Are Americans Becoming More Peaceful?
Joseph Gerson is a Director of Programs of the American Friends Service Committee in New England and author of the forthcoming Empire and the Bomb: How the United States Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World (Pluto Press).
Are Americans Becoming More Peaceful? by Paul Joseph; Paradigm Publishers; 266 pp.; $24.95.
With his book, Are Americans Becoming More Peaceful? sociologist Paul Joseph picks up a thread from Howard Zinn, reminding us that sane people find war repugnant, and that tremendous efforts, resources, and manipulation are required both to train soldiers to kill people, and to win necessary national backing for imperial wars. Joseph begins by describing how in the wake of World War II and the Vietnam War, popular support for US wars has become increasingly conditional. Massive mobilizations for war, including military drafts, victory gardens, and women leaving the home for munitions factories are now history. Today Washington and sectors of the elite must go to exceptional lengths to manufacture consent and to maintain the passive support of the 50-60% of the US population whose support for US wars is at most conditional.
Contrary to his book’s title, Joseph’s most important contribution is not his sociological analysis of diminishing US support for foreign wars, but his detailed history and descriptions of how Washington has managed fear, information, the media, photographic images, gender relations, and casualties to fight its wars from Grenada to Afghanistan and from Panama to Iraq.
Drawing on recent history and many opinion polls, Joseph provides data and categories to illuminate the structural foundations of dynamics that many of us take for granted: Roughly 15% of US people believe that “in almost every case war is a misguided policy and that… nonviolent alternatives will consistently bring better outcomes.” This group of “Type 1 war opponents” presses for just and diplomatic resolution of conflicts, opposes US wars before they are launched, and protests against each armed conflict until the guns and missiles fall silent. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the 25-30% of US Americans who provide “consistent war support for the Pentagon” regardless of the disasters and suffering they cause at home as well as abroad.
As Joseph sees it, 55-60% of the people in the US now provide only conditional support for Washington’s wars. This sector of “Type II” war opponents “does not oppose war out of principle but recoils in response to costs once these become visible.” They are disinclined to support wars fought simply for geostrategic advantage. Thus, if Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, Iran, or North Korea is to be invaded, and if the US nuclear arsenal is to be maintained, the knowledge and fears of this middle majority must be managed to ensure that it remains passive and is not aroused to vote out the leaders most strongly associated with particular wars.
Three-quarters of Joseph’s book describes how the government and related elites work to prevent the emergence of “Type II” opposition. Although he addresses political and social changes over more than half a century, this book is in many ways a product of the Bush-Cheney wars since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Particularly cogent is his chapter “Managing Fear.” Its crisp descriptions review how the Bush Administration stoked initially understandable fears to legitimize its potentially endless global “War on Terrorism,” particularly in oil-rich Central Asia and the Middle East. Joseph reminds us that the Bush wars were not inevitable. In fact, other nations, including Spain, Japan, and even Britain, have dealt with similar attacks as crimes to be dealt with according to national and international law. Joseph reprises Mohammed ElBaradei’s testimony that in 2002 Iraq no longer had a nuclear weapons program, as well as US and European intelligence that Saddam Hussein viewed Al Qaeda not as an ally but as a threat to his regime. Joseph reminds readers that a range of economic and technological forces had created a US “culture of fear” that was ripe for exploitation by Bush, Cheney, and Rove, and their cohorts.
Here and elsewhere I found myself wishing that Joseph had pushed the envelope just a mite further. Going further than most, Joseph acknowledges that we may be living through a period of what Sheldon Wolin terms “inverted” or highly sophisticated totalitarianism, but the original version could have been referenced as well. As the political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in her seminal work The Origins of Totalitarianism five decades ago, at the roots of Nazi, fascist, and Stalinist totalitarianism was the fear, more akin to terror, that these dictatorships created to shatter trust and the bonds that link people in their daily lives, leaving them atomized and vulnerable to manipulation. September’s Bush-Rove propaganda campaign on the fifth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, once again artificially traumatized much of the nation — including many Democratic Party politicians — and boosted the President’s ratings to a degree that Geobbels would have admired. Similarly, as the former Chilean political prisoner Reverend Ulyses Torres once explained, you can tell if you have a military government by looking at your national budget. For more than two decades, roughly 50% of Washington’s discretionary spending has been devoted to wars and preparations for war, not to meeting essential human needs like food, housing, education, and medical care.
