Sham Debates and Endless War





10-22-12

William Astore teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. He retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 2005, having taught at the Air Force Academy as well as the Naval Postgraduate School. He writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and History News Network. Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.


U.S. Army soldiers at a checkpoint near the Afghan-Pakistani border. Credit: U.S. Army.

Here's something I'd like to see this campaign season: our two major party candidates debating our wars rather than ignoring them. Both President Obama and Governor Romney prefer to praise the troops rather than to address the tragic consequences of continuing military action in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The latter, when they're addressed at all, are reduced to sound bites and homilies about the need to "stay the course" and "support our troops."

Praising our military while ignoring the wars we send them to is perhaps the biggest shame of American political discourse today (and that is indeed saying a lot). Think about it. The eleventh anniversary of our war in Afghanistan recently passed with barely a murmur in the media. This is three times as long as the U.S. military fought in World War II. Presidential conventions and debates occur with no sustained discussion of Afghanistan (Iraq having been already consigned to political oblivion). The most vital, essential, and sacred decision we can make as a nation -- when to send our troops into harm's way and under what conditions we grant them the authority in our nation's name to take the lives of others -- this is neither critiqued nor discussed in our political discourse.

Even as we build more military bases and deploy more troops overseas, even as we elevate defense spending to new heights, our political elites work to isolate war from their politics and our society. But war is inseparable from politics, as the Prussian theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz, reminded us two centuries ago. At the same time, celebrating the actions of our troops as selflessly heroic is a powerful political argument in and of itself, one that is meant to obscure the reality that the sum of all their actions -- the good, the bad, and the ugly -- is a reflection of our society, a reflection that has alienated many of our friends in the world community.

For good reason the U.S. Constitution puts the military under civilian political control. A confirmed democracy needs serious debate about any war contemplated. Yet we refuse to debate war openly and with honesty. We waste the energies and lives of our young, even as we sow the dragon's teeth of future wars through misadventure.

Why Candidates Refuse to Debate War

Consider these facts. In the 1960s we went to war in Vietnam against communism, and a Communist government with whom we happily do business now governs. In 2003 we went to war in Iraq to overthrow a dictator, and a Shia government now rules, one that suppresses the Sunnis while cozying up to Iran and Russia. Such facts (among many others) should make us question more deeply this whole business of war-making as a national priority.

Yet today's politicians and their elite supporters refuse to do so. Not only do they exempt themselves from military service: they exempt themselves from having to think or even talk about war. In place of hard talk of war, they prefer easy celebrations of the troops. But their words of praise ring hollow, most especially when the rhetoric changes once those same troops doff their uniforms for the final time. Especially when those troops, veterans now and marked by the scars of war, seek unemployment or medical or other federal benefits. Then they become part of a vilified group: the 47 percent of parasitic "takers."

Here's a harsh truth: A self-indulgent elite in this country excludes itself from military service even as it uses a volunteer military for anti-democratic purposes. All the societal flag-waving and political glad-handing cannot obscure this reality. Fight and die for us, the elite enjoins, but pay no attention to the way we exempt ourselves from your sacrifice and suffering. Pay no attention as well to our profiteering from your service -- or the reality that when you come home, our gated communities shall remain effectively closed to you.

Regardless of political party, today's 1 percenters who clamor for a harder line against Iran or Syria or China do so without any personal stake in the suffering and sacrifices their tough talk may incur. Indeed, by advocating for toughness, they only showcase their own weakness, since they and theirs have nothing to lose and everything to gain from appearing to be tough.

Some will doubtless say that America's elites have always excluded themselves from military service (or at least from frontline combat action). True enough. Rich males during the Civil War could pay for substitutes if drafted, and many did precisely that. Elites during World War I could readily duck service if they chose to. World War II was exceptional in that elites often did serve and in large numbers, notably in the air force as well as other branches that required a greater educational background.

But that's precisely the point about World War II: it was the exception. Korea and Vietnam continued a prevailing trend of rich men's wars, poor men's fights. Yet even in these wars America still had a draft; America still upheld an ideal (however imperfectly realized) of a citizen-soldier military. The end of the draft in the dénouement of Vietnam separated our elites even further from war's realities, even as they attempted to compensate for the privilege by elevating our (non-elite) troops rhetorically.

And it's not just the elites who are separated from today's military. Virtually all Americans are now distant from it. Unlike Korea or Vietnam, today's wars do not pose a direct threat to most American families. Opposition to Vietnam grew because a sizable number of Americans did not want to go (or their sons to go) into a war whose purpose they questioned. That's not a choice anyone has to make today. Supporting the troops is a way for Americans to feel good about the fact that they aren't personally sacrificing; it's other people's families who are.

Want to Support Our Troops? Debate Our Wars

Today's troops largely deflect the cheap gratitude society extends to them. They recognize that life in the military is not a Horatio Alger story. But what they may not recognize is that their military is fundamentally different from what it was during World War II and Vietnam. It is not a "citizen" military but a "volunteer" one, but of a peculiar bent. It recruits foreign nationals who aspire to gain U.S. citizenship through service. It relies on private mercenary forces for logistics, training, and related support. It largely consists of young people who hail from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

There are as many reasons to join the military as there are troops, but let's for the moment imagine a "general issue" volunteer. He (or she) probably comes from the working or lower-middle classes. He's not a member of some warrior-aristocracy; America doesn't have one. He's a young guy looking for a promising job with decent pay and benefits. She's a minority looking to excel in a largely colorblind organization that promises equal pay and upward mobility. A few volunteers may have soldiering in their blood, but most don't. They volunteer because it's a job in which they and theirs can take pride, one that holds a promise of a better life.

More rural than urban, more conservative than liberal, more Midwestern and Southern than coastal, today's military is nevertheless a melting pot drawn from society's middling orders. Motivated to serve, our troops are willing to sacrifice if the cause is just.

Yet whether our cause is just is precisely the question our political elites refuse to debate. They simply act as if their elite priorities are America's priorities. A just cause -- one that is worth sending our youth to fight and die for -- is simply what America's self-anointed elites say it is, nothing more.

Democracy should not allow its politicians to duck questions about war or to take cover with cheap rhetoric about their love of the troops. Polls show that nearly 70 percent of our citizens want to bring the troops home from Afghanistan -- now, not in 2014. Yet only third party and independent candidates for president are willing to consider immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan; Obama and Romney share a vision of endless military action with virtually no accountability to the American people.

As citizens of a democracy, the least we can do is to insist that political leaders debate our nation's wars. If we fail in this responsibility, their sham debates redound to our shame.


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