A War We Cannot Win
by John Le Carre'
The Nation magazine, November 19, 2001
The bombing begins," screams today's headline of the
normally restrained Guardian. "Battle Joined" echoes
the equally cautious Herald Tribune, quoting George W. Bush. But
with whom is it joined? And how will it end? How about with Osama
bin Laden in chains, looking more serene and Christ-like than
ever, arranged before a tribune of his vanquishers with Johnnie
Cochran to defend him? The fees won't be a problem, that's for
Or how about with a bin Laden blown to smithereens by one
of those clever bombs we keep reading about that kill terrorists
in caves but don't break the crockery? Or is there a solution
I haven't thought of that will prevent us from turning our archenemy
into an arch-martyr in the eyes of those for whom he is already
Yet we must punish him. We must bring him to justice. Like
any sane person, I see no other way. Send in the food and medicines,
provide the aid, sweep up the starving refugees, maimed orphans
and body parts sorry, "collateral damage"-but bin Laden
and his awful men, we have no choice, must be hunted down.
But unfortunately what America longs for at this moment, even
above retribution, is more friends and fewer enemies. And what
America is storing up for herself, and so are we Brits, is yet
more enemies; because after all the bribes, threats and promises
that have patched together the rickety coalition, we cannot prevent
another suicide bomber being born each time a misdirected missile
wipes out an innocent village, and nobody can tell us how to dodge
this devil's cycle of despair, hatred and-yet again-revenge.
The stylized television footage and photographs of bin Laden
suggest a man of homoerotic narcissism, and maybe we can draw
a grain of hope from that. Posing with a Kalashnikov, attending
a wedding or consulting a sacred text, he radiates with every
self-adoring gesture an actor's awareness of the lens. He has
height, beauty, grace, intelligence and magnetism, all great attributes
unless you're the world's hottest fugitive and on the run, in
which case they're liabilities hard to disguise. But greater than
all of them, to my jaded eye, is his barely confinable male vanity,
his appetite for self-drama and his closet passion for the limelight.
And just possibly this trait will be his downfall, seducing him
into a final dramatic act of self-destruction, produced, directed,
scripted and acted to death by Osama bin Laden himself.
By the accepted rules of terrorist engagement, of course,
the war is long lost. By us. What victory can we possibly achieve
that matches the defeats we have already suffered, let alone the
defeats that lie ahead? Terror is theater, a soft-spoken Palestinian
firebrand told me in Beirut in 1982. He was talking about the
murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, but he might
as well have been talking about the twin towers and the Pentagon.
The late Bakunin, evangelist of anarchism, liked to speak of the
propaganda of the Act. It's hard to imagine more theatrical, more
potent acts of propaganda than these.
Now Bakunin in his grave and bin Laden in his cave must be
rubbing their hands in glee as we embark on the very process that
terrorists of their stamp so relish: as we hastily double up our
police and intelligence forces and award them greater powers,
as we put basic civil rights on hold and curtail press freedom,
impose news blackouts and secret censorship, spy on ourselves
and, at our worst, violate mosques and hound luckless citizens
in our streets because we are afraid of the color of their skin.
All the fears that we share-"Dare I fly?" "Ought
I to tell the police about the weird couple upstairs?" "Would
it be safer not to drive down Whitehall this morning?" "Is
my child safely back from school?" "Have my life's savings
plummeted?"-are precisely the fears our attackers want us
Until September 11, the United States was only too happy to
plug away at Vladimir Putin about his butchery in Chechnya. Russia's
abuse of human rights in the North Caucasus, he was told-we are
speaking of wholesale torture, and murder amounting to genocide,
it was generally agreed-was an obstruction to closer relations
with NATO and the United States. There were even voices-mine was
one-that suggested Putin join Milosevic in The Hague; let's do
them both together. Well, goodbye to all that. In the making of
the great new coalition, Putin will look a saint by comparison
with some of his bedfellows.
Does anyone remember anymore the outcry against the perceived
economic colonialism of the G8? Against the plundering of the
Third World by uncontrollable multinational companies? Prague,
Seattle and Genoa presented us with disturbing scenes of broken
heads, broken glass, mob violence and police brutality. Tony Blair
was deeply shocked. Yet the debate was a valid one, until it was
drowned in a wave of patriotic sentiment, deftly exploited by
Drag up Kyoto these days and you risk the charge of being
anti-American. It's as if we have entered a new, Orwellian world
where our personal reliability as comrades in the struggle is
measured by the degree to which we invoke the past to explain
the present. Suggesting there is a historical context for the
recent atrocities is by implication to make excuses for them.
who is with us doesn't do that. Anyone who does, is against us.
Ten years ago, I was making an idealistic bore of myself by
telling anyone who would listen that, with the cold war behind
us, we were missing a never-to-be-repeated chance to transform
the global community. Where was the new Marshall Plan? I pleaded.
