Belaboring the Obvious

Friday, December 01, 2006

What Are We Fighting For?

After five years of waging yet more war, it's probably time to reconsider not just the wars currently engaged, but the reasons why war is still such an easy option for the United States today.

It's not a stretch to say that almost every war and military action in which the US has engaged since WWII has been a war of choice. By the simple standard of our own territory and people not being attacked by another nation, we've elected each war, rather than been forced to engage an enemy who has attacked us.

Of course, this notion has become more complex as the United States, in its successive attempts to place its military further and further afield, has made mutual defense pacts with as many nations as possible, and initiated status of forces agreements which keep a considerable percentage of our soldiers and sailors overseas. In some places, such as Okinawa and South Korea (and earlier, in France, under NATO auspices), the mere presence of our troops is an antagonism to better relations.

While this impulse to stray far beyond our borders has some of its roots in the Monroe Doctrine and the notion of "manifest destiny," which has always been tinged by a mentality extending back to the Crusades, the impetus today is "globalization." With the too-often repeated statement that "globalization is inevitable," state military intervention on behalf of the multinational also becomes inevitable. The propaganda being employed by the White House in its war of choice on Iraq assiduously avoids any mention of oil or corporate gain, and yet, most of its actions immediately after the invasion were almost single-mindedly directed toward creating lucrative opportunities for US multinationals (the list here is almost endless, from attempting to create long-term oil contracts advantageous to US- and UK-based oil firms to awarding huge reconstruction contracts to US firms only, to making rules barring Iraqi farmers from saving seeds, a practice clearly meant to benefit US agricultural and chemical firms). I don't think it's any accident that the country's foremost advocate of economic globalization for American multinational gain, the NY Times' Tom Friedman, was also one of the biggest supporters of a war of choice against Iraq.

Because of this wholesale attempt to transfer the assets of an entire country to private hands, it should be obvious that war is being waged for not larger issues of national defense, but, rather, for economic gain by some of the largest multinational corporations in the world. While the fundamental injustice in this is that life in other countries is thoroughly disrupted and innocent people are subjected to the ravages of war, the next down on that long list of injustices is the expectation that the American public should fund such war, enduring the expenses of both blood and treasure, for the benefit of the already wealthiest people in the United States--its corporate CEOs and major stockholders (and forgive me for laughing out loud about the "ownership society"--that's a lot of smoke, too; the wealthiest 10% of the country's inhabitants control between 80 and 90% of the country's wealth--the abovementioned Friedman just happens to have married into a fortune estimated to be nearly $3 billion).

While the implicit Constitutional problems with the national security state we have now have been growing steadily since its institution in 1947, the Bush administration has demonstrated the extent to which Constitutional mandate and common sense can be defied by a small group determined to subvert law and civil rights, and start wars of choice with the aid of a compliant and complacent Congress. (Conventional wisdom has it that 9/11 created an emergency prompting the White House toward those ends; in fact, there's plenty of evidence that such was the plan from the very start of the Bush administration. The very notion of the "unitary executive" proceeds toward those ends.)

In this sense, one fundamental principle has been demonstrated during the Bush years--that a demagogue, using a national emergency, can move the public toward a war of choice and intimidate politicians into authorizing the open-ended use of troops--without formal declaration of war--and then manipulate Congress to expend funds in perpetuity without proper budgeting, no matter what the Constitution has to say about declaration of war. While the roots of this problem go back to the Vietnam war and the War Powers Act, the manipulations accomplished by Bush and his cohort are extraordinary.

It seems, if one wishes to avoid wars of choice and opportunity, one has no option but to address the means by which those wars are approved and funded. The principal arguments about the continuing wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq are two: that the all-volunteer army, largely composed as it is of the poor and middle-class who are more often than not induced to join the military for either employment or for educational benefits they could not otherwise afford, is neither representative of the country as a whole or large enough in troop strength to fight multiple land wars as occupying forces; second, that the costs of those wars are disproportionately falling on the middle class and future generations (via debt), due to continuing decisions to cut taxes on the wealthy in time of war, and to continuing efforts on the part of a Republican Congress and President to provide combinations of subsidies, credits and tax cuts to corporations.

