Sunday, October 16, 2011

A New Normality: A Culture of War

The events of September 11, 2001, turned the world upside down – at least from the American perspective. Almost immediately, commentary asked, when would there be a return to normality; or would there ever be normality again? Normality of course, referred to the relative halcyon days of our common life before that fateful day.

Ten years ago, I remember thinking about this hoped for, so-called return to normality, in part, because normality is one of those words I stumble on. Back in the day when I studied history, I learned about one of the great linguistic faux pas by an American president. In his 1920 inaugural speech, President Warren G. Harding coined the phrase a “Return to Normalcy," referring to the way things were before the first world war. At the time normalcy wasn't an accepted word.  Through the years, for some perverse reason, I haven't been able to keep the two words straight, though that distinction no longer matters, because normalcy has become an acceptable word alongside the normality.

The decade of the 1920s – the decade of the lost generation; of women's suffrage, short skirts, and bobbed hair; of jazz, prohibition, and speakeasies; and, of course, the great crash – established new standards of what was normal.  There was to be no returning, rather a radical reordering.

History, for the sake of convenience, often breaks time into decades.  In an ironic sense, the “Return to Normalcy” is sometimes used to describe the 1920's.

I wonder, what will the decade of our new millennium be known as?  It surely seems a significant decade.

After a sober review of the past 10 years, the decade 2001-2011 appears to be, at the very least, a time, of transition, relative to the narrative arc of the American experience. That arc is comprised of a number of bands. There's a social/cultural component. There's an economic component.  There's a political component, including human rights. There's an international component, also including human rights. Most, if not all of these components, can be interpreted as converging in the decline of America.

There are clear nodal points: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; wars with Afghanistan and Iraq; hurricane Katrina, the perfect storm, and the tragedy of New Orleans; the bursting of the housing bubble and with it the meltdown of the US economy; the melancholy years of what is now known as the “great recession;” and a populist response against all aspects of government known as the tea party movement, that aggravated a red and blue divide in American politics, as well as highlighted what is now being called class warfare.

With all this in mind, rather than a return to pre-9/11 normality, we have a dramatically reformed normality.  Bill Schulz mentioned aspects of this new normality in his Christian Science Monitor piece, that includes the acceptance of the term American gulag, the humiliation and torture of prisoners of war, a pre-emptive war, and the assassination of an American citizen deemed to be a terrorist. 

And of course, the new normality includes the tacit acceptance of war.  It was decade of varied wars.

Commentators generally agree that the term “the war on terror,” from the outset promised to be protracted, against a nefarious enemy, with, at best, vague objectives.  Rashly, uttered, the “war on terror” almost as quickly lost most of its cachet.  Though they are being drawn down, we continue to wage hot wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to mixed reviews.

History will emphasize the Bush administration's policy of war (and the Obama administration continuing it), from the immediate rhetoric of September 11, 2001, including the open-ended declaration of war against terror, beginning with attacking the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan; through the propaganda against Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction that resulted in the invasion of Iraq; to the surges that sought to counter the insurgents first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan.

At the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, there is a program named the Eisenhower Research Project.  The Eisenhower Research Project is a new, non-partisan, non-profit, scholarly initiative dedicated to studying the effects of militarization on U.S. society, democracy and foreign policy. The Project derives its purpose from President Eisenhower's 1961 farewell address, in which he warned of the 'unwarranted influence' of the military-industrial complex and appealed for an 'alert and knowledgeable citizenry' as the only force able to balance the often contrasting demands of security and liberty in the democratic state.

The Eisenhower Research Project assembled a team that included economists, anthropologists, political scientists, legal experts, and a physician to do this analysis—to determine the “cost” of ten years of war. 

Here are the project’s findings:

While we know how many US soldiers have died in the wars (just over 6000), what is startling is what we don’t know about the levels of injury and illness in those who have returned from the wars.  New disability claims continue to pour into the VA, with 550,000 just through last fall.  Many deaths and injuries among US contractors have not been identified. 

At least 137,000 civilians have died and more will die in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan as a result of the fighting at the hands of all parties to the conflict.

The armed conflict in Pakistan, which the U.S. helps the Pakistani military fight by funding, equipping and training them, has taken as many lives as the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan.

Putting together the conservative numbers of war dead, in uniform and out, brings the total to 225,000.

Millions of people have been displaced indefinitely and are living in grossly inadequate conditions.  The current number of war refugees and displaced persons -- 7,800,000 -- is equivalent to all of the people of Connecticut and Kentucky fleeing their homes.

The wars have been accompanied by erosions in civil liberties at home and human rights violations abroad.

The human and economic costs of these wars will continue for decades, some costs not peaking until mid-century. Many of the wars’ costs are invisible to Americans, buried in a variety of budgets, and so have not been counted or assessed.  For example, while most people think the Pentagon war appropriations are equivalent to the wars’ budgetary costs, the true numbers are twice that and the full economic cost of the wars much larger yet. Conservatively estimated, the war bills already paid and obligated to be paid are $3.2 trillion in constant dollars. A more reasonable estimate puts the number at nearly $4 trillion.

As with former US wars, the costs of paying for veterans’ care into the future will be a sizable portion of the full costs of the war.

The ripple effects on the U.S. economy have also been significant, including job loss and interest rate increases, and those effects have been underappreciated.

While it was promised that the US invasions would bring democracy to both countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, both continue to rank low in global rankings of political freedom, with warlords continuing to hold power in Afghanistan with US support, and Iraqi communities more segregated today than before by gender and ethnicity as a result of the war.

Serious and compelling alternatives to war were scarcely considered in the aftermath of 9/11 or in the discussion about war against Iraq.  Some of those alternatives are still available to the U.S.

There are many costs of these wars that we have not yet been able to quantify and assess.  With our limited resources, we focused on U.S. spending, U.S. and allied deaths, and the human toll in the major war zones, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.  There is still much more to know and understand about how all those affected by the wars have had their health, economies, and communities altered by the decade of war, and what solutions exist for the problems they face as a result of the wars’ destruction.

So, the new normal includes a permanent war culture, out of sight and out of mind of most Americans.  I believe these wars were ill-advised and ginned up.  (Remember the so-called neo-conservatives’ line of rhetoric ten years ago?)  They have had questionable positive affect.  (I’m of the mind they have had many and varied negative consequences.)  They have cost us a treasure and will continue to do so, at last 3.2, perhaps 4 trillion dollars.

The Eisenhower Project recommends that it’s not too late to implement more beneficial policies. 

Remember the Chinese proverb from an earlier reading:  “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” …  The second grave is ours. We dug it ourselves. The question now is: do we have to lie in it?

No comments:

Post a Comment