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[casi] Suppose You Wanted to Have a Permanent War

Suppose You Wanted to Have a Permanent War

by Robert Higgs*

I’ll concede that having a permanent war might seem an odd thing to want,
but let’s put aside the “why” question for the time being, accepting that
you wouldn’t want it unless you stood to gain something important from it.
If, however, for reasons you found adequate, you did want to have a
permanent war, what would you need in order to make such a policy viable in
a democratic society such as the United States?

First, you would need that society to have a dominant ideology--a widely
shared belief system about social and political relations--within which
having a permanent war seems to be a desirable policy, given the ideology‘s
own content and the pertinent facts accepted by its adherents. Something
like American jingo-patriotism cum anti-communism might turn the trick. It
worked pretty well during the nearly half century of the Cold War. The
beauty of anti-communism as a covering ideology was that it could serve to
justify a wide variety of politically expedient actions both here and
abroad. The Commies, you’ll recall, were everywhere: not just in Moscow and
Sevastopol, but maybe in Minneapolis and San Francisco. We had to stay
alert; we could never let down our guard, anywhere.

Second, you would need periodic crises, because without them the public
becomes complaisant, unafraid, and hence unwilling to bear the heavy burdens
that they must bear if the government is to carry on a permanent war. As
Senator Arthur Vandenberg told Harry Truman in 1947 at the outset of the
Cold War, gaining public support for a perpetual global campaign requires
that the government “scare hell out of the American people.” Each crisis
piques the people’s insecurities and renders them once again disposed to pay
the designated price, whether it takes the form of their treasure, their
liberties, or their young men’s blood. Something like the (alleged) missile
gap, the (alleged) Gulf of Tonkin attacks on U.S. naval vessels, or the
(actual!) hostage-taking at the U.S. embassy in Tehran will do nicely, at
least for a while. Crises by their very nature eventually recede, and new
ones must come along--or be made to come along--to serve the current need.

Third, you would need some politically powerful groups whose members stand
to gain substantially from a permanent war in terms of achieving their
urgent personal and group objectives. Call me crass, but I’ve noticed that
few people will stay engaged for long unless there‘s “something in it for

During the Cold War, the conglomeration of personally interested parties
consisted of those who form the military-industrial-congressional complex
(MICC). The generals and admirals thrived by commanding a large armed force
sustained by a lavish budget. The big defense contractors enjoyed ample
returns at minimal risk (because they could expect that should they screw up
too royally, a bailout would be forthcoming). Members of Congress who
belonged to the military oversight and appropriations committees could
parlay their positions into campaign contributions and various sorts of
income in kind. Presiding over the entire complex, of course, the president,
his National Security Council, and their many subordinates, advisers,
consultants, and hangers-on enjoyed the political advantages associated with
control of a great nation’s diplomatic and military affairs--not to speak of
the sheer joy that certain people get from wielding or influencing great
power. No conspiracy here, of course, just a lot of people fitting into
their niches, doing well while proclaiming that they were doing good (recall
the ideology and the crisis elements). All seeking only to serve the common
public interest. Absolutely.

The foregoing observations have been widely accepted by several generations
of students of the Cold War. Yet, now, you may protest, the Cold War is
over, the USSR nonexistent, the menace of communism kaput. Under post-Cold
War conditions, how can we have a permanent war? Well, all we need to do is
to replace the missing piece.

If the ideology of anti-communism can no longer serve to justify a permanent
war, let us put in its place the overarching rationale of a “war on
terrorism.” In fact, this substitution of what President George W. Bush
repeatedly calls “a new kind of war” amounts to an improvement for the
leading actors, because whereas the Cold War could not be sustained once the
USSR had imploded and international communism had toppled into the dust bin
of history, a war on terrorism, with all its associated benefits, can go on
forever. After all, so long as the president says that he has intelligence
information to the effect that “they” are still out there conspiring to kill
us all, who are we to dispute that the threat exists and must be met? The
smoke had scarcely cleared at Ground Zero when vice-president Dick Cheney
declared on October 19, 2001, that the war on terrorism “may never end. It’s
the new normalcy.”

Just as during the Cold War hardly any American ever laid eyes on an
honest-to-God Commie, although nearly everybody believed that the Commies
were lurking far and wide, so now we may all suppose that anyone, anywhere
might be a lethal terrorist in possession of a suitcase nuke or a jug of
anthrax spores. Indeed, current airport-security measures are premised on
precisely such a belief--otherwise it makes no sense to strip-search grandma
at Dulles International.

