Who Is at War with Whom, and Why?

It is impossible these days to keep track of events, much less to understand them. I began writing this, intended as a 4,500-word speech in search of an audience or audiences, after the Nov. 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris but before the Nov. 27 terrorist attack in Colorado Springs. The Colorado Springs attack hit home with me personally – my parents live in that city – and informed the piece as I wrote it.

I finalized it on the morning of Dec. 2, only a few hours before learning about the terrorist attack in San Bernardino. Learning, late at night in Seattle, that at least two of the San Bernardino suspects were Muslims puts the speech I just wrote in a different light – but does not invalidate any of it. The implications of perpetual war remain the same.

Throughout the day on Dec. 2 I had sent the speech to a number of friends and contacts, asking for help securing venues to deliver it as a speech. But I decided simply to put it out in full, as is, as my contribution to a necessary and important national and global conversation. Now, the morning after the attack in Manchester, England, it feels newly relevant.

Ethan Casey, May 23, 2017

The questions in my title lie heavy in the air these days, so I want to make a systematic attempt to address them. I don’t suppose that we will find any fully satisfactory answers, but I do hope that the attempt itself will clear some of the fog of war, so to speak, from our minds. This in itself will be a useful accomplishment if we succeed, because my overriding sense of the times we’re living through is one of confusion. People are confused. That’s one claim that I can make with confidence, because I myself am confused. “Nous sommes dans la guerre,” declared Francois Hollande, the president of France, just after the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris last November 13. “We are at war.” Hollande may well be right, but before we can accept his claim we need to examine his terms, including guerre but also, and equally important, nous.

If Hollande is right to say that we are at war, who is our enemy? The obvious, immediate answer is that we’re at war with ISIS. Who is ISIS? Well, they are an identifiable extremist faction in the Middle East, and other writers can tell you much more about them than I can. Explaining how ISIS came to be or advocating for this or that policy to oppose them is not my purpose, or my forte. If you really do want to understand ISIS, there are plenty of resources out there to repay your investment of time and attention – with the caveat that you must make that investment; there is no short cut to real knowledge or understanding. The easy alternative would be to equate ISIS with all Muslims. One recent article that has helped me is “Magical Thinking about ISIS” by Adam Shatz, published in the December 3, 2015 issue of the London Review of Books. I want to quote to you the way Shatz ends his article, because it underscores one of the central points that I want to make. ISIS, he writes,

has managed to insert itself, with no small amount of cunning, and with acute sensitivity to feelings of humiliation, into two of the most intractable conflicts of our time: the relationship of European societies to their internal, Muslim “others” and the sectarian power struggles that have engulfed the lands of Iraq and Syria since 2003.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be necessary, but I want to pause here to note the date that Shatz specifies: 2003. That is, of course, the year of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the year that President George W. Bush theatrically landed on an aircraft carrier and spoke in front of a banner reading MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. I think it’s telling to note that President Bush himself never spoke the words “mission accomplished.” In fact he said, among other things, “We have difficult work to do in Iraq.” Thus the insipidness of the phrase, and the lame and self-congratulatory hope it expressed, belong not to Bush but to all of us. In any case, Shatz continues: “In an earlier era, these conflicts” – the conflicts between Western societies and their own internal Muslim populations, and among rival sects in Iraq and Syria – “might have remained separate, but they are now linked thanks to the very devices that are the symbol of globalisation, our phones and laptops.”

It no longer makes sense [Shatz continues] to speak of near and far, or even of “blowback”: the theatre of conflict has no clear borders, and its causes are multiple, overlapping and deeply rooted in histories of postcolonial rage and Western-assisted state collapse. The attacks in Paris don’t reflect a clash of civilisations but rather the fact that we really do live in a single, if unequal world, where the torments in one region inevitably spill over into another, where everything connects, sometimes with lethal consequences. For all its medieval airs, the caliphate holds up a mirror to the world we have made, not only in Raqqa and Mosul, but in Paris, Moscow and Washington.

