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 United States of Militarism

Waving the flag and wielding a gun: Hey, it's the USA!
Waving the flag and wielding a gun: Hey, it’s the USA!

W.J. Astore

A century ago, the USA was a dynamic, forward-looking, freedom-espousing country that was focused on science and technology and its practical applications, as represented by Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.  We were about to reelect a president, Woodrow Wilson, precisely because he had kept the country out of World War I.  With the exception of the Navy, the U.S. military was small, and few Americans (Teddy Roosevelt comes to mind) boasted about the “manly” virtues of military service and war.

Here we are, a century later, in a country that has taken up militarism, a country which is increasingly reactionary, authoritarian, and backward-leaning, a country that leads the world not in innovation for ordinary people as in the days of Edison and Ford, but in weapons exports to the world’s trouble spots.

Anyone with a sense of history — indeed, anyone with common sense — should recognize that militaries are antithetical to democracy.  Indeed, most Americans recognized exactly that in 1915.  A true democracy has a military as a reluctant and regrettable choice, driven by the need to defend itself in a hostile and violent world. But over the last century a regrettable choice has become, not only requisite, but celebratory in the USA.  Like so many amped up Teddy Roosevelt’s, striving to prove our manhood, America now believes military service conveys nobility.  Heroic meaning.

Yet celebrating the military, nobilizing the military experience, finding purpose and meaning in continuous war, is the very definition of militarism.

Admittedly, American militarism is a peculiar strain.  It’s not the Germanic kind in which a conservative aristocracy found its reason for being and its privileged position in military service.  There are no Prussian Junkers who willingly revel in a martial code of honor and duty in war.  Indeed, America’s aristocracy of wealth reserves the right to exclude itself from military service even as it applauds the sons and daughters of the lower orders who enlist to fight (and sometimes to die).

Again, it’s a strange militarism, militarism USA, one in which military service is indeed one of the few avenues for America’s working classes to rise by merit (tightly defined within a hierarchical structure that breeds and rewards conformity), and where a few generals actually attain a measure of cult status, however temporary (recent examples include Colin Powell, Tommy Franks, and David Petraeus).  Yet celebrated generals come and go, even as America’s wars are continuous.

Indeed, we’ve become so accustomed to living with the drumbeats of war that we no longer hear them.  It reminds me of a lesson an officer taught on World War I at the Air Force Academy.  He played sounds of an artillery barrage for the entire 50 minutes of the lesson.  When you first walked in, the noise hit you.  Then you sort of forgot about it as he taught the lesson.  Just before the end, he turned off the noise, and the silence spoke.  You realized, just a little, what it had been like for troops in the trenches in 1916 living under artillery bombardment.  And you also realized how quickly we can all become more or less accustomed to the drumbeats of war.

We’re hearing them all the time today — it’s the background noise to our lives.  For some, it’s even become sweet music.  But war and militarism is never sweet music to a functioning democracy.

One final point: Some Americans react as if calling attention to the militarization of our society/culture is the same as being anti-military.  Being against militarism and war is not being anti-military: more the reverse.  There’s a strange conflation or confusion there — and this conflation/confusion is a sign of how far militarism has gotten under our collective skin and into the nation’s blood stream.