In his 1932 novel Nineteen Nineteen, John Dos Passos paid tribute to a “little sparrowlike man”,
tiny twisted bit of flesh in a black cape,
always in pain and ailing,
[who] put a pebble in his sling
and hit Goliath square in the forehead . . . .
The man in the black cape was Randolph Bourne, who in an unfinished essay shortly before his death in 1918 uttered one of the contemporary era’s great truths: “War is the health of the State.” Ninety years on, as Americans contemplate the implications of waging what the Pentagon is now calling “the Long War”, Bourne’s biting observation demands renewed attention.
Beset from birth by agonizing physical deformities, Bourne was an intellectual, a radical and a patriot who cherished freedom and loved America. His crucial contribution to political discourse was to draw a sharp distinction between Country—the people and their aspirations—and State, an apparatus that perverts those aspirations into a relentless quest for aggrandizement at the expense of others. “Country”, Bourne wrote, “is a concept of peace, of tolerance, of living and letting live. But State is essentially a concept of power, of competition.”
Randolph Bourne Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University [credit: Randolph Bourne]
Bourne abhorred war, describing it as “a frenzied, mutual suicide”, devoid of redeeming value. America’s 1917 entry into the apocalyptic European conflict then known as “the Great War” appalled him, not least because, as he saw it, U.S. intervention signified the triumph of State over Country. A war fought to make the world safe for democracy, as President Woodrow Wilson promised, was more likely to undermine authentic democracy at home.
As Wilson whipped up popular fervor for his great crusade (and as his Administration relied on what Bourne described as “white terrorism” to punish anyone who opposed the war or questioned Wilson’s policies), Bourne devoted himself to enumerating the perils of allowing State to eclipse Country. War, he warned, inevitably produces “a derangement of values”, with the interests of the people taking a back seat to the purposes of the State. Prestige and authority shift: from the periphery to the center, from the legislature to the executive, from domestic concerns to foreign affairs. During times of war, the future is expected to take care of itself; only the present matters. The imperative of victory overrides all other considerations.
War imbues the State with an aura of sanctity. Those who purport to represent the State—the insiders, those who are in the know—expect deference and to a remarkable extent receive it. The more urgent the emergency, the more compliant the citizenry. A people at war, Bourne observed, become “obedient, respectful, trustful children again, full of that naive faith in the all-wisdom and all-power of the adult who takes care of them.”
Above all, the sacralization of the State exalts the standing of the First Warrior, investing in the commander-in-chief something akin to blanket authority. “The President”, wrote Bourne, “is an elected king, but the fact that he is elected has proved to be of far less significance . . . than the fact that he is pragmatically a king.” As with the French monarchs in their heyday, so too with wartime American presidents: L’Étât, c’est moi. In times of crisis, Bourne explained, the Legislative Branch effectively ceases to function “except as a wholly mechanical ratifier of the Executive’s will.”
The very concept of a democratic foreign policy, therefore, becomes “a contradiction in terms.” Statecraft remains “the secret private possession of the executive branch.” The deliberations that matter occur behind closed doors, with participants limited to those “able to get control of the machinery of the State” or the handful of outsiders with privileged access either conferred or purchased outright.
To those who most fully identify themselves with the State’s interests—the king-president’s inner circle—war signifies liberation, triggering, in Bourne’s words, “a vast sense of rejuvenescence” that accompanies the full-throated exercise of power. The “State-obsessed” are drawn to war like moths are drawn to flame. Only through war and the quasi-war of recurrent crisis and confrontation can they express themselves fully.
When war erupts, it typically does so as a result of “steps taken secretly and announced to the public only after they had been consummated.” Although Congress may issue a formal declaration, in Bourne’s eyes this amounts to no more than “the merest technicality.” Not infrequently, those dealing in secrets cross the line into deception and dissembling. Yet even when this occurs, Congress shies away from demanding accountability. After all, any legislator asserting that “the country had been grossly deceived by its own Government”, with war the product of “almost criminal carelessness”, would risk the charge of disloyalty, complicity or sheer negligence. Better just to register a few complaints and quietly vote the money needed to fund the enterprise.
The architects and advocates of armed conflict broadcast “appealing harbingers of a cosmically efficacious and well-bred war.” Such rosy predictions inevitably turn out to be illusory, but no matter: Once thrust into the conflagration, the Country succumbs to “a spiritual compulsion which pushes it on, perhaps against all its interests, all its desires, and all its real sense of values.” It’s not that the people will war’s perpetuation, but when told that no alternative exists except to persist, they acquiesce. Thus, according to Bourne, does the State have its way.
As it was in 1918, so it is in 2008. Granted, in its attempts to silence or discredit its critics, the Bush Administration’s actions, however egregious, fall considerably short of constituting “white terrorism.” On every other point, however, Bourne’s critique of the State during the Age of Wilson describes with considerable precision State behavior during the Age of Bush and Cheney.
Since September 11, war has certainly enhanced the health of the State, which has grown in size, claimed new prerogatives, and expended resources with reckless abandon while accruing a host of new acolytes and retainers, a.k.a. “contractors.” Once again, we have witnessed the compromise of democratic practices, as the imperatives of “keeping America safe” take precedence over due process and the rule of law. Once again, the maneuvering of insiders has produced war, cheerfully marketed as promising a clean, neat solution to messy and intractable problems. When that war went sour in Iraq, opponents in the Congress solemnly promised to end it, but instead obligingly appropriated billions to ensure its continuation. Although the people profess unhappiness with all that the State has wrought, their confidence in the institutions of government all but exhausted, they remain reliably docile, if not apathetic. None of this, it seems fair to say, would have surprised Randolph Bourne.
By almost any measure, the Country has fared poorly of late, a point that presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama both explicitly endorsed. The State meanwhile has fattened itself on seven years of plenty. Unlike the biblical cycle, when abundance gave way to want, this pattern seems likely to continue. With the Long War projected to last for decades if not generations, the ascendancy of the State bids fair to become a permanent condition.
When McCain and Obama competed with each other in promising to “change the way Washington works”, they held out the prospect of re-subordinating State to Country. Install me as king-president, each proclaimed, and I will employ the apparatus of the State to fulfill the people’s fondest hopes and dreams. The State will do my bidding and therefore the Country’s.
“Only in a world where irony was dead”, as Bourne once mordantly observed, could such claims be taken seriously. Doing so requires us to ignore the extent to which the parties that the candidates represented, the advisers on whom they relied for counsel, and the moneyed interests to which they looked for support all share a vested interest in ensuring the State’s continued primacy. This is as true of liberal Democrats as of conservative Republicans.
The reality is this: The election that so many saw as promising salvation was rigged. Its outcome was predetermined. Whichever candidate won in November and whichever party ended up governing, the State was guaranteed to come out on top. Barring the truly miraculous, our new President will continue to serve as primary agent of the State, privileging its well-being over that of the people. And the American penchant for war that Bourne decried and that has in our own day returned with a vengeance will persist. Piously wishing it were otherwise won’t make it so.
Although ninety years ago the man in the black cape may have struck Goliath a sharp blow, the giant barely noticed and quickly recovered. Today Goliath is running the show.