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We, the People, Are Not at War

We, the People, Are Not at War

By Richard Reeves - December 15, 2009

WASHINGTON -- So, our extraordinarily rational and articulate president went to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and identified himself as a wartime commander-in-chief. True, but he neglected to mention that his nation is not at war.

Our voluntary military is at war. The rest of us are spectators. That military might be compared with the all-volunteer Pittsburgh Steelers, tough, talented, well-disciplined, but not having a very good year. And the same guys have to go out there every week, or every day, and take the hits -- for our viewing pleasure or patriotism.

"We are at war ...," said President Obama. "And so I come here with an acute sense of the costs of armed conflict -- filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace."

Next he talked about the concept of "just war," a concept he believes applies to the war in Afghanistan if not in Iraq.

But he did not address the relationship between democracy and war. Even if one believes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are "just," the making of these wars is not just or fair. The overwhelming majority of Americans sacrifice nothing and are paying nothing for these wars. The burden is being borne (at tremendous personal and family cost) by only several hundred thousand of the 300 million people entitled to call themselves Americans. Like Britain's doomed "Light Brigade" in the Crimean War, boldly they go and well. Into the jaws of death, into the mouth of Hell, ride the six hundred and more. Again and again and again.

The latest presidential thrust into Afghanistan will cost another estimated $30 billion. A few members of Congress, particularly Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, have suggested that perhaps we should be paying a war surtax. Why in the world would we do that when our grandchildren can?

And then there is the question of a draft, the idea that if we must fight a just war we should all be in it together. Viewed from Congress, that's a ridiculous idea. Ask people to give part of their lives, or their lives, in the name of justice. Why would we do that when we have the Steelers on the field? Why would we risk not being re-elected because non-volunteers were in harm's way.

The back story there, of course, is that if we had a draft we would not now be in Afghanistan or Iraq. At worst, or best, we would have done the job, paid for it and come home. Democracies that wage war democratically do not fight on for eight years with diminishing returns. President Nixon played some dirty tricks on the nation, but one of the dirtiest had nothing to do with Watergate or campaign finances. He ended the draft, calculating, correctly, that that would end student protest against the war in Vietnam, and in 1973 he created a volunteer, professional army. He broke the essential connection between the people of the nation and their military guardians.

Now, it would take new laws to reactivate conscription -- even for national service, where young people could choose community service, working in hospitals or schools or poor neighborhoods, rather than killing foreigners in just wars. The chance of Congress actually doing that are zero to none. These are politicians who have not declared war, as required by the Constitution they swear to defend, in more than 65 years -- even as American troops have fought a dozen wars large and small.

In Oslo, the president said this:

"Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms." And: "We are the heirs of the fortitude and foresight of generations past, and it is a legacy for which my own country is rightfully proud."

That is true, I think. But taking the work and earnings of generations future to send some of us to do the work of all is a defiling of both our heritage and our democracy.

Copyright 2009, Universal UClick

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