The Real Meaning of War

(Appeared in Blue Ridge Press Syndicate, 10/8/2001)

Before Sept. 11, I would have defined myself as an environmentalist and writer first, with “American” obscured somewhere down the list between “college professor” and “Methodist.”

Prior to the attacks on New York, Washington, D.C., and in Pennsylvania, the only “war” I found compelling was the one against the huge corporate interests I imagined moving darkly through the South, bent on developing vast tracts of wooded hills, flood plains, and farm fields. Terror to me was a clear cut. Operatives were those complicit in degrading ecosystems on a regional scale. Weapons of mass destruction were bulldozers, road graders, and chip mills.

On Sunday mornings like this one, I often started my day by searching the property transfers, seeking out those among us who were selling undeveloped tracts of land for new sprawling shopping centers and subdivisions. These faceless agents of commerce were the “enemy.”

In those days, the environment was the frontline of my concerns. I marked up my county map like a military chart. I colored newly purchased tracts red like lost territory. Every stand of hardwoods on the outskirts of town, subdivided and surveyed into lots, was another lost battle. If our country was being put under siege, it was by the shock troops of greed. If there was a threat, it was from within ourselves, born out of our own misguided sense of what matters.

I fought the good fight for the environment with the only means I possessed-letters to the editor of the local paper and editorials, articles, and books meant for a larger audience. If the pen was indeed mightier than the sword, then that’s how I would defend my homeland in “the 100 year war,”-what former chief justice William O. Douglas once called our culture’s attack on the natural world.

I confess that as the red zones of occupied territory on my county map closed in around me, I even debated the dark logic of Edward Abbey’s ecoterrorism, evoked in The Monkey Wrench Gang, wherein a band of brothers and sisters attacks the atrocity of the Glen Canyon Dam. I was drawn to a fictional world where it was possible to stop the “enemy” (big business, big government, big military) with violence against property-as long as no one was hurt.

Now, as the pundits keep telling us, everything has changed. Today, I’m sick with the complexity of a real war. The property transfers seem old history. War is no longer a metaphor for “struggle.” Disagreements over land use seem as distant as Antietam. Now I find myself poring over maps of Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than my small corner of the sprawling South.

I’ve felt a renewed sense of patriotism. I’ve cried a few times over “America the Beautiful.” I’ve also considered pulling out the flag that draped my World War II veteran father’s coffin and running it up a flagpole. I want something done to bring the terrorists to justice, but I’m a little worried, too. I don’t want the country to forget that “justice” is a word that has often been linked with the word “environment” as well.

I want to find a way to shift my concerns into perspective, but I don’t want this crisis to become an excuse to validate and more deeply entrench what I still see as the misguided economic values of the past 20 years. In spite of the terrorist attacks, I don’t want a strong economy, maintained at any cost, to become a point of jingoistic pride.

I don’t want suburban sprawl, something I have maligned for a decade, to be cited as one of the major benefits of our freedom. I will continue to argue against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I will not accept that such a destructive act is essential for our national security.

For now, I’ll watch the news instead of the property transfers and I’ll rethink my personal conflicts as well. I’ll realize that to speak of my differences with politicians and business leaders concerning development in my corner of the Southeast as “war” is to trivialize it. When we call everything “war” we forget what war really is-body parts, not chainsawed trees or acres leveled for a mall.

War is a term that should be reserved for the unspeakable.

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