Monday, May 28, 2012

For Memorial Day: Toni Morrison's Home

On Memorial Day we are encouraged to remember those who have given their lives for the country through their military service.  Toni Morrison's new novel Home follows one soldier's homecoming.  It is a sobering mediation on the limits of our ability to understand.  My take appears today on the Oxford University Press blog.  I can't fully cross-post, but here's the beginning:
Toni Morrison’s new novel Home about a Korean War veteran’s struggles after the war might seem perfectly suited to an impending cultural turn. The close of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq and an anticipated draw-down of American troops in Afghanistan, might signal the end of a war era and a renewed focus on what we now call the homeland. Perhaps we can turn to Morrison’s beautiful and brief narrative to understand the journeys of our generation’s soldiers as they, like Frank Money (the protagonist), try to find their way home.

The message of this novel is sobering. Whatever home might be for Frank, it is not a place where war is absent, as he brings Korea along with him as he travels. If peace is thought of as an absence of war, it is a state that Morrison’s character is unable to experience. War memories, psychological injury, and loss have become a part of him, so that his wartime and peacetime selves have become one. His army jacket and dog tags are outward signs of an inner melding. Home for this soldier/citizen cannot be a place apart. And so a central theme in the novel is the kind of space home can be for a broken veteran like Frank.
 Continue reading here.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Moyn on Endless War

Sam Moyn begins a thoughtful review of War Time on Lawfare not with the book but with the Jack Goldsmith's appearance on The Daily Show.  Discussing Goldsmith’s new book Power and Constraint, Jon Stewart raised the concern that the president “has extraordinary powers in an endless war.”  Goldsmith agreed that he does.  “But Stewart failed to challenge Goldsmith's premise of ‘endless war,’” Moyn writes.
Some vigorously insist that the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists offers clear boundaries to our war, at least as to who the enemy is.  But it is not as obvious that it imposes serious chronological (or for that matter geographical) limits. Goldsmith, far from using "endless war" as a throwaway line, incorporates it in the title of his book's preface. The main value of Dudziak's War Time is that comes much closer to mounting the challenge to interminable hostilities.
The project of my book is first and foremost to problematize the way wartime is understood, and to illustrate that, like other forms of temporal thinking, our understanding of wartime is a product of culture, and not a stable “fact” in the world.  The contemporary consequences of this conceptual problem is captured by Moyn:
legal scholars, liberal and conservative, have mainly spent their time since 9/11 continuing, and indeed amplifying, the Cold War mistake of thinking within the culturally constructed frame of a chronologically bounded understanding of war.  Insistence on this frame, and failure to see its constructed qualities, prompts an obsession with "civil liberties in wartime." But the "civil liberties in wartime" argument depends upon a social construction of "wartime" that in fact fit World War I and II much better than either the Cold War or today's "endless war" in the first place.
But Moyn asks: “I wonder, however, if the civil libertarian strategy came about because of ill-fitting conceptual categories or, instead, a failure to challenge geopolitical realities. Was the error of our time conceding a wartime frame, or conceding an open-ended struggle on which to impose it?”  Moyn presses both me and my critics to address the problem of ongoing warfare more directly.  In response to Goldsmith’s claim that our system has worked post-9/11, Moyn suggests that perhaps “the system crashed in the Cold War; it is to our great and lasting moral discredit that matters were never put right after it.”  Seeking deeper engagement of the moral problem of ongoing war, Moyn suggests that “one might take the repeated ceremonial endings [of combat] Dudziak singles out, for example, to imply widespread nostalgia for the very chronological confinement to war Americans long ago gave up.”

From my perspective, Moyn accomplishes three crucial things in this review.  First, he highlights a crucial transformative moment in American politics, and urges that we study it more deeply.  Although there has been on-going U.S. military engagement since at least the Civil War, it was during the Cold War, in the context of shifts in the U.S. role in geopolitics and the domestic political reaction, that American political leaders argued that American military power projected around the world was the only way to keep the nation safe.  This put the nation on a trajectory that we have not stepped back from, and that others have argued has become entrenched in American political culture.  From that point on the infrastructure of endless war was created.  And from that point on, politicians might argue against particular uses of force by presidents, while at the same time supporting continued military build-up if it brought jobs and resources to their districts. 

Second, Moyn insists that the morality of endless war be placed more clearly on the table.  Moyn himself illuminates the importance of critically exploring both morality and its uses as a political rhetoric in his own fine work.

Third, and especially helpful from my perspective, he places people who don’t usually speak to each other, and their ideas, in conversation in an important way.  The liberal/conservative back-and-forth about war, rights and presidential power has become predictable and even tiresome, so that it fails to illuminate underlying cultural, political and global dynamics that produce the conceptual environment within which our leading conservative and liberal scholars argue with each other.  It will help us to get beyond that impasse, I believe, by turning more seriously to other disciplines where war is treated not as a stable fact in the world, but as a complex and changing phenomenon requiring the tools of political scientists, anthropologists, historians and others to more fully understand.

Cross-posted on Balkinization.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Military-Civilian Disconnect? on Cleveland Public Radio, May 24

I'll participate in a discussion of  A Military-Civilian Disconnect?  on The Sound of Ideas, Cleveland Public Radio, Thursday, May 24, from 9-10 a.m.
America is still at war. You might not know that as people go about their workdays, shop at the big box retailer and spend weekends catching a ball game. A small, professional military is deployed in Afghanistan. Their families live it. For most civilians, though, it's a distant concern - out of sight, out of mind. As we approach Memorial Day, let's talk on the Sound of Ideas about the growing disconnect between those who serve and the rest of us. Thursday at 9:00 a.m.
You can listen live here.  If you'd like to call in or email a question, the program contact info is here.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Review in The Nation

"What should we make of wartime that has the appearance of peacetime?" asks Peter Maas, author of Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, in a review of War Time in The Nation.  Maas reported on the war in Iraq.  He found the carnage there to be "almost the least shocking experience of my journeys between war in the Mideast and my home in New York City."  In the United States, 
while Americans killed and got killed in Iraq, Americans back home shopped at Walmart and watched reality television....Outside the tight-knit community of military families who cared so deeply about the wars, nearly everyone in America went about his or her life as though Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t matter much. Nor had Americans been asked to change their way of life. It had become possible, I realized, for a nation to be at war without suffering the inconveniences associated with war—including the inconvenience of thinking about it.
Continue reading here.