|ON WAR: A VOTER’S GUIDE TO UNDERSTANDING RELATIONSHIPS
UNIV 200 073: Inquiry & Craft of Argument, Jake Khoury
November 18, 2015
War is a complicated subject, filled with emotion, and a myriad of motivations. It is more important than ever, with Presidential elections looming over the American people, to consider this expansive topic. America is in the midst of war in three separate nations (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria) and has military bases in hundreds more. Soldiers of the United States Armed Forces are meant to shoulder the weight of war, used as tools to form the narrative of American identity in regards to foreign policy. Vast sums of money are invested in war by the government through military contracts. The national psyche has been conditioned since the founding documents were drafted in the late 1700’s in preparation for war - for either altruistic or imperialistic means. With so much freedom, and a celebration of democratic ideals of a government of the people, by the people, for the people, the public itself is not an innocent bystander in matters of war, nor can it claim ignorance with the modern inundation of news media. American soldiers are bound by duty to a government that must combine interest in an American economy bolstered by defense contracts and societal expectations inspired by the American myth to dictate foreign military policy. These relationships are key to the foundation of a comprehensive view of war that will empower individuals to be informed when they cast their votes for the next “leader of the free-world”.
Essential to this discussion is the theory of “Just War”. America is a nation built upon idealistic views of freedom, liberty, and justice, therefore when a declaration of war is considered, it is essential to the government, the people, and the soldiers who carry out their orders to make sure certain conditions are met that justify the extreme measure of war. Independent researcher and author Laurie Calhoun cites seventeenth-century thinker Hugo Grotius defining “Just War”: First, just, moral cause must be given. These are ideological appeals, such as stopping the aggression of Nazi Germany in World War II, or preventing the spread of Communism during the Cold War. Second, proportionality must be weighed. Does a terrorist attack justify widespread bombing of a city? Third, there must be a reasonable chance for success. Only after these three conditions are met can there be a public declaration of war, and to do so by legitimate authority (in the case of the United States, such a declaration can only come from Congress). Lastly, war must be a last resort after all diplomacy fails. (Calhoun, 2000, 326) With this definition in mind, it will be simple to understand and define the relationships between American soldiers, public, and government, and to realize that war is far from a mere battle of good vs. evil.
Philosopher and historian Jacques Ellul said of the public, “In the old days, a war affected a small number of soldiers and a negligible piece of territory; today, everybody is a soldier, and the entire populations and the whole territory of a nation are involved. Therefore, everybody wants to have his say on the subject of war and peace.” (Ellul, 1973, 123) Especially in the American democracy, the people speak loudly and place leaders that echo the most popular stance on war.
To understand how the nation processes this complicated decision, it is important to look at history. Shortly after the United States was founded, a rather remarkable phenomenon took place. Only comprised of a few territories on the east coast of North America, there was a vast land to the west that was wild and untamed. Of course, people did live there, but the Native Americans were considered “uncivilized”. They had no ownership of land, therefore it could be taken. Historical researcher and history podcast creator Dan Carlin introduces Manifest Destiny, and acknowledges a paradox in the American psyche. “Manifest Destiny was portrayed as expanding the frontiers of liberty – that the entire world is full of despots and kings and dictators, and if you could enlarge the area where people were free, that is in keeping with the national ideals. These are the ways we compromise with ourselves in order to do what is perhaps in our national interest.” (Carlin, 2013) Manifest Destiny is the idea that America is meant to spread outward, bringing (and occasionally forcing) order, civilization, and the American brand of liberty to the wilderness. Once the American wilderness was conquered and cultivated, the only place to spread was to territories already occupied by international governments.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the United States saw itself as ready to make a name for itself on the international stage, and the “compromise” to which Carlin alluded manifested itself. During the Spanish-American War (fought in Cuba against Spain), the United States saw an opportunity to aid an oppressed people (Cubans were taxed heavily, and persecuted mercilessly by a struggling Spanish monarchy, much like the United States under England just over one hundred years before). The United States, motivated by Manifest Destiny, simultaneously saw an opportunity to gain economic interest in a tropical paradise, rich with agriculture and port space, thereby growing America’s standing internationally, giving it possession of a colony (very popular with superpowers throughout history), and proving it had a capable military that could challenge a world power. As Carlin states, “the United States is like a schizophrenic giant, and the problem with its schizophrenia is that it needs to get the two halves of its psyche to agree with each other that this or that cause is correct before it can move.” (Carlin, 2013) This “split personality” is made up of an almost unreasonably utopian side fueled by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the mythical and often idolized memory of the American forefathers; on the other side is the long history of exploration, staking claim to land for economic gain, Manifest Destiny, and an obsession with winning. If the two faces of America cannot agree, either one must be given up, or one needs to justify the other.
