Last week, Army General Raymond “Tony” Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), expressed his dismay about the Trump administration. “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil,” Thomas opined. “I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war.”
What does that mean, we’re a nation at war? Many will think that a dumb question, but is it? Sure, we have roughly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, and that war isn’t over. Sure, the US is still helping Iraqi forces (notably in Mosul) against ISIS and related terrorist groups. Yes, the US and NATO (joined by Russia?) are seeking to corral and eventually to end ISIS and “radical Islamic extremism/terrorism.” But do these efforts constitute a world war, like World Wars I and II?
It doesn’t feel like a war – not in the USA, at least. Congress has made no formal declaration of war. Few Americans are sacrificing (of course, the troops in harm’s way are). There’s no rationing. No tax increases to pay for the war. No national mobilization of resources. No draft. No change in lifestyles or priorities. Nothing. Most Americans go about their lives oblivious to the “war” and its progress (or lack thereof).
Here’s my point. Terrorism, whether radical Islamist or White supremacist or whatever variety, will always be with us. Yes, it must be fought, and in a variety of ways. Police action is one of them. Political and social changes, i.e. reforms, are another. Intelligence gathering. Occasionally, military action is warranted. But to elevate terrorism to an existential threat is to feed the terrorists. “War” is what they want; they feed on that rhetoric of violence, a rhetoric that elevates their (self)-importance. Why feed them?
Another aspect of this: a war on terrorism is essentially a permanent war, since you’ll never get rid of all terrorists. And permanent war is perhaps the greatest enemy of democracy – and a powerful enabler of autocrats. James Madison saw this as clearly as anyone:
Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …
After reading Madison, does anyone dedicated to democracy really want to be “at war” for, well, generations? Forever?
Of course, there’s another aspect to General Thomas’s critique that must be mentioned, and that’s his audacity in criticizing the government (and, by extension, his commander-in-chief) for not having its act together in “the war.” Generals are supposed to fight wars, not critique in public the government they serve.
War rhetoric doesn’t just inspire terrorists and empower autocrats while weakening democracy: It also emboldens generals. They begin to think that, if the nation is at war, they should have a powerful role in making sure it runs well, until the state becomes an apparatus of the military (as it did in Germany during World War I, when Field Marshal Hindenburg and General Ludendorff ran Germany from 1916 to its collapse in November 1918). The Trump administration has already put (long-serving and recently retired) generals at the helm of defense, homeland security, and the National Security Council. Remember the days when civilians filled these positions?
One more point: If the US is now “a nation at war,” when, do tell, will we return to being a nation at peace? If the answer is, “When the last terrorist is eliminated,” say goodbye right now to what’s left of American democracy.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.