Why are Americans so unplugged from the wars in their own name?
Though war has been a major focus of dinner table conversations since Russia invaded Ukraine, Mary Dudziak argues there is a growing disconnect between Americans and war.
RS sat down for a Q&A with Dudziak about the relationship between the American public, the media, and her upcoming book about American war and political accountability.
Dudziak is a leading scholar of legal history and the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law. She served as the past president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations and is currently a non resident fellow at the Quincy Institute. Dudziak’s research focuses on the intersection of U.S. domestic law and international affairs.
Q: How would you define “restraint” and what does it look like or mean to you?
A: One thing I’m interested in is the restraint that is, at least in principle, built into the U.S. structure of government: the war declaration clause. The power to use deadly force in the name of the United States is a power shared by presidents and Congress under the U.S. Constitution and this should make wars more difficult to begin. This system is no longer working, of course, in part because the public has lost an interest and connection with the use of force. I’m writing a history of how this came about, in part because understanding the roots of a problem is important to figuring out how to address it.
Q: Why do you think there is a disconnect in America between the general public and our military interventions?
A: There is an important cultural dimension to the disconnect between Americans and U.S. wars. For most American civilians, war is an abstraction. It doesn’t touch them directly. Paying attention is optional. It is a story in the newspaper or an issue in a political debate. It isn’t experienced by U.S. civilians as a matter of life and death. Contrast this with the Civil War, which generated what Harvard historian Drew Gilpin Faust called a “republic of suffering” — a polity shaped by the shared experience of war’s carnage.
I actually thought initially that the COVID crisis would be a moment more like the Civil War because it has been a mass death experience for the country as a whole. I was wrong. In this essay I took up the way COVID deaths happened largely in isolation, so what most of the public encountered was charts full of numbers. This is similar to political scientist Timothy Pachirat’s reflection on animal slaughter. Removing carnage from sight essentially enables it.
Both in the COVID era and the history of endless war, shielding the public from the carnage of their country’s war maintains our sanitized culture of war death, and that helps enable endless war.
Dudziak’s Upcoming Book
Q: Can you talk about your upcoming book on American war and political accountability?
A: I am interested in the social, political, and cultural underpinnings of ongoing U.S. war. It is now sustained in part by the broad scope of unilateral presidential power and Congressional acquiescence. The question at the heart of my book is how the American people — a political force that can constrain war — came to tolerate this.
It’s common to point to the end of the military draft after the U.S. war in Vietnam as the point when most of the polity lost direct engagement with war. American civilians lost a more fundamental connection with war much earlier, however: when U.S. wars became foreign wars, after the Civil War and warfare with American Indian nations. Americans came to understand war in a visceral way during the Civil War. Battles happened in settled areas. U.S. civilians were war casualties. Family and friends of soldiers arrived at devastated battlefields looking for their loved ones, so they were not immune from the sensory experience of war.
In distant wars – like World Wars I and II, as well as contemporary American war – U.S. civilians mostly know war through the news, which of course is profoundly different. I am centering the changing culture of U.S. war deaths as war became distant in order to understand how we’ve reached a point that the American people lack an interest in paying attention to war. This matters because without public engagement, Congressmembers lack an incentive to prioritize restraint.
The Media, War and U.S. Mobilization
Q: In an article for Diplomatic History you wrote about the relationship between domestic mobilization and depictions of war. How has the media portrayed recent wars, especially Ukraine, and how has this portrayal influenced U.S. mobilization?
A: This ties in with the ideas in my book project. World War II reporter Ernie Pyle thought that American civilians simply could not understand what he saw and experienced, yet he saw it as his job to cause them to feel that they understood. This mattered because U.S. civilian support for that massive war was needed to sustain mobilization. The falsity in that sentence is the false sense of knowing or understanding — something Pyle wrote about in his last column.
Nowadays it is of course quite different. Civilians aren’t asked to do overnight factory shifts to turn out war materiel. When war is remote — “over the horizon” in President Biden’s words —even U.S. soldiers are out of the blast zone, further lessening impacts on home front families. Mobilization isn’t needed. Instead, the polity’s inattention enables unrestrained presidential initiative.
It is interesting to see somewhat sustained public attention to the war in Ukraine —as compared to recent wars involving U.S. troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere. This is in part because it is a dramatic and important story — but so have been the wars American civilians ignore. It is hard not to conclude that public interest in the conflict is in part because of the whiteness of the war.
Putting it All Together
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge currently facing the foreign policy community today?
A: If we could expand the lens from the foreign policy community to all who care about humanity, the biggest and most difficult challenge is global warming. The seas are rising, and the worlds’ cities are overheating. The potential long-term consequences are catastrophic, but there isn’t sufficiently powerful leadership and commitment to make a difference.
Q: What brings you hope right now?
A: Political engagement and social change work we’re seeing in younger people. The activists who are survivors of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting are an example. We know from the history of the civil rights movement and from the powerful anti-war demonstrations toward the end of the war in Vietnam that the younger generation has often played a definitive role in building effective mobilization for social change.