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Citizens As Soldiers, Citizens As Prey


In what could be one of the final steps toward the permanent militarization of U.S. society, we all are being recruited as soldiers in the Bush administration’s unlimited war against endless enemies (also known as the “war on terrorism”).


Last December, highway workers were enlisted as “foot soldiers in the war on terrorism,” watching for suspicious people. This summer, truck drivers became “the latest soldiers in the war on terrorism” under a program to train them to watch for terrorist activity.


There’s nothing wrong, of course, with reporting information that could prevent attacks (though we should be nervous about how “suspicious” behavior can lead to harassment in a climate of fear). But there is a difference between being alert and being – even metaphorically – a soldier.


Respectfully, I must refuse orders to be a soldier and remain a citizen in a democracy.


The reason is simple: Soldiers follow orders given by commanders; citizens engage in discussions about what the policy should be. I won’t give up my right to be part of policy formation – even in a political process dominated by money and power – and simply accept policies determined by others. That’s not democracy but authoritarianism, coming not from the barrel of a gun but through propaganda from the tip of a speechwriter’s pen.


The President set the tone on Sept. 20, 2001, when he said, “You are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” a warning aimed at other nations, but which quickly became an instruction for Americans. The most extreme expression came on Dec. 6, when Attorney General John Ashcroft said critics “only aid terrorists” and “erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.” In his hypermilitarized formulation, words become bullets: Critics “give ammunition to America’s enemies.”


Even much of the so-called opposition party lined up behind this view, with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle voting for a war resolution he claimed he didn’t really like, so that America could “speak in one voice.”


But what if the one voice is the voice of madness? What if the war is not, as the President tells us, about protecting people from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, but is really about projecting power, in the service not of people but of corporations and a small privileged sector? (For a detailed critique of Bush’s motives and argument, see http://www.accuracy.org/bush/)


Armies march behind one voice of authority. Democracies rise to greatness on the many voices of the people. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it is at the moment when a nation ponders going to war that multiple voices – citizens engaging in debate – are most crucial, as lives hang in the balance.


Beyond the immediate question of a war to extend and deepen U.S. power in the Middle East (also known as the war on Iraq) lies the long-term question of what is routinely referred to as the American empire. The militarization of U.S. society in support of the empire is material, not simply metaphorical; this is a perpetual war that will require perpetual wartime funding. The administration’s National Security Strategy, released last month, talks of “a particularly elusive enemy” fought “over an extended period of time” in which we mark progress “through the persistent accumulation of successes – some seen, some unseen.”


In other words: The war is over when we say it’s over, and don’t ask about details.


As war becomes normalized, so do increased military budgets. We now spend almost $400 billion a year on the military, more than the next 25 nations combined. The strategy document outlines a vision not of a world of nations engaged in a search for coexistence but of one dominant nation issuing orders. Such an empire requires big guns and a public afraid to speak out. The powerful don’t care if we agree, as long as we don’t object.


Are we, as foot soldiers in Bush’s war, allowed to ask the hard questions? Or is our job to line up, shut up and pay the bills?


The answer matters, for the sake of our democracy and the safety of the world.


Robert Jensen ([email protected]) is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream.”

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