Paul Joseph, Are Americans Becoming More Peaceful?

Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2007.


Reviewed by

Alexander D. Barder


 Paul Joseph readily acknowledges in his preface that the argument embodied in the title, Are Americans Becoming More Peaceful?, seems a paradoxical questionto pose today. In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th the United States started two major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It remains in both areas, fighting intractable insurgencies while a  conflict with Iran over its nuclear program simmers away. In response to September 11, the Bush administration championed preventive or preemptive war in Iraq. It also arrogated for itself the right to confront and forestall any rising power that might challenge the US preeminence. Moreover, the global war on terror is defined in such broad terms as to appear perpetual in nature and boundless in scope. As Joseph notes, the US went to war with Iraq with an overall 70% of the public behind the president’s decision. The antiwar movements in the US seemed modest compared to the massive outpouring in Europe in early 2003. In London well over a million people demonstrated on 16 February 2003 against Tony Blair’s support for Bush’s move to invade Iraq. Only after four years and with over thirty-five hundred American dead and anywhere between 50,000 to 650,000 Iraqi dead, the American public’s support appears to have waned.   

Joseph is not dealing with the question of whether the American government is becoming more peaceful. That would be daft. He is interested, rather, in demonstrating that a majority of the Americans are trending towards an aversion, if not outright hostility, toward war as a policy option, especially as a gratuitous one. Joseph divides the opposition to war among the American people into two groups. Type I, comprising 15-20% of the population, rejects war on principle and prefers diplomatic solutions. They believe in the value and necessity of international organizations such as the United Nations Security Council for the use of force, the legitimacy of international norms and the international criminal court, and desire reductions in nuclear weapons and the arms trade. Within this group  one finds the more militant antiwar activists who lead the effort to organize, protest and petition the government for a change in policies centered on force.

Those comprising Type II, approximately 50-60% of the public, do not reject war for idealistic reasons, as do those in Type I. Their main concern lies in the costs of war in terms of (their) lives and economics. They are less inclined to support war as a tool of foreign policy, yet are likely to consent to humanitarian interventions, as in the cases of Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Aside from Type I and II, only 25-30% of the public consistently supports policies that favor war as an instrument of statecraft. Whether out of loyalty, patriotic duty or managed perception, they believe that the United States can only remain safe through military might against “evildoers”, and so lends its support regardless of costs. As Joseph argues, even at the height of the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War and when the majority of the public opposed the war, a persistent third not only wanted to continue the war but even endorsed escalation. Indeed, even today with the war in Iraq going badly and a majority of the public wanting to pull out, there appears to be the same intractable fraction supporting the war.

The obvious problem is that though a significant majority of the population might be against war either in principle or out of self-interest, this stance has not translated itself in an attenuation of the use of force. The sociology of militarism, the recruitment and training of class of warriors, and the cultural celebration through film or television of the role of the military within society have all played an important part in the legitimizing force.  Joseph argues nonetheless that a structural change in the form of warfare since the Second World War influences public attitudes in negative ways toward militarization and, consequently, translates into a growing antiwar constituency, even if it is not always apparent ion the streets.

Joseph divides war into two categories, mobilized and conditional. A mobilized war connotes a heightened militarization to the point that the war absorbs all civilian, economic and social relations within its scope. World War Two exemplifies this experience of total war and the mass mobilization of society. The public accepts the necessity of casualties and accompanying high costs as a matter of national survival against an enemy constructed as the incarnation of evil. By contrast, a conditional war is one where militarization is relatively small-scale, the threat less obvious or mortal, and the demands on the citizenry less burdensome. The enemy is no longer construed as the citizenry of the opposing nation, but as particular leaders or “outlaw” regimes. Under such conditions, the public appetite for war becomes restrained and can easily shift to outright rejection. Given the 24-hour news cycle, and media mages circulating the globe in a flash, the public can have unprecedented audio-visual proximity to the battlefield (except when governments do not permit them to see it). As Joseph writes, “At key moments, either through modified coverage by mainstream media or via independent sources that are increasingly able to distribute visuals across the Internet, a more critical message comes through.” (26)

Public opinion then becomes an important concern for the government to deal with if it needs to sustain a conditional war. Thus the bulk of Joseph’s text is an examination of ways in which government tries to manage the public’s response to war. Through propagation of fear and the control of the information, policy-makers have the ability to set the terms of the debate. The message out of the White House from mid-2002 to the March 2003 invasion tirelessly conflated Iraq with terrorism and with weapons of mass destruction and thus created an impression of threat.

Even as the war in Iraq progressively got worse, the administration’s rhetoric was so persistent that there remains a belief among many Americans, even after it was conclusively shown that Saddam Hussein was not in possession of weapons of mass destruction and had no relationship to speak of with Al-Qaeda, that the administrations claims were true. Joseph shows all this clearly and demonstrates the lengths to which the White House has gone to manage the news media and the journalists reporting by putting pressures on those that refuse to conform. Still, if the public were truculent and unquestioningly obedient, there would be no need for this massive apparatus of propaganda.

Because of self-censorship there are rarely television scenes showing the gruesome effects of war on soldiers or civilians that one more easily can find on Arabic channels such as Al-Jazeera. The importance of imagery cannot be underestimated for its effects on policy, Joseph arguies. The images of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib did an incalculable amount of damage to American legitimacy. If the American public turned so dramatically against the Iraq war it is in part because of a fundamental disconnect between the daily reporting of violence coming from Iraq versus the rhetoric of success from the White House, which ultimately created a deep cynicism – a ‘credibility gap,’ to tap a 60s expression.

Joseph’s final chapter attempts to demonstrate the material consequences of a public preference for “peace” on the ability of the state to make war. Because, according to Joseph, a majority of the American public sides with the “dovish” view of international relations: “War as an acceptable policy is thus in a state of limbo.” (234) Contemporary war managers have four means of subverting or at least neutering this opposition: One is the so-called ‘Revolution in Military Affairs,’ the technological capacity of precision guided munitions to avoid casualties. This resort, however, has largely proven to be a chimera in both Iraq and Afghanistan. A second way is the use of special operation soldiers as a way of increasing deployment mobility and adaptability to on-site circumstances.  A third means is the use of third party proxies as was seen in Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance. Fourth, a greater emphasis is placed on subcontracting to private military companies such as DynCorp and Blackwater for logistics, training and security. Given all of these Machiavellian options, along with the albeit imperfect ability of the American government to manage the perceptions of the public, Joseph acknowledges that even if the majority of the American public is peace-oriented that this “are not equivalent to the political will to embrace an explicit peace program.” (237 my emphasis)

Therein lies a major problem with Joseph’s argument. The idea that a citizenry dislike the costs of war and is inclined toward peace is nothing new. Immanuel Kant argued as much in his Perpetual Peace (1795): “if the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide that war should be declared (and in this constitution it cannot but be the case), nothing is more natural than that they would be very cautious in commencing such a poor game, decreeing for themselves all the calamities of war.”  The real problem is that the people simply cannot decide such matters. A majority of the British opposed the invasion of Iraq, but that did not stop Blair. The essence of sovereignty, Carl Schmitt reminds us, is the ability to make a decision during exceptional circumstances in order to protect the state against internal or external political enemies. In a nutshell, the peaceful views of the American people cannot be actualized into a peaceful political program to mitigate, let alone abolish war, because that implies the end of the state and the end of international politics as such – or it does, at least, if Schmitt has uttered a timeless and inescapable truth. Perhaps. Perhaps not.