Internal Refugees and the War System

My first remembered encounter with the notion of internal refugees was in a recent biography of the late Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter (Karl Rasmussen, Sviatoslav Richter, Pianist). It refers to people who live in a country who may even, in some sense, love that country, but who feel completely alienated from its politics and political system. They are de facto political refugees even though they are still living in their home country.

Richter was apolitical, at least as far as we know, even though his father was executed by the Soviet police in 1941 and some of his colleagues and friends were badly mistreated by the authorities. When Richter was finally allowed and encouraged to play in the West, Soviet authorities for some years provided him with a secret service “companion.” (His father’s name was “rehabilitated” in 1962, in the Khruschev years, but Richter did not find this gratifying given his father’s innocence and unjust death.) Quite a few Soviet musicians left the country and settled in the West, but Richter stayed on, focused intensely on music, and prospered in status and resources. But he, and even more so others who were openly intimidated and bereft of any political participation or rights, can be designated internal refugees.

What has struck me recently and forcibly is that the concept applies also, and possibly even widely, in the Free World. I myself feel like an internal refugee as it has become so clear that while I may vote and even march in protest—increasingly only in a “free speech” zone and under tear-gas/ taser-arrest threat—what I want in the way of policy hasn’t the remotest chance of realization. It isn’t as if most of the things I want are far-out and differ greatly from those of the majority. This is what has become so evident with the Obama presidency, which has made it clear that the permanent war system is unshakeable, that mass economic distress and huge inequalities cannot be properly addressed, and that, with the existing structure of power, even civil liberties are gradually eroding.

The Wall Street and other urban “occupations” reflect a widespread disillusionment and trend toward common internal refugee status. Tea Party contingents would also seem to manifest an internal refugee perspective, but many in that contingent were not dissatisfied with George W. Bush and would very possibly be happy enough with Cheney or Petraeus in charge, treating more roughly the citizens complaining about the wrong things.

Obama’s most notable successes have been in combating something labeled “terrorism” and placating the permanent war establishment. The “killing operation”—falsely alleged by Obama to have been a “fire fight”— that took out Bin Laden, was a matter of great pride to Obama. Both the mainstream media and Republicans (grudgingly) acknowledged that this was a “momentous achievement” (Bush). The Republicans and a few Democrats objected to his violation of the War Powers Act in going to war with Libya and spending the “modest” sum of $1.1 billion in this operation in face of cutbacks at home. But they quickly approved the money for this venture and the mainstream media and Republicans agreed that the outcome, including the killing and ouster of Gadaffi, was an Obama triumph. The law violations in the assassinations and military attacks, as usual, did not faze Obama or the U.S. and Western establishment one bit. They all understand that this country is above the law, busily doing “good” across the globe.

Obama may not have been able to do much toward reducing unemployment, home foreclosures, inequality, and the ordinary citizens’ widespread sense of insecurity, and he may be moving ahead to weaken “entitle- ments” for ordinary citizens, but he has made real advances in the perm- anent war system.

He reappointed Robert Gates and then Leon Panetta as Secretaries of Defense and  appointed General David Petraeus as head of the CIA—all men who were solidly protective of warriors and military contractors. They and Obama have done an exemplary job in fending off challenges to the military’s budget entitlements against the claims and needs of Obama’s mass base. Obama has extended and deepened the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, greatly enlarged the use of drones for use in war and to fight terror (i.e., terrorize) across the globe, and he has fought, and continues to fight, de facto wars in Yemen, Somalia, and Libya.

He has maintained a military presence in Iraq as far as possible and his well-publicized reluctant withdrawal of troops there was accompanied by a bolstering of the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, a “repositioning [that] could include new combat forces in Kuwait able to respond to a collapse of security in Iraq or a military confrontation with Iran” (Thom Shankar and Steven Lee Myers, “U.S. Is Planning Buildup in Gulf After Iraq Exit,” New York Times, October 20, 2011).

Obama has enlarged AFRICOM and advanced the U.S. military penetration into Africa. He regularly assails and threatens Iran and he continues the encircling and threatening of Russia and China, in part via the enlargement of NATO, missile defense improvements and placements, and base construction and training in countries adjacent to Russia like Roumania, Bulgaria, and Georgia (see the website Stop NATO). Obama has more and more become a “war president” and he apparently loves it.

On these fronts, Obama has had little domestic elite opposition and, with mainstream media help, the beleaguered public hardly knows that this is where bipartisanship reigns and where scarce resources are flowing. In one of the great books of the 20th century, The Theory of Business Enterprise, published in 1904, Thorstein Veblen argued that national policy in a business-dominated political economy must be consistent with business principles and ultimately serve business interests, with the result that when the going gets a bit rough: “Business interests urge an aggressive national policy…. The direct cultural value of a warlike business policy is unequivocal…. Warlike and patriotic preoccupations fortify the barbarian virtues of subordination and prescriptive authority…. At the same time, they direct the popular interest to other, nobler, institutionally less hazardous matters than the unequal distribution of wealth or of creature comforts…. In this direction, evidently, lies the hope of a corrective for ‘social unrest’ and similar disorders of civilized life.”

Veblen did acknowledge that, although broadly speaking, militarism and war policies were commonly entered upon for business ends, the business interests might sometimes have to give way to vested military and dynastic (that is, larger imperial and power projection) interests. These “may easily be carried so far as to sacrifice the profits of businessmen to the exigencies of the higher politics.” The military-industrial complex needs to work and wants to expand, and a vast structure of security personnel, intelligence agents and researchers, think-tanks, ideologues, and operatives and agents of aggressive allied and client powers push for the acceptance of larger global “security” objectives and more “humanitarian intervention.”

In the end Veblen was unsure of whether this regressive national policy of war, with its associated “popular submission and squalor,” would triumph over the growing importance of the machine process and its associated spirit of rationality; and we today must also be unsure of how far these aggressive-regressive forces will take us, how much more the number of internal refugees will grow, and whether rationality and decency can still somehow win the day.


Edward S. Herman is an economist, media critic, and author of numerous articles and books. His latest is The Politics of Genocide (with David Peterson).