The sad thing is that bad things always come with “war.”
Sure, war is a bad thing unto itself. And when will we study something other than war when we measure ourselves and our leaders? Dylan songs aside, when?
But the concern here is the term — war — which we toss around like we toss around “clearance sale” and “now with fluoride.”
Naming anything a “war,” except the kind that summons a nation’s every sinew, as in the mobilization of Dec. 7, 1941, is not only fallacious but ultimately self-defeating.
“War on poverty”? Bad choice, Mr. President. Can’t defeat poverty. You can ameliorate it in many ways, and you did. But “war”?
“War on terror”? Maybe the worst word choice in our nation’s history. John Kerry was absolutely right in challenging the term. Ironically, the decorated war veteran committed the error of just not being brazenly militant enough for the moment.
Terror is a condition. Terrorism is a means to that end. War involves rolling tanks, killing innocents (war’s own means to its end), naming names — governmentwise, while unaffiliated shadow players do what terrorists do with primitive means.
War involves suspending our own hard-fought rights and abdicating democracy to the executive branch.
And in the case of the “war on terror,” it appears to be all the above without end.
But if “war on terror” has an open-endedness to it, what about “war on drugs”? It has become, literally, a life term. Afghanistan, now 10 years on? Vietnam? Cost and duration considered, no “war” we’ve known compares.
The war on drugs is America’s costliest, most futile endeavor to ever acquire the term "war," and looks to outlive anyone who ever conceived it or first nodded in assent. For what?
Considering what we are doing, spending, and committing in terms of human capital, the recent report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy deserved banner front-page treatment — right alongside the latest Charlie Sheen update.
The report, from a group that includes ex-heads of state and such diverse voices as former Secretary of State (under Ronald Reagan) George Shultz, former Fed chairman Paul Volker and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, called the war on drugs a total failure “with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”
Yes, it didn’t just call the effort a dud, a fizzle, a fiasco. It called it destructive — “devastating.”
Say, how much have we been spending to achieve all that?
State and federal, we’re spending about $40 billion a year. Sure, that’s chump change compared to occupying two countries militarily. But that’s not the only cost of the drug war.
This year some 1.6 million Americans will be arrested for drug possession or distribution. Like the military bases we set up overseas, we will then commit to housing, feeding and otherwise tending to the needs of each of them for an indeterminate time.
The Global Commission said such repressive strategies cannot succeed. Only strategies that approach drug abuse as a medical or societal problem short of criminality will work. It pointed out that the most repressive countries about drugs — like Russia and Thailand — have the worst drug problems per capita. Countries on the polar, holistic, side of the equation like Switzerland and Australia have the fewest problems.
The commission recommends an end to the militant approach to drugs, and the legalization of marijuana.
The White House challenged the commission’s findings, just like a war department would do. At least it acknowledged the fact that we cannot arrest and prosecute our way to a better day. We need a stronger and clear-eyed approach to treatment, it said. Agreed.
With several states now having legalized medical marijuana, with police looking the other way when hundreds of thousands of young people openly light up joints each spring on “4-20,” we are in many ways in the phase we saw in the last two to three years of Vietnam and today in Afghanistan — sensing that we can’t achieve much more with war, but being unable to figure a way to end it.
The answer is to get real about costs, about pyrrhic results, about the benefits of undercutting organized crime by treating pot differently. Start by finding another name for a fiasco.
Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.