An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences
Mary L. Dudziak
New York: Oxford University Press, 2012
Hardback. iii+221 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-977523-1. $24.95
Reviewed by Michael Marino
The College of New Jersey
WarTime : An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences begins with the premise that the concept of war is often used as a construct to understand and organize historical time. As such, wars often serve as demarcation points through which historical events are arranged and sequenced. In the book's introduction the author, Mary Dudziak, offers as representative examples the cases of the Civil War and the Second World War. In both instances, these wars produced changes so dramatic that the very concept of time was interpreted and understood through them. The 19th century is thus divided into “pre” and “post” bellum periods to describe life either before or after the Civil War. A similar situation exists with the Second World War, as the year 1945 partitions the 20th century into “pre” and “post” war periods. As Professor Dudziak argues, “war breaks time into pieces, slicing human experience into eras, creating a before and an after.” The title of the book fittingly outlines its basic purpose, which is to clarify the relationship between war and time, and how war can pervert our understanding of time and ultimately be used to justify extreme perversions of the democratic process.
Although the title of the book speaks of war as a universal construct, the book is largely a discussion of how war relates to American history. As the introductory section notes, the “book focuses on American thinking about war and time,” and the author’s main concern is to illustrate how war can be used to “enable a culture of irresponsibility” in which traditional rights and privileges are undermined and disregarded. According to the author, war is an “abnormal” time in which traditional patterns of life are disrupted. In such an environment it is common to see government authority expanded and individual rights weakened and undercut. As Professor Dudziak argues, “law is not completely silent during wartime, but it is generally assumed to be different, with courts affording less protection to civil liberties and giving more deference to executive power.” Such latitude is tolerated only because of the “extraordinary” nature of war and the fact that after a set period, a war will inevitably end and things will return to normal. What happens, however, for wars that do not end? Since World War Two it is a common feature of wars that they are undeclared and often extend for prolonged periods. In such an environment, the “exceptional and temporary” (to quote Professor Dudziak) actions of government authorities can be extended indefinitely and become a normal part of life.
To probe this idea, WarTime offers three case studies from American history. The Second World War is used to illustrate a classic example of a “traditional” war in which the cause was just and the conflict was framed by clear delineations of beginning and end. This discussion is followed by analyses of the Cold War and the “War on Terror,” conflicts where the definitions, purposes and goals are more opaque and difficult to understand. In each case, the author (herself a professor of law) provides a discussion of the nature of the conflict and some of the legal controversies that the conflict produced. In the case of World War Two, for example, the author addresses cases involving the Pledge of Allegiance; in the Cold War chapter, issues involving executive authority are discussed. In both of these conflicts, the Supreme Court needed to balance individual rights against the greater national good, and the book addresses how these conflicting goals were addressed by the Court.
The author is most troubled by the “War on Terror,” however. In this case, the conflict is ongoing and seemingly endless. Moreover, neither the enemy nor the types of fighting in the “War on Terror” are easily reconciled with traditional perceptions and understandings about war. In such an environment, government abuses against human rights and legal safeguards can become ongoing and permanent, not merely a temporary aberration. As Professor Dudziak notes, “threats of terrorism still serve as a justification for enhanced surveillance at home, and for extending the reach of American military action.” An ongoing war can also precipitate a fundamental reorientation of American values, away from a peaceful society occasionally interrupted by war, to one in which war is a perpetual, unending state of affairs and where government power is continually expanded at the expense of individual rights.
WarTime offers readers a thoughtful discussion of a compelling topic. The book is well written and though the argument is abstract, it is presented in an accessible way that makes it easy to follow. Readers will emerge from the book with a new perspective on how war has shaped American history and how the wars America has fought are not merely diplomatic and military events, but rather resonate through all aspects of American life. The author’s command of legal history and how it informs understanding of more universal historical themes is also impressive. Professor Dudziak’s purpose in writing the book seems to be her deep disgust over how a seemingly endless “war on terror” has been used to justify actions such as the passage of the Patriot Act and the opening of Guantanamo Bay. Readers who share her outrage at these incidents will find the book especially valuable and interesting.
As a work of scholarship, WarTime suffers from some flaws, however. While it is sometimes unfair to criticize a book for the things it does not say, the omissions in the book seriously undermine its argument. For example, the author fails to address the Civil War in any depth, even though this war saw unprecedented expansion and abuses of government power. Nor is the Korematsu case—in which the Supreme Court upheld the incarceration of Japanese-Americans—discussed in any detail, despite the egregious abuse of authority that this case represented. The author’s idea of war also seems a bit flawed, as when she argues that “an essential aspect of wartime is that it is temporary.” Even though older wars were comfortably bounded by formal declarations (at the beginning) and signed treaties (at the end), they certainly seemed endless to those living through them. In retrospect, for example, World War One lasted approximately four years, but at the time participants believed that the war would literally go on forever. It is also a common fact of history that societies will create enemies (either real or perceived) to justify extreme, even genocidal measures. WarTime’s focus on American history without this wider historical context leaves the arguments weaker than they should be. For example, how do the domestic consequences of the “war on terror” compare to Hitler’s “war” against the Jews, or Stalin’s “war” against peasants, intellectuals, dissidents and a host of other perceived enemies? Ultimately, readers will need to judge for themselves whether the book’s narrow focus undermines the power of its conclusions.
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