A Very Bad Habit

A friend of mine, who describes himself as suffering from "adult-onset Judaism," takes his Wednesday lunches off to meet with a group of similar sufferers and a rabbi and discuss faith, practice and other important things. It sounds like a nice way to spend part of a workday in the dark and dismal land of Mordor.

Occasionally, when we aren’t glowering at each other over political issues — he’s generally supportive of Bush and the Iraq war, though he’s more a "thoughtful" supporter than a chest thumper (like you, I have a hard time believing anyone who supports such a war could be called thoughtful, but let’s set that aside for the time being) — we talk about our respective religious experiences and journeys. There, despite the fact that he was born Jewish and rediscovered the faith part of Judaism only later in life, while I was raised without faith, became a militant Muslim for a time, and am now bound for a Lutheran seminary this fall, we have found a fair amount of common ground.

To prove to me that he is not the rabid, government-loving and war-mongering fiend I often want to think he is, he expresses his doubts — in the most general way, and not specifically; he saves specifics for past actions, things long dead and done — about government action, including war. For example, he says all his friends consider him a libertarian rather than a conservative. And he said he’d like to have a license plate for his Toyota hybrid that says "LTD GOVT" as a way of expressing his sympathies (cute, no?). And to be honest, nearly two years of having to deal with the often-times rabid anarchist that I have become (just about anybody is more supportive of the US government than I am) and my incessant loaded questions on the morality of the Iraq war has, by his own admission, had an effect on him.

If nothing else, he told me, I’ve forced him to think about things. I am fortunate, I suppose, that he has not punched me in the nose. Especially the day I called him a "fascist."

Anyway, one day, my friend said, in response to a discussion about the willingness and eagerness of US governments to bomb people, that his rabbi told his study group recently, "war is a bad habit to get into."

A nice way to put it, I said. And then I asked him: "How much war is too much? When does it become a habit?"

Having perfected the brilliant, non-specific, non-answer, he shrugged. He is not as sure of the answers to these things as I am, he told me.

Another point I’m happy to admit. Because it is clear to me, as it should be clear to any thoughtful human being, that war has become an American habit. A bad one. The United States of America has been at war for nearly all of the last 15 years, more or less continually since August 1990. Under two Bushes and a Clinton, American arms and soldiers have deployed hither and yon to the deserts of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the denuded hills and fields of Haiti, the hardscrabble beaches of Somalia, the villages and cities of Kosovo, the mountains of Afghanistan, and again and again and again to the poor and benighted land of Iraq. (Oh, and let’s not forget all those military "advisers" in Colombia, and the thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines manning the far-flung marches of the global empire, from Bulgaria to Diego Garcia to Tajikistan.) American bombs and missiles have taken aim at targets continually in Iraq, smote the wicked in Bosnia, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, and obliterated a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan.

But why stop there, with that fateful August of 1990? Twenty-three years earlier, the summer of 1967 when I was born, was a season not only for a little bit of Love (for those few who decided to tune in, turn on and drop out) but also a whole lot of war, in Vietnam and vicinity, another land full of poor, proud and resolute people who probably wondered in their spare moments exactly what it was they had ever done to deserve the full wrath of the United States of America. My father, an Army officer, fought in that war, and would go on to spend a good portion of his military career figuring out how to shoot down ballistic missiles. As an engineer and project manager for an armaments maker, he would spend the rest of the 1970s and much of the 1980s doing very similar work.

If you count the Cold War — the very Cold War that kept my father and so many like him employed in the giant weapons laboratories and factories of Southern California — as World War III (and why not?), beginning in March 1946 with the civil war in Greece or the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in May 1948 and ending either with Ronald’s Reagan declaration of its end in 1988 or the actual fall of the Berlin Wall the following year, the United States of America was at war in one form or another for more than 40 years.

And we can rattle off the names of all the places that have seen American soldiers or been struck by American bombs since V-J Day in 1945 like a travelogue of the tormented damned — Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Cambodia, Laos, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Panama. I’m certain there are a few of them that I’ve missed. If we count places where only advisers helped, where proxy wars were fought, where the existence of petty rightist tyrannies were dubbed essential to the survival of "The Free World," we can add to that list: Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Angola, Zaire, Ethiopia and Somalia. And I’m certain there are more of those places I’ve forgotten, too.

(In fact, I think all the countries deliberately attacked by the United States since 1946 could sit down and form an international organization of their very own, a League of the Bombed, one that could rival the Non-Aligned Movement for membership and FIFA for enthusiasm.)

Except for two years — or a year, depending on how you calculate it, and even that is broken by several weeks "at war" in Panama in 1989 — Americans and their government have been at war, in one form or another, for nearly all of the last 60 years.

Sixty years. A habit? Clearly. An obsession and a compulsion, too.

War, the practice for war, the expectation of war — the fear it loomed over the horizon, across the North Pole, under the bed, or just the other side of the Fulda Gap — has been our normal for just about all of these last six decades. It has warped our economy in such a way that I’m not sure we even know what peaceful capitalism without government meddling is anymore. Since the end of the Second World War, the country’s economy has been tightly bound to the warfare state. In fact, a number of high-placed thinkers concluded in the late 1940s that the economy of the modern managed state could not function without the constant planning and preparation for war to suck up all the "excess" production that so terrified capitalists and the emerging managerial elite in the late 19th century and again in the 1930s. Look at the world around you — what isn’t the result or an offshoot of some part of the permanent American welfare/warfare state?

