Overseas, the United States is engaged in real wars in which bombs are dropped, missiles are launched, and people (generally not Americans) are killed, wounded, uprooted, and displaced. Yet, here at home, there’s nothing real about those wars. Here, it’s phony war all the way. In the last 17 years of “forever war,” this nation hasn’t for one second been mobilized. Taxes are being cut instead of raised. Wartime rationing is a faint memory from the World War II era. No one is being required to sacrifice a thing.
Now, ask yourself a simple question: What sort of war requires no sacrifice? What sort of war requires that almost no one in the country waging it takes the slightest notice of it?
America’s conflicts in distant lands rumble on, even as individual attacks flash like lightning in our news feeds. “Shock and awe” campaigns in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, initially celebrated as decisive and game changing, ultimately led nowhere. Various “surges” produced much sound and fury, but missions were left decidedly unaccomplished. More recent strikes by the Trump administration against a Syrian air base or the first use of the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the US arsenal, the MOAB super-bomb, in Afghanistan flared brightly, only to fizzle even more quickly. These versions of the German blitzkrieg-style attacks of World War II have been lightning assaults that promised much but in the end delivered little. As these flashes of violence send America’s enemies of the moment (and nearby civilians) to early graves, the homeland (that’s us) slumbers. Sounds of war, if heard at all, come from TV or video screens or Hollywood films in local multiplexes.
We are, in fact, kept isolated from Washington’s wars, even as America’s warriors traverse a remarkable expanse of the globe, from the Philippines through the Greater Middle East deep into Africa. As conflicts flare and sputter, ramp up and down and up again, Americans have been placed in a form of behavioral lockdown. Little more is expected of us than to be taxpaying spectators or, when it comes to the US military, starry-eyed cheerleaders. Most of the time, those conflicts are not just out of sight, but meant to be out of mind as well. Rare exceptions are moments when our government asks us to mourn US service members like Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, killed in an abortive raid President Trump ordered in Yemen in early 2017 in which children also died (though that was something just about no one here even noticed). While the military has been deploying and striking on a global scale, we’ve been told from the very first moments of Washington’s self-proclaimed war on terror to go shopping or to Disney World and let the experts handle it.
We have, in short, been sidelined in what, to draw on the lexicon of World War II, might be thought of as a sitzkrieg, the German term for phony war.
A bizarre version of blitzkrieg overseas and an even stranger version of sitzkrieg at home could be said to define this peculiar American moment. These two versions exist in a curiously yin-yang relationship to each other. For how can a nation’s military be engaged in warfare at a near-global level—blitzing people across vast swaths of the globe—when its citizens are sitting on their collective duffs, demobilized and mentally disarmed? Such a schizoid state of mind can exist only when it’s in the interest of those in power. Appeals to “patriotism” (especially to revering “our” troops) and an overwhelming atmosphere of secrecy to preserve American “safety” and “security” have been remarkably effective in controlling and stifling interest in the country’s wars and their costs, long before such an interest might morph into dissent or opposition. If you want an image of just how effective this has been, recall the moment in July 2016 when small numbers of earnest war protesters quite literally had the lights turned off on them at the Democratic National Convention.