Even before the financial crisis hit full force in September 2008, George W. Bush's presidency was a disaster. His approval rating, after peaking near 90 percent post-9/11, had averaged below 35 percent from late 2006 on, and he dragged his whole party down along with him. But now, in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, there's a major GOP push on to return to the paranoid freak-out state that immediately followed 9/11. The elite political establishment went crazy then, and by gosh, they want to do it again!
There are many reasons we find ourselves back here, but one of them is that the Democratic base, so revolted by how cravenly its leadership had behaved, placed its faith Barack Obama, who was far less of an outsider than they mistakenly assumed, and has done much less to break with the Bush/Cheney "war on terror" strategy than was needed to get a substantially different result. The details of how he might have done a better job may be messy — though relying on drone strikes his first week in office was certainly not a good sign of what was to come.
But the big picture may be a good deal clearer. Obama always said he didn't oppose all wars, just dumb ones, a trope that echoes the good war/bad war distinction which, at a minimum, finds two good wars in U.S. history since the Revolutionary War: the Civil War and World War II. And the memory of those two wars helps convince us of our own virtue, the righteousness and necessity of our cause, even as it blinds us to the troubling contradictions which are inevitably involved in any historical conflict, no matter how noble in intent. It should be no surprise when, ignoring all such contradictions in the past, we find ourselves bedeviled by them once again.
This is not a made-up, fantasy-based charge against Obama, as so much of the right wing or foreign policy establishment criticisms are. Indeed, Obama's 2002 speech opposing the Iraq War — the speech which arguably not only won him his Senate seat in 2004, but also the presidency in 2008 — began with explicitly citing and endorsing these two “good wars,” in morally approving terms:
Let me begin by saying that although this has been billed as an anti-war rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances. The Civil War was one of the bloodiest in history, and yet it was only through the crucible of the sword, the sacrifice of multitudes, that we could begin to perfect this union, and drive the scourge of slavery from our soil. I don't oppose all wars.
My grandfather signed up for a war the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, fought in Patton's army. He saw the dead and dying across the fields of Europe; he heard the stories of fellow troops who first entered Auschwitz and Treblinka. He fought in the name of a larger freedom, part of that arsenal of democracy that triumphed over evil, and he did not fight in vain. I don't oppose all wars.
Here Obama is actually echoing the more enlightened side of the foreign policy establishment. It's a large part of why he was able to transition from outsider critic to commander-in-chief. But what if both he and the broader establishment are wrong? What if the very notion of a "good war" is itself the problem? A problem that inevitably leads us into fighting many much more problematic wars, which we are thereby ill-prepared to morally question? Or even to see from perspectives other than our own, in the moment?
Let me be clear. There's no doubt of how evil slavery or Hitler were. That's not the question. The question is, does that make the wars against them “good”? Or merely necessary? Or unavoidable? And if we think of them in these other, less self-righteous, self-congratulatory ways, what else might we be able to begin to see? What else might we start to learn? What further slippage into obviously not-so-good wars might we be able to avoid?
Perhaps what's made WWII stand up so well as a "good war" was not the conduct of it — as the fire bombings of Dresden and atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki vividly remind us — but how we built a just and lasting peace afterwards, in sharp contrast to WWI, whose peace virtually ensured the war that followed. The conduct of WWII itself was beyond horrific, as recalled by Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five," Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" and John Hersey's "Hiroshima." These works — and more — long ago entered the public imagination, but have yet to be assimilated into our understanding of World War II in its full moral complexity, as continued references to “the good war” remind us.
Of course a large part of the problem is that those works' impacts, and the realities behind them, were significantly blunted in the first place. Although Hersey's account, first published in the New Yorker, has reached a massive audience for a literary work, this reach pales in comparison to newsreel footage or a movie, particularly for mass public opinion.
Hersey's account couldn't be erased by the powers that be, but it could be — and was — limited, as the true horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was officially suppressed for decades, as Greg Mitchell describes in "Atomic Cover-up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and The Greatest Movie Never Made."
Heller's "Catch-22," written about WWII, came out during the Vietnam War, and was inevitably read as a critique of that much more obviously flawed war. It helped fuel both popular resistance and elite criticism of the Vietnam War, but that diverted attention from Heller's original target and questioning of the “good war” narrative he intended. Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five," meanwhile, re-framed his own vivid first-hand experience into a science fiction context — a double-edged sword that allows unthinkable thoughts to be considered, but only because it imagines them in an elsewhere. It, too, was read in the context of the Vietnam War, at a time when questioning the morality of WWII was far removed from most people's concerns.
