By Robert Higgs
War weariness is the prevailing public sentiment in the third stage of a major U.S. neo-imperialist war. In this prolonged stage, most people have grown tired of the war. They have surrendered their prior illusions about the glorious outcomes it was supposed to bring. They have come to understand that for them it is worse than pointless, that its costs have been real and its benefits a chimera, and that it seems likely to damage them further as it continues. Yet the war goes on and on, with no end in sight. We are now well into this stage of the war in Iraq.
I recall all too well the war weariness of the late 1960s and early 1970s. By 1968, most Americans had come to understand that no good outcome lay in store for them in Vietnam. The war was unwinnable in any meaningful sense. Yet its daily horrors ground on interminably: more bombing, more shelling, more close-contact combat in the jungles and rice paddies. Each year, thousands of young Americans were killed and wounded, many of them draftees sucked into the maelstrom as de facto military slaves, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and other Asians were slaughtered. Each horrible day was followed by another horrible day, each horrible month by another horrible month, each horrible year by another horrible year until, weighted down by despair, one wondered whether the madness would ever end.
By major U.S. neo-imperialist wars, I mean, so far, those in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. Long before them, in the Philippines from 1899 to 1902, the American people had a foretaste of neo-imperialist wars to come, but the Philippine war never reached a great enough magnitude or affected the general public deeply enough to become a large factor in the public’s outlook on national affairs. Then as now, some people actually approved of the war from start to finish. In those days, racism was more flagrant and redder in tooth and claw than it is now, which helps to explain why so many Americans supported a totally inexcusable imperialist venture.
In Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, the U.S. experience was different. In each case, the war moved through four stages: I, upper-echelon plotting; II, outbreak and early combat; III, sustained combat and strategic stalemate; and IV, cessation of combat and workable resolution.
The stages may vary in length and form. Stage I, in which U.S. leaders and their official and unofficial advisers concoct their war plans, may go on for years, as it did for the Iraq war, or it may go on for only a short while, as it did for the Korean War, when diplomatic blunders and unanticipated events provoked the North Korean invasion and triggered U.S. engagement in the fighting. Stage II may occupy weeks or months, whereas Stage III always drags on for years. Stage IV may take different forms. The tense, heavily armed truce in Korea bore no resemblance to the hasty, unceremonious, and humiliating U.S. exodus from Vietnam, yet each outcome served the same purpose¯to silence the guns.
Each stage elicits or corresponds to a particular public mood. Because Stage I takes place with little or no public awareness, it goes along with blissful public ignorance. Few people appreciate that their national leaders and wannabe leaders, secreted in their inner sanctums, are up to no good. The onset of Stage II invariably ignites great public enthusiasm, as the people rally around their national leaders, “support the troops,” and reflexively accept the tales they are told about the enemy’s wickedness and their own nation’s blamelessness and its well-grounded justification for sending its armed forces into the field. Note well: in neo-imperialist wars, by definition, the fighting always occurs “over there,” where it remains conveniently out of sight of the American public, which relies heavily on what its leaders say about relevant events and conditions on the ground—declarations that are, at best, biased and distorted statements and, at worst, brazen and calculated lies.
In Stage III, as the war drags on, the casualties and financial costs accumulate, the “cake walks” fail to eventuate, and hence the initial enthusiasm for the war fades. When military reversals, gross leadership mistakes, and embarrassing U.S. atrocities come to light, the public shifts even more quickly from support to disapproval.
However disillusioned and embittered the public may become, however, it cannot—or perhaps it simply will not—do anything effective to change the government’s course. Even if the war-making president is chased from office, as in effect Lyndon B. Johnson was in 1968, his successor may simply continue the U.S. engagement, as Richard M. Nixon did for many years, widening the war in the process. Once the U.S. government goes to war, the public is simply stuck with it, because the public will not actually rebel against the government, and nothing short of rebellion can ensure an affirmative government response to the public’s wishes.
No president will admit that his decision to undertake the war was a mistake from the get-go. Notice, for example, George W. Bush’s total dismissal of every sort of public disapproval of his war in Iraq, despite polls that show huge drops in support for the war and in approval of his leadership and despite the Democratic takeover of the House and Senate in the midterm elections. He continues to order the armed forces to fight, and they continue to obey. In our system of government, no one can stop this hellbent Caesar. People can only hope that when his term expires, he will actually step down and that his successor will set a new course, as Dwight D. Eisenhower did in 1953.
