Apr/May 2003 Salon

The Next Hundred-Year War

by Paul Sampson

I wasn't the brightest little kid who ever opened the World History book in school. It took me a good while to realize that the Hundred-Year War was named not at its outset but after it stopped.

To refresh your memory, the Hundred-Year War (which actually lasted 116 years, but that doesn't roll off the tongue as well) was fought between the kings of England and France in the 14th and 15th Centuries. Notable casualty: Joan of Arc. Famous battle: Agincourt. Ah, now you remember.

Of course, as Mankind accumulated experience and wisdom, we were able to make our wars more efficient. By the 17th Century, the Thirty-Year War between the Protestant and Catholic powers of Europe actually took only 30 years to conclude, though it took a bewildering number of kings and dukes and even an emperor—in fact, most of the princes and princelings of Europe—to carry it off.

By our own time, of course, we had such models of efficiency as the Six-Day War, in which Plucky Little Israel flattened Big Bad Egypt in—whaddaya know!—six days.

Moving right along, we had our own stunning sprint through (part of) Iraq in 1991, a conflict measured in hours rather than days or years. Alas for the symmetry of nomenclature, it was called Operation Desert Storm instead of the Hundred-Hour War, which would be close to true if you discount the month or so of air attacks that preceded the actual Allied ground invasion.

And now, of course, we are embarked on our latest Crusade (to use the right wrong word). Its sponsors call it Operation Iraqi Freedom, a phrase so cumbersome and so obviously a product of the Spin Cycle that it will surely get called something else eventually. Assuming it picks up a nickname like the ones we just mentioned, what do you suppose History will call this war?

My guess is that the trend toward short wars, named for numbers of days or hours, is over. I think we have begun the Second Hundred-Year War. If it's any comfort, I think it began in 1991 with the liberation of Kuwait, in which the poor Kuwaitis were saved from the Iraqis (good!) and restored to the benevolent care of the Kuwaiti ruling family. (Even I will admit this is an improvement, but I bristle when I hear our own ruling family refer to "restoring freedom" or even "democracy" in Kuwait. Oh, please.)

Anyway, that means we have less than 90 years to go on this war. When it ends, we will be ruled by Bushes yet unborn, our political and personal liberties guarded by the then-current crop of Ashcrofts and Ridges, our economy tended and nurtured by the Cheney grandchildren, and our morals supervised by new generations of Falwells and Robertsons and Grahams.

Meanwhile, however, the war will become a reliable institution, a constant in all our political and economic equations. Corporations will grow great on their ability to produce things to be destroyed ("combat consumables" is the term I learned as a young soldier). Citizenship with its rights will be restricted to patriots, and patriotism will be defined as unquestioning loyalty to the Cause, and the Cause as the overcoming of whoever opposes our national Will.

The arts will flourish, as the Government commissions heroic statues to honor our innumerable dead. The dedication ceremonies for these cenotaphs will employ platoons of poets and corps of composers of martial elegies. Hollywood will use its inexhaustible special-effects trick-bag to astound us with the terrible beauty of war. Two themes will dominate all these masterpieces: brutality and sentimentality. If you liked the Rambo movies, you'll be in heaven.

Yes, the new Hundred-Year War has begun. Iraq is nearly behind us; so the High Command assures us (when they are not denying that they said so, and warning us to prepare for a long struggle). Then the Iranians, the North Koreans, the Fiji Islanders (What? You didn't know about the Fiendish Fijis? You will). And on throughout the world, until all the Earth is One, and that One is the New Jerusalem (Did I forget to mention that "Onward Christian Soldiers" will be the new National Anthem? A lot easier to sing than the current one).

Of course, I won't live to see the end of this, and neither will you. But we will have the satisfaction of knowing that what we have sown, others will reap. Let's hope they have the decency to thank us.


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