Potential terrorists are “out there,” no doubt, in the wonderful world of
Islam, an arc that stretches from Morocco across North Africa, the Middle
East, and Southwest Asia to Malaysia, and on through Indonesia to Mindanao,
not to mention London, Amsterdam, and Hamburg. And that‘s good, because it
means that U.S. leaders must bring the entire outside world into compliance
with their stipulated rules of engagement for the war on terrorism. It‘s a
fine thing to dominate the world, an even finer thing to do so righteously.

Better yet, the potential omnipresence of the terrorists justifies U.S.
leaders in their efforts to supercharge the surveillance-and-police state
here at home, with the USA PATRIOT Act, the revival of the FBI’s COINTELPRO
activities, and all the rest. Adios Bill of Rights. The merest babe
understands that these new powers will be turned to other political purposes
that have nothing whatever to do with terrorism. Indeed, they have been
already. As the New York Times reported on May 5, 2003, “the Justice
Department has begun using its expanded counterterrorism powers to seize
millions of dollars from foreign banks that do business in the United
 States” and “most of the seizures have involved fraud and money-laundering
investigations unrelated to terrorism.”

The war-on-terrorism rationale has proved congenial to the American public,
who have swallowed bogus government assurances that the so-called war is
making them more secure. Much of this acceptance springs, no doubt, from the
shock that many Americans experienced when the terrorist attacks of
September 11 proved so devastating. Ever alert, the president’s national
security adviser Condoleeza Rice asked the National Security Council
immediately afterward “to think seriously about ‘how do you capitalize on
these opportunities’ to fundamentally change American doctrine and the shape
of the world in the wake of September 11.” The president’s most powerful and
influential subordinates--Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and their
coterie--then set in motion a series of actions (and a flood of
disinformation) to seize the day, measures that culminated in the military
invasion and conquest first of Afghanistan and then of Iraq, among many
other things. Public opinion polls continue to show exceptionally high
approval ratings for “the job the president is doing,” so at the White House
everyone is merry indeed.

Likewise, the military component of the MICC has entered into fat city.
During the fiscal year 2000, before George Bush had taken office, Department
of Defense outlays amounted to $281 billion. Just four years later, assuming
 that Congress gives the president what he has requested for fiscal year
2004, the department’s budget will be at least $399 billion--an increase of
42 percent. No wonder the generals and admirals are dancing in the corridors
at the Pentagon: all this loot and wartime citations and promotions to boot!

The flush times for the officer corps have spilled over handsomely onto the
big arms contractors, whose share prices have been bucking the trend of the
continuing stock-market meltdown nicely during the past couple years. With
only a single exception, all the major weapons systems have survived funding
threats, and their manufacturers can look forward to decades of well-paid
repose as they supply models B, C, D, and so forth, as well as all the
remunerative maintenance and repairs, operational training, software
upgrades, and related goods and services for their Cold War-type weaponry in
search of an suitable enemy. In the immortal words of Boeing vice-president
Harry Stonecipher, “the purse is now open.” As the Wall Street Journal
reported, “The antiterror campaign is making for some remarkably flush times
for the military, and the need for hard choices on weapons systems has all
but evaporated.”

Congress savors this situation, too. In the current circumstances, the
members can more easily use spending on guns to grease their own reelection
skids. “In a bipartisan voice,” reported the New York Times, “lawmakers on
Capitol Hill are telling the Pentagon that they want to increase spending on
conventional big-ticket weapons programs, particularly warships and plans.”
Moreover, many members continue to maneuver to stop or delay base closures
that might save the Pentagon billions of dollars in expenses that even the
generals regard as pointless.

Amid the all-around rejoicing, however, the power elite appreciate that
nearly two years have elapsed since September 11, 2001, and the public’s
panic has begun to subside. That won’t do. Accordingly, on June 9 the
government released a report that there is a “high probability” of an
al-Qaida attack with a weapon of mass destruction in the next two years. If
no such attach should eventuate, of course, then the authorities will have
to release another such terrifying report at the appropriate time. Got to
keep people on their toes--“vigilant,” as the Homeland Security czar likes
to say.

So there you have it: the war on terrorism--the new permanent war--is a
winner. The president loves it. The military brass loves it. The bigwigs at
Boeing and Lockheed love it. Members of Congress love it. The public loves
it. We all love it.

Except, perhaps, that odd citizen who wonders whether, all things
considered, having a permanent war is truly a good idea for the beleaguered
U.S. economy and for the liberties of the American people.


*Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent
Institute and its Center on Peace & Liberty and editor of its scholarly
quarterly journal, The Independent Review. He is also the author of Crisis
and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government and
the editor of Arms, Politics and the Economy: Historical and Contemporary
Perspectives. For further articles and studies, see the War on Terrorism.

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