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The Realities of War

A response to Elaine Scarry’s “Citizenship in Emergency

Ellen Willis

8 Invoking the saga of Flight 93 as an exemplary alternative model to our top-down, technocratic, citizen-proof defense system, Elaine Scarry appeals to one of our more potent national myths: that the American democratic spirit calls forth an inventive pragmatism, a capacity for creative action that authoritarian systems and cultures lack. It’s a myth that goes back to the revolution and the triumph of America’s ragtag guerrillas against the rigid, hierarchical British army. What if anything does that myth tell us about our present situation? Are we still that country? Do we believe that democracy is not only morally right, or socially advanced, but practical? That it can serve us in the face of mortal danger?

These are uncomfortable questions. The project of a democratic defense is surely crucial to the democratic project in general, yet it is also in a way oxymoronic. In war or political violence, at least one party tries to coerce or dominate another; it is not played by democratic rules. What is the other party to do? If speed as an excuse for abrogating those rules does not hold up (and Scarry makes a convincing case that it does not), the “argument from secrecy”—equally familiar, equally anathema to an open, democratic society and equally misused—is harder to dispel. Surprise is a central element of war. We need to conceal from our enemies what we are doing, and at the same time to find out what they are doing; yet as soon as we accept any form of censorship or spying, it becomes difficult if not impossible adequately to assess what is being kept secret and whether it really needs to be. And what of the most obvious form of popular defense, a citizen army? In practical terms that means a draft, for most people will not volunteer to fight if they can’t count on everyone else to do so. In my view, a draft (including women as well as men) would be more democratic than our present careerist model of military service, which not only exempts most people from a fundamental responsibility of citizenship but as a route to upward mobility is firmly grounded in racial and class inequality. Yet it can’t be denied that conscription is the most naked form of state coercion an ordinary citizen can expect to face.

If in the face of these conundrums we aim to move as far as we can toward a defense based on popular, democratic participation, the discussion must transcend the strategic and begin with the broadly political. For surely the first requirement of such an undertaking is a foreign policy that is the product of genuine democratic deliberation—which in turn requires strong democratic institutions and a cultural ethos of democracy shared by citizens and the representatives they elect, including a lively, vigilant opposition from political factions and social movements not in power. We need, in short, a polity with built-in inhibitions against the abuses of authority that war or its threat invites.

Democracy of this sort, in America and elsewhere, has always been more aspiration than achievement, especially at the level of international relations. But at this point in our history, democracy, even as an aspiration, is in very deep trouble. The defense strategy that Scarry decries, and the autocratic foreign policies that go with it, have been around a long time, but at least during the Cold War and Vietnam years there were tumultous debates about those policies as well as about domestic political and cultural issues. Since 1989, however, Americans have been increasingly depoliticized. In the face of neoliberalism domestically and American triumphalism internationally, the left is paralyzed and adrift; as a result we are moving toward a form of one-party state. In this period the Republicans have effectively controlled the country, while the Democrats are no longer in any significant sense a party of opposition: when in power they imitate the Republicans, when out of power they wring their hands and defer. Before 9/11 a president who by any democratic criterion should not have held the office had already gotten the “opposition” to swallow John Ashcroft and a huge tax cut for the plutocracy. Now the Congressional Democrats require only face-saving consultation before giving him his way on Iraq.

Right after 9/11 there was an interesting, indeterminate moment when social solidarity was in the air. A great many Americans seemed to share an impulse to express that solidarity by doing something, even if it was just displaying a flag. Media commentators debated about what the impulse meant: some, on both the left and the right, equated it with nationalist outrage; some, with disturbing alacrity, heralded a rejection of self-indulgent consumerist frivolity in favor of sobriety and sacrifice; still others hoped for a revival of the public’s interest in politics, even a rethinking of market fundamentalism and a turn toward collective responsibility for pressing social needs. The moment soon passed, but not before it had made strikingly apparent that we are being governed by an administration so ideologically authoritarian it is allergic to any kind of popular mobilization, even in behalf of its own policies. George W. Bush has never asked Americans for anything but to go on about their business confident that he is fighting evil on our behalf. The administration launched no program to recruit Americans for civil defense (unless one counts Ashcroft’s repugnant and tone-deaf proposal that meter readers and delivery people spy on the households they serve); issued no call for volunteer fighters in Afghanistan or civilian efforts to support the troops.

Of course, the game in Afghanistan was, as it has been in every war since Vietnam, to minimize the role of American soldiers on the ground and the direct stakes of the American people in the conflict. This strategy is always attributed to “American intolerance for casualties,” as if that were some inherent national trait. But the more basic lesson of Vietnam, for the warmakers, was that discrepancies between government propaganda and battlefield experience spell big trouble. The Afghan intervention was popular even among many, like myself, who otherwise abhor the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Ashcroft axis: we saw it as a legitimate act of self-defense against an illegitimate, barbaric regime. Nonetheless the policy was to keep as much distance as possible between Americans and the nitty-gritty of war. Who knows? Closer involvement might have inspired an inconvenient sense of responsibility, a popular revulsion against our abdication to the thugs of the Northern Alliance and our shameful refusal to secure the peace.

I hope it’s clear I’m not complaining that Bush isn’t a better demagogue—all things considered we can be grateful for that. It’s always crucial to distinguish between democracy and populism, and never more so than when trying to sort out rational from irrational fears and national defense from nationalist adventure. Yet it’s more than unnerving to realize the extent of the administration’s condescension toward the public—how irrelevant, really, it considers us. The rumor that Flight 93 was actually shot down may be false; it remains a resonant metaphor for the relationship of our present government to our historic self-conception. <


Ellen Willis, a former staff writer for the New Yorker and the Village Voice, is director of the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University and author of Don‘t Think, Smile!

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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