And, I would add, in Colorado Springs. More below on why I single out that city, but also let it stand in for your American city or mine. For now, let’s address the next question raised by President Hollande’s stirring words: Who are “we”? The answer is less obvious than it might seem. Who merits inclusion among “us,” and who doesn’t? To address the elephant in the room explicitly, do Muslims – if they are, say, French or U.S. citizens – count as “us”? That poses a problem, given that most of the Paris attackers were French or Belgian citizens. But if not, what does it mean that they don’t? And what about Muslims who are not citizens of Western countries but still are what could be called, by Western definitions, “good” or “moderate” Muslims? And how can we tell the difference between “good” and “bad” or “moderate” and “extremist” Muslims? And too, are we in the West the ones who should be permitted to draw such distinctions?

You might be able to guess at the answers I would offer, but it’s more productive to think and talk through the questions. The November 13 Paris attacks brought them to my mind with renewed urgency, particularly because of the ritual way that Americans were festooning public buildings, including at least one skyscraper in downtown Seattle that I noticed, with the colors of the French tricolor flag. It was as if we had forgotten entirely the scorn of all things French that Americans allowed ourselves gleefully to express during the Iraq War, when the cafeteria in the House of Representatives changed the name of one of its menu items to “freedom fries.” (I’ll pause here to nod respectfully to the great Robert Plant, who had the courage and lucidity on his Mighty Rearranger album, released in 2005, to use that phrase as a song title and to turn the word “fries” into a verb.) Apparently, French people now count to Americans as “us,” whereas back then they were “them,” or at least not “us.”


Questions about who counts as “us” are hardly new. Americans of Japanese descent were sent to internment camps on the order of President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II. That is still within living memory: for a book I’m working on I recently met two camp survivors, now in their nineties, on Bainbridge Island, Washington near Seattle. And further back, during World War I, we had harassment of German-Americans and a goofy movement to rebrand sauerkraut as “liberty cabbage.” Approximately half of my own family is of German extraction. That means little anymore, since German ethnicity has long since been subsumed into a broader concept of whiteness. Ta-Nehisi Coates has recently reminded us forcefully – as James Baldwin did half a century ago – that whiteness is an arbitrary and self-serving category. But it’s true that my own whiteness has benefited me at least twice over, since most of the other side of my family is Irish. There was a time in America when no Irish needed apply – as well as a time when Germans were considered the foreign menace.

In attitudes toward German-Americans during World War I, and toward Japanese-Americans during World War II, we can readily recognize the hysterias and frights and resentments of our own time. Can’t we? Here, for example, is a letter to the editor of the Bainbridge Review newspaper on Bainbridge Island, Washington from local resident M. J. Hopkins, published in November 1944:

The traditions, the ways of thought, and the customs of the Japanese, including the American-born, are so different from ours that it would take at least 50 years to assimilate them successfully. It is even likely that it would be impossible to assimilate them at all. In the meantime, we would have a succession of race conflicts on the Island. These conflicts would be greatly aggravated because we will suffer great losses before the end of this war and the Japanese race will suffer bitter defeats and humiliations. … The loyalty and the love for America of many of the Japanese along the Coast, including the [American-born] nisei, before and at the time of Pearl Harbor, are not above suspicion. …


I doubt … that [the wartime military service of two battalions of Japanese-Americans] will outweigh the serious grievances against the Japanese of our Coast which I have discussed and make us want to receive them with open arms. From reading your editorials one must conclude that you base your judgment merely from having had pleasant relations with a very few of them. … You seem to know very little if anything on such matters as Japanese psychology, Japan’s aspirations, military infiltration methods, race conflicts, and a number of other subjects which are vastly important if you are to pass judgment, as an editor, on whether or not the Japanese are desirable on our Island. A number of unbiased books on these subjects are easily available.

Yes, you might rejoin, but that was then; this is now. No, I would correct you: this is then, and that was now. The one constant throughout human history is human nature. Notice Hopkins’s claim of expert knowledge, his insinuating reliance on sources that he endorses as authoritative without attribution or substantiation, and his disavowal of bias. These are old tricks but still in widespread use. I see stuff like this all the time on Facebook – don’t you? You might also point out how successive waves of immigrants to America – Irish and Germans, for example – have tended to become assimilated into the mainstream over the long term. But is it really necessary for all American immigrant groups to go through such a process of hazing, as in a college fraternity? And I would point out that the long term is rarely invoked by those who are suffering in the short term. In the short term, right now, we have leading presidential candidate Donald Trump calling for all Muslims in America to be subjected to a tracking system, and we have the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia citing the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as a precedent worthy of emulation.