It's almost reductive to state that if war is a national decision, then the costs of war, both human and financial, must be borne by all of society. It's also taken as historical truth in the United States that war profiteering and mercenary activities are generally odious practices (consider here, for example, the extreme disgust with which revolutionaries thought of the British for employing Hessian mercenaries, and the public speeches of Wisconsin Sen. Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette on the subject of profiting from war). And yet, the Bush administration has chosen to ignore those national inclinations and has actually encouraged these bad practices.

Now, it's possible that the public, after growing tired of interminable war, may eventually come to its senses and demand that Congress do its Constitutional duty and remove the prime movers of such policies and practices from office. What, though, about the future? How do we prevent the next demagogue from repeating, and possibly amplifying upon, the wars of choice of the Bush administration, and how do we prevent those wars from becoming open-ended, unstructured affairs with no definitive conclusion (e.g., Bush's self-declared "war on terror")?

It seems to me that only Constitutional amendment can in some way deter the narrow political and economic self-interest which has particularly caused the Bushies to promote wars of choice. We have seen the ways in which the courts have been progressively stacked with right-wing judges and Federalist Society members inclined to give wide leeway to authoritarian impulses on the part of George Bush, so clearly expressed Constitutional language may be the only means of declaring the country's intentions not to engage in war for the sake of cynical political purposes or crony capitalism.

To that end, one must accept that it is not the people who decide whether or not to go to war. It is the elites in the country who make those decisions; therefore, such Constitutional language must serve to act as a deterrent to narrow self-interest and to ensure that the elites do not materially benefit from war. The two essential elements of any change would have to address the two primary complaints addressed above: the ways in which wars are funded and the ways in which citizens are put at risk during war.

This first element, I think, is easy to justify. The wealthy (both individual and corporate), as of now, have every reason to encourage wars of opportunity. They make money on them, and suffer virtually no risks by doing so (in fact, wars such as those in Iraq are meant to obtain profits for increasingly risk-averse corporations and investors). A Constitutional amendment which acts as both a disincentive to frivolous war and as a means of funding necessary ones is, therefore, of prime importance. Since the wealthy in society have the most to lose, they must also shoulder the costs of defense against outside forces which would render their fortunes meaningless. For those reasons, why not seek a Constitutional amendment which places a 91% tax on the gross income of the top 10% and on all corporations until all war-related costs (including those of veterans disabled by war) are paid? If war is not absolutely necessary, the elites in society will resist it on the grounds that their self-interest would be harmed, rather than aided. If war is absolutely necessary, then such would create a means of paying for that war--by the entities most benefitting from defense of the nation.

The second element, however, is more difficult, since it inevitably leads to conscription. A genuinely free society should not force its citizens to mandatory military service without extreme need. At the same time, an all-volunteer force creates manpower problems in time of war. Those pundits and neo-conservatives who have been prone to comparing Iraq with WWII conveniently forget that the draft brought many millions of people into that previous effort--at the conclusion of WWII, there were twelve million US citizens in uniform.

The great problem with conscription is that it never has been equitable--wars always have been fought predominantly by the poor and the least powerful in society. In the Civil War, Congress passed laws which benefitted the wealthy, almost exclusively (wealthy people could buy an exemption from duty by paying someone to take their place), and this was done more informally during the so-called Philippines Insurrection. After WWII, Congress adopted rules which allowed progressively more exclusions which could then be used more effectively by the wealthy than the poor--college deferments, medical excuses from multiple doctors and ever more creative interpretations on deferment for the national good (former Attorney General John Ashcroft, for example, escaped service in the Vietnam era by claiming, first six consecutive student deferments, and later that it was in the national interest that he remain an instructor at Southwest Missouri State).

