How Serial War Became the American Way of Life

On July 16, in a speech
to the Economic Club of Chicago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said
that the "central question" for the defense of the United States was
how the military should be "organized, equipped -- and funded -- in the
years ahead, to win the wars we are in while being prepared for threats
on or beyond the horizon." The phrase beyond the horizon ought
to sound ominous. Was Gates telling his audience of civic-minded
business leaders to spend more money on defense in order to counter
threats whose very existence no one could answer for? Given the public
acceptance of American militarism, he could speak in the knowledge that
the awkward challenge would never be posed.

We have begun to talk casually about our wars; and this
should be surprising for several reasons. To begin with, in the history
of the United States war has never been considered the normal state of
things. For two centuries, Americans were taught to think war itself an
aberration, and "wars" in the plural could only have seemed doubly
aberrant. Younger generations of Americans, however, are now being
taught to expect no end of war -- and no end of wars.

For anyone born during World War II, or in the early years of the Cold
War, the hope of international progress toward the reduction of armed
conflict remains a palpable memory. After all, the menace of the Axis
powers, whose state apparatus was fed by wars, had been stopped
definitively by the concerted action of Soviet Russia, Great Britain,
and the United States. The founding of the United Nations extended a
larger hope for a general peace. Organizations like the Committee for a
Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and the Union of Concerned Scientists
reminded people in the West, as well as in the Communist bloc, of a
truth that everyone knew already: the world had to advance beyond war.
The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut called this brief interval
"the Second Enlightenment" partly because of the unity of desire for a
world at peace. And the name Second Enlightenment is far from absurd.
The years after the worst of wars were marked by a sentiment of
universal disgust with the very idea of war.

In the 1950s, the only possible war between the great powers, the U.S.
and the Soviet Union, would have been a nuclear war; and the horror of
assured destruction was so monstrous, the prospect of the aftermath so
unforgivable, that the only alternative appeared to be a design for
peace. John F. Kennedy saw this plainly when he pressed for
ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty -- the greatest achievement
of his administration.

He signed it on October 7, 1963, six weeks before he was killed, and it
marked the first great step away from war in a generation. Who could
have predicted that the next step would take 23 years, until the
imagination of Ronald Reagan took fire from the imagination of Mikhail
Gorbachev in Reykjavik? The delay after Reykjavik has now lasted almost
another quarter-century; and though Barack Obama speaks the language of
progress, it is not yet clear whether he has the courage of Kennedy or
the imagination of Gorbachev and Reagan.

Forgetting Vietnam

In the twentieth century, as in the nineteenth, smaller wars have
"locked in" a mentality for wars that last a decade or longer. The
Korean War put Americans in the necessary state of fear to permit the
conduct of the Cold War -- one of whose shibboleths, the identification
of the island of Formosa as the real China, was developed by the
pro-war lobby around the Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek.
Yet the Korean War took place in some measure under U.N. auspices, and
neither it nor the Vietnam War, fierce and destructive as they were,
altered the view that war as such was a relic of the barbarous past.

Vietnam was the by-product of a "containment" policy against the Soviet
Union that spun out of control: a small counterinsurgency that grew to
the scale of almost unlimited war. Even so, persistent talk of peace --
of a kind we do not hear these days -- formed a counterpoint to the
last six years of Vietnam, and there was never a suggestion that
another such war would naturally follow because we had enemies
everywhere on the planet and the way you dealt with enemies was to
invade and bomb.

America's failure of moral awareness when it came to Vietnam had little
to do with an enchantment with war as such. In a sense the opposite was
true. The failure lay, in large part, in a tendency to treat the war as
a singular "nightmare," beyond the reach of history; something that
happened to us, not something we did. A belief was shared by opponents
and supporters of the war that nothing like this must ever be allowed to happen to us again.

So the lesson of Vietnam came to be: never start a war without knowing
what you want to accomplish and when you intend to leave. Colin Powell
gave his name to the new doctrine; and by converting the violence of
any war into a cost-benefit equation, he helped to erase the
consciousness of the evil we had done in Vietnam. Powell's symptomatic
and oddly heartless
warning to George W. Bush about invading Iraq -- "You break it, you own
it" -- expresses the military pragmatism of this state of mind.