Yet, for all the factors blunting the impact of those works, and deeper forces behind them, the claim of WWII's goodness survives in largely on the basis of its success, meaning the peace that followed. And that success in turn depended on learning at least some of the lessons of why WWI's peace failed. Had we not learned those lessons, had we fought WWIII against Germany in the 1970s, repeating the pattern of WWI leading to WWII, it's inconceivable that we would have a relatively uncomplicated, romantic view of the latter, no matter how many movies John Wayne made. Fortunately, in both Germany and Japan we recognized a deep compelling need to foster a new non-militarist spirit, which prevented us from repeating some of the mistakes made by the victors after WWI.
The story is radically different with the Civil War, though the deeper point is the same — the plausible goodness of a war depends on the success of the peace that comes after. While WWII was followed by a successful peace, the Civil War wasn't — a painful reality white America remains in deep denial about. The peace was immediately subverted by terror, in the form of the Ku Klux Klan. After the first wave of political violence and accompanying resistance culminated in the deadlock of 1876 presidential election, the Republican Party struck a deal, essentially selling out Southern blacks by removing the protection of federal troops, and ending Reconstruction. It took another two decades for the replacement system of black subjugation to fully consolidate, a system involving debt peonage, segregation and mass disenfranchisement, which barely changed in its essentials until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s ultimately forced the partial reassertion of federal protections which had been written into the Constitution via the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments after the Civil War.
Yet, despite ebbs and flows of hostility over time — including the extension of federal protections just mentioned — the white South, buoyed by its Lost Cause ideology, has never stopped fighting the Civil War down to this very day, as witnessed in the profound, widespread hostility to Obama among Southern whites, and the multifaceted revival in neo-Confederate and secessionist ideology and strategy. It's hardly surprising that those who still fight against resolving our own Civil War are among the most eager to fight wars abroad.
Defusing this hostility is anything but simple. Even trying to look back to the Civil War era and the war's immediate aftermath to see what might have been done differently may seem like an impossible task. But we need to recognize that, in some respects, the problem America faces with its still-unresolved Civil War is the same sort of problem terrorists like ISIL and al Qaeda are exploiting today. Force alone cannot solve either problem, however clear it seems we are on the right side of a “good war.”
The truth is no war can be good enough to deliver what the moniker promises. Both the Civil War and WWII may have been necessary and/or inevitable, and we can profitably explore how and why that might be so in either case. From that, in turn, we may come to understand how to act far enough in advance to avoid future wars. But to claim those wars as “good” is, paradoxically, to ensure there will always be more of them, in which many millions of innocents will die.
If we think of those wars historically, rather than morally, we can start to see our way out — at least in theory, and theory, in turn, suggests a change in practice as well. We can see most easily that WWII grew out of WWI and the unjust peace that followed. WWI, too, was supposed to be a “good war.” H.G. Wells coined the catch-phrase a “war to end all war,” which Woodrow Wilson famously endorsed, while adding his own moral promise of a war to “make the world safe for democracy.” Hence, one “good war” lead to another. Of course, Wilson (among others) was disappointed in how the post-WWI peace process worked out, but that's precisely the point: he had the power to take us to war, the power to repressively jail those who objected, but he did not have the power to create the sort of peace he envisioned, so his initial call to war was inherently dishonest and deceptive, though it may still be argued that he deceived himself most of all.
The Civil War, in contrast, had no such clear-cut proximal cause. It was inescapably the product of a much longer historical process — a process begun when the first slave was brought to America's shores, roughly 10 generations earlier. As the war drew near its end, in his second inaugural address, President Abraham Lincoln said,
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
The war ended with a far less drastic cost, but the underlying injustice was not resolved, and the cost continues to be paid — most unequally—to this very day. It's difficult even to conceive of what a just peace after the Civil War might have been, precisely because the war's roots were so deep, and infected every aspect of American culture. Indeed, even admitting what the war was about was too much for white America to abide, as historian David Blight explored in detail in his prize-winning book, "Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory," which retraced the first crucial 50 years of rewriting the memory and meaning of the war, and how the struggle over slavery was expunged from its central meaning, purpose and significance.
Blight explains three broad visions of Civil War memory – reconciliationist, emancipationist and white supremacist. The first was born in wartime responses to its terrible brutality, epitomized by Walt Whitman’s experience of tending the wounded and dying of both sides. The second sprang not just from the war, but also from the Emancipation Proclamation and the more than 200,000 black combatants who joined the fight. The third gradually reformulated itself after the shock of military defeat, eventually dominating reconciliationist thinking by sacrificing racial reconciliation for the sake of sectional reunion.
While Blight was writing about one very specific period of time, and his book vividly illustrates one aspect of our total failure to attain a just peace, the dynamic interplay of these three perspectives reflects a much longer history of how America has repeatedly failed to face and atone for its original sin.
