Bread and Circuses and Entrenched Interests

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In World War II, the war effort took a much larger share of GDP and of the federal budget than the war on terror does today. Furthermore, we has 12 million men in uniform out of a population of 160 million, and we lost 300,000 dead and about the same number of permanently disabled to some degree. Equivalent numbers today would be 23 million in uniform, nearly 600,000 dead, and the same number again permanently disabled. Nonetheless, World War II saw no serious domestic opposition despite the much higher costs, in lives and percentage of GDP. 9/11 cost more lives and more money, even considering the proportionality of it all, than Pearl Harbor. Furthermore, the vast majority of Pearl Harbor's costs and casualties were military - legitimate targets of war, however underhanded the Japanese tactics. The vast majority of the casualties on 9/11 were civilians not involved in any fashion with the United States government or the military in any fashion, not even producers of war material.

Why then, are we seeing so much opposition to the war when it suddenly became obvious we were in one? Sixty years ago the isolationist opposition practically vanished with Pearl Harbor. Why didn't the modern pacifist go the same way?

A certain number of them did, of course. There are a large number of former pacifists who became pro-war, or at least resigned to war, when the fact that we were in one became undeniable. But larger numbers did not. Why?

The answer lies in several segments. No single answer explains the entire difference. Indeed, I can trace a minimum of three factors, at least one of which has not yet been dealt with in the public forum.

The first, most obvious difference lies in the public environment. Patriotism was a subject the vast majority of the country took very seriously. The best interests of the United States as a nation were a part of our national consciousness, and deservedly so. We knew that we were forty percent of the world's industrial output. We could see how screwed up Europe was in the time between the wars, and as for the poor benighted savages in the rest of the globe, well the less said about them, the better. Viewed through the lens of accomplishment, and widespread practice, the United States was (and is) obviously a better nation than could be found anywhere else on the planet, and if the communists in Russia and their supporters and apologists elsewhere wanted to show us their system was better, they had the opportunity of being in power in the Soviet Union. They should get cracking and prove it.

Do not make the mistake of believing there were no anti-war forces in the United States prior to World War II. Many elements of our society did their best to keep us out of the war. Our domestic communist party, until Germany invaded Russia, was decidedly isolationist and wielded influence out of all proportion to their numbers. Just about every woman's group going was also isolationist right up to Pearl Harbor. They had seen the cost of entangling ourselves in a european war in 1917 and 1918, and it was frightfully high, with few observable benefits from having won. This had been kept fresh with the application of various interventions in Central America in the 1930s, supposedly in defense of american interests but with significant casualty lists and little observable benefit to the United States. This was not something that, in their viewpoint, was worth anything like the cost we had paid, and the domestic opposition to war did all that they could to keep the United States out of the war. Jewish refugees attempting to escape Germany and the rest of the european continent were turned back at US ports. Given the cultural environment of the time, part of this was anti-semitism, part anti-immigrant sentiment left over from the twenties when the United States first began restricting immigration, but the greater part was a desire not to offend Germany, and furnish a causus belli by sheltering people that Germany had declared their enemies.

A certain amount of the reason why the anti-war opposition disappeared after Pearl Harbor was blind patriotism. "My country, right or wrong." There are obvious inherent moral and ethical difficulties with this viewpoint, but nonetheless a strong case can be made that it is necessary for the long term survival of any nation. Better our nation be freely ruled by its own citizens and therefore able to change any evil practices that do exist, than have outside ways imposed upon it and be unable to change. A certain amount was that, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the war had become an obvious fact and further debate was pointless and irrational. Finally, the desertion of the pacifist cause by the rest of the opposition can be traced to simple political calculation - to continue to oppose the war in those circumstances would have been political suicide to no good purpose. This applies to a certain extent today, mind you, but there are mitigating factors that there were not then.