For more than a generation now, two illusions have dominated American
thinking about Vietnam. On the right, there has been the idea that we
"fought with one hand tied behind our back." (In fact the only weapons
the U.S. did not use in Indochina were nuclear.) Within the liberal
establishment, on the other hand, a lone-assassin theory is preferred:
as with the Iraq War, where the blame is placed on Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld, so with Vietnam the culprit of choice has become
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

This convenient narrowing of the responsibility for Vietnam became, if
anything, more pronounced after the death of McNamara on July 6th. Even
an honest and unsparing obituary like Tim Weiner's in the New York Times
peeled away from the central story relevant actors like Secretary of
State Dean Rusk and General William Westmoreland. Meanwhile, President
Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger seem to
have dematerialized entirely -- as if they did nothing more than
"inherit" the war. The truth is that Kissinger and Nixon extended the
Vietnam War and compounded its crimes. One need only recall the transmission
of a startling presidential command in a phone call by Kissinger to his
deputy Alexander Haig. The U.S. would commence, said Kissinger, "a
massive bombing campaign in Cambodia [using] anything that flies on
anything that moves."

No more than Iraq was Vietnam a war with a single architect or in the
interest of a single party. The whole American political establishment
-- and for as long as possible, the public culture as well -- rallied
to the war and questioned the loyalty of its opponents and resisters.
Public opinion was asked to admire, and did not fail to support, the
Vietnam War through five years under President Lyndon Johnson; and
Nixon, elected in 1968 on a promise to end it with honor, was not held
to account when he carried it beyond his first term and added an
atrocious auxiliary war in Cambodia.

Yet ever since Senator Joe McCarthy accused the Democrats of "twenty
years of treason" -- the charge that, under presidents Franklin Delano
Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the U.S. had lost a war against Communist
agents at home we did not even realize we were fighting -- it has
become a folk truth of American politics that the Republican Party is
the party that knows about wars: how to bring them on and how to end

Practically, this means that Democrats must be at pains to show
themselves more willing to fight than they may feel is either prudent
or just. As the legacy of Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton attests, and
as the first half year of Obama has confirmed, Democratic presidents
feel obliged either to start or to widen wars in order to prove
themselves worthy of every kind of trust. Obama indicated his grasp of
the logic of the Democratic candidate in time of war as early as the
primary campaign of 2007, when he assured the military and political
establishments that withdrawal from Iraq would be compensated for by a
larger war in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

We are now close to codifying a pattern by which a new president is
expected never to give up one war without taking on another.

From Humanitarian Intervention to Wars of Choice

Our confidence that our selection of wars will be warranted and our
killings pardoned by the relevant beneficiaries comes chiefly from the
popular idea of what happened in Kosovo. Yet the eleven weeks of NATO
bombings from March through June 1999 -- an apparent exertion of
humanity (in which not a single plane was shot down) in the cause of a
beleaguered people -- was also a test of strategy and weapons.

Kosovo, in this sense, was a larger specimen of the sort of test war
launched in 1983 by Ronald Reagan in Grenada (where an invasion
ostensibly to protect resident Americans also served as aggressive
cover for the president's retreat from Lebanon), and in 1989 by George
H.W. Bush in Panama (where an attack on an unpopular dictator served as
a trial run for the weapons and propaganda of the First Gulf War a year
later). The NATO attack on the former Yugoslavia in defense of Kosovo
was also a public war -- legal, happy, and just, as far as the
mainstream media could see -- a war, indeed, organized in the open and
waged with a glow of conscience. The goodness of the bombing was
radiant on the face of Tony Blair. It was Kosovo more than any other
engagement of the past 50 years that prepared an American
military-political consensus in favor of serial wars against
transnational enemies of whatever sort.

An antidote to the humanitarian legend of the Kosovo war has been offered in a recent article by David Gibbs, drawn from his book First Do No Harm.
Gibbs shows that it was not the Serbs but the Kosovo Liberation Army
(KLA) that, in 1998, broke the terms of the peace agreement negotiated
by Richard Holbrooke and thus made a war inevitable. Nor was it
unreasonable for Serbia later to object to the American and European
demand that NATO peacekeepers enjoy "unrestricted passage and unimpeded
access" throughout Yugoslavia -- in effect, that it consent to be an
occupied country.

