Why Wars Always End Up Hurting the Most Vulnerable Americans

The centennial of World War I is a chance to remember naive predictions about how it and other fights would improve society—and the awful abuses those wars actually enabled.
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Eugene V. Debs leaves prison on Christmas Day 1921, after his 10-year sentence for opposing the draft was commuted. (Library of Congress)

The impending anniversary of the start of World War I has given historians and pundits the chance to speculate about whether we’re heading for another era of mass war and redrawing of borders. Put me down as undecided. But as we prepare to dwell on the ghastliness that occurred overseas between 1914 and 1918, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the ghastliness that occurred over here.

On June 30, 1918, perennial Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs was sentenced to 10 years in jail for opposing the draft. (In 1920, he won nearly a million votes while in prison; he was freed in 1921.) During the war, Cincinnati outlawed the sale of pretzels; Iowa made publicly speaking German a crime. On August 1, 1917 in Butte, Montana, a mob seized Frank Little, who was trying to unionize copper miners for the anti-war Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In Over Here, his wonderful book about America’s wartime home front, the historian David Kennedy recounts what happened next. “Pummeled into the street, Little was tied to the rear of an automobile and dragged through the streets until his kneecaps were scraped off, then hanged from the side of a railroad trestle.” While calling the lynching was regrettable, the New York Times insisted that, “the IWW agitators are in effect, and perhaps in fact, agents of Germany.”

Most Americans have forgotten how repressive a period World War I was. “You can’t even collect your thoughts without getting arrested for unlawful assemblage,” quipped the writer Max Eastman. “They give you ninety days for quoting the Declaration of Independence, six months for quoting the Bible.” Walter Lippmann said Woodrow Wilson’s administration had “done more to endanger fundamental American liberties than any group of men for a hundred years.”            

Which makes it all the more remarkable that Lippmann had championed America’s entrance into the war on the grounds that it would further liberal ideals. While fighting for democracy in Europe, he declared, “we shall stand committed as never before to the realization of democracy in America ... we shall turn with fresh interest to our own tyrannies—to our Colorado mines, our autocratic steel industries, our sweatshops and our slums.” The progressive philosopher John Dewey thought the war would unleash a new spirit of public-mindedness in the United States and a “more conscious and extensive use of science for communal purposes.”

It’s easy to deride Lippmann and Dewey for their naïveté. But they’re in good company. Every time America launches a major war, intellectuals predict it will spawn a new culture of public spiritedness and political reform. In 1960, when John F. Kennedy promised to seize the initiative against communism in the developing world—Vietnam would become the test case—sympathetic intellectuals claimed the effort would energize America at home. “This is the challenge of the 1960s: the reorganization of American values,” wrote the historian and Kennedy confidante Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “If we are going to hold our own against communism in the world ... the production of consumer goods will have to be made subordinate to some larger national purpose.”

It was the same after 9/11. For conservative hawks, the “war on terror” offered the chance to replace the tawdry materialism of the 1990s with a devotion to higher things.  The “commercial life seems less important than public life,” wrote David Brooks. “When life or death fighting is going on, it’s hard to think of Bill Gates or Jack Welch as particularly heroic.” Liberal hawks (myself included) followed in Lippmann’s footsteps and proclaimed the struggle for democracy abroad an opportunity to revitalize democracy at home. In his edited volume The Fight Is for Democracy, George Packer expressed his hope that the September 11 “attacks and the response would puncture a bloated era in American history and mark the start of a different, more attractive era. I thought that without some such change we would not be able to win this new war—that the crisis that mattered most was internal.”

To some degree, the cultural change that Lippmann, Schlesinger, and Brooks hoped war would bring did indeed occur. Wars do breed social solidarity (at least until they sour) and they spark a new interest in public affairs. At times, the struggle against foreign enemies can even help the oppressed at home, as when African Americans proved their courage and patriotism on the battlefield in World War II and thus laid the ground for an assault on segregation. A few years ago, Glenn Beck created the “9/12 project,” in order “to bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001” when “we were united as Americans, standing together to protect the values and principles of the greatest nation ever created.”

The problem is that the unity war breeds come at the expense of those Americans who become associated—either because of their political views or their religion, race or ethnicity—with the enemy. To avoid becoming targets of the fanatical patriotism that World War I sparked, many German Americans changed their last names. Unable to so easily conceal their ancestry, Japanese Americans during World War II were interned. For many Muslim Americans, 9/12 and the days that followed were marked not by fidelity to the “the values and principles of the greatest nation ever created” but by the government’s violation of those principles, as it surveilled and harassed vast numbers of Muslims purely because of their religion or country of origin. Since then, America’s invasion of two majority Muslim countries has fueled the paranoia that has led national politicians to warn that Sharia law is infecting the United States and local bigots to challenge the building of mosques.

As Dewey foresaw, wars do empower the state, a power that, in theory, could be used to redress social ills. But in the real world, argued Dewey’s protégé-turned-accuser Randolph Bourne, using war powers to achieve domestic reform is like using a firehose to fill a water glass. “War,” wrote Bourne, “is just that absolute situation … which speedily outstrips the power of intelligent and creative control.”

This was better understood a few years ago than it is today. Among Washington elites, the pendulum is swinging back from dovishness to hawkishness. Barack Obama’s sins of omission are papering over George W. Bush’s sins of commission. Calls for a substantial, and near-permanent, U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan—along with the bombing of Iran—have grown. One lesson of World War I is that in determining the potential merit of sending troops into harm’s way, or keeping them there, it’s crucial to consider the impact not only on life and liberty in the country where the troops are being sent, but in the country that’s sending them.

John Dos Passos famously wrote, “If any man has a ghost, Bourne has a ghost, a tiny twisted unscared ghost in a black cloak hopping along the grimy old brick and brownstone streets still left in downtown New York, crying out in a shrill soundless giggle: War is the health of the state.” It’s a lesson, sadly, that every American generation seems destined to learn anew.

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Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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