Sunday, January 14, 2007

What the war is *really* about

I had this 11th grade history teacher, who I'll call Mr. R, who told us one day in class what the seven reasons for the US civil war were. Then on the test we had to list them. If I recall correctly, the question was, "What were the seven reasons for the civil war?"

At the time I think the sum total of my internal reaction to this was "History is boring", but after taking some more thoughtful history courses in college, I began wondering how Mr. R decided what the seven reasons were (or more to the point, how the textbook writers decided; Mr. R taught with the textbook open on his podium for reference; I don't think he liked history any more than I did).

Nowadays I think that every participant in a war, from soldier to politician to journalist, had differing and complex reasons why they participate. A war itself doesn't have a purpose; purposes are things people have.

I keep hearing that the war in Iraq is "really" about oil, and I just can't believe that. It's plausible that profits to oil companies are high on the president's list of concerns -- I understand his family and their friends have concerns in that business so it makes sense that he might see things from an oilman's perspective. But I can't believe it's his only reason, or even his main reason. People are more complex than that.

And furthermore, even if W were totally and solely focussed on oil, he wouldn't have been able to convince the Congress to go to war without pitching other reasons: fear of terrorism, fear of nuclear or chemical weapons, the promise of a new Arab democracy to set an example. Since those ideas were critical to convincing Congress to declare war, why shouldn't they count as "reasons" for the war, regardless of the president's personal motives?

And to take it a step further, what if Congress threw a war and no one came? Americans participate as soldiers for various reasons, including the ones stated, as well as individual reasons ranging from loyalty and patriotism, to unemployment, desperation, rage, curiosity, or a thousand other things. Then there the Iraqis and all the other nationalities fighting on both sides, whose many reasons I probably can't even guess at.

I don't think the US is doing the right thing in Iraq. But the reasons we are there are complicated and I don't think it helps to claim they are simple. If all the world's oil were gone tomorrow, we'd still have wars. It's useful to look at and consider the influence of oil on the equation, but in the end, wars are emergent phenomena that are very hard to explain, and therefore very hard to prevent. I hope we figure it out soon, but I'm not all that optimistic.

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