Meanwhile, back in France, the large and visible minority of North African origin seems to do double duty as bogeymen representing the Muslim world as a whole, and as a living rebuke to the bourgeois French mainstream’s self-serving amour propre, a rough equivalent to a role that African Americans play in American society. French amour propre is based on liberte, egalite et fraternite. Ours in America is based on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Both trios of high-minded abstractions are, of course, honored largely in the breach.

The Algerian-born French writer Albert Camus left a series of agonized personal memorandums that speak across the decades to his country’s current plight and, across the ocean, to ours too. Only recently exhumed from undeserved obscurity and published in English for the first time in 2013 by Harvard University Press, Camus’s book Algerian Chronicles reminds us of the poisonous legacy of the Algerian war that did great damage to society in both Algeria and metropolitan France, as the French empire unraveled in the 1950s. His decision to compile the book – a collection of his journalism from rural Algeria dating back to the 1930s and his urgent occasional writing as the situation deteriorated through the 1940s and 1950s – was an act of integrity and of faith, unrequited at the time, as its 1958 publication went almost completely unnoticed because radicalized factions on all sides were refusing to hear voices of moderation.

What Camus saw clearly above all was the moral vacuousness of us-versus-them factional rhetoric. “The truth, unfortunately, is that one segment of French public opinion vaguely believes that the Arabs have somehow acquired the right to kill and mutilate, while another segment is prepared to justify every excess,” he wrote. “Each side thus justifies its own actions by pointing to the crimes of its adversaries.” To Americans today who justify the use of torture, he has this to say:

The reprisals against the civilian population of Algeria and the use of torture against the rebels are crimes for which we all bear a share of responsibility. That we have been able to do such things is a humiliating reality that we must henceforth face. Meanwhile, we must refuse to justify these methods on any grounds whatsoever, including effectiveness. Once one begins to justify them, even indirectly, no rules or values remain. One cause is as good as another, and pointless warfare, unrestrained by the rule of law, consecrates the triumph of nihilism.

Camus refused to “grandstand for the sake of an audience,” as he said: “I have decided to stop participating in the endless polemics whose only effect has been to make the contending factions in Algeria even more intransigent and to deepen the divisions in a France already poisoned by hatred and factionalism.” His credibility lies largely in his willingness to deploy his moral authority, as both a prominent French liberal and a longtime public sympathizer with the Algerian cause, to condemn terrorism explicitly and forcefully:

The massacres of civilians must first be condemned by the Arab movement, just as we French liberals condemn the massacres of the repression. Otherwise, the relative notions of innocence and guilt that guide our action would disappear in the confusion of generalized criminality, which obeys the logic of total war. … When the oppressed take up arms in the name of justice, they take a step toward injustice.

Much of Camus’s appeal and indeed importance lies in his unwillingness to distance himself as an intellectual from his own visceral and particular loyalties. And why should he? Why should any of us? Camus’s moral and political positions arose directly out of his personal agony as a pied noir or Frenchman born in Algeria. “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers,” he famously told an Algerian student in Stockholm in 1957. “My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”


Which brings us to Colorado Springs, where my mother lives. On November 20, 2015, one week after the Paris attacks, as I was beginning to think my way toward this speech, I wrote in my notebook: “Hysteria over Syrian refugees – fear of domestic terrorism – but who commits acts of domestic terrorism in the U.S.? White guys.” Exactly one more week later, on November 27, an act of domestic terrorism occurred that hit very close to home for me personally. I saw the word “Colorado” in a headline on the Guardian app on my smartphone in the car on the way home from my in-laws’ house, where my wife and I had stayed overnight after Thanksgiving dinner. And my very first thought was that, in this case, “Colorado” had to mean Colorado Springs. And sure enough, I read the article and it did. Anyone who knows Colorado Springs knows that it’s exactly the kind of town where such an incident would be likely to happen.