Many may say that is an unfair, inaccurate, and even unpatriotic assessment of America’s psychology. The United States has done a great amount of good in this world through its military, they will say, providing freedom and security, and defending the good in the world, and stopping evil forces from conquering. Stories of heroism and honor and patriotism only found within the military have become an integral to a view that is so pervasive throughout the public psyche, it has become the foundation of the U.S. government’s foreign policy through the election process, endangering every American citizen, and compromising both national and international security.
With minimal knowledge of American history, comparisons between the precedent set in the Spanish-American War and modern conflicts are evident. After that war, the United States attempted to liberate the Philippines from Spain, committing the same atrocities the Spanish were accused of in Cuba. America entered World War I because its economic trade was being threatened by German blockades, and its citizens were being murdered on the high seas. This action satisfies Calhoun’s requirements of just war. American involvement in World War II was initiated by a devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and perpetuated by the shocking barbarity of Nazi Germany; this also satisfies Calhoun’s requirements. After World War II, however, things become complicated. Patrick Regan, professor of political science at Binghamton University, made an in-depth study of the conditions of success in conflicts after World War II. In his study, he found that the U.S. engaged in 18 conflicts between 1944 and 1994. There were generally more casualties (2,061,500) and a lower rate of the American definition of success (fifteen out of eighteen campaigns were unsuccessful) in these conflicts than other international engagements not including the United States. (Regan, 1996, 353) These statistics do not include the nine U.S. led conflicts happening after 1994; all of them multi-year campaigns, and most unresolved to this day.
Behind American involvement in these conflicts is a sort of ethnocentrism. In every one of Regan’s samples, America went to war on the side of democracy - whether it was propping up an existing democracy, or encouraging a democratic uprising. Juan Falomir-Pichastor and his colleagues from the University of Geneva conducted a study of the democratic peace theory, which hypothesizes that democratic nations have a higher likelihood of keeping peace with other democratic nations. “The present results suggest that people subscribe to a lay version of the democratic peace theory, which may paradoxically lead them to condemn aggression among democratic nations, whilst condoning the aggressions of democratic nations against nondemocratic nations.” (Falomir-Pichastor et al, 2011, 330) What this study proves is that the American public has a predisposition to supporting a style of government it knows, and is therefore comfortable with. Anything else has a high likelihood of being perceived as dangerous, even if the only danger is that it may be a new idea. New ideas mean an unknown, and that can be very fear-inducing.
The average person is not an expert on foreign cultures and ideas. Instead, they rely on news outlets for information, which brings bias and fear into the equation. “The news is only about trouble, danger, and problems. This gives man the notion that he lives in a terrible and frightening era… where everything threatens his safety.” (Ellul, 1973, 145) Fear skews the public perspective on what may actually be going on. Without a clear picture, action is demanded based on crises that may or may not be of significance, ignoring the fact that scholars, such as political scientist Azar Gat, have found “that war and violence… have progressively decreased in recent times, during the modern era, and even throughout history.” (Gat, 2015, 149) To deal with this disconnect, people seek ideological consolation through the American myth, and to be reminded that a code of values exists in this world; a standard borne by the United States.
It is in this way that the fervor of war is spread: a fear of the unknown, focusing on crises instead of the bigger picture of global trends of general peace; a collective belief in the American myth and Manifest Destiny, infusing the public with patriotism, and a desire to assert freedom wherever possible. This patriotism is fueled by stories of heroism and honor that can only come from soldiers.
Understanding the American soldier is vital to developing a full picture of the relationships involved in war. Laurie Calhoun said, “Soldiers act as weapons against enemy soldiers, who are also acting as weapons.” (Calhoun, 2000, 332) Though this view disrupts the pedestal Americans put the soldier upon, to say that the military is more than a weapon is to imply that each individual has a sort of autonomy within the military, and can think for themselves within the complicated and dangerous context of war. The truth is that they are trained not to think for themselves. They must rely on instinct to survive and to carry out their duty. Those who think for a moment often find themselves questioning their decision to fight, or to join the military in the first place. This can lead to questioning authority figures, ignoring the chain of command and, in extreme cases, deserting their post – an action with devastating consequences both legal (court marshal) and cultural (sociological shunning due to perceived cowardice). Think of the stereotypical aggressive drill sergeant, screaming at new enlistees. It is only when soldiers break, and conform to the rigid discipline of military code that they earn the respect of their leaders. Immediately, a bond is formed. One needs the other, and that link is forged so that it will not break under the harshest conditions.
