and recruits for anti-American suicide missions? A protracted war with a determined, hardy foe that draws in Central Asia, enrages the Muslim masses and destabilizes Pakistan or Indonesia or another country to be named later? Is World War III worth it if it gets people planting victory gardens and giving blood?
These are the questions we need to be thinking about, not celebrating the potential of war to give "us" a renewed sense of national purpose, as in different ways five historians, including Doris Kearns Goodwin and Roger Wilkins, did on a recent Lehrer NewsHour segment. …