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Elaine Scarry Replies

8 Can we generalize about defense arrangements on the basis of a single day? A single morning? Steve Walt says we cannot.

On this one morning, ten percent of all Manhattan office space was destroyed. Three sides of the formerly five-sided Pentagon were damaged. Three thousand lives were lost, the largest number of casualties on U.S. soil in a single day since the Battle of Antietam. Would we argue, if we were living in the aftermath of that September 1862 battle, that no conclusions should be drawn from that single day? People living at that time did draw conclusions. Civil War historian James McPherson has shown that as a result of that solitary day: 1) Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation; 2) the war changed from a war over union to a war of liberation; and 3) France and Britain abandoned their support of the South.1

September 11 may prove to be equally pivotal, either turning the country further and further away from democracy (as in the Bush administration’s abridgment of civil liberties, its pronouncements about the irrelevance of “evidence” in conducting twenty-first–century wars, its threats of “preemptive strikes” against “the axis of evil”) or instead turning us back to our democratic foundations by its swift and stark exposure of the ineffectiveness of nondemocratic military arrangements.2 Which way will we turn?

Many of the responses express regret for our departures from a democratic form of self-defense (both those departures that have gradually occurred over the last fifty years and those accelerated forms that have occurred since 9/11). At the same time, the responses together set forth a set of challenges about whether a democratic form of self-defense is achievable and desirable. The challenges come in three areas: first, the argument that international law, rather than democracy and constitutionalism, is the best safeguard against immoral and ineffective acts in war. Second, a set of questions about whether democracy (which abdicates force and requires openness) can ever be made compatible with war-making (which abdicates openness and requires force). Third, a collection of claims that self-defense is irrelevant because national security is no longer based on our own geographical borders and often occurs in distant spaces from which the citizenry is cut off.

First, then, the challenge from internationalism. Both democratic and international legal structures provide brakes on going to war. Neither is designed to eliminate war altogether; each is instead designed to minimize the chance of unjust wars, wars of aggression, or wars fought over issues that could be settled by other means. Two sets of brakes are obviously better than one or none; any act of war by the United States will ideally have both internal authorization (Congress and the citizenry) and external authorization (the U.N.) But if only one of the two is relied upon, it must (in my view) be the democratic body of laws. Here is why.

First, most international treaties specify that nothing in the treaty should be construed as bypassing the constitutional requirements of the participating countries’ own internal laws.3 A U.N. sanction of war should never be understood as bypassing the need for congressional deliberation in the United States (Article I, Section 8) or deliberation by the citizenry (as required by the Second Amendment). It is important to stress this because presidents in the last several decades have generally assumed that 1) it is easier to get legal sanction for war from the U.N than from the U.S. Congress (despite the fact that in the autumn of 2002 Bush is finding Congress more compliant than the U.N); and 2) it is often easier to get funding for wars from international sources than from domestic ones (President Reagan, during the Iran-Contra affair, secretly sold weapons to Iran to raise money to support the Contras in Nicaragua, even though Congress had explicitly prohibited such support; President Bush Sr. funded 90 percent of the $60 billion Gulf War with funds from Germany, Japan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates).4 Getting either legal authorization or money from inside the U.S. cannot be done without open debate, and open debate always allows testing, and testing allows dissent. Better to bypass dissent altogether.

It may be that in one hundred years the kind of ‘“international democracy” that Richard Falk and Admiral Carroll envision will come into being,5 but it cannot come into being if the “international forum” (which ordinarily requires the vote of a tiny number of persons) is used by world leaders to bypass the deliberative gates of their own nations (which entail the vote and voices of millions of people). Should an exception be made to address the genocidal events Paul Kahn worries about—Rwanda, East Timor, former Yugoslavia—where the injuries are so grave and the moral principles are so stark that cumbersome democratic gateways should be bypassed and international intervention initiated at once? But grave injuries and stark moral violations should be swiftly discernible in a democratic forum, if that forum has not atrophied from decades of disuse. Right now President Bush justifies his planned attack on Iraq by describing the country (which does not yet have a nuclear weapon) as an inevitable practitioner of genocide.

