During his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars earlier this week, President Obama validated the basic frame of the Bush Administration. Obama said that the war in Afghanistan “is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity.” This statement accepts a frame designed to bludgeon the progressive movement to death: the War on Terror frame. Incidentally, it’s also really, really bad theology.
In 2006, George Lakoff and Evan Frisch wrote an article critiquing the War on Terror frame that should be required reading for progressives. In it, the authors argue that the war metaphor is a dagger aimed at the heart of the progressive movement in the U.S., chosen primarily to influence domestic audiences to acquiesce to radical right-wing policies:
The war metaphor was chosen for political reasons. First and foremost, it was chosen for the domestic political reasons. The war metaphor defined war as the only way to defend the nation. From within the war metaphor, being against war as a response was to be unpatriotic, to be against defending the nation. The war metaphor put progressives on the defensive. Once the war metaphor took hold, any refusal to grant the president full authority to conduct the war would open progressives in Congress to the charge of being unpatriotic, unwilling to defend America, defeatist. And once the military went into battle, the war metaphor created a new reality that reinforced the metaphor.
Once adopted, the war metaphor allowed the president to assume war powers, which made him politically immune from serious criticism and gave him extraordinary domestic power to carry the agenda of the radical right: Power to shift money and resources away from social needs and to the military and related industries. Power to override environmental safeguards on the grounds of military need. Power to set up a domestic surveillance system to spy on our citizens and to intimidate political enemies. Power over political discussion, since war trumps all other topics. In short, power to reshape America to the vision of the radical right — with no end date.
According to Lakoff and Frisch, Choosing and accepting the war metaphor also led to policy decisions that undermined American security and prosperity, playing right into al-Qaida’s hands.
What was the moral of 9/11?
To Osama bin Laden, the moral was simple: American power can be used against America itself. This moral has defined the post 9/11 world: the more America uses military force in the Middle East, the more damage is done to America and Americans. The more Americans kill and terrorize Muslims, the more we recruit Muslims to become terrorists and fight against us.
That this was the “moral” of 9/11 has been borne out again and again in reports showing that U.S. policy choices in the Middle East are creating more terrorism, not less, including but not limited to Afghanistan.
The domestic and foreign policy repercussions of the War on Terror frame led me to pound out this little outburst earlier this year:
I must admit, I am exhausted by repeated attempts to pound this into the head of liberals, but here we go again: The War on Terror is a metaphor designed to bludgeon the progressive movement to death. Write that in stone. Tattoo it somewhere on your body where it will hurt. The phrase “War on Terror” blunts dissent, it undermines progressive values at home, and it plays directly into the hands of al-Qaida’s propaganda. People who perpetuate the War on Terror metaphor are, knowingly or not, undermining progress, justice, and peace.
To his credit, the President seems to recognize the dangers of the War on Terror frame. He is usually very careful about avoiding the phrase “war on terror” in his speeches. This rejection, however, is superficial. As the President’s speech to the VFW shows, he retains the basic outlines of the war on terror frame:
- the 9/11 attacks were acts of war, rather than spectacular criminal attacks;
- al-Qaida members are the new Nazis/Soviets rather than “religiously motivated Mafia,” as Bacevich put it in testimony before Congress;
- the proper response to the 9/11 attacks, as acts of war, was not juridical but military.
All of these elements are either explicit or implicit in the President’s rhetoric. It’s not enough to throw out the explicit phrase “War on Terror” if you retain the basic War on Terror construct in your worldview.
The President’s juxtaposition of the phrases “war of choice” and “war of necessity” also displays some very bad theology and a lack of maturity. If you accept the distinction made by the President, the United States is not responsible for any of the mayhem loose in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan happened to us, or was elicited from us in a process over which we had no control. We didn’t choose because we couldn’t. We had no choice. Thus our violence has a different moral quality to it than that of the 9/11 hijackers and is required to impose order and safety on a violent world.
This, of course, is the basic outline of the myth of redemptive violence.
In short, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence.…Life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos, according to this myth. Ours is neither a perfect nor perfectible world; it is theatre of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war, security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society.
This, Wink writes in Engaging the Powers, is the state religion of the national security state. It’s running free in the President’s rhetoric. It’s extraordinarily dangerous–the myth of redemptive violence, once accepted, reshapes any religion into a religion of self-justification and domination. By retaining it in his rhetoric, the President is, consciously or not, activating a pervasive and destructive theological frame caustic to justice and peace.
The President is factually and theologically incorrect. We had a deliberative process in the United States after the attacks that ended with a Congressional resolution. In other words, we chose. And, because we chose, responsibility for our violence and its consequences rests squarely with us.
We had a choice. We have a choice. We should choose to reject the basic assumptions of Bush’s discredited war frame and reverse the war policies that emerged from it. We should start with Afghanistan.