Americans were told that the Serbs in that war were oppressors while
Albanians were victims: a mythology that bears a strong resemblance to
later American reports of the guilty Sunnis and innocent Shiites of
Iraq. But the KLA, Gibbs recounts, "had a record of viciousness and
racism that differed little from that of [Serbian leader Slobodan]
Milosevic's forces." And far from preventing mass killings, the
"surgical strikes" by NATO only increased them. The total number killed
on both sides before the war was about 2,000. After the bombing and in
revenge for it, about 10,000 people were killed by Serb security
forces. Thus, the more closely one inquires the less tenable Kosovo
seems as a precedent for future humanitarian interventions.

Clinton and Kosovo rather than Bush and Iraq opened the period we are
now living in. Behind the legitimation of both wars, however, lies a
broad ideological investment in the idea of "just wars" -- chiefly, in
practice, wars fought by the commercial democracies in the name of
democracy, to advance their own interests without an unseemly
overbalance of conspicuous selfishness. Michael Ignatieff, a just-war
theorist who supported both the Kosovo and Iraq wars, published an
influential article on the invasion of Iraq, "The American Empire: The Burden," in New York Times Magazine
on January 5, 2003, only weeks before the onset of "shock and awe."
Ignatieff asked whether the American people were generous enough to
fight the war our president intended to start against Iraq. For this
was, he wrote,

"a defining moment in America's long debate with itself
about whether its overseas role as an empire threatens or strengthens
its existence as a republic. The American electorate, while still
supporting the president, wonders whether his proclamation of a war
without end against terrorists and tyrants may only increase its
vulnerability while endangering its liberties and its economic health
at home. A nation that rarely counts the cost of what it really values
now must ask what the 'liberation' of Iraq is worth."

A Canadian living in the U.S., Ignatieff went on to endorse the war as
a matter of American civic duty, with an indulgent irony for its

"Regime change is an imperial task par excellence,
since it assumes that the empire's interest has a right to trump the
sovereignty of a state... Regime change also raises the difficult
question for Americans of whether their own freedom entails a duty to
defend the freedom of others beyond their borders... Yet it remains a
fact -- as disagreeable to those left wingers who regard American
imperialism as the root of all evil as it is to the right-wing
isolationists, who believe that the world beyond our shores is none of
our business -- that there are many peoples who owe their freedom to an
exercise of American military power... There are the Bosnians, whose
nation survived because American air power and diplomacy forced an end
to a war the Europeans couldn't stop. There are the Kosovars, who would
still be imprisoned in Serbia if not for Gen. Wesley Clark and the Air
Force. The list of people whose freedom depends on American air and
ground power also includes the Afghans and, most inconveniently of all,
the Iraqis."

And why stop there? To Ignatieff, the example of Kosovo was central and
persuasive. The people who could not see the point were "those left
wingers" and "isolationists." By contrast, the strategists and soldiers
willing to bear the "burden" of empire were not only the party of the
far-seeing and the humane, they were also the realists, those who knew
that nothing good can come without a cost -- and that nothing so marks
a people for greatness as a succession of triumphs in a series of just

The Wars Beyond the Horizon

Couple the casualty-free air war that NATO conducted over Yugoslavia
with the Powell doctrine of multiple wars and safe exits, and you
arrive somewhere close to the terrain of the Af-Pak war of the present
moment. A war in one country may now cross the border into a second
with hardly a pause for public discussion or a missed step in
appropriations. When wars were regarded as, at best, a necessary evil,
one asked about a given war whether it was strictly necessary. Now that
wars are a way of life, one asks rather how strong a foothold a war
plants in its region as we prepare for the war to follow.

A new-modeled usage has been brought into English to ease the change
of view. In the language of think-tank papers and journalistic profiles
over the past two years, one finds a strange conceit beginning to be
presented as matter-of-fact: namely the plausibility of the U.S.
mapping with forethought a string of wars. Robert Gates put the latest
thinking into conventional form, once again, on 60 Minutes
in May. Speaking of the Pentagon's need to focus on the war in
Afghanistan, Gates said: "I wanted a department that frankly could walk
and chew gum at the same time, that could wage war as we are doing now,
at the same time we plan and prepare for tomorrow's wars."

