DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA The face of war (don't look!) By William J Astore
A new isolationism is metastasizing in the American body politic. At its heart
lies not an urge to avoid war, but an urge to avoid contemplating the costs and
realities of war. It sees war as having analgesic qualities - as lessening a
collective feeling of impotence, a collective sense of fear and terror. Making
war in the name of reducing terror serves this state of mind and helps to
preserve it. Marked by a calculated estrangement from war's horrific realities
and mercenary purposes, the new isolationism magically turns an historic term
on its head, for it keeps us in wars, rather than out of them.
Old-style American isolationism had everything to do with avoiding "entangling
alliances" and conflicts abroad. It was tied to America's historic tradition of
rejecting a large standing army - a tradition in which many Americans took
pride. Yes, we signed on
to World War I in 1917, but only after we had been "too proud to fight".
Even when we joined, we did so as a non-aligned power with the goal of ending
major wars altogether. Before Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Americans again
resisted the call to arms, looking on Adolf Hitler's rise and other unnerving
events in Europe and Asia with alarm, but with little eagerness to send
American boys into yet another global bloodbath.
In the decades since World War II, however, "isolationism" has been turned
inside-out and upside-down. Instead of seeking eternal peace, Washington elites
have, by now, plunged the country into a state of eternal war, and they've done
so, in part, by isolating ordinary Americans from war's brutal realities. With
rare exceptions (notably John F Kennedy's call for young Americans to pay any
price and bear any burden), our elites have not sought to mobilize a new
"greatest generation", but rather to keep a clueless one - clueless, that is,
as to war's fatal costs and bitter realities - unmobilized (if not
Such national obliviousness has not gone unnoticed. In a recent New York Times
op-ed headlined "The Wars that America Forgot About", former NBC news anchor
Tom Brokaw asked the obvious question: Why, in an otherwise contentious
political season, have our wars gone so utterly undebated? His answers - that
we're in a recession in which people have more pressing concerns, and that
we've restricted the burdens of war to a tiny minority - are sensible, but
don't go quite far enough. It's important to add that few Americans are
debating, or even discussing, our wars in part because our ruling elites
haven't wanted them debated - as if they don't want us to get the idea that we
have any say in war-making at all.
Think of it this way: the old isolationism was a peaceable urge basic to the
American people; the new isolationism is little short of a government program
to keep the old isolationism, or opposition of any sort to American wars, in
Americans express skepticism about war ... so?
When you're kept isolated from war's costs, it's nearly impossible to mount an
effective opposition to them. While our elites, remembering the Vietnam years,
may have sought to remove US public opinion from the enemy's target list, they
have also worked hard to remove the public as a constraint on their war-making
powers. Recall former Vice President Dick Cheney's dismissive "So?" when asked
about opinion polls showing declining public support for the Iraq War in 2008.
So what if the American people are uneasy? The elites can always call on a
professional, non-draft military, augmented by hordes of privatized hire-a-gun
outfits, themselves so isolated from society at large that they've almost
become the equivalent of foreign legionnaires. These same elites encourage us
to "support our troops", but otherwise to look away.
Mainstream media coverage of our wars has only added to the cocoon created by
the new isolationism. After all, it rarely addresses the full costs of those
conflicts to US troops (including their redeployment to war zones, even when
already traumatized), let alone to foreign non-combatants in faraway Muslim
lands. When such civilians are killed, their deaths tend to take place under
the media radar. "If it bleeds, it doesn't lead," could be a news motto for
much of recent war coverage, especially if the bleeding is done by civilians.
Only the recent release of classified documents and videos by WikiLeaks, for
instance, has forced our media to bring the mind-numbing body count we've
amassed in Iraq out of the closet. If nothing else, WikiLeaks has succeeded in
reminding us of the impact of our vastly superior firepower, as in a now
infamous video of an Apache helicopter gunship firing on non-combatants in the
streets of Baghdad. Such footage is all-too-personal, all-too-real. Small
wonder it was shown in a censored form on CNN.
Where's the benefit, after all, for corporate-owned media in showcasing others'
terror and pain, especially if it's inflicted by "America's hometown heroes"?
Our regular export of large-scale violence (including a thriving trade in the
potential for violence via our hammerlock on the global arms trade) is not
something Americans or the American media have cared to scrutinize.
