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America’s Warfare Welfare State | The Nation

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America’s Warfare Welfare State

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The United States has been at war for more years than it has been at peace. War is not a “last resort,” something we fall back on when diplomacy, sanctions and other tools fail. It has become our normal condition. Within just the past two decades, we have been engaged in two Iraqi wars and an ongoing war in Afghanistan, and perhaps soon we will be at war with Iran. We justify these adventures in terms of spreading freedom abroad and making our world safe for democracy, but we are accomplishing neither. Meanwhile, badly needed resources to confront a range of domestic challenges are redirected to the war efforts. Maybe it is time to reconsider how readily we prepare for and engage in war.

About the Author

Gregory D. Squires
Gregory D. Squires is a professor of sociology and public policy and public administration at George Washington...
Marcus G. Raskin
Marcus G. Raskin, a Nation editorial board member, is the author of more than twenty books and the editor, with Gregory...

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William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education, ex-chairman of the
National Endowment for the Humanities, candidate for President in 2000
in the Republican primaries, has written an intemperate little book
called Why We Fight. Using the horror of 9/11, the book crackles
with protestations of his patriotism as he lobs shells at those who do
not share his views. Apparently Bennett had no moral choice but to write
what he had to say in order to save the Republic. "I sensed in my bones
that if we could not find a way to justify our patriotic instincts, and
to answer the arguments of those who did not share them, we would be
undone."

If Bennett had his way, those who did not hold his views would be dealt
with very harshly indeed. He leaves it to the reader to guess what he
would do with those he views as "unpatriotic." But there are ample
clues. Civil liberties are not his concern, neither in this book, as he
makes clear, nor for that matter anywhere else. He states that he is for
military tribunals "and the detention of suspects within our own borders
for questioning." For how long Bennett does not say. Nor does he tell us
whether there is the same standard for a non-American as for an American
citizen. Until recently there were hundreds being held in detention,
sanctioned by an act of Congress that gives the Bush Administration
virtual carte blanche in handling suspects without warrants, and perhaps
even without recourse to the regular court system. (Most of the
detainees have been quietly deported.) This exercise of power is a
complement to Administration foreign policy, as it is apparently
prepared to intervene in or invade nations even if there is no evidence
that they are involved in terrorism or backing terrorists. The domestic
implications are spelled out well by Bennett, but none of it bothers
him. His gravamen against the left and those who disagree with
him--members of the "peace party," as he calls his adversaries--is that
they "have caused damage, and they [you] need to be held to account."
Nation editors and thinkers like Eric Foner, Richard Falk, Katha
Pollitt and Jonathan Schell, take heed. They are not alone as enemies of
Bennett--New York Times editors, Harvard (Bennett is an
ungrateful alum) and assorted scholars, Noam Chomsky, students and the
professoriate generally should watch out. They are targets in Bennett's
campaign for an inquisition, twenty-first-century style. He is concerned
that "the Foners of the United States" have led a minority of Americans
away from being true believers. As Bennett so indelicately puts it, "A vast
relearning has to take place," undertaken by everyone, especially
"educators, and at every level." "The defect" in our education and
morals "can only be redressed by the reinstatement of a thorough and
honest study of our history, undistorted by the lens of political
correctness and pseudosophisticated relativism." In other words, there
has to be a moral cleansing in America.

The word "reinstatement" does not tell us what Bennett is attempting to
reinstate, though. From Why We Fight we learn of Bennett's deep
distress at American education, where his notions of American history
seem less persuasive than they were in the days when nineteenth-century
historians acted as propaganda instruments for war, racism and America's
imperial superiority. Those were the days when "a vast relearning" was
not necessary. He quotes approvingly Professor Donald Kagan, the Yale
historian, who tells us that those who do not hold to their definition
of patriotism and their reading of history suffer from "failures of
character
[emphasis added by Bennett], made by privileged people who
enjoy the full benefits offered by the country they deride and detest,
its opportunities, its freedom, its riches, but who lack the basic
decency to pay it the allegiance and respect that honor demands."
Bennett does concede at one point that while it is incumbent on those
who hew to the Kagan version of truth to point out the despicable
behavior of the naysayers, we must also "[respect] their right to be
irresponsible and even subversive of our safety."

