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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

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 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 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 Wars

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 outworks.

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 to be 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 Post.

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