How Constant War Became the American
Way of Life
By David Bromwich, Tomdispatch.com
www.alternet.org/, July 22, 2009
Younger generations of Americans are now
being taught to expect no end of war -- and no end of wars. It
wasn't always like that.
On July 16, in a speech to the Economic
Club of Chicago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that the
"central question" for the defense of the United States
was how the military should be "organized, equipped -- and
funded -- in the years ahead, to win the wars we are in while
being prepared for threats on or beyond the horizon." The
phrase beyond the horizon ought to sound ominous. Was Gates telling
his audience of civic-minded business leaders to spend more money
on defense in order to counter threats whose very existence no
one could answer for? Given the public acceptance of American
militarism, he could speak in the knowledge that the awkward challenge
would never be posed.
We have begun to talk casually about our
wars; and this should be surprising for several reasons. To begin
with, in the history of the United States war has never been considered
the normal state of things. For two centuries, Americans were
taught to think war itself an aberration, and "wars"
in the plural could only have seemed doubly aberrant. Younger
generations of Americans, however, are now being taught to expect
no end of war -- and no end of wars.
For anyone born during World War II, or
in the early years of the Cold War, the hope of international
progress toward the reduction of armed conflict remains a palpable
memory. After all, the menace of the Axis powers, whose state
apparatus was fed by wars, had been stopped definitively by the
concerted action of Soviet Russia, Great Britain, and the United
States. The founding of the United Nations extended a larger hope
for a general peace. Organizations like the Committee for a Sane
Nuclear Policy (SANE) and the Union of Concerned Scientists reminded
people in the West, as well as in the Communist bloc, of a truth
that everyone knew already: the world had to advance beyond war.
The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut called this brief interval
"the Second Enlightenment" partly because of the unity
of desire for a world at peace. And the name Second Enlightenment
is far from absurd. The years after the worst of wars were marked
by a sentiment of universal disgust with the very idea of war.
In the 1950s, the only possible war between
the great powers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, would have been
a nuclear war; and the horror of assured destruction was so monstrous,
the prospect of the aftermath so unforgivable, that the only alternative
appeared to be a design for peace. John F. Kennedy saw this plainly
when he pressed for ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
-- the greatest achievement of his administration.
He signed it on October 7, 1963, six weeks
before he was killed, and it marked the first great step away
from war in a generation. Who could have predicted that the next
step would take 23 years, until the imagination of Ronald Reagan
took fire from the imagination of Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik?
The delay after Reykjavik has now lasted almost another quarter-century;
and though Barack Obama speaks the language of progress, it is
not yet clear whether he has the courage of Kennedy or the imagination
of Gorbachev and Reagan.
In the twentieth century, as in the nineteenth,
smaller wars have "locked in" a mentality for wars that
last a decade or longer. The Korean War put Americans in the necessary
state of fear to permit the conduct of the Cold War -- one of
whose shibboleths, the identification of the island of Formosa
as the real China, was developed by the pro-war lobby around the
Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. Yet the Korean War
took place in some measure under U.N. auspices, and neither it
nor the Vietnam War, fierce and destructive as they were, altered
the view that war as such was a relic of the barbarous past.
Vietnam was the by-product of a "containment"
policy against the Soviet Union that spun out of control: a small
counterinsurgency that grew to the scale of almost unlimited war.
Even so, persistent talk of peace -- of a kind we do not hear
these days -- formed a counterpoint to the last six years of Vietnam,
and there was never a suggestion that another such war would naturally
follow because we had enemies everywhere on the planet and the
way you dealt with enemies was to invade and bomb.
America's failure of moral awareness when
it came to Vietnam had little to do with an enchantment with war
as such. In a sense the opposite was true. The failure lay, in
large part, in a tendency to treat the war as a singular "nightmare,"
beyond the reach of history; something that happened to us, not
something we did. A belief was shared by opponents and supporters
of the war that nothing like this must ever be allowed to happen
to us again.
So the lesson of Vietnam came to be: never
start a war without knowing what you want to accomplish and when
you intend to leave. Colin Powell gave his name to the new doctrine;
and by converting the violence of any war into a cost-benefit
equation, he helped to erase the consciousness of the evil we
had done in Vietnam. Powell's symptomatic and oddly heartless
warning to George W. Bush about invading Iraq -- "You break
it, you own it" -- expresses the military pragmatism of this
state of mind.