The weird prospect that this usage -- "tomorrow's wars" -- renders
routine is that we anticipate a good many wars in the near future. We
are the ascendant democracy, the exceptional nation in the world of
nations. To fight wars is our destiny and our duty. Thus the word
"wars" -- increasingly in the plural -- is becoming the common way we
identify not just the wars we are fighting now but all the wars we
expect to fight.

A striking instance of journalistic adaptation to the new language appeared in Elisabeth Bumiller's recent New York Times
profile of a key policymaker in the Obama administration,
Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy. Unlike her
best-known predecessor in that position, Douglas Feith -- a
neoconservative evangelist for war who defined out of existence the
rights of prisoners-of-war -- Flournoy is not an ideologue. The article
celebrates that fact. But how much comfort should we take from the
knowledge that a calm careerist today naturally inclines to a plural
acceptance of "our wars"? Flournoy's job, writes Bumiller,

"boils down to this: assess the threats against the
United States, propose the strategy to counter them, then put it into
effect by allocating resources within the four branches of the armed
services. A major question for the Q.D.R. [Quadrennial Defense Review],
as it is called within the Pentagon, is how to balance preparations for
future counterinsurgency wars, like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, with
plans for conventional conflicts against well-equipped potential
adversaries, like North Korea, China or Iran.

"Another quandary, given that the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan
have lasted far longer than the American involvement in World War II,
is how to prepare for conflicts that could tie up American forces for

Notice the progression of the nouns in this passage: threats, wars,
conflicts, decades. Our choice of wars for a century may be varied with
as much cunning as our choice of cars once was. The article goes on to
admire the coolness of Flournoy's manner in an idiom of aesthetic

"Already Ms. Flournoy is a driving force behind a new
military strategy that will be a central premise of the Q.D.R., the
concept of 'hybrid' war, which envisions the conflicts of tomorrow as a
complex mix of conventional battles, insurgencies and cyber threats.
'We're trying to recognize that warfare may come in a lot of different
flavors in the future,' Ms. Flournoy said."

Between the reporter's description of a "complex mix" and the planner's
talk of "a lot of different flavors," it is hard to know whether we are
sitting in a bunker or at the kitchen table. But that is the point. We
are coming to look on our wars as a trial of ingenuity and an exercise
of taste.

Why the Constitution Says Little About Wars

A very different view of war was taken by America's founders. One of
their steadiest hopes -- manifest in the scores of pamphlets they wrote
against the British Empire and the checks against war powers built into
the Constitution itself -- was that a democracy like the United States
would lead irresistibly away from the conduct of wars. They supposed
that wars were an affair of kings, waged in the interest of
aggrandizement, and also an affair of the hereditary landed aristocracy
in the interest of augmented privilege and unaccountable wealth. In no
respect could wars ever serve the interest of the people. Machiavelli,
an analyst of power whom the founders read with care, had noticed that
"the people desire to be neither commanded nor oppressed," whereas "the
powerful desire to command and oppress." Only an appetite for command
and oppression could lead someone to adopt an ethic of continuous wars.

In the third of the Federalist Papers,
written to persuade the former colonists to ratify the Constitution,
John Jay argued that, in the absence of a constitutional union, the
multiplication of states would have the same unhappy effect as a
proliferation of hostile countries. One cause of the wars of Europe in
the eighteenth century, as the founders saw it, had been the sheer
number of states, each with its own separate selfish appetites; so,
too, in America, the states, as they increased in number, would draw
external jealousies and heighten the divisions among themselves. "The
Union," wrote Jay, "tends most to preserve the people in a state of
peace with other nations."

A democratic and constitutional union, he went on to say in Federalist 4,
would act more wisely than absolute monarchs in the knowledge that
"there are pretended as well as just causes of war." Among the
pretended causes favored by the monarchs of Europe, Jay numbered:

"a thirst for military glory, revenge for personal
affronts; ambition or private compacts to aggrandize or support their
particular families, or partisans. These and a variety of motives,
which affect only the mind of the Sovereign, often lead him to engage
in wars not sanctified by justice, or the voice and interests of his

When, thought Jay, the people are shorn of their slavish dependence, so
that they no longer look to a sovereign outside themselves and count
themselves as "his people," the motives for war will be proportionately

This was not a passing theme for the Federalist writers. Alexander Hamilton took it up again in Federalist 6,
when he spoke of "the causes of hostility among nations," and ranked
above all other causes "the love of power or the desire of preeminence
and dominion": the desire, in short, to sustain a reputation as the
first of powers and to control an empire. Pursuing, in Federalist 7,
the same subject of insurance against "the wars that have desolated the
earth," Hamilton proposed that the federal government could serve as an
impartial umpire in the Western territory, which might otherwise become
"an ample theatre for hostile pretensions."

