An Enduring Condition: On War Time

An Enduring Condition: On War Time

For Mary Dudziak, we are now experiencing a time of permanent war, one that does not bother everyday Americans.


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 Combat forces are set to be withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2014, and their fade-away has been highlighted by the fact that more private contractors are getting killed in the country than GIs.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.”

* * *

I reported on the Iraq invasion as a “unilateral” journalist, which meant I rented an SUV from Hertz in Kuwait and sneaked across the border with the first US tanks. I wound up in Baghdad on April 9, 2003, and watched Marines tear down the iconic statue of Saddam Hussein at Firdos Square. I returned to Iraq on several occasions to work on lengthy stories about the dismal turn of events as the occupation turned into a war of Americans against Iraqis, and Iraqis against Iraqis. The carnage, though heartbreaking, was almost the least shocking experience of my journeys between war in the Mideast and my home in New York City.

While Americans killed and got killed in Iraq, Americans back home shopped at Walmart and watched reality television. I had covered a lot of wars and thought I had grown accustomed to peaceful countries being unconcerned by other people’s quarrels. My unsentimental education had begun in the 1990s in Bosnia, where I often had a Matrix-like experience. In the morning, I would wake up in Sarajevo or another cursed town that was blasted by bombs, frozen by winter and deprived of food. I would then begin my effort to get the hell out of hell. I would hope for a seat on what was known as Maybe Airlines. These were the UN relief flights that brought food into besieged Sarajevo. Maybe the shelling would be light enough for flights to land and take off, maybe not. If the flights were grounded, I could try to escape by driving along Sniper Alley and through a creepy no man’s land that constituted the only border that mattered in a nation cut and quartered by war.

Distances are small in Europe. By the afternoon, I could be in Vienna or Budapest or London, enjoying the comfortable life that Europe offered many of its citizens: hot showers, good food, clean sheets, the certainty that I would not be killed by a mortar as I slept. I had a hard time believing these altered states existed in such close proximity. The contented Europeans eating apple strudel or shopping at Harrods on those 1990s afternoons—didn’t they realize a war was being fought in their backyard? The answer was that they knew and didn’t care. Proximity isn’t destiny. Bosnia, though close, wasn’t their home. Other people were killing and dying, not their people.

I had understood only half of it and learned the other half a decade later, on my returns to America after sojourns in Iraq. Outside the tight-knit community of military families who cared so deeply about the wars, nearly everyone in America went about his or her life as though Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t matter much. Nor had Americans been asked to change their way of life. It had become possible, I realized, for a nation to be at war without suffering the inconveniences associated with war—including the inconvenience of thinking about it. As Dudziak makes clear, this is not a recent condition created by remote-controlled bombs equipped with cameras that render their destructive power appear as fantastic and innocuous as a video game. Its origins go back much further.

World War II was a classic war in the sense of rationing, of drives for war bonds, of a draft the elite could not avoid with college deferments (here’s looking at you, Dick Cheney) and of a ceaseless drumbeat in almost every sector of society that a great conflict was being fought that required great sacrifices of everyone. Even for families spared the loss of a loved one overseas, World War II was a visible—intentionally visible—aspect of life in the homeland; the nation’s leaders made it so. It was a conflict that required total support, and the sacrifices civilians had to make could not be obscured. Life as it was before the war had to be suspended.

The blurring of the difference between wartime and peacetime truly got under way with the cold war. A crucial oddity of the chart of combat medals in Dudziak’s book is that one of the biggest wars of the century is absent from it. Although a cold war medal was proposed in Congress as recently as 2007, it has not been approved and likely never will be. Dudziak suggests a teaching moment was missed. “The Cold War’s ambiguity might have signaled that the conventional categories no longer fit—that wartime and peacetime coexisted or had merged together,” she writes. Her chapter on the cold war offers an intellectual frame for understanding our post-9/11 condition. Just as President Truman faced the post–World War II challenge of fighting the Soviet Union without waging a shooting war against it, President Obama wishes to continue a war against Islamic radicals without engaging in the sort of protracted follies that President Bush began in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Historian Michael Hogan has described Truman’s challenge as an attempt to “advance the nation’s security and its new role as the defender of democracy everywhere without at the same time subverting democracy at home and transforming the republic into a garrison state.” It was an impossible task: the redbaiting of the McCarthy era, the building of a massive nuclear arsenal and a huge conventional force, the outsourcing of actual war to superpower proxies—all of these demonstrated that the absence of blood-and-guts combat (or atomic warfare) between the American and Soviet armies did not mean we were at peace. The garrison state remained fully operational. Domestic politics remained on a war footing long after McCarthy was shamed into silence; the slur of “being soft on communism” ensured that most politicians would hew to the line or risk being voted out of office.