For more than a generation now, two illusions
have dominated American thinking about Vietnam. On the right,
there has been the idea that we "fought with one hand tied
behind our back." (In fact the only weapons the U.S. did
not use in Indochina were nuclear.) Within the liberal establishment,
on the other hand, a lone-assassin theory is preferred: as with
the Iraq War, where the blame is placed on Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld, so with Vietnam the culprit of choice has become
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
This convenient narrowing of the responsibility
for Vietnam became, if anything, more pronounced after the death
of McNamara on July 6th. Even an honest and unsparing obituary
like Tim Weiner's in the New York Times peeled away from the central
story relevant actors like Secretary of State Dean Rusk and General
William Westmoreland. Meanwhile, President Richard Nixon and his
National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger seem to have dematerialized
entirely -- as if they did nothing more than "inherit"
the war. The truth is that Kissinger and Nixon extended the Vietnam
War and compounded its crimes. One need only recall the transmission
of a startling presidential command in a phone call by Kissinger
to his deputy Alexander Haig. The U.S. would commence, said Kissinger,
"a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia [using] anything
that flies on anything that moves."
No more than Iraq was Vietnam a war with
a single architect or in the interest of a single party. The whole
American political establishment -- and for as long as possible,
the public culture as well -- rallied to the war and questioned
the loyalty of its opponents and resisters. Public opinion was
asked to admire, and did not fail to support, the Vietnam War
through five years under President Lyndon Johnson; and Nixon,
elected in 1968 on a promise to end it with honor, was not held
to account when he carried it beyond his first term and added
an atrocious auxiliary war in Cambodia.
Yet ever since Senator Joe McCarthy accused
the Democrats of "twenty years of treason" -- the charge
that, under presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman,
the U.S. had lost a war against Communist agents at home we did
not even realize we were fighting -- it has become a folk truth
of American politics that the Republican Party is the party that
knows about wars: how to bring them on and how to end them.
Practically, this means that Democrats
must be at pains to show themselves more willing to fight than
they may feel is either prudent or just. As the legacy of Lyndon
Johnson and Bill Clinton attests, and as the first half year of
Obama has confirmed, Democratic presidents feel obliged either
to start or to widen wars in order to prove themselves worthy
of every kind of trust. Obama indicated his grasp of the logic
of the Democratic candidate in time of war as early as the primary
campaign of 2007, when he assured the military and political establishments
that withdrawal from Iraq would be compensated for by a larger
war in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
We are now close to codifying a pattern
by which a new president is expected never to give up one war
without taking on another.
From Humanitarian Intervention to Wars
Our confidence that our selection of wars
will be warranted and our killings pardoned by the relevant beneficiaries
comes chiefly from the popular idea of what happened in Kosovo.
Yet the eleven weeks of NATO bombings from March through June
1999 -- an apparent exertion of humanity (in which not a single
plane was shot down) in the cause of a beleaguered people -- was
also a test of strategy and weapons.
Kosovo, in this sense, was a larger specimen
of the sort of test war launched in 1983 by Ronald Reagan in Grenada
(where an invasion ostensibly to protect resident Americans also
served as aggressive cover for the president's retreat from Lebanon),
and in 1989 by George H.W. Bush in Panama (where an attack on
an unpopular dictator served as a trial run for the weapons and
propaganda of the First Gulf War a year later). The NATO attack
on the former Yugoslavia in defense of Kosovo was also a public
war -- legal, happy, and just, as far as the mainstream media
could see -- a war, indeed, organized in the open and waged with
a glow of conscience. The goodness of the bombing was radiant
on the face of Tony Blair. It was Kosovo more than any other engagement
of the past 50 years that prepared an American military-political
consensus in favor of serial wars against transnational enemies
of whatever sort.
An antidote to the humanitarian legend
of the Kosovo war has been offered in a recent article by David
Gibbs, drawn from his book First Do No Harm. Gibbs shows that
it was not the Serbs but the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) that,
in 1998, broke the terms of the peace agreement negotiated by
Richard Holbrooke and thus made a war inevitable. Nor was it unreasonable
for Serbia later to object to the American and European demand
that NATO peacekeepers enjoy "unrestricted passage and unimpeded
access" throughout Yugoslavia -- in effect, that it consent
to be an occupied country.
