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The Independent Institute
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How Does the War Party Get Away with It?


If you see someone shuffling along the street, eyes downcast, a pained expression on his face, you may have stumbled upon a member of the Peace Party. Once again, this party's cause has gone down to defeat, and its members are shaking their heads sadly, wondering why.

Their anguish is not assuaged by the knowledge that ultimately many will come to see that they were right to oppose this war. Eventual vindication will avail them little. The war is a fait accompli, and time’s arrow flies in only one direction. The death, destruction, and misery that the war has caused cannot be erased. On the contrary, for many of the victims, that misery will only fester, despoiling the other lives it touches, just as it did in the aftermath of earlier, similarly mistaken wars. Think of all the former soldiers with parts of their bodies missing, or parts of their minds gone askew. In this country, veterans’ institutions brim with these enduring casualties, and big-city alleys harbor no small number of them. In Iraq the innocent victims of this year's war are counted in the tens of thousands, and their number continues to mount.

While the architects of war, the Cheneys, Rumsfelds, and Wolfowitzs who sleep every night between clean sheets, deem these terrible costs to be worth bearing—as well they might, because they personally bear not an ounce of them—the members of the Peace Party often seem baffled. In view of the evident futility, and worse, of nearly every war the United States has fought during the past century, how does the War Party manage to propel this nation into one catastrophe after another, each of them clearly foreseen by at least a substantial minority who failed to dissuade their fellow citizens from still another march into calamity?

An adequate answer might fill a volume, but some elements of that answer can be sketched briefly. The essential components are autocratic government, favorably disposed mass culture, public ignorance and misplaced trust, cooperative mass media, and political exploitation for personal and institutional advantage.

By “autocratic government,” I refer to the reality of how foreign policy is actually made in the United States. Notwithstanding the trappings of our political system’s democratic procedures, checks and balances, elections, and so forth, the making of foreign policy involves only a handful of people decisively. When the president and his coterie of top advisers decide to go to war, they just go, and nobody can stop them. The “intelligence” agencies, the diplomatic corps, and the armed forces do as they are told. Members of Congress cower and speak in mealy-mouthed phrases framed to ensure that no matter how the war turns out, they can share any credit and deny any blame. No one has effective capacity to block the president, and few officials care to do so in any event, even if they object. Rarely does anyone display the minimal decency of resigning his military commission or his appointment in the bureaucracy. In short, in our system the president has come to hold the power of war and peace exclusively in his hands, notwithstanding anything to the contrary written in the Constitution or the laws. He might as well be Caesar.

(In the late 1930s, Congress considered the Ludlow Resolution, which would have amended the Constitution to require approval in a national referendum before Congress could declare war, unless U.S. territory had been invaded. Franklin D. Roosevelt vigorously opposed such an amendment, writing to the Speaker of the House on January 6, 1938, that its adoption “would cripple any President in his conduct of our foreign relations,” and the resolution was narrowly voted down [209 to 188] in the House soon afterward. Can’t let the inmates run the asylum, now can we?)

Of course, eventually the president who projects the country into war may have to stand for reelection, and he or at least his party may be repudiated for the warmaking. Such a denouement occurred in 1920, 1952, 1968, and perhaps in 1992. Although on such occasions some observers always conclude that “the system worked,” nothing could be farther from the truth, because by the time the voters repudiate the leader responsible for plunging the nation into a senseless war, the damage has been done and cannot be undone. Wilson gained reelection in 1916 as the candidate who had “kept us out of war,” then immediately reversed himself, and four years later his party was turned out of the presidency. Too late then, however. Lyndon Baines Johnson campaigned against sending “American boys to do the job that Asian boys should do,” then immediately reversed himself, and four years later his party was turned out of the presidency. Again, much too late. Elections simply cannot control the autocracy of U.S. presidents in deciding whether to go to war, and ex post electoral discipline counts for next to nothing.

Presidents decide to go to war in the context of a favorably disposed mass culture. Painful as it is for members of the Peace Party to admit, many Americans take pleasure in “kicking ass,” and they do not much care whose ass is being kicked or why. So long as Americans are dishing out death and destruction to a plausible foreign enemy, the red-white-and-blue jingos are happy. If you think I’m engaging in hyperbole, you need to get out more. Visit a barbershop, stand in line at the post office, or have a drink at your neighborhood tavern and listen to the conversations going on around you. The sheer bellicosity of many ordinary people's views is as undeniable as it is shocking. Something in their diet seems to be causing a remarkable volume of murderous, barely suppressed rage.

