9/11 Again, and Our Democracy Is Still Defined by War

"War is the continuation of politics by other means." ~ Carl von Clausewitz


On the eve of the anniversary of September 11th, President Barack Obama invoked our long and short memories of Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria and ISIL and James Foley and Steven Sotloff. His imagery of violence in support of more war was dramatic but not unique. For the 13th year since that horrible day this president, like his predecessor, has reiterated but come no closer to solving a fundamental problem of American democracy. That problem was clear from day one. [You can see what I wrote in September 2001 here.]

Over the last century American democracy has increasingly been defined by war. I do not mean simply that the brutal consequences of contesting armed forces influence elections. Rather, it is that Americans live in a perpetual state of "civic war."

How we live at home as citizens is shaped by how we are at war. Although we care less and less about "the action" or its effect on veterans who have been through it, we rely more and more on war -- its images, its characteristic thinking and "logic," its purported necessity -- in the formation of policy, the articulation of culture, or the investments of our wealth. Although he did not mean to, President Obama once again raised this fundamental issue of "civic war."

In this perspective, then, the unspoken message of the president's speech is this: how shall we, at war, take responsibility for being Americans?

It has been said that as a nation we are obsessed with guns. Almost as prevalent, however, is our art of referring to war, terrorism, security, fear, violence, risk, threat, etc. in order to set rigid conditions on what may or may not be done by way of political choice. This way of living with war at home is carrying us towards a dangerously narrow view, as if politics is only done under extreme duress and always involves protection of the State. This is the opposite of what democracy requires.

The alternative is to redirect our attention in this way: can war be shaped to and by the conditions of possibility for democracy?

There is nothing new in identifying connections between democracy and war. Over the past few centuries, every serious inquirer into politics has seen some relation between modern warfare and the democratic State.

But the violence of war is not just a backdrop for bureaucracy. And war is not one thing. Neither is politics. Both have changed profoundly since the First World War. And their transformations have been linked.

So, go back to that brilliant quote from Clausewitz. Today we need to read it in a slightly different way. For, it is not war that determines what politics can be. Nor is war the extension of political will onto the field of battle. It is rather civic life itself -- the ways we define and adopt the role of the Citizen -- that determines what war will be for the citizen.

When Barack Obama speaks about how we will obliterate ISIL, you should hear more than talk of strategy. Nor is survival the real issue. The president is raising -- or lowering -- prospects for democracy in America. When he seeks to renew our increasingly perennial situation of war, the correct reaction for the Citizen is this: recall the stunning variety of practices of politics in America. Indeed, war is meaningless violence if it does not provide opportunity to recreate and advance our political traditions in the greatest possible diversity. The civic legacy of the Vietnam War is not Johnson's fall or Nixon's failure, but rather the multiplication of political culture from early "mobilizations" around the Pentagon to eventual commemoration in Maya Lin's masterpiece.

America largely failed at this creative task in the first decade of the 21st century. War -- "civic war," the war at home and its ramifying consequences -- has occupied for almost thirteen years much of the space that needed to be occupied afresh by citizens.

Today we should be asking: can we finally begin to pursue the right questions? What would those questions be?

Here is where old Clausewitz -- in spite of himself -- helps us to focus afresh on the position of the Citizen. Which version of politics does this war "continue by other means?" When we go to war, which aspects of our basic political life are furthered and which are left behind? With such continuities in mind, any discussion of this new war will take on whole new civic meaning. What does and does not count as war against ISIL? When, where, and how should citizens choose to make such a war? Should citizens allow an Executive who again sets war-making in motion to go unchecked or unchallenged? For how long?

Measured according to the priority of civic life over war-making, the wars promoted by our recent presidents against the background image of September 11th are disturbingly paradoxical. Here even Clausewitz would be confused. For we must say that our wars of late have been "continuations of politics" that are deleterious to politics. They are offshoots of a prevalent occurrence in American life: the "anti-politics politics" in which, for example, candidates seek government office only to reduce government towards nothing. (I show how this works in Civic War and the Corruption of the Citizen.)

A nation deeply wedded to "anti-politics politics" effectively makes war against itself when it makes war at all. For it is never the Enemy who silences the Citizen, or cuts off debate, or shifts resources away from domestic needs. It is us. And this is true no matter how much the language of necessity would make it seem as if the Enemy were the cause when we tighten a noose around our collective neck.

"Anti-politics politics" is not merely destructive. It is self-destructive. That is, it works directly against a basic civic fact, which is that politics tends to take various forms in the course of one's experience as a Citizen.

In this spiraling down, the president's scorching language of war has additional consequences. It tends to center politics around what the State does. It does not matter if our commander-in-chief was once a "community organizer." What matters, in the face of war, under the auspices of war, is the declining relevance and effectiveness of what citizens can do. What matters, in the face of war, is the citizen's own conviction of his or her own decreasing relevance and efficacy.

This is why President Obama's announcement of our return to war ramps up rather than relaxing our state of "civic war." This is really bad news. That is, it is bad for regular persons who aspire to make the position of the Citizen work for themselves and their neighbors.

Yesterday and today, as the "peace candidate" issued a new "declaration" of war, all the old questions resurfaced. So we will again have to ask What will we do? Who will do it? When will it count as war, and when not? But be careful to pay attention to what is really at stake here. What actually hangs in the balance of this renewed war talk is the form politics will take. And this, in turn, is really the question will democracy endure? This, specifically for the Citizen, is what heightened talk of war is ultimately about.