“We’re a nation at war”

Madison: Permanent war marks the end of democracy

W.J. Astore

Last week, Army General Raymond “Tony” Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), expressed his dismay about the Trump administration. “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil,” Thomas opined.  “I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war.”

What does that mean, we’re a nation at war?  Many will think that a dumb question, but is it?  Sure, we have roughly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, and that war isn’t over.  Sure, the U.S. is still helping Iraqi forces (notably in Mosul) against ISIS and related terrorist groups. Yes, the U.S. and NATO (joined by Russia?) are seeking to corral and eventually to end ISIS and “radical Islamic extremism/terrorism.”  But do these efforts constitute a world war, like World Wars I and II?

It doesn’t feel like a war — not in the USA, at least.  Congress has made no formal declaration of war.  Few Americans are sacrificing (of course, the troops in harm’s way are). There’s no rationing.  No tax increases to pay for the war.  No national mobilization of resources.  No draft.  No change in lifestyles or priorities. Nothing.  Most Americans go about their lives oblivious to the “war” and its progress (or lack thereof).

Here’s my point. Terrorism, whether radical Islamist or White supremacist or whatever variety, will always be with us.  Yes, it must be fought, and in a variety of ways.  Police action is one of them.  Political and social changes, i.e. reforms, are another.  Intelligence gathering.  Occasionally, military action is warranted.  But to elevate terrorism to an existential threat is to feed the terrorists.  “War” is what they want; they feed on that rhetoric of violence, a rhetoric that elevates their (self)-importance.  Why feed them?

Another aspect of this: a war on terrorism is essentially a permanent war, since you’ll never get rid of all terrorists.  And permanent war is perhaps the greatest enemy of democracy — and a powerful enabler of autocrats. James Madison saw this as clearly as anyone:

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.  War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.  In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.  The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …

After reading Madison, does anyone dedicated to democracy really want to be “at war” for, well, generations?  Forever?

Of course, there’s another aspect to General Thomas’s critique that must be mentioned, and that’s his audacity in criticizing the government (and, by extension, his commander-in-chief) for not having its act together in “the war.”  Generals are supposed to fight wars, not critique in public the government they serve.

War rhetoric doesn’t just inspire terrorists and empower autocrats while weakening democracy: It also emboldens generals.  They begin to think that, if the nation is at war, they should have a powerful role in making sure it runs well, until the state becomes an apparatus of the military (as it did in Germany during World War I, when Field Marshal Hindenburg and General Ludendorff ran Germany from 1916 to its collapse in November 1918).  The Trump administration has already put (long-serving and recently retired) generals at the helm of defense, homeland security, and the National Security Council. Remember the days when civilians filled these positions?

One more point: If the U.S. is now “a nation at war,” when, do tell, will we return to being a nation at peace?  If the answer is, “When the last terrorist is eliminated,” say goodbye right now to what’s left of American democracy.

15 thoughts on ““We’re a nation at war”

  1. Andrew Basevich, a retired Army colonel and professor at Boston University, addressed this issue in “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.” He traces this deep and widening chasm between the military and civilians starting with the Vietnam War where he served as an infantry captain. The democratic ideal of the citizen/soldier became another casualty of that war. And since Richard Nixon replaced the draft with a lottery that has evolved into the volunteer armed forces, the country essentially has “a foreign legion” which is augmented by private contractors such as Blackwater, a privatized army, to prosecute our wars. The debt for these wars have not been financed by any tax increase on the citizens – even LBJ finally caved into Congressional pressure and signed into a law a surcharge to defer costs for the Vietnam War – and expenditures for these wars have added greatly to the bloated national debt. But these wars have filled the corporate coffers of these private armies and of course the arms merchants in the military/industrial complex who supply the nation with war materiel. The baby boomers who hold the reins of power have kicked the can down the road for fighting these wars. The presidents in the global war on terror, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump, essentially have had their own personal credit card as commanders-in-chief that has been issued in the name of the American taxpayers. This has allowed the nation to wage permanent war on the cheap. This cannot be sustained and will eventually cause a financial crisis and perhaps even a constitutional one as soldiers become more divorced from the people. Lawrence WIlkerson, also a retired Army colonel and chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, has predicted in lectures our armed forces will probably be modeled on the French Foreign Legion. Citizenship will be optional and even used as an inducement to attract recruits. As American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq have joked, they fight the wars while Americans shop at the malls. ( 20% off selected items, shoppers, during our upcoming Veterans Day Sale.) Basevich also notes civilians “have no skin in the game.” And if one employs the football analogy to war, which Ernest Hemingway cynically used in interviews when he became famous as a literary warrior, civilians are sitting in the bleachers. Some are cheering the football team on: others are protesting there shouldn’t even be a game. But the real drama, of loss, shared sacrifice and pain, is down on the playing field. We have become a nation of spectators. Obama embraced and expanded Bush’s drone warfare, which is the ultimate video game for a nation of spectators. I call it “the boys with toys syndrome.” Sooner or later in our future, I think much sooner, there will unfortunately be a crossing of the Rubicon. We almost did in the Mekong Delta as I remember it. Senator Frank Church stopped us in midstream and forced us back to the river bank. After all, the presidents mentioned in this piece acted and one is acting essentially as constitutional dictators in their roles as commanders-in-chief. And LBJ and Richard Nixon merely were standard bearers as imperial presidents during the Vietnam War upon which they have improved the paradigm. So it seems Army General Raymond “Tony” (The Tiger?) Thomas has taken a bit of a cheap shot at President Trump and he has forgotten about the previous commanders-in-chief. They have been captains on our ship of state but it has zigged and zagged and hit shoal after shoal in these various and sundry wars. Think Captain Ahab on the Pequod chasing Moby Dick. But Ahab and his crew, who have already dropped some tabs of acid, in their pursuit of that elusive white whale. That’s one trippy ship of state. In fact, Trump demonstrated with that blotched raid in Yemen, a historical continuity between these three administrations. If I could talk to General Thomas, I would march up to him, salute and say, “Sir! Denial’s more than a river in Egypt! Thank you, Sir!” I doubt he would be amused. But the brass never did have a good sense as I remember.


