Insane in Parenthesis (From 9/11 to COVID)

Souls pass through torrent
and the whole situation is intolerable.

David Jones, In Parenthesis


The Welsh author David Jones (1895-1974) titled his experimental Great War memoir In Parenthesis for three reasons: “because I have written it in a kind of space between – I don’t know between quite what;” because “for us amateur soldiers…the war itself was a parenthesis – how glad we thought we were to step outside its brackets at the end of ’18;” and “also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis.”

Jones’ masterpiece appeared (overwhelming, among others, T.S. Eliot) in 1937, as the parenthesis of the disastrous ‘peace’ between the two world wars was closing. ‘How glad we thought we were,’ as Jones carefully wrote, evoking a euphoria – and high hopes for peace – soon soured by the vindictiveness of the ‘victors,’  the psychoses of fascism and Stalinism, and the despair of the Great Depression.

David Jones

David Jones (1895–1974) photographed in October 1965. National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo: © Mark Gerson; National Portrait Gallery, London

It is an exacting exercise to select periods of history to ‘bracket,’ to view as ‘a kind of space between,’ separate from – though still connected to – the ‘text’ they interrupt. As I read Jones, I began to ‘bracket’ the 99 years of general ‘peace’ in Europe (1815-1914) from the defeat of Napoleon to World War One, that shocking implosion of a brutal ‘balance of power’ that ‘deterred,’ for what seemed a political eternity, the conflagration it finally provoked. The nuclear ‘balance of terror,’ similarly, has ‘worked’ for seven decades – though all-too-often, only just  – to postpone the Apocalypse it is bound to unleash. Our luck may hold again for 99 years, perhaps by some miracle longer, but if disarmament doesn’t close the nuclear parenthesis, Doomsday will.

Sometimes, parentheses appear within parentheses, asides retrospectively visible as pivotal, prefiguring ‘the shape of things to come.’ In Europe, the post-Napoleonic peace saw numerous sub-general conflicts, most fatefully the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, creating a new Superpower, Germany, and an alliance of erstwhile enemies (Britain, France and Russia) determined to ‘deter’ – or defeat – it.

The ruthless efficiency of the Prussian war machine also foreshadowed the industrialized carnage to come, for Britain a war of roughly two halves, divided by the 1916 Battle of the Somme, the last stand of Jones’ “amateur soldiers,” the cloth-capped cannon-fodder of ‘Pals’ Battalions’ – volunteers from the same towns and trades – destroyed and replaced by ‘professionalized,’ steel-helmeted (equally doomed) conscripts.

Kings Regiment Liverpool Pals Service Battalion and cadets.

Kings Regiment Liverpool Pals Service Battalion and cadets. Photo courtesy Angela Collinson via

The atomic age has seen, appropriately, proliferating parentheses, most famously the interminable two weeks of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I believe another set of brackets is now closing, a two-decade ‘era’ appearing – as if alluding to the sunlit, split-second destruction of Hiroshima  – out of nowhere: a clear blue sky.

As I have oft-lamented, the 1990s was a decade of tragically lost opportunity, the criminal squandering of the post-Cold War ‘peace dividend,’ the briefly realistic prospect of a far less violent – and far more equal – world. Had such a sane global order – radically demilitarized, completely denuclearized – emerged by September 11, 2001, it would still have faced daunting challenges, most urgently the risk of chronic climate breakdown and the related perils of unsustainable development, e.g. pandemics spawned by the collapse of biodiversity.

