Name of the book
Stephen J. Heidt. 2021. Resowing the Seeds of War: Presidential Peace Rhetoric Since 1945. (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press).
What’s the argument?
Wars don’t end easily. There are lots of reasons for that. Leaders want to win, or at least not oversee military defeat. There are interests and ideologies at stake. But my focus is on the rhetoric. When a democracy goes to war, political leaders usually sell the conflict to the people by characterizing the enemy as savage, uncivilized, and irrational. This increases public support the war, but it also complicates war termination. After all, one isn’t supposed to negotiate with barbarians or terrorists. These rhetorical incentives – particularly in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan – pushed presidents to continue to seek victory long after it was no longer really possible..
With victory elusive, presidents manage the end of war challenge by reframing, modifying, or unraveling how we should understand the enemy. Shifting the metaphors used to describe the enemy enables presidents to end hostilities by offering new frames for the conflict and the postwar situation. This language justifies peace negotiations, directs the foreign affairs bureaucracy, justifies reconstruction or postwar security arrangements, and provides guideposts for how to understand the postwar international situation.
The metaphors presidents employ, even in the context of ending wars, rest on the supremacy of “national security” over other values. This means that presidential end-of-war rhetoric primes the US for the next cycle of interventions.
Tell us why we should care
We spend a lot of time discussing how to win wars, even as the US loses them. These conversations, often driven by political leaders and generals, pivot around the ‘situation on the ground.’ They pretend that if Washington tinkers with strategy and sticks it out, eventually the US will prevail. But we don’t often ask if this talk influences the end of war. Does discussion of victory affect how the country approaches the next international crisis?
I think that a key part of stopping “forever war” – the cycles of war and peace that have ruled American foreign policy – is understanding how political leaders and the press frame matters of war and peace. I hope that my book will help folks recognize that, for example, arguments opposing the end of the war in Afghanistan are recycled from Korea and Vietnam. This should help scholars, critics, and activists challenge those arguments in the future.
Why should we believe your argument?
This is a deeply researched book, drawing from presidential archives and publicly available documentation. The quantity of that data enabled me to connect presidential statements – public and private – to administrative and bureaucratic actors. I found that the ways presidents frame end of war problems and challenges gets mimicked by the bureaucracy.
Why’d you decide to write it in the first place?
After 9/11, I felt pretty helpless as the nation geared up for war against Afghanistan and Iraq. It seemed impossible to stop the drive to war, even though we had no clear idea how to achieve any goal beyond destroying the enemy. When the predictions of critics proved right – both nations exploded with insurgency and the wars dragged on – I really wanted to understand how the political leadership could get us out of the mess.
What would you most like to change, and why?
I wish I had the opportunity to discuss Biden’s statements about the war in Afghanistan and his decision to remove the remaining troops. He was one of the few voices to urge Barack Obama to get out of Afghanistan in 2009. While the implications of his decision to leave Afghanistan are unclear, his messaging strategy reflects some of the bluntness that I call for in the book.
The +1: How difficult was it to get the book published?
Knowing how rigorous peer review is, I worked to ensure the manuscript was as strong as possible prior to submission. I also had informal conversations with the series editor who expressed interest. Those factors made the revision period smoother than I feared it would be. Working with Michigan State University Press was a breeze.