Americans were told that the Serbs in
that war were oppressors while Albanians were victims: a mythology
that bears a strong resemblance to later American reports of the
guilty Sunnis and innocent Shiites of Iraq. But the KLA, Gibbs
recounts, "had a record of viciousness and racism that differed
little from that of [Serbian leader Slobodan] Milosevic's forces."
And far from preventing mass killings, the "surgical strikes"
by NATO only increased them. The total number killed on both sides
before the war was about 2,000. After the bombing and in revenge
for it, about 10,000 people were killed by Serb security forces.
Thus, the more closely one inquires the less tenable Kosovo seems
as a precedent for future humanitarian interventions.
Clinton and Kosovo rather than Bush and
Iraq opened the period we are now living in. Behind the legitimation
of both wars, however, lies a broad ideological investment in
the idea of "just wars" -- chiefly, in practice, wars
fought by the commercial democracies in the name of democracy,
to advance their own interests without an unseemly overbalance
of conspicuous selfishness. Michael Ignatieff, a just-war theorist
who supported both the Kosovo and Iraq wars, published an influential
article on the invasion of Iraq, "The American Empire: The
Burden," in New York Times Magazine on January 5, 2003, only
weeks before the onset of "shock and awe." Ignatieff
asked whether the American people were generous enough to fight
the war our president intended to start against Iraq. For this
was, he wrote,
"a defining moment in America's long
debate with itself about whether its overseas role as an empire
threatens or strengthens its existence as a republic. The American
electorate, while still supporting the president, wonders whether
his proclamation of a war without end against terrorists and tyrants
may only increase its vulnerability while endangering its liberties
and its economic health at home. A nation that rarely counts the
cost of what it really values now must ask what the 'liberation'
of Iraq is worth."
A Canadian living in the U.S., Ignatieff
went on to endorse the war as a matter of American civic duty,
with an indulgent irony for its opponents:
"Regime change is an imperial task
par excellence, since it assumes that the empire's interest has
a right to trump the sovereignty of a state... Regime change also
raises the difficult question for Americans of whether their own
freedom entails a duty to defend the freedom of others beyond
their borders... Yet it remains a fact -- as disagreeable to those
left wingers who regard American imperialism as the root of all
evil as it is to the right-wing isolationists, who believe that
the world beyond our shores is none of our business -- that there
are many peoples who owe their freedom to an exercise of American
military power... There are the Bosnians, whose nation survived
because American air power and diplomacy forced an end to a war
the Europeans couldn't stop. There are the Kosovars, who would
still be imprisoned in Serbia if not for Gen. Wesley Clark and
the Air Force. The list of people whose freedom depends on American
air and ground power also includes the Afghans and, most inconveniently
of all, the Iraqis."
And why stop there? To Ignatieff, the
example of Kosovo was central and persuasive. The people who could
not see the point were "those left wingers" and "isolationists."
By contrast, the strategists and soldiers willing to bear the
"burden" of empire were not only the party of the far-seeing
and the humane, they were also the realists, those who knew that
nothing good can come without a cost -- and that nothing so marks
a people for greatness as a succession of triumphs in a series
of just wars.
The Wars Beyond the Horizon
Couple the casualty-free air war that
NATO conducted over Yugoslavia with the Powell doctrine of multiple
wars and safe exits, and you arrive somewhere close to the terrain
of the Af-Pak war of the present moment. A war in one country
may now cross the border into a second with hardly a pause for
public discussion or a missed step in appropriations. When wars
were regarded as, at best, a necessary evil, one asked about a
given war whether it was strictly necessary. Now that wars are
a way of life, one asks rather how strong a foothold a war plants
in its region as we prepare for the war to follow.
A new-modeled usage has been brought into
English to ease the change of view. In the language of think-tank
papers and journalistic profiles over the past two years, one
finds a strange conceit beginning to be presented as matter-of-fact:
namely the plausibility of the U.S. mapping with forethought a
string of wars. Robert Gates put the latest thinking into conventional
form, once again, on 60 Minutes in May. Speaking of the Pentagon's
need to focus on the war in Afghanistan, Gates said: "I wanted
a department that frankly could walk and chew gum at the same
time, that could wage war as we are doing now, at the same time
we plan and prepare for tomorrow's wars."