There are other views of patriotism, of course. One was promulgated by
the leading American philosopher John Dewey, an independent thinker not
given either to religions or secular religions, namely Communism. He
surely would have been measured for a Soviet gulag. But he would also
have been on Bennett's enemies list for his belief that scoundrels too
often fly the flag of patriotism and nationalist triumphalism:

On the side in which public spirit is popularly known as patriotism this
widening of the area of interest has been accompanied by increased
exclusiveness, by suspicion, fear, jealousy, often hatred, of other
nations.... The self interest of the dynastic and military class
persistently keeps the spark of fear and animosity alive in order that
it may, upon occasion, be fanned into the flames of war. A definite
technique has grown by which the mass of citizens are led to identify
love of one's own country with readiness to regard other nations as
enemies.... And in many cases, it is becoming clear that particular
economic interests hide behind patriotism in order to serve themselves.
So far has this feeling gone that on one side there is a definite
attempt to attach the stigma of "unpatriotic" to everything designated
international; to cultivate that kind of "hundred percent Americanism"
which signifies practically suspicion and jealousy of everything
foreign.

In other words, Americanism can serve as a code word for "contempt of
other peoples," Dewey concluded.

The disinterested observer must wonder whether it is inaccurate to note
the emergence of dynastic classes whose political power is linked to the
intelligence community, the military and big business. It would be
absurd to deny at this point that there are classes and groups that
profit from war and military preparedness. It is equally naïve to
believe that the constitutional contract of civil liberties is so strong
that prosecutors, local police, freewheeling inquisitors and others will
not spy and inform on and harass the different and the dissident. War
mobilization is the perfect cover story for such abuses. The problem is
made worse because legal and structural changes in governing and
consciousness are legitimized through law, for example in the USA
Patriot Act. That is to say, the legacy of Bush will live long after he
returns to Crawford, Texas.

But what about the doubter? What about today's or next year's or next
decade's "little guy," a man like Winston in Orwell's 1984, who
didn't go along or know how to because the contradictions were so
profound between the stories that were given from one year to the next
that he knew enough not to believe in this year's lies? Suppose he
wondered why Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines was our friend one year
and the next we helped overthrow him, or why the hapless former
Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega, a man once on the CIA payroll, became
the occasion for our invasion of Panama, ostensibly because of his
involvement with drug payoffs? The results were much destruction and the
death of several hundred Panamanians. Bennett's defense of violence
takes on frightening characteristics. Somehow he believes that, quoting
Orwell favorably, "Those who 'abjure' violence can only do so because
others are committing violence on their behalf." He goes on to wrap
himself in the comfort of the armed forces. But surely he can't mean
this about Panama, El Salvador, Colombia, etc. Violence was not being
committed there on behalf of those who objected here. Indeed, it is a
stretch to imply that these actions did anything for the American
people.

Imagine the naïve citizen who doesn't understand hypocrisy and
strategies of evasion, contradiction or double standards. That person
might wonder why we went to war in Afghanistan when the perpetrators of
the 9/11 destruction were for the most part Saudis. Referring to
Augustine and Jean Bethke Elshtain, Bennett claims that "not
resorting to force leads to evils far greater than the one we
oppose." But surely it would be nice to know who the enemy is, and drop
the bombs on the correct culprit. Whether the naïve person who
holds such views and then organizes others to express their doubts
should be held without bail as a suspect is unclear from the Bennett
text. What is clear is that doubters should be shunned and punished.
They are raining on Bennett's "war party" (his term), a parade in which
he is a proud adjutant.

