After September 11th, 2001, everything was different. The deaths of almost 3000 innocent people galvanized this country in a way not seen since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 60 years earlier. President Bush quickly characterized the terrorist attack as an act of war, and announced that the United States was going to fight a Global War on Terror. Within days of the attack Congress had passed an Authorization for the Use of Military Force and the Patriot Act. The United States was at war with terrorism.
Wars are the defining events of the history of the United States and are the markers by which we chronicle ourselves as a nation. We put historical events in order by where they fall in relation to our major wars, which have starting and ending dates that we commit to memory as schoolchildren. We tend to think of the flow of history as moving from war into peace and into war again as if it were black or white.
But since WWII, many shades of grey begin to appear. There has not been a formal declaration of war since that time, yet this country has been engaged in almost continual military conflict since then. When the nation is “at war” the president is extended more latitude, civil rights are abridged and more tax dollars are siphoned into the war effort. But what happens if the conflict never ends? When do we regain those civil rights? When is the money reallocated? When do we go back to “normal?”
In War Time–An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences, author Mary Dudziak explores the concepts of wartime and peacetime. She describes the influences of wartime on legal constructs, governmental roles and on civil society and she makes us think about what defines and characterizes “wartime,” and how that has changed over the years.
Two chapters in the book focus on the Cold War and the War on Terror—both wars which pitted the United States against an ideology—wars which don’t fit into the conventional concept of war. When I joined the U.S. Navy in 1980, I never thought of that as wartime, even though it was firmly established who the “enemy” was, and the work I was doing (anti-submarine warfare) was exclusively focused on countering the “Soviet threat.” Even in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm (the first Gulf War), and though I was still on active duty, I didn’t really feel that I was part of a military “at war.” At the time, I was stationed in Japan, and I watched the “shock and awe” on television.
In War Time we are shown how the Cold War years and the development of the Military-Industrial-Complex moved us into a period (which continues today) of grossly disproportionate spending on the military, permanent infringement on civil rights, and so used to war and militarism that we now accept it as the norm. Terrorism is the new communism and must be defended against at all costs. She also discusses other factors that affect the public’s perceptions of wartime and peacetime, such as the roles of government propaganda, the media, citizen sacrifice, proximity of the conflict, and the number of Americans killed.
As a retired military officer cum peace activist, I was particularly interested in this book as it related the slow inurement of the American public to war and militarism. As someone who is working hard to end war, I am constantly trying to figure out why the public is not more outraged about our current state of perpetual war. Does the American public really feel like we are at war today? Certainly not in the same way they did in WWII when everyone was buying war bonds and growing victory gardens in support of the war effort. Certainly not like they did in the Vietnam War when we saw the fighting on the news every night and most everyone knew of someone who was in combat. Why is wartime so different now? With the size of the Military-Industrial-(…and I will add –Media-) Complex, can our country ever again have a peacetime?
The last sentence of Dudziak’s War Time is worth quoting, because I believe it is the crux of the whole book, and I am afraid, also the sad truth:
“Military engagement no longer seemed to require the support of the American people, but instead their inattention. As war goes on, Americans have lapsed into a new kind of peacetime. It is not a time without war, but instead a time in which war does not bother everyday Americans.”
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]