In a small café in Belgrade nearly 20 years ago, I had a drink with a young man named Michael.  He was an architect and, like many people I met there, was no friend of the Soviet regime, which was the subject of our conversation.  I had just visited the Soviet Union, passing through Belgrade on the way back to America.

In the course of our conversation, the nature of propaganda—especially Soviet propaganda—came up.  Michael was a very perceptive young man who did not buy his own government’s propaganda any more than he did the Soviet line, which he mocked, especially the part about how Soviet soldiers were doing their “internationalist duty” in Afghanistan.  The scenes of grateful Afghans throwing flowers at the “internationalist” troops in Soviet media reports were, indeed, a piece of laughably unbelievable political theater.

I was in full anti-Soviet timber that night, lambasting the moribund superpower’s geriatric leadership, seemingly determined to bankrupt the country in its efforts to spread Soviet-style socialism to lands near and far, which the Kremlin swore would ensure “world peace.”  A regime that had seemed invincible and frightening in the 50’s and 60’s now looked worn out, a victim of its own messianic militarism, its economy in shambles, hated and resented by the very people the Kremlin swore it was duty-bound to drag into the 20th century.  How could anybody believe Soviet expansionist propaganda?  Yet many did.

At some point in my diatribe, Michael smiled at me and said, “Are you so sure that you cannot be manipulated as well?”   There was, after all, the Gulf of Tonkin and the disastrous Vietnam War.

I remember seeing a neon ad for an American brand of cigarettes glowing on the wall, one fantasy among many sold to Americans and foreigners alike.  I felt like the wind had just been knocked out of me.

The years went by, and American Marines died in Beirut, veterans with “Gulf War syndrome” were unceremoniously cast aside by the government, and voters elected a bottom-feeder known as “Slick Willy” as our Commander in Chief, an odd nomenclature for an elected official in what was supposed to be a republic.  Nominal conservatives no longer seemed to distrust state power and favored foreign adventurism as much as liberals did.  The old America was slipping into the twilight.  Nobody—least of all the self-styled “conservatives”—seemed to notice.

With war looming last March, I thought of Michael, Belgrade, and the question he had asked me as I listened to a news report on the car radio concerning Iraq.

We had heard a great deal about Iraqi propaganda, but I wondered how much we ourselves were being manipulated.  Osama bin Laden was being mixed up with Saddam Hussein in media reporting concerning the “War on Terror,” and I had read that many Americans seemed to believe that Iraq was behind the destruction of the World Trade Center, though there was no evidence suggesting any such thing.  But the simple juxtaposition of Bin Laden with Saddam by the Washington spin doctors, together with the short attention span of a public raised on sound bites and bombarded by advertising, had done the trick.

I found the magic phrases of the White House speechwriters strikingly similar to the hackneyed formulations of the International Department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: This war would be about “freedom,” “democracy,” and “world peace”; the chosen enemies of the moment were “terrorists” (the Afghan resistance fighters were “bandits” in Soviet parlance) who embodied “evil.”  The phrase “Axis of Evil” was a nice touch, invoking memories of grainy prints of “Late Show” World War II movies for many, as well as letting us know just how bad these bad guys were.  It was a slick, effective sales job, nicely packaged, the lowest common denominator in the service of the basest instincts: no appeal to reasoned patriotism, no call to arms in defense of the homeland, no determined demand for justice.  Its appeal was to wounded pride, fear, and the need for self-assertion and affirmation.  Somebody would pay; who that somebody would be did not seem to matter.  Anyway, a democracy could not be wrong, could it?  He who is not with us is against us.  (The President had said as much.)  How the country I loved so deeply could have justified the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki no longer seemed a mystery to me.

