Book Review - A Time For War, A Time For Peace

December 21, 2016

Review of Mary L. Dudziak, War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences (Oxford University Press, 2012), 221pgs, appendix, notes, index. $16.95.

 

Historian's have long divided American history into epochs marked by the start and end of wars. We study the American Civil War in a way that cleanly divides antebellum and post-antebellum America. We package the 1920s and 1930s as the "interwar years" as a kind of purgatory where we await the impending approach of World War II. The postwar years describe everything after the Second World War even though numerous limited wars took place throughout the remaining 20th century. And, of course, the Cold War encapsulates much of the postwar years, but abruptly ends in 1991. 

 

Mary Dudziak's splendid little book, War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences, makes it clear that numerous splendid little wars should keep us from dividing American history between periods of wartime and peacetime. Historians, she writes, have long observed war as a suspension of time marked by a beginning and an end, if not as a historical actor itself. From here, she advances four counterarguments to challenge this conventional wisdom.

 

First, she argues that "war is not an exception to normal peacetime, but instead an enduring condition." Initially, war time allowed for Americans to sacrifice parts of their lives in dedication to the country's wartime needs. War bonds, Victory Gardens, food preservation, and even Daylight Savings Time helped to conserve the country's energy and resources so that excess goods could be diverted to the warfront. The clean divide between the start of war and the end of war also indicated to the citizenry that such sacrifice would eventually come to an end. It is much easier to eliminate eggs from your diet if you know that soon you can have your favorite breakfast again. The same applied to the increase in federal powers. Citizens were once more willing to sacrifice individual rights and liberties to the state knowing that peacetime would once again restore the balance between security and liberty. But this divide between wartime and peacetime, she writes, is a false dichotomy. American history cleanly divides time between World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and the War on Terror. We widely recognize the time between these wars as "peacetime." However, as she uniquely notes, physical objects of the past and present suggest an alternative narrative where the country is continuously at war. Military campaign medals, for example, reveal that the United States waged war throughout most of the 20th century with little to no peacetime at all. "It is only through forgetting the small wars," she notes, "that so much of American history is remembered as peacetime." This misremembrance prevents us from seeing the 20th century as a prolonged era of conflict. 

 

Building upon this first argument, Dudziak next writes that the pervasiveness of war should prevent historians from trying to separate our past into periods of war and peace. Can we contain the American role in World War II between 1941 and 1945? How might this range change knowing that Roosevelt and the Congress passed legislation to aid the Allied effort prior to 1941? Furthermore, V-E and V-J day may have occurred in 1945, but the cessation of certain hostilities didn't end until 1946. Even so, Truman declared that, "as a legal matter," the war with Germany ended only in 1951, even though American armed forces would continue to occupy the country. A peace treaty with Japan only went into effect in 1952. As you can see, it's rather difficult to label an end to World War II. The author's point isn't to be pedantic about timelines, but to further suggest that war time often outlasts the war itself. Peace time is, therefore, a false construct. Meanwhile, citizens rushed to the courts in defense of their civil liberties as the Executive Branch further limited their rights in defense of security. In trying to contain war to a predetermined timeframe, we miss the impact that military conflict has on both security and law inside and outside of war time. 

 

Similarly, she argues that historians have long struggled to contain the Cold War and the War on Terror into neat timeframes based on the models of "old-fashioned, time-limited" war times. As such, we tend to justify limits on rights and liberties by explaining these restrictions as necessary in the fight against communist aggression. The Cold War transformed the way American's conceived of war; not as an offensive battle designed to overtake the enemy, but instead as an ongoing stage of defensive measures meant to preserve the American way of life. Recognizing that the postwar era was not an era of peace, but of constant limited wars in distant countries, allows us to better explain the arrival of McCarthyism as a consequence of war itself (as opposed to a byproduct of domestic political strife). Therefore, she writes, the greatest consequence of constant conflict was the diminution of the New Deal state and the rise of the national security state immediately after 1945. 

 

Finally, Dudziak argues that ongoing war since the Korean War has led the government to encourage the American public to support engagement of foreign enemies despite each war's minimal impact on everyday life at home. Americans fought its first "hot war" of the Cold War in Korea. The government found itself in a position of needing to sell the public on this "limited war" given its abstract goals: prevent the expansion of communism in Asia. The same applied to the War on Terror after 9/11. President George W. Bush sold the public on an abstract war in which the country would engage foreign enemies not within a particular country, but against those who held a particular ideology. Many categorized the entire Muslim religion as "evil" just as President Ronald Reagan once categorized the Soviet Union as the "evil empire." It's much easier to justify conflict if there is a clearly defined enemy to fight. Bush also broke with previous attacks on the United States by labelling the 9/11 attacks as an "act of war." With these two declarations, government officials ushered the United States into a new era of war time. The United States witnessed a dramatic and unprecedented restriction on constitutional rights and civil liberties as the president and Congress passed the AUMF and the PATRIOT Act, authorized the use of torture, and opened foreign prisons (GITMO) that existed outside of the purview of America's legal system. The pervasiveness of war and its abstract qualities allow Americans to live in a period of wartime without at all noticing that we are not at peace. "Military engagement no longer seemed to require the support of the American people," Dudziak writes, "but instead their inattention." 

 

The ease with which readers can digest the information in this book will surely create a dialogue about the consequences of never ending wartime. I read this book in its entirety in one sitting. It's provocative as much as it is compelling. She covers everything from diplomacy, war, politics, memory, culture, intellectual history, and much more as she examines the theories of wartime and analyzes its presence during World War II, the Cold War, and the War on Terror.

 

The biggest takeaway is that ongoing conflict in foreign countries has made Americans immune and numb to the fact that we are constantly at war. "As war goes on, Americans have lapsed into a new kind of peacetime," she writes, "It is not a time without war, but instead a time in which war does not bother everyday Americans." This is not only dangerous, but also "enables a culture of irresponsibility," as the government uses the excuse of "war" to bend the law in defense of national security. The country once separated peacetime from wartime, which justified limits on liberty in defense of security so that the Executive Branch could focus on winning the war. Today, she writes, "wartime has become normal time in America." This is accompanied by the further smothering of civil liberties in defense of national security. Fortunately, we aren't bound by our practices. If we choose, we can stop observing the past as broken up between wartime and peacetime. Instead, we can understand the 20th century as a period of ongoing wartime so that we can better understand how war affects American politics, law, rights, and liberties. 

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