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How Serial War Became the American Way of Life

Tracing the war-making culture of the American empire.

| Tue Jul. 21, 2009 5:43 PM EDT

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.

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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.

Forgetting Vietnam

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 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 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.

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