Already two claims have been repeated about the President’s War College speech, but both claims are misleading. First is the claim that the speech offered nothing new. But this claim is misleading because it fails to take seriously the meaning of the particular prime time venue. The image of the War College audience is not just another backdrop.
Second is the claim that the only news of the evening was the President’s pledge to demolish Abu Ghraib prison. And this is misleading, because the President promised to build another prison first.
If we correct for these misleading claims, the War College speech becomes another kind of promise from the President-not to stay the course, nor to reduce the prison count in Iraq. Rather, the President promises the War College audience that he plans to fully exploit the US uniformed services to advance the construction of a globalized garrison state.
Before Abu Ghraib can be torn town, said the President in effect, the US Army will protect the contractors that will build the replacement prison. And he said all this in such a way that his proposals were met with a burst of televised applause from the uniformed professionals themselves.
No, the War College speech was not nothing new. It was a crucial escalation in a plain agenda of power over the people, both at home and abroad.
Let’s take another look at the venue. The White House scheduled the War College speech during prime time, and was successful in attracting live coverage from commercial cable news networks. Broadcast networks, citing the fact that the White House did not "formally" request live coverage, stuck to their sweeps-week entertainment. But the White House baited the television hook, and networks were tacitly pressured to concede the time.
"The broadcast networks took an unusual amount of time to tell viewers their plans for Bush’s speech," reports USA Today. "ABC didn’t decide until Monday afternoon." Despite the lack of a "formal" request, the pressure was on.
The decision by the White House to schedule the War College speech for prime time was itself a political judgment that bears more scrutiny than it has been given. Clearly, the White House was trying to drive the President’s message into the image of the War College audience, with tightly packed uniforms of green.
In terms of image politics, there was nothing subtle about it. The War College speech was a "policy" speech, addressed to the nation and to the world. It was not a War College speech as such, yet it made deliberate use of the War College backdrop.
Especially during these crucial days of international war, with nearly 140,000 troops stationed in Iraq, Americans should be wary of war policy speeches that make use of military backdrops. There should be scrupulous respect paid to the distinction between the formulation of civilian policy and the carrying out of military orders. From his War College podium, President Bush broadcast an image that collapsed all distinctions between his role as civilian President and military Commander in Chief.
The proper study of the War College is how to carry out military objectives. The proper role of the White House is to take direction from Congress regarding the adoption of military objectives that pertain to the defense of the Constitution. At the War College, the President projected an image of warmaker among warriors, as if the whole business of this war were a matter between him and the uniformed forces of the USA. It was perilous shift of images, if we still dare to insist that our uniformed services should respond only to democratically formulated policies.
The image of the Army should never be used to sell military policy to the nation or the world. Prime time images of applause, dressed in Army green, only aggravate an increasing militarization of politics. And the White House is to be plainly faulted for trying to frame these militarized images in order to bolster support for political purposes that are falling under increasing suspicion, even from conservative members of the President’s own Republican party.
When we buy into the image of the President’s policy being applauded by military scholars, we forget that the professional military establishment has been hijacked by this administration to pursue aims far afield from anyone’s sworn duty to protect the Constitution. We forget that supporting the troops in a democracy requires that we insist they not be manipulated into public displays of affection for policy directions that belong to Congress to decide. So we cannot pass this speech off as just another political talk to a "friendly audience."
In short, there is a distinction that democracies must respect between their uniformed services and the political authority of civilian rule. If President Bush was able to transgress that distinction without comment and deliver a speech that seemed like "nothing new," then we have sad evidence that the banality of our militarization has become complete. The war on the American mind has been won.
Which brings us to the second mislead that is already too often repeated: the President only promised to demolish Abu Ghraib prison. A more careful reading of the speech indicates something more serious going on. Before American troops seek Iraqi permission to demolish Abu Ghraib, said the President, "America will fund the construction of a modern, maximum security prison." In effect, the President promised that the US Army will stand guard in Iraq while contractors initiate the construction of an American-style, prison-industrial complex.
I am in receipt of a long email from Texas ex-cons who offer their writings via a Yahoo group called The Prison Experience. The email is entitled, "Extremist Prison Racial Politics and Propaganda," and the authors argue, based upon their firsthand experience with the Texas prison system, that prisons nurture racism of the extremist kind, whether the prison is Abu Ghraib or not.
At his War College speech, the President uses the word "democracy" eight times. He also uses the word "war" or "warfare" eight times. Indeed, careful consideration of the War College speech would leave us relieved to know that in the President’s words democracy still stands an even chance.