The weird prospect that this usage --
"tomorrow's wars" -- renders routine is that we anticipate
a good many wars in the near future. We are the ascendant democracy,
the exceptional nation in the world of nations. To fight wars
is our destiny and our duty. Thus the word "wars" --
increasingly in the plural -- is becoming the common way we identify
not just the wars we are fighting now but all the wars we expect
A striking instance of journalistic adaptation
to the new language appeared in Elisabeth Bumiller's recent New
York Times profile of a key policymaker in the Obama administration,
Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy. Unlike
her best-known predecessor in that position, Douglas Feith --
a neoconservative evangelist for war who defined out of existence
the rights of prisoners-of-war -- Flournoy is not an ideologue.
The article celebrates that fact. But how much comfort should
we take from the knowledge that a calm careerist today naturally
inclines to a plural acceptance of "our wars"? Flournoy's
job, writes Bumiller,
"boils down to this: assess the threats
against the United States, propose the strategy to counter them,
then put it into effect by allocating resources within the four
branches of the armed services. A major question for the Q.D.R.
[Quadrennial Defense Review], as it is called within the Pentagon,
is how to balance preparations for future counterinsurgency wars,
like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, with plans for conventional
conflicts against well-equipped potential adversaries, like North
Korea, China or Iran.
"Another quandary, given that the
wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan have lasted far longer than
the American involvement in World War II, is how to prepare for
conflicts that could tie up American forces for decades."
Notice the progression of the nouns in
this passage: threats, wars, conflicts, decades. Our choice of
wars for a century may be varied with as much cunning as our choice
of cars once was. The article goes on to admire the coolness of
Flournoy's manner in an idiom of aesthetic appreciation:
"Already Ms. Flournoy is a driving
force behind a new military strategy that will be a central premise
of the Q.D.R., the concept of 'hybrid' war, which envisions the
conflicts of tomorrow as a complex mix of conventional battles,
insurgencies and cyber threats. 'We're trying to recognize that
warfare may come in a lot of different flavors in the future,'
Ms. Flournoy said."
Between the reporter's description of
a "complex mix" and the planner's talk of "a lot
of different flavors," it is hard to know whether we are
sitting in a bunker or at the kitchen table. But that is the point.
We are coming to look on our wars as a trial of ingenuity and
an exercise of taste.
Why the Constitution Says Little About
A very different view of war was taken
by America's founders. One of their steadiest hopes -- manifest
in the scores of pamphlets they wrote against the British Empire
and the checks against war powers built into the Constitution
itself -- was that a democracy like the United States would lead
irresistibly away from the conduct of wars. They supposed that
wars were an affair of kings, waged in the interest of aggrandizement,
and also an affair of the hereditary landed aristocracy in the
interest of augmented privilege and unaccountable wealth. In no
respect could wars ever serve the interest of the people. Machiavelli,
an analyst of power whom the founders read with care, had noticed
that "the people desire to be neither commanded nor oppressed,"
whereas "the powerful desire to command and oppress."
Only an appetite for command and oppression could lead someone
to adopt an ethic of continuous wars.
In the third of the Federalist Papers,
written to persuade the former colonists to ratify the Constitution,
John Jay argued that, in the absence of a constitutional union,
the multiplication of states would have the same unhappy effect
as a proliferation of hostile countries. One cause of the wars
of Europe in the eighteenth century, as the founders saw it, had
been the sheer number of states, each with its own separate selfish
appetites; so, too, in America, the states, as they increased
in number, would draw external jealousies and heighten the divisions
among themselves. "The Union," wrote Jay, "tends
most to preserve the people in a state of peace with other nations."
A democratic and constitutional union,
he went on to say in Federalist 4, would act more wisely than
absolute monarchs in the knowledge that "there are pretended
as well as just causes of war." Among the pretended causes
favored by the monarchs of Europe, Jay numbered:
"a thirst for military glory, revenge
for personal affronts; ambition or private compacts to aggrandize
or support their particular families, or partisans. These and
a variety of motives, which affect only the mind of the Sovereign,
often lead him to engage in wars not sanctified by justice, or
the voice and interests of his people."
When, thought Jay, the people are shorn
of their slavish dependence, so that they no longer look to a
sovereign outside themselves and count themselves as "his
people," the motives for war will be proportionately weakened.
