Sunday, May 8, 2011

Causes of US Wars

Reasons to Kill: A conversation with Richard E. Rubenstein
Written by The Editorial Cell   
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Q. In REASONS TO KILL, you study the arguments that pro-war advocates have made throughout American history as we’ve mobilized for war. What reoccurring themes did you find in our rhetorical and philosophical strategies?
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RR. This book is not about the factors that motivate elites to make war. Elites have many reasons to fight, including economic interests, geopolitical ambitions, and domestic political motives. The basic question I ask is: What convinces ordinary Americans to send their kinfolk, friends, and countrymen to kill other people and risk their own bodies and minds in battle? The overall answer, I find, is that we are persuaded to fight by appeals to widely shared and deeply held moral values – values associated with what some call our civil religion. The most common themes are these:
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* Self-defense. We have a moral right and duty to defend the nation against unjustified attacks. The problem is that we have vastly expanded the definition of self-defense. The “self” we feel justified in defending is not just America’s soil and people but U.S. troops, intelligence agents, civilian employees, private contractors, and allied forces around the globe. Equating this imperial apparatus with American proper creates what I call “imperial circularity” and generates an endlessly expanding war.
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* Evil enemies. We have a moral duty to destroy diabolical leaders who commit atrocities against their own people, threaten their neighbors, and seek world domination. The problem is that we often label adversaries absolutely evil when they are not really satanic and can be dealt with in ways short of total war. To justify U.S. participation in World War I, we converted Kaiser Wilhelm II into the “Beast of Berlin,” and to justify attacking Iraq we diabolized Saddam Hussein. Sometimes we label a whole people evil, which can lead to violence on a horrific scale.
* Humanitarian interventions and moral crusades. We have a special mission to secure the values of democracy, human rights, civil order, and moral decency around the world, by military means if necessary. The problem is that the U.S. is a superpower with its own interests and cultural biases, not a disinterested liberator of the oppressed. More often than not, as in the case of the Spanish-American War, we end up acting exactly like the tyrants and aggressors we oppose.
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* Patriotic duty. We earned our freedom by fighting for it. When Uncle Sam asks us to fight, even die, for our nation, we should be prepared to do so. The problem is that patriotism has never meant killing and dying on command. Generations of American patriots have demanded that the government justify war by showing that there is a real threat to the nation and that violence is needed to counter it. What I call communal patriotism creates a special problem by excluding anti-war dissenters from the American community.
* National honor. If we don’t demonstrate that we are willing to fight, we will lose face and credibility, bad people will take advantage of us, and we will become a humiliated second-rate nation. For the same reason, once we have committed the nation to a war, we cannot retreat or withdraw without dishonor. The problem is that this is not a moral doctrine; it is an insecure cowboy machismo posing as morality. Most American wars since the end of World War have ended in something short of victory, and most should not have been fought at all.
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* No peaceful alternative. Negotiations to avert war have failed, or they would be fruitless, since the enemy cannot be trusted to keep its word. The only alternative to war is therefore dishonorable appeasement. The problems are that the U.S. refuses to negotiate in good faith as much as any other nation, and that, even where it is attempted, negotiation falls short of conflict resolution. Without serious attempts at conflict resolution – that is, ending violence by eliminating its underlying causes – war is never a last resort.
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You note the United States has the most bellicose record of all modern nations and in REASONS TO KILL are most curious about why people follow. Can you tell us a bit about your ideas here?


Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War

By Richard E. Rubenstein

What makes Americans fight? Why do the professed first citizen of the free world so often accept armed conflict as a political measure, and how do we justify those choices to ourselves? When is war the right decision?
From the American Revolution to the end of World War II, the United States spent nineteen years at war against other nations. But since1950, the total is twenty-two years and counting. On four occasions, U.S. presidents elected as "peace candidates" have gone on to lead the nation into ferocious armed conflicts. Repeatedly, wars deemed necessary when they began have been seen in retrospect as avoidable and ill-advised.
Americans profess to be a peace-loving people and one wary of "foreign entanglements." Yet we have been drawn into wars in distant lands from Vietnam to Afghanistan. We cherish our middle-class comforts and our children. Yet we send our troops to Fallujah and Mogadishu. How is it that ordinary Americans with the most to lose are so easily convinced to follow hawkish leaders-of both parties-into war? In Reasons to Kill noted scholar Richard E. Rubenstein explores both the rhetoric that sells war to the public and the underlying cultural and social factors that make it so effective. With unmatched historical perspective and insightful commentary, Rubenstein offers citizens new ways to think for themselves about crucial issues of war and peace.

New blog post from Rich.

Advance Praise for Reasons to Kill:
“Many of us long for an intelligent and informed conversation about America’s role in the world. Are we going the way of all empires, or is there another way? Richard E. Rubenstein has provided a sane and probing contribution to that conversation. In a time of faux-populism and jingoistic patriotism, it is encouraging to read a critical analysis of our attitude to war and violence from a writer who deeply loves his country.”—Alan Jones, dean emeritus, Grace Cathedral and author of Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality and Reimagining Christianity: Reconnect Your Spirit without Disconnecting your Mind.

Reviews and media for Reasons to Kill:
Here’s Richard’s Guest blog post for the Washington Post’s Political Bookworm
Feisty essay in The Chronicle Review this week that includes Reasons To Kill
Great post on Juan Williams' website
“A lively, contrarian view of history—fruitful reading for peaceniks and warfighters alike.” —Kirkus Reviews
Nice early excerpt in Alternet – 5 Ways We Should Radically Reconsider War
Watch a Video with Richard.

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