In the long run, we should work toward the following set of requirements. A country going to war ought to have to present its case in both democratic and international arenas. A negative vote in either arena should be sufficient to stop the war; formal authorization in both arenas should be required to go to war. This conforms to the general principle that “it ought always to be easier to make peace than to make war”—the principle that explains why, in United States law, the Senate acting alone can make a peace treaty but only the Senate and House acting together can make war.

The choice facing us in the present year is not, however, whether to protect ourselves through democratic safeguards or instead through international safeguards since the first of those two—the democratic levers of self-protection—has moved beyond the reach of the citizenry. Before we can even be in a position to make such a choice the democratic model of self-defense will have to be reanimated. The question is do we wish to carry out that work of reanimation, or do we wish instead to rely for protection on monarchic weapons, unchecked executive war-making, and our present, authoritarian, top-down military arrangements.

I turn, then, to the second set of challenges, those that question whether the citizens of democracies can practice acts of self-defense without jeopardizing their own citizenship. This question is explicitly asked by Ellen Willis (who describes democracy and defense as oxymoronic on grounds of both force and secrecy), and is also indirectly introduced by other respondents (Kahn, Falk, Chayes, Walt) who refer in passing to the specter of “mob action” or citizen “excess.”

Democracy has everything to do with peace; what has it to do with war? The heart of democracy is the agreement to divide responsibility for whatever injuring power the country has (whether none or a great deal) evenly across the full citizenry. This is why the distributive mandate embedded in the right to bear arms has been championed not only by militarists such as Mirabeau during the first General Assembly in France, but by pacifists such as Gandhi. Gandhi said, “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest.”6 He argued that the population would decide whether or not to use its arms only after they were restored: in other words, the distributional right is prior to any question about whether a country will choose ever to use weapons.

Far from jeopardizing citizenship, the assuming of military responsibility has been the ground on which civil rights have been built in the United States. The Fifteenth Amendment, extending the right to vote to African Americans, was inseparable from the military record: 180,000 blacks had fought in the union army, and this fact was repeatedly used in arguments supporting the new amendment in newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and the New York Tribune, on the floor of Congress, and in the 1868 presidential campaign. The Nineteenth Amendment, extending the vote to women, was achieved by suffrage songs, pageants, and plays, which repeatedly linked the capacity to vote with the capacity to serve in war. Finally, the Twenty-sixth Amendment, lowering the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen, was argued on a similar basis. Both the House and Senate judiciary hearings repeatedly cited the participation of those fighting in Vietnam and those deliberating about war on college campuses as having earned for their generation and all future generations the right to vote at a younger age.

This history provides strong support for those respondents who see the elimination of the draft as one of the key contributors to what Catherine Lutz calls the present era of “citizen passivity”: Lutz and Knight explicitly focus on what happens when a draft is absent, and other respondents (Chayes, Willis) call attention to what happens when a draft is present by recalling the full stature of the citizenry (both those who fought and those who dissented) during the Vietnam period. With a draft in place, a president is obligated to address his countrymen and countrywomen with evidence supporting and justifying the country’s military actions. The countrymen and -women not only determine whether the war will be fought but deliver a judgment about the credibility of the president’s own leadership position.7 Who dreads the draft? The population, to be sure, but even more so the executive heads of state who will at once lose their uncontested power to prosecute wars when and where they wish.

The anchoring of civil rights in military rights (in history of the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-sixth Amendments) also provides support for the emphasis that respondents have placed on concrete forms of citizen participation in military matters other than the draft. Randy Forsberg directs attention to in the work of reducing U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons. Forsberg and Kahn remind us that Congress (however infantilized in recent decades by its refusal to carry out its gravest responsibility, the overseeing of our entry into war) can reassume its power at any moment it discovers the will to do so. And its will to do so, as Paul Kahn and Antonia Chayes point out, will be shaped by the actions of the citizens who communicate their arguments to the House and Senate.8 Concrete questions require concrete answers from us. Should individual terrorists, Richard Falk asks, be identified as lone criminals (and judged within the framework of criminal rules) or instead as representatives of nations, thereby introducing the possibility of war?9 Admiral Carroll, Antonia Chayes, and Richard Falk direct our attention to the pressing question of war against Iraq, a concrete question requiring from each of us a concrete answer.

