Aug. 4, 2014
By Arnold R. Isaacs
WAR•TIME: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences
By Mary L. Dudziak
Oxford University Press, 221 pages, $24.95
This is a book with a valid and important thesis, meriting far more attention than it has received. Unfortunately, it is also a badly flawed book, full of faulty logic and inexplicable errors and gaps in the history it claims to present.
First, the thesis. Dudziak, who teaches law at the University of Southern California Law School, argues that the traditional concept of "wartime" as something abnormal and temporary and clearly distinguishable from "peacetime" is no longer accurate. Not only is it outdated; it also leads to dangerous misconceptions among both leaders and the public about the nature of the wars we are engaged in.
That is clearly true in the present era. Even though Washington no longer officially uses the term "war on terror," U.S. policy around the world is still highly militarized, and American society at home still frames the international environment in warlike terms, categorizing countries, people, and ideas as "friendly" or "enemy."
A "disconnect between the way we imagine wartime, and the practice of American wars," as Dudziak puts it, distorts government deliberations and public debate. On one level, people have come to realize that we are "in an era in which wartime... seems to have no endpoint." But at the same time, an assumption that "war is temporary" remains deeply rooted in our culture and consciousness. That split sense can obscure reality and all too often produces bad decisions both in national security policy and in the area she is primarily interested in, law and civil liberties.
Summarized that way, Dudziak's argument is valid and meaningful. Her attempts to elaborate on it and construct a historical framework for it are, to put it gently, less successful. Time and again she tries to support her thesis with erroneous versions of history -- most often, errors of omission -- that lead to false reasoning. These errors are not minor but glaring, sometimes astonishingly so.
One of many examples occurs early in the book, where she appears to suggest that the German and Japanese surrenders at the end of World War II somehow did not mark a clear line between wartime and peacetime. She puts it this way: "History after 1945 is often called 'postwar,' even though war continued in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere." The premise is absurd, to begin with. By any common sense standard, V-E Day and V-J Day were a dramatic, unmistakable passage from war to peace, and the vast majority of people in the world experienced it exactly that way. But that aside, her historical references don't support her conclusions anyway. Korea was divided in 1945 but war didn't "continue" there; it didn't break out until five years later. In Vietnam, fairly minor skirmishing occurred in the first few months after the Pacific war ended, but fighting on a scale that could reasonably be called a war did not start until the end of 1946, nearly a year and a half after the war against Japan ended.
Those are not inconsequential details, but the most startling mistake in that sentence is that it does not mention the one major event that did represent continued war and could call the word "postwar" into question: the civil war in China, where millions of soldiers on both sides armed with all the weapons of modern warfare waged one of the 20th century's biggest wars for four years after 1945. (Not only is the Chinese civil war missing from this passage; it is not mentioned anywhere in the book except for a single oblique reference to China's "fall" -- in quotation marks and alluding not to Chinese events but to anti-communist politics in America. China's intervention in Korea, its acquiring nuclear weapons, and its image in the eyes of U.S. policymakers as the looming real threat behind Vietnam are not mentioned in the book at all.)
A similarly baffling omission comes later when Dudziak tries to explain the changing climate for civil liberties in the United States over the Cold War era, from a highly repressive atmosphere in the early years ("a low point for American civil liberties," she calls that period) to the great advances of civil rights and widened freedom of personal conduct that occurred in the following decades even while the Cold War still dominated the U.S. role in world affairs. Recognizing that this is inconsistent with the conventional view that wartime favors state power over individual rights, she writes: "A reason that the impact of the Cold War on civil liberties did not track geopolitical tensions is that geopolitics informed but did not determine the domestic politics of repression."
That curious formulation is not only a piece of unconvincing circular logic (American politics did not track with Cold War geopolitics because Cold War geopolitics did not track with American politics). It is also wrong. International geopolitics did affect U.S. policy and politics. With the death of Joseph Stalin -- which coincided with the end of the Korean War -- and the rise of the much less threatening Nikita Khrushchev, Cold War tensions and the perceived danger of nuclear war dramatically diminished in the middle years of the 1950s. The anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era diminished at exactly the same time. It is hard to imagine how anyone could not see those events as connected, but Dudziak does not make the connection -- another mystifying lapse in historical understanding.
Errors in history and logic -- and there are plenty of others beside the two mentioned here -- are not War•Time's only flaws. The text is very short, just 136 pages, plus an appendix (of dubious value to the reader) and notes. But even at that length it is still often repetitive and padded with unnecessary digressions, e.g. nearly five full pages of brief reminiscences by September 11 witnesses all saying almost exactly the same thing, when a page or two would have made her point.
A larger weakness of the book is that it gives only slight and scattered attention to two other important puzzles that go along with the author's question "when is wartime?" If contemporary conflict has made it uncertain when there is a war, in our age it has become equally uncertain what is a war and where a war exists. Dudziak has a few inconclusive comments on the first of those, but nowhere really sums up the difficulty of defining "war" in today's world and why that is a troubling problem for civilian policymakers and military commanders. On the issue of war's new geography -- does a war have boundaries, or does it exist anywhere in the world where an enemy happens to be? -- she says almost nothing beyond this single sentence: "Once the enemy was not a nation-state or even an identifiable social group, but an ideology, war seemed to have no boundaries in space or time, but seeped into the global spaces where those evil ideas reside."
This is not to suggest that Dudziak should have shifted away from her main subject, the nature of wartime. But she would have better served her readers by placing that issue more clearly into the context of the larger conundrum that governments and people face in dealing with violent conflict in today's world. Needless to say, readers would also be better served if she had made her argument with better historical understanding and stronger logic. The question she raises in this book is an important and necessary one; it is too bad she didn't give it more careful treatment.
Arnold R. Isaacs is the author of Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia and Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy.