This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
I've long been struck by one strange aspect of the most recent part of the American Century: just how demobilized this country has been in the midst of distant wars that have morphed and spread for almost 17 years. I was born in July 1944 into a fully mobilized country fighting World War II in Europe and the Pacific. Pearl Harbor aside, actual war was then a distant reality for most Americans, but there was no question that this nation was at war (as were both my parents: my father in the U.S. Army Air Forces, as it was then called, and my mother in the war effort at home). War bonds, Victory Gardens, Rosie the Riveter -- mobilization for war was a fact of life, no matter where you were.
The same was true for another era of war in my lifetime: the Vietnam years. With up to half a million troops deployed, along with significant parts of the U.S. Navy and Air Force, to fight peasant rebels thousands of miles from home, war-making couldn't have been more distant. Yet from the mid-1960s into the early 1970s, significant parts of this country were once again mobilized, even if in a movement against that war. The streets were regularly filled with protesters. In Congress, opposition was commonplace. In the military, too, there were powerful antiwar currents and, by the last years of that war, the antiwar movement itself would be led by Vietnam veterans.
That was, of course, just how a democratic country, a nation "of the people," was supposed to respond to the wars its leaders chose to fight. Even if in quite different ways, both World War II and Vietnam were people's wars fought by draft armies and civilians who felt the call to service in some essential fashion. That's what makes the twenty-first-century version of American war so eerily different. The one thing it hasn't been is a call to service of any sort. Quite the opposite. It's been fought by an all-volunteer military, a force remarkably isolated from the rest of the country that today's author, retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore, has in the past compared to a foreign legion.
That military and the demobilized public that goes with it have been a long time coming -- since, in fact, the moment in 1973 when President Richard Nixon abolished the draft in hopes of eliminating the very idea of antiwar protest. Our wars are now not only fought in distant lands, but at least in part by a secretive military of 70,000, the Special Operations forces cocooned inside the regular military. Such conflicts are also overseen by an ascendant national security state enswathed in a penumbra of secrecy. Today, America's wars never end either in victory or defeat. They just go on and on. So they and that demobilized public might be thought of as part of the new definition of the American way of life and, as Astore so pungently points out, the result is a country that your parents and mine wouldn't have recognized. Tom
America's Phony War
Blitzkrieg Overseas, Sitzkrieg in the Homeland
By William J. Astore
Overseas, the United States is engaged in real wars in which bombs are dropped, missiles are launched, and people (generally not Americans) are killed, wounded, uprooted, and displaced. Yet here at home, there's nothing real about those wars. Here, it's phony war all the way. In the last 17 years of "forever war," this nation hasn't for one second been mobilized. Taxes are being cut instead of raised. Wartime rationing is a faint memory from the World War II era. No one is being required to sacrifice a thing.- Advertisement -
Now, ask yourself a simple question: What sort of war requires no sacrifice? What sort of war requires that almost no one in the country waging it take the slightest notice of it?
America's conflicts in distant lands rumble on, even as individual attacks flash like lightning in our news feeds. "Shock and awe" campaigns in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, initially celebrated as decisive and game changing, ultimately led nowhere. Various "surges" produced much sound and fury, but missions were left decidedly unaccomplished. More recent strikes by the Trump administration against a Syrian air base or the first use of the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal, the MOAB super-bomb, in Afghanistan flared brightly, only to fizzle even more quickly. These versions of the German blitzkrieg-style attacks of World War II have been lightning assaults that promised much but in the end delivered little. As these flashes of violence send America's enemies of the moment (and nearby civilians) to early graves, the homeland (that's us) slumbers. Sounds of war, if heard at all, come from TV or video screens or Hollywood films in local multiplexes.
We are, in fact, kept isolated from Washington's wars, even as America's warriors traverse a remarkable expanse of the globe, from the Philippines through the Greater Middle East deep into Africa. As conflicts flare and sputter, ramp up and down and up again, Americans have been placed in a form of behavioral lockdown. Little more is expected of us than to be taxpaying spectators or, when it comes to the U.S. military, starry-eyed cheerleaders. Most of the time, those conflicts are not just out of sight, but meant to be out of mind as well. Rare exceptions are moments when our government asks us to mourn U.S. service members like Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens, killed in an abortive raid President Trump ordered in Yemen in early 2017 in which children also died (though that was something just about no one here even noticed). While the military has been deploying and striking on a global scale, we've been told from the very first moments of Washington's self-proclaimed war on terror to go shopping or to Disney World and let the experts handle it.
We have, in short, been sidelined in what, to draw on the lexicon of World War II, might be thought of as a sitzkrieg, the German term for phony war.
A bizarre version of blitzkrieg overseas and an even stranger version of sitzkrieg at home could be said to define this peculiar American moment. These two versions exist in a curiously yin-yang relationship to each other. For how can a nation's military be engaged in warfare at a near-global level -- blitzing people across vast swaths of the globe -- when its citizens are sitting on their collective duffs, demobilized and mentally disarmed? Such a schizoid state of mind can exist only when it's in the interest of those in power. Appeals to "patriotism" (especially to revering "our" troops) and an overwhelming atmosphere of secrecy to preserve American "safety" and "security" have been remarkably effective in controlling and stifling interest in the country's wars and their costs, long before such an interest might morph into dissent or opposition. If you want an image of just how effective this has been, recall the moment in July 2016 when small numbers of earnest war protesters quite literally had the lights turned off on them at the Democratic National Convention.
To use an expression I heard more than a few times in my years in the military, when it comes to its wars, the government treats the people like mushrooms, keeping them in the dark and feeding them bullshit.- Advertisement -
The Fog of Phony War
Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously spoke of the "fog of war," the confusion created by and inherent uncertainty built into that complex human endeavor. As thick as that fog often is, in these years the fog of phony war has proven even thicker and more disorienting.
By its very nature, a real war of necessity, of survival, like the Civil War or World War II brings with it clarity of purpose and a demand for results. Poorly performing leaders are relieved of command when not killed outright in combat. Consider the number of mediocre Union generals Abraham Lincoln cycled through before he found Ulysses S. Grant. Consider the number of senior officers relieved during World War II by General George C. Marshall, who knew that, in a global struggle against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, subpar performances couldn't be tolerated. In wars of necessity or survival, moreover, the people are invariably involved. In part, they may have little choice, but they also know (or at least believe they know) "why we fight" -- and generally approve of it.