War’s future

Gore Vidal, the well-known novelist, dramatist, historian and literary critic, is also one of the great American political essayists of the past half-century. Consistently well-informed, he is a trenchant critic of the ignorant posturing, incompetence and habitual abuse of power so often displayed by functionaries of our federal government. His recent small book, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated, gathers an engaging and deeply troubling miscellany of writings (most published elsewhere over the past five years) into a powerful diatribe against the erosion of American civil liberties under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the bumbling FBI, the Bush regime’s rush to a “war without end” in response to September 11, and the well-heeled, so far unassailable dominance of the U.S. military in domestic politics.

One great contribution of this book is to make it clear that terrorist attacks by groups of “fanatics” are political acts that have causes, and are susceptible to understanding. Often enough these attacks are reactions to acts of state terrorism, such as those that have become a regular feature of U.S. foreign and even domestic policy since World War II. (Included is a list of over 200 named military operations abroad since the Berlin Airlift of 1948, making clear that Americans under 60 today have been at war wreaking havoc somewhere in the world nearly every year of their lives. Along with that painful reality check comes a flashback to the wanton massacre of 82 seemingly harmless Branch Davidian cultists, a third of them children, at Waco in 1993). An analytic link is drawn between the politically motivated terrorism of Timothy McVeigh, the decorated Gulf War veteran and Oklahoma City bomber of April 19, 1995, who was executed in Indiana last June, and that of Osama bin Laden and his determined young followers in Al Qaeda—both seen here in the light of a history of U.S. government provocations.

Vidal corresponded with McVeigh during his confinement in federal prison, and researched the unrepentant bomber’s case carefully. He reveals quite a bit more about the causes, motivation, circumstances and lingering very serious doubts regarding that monstrous crime against humanity than did our mainstream media—either then or during the show trial that followed. And he expresses an understandable frustration at having failed to persuade the FBI (bent on closing the case prematurely) to follow up on the great variety of leads uncovered by independent investigators. He then reviews briefly the career of Osama bin Laden in relation to the Saudi government, and to the U.S.-sponsored war against the Russians in Afghanistan.

McVeigh was provoked to his heartless act by reflection on his own experiences in the Persian Gulf, and on the FBI massacres at Ruby Ridge and Waco; Osama was provoked by the Saudis’ rejection of his support in their confrontation with Saddam Hussein, and their accedence to stationing American “crusader” troops in the Muslim heartland during and after the Gulf War. To understand the motivations of these men is not to justify their terrorist acts; but it provides a better basis for informed political action (or long-term national security planning) than does characterizing them as “cowards” or envious maniacs who can be brought to bay by the dogs of war.

The book ends with a denunciation of the “new theocrats,” who threaten our historic separation between church and state, and an earnest plea (penned before the outcome of Election 2000 was revealed) that the new president put an end to America’s role as the world’s policeman, reduce military spending, and take measures to bring the Pentagon under democratic control. A prophet shouting in Babylon?