Monday, June 11, 2012

War Time without end

Unhappily, the simplest way to describe this book is that Mary L. Dudziak is ready to give up. The U.S. empire tromps around without clothes (but with drones) and apparently we all must accept that is just how it is and pretend that our monstrously deformed permanent wartime is an acceptable foundation for a democratic nation and a humane civilization. In War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences she writes:

We find ourselves in an era in which wartime -- the war on terror -- seems to have no endpoint. This generates an urgent problem in American law and politics: how can we end a wartime when war doesn't come to an end? It is as if time were a natural phenomenon with an essential nature, shaping human action and thought. …

This book takes up the idea of wartime and its effects, showing that a set of ideas about time are embedded in the way we think about war. In particular, we tend to assume that wartime is always followed by peacetime, and therefore that an essential aspect of wartime is that it is temporary. The assumption of temporariness becomes an argument for exceptional policies, such as torture. And those who cross the line during war sometimes argue that circumstances deprive them of agency; their acts are driven or determined by time. ...

Wartime has become the only kind of time we have, and therefore is a time within which American politics must function. President Barack Obama has called our own day "an age without surrender ceremonies" and yet we continue to believe that wartime comes to an end. We are routinely asked to support our troops, but otherwise war requires no sacrifices of most Americans, and as conflict goes on, Americans pay increasing less attention to it. ...

Once upon a time, we were more aware of and more honest about war. I like to remind people that we have a national anthem that refers to war as an occasion of "desolation." In their heyday, the Brits called their worldwide power projection "the wars of empire," Dudziak points out. She goes on to contend that one reason we label World War II "the good war" is that we accept an idealized notion that it had a discreet beginning and end, that our "peacetime" society was little deformed by it.

Such a defined timescale was certainly not the case in the Cold War (1945-1989) as all the many commentators on the ascendancy of the national security state (think Chomsky, Zinn and Johnson) have taught us. Dudziak discusses the interesting point that, after beginning in a frenzy of fear that led to McCarthyism and other assaults on U.S. civil liberties, at length the craziness subsided.

If repression of political rights during the late 1940s and 1950s was caused by the Cold War, why did the domestic scene change [in the 1960s]? Some scholars argue, explicitly or implicitly, that the domestic Cold War ended in the late 1950s, when the impact on rIghts is less measurable. … The legal scholars Eric Posner and Adrian Vermeule have a different explanation for why this might have happened. They argue that crises, including wars, "have a half-life, and will decay over time." The reaction to the crisis will recede both because emotional reactions will abate and because "the government will downgrade its threat assessment, and judges will worry less and less about the harms from blocking emergency measures."

Let's hope these guys are right about half-lives, because we've been stuck in a phony "war time" since 9/11 that shows little likelihood of abating. Leaders of both political parties have embraced it. And they have enjoyed an only weakly constrained increase in executive power. Perhaps if, on 9/11 we'd had a President of broad vision who was not surrounded by such authoritarian monsters as Dick Cheney and David Addington, we might have responded to the horror of that day as we should have, by recognizing that an extraordinarily successful made-for-TV movie was no existential threat to the country and certainly no reason to undo our history of law and liberty. We could have grieved, used our power and the outpouring of international sympathy to catch the perps, and brought them to justice in courts of law. But no:

It was President George W. Bush who ultimately brought narrative closure to this ambiguous moment. On September 11 he spoke of evil acts and of national resolve, but on September 12 he was clearer: "The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror," he announced. "They were acts of war." This was "a new kind of war," he added the next day. The perpetrators were not horrific criminals. They were not even terrorists, as that word had been understood before. They were, in essence, a new kind of terrorist, able to make war on the most powerful nation on earth. Placing them in the category of warrior might have ennobled them, but this "new kind of war" was against an enemy that would not warrant the honor or protection that historically a warring nation accorded its foe.

Calling the attacks of September 11 an act of war, and characterizing the US. response as a war, was a narrative move of great significance. If war had commenced, the nation had entered an exceptional state, a new time-zone when the usual rules would not apply. The American people would surely have accorded the president some form of extraordinary deference and authority in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 in any case. By signaling that a war had begun, the president signaled the beginning of wartime, an era of enhanced presidential power, which would only come to a close when the war came to an end.

And so, here we are, a lawless rogue state that tortures, "detains," and assassinates with an assumption of timeless unlimited impunity -- because we are living in "war time."

Some of us worked to elect President Obama in the hope that he was simply too intelligent to continue to propagate the essential lie that is this a permanent "war." But no, though he has modified the war's form -- eschewing full scale invasions "of choice," preferring targeted killing and high tech "assistance" to favored friends. And he has set some ostensible limits to the horrors U.S. operatives are allowed to visit on the phony war's captives -- though these are just easily revocable executive orders, shot through with loopholes and exceptions. The world may actually be a little better off with this President whose bellicosity is more intelligently directed, but neither civil liberties nor the international regime of basic human rights has gained much from replacing Bush with Obama. And yes, Romney, a dishonest, self-aggrandizing fellow, would probably be worse.

Anyone who gives a damn about the future of this country and planet needs to be working to end the phony "wartime." Big job, but we have no choice.


Kay Dennison said...

Thank you!!!

Jane Meyerding said...

Denise Levertov: "nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness, /
the deep intelligence living at peace would have." Complete poem here:

Classof65 said...

I've been waiting for Obama to repeal the Patriot Act -- I thought he said he would do it...and that he would close Guantanamo...

Otherwise we simply have "1984" a few years late. Eternal war -- except the government is not blaming war for shortages or high prices -- yet.