U.S. enters era of privatized war
USA Today, March 20, 2003
by Samuel G. Freedman
Two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, my grandfather volunteered for the newly created Citizens Defense Corps. For a guardian of freedom and democracy, he cut an unprepossessing figure. He stood a frail 5-foot-5, had gone gray in his 20s and periodically slept on a park bench to escape his hectoring wife.
There was nothing insubstantial, though, about his commitment to the war effort. As the air-raid warden of sector 3, zone A, 46th precinct in the Bronx, he instructed his tenement neighbors to darken their lights and pull their shades during every drill. He did it for the same reason he did chores for the local Democratic clubhouse: to show himself, a grateful immigrant, as fully American.
His effort appears impossibly quaint measured against the present. As President Bush prepares to order an American invasion of Iraq, even as troops continue to protect liberated Afghanistan, we on the home front have been asked for nothing by way of sacrifice. Our nation, to its misfortune, has entered the era of privatized war.
We civilians are expected, of course, to endorse the invasion in opinion polls. We are expected to acquiesce to the expansion of domestic surveillance and the rollback of civil liberties for the accused or the merely suspected. We are expected to keep shopping and keep driving our SUVs.
But I am starting to wonder whether the purpose of this disconnect between the 250,000 American soldiers who will fight this war and the rest of us is the Bush administration's way of disabling dissent in advance of the invasion and diminishing public accountability should that invasion go bloodily awry or wreck the domestic economy. We, the non-combatants, will have lost our stake in the debate.
The realization first struck me a few weeks ago during the earlier code orange alert. A colleague mentioned that he and his wife had worked out their evacuation plan, should terrorists attack New York with nerve gas or smallpox or a dirty bomb. They had picked out a particular Dunkin' Donuts at the northern tip of Manhattan, where they would meet and then drive hellbent into suburbia.
Only the dearth of national civil-defense preparations could have made a rational man concoct such a scheme. Eighteen months after the al Qaeda attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the Bush administration had no better advice than buying duct tape and plastic sheeting. The public ridicule that episode brought on the Department of Homeland Security forced it to assemble a more plausible set of disaster responses on its Web site, but it did nothing to close the chasm between the government and the governed.
The entire concept of civil defense arose as the USA prepared
to enter World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson created the Coast Guard.
It virtually defined domestic life during the Cold War, with fallout shelters,
duck-and-cover drills and regional evacuation maps. Much of the response seems
laughable in retrospect, as anyone who has seen the satiric documentary The
Atomic Cafe can attest. And the degree of preparedness likely would have proved
tragically inadequate in the face of an actual Soviet nuclear strike, contend
as Richard Stoll of Rice University in Houston.
Still, the endeavor gave citizens the sense of partnership with
leaders, the sentiment John F. Kennedy expressed in his inaugural address with the call to "ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." It also reflected a political partnership, the postwar consensus of Republicans and Democrats on containment abroad and activist government at home.
World War II provided the ultimate example of war as a societal shared undertaking. Rationing coupons, victory gardens and "Rosie the Riveter" all bespoke both the reality and the enduring legend of home-front commitment. Franklin D. Roosevelt raised taxes several times during the war to pay nearly half of the conflict's $ 304 billion cost. Ordinary citizens bought $ 50 billion in war bonds.
The trend toward privatizing war emerged with the college deferments from the draft during the Vietnam War. Eighty percent of its soldiers came from poor or blue-collar homes. Since 1973, when the draft was halted, the military has drawn entirely on volunteers, many motivated as much by upward mobility as by patriotism.
One can argue for such a military on the basis of professionalism and simultaneously find it disturbing that the rest of America is essentially being instructed to sit back, watch and not ask too many questions. The notion of mandatory national service barely rates discussion. AmeriCorps, the modest program begun under President Clinton, served as a favorite object of conservative ridicule.
Not even Sept. 11, 2001 restored a sense of society-wide involvement. The administration fought against making airport guards federal employees. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security dragged on during months of recriminations between Bush and congressional Democrats.
While fudging about the price of conquering and occupying Iraq, the administration has asked for more massive tax cuts and shifted the burden of many security costs to state and local governments that already are wallowing in deficits. No national campaign has been launched to reduce reliance on foreign oil in the here and now.
For those with historical perspective, this privatization of war comes as a striking and troubling change. Erroll Clauss, a scholar of defense policy at Salem College in North Carolina, grew up during World War II with "air-raid drills, blackouts and the yells of wardens in white helmets at the sight of a light." In contrast to that "sense of civilian involvement and sacrifice," he says, the U.S. public today "has been left to fend for itself, psychologically as well as physically."
Alan Brinkley of Columbia University, one of the most respected
historians of postwar America, says today's climate "marks a basic shift
from the idea of the Cold War era and World War II that citizens have an obligation
to the nation and not just the other way around. 'Ask not what your country
can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country' is not a phrase that
the right-wing ascendancy
of the moment seems willing to ask."
So we might well wonder: If this war is truly for national self-defense, for our survival, then why does it ask nothing more than our passive complicity? While we've been mulling the consequences of the United States invading without the United Nations' sanctions, the other unilateralism we ought to be worrying about is the sort that renders our citizenry irrelevant.