For me – and I say this with no apology – the most important thing about the attack by Robert Dear on the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs was that my parents were not directly caught up in it. When I spoke to them that day, while the attack was still in progress, both of them were away from the house. My mother was getting her hair done, and my father was at one of his regular Spanish lessons. My father had heard that something had happened, but was unaware how serious it was or how widely it was already being reported. My mother told me that she sometimes shops at the nearby King Sooper supermarket where people took shelter during the attack. Both were worried about getting home safely on icy roads.

This particular incident was only the latest – until the next one – in an increasingly, drearily familiar series of similar incidents. But its location forced me, in addition to concerning myself as a citizen with public issues like abortion and gun control, and as a writer with understanding what’s becoming of American society, to worry about the physical safety of my aging parents. I resented that, and still do. The truth that it brings home, though, is one that anyone who has been paying attention to the world in general in recent decades should already have figured out: that the dangers that most people worldwide, and many in the United States, face daily are starting to become real to middle-class Americans. Or that, as Malcolm X put it, the chickens are coming home to roost. Extrapolation and the exercise of human empathy should help us to appreciate the similar resentment that must be felt by the friends and family of any of the young black men and women who have been killed by police officers in high-profile incidents around the United States since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 (or indeed since long before that), or the resentment of innocent civilians whose loved ones are killed by air strikes or drone attacks in Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan. I believe that we can understand their anger, if we allow ourselves to begin from the premise that, like us, they are human beings.

Another thing I found myself resenting in the days after Colorado Springs was the incident’s instant and pervasive politicization. That happens with every incident, but this time the occasion for it had taken place almost literally down the street from my parents’ house. So I took it personally. “Partisan divide looms large after Planned Parenthood shooting” read the top headline on The Guardian when I woke up in Seattle on Sunday morning, November 29. And indeed, it was so. Within forty-eight hours, the several factions of Americans had staked out their predictable politicized takeaways. Speaking very broadly based on my own Twitter feed, black people were saying that the Colorado Springs police spared Robert Dear’s life because he was white, and Muslims were reiterating their frequent complaint that Muslim terrorists are always called terrorists, whereas white American terrorists are always dismissed as “lone wolves.”

And, by the morning of Saturday, November 28 – less than twenty-four hours after the incident in Colorado Springs began, much less ended – the Colorado Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police had already issued a strongly worded statement on its Facebook page. I’m going to ask for your patience and attention while I read it to you nearly in full, because it calls for some discussion:

Sadly there are race baiting delusional ignorant fools with an agenda of hate that use any tragic event to peddle their corrupted opinion. What they don’t understand is our job is to preserve life not take it. You see for us all lives matter. That is the primary reason we join this profession. The standard we live by.


We here in Colorado do know the circumstances at the conclusion of the incident in Colorado Springs. In yesterday’s heroic police action the shooter was given the opportunity to surrender. The choice to live or die was his. He chose to live, laid down his weapon, complied with all commands and peacefully surrendered.


What the race baiting morons who believe that he was spared because he was white fail to acknowledge is that just this year alone there have been numerous shootings of police officers where the suspects were taken into custody. Many of those suspects were persons of color. They were not executed. They were taken into custody.


The delusional fools that would have the world believe otherwise promote their hatefilled agenda on the foundation of a national lie rooted in the Michael Brown incident. “Hands up don’t shoot” is their mantra and a false narrative surrounding the events in Ferguson. They are not worthy of the right to post on your page. Let them peddle their hate filled, divisive rhetoric elsewhere.

I happen to believe that all three perspectives – those of black people, Muslims, and police – have merit. But the problem is their predictability, compounded by the untoward promptness of their expression. All factions are so quick to hold and express opinions that they make no time to listen to or learn from each other. And the statement of the Fraternal Order of Police cries out for further discussion, I’m afraid, both from its sheer length and because of its provocative and emotive language. “Race baiting delusional ignorant fools … agenda of hate … corrupted opinion … race baiting morons … delusional fools … hatefilled agenda … national lie … false narrative.” And, for very ironic good measure, the statement ends by accusing critics of the police of peddling “hate filled, divisive rhetoric.”

