Wars create change
Something I try to impress upon my students when I discuss wars: Wars create change. They don’t just change borders (Franco-Prussian War), change governments (Iraq War), or destroy old empires (World War I). They change the societies of those who fight in the wars. Even the victor’s society changes.
We were not attacked at home in World War I and suffered only a few attacks on military positions on our home soil in World War II. Nonetheless, the war changed America. These wars accelerated the spread of egalitarianism in America. They helped extend voting rights to more women. They made segregation an unavoidable issue. They led to greater valuing of pluralism, in order to contrast with the chauvinistic, racist, and even genocidal Germans and Japanese.
The fact that wars change societies has led many conservatives (not modern Republicans) to resist going to war. Afterall, conservatives want to “conserve” things. But, today, so-called conservatives and liberals alike repeatedly lead us into more wars. Last night, President Obama announced the extension of our new anti-ISIS war into Syria. Before going into more wars, we should ask ourselves, “How will this change us?”
Wars eventually come home
America had avoided maintaining a standing army for our entire history until the end of the Korean War. War War II and the Cold War had changed us. In WWII, we helped destroy one power (Germany) to keep it from dominating Eurasia, only to hand over the continent to another (the Soviets). So we spent the next 45 years trying to minimize the fallout from our loss. To do so, we created the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us against. We created a national security state that spied on us and stamped out legal dissent. We created a national debt to pay for the build up of a massive military and continual technical development.
Was it worth it? Probably. The Soviets were a real challenge to the sovereignty of America. Without our opposition, they would have spread their influence and power, which would have isolated us and made us fearful. Isolated and surrounded by enemies, we would’ve militarized ourselves anyway. So, in the case of the Cold War, there was probably no avoiding the role we played.
The War on Terror and the Iraq War have already come home to us. In this case, the weapons of war have been turned against us.
- Drones: This war saw the expanded use of drones for surveillance and killing. This has been especially true for President Obama, who openly stated, ever since he first ran for president, that he would willing violate the sovereignty of our long-standing ally Pakistan to engage in drone strikes there. Borders no longer matter. When borders don’t matter, what’s to keep those drones from coming home. Well, they have.
- Special Forces: Instead of open warfare, we increasingly rely on secret operations by special forces in the ongoing War on Terror. These actions are taken, by the very nature, secretly. They are, therefore, not subject to Congressional, public, or media debate. The same is true of the use of drones, which have been largely in the hands of the CIA, but are now spreading to the regular armed forces as well. This secret warfare places war-making authority more and more in the hands of the President. This brings us a decline in democracy.
- Assassination: Again, mostly using drones, but also other means, we assassinated Al Qaeda and other leaders as part of the war. Now President Obama has turned such powers against even American citizens. He claims the power to kill Americans – without any oversight – based only on his own claim that they are terrorists. We are now the enemy and are no longer guaranteed our “due process” rights.
- Surveillance: We extended our electronic spying capabilities to track down terrorists and prevent their attacks. But, again, borders don’t matter. So those capabilities have now been turned on us. We are all subject to surveillance.
- Occupation: We occupied Iraq and sought to control the population and end the use of violence by various factions there. This, of course, required the use of soldiers, weapons, heavy army, and air power. Now those weapons have come home to police us. The police response in Ferguson revealed to us the extent of the militarization of our police forces.
Have the wars been worth it? America has become part of the battlefield. Our government considers us Americans to be potential enemies. We have a national-security state that goes far beyond anything we had during the Cold War. All this for enemies who never had the capability of challenging our sovereignty. America is safer and stronger now that it has ever been. Yet we talk as if we are under siege.
Daniel McCarthy wrote a brilliant article in the American Conservative in July. It’s articles like his that have kept me reading that magazine for the last ten years.
He argues that America and Britain have enjoyed a unique position since 1815. Britain is an island and America is a continent bordered by two oceans. These facts have, unlike the countries of Europe for example, have kept our enemies distant from us. We have been able to afford to remain demilitarized for most of our histories. As a result, we have been democratic and enjoyed unprecedented civil liberties. Nonetheless, we have had to work to maintain those liberties. But we did so through maritime empires and naval power. Again, our enemies were distant, so, despite any war-making, we remained free at home. Meanwhile, European countries, until World War II, were fare more militarized because their enemies were near. They had to militarize for their survival. The price was lesser civil liberties, lesser freedom.
Even during the Cold War, America was able to extend the umbrella of its security into Western Europe, allowing those countries to become more like America and Britain. We guaranteed their security so they didn’t have to be so militarized. Consequently, they became as free as us and the British. And that served our interests. We continue to do this in Europe. It helped make us freer by creating a Europe in which a full-scale European war is unlikely.
But we also fight to extend the Anglo-American order to the rest of the world. And this has dragged us into constant warfare. The purpose of any such imperialism on America’s part should be to keep enemies distant so that we can be freer at home. Given the ways that the post-Cold War wars have come home to us, our imperialism is bringing us diminishing returns. Before we return to war in Mesopotamia or spread more chaos by toppling more governments, let us consider the costs and how such wars will continue to change us. ISIS isn’t worth it.