Bennett's animus toward his fellow Americans is unforgiving especially
in reference to those who were part of the movements of the 1960s, which
had the effect of concretizing ideals into practice--and at no small
cost. Perhaps his anger against the movement members was that they
employed nonviolence and used or stumbled into a social method that
broke "facts" open and found values that contradicted the stated
democratic ideals of inclusivity, equality and sheer decency. It is no
wonder that this social method is one that helps ourselves and the young
demystify events, their causes and implications. His disdain for the
peace party goes back to the Vietnam War. At that time, the peace party,
made up of the flaccid and pusillanimous, didn't support the "bomb them
back to the Stone Age" position of Gen. Curtis LeMay. Bennett, the angry
moralist, remains upset that the LeMay position didn't get much of a
hearing, although the general ran for Vice President with George
Wallace, and the tonnage of bombs dropped on Vietnam by the United
States was greater than the amount dropped in World War II. As Bennett
opines, it was the Gandhian nonviolence people of the peace party who
subverted an American victory in Vietnam because "those among us who
espoused the LeMay position were scarcely to be heard from." His
argument is uncomfortably reminiscent of the German generals and the
right during the Weimar Republic who claimed that the Germans lost World
War I because they were "stabbed in the back" by the left.

As a good Republican, Bennett bristles at those who might doubt the
motives and methods of the Bush Administration. After all, how could
anyone doubt those patriots who took power under questionable
circumstances, who had already used every sleazy trick to get one of
their fellow rightists onto the Supreme Court and vault into the White
House a man who'd lost the popular vote, installed as it were, by a
5-to-4 decision of the Supreme Court? Because Bennett is a dogmatic man
he is not burdened with self-doubt but has a surfeit of faith. (Bennett
lets us know that he is a religious man, a Catholic who has no doubts
about his faith and his belief in the Catholic Church, its teaching and
activities. It is his kind of faith, religion itself, which he
understands to be the backbone of America, much the way other believers
throughout the world, such as Osama bin Laden, perhaps, link their faith
to their political judgments.)

To Bennett, 9/11 was a moment of clarity between good and evil. "Good
was distinguished from evil, truth from falsehood." But there was more
to the question. He was concerned that some said the United States
helped bring the disaster about through its foreign and military
policies. After all, the skeptics wondered, didn't the United States
train and militarily assist the radical fundamentalists against the
Soviet Union? And then didn't our assets turn against the United States
when Afghanistan was left a broken nation? And did the United States
overstay its welcome in Saudi Arabia, whose people include chief backers
of the radical fundamentalists? These were not idle questions, nor was
it idle and unpatriotic to analyze from top to bottom the ethos of
American invulnerability. The United States had placed its faith in a
forward defense. But on that terrible day, the idea of fighting wars on
other people's territory was severely damaged. Wouldn't these questions
suggest a comprehensive review of American foreign policy? But Bennett
the purist claims that he is not interested in policy. He is interested
in right and wrong, good and evil. Bennett, the consummate Washington
insider, is not one, apparently, to get his hands dirty with the
realities of policy-making and everyday life--i.e., what to do--although
working through his principles would have horrendous consequences for a
democratic society.

The reader may ask whether there is anything about which Bennett and I
agree. And here the answer is yes. Certainly the assault on American
cities was an atrocious attack by a gang of zealots. On why they thought
to undertake their suicide mission Bennett and I disagree. Perhaps the
perpetrators wanted to give the United States a lesson in cost-benefit
analysis to show that all the high-tech military equipment in the world
does not make the United States invulnerable. (Indeed, because of the
interconnectedness of our communications system, the United States is as
vulnerable as any Third World country.) The zealots may have been imbued
with an anti-Western spirit that has rankled for over a thousand years
and finally erupted against the United States, paradoxically for the
same reason Bennett has had grave questions about American society: its
relativism, sensuality, individuality and lack of religious discipline.
Relativism has acquired a vulgar connotation, and Bennett uses its
burlesqued meaning as a stick against nonbelievers and the peace party.
He compares Stanley Fish, the dean of liberal arts and sciences at the
University of Illinois in Chicago, a leader of the postmodernist school
of literary theory, to mass murderer Charles Manson, who said that he
thought no man could really know and represent another, "to communicate
one reality through another, and into another, reality."

