The bloom on the rose of war eventually fades, leaving only the thorns. By the time this takes place, most everyone has already begun the national task of averting the eyes from the thorns, meaning the awful reality, the dashed hopes, the expense, the lame, the limbless, the widows, the orphans, the death on all sides, and the resulting instability. The people who still take an interest are those who first took an interest in war: the power elite, who began the war for purposes very different from that which they sold to the public at the outset.
Thus does the American public not care much about Iraq. It is not quite as invisible as other nations that were the subject of national obsessions in the recent past. Hardly anyone knows who or what is running El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Libya, Serbia, or Somalia, or any of the other formerly strategic countries that once engaged national attention.
In fact, the president of Nicaragua, Enrique Bolanos (never heard of him, huh?) is visiting the White House next week in hopes of soliciting support for the upcoming election, which could prove to be dicey since the old US nemesis Daniel Ortega is running and gaining some support on a consistently anti-US platform. Should he win, one can imagine the White House swinging into high gear about how Nicaragua is harboring communists, er…terrorists. Or maybe not. Maybe he will rule the country and never make a headline. It is all up to the state.
Why the state goes to war is not a mystery — at least the general reasons are not mysterious. War is an excuse for spending money on its friends. It can punish enemies that are not going with the program. It intimidates other states tempted to go their own way. It can pave the way for commercial interests linked to the state. The regime that makes and wins a war gets written up in the history books. So the reasons are the same now as in the ancient world: power, money, glory.
Why the bourgeoisie back war is another matter. It is self-evidently not in their interest. The government gains power at their expense. It spends their money and runs up debt that is paid out of taxes and inflation. It fosters the creation of permanent enemies abroad who then work to diminish our security at home. It leads to the violation of privacy and civil liberty. War is incompatible with a government that leaves people alone to develop their lives in an atmosphere of freedom.
Nonetheless, war with moral themes — we are the good guys working for God and they are the bad guys doing the devil’s work — tends to attract a massive amount of middle class support. People believe the lies, and, once exposed, they defend the right of the state to lie. People who are otherwise outraged by murder find themselves celebrating the same on a mass industrial scale. People who harbor no hatred toward foreigners find themselves attaching ghastly monikers to whole classes of foreign peoples. Regular middle class people, who otherwise struggle to eke out a flourishing life in this vale of tears, feel hatred well up within them and confuse it for honor, bravery, courage, and valor.
Why? Nationalism is one answer. To be at war is to feel at one with something much larger than oneself, to be a part of a grand historical project. They have absorbed the civic religion from childhood — Boston tea, cherry trees, log cabins, Chevrolet — but it mostly has no living presence in their minds until the state pushes the war button, and then all the nationalist emotions well up within them.
Nationalism is usually associated with attachment to a particular set of state managers that you think can somehow lead the country in a particular direction of which you approve. So the nationalism of the Iraq war was mostly a Republican Party phenomenon. All Democrats are suspected as being insufficiently loyal, of feeling sympathy for The Enemy, or defending such ideas as civil liberty at a time when the nation needs unity more than ever.
You could tell a Republican nationalist during this last war because the words peace and liberty were always said with a sneer, as if they didn’t matter at all. Even the Constitution came in for a pounding from these people. Bush did all he could to consolidate decision-making power unto himself, and even strongly suggested that he was acting on God’s orders as Commander in Chief, and his religious constitutionalist supporters went right along with it. They were willing to break as many eggs as necessary to make the war omelet. I’ve got an archive of a thousand hate mails to prove it.
But nationalism is not the only basis for bourgeois support for war. Long-time war correspondent Chris Hedges, in his great book War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (First Anchor, 2003) argues that war operates as a kind of canvas on which every member of the middle and working class can paint his or her own picture. Whatever personal frustrations exist in your life, however powerless you feel, war works as a kind of narcotic. It provides a means for people to feel temporarily powerful and important, as if they are part of some big episode in history. War then becomes for people a kind of lurching attempt to taste immortality. War gives their lives meaning.
Hedges doesn’t go this far but if you know something about the sociology of religion, you can recognize what he is speaking of: the sacraments. In Christian theology they are derived from periodic ceremonies in the Jewish tradition that cultivate the favor of God, who grants our lives transcendent importance. We receive sacraments as a means of gaining propitiation for our sins, an eternal blessing on worldly choices, or the very means of eternal life.
War is the devil’s sacrament. It promises to bind us not with God but with the nation state. It grants not life but death. It provides not liberty but slavery. It lives not on truth but on lies, and these lies are themselves said to be worthy of defense. It exalts evil and puts down the good. It is promiscuous in encouraging an orgy of sin, not self-restraint and thought. It is irrational and bloody and vicious and appalling. And it claims to be the highest achievement of man.
It is worse than mass insanity. It is mass wallowing in evil.
And then it is over. People oddly forget what took place. The rose wilts and the thorns grow but people go on with their lives. War no longer inspires. War news becomes uninteresting. All those arguments with friends and family — what were they about anyway? All that killing and expense and death — let’s just avert our eyes from it all. Maybe in a few years, once the war is out of the news forever and the country we smashed recovers some modicum of civilization, we can revisit the event and proclaim it glorious. But for now, let’s just say it never happened.
That seems to be just about where people stand these days with the Iraq War. Iraq is a mess, hundreds of thousands are killed and maimed, billions of dollars are missing, the debt is astronomical, and the world seethes in hatred toward the conquering empire. And what does the warmongering middle class have to say for itself? Pretty much what you might expect: nothing.
People have long accused the great liberal tradition of a dogmatic attachment to peace. It would appear that this is precisely what is necessary in order to preserve the freedom necessary for all of us to find true meaning in our lives.
Do we reject war and all its works? We do reject them.