War, What War? On the Fantasy and Usefulness of a Permanent State of Siege

"We are at war." The president's repeated statement is intended both as a statement of fact and a justification for power. It is invoked as an all-purpose defense, by the president and his admirers, of illegal wiretapping, severe interrogation techniques (i.e. torture), foreign renditions (i.e. outsourced torture), extended confinement without charge or trial, $400 billion deficits, and more. But is it true? And to which war does he refer? The one in Iraq or the one in Afghanistan, the drug war in Columbia, or the larger, all-encompassing one he pompously refers to as the Global War on Terror?

It doesn't matter. That the government is at war, no sane person would deny. But we are no more at war than we are governing the country, and that is true whether the plural pronoun refers to the peoples or people of America, the nation, or the country. To those who insist otherwise, I have a question, actually several. Is there a draft? Have war taxes been levied? Has there been war bond drive? Rationing? After 9-11, Bush even urged Americans to wage war on terror by going on vacation, "just to show 'em." Now what was the meaning of that except this: "you support us in everything we do, and give us your vote; and we shall ask NOTHING of you, no sacrifice of any kind, and you can go on as usual, just remember to vote Republican"?

Yet the fiction serves the purposes of the permanent government very well indeed. Without a war, how can they justify the commissioning of yet another aircraft carrier battle group? Or a new class of submarines? A new generation of fighter aircraft? Why continue to maintain garrisons in Germany and South Korea, naval bases in the Indian Ocean, air bases on Iceland, CIA stations in Saudi Arabia, or keep the Sixth Fleet cruising the Mediterranean Sea?

Since 1945, there has grown up a large group of citizens, all dependent for their livelihood upon the survival of the empire and a continuing state of war: military and naval officers and their dependents; soldiers and sailors and airmen and their children; intelligence agents and their dependents; the civilian national security bureaucracy and their dependents; the "defense" contractors and sub-contractors with their thousands of managers, engineers, employees; stockholders of the same; all who formerly worked for any of the above and who are dependent on pensions; foreign policy think-tank intellectuals; scientists and academic researchers whose defense-related work is funded by the government; civilians whose businesses are dependent upon nearby military bases or defense factories; local governments dependent on that tax revenue. Need I go on?

And there is something else: what happens when there is no longer a foreign enemy lurking in the forests, massing over the hills, or installing a bomb under the bed?

Readers who are over 40 will remember well the confusion, the consternation, the near-panic that gripped the ruling classes in the months and years following the end of the Cold War. Their problem can be summed up in a question, frequently asked in a tone of fear and complaint: "What do we do now?"

It was a scary time. First, there was irresponsible talk about a "peace dividend." Many of the naïve among the people assumed that since the long war was finally over, the government could reduce its "defense" expenditures, and either cut taxes commensurately, or spend the funds at home, building up the infrastructure perhaps, developing an alternative source of energy, improving the schools.

Well, the Gulf War put an end to that talk, at least for a while; and the peace dividend was invested in an expensive production known as the Sands of Kuwait (1990–91), starring Bush the Elder, and rising stars u2018Stormin' Norman, and Colin "I was born in Jamaica, but rose through the ranks" Powell. No film has done better at the box office.

The swiftness and ease of that victory created a new problem. How to persuade the American public to fear the foreign enemy when there did not appear to be one? Certainly none worth fearing. A succession of villains were auditioned for the role – Saddam, Latin American drug lords, China, revanchist Russia – but none seemed able to scare the audience. The neocons tried another gambit: they suggested that the world was more dangerous now that Soviet Union had collapsed and was no longer able to police its half of the world. See Robert Kaplan's "The Coming Anarchy" in The Atlantic Monthly (February 1994). Their solution: "Universal Dominion." The phrase was coined by Charles Krauthammer in an article in the 1989/90 issue of the National Interest, but the neocons settled on the more felicitous phrase Pax Americana, suggestive both of American benevolence and the glory that was Rome. It didn't work.

The public turned their gaze home, and many did not like what they saw: gargantuan deficits, crumbling infrastructure, a health care morass, immigrants pouring into the heartland, an irresponsive and incompetent bureaucracy. And there was a dangerous resurgence of isolationism, Pat Buchanan going about talking like George McGovern or Charles Lindbergh: "When this Cold War is over," he wrote in 1989, "America should come home." Then he inscribed "America First" across the banners of his 1992 insurgent presidential campaign. (When George McGovern ran for president in 1972, his theme was "Come Home America." He got walloped for it, losing 48 states to two. The America First Committee, whose chief spokesman was Lindbergh, opposed American entry into the European and Pacific Wars, chiefly on the ground that it would not bring peace but a permanent state of war. How prophetic they were.)

