AUMF 2001 and the Militarization of the American Mind

This article mostly chronicles good news, but one sentence in it deserves to be memorialized and savored for expressing the nonsensical essence of American foreign policy in 32 economical words.

“Unlike declarations of a major conflict like World War II, authorizations for use of force are typically intended for limited use for a specific mission or region like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.”

How does one manage to get so much wrong with such brevity? For one thing, it’s not clear whether the author is trying to make a statement of fact, or trying to describe Congress’s idiosyncratic understanding of its war powers. It might have helped to clarify.

Either way, we get nonsense asserted as fact, whether in the author’s voice or as the ventriloquist’s dummy for Congress:

  1. The topic of discussion is war, but apparently the word itself is to be avoided. Wars become “conflicts” and “uses of force.”
  2. A war four years in duration (World War II) is contrasted with more “limited” uses of force decades in duration (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq). How is a twenty-year war more “limited” than one four years long?
  3. Wars with chameleon-like rationalizations (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq) suddenly have “specific missions.” How did the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq have more specific missions than World War II? How is “defeating terrorism” more specific than “defeating fascism”?
  4. Countries become “regions.” Since when have Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq become “regions”?
  5. One war leading to another in the same region (Afghanistan leading to Iraq in the Near East) becomes two separate wars in two different regions (Afghanistan and Iraq, conceived independently of one another). The sentence somehow overlooks the fact that Afghanistan led to Iraq as part of the “Global War on Terror.”
  6. Wars that cross national boundaries are described as though they were contained or constrained by those boundaries. But even if we focus on Vietnam in abstraction from the rest of the Cold War, or Afghanistan and Iraq in abstraction from the Global War on Terror, US military forces crossed national borders in all three of these cases. In none of them was US military involvement limited to the national boundaries of a single nation. Re Vietnam: recall the bombing of Cambodia, the use of troops from South Korea or, for that matter, France’s early involvement in the war, before Dien Bien Phu. Re Afghanistan: recall the pressing issues of Pakistani and Central Asian support for the Taliban, as well as the US military response to them, including the use of drones in Pakistan, and the much-celebrated assassination of Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad, well inside Pakistan. Re Iraq: recall the connection between the Iraq War and US military strategy vis-a-vis Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Israel. The lesson here would appear to be that governments have a greater allegiance to open borders when they fight wars than when they’re at peace. What’s both surprising and depressing is that journalists should suffer from the sort of amnesia that helps governments get away with it.

If a picture can paint a thousand words, I suppose a sentence can express a thousand absurdities–while concealing that they are absurdities.

It’s often said that truth is the first casualty of war. I prefer to say that war’s first casualty is cognition, with truth as its immediate successor. I remember being surprised at my own reaction to my first, very cursory taste of an event that had a warlike aspect to it: an Israeli military attack on Abu Dis, the Palestinian town in which I lived during the summer of 2016. The attack took place in the evening, and lasted hours into the night. I heard it loud and clear, and could (mostly) see it from the windows and balcony of my ninth-floor apartment. But after a few hours, the constant thudding of stun grenades did not, as I’d expected, keep me awake through the night; it lulled me to sleep, so that I had to fight to stay awake to witness the rest of the attack. Friends woke me up for it; I might otherwise have slept through the latter part of it, including the part that took place on the street directly in front of my building.

It sounds fanciful, but I think Americans have, by a similar process, been shell-shocked into a kind of collective coma by the decades of war fought in their name, for their “freedom.” As the thud of nearby stun grenades put me to sleep, the more muted thud of bad news and militarized propaganda has narcotized American public opinion. Like the characters in 1984, subjected to a perpetual drone of news about Oceania’s latest war with Eurasia and/or Eastasia, we now reflexively expect to be at war–in wars too distant to engage our attentions, but involving (supposed) threats too proximate to downplay or ignore.* We’re expected to live with the resulting paradox, never noticing that it is one, and that paradoxes of this kind require resolution. Unfortunately, no kind friend is going to wake us up from our collective stupor. Either we wake ourselves up, or we drift into the moral equivalent of eternal sleep.


*Parenthetical “supposed” added after posting.

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