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by Mark Dankof for Mark Dankof’s America and News and Views
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Why Are We At War?
By Norman Mailer
New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks
Copyright 2003
ISBN: 0-8129-7111-6

            In his latest work, Why Are We At War?, Norman Mailer has penned a gem of a book consisting of only 111 pages, with each page containing thoughts and aphorisms worth pondering for days on end. Portions of the work were originally published as interviews in the following publications: “I Am Not for World Empire: A Conversation with Norman Mailer about Iraq, Israel, the Perils of Technology and Why He is a Left-Conservative,” in Pat Buchanan’s The American Conservative of December 2, 2002, and a September 19, 2002 interview with Dotson Rader published in the Sunday Times Magazine (UK). Additionally, portions of the book were originally given as a speech delivered by Mailer at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco on February 20. 2003.

             Mailer’s thesis is entirely sustainable–that an American corporate capitalism fueled by technology and a concomitant lust for power, threatens the survivability of “the vulnerable dignity of the human creation” (p. 103). A corollary to his basic postulate is that a sustainable opposition to this burgeoning cultural, political, economic, and theological cancer may yet be possible only with “an alchemy of Left and Right to confound the corporate center” (p. 101). And Mailer makes it clear that he speaks of “that part of the Right that is still loyal to its old values” (p. 103), by implication that portion of the Right not married to George W. Bush and his neo-conservative cabal, themselves dedicated to a blatant self-aggrandizement thinly disguised as a guarantee to Americans of domestic “security” and the exportation abroad of “democracy” on a globalized scale. The American Right would do well to contemplate the author’s observation that:
. . .conservatism was [is] heading toward a divide. Old-line conservatives like Pat Buchanan believed that America should keep to itself and look to solve those of its problems that we were equipped to solve. Buchanan was the leader of what might be called old-value conservatives, who believe in family, country, faith, tradition, home, hard and honest labor, duty, allegiance, and a balanced budget. The ideas, notions, and predilections of George W. Bush had to be, for the most part, not compatible
with Buchanan’s conservatism.
            Bush was different. The gap between his school of thought and that of old-value conservatives could yet produce a dichotomy on the right as clear-cut as the differences between communists and socialists after World War I. “Flag conservatives” like Bush paid lip service to some conservative values, but at bottom they didn’t give a damn (p. 51).

             One of the most fascinating subsequent components of Why Are We At War? is Mailer’s own admitted ambivalence toward the State of Israel as a Jew, expressed in remarks that are “tentative” (p. 93). On one hand, he criticizes the Arab nations by observing that “It is in the interest of the Arab nations to have Israel as the great villain. . . .They used Israel to divert hatred away from their own regimes. . . . So the Saudis now have a wonderful ploy. They use the Palestinians as their justification to hate Israel, when in fact they look upon Israel as their safeguard against the Palestinians (pp. 94-95).” Yet he simultaneously concedes that Ariel Sharon is a “brute” (p. 98) and one who has a:
. . .firm hold on Bush. With the Mossad, Sharon has the finest intelligence service in the Middle East if not in the world. The CIA, renowned by now for its paucity of Arab spies in the Muslim world, cannot afford to do without Sharon’s services (p. 55).

            Most indicative of Mailer’s internal Angst over Zionist ideology and methodology is in his failure to contemplate that the architect of the atrocities of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon in 1982 may have more in common with the original instruments of the implementation of the Zionist dream in Palestine than the author would wish to concede or acknowledge. Strikingly absent from his narrative is any mention of the role played by Yitzhak Shamir and his underground colleagues in the assassination of Swedish Count Bernadotte, the UN representative to Palestine in the late 1940s; he is similarly silent on the slaughter of Arab men, women, and children at Deir Yassin; or the role of Menachim Begin and the Irgun in bombing the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, a deliberate act of terrorism designed to facilitate the removal of the remaining British presence in Palestine as the final obstacle to the formation of the Jewish State. Most incredibly, Mailer attributes the opposition of the Arab sheiks and leaders to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1947-48 as indicative of a basic inhumanity (p. 94) and insensitivity to the plight of Holocaust survivors. Why these Arab leaders should have been enthusiastic over the forced divestiture of 750,000 Palestinians from their land, and the concept of an Eretz Yisrael stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates, is not addressed by Why Are We At War. This glaring omission and selective interpretation of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is exacerbated by Mailer’s striking admission that:
Now they treat the Palestinians as if they, the Israelis, are the Cossacks and the Palestinians are ghetto Jews. You know, the older you get, the more you begin to depend upon irony as the last human element you can rely on (pp. 96-97).

            The ultimate irony, partially noted by Mailer, is the alliance of Bush’s neo-conservative cabal with a significant presence on the American Left, in a commitment to a preemptive military invasion of Iraq. Selected columnists at The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and The New York Times are observed to be in alliance with Senators Hillary Clinton, Dianne Feinstein, Joe Lieberman, and John Kerry in supporting Bush’s idea that “. . .perhaps we can bring democracy to Iraq by invasion” (p. 67). It is here that the author most noticeably sidesteps his own commitment to “Occam’s Razor” [the simplest explanation that covers a set of facts is bound to be the correct explanation–p. 111], by avoiding the more obvious, probable conclusion that the nefarious alliance he acknowledges is rooted especially in the power of the Israeli lobby in both major parties, and that this fact, along with tactical strategy for oil pipeline and oil reserve control, is the undergirding glue which provides cohesion and coherence to the alliance in question.