This was not a passing theme for the Federalist
writers. Alexander Hamilton took it up again in Federalist 6,
when he spoke of "the causes of hostility among nations,"
and ranked above all other causes "the love of power or the
desire of preeminence and dominion": the desire, in short,
to sustain a reputation as the first of powers and to control
an empire. Pursuing, in Federalist 7, the same subject of insurance
against "the wars that have desolated the earth," Hamilton
proposed that the federal government could serve as an impartial
umpire in the Western territory, which might otherwise become
"an ample theatre for hostile pretensions."
Consider the prominence of these views.
Four of the first seven Federalist Papers offer, as a prime reason
for the founding of the United States, the belief that, by doing
so, America will more easily avert the infection of the multiple
wars that have desolated Europe. This was the implicit consensus
of the founders. Not only Jay and Hamilton, but also George Washington
in his Farewell Address, and James Madison and Benjamin Franklin,
and John Adams as well as John Quincy Adams. It was so much part
of the idealism that swept the country in the 1780s that Thomas
Paine could allude to the sentiment in a passing sentence of The
Rights of Man. Paine there asserted what Jay and Hamilton in the
Federalist Papers took for granted: "Europe is too thickly
planted with kingdoms to be long at peace."
Have we now grown too used to the employment
of our army, navy, and air force to be long at peace, or even
to contemplate peace? To speak of a perpetual war against "threats"
beyond the horizon, as the Bush Pentagon did, and now the Obama
Pentagon does, is to evade the question whether any of the wars
is, properly speaking, a war of self-defense.
At the bottom of that evasion lies the
idea of the United States as a nation destined for serial wars.
The very idea suggests that we now have a need for an enemy at
all times that exceeds the citable evidence of danger at any given
time. In The Sorrows of Empire, Chalmers Johnson gave a convincing
account of the economic rationale of the American national security
state, its industrial and military base, and its manufacturing
It is not only the vast extent and power
of our standing army that stares down every motion toward reform.
Nor is the cause entirely traceable to our pursuit of refined
weapons and lethal technology, or the military bases with which
the U.S. has encircled the globe, or the financial interests,
the Halliburtons and Raytheons, the DynCorps and Blackwaters that
combine against peace with demands in excess of the British East
India Company at the height of its influence. There is a deeper
puzzle in the relationship of the military itself to the rest
of American society. For the American military now encompasses
an officer class with the character and privileges of a native
aristocracy, and a rank-and-file for whom the best possibilities
of socialism have been realized.
Barack Obama has compared the change he
aims to accomplish in foreign policy to the turning of a very
large ship at sea. The truth is that, in Obama's hands, "force
projection" by the U.S. has turned already, but in more than
one direction. He has set internal rhetorical limits on our provocations
to war by declining to speak, as his predecessor did, of the spread
of democracy by force or the feasibility of regime change as a
remedy for grievances against hostile countries. And yet we may
be certain that none of the wars the new undersecretary of defense
for policy is preparing will be a war of pure self-defense --
the only kind of war the American founders would have countenanced.
None of the current plans, to judge by Bumiller's article, is
aimed at guarding the U.S. against a power that could overwhelm
us at home. To find such a power, we would have to search far
beyond the horizon.
The future wars of choice for the Defense
Department appear to be wars of heavy bombing and light-to-medium
occupation. The weapons will be drones in the sky and the soldiers
will be, as far as possible, special forces operatives charged
with executing "black ops" from village to village and
tribe to tribe. It seems improbable that such wars -- which will
require free passage over sovereign states for the Army, Marines,
and Air Force, and the suppression of native resistance to occupation
-- can long be pursued without de facto reliance on regime change.
Only a puppet government can be thoroughly trusted to act against
its own people in support of a foreign power.
Such are the wars designed and fought
today in the name of American safety and security. They embody
a policy altogether opposed to an idealism of liberty that persisted
from the founding of the U.S. far into the twentieth century.
It is easy to dismiss the contrast that Washington, Paine, and
others drew between the morals of a republic and the appetites
of an empire. Yet the point of that contrast was simple, literal,
and in no way elusive. It captured a permanent truth about citizenship
in a democracy. You cannot, it said, continue a free people while
accepting the fruits of conquest and domination. The passive beneficiaries
of masters are also slaves.
David Bromwich, the editor of a selection of Edmund Burke's speeches,
On Empire, Liberty, and Reform, has written on the Constitution
and America's wars for The New York Review of Books and The Huffington
War and Peace page