The concrete levers of self-defense and self-government may be beyond the reach of the citizenry right now, but are they “out of reach” by a vast distance or instead by a gap so small it might be closed by a single day of concentrated stretching? The events of September 11—when the passengers on the Pennsylvania plane deliberated, voted, and acted in twenty-three minutes10—suggest that the gap is small, that the governing levers are there and within reach. Their being there, steadily within reach, is presumably what is meant by the words, “gave proof through the night that the flag was still there.” Does the phrase “the flag was still there” mean “our country can always out-injure any other country in an armed conflict”? Or does it instead mean “even in armed conflict we will keep recognizable and available to view the requirements of a civilian government”?

The third and final challenge is made up of a diverse array of objections, each of which points out that a citizens’ defense is now, practically speaking, irrelevant. An egalitarian defense is irrelevant, practically speaking, because a population armed with conventional weapons cannot provide a shield against nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. An egalitarian defense is irrelevant, practically speaking, because the U.S. military has a global presence and is stationed far from U.S. borders in countries about which our countrywomen and -men are ignorant. An egalitarian defense is irrelevant, practically speaking, because we protect ourselves today through long-term “security arrangements” in ways that are deterrents bound to future objectives and not to immediate acts of protection.

These three (and others like them) can be grouped together as the “challenge on the grounds of practical irrelevance.” Each deserves to be scrutinized individually and debated at length, but for the purposes of this brief response let me direct attention to the major weakness they together share. Each entails a confusion of cause and effect. Each of the three merely restates the fact that at present our country’s defense is based on a centralized, authoritarian model that is severed from the population. That is precisely the problem that needs to be repaired; it is not an explanation for why we should abstain from the repair.

Our defense has been severed from the population by monarchic weapons that require only an executive order. Because we have long had such weapons and have acquired many new ones in the 1990s, other countries are now acquiring them, often explicitly justifying their acquisition by our example. Our ability to defend ourselves with conventional weapons (which at present, as Randy Forsberg notes, looks impossible, irrelevant) will become possible and relevant once all countries agree to rid themselves of such weapons, an abolition that will take place only when the United States, the largest holder of them, initiates the global process of giving them up. It is, in other words, because we have authoritarian weapons that we are at present helpless against the possession of authoritarian weapons by others. And it is by returning to a democratic form of self-defense that we will create the world conditions that will eventually make that an effective form of self-defense.

Our defense has also been severed from the population by using the citizens’ treasury not for protecting those citizens but for the project of dispersing the country’s military force into foreign lands. Some respondents see this global dispersal as a legitimate form of security and others as instigating insecurity (Steve Walt sees it as both, listing it as evidence of our overall record of military success and as the probable incitement for the September 11 attacks). Whereas in the past, military leaders who lost battles were in danger of being fired, no one in the Department of Defense has been fired for the failures of September ll because protecting the country is not part of the job description of the Department of Defense (which, for clarity, should perhaps be renamed the Department of Nonhomeland Defense or the Department of Global Empire). Citizens are kept from meddling in this global military dispersal not only by the geographical distance from their homes and temporal distance from the present (since the projects are often long-range) but also by the unavailability of information, large portions of which are designated “top security.” If the country returns to a democratic self-defense, we should perhaps consider making our yearly funding of the Department of Defense contingent on some regular reporting structure that assists us in comprehending what they are doing.

These three challenges—the argument that the democratic should give way to the international, the argument that democracy and defense are incompatible, and the argument that democratic self-defense is irrelevant—do not in my view jeopardize the urgent importance of returning to a democratic self-defense, a return that some of the respondents agree with in full, some in part, and some not at all. Democratic arenas for deliberation about war can be greatly complemented (but never displaced) by international arenas. Civil rights—far from being jeopardized by military responsibilities—are premised on them. The reanimation of a democratic self-defense will alter the very features of our world that at present make that defense appear impractical.

