You may recognize my title as also the title of Frank Capra’s WWII propaganda piece. His films, designed to provide a popular rationale for the war might have more appropriately been titled “Why We Should Fight!” –an imperative calling a nation to arms. Currently there is another film titled “Why We Fight” which some of you have seen since the Center for Global Justice showed it recently. It draws on President Eisenhower’s warning about the dangers of a military-industrial-congressional complex to offer an explanation of why the U.S. has become so militaristic in the last half century. The argument of the film is basically that if you have the technical capacity to do something, you are more likely to do it; if what are euphemistically called “defense” contractors make lots of fancy weapons because it is highly profitable to do so, you’re going to find a war where you can use them. This reminds me of John Dewey’s observation that if you give a child a hammer, suddenly everything is going to need pounding.
While such an explanation is good as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough. While it is true that having the capacity to do something makes it easier to do it, the explanation for the wars of the last half century is more than generals wanting to play with their new toys –especially since it is politicians, not generals, who make the decisions to fight. So, my title is more a question: why is it that we fight? And as you will see, it comes down to the question, why do we fight their wars?
Let me begin by asking who the “we” is that is referred to in the question? Modern wars are fought by nation-states. Along with the corporation, the nation-state is one of the dominant institutions of our times. But what is a nation-state? The hyphenation suggests a linking of two entities, a nation and a state. Historically, since the rise of bourgeois society nation and state have been linked to the extent that in many minds the nation-state came to be thought of as a single (although complex) entity. However, in fact they are
separable but related social phenomena. The term ‘nation’ refers to an interconnected population that has a sense of their common unity. A nation exists both objectively in its compatriots interdependence and subjectively in the consciousness they share. The term ‘state’, on the other hand, refers to the political institutions that rule over the population of a certain territory or country where the members of one (or more) nation might live. The people are the nation; the political institutions are the state.
This distinction is important for the question I am considering because we need to understand that it is states that make war. Although wars are typically made in the name of “the nation” and it is the people who are enlisted to fight, nations seldom make wars. It is the state, led by a political elite, who makes wars. Usually a nation has to be manipulated into accepting or supporting a war. That shouldn’t be surprising since it is the people who have to do the fighting and dying and pay for the war.
This fact is one that is obvious to us in the case of the present war in Iraq. It is now generally understood that public support for the U.S. invasion of that country was achieved by stoking popular fear and by blatant deception. But Bush and the neocons didn’t invent such manipulation. In 1964 the Johnson administration used a fictitious attack on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin to win congressional and public support for a war on Vietnam. And, don’t forget the Maine, the U.S. ship that was blown up in Havana harbor in 1898, supposedly by Spain, and became the pretext for U.S. intervention in Cuba’s war for independence. It is now pretty well established that Spain had nothing to do with it, and there is even some evidence that suggests that it was an inside job deliberately designed to provoke public opinion to support what became a major imperialist expansion by the U.S. We can see manipulation of the people even in the case of WWII –the last “good war.” Public opinion had been overwhelmingly opposed to U.S. entry into that war, not only because of pacifist sentiments but also because of an isolationism that was wary of involvement in European wars. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which intelligence had warned was coming but which was allowed to happen anyway, was used to swing public opinion to support not only a U.S. war against Japan, but also entry into the war in Europe. Historians can offer many other examples where a reluctant nation has been manipulated by its political leadership to support war.
September 11 was the new Pearl Harbor that the neocons had been wishing for that would enable them to mobilize public support for wars of empire in the post Cold War period. Since then they have masterfully deployed a politics of fear to manipulate the nation to support a global “war on terror” which, in the words of Norman Birnbaum, “requires extreme measures and permanent mobilization for equally permanent intervention in the affairs of other nations.” citation
It is disheartening to see how successful they have been in their deceptions. It is only now, five years later, that the people of the United States are beginning to wake up, at least with regard to the current chapter in their never-ending war. In mid-October a poll found that 65% of respondents say the U.S. “plays too much on the public’s fears to justify its foreign policies.” [The mid-term elections confirm that this sentiment has set in deeply with the electorate.]
So my claim is that it is states, not nations, that make war and drag an often reluctant people into the violence. If this is the case then we need to rethink the widely accepted view about war and peace, found especially among religious circles and humanistic folks, who think that the best way to promote peace is by cultivating a peaceful heart. This is based on the assumption that wars happen because of evil in the heart of the people. This is reflected in the often heard maxim “let there be peace, and let it begin with me.” That is open to two interpretations. One is that I can contribute to the end of war by cultivating inner peace. I would agree that inner peace is valuable for its own sake, valuable personally for ones mental health and valuable because it can contribute to more harmonious interpersonal relations. But if wars are made by states rather than peoples, then my inner peace and your inner peace is not going to end state initiated wars.
But there is another meaning those words can have. If “let there be peace, and let it begin with me” means that I have a responsibility to act with others politically to change the state that makes war, then this resolve can make a difference. That, at any rate, is what I have in mind when I utter those words. The desire for peace has to lead into political action.