As I said in a speech I titled “Beyond Ferguson” that was (as it turns out) a prequel to this one:

It’s never okay to begin and simultaneously end a conversation by denying the validity of the other person’s point of view. If you silence or stigmatize your adversary, then you’re peremptorily declaring that there’s nothing to talk about. You’re forcing your adversary to pretend that he agrees with you, or to remain silent and obedient out of fear. And you might seem to win, for a while. But your victory will be Pyrrhic, because the other person will hate and resent you, as any self-respecting human being would do.

I do understand that police officers have a difficult and dangerous job to do preserving public safety, and I’m willing to believe that most police officers exercise their duties honorably, most of the time, in most places and circumstances. And I’m grateful that Garrett Swasey, who gave his life, and his Colorado Springs police colleagues brought the situation at the Planned Parenthood clinic under control as quickly and effectively, and with as little loss of life, as they did. But demanding that I always side with the police is demanding too much. Doing that only serves to make any self-respecting unarmed civilian hate and resent the police. And the Fraternal Order of Police is not going to enlist anyone’s sympathy by using such aggressive language to demonize critics of the police.

This stuff is unavoidably political, whether we like it or not. And, while I’m not paranoid – conspiracy theories are the fruit of political, moral, and intellectual laziness – I also don’t think it’s coincidental that just as America’s international “new normal” is becoming a state of perpetual war – a forever war, to invoke the shared title of Joe Haldeman’s haunting novel and a fine book of journalism by Dexter Filkins – we’re experiencing such a disturbing upsurge in violence on the American home front, at both the grassroots and state-sponsored levels. And those who have been going after Planned Parenthood with debatable allegations about the use of fetal tissue do have something to answer for. “No more baby parts,” Robert Dear is said to have said as he was taken into custody. If we’re going to insist on requiring Muslims to disavow Islamist violence, then it’s fair, by exactly the same token, to ask conservative Americans – like those who rule the roost in Colorado Springs – to be honest and self-critical about the connections between our country’s poisonous environment and what Planned Parenthood rightly called domestic terrorism.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m speaking here not as any kind of liberal, but as a human being who has a mother. This is not about my views or your views. Regardless of anyone’s views, don’t you dare hector me about abortion, or the Second Amendment, or anything else, until after we’ve agreed that my mother must be kept safe from terrorist attacks like the one perpetrated by Robert Dear in Colorado Springs on the day after Thanksgiving. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.


I think one reason the factions of American society are at each other’s throat is that for too long we’ve cultivated the habit of considering ourselves to be in the right. I’m speaking here of all of us, regardless of faction. Self-righteousness is an American trait. It’s a generally human trait, to be sure, but there’s a distinctively American strain of it that is a result of our peculiar national self-regard and its attendant nationalist ideology. And, frankly, I’m concerned with the American strain in particular because I’m American. One implication of considering ourselves to be in the right is that it follows that whoever disagrees with us must be in the wrong. But these days we’re confused, because old categories have broken down and we’re no longer sure what counts as right. We no longer know what exactly to believe in or stand for, beyond our own self-declared and unexamined rightness. “One cause is as good as another,” as Camus said, “and pointless warfare, unrestrained by the rule of law, consecrates the triumph of nihilism.” Or, as John Mellencamp puts it in the American idiom, you gotta stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.

We also really should look at the role team sports play in our culture. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not some sports-hating left-winger like Noam Chomsky, who (rightly enough) describes sports as “training in irrational jingoism.” I like sports. And I like my own teams, especially the Milwaukee Brewers. Especially the 1982 Brewers, who went to the World Series the year I was a senior in high school. And I hate certain other teams, especially the Yankees, Cardinals, and Angels.

If my singling out those teams as teams that I hate raises your hackles because one of them is a team you support, then that kind of makes my point for me. I actually don’t really hate the Yankees, Cardinals, and Angels – why should I? They’re just baseball teams. By the same token, there’s no justifiable reason for any of us to hate or oppose or despise other people simply for being Muslim, or Christian, or liberal, or conservative, or black, or white, or anything else that any of us might be. Is there?

