War, Bureaucracy, and Public Opinion

David Brooks writes:

The disadvantage [of Obama’s style of governance] is the tendency to bureaucratize the war. Armed conflict is about morale, motivation, honor, fear and breaking the enemy’s will. The danger is that Obama’s analytic mode will neglect the intangibles that are the essence of the fight. It will fail to inspire and comfort. Soldiers and Marines don’t have the luxury of adopting President Obama’s calibrated stance since they are being asked to potentially sacrifice everything.

I find this view baffling. I thought armed conflict was about killing people, and I tend to think that when we describe war as a contest of wills rather than weapons, we’re likely half-way to a dangerous self-deceit, and probably also losing. As the war drags on, the less we tell ourselves morale-based stories, the better. Perhaps Brooks is right: perhaps soldiers need such propaganda in order to continue to fight, but a country that adopts such incautious optimism and allows public relations to trump deliberation and analysis is exiling itself from the reality-based community.

In her famous essay on the Pentagon Papers, “Lying in Politics,” Hannah Arendt summed up the problem with the public relations approach to war-making.

No reality and no common sense could penetrate the minds of the problem solvers who indefatiguably prepared their scenarios for “relevant audiences” in order to change their states of mind–“the Communists (who must feel strong pressures), the South Vietnamese (whose morale must be bouyed), our allies (who must trust us as ‘underwriters’) and the U.S. public (which must support the risk-taking with U.S. lives and prestige).” (Crises of the Republic, 19)

The whole essay is worth re-reading, as it has been since the beginning of the Global War on Terror. President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan suggests that he may well be aware of the difference between story-telling and bomb-dropping. The question still remains whether we will manage to preserve that difference in the face of domestic political conflicts:

Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear. He has prepared his story for public consumption with a careful eye to making it credible, whereas reality has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we were not prepared. (Crises of the Republic, 6-7)

As a pragmatic pacifist, I tend to prefer a surge from the Peace Corps over the Marine Corps, so I’m hoping that any force that stays past 2011 is composed of Provincial Reconstruction Teams run by USAID.

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