And it would still have been rocked to its core by 9/11 – though I strongly suspect, in the context of a peaceful revolution in international affairs, that the sky would not have fallen that morning. But even if it had, surely such a new world would have been brave enough not to respond to terror with terror, depravity with torture, lawlessness with illegality, non-state violence with war, war, war…


It is instructive to recall that, even in the sometimes hysterical, raw and sick aftershock of 9/11, just such courage was on display. Three local examples deserve review. On September 12, an editorial in The Cape Breton Post insisted on the need to ‘Answer Terror with Justice’: “The issue: terror graduates to a new level. We suggest: rule of law the ultimate weapon.” “If this is indeed the work of Islamic extremists,” the editorial insisted:

…that doesn’t make it the fault of all Muslims, or all Arabs, or even (to stretch a point) all Islamic extremists. President George W. Bush, no doubt echoing a bloodlust for revenge among many of his people, pledged ‘to hunt down and pursue those responsible for these cowardly actions.’ Canada and other friends of the US must urge the Americans to forbear from quick military retaliation and to proceed instead along the principles of Western justice by attempting to identify and apprehend those specific individuals most directly responsible.

In her September 19 ‘Political Insights’ column for The Cape Breton Post (‘The Need to Resist Terrorism, War’) my wife Lee-Anne Broadhead, professor of political science at the then University College of Cape Breton, deepened this ‘West is best’ critique by highlighting a significant American contribution to the rise of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden himself: massive CIA funding and support of the ‘mujahedeen’ rebels resisting the brutal Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. “What we have here,” she wrote, “is a classic case of what the Americans refer to as ‘blowback’: simply put, one of their own creations turning against them.”

Ronald Reagan meets Mujahedeen, 1983

In clockwise order: Ronald Reagan; Michael A. Barry; Muhammad Omar Babarakzai; Mohammad Ghafoor Yousefzai; Habib-Ur-Rehman Hashemi; Farida Ahmadi; Mir Niamatullah and Gul Mohammad.Original caption: “C12820-32,  President Reagan meeting with Afghan Freedom Fighters to discuss Soviet atrocities in Afghanistan. 2/2/83.” — Ronald Reagan Library via Wikimedia Commons

The priority now, she argued, was to avoid “creating the conditions for the next cases of ‘blowback,’” for if “we don’t break the cycle of violence…it has the potential to break us all.” And while the Bush Administration seemed immediately intent on “vengeance of the basest kind,” the “outpouring of sympathy and grief” from many ordinary Americans, “and indeed people around the globe,” demonstrated a contrary impulse: “the enduring nature of the human spirit and the ability to empathize with the sorrow and struggles of others.” It is, she argued –

..this spirit which must now be drawn on if we are to prevent the horrific deaths of so many innocent people from becoming merely a prelude to an unimaginable disaster.

It was this spirit that led, in the months after 9/11, to the establishment of Peace Quest Cape Breton (PQCB), to which Lee-Anne and I are proud to belong, an initiative of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity in Glace Bay but open to followers of all faiths (and none), linked by “a common belief in the need to build and foster a culture of peace, justice and cooperation from the personal to the planetary scale.” And while PQCB is small, the commitment of many Cape Bretoners to peace and non-violence was physically demonstrated in the large protests of 2003 against the looming US-led invasion of Iraq, an illegal, unjust war which the Canadian government (under great public pressure) eventually refused to support: though it was, alas, already mired in the ‘bloodlust’ occupation of Afghanistan.


Though Bush took office already determined to invade Iraq, the war was sold to a divided American public as both a response to 9/11 (with which the Saddam Hussein regime had nothing to do) and as ‘necessary’ to prevent a worse attack using weapons of mass destruction (WMD), biological and chemical munitions which UN inspectors were in the process of proving Iraq did not have. There was even an absurd nuclear scare, embellished with an entirely false tale of illicit Iraqi purchases of uranium from Niger: “we don’t want the smoking gun,” National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice shamelessly cautioned, “to be a mushroom cloud.”

Condoleeza Rice shaking hands with Hamid Karzai, 2005.

