The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Remote War

September 7, 2011

This post is a little impressionistic and attempts a few trans-Atlantic generalisations, but is probably still worth a punt.

If Clausewitz was right that each period holds to its own theory of war, what do we see when we look in the mirror after a decade of the conflict against Islamist terror networks? In the US and UK at least, I’d suggest that the War on Terror was a reflection of the evolving liberal-market state.

That is, a state that defines its security interests through an expansive liberalism, securing itself by exporting liberal institutions and values and investing its struggles with heightened meaning, seeing them as politically Good, while simultaneously seeking to keep that struggle as private and remote from their citizens.

At its most strident, whether in the rough diction of George Bush II or the heightened polished internationalism of Tony Blair, the liberal state identifies its values with its interests. This claim presents military operations as part of a wider crusade, and creates awkward moments into the bargain. It reached its rhetorical climax in President Bush’s Second Inaugural address, where he declared that the survival of liberty in the U.S. depended on its survival and expansion abroad. The following day his envoys reassured America’s client allies of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt that he didn’t mean it literally.

At the same time, the market-oriented nature of the state strongly shaped the War on Terror. While leaders recast the war in grandiose terms as an historic mission to eradicate terrorism and evil itself from the world, almost on a par with the wars against the Axis powers and Soviet communism, they also sought to keep the war well away from most of their citizens.

In World War Two, there was mass mobilisation orchestrated by the state as well as spontaneous voluntarism from below. There were war bonds, taxes, and victory gardens. The state urged citizens to participate actively, not only in sacrificing their menfolk, but in making material sacrifices through savings, donations, even planting food for victory. This also had a coercive side, with the draft, mass internment camps and unprecedented intervention into the economy. According to some historians, the call to collective ownership of the war and communal sacrifice produced new bonds of social solidarity. War fiction and film attracted mass audiences.

Consider the contrast with the present. The state invoked the historic spirit of sacrifice and in a kind of shared Atlantic-Churchillian memory, celebrated the legacy of Normandy, the Blitz and Dunkirk. But they also worked hard to insulate their populations from the war. The psychological and physical brunt of the conflict they transferred onto a small fraction of the population, the professional military forces. Instead of creating a war economy of mass participation and belonging, they farmed out wartime tasks to the private market – the private military and private capital markets, to be precise. President Bush’s words to his compatriots, that their dual duties were to love their families and keep shopping, neatly embodied the creation of an almost passive wartime citizenship.

Governments effectively declared a state of emergency, an extraordinary moment of threats to national security…and also wanted business as usual, maintained tax cuts for the wealthy, did little to arrest consumer appetites for cheap credit, and did not try to tilt the basis of the domestic economy towards war industry. This is not to suggest that Bush should have picked up FDR’s playbook and copied it. But strikingly, he and his sympathisers selected the rhetoric of that era even while doing the opposite of its policies. While the war in Iraq generated opposition, political rancour and mass protest, it did not create a sustained, energised counter-cultural movement comparable to Vietnam. Dissenting war movies (some of them like In The Valley of Elah were pretty good, for my money) mostly did badly at the box office. Possibly because the war was remote, did not tax, draft or mobilise most citizens, there was no Deer Hunter for our time.

Corey Robin nicely argues how this fits into a greater historical picture:

Historically, debt crises resulting from wars have catalysed politically progressive advances and even precipitated revolutions. Both Charles I and Louis XVI found themselves entangled in military conflicts their tax systems couldn’t fund. Debts eventually forced both into fatal confrontations: Charles with Parliament in 1640 and Louis with the Estates General in 1789. Beyond financial exigency, the revolutions that overthrew these sovereigns drew on arguments the kings themselves had to make in order to raise taxes and fund their wars. As Richard Tuck has suggested, it may have been Charles himself who opened the door to democracy in England. Levying an ancient tax on coastal towns (ship money) to fund a naval expedition against the Dutch, the Crown made the claim that the people’s safety was the highest ground for political action – an axiom of republicans through the ages – superseding any law or constitution. Though used to justify absolutism, Charles’s rhetoric about the ‘interests of the people’ carried a subversive democratic implication: these are not my wars, they’re yours, and you ought to do everything you can to see that they are won. Parliamentary forces could counter that if the interests and safety of the people were the gold standard of politics, it should be the people’s elected representatives who decided what that interest or safety consisted in and how it ought to be secured.

In the wake of 9/11 many liberals hoped that the war on terror would open a new chapter in American social democracy, with calls for patriotic sacrifice generating an ethic of social solidarity. Instead, Bush slashed taxes, borrowed through the nose and turned the war on terror into a spectator sport rather than a people’s war. Late modern sovereigns, it seems, push their polities away from democracy by mustering mercenary armies and tapping into flush credit markets. As a result, no one in the United States need claim ownership over anything common or collective: not its wars or debts, not its government, and certainly not its ever more impoverished and precarious citizenry.

A major exception to this development was the impact on airports and train stations, where the war directly and literally touched ordinary souls and where the state urged people to be vigilant. And at climactic moments around failed or successful terrorist attacks, the war through pervasive media could invade living rooms and minds briefly. And of course, the expansion of wiretapping and state surveillance meant that objectively, the war may be much closer than we feel. But mostly, no matter how far the architects of the War on Terror warned of potentially catastrophic threats and spoke of a great historical struggle, to those who were not on active military duty, or close to those who were, it just seemed like a remote conflict, far away from the daily pulse of life. People still mourned the victims of terrorist atrocities, and grass roots efforts sprang up, whether at the repatriation observances at  Wootton Bassett or at the sort of shrine at Ground Zero, to show gratitude and support troops, act charitably and commemorate loss. But even these activities, perhaps, were partly motivated by the desire to resist the dominant disengagement and detachment of wider society.

Indeed, the reverence and almost worshipful attitudes of most people towards the military, as reflected in poll after poll, reflected a broad unfamiliarity amongst the majority with that institution and a desire to show gratitude by those who were spared most of the stresses of war. That needs to be qualified a little, as probably far more Americans have some family or social connection to the armed forces that Brits. But the overall pattern seems to be one of remoteness from the strains and sacrifices of the war. And though they declared their sympathy and admiration for the armed forces, how many really would be prepared to pay higher taxes as a material manifestation of their commitment? British tabloids certainly fell prey to this contradiction, clamouring for lower taxes and more helicopters and support for ‘our boys’ at the same time.

So while the liberal state declared grand historical purpose, it privatised and sequestered the mission. And while society took on the task of caring for the maimed and wounded, whose return home and welfare is probably one of the greatest challenges facing our countries, we also turned the struggle into an amusement. The most intensive engagement of many consumers with the war was through video games. the rest of the time, they were almost never doing anything with a conscious mind towards what Eliot Cohen termed ‘World War IV.’

We should not be surprised, therefore, at the sense of strong and sometimes bitter distance between the professional military and its parent society, so evocatively shown in the consciously separate identity of the Marine company in Generation Kill. Or the unforgettable statement scribbled on a white-board (I think) in a military facility in Iraq: ‘America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war; America is at the mall.’

Cross-posted at The Offshore Balancer.
+ posts

Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham. He is also Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London. His research interests are great power politics, grand strategy, realism, the causes and consequences of major powers’ decline, the Iraq war of 2003, foreign and defence policy in the US and UK, and the intellectual life of major powers and their foreign policy establishments. He has written four books. His book Blunder: Britain's War in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize, 2019. His most recent book is The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump (Polity, 2020). He also wrote The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power (Georgetown University Press, 2015) and Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes (Columbia University Press, 2009.