In light of Obama’s “National Defense Resources Preparedness” Order, I’d like to comment on a troubling trend I’ve seen in American discourse about war since 9/11. From left to right, it was often said that the U.S. government’s interventions abroad as well as its activities at home did not rise to the level of drama and seriousness that typified previous U.S. wars. In particular, World War II has been brought up time and again as a model of which the current militarism has fallen far short. This observation has generally been given with the observer demonstrating palpable lament if not nostalgia.
The conservative hawks took up the call most loudly, at times decrying the modern American squeamishness about killing civilians. Although certainly Americans do not seem so sensitive to this concern that they are driven to the streets demanding peace amidst the many estimates ranging from a hundred thousand to a million civilian deaths caused by U.S. wars in the last decade, there is some truth to the comparison. In earlier generations, U.S. policy was simply to target civilians, destroying cities and villages not just wantonly but deliberately. The many, many thousands liquidated by U.S. firebombings in Japan were not “collateral damage.” They were the product of a purposeful U.S. policy carried out exactly as it was intended to.
About six years ago, talk radio hosts frequently argued that the U.S. should treat all of Iraq the way Britain and the United States treated dozens of German cities, most famously Dresden. And the hope that the Bush administration would revive past precedents of warmaking was not limited to the topic of targeting civilians to be killed. Some have argued that the U.S. should increase spending on “defense” to the proportions familiar to the Cold War generations. Many called for the punishment of antiwar voices along the lines of what might have been expected in past U.S. wars. Others argued that the official alienation of ethnic minorities or others associated with “the enemy”—as had been done to Japanese-Americans or alleged communists—was more than warranted. A book called In Defense of Internment was eaten up vociferously by those in favor of such nationalistic nostalgia.
Not to be outdone, the liberals have had their own fit of disappointment in America’s supposed failure to adhere to past traditions, and really make this war count. First it came in complaints that Bush did not engage in the types of national mobilization or Keynesian public works programs that glorious U.S. presidents initiated in the past. Then came the general accusation that America’s war party itself was refusing to “sacrifice” enough in the midst of the war effort. Most on the progressive left, claiming to oppose war as they do, nevertheless admire the national unity that supposedly characterized (but in most cases did not in reality characterize) World War II. Taxes should be higher. The economy must be made the executive branch’s domain. The military should be better cared for. And most disturbingly, national service—along with military conscription—should be made mandatory. Some advocated this measure in a straight-forward manner, believing that it would usher in a much-needed era of unification, patriotic identity, and service. Others favored national slavery as a means to ensure that pro-war politicians and leaders would only support wars that were “legitimate,” the logic being that their kids would be forced to fight. Putting aside the utter moral bankruptcy of using a politician’s powerless children as pawns in a game of chicken, as well as the implausibility that any draft would actually affect all equally, the fact remains that any rationale for forced labor to the state, including for the purposes of waging war, amounts to the total dismissal of the liberty of those being conscripted into service, and should be rejected for that reason alone.
In any event, all these lamentations that the U.S. has fallen short of its grandiose militarism of years past have for the most part brought me nausea and frustration, yet they also seem to carry some lessons with them. It is almost as though most Americans fail to understand that the U.S. is in fact at war. It might be a smaller drain on the gross domestic product than before. Fewer millions have died in these wars than in others. Our civil liberties, in some avenues—although not in all—are in better shape than in the worst Americans wars of yesteryear. But this idea that we are at peace is obviously wrong, yet seems implicit in the way many have talked about U.S. security policy for the last eleven years.
