Civic War and the Corruption of the Citizen

February 12, 2009

Peter Meyers' search for the answer to the question of when the war against terrorism began represents a noble attempt to engage with the confusing state of contemporary international relations.

As Meyers suggests, by accounting for the beginning of the conflict we can gain clarity about its causes and meaning.

Almost everything about the war appears to be mystifying. We don't even know what to call it. Many officials never liked the term "War on Terror" and were pleased when US policymakers recently changed it to the "Long War".

But how long has the Long War been going on? Meyers states that it has been around for decades and claims that Washington's post-9/11 orientation needs to "be understood as a continuation of the Cold War".

Meyers' exploration of the "beginning" is developed through a discussion of the relationship between politics and war. This provides interesting insights into the way domestic politics internalises the imperatives of emergencies.

According to his model of what he terms "civic war", the civilian population of the US has been continually implicated in war through its acceptance of the official version of events. The book focuses on the way in which domestic consensus is wedded to the rhetoric of war.

He claims that the "blurring of the boundaries between war and not-war may be a feature of modernity" and posits the Long War as an extension of the way the Cold War shaped "political life through the management of citizens' emotions".

Civic War's main flaw is its obsessive tendency to rediscover the present in the past. In an ahistorical fashion, Meyers continually points to the resemblances between the pre- and post-9/11 eras. He argues that the terrorist has become the "functional equivalent" of nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

"Then and now, we faced unlimited war based on the possibility that the enemy could strike anywhere and anytime," he writes. Or then and now, "fear came to occupy the foreground of our imagination".

Unfortunately, Meyers' quest for the "beginning" leads him to a same-old, same-old story about the relationship between politics and war. He has adopted this schema by projecting the contemporary discussion of the politics of fear backwards.

Apparently, the post-9/11 wars follow the "cultural logic" of the Cold War, which is the US President's "aspiration to an omnipotence". Meyers believes that the Bush Administration was driven by an "impulse to claim absolute certainty".

According to this model, the fanaticism of Bush and Co represents a continuation of the Reaganite project of reigniting the Cold War and winning support through the politics of fear.

Meyers' model of a president who is fanatical and opportunistic is conceptually inconsistent if not incoherent. It is also an intensely psychological theory of international relations, where the acts of fanatical leaders provide explanations for far too much.

His search for the cause overlooks the possibility that there isn't one. It is confusion and disorientation, rather than the aspiration for omnipotence, that helps make sense of a war with no clear name.

Civic War and the Corruption of the Citizen

By Peter Alexander Meyers. University of Chicago Press 376pp, £17.00. ISBN 9780226522081. Published 12 December 2008

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