Wednesday, July 22, 2009

America has adopted the idea of Americans being perpetually at war somewhere

When did America decide that it would always be at war somewhere? Because that's what today's generation is being told. David Bromwich, Professor of Literature at Yale, addresses this problem.
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.


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 decades."
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 appreciation:
"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."
Bromowich provides a great deal of recent history explaining why we have become desensitized to the idea and practice of perpetual war. It's worth reading.

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