Consider this headline about Obama’s new and frightening executive order: “Barack Obama Prepares for War Footing.” This Huffington Post article helpfully sums up the disturbing elements of the order, including the fascist claims of executive authority over the lion’s share of the physical economy (although Robert Higgs puts this matter in pithier and sharper terminology). It also tells of the horrifying prospect that the president could reinstate the draft at any time. But the headline certainly implies that the U.S. is not at a war footing already. It clearly insinuates that the U.S. is now threatening to engage in an activity it was not already threatening to engage in. This is balderdash. Even in the isolated case being discussed—the possibility of a U.S. war with Iran—this was already the case. The U.S. labeled that regime part of the Axis of Evil a decade ago, has since likely been involved in covert war operations against that country, instituted numerous sanctions against its people, surrounds the nation with military bases that bestride the countryside of its westward and eastward neighbors, and is financing its main enemy in the region, Israel, to the tune of billions a year, giving assurances that in the event of a military conflict, the U.S. would side with Israel and perhaps even provide bunker-busting nuclear weapons.
Then there is the fact that the U.S. has been involved in active military operations without an instant of relent for years. Since 9/11, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and I’m sure some others that don’t come immediately to mind have been the recipients of U.S. military bullets and bombs, and covert operations and U.S. military advisers have been deployed to many, many others.
The U.S. government has spent trillions on these wars; destroyed the infrastructure of Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions; killed many thousands in Afghanistan, the longest U.S. war to date, and in Pakistan without any conceivable justification; unleashed an ethnic cleansing in Libya that has already depopulated an entire town; trashed habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights, detained thousands of captives, many completely innocent and very few of them terrorists, often for years without meaningful oversight; tortured many hundreds of people, dozens of whom died in U.S. custody; shoveled many billions to military-industrial-complex firms, some that now permeate every major federal department with facilities in most states, and hundreds of others that are much smaller but exist solely because of the war on terror; nearly completely overturned all Fourth Amendment standards concerning national security; turned every American airport into a microcosm of a police state; ramped up funding to militarize nearly every police department in the country, giving them tanks, assault weapons and even unmanned drone technology; spied on rightwing tax protesters, leftwing antiwar activists, Muslims, Catholic charities, Quakers, and many others in the name of stopping terrorism; preempted one ridiculous “terror plot” after another, in almost every case setting up the suspect to plan violence he never would have without federal instigation; claimed the Stalinist authority, possessed by the president acting alone, to kill anyone on earth he deems a threat; made traveling to Mexico and Canada, a previously routine endeavor, into something out of an Orwell novel; and finally destroyed previously sacred (if inconsistently upheld) taboos on federal molesting of travelers, violations of financial privacy, interrogation techniques, Congressional war powers, and judicial due process.
Ah. But NOW we are on a war footing. And sadly, it is true that something has shifted with Obama’s executive order. It is more out in the open than before that the entire U.S. economy operates at the discretion of America’s rulers—just as in fascist Italy. It is now clearer than ever that the lives of American citizens can be sacrificed on the altar of Mars should the president decide that those registered in the Selective Service must go abroad and shoot at Iranians, whose country has not attacked America (or any other country, really) in centuries. All the economy, and all our lives and liberties, belong to the presidential state, as far as it’s concerned. And where’s the opposition party on this issue, one that would seem to make the importance of all others—certainly all others that are ever discussed on CNN—pale in comparison? I hear no criticism, and if it came it would be transparently disingenuous, since people like Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich have been calling for a “real war” for years. Yes, they are finally saying maybe the U.S. should leave Afghanistan, but this simply amounts to a concession that it’s time for the empire to move on and crush another country.
Once again the U.S. hyperpower is ready to pounce. It smells Persian blood, and on the basis of a tissue of lies no less absurd and easily debunked than those that pulled America into war with Iraq, or wars with many other nations, the U.S. may very well jump into a conflict that develops into something that conservatives and liberals have long wanted—a dramatic sequel to the great crusades of America’s most worshiped presidents. Conservatives will get their blood-letting. Liberals will get their collectivist sacrifice.
You call this a war? I’ll show you a war, says the President. He with the Peace Prize appears unsatisfied with the relatively low-cost discrete militarism we’ve seen since 9/11. Unfortunately, so have many of his subjects, making his Order of last Friday all the more ominous.