U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Why ‘Wars’?

Andrew has written a great post on locating our particular historical moment in the constellation of the culture wars. As he knows, I am interested in how the narrative of the culture wars relates to other ways to organize historical narratives, such as how real wars shape the same period defined by the culture wars.

Recently the PEW Research Center published an intriguing poll about post-9/11 veterans, their views on the nation and the nation’s view of them. The authors entitled the article in which they presented this data, “War and Sacrifice in Post-9/11 Era.” There are some useful insights to glean from the data, but perhaps the upshot is this: vets and most Americans are proud of the service those in uniform have devoted and continue to devote to the nation; but many vets and even more Americans are very ambivalent about the wars the nation asked them to fight.
What I found most interesting about this general view was where vets and Americans lay blame for all the hardships and tragedies caused by wars that they seem to agree were not really worthy of such sacrifices. Vets and most non-military Americans polled pointed to the individual soldiers themselves. The individual is responsible for making a choice that brought he or she into wars without purpose. But at the same time, the fact that people in the military made sacrifices for wars not worthy of such sacrifice generated a great deal of admiration. The individual carries the nation while the nation forsakes the individual.
Even though the culture wars aren’t about people killing each other to protect their property or God, the rhetoric of the culture wars better exposes genuine conflicts than how we choose to speak about people actually killing each other over their property and their God.
Andrew’s post made me think yet again about how a parallel narrative of war-speak offers a way for Americans to imagine being united beneath a banner of sacrifice and devotion to the nation, while just close by, on another track, Americans battle over differences that polarize them to a point that calls into serious question why any ideal of unity would be worthy of grave sacrifice. It’s a curious moment.

17 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Raymond, I was going to put this comment on Andrew’s post, but I think it makes just as much sense to put it here. At least I hope it makes sense.

    I just finished Kazin’s biography of William Jennings Bryan. (A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan — New York: Anchor, 2006). It was a good read.

    In his introduction, as part of the now practically obligatory “full disclosure clause” that all historians include to explain their relationship to their subject, Kazin says, “I wrote this book, in part, to gain a measure of respect for Bryan and his people. I would like to help ‘rescue’ them from what E.P. Thompson, the great historian and activist, called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity'” (xviii). But Kazin’s rescue mission isn’t some altruistic gesture towards the poor misunderstood people of the past. It’s very practical: he is writing this biography in part to help the Left develop a sympathetic understanding of today’s version of “Bryan’s people.” Because without such an understanding, efforts to bring about change through the political process are doomed to fail.

    In his conclusion, Kazin doesn’t pull any punches: “The obvious problem for liberals is that most Americans don’t share their mistrust of public piety. Time and again, secular reformers defeat themselves by assuming that this difference doesn’t matter, that they can appeal solely to the economic self-interest of working-class Americans and ignore moral issues grounded in religious conviction. But more than 80 percent of Americans believe in a God and an afterlife. Like Bryan, millions derive their political views from their faith and prefer that others do the same” (303). He doesn’t call him out by name, but it seems to me that Kazin here is suggesting that Thomas Frank is asking the wrong question. The question is not, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” but “How can we reframe issues of economic justice in moral terms that will make sense to Kansans?” And the only way to do that is to really understand (today’s version of) “Bryanism.” (Let’s ignore for a moment that it would be good historical practice for me to establish some actual grounds for comparison/continuity between WJB and the Religious Right. Just let me gesture towards the idea and be done with it. I’m surly and mean as a snake right now.)

    Anyway, I don’t think Kazin is suggesting that the values espoused by the “liberals” — the left side of the ledger in the “culture wars” — ought to be abandoned. But winning the battle is pointless if you lose the war — and if you view the contest between these competing cultural and social visions of the good as a “war,” then you’ve already lost.

    Kazin’s final sentences are bracing and worth thinking about: “Bryan’s sincerity, warmth, and passion for a better world won the hearts of people who cared for no other public figure in his day. We should take their reasons seriously before we decide to mistrust them.” This strikes me as Kazin’s version of a Wilsonian diplomatic alternative to the “culture wars” model.

  2. Ray–Great post, you make some deeply ironic and important connections.

    LD–It just so happens, that one of the very first things I wrote for this blog back in 2007, when we were brand new, was a review of Kazin’s biography of WJ Bryan. As you will see, even though I hadn’t even begun to think about writing a book on the culture wars at that time, the culture wars framed my review. I’m not positive about this–my memory fails me–but perhaps writing this review helped me think I wanted to write a history of the culture wars.

