Is America condemned to endless war? And if so, what implications does that have for the American psyche—the American soul?
A friend of mine who is a practicing poet writing under the pen name Pavel Chichikov shares a poem composed after hearing the roar of F-16s—presumably engaged in protecting the citizenry—over the section of Washington where he lives. A meditation on “security” as Americans have come to know it, it has a simple point: security comes at a price. “There is a gate that must be closed,/Documents that must be seen,/Private life to be disclosed.” And then we are—safe?
I was thinking of these things as I skimmed the outpouring of commentary on the 9/11 anniversary. One piece in particular caught my attention, a page-one article by Greg Jaffe in the September 5 Washington Post describing the evolution of U.S. military policy and the military itself in these last ten years. Jaffe quoted from a Pentagon assessment that called the present “a period of persistent conflict,” adding: “No one should harbor the illusion that the developed world can win this conflict in the near future.”
Jaffe himself spoke of “endless war.” It has numerous consequences. One is the creation of a tight-knit, highly professional military isolated in significant ways from the people on whose behalf it fights. Another is growing skepticism about peace.
Earlier this year, Jaffe noted, the House of Representatives voted to eliminate funds for the U.S. Institute of Peace (the money was later restored). “’Peace’…has become something of a dirty word in Washington foreign-policy circles,” he wrote. President Obama doesn’t promise it. His approach is to look for ways of fighting—drone strikes and special forces operations—that are more “cost-effective” than putting thousands of troops into places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
You could argue that America has been fighting a war or getting ready to fight one for most of the last 70 years—ever since Pearl Harbor, that is: Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, and always background accompaniment courtesy of the cold war or the war on terror. The difference now is that no serious person promises an end.
What state of mind does a permanent national security regime produce? Here’s Chichikov again:
So that at last the guards deform
The shape of life they should defend,
And no one knows of what they warn
Or if the siege will ever end.
Columns like this one generally conclude by offering solutions, but this tunnel has no easy way out. Neo-isolationism would be suicidal. Continuing America’s dual role as world policeman and anti-terror crusader will eventually drain our material and moral resources.
If there’s any escape from the bind, surely it lies in some form of innovative internationalism—the creation of a genuine, working community of nations. But that appears to exceed the political will of America’s leadership class, to say nothing of the leaders of other nations.
Pope Benedict sometimes speaks of it, as in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate with its advocacy of “a true world political authority.” Listed as its purposes were “to manage the global economy” in the face of the current crisis, “to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace,” and to deal with urgent issues of environmental protection and migration.
Most people, including most Catholics, shrugged that off. The Pope is unrealistic, they said.
Perhaps. But this may be a case where idealism is the real realism. It looks a lot better than endless war.