Obama’s error: Getting beyond the ‘smart war’ syndrome

Contrary to the president’s assumptions, the only smart war is the one you don’t fight.

President Obama Attends Ceremony Marking Return Of U.S. Forces From Iraq
Obama has cited the Civil War and World War II as wars of which he approved [Getty Images]

“I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” – Barack Obama, October 2, 2002

On October 2, 2002, Barack Obama spoke at an anti-war rally and delivered the speech that made him president. It was a unique event in US history – an anti-war speech that made the speaker president. And the speaker didn’t even hold national office at the time.

In the near term, that speech set Obama apart from all other candidates for the US Senate. But fast forward six years, and it seemed to clearly herald an end to eight long years in which the Democratic Party had repeatedly acquiesed in policies that the party base knew, in its gut, to be utterly disastrous as well as morally wrong.

Five years on, Obama’s crucial speech seems quite different, once again. In retrospect, we can clearly see that Obama was remarkably safe, balanced and conventional in the views he expressed. Washington had gone temporarily mad at the time, so his speech was a far cry from what passed for safe, balanced and conventional there. But Obama had a far better sense of the long-term balance of historical American concerns, which he knew well.

He showed that by telling the crowd right away that he was not opposed to all wars. With his customary rhetorical flourishes, he cited the Civil War and World War II as wars of which he approved. “The Civil War was one of the bloodiest in history, and yet it was only through the crucible of the sword, the sacrifice of multitudes, that we could begin to perfect this union, and drive the scourge of slavery from our soil,” he said. Obama said of his grandfather who fought in World War II, “He fought in the name of a larger freedom, part of that arsenal of democracy that triumphed over evil, and he did not fight in vain”.

Can wars be ‘good’?

The Civil War and World War II have long been regarded as the United States’ archetypal “good wars”, so Obama was on very safe ground aligning himself with them. But it’s fair to ask whether either of them was actually “good” in light of how much human suffering and acts of barbarism they entailed. Necessary, perhaps, compared to a greater evil? That would be a more plausible argument. But good?

Hubris in concluding one war almost inevitably sows the seeds of another.

Author Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war, housed in a slaughterhouse in Dresden when that ancient city was bombed by the Allies in 1944. The horror was so intense that decades later he represented it in terms of dislocation in time in his classic Slaughterhouse-Five, one of the signature novels of the 1960s, demolishing the myth of World War II as anything remotely smart or good, however necessary it might have been. Historian Howard Zinn was a World War II bombadier who flew scores of missions like the ones that incinerated Dresden. It was only after the war that he reflected on what he had done, and came to reject the very idea of a “good war”. How can a war that required moral men to become mass murderers be a good war?

Yet, clearly, that is what Obama implied that day in 2002. He never clearly said, “these wars were not just necessary, but good”. But that is how they are commonly seen, and his brief recounting of them conformed to convention. He could have drawn a vital, profoundly illuminating – if disturbing – distinction. But, tellingly, he did not.

To the contrary, he went one step further when he said, “I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.” By saying he opposed dumb wars, he implicitly marked both the Civil War and World War II as “smart”, or at the very least “not dumb”.

‘Smart wars’

But were the Civil War and World War II actually “smart”? Is any war smart? Or is avoiding war the only really smart thing to do? World War II was anything but inevitable. Its causes may have been many, but without the humiliating terms of the Versailles Treaty, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to see how Hitler could have come to power. The folly here verged on the axiomatic: Hubris in concluding one war almost inevitably sows the seeds of another.

The American Civil War might seem to be a more difficult case. Within the framework of American history, it seems difficult indeed to envision how it might have been avoided. There is a strain of neo-Confederate revisionism that claims that slavery was on the way out of its own accord, and that the war was entirely unnecessary. But the actual history of slavery’s expansion – one of the contributing factors that led to the war – easily shows that this is pure fantasy. Not only had slaveholders overturned the Missouri Compromise, to open up Western territories for new slave states, they had also begun plotting expansion into Latin America – and even, under William Walker, briefly ruled the country of Nicaragua. So the idea that slavery was a dying institution is historically a lie.

Yet if one steps outside the framework of American history, the Civil War seems far less inevitable. Britain abolished slavery with no such similar armed conflagration. Throughout Latin America, slavery was abolished without nation-sundering wars. Violence was certainly part of the story. The imposition of slavery requires violence, so it’s hardly surprising it should persist, and play a role in its demise. But civil wars were simply not endemic in the process of eliminating legalised slavery in the modern world. The US was the exception, not the rule. And because it was the exception, there is every reason to think that its own exceptional situation was responsible for the Civil War – and for making it seem “inevitable”.

The US had several opportunities to turn against slavery long before the Civil War, beginning even before the country was born. What could make more sense than renouncing slavery in the midst of a war waged in the name of freedom?

Missed opportunities

The US had several opportunities to turn against slavery long before the Civil War, beginning even before the country was born. The Revolutionary War would have been a good place to start. What could make more sense than renouncing slavery in the midst of a war waged in the name of freedom? What could be more perplexing than the United States’ actual Revolutionary War, immortalised by words such as “Give me liberty or give me death!” from the likes of slaveholder Patrick Henry? Henry was no fringe outlier. The revolution was formally justified in the Declaration of Independence, authored by another slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.

How can anyone read these words today and square them with the fact that Jefferson himself owned slaves? Jefferson knew full well that there was nothing divine about enslaving another people.

History cannot be undone, but we can learn from it. If it was historically impossible for Jefferson and his colleagues to face up to the contradictions at the heart of their professed beliefs, we today can see – as they could not – just how costly in blood and treasure their self-deception was, and thus how precious and worthy simple honesty would have been. And seeing that, we can imagine our descendents looking back on us 200 years hence, apalled and horrified by the simple truths that we deny, making future wars, and other suffering “inevitable”, so that future silver-tongued politicians will further misrepresent them as both “smart” and “good”.

Is it historically impossible for us to do that? We can pretend it is. But we cannot pretend it is either wise or just or even inevitable. We do have the choice: pretend to be who we say we are, or set pretence aside, and once and for all live up to the promise we have always made, but never quite managed to keep.

So, perhaps we do have to do something about Syria’s chemical weapons. Perhaps we should have ended slavery in the United States in 1776. If we asked our descendents in 2213, what would they tell us that means today?


Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer, senior editor for Random Lengths News, where he’s worked since 2002. He’s also written for Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, LA Weekly and Denver Post. In 2000/2001, he was a principal editor/writer at Indymedia LA. He was a front-page blogger at Open Left from 2007 to 2011.


Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg