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Commentary

Suppose You Wanted to Have a Permanent War


     
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I’ll concede that having a permanent war might seem an odd thing to want, but let’s put aside the “why” question for the time being, accepting that you wouldn’t want it unless you stood to gain something important from it. If, however, for reasons you found adequate, you did want to have a permanent war, what would you need in order to make such a policy viable in a democratic society such as the United States?

First, you would need that society to have a dominant ideology—a widely shared belief system about social and political relations—within which having a permanent war seems to be a desirable policy, given the ideology’s own content and the pertinent facts accepted by its adherents. Something like American jingo-patriotism cum anti-communism might turn the trick. It worked pretty well during the nearly half century of the Cold War. The beauty of anti-communism as a covering ideology was that it could serve to justify a wide variety of politically expedient actions both here and abroad. The Commies, you’ll recall, were everywhere: not just in Moscow and Sevastopol, but maybe in Minneapolis and San Francisco. We had to stay alert; we could never let down our guard, anywhere.

Second, you would need periodic crises, because without them the public becomes complaisant, unafraid, and hence unwilling to bear the heavy burdens that they must bear if the government is to carry on a permanent war. As Senator Arthur Vandenberg told Harry Truman in 1947 at the outset of the Cold War, gaining public support for a perpetual global campaign requires that the government “scare hell out of the American people.” Each crisis piques the people’s insecurities and renders them once again disposed to pay the designated price, whether it takes the form of their treasure, their liberties, or their young men’s blood. Something like the (alleged) missile gap, the (alleged) Gulf of Tonkin attacks on U.S. naval vessels, or the (actual!) hostage-taking at the U.S. embassy in Tehran will do nicely, at least for a while. Crises by their very nature eventually recede, and new ones must come along—or be made to come along—to serve the current need.

Third, you would need some politically powerful groups whose members stand to gain substantially from a permanent war in terms of achieving their urgent personal and group objectives. Call me crass, but I’ve noticed that few people will stay engaged for long unless there’s “something in it for them.”

During the Cold War, the conglomeration of personally interested parties consisted of those who form the military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC). The generals and admirals thrived by commanding a large armed force sustained by a lavish budget. The big defense contractors enjoyed ample returns at minimal risk (because they could expect that should they screw up too royally, a bailout would be forthcoming). Members of Congress who belonged to the military oversight and appropriations committees could parlay their positions into campaign contributions and various sorts of income in kind. Presiding over the entire complex, of course, the president, his National Security Council, and their many subordinates, advisers, consultants, and hangers-on enjoyed the political advantages associated with control of a great nation’s diplomatic and military affairs—not to speak of the sheer joy that certain people get from wielding or influencing great power. No conspiracy here, of course, just a lot of people fitting into their niches, doing well while proclaiming that they were doing good (recall the ideology and the crisis elements). All seeking only to serve the common public interest. Absolutely.

The foregoing observations have been widely accepted by several generations of students of the Cold War. Yet, now, you may protest, the Cold War is over, the USSR nonexistent, the menace of communism kaput. Under post-Cold War conditions, how can we have a permanent war? Well, all we need to do is to replace the missing piece.

If the ideology of anti-communism can no longer serve to justify a permanent war, let us put in its place the overarching rationale of a “war on terrorism.” In fact, this substitution of what President George W. Bush repeatedly calls “a new kind of war” amounts to an improvement for the leading actors, because whereas the Cold War could not be sustained once the USSR had imploded and international communism had toppled into the dust bin of history, a war on terrorism, with all its associated benefits, can go on forever. After all, so long as the president says that he has intelligence information to the effect that “they” are still out there conspiring to kill us all, who are we to dispute that the threat exists and must be met? The smoke had scarcely cleared at Ground Zero when vice-president Dick Cheney declared on October 19, 2001, that the war on terrorism “may never end. It’s the new normalcy.”

Just as during the Cold War hardly any American ever laid eyes on an honest-to-God Commie, although nearly everybody believed that the Commies were lurking far and wide, so now we may all suppose that anyone, anywhere might be a lethal terrorist in possession of a suitcase nuke or a jug of anthrax spores. Indeed, current airport-security measures are premised on precisely such a belief—otherwise it makes no sense to strip-search grandma at Dulles International.

