Tom Englehardt is a persistent and perceptive critic of the war state. He closely monitors its operation and vigilantly critiques its rationalizations. His well-informed insights pierce the stupor of U.S. militarism.
So what does Englehardt mean when he writes about “Washington’s Walking Dead”?
He means: “when it comes to innovative responses to problems, our political system seems particularly airless right now”; “there are only two operative words in twenty-first-century Washington: more and war”; constant “chatter” about “security, safety, intelligence, and war” reveal why the nation’s capital is a “dead zone in terms of new ideas or ways of acting in our world.”
A lack of political imagination is discernible in the stale language of American empire. Facile and prosaic discourse signals a condition of decline in the curve of history.
Kenneth Burke (Attitudes Toward History, 3rd edition, pp. 225-226, 229) called this downward turn the “bureaucratization of the imaginative,” his comically cumbersome name for “the process of dying.” Being imaginative “suggests pliancy, liquidity, the vernal,” something fresh, new, lively, or youthful. Conversely, bureaucratization is characterized by systemization and marked by euphemisms and evasive abstractions. It extends and institutionalizes a single possibility to the exclusion of all others.
“An imaginative possibility is bureaucratized when it is embodied in the realities of a social texture, in all the complexity of language and habits, in the property relationships, the methods of government, production and distribution, and in the development of rituals that re-enforce the same emphasis.”
This singularity of emphasis is a numbing experience. It ultimately produces alienation and other unintended consequences, even though “the dispossessed struggle hard and long to remain loyal” to the “reigning symbols of authority.” Identifying the incongruities of bureaucratized language, Burke observed, is a healthy reminder that “dead metaphors of abstract thought are metaphors nonetheless.”
Englehardt points out incongruity and oversight in the prosaic language of empire. The national security state just keeps expanding: “more money, more infrastructure, more private contractors, more surveillance, more weaponry, and more war,” but “no solution to anything.” Nothing ever decreases, lessens, shrinks, moderates, lowers, diminishes, or reduces. “More tax dollars consumed, more intrusions in our lives, the further militarization of the country, the dispatching of some part of the U.S. military to yet another country, the enshrining of war or war-like actions as the option of choice—this, by now, is a way of life” with no “thinking outside the box.”
Four key words—security, safety, intelligence, and war—leave peace “missing in action.” National security and American safety from terrorism are favorite terms to justify the war state’s intrusions in citizens’ lives, restraints on democratic practices, and acts of kidnapping, torture, assassination, destruction of evidence, and perjury with impunity. All of this even though the risk of an American being killed by a terrorist is one in 3.5 million compared to the one-in-8,000 risk of dying in a traffic accident.
It just isn’t possible to live in total safety and security. Even worse, the expenditure of trillions of dollars on defense has increased rather than reduced terrorism, grown the national security state, and perpetuated warfare. The national security state must gather intelligence to survive, but gathering information requires secrecy. There is never enough of it, whether it is useful or not. So more intelligence agencies are created to gather information legally or otherwise. All of this adds up to “bureaucratic expansion, secret wars, global kill lists, and other activities . . . largely beyond challenge.”
Eternal wartime, Englehardt notes, is a state of mind that excludes peace from the lexicon of political realism. Peace, like the dismantling of the global empire of U.S. military bases, is “beyond consideration, discussion, or thought.” We just keep talking security, safety, intelligence, and war, even in the face of failure and disaster.
Such incongruities, once brought to our attention, should be cause for fresh thinking and a broader perspective. Myopia narrows perspective, diminishes discernment, and reduces foresight. Imagination expands perspective, stirs creativity, and fosters resourceful problem solving. Verbal atom cracking, as Burke calls the process of deriving perspective out of incongruities, helps us to recover the metaphorical quality of an airless discourse, which is an initial step toward overcoming collective insensibility to systemic militarism.