Saturday, May 26, 2012

Moyn on Endless War

Mary L. Dudziak

Sam Moyn begins a thoughtful review of War Time on Lawfare not with the book but with the Jack Goldsmith's appearance on The Daily Show.  Discussing Goldsmith’s new book Power and Constraint, Jon Stewart raised the concern that the president “has extraordinary powers in an endless war.”  Goldsmith agreed that he does.  “But Stewart failed to challenge Goldsmith's premise of ‘endless war,’” Moyn writes.
Some vigorously insist that the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists offers clear boundaries to our war, at least as to who the enemy is.  But it is not as obvious that it imposes serious chronological (or for that matter geographical) limits. Goldsmith, far from using "endless war" as a throwaway line, incorporates it in the title of his book's preface. The main value of Dudziak's War Time is that comes much closer to mounting the challenge to interminable hostilities.
The project of my book is first and foremost to problematize the way wartime is understood, and to illustrate that, like other forms of temporal thinking, our understanding of wartime is a product of culture, and not a stable “fact” in the world.  The contemporary consequences of this conceptual problem is captured by Moyn:
legal scholars, liberal and conservative, have mainly spent their time since 9/11 continuing, and indeed amplifying, the Cold War mistake of thinking within the culturally constructed frame of a chronologically bounded understanding of war.  Insistence on this frame, and failure to see its constructed qualities, prompts an obsession with "civil liberties in wartime." But the "civil liberties in wartime" argument depends upon a social construction of "wartime" that in fact fit World War I and II much better than either the Cold War or today's "endless war" in the first place.
But Moyn asks: “I wonder, however, if the civil libertarian strategy came about because of ill-fitting conceptual categories or, instead, a failure to challenge geopolitical realities. Was the error of our time conceding a wartime frame, or conceding an open-ended struggle on which to impose it?”  Moyn presses both me and my critics to address the problem of ongoing warfare more directly.  In response to Goldsmith’s claim that our system has worked post-9/11, Moyn suggests that perhaps “the system crashed in the Cold War; it is to our great and lasting moral discredit that matters were never put right after it.”  Seeking deeper engagement of the moral problem of ongoing war, Moyn suggests that “one might take the repeated ceremonial endings [of combat] Dudziak singles out, for example, to imply widespread nostalgia for the very chronological confinement to war Americans long ago gave up.”

From my perspective, Moyn accomplishes three crucial things in this review.  First, he highlights a crucial transformative moment in American politics, and urges that we study it more deeply.  Although there has been on-going U.S. military engagement since at least the Civil War, it was during the Cold War, in the context of shifts in the U.S. role in geopolitics and the domestic political reaction, that American political leaders argued that American military power projected around the world was the only way to keep the nation safe.  This put the nation on a trajectory that we have not stepped back from, and that others have argued has become entrenched in American political culture.  From that point on the infrastructure of endless war was created.  And from that point on, politicians might argue against particular uses of force by presidents, while at the same time supporting continued military build-up if it brought jobs and resources to their districts. 

Second, Moyn insists that the morality of endless war be placed more clearly on the table.  Moyn himself illuminates the importance of critically exploring both morality and its uses as a political rhetoric in his own fine work.

Third, and especially helpful from my perspective, he places people who don’t usually speak to each other, and their ideas, in conversation in an important way.  The liberal/conservative back-and-forth about war, rights and presidential power has become predictable and even tiresome, so that it fails to illuminate underlying cultural, political and global dynamics that produce the conceptual environment within which our leading conservative and liberal scholars argue with each other.  It will help us to get beyond that impasse, I believe, by turning more seriously to other disciplines where war is treated not as a stable fact in the world, but as a complex and changing phenomenon requiring the tools of political scientists, anthropologists, historians and others to more fully understand.

Cross-posted on War Time.

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