  2. An obvious way for the US state to reduce “radical Islamic extremism/terrorism” is to stop supporting it. A state that sells vast quantities of weapons to Saudi Arabia and helps its brutal secret police to spy has no credibility in its attempts to combat “radical Islamic extremism/terrorism.” The US state might also try not training people like Abu Omar al-Shishani.

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  3. “War rhetoric” isn’t the only thing that “inspires” terrorists…so does hard cash. Talk about “feeding” them.


  4. There’s a telling article at The Intercept on the perpetual war rhetoric being used here:

    “We’re making similar strides in transforming a conflict that was 90 percent political, where there can be compromise, into a religious conflict where there can’t.

    This can be seen, on the one hand, in ISIS propaganda. Bin Laden generally just talked about kicking the U.S. out of the Middle East and said things like, “Your security is in your own hands and each state which does not harm our security will remain safe.” The ISIS magazine Dabiq cheerfully tells us that “We hate you, first and foremost, because you are disbelievers; you reject the oneness of Allah … even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam.”

    On the other hand, Donald Trump is president of the United States and Steve Bannon is his chief strategist. Bannon straightforwardly believes, as he told a conference at the Vatican in 2014, that “we’re in a war of immense proportions” that’s part of the “long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam.” To win, Bannon says, we must form the “church militant” – an archaic term for the “Christian church on earth regarded as engaged in a constant warfare against its enemies, the powers of evil.”

    So it’s quite possible ISIS and the Trump administration can successfully collaborate on getting what they both want: a totally unnecessary, civilizational war. To stop them we have to end our truckling equivocation about terrorism, and start telling the truth while there’s still time.”


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    1. William.

      I’m with Bannon on this one. Since its inception, Islam has been at war with every other religion. Therefore, as the 7th Century did not escape, neither will the 21st.

      Very likely, had Muslim armies not been turned back at Tours, France, in 732, we would all be praising allah and hunting down apostates so we could kill them. Professor Google knows a lot about Islam as a so called religion of peace.


      1. Walt: Yes, Islam has its issues. So too does Christianity. My Catholic church has a lot to answer for. The Inquisition wasn’t very nice. All those wars against Protestants. And let’s not forget wars within Protestantism. Heck, a lot of the original colonists here in America were fleeing religious persecution (or prejudice), which many promptly inflicted on “heretics” here (and the colonists tended to see the Natives as the devil’s spawn, which made it far easier to kill them).

        Most Muslims, and indeed most Christians, just want to live their lives. It’s the violent extremists of the world we need to watch out for, no matter their creed or position or color or whatever.