            Nonetheless, Why Are We At War? has many pearls of wisdom and insight to offer the thoughtful reader concerned about America’s “pre-totalitarian” (p. 105) march toward the marriage of Corporate America with an Imperial Central State, mutually devoted to domestic political repression and overt militarism abroad. These pearls include the following:

On American Patriotism

Free floating patriotism seemed like a direct measure of our free-floating anxiety” (p. 15).

When you have a great country, it’s your duty to be critical of it so it can become even greater. But culturally, emotionally, we are growing more arrogant, more vain. . . . The fact that we’ve been a great democracy doesn’t mean we will automatically keep being one if we keep waving the flag. It’s ugly” (p. 15 and p. 17).

On Terrorism

Terrorism’s ultimate tendency is to make life absurd” (p. 20).

“. . .at the end, he [the terrorist] still believes he will find redemption through immolation” (p. 23).

On Corporate Capitalism

Corporate capitalism does have this tendency to take over large parts of the economies of other countries. Often we are the next thing to cultural barbarians. We don’t always pay attention to what we are trampling. What intensifies the anger is how often we are successful in these commercial invasions” (p. 24).

On the Hatred of Moslems Toward the West

The core of the hatred of Muslims toward us is the fear that they’re going to lose their own people to Western values. Maybe half the people in Muslim countries may want secretly to be free of Islam. And so the ones who retain the old religion become extreme in response” (p. 26).

On Christianity

“. . .in Christianity, compassion is supposed to be the greatest good, but its present exercise in the world seems to be a study in military power and greed (p.27). . .We [the United States] are a Christian nation. The supposition of a great many good Christians in America is that you were not meant to be all that rich. God didn’t necessarily want it. For certain, Jesus did not. You weren’t supposed to pile up a mountain of moolah. You were obligated to spend your life in altruistic acts. That was still one half of the good Christian psyche. The other half, pure American, was as always: Beat everybody” (p. 46).

On Bush’s Campaign Operatives in the State of Florida

They had the moral equivalent of Teflon on their souls. Church on Sunday, foreclose on Monday” (p. 44).

On Bush’s Utilization of the Word ‘Evil

One of Bush’s worst faults in rhetoric was to use the word as if it were a button he could push to increase his power. When people have an IV tube put in them to feed a narcotic painkiller on demand, a few keep pressing that button. Bush uses evil as a narcotic for that part of the American public which feels most distressed. Of course, as he sees it, he is doing it because he believes America is good. He certainly does. He believes this country is the only hope of the world. He also fears that the country is rapidly growing more dissolute, and the only solution may be–feel, mighty, and near-holy words–the only solution may be to strive for world empire” (p. 51).

On Technology

“. . .this is a war between those who believe the advance of technology is the best solution for human ills and those who believe that we got off track somewhere a century ago, two centuries ago, five centuries ago, and we’ve been going in the wrong direction ever since, that the purpose of human beings on earth is not to obtain more and more technological power but to refine our souls” (p. 28)

Live in a technological environment long enough and you begin to feel as if your soul is frayed. . . . Technology says to you, Fellow, get it through your head: You’re going to have a little less pleasure from now on but much more power. That’s technology’s credo. And it opens a tendency for many of us to become narcissistic and power-driven. And icy within” (p. 92).

On Bush’s Incessant References to His Presidency and God’s Will

When we think we are nearest to God, we could be assisting the Devil” (p. 72).

On The Reverse Side of Empire

Of course, terrorism and instability are the reverse face of Empire” (p. 64).

On the Dangers of Allegiance to the Corporation and the State

I must say it again: In a country where values are collapsing, patriotism becomes the handmaiden to totalitarianism. The country becomes the religion. We are asked to live in a state of religious fervor: Love America! Love it because America has become a substitute for religion. But to love your country indiscriminately means that critical distinctions begin to go. And democracy depends on those distinctions” (p. 108).

            Finally, Mailer’s thoughtful compendium on the twin crises of War and Empire has one admitted weakness. For all the cogency of his analysis of the grim state of both the American political condition as well as the crises inherent in the drive toward economic and political globalization, he confesses that, “There may be no solution this time. This may be the beginning of an international cancer we cannot cure” (p. 29). For Why Are We At War?, the dilemma presented by technology’s inability to solve a deepening political crisis rooted in spiritual malaise, may ultimately result in the utilization of that very technology to threaten the very survivability of once accepted axioms thought to govern the cosmos, or even the cosmos itself.


(Mark Dankof (med1chd2@concentric.net) is a correspondent and staff writer with the Internet news service News and Views, and an occasional correspondent with the orthodox Lutheran weekly, Christian News.  A graduate of Valparaiso University and Chicago's Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, he has pursued post-graduate theological study in recent years at Philadelphia's Westminster Theological Seminary. Formerly the 36th District Chairman of the Republican Party in King County/Seattle, and later an elected delegate to Texas State Republican Conventions in 1994 and 1996, he entered the United States Senate race in Delaware in 2000 as the nominated candidate of the Constitution Party against Democratic candidate Thomas Carper and incumbent William Roth.  His writings are frequently reposted in the Iranian Times, Sam Ghandchi's Iranscope, San Francisco and Palestine Indy Media, the London Morning Paper, Nile Media, and Table Talk, the official publication of the Lutheran Ministerium and Synod--USA.  Upcoming articles on his web site include a review of the novel The Prince Must Die [Dandelion Books], a review of two volumes on the life and thought of Garet Garrett [courtesy of Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times], and a retrospective on his own iconoclastic run for the U. S. Senate in Delaware entitled Why I Ran:  Don Quixote Reflects On His Run for Delaware Gold in 2000.

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