  3. The bio of WJB is an especially interesting read after the 2008 election, not just because of the prominence of a (pseudo?) (neo?) populism, but also because of the attention given to Obama’s oratorical gifts and transcendent rhetoric.

    As Ray points out here, rhetoric isn’t just “rhetorical” — it is revelatory (indicative of what is at stake) and regulatory (governing / shaping the ways in which it is possible for people to conceptualize/frame the times in which they live). Framing those moments of contested meaning as “culture wars” says a lot about the frame-makers’ / users’ world, but it also makes it really difficult to see / account for what lies beyond/beneath/beside the frame.

    As far as oratory goes, it’s so interesting to me that the same election that saw this “retro” producerist/populist appeal also saw the emergence of a candidate whose oratorical gifts (purportedly) won over voters who on paper would not have agreed with his policies. But just as today’s agrarian/producerist populism is a faint echo of the real deal, I think Obama’s oratorical powers, noteworthy as they were during the election, probably wouldn’t hold a candle to WJB’s.

    That’s one of the things that I found most striking/interesting in Kazin: how much of someone’s character (in the language of pollsters: trustworthiness, likability, “someone I can relate to,” “shares my views”) is bound up in the aesthetics/acoustics of his voice? There are lots of reasons that Ron Paul is not electable, but even if he were 6’3″ with Rick Perry’s hair, Mitt Romney’s money, and Herman Cain’s Everyman appeal, I think his voice might be a bigger liability than his ideology.

    But to get back to Ray’s point here (which is also, of course, Daniel Rodgers’ point), our metaphors mark out the conceptual boundaries within which ideology is constructed.

  4. As always, thanks for the great comments and, Tim, for laying it out!

    It will not come as a surprise that I have been preparing to teach a course on the Progressive Era and wrote this post in the middle of those preparations. Clearly, that period strikes many of us as a moment when talking about what was necessary for the nation pushed millions of people to strike, to rally for reform, to speak out against “interests” and the denigration of the whatever promise American democracy contained following the Civil War.

    LD you make an interesting observation regarding rhetorical skills. I am struck again by Andrew’s point that OWS people are characterized by their dress and facial hair rather than by the fact that they have been literally echoing each others’ speeches and calls for weeks now. That kind of operation has an intriguing parallel to the ‘Amens’ shouted in mega-churches across the nation in which the faithful affirm (I don’t know that they echo) a preacher who seemingly has little time for the poor, the unemployed, and disenfranchised.

    Can I get another Amen?!

  5. Ray & Others,

    Related to paragraph three of this post, on the topic of sacrifices made, I’ve been wondering how long it would take before the veterans noticed–or started becoming bitter over—the lack of sacrifices asked of regular citizens, of non-military folks, during these wars.

    The blame here lies entirely, without doubt or question, at the feet of George W. Bush. He only asked us to be regular consumers—to pretend like the wars weren’t happening. And he gave us money back, via the tax check, to do it. Of course we’re making sacrifices right now, with cuts to education, the arts, social security, health care, medicare, parks—everything non-security state related. Bush 43 bought his (oil-blood) wars from “liberty around the world” on $#@*-ing credit card. And now he’s lounging at his damned ranch while while we pony up.

    …I’m sorry. I’m losing it a bit. It’s just that I would’ve rather planted a victory garden and rationed gas from 2001-2008 than have to push poor people out on the street now because of “necessary” austerity measures.

    – TL

  6. So much going on in this terrific post and interesting discussion! Thanks, Ray and everyone else!

    A few stray thoughts….

    1) I’m sorry to say that I haven’t read Kazin’s WJB book. But I am 100% sympathetic with the project of coming to a more sympathetic understanding of Bryan and his followers. However, I do have a fair bit of skepticism about whether that worthy historical project is the key to the success of a future American left. After all, Bryan’s success, even at the time, was severely circumscribed. Is he a more plausible focus of usable past longings than other multiple-time losing presidential nominees (nobody looks to Tom Dewey or Adlai Stevenson in this way). Even in the 1890s, Populism and its Bryanite Democratic successors failed to meet the challenge of McKinleyite Republicanism. And it is responding to the heirs of McKinley, not the heirs of Bryan, that is the biggest challenge for the left today.

    2) I’m surprised that William James’s name hasn’t yet come up in what amounts to a discussion of the moral equivalent of war. I do think that that Jamesian project hasn’t worked out (and Ray does a great job describing where we are instead). But is the problem that we haven’t done a good enough job finding the right moral equivalent of war, or is the search for a moral equivalent of war itself the problem?