    2. Yes, I subscribe to The Intercept. It’s a great website. The late Gore Vidal, whom I miss because he had such a wicked sense of humor, said in the latter part of his career a phrase that has become a rallying cry not only on the left but now more and more on the right, the isolationist right that is: “perpetual war for perpetual peace.” I think it was the famous historian Charles Beard who coined the phrase. It’s perfect for the Orwellian era we are living through. Niall Ferguson has incorporated into his lectures another observation Vidal was always lamenting about in his interviews and essays, “I live in the United States of Amnesia.” Vidal meant of course our fearless leaders who forget the painful lessons of history are condemned to repeat them again. Ferguson brought up Vidal’s cry of the heart in a discussion that the forgotten lessons of the Vietnam War that were repeated in the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
      On that last paragraph you wrote, President Donald Trump and his adviser Stephen K Bannon got a lot of flak about packing his cabinet with retired generals. But I thought it was obvious that they are lining their ducks up in a row for the coming “totally unnecessary, civilizational war” you mentioned. Bannon apparently subscribes to Samuel Huntington “clash of civilizations” trope. And the choice of Retired General James “Mad Dog” Mattis for defense secretary was right on the money from Trump’s point of view. That’s just the kind of warrior Trump would need to advise him on this coming clash and help to prosecute it. One last point, which brings up Vidal again, the firebrand. He wrote an essay in which he though Russian and the United States would band because they are only two superpowers with the necessary arsenals among white people in the European West who are can push back with force against this demographic tsunami of yellow people in China. He was of course wildly condemned even by leftists. But it’s just a skip and a jump to include all those brown-colored jihadists into that kind of thinking. I read Bannon’s speech that he gave at the Vatican. He’s not a cynic. He really believes in the coming apocalypse against the barbarian horde of Islamic fascists such as ISIS to save our Judeo-Christian civilization and heritage. He believes we’ve already lost Europe to this invading hordes who will eventually change the judicial system with Sharia law. The guy’s for real. He wrote that famous phrase in Trump’s speech about “the American carnage stops here.” Richard Hofstadter called it ” the paranoid style in American politics” which has a deep undercurrent in our society. You don’t have to look to Hitler or Mussolini as historical avatars for the Trump revolution. It’s in the American grain. This fear of the Other and has been since we committed genocide against native Americans when we were colonists.


      1. I, too, miss the late great Gore Vidal. What an insightful and wicked wit. To help preserve my sanity, I carry around with me in memory two quotes of his in particular:

        (1) “America has only one political party, the Property Party, and it has two right wings.”

        (2) “Americans are among the most easily frightened people on earth.”

        Yes, I think that about covers the United States of Amnesia, a post-literate island of contintental dimensions that I like to think of as The Land that Forgot Time. History happens to other lands and peoples. “Reality” (i.e., fantasy) TV happens to Americans, both at home (for those who have one) and in our nation’s capital. But as they say in the entertainment industry: “The Show Must Go On.” And so it does …


      2. “You don’t have to look to Hitler or Mussolini as historical avatars for the Trump revolution. It’s in the American grain.”

        Spot on. Thanks.


      3. Bless his bleeping heart, Huntington also said this gem: “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion […] but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”

        ― Samuel P. Huntington,

        And, for a visual confirmation I’d add this memorial postage stamp from France celebrating another step in the advancement of western civilization: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/5c/17/b6/5c17b6b03346d4e79ee546bc8c6d5b27.jpg


    3. William.

      Find the mandate to kill nonbelievers and apostates in the Gospels and I’ll accept your Islam-Christianity moral equivalency. Don’t blame Christ for the travesties of supposed Christians, however, do blame the ruthless dictates of recorded Islam for what we now see.


      1. Hi Walt: I don’t think I have to “find the mandate.” The point is that so-called Christians HAVE found this mandate, at least to their own satisfaction, as history shows.

        It’s very easy to get selective with history. Muslims have often been less violent than Christians across the centuries. The Ottoman Empire, for example, was a sanctuary for Spanish Jews during the Inquisition. Islam fostered science a millennium ago when Europe was a comparative backwater. In those days, Muslims treated Christians and Jews as “People of the Book” and normally didn’t persecute them.

        My point here is that religious belief/allegiance isn’t everything. It changes based on context, and is obviously open to manipulation by powerful forces, hence those Crusades supported by the Pope beginning in the 11th century. Even jihad, as a concept, is supposed to represent more of a struggle for individual purity (the “greater” jihad), rather than violence against the infidel (the “lesser” jihad).

        If we make Islam into the enemy, we make more than a billion people our foes. Whatever else this is, it’s very bad strategy.


  5. “We are a nation at war”?

    That depends on whom, and what, one means by “we,” “nation,” and “at war.”

    For a long time, I have thought that George Orwell’s three famous slogans of The Party: namely “Ignorance is Strength,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “War is Peace,” needed the addition of a fourth, courtesy of the U.S. military and its unsurpassed record of failure at fighting, not just since 1945, but especially since 2001. It seems that I waited too long to compose my own essay on the subject, but I note with great satisfaction that ex-patriate Russian engineer, Dmitry Orlov, has beaten me to it with an impressive — and tragically farcical — essay upon which I could not possibly improve. See: Defeat is Victory, Club Orlov (Tuesday, January 19, 2016).

