Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Considering War Time

Stephen Griffin

I’m happy I had the chance to make a post about war powers before the ACA din descends.  My comments here are taken from a short review of fellow Balkinization blogger Mary Dudziak’s book War Time that I just posted to SSRN.  Her book is well worth reading and is expressive of a widespread unease with the way America went to war after 9/11.

The most helpful feature of the book is that it both encourages and enables us to place the Cold War and the “war on terror” in meaningful contact.  In focusing on the Cold War, Dudziak makes the important point that the metaphor of “war” can be so mesmerizing that it can cause analysis to go astray.  The Cold War is more fruitfully understood as a period of state-building.  Setting to one side major wars such as Korea and Vietnam, the key developments revolved around the creation and maintenance of the national security state.  This is quite helpful in directing our attention to issues of state resources and the relative capacity of state officials, particularly those in the executive branch, to make effective policy decisions.  The Cold War constitutional order appeared to underwrite granting the president the authority to order the nation to war.  President Truman’s 1950 decision to intervene in Korea without asking for congressional authorization is well known.  In an especially insightful discussion, Dudziak correctly emphasizes the enormous authority that flowed, seemingly automatically, to President Bush as commander in chief after 9/11.

Dudziak seemingly wants to see not only the Cold War and post-9/11 as “wartimes,” but nearly the entire twentieth century.  To be sure, Dudziak is on solid ground when, like many historians, she emphasizes the neglected importance of the many “small wars” in which the U.S. was involved in the twentieth century, particularly in Latin America.  But Dudziak determinedly ignores the issue of the relative significance of America’s various and very different twentieth century military conflicts to our post-9/11 reality.  One plausible way to distinguish among America’s wars, for example, is to take into consideration the importance of the foreign policy objectives pursued, the costs incurred, both quantitative and qualitative, and, of course, casualties.  Dudziak stays well away from these markers.

Under the rubric of exploring the meaning of wartime, Dudziak runs together a number of different issues.  At one and the same time, she advances a critique of the militarization of foreign policy, the concept of a broad “war on terror,” and raises matters that are more properly considered in terms of what Julian Zelizer has reminded us are the politics of national security.  Meanwhile, amid the concerns of Dudziak and many others about the novel issues posed by the Guantanamo detainees and constitutionally questionable surveillance by the NSA, the United States fought two wars using thousands of ground troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.  My specific concern is that we might be led to overlook their significance if we bought Dudziak’s idea that throughout the post-1945 period (throughout the entire twentieth century!) we were “at war” in the same sense we were at war in Korea, Vietnam, the 1991 Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq.  Dudziak usefully alerts us to the question of timing (when, exactly, did the Vietnam War begin?) and the often disingenuous character of presidential claims that we were in a World War II-style wartime in the absence of sufficient democratic deliberation.  But Dudziak bypasses any attempt to sort through the relevant differences and assess the relative historical significance of the varied military conflicts the U.S. has fought.

In particular, the equivocal nature of the Cold War and the post-9/11 “war on terror,” did not diminish the political, policy, constitutional, social and cultural realities that rapidly accrue when the United States puts tens or hundreds of thousands of “boots on the ground” in foreign locales.  As the war in Afghanistan wore on and the war in Iraq finally came to a conclusion in 2011, the American public was quite credibly said to be “war-weary.”  But how could citizens be war-weary in the age of the all-volunteer military, when President Bush did not ask citizens to pay for the war with increased taxes and did not invoke a shared sense of national sacrifice?  In a democracy, wars on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan evidently cannot be fought without public involvement, without the summoning of the morale necessary to underwrite their painful consequences.  The public clearly stood behind the military after 9/11 and there was a sense of a common purpose in opposing the threat of terrorism by al Qaeda.  Yet there is nothing in American history to suggest that such a shared burden can be sustained indefinitely.  We may nod our heads in approval, thinking this an obvious point, but it undermines the coherence of Dudziak’s project.  These realities point toward a reasonable end for wartime, not an endless slog.

We are still floundering in many respects in trying to understand the ongoing war against al Qaeda authorized by Congress after 9/11.  Despite Congress’s arguable clarity in the September 2001 AUMF, one undisputable fact that will be studied by future historians is that many observers, both international and domestic, never accepted the resulting conflict as “war” and thus wartime.  I certainly agree with Dudziak that we don’t want the presidential framing of “wartime” to determine our responses.  Deciding that the conflict with al Qaeda was a war, however unconventional, was indeed a choice, one made and shared by many Americans.  What I would like Dudziak and others to see more clearly is that this particular war was attended by democratic politics, however flawed, rather than being imposed by an executive branch offering the assurance of a temporary wartime.

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