    3) I am not particularly a fan of Carl Schmitt and his conception of politics. But if politics does not require an Enemy (in the Schmittian sense), I think a good case can be made that war does. And that James’s hope to create a moral equivalent of war without an enemy is thus unlikely to succeed. If you look at the many metaphoric wars and pseudo-wars that the US has fought over the last century, the most enduring such conflicts (the culture wars, the war on drugs, the war on terror, the cold war) have featured enemies–real or imagined–who can be hated, feared, and vilified. Contrast this to the less enduring war on poverty.

  7. About, WJ Bryan and Protestant populism/progressivism.

    I was always under the impression that white poor and working-class people becoming right-wing in their political views was a myth. That the big shift was actually white middle-class people (and many white working-class people became part of the middle-class) becoming overwhelmingly right-wing, especially in the mid-west and the south. Not only were they becoming more right-wing, but embracing Protestant Fundamentalism.

  8. Interesting question. A few things:

    1) What exactly do you mean by “right-wing in their political views”? The term “political views” is pretty broad, could embrace anything from capital-labor relations to foreign policy to federal v. state power to electoral politics at the local/state/national level — you name it. Does “right-wing” = “votes Republican,” or “isolationist” or “imperialist/interventionist” or “Biblical inerrantist” or “defender of Jim Crow”…?

    2) What time period are you talking about? During the Progressive era? During the Fundamentalist retrenchment of the 1920s and 30s? The Depression? Postwar years?

    As to whether poor whites and working-class whites really did become “right-wing” in their political views — some demographic statistics coupled with voting histories and pollster surveys could probably answer that question.

    Kazin lays out a pretty good case for the idea that the two strands of thought upon which Bryan drew — “Jefferson and Jesus,” the producerist agrarian populism of broad democracy and the moral convictions of evangelical Christianity — began to unravel from one another. He alludes to a subsequent divergence of directions, but that’s not the focus of his book. Still, I think it’s pretty clear from “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” et al that there is, in fact, a politically conservative voting bloc that draws heavily from the white poor and working class.

  9. Being a young girl, barely in the 6th grade, when George W. Bush declared our enemies in Middle East had attached and brought down the Twin Towers, the country backed and did not question him. As as junior high student, this seemed like the best course of action, since all the adults around me were in support of the war. (Around me I mean in a country-wide sense.) Now, over a decade later, the war is being fought by the same kids that watched the events on 9/11 take place on TV. My generation has had to take this war on their shoulders and continue the fight that has very little general public support.
    Obama reminded the country late last week that our soldiers would be coming home for Christmas. This is a double-edged sword for country that I believe most returning vets I know and fear. The soldiers are ready to come back home to their families and friends but what about a job? The tough economic times made many soldiers continue to re-enlist when their terms were up because finding a job had been a daunting task, with many who left service completely unsuccessful.
    Going back to the original blog thought, I do support those soldiers fighting over there because I certainly would not want to go over there and fight. However, it is impossible to support a war with no purpose and only a financial black-hole on our economy. President Bush got us into this business of trying to make the Middle-East a peaceful, democratic society, while ignorantly believing democracy can trump religion to a society full of fundamental believers. I am glad we will be exiting a war we should have never gotten into, but our country needs to find a jobs program that will put my generation of soldiers back to work when they get home.

  10. Thanks Samantha for responding to this blog. I think many historians see our present awakening as a familiar story. We once again need to ‘return home’ by moving away from wars that undermined American hope. I’d be curious to hear what you and your peers would like to see happen in regard to jobs and the economy. Do you follow the Occupy Wall St movement?

  11. Raymond,
    Today, I actually attended an Occupy Blono or Wall Street discussion panel. If you look to Andrew Hartman’s post of Occupy Wall Street, I wrote a rather large comment about the discussion I went to today and also a few personal thoughts. I have actually spoken with a few friends this week concerning Occupy Wall Street, and we all shared my view that its confusing and we have been unsure of what the movement is trying to really accomplish. Well after today panel, I think some of those questions have been answered. I hope you get a chance to read the comment and have thoughts about it.