"Stanley Fish himself could hardly have put it better," writes Bennett:

Do we, then, have no independent and objective standard for determining
why Professor Fish should be allowed to teach at a prestigious
institution of higher learning while Charles Manson should languish in
prison just because he followed a doctrine he shares with Professor Fish
to its logical conclusion--the conclusion that since everything is
relative, everything can be justified and all is permitted.

One does not have to be a postmodernist, which I am not, to be deeply
offended by Bennett's comment. Bennett picks up on Leszek Kolakowski's
views that to follow principles to their logical conclusion can lead to
disaster. But Bennett overlooks a fundamental truth. The question is how
to determine an "independent and objective standard," what goes into
that judgment and who decides what that standard is. By analyzing this
set of questions we learn our own weaknesses, that of the standard
setters and those who seek to impute their values into an objective
reality. We can analyze and judge, from our perspective, actions and
behaviors. People can then choose between Fish and Manson.

Right and wrong may come from God or moral sentiments, which the
philosophers Francis Hutcheson and David Hume spoke of. These
sentiments, better stated as capacities that people have, may be
degraded by social roles, institutions, laws, poor upbringing, whatever
causes a person to turn toward the pathological. Obviously, if one
believes in the Enlightenment and historical progress, ways of acting do
emerge that are acceptable as against actions that are no longer
acceptable either as a result of social agreement or because there are
moral sentiments that make their way through historical struggle.
Bennett, who appears to be all over the map philosophically, does hold
as a constant his belief in Plato, who in turn held tightly to the idea
of an antidemocratic society, one based on hierarchy and strict class
lines. Plato, according to Bennett, disposed of the relativism that his
apostle now sees as the cause of our decay. But what exactly is
relativism? Bennett also quotes approvingly Abelard's dialectical idea
of sic and non (the debate surrounding opposite
propositions) as being the probable "basis of all learning itself...of
our very outlook on the world." But Abelard's method can be read two
ways. One is that the questions undertaken invariably lead to the same
question expressed in new ways (aporia), or it is a method that
is supposed to give the right answer expressed by a church that defines
what reason and faith are.

Relativism is really a special form of democratic skepticism that
encourages us to examine and extend our inquiry beyond the appearance of
an event even in the case of recognizable and accepted facts. The
relativist points out that the fact can be seen from different vantage
points, and, more important, that a fact has within itself an entire
story that can and should be explored. Now the question is, how does
this apply to 9/11?

First, there is the fact of its occurrence. In a policy sense it becomes
critical for us to understand how and why the event occurred, what the
implications are, what its immediate causes were. For its various flaws,
relativism is an attempt to move to a coherent, if invariably incomplete
picture of what happened and what lay behind the event. It is the only
way we can learn what to do. It takes a dim view of professed views of
what is "good" and "evil" not because they don't exist but because ideas
of an absolutist nature that are put into practice can lead to the most
horrendous consequences. It is why law, including international law, is
so important, for it imposes boundaries even for the protection of the
evildoer. In policy terms, matters of good and evil are transposed into
causes, consequences and manageable categories for people who cannot
know the whole truth, and for people who seek a means of understanding
rather than mere retaliation or dogma.

This form of analysis leads to certain conclusions. The first is that
9/11 almost immediately became a social and political question of what
to do. It was a moral question for those caught between their pacifist
beliefs and their concern for justice for their fellow citizens. For
Bennett that terrible day was the moment not only to get mad (angry) in
his terms but to get even. Bennett is obsessed with the idea that there
is not enough anger in American society. We are all caught in this
unmanly process of Roger Fisher and William Ury's ideas of "getting to
yes," that is, finding avenues of agreement between people, states and
groups. If this formulation does not have value then humanity cannot
escape the vise of dominator/dominated. Nor can it find ways of controlling and sublimating anger,
violence and rage. Nor will humanity be able to escape forever the
further use of nuclear weapons.

