The View from Eighty: Counting Wars & War Costs

by Paul Olson, NFP President Emeritus

Recently, the Lincoln NFP Chapter hosted a picnic for my 80th birthday. After the picnic, I wrote to the picnickers:

My life has been all war. I was born in 1932, the year before Hitler came to power, and I vaguely remember the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (1935), the Spanish Civil War (1936 beginning), the Japanese invasion of China (1937), Hitler’s annexation of Austria (1938), and the start of World War II (1939). I remember America’s involvement in World War II vividly. I recall Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Right after, I wrote an oratorical contest speech on the need for world government...

The rest of my life has been wars and cold wars—tens of millions of lives lost in World War II and Korea, in the Chinese civil war and its accompanying famines, in the gulags and manufactured disappearances in Asia, South America and Africa, and in surrogate wars partially created by American pawns all over the world (Iraq, Vietnam, Central America, Chile and Africa). Now we create new monsters on the Middle Eastern and Chinese horizons.

My father—a largely uneducated but bright man, lay clergyman, farmer and janitor—spoke often of the 1930s Gandhi. Later, as a teenager, I came across Tolstoy’s nonviolent writings, and went on to read Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, and Marx’s The Civil War in France. (Very recently Gene Sharp’s works and the powerful witness of the ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ commissions in South Africa and Rwanda have excited me.)

In the ’60s, I acted—very late—on the decrees of conscience that these writers prompted. I was inspired by a host of ’60s Nebraskans (I have mentioned them in my history of Nebraskans for Peace) and by many witnesses from times before: the Nebraska Quakers and Mennonites; William Jennings Bryan and George Norris; Herbert Jehle, the great Nebraska physicist. At 80, I believe that we rarely can use violence to achieve justice. The one ‘war’ that might have been ‘just’ would have been an intervention in Rwanda during the genocide. We did nothing.

I could have added that in 2012 we have achieved a state of near perpetual war, intensifying the fires of conflict that have surrounded my life: consider our wars in Pakistan, Yemen, Iran, Iraq and, by indirection, in Syria.

None of these is a legally declared war. None has been the subject of a congressional or national debate. Why?

Rachel Maddow’s Drift: the Unmooring of American Military Policy attempts an answer.

(Maddow, I should note, is no peacenik. She, as David Swanson’s review of her book documents, fails to look at U.S. wars from the perspective of their multitudinous civilian victims, ignores the roles of nonviolent resistance and mediation in resolving national disputes, rationalizes our entrance into Vietnam, trivializes the ’60s anti-war movement, and largely legitimizes the war-making tendencies of George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama. )

Maddow argues, plausibly, that we and Congress have lost constitutional control over the military. The founding fathers, in writing the Constitution and setting early policy, argued that declaring war should be a gut-wrenching decision, undertaken after serious national and congressional debate, and done with the full approval of the larger share of the American people. The fathers were tired of professional armies and of monarchic/dynastic battles, undertaken on the say-so of a king or professional Junker-style generals from the Prussian Empire. So they said, “No wars without a national and Congressional debate.”

But, as Maddow shows, the mantra now is, “Wars all the time and no national debate.” First, as the executive, you lie to enable them; and, second—to continue them—you minimize the endangerment of most of the American population, no matter what happens to populations elsewhere. Lies to enable wars, as Maddow does not note, have existed almost forever in this country: the deceptions in the Indian Wars; possibly the “Maine” episode prior to the Spanish-American War; certainly the “Lusitania” one prior to WWI; Roosevelt’s claim of surprise at the actions of the Japanese fleet near Pearl Harbor (a surprise which could not have been complete); Johnson’s turning of the “Gulf of Tonkin” into a North Vietnamese attack and so forth. Our art of national security lying is old and well-practiced. But Maddow does show how that great ‘conservative,’ Ronald Reagan, massively expanded LBJ’s Vietnam War-art of lying while also claiming—contrary to the Constitution—that he could make private decisions to go to war even if Congress opposed him. His mythic lies about Grenada (read her chapter for bitter laughter), “Iran-Contra,” the Contra War in Central America, and the extent of Soviet military power set the standard for national security lies.

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