  12. Well, as a history graduate student AND an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran I suppose I should preface my comment with the obligatory “here is my connection to the topic”. I often sit in classes that question the war, its morals, and the morality of the soldiers serving in it and refrain from commenting because I have obvious biases. However, being as this is a blog and I quite agree with many of the statements being made I will try and contribute my small measure here.
    I sometimes feel as though my role as an academic and my role as a veteran/soldier are dichotomous and pulling me in opposite directions. When placed in a position to try and objectively analyze U.S. involvement in Iraq, I find it difficult to justify (in Bush’s terms or any other political framework). However, the soldier in me, who fought, bled, lost and sacrificed, finds it difficult to come to grips with the possibility that it all may have been for naught. This is no new feeling as we quickly became aware “in country” that this war was…questionable, at least based on the justification given by President Bush. So, I (as I am sure other conscientious soldiers did) sought my own justification for why I was there, doing what I was doing.
    Now I realize that the traditional view of a soldier is “ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die”. In other words, soldiers follow orders regardless of why or what they are doing. This, at least in my experience, is utterly false. You see, for a soldier to fight hard and to their end if needs be, they have to really believe in what they are fighting for. Sure, a soldier can simply follow orders but without an internalization of the values they are a fighting for, they are no better than a conscripted body on the battlefield. But, if you give that soldier something to believe in, a purpose, they become a dangerous weapon and it doesn’t take an academic to figure out that of the two choices, the second is better for self-preservation and spiritual satisfaction.

    Brad Marcy

  13. So, I sought meaning in what I was doing in Baghdad. It did not take much searching to find it. For me, it wasn’t about oil or combating Al-Qaeda, or even 9-11. These things, it turned out were far removed from the situation on the ground in Baghdad. Rather, I found it on the faces of the Iraqis I encountered every day. In the stories they shared about the cruelty and malice perpetrated against them and their countrymen. The Ba’ath party regime had carried out such horrendous atrocities against their own people that my western-trained, democratically programed brain found it difficult to comprehend. The Kurds in the north, the Shi’ites in eastern Baghdad, the impoverished Shi’ites and Bedouins in the South, all bore the years of torment in their eyes, especially the children.
    I had found my reason to fight, my reason to bleed and sacrifice. Except, when given a cause you truly believe in, the sacrifice becomes something else, a sort of honor and a privilege. To this day, when I am asked why we went over there, or what we accomplished, I sometimes try and explain but I am sure my words do not do justice to the need for a cause, the search for it and the profound impact it has upon the soldier who finds it. So, for that reason I often shy away from trying to answer the question. The thing is, I am sure if you asked one hundred soldiers what their real reason for fighting was, and they answered honestly, you would get one hundred different responses. This is far from something you can quantify. As social scientists we can only hope to qualify this phenomenon but even then it is a difficult task.
    This returns me to the dichotomy of personas I discussed earlier. There is no doubting that my service has shaped me as a historian. I have tried to take what at first glance could seem contradicting aspects of my personality and make them work together. For instance, my main areas of focus in history are military history and genocidal studies. Specifically, where these two topics meet and the lines blur. My interest in this subject is a direct result of my experiences with the Kurds of northern Iraq whom were subjected to a genocidal agenda at the hands of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath party.
    Reading the posts in this thread has made me think about my role as a historian and a veteran and where that places me in the discussion of the War on Terrorism. On one hand, I would think I am highly qualified to speak on the war, its justification, and lasting implications. On the other hand, I fear that my personal schism on the war’s justification is far from academic and therefore, simply inadmissible as a professional opinion. It is, after all, just an old soldier’s sentimental rational for doing what he had to do.

    Brad Marcy

  14. Brad (if I may), your statement deserves much more of a response than I could attempt here. I have become increasingly interested in how the experience of troops in any war creates a points of transcendence for the nation that ostensibly supports them. I think there is a good deal of work to be done on the relationship between American troops and American constituents since World War II. My interest is in that disconnect or dichotomy that you identify in your statement above. What are the implications of it? What is revealed in it if we investigate it in some systematic and critical way? In a way, I wonder if we might find that your paradox is similar to a theological conundrum of knowing that the transcendent exists but not understanding how to relate to it effectively.

    I’d be interested in carrying on our conversation if you would email me at [email protected]. I hope to pitch a book on American Exceptionalism at home and abroad to a publisher fairly soon. I’d like to have people contribute to it who, as you say, are familiar with the dichotomy of war.

  15. Brad’s comment about each soldier fighting for an internal cause is something that we as historians must remember when we try to look at an event and dissect the motives for it. Not every person was against the Vietnam War, just as not every person was for hunting down the terrorists. Granted there was an outpouring of men and women enlisting in the armed forces to fight for their countries after the events of 9/11, however, there were just as many people who decided it was their duty to avoid war and look for other ways to a) seek revenge and b) help individuals elsewhere get the basic human rights.

    Personally, I do not feel that war is the answer. In our global economy, there should be ways for countries to come to compromises without the vast amount of devastation of both the population and the structure of the area. I can’t help but to remember watching Shock and Awe on the news and thinking about all of the innocent people who were just trying to go about their lives. I would hate to be forced to make decisions on who is the enemy and who is just going about their lives in a country and culture that I do not completely understand.

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