U.S. Secretary of State, Condolezza Rice, left, shakes hands with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the Presidential Palace, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday March 17, 2005. (AP Photo/Tomas Munita)

(In parenthesis: with much help from its Western friends, Iraq did acquire chemical weapons in the 1980s, inflicting them on its own Kurdish population and Baghdad and Washington’s common Enemy #1, Iran. The irony overdose is almost lethal: the world’s only Superpower, armed with thousands of thermonuclear weapons, choosing, as a war of first resort, to attack a state it knew could not defend itself, brought to its knees during the 1990-91 Gulf War and kept there by sanctions deployed as weapons of mass destruction, killing hundreds of thousands of children alone,  a “humanitarian catastrophe,” as Lee-Anne wrote in September 2001, supplying a “deep source of extremism and hatred of America in the Muslim world.”

The Iraq war also seemed to many Americans a ‘no brainer,’ in light of the apparently accomplished mission of the US military in Afghanistan: the rapid consignment of the al Qaeda-sheltering Taliban (the heroic anti-communists of the 1980s) to the ‘dustbin of history.’ The prevalence of this euphoric assumption is reflected in remarks by the comedian Bill Maher – well-known for his long-standing advice to US Presidents, as if they needed it, to “give war a chance” – on CNN’s Larry King show in January 2002:

Let me say that I think they have prosecuted the war overseas magnificently. I used that phrase “give war a chance” years ago about other matters, and I think they did it – to perfection. I mean, they got the job done in a place where everybody said, you know, “Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires.” I went on the air about two weeks after [9/11] and said, “You know what? It’s not the graveyard of empires. It was the graveyard of Russia, which was a dying empire, and Britain when they had muskets.” Our kick-ass Army could take care of this situation, but I didn’t think they could do it this good…

“Like a slam dunk,” King enthuses, weirdly foreshadowing CIA Director George Tenet’s “slam dunk” certainty that Iraq had WMD. “Oh, perfect,” Maher repeats, unable to foresee through his blood-tinted spectacles that the quick victory would become America’s longest war, ending in recent weeks in the utter rout and debacle of Taliban triumph.

Larry King and Bill Maher

Larry King and Bill Maher

A July 2021 BBC ‘Reality Check’ shows that, up to September 2019, the US had spent just over three quarters of a trillion dollars ($778 billion) on ‘destroying’ the enemy, a figure excluding the steep costs of prosecuting essentially the same war in Pakistan. Just $44 billion had been spent on ‘rebuilding’ Afghanistan, precisely half the $88 billion it cost to build perhaps the most expensive house of cards in history, the ‘Afghan security forces.’

And what did this tidy sum buy? Quite the ‘graveyard’: who knows how many Taliban deaths, but over 2,400 US dead, over 64,000 dead Afghan soldiers and police, and, according to an April 2021 report from Brown University, over 70,000 civilian deaths “in the Afghanistan and Pakistan war zone.” US allies, too, incurred – and inflicted – heavy losses, e.g. Canada’s 158 fatalities, as well as suffering ‘reputational damage’ through complicity and/or involvement in the torture, abuse, rendition and murder of detainees.

Why did the farce run so long? Partly because, as the Washington Post documented in December 2019 with the release of ‘The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,’ “senior US officials failed to tell the truth…throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.” (The ‘Afghanistan Papers’ were named in allusion to the ‘Pentagon Papers,’ detailing years of rank deceit about the ‘progress’ of the war in Vietnam, leaked to the New York Times and Washington Post in 1971 by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.)


Oh, what a lovely war! And that was just Afghanistan, one square on a worldwide ‘chessboard.’ In November 2019, Brown University’s Costs of War project concluded that “since late 2001, the United States has appropriated and is obligated to spend an estimated $6.4 Trillion through Fiscal Year 2020 in budgetary costs related to and caused by the post-9/11 wars,” and that since 9/11 those “wars have expanded from the fighting in Afghanistan, to wars and smaller operations elsewhere, in over 80 countries – becoming a truly ‘global war on terror.’”

