The news of the recent study estimating that more than 650,000 have died in Iraq, as well as the process-related revelations in the Bob Woodward book State of Denial and the latest spike in American casualties in Iraq, have had me thinking for a few days that our system has made it much, much too easy for the United States to go to war. What should be the most momentous decision a nation can make has become just a bit more involved, for the president, than any other routine function of executive-branch governance.
As I see it, there are three main aspects to this:
- The elimination of the draft
- The concentration of foreign policy authority and use of force in the executive branch, and
- A cultural ethos that both glorifies and oversimplifies the use of violence to solve problems.
The end of the draft and the switch to an all-volunteer army might be the biggest factor. Absent a draft, Americans don't find themselves in battle unless they choose to be there. This means that the pro-war voices in the media can advocate "strong measures" with no fear of finding themselves or their loved ones on the front line (and, as has been shown repeatedly by the right-wing "chickenhawk" bloggers, shame doesn't work on them); by contrast, the opponents don't have the added motivation of worrying about the same. My read of the early Vietnam era (I wasn't alive) was that until the abolition of the draft, the fear millions had of being forced either to fight, go to prison as draft resisters, or flee the country spurred anti-war mobilization beyond what it otherwise might have been.
The end of the draft has had a second effect: we no longer really fight wars as a representative sample of the country. Compared to the general population, the military is much less white, somewhat less educated, and much poorer. It could be reasonably argued that the U.S. armed forces are an economic advancement program as much as anything else. IMO, this isn't intrinsically a good or bad thing--but it does mean that families and communities can go through a war with much less personally at stake than when everyone knew somebody who was in harm's way.
I can think of exactly one person I know who served in Iraq--the younger brother of a close friend. This guy was a Stanford graduate who worked at a foreign-policy think tank in DC; he left that a bit more than a year ago to join the Marines, and chose to forego officer training; he enlisted as a grunt. He wasn't for the war, but he felt that his patriotism compelled him to serve. (He's first-generation Indian-American; he was born here, but my friend, his older sister, was born in India.) Thankfully, he came home unharmed a couple weeks ago, after eight months of house-to-house patrolling in Baghdad. I admire the hell out of what he did--but I wouldn't have done it, and I don't think I know anyone else who would have; his decision was clearly exceptional.
The second aspect is how power has shifted within our government. Congress can only "vote to authorize the use of force"--which offers them the out, since taken by so many Democrats, that they didn't themselves choose to go to war. Worse, though, that vote now has a political calculus that any politician with a self-preservation instinct can't ignore. The 2002 vote on Iraq (296 to 133 in the House; 77 to 23 in the Senate) wasn't nearly as close as the 1991 vote (250-183; 52-47)--though, by any reasonable analysis, the substantive case in 1991 was far stronger with Saddam Hussein's forces actually in Kuwait.
A handful of pols in very left-leaning districts can safely cast a "no" vote; another, smaller handful of exceptional leaders like the late Sen. Paul Wellstone might vote their conscience and then find a way to forcefully and successfully defend their positions. But most can't or won't. The way to fix this, I think, is to force them to actually declare war--but I don't think we've done this formally since 1941! The Founders did not place the war-fighting power with the Congress by accident; the idea, as I understand it, was to spread the responsibility collectively as they could, with the people's representatives making the fateful decision.
Of course, giving this power back to the people's representatives would mean making the entire defense intelligence apparatus accountable to Congress, rather than just to the president. Considering that presidents of both parties have concentrated all this power in the executive, barring a (IMO salutary) Constitutional crisis, that's unlikely to happen anytime soon.
The final point is the cultural aspect. Our heroes are fighters: generals, not diplomats, get parades and seven-figure book deals and movies made of their accomplishments. When they succeed, they do so quickly. It's a cliche, but an accurate one, to say that we're an instant-gratification society; the speed of things colors our perception of those things. I think half the public frustration with Iraq is that it's gone on for as long as it has. In this sense, the occasional criticisms of people like McCain and Santorum that the president has mismanaged the public handling of this war have some merit; no question, Bush did not prepare the people for a long slog. But I don't think he could have, and I'm not sure that any leader now alive could have. We don't really do long slogs--which is why diplomacy, which is almost by definition an indefinite process with endless contingencies and adjustments, is so quickly dismissed.