I've quoted this passage before, in a piece that addresses that longer history, writing in the wake of the Charleston Mother Bethel massacre and Gov. Nikki Haley's decision in response that the Confederate flag should come down from public buildings in South Carolina. In that piece I explored several themes, including “the way in which white supremacy reorganizes itself from one historical regime to another, both establishing purportedly new foundations, while simultaneously reinterpreting the past,” as well as how it “naturalizes, normalizes and moralizes itself, so as to render itself difficult to clearly identify, much less name, and fight against,” and the way it “usurps otherwise noble ideals, such as bringing people together, establishing peace and harmony, promoting tolerance, etc.” All these themes shed light on how the very notion of reconciliation, inextricably linked with any hope for lasting peace, is repeatedly infected and contaminated by white supremacy throughout U.S. history. A similar corruption of the ideals of peace and reconciliation has been seen repeatedly on the world stage as well.
This is not to say that true reconciliation is impossible, but it is to say that a very hardline and deeply understood rejection of white supremacy is necessary in order to make that possible. And that is something that white America even today is both unwilling and unable to consider. It will only come about as a consequence of intense and militant pressure from blacks and other people of color. Well-meaning whites will never come to this on their own.
In his book, "Our Secret Constitution: How Lincoln Redefined American Democracy," law professor George P. Fletcher expands on the argument made by Garry Wills and others that the Gettysburg Address constituted a redefinition of American democracy, arguing that it, along with the three Reconstruction amendments (the 13th, 14th and 15th) form the core of a hidden "second Constitution," based on "organic nationhood, equality of all persons, and popular democracy,” which he characterizes as “principles radically opposed" to those of the first Constitution, which, he stresses, promulgated "peoplehood as a voluntary association, individual freedom, and republican elitism." He argues that this second Constitution was born from the need for redemption under law — both for the national crime of slavery and for the blood spilled in the Civil War, and he draws historical parallels to France's Napoleonic Code created in the aftermath of the Terror and to Germany's Basic Law, developed in the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust. This is, essentially, an argument for a radically different way of viewing our Constitutional development, and how it was intended to bring about precisely the sort of “just and lasting peace” which the Civil War, as “good war” would seem to promise, and would have needed to deliver in order to truly deserve that description.
Of course, this Constitutional development was not just abandoned, but subverted, first through 19th Century rulings — most notoriously Plessy v. Ferguson — but also all the way up to today, with Roberts Court's gutting of the 15th Amendment in Shelby County v. Holder. But just because it hasn't been realized doesn't invalidate Fletcher's vision. His conception is invaluable for its breadth and power in laying out the fullness of the promise of the path not taken, so that we can justly understand how far short we have fallen. The blueprint for a just and lasting peace has been conceived for us, Fletcher reveals, we simply haven't fought for it with anything remotely like the effort that is needed, the kind of effort that we take for granted demanding in the name of war, but that can only really deliver in the struggle for a just and lasting peace.
Moreover, the fact that the Civil War still remains fundamentally unresolved fatally infects and subverts all our pretense of global morality. How can we bring democracy to the world, if we cannot bring it Shelby County, Alabama?
In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech — much of it perversely devoted to defending the notion of good wars — Obama said:
Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.
How, then, do we explain America's decades-long support for a long line of dictators on every continent? What sort of global security is that? How did we ensure that for the people of Iran when we overthrew the elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, or for the people of Guatemala when we overthrew the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954? Or for the people of Vietnam, when we subverted the national reunification election of 1956? All those nations are still suffering from the damage we inflicted more than 60 years ago — and we are suffering as well, for having made the world a less safe, secure and democratic place. What about our funding of the Islamic extremist Mujaheddin in Afghanistan, from 1979 on? Or our related partnerships with dozens of dictatorships in Muslim lands? Is Egypt today — after the 2013 coup — a shining example of how we've spread democracy? Is Saudi Arabia?
America has roughly 800 military bases overseas, but the idea of another country stationing its military here is literally unthinkable. With such a dramatic imbalance, how credible can it really be that our military might around the globe simply serves the cause of global peace? We have to believe in the myth of good wars in order to justify such a vast deployment of American military might. Yet, we cannot honestly believe it. The gap between rhetoric and reality is just too big. And just how safe do even Americans feel, as a result of all those bases overseas? If they cannot make us feel secure, how much good do they really do anyone else? Is there really not a much better way to ensure that people feel secure?
As long as we keep believing in the myth of good wars, basic questions such as these — questions that could lead to new ways of thinking about the world —will never be asked with the urgency and vigor that's required to begin getting answers. Instead of continuing to believe the myth of good wars, we need to devote all the resources we can to reality, and the hard work of creating a just and lasting peace.