A Hunger For War Criticism?

All right, it was San Francisco, which is not exactly the heartland. But the reception last Tuesday for Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham and a panel of four other journalists (including yours truly) willing to criticize the new permanent condition of war was heartening and heartwarming. It was as if most of those people (there were a few dour faces in the audience) were almost thrilled to be in the same room with people speaking critically of the rush to war.

The forum was put on by the Independent Institute in Oakland, a libertarian-oriented think tank. I had the opportunity to talk at some length with David Theroux, the institute’s president, about the response to the program. (The Independent Institute, remember, put on a forum last April with Gore Vidal as main speaker and Lewis Lapham as a commentator and received extensive criticism from neocon and even some libertarian quarters for playing nice with anti-American leftists. But when the issue is as serious as war and peace, I’ll take my allies where I find them—and I’ll try to remember those who seem eager for war, for whatever tiny bit of good such remembrance might do.)

The room the institute booked at the upscale Hotel Nikko in San Francisco held 900 people. But by the end of the week before last that room was sold out at $20 a person, so they had to offer another room with closed-circuit TV coverage of the program. The 250 seats in that room quickly sold out as well. So 1,150 people in San Francisco actually paid money to hear the war machine criticized, and I talked to a number of friends and acquaintances in the area who had wanted to come but couldn’t make it that night.


Although I’ve admired Lewis Lapham’s writing (without necessarily always agreeing with it) for some time, I wasn’t sure whether I would actually like him or not. He is a denizen of the upper crust, after all – his grandfather was mayor of San Francisco and his great grandfather was a founder of Texaco – and I’m not. But he turned out to be friendly, accessible and down-to-earth, although he is still more erudite than any random half-dozen people you might meet.

Part of his purpose in traveling to his native environs and other parts of the West Coast was to promote his new book, Theater of War, published by The New Press. It’s a collection of columns he has written for Harper’s since September 11, with a new introduction and other material. It’s worthwhile reading and I hope it sells a zillion.

Mr. Lapham noted that while it’s virtually conventional wisdom to believe that the country is united around President Bush and his war plans (and polling figures do suggest this), Harper’s has been critical of the war since last September and its circulation is up. He thinks there’s a growing distance between the foreign policy elites in Washington and the "American street."

The response in San Francisco (which, to be sure is probably not coterminous with the "American street") suggests at least a groundswell of criticism if not outright opposition. Al Gore chose San Francisco to offer as close to cogent criticism of war plans as he is capable of the night before our event. Most of those who attended were buzzing about that as well.


Lewis Lapham, ever the provocateur, asserted that the elites around Bush had to view the attack, as destructive and harmful as it was, as something of a blessing. As he put it in his book and paraphrased it that evening, a year ago "we were looking at a man so obviously in the service of the plutocracy that he could have been mistaken for a lawn jockey in the parking lot of a Houston golf club …On September 11, like Pinocchio brushed with the good fairy’s wand on old Gepetto’s shelf of toys, the wooden figure turned into flesh and blood. A great leader had been born, within a month compared (by David Broder in the Washington Post) to Abraham Lincoln" and Winston Churchill.

The attack was a blessing to the U.S. military, which despite the short-lived memory of success in the last Gulf War, has been casting about for an acceptable enemy since the Soviet Union died. Of course it’s "an unknown enemy and an abstract noun" rather than a nation-state, but it will serve, and perhaps better than a concrete enemy. Like the war on drugs or the war on poverty, a war on terrorism can never be won but can be fought for decades and decades. It can offer justification for the enhanced secrecy and security the warhawks crave, and provide more reasons to grow the state.

What is especially distasteful to a thoughtful person like Lewis Lapham is President Bush’s insistence on casting the war on terrorism (and, one supposes, eventually on Iraq) as a moral crusade, "rather like a medieval Pope calling on the faithful to wipe out the infidel." He is also distressed at the contempt people like Cheney and Rumsfeld show for the intelligence of the American people. Rumsfeld, remember, famously proclaimed, in reference to nukes and other weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that "the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence."


What Lewis Lapham sees in the constant emphasis on war that has marked all of our lifetimes, is no less than the decay of the American republic and the rise of a New American Empire. Although our masters in Washington try to avoid the I-word, various court intellectuals are not so shy. Believing that anything America touches she makes holy, they reflect what Lapham calls "hubris to a tragic point."

Thomas Paine, the great pamphleteer of the American revolution, who later found himself reviled in the country he helped to shape, would have recognized the kind of ambition and power-lust that drives so many today. The problem for the American people is that the presence of war and preparation for war leads to a widespread mistrust of freedom and traditional American individualism.


Also on the program with Mr. Lapham were Jonathan Marshall, former Editorial Page Editor of the Oakland Tribune, Seth Rosenfeld, staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Paul Weaver, former Fortune magazine Washington Bureau Chief.

Jonathan Marshall talked about how the emerging Bush paradigm of permanent war for permanent peace was launched some years ago by neocon intellectuals like Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan. He was impolite enough to remind the audience not only that the U.S. had backed Saddam Hussein during his war against Iran in the 1980s – a bit of history many have noted – but that the CIA had a good deal to do with bringing Saddam Hussein to power.

The coups in Iraq in 1963 and 1968, which led to the consolidation of power by Saddam Hussein in the 1970s, were heavily subsidized by the CIA. Americans thought back then that they could manage regime-change so that it would serve the interests of the United States – and of regional stability, of course. But then there was an Islamic revolution in Iran – a reaction in part to a previous U.S.-engineered exercise in regime-change – and that led to the U.S. supplying Saddam with various awful weapons and turning a blind eye while he used them on Kurds and Iranians.

And now they think they know how to engineer yet another regime-change without having any dire effects. Truly the hubris involved is a marvelous thing to behold.


Seth Rosenfeld fought a 17-year battle to force the FBI to release some 200,000 pages of documents covering its activities from the 1940s through the 1970s, including a covert campaign to get the University of California to fire then-president Clark Kerr. He noted that while the CIA and FBI are essential in some form or another, since 9/11 the impulse for secrecy has been enhanced and the notion of accountability has virtually disappeared. Despite evidence of massive failure and a long history of previous abuse of power, both the CIA and the FBI have seen their powers enhanced.

What caused U.S. intelligence agencies to miss so many clues leading to 9/11 were failures of intelligent analysis rather than any lack of access to information or power to gather information. Since then nobody has been criticized for failures of analysis and no heads have rolled – so there’s not much incentive to improve analysis. But the power to gather more information, to penetrate more private places and harass more ordinary Americans, has been enhanced.

This is not intelligent reform.

Paul Weaver offered an appreciation of Lewis Lapham as a unique editor and commentator, as valuable to America in this latter day as Mark Twain was in his day. The author of a couple of books on the media and an upcoming book on the United Airlines debacle, Weaver is an especially acute observer of American journalism and the occasional practitioners who make it tolerable to sift through the dreck.

A good editor like Lewis Lapham knows deep down that the world is in need of his tutelage, but he is able to present his observations in a light, tasty form that is almost soufflé-like. Erudite yet committed to looking at the world from the viewpoint of the ordinary, amateur citizen, he is a constant foe of pretense and untruth. Get his book and read it. You’ll like it. Perhaps you’ll even take heart a bit.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).