Peace Is Still the Normal

Posted on November 6, 2011 at 3.59 pm

As we headed to war in the aftermath of September 11, I remember wondering how long the wars would last and when we would return to peace — to “normal.”

In my defense, I was very young at the time.

I offer a defense because arguably peace has never been the normal for the United States.  Depending on one’s opinion of how large a military conflict must be to properly call it a war — and whether or not smaller conflicts can still be considered a breach of the peace — peace has basically never happened since 1776.  Even if we only look at the larger conflicts which nearly everyone would accept as “wars” in a strict sense, it’s only in the latter half of the 19th century that we find more than two decades — a generation — of peace.

The Pax Americana is, to put it mildly, a bit of a misnomer.  Peace has never really been the norm in the United States.

Nonetheless, the easy acceptance of multiple, small, overlapping wars strikes me as something new.  Perhaps this is my youth talking again, but bear with me:

The long saga of invasion in Iraq is finally over — or at least has morphed into a low-profile, largely privatized new phase of nation-building.  In the real world, of course, the American empire is still very much involved in Iraq, but in the mind of the average citizen with more immediate things on their minds, this is one war we can check off the list.  Mission belatedly accomplished.

In Afghanistan, too, we’re told that American military combat will be coming to an end sooner than expected — the original deadline being set all the way in December 2014.  This may never actually occur, but the recent media buzz around the subject may certainly serve to allay some uninformed fears about an overly long engagement in Obama’s pet war.

In Libya, too, NATO has achieved “victory” — albeit victory which in no way precludes ongoing U.S. intervention.

But just as these wars ostensibly wind down, new wars are revving up to take their place.  There’s no lag time, no rebuilding in between:

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has made clear that there will be a new build-up of forces in Kuwait, maintaining a strong U.S. presence close to, if not technically in, Iraq.  The implication, mind you, is that if the Iraqis can’t quite handle themselves, the U.S. will be more than happy to help, darlings.  (It’s a plan strikingly reminiscent of the song of Rapunzel’s abductor/”mother” in Disney’s recent adaptation of the classic tale:  “Mother’s right here; Mother will protect you. Darling, here’s what I suggest:  Skip the drama, stay with mama…On your own, you won’t survive!”)

The Persian Gulf will also see a larger American military presence in anticipation of possible (likely?) war with Iran.

Troops have been sent into Uganda on what will ostensibly be a short mission, merely “months” in length.  But we’ve heard similar lines before, and the assistant secretary of defense’s refusal to give a specific timeline is perhaps telling.

We can’t forget Somalia, however, where there may not be a war per se, as “the United States is playing a less visible role, providing intelligence and training to fight militants across the continent.”  It’s a droning little project which may not be very visible in America, but I’m betting it’s pretty visible for those considering joining a terror network.

Neither can we forget Pakistan — again, not an official “war,” but certainly a theatre of kinetic military action.  Or Yemen, where American drone strikes also continue.

The concept of the interbellum period, in short, is apparently a thing of the past.  Perhaps this is because if they gave us time to catch our collective breath, somebody might object to heading back into battle?

Regardless, unless it is harnessed by antiwar activists to foment frustration and opposition among the public, having the background hum of multiple, small-scale wars as our new normal is a dangerous thing.  The Gospel of Luke gives an account in chapter 19 of Jesus lamenting as he enters Jerusalem that the people there will not be able to avoid violent conflict because they do not know “the ways of peace.”  With overlapping wars seamlessly blending into one larger stream of our endless War on Terror, we can all too easily forget the ways — even the very feeling — of peace.

Peace has never been the norm of American history, but we must maintain it as the norm of reality.  Despite its prevalence, it is war which is the aberration.  We wouldn’t accept having a cold as normal despite feeling sniffly for a really long time — no, we’d work to get back to full health.  War, it’s said, is the health of the state.  It is peace which is the health of the people.

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