Sixty years later, things are no longer so clear cut. There is a larger constituency for "peace at any price" than there is for "my country, right or wrong." How this happened is a long essay in and of itself, but it definitely has happened. I could trace the origins of the anti-war movement of the sixties, that continues today, from the communists and isolationists of the thirties through fifties, but that would digress too far. Suffice to say that no matter how imminent, real, and dangerous the threat, there is a strong constituency in this country for peace at any price. Many of the journalists and media personalities that have continuing national prominence have made all too plain that they are part of that constituency. In my mind that removes their opinion from serious consideration. If they begin their cognitive processes of the questions, "Is this war necessary? Is it justified? Is it worth the price?" from an answer of "No," and then proceed to figure out how to justify or rationalize that answer, what emerges is not likely to be either a rational or sane argument. If they start out the thought process even further along this spectrum, with the question, "Who is the US doing an Evil Deed to (and how can I prove it and get a Pulitzer)?" that tells me that their thought process is not where it needs to be in order to have serious input into the decision.

This manifests in many ways. Nobody even considered whether German or Japanese captives from World War II should be released prior to the end of hostilities. Nor Koreans and Chinese from the Korean War, or Indochinese prisoners held during that war. Today, we have legal terrorists testing the attorneys of our justice department, jurisdiction shopping, and continually looking for one chink in the legal armor that declares our prisoners of war to be enemy combatants. Actually, it exists. Few, if any, of our prisoners were captured in a uniform of any kind. Under long-standing international and domestic law, this justifies military tribunals for them as spies and saboteurs, with firing squads for those found guilty, and the rest held anyway as enemy combatants. I am not certain we are correct to do what we are doing in holding them indefinitely as opposed to tribunals and firing squads, nonetheless it remains the merciful, correct thing - the American thing - to do. Nonetheless, with the legal climate in this country, it is difficult not to have sympathy for the Bush administration's policy of keeping them out of reach of American civilian courts. Nobody defended the Rosenbergs at the time as justified, misguided, or even mentally whacked, the controversy was that many high profile people defended them as innocent (they weren't innocent, as has been confirmed by Soviet documents. Indeed, they helped the Soviet Union obtain United States nuclear weapon secrets. Under less fortunate circumstances, the toll of lives they cost this country would have been in the dozens of millions).

There was a time when the obvious good of the country trumped politics. In 1944, Thomas Dewey declined to criticize Roosevelt's conduct of the war, despite many, many possible targets. He knew the nature of the fog of war, and knew the Allied officers were doing their best but setbacks and mistakes happened. He also knew the likelihood that such criticism would extend the war, cause more casualties, and possibly even lose it. Our understanding of what wins and loses wars has matured considerably since then, but at the time it was far from certain that the war was won. All we knew for certain was that it was going our way, by and large. Indeed, General Patton said, more than a month after the 1944 election, in response to the German offensive in the Battle of The Bulge, that he realized we could still lose the war. In light of this information, when the press asked Mr. Dewey why he hadn't criticized Mr. Roosevelt's handling of the way, and he said he'd rather lose the election and win the war than reverse. Mr. Dewey was entitled to criticize, he wisely refrained. Would that modern day political opposition was so civic-minded. In 1943, Eisenhower famously revealed to a roomful of war correspondents that Sicily was the next target in order to stop the speculation in the press that was giving the Germans ideas. Realizing the consequences in American dead, not one of them breathed a word. Would that the modern day press had as much sense. However, unlike the war correspondents of old, few modern journalists have any personal experience with the military. Many hold the members of the military in contempt.

Once upon a time, Democrats and Republicans did not think of each other as evil. Political opposition, yes. Disagreed on many things, yes. But they did not have hatred, or if they did, they did not let it blind them. The legendary congressional leaders of thirty years ago and more could not have gotten as much work done as they did, could not have made the compromises necessary if there was not some level of trust, and definitely could not have reached out across the isle for support against their own recalcitrant members, as was necessary to pass the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and others. Indeed, Republican support for those was much more solid than Democratic.

This began changing in the later seventies, and became noticeably stronger when Ronald Reagan captured the Presidency. Why? Those in power at the time were largely on the left of the political spectrum, and they had sponsored all of the programs that they feared Reagan wanted to dismantle: Medicare, Medicaid, Welfare, public housing, etcetera, as well as many of them having a deep-seated antipathy to the military, which Reagan wanted to revitalize.