Then there was that terrifying election. 1992 was the first presidential election year since 1936 that was devoted exclusively to domestic issues, and the electorate went into the voting booths agitated, angry, and unpredictable. First Buchanan ambushed the Bush coronation march in the snows of New Hampshire (seen by the party leaders as a dangerous manifestation of insolence, and maybe even incipient rebellion). Then Ross Perot, followed by millions of disaffected Americans who somehow had gotten into their head that they could elect whomever they wanted, marched on the White House. In the spring, Perot was actually running ahead of Bush and Clinton in the polls! And, although that revolution was averted, there seemed to be another one gathering in the militia camps of Idaho, listening to G. Gordon Liddy on the shortwave, awaiting instructions.

The decade taught a lesson of political management older than Machiavelli: there is no better way to deflect the pressure for domestic reform, to quiet unrest, to cauterize internal divisions, than by a war or the threat of impending attack. Not only had it worked during most of the Cold War, except for the dangerous interlude of the 60s, but it had worked earlier in the century, to perfection. See Walter Karp's neglected masterpiece The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic, 1890–1920 (1979).

The Meaning of 9-11

So 9-11 must and did come as a great relief to the permanent government, not because of the loss of life but for the opportunity it provided. Certainly the Bush administration wasted little time in declaring the advent of a new Cold War, even before they started a real one by invading Mesopotamia. And there was the Patriot Act, ready to be pulled from the shelf at the right moment.

Only weeks after that horrific day in New York, the Secretary of Defense was describing the War on Terror as a sequel to the Cold War, sure to last just as long and require the same commitment of resources. While on a visit to the imperial province of Egypt (October 2001), Rumsfeld told reporters: "In the Cold War it took 50 years, plus or minus. It did not involve major battles. It involved continuous pressure. It involved cooperation by a host of nations." Actually, the Cold War lasted a little over forty years, but Rumsfeld apparently thought that too-constricting a precedent: why not half a century? Easier to remember and provides an extra ten years.

It was a few months before lesser officials began reading variations on the same talking points, explaining that the end could only be glimpsed by the most powerful telescopes or suggested by the prophecies of Nostradamus or the revelations of St. John.

Why mention a number? Was it wise to pick an end-date, even as far off as 2051? Why suggest that there would be an end? Didn't the unforeseen, sudden collapse of the Soviet Union teach them anything? Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a March 2002 interview, said the war would continue "as long as there are people out there who are willing to kill innocent people to pursue their objectives. We may never be finished, not in our lifetime." We may never be finished, and notice how he sees the enemy as far larger and more enduring than Islamic fanatics.

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, in an April 2002 speech to newspaper publishers, explained that this condition of permanent war was domestic as well as foreign. "We are at war. … The threat is real; it's as real as it was seven months ago. In fact, it is a permanent condition to which this country must permanently adapt."

Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee (February 24, 2004), Bush's CIA director, George Tenet, explained that the United States will be threatened by Islamic terrorism "for the foreseeable future," and he emphasized that not even the destruction of al-Qaeda would end the threat looming over us, or the war, which would go on and on and on until every last fool with a knife and a cause was apprehended.

The neoconservatives were there, as always, to provide the story line, along the lines of Steven Spielberg's, Band of Brothers. It is World War IV! Norman Podhoretz, who has been described as the godfather of the family, wrote an essay for Commentary (February 2002) titled, "How to Win World War IV," which suggested that the existence of such a war need no longer be demonstrated or proved. How to win it, that was the question. "This is going to be a long war, very long indeed," said former CIA director James Woolsey (a Clinton neocon), in a November 2002 speech. "I hope not as long as the Cold War, 40 plus years," he reassured us," but certainly longer than either World War I or World War II. I rather imagine it's going to be measured, I'm afraid, in decades." Actually he's not afraid at all, but he wants us to be afraid, so afraid that we hand over to him the charter of our liberties and a permanent lien on our income.

How well the strategy has worked can be measured by the success of the Republican Party, controlling all three branches of the government for the first time since the 1920s, and by the political apathy and indifference that now prevails among the vast majority of the public; also, by the conspicuous absence of the phrase "cutting defense spending," whenever politicians or journalists have discussed ways of reducing the deficit.

A friend suggested to me that the Cold War had not only seriously damaged the health and vitality of our political culture but that it had produced a psychological change among Americans, that it had created an imperial culture and an imperial mind, that was no longer even remotely related to the freedom-loving culture that won the War of Independence. I admit he had a point. Certainly millions of Americans seem to have an emotional attachment to the American empire, but there are millions who do not.

Certainly the Republicans and the evangelicals are hopeless. What we are experiencing is a recrudescence of the Lincoln Republican Party, dedicated as it was to the unholy trinity of moralism, militarism, and money (i.e. paper money and money obtained by government contract and subsidy). But there are Americans still loyal to the older and better tradition of liberty and peace, and there are others, the apolitical center and the youth, who are bound to become fed up with the war, the fear-mongering, and the pseudo-patriotism. Then are the Democrats (even some of the leaders – Byrd, Murtha, Moran) who are rediscovering their populist and libertarian roots. So I not only hope … I believe the bloody reign of the neocons and theocons will soon come to an end.

February 3, 2006