By Donella Meadows
–March 7, 1991–
The war in the Gulf is over but the story-telling is just beginning, and the story-telling is, in the long run, the most important part of the war. What we choose to tell ourselves now will shape our future as powerfully as past stories have shaped our present.
Stories informed the decisions that led to this war and told us how to fight it. We spoke of Munich and Vietnam — not of what actually happened there, but of their “lessons.” We used a strategy of desert encirclement taken from the story of the battle of El Alamein. The Arabs, with a much longer history, spoke of the Crusades, of Saladin, of Nasser. Saddam Hussein apparently tried to repeat the story of self-glorification he had told about the Iran-Iraq war.
In the preparation and waging of the next war, if we let another war happen, we will tell tales of this one. Sooner than that we will draw lessons that let us feel good or bad about ourselves, choose or bash political candidates, arm or disarm ourselves and others, and establish a world order, old or new.
Because so much of the future hangs on the stories we tell now, many are vying to be the ones to do the telling. Newspapers and TV talk shows are full of “the lessons of the war.” Everyone’s trying to do spin control on history.
As I listen to the “lessons” people want to learn from this war, I have stopped engaging on the level of “agree” and “disagree.” I am leaning back and observing the list of stories as a phenomenon in itself. They reveal more about our needs and hopes, our grievances with each other, and our uses of power, than they do about this or any other war. Each one points not so much back to the facts as forward to the actions it justifies for the future. For example, here’s a partial list:
- It doesn’t matter what a war costs the taxpayer, the environment, or the enemy; it will be popular as long as U.S. casualties are low.
- War must be waged fast and all-out. Never engage in appeasement as at Munich, never ease into war bit-by-bit as in Vietnam, slam the enemy right away with all you’ve got.
- A dying empire really can forget about its problems for awhile, if it can win a stunning victory over an outclassed opponent.
- America is not a dying empire; we have only been in a period of unexplainable malaise, which the war has finally dispersed. We’re the world’s only superpower. It’s time to feel good about that.
- The American war machine, entranced by its technology and obsessed by overestimates of the strength of the enemy, can be counted upon to overprepare, overarm, and overkill.
- The American war machine is technically superb and humanly compassionate, finely tuned from the troops to the top brass. It stands ready to enforce justice on the world.
- Never elect a President who has to prove he’s not a wimp.
- Never try to negotiate with a dictator who has to prove he’s not a wimp.
- Never sell arms to a dictator, even if he’s momentarily on your side.
- The United Nations really can summon a worldwide force to sanction aggressors, restore grievances, and establish peace.
- The United Nations can work that way as long as the grievances to be restored are suffered by countries rich enough to bribe other countries.
- Even after the Cold War, it’s essential that we maintain our military budget and improve our weaponry.
- Even after the Cold War, the military-industrial complex will find a way to make it appear essential that we maintain our military budget and improve our weaponry.
- This war would never have happened if Kuwait’s main export had been broccoli. Or if the U.S. put half as much energy into strengthening Middle Eastern democracy as it did into preparing for war. Or if there hadn’t been so many weapons and armies piled up, just searching for a war.
- If this war hadn’t happened, Saddam Hussein would have gone marching down the Gulf taking possession of oil wells, he would have developed and used nuclear weapons, he would have brought the world’s democracies to their knees.
- If this war hadn’t happened, the U.S. would have had to create it, to have an excuse to move its military power onto the world’s last remaining large oil reserves.
These lessons are all somewhat truthful, much too simple, and arrogant. As if we knew. As if ANYONE knew what would have happened if an alternative scenario had been played out — if we had held back and let the Arabs handle Iraq; if we had maintained a commitment to defense only; if we had stayed with sanctions; if Saddam Hussein had employed his air force and poison gas; if either side had been serious about negotiating at any of the crucial negotiating points.
We can’t and won’t choose among the mutually contradictory lessons of this war on the basis of their truth. We will choose the ones that lead us to be the kind of nation we want to be — a belligerent superpower or a leader toward peace in the family of nations, a fighter for justice or a fighter for control over the world’s resources, or a nation that is honestly searching for ways to exert moral force without fighting.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991