There is a smidgen of truth to Dean Rusk's and Bennett's idea that the
American people have to be pulled kicking and screaming into war. But
this belies the work of a state that has been involved, depending on
one's count, in more than 150 interventions and wars since its founding.
Only someone given to deceiving himself would not recognize the American
state as a warrior state. There are many reasons Bennett chooses not to
see this reality--that is to say, in Bennett's history book there are
many blank pages. Thus, the United States made continuous war on Indians
for the better part of a hundred years, always with its eye on the
prize: to take as much land as it could from them. The Mexican-American
war can hardly be seen in a different light. This is an old story told
well and critically by historians--a story Bennett would sugarcoat for
the young, with claims of an American destiny. Is that what the "vast
relearning" is to be about? Whether the United States had high moral
purpose or crass economic motives in employing violence and deceit does
not change the reality about the means used.

It should go without saying that there is a matter of supreme importance
for Bennett with which I do agree. It is that there is no place for
anti-Semitism in twenty-first-century civilization--whether it comes as
the virulent form that has erupted among too many in Muslim nations or
whether it exists as a residue in American politics (peace to the memory
of Richard Nixon). But it's there, whether in the Middle East, Europe or
in American politics.

This anti-Semitism does not excuse Israel's foreign and military
policies, which put at risk the state of Israel, in my view; but Bennett
is among the staunchest of Israel's supporters. He says there is "an
understanding, almost religious in nature, that to our two nations above
all others has been entrusted the fate of liberty in the world." There
is a consistency in his view. He wants no appeasement toward the
Palestinians, seeking their subjugation and cautioning the Bush
Administration; I suppose that weak fellow General Powell had better
watch his step in his concern to temper this ugly war. Or maybe it's his
back.

Here the prudent analyst might have learned something from Vietnam.
There was much pressure to remove the corrupt and seemingly feckless
Diem from his position. And after he was removed, with American backing,
the leadership structure of South Vietnam ended in turmoil. We may
expect the same to occur if the Israelis, with American concurrence,
manage to force into place among the Palestinians a Middle East version
of a puppet leader. Bennett's view of American foreign policy demands
that we look only at the depredations of Osama, Palestinian terrorists
and certain nations on his enemies list. He claims that he is interested
in objectivity, but he is unprepared or unwilling to look at those
issues that may or may not have salience. This has little to do with
good and evil, except as those words are used to obfuscate. The moral
asymmetry he assumes should be surrendered, so that the universal
standards Bennett says he is for can be applied to the United States as
well.

Another place of agreement between us is in Bennett's recognition that
through enormous struggle, the United States has sought to concretize
its shifting ideals of freedom and racial and economic justice into the
reality of everyday life. There are some exceptions, but there is little
to suggest that those who hold Bennett's views were the ones who were
part of the movements that changed the face of this nation into one that
others throughout the world admire for its freedoms. These struggles
were paid for dearly by the various social movements so the likes of
Bennett and me could live in relative comfort. It was not the
right--whether the ultramontane elements of Catholic hierarchy, Judge
Gary, J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, Phyllis Schlafly, Antonin Scalia,
the George Bushes or William F. Buckley--that made this nation one that
championed "intellectual, moral and political freedom," to use the
philosopher A.E. Murphy's phrase.

But back to "why we fight" in international terms: Being a believing
Catholic, Bennett is concerned that "just war" be recognized as a
doctrine that has modern utility; one applicable to American reprisals.
As ironic as it may appear, "just war" is a weak reed to hang from in
order to support a war without end. Just war is predicated on struggles
between nations; it is not a struggle between a gang and a nation. A
just war has a beginning, middle and end, and it is not supposed to do
more damage than the original harm. Bennett argues that the opinions of
others (sometimes good to have) should in no way deter any unilateral
action the United States cares to take--that is to say, those who
control the reins of power. Bennett has thus adopted just war as his
rationalization for militarism.

