Naming America’s Wars Is A Scary Enterprise

1280px-FDR_Memorial_wall
FDR’s Four Freedoms brought meaning to World War II

W.J. Astore

At TomDispatch.com, Andrew Bacevich asks a pregnant question: What should we call America’s no-name wars?  (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and so on.)  It used to be the GWOT (global war on terror), sometimes shortened to War on Terror and favored by the Bush/Cheney administration.  The Obama administration punted, preferring the anodyne label of “overseas contingency operations.”  Other names and concepts have been floated, such as “generational war” and “long war,” and the U.S. military itself, which is quite expert at creating acronyms, has used terms like MOOTW (military operations other than war).  Indeed, the fact that America’s wars lack a commonly accepted name points to the lack of a common theme or strategy.  Put differently, when you can’t name something accurately, how can you understand it, let alone fight it smartly and win it?

Forgive me for being flippant, but I can think of a few less than reverent names that serve to highlight the folly of America’s nameless wars.  How about these?

  1. “Perpetual Preemptive War”: Preemptive war was the great idea of the Bush/Cheney administration. Remember how we couldn’t allow the smoking gun of Iraqi WMD to become a mushroom cloud? We had to preempt the non-existent WMD, hence the disastrous Iraq war(s).
  2. “Generational War for Generals”: General David Petraeus has spoken of a generational war against terror in countries like Afghanistan, comparing it to America’s 60+ year commitment to South Korea. Waging that war should keep a lot of U.S. generals busy over the next few decades.
  3. “Bankrupt Strategy to Bankrupt America”: America’s total national debt just reached $21 trillion (you read that right), with perhaps $6 trillion of that due to America’s wars since 9/11. If we keep up this pace of spending, we will soon conquer ourselves to bankruptcy. Mission accomplished!
  4. “The Wars to End All Peace”: Woodrow Wilson had “the war to end all wars” with World War I. Bush/Obama/Trump can say that they have the wars to end all peace, since there simply is no prospect of these wars ever ending in the foreseeable future.
  5. “Endless War to End Democracy”: FDR had the Four Freedoms and a real war to end Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan as threats to world peace. We now have endless war to end democracy in America.  As James Madison wrote,

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 …

In short, instead of fighting for Four Freedoms, we’re now waging a permanent war that will end freedom.

Small wonder we avoid naming our wars – their theme and meaning are too frightening to nail down with precision.

The Media Is the Message, and the Message Is One of Fear

The Replicant Roy Batty knows the score
The Replicant Roy Batty knew the score

W.J. Astore

“Whoever controls the media, controls the mind,” Jim Morrison said, and this is certainly true in America.  Consider the lead stories over the July 4th weekend.  The first was the threat of terror attacks against America.  We were told that law enforcement officials were “in no mood for a national party” — that the threat of an ISIS-inspired terror attack was real.  That no attack occurred is of no consequence.  Fear was stoked, and that’s what matters.  Prepare for the next terror reminder on the anniversary of 9/11, if not sooner.

The second story was shark attacks off the Carolina coast.  Unusual, yes, but hardly a threat to America or to the vast majority of its people, even those who chose to go swimming in the ocean.  “Shark surge!”  “Fear at the beach!”  “High alert!”  These were common expressions in the media.

Of course, Americans were much more likely to be hurt in fireworks accidents than by terrorists or sharks, but the sensational always takes precedence over the mundane in our media.  Indeed, if the goal was to safeguard ordinary Americans, we should have been told to stay off the roads this past weekend, but of course that would hurt tourism and the economy, so you weren’t about to hear that advice coming from America’s talking heads.

It seems nearly impossible to remember that one of FDR’s Four Freedoms was the freedom from fear.  FDR knew the paralyzing and stultifying effects of fear, the way it erodes individual autonomy, the way it can be made to serve the powerful. Frank Herbert in Dune captured a powerful truth when he wrote that “Fear is the mind-killer.”  The movie Blade Runner echoes the sentiment, with the Replicant Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) explaining that to live in fear is to be a slave.

A media that spreads fear facilitates a government of wolves.  Or, put slightly differently by the great Edward R. Murrow, “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”

There’s a definite method to the media madness, America.