1967, as the War in Vietnam dragged on and on, Carl
Oglesby, then President of Students for a Democratic
Society, commented on how the Right Wing saw that
war. Most of the Right, he noted, "accepts the
political description" of the war and, therefore,
"wants it the war to be more fiercely waged."(1)
In this, Oglesby thought they were quite mistaken.
days, we are burdened with coming to grips with the
titanic struggle currently offered us by our ineffable
leaders. We face many of the same problems we faced
thirty some years ago. I think we may start by rejecting
the "political description" of the crusade,
war, or series of wars, which the shadowy and hermetically
sealed Neo-Cons are offering us provided always,
that there are Neo-Cons, a fact which the Neo-Cons
have lately taken to denying.
I am not suggesting that we reject the political description
in order to reject the associated project or
projects. We should weigh them on their merits to
find whether or not they are lighter than a duck,
are made of wood, and are therefore – a witch! Having
done all that, I do reject them.
will not justify this rejection here and now, since
there is already plenty of writing on this website
and in many other places that does exactly that,
and because I would like to look at another matter.
EARLY STATEMENT OF THE 'PROBLEM'
the historian's natural right to go back into the
past, I call upon an article written by Andrew Mack
in 1975, which delves into the special burdens resting
on those who insist on waging "asymmetric wars."(2)
The last two words have become the buzzword of choice
for current commentators and theorists of Machtpolitik.
This makes the essay just mentioned a sort of
a classic imperial war, a great power suppressed native
levies in some place far away from its home society.
As long as the enemy showed up, fought traditionally,
and died bravely in large numbers, everything was
fine. Civilization prevailed without undue attention
or stress at home. Indeed, the public approved of
such triumphs over the foreign wogs.
the gross "asymmetry" in power, no other
results could be expected.
is the sort of war about which numerous Neo-Cons can
wax quite nostalgic. Unfortunately for those who would
build and maintain empires, weak opponents eventually
changed their tactics. Mack writes that the Boer War
and the Irish independence struggle, on either side
of World War I, mark the point at which asymmetric
war became difficult for the metropolitan powers.
opponents increasingly decided to "refuse to
confront the enemy on his own terms" and resorted
to irregular (guerrilla) warfare. This new situation
raised the costs for imperial invaders across the
board – in money, casualties, and finally, politically.(3)
This was what the United States had been facing in
longer such a war went on, the higher the costs politically,
even though "none of the conflicts" saw
"more than a fraction of the total potential
military resources of the metropolitan power"
put into use. It was not thought necessary to mobilize
massively; yet – at any level of activity – domestic
political costs grew over time.
the Algerian War, Mack writes: "The major cause
of opposition lay not in the enormous costs of the
war to the Algerians (though this was a factor),
but in the greater costs of the war to the French
themselves. The progressively greater human, economic,
and political costs gave rise to the phenomenon of
'war weariness' which many writers have described
without analyzing, and to the 'loss of political will'
of the government to which the military invariably
ascribed the defeat."(4)
far, none of this is news, but what is interesting
is the "value-free" political analysis that
arises from such situations.
DISSENT TO WIN THE WAR
troubles in Algeria led French counter-insurgency
theorists(5) to conclude that, if
metropolitan political opinion was the rebels' main
advantage, the obvious solution was to control political
discussion in the home country. As formulated by Roger
Trinquier, this meant that, "in order to prevent
the rot of 'defeatism' or 'lack of political will'
from betraying the troops in the field, the entire
structure of the metropolitan society must be altered."(6)
Lately, the Neo-Con field marshals and the hosts of
the bewildered "Meso-Cons" (as I call them)
have been telling us that the Old Right assertion
that empire abroad leads to loss of liberty at home,
is just an antique superstition.
French theorists of the kind that our leaders could
embrace made precisely the same point, the only
difference being, that they favored the loss
of liberty at home. You have to wonder who has been
reading those fellows. Of course, the United States,
too, produced a good many such thinkers during the
long post-constitutional delirium of the Cold War.
You could well imagine that the legal tinkering undertaken
by the current administration – Patriot Act I, the
much-awaited Patriot Acts II, III, IV, …. CCLIX –
fall under the larger logic of empire.
you assume that you must have empire, you will conclude
that you must have occasional wars to keep it. Nothing
must be allowed to stand in the way of their successful
prosecution. On these assumptions, 18th-century
grocery lists with vague allusions to natural rights
must somehow be shelved – forever.
logic seems pretty ironclad. To sustain empire, "reform"
the home country. This is all very sane and logical
– on imperial premises.
think a good rule of thumb is that, when someone is
said to be a "tough-minded" thinker, he
is after your land, your wallet, or your life, and
you should seek advice elsewhere. Right now, the tough-minded
are all around us, chanting the refrain that we must
give up liberties "temporarily." In the
next breath, they exhort us that the struggle could
go on for decades. It is a fair conclusion, then,
that they wish to take away liberties for decades.
this, they are assisted by some inherited legalisms,
according to which our Constitution goes into suspended
animation "during a war," or alternatively,
that an unfathomably great reservoir of magical "war
powers" descend, dovelike, upon the shoulders
of the godlike President, or possibly the President-in-Congress,
the instant a war is found. A cynic would say that,
if the Constitution goes missing and bottomless powers
land upon the rulers at the first sign of a war, then
rulers who wished to enjoy more power would tend to
go around actively finding wars to be in.
could be so cynical as to believe that? In a decade
or two, we shall surely have more evidence. We can
draw conclusions then.
that handwriting on the wall. It may not mean a thing.
Still, giving extraordinary powers to those who find
wars – and who have clever post-constitutional ways
to find them in the first place – might conceivably
create one of those moral hazards about which we hear
pursue this further would involve in various considerations
of sovereignty, "war powers," and the like,
which are best left for later treatment.
Carl Oglesby and Robert Shaull, Containment and
Change (New York: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 36-37.
Andrew Mack, "Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars:
The Politics of Asymmetric Conflict," World
Politics, 27, 2 (January 1975), pp. 175-200.
Ibid., pp. 176-177.
Ibid., pp. 179-181.
See Raoul Girardet, "Civil and Military Power
in the Fourth Republic," in Samuel P. Huntington,
ed., Changing Patterns of Military Politics
(Free Press of Glencoe, 1962), pp. 121-149.
Mack, p. 189 (my italics).