The division between peacetime and wartime was blurred even more by Vietnam. Unlike World War II, it was an unpopular conflict that American politicians wished the voters would not even consider a proper conflict; famously, there was no Congressional declaration of war. Of course, no one was fooled: the body bags made sure of that, as did the evening news. To adapt Justice Potter Stewart’s remark about pornography, we know a war when we’re in it. But our involvement was of so long a duration, and there was so much else of great drama occurring in the country—the civil rights movement, for one—that the war in Vietnam festered like a chronic disease. It was not existential. Though we didn’t quite realize it, wartime mixed with peacetime, becoming a partner to it, rather than its opposite.

* * *

A new kind of wartime emerged on September 11, 2001. The country had been attacked and, as a result, would attack others; references were made to its being our generation’s Pearl Harbor. But the method was strange. While President Bush emphasized that the “war on terror” was existential, that Al Qaeda and its sympathizers wanted to destroy us and would use nuclear weapons if they could, Americans who were not in the military were asked to live as though we were at peace. There would be no draft, no taxes, no war bonds. The solemnity of funerals at Arlington cemetery would not be broadcast. And there was Rudy Giuliani, as smoke still billowed from the destroyed World Trade Center, recommending that we respond to the terrorists by going shopping. The point was that aside from longer security lines at airports, the government would do its best to ensure that we experienced no inconvenience from the wars waged on our behalf. We wouldn’t even have to pay for them.

The understandable exceptionalism of genuine wartime—wartime of the we-have-just-been-attacked-and-must-counterattack variety—tends to involve exceptional legal action. During World War II, citizens of Japanese ancestry were interned (unjustifiably, as we now realize). As Dudziak notes, “Pushing the boundaries during military conflict is of course not new in the American experience.” Or in the experience of any nation at war, one might add. Dudziak, who does not appear to sympathize with the most extreme actions taken by the Bush administration, evenhandedly situates them in historical context. John Yoo, the Justice Department lawyer who drafted some of the key documents that purported to find constitutional justification for the torture of prisoners of war (rebranded as “enhanced interrogation” of “enemy combatants”), may have shocked us with his legal briefs, but for all their misbegotten logic, his arguments were consistent with the idea of wartime as a temporary period of unusual measures. “Wartime works as a shorthand, invoking the traditional notion that the times are both exceptional and temporary,” Dudziak writes. As problematic as the legal controversies were during the Bush era, they are even more problematic now, because as Dudziak notes, “It is one thing to suspend the rule of law during a time-limited war” and quite another to extend it into an unlimited future.

One of the scariest developments of the post-9/11 era isn’t the challenge to constitutional principles by the Bush administration—though many of these challenges were indeed quite worrisome—but their extension by the Obama administration, when one of Bush’s land wars is already over and the other looks to be wound down relatively soon. The organization that attacked the country, Al Qaeda, has been all but dismantled and its leader killed. If the war that began on 9/11 might have had a surrender-on-the-deck-of-the-Missouri moment, the death of Osama bin Laden should have been it. Yet that moment has passed. The New York Police Department has felt no need to apologize for its recently revealed surveillance of Muslim students during a whitewater rafting trip upstate.

Indeed, how can we explain the wartime-like secrecy about the use of weaponized drones? The government refuses to explain attacks that have been widely reported, even attacks in Yemen that, in a remarkable challenge to constitutional notions of due process, killed three American citizens (Anwar al-Awlaki, AbdulRahman al-Awlaki and Samir Khan). Dudziak provides a clue in her observation that the cold war was perpetuated not only by the activities of the Soviet Union but also by domestic politics. “National security became a tool of partisan politics,” she writes. “Domestic and often partisan political discourse can be more important to public opinion on military conflict than international events themselves.” The Obama administration may believe that there is a genuine national security need to continue Bush-era policies, but there’s also a domestic political benefit to doing so. By perpetuating the wartime of 9/11, Obama cannot be accused of failing to perpetuate it. The only way Republicans can criticize him for being “soft” on Muslim terrorism is to pivot to Iran and urge an attack on its nuclear facilities. The position is so extreme that, though useful in the primaries, it may hurt the Republican nominee in the general election. These days, we prefer that wartime not involve a land war.