In addition to these three key challenges, the respondents put forward many other important ideas and objections that deserve attention. I am grateful for all the responses and grateful that the New Democracy Forum has provided the space to begin to address the urgent question of our own obligations for defending the country, defending it against those who wish to injure its population, its skyline, or its democratic structures. <


1. For these and other outcomes (such as Lincoln’s act of relieving Gen. McClellan of his command), see James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam: The Battle that Changed the War (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002).

2. Was Antietam—with its ghastly death toll and its reconfiguration of winners and losers—just “a metaphor” (to cite Stephen Walt’s often repeated charge against my analysis)? The battle strategies and outcomes at Antietam were not just a metaphor, but neither are the two forms of defense displayed on September 11. It might relax us to think of Flight 77 and Flight 93 as two “metaphorical” ships of state. That would be a serious intellectual error. The two planes were certainly ships of state, but they were not metaphorical: the people on them were real, the methods of gathering or failing to gather information were real, the force exerted and the force not exerted against the terrorists were real, the lines of distributed or instead hierarchical authority were real, and perhaps most important, the presence (in the one case) and absence (in the other case) of consent were real. The two methods of defense they embody are alternatives everywhere throughout the country awaiting our judgment.

3. Without such a provision, the international bodies would be in danger of eviscerating or nullifying the very countries who are their members.

4. According to a 1991 House hearing on “Contributions to the Gulf War,” the Gulf Crises Financial Coordination Group raised $54 billion from U.S. allies, including $5.5 billion from Germany, $4 billion from the United Arab Emirates, $13.5 billion from Saudi Arabia, $3.6 billion from Kuwait, and $9.4 billion from Japan. Transcript, “Hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee,” 14 May l991.

5. Emma Rothchild also persuades me that this is a reachable goal.

6. Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), trans. M. Desai.

7. Alexander Bickel writes, the anti-war movement succeeded in “toppling a sitting president, in the midst of war, in 1968, before a single national vote had been cast.” The Morality of Consent (Yale Univ. Press, 1975), 102–103.

8. Whether wholly immune forms of citizen participation—such as Kahn’s reliance on public opinion—can work in isolation from citizen risk is one of many topics introduced by respondents that deserves extended debate.

9. Richard Falk argues that the statelessness of the terrorists might make democracy or nationhood an inappropriate forum of address. But it is precisely one of the tasks of Congress and the citizenry to determine—in cases where foreign citizens have injured the United States citizens or interests—whether those foreign citizens have acted as individual agents or instead as soldiers of their countries. This was one of the issues, for example, debated by Congress during its deliberations leading up to the Mexican War of 1846 (“Deliberations for the Declaration of War against Mexico,” Congressional Globe, 29th Cong., 1st session, 1846, 786–88, 800).

10. For a skeptical view of the passengers’ work, see the essay by Charles Knight.

My essay argued that September 11 called into question a central argument used to legitimize the centralization of military power over the last fifty years, namely the argument from speed. Several respondents have questioned whether the subject of speed has been key during the decades of massive centralization. Because of length constraints on my writing of this brief response, I must postpone counterarguments to a later time; and here ask only two questions. Is the “matter of minutes” vocabulary (as in the passages I cited concerning Prime Minister Blair) unfamiliar or long familiar to readers? Second, aren’t such descriptions often linked to a solitary executive actor? Peter Raven-Hansen summarizes the often-made argument: “If there are only minutes in which to decide to use nuclear weapons, Congress cannot possibly participate. In these circumstances, the President must be conceded inherent nuclear decision-making authority.” “Nuclear War Powers,” American Journal of International Law 83:4 (October 1989), 790.

Click here to return to the New Democracy Forum, ‘Citizenship in Emergency’ with Elaine Scarry and respondents.

Originally published in the October/November 2002 issue of Boston Review

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