9/11 and the Illusion of War Without Casualties

Twenty years ago, Naomi Klein wrote that 9/11 shattered Americans’ “illusion of war without casualties.” Now, after combat troops have been pulled out of Afghanistan, is it really “game over”?

In These Times Editors

U.S. Army soldiers fire illumination artillery rounds from a 105mm Howitzer at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank on April 7, 2014 near Pul-e Alam, Afghanistan. Getty Images

Prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, In These Times contributing editor Naomi Klein wrote that the U.S. has become [an] expert in the art of sanitizing and dehumanizing acts of war committed elsewhere.” Twenty years on, the forever war” — which former President George W. Bush declared would be won swiftly (“it may take a year or two, but we will prevail”) — has cost more than 241,000 lives and trillions of dollars. President Joe Biden withdrew all combat troops on August 31, formally ending the longest war in U.S. history. 

IN OCTOBER 2001, KLEIN WROTE:

Now is the time in the game of war when we dehumanize our enemies. They are utterly incomprehensible, their acts unimaginable, their motivations senseless. They are madmen” and their states are rogue.” …
Feeling people will no doubt object to this characterization: War is not a game. It is real lives ripped in half; it is lost sons, daughters, mothers and fathers, each with a dignified story. … 
It’s true: War is most emphatically not a game. And perhaps it will never again be treated as one. Perhaps September 11, 2001 will mark the end of the shameful era of the video game war. … 
Since the Gulf War, American foreign policy has been based on a single brutal fiction: that the U.S. military can intervene in conflicts around the world — in Iraq, Kosovo, Israel — without suffering any U.S. casualties. This is a country that has come to believe in the ultimate oxymoron: a safe war. 
The safe war logic is, of course, based on the technological ability to wage a war exclusively from the air. But it also relies on the deep conviction that no one would dare mess with the United States — the one remaining superpower— on its own soil. 
This conviction has, until [9/11], allowed Americans to remain blithely unaffected by — even uninterested in — international conflicts in which they are key protagonists. Americans don’t get daily coverage on CNN of the ongoing bombings in Iraq, nor are they treated to human interest stories on the devastating effects of economic sanctions on that country’s children. … Domestically, war is no longer a national obsession, it’s a business that is now largely outsourced to experts. This is one of the country’s many paradoxes: though the engine of globalization around the world, the nation has never been more inward looking, less worldly. 
No wonder [9/11], in addition to being horrifying beyond description, has the added horror of seeming, to many Americans, to have arrived entirely out of the blue. … 
Did the United States deserve to be attacked? Of course not. … But here’s a different question that must be asked: Did U.S. foreign policy create the conditions in which such twisted logic could flourish, a war not so much on U.S. imperialism but on perceived U.S. imperviousness? 
The era of the video game war in which the U.S. is always at the controls has produced a blinding rage in many parts of the world … in which twisted revenge-seekers make no other demand than that American citizens share their pain. …
Since [9/11] … the illusion of war without casualties has been forever shattered. 
A blinking message is up on our collective video game console: Game Over.
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