It also occurred to me that the solidarity generated by a war, manifested in the “We’ll Never Forget 9/11” bumper stickers and the flags adorning many cars, the popularity of aggressive war songs on country-music stations, and the “Support Our Troops” sloganeering and ubiquitous yellow ribbons, was a comforting substitute for lost community in a mass society.  Maybe that is partly why so many mainstream conservatives seemed to like war or were, at least, not inclined to question any military action taken by the U.S. government: We had been good then, in the days of the “Good War.”  Maybe they believed that war could bring back the country of their nostalgia, the country whose disappearance they also pretended not to notice.  If only Robert Nisbet were alive to see this!

Thoughts like these were running through my mind that day in March, but I was tired of all the war talk, so I turned the radio off to enjoy the ride in silence.

The sun was setting on a beautiful day in North Texas.  I had noticed that the redbuds were already blooming and that the first bluebonnets had appeared amid the grass, which lined the road in bright green patches.  The orange-red sun occasionally popped through stands of post oaks, then disappeared again, glowing at the top of the trees, a hidden star gradually taking its place in the nighttime firmament.

I watched the landscape around me change in the dimming light, a surreal kaleidoscope of conflicting worlds melting into one another: The whitewashed houses and windmills gradually mixed in with the blinding lights and blazing ads of the strip malls.  The cattle, horses, and pastures slowly disappeared with the creeping growth of the housing developments, themselves pocket Disneylands, “Valleys,” “Vistas,” “Ranches,” “Creeks,” and “Meadows” where none could be found—not now, anyway.  It seemed as though Andy Warhol had somehow invaded one of Frederic Remington’s canvases, wilder than the Plains Indians chasing after the artist’s dashing cowboys, planting disorienting, flashing signs in the dust like bizarre high-plains hallucinations.  How long would Texas remain herself?  How much time did we have?  I tried not to think about it.

I arrived at my destination just as the President appeared on TV, telling us what we already knew.  War was imminent.  I sat and listened like everyone else, but I could not look at him.  Then somebody turned the TV off, and the pastor said a prayer.  And he prayed in the name of Our Lord that our soldiers be protected and that a merciful God watch over the people of a long-suffering land half a world away.

Then we went about our business, which was organizing the church’s building-fund program.  Nobody asked me what I thought of the war, and I was glad they did not; lots of my friends had, however, and I never really answered them adequately.  I will try to do so now.

My whole life seems to have played out against a backdrop of wars, police actions, interventions, and “humanitarian” bombings, none of them sanctioned by a Declaration of War, all of them in places that seemed as distant as the dark side of the moon, carried out for reasons nobody could quite explain.  “American leadership,” they called it.  It was all in “our national interest,” they said, since “we” had to “show American resolve,” though the threats the pundits, politicians, and think-tank strategists described seemed exaggerated; the countries, obscure; and the rationales for intervention, fuzzy: If “we” didn’t invade Grenada, send Marines to Lebanon, intervene in Haiti, “nation-build” in Somalia, bomb Yugoslavia, or throw Iraq out of Kuwait, then . . . what?  What did it all mean for my family?

When would it all end?  Never, apparently: The only “superpower” was on a roll and could not stop, making millions of enemies around the world along the way, something I became painfully aware of as I traveled abroad in later years.  I felt duty-bound to defend my country from her critics, but less and less able—or willing—to justify the actions of the U.S. government.

In the meantime, conservatives had long since stopped trying to conserve anything, and liberals, the supposed defenders of the downtrodden, had become blind to the distress of America’s working people, even as their jobs were steadily being “outsourced.”  Both conservatives and liberals seemed to think that, the more distant a tragedy, the more American intervention is warranted.  Both dreamed of a borderless post-America where mosques outnumber churches, where everything from soup to hay is produced somewhere else, where “progress” either blocks rural people from making a living or demands that we destroy our hometowns in order to save them.  (They call it “economic development.”)  To my mind, the most dangerous enemy seemed to be the enemy within: What kind of “homeland” could there be for such people?  