An eagerness to spill blood and guts extends, however, well beyond the rednecks. Highly literate, albeit sophistic, expressions of this proclivity appear nearly every day on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, a Likud Party megaphone whose motto might well be “all wars all the time.” Establishment think thanks, most notably the American Enterprise Institute, trot out well-spoken intellectuals in squads to trumpet the necessity of wreaking global death and destruction.

No one should be surprised by the cultural proclivity for violence, of course, because Americans have always been a violent people in a violent land. Once the Europeans had committed themselves to reside on this continent, they undertook to slaughter the Indians and steal their land, and to bullwhip African slaves into submission and live off their labor—endeavors they pursued with considerable success over the next two and a half centuries. Absent other convenient victims, they have battered and killed one another on the slightest pretext, or for the simple pleasure of doing so, with guns, knives, and bare hands. If you take them to be a “peace-loving people,” you haven’t been paying attention. Such violent people are easily led to war.

Public ignorance compounds the inclinations fostered by the mass culture. Study after study and poll after poll have confirmed that most Americans know next to nothing about public affairs. Of course, the intricacies of foreign policy are as alien to them as the dark side of the moon, but their ignorance runs much deeper. They can’t explain the simplest elements of the political system; they don’t know what the Constitution says or means; and they can’t identify their political representatives or what those persons ostensibly stand for. They know scarcely anything about history, and what they think they know is usually incorrect. People so densely ignorant that they have no inkling of how their forebears were bamboozled and sacrificed on the altar of Mars the last time around are easily bamboozled and readily sacrificed the next time around.

Forming a snowcap on this mountain of ignorance is a widespread willingness to trust governing authorities, especially the president. Thus, if President Bush tells the people that Iraq poses a serious threat to the United States, many of them believe him. Presidents and their lieutenants exploit this misplaced trust to gain popular approval for bellicose foreign policies, knowing that even if every somewhat educated or skeptical person in the country opposes the policy, it nevertheless will receive substantial support in the polls.

So long as war is something that happens “out there” somewhere, most likely in a place that few Americans have ever visited and most can’t even locate on a map, and not too many body bags are delivered with sons and husbands inside, then the masses tend to find sufficient bliss in their ignorance and childlike trust in their rulers. Flag-waving and other symbolic displays bring them a cheap solidary identification with the great nation-state, but few have any immediate contact with events in the empire. As an issue, war remains foreign to them in the literal sense—always somebody else’s problem.

Cooperative news media help the rulers to market their warmaking. The big media, enjoying entrenched positions in the established order, are reluctant to challenge the government's foreign aggressiveness. At the working level, reporters do not want to be cut off from privileged access to inside sources of information. At the upper level, owners and producers do not wish to seem unpatriotic, as the government might label them if pushed too hard. Of course, in any event, profit-seeking media are bound to tailor their product to the sort of readers, listeners, or viewers to whom they cater. Thus, among the bottom feeders, Fox News quite rationally aims to entertain the bloodthirsty yahoos; and in the upper reaches, the New York Times knows better than to offend strong supporters of the state of Israel. Although many sources of news and analysis exist nowadays, especially on the World Wide Web, and some of them stoutly oppose senseless belligerence, people must invest time and energy to seek out such alternatives, and relatively few people do so.

Finally, we must recognize that for many persons and institutions, war is a good deal. Hence, each foreign adventure provides a splendid opportunity for many to gain personal, political, or economic profit. The so-called war on terror has been a godsend for everybody who purports to be in the security business, from data-management specialists to security-personnel-training firms to the manufacturers of surveillance machinery, not to mention all those new hires at the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. At Oracle, a company with roots in service to the CIA, Larry Ellison is gunning to equip the government with software that will allow the authorities to track your every move, but this nefarious company is hardly the only opportunist on the block.

The entire Bush administration was wallowing without a breeze in its sails until September 11 came along and gave its head man an excuse for “greatness.” Now the vacuous George W. Bush has been elevated to the status of a virtual Winston Churchill shouting across the English Channel “bring ’em on,” and nonentities such as Tom Ridge have become household words. Campaign genius Karl Rove is banking on the president’s martial leadership to bring home the electoral bacon for Republicans in 2004. For all those associated with the Bushies and their cronies in the military-industrial complex and other pet industries and professions, these are happy days indeed.

To cover their tracks, the leaders of the War Party are relying on Machiavelli’s wisdom, which tells them: “It is necessary . . . to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.” Pretending to cut taxes, wildly increasing federal spending for nearly every species of boondoggle (thus buying off potential Democratic opponents in Congress), hiking the deficit and shoving the burden of servicing the resultant public debt onto future generations of taxpayers, they understand well the classic expression of political irresponsibility, “apres nous le deluge.” Those high waters will be somebody else’s problem then, and, if the future repeats the past, few of the unfortunate souls who find themselves immersed will look back and blame the true culprits.


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.

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