Writing ourselves a global license to kill

By Wendell Berry in Feature Articles - February 23, 2003
The National Security Strategy published by the White House in September 2002, if carried out, would amount to a radical revision of the political character of our nation. Its central and most significant statement is this:
"While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists ..." (p. 6)
By this new doctrine, the president alone may start a war against any nation at any time. The very idea of a government acting alone in preemptive war is inherently undemocratic, for it does not require or permit the president to obtain the consent of the governed. As a policy, this new strategy depends on the acquiescence of a public kept fearful and ignorant, and on the compliance of an intimidated and office-dependent legislature. 3e45ec1e3c2f8-93-2The alleged justification for this new strategy is the recent emergence in the United States of international terrorism, defined as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents" (p. 5). This is truly a distinct kind of violence, but to imply by the word "terrorism" that this sort of terror is the work exclusively of "terrorists" is misleading. The "legitimate" warfare of technologically advanced nations likewise is premeditated, politically motivated violence often perpetrated against innocents. The distinction between the intention to perpetrate violence against innocents, as in "terrorism," and the willingness to do so, as in "war," is not a source of comfort. There is little acknowledgement in The National Security Strategy that terrorism might have a cause that could possibly be remedied. The "embittered few," it seems, are merely "evil." A government, committing its nation to "rid the world of evil," is assuming necessarily that it and its nation are good. But the proposition that anything so multiple and large as a nation can be "good" is an insult to common sense. It precludes any attempt at self-criticism or self-correction and it leads us far indeed from the traditions of religion and democracy. Frightening as are the threats that confront us, they do not relieve us of the responsibility to be intelligent, principled and practical. Curtailment of civil rights, defiance of laws, and resort to overwhelming force --the ready products of fear and hasty thought-- cannot protect us against the destruction of our own land by ourselves. They cannot protect us against the selfishness, wastefulness and greed that we have legitimized here as economic virtues, and have taught to the world. They cannot protect us against our government's longstanding disdain for any form of self-sufficiency or thrift, or against the consequent dependence on foreign supplies, such as oil from the Middle East.
Detail of UNTITLED (MYSELF IF I AM REAL), 2001, Robert Van Vranken, courtesy of O.K. Harris Works of Art, NYC

Detail of UNTITLED (MYSELF IF I AM REAL), 2001, Robert Van Vranken, courtesy of O.K. Harris Works of Art, NYC

The National Security Strategy attempts to compound a foreign policy out of contradictory principles. This document affirms peace as the justification of war and war as the means of peace, perpetuating a hallowed absurdity. But implicit in its assertion of this (and, by implication, any other) nation's right to act alone in its own interest is an acceptance of war as a permanent condition. This is a contradiction not reconcilable except by a self-righteousness almost inconceivably naive. The authors of the strategy seem now and then to be glimmeringly conscious of the attendant difficulties. Their implicit definition of "rogue state," for example, is any nation pursuing national greatness by advanced military capabilities that can threaten its neighbors--except our nation. And if you think our displeasure with "rogue states" might have any underpinning in international law, then you will be disappointed to learn on page 31 that
"We will take the actions necessary to ensure that our efforts to meet our global security commitments and protect Americans are not impaired by the potential for investigations, inquiry or prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose jurisdiction does not extend to Americans and which we do not accept."
The rule of law in the world, then, is to be upheld by a nation that has declared itself to be above the law. An apparently childish hypocrisy here assumes the dignity of a nation's foreign policy. Mr. Bush's addition of this Security Strategy to the previous bipartisan commitment to globalization exposes an American dementia that has not been so plainly displayed before. The America Whose Business is Business has been internationalizing its economy in haste (for bad reasons, and with little foresight), looking everywhere for "trading partners," cheap labor and tax shelters, while the America Whose Business is National Defense is withdrawing from the world in haste (for bad reasons, with little foresight), threatening left and right, abrogating agreements and alienating friends. Since the end of World War II, when the terrors of industrial warfare had been fully revealed, many people and many governments came to recognize that peace is not just a desirable condition, but a practical necessity. In the years between our victory in the first Gulf War and Sept. 11, 2001, we did not alter our thinking about peace and war -- that is, we thought much about war and little about peace; we made no effort to reduce our dependence on the oil we import; we made no improvement in our charity toward the rest of the world; we made no motion toward greater economic self-reliance; and we continued our extensive and often irreversible damages to our own land. We appear to have assumed merely that our victory confirmed our manifest destiny to be the richest, most powerful, most wasteful nation in the world. Those who oppose this policy can no longer afford to confuse peaceability with passivity. Authentic peace is no more passive than war. Like war, it calls for discipline and intelligence and strength of character, though it calls also for higher principles and aims. If we are serious about peace, then we must work for it as ardently, seriously, continuously, carefully and bravely as our government now prepares for war. —Wendell Berry, essayist, novelist, farmer and author of The Unsettling of America, is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of The Land Institute in Salina, Kan. This essay is an abridged version of one appearing in the March-April issue of Orion magazine and at www.oriononline.org.
This essay is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the institute's views.