Why weren't young men and women from the American Peace Corps,
Voluntary Service Overseas and their Continental European equivalents
pouring into the former Soviet Union in their thousands? Where
was the world-class statesman and man of the hour with the voice
and vision to define for us the real, if unglamorous, enemies
of mankind: poverty, famine, slavery, tyranny, drugs, bush-fire
wars, racial and religious intolerance, greed?
Now, overnight, thanks to bin Laden and his lieutenants, all
our leaders are world-class statesmen, proclaiming their voices
and visions in distant airports while they feather their electoral
There has been unfortunate talk, and not only from Signor
Berlusconi, of a crusade. Crusade, of course, implies a delicious
ignorance of history. Was Berlusconi really proposing to set free
the holy places of Christendom and smite the heathen? Was Bush?
And am I out of order in recalling that we actually lost the Crusades?
But all is well: Signor Berlusconi was misquoted and the presidential
reference is no longer operative.
Meanwhile, Blair's new role as America's fearless spokesman
continues apace. Blair speaks well because Bush speaks badly.
Seen from abroad, Blair in this partnership is the inspired elder
statesman with an unassailable domestic power base, whereas Bush-dare
one say it these days?-was barely elected at all.
But what exactly does Blair, the elder statesman, represent?
Both men at this moment are riding high in their respective
approval ratings, but both are aware, if they know their history
books, that riding high on Day One of a perilous overseas military
operation doesn't guarantee you victory on Election Day. How many
American body bags can Bush sustain without losing popular support?
After the horrors of the twin towers and the Pentagon, the American
people may want revenge, but they're on a very short fuse about
shedding more American blood.
Blair-with the whole Western world to tell him so, except
for a few sour voices back home-is America's eloquent White Knight,
the fearless, trusty champion of that ever-delicate child of the
mid-Atlantic, the Special Relationship. Whether that will win
Blair favor with his electorate is another matter, because he
was elected to save the country from decay, and not from Osama
bin Laden. The Britain he is leading to war is a monument to sixty
years of administrative incompetence. Our health, education and
transport systems are on the rocks. The fashionable phrase these
days describes them as "Third World," but there are
places in the Third World that are far better off than Britain.
The Britain Blair governs is blighted by institutionalized
racism, white male dominance, chaotically administered police
forces, a constipated judicial system, obscene private wealth
and shameful and unnecessary public poverty. At the time of his
re-election, which was characterized by a dismal turnout, Blair
acknowledged these ills and humbly admitted that he was on notice
to put them right. So when you catch the noble throb in his voice
as he leads us reluctantly to war, and your heart lifts to his
undoubted flourishes of rhetoric, it's worth remembering that
he may also be warning you, sotto voce, that his mission to mankind
is so important that you will have to wait another year for your
urgent medical operation and a lot longer before you can ride
in a safe and punctual train. I am not sure that this is the stuff
of electoral victory three years from now. Watching Blair, and
listening to him, I can't resist the impression that he is in
a bit of a dream, walking his own dangerous plank.
Did I say war? Has either Blair or Bush, I wonder, ever seen
a child blown to bits, or witnessed the effect of a single cluster
bomb dropped on an unprotected refugee camp? It isn't necessarily
a qualification for generalship to have seen such dreadful things,
and I don't wish either of them the experience. But it scares
me all the same when I watch uncut, political faces shining with
the light of combat, and hear preppy political voices steeling
my heart for battle.
And please, Mr. Bush-on my knees, Mr. Blair-keep God out of
this. To imagine that God fights wars is to credit Him with the
worst follies of mankind. God, if we know anything about Him,
which I don't profess to, prefers effective food drops, dedicated
medical teams, comfort and good tents for the homeless and bereaved,
and, without strings, a decent acceptance of our past sins and
a readiness to put them right. He prefers us less greedy, less
arrogant, less evangelical and less dismissive of life's losers.
It's not a new world order, not yet, and it's not God's war.
It's a horrible, necessary, humiliating police action to redress
the failure of our intelligence services and our blind political
stupidity in arming and exploiting Islamic fanatics to fight the
Soviet invader, then abandoning them to a devastated, leaderless
country. As a result, it's our miserable duty to seek out and
punish a bunch of modern-medieval religious zealots who will gain
mythic stature from the very death we propose to dish out to them.
And when it's over, it won't be over. The shadowy armies of
bin Laden, in the emotional aftermath of his destruction, will
gather numbers rather than wither away. So will the hinterland
of silent sympathizers who provide them with logistical support.
Cautiously, between the lines, we are being invited to believe
that the conscience of the West has been reawakened to the dilemma
of the poor and homeless of the earth. And possibly, out of fear,
necessity and rhetoric, a new sort of political morality has indeed
been born. But when the shooting dies and a seeming peace is achieved,
will the United States and its allies stay at their posts or,
as happened at the end of the cold war, hang up their boots and
go home to their own backyards? Even if those backyards will never
again be the safe havens they once were.
John le Carre' is the author of eighteen novels, including
his most recent, The Constant Gardener (Scribners).
11th, 2001 - New York City