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Faculty and Scholarship

Keeping the peace, distancing ourselves from war

Emory University School of Law |

During the Civil War, the staggering death toll transformed the nation into a “veritable republic of suffering,” in the words of Frederick Law Olmsted. In her pathbreaking book that takes its title from those words, Drew Gilpin Faust writes that no American could escape an intimate association with that war’s death, injury, and destruction.

Fast forward. Today, President Barack Obama can make a decision to authorize a drone strike in Pakistan, and the American public is completely unaware. Even if people do learn of it, most don’t care.

How did we get from point A to point B? How did we go from a nation essentially defined by the experience of war to a nation in which the citizens have given up meaningful political control over the use of armed force?

That is the question Mary L. Dudziak is working to answer in her upcoming book, Going to War: An American History. She will use broad historical inquiry to answer how political restraints have atrophied over time, looking beyond the examination of the roles of Congress, the presidency, and the courts, which are the focus of most works. Instead, Dudziak sees three significant cultural and structural developments underlying the ever-increasing disconnect between Americans and the nation’s armed conflicts, including changes in the state, changes in the military, and changes in technology.

Important changes in the state, Dudziak argues, followed World War II. There was disagreement about how the government should be restructured to assume its new mantle of leader of the free world. Some members of the Truman administration, including the president himself, still thought in terms of distinct “wartimes” and “peacetimes,” says Dudziak, and so advocated working to get back on a peacetime footing. Others, however, contended that the Soviet Union was such a frightful and aggressive threat that we needed to be prepared militarily to take it on at any time in any place.

Then came the Korean War. “Once the North Koreans invaded South Korea, the debate was over,” says Dudziak. “It was resolved that the country needed to be perpetually ready for war, and in this political context you get the development of the National Security State.” NSC 68, an important national security assessment, called for ongoing global projection of military force. “Even the concept of peace became militarized, as presidents used peace as a justification for military engagements,” says Dudziak.

Another important development: the actual makeup of the military changed after the Vietnam War with the elimination of the draft.

“The Vietnam era was the last time when there was meaningful political pushback from the American people in the context of war,” says Dudziak. “Scholars argue the massive antiwar demonstrations affected Nixon’s military decisions toward the end of the war, and one way to avoid that is to eliminate the draft and go to an all-volunteer army.”

Over time, the percentage of American families touched by war shrank dramatically. In addition, many military functions were increasingly outsourced to private firms—everything from cooking and cleaning to interrogating prisoners. “With many military tasks now done by private contractors, the nation can project force with fewer and fewer soldiers,” says Dudziak.

Completing the troika of structural developments is change in technology. Across time, the distance between the shooter and the target has vastly expanded, so even soldiers themselves are somewhat distanced from war. Today’s weapons not only go much further, they are accompanied by a narrative of precision. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the American public was treated to television images following the visual display of laser-guided missiles, and military leaders argued that they took out only the bad guys and spared civilians.

“So war became more distant and more sanitized at the same time,” says Dudziak. “Together, these changes have meant that the percentage
of Americans deeply engaged with, or directly touched by war has become smaller and smaller.”

Americans undoubtedly welcome this distance from the death and destruction of war, but as a people we must consider how this impacts our military decisions. “This distance puts us in a situation where the government can decide to use force without input from or even awareness of the American people,” says Dudziak. “Meaningful political accountability in this context will be difficult, but accountability to the people is essential in a democracy.”

This story appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Emory Law Insights and can be read online, with an accompanying excerpt from "The Future as a Concept in National Security Law" (Pepperdine Law Review, forthcoming 2015).