Tuesday 21 July 2009
The remains of a soldier are transferred at
On July 16, in a speech to the Economic Club of
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
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
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
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
So the lesson of
For more than a generation now, two illusions have dominated American thinking about
This convenient narrowing of the responsibility for
No more than
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 of Choice
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
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
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
"a defining moment in
A Canadian living in the
"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
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
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 to fight.
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
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 Wars
A very different view of war was taken by
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
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
"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,"
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
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
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
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
David Bromwich, the editor of a selection of Edmund Burke's speeches, On Empire, Liberty, and Reform, has written on the Constitution and
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs