The Boys Who Cried War

 

by John Tyler Connoley

June 8, 2004

 

There's a dividing line in the United States between those who believe the War on Terror is a fight for the future of America, and those who think it's just a rhetorical political phrase. I tend to jump back and forth across that line. Intellectually, I understand that terrorism is a serious threat, but my first reaction when I hear the President talk about the War on Terror is always to roll my eyes. I think that may be partly a result of my generation.

 

People my age and a little bit older generally respond to politicians declaring war about the same way the townspeople did to the boy who cried wolf. Politicians have used the word so often, and so casually, that it no longer has any emotional impact for us. My generation, for whom memories of World War II are contained in MGM movies, thinks of war as something politicians say when they want to sound serious about a subject that doesn't actually affect our everyday lives.

 

The big war of my lifetime was the Cold War. Of course, I wasn't old enough to remember when the Red Scare was actually scary; for me, McCarthy and his cronies are characters in black-and-white movies, complete with that stilted acting style so popular in the early twentieth century. When I was born, the Evil Empire was already beginning to show signs of wear.

 

In my teens we had the miniseries The Day After, and I do remember nuclear drills in elementary school. But, by the time I was old enough to be thinking political thoughts, Russia was a worn out paper tiger held up by the Defense Department as an excuse to put more money into bombs. Remember the string of Soviet Premiers who got "colds" in the 1980s and then always died shortly thereafter? They and their spokespeople mirrored our own DOD's insistence that the Soviet Union was still a healthy threat. But long before the fall of the Berlin Wall and Gorbachev's Perestroika, regular Americans had figured out there was no longer a wolf in the sheep pasture.

 

During the Cold War, we had two hot conflicts, one in Korea and one in Vietnam. For my generation, the Korean War was the backdrop for medical hijinks in M*A*S*H, and Vietnam was the backdrop for Life Magazine photos of college sit-ins. These wars were merely set pieces for the more interesting action that happened at the front of the stage. However, there's one thing we learned from our parents about those wars: never trust the government when they say a military action is necessary for the survival of your country. In both Korea and Vietnam, we were told that anything short of victory would undermine the stability of world politics. In both wars we stopped short of victory, and the world didn't end.

 

Then there was the first Gulf War, the only war I actually remember, which seemed more like a fireworks display than a war. My generation watched it on big screen TVs in our dorm halls, or on little TVs in our first apartments, but the war didn't require any sacrifice of us. Again, we were told at the beginning that this was vital to our livelihoods, and at the end it didn't matter that our troops stopped short of Baghdad.

 

But the real damage to war's credibility started with the War on Drugs. It was the end of the Cold War era and we had all this extra surveillance and military equipment. We had FBI and CIA agents with nothing to do, and we had a new invention called crack cocaine. Perhaps the person who coined the phrase War on Drugs really thought drugs were the next big threat to civilization (according to some versions of the fable, the boy really does see a wolf). Whatever the reasoning, the president declared war and a slew of new laws were passed to help the FBI and CIA in their fight against this nebulous threat. We even joined in conflicts in the Middle East and helped depose a dictator, as part of this multi-front war. Does this sound familiar? It did to me, when I first heard about the USA PATRIOT act and saw us building up to a war with Iraq. And I'm sure I'm not the only thirty-something who made the connection.

 

The clincher for my generation's "as-if" attitude toward war rhetoric happened in 1992. That was the year Pat Buchanan spoke to the Republican National Convention and declared the beginning of the Culture War. Giving credit to Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party for the collapse of the Soviet Union, Buchanan looked to the future and saw "a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself." For a generation who hadn't found the Red Scare scary, and who had friends who were homosexuals, pro-choice, and feminists, Buchanan's speech seemed like utter silliness. The real wolf had collapsed from old age, and the shepherd was now making up wolves to take its place.

 

So, here we are twelve years later. The President speaks of a War on Terror, and even though I remember 9/11 and recognize the threat, I can't help thinking, "There he goes, crying war again."

 

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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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