Anyone who spoke against “progress” was denounced as an anti-American wacko, a reactionary primitive, or a crypto-Nazi.  “Do you want to go back to the Spanish Inquisition or the days of using outhouses?” the usual suspects asked.  They claimed all those wars had something to do with “our freedom” and “serving our country,” though the arguments seemed rather strained, to say the least.

So I should not have been surprised at the negative reactions of many people to suggestions that “Homeland Defense” should begin with sealing America’s porous borders, reforming U.S. immigration laws, deporting illegal aliens, and reassessing Washington’s interventionist foreign policy.  Such opinions are widely viewed as un-American, “isolationist,” or “racist” even by people who do not write editorials for the Washington Post.  I am all in favor of killing or capturing Bin Laden, of course, but the enforcement of U.S. immigration laws seems a more humane means of self-defense than launching an endless War on Terror that will involve killing thousands of people in countries (Syria and Iran are already being mentioned as the next targets) that had nothing at all to do with September 11.  After all, the terrorist attacks simply could not have taken place if Bin Laden’s minions had not been here.  I was first bewildered, then depressed, by many of my acquaintances, some of whom did not flinch at the thought of using nuclear weapons (those are “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” folks, hardly “precision” or “smart” weapons) but who cried “Racist!” at any suggestion that maybe there are lots of immigrants who just do not belong in America.  Killing foreigners in their homelands is apparently fine, as victims of “collateral damage” or otherwise, but the notion of sending aliens back to their own countries is deemed scandalous.

So here it is: another war, the War on Terror, of which Afghanistan and Iraq might just be the opening rounds.  For all those who asked, this is what I think: “Preemptive war” is immoral and crazy.  If Washington attacked everybody who could even theoretically be a threat to the United States, we would be at war forever.  The Iraq war will likely create more terrorists, leaving our country less—not more—secure.  If you think killing people for access to oil or to juice up “the economy” can be justified, you are a moral cretin.

I know how some of you will react.  As of this writing, American troops are still in the field, fighting and dying, though the banner aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln reads “Mission Accomplished.”  Many of you have friends, neighbors, brothers, even—God help us—sisters, wives, and mothers in the line of fire.  (So do I.)  Once blood is shed, ordinary people—to save themselves from madness and despair—have to believe it was not shed in vain, that the cause was just, or that the victory justified the sacrifice.  So dissenters are regarded with suspicion and hostility.  And the barbaric behavior of many antiwar protestors only reinforces this view.

For the record, the antiwar patriots I know of never wished our troops anything but success once military operations commenced, if “success” meant seizing Baghdad and toppling Saddam’s regime as quickly as possible.  Some of our friends did call for a halt to the war and the swift return of the soldiers to our homeland.  That was their way of “supporting the troops” that no one wanted to see die—or kill—in an unjust, unprovoked, and illegal war that was all the more difficult to accept as it was done in our name.  Nobody that I know of wants to see the U.S. Armed Forces bogged down in an Iraqi quagmire, though most seem to think the United States should get the troops out of there as soon as order is restored, a prospect that seems more distant with each passing day.  We criticize the War on Terror and the behavior of many of our countrymen precisely because we love America enough to feel anguish for what has become of her.  It is a suffering love that chastises its own.  Nevertheless, dissenters will be seen by many Americans as disloyal.

Our identity has been distorted by decades of “progress,” state expansion, and warfare: America is lumbering into the 21st century certain, as many Soviets were certain, that spreading “democracy” through messianic militarism will bring about universal prosperity and “world peace,” with many of us finding a sense of purpose and artificial community in constant mobilization.  Like the Soviets, Americans are now hated and resented by the people our leaders have pledged to force into the postmodern world.  Our most determined foes no longer fear us.  Our postindustrial economy is faltering, and the costs of “power projection” are draining our treasury.  How can anybody take the propaganda of our ruling elites seriously?  Many good people do, however.

I can only ask, dear readers, that you listen, look around you, and see what is happening to our beloved homeland.  The real war is here.