The Editorial Board of the New York Times hit the nail on the head of the North Korean missile crisis in its editorial of February 1, 2018, “Playing with Fire and Fury on North Korea.” After reviewing recent developments that suggest Trump is inclined to risk what is likely to be a devastating war with North Korea, the Board ends its editorial with perspectival flourish:
The United States has been at war continuously since the attacks of Sept. 11 and now has just over 240,000 active-duty and reserve troops in at least 172 countries and territories. Enough.
Indeed, one wonders if there can ever be enough in an ongoing sixteen-year-old forever war spanning the globe.
In mindset, material appetite, and fighting capacity, imperial America is thoroughly militarized. After taking stock of the wide array of US military forces, the nation’s growing indifference to continuous warfare, and the establishment’s assumption that the war on terrorism is “a permanent struggle against a permanent threat,” the Board’s earlier editorial of November 22, 2017, entitled “America’s Forever War,” concluded ominously that “the larger question involves the American public and how many new military adventures, if any, it is prepared to tolerate.”
Why do I say ominously? As Thorsten Veblen observed 100 years ago, the public’s tolerance for war is sustained by patriotic animus, even though the wars in which the commoner fights and dies serve the interest of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. At best, such animus is a difficult habit to break.
Patriotic animus—that high-pitched spirit of national pride that peaks in wartime—is the deadly version of the mindset of sports, which is to prevail over a rival. It makes us rabid fans of the game of war. It is the sentiment that serves as a fragmented nation’s nearly singular bond of solidarity. With little effort, a warmonger sets off a militant “USA, USA” chant.
But there is more to the mix that makes the public unlikely to resist further military adventures in what has become a chronic condition of permanent war. War is normal and its consequences are remote.
I was born days before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and grew up on heroic stories of World War II, which was considered a long war in its day. My father fought in World War II and again in the Korean “conflict,” which was perceived as interminable in its day. I reached draft age at the early stages of America’s war in Vietnam. Yes, the draft still made the general public (minus the rich and powerful) subject to military service.
The US war in Vietnam went on so long that eventually the public protested. But that war was short compared to the current length of our forever war on terrorism (terrorism being an expansive synonym for enemy). And there is no longer a draft to unsettle the public at large. Moreover, the US fights its wars abroad—over there—which means we are accustomed to war-fighting without suffering much, if any, damage at home. An occasional terrorist act against the homeland—or even a rumor thereof—is enough to keep us fired up for a war that is prosecuted elsewhere, anywhere but on US soil.
War is normal, and it is remote. We are psychically numb in our collective mindset toward war. We are detached from the impact of our military incursions on other people, and we cannot take seriously that a confrontation with North Korea could actually result in a nuclear attack on the US. It is all too abstract.
Psychic numbing plus patriotic animus equals the transformation of deadly warfare into a mere blood sport like football. We, the public on whom support for ongoing military adventures depends, are reduced to fandom.