I think all the baseball, basketball and, especially, football seasons we’ve lived through over the years prepared us to be receptive when President Bush said, in his address to Congress on September 20, 2001, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” (As with President Hollande of France, there’s that undefined word again: us. Who counts as us?) And it came full circle a decade later, at the beginning of May 2011, when Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

I remember well where I was at the time: I was in a motel room in Fort Worth, Texas. It was late in the evening, I had just come back from having a couple of drinks at the steakhouse across the street, and I made the mistake of checking email one last time before going to bed. It’s never a good idea to do that. I ended up pulling an all-nighter, watching the coverage on all the American cable channels and writing an article for the leading Pakistani newspaper Dawn, which I headlined “The urgent importance of mutual respect.”

Television news has a way, doesn’t it, of over-emphasizing through repetition the dramatic spectacle of whatever happens to be happening in the world. As I watched over and over again the mobs chanting “U.S.A.!” in Times Square and in front of the White House, I feared two things. One was that too many Pakistanis were too traumatized to lay aside their anger and frustration. “WE HATE AMERICANS!!!” a Pakistani I don’t know personally shouted at me virtually on Facebook, just as I was finishing the piece, in the wee hours Texas time. When I pointed out to him that I’m American and asked if he hated me, he replied, “I hate all of u!!”

The other thing I feared was that too few Americans appreciated the difference between global war and a giant football game. In their uniforms and especially their helmets, football players can seem to have no more individuality than grunt infantrymen, and the role of the crowd in a football stadium is to channel the emotions of vindictive triumphalism and hatred. Huey Long is reputed to have said that “When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the American flag.” That was what I felt myself to be seeing on U.S. television as I was writing my article.


Earlier on the same day that I saw the colors of the French flag atop a skyscraper, November 17, 2015, I was driving through the southern part of Seattle to pick up a friend at the airport. I had dropped my wife off at work near Interstate 5 north of downtown, and I had time to spare, so I drove the whole way on surface roads through the city, rather than deal with the congested freeway. Thus it was that I happened to see a quotation from Martin Luther King, painted on the wall of a playground or school somewhere along Rainier Avenue South: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” At first glance it’s a trite quotation, suitable for a bumper sticker or greeting card. It’s only if we allow ourselves to pursue its hard implications that we can see how far from trite it really is. Unlike the plaster-saint version we purport to honor every January, the real Martin Luther King was anything but a trite sloganeer. Just how seriously he meant his words is clear from the price he ultimately paid for the right that he claimed to speak them freely.

Further south, in the suburbs near the airport, I saw large American flags flying at half mast outside Ikea and other big box stores. And a question came to me, not for the first time: Who decides when to fly the flag at half mast? And based on what criteria? I would genuinely like to know, because we see flags at half mast a lot these days, sometimes at odd moments, and we also seem to be living in a time when we don’t know what the rules are anymore, much less who is making them. One thing I have noticed is that we tend to see flags at half mast when people die in France, but not when people die in Syria or Pakistan.

We’re living through the 1960s all over again. It’s no accident that the domestic upheavals of the sixties coincided with the Vietnam War. And it’s worth noting that Martin Luther King was assassinated not long after he came out publicly against the war, and right in the thick of the momentous year 1968, which began with the Tet offensive in Vietnam. There was a strange presidential election that year, too. All of the above gives fresh urgent poignancy to the claims that my late mentor Clyde Edwin Pettit permitted himself to make in the Foreword to The Experts: 100 Years of Blunder in Indo-China, his devastating masterpiece documenting self-induced American delusion. “The Vietnam War is a textbook example of history’s lessons,” Pettit wrote:

that there is a tendency in all political systems for public servants to metamorphose into public masters, surfeited with unchecked power and privilege and increasingly overpaid to misgovern; that war is necessary to any elite corps, which has no reason to exist without it; that even free peoples are inevitably led to death and maiming because they do not have the intelligence to realize that all wars are against their interests; that there may be some dark and perverse tropism in our very natures that makes us turn toward the senseless destruction of war; that wars, once started, may become inundating forces of nature, inexorable and beyond the control of any of the participants.