Potential terrorists are “out there,” no doubt, in the wonderful world of Islam, an arc that stretches from Morocco across North Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia to Malaysia, and on through Indonesia to Mindanao, not to mention London, Amsterdam, and Hamburg. And that’s good, because it means that U.S. leaders must bring the entire outside world into compliance with their stipulated rules of engagement for the war on terrorism. It’s a fine thing to dominate the world, an even finer thing to do so righteously.

Better yet, the potential omnipresence of the terrorists justifies U.S. leaders in their efforts to supercharge the surveillance-and-police state here at home, with the USA PATRIOT Act, the revival of the FBI’s COINTELPRO activities, and all the rest. Adios Bill of Rights. The merest babe understands that these new powers will be turned to other political purposes that have nothing whatever to do with terrorism. Indeed, they have been already. As the New York Times reported on May 5, 2003, “the Justice Department has begun using its expanded counterterrorism powers to seize millions of dollars from foreign banks that do business in the United States” and “most of the seizures have involved fraud and money-laundering investigations unrelated to terrorism.”

The war-on-terrorism rationale has proved congenial to the American public, who have swallowed bogus government assurances that the so-called war is making them more secure. Much of this acceptance springs, no doubt, from the shock that many Americans experienced when the terrorist attacks of September 11 proved so devastating. Ever alert, the president’s national security adviser Condoleeza Rice asked the National Security Council immediately afterward “to think seriously about ‘how do you capitalize on these opportunities’ to fundamentally change American doctrine and the shape of the world in the wake of September 11.” The president’s most powerful and influential subordinates—Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and their coterie—then set in motion a series of actions (and a flood of disinformation) to seize the day, measures that culminated in the military invasion and conquest first of Afghanistan and then of Iraq, among many other things. Public opinion polls continue to show exceptionally high approval ratings for “the job the president is doing,” so at the White House everyone is merry indeed.

Likewise, the military component of the MICC has entered into fat city. During the fiscal year 2000, before George Bush had taken office, Department of Defense outlays amounted to $281 billion. Just four years later, assuming that Congress gives the president what he has requested for fiscal year 2004, the department’s budget will be at least $399 billion—an increase of 42 percent. No wonder the generals and admirals are dancing in the corridors at the Pentagon: all this loot and wartime citations and promotions to boot!

The flush times for the officer corps have spilled over handsomely onto the big arms contractors, whose share prices have been bucking the trend of the continuing stock-market meltdown nicely during the past couple years. With only a single exception, all the major weapons systems have survived funding threats, and their manufacturers can look forward to decades of well-paid repose as they supply models B, C, D, and so forth, as well as all the remunerative maintenance and repairs, operational training, software upgrades, and related goods and services for their Cold War-type weaponry in search of an suitable enemy. In the immortal words of Boeing vice-president Harry Stonecipher, “the purse is now open.” As the Wall Street Journal reported, “The antiterror campaign is making for some remarkably flush times for the military, and the need for hard choices on weapons systems has all but evaporated.”

Congress savors this situation, too. In the current circumstances, the members can more easily use spending on guns to grease their own reelection skids. “In a bipartisan voice,” reported the New York Times, “lawmakers on Capitol Hill are telling the Pentagon that they want to increase spending on conventional big-ticket weapons programs, particularly warships and planes.” Moreover, many members continue to maneuver to stop or delay base closures that might save the Pentagon billions of dollars in expenses that even the generals regard as pointless.

Amid the all-around rejoicing, however, the power elite appreciate that nearly two years have elapsed since September 11, 2001, and the public’s panic has begun to subside. That won’t do. Accordingly, on June 9 the government released a report that there is a “high probability” of an al-Qaida attack with a weapon of mass destruction in the next two years. If no such attack should eventuate, of course, then the authorities will have to release another such terrifying report at the appropriate time. Got to keep people on their toes—“vigilant,” as the Homeland Security czar likes to say.

So there you have it: the war on terrorism—the new permanent war—is a winner. The president loves it. The military brass loves it. The bigwigs at Boeing and Lockheed love it. Members of Congress love it. The public loves it. We all love it.

Except, perhaps, that odd citizen who wonders whether, all things considered, having a permanent war is truly a good idea for the beleaguered U.S. economy and for the liberties of the American people.


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

Full Biography and Recent Publications

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The size and scope of government power has grown in response to crises of war and economic upheavals. Such increased power remains long after each crisis passes, threatening both civil and economic liberties, all at the behest of special interest groups. Learn More »»






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