Thursday, April 19, 2012

Review: Margulies on The Myth of Wartime

"The Myth of Wartime" is the focus of  Joseph Margulies' (Northwestern University) review of War Time on the Diplomatic History Listserv H-Diplo.  Margulies writes that the myth's "essential flaw" is that it "imagines that wartime is a fixed and recognizable period, that it is a statement of fact rather than a state of mind."  Even though
the case law includes a lot of throat-clearing about "winding down,"...people seem to think they know when the country is 'at war' and when it is not. Wartime is a condition that comes round now and again. We all know when it begins, when it ends, and where it happens, or so the story goes.
But for at least two generations in the United States, "wartime" has been nothing like what the myth imagines it to be, and grows less so as the seasons pass and the wars accumulate. In _Wartime: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences_, the legal historian Mary Dudziak has taken a closer look at the entire conceptual category. A slim and engaging volume, wonderfully written and carefully wrought, _Wartime _is a fascinating meditation on the perils of clinging to a myth of national identity that increasingly bears only a glancing resemblance to modern life. Particularly since the Cold War, "wartime" has been pretty near all the time. It is, as Dudziak writes, "not an exception to normal peacetime, but an enduring condition" (p. 4). And at least since President George W. Bush launched the "war on terror," it's also everywhere, unbounded not only in time (since no one knows what victory over an ideology looks like) but also in space (since ideologies have a way of taking root in the darnedest places).

Many writers have made a similar point and the concern that wartime initiatives will last beyond the emergency that summoned them forth is a familiar complaint. But Professor Dudziak, a professor of law, history, and political science at the University of Southern California, goes significantly beyond prior discussions by focusing our attention not on the risk of normalization, which is serious enough, but on the very idea that wartime remains an identifiable category, recognizably separate from whatever might be its opposite. The problem is not simply that we may come to accept roving wiretaps as part of the "normal" landscape of life (i.e., that we will tolerate them even when we are "at peace"), but that we will come to tolerate the idea that we are always "at war" and therefore eternally prepared to accept all manner of ostensibly exceptional measures because we cling to the myth that war is temporary and aberrational. The concern, in short, is that the myth to which we have grown so attached has outlasted its relevance to the American experience. It has decayed from myth (which has at least a passing resemblance to the truth), to fantasy (which is nothing more than truth as we would wish it). Though Professor Dudziak does not put things in precisely these terms, that is the implication of her account, and it is an exceptionally valuable insight.
Read the rest here.

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