Consider the prominence of these views. Four of the first seven Federalist Papers
offer, as a prime reason for the founding of the United States, the
belief that, by doing so, America will more easily avert the infection
of the multiple wars that have desolated Europe. This was the implicit
consensus of the founders. Not only Jay and Hamilton, but also George
Washington in his Farewell Address, and James Madison and Benjamin
Franklin, and John Adams as well as John Quincy Adams. It was so much
part of the idealism that swept the country in the 1780s that Thomas
Paine could allude to the sentiment in a passing sentence of The Rights of Man. Paine there asserted what Jay and Hamilton in the Federalist Papers took for granted: "Europe is too thickly planted with kingdoms to be long at peace."

Have we now grown too used to the employment of our army, navy, and air
force to be long at peace, or even to contemplate peace? To speak of a
perpetual war against "threats" beyond the horizon, as the Bush
Pentagon did, and now the Obama Pentagon does, is to evade the question
whether any of the wars is, properly speaking, a war of self-defense.

At the bottom of that evasion lies the idea of the United States as a
nation destined for serial wars. The very idea suggests that we now
have a need for an enemy at all times that exceeds the citable evidence
of danger at any given time. In The Sorrows of Empire,
Chalmers Johnson gave a convincing account of the economic rationale of
the American national security state, its industrial and military base,
and its manufacturing outworks.

It is not only the vast extent and power of our standing army that
stares down every motion toward reform. Nor is the cause entirely
traceable to our pursuit of refined weapons and lethal technology, or
the military bases with which the U.S. has encircled the globe, or the
financial interests, the Halliburtons and Raytheons, the DynCorps and
Blackwaters that combine against peace with demands in excess of the
British East India Company at the height of its influence. There is a
deeper puzzle in the relationship of the military itself to the rest of
American society. For the American military now encompasses an officer
class with the character and privileges of a native aristocracy, and a
rank-and-file for whom the best possibilities of socialism have been

Barack Obama has compared the change he aims to accomplish in foreign
policy to the turning of a very large ship at sea. The truth is that,
in Obama's hands, "force projection" by the U.S. has turned already,
but in more than one direction. He has set internal rhetorical limits
on our provocations to war by declining to speak, as his predecessor
did, of the spread of democracy by force or the feasibility of regime
change as a remedy for grievances against hostile countries. And yet we
may be certain that none of the wars the new undersecretary of defense
for policy is preparing will be a war of pure self-defense -- the only
kind of war the American founders would have countenanced. None of the
current plans, to judge by Bumiller's article, is aimed at guarding the
U.S. against a power that could overwhelm us at home. To find such a
power, we would have to search far beyond the horizon.

The future wars of choice for the Defense Department appear to be wars
of heavy bombing and light-to-medium occupation. The weapons will be
drones in the sky and the soldiers will be, as far as possible, special
forces operatives charged with executing "black ops" from village to
village and tribe to tribe. It seems improbable that such wars -- which
will require free passage over sovereign states for the Army, Marines,
and Air Force, and the suppression of native resistance to occupation
-- can long be pursued without de facto
reliance on regime change. Only a puppet government can be thoroughly
trusted to act against its own people in support of a foreign power.

Such are the wars designed and fought today in the name of American
safety and security. They embody a policy altogether opposed to an
idealism of liberty that persisted from the founding of the U.S. far
into the twentieth century. It is easy to dismiss the contrast that
Washington, Paine, and others drew between the morals of a republic and
the appetites of an empire. Yet the point of that contrast was simple,
literal, and in no way elusive. It captured a permanent truth about
citizenship in a democracy. You cannot, it said, continue a free people
while accepting the fruits of conquest and domination. The passive
beneficiaries of masters are also slaves.

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