The men and women of the U.S. military represent a snapshot of the American public. A study by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, revealed 64% of enlisted recruits are comprised of middle-class Americans with an average household income of $54,000. (Watkins, et al, 2008) They also shoulder the burden of the decisions made by the President of the United States as Commander-in-Chief – decisions that contain immense risk, and could likely result in death. Between the end of World War II (1945) until 1994, America suffered nearly 400,000 casualties (Regan, 1996). This number does not include casualties since the 2003 start of American involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria. It takes deep-seeded reasons for average individuals to make such a sacrifice.
A common view held by the public is that soldiers fight for the “greater good”: a love of country, and desire to protect and enhance the liberty of its citizens, all rooted in American Myth propaganda: values of truth, justice, democracy, and above all, freedom and liberty that have been with the country since it’s foundation. Ellul knew this fact all too well when he observed of man preparing for war, that “[he] must be plunged into a mystical atmosphere, he must be given strong enough impulses as well as good enough reasons for his sacrifices, and, at the same time, a drug that will sustain his nerves and his morale. Patriotism must be ‘ideological’. Only propaganda can put a man into a state of nervous endurance that will permit him to face the tension of war.” (Ellul, 1973, 143) We are inundated with depictions of heroism in battle, from bumper sticker slogans praising troops to the movies, where there is no shortage of propaganda glorifying militaristic traits of honor, valor, duty, and brotherhood. Turn on the television, and there are military ads telling young Americans that, even though they may be alright on their own, they can be even better if they join the armed forces. These ads promise adventure, and a life of meaning. The “drug” of propaganda is a deep, loving duty to the ideals set forth from the beginning of American history and suppresses self-preservation for the good of the nation.
Many Americans think the military is a good career opportunity, but the benefits are merely a form of escapism. The pay is good, and on-the-job training is provided. The benefits are immense: college, health care, and retirement packages if one chooses to make a career of war. The majority of new enlisted recruits are recent high school graduates (Watkins et al, 2008), and from that age on, there remains a steady job, and advancement. There is weight to that view. However, the Heritage study states that enlisted soldiers come from economically stable homes, so while this may influence an individual, escape provides are more realistic reason to go to war. “It is well known to what extent modern man needs escape. Escape is a general phenomenon of our civilization because man has to battle against far too many contradictions and tensions imposed on him by the conditions of life.” (Ellul, 1973, 151) It is an understood truth that modern life is filled with anxieties, both financial and social. Even in a stable home, one may feel the need to contribute, or even repay family for the opportunity given. Joining the military provides a way to escape the “conditions of life” into action, providing financial stability and at the same time purpose by carrying the banner of freedom and the promise of humanitarian aid to others less fortunate. It is for these reasons that he willingly becomes a weapon for a cause that he may not fully understand; for a public that holds equal responsibility. The soldier is necessary to inspire in the American public an assurance that democracy is the best form of government, providing the most freedom, and propelling the fervor of war necessary to fuel the myth.
The American myth is built upon the ideals of freedom, and relates intimately with modern war. If a soldier loves the freedom he experiences at home, he would then be justified to fight for the freedom of others. Azar Gat, professor of Political Science at the University of Tel Aviv, says this of the main reasons for war over the past two hundred years: “ethnic and nationalist tensions often overrode the logic of the new economic realities, accounting for most wars in Europe until 1945. They continue to do so today, especially in the less developed parts of the globe, the world’s remaining ‘zone of war’.” (Gat, 2012, 153) When one notices where conflicts arise today, and in which conflicts America is involved, one can quickly see the truth of Gat’s observation. Iraq, Afghanistan, now Syria - each are considered “third-world” economies, less developed in the hierarchy of world powers. Many are run by autocrats, theocrats, dictators, or oppressive governments. War, then, justifies violent action against the oppression of others, no matter the damage it may cause to those economies.
It is the government’s duty to justify that call to war. “A government that is honest, serious, benevolent, and respects the voter cannot follow public opinion. But it cannot escape it, either. The masses are there; they are interested in politics. The government cannot act without them.” (Ellul, 1973, 140) The President must make a decision based on the facts as they are presented to him, and he must take those facts and his decision before Congress, who will or will not approve the declaration of war. Behind each and every person in the process is the American public, who voted each of them to their position. It then follows that similar motivations to the public itself drive a desire, and worse, a necessity, developing a culture of war.
