The Can-Do Troops and the New Anti-Politics
What would have happened if Donald Rumsfeld had listened to the generals, invaded Iraq with 400,000 troops, and prepared more thoroughly for postwar reconstruction efforts? What if Paul Bremer had provided better security and basic services after the war? Would Iraq have been stabilized by more and better use of military force?
If you answer yes to these questions, you are critical of the Bush administration, but see future imperialist ventures as feasible. Imperialist discourse reduces debates on Iraq to conflicting evaluations of U.S. behavior, ignoring the desires and political will of Iraqis. This attitude provides the foundation for a new, troubling, and dangerously uncritical consensus. Much of the public discourse surrounding the war neglects to consider the reality that, despite more troops and better planning, Iraqis would have organized around political identities and resisted American power.
Despite relentless and intensifying criticism of civilian officials, militant imperialism remains the dominant paradigm of foreign policy discourse. Discussions in various public forums, such as congressional skirmishes and journalistic criticism of the administration, simply reinforce this paradigm. Militant imperialism is empowered by two significant trends that are reiterated in public debate: increasing deference to military professionals "in the field" and intensifying identification of the public with military personnel "on the ground." Let’s look at how debates on Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran insulate military authority and imperialist agendas from political contestation.
Since the draft was abolished, the military has re-branded itself as a collection of experts. Previously, military participation was service to country; now it has become a career path for specialized professionals. The model of the citizen-soldier no longer applies, because citizenship is no longer linked to military service. Today, a vast majority of Americans do not serve in the military. Due to the concentration of recruits in certain regions, many Americans do not even know any soldiers. The majority of the US public has lost the ability to personally identify with military personnel, at the same time as the military has become less representative and more specialized.
One would think that support for the troops would diminish as a result. Instead, it has increased and transformed. Whatever their partisan political affiliations, opinions on the war are always qualified with ‘I support the troops.’ This support is genuine and deep-seated. It springs from many sources: guilt over the human costs born by so few, determination not to repeat the dishonoring of Vietnam veterans, gratitude for the sacrifices of soldiers. But such support has consequences.
Constant affirmation of ‘the troops’ renders political debate subservient to the interests of the military, deflecting us from the bigger problem of militant imperialism. Imperialism has devastating effects on the lives of soldiers and their families, but it also affects Iraqis, a range of domestic freedoms, and international stability. In line with the transformation of the GI from citizen-soldier to expert, ‘supporting the troops’ means allowing them to discharge their duties according to their expertise. Politically contestable issues become technical problems of resources and feasibility. Moreover, the only legitimate veto power on a project as inherently political as imperialism is reserved for military officials, in their professional capacity.
As an example, consider Rumsfeld’s ouster. Was it because he masterminded an unnecessary conflict that should be ended immediately, or because he ignored the generals and failed the troops? If it was the former, his successor would have rejected the war, and Congress would have pressed him to do so during his confirmation hearings. Instead, Robert Gates asserted that he would be responsive to his generals and allow them to manage the war. He was confirmed without reservation. President Bush now consistently wards off congressional criticism and policy proposals by asserting that he will always defer to military professionals before he lets Congress (read: representatives of the people) "prosecute" the war.
Similarly, journalistic criticism focuses almost exclusively on administration blunders in "the theater" of war, not the nature of the war itself. Consider the bestselling Fiasco by Thomas Ricks. Ricks attacks various officials, particularly Rumsfeld, for ignorance of military imperatives (including the need for sufficient troops); unwillingness to defer to military "men on the ground"; and inability to capture the hearts and minds of Iraqis. He condemns these officials for their preoccupation with narrow "tactical" problems, as opposed to broader "strategic" ones. However, Ricks’ notion of "strategy" does not extend beyond technical issues to the original political status of the war.
Such "debates" on military strategy, staged in the media among politicians and military "experts," bury the politically contestable imperial aspects of the war on terror under layers of technocratic arguments and "expert knowledge." Unequivocal support for the war on terror and its professional military prosecutors seems a pre-requisite for political survival in the post- 9/11 United States. This is evident not only in the mandatory repetition of "support our troops" – in the oft-expressed conviction that these troops, provided they have the right leadership, can accomplish any mission – but also in the growing sense that we are, as Texas State Senator Jeff Wentworth has put it, "all soldiers in the War on Terror." As such, we become dependent on the guidance of military experts and, in the process, allow our capacity for political critique to atrophy.
To prevent misadventures like Iraq, we must de-link politics from caring for military personnel, on the one hand, and deferring to military expertise, on the other. Anti-imperial politics cannot depend upon military endorsement. Of course, coalitions with groups of anti-war soldiers must be encouraged, but contesting Empire is too important for any one group to have a monopoly on veto power. The public does not need to know how seven more platoons in Fallujah would affect the insurgency in order to recognize that military projects that ignore Iraqi agency are wrong, regardless of troop numbers and planning. Participation in "how to" debates undermines our ability to reject imperialism. Now, when rumors swirl of a possible attack on Iran, it is imperative to reclaim a political, as opposed to a technical, space in which to contest empire.
A few weeks ago, London’s Sunday Times published a story alleging that several senior generals threatened to resign if Bush attacks Iran. In the present atmosphere, it appears that militant imperialism can only be prevented by military personnel. Opposing imperialism should instead be a political task that involves the entire public. It should not depend on the decisions of unelected experts. If you want to assess the absurd extent to which we have been disenfranchised, ask yourself what seems to be the question of the day: how many generals does it take to veto the President?
This is the second section of a larger project on imperialist discourse and its effects in US foreign policy. The first section, published by counterpunch on May 24, 2007, can be found here.
Arjun Chowdhury, Mark Hoffman and Kevin Parsneau are doctoral candidates at the University of Minnesota. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org