Prior to World War II, the federal government was much smaller than it became in the 1960s and later. Department of Commerce was mainly diplomatic and customs. Veterans Affairs was a small agency. Interior was National Parks and mineral leaseholds. Even the great public works of the 30s were temporary measures to put men to work, swiftly abandoned in World War II. When war was declared, WPA was a dead letter overnight. Social Security was microscopic. Neither Health and Human Services nor Education existed, and even their predecessor, Health, Education and Welfare, didn't exist yet. Nor did Housing and Urban Development. The full cabinet was eight secretaries. The federal government just didn't do that much at the time. The average citizen was far more involved in the state government. Finally, what non-war related spending there was was curtailed for the duration of World War II.

This really changed dramatically with Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs of the 1960s. Housing and Urban Development, expansion of Social Security and welfare, and many other things we take for granted today were begun then. And I'm not speaking against those programs, which were a response to the social pressures of the time.

What I am going to point out is that these programs all have natural constituences. These constituencies fear losing these programs. They regard the program as right and necessary, and any move to abandon, diminish, or roll back increases as contrary to the good of those people. In other words, evil actions.

As a byproduct of the politics of the time, these constituencies have all historically been Democratic voters. Institutional memory goes on when nobody remembers why. Environmentalists, to name one example, have certainly gotten more real mileage out of Republican presidents than Democratic ones, and yet they remain die-hard Democratic supporters.

Nonetheless, with the rise of Ronald Reagan, who campaigned for President on the platform that the government was too big and did too many things that it really shouldn't, galvanized these people into believing that Reagan, and the republicans who supported him, were evil. They were afraid he (and they) were going to slow the natural increase in these programs, something that they believed no compassionate human being could do. Hence, the belief that those who would do so are evil.

The current War on Terror has thus far not had to compete for resources with all of the non-military federal spending that goes on. Nonetheless, those who are part of those spending programs natural constituencies realize that there should be a competition for resources; the federal treasury is not infinite. Furthermore, if the War on Terror continues very much longer, we are going to have to have serious debates about our national spending priorities. The federal government cannot continue to spend like lottery winners indefinitely; every dollar it takes means that that dollar did not go towards growing the economy. The fact that we have not had this debate yet is one of my major complaints against the Bush Administration and the current congress.

The fact is that the Great Society programs have continued to grow despite the best efforts of fiscal conservatives these past thirty years. The most that has even been proposed is a lower rate of increase, and yet the constituencies that exist for these programs treat this as if our leadership intends to have those served by the programs report to the ovens for incineration. And it is this group, I submit, that is the hard core of resistance to the War on Terror.

I certainly can understand why this is. They have spent so long defending these programs tooth and nail that they have become sensitized to any threat, whether real or imaginary, to these programs existence. The fact of the War on Terror, and the attendant need for resources to fight it, is certainly a real threat, and the program constituents do not want to have a debate as to which is higher in priority, because they know it's a debate they are likely to lose. Afghanistan was undeniable on any level connected with reality, but Iraq is not only a tougher nut to crack, it is also consuming far more in resources. Since it's not like Al Qaeda is ever going to surrender to the United States on board the battleship Missouri, they want to just declare victory now and go home, to forestall the debate on resources.

This is dangerous self-delusion, but denial has always been one of the strongest of all psychological barricades. So long as they can persuade themselves that it's about the evil Republikkkans out to steal Iraqi petroleum as a favor to American Big Oil fatcats and perform payback for Saddam Hussein wriggling off the hook during the Gulf War, they can continue their opposition with a clean conscience. To them, it really is about domestic politics and not foreign assaults on the United States. Insulating themselves from evidence to the contrary is further manifestation of this phenomenon. This is part of the reason why every conversation with them begins with debunking claims that have been dealt with so many times on so many levels that they no longer rise to the level of pathetic. But since many members of these constituency are important in controlling mass media markets, there is no national level sense of the fact that we have dealt with those arguments, as the conversation has been blocked from happening on a national mass media scale.


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cigarintel said:

This post was selected as an Editor's Choice at the Carnival of the Vanities, hosted this week by the Cigar Intelligence Agency. Great job!

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on February 23, 2006 7:48 PM.

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