* * *

Dudziak offers little hope for escaping the clutch of wartime. An exit strategy is proposed by John Horgan, who argues that the end of war is not only possible but imminent. Horgan is a science journalist who teaches at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he teaches a course called War and Human Nature. His book The End of War is written in a style that appears to be aimed at younger readers; it is folksy, heartfelt, basic and a bit simple-minded. He starts off by noting that war casualties have dropped significantly since the “cataclysmic first half of the twentieth century”—but I don’t know how much solace can be taken from the fact that humans are killing considerably fewer of one another than they did in World War I and World War II, among the worst slaughters in history. Horgan suggests that war “could end tomorrow through a simple act of will on the part of a relatively small number of leaders and combatants around the world”—if only they would get together and declare an end to war and the abolition of nuclear weapons. I am sure some leaders would like to do this, but I’m less sure that America is ready for Obama to attend a war-banning conference with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad anytime soon.

As a science journalist, Horgan likes to cite experiments. Is violence innate in human nature? He points to studies showing that chimpanzees are not terribly violent. “Chimps often hug and kiss each other and share food both to avoid fights and to make up after them,” Horgan writes. There has been a debate about chimp violence for many decades, and I’m willing to concede, for the sake of argument, that most chimps are pacifists. But humans are not chimps. We have shown, in our control of the planet and over the living things on it, and with our power to wipe out plant and animal species, that we are unlike any previous form of animal life. We have developed sophisticated weapons, political alliances, machines of propaganda and economic forces that make our societies utterly different from groups of chimpanzees.

Horgan acknowledges the complexity of human society, but he circles back to his basic point: “We have the ways to end war. We need only the will.” He cites a 1954 experiment in which twenty-two fifth-grade boys at Robbers Cave State Park were split into two groups that were kept apart for a week. Each team was then set against the other in a variety of sport contests like tug-of-war and swimming races. There was much insulting and some violence. That was the first part of the experiment. In the second part, the same teams were put together in situations that required cooperation—such as a truck breaking down and everyone needing to push to get it moving again. Guess what—the kids cooperated with one another. “Leaders can…drum up support for persecution, repression, war and genocide,” Horgan writes. “But we can clearly also learn to overcome our hostility towards others.” True, but the reason Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were such exceptional leaders is that they were… exceptional.

Horgan’s book is the inverse of Chris Hedges’s War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002). Whereas Hedges, a former war correspondent, presents an argument based to a great extent on his foxhole understanding of human passion and the powerful role of opportunistic politicians as well as the armaments industry, Horgan offers a sunnier outlook based on what he calls empirical evidence that suggests our drive to fight is not that deeply rooted. “We are not hardwired for war,” he asserts. “What was once a faith based on moral conviction has become a belief based on empirical evidence…. I believe war will end for scientific reasons; I believe war must end for moral reasons.” But the empirical evidence he cites is limited. He trumpets early in his book, for instance, that proof of lethal group violence dates back less than 13,000 years. For an evolutionary paleontologist, those are recent times, but 13,000 years strikes me as a relatively lengthy period during which humans have become culturally, politically and economically enmeshed with warfare in ways that make nearly irrelevant what happened (or more correctly, what didn’t happen) in the preceding hundreds of thousands of years.

Horgan’s book is useful, if only to stimulate our imagination and instill a bit of hope. Can a dictatorship be toppled without violence? Horgan rightly champions the sort of nonviolent action that Gene Sharp has advocated in his books since 1960, and that was practiced by many participants in the Arab revolutions of the past year (though not in Libya or Syria—notable exceptions). Horgan rightly expresses frustration with the United States, which he acknowledges pays “lip service to the principles of national sovereignty and international law while secretly carrying out deadly commando raids and drone attacks around the world.” He calls for cuts to our “bloated” military, the cessation of arms sales to other countries and the elimination of our nuclear arsenal. I agree with him about all those proposals—and I suppose Dudziak would support the same—but they are not an exit strategy from our peculiar and permanent wartime. n

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