The phrase “war on terror” is rarely heard these days. Our fight in Iraq ended last year with the pullout of the remaining troops. Combat forces are set to be withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2014, and their fade-away has been highlighted by the fact that more private contractors are getting killed in the country than GIs. President Obama has declared, with apparent justification, that the end of our post-9/11 wars is near. Quite soon, Dover Air Force Base, where the fallen are brought home, will no longer have its grim intake of Americans who have seen the true end of war. The flow of flag-draped coffins ceased long ago; although Obama overturned a Bush-era ban on photos of them, they have been infrequently shown in newspapers or even on the web. No one cares to look.
That does not mean we’re done with war, however. There is talk of attacking Iran and Syria; American forces all but led the NATO assault in Libya, drone strikes are taking place from Pakistan to Somalia and Yemen, prisoners continue to be held at Guantánamo Bay, a shadowy game of cyber-war rages around the globe and the US government, in the name of national security, is prosecuting more whistleblowers than ever before while accumulating (or trying to accumulate) wide powers to conduct domestic surveillance of computers and cellphones. The paradox is that although war is waning in the classic configuration of brigades fighting an enemy on foreign shores, we are not rid of its specter, burdens, threats, costs and restrictions. What should we make of wartime that has the appearance of peacetime?
Mary Dudziak’s new book, War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences, is a crucial document. Dudziak, a legal historian at the University of Southern California, argues that we are experiencing “not a time without war, but instead a time in which war does not bother everyday Americans.” Her smooth foray into legal and political history reveals that in not just the past decade but the past century, wartime has become a more or less permanent feature of the American experience, though we fail to recognize it. She doesn’t say so explicitly, but we are experiencing a reverse Orwellian situation, in which the state, rather than elevating war to perpetuate itself, obscures war to perpetuate itself.
Dudziak assembles an intellectual Rubik’s Cube, playing with ideas of time, law, killing and politics, and arranging them into a pattern that all but eliminates the distinctions we long assumed to have existed between war and peace. “We tend to believe that there are two kinds of time, wartime and peacetime, and history consists of moving from one kind of time to the next,” she writes. “Built into the very essence of our idea of wartime is the assumption that war is temporary…. When we look at the full time line of American military conflicts, however, including the ‘small wars’ and the so-called forgotten wars, there are not many years of peacetime. This shows us that war is not an exception to normal peacetime, but instead an enduring condition.”
For a country that considers itself an enlightened force for progress, a belief invoked with particular frequency in this election season, it seems odd to suggest at this moment of post-9/11 drawdown that the nation is, as ever, a Sparta at arms with soldiers, tanks, drones, nukes, spooks, hackers and every other method and manner of combat. But early in her book, Dudziak pre-empts this response by playing a visual trump card of sorts. The Defense Department has awarded combat medals for conflicts of the twentieth century in which soldiers served. The medals were plotted in a timeline by John E. Strandberg and Roger James Bender in their book The Call of Duty (2005), and Dudziak puts them into a user-friendly chart. The big wars of the twentieth century are of course represented in the timeline—World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and Kuwait—but so too are smaller conflicts, from Abyssinia and Bocas del Toro to Nicaragua, Mexico, Mayaguez, Grenada, Lebanon, El Salvador and Bosnia. In almost every year of the last century, American soldiers served in a conflict that qualified for a combat medal. The military criteria for wartime, Dudziak notes, “swallow much of American history.”