The image of the national leader who makes all decisions, and, if necessary, misleads the public in order to achieve his agenda, and convinces soldiers to fight without thinking is popular among pacifists looking for a reason for the devastation of war. Calhoun puts the argument this way: “Using rhetoric, leaders persuade citizens of their nations to believe that they should do what they are told, even though, in most cases, they would not otherwise have thought to slay their fellow human beings.” (Calhoun, 2000, 343) This is nothing more than conspiracy theory. When one examines the relationships of war, one will find that, ultimately, the government acts as a conductor, channeling public opinion and economic well being to power the machine of war.
The government is also driven by the American myth. Under the banner of liberty, the United States operates as a reflection of national opinion, involving itself in conflict after conflict in order that it may spread freedom to the world. Arguably the most controversial (and also the most studied) of these conflicts was the Vietnam War. Spanning from 1964-1975, the Vietnam War was a battle to save the democratic Republic of South Vietnam from the advances of the Communist North. While the official view of this war is that the North was committing acts of terrorism against the innocent South, the truth is the vast majority of South Vietnamese really just wanted peace, regardless of how it came. Unfortunately, America had other goals. Historian Christian Addy explores the United States’ rationale in Vietnam. “The U.S. blocked reunification elections in 1966 exactly because it feared that southerners might vote in Communist Leader Ho Chi Minh as president. Put another way, the U.S. betrayed the people of Vietnam and their right to self-determination not by pulling out of the country, but by going in.” (Addy, 2015) This example of societal influences in American foreign policy shows that the government was so afraid of the threat of Communism that is was better to endure a devastating, expensive war than to potentially see it spread. It is a view that repeats itself throughout a long history of American involved conflict.
In addition to the myth is the overwhelming amount of money involved in war. The United States has the responsibility of paying its military, purchasing weapons, ammunition, transportation (globally), food and shelter for troops while deployed, and a vast network of permanent bases spanning the entire world. It also has enormous potential reward, evoking Manifest Destiny to build an empire-like network of nations that fuel the American economy with trade, natural resources, and land (used to expand the reach of the military). Author and professor of anthropology David Vine interviewed Chalmers Johnson, former advisor to the CIA. Johnson states, “Without grasping the dimensions of this globe-girdling Baseworld, one can’t begin to understand the size and nature of our imperial aspirations or the degree to which a new kind of militarism is undermining our constitutional order” (Vine, 2015) This national motivation sets a dangerous tone for governmental foreign policy. Vine continues, “As Chalmers Johnson’s work reminded us in this new century, our 70-year-old collection of bases is evidence of how… the United States has entered a permanent state of war with an economy, a government, and a global system of power enmeshed in preparations for future conflicts.” (Vine, 2015) This vast network of military outposts risks the security of not only the soldiers deployed to those bases, but to the American public as a whole. If one considers the possibility of a foreign base on American soil, think of the outrage! Yet it is expected that other nations open their borders to allow U.S. military influence within their country.
Former Senator Jim Talent (R) defined the purpose of the armed forces as “protection of the vital, transcendent interests of the United States. America’s military strength maintains the peace by deterring aggression against the United States. It also supports other tools of national influence, such as diplomacy, economic power, and intelligence.” (Talent, 2015) This definition, creates a vivid story of war: cost-benefit calculations of intervening in overseas conflict for liberty, and a focus on the expansion of U.S. interests.
There are more questions to answer within on the relationships of war. Mounting evidence has emerged of America as an empire, its economy’s dependence on the military, and terrorism provoked by military involvement. Books could be written on the American propaganda machine as channeled through the American myth. An examination of heroic military operations reveals a history of America starting problems, then sweeping in to fix those very problems, only to start more. What is clear, however, is the responsibility of the American public, and their need to vocalize a new stance; to think outside the bounds of the American myth, and to collectively affect change through the electoral process, stopping the cycle of war. Addy quotes U.S. flight captain Jim Soular, who reflects on his time in the Vietnam War: “We might have learned so much from them instead of learning nothing and doing so much damage.” (Appy, 2015) What do people have to learn from those with whom they come into contact? To the living, thinking weapon that is the military, this question is answered too late.
Appy, Christian. 2015. 'From The Fall Of Saigon To Our Fallen Empire | Tomdispatch'. Tomdispatch.Com. http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175987/tomgram%3A_christian_appy%2C_from_the_fall_of_saigon_to_our_fallen_empire/.
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Watkins, Shanea, and James Sherk. "Who Serves in the U.S. Military? The Demographics of Enlisted Troops and Officers." The Heritage Foundation. August 21, 2008. Accessed November 8, 2015.