On September 28th, the former national security advisor for the Trump administration, H. R. McMaster, will be on Chapman University’s campus to participate in a panel discussion titled “America in an Age of Perpetual War.”
I don’t know what he will say. But the title of the panel is consistent with McMaster’s repeated advocacy for Trump’s budgetary priorities—bigger budgets for the military and weapons, and cuts for just about everything else, including investments that at least arguably foster peace: diplomacy and education.
At the beginning of this month, the Senate sent the defense appropriations bill for next year to the President for his signature. The total: $717 billion. That’s $268 billion more than was spent on defense before the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The support for this staggering investment in violence was bipartisan and sweeping—359 Representatives and 87 Senators voted for it. There was no meaningful congressional debate and, perhaps obviously, little public controversy.
The word perpetual has a history with respect to war and peace. Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham spoke of the possibility of perpetual peace—an idea that some claim was to be viewed with caustic irony and others say was a sincere argument. And, of course, George Orwell’s 1984 tersely offered a form of toxic doublethink that seems chillingly apposite to the title of McMaster’s panel: War is Peace. Will the former Trump advisor acknowledge these contexts for his own commitment to more and more war money from American society? Uncertain. But it doesn’t really matter. His priorities are crystal clear.
Trump’s and McMaster’s vision of perpetual war represents a failure of imagination that should alarm all of us. It should be a matter of spiritual and political reckoning in America for the military to arrogate to themselves so much of us. McMaster’s visit should be an occasion to say a forceful no to the discourse of perpetual war, and to the bipartisan consensus in Washington that endorses it.
There are those who present themselves as realists when confronted with objections to the federal investment in violence, and they might argue that the discourse of perpetual war is a matter of morality, invoking ideals of America as a paragon of freedom that are at best tendentious views of our history. Or others might present their realism as a matter of financial urgency—in the year 2015, the latest for which I could find numbers, the contribution of defense spending to the California state economy was $49.3 billion.
Set against these unacceptable versions of realism, I offer the record of poets, some of whom are what Marianne Moore called literalists of the imagination. When the Bush administration was rolling out its justification for the Iraq War in 2003, there appeared an anthology titled Poets Against the War. Those poets were in a powerless minority then; they are, tragically, the voices of sanity and reason in retrospect. Their message is sometimes anger, but more often grief. No conversation about the morality of perpetual war is complete without this grief. Here are the closing lines of a poem by Grace Monte de Ramos, a writer from Mandaluyong City, Philippines:
I cannot cry though I am told
It is better to cry and let go.
Where is my son’s body for me to bury?
I only wear my grief in the lines
Of my face, my sunken cheeks.
Silent, I mourn a woman’s
Bitter lot: to give birth to men
Who kill and are killed.
Her silence is broken here, a hopeful and cautionary gesture for all of us confronted with the message of perpetual war.
Brian Glaser is a professor of English at Chapman University and a contributing member of Veterans for Peace.
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