One last word. An American-initiated alternative must be offered to that
part of the world that is writhing in pain. It is one that gets rid of
weapons of mass destruction through general disarmament. (This includes
our own.) It is one that supports the pacific settlements of disputes.
This does not mean the fashioning of imperial law but of expanding
international law. That the United States does not support the
International Criminal Court and has pulled out of various international
treaties is not a good sign for the United States or the world's future.
The alternative includes international economic rights, the buildup of
regional forces to act under the aegis of the UN Security Council,
massive health and economic assistance, and a system that makes clear
that intelligence is a feature of a free society--it is public property,
not that of the few or of the state. The alternative recognizes and
supports claims of plural cultures without undercutting in any way the
ideals and struggles that have defined human rights in the United
States, namely women's rights, civil liberties, civil rights, labor
rights, gender rights, environmental rights. It recognizes that
education, housing, religion, free inquiry and health are rights to be
expanded and cherished. This charge is not likely to be fulfilled by
calls for wars without end and claims of patriotism meant to mystify,
and worse.

During times of crisis, real or imagined, we are fond of saying “all options are on the table.” We hope diplomacy, sanctions or other tools will work. But the world now knows we are more than ready to opt for the military option. If we ever suffered from a “Vietnam syndrome,” in which we hesitated to take military action, we have overcome it. President Obama so warned Iran in his speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) last spring. This is not to suggest that our leaders would not prefer diplomacy or other tools short of war. But somehow, some way, we have found ourselves almost always at war somewhere.

Nor do we suggest that the costs are unknown, at least some of them. But most are explained away as the inevitable collateral damage. From My Lai in Vietnam to the civilian murder spree in Afghanistan in March resulting in seventeen deaths, apparently at the hands of one US military officer, we regret such incidents but acknowledge that in times of war not everything and everyone can be controlled. Even the most strategic missions and surgical air strikes are going to have unintended casualties.

But there are broader costs that generally go unrecognized. For decades, Seymour Melman, the late professor of engineering and author of the classic book America’s Permanent War Economy, documented the vast material and human costs of war. In addition to the obvious lives lost (among our own military as well as that of our enemies, along with innocent civilians), there are the trillions of dollars spent on military hardware, and often we do not even know where the money is spent. In 2001 Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “We cannot track $2.3 trillion in transactions.” Additional human resource costs include the training of engineers who devote their careers to designing weaponry instead of building more energy-efficient schools and office buildings, more fuel-efficient modes of transportation, more affordable homes, along with longer-lasting roads, bridges and levees. Military expenditures do create some jobs and profits for some businesses and investors, but those jobs and more, along with equally if not more profitable investments, could easily be found elsewhere. Warfare is not a cost-effective form of social and economic welfare.

Perhaps more costly have been the compromises, if not corruption, of our fundamental values and identity as a nation. American exceptionalism has taken a wrong turn. The basic pursuit of knowledge, along with the freedom and democracy that knowledge should inspire, is often distorted as teachers, scholars, religious leaders and others are encouraged to support war at the expense of the more humane goals and values we presumably espouse. Those who support the status quo are those who count and, therefore, see their careers advance with the help of government contracts, while opponents are dismissed as irrelevant or worse. The real challenge is not how we can carry out war more efficiently or effectively to subdue our enemies, but rather to find alternatives to war. As Randolph Bourne observed shortly after World War I in his classic book War and the Intellectuals, “The real enemy is War rather than imperial Germany.” We could replace Germany with a host of countries since that “war to end all wars.”

Despite the many costs, it is increasingly evident that we are not effectively spreading freedom abroad or making the world much safer for democracy. At the same time, growing challenges at home are increasingly starved for resources as we maintain the warfare state and struggle with a debt crisis. Our leaders point with pride to democracy and freedom as core American values. But these values are compromised by what continues to be our permanent war economy and the routine use of war to resolve conflicts abroad and preserve our “unchallenged” position in the world.

We are not pacifists. Nor are we unaware that the world is often a dangerous place. But we need to restore war to its rightful place as truly a last resort, and not the normal state of the nation. This is why we need to begin to build an alternative to the warfare welfare state of America.

For more on how we can get out of America’s permanent state of war, read the new book by Raskin and Squires, Warfare Welfare: The Not So Hidden Costs of America's Permanent War Economy (Potomac Books 2012) and Peter Van Buren’s Six Critical Foreign Policy Questions That Won’t Be Raised in the Presidential Debates.

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