A Nation Made by War and a Citizenry Unmade By It
by Tom Engelhardt
On successive days recently, I saw two museum shows that caught something of a lost American world and seemed eerily relevant in the Age of Trump. The first, “Hippie Modernism,” an exploration of the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s (heavy on psychedelic posters), was appropriately enough at the Berkeley Art Museum. To my surprise, it also included a few artifacts from a movement crucial to my own not-especially-countercultural version of those years: the vast antiwar protests that took to the streets in the mid-1960s, shook the country, and never really went away until the last American combat troops were finally withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973. Included was a poster of the American flag, upside down, its stripes redrawn as red rifles, its stars as blue fighter planes, and another showing an American soldier, a rifle casually slung over his shoulder. Its caption still seems relevant as our never-ending wars continue to head for “the homeland.”
“Violence abroad,” it said, “breeds violence at home.” Amen, brother.
The next day, I went to a small Rosie the Riveter Memorial museum-cum-visitor’s center in a national park in Richmond, California, on the shores of San Francisco Bay. There, during World War II, workers at a giant Ford plant assembled tanks, while Henry Kaiser’s nearby shipyard complex was, at one point, launching a Liberty or Victory ship every single day. Let me repeat that: on average, one ship a day. Almost three-quarters of a century later, that remains mindboggling. In fact, those yards, as I learned from a documentary at the visitor’s center, set a record by constructing a single cargo ship, stem to stern, in just under five days.
And what made such records and that kind of 24/7 productiveness possible in wartime America? All of it happened largely because the gates to the American workforce were suddenly thrown open not just to Rosie, the famed riveter, and so many other women whose opportunities had previously been limited largely to gender-stereotyped jobs, but to African Americans, Chinese Americans, the aged, the disabled, just about everyone in town (except incarcerated Japanese Americans) who had previously been left out or sold short, the sort of cross-section of a country that wouldn’t rub elbows again for decades.
Similarly, the vast antiwar movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was filled with an unexpected cross-section of the country, including middle-class students and largely working-class vets directly off the battlefields of Southeast Asia. Both the work force of those World War II years and the protest movement of their children were, in their own fashion, citizen wonders of their American moments. They were artifacts of a country in which the public was still believed to play a crucial role and in which government of the people, by the people, and for the people didn’t yet sound like a late-night laugh line. Having seen in those museum exhibits traces of two surges of civic duty — if you don’t mind my repurposing the word “surge,” now used only for U.S. military operations leading nowhere — I suddenly realized that my family (like so many other American families) had been deeply affected by each of those mobilizing moments, one in support of a war and the other in opposition to it.
My father joined the U.S. Army Air Corps immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He would be operations officer for the First Air Commandos in Burma. My mother joined the mobilization back home, becoming chairman of the Artist’s Committee of the American Theatre Wing, which, among other things, planned entertainment for servicemen and women. In every sense, theirs was a war of citizens’ mobilization — from those rivets pounded in by Rosie to the backyard “victory gardens” (more than 20 million of them) that sprang up nationwide and played a significant role in feeding the country in a time of global crisis. And then there were the war bond drives for one of which my mother, described in an ad as a “well known caricaturist of stage and screen stars,” agreed to do “a caricature of those who purchase a $500 war bond or more.”
World War II was distinctly a citizen’s war. I was born in 1944 just as it was reaching its crescendo. My own version of such a mobilization, two decades later, took me by surprise. In my youth, I had dreamed of serving my country by becoming a State Department official and representing it abroad. In a land that still had a citizen’s army and a draft, it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t also be in the military at some point, doing my duty. That my “duty” in those years would instead turn out to involve joining in a mobilization against war was unexpected. But that an American citizen should care about the wars that his (or her) country fought and why it fought them was second nature. Those wars — both against fascism globally and against rebellious peasants across much of Southeast Asia — were distinctly American projects. That meant they were our responsibility.
If my country fought the war from hell in a distant land, killing peasants by the endless thousands, it seemed only natural, a duty in fact, to react to it as so many Americans drafted into that military did — even wearing peace symbols into battle, creating antiwar newspapers on their military bases, and essentially going into opposition while still in that citizen’s army. The horror of that war mobilized me, too, just not in the military itself. And yet I can still remember that when I marched on Washington, along with hundreds of thousands of other protesters, it never occurred to me — not even when Richard Nixon was in the White House — that an American president wouldn’t have to listen to the voices of a mobilized citizenry.
Add in one more thing. Each of those mobilizing moments, in its own curious fashion, proved to be a distinctly American tale of triumph: the victory of World War II that left fascism in its German, Italian, and Japanese forms in literal ruins, while turning the U.S. into a global superpower; and the defeat in Vietnam, which checked that superpower’s capacity to destroy, thanks at least in part to the actions of both a citizen’s army in revolt and an army of citizens.
The Teflon Objects of Our American World
Since then, in every sense, victory has gone missing in action and so, for decades (with a single brief moment of respite), has the very idea that Americans have a duty of any sort when it comes to the wars their country chooses to fight. In our era, war, like the Pentagon budget and the growing powers of the national security state, has been inoculated against the virus of citizen involvement, and so against any significant form of criticism or resistance. It’s a process worth contemplating since it reminds us that we’re truly in a new American age, whether of the plutocrats, by the plutocrats, and for the plutocrats or of the generals, by the generals, and for the generals — but most distinctly not of the people, by the people, and for the people.