It's obvious, then, that Congress, which is, by definition, a part of the elite structure, has been able, generally, to create rules to the advantage of the elites, and the historical record is replete with instances of Congress doing just that. It's for this reason that I think Charlie Rangel's repeated calls for the resumption of the draft will likely not accomplish his intended aim, which is to create some equity among all the social and economic classes in the country in bearing the brunt of the human costs of war. For the same reasons, a two-tiered system of military or community service is also destined to fail in that aim--Congress would inevitably write preferential rules enabling the elites to serve more safely than the rest of society.

That said, if a draft were Constitutionally-mandated for any instance of warfare, actual or declared (thus putting it into effect during AUMFs), with some provision to spread that conscription equally across all classes of society, it would go a long, long way in convincing the elites in society that if they want war, they must bear the costs, too. (How that might be done, I'm not sure--although a requirement that each one percent of economic strata, one way or another, provide to the military one percent of the people in each group (up to the age of, say, 55) is, at first sight, appealing. So is a requirement that election or appointment to state and national office (excepting the President and Vice-President) could not be used as an exemption from service.)

One thing's certain, though. Without Constitutional changes to take the incentives out of war for political ends or for profit, the example the Bush administration has created will resonate down the decades, to our ultimate great detriment. The current wars, small as they are compared to previous wars, have been enormously damaging to overall American interests--our national debt is climbing, inexorably, the military continues to suffer unnecessary losses, our worldwide reputation declines steadily year by year, and our ability to apply our common resources to greater problems is impaired, not to mention that there's been a steady diminution of civil rights accompanying the prosecution of these wars.

It's possible that the past six years will be viewed in the future as an anomaly in our history, but, it's equally possible that the Bush administration, having created a model for the neverending pursuit of war for political and economic gain, may have road-tested an action plan to be used and improved upon by future demagogues. There are a limited number of ways we can prevent such from happening in the future, and the failure to embrace them may well be our undoing.

A first step toward avoiding that failure might well be to convince the wealthy that war is truly a last-resort means for them to hang onto what they have, rather than an exploitable business opportunity to increase their wealth. As long as war is disproportionately advantageous to the elite, and disproportionately disadvantageous to the rest of us, even democracy and proportional representation cannot save us from wars of opportunity.


  • You make many good points in your article. I would like to supplement them with some information:

    I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak.

    If you are interested in a view of the inside of the Pentagon procurement process from Vietnam to Iraq please check the posting at my blog entitled, “Odyssey of Armements”

    The Pentagon is a giant,incredibly complex establishment,budgeted in excess of $500B per year. The Rumsfelds, the Adminisitrations and the Congressmen come and go but the real machinery of policy and procurement keeps grinding away, presenting the politicos who arrive with detail and alternatives slanted to perpetuate itself.

    How can any newcomer, be he a President, a Congressman or even the Sec. Def. to be - Mr. Gates- understand such complexity, particulary if heretofore he has not had the clearance to get the full details?

    Answer- he can’t. Therefor he accepts the alternatives provided by the career establishment that never goes away and he hopes he makes the right choices. Or he is influenced by a lobbyist or two representing companies in his district or special interest groups.

    From a practical standpoint, policy and war decisions are made far below the levels of the talking heads who take the heat or the credit for the results.

    This situation is unfortunate but it is ablsolute fact. Take it from one who has been to war and worked in the establishment.

    This giant policy making and war machine will eventually come apart and have to be put back together to operate smaller, leaner and on less fuel. But that won’t happen unitil it hits a brick wall at high speed.

    We will then have to run a Volkswagon instead of a Caddy and get along somehow. We better start practicing now and get off our high horse. Our golden aura in the world is beginning to dull from arrogance.

    By Blogger RoseCovered Glasses, at 9:02 AM  

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