The Unholy Grail

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Perhaps the eeriest thing about Osama bin Laden’s death is how little it means.

Yeah, I know: “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” The raid on the devil’s compound outside Abbottabad, Pakistan this week apparently kick-started our patriotic fervor, which had been languishing over the course of a pretty bad decade of military quagmire and economic collapse. Killing Osama — turning him, as the New York Times put it, into “a tall, bearded man with a bloodied face and a bullet in his head” — brought back a rush of national purpose and glory.

“On Sept. 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together,” the president reminded us in announcing the success of the Navy SEALs operation. “We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country.”

And we went off in search of the mastermind of evil. We fought and lost two wars under the banner of righteous purpose, squandered trillions of dollars, wrecked two countries, displaced millions of Iraqis and Afghanis, killed a million or so more, spread pollution and cancer (among many other horrific illnesses and conditions) far and wide, popularized torture, shattered the lives of our own endlessly deployed troops and, in short, did everything Osama could have asked of us in terms of recruiting America-hating martyrs to his cause.

And a mere ten years later we found Osama and killed him, and for a moment it was as though that’s what it had been about all along. Indeed, after I learned of his death, I entertained a fleeting thought that maybe the point of it was to give us an excuse to declare victory and begin dismantling military operations. What wishful thinking!

“The cause of securing our country is not complete,” President Obama told the nation. Of course not. The “new normal” is perpetual war, and nothing — certainly not “victory” — can be allowed to change that.

For me, the only question is how we can interrupt the trans-national consensus that is committed to perpetual war. Mark Weisbrot, writing this week in The Guardian, suggested that Osama bin Laden foresaw that the U.S. reaction to the planned 9/11 attacks would be military intervention throughout the Middle East, a situation that suited his purposes — to garner recruits for al-Qaida — precisely.

“While it was not predictable that President Bush would necessarily invade Iraq — although it was a strong possibility — it was foreseeable that the U.S. government would seize on 9/11 to create a new overarching theme for its interventions throughout the world,” Weisbrot wrote.

After the fall of Communism, which for more than four decades had provided the United States with an excuse to intervene militarily and politically in countries on every continent, the defense establishment was in a pickle. The country still had military bases and “interests” everywhere, but no clear justification for throwing its weight around. We were, good God, at a sort of peace; the defense budget was shrinking and there was talk about how to spend the post-Cold War “peace dividend.”

“Prior to 9/11, the military interventions had to be done on an ad hoc basis (for example, ‘enemy-of-the-month’ as in Panama or the first Iraq war),” Weisbrot wrote. “But this is a weak basis for mobilizing public opinion, and, in general, Americans have to be convinced that their own security is at stake in order to acquiesce to most sustained military adventures.”

My sense is not that bin Laden brilliantly lured us into a trap — or, contrarily, that the convenience with which 9/11 filled an ideological void means it was an inside job — but rather, that the trans-national forces of war are in perpetual collusion with one another, united, you might say, in their servitude to Mars. The two sides are really one side and continually, and unconsciously, give each other what they need in order to keep the game going. During the Cold War, the dance of nuclear provocation had its own acronym, M.A.D., which stood for mutually assured destruction. The human race has been playing this game with itself for six millennia.

Much as we might want peace, if we cheer Osama’s death we cheer for the perpetuation of war and, ultimately, our own — our children’s — mutually assured destruction. We will not achieve peace through that one big kill, that one final quaff from the Unholy Grail. We will achieve only more of the same: “The cause of securing our country is not complete.”

War is organized and always ready to roll. Peace remains mostly a private longing, though I take heart in the words of my friend Kathy Kelly, who describes the walk from New York to Washington, D.C., that a group of people, including some who had lost loved ones on 9/11, took in November 2001. They were carrying a banner that proclaimed: “Our grief is not a cry for war.”

The only viable future I can imagine is a continuation of their journey.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at