But it has also warped our national mindset, character and worldview. We are not a free people anymore, if we ever were (and likely, 100 years ago or more, we were). We have become a frightened, anxious and extremely self-centered people, terrified of the world we live in and the people we share it with. Most importantly, war has made us servile, that ugly combination of passive and aggressive, sycophantic to superiors and cruel to inferiors, bored and impatient at the same time. Servility is the personal attribute most needed by the state, for it makes effective management possible. It also makes war an easy habit for the state to cultivate. At the same time, warfare and the constant preparation for it breed authoritarian hierarchies and more servility, for the state needs compliant men and women unwilling and unable to think about the consequences of what they do. It needs them to be killers on one hand, and quiet, dutiful consumers on the other — frequently at the same time. It also needs loyal commanders who will believe in the state, who will make its means and ends their own, who will give the kinds of orders — the torture of individuals, the annihilation of cities — that will be considered rational and reasonable, and will be obeyed.

Only nation-states can plan and organize for this kind of war, because only states can muster the resources needed to denature and degrade human beings so totally. Only the modern state, with schools, media, churches, armies, bureaus, laws, regulations, propaganda and social pressure, can infiltrate Men’s souls in such a way as to thoroughly alter and destroy them from the inside. That’s why nearly every total state created since the latter part of the 19th century eventually gave us war of one kind or another, because war is the natural result when you treat individual human beings — each a child of the living God — as mere resources to be managed.

Americans of each generation since 1945 have wondered in stupefied awe how Germans could have just served their government in the Nazi era, how they could have "simply followed orders" they must have known were wrong. Mostly, those questions involve the mass murder of European Jews, and not the actual waging of war (which is odd in and of itself, if you think about it). But there is a very American version of this claim, one which may puzzle future historians and ethicists almost as much as the German one vexes us today — "that’s above my pay grade."

Who hasn’t heard that phrase? It’s everywhere in the US government, and not just the Pentagon (I ran into it several times at USDA during my stint covering the place, a good excuse — even possibly a real one — not to give the wire service reporter information he has just asked for). And given how deeply the Defense Department, especially contracting for the Pentagon, has penetrated suburban life in this country, it’s everywhere outside the government too.

The phrase describes perfectly the nature of being a human cog in a giant machine, a machine whose parts are made of the blood and flesh of denatured human beings, of men and women degraded and deprived of their essence as conscious moral beings. "I am not paid to think about the consequences of what I am doing, that job is done by someone else, someone with a higher rank and more responsibility than me. I will simply do my job the way I was told and hope nothing bad happens to me. I have a mortgage, a family, a pension to worry about." It is why the President of the United States can give a bad order, or set a stupid and murderous policy in motion, and no one inside the hierarchy will question, even when many people in that same hierarchy can see disaster coming. All the way down the line, no one (or almost no one) says "no," or "stop," or even "wait," because the person they are immediately accountable to accepts either the legitimacy of the order or the legitimacy of the system which transmitted the order.

And so monstrous evil is done. By our loved ones, our neighbors, our family members, fellow parishioners — people few of us would generally conceive of as evil. People who, when acting as human beings rather than as badly molded pieces in a great and awful machine, would never hurt, kill or steal.

I enlisted in the US Army in the summer of 1985, and part of the curricula the sergeants at Ft. Leonard Wood drilled into our mushy little heads that summer involved lawful orders and the Geneva Convention. In fact, we spent a whole afternoon going over what orders we, as soldiers, were required to obey and — more importantly — which orders we were not required to obey. We were tested on the subject, and the drill instructors, most of whom had themselves joined the Army in the raggedy days following the end of the Vietnam War, took the matter seriously. We were told, in no uncertain terms, that we had the right to think, to question, to consider, and to say "no" if we understood or believed some wrong was about to be committed. Even as lowly privates making barely more than $500 per month, some things were clearly not above our pay grade.

Now, whether the Army actually intended that we use that training, I do not know. Given what I discovered serving in Panama, where immoral and illegal orders were issued regularly and were expected to be followed, I’m guessing much of that afternoon was window dressing, an effort to salve the consciences of men and women who like their sausage spicy but get queezy even contemplating how it’s made. These days, I do not know if soldiers even get such training, worthless or not. I won’t be surprised if they do not.

I’m not sure it would matter anyway.

No order, regulation, law or procedure that results in the destruction or degradation of human beings is worth following or supporting, and no authority that gives such an order can ever be morally legitimate, regardless of how "legal" or duly constituted it is. As an individual human being, nothing is above my pay grade, and the same holds for you too. Such a saying is not worthy of free men and women, of men and women made in the image and of the essence of a merciful and compassionate God. That talk is the talk of slaves, of people who serve cruel and capricious masters, who only care how full their bellies are, who have abandoned any sense of ownership of their own fates and any sense they have anything in common with the rest of humanity.

In short, it is the talk of Americans, a servile people well-schooled in brutality and cruelty, and given almost totally over to the habits of war. And the habit of war.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.