Joseph’s chapter about managing information reminds us that “rational-critical discourse” and critical debate are essential to democracy. He describes how, from the manipulation of the media, which limits what people can learn about the world, to the rise of shopping malls that severely reduce public space and discourse, popular mobilization for or against wars has been undermined. Part of our predicament is that a growing number of US people think of themselves as, and act more like, consumers rather than as “citizens.” The democratic legacies of the US and French revolutions and the US civil rights movements are in very real jeopardy.
Joseph draws on interviews with Pentagon officials for his detailed descriptions of what the Pentagon learned from its inability to control the press in Vietnam. He provides detailed analysis of how the military has used “press pools,” embedded reporters, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox TV, the decline of network news, and the dangers faced by war reporters to severely limit what we know. While we are numbed by the numbers of the Iraqi and Afghan daily death tolls, the stories of their lives, pain, and suffering are denied us.
Having myself been turned around on the Vietnam War more by courageous and compassionate photographs than by the logic of history and political analysis, and later being captivated by Robert Capa’s photos of the consequences and meanings of war, I especially enjoyed Joseph’s chapter about managing photographs. He traces the history and uses of war photography back to the Civil War, and contrasts how during World War II, images of war’s destruction and casualties contributed to the popular mobilization of support for the war, whereas during Bush’s wars, pictures of returning coffins and wounded GIs continue to be banned or severely limited. Lest anyone doubt the power of a war photo, Joseph reminds us of the impact of the atrocious pictures of people being tortured in Abu Ghraib. Closer to home is the interview with the Boston Globe’s photo editor which provides insight into the standards the media sets for itself and the press’s internal debates over what we are allowed to see.
Joseph’s chapter “Managing Gender” covers what will be new ground for many readers as he describes the nation’s continuing struggle over the appropriateness of women warriors, what women’s roles in the military should be, and the largely unreported abuse that women suffer within the military. As he correctly observes, “The social construction of gender and the social organization of war have always been linked.” Today, however, these links are “more numerous and run in different directions, making it more difficult to enlist gender to secure public support for war.” Joseph then traces these filaments and how they reinforce or undermine militarism.
Joseph reviews the recent history of increased participation by women in all levels of the military, and considers in depth the stories of some of this war’s more visible women warriors. He begins with Jessica Lynch, who was used to “invoke the frontier and other themes that sustain the heroic mode of strong men rescuing vulnerable women.” Contrary to the Pentagon’s version, she did not fight to the last bullet when her convoy was attacked, and she was not saved by a dramatic rescue operation. The doctors and nurses caring for her had actually worked to arrange for her repatriation! The news cycle passes quickly, and before Private Lynch could clarify what had happened the public had been reassured “that its soldiers, specifically its white, pretty female soldiers, were well protected.” By contrast, the story of Lynndie England,photographed participating in the torture and humiliation of male prisoners, was not so easily managed.
Joseph’s book went to print before the third most famous woman warrior in Iraq, General Janis Karpinski who commanded Abu Ghraib and other US prisons in Iraq, had publicly described how another class of militarized women are managed. Speaking at Harvard Law School in the spring of 2006, she claimed that General Sanchez had forbidden her from traveling at night, ostensibly for her safety. As a result, she claimed, she was unaware of the tortures being inflicted by those under her command. Asked by this writer why she and other US generals participated in what was undeniably an illegal war and tolerated atrocities that are the inevitable byproduct of war, she responded with an echo of mid-twentieth century Europe: senior US officers, she told her audience, have mortgages and their children’s educations to pay for.
Are US people becoming more peaceful? Joseph recognizes the difficulty of providing definitive proof for his assertions and answers his own question this way: “It is only through confrontation with the system of organized violence called war that the true measure of support for peace becomes known.” Although the post-9/11 peace and anti-war movements failed to prevent the Bush-Cheney invasions and have yet to bring the troops home, our actions from vigils in town squares to the 500,000 who marched in New York on the eve of the invasion of Iraq are responsible for turning the majority of the US people against the war. And that is no small achievement. As even the gatekeeper of conditional support for war, the New York Times, now reminds us, things that look like they can’t last, don’t.