After all, for more than 15 years, the U.S. military has been fighting essentially failed or failing wars — conflicts that only seem to spread the phenomenon (terrorism) they’re supposed to eradicate — in Afghanistan, Iraq, more recently Syria, intermittently Yemen, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa. In recent weeks, civilians in those distant lands have been dying in rising numbers (as, to little attention here, has been true periodically for years now). Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s generals have been quietly escalating those wars. Hundreds, possibly thousands, more American soldiers and special ops forces are being sent into Syria, Iraq, and neighboring Kuwait (about which the Pentagon will no longer provide even inaccurate numbers); U.S. air strikes have been on the rise throughout the region; the U.S. commander in Afghanistan is calling for reinforcements; U.S. drone strikes recently set a new record for intensity in Yemen; Somalia may be the next target of mission creep and escalation; and it looks as if Iran is now in Washington’s sniper scopes. In this context, it’s worth noting that, even with a significant set of anti-Trump groups now taking to the streets in protest, none are focused on America’s wars.
Many of these developments were reasonably predictable once Donald Trump — a man unconcerned with the details of anything from healthcare to bombing campaigns — appointed generals already deeply implicated in America’s disastrous wars to plan and oversee his version of them, as well as foreign policy generally. (Rex Tillerson’s State Department has, by now, been relegated to near nonentity-hood.) In response, many in the media and elsewhere began treating those generals as if they were the only “adults” in the Trumpian room. If so, they are distinctly deluded ones. Otherwise why would they be ramping up their wars in a fashion familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention for the last decade and a half, clearly resorting to more of what hasn’t worked in all these years? Who shouldn’t, for instance, feel a little chill when the word “surge” starts to be associated again with the possibility of sending thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan? After all, we already know how this story ends, having had more than 15 years of grim lessons on the subject. The question is: Why don’t the generals?
And here’s another question that should (but doesn’t) come to mind in twenty-first-century America: Why does a war effort that has already cost U.S. taxpayers trillions of dollars not involve the slightest mobilization of the American people? No war taxes, war bonds, war drives, victory gardens, sacrifice of any sort, or for that matter serious criticism, protest, or resistance? As has been true since Vietnam, war and American national security are to be left to the pros, even if those pros have proven a distinctly amateurish lot.
And here’s one more question: With an oppositional movement gearing up on domestic issues, will our wars, the military, and the national security state continue to be the Teflon objects of our American world? Why, with the sole exception of President Trump (and in his case only when it comes to the way the country’s intelligence agencies have dealt with him) is no one — with the exception of small groups of antiwar vets and a tiny number of similarly determined activists — going after the national security state, even as its wars threaten to create a vast arc of failed states and a hell of terror movements and unmoored populations?
The Age of Demobilization
In the case of America’s wars, there’s a history that helps explain how we ended up in such a situation. It would undoubtedly begin with an American high command facing a military in near revolt in the later Vietnam years and deciding that the draft should be tossed out the window. What was needed, they came to believe, was an “all-volunteer” force (which, to them, meant a no-protest one).
In 1973, President Nixon obliged and ended the draft, the first step in bringing a rebellious citizen’s army and a rebellious populace back under control. In the decades to come, the military would be transformed — though few here would say such a thing — into something closer to an American foreign legion. In addition, in the post-9/11 years, that all-volunteer force came to shelter within it a second, far more secretive military, 70,000 strong: the Special Operations Command. Members of that elite crew, which might be thought of as the president’s private army, are now regularly dispatched around the globe to train literal foreign legions and to commit deeds that are, at best, only half-known to the American people.
In these years, Americans have largely been convinced that secrecy is the single most crucial factor in national security; that what we do know will hurt us; and that ignorance of the workings of our own government, now enswathed in a penumbra of secrecy, will help keep us safe from “terror.” In other words, knowledge is danger and ignorance, safety. However Orwellian that may sound, it has become the norm of twenty-first-century America.
That the government must have the power to surveil you is by now a given; that you should have the power to surveil (or simply survey) your own government is a luxury from another time. And that has proven an effective formula for the kind of demobilization that has come to define this era, even if it fits poorly with any normal definition of how a democracy should function or with the now exceedingly old-fashioned belief that an informed public (as opposed to an uninformed or even misinformed one) is crucial to the workings of such a government.
In addition, as they launched their Global War on Terror after 9/11, top Bush administration officials remained obsessed with memories of the Vietnam mobilization. They were eager for wars in which there would be no prying journalists, no ugly body counts, and no body bags heading home to protesting citizens. In their minds, there were to be only two roles available for the American public. The first was, in President George W. Bush’s classic formulation, to “go down to Disney World in Florida, take your families, and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed” — in other words, go shopping. The second was to eternally thank and praise America’s “warriors” for their deeds and efforts. Their wars for better or worse (and it would invariably turn out to be for worse) were to be people-less ones in distant lands that would in no way disturb American life — another fantasy of our age.
Coverage of the resulting wars would be carefully controlled; journalists “embedded” in the military; (American) casualties kept as low as possible; and warfare itself made secretive, “smart,” and increasingly robotic (think: drones) with death a one-way street for the enemy. American-style war was, in short, to become unimaginably antiseptic and distant (if, that is, you were living thousands of miles away and shopping your heart out). In addition, the memory of the attacks of 9/11 helped sanitize whatever the U.S. did thereafter.
In those years, the result at home would be an age of demobilization. The single exception — and it’s one that historians will perhaps someday puzzle over — would be the few months before the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in which hundreds of thousands of Americans (millions globally) suddenly took to the streets in repeated protests. That, however, largely ended with the actual invasion and in the face of a government determined not to listen.
It remains to be seen whether, in Donald Trump’s America, with that sense of demobilization fading, America’s wars and military-first policies will once again become the target of a mobilizing public. Or will Donald Trump and his Teflon generals have a free hand to do as they want abroad, whatever happens at home?
In many ways, from its founding the United States has been a nation made by wars. The question in this century is: Will its citizenry and its form of government be unmade by them?