Children in Hassan Sham refugee camp

Children in Hassansham refugee camp for internally displaced persons (IDP), Kurdish-controlled Iraq, November 2016. (Photo by Levi Clancy, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In September 2020, the Costs of War project  “conservatively” estimated “that at least 37 million people have fled their homes in the eight most violent wars the US military has launched or participated in since 2001.” (Iraq leads the way with 9.2 million of its 39 million people displaced; 5.3 million of 38 million Afghans have suffered the same fate.) Report co-author David Vine told Democracy Now! on September 11 that “beyond displacing” between 37 million and “perhaps up to 59 million people, these wars have taken the lives of around 800,000 people. And this is just in five of the wars: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen…”

And behind the mountains of money – and lakes of blood – generated by modern conventional combat, an even darker Cloud looms, the “unimaginable disaster” of nuclear war. Eight days after 9/11, the Kyodo news service quoted “diplomatic sources” confirming speculation the Pentagon was considering the use of ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons in Afghanistan, a step publicly urged on September 14 in a Washington Times op-ed by Thomas Woodrow, a recently retired senior official at the Defense Intelligence Agency. “The use of nuclear weapons against the bin Laden groups and his supporters,” Woodrow argued –

…will rightly shock the world, but it will also shock those nations that have been disposed for a variety of reasons to back the terrorist groups with economic and political support.

Though the administration chose not to ‘go nuclear,’ it also sought more options to do so, unsuccessfully requesting funding for new ‘mini-nukes’ (up to 5 kilotons, or a mere third of the Hiroshima Bomb) including a ‘bunker-busting’ Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP). And – as it had been planning prior to 9/11 – it pulled out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, severely limiting missile defenses in order to remove any temptation to strike first and ‘win’ a nuclear exchange. The Treaty was the cornerstone of an extensive arms control regime with Russia, and since its demise that ‘architecture’ has collapsed to a single agreement, New START, capping strategic nuclear warheads at 1,550 each side, due to expire in 2026.

The day before 9/11, the ABM Treaty was stoutly defended by the Democratic Senator from Delaware, Joe Biden, who pleaded:

Let’s not now raise the starting gun on a new arms race…sure to make my children and my grandchildren feel less secure than we feel today. Let’s stop this nonsense before we end up pulling the trigger.

Was America, he wondered, really:

…willing to end four decades of arms control agreements to go it alone, a kind of bully nation, ready to make unilateral decisions in what we perceive to be our self-interest, and the hell with our treaties, our commitments to the world?

At no point in its history, of course, was America more a ‘bully nation’ than when it ‘pulled the trigger’ on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and on 29 June 2002 – the moment “the number of innocent civilian victims killed collaterally in Afghanistan by the US bombardments” equaled “the number killed in the attack on the Twin Towers” – author John Berger dared claim that the “US nuclear attack on Hiroshima paved the way for September 11 and its aftermath.”

Attack on World Trade Centre, NYC, 11 September 2001

Unattributed photo from 11 September 2001 via Wikimedia Commons.

Certainly the ‘logic’ behind what Berger called “the first fireball” was not just to punish the Japanese but signal to the Soviet Union a ‘choice’ made senseless by the Bomb itself: to be dominant rather than dominated, destructive to avoid destruction, a literally atrocious Ground Zero Sum game that others can play too.

But surely no development since 9/11 has more thoroughly exposed the folly of seeking national security through military superiority than the Coronavirus pandemic. What authentic, human security would $6.4 trillion have purchased America, a Superpower without a national health service and gravely disfigured by poverty, bigotry and inequity? Post-pandemic, President Biden has a chance to close the sordid parenthesis that opened on that halcyon morning, and ‘raise the starting gun’ on a new American revolution: from a war-addicted menace to an anti-war state.

Featured image includes photo by US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sara Eshleman of Lieutenant Natasha McClinton, surgical nurse, preparing a patient for a procedure in the intensive care unit aboard the U.S. the hospital ship USNS Comfort. New York, April 2020.


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.