To cite two more willful blind spots: Can the average American say roughly how
many Iraqis were killed or wounded in our "liberation" of their country and the
mayhem that followed? In mid-October, US Central Command quietly released a
distinctly lowball estimate of 200,000 Iraqi casualties (including 77,000
killed) from January 2004 to August 2008. That estimate (lower by 30,000 than
the one compiled by official Iraqi sources) did not include casualties from
major combat operations in 2003, nor of course did it have any place for the
millions of refugees driven from their homes in the sectarian violence that
followed. The recent WikiLeaks document dump on Iraq held at least another
15,000 unacknowledged Iraqi dead, and serious studies of the casualty toll
often suggest the real numbers are hundreds of thousands higher.
Or how about the attitudes of those living in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan
subject to the recent upsurge of US drone strikes? Given the way our robotic
wars are written about here, could most Americans imagine what it feels like to
be on the receiving end of Zeus-like lightning bolts?
Here's what one farmer in North Waziristan in the Pakistani tribal borderlands
had to say: "I blame the government of Pakistan and the USA ... they are
responsible for destroying my family. We were living a happy life and I didn't
have any links with the Taliban. My family members were innocent ... I wonder,
why was I victimized?"
Would an American farmer wonder anything different? Would he not seek vengeance
if errant missiles obliterated his family? It's hard, however, for Americans to
grasp the nature of the wars being fought in their name, no less to express
sympathy for their victims when they are kept in a state of striking isolation
from war's horrors.
Once upon a time, America's global "war on terror" was an analgesic. Recall
those "shock and awe" images of explosions that marked the opening days of
Iraqi combat operations in 2003. Recall as well all the colorful maps, the
glamorous weapons systems, and the glowering faces of Osama bin Laden and
Saddam Hussein interpreted and explained to us on our TV screens by retired US
military officers in mufti. In this curiously sanitized version of war, weapons
and other military arcana were to serve to ease our pain at the tragedy we had
suffered on 9/11, while obscuring the "towers" of dead we were creating in
In fostering analgesic war and insisting on information control, our elites
have, yet again, drawn a mistaken lesson from the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, even
if it took years, free-to-roam and often skeptical reporters finally began to
question the official story of the war. Violent images came home to roost in
American living rooms at dinnertime. Such coverage may not have stopped the
killing, at least not right away, but it did contribute to a gutsy antiwar
movement, as well as to a restive "silent majority" that increasingly rejected
official rhetoric of falling dominoes and lights at the end of tunnels.
Iraq and Afghanistan, by way of contrast, have been characterized by embedded
(mostly cheerleading) reporters and banal images of US troops on patrol or
firing weapons at unseen targets. Clear admissions that our firepower-intensive
form of warfare leads to the violent deaths of many more of "them" than of "us"
- and that many of them aren't, by any stretch of the imagination, our enemies
- are seldom forthcoming. (An exception was former Afghan war commander General
Stanley McChrystal's uncommonly harsh assessment of checkpoint casualties:
"We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my
knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force.")
"We don't do body counts on other people," said a cocky Donald Rumsfeld late in
2003 and, even though it wasn't true (the Pentagon just kept its body counts to
itself), an obliging Pentagon press corps generally fell into line and
generally stayed there long after our new wars had lost their feel-good sheen.
Clearly, military and political elites learned it's better (for them, at least)
to keep vivid images of death and destruction off America's screens.
Ironically, even as Americans seek more lifelike and visceral representations
from ever bigger, brighter, high-def TVs, war is presented in carefully
sanitized low-def form, largely drained of blood and violence.
The result? Uncomfortable questions about our wars rarely get asked, let alone
aired. A boon to those who want to continue those wars unmolested by public
opposition, even if a bust when it comes to pursuing a sensible global strategy
that's truly in the national interest. In seeking to isolate the public from
any sense of significant sacrifice, active participation in, or even
understanding of America's wars, these same elites have ensured that the
conflicts they pursued would be strategically unsound and morally untenable.
Today, Americans are again an isolationist people, but with a twist. Even as we
expand our military bases overseas and spend trillions on national security and
wars, we've isolated ourselves from war's passions, its savagery, its
heartrending sacrifices. Such isolation comforts some and seemingly allows
others free rein to act as they wish, but it's a false comfort, a false
freedom, purchased at the price of prolonging our wars, increasing their
casualties, abridging our freedoms, and eroding our country's standing in the
To end our wars, we must first endure their Gorgon stare.
William J Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a TomDispatch
regular. His books and articles focus mainly on the military, technology, and
society. Listen to a Timothy MacBain TomDispatch audio interview with Astore on
what it felt like to come out of the military and learn how to write honestly
about wars by clicking
here or download it to your iPod,
here. He welcomes reader comments at [email protected]