    Leaving aside for the moment what the words “we” and “nation” might mean when employed by U.S. generals to demand more and more of everything in return for less and less of anything resembling achievement — you know, that ever-elusive “victory” thing — I came upon another discussion relevant to the topic. See: Bacevich and Mearsheimer on U.S. Policy in the Middle East – A joint interview with professors Andrew Bacevich and John Mearsheimer, by Derek Davison, LobeLog (January 18, 2017). A few excerpts:

    JM: What I find most striking, given all of our policy failures—at least since 2001—is that there’s hardly any interest in changing what we are doing among people in the foreign policy establishment. You would think that after all of the disasters, people would want to go back to the drawing board and rethink the assumptions that have been guiding U.S. policy, especially in the Middle East. [empahsis added]

    AB: In many respects, from their perspective, they’re not failures. It works for them. If you’re concerned about maintaining the status of the dominance of the United States military, if you’re concerned about maintaining very high levels of U.S. military spending, then things haven’t necessarily gone all that badly since 2001. The implacable determination of the national security bureaucracy to sustain itself poses a tremendous obstacle to even moderately fresh thinking.[empahsis added]

    JM: I think you’re correct, but just to be clear, what you’re saying is that the criterion for success is not whether the United States achieves its foreign policy goals; it’s whether the selfish interests of the various individuals and organizations that comprise the foreign policy establishment are protected.

    AB: Think about it. I don’t know what four-star generals and admirals talk about amongst themselves, but it’s hard for me to understand how you could be a four-star general in the United States Army, or the Marine Corps, and look back at the last decade and a half and reach any conclusion other than that we have failed. We’ve failed our soldiers and Marines, we’ve failed the country. We have failed to accomplish what we set out to do. Take that judgment seriously and the senior military leadership today ought to be engaged in an honest accounting and a willingness to think otherwise. Yet I see zero evidence that the senior military leadership is willing to undertake, or is capable of undertaking, any such evaluation. “How can that be?” you might say. Well, the only explanation I can come up with is that they’re not all that unhappy with what’s been achieved.

    Defeat is Victory, indeed. It all depends on who suffers the defeats from the real fighting on the ground and who gets to claim the fruits of “war” from a safe distance, even while never having to win anything tangible or even conceivable. As we dragooned and bullied-into-enlisting cannon fodder used to say in Southeast Asia forty years ago: “We lost the day we started and we win the day we stop.” So, just stop the phony “war,” General Thomas, so that we, the nation, can win. Simple enough for you?

    One final, addition to the topic comes from, again, Andrew Bacevich writing for The American Conservative (February 17, 20 17 ). See: Why Does Congress Accept Perpetual Wars? — To exercise real oversight, our representatives must take ownership of unpopular foreign entanglements.

    The bottom line from yet another U.S. general testifying to yet another U.S. Congress that doesn’t want to know and will accept any sound-bite blather at face value:

    “… progress reports on the Afghanistan War will continue for many decades to come.”

    George Clemenceau had it right: “War is too serious a business to be left to military men.”
    I had once harbored the hope that President Trump might act on that timeless truism and summarily fire the Joint Chefs of Stuff, along with half the Pentagram (starting at the top) and all of the CIA and NSA, just for starters. But I see where he has selected yet another Army General to serve as his National InSecurity Adviser. So, yes, those “progress” reports on “the war” will continue to arrive regularly, on schedule, for as far into the future as anyone can imagine. George Orwell predicted that they would long before Professor Bacevich reached the same conclusion.

    Ignorance is Strength
    Freedom is Slavery
    War is Peace
    Defeat is Victory

    All that is needed is that a state of war should exist.” So it does.


    1. One of my favorite passages from Dmitry Orlov’s masterful essay:

      [America] is not a exceptional nation, not an indispensable nation, but a defeated one. Defeated by their own hands, mind you, because nobody particularly went out of their way to defeat them. They showed up to get beaten, over and over again, until they got what they came for.

      Asian peasants in black pajamas, ex-Iraqi soldiers without a job, and poppy-growing goat herders in the foothills of the Hindu Kush could testify to the timeless truth of that observation.

      The loser U.S. military reminds me of that scene in the remake of the Count of Monte Christo where Edmond Dantes and his sidekick, Yacopo, look on through an open doorway while the dissolute aristocrat, the Count de Mondego, sits at a casino roulette wheel squandering his family inheritance. Observes Yacopo: “He’s losing at the other casinos, and they’re not even cheating him.”

      Our presidents and generals keep showing up somewhere for a beating, against barely armed adversaries who don’t even bother cheating, and then wonder why they keep receiving the ass kicking they’ve demanded. Oh, well. As Upton Sinclair observed: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Apparently, American presidents and generals get paid — and rather handsomely at that — to not understand. So they don’t. They’ve had long enough, though. As I like to say of our profitably ignorant political and military “leaders”:

      If they knew what to do, they’d have done it already. If they could have, they would have; but they didn’t, so they can’t. Time’s up.


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