This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
The killing of Osama bin Laden, “a testament to the greatness of our country,” according to President Obama, should not be allowed to obscure a central reality of our post-9/11 world: Our conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Libya remain instances of undeclared war, a fact that contributes to their remoteness from our American world. They are remote geographically, but also remote from our day-to-day interests and, unless you are in the military or have a loved one who serves, remote from our collective consciousness (not to speak of our consciences).
And this remoteness is no accident. Our wars and their impact are kept in remarkable isolation from what passes for public affairs in this country, leaving most Americans with little knowledge and even less say about whether they should be, and how they are, waged.
In this sense, our wars are eerily like those pursued by European monarchs in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: conflicts carried out by professional militaries and bands of mercenaries, largely at the whim of what we might now call a unitary executive, funded by deficit spending, for the purposes of protecting or extending the interests of a ruling elite.
Cynics might say it has always been thus in the United States. After all, the War of 1812 was known to critics as “Mr. Madison’s War” and the Mexican-American War of the 1840s was “Mr. Polk’s War.” The Spanish-American War of 1898 was a naked war of expansion vigorously denounced by American anti-imperialists. Yet in those conflicts there was at least genuine national debate, as well as formal declarations of war by Congress.
Today’s ruling class in Washington no longer bother to make a pretense of following the letter of our Constitution—and they sidestep its spirit as well, invoking hollow claims of executive privilege or higher callings of humanitarian service (as in Libya) or of exporting democracy (as in Afghanistan). But Libya is still torn by civil war, and Afghanistan has yet to morph into Oregon.
“Enlightened” War, Then and Now
History does not simply repeat itself, yet realities of power, privilege and pride ensure certain continuities from the past. Consider how today’s remote wars and the ways they reinforce existing power relations for a privileged and prideful elite echo a style of European warfare more than three centuries old.
Surveying the wreckage of the devastating Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), fought feverishly across Germanic territories by most of Europe, monarchs like Louis XIV of France began to seek a way to fight “limited” wars. These they considered more consistent with the spirit of a rational and “enlightened” age. In their hands, such wars became the sport of kings, the real-life equivalents of elaborate chess matches in which foot soldiers drawn from the lower orders served as expendable pawns, while the second or lesser sons of the nobility, fulfilling their duty as officers, proved hardly less expendable knights, bishops, and rooks.