In general, however, only when the ruling political elites conclude that their own personal interests—and, of course, the interests of the special-interest coalition that props them up financially—will suffer if the war is continued will they act decisively to end it on the best terms available. Thus does Stage IV finally arrive, bringing the general public a sense of relief, although in the higher political circles, leaders and strategists always engage in finger-pointing and blame-casting with regard to who “lost China” this time around.
These characteristic stages of U.S. neo-imperialist war are not merely descriptive; they also reflect the political logic of the U.S. system of government. Most important, they arise from the Reality of Rule, which is to say, from the government’s effectively having gone to war permanently against the bulk of the American people, as well as episodically against an unfortunate group of foreigners in the Third World, where the U.S. government seeks to establish or maintain its hegemony. By saying that the government has placed itself in a state of war against most of the people—namely, all those outside its own supportive coalition—I mean no more and no less than John Locke meant when he wrote about this condition in his Second Treatise of Government §222:
whenever the Legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the Property of the People [by which Locke means their lives, liberties, and estates], or to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power [as done most recently by enactment of the Military Commissions Act of 2006], they put themselves into a state of War with the People, who are thereupon absolved from any farther Obedience . . . . [The same] holds true also concerning the supreame Executor, who having a double trust put in him, both to have a part in the Legislative, and the supreme Execution of the Law, Acts against both, when he goes about to set up his own Arbitrary Will [now termed the “inherent powers of the presidency”], as the Law of the Society.
As Locke argued, people cannot be presumed to have consented to the exercise of government powers that do not protect, but rather destroy their natural rights to life, liberty, and property, and therefore when the government takes such destructive actions, it acts as a mere robber or murderer; that is, it places itself in a state of war against them. Can anyone seriously deny that the U.S. government has chronically violated the people’s natural rights to life, liberty, and property from its very beginning and that recently its audacity in this regard has risen to heights that the absolute monarchs of old would have envied?
Because the government is always in a state of war against most of the people, whom it exploits and torments for the benefit and pleasure of its supporting coalition, it invariably finds that as the immediate fear and knee-jerk nationalism of Stage II wear away, the people come to see more and more plainly that they are being sacrificed on the altar of their rulers’ ambition, folly, and corruption. They understand increasingly that they are being made to play the patsies for the reptilian creatures who control the government. In short, they begin to see, as F. A. Hayek warned in The Road to Serfdom, that under a system of unchecked government powers, the worst really have got on top and that they themselves, down on the bottom, are in danger of suffocation under the crushing weight of gross, impudent oppression.
Yet, notwithstanding this growing awareness, the people have been so deeply conditioned and so callously propagandized to equate loyalty to the country and loyalty to the government that they are reluctant to act vigorously in their own self-defense. Many fall for cheap tricks that divert their attention or shift the blame for their troubles onto socially marginalized or unpopular groups such as, currently, immigrants and Muslims. They are also bombarded ceaselessly with official disinformation, which the cooperative major news media dish out in ample servings each hour of each day. The government, we are told, has never made any mistakes, and if it should ever err, it will do so only with the best of intentions. Holding actions of this sort help the government to retard the growth of public resentment against its crimes as Stage III drags on.
So, in the wake of the recent elections, in which one faction of the War Party has displaced the other in control of Congress, we have scant grounds for expecting a great change of course in the conduct of the Iraq war. The Democrats have announced grand plans to fleece and bully the public in the greater service of the leading special-interest groups that helped to elect them, and the Republicans, eminently pleased to serve as the loyal not-so-opposed opposition, look forward to bipartisan cooperation in logrolling those splendid 1,500-page statutes in which every species of outrage and robbery is declared to be the law of the land. The war will certainly continue, at least for another two years and perhaps for another five or ten. And why not? Only the people at large¯those beyond the precincts of the ruling figures and their major supporters¯stand to lose, and who really gives a damn about them?
Perhaps, given their slow-witted willingness to tolerate their own oppression, these outsiders don’t really care much about themselves. They have their creature comforts and their amusements, so the sacrifice of their rights to life, liberty, and property does not strike them as an especially big deal. In any event, they imagine that when the government’s hammer comes down hard, it will strike their Muslim neighbor or the Mexican immigrant down the street, not themselves.
More and more, however, like everyone except the political schemers who brought this war to pass, they cannot help but feel the growing weight of war weariness. In truth, Stage III is nobody’s favorite.
-Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy for The Independent Institute and Editor of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.