[The third in a series on some of the broader American Studies issues and stakes in the 2012 presidential election. As always, and doubly so with controversial topics like these, your takes are very welcome!]
On the stakes of 2012 for what might—or might not—be America’s next war.
I’ve written a good deal about war in this space, for obvious reasons: you can’t write about American history without addressing the many wars in which we’ve been involved, from the first conflicts between European arrivals and Native Americans through the latest wars in the Middle East. While every war is unique and complex, and demands its own attention and analyses, I would say that I’ve tried to consistently emphasize two interconnected ideas when it comes to all American (and really all) wars: that no matter the causes or reasons for a war, no matter how just or understandable it might be, war always produces horrors that come to define it for all involved; and that the most important thing we can do, when it comes to remembering the histories and stories of wars, is to do the fullest justice we can to those effects, on soldiers, on civilians, on communities, on nations.
If we’re able to remember and engage with those things, I believe there would be a number of positive results, but here want to highlight one for our political conversations and debates: such memories and engagement would make it very hard, if not impossible, for us to treat war as a political option, as one of many ways to resolve various world crises or problems. Certainly George W. Bush’s doctrine of preemptive war, as illustrated dramatically in his attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, is the most recent and striking example of this attitude toward war; but the truth is that many American wars, from the 19th century’s Mexican American and Spanish American Wars up through that most recent war in the Persian Gulf, have been similarly wars of choice, pursued (sometimes more covertly and under the context of “attacks” on America, to be sure, as was the case in the 19th century wars) by our government in an effort to gain territory, to resolve international difficulties, to influence other nations and relationships, and so on. Again, each situation has been specific and complex, but the fact remains that the United States has consistently treated war as a choice, an option to consider when confronted with various (and not immediately threatening, to be clear) problems.
You would think, perhaps, that the catastrophic failure of the most recent Iraq War would make it unlikely for us to treat war in this way again, at least so soon after that war’s horrors. But I believe you would be wrong, and that the very prominent and continuing drumbeat for war with Iran—led by many of the same neoconservatives who drove Bush’s foreign policy—exemplifies the presence and power of these same arguments in 2012. Moreover, Mitt Romney’s foreign policy advisors consist almost exclusively of such neoconservatives, as best illustrated by John Bolton, the former Bush Ambassador to the UN who has recently appeared in print advocating for a war with Syria (which, I assume, he thinks we could handle smoothly before moving on to Iran). There’s obviously no way to know for sure what our foreign policy future will include, nor whether President Obama will or would in a second term be able to resist various pressures pushing for conflict with Iran; but it seems clear that a vote for Mitt Romney represents, at the very least, a vote for a foreign policy team for whom preemptive, chosen war is an entirely valid, if not indeed often the first, option.
Next election and American issue tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
6/20 Memory Day nominee: Charles Chesnutt, author of (to my mind) the greatest and most significant American novel, among his many other complex and important, and far too unremembered, literary and historical works.