A Peaceful Nation at War for Twenty Years

On the June 23, 2011 episode of Newshour, Jim Lehrer interviewed then-outgoing and now-former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. The exchange was thoughtful and fairly candid. One segment of the interview especially stood out to me. In response to a question regarding Gates’ earlier statements that the U.S. military being exhausted, Gates answered:

[W]e have a lot of people in the military, and particularly in combat arms, who have been on repeated rotations. I run into people routinely who have had three, four, five, six rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they come home for a year, they’re deployed for a year. So the strain on them and on their families is – and while they’re home, they’re preparing to deploy again. And so there has been no real extended period of time – now, that’s beginning to improve with the drawdown of 100,000 troops in Iraq, but it will probably be this fall before most Army units get to one year deployed, two years at home. And it’s just the repetition of this over all these years in Iraq and Afghanistan that has – that has really taken a toll.

But it’s also true even of the Air Force and the Navy. For example, the Air Force has been at war since 1991, either Desert Storm or then enforcing the no-fly zone, and then Afghanistan, and then – and then Iraq in 2003. The Navy has been deployed – our – many of our aircraft carriers, which are supposed to deploy for six months at a time and six months at home, many of them now have eight-and-a-half-month rotations. So people are getting tired. (Emphasis added)

I know that since World War II, and perhaps earlier, not a decade has passed in which the U.S. has not engaged in a major military operation, but I found it staggering to hear that at least one branch of the U.S. military has been at war for twenty straight years. I remember a professor describing the U.S. as a nation that frequently goes to war and that initially did not seem right to me. In the U.S. we tend to tell ourselves that we are a peace-loving nation, who will use force at times, but only with extreme reluctance. When we look at our actual history, however, including the sobering statistics Gates cited, the narrative we tell about ourselves becomes more difficult to substantiate.

What does the fact that we are at a nearly constant state of war do to us as a people? Moreover, the military and their families may be fatigued, but what about the rest of the population, who, aside from a bit higher gas prices and being discomforted by news stories, do not bear the brunt of the costs and effects of war? The U.S. has been at war for nearly my entire life and I can barely think an example of how that fact has changed how I have lived. Are we as a populace more willing to support military action because we haven’t been all that affected by it? Are we more likely to send others to kill and be killed since we do not experience what that does to people? If Congress passed a law that said each military action also required a five percent sales tax hike nationally for the duration of the action, would we as a nation still be as willing to go to war?

Gates’ comments bring to mind two pieces of art. First, George Orwell’s novel 1984 with its perpetual war and the slogan, “War Is Peace.” I am concerned we have created for ourselves a reality in which we say the world is a dangerous place and the only way to keep the peace is to combat that danger so that being at war is actually being at peace. How else do we maintain our self-description that we are a peaceful nation while we send our military to fight so often? The second artwork is Eugene Jarecki’s 2005 documentary, Why We Fight, which explores the current state of the military-industrial complex, about which Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us in his final speech as U.S. President. When war becomes extremely profitable, there will be a greater demand to go to war, as former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson says in the film.

My concern is that by limiting the real costs of war to a relatively few people and families and by making war itself profitable to another small but influential group, we are shaping ourselves as a nation into a people who are generally ignorant or callous to the evil that war does. We make war that much easier to wage because so few of us are truly affected by it and others earn a lot of money from it. Since so few of us go to war or send our families off to war, we can maintain the narrative that we as a nation are a peaceful people. I am not a pacifist and believe that war may be at times the least evil option. (Many pacifists have very good arguments, in my opinion, and their thinking has influenced me.) As a Christian, however, I cannot imagine that human beings killing other human beings is truly God’s will for the humanity created in God’s image and for whom Jesus died to redeem. War, in my view, is always evil, but our world has been so broken by sin that restraining forcefully those willing to do worse evils may be necessary. We must pay attention to who we become when we do use force and repent, so that we can truly be a people who loves peace.