By Anna Daniels
Almost one hundred years ago President Woodrow Wilson declared in vaulting prose that World War I was the war to end all wars, that it would make the world safe for democracy. The vaulting prose came to naught– the war to end all wars didn’t.
The reality is that the United States doesn’t wage peace with anywhere near the same commitment that it wages war. The veterans who march in the Veterans Day parades this week, as well as those who consciously choose not to, will represent a constant succession of wars, declared and undeclared, since World War II.
The Cold War. The Korean War. The Vietnam War. The Gulf War. The War in Afghanistan. The Iraq War.
How we think about war, conduct war and talk about war has undergone tremendous changes. The last time that Congress authorized the use of military force was in 2001.We now find ourselves in an Orwellian state of perpetual, low grade, undeclared war.
We also know that secret drone strikes are being carried out in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. Occasionally we are told that a terrorist group was destroyed. We also occasionally hear that a wedding party or some other group of civilians were also killed. Vietnam inserted the euphemism “collateral damage” into our war lexicon. It is a term that has not lost its irony or utility.
These are not your great grandfather’s or grandfather’s wars. Today, they may be your mother’s or sister’s wars. Today, there is no draft. With the dismantling of the draft in 1973 at the close of the Vietnam War, Americans have voluntarily served ever since. Many of them have had multiple tours of duty.
The relatively small number of people who are fighting our wars are largely invisible to the rest of us unless they are family members or friends. We are able to pretend that the enormous price tag on the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone of potentially $2.4 Trillion by 2017 doesn’t really affect our lives.
One percent goes to war and a different one percent benefits from it
Our national political leaders are now less inclined to talk about our military incursions in terms of the lofty precepts of freedom and democracy. The assumed “liberation of Iraq” is widely seen as an exercise in hubris except among the war hawks, who are still very much with us. But the terms “freedom” and “democracy” will be polished off and served up in heaping doses on Veterans Day.
They are, after all, the proof of our American Exceptionalism. It is American Exceptionalism that is used to justify the carnage of war and the lingering nightmares they engender; it also defines in a very specific way the value of those who have died in war and the walking wounded among us. It is a necessary, in many ways unassailable, public narrative that we participate in on a formally recognized basis.
This narrative is dangerous to us as a country and as a democracy precisely because it is so necessary and so unassailable. Critiques of who, how, where and why we wage war are deftly framed on the right as a lack of patriotism, as attacks on the character of people who serve in the military or as disrespect of their sacrifices.
The irony of course is that the wars are extolled while too many veterans languish homeless in the streets, can’t find jobs or get the medical care they need and deserve. Veterans with green cards who served honorably have been deported because of criminal offenses since their return. Soldiers from Guam and Puerto Rico serve in the military but don’t have the basic right to elect the president who may send them to war. Conservatives are willing and now poised to slash the budgets that address these issues and simply ignore the others. They are also poised to shovel more money into the gaping maw of the military budget.
Our military incursions have not made the world less dangerous and we haven’t yet managed to bomb our way to peace or democracy abroad. President Obama has spoken on numerous occasions about our “strategic interests” in Asia Minor, the Middle East–and the Ukraine. Those interests may be imprecisely or incorrectly defined, but that terminology gets us much closer to the heart of the matter.
One of the protest slogans that circulated during the Vietnam War years was “War is good business. Invest your son.” War is still good business. The only thing that has changed is that you can invest your daughter now–or gay son. We have outsourced the very lucrative business of war to corporations. Contract labor peels potatoes, installs showers and provides security. Contractors in war zones manage resources like oil and call it nation building. And of course it is the corporations that build and sell all those aircraft, ships, tanks and weapons.
Our strategic interests as a nation are becoming impossible to separate from the strategic interests of corporations. Thanks to the Citizens United decision, corporations are people my friend and are free to shower candidates running for office and those who are elected in limitless funds. Approximately one percent of our population is now fighting our wars, while corporate interests–the other one percent– are cleaning up. To the victors go the spoils.
President Obama said that he would ask Congress to re-authorize the Use of Military Force. Citizens should be carefully attuned to the debates and votes that will occur this year if the re-authorization is taken up in the lame duck session of Congress. A great deal is at stake. The best way to honor our veterans and all casualties of war is to participate in this national discussion.
The San Diego Free Press is devoting this week to the topic of War and Peace. It is our way of participating in that discussion. We have asked our contributors to submit articles on the topics and we will run encore editions of articles previously published. Over the course of the week a variety of voices will provide a variety of perspectives. We hope that readers will join in the conversation and respond.