But there is another fact about war that we need to take into account. That is the profound role that war often plays in shaping a nation, in bringing a multitude of people together and making them a single people, a nation. I said at the beginning that a nation exists both objectively in its compatriots interdependence and subjectively in the consciousness they share. Subjectively a nation is what Benedict Anderson called “an imagined community.” [Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 1991.] But unlike the real community of a village or small town, which is based on face-to-face personal knowledge, a nation is a community that exists in the imaginations of millions of people who are perfect strangers to one another.
How does such an image get in the minds of so many? Most often this comes about through war. It is when men and women go forth along with others to defend their home and community that they come to identify with others with whom they are objectively interdependent. It is then that they come to imagine themselves as all part of that single community called “nation.” That is why so many national anthems are about war (defending against the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1812, in the case of our nation) rather than about the land that a people call their country (as in “America the Beautiful” or “This Land is Our Land”). It is out of armed civic virtue that nations are born.
The point is well stated in the title to Chris Hedges’ book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Indeed, war gives us a sense of being an “us”, a collective entity called a nation. It can bring us together and give us a sense of common national purpose, a common meaning, a common identity. It is in the throws of war that a nation’s character is forged. We are made by our wars.
At the same time, as I have been saying, it is the state and its political elite that makes wars. Put those two propositions together and they imply that political elites shape the character of the nation through the wars they have us fight. If we as a nation embrace those wars, we become the kind of people they seek to make of us. That’s why our effort to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq is more than a struggle to end a particular misguided military adventure, it is a struggle for the soul of our country. What is at stake is what kind of a people we will become.
That brings me back to the politics of fear that I mentioned earlier. I am reminded of a quotation attributed to William Shakespeare. It sends shivers down my spine everytime I read it.
“Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword. It both emboldens the blood, just as it narrows the mind…
“And when the drums of war have reached a fever pitch and the blood is filled with hate and the mind has closed, the leader will have no need in seizing the rights of the citizenry. Rather, the citizenry, infused with fear and blinded with patriotism, will offer up all of their rights unto the leader, and gladly so. How do I know? For this is what I have done. And I am Cesar.”
As a nation, for the last 75 years we have lived in fear. During the Great Depression, it was fear of destitution. During WWII it was fear of fascism. During the Cold War, it was fear of communism. Our political elite has often created and exploited our fear for their own ends. This was certainly the case throughout the Cold War. For much of the Third World, those four decades saw many hot wars. There were U.S. military interventions and covert CIA interventions in country after country to block or destroy progressive social change, all in the name of anti-communism. Having been made fearful of the Russian bear, public opinion could be made to support any intervention our leaders desired simply by claiming a threat from an expanding Russian communism.
What was the purpose of these military and para-military actions? The strategic thinking behind them was contained in the top secret 1950 National Security Council Memorandum number 68. NSC-68, as it is called, was the blueprint for the Cold War. Drafted by a team headed by Paul Nitze, it called for “a rapid buildup of political, economic, and military strength” around the world. NSC-68 proclaimed two objectives for this buildup: to foster “a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish” and the “containment of the Soviet Union.” Tellingly it admitted that “even if there were no Soviet Union we would face the great problem” of achieving “order and security” for US global interests. [National Security Council, Memorandum NSC-68 (April 7, 1950). Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1950, vol. 1, pp. 252, 263, 272.] What this signifies is that, in the words of William I. Robinson, the objective of US foreign policy “was the defense of a budding post-colonial international capitalism under US domination.” [Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 15.]
The purpose behind this had been articulated two years earlier by George Kennan, Director of Policy Planning of the US Department of State, in the following words:
“We have 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population…. In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will allow us to maintain this position of disparity.” [Department of State, Policy Planning Study (PPS) 23 Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1948, vol. 1 (part 2), February 24, 1948, p. 23.]
While at the time much of the nation was blinded by fear, it is now in these declassified documents that we can find the thinking of our political elite — we can see the real purposes behind the wars they led us into. And it is important for us to come to terms with the fact that the foreign policy of the U.S. for the last 60 years has enjoyed bi-partisan support. While they have differed from time to time over the best methods to achieve its goals, Republicans and Democrats alike have supported policies designed to ensure U.S. dominance and the expansion of corporate capital even though it be at the expense of other nations. It is revealing that even today in the face of the blatant, militaristic imperialism of the Bush administration, Democrats question (when they have the courage to question anything at all), the means being used but not the goals of our state’s foreign policies. The so-called “War on Terror” is the successor to the Cold War, extending into this unipolar era the same goal: maintaining U.S. military and economic dominance around the world. The terrorist threat that we are now being taught to fear is blowback from this dominance and the interventions it has led us to. And now that very War on Terror is manufacturing new terrorists, threatening more blowback. When will we wake up and recognize that the source of our problems lies in our own political elite that controls the state, that they have misled the nation. When will the people finally ask, why do we fight their wars? Or even better yet, why should we fight their wars? That is what we need to begin to question if we are to save the soul of our nation. And having questioned, go forth and act to make peace.