Peace Talks

How war disappeared from American campaign rhetoric.

BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

The 2012 election has certainly not felt like a contest carried out in a nation at war. Though 68,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan and the 2,000th American was recently killed in the decade-long conflict, President Barack Obama has largely relegated his promises of winding down the war to an afterthought in his stump speech. His rival, Mitt Romney, barely mentions the war at all. The U.S military pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011, but that has gotten far less play in the campaign than the killing of Osama bin Laden. And neither candidate discusses how or when the open-ended U.S. war on terror might finally come to an end.

Americans traditionally vote with their pocketbooks, but the extent to which war has been relegated to the political backburner is still striking. It’s possible that, in an era when war is carried out by a dwindling percentage of Americans — increasingly by remote control — in an undefined territory and without a clear end, Americans have simply accepted a permanent state of low-level war. Obama likes to talk about how he wants to do "nation-building at home, but perhaps the very idea of a peacetime presidency is a thing in the past.

In previous decades, elections have often hinged on questions of war and peace — with candidates pledging peace on the campaign trail as they plan for war. "He Kept Us Out of War," was a Woodrow Wilson campaign slogan in 1916, yet Wilson sought a declaration of war with Germany five months after the election, bringing the United States into World War I. Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned in 1940 on a commitment to keep the United States out of the war then raging in Europe. "Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars," he told voters as Election Day neared — even as American men were already being called up in a new draft, long before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

Lyndon Johnson, who would escalate American military involvement in Vietnam, campaigned in 1964 as a peacemaker. Portraying his Republican opponent as a dangerous warmonger, Johnson ran an infamous TV campaign ad showed a little girl pulling petals from a daisy and counting down to zero, until blotted out by the countdown to a nuclear explosion. Electing Republican Barry Goldwater, the ad suggested, was a sure path to Armageddon.

This year’s candidates have played their own version of this game. During the 2008 campaign, Obama promised to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He did bring formal U.S. involvement in Iraq to a close, and has a plan to gradually wind down the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan. But a war against al Qaeda — a war without an endpoint — continues to serve as a justification for military detention and targeted killings. Romney has urged greater defense spending, including more Navy ships, but made no mention of war and peace at the Republican National Convention, so that voters might well wonder what conflicts an expanded naval fleet is meant to be fighting.

But as viewers of the third presidential debate — the one devoted to foreign policy and national security — couldn’t help but notice, the two candidates largely seemed on the same page when it came to withdrawal from Afghanistan, combating terrorism, and staring down Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The contrast to the fireworks that erupted over arguments on health care and the deficit was striking.

It was different in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, when Americans were so deeply engaged with questions of war and peace that it affected the course of the campaign. Criticism of the war undermined Johnson’s presidency, leading to his decision not to seek reelection. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey won the nomination over antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy, but the Democratic National Convention dissolved into chaos as antiwar demonstrators clashed with police in Chicago. The Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, promised "peace with honor" in his successful campaign, though he would go on to intensify the air war, including secretly expanding the bombing campaign to Laos and Cambodia.

But Nixon’s more consequential political decision may have been calling for an end to the draft. In so doing, he set the stage for the eventual disappearance of war from the domestic political scene. The all-volunteer armed forces, coupled with increased reliance on military contractors, meant that, over time, fewer American families had direct ties to the armed forces. The United States continued deployments around the world, but young Americans were not vulnerable to being drafted to fight.

Once American families were less directly affected, American war — always conducted in other lands — did not require widespread personal sacrifice. War could be an ideological matter. Or it could simply be ignored. After 9/11, Americans were not asked to sacrifice for the war effort, but to continue business as usual. Many complained about intrusive airport screening, but this inconvenience, of course, could hardly compare with an earlier generation’s draft board screening. Soldiers and military contractors were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq, but for more than 99 percent of the country, war is now experienced on television or online, if at all.

Wartime is traditionally thought of as a temporal state. Because peacetime is supposed to follow war, wartime is, by definition, temporary. But a war on terrorism, a war against a group or a tactic, has never fit very well with the traditional concept of wartime. The boundaries around war dissolve further as U.S. military action expands to Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries America is not "at war" with. Meanwhile, war becomes simultaneously more personal and impersonal. The president himself makes decisions about which individuals should be on the kill list for drone strikes, and the killing is accomplished by remote-controlled drone.

Wartime and peacetime on the homefront have been transformed from temporal states to geographical divisions. It feels like peacetime in most American suburbs, but not in towns like Fayetteville, North Carolina — home to Fort Bragg. Deployed soldiers and their families bear the cost of U.S. military action. But the vast majority of the American voters who will determine this election seem to be living in peacetime.

The absence of wartime from the political scene enables the sort of election campaign we’ve had this year. Volunteer members of the armed forces continue to fight overseas, but the election turns on the economy. With the voters disengaged from American military policy, their representatives in Congress lack the incentive to act as a check on the war powers.

It turns out, then, that peacetime in American politics doesn’t lead to peacetime policies. It enables American presidents of both parties to engage in a war without end.

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