We had an interesting discussion in a Thursday morning seminar of Carl Schmitt (the Concept of the Political and Political Theology, inter alia) and American doctrines of executive power. The discussion was admirably led by Vlad Shchukin. Chris Tranchetti, a Naval officer and student in the class, takes on a large role of public service wherever he goes (it is what is often most admirable in military people, a sense of honor and service). He sent around a commentary after the seminar which is enlightening. His examples illustrate the way reactionary two party competition – one baiting the other for being “weak” on national security, for instance, losing “China” or “Vietnam” - has led to continual, unnecessary wars, to the strengthening of executive power a la Schmitt (imported to the US by Leo Strauss and his students, see here), to a strengthening of the war complex, to Presidential crimes, to harm to Americans and, in a circle, to further wars – see the Sorcerer’s Apprentice here. That cycle was checked, to some extent, for fifteen years only by democratic protest from below ("the Vietnam syndrome").
The state of the exception is a state of fear. Despite its relative security - separated from others by oceans on both sides, two weak and non-militaristic neighbors - the U.S. elite, as Chris suggests, dwells in a constantly renewed state of fear. Though more powerful militarily than others, American politics is often comparatively shadowed or overwhelmed by fear (cf. the racist panic towards and suppression of "illegals," the construction of a wall along the Mexican border, etc.).
I try to encourage student connection with discussions in a course, asking each to make a presentation in the class, including reshaping a topic to one she is more interested in. I also encourage students who disagree to challenge me (it is part of each person learning to find her own way and makes a course interesting for all). Chris was, I think, trying to clarify and amplify some of the things I mentioned and does beautifully.
We covered a lot of ground yesterday when discussing Schmitt’s ‘Concept of the Political.’ I wanted to take a moment to try and tie together the foreign policy actions discussed with Schmitt’s epistemology [sic: theory of the state and the political].
It seems to me that one of the most important lines of thought developed by Schmitt, and, consequently, the one with the most far reaching consequences, is his concept of executive power and the state of exception. We have seen this concept of executive power run amok most recently in the Bush Administration – suspension of habeas corpus, torture, unjust war. In this case, the justification was the state of exception as it related to a terrorist attack on the United States.
But I would ask you to consider whether or not the state of exception has become the state of normalcy. In WWII, the U.S. entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Then, too, an ‘unanticipated’ attack occurring on U.S.-soil became the state of exception which propelled us into WWII, allowed FDR to establish detention camps in the U.S. for Japanese-Americans, and ultimately, support the ‘total war’ concept which resulted in the American military’s targeting of civilians in Germany.
The state of exception later led Harry Truman to drop two atomic bombs on an already defeated Japan (Yes, already defeated. See the 1946 Strategic Bombing Survey for the Pacific War. By the way, this report was suppressed by the Truman administration.). The state of exception allowed the U.S. to enter the Korean War, execute the Rosenbergs and help McCarthy to foment the Red Scare. The Cold War and the domino theory supported a perpetual state of exception for years.
This perpetual state of exception allowed the U.S. to escalate the Vietnam War after the pull-out of the defeated French forces. The dark-side of Schmitt’s philosophy of the omnipotent executive branch can be seen not only in the current Iraq War (as alluded to above), but also in the Vietnam War. If you have the opportunity, watch the documentary film “Hearts & Minds.” http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/hearts-and-minds/
In it you can hear the racism of General Westmoreland as he remarks, ‘the Oriental does not value life like a Westerner does,’ as well as that the country of Vietnam reminds him of ‘a small child.’ You can hear the American father who lost his son in Vietnam profess his allegiance to our leaders in the government who are directing the war. You can see the ‘total war’ concept, finally acquiesced to by Roosevelt during WWII, in full swing now as standard operating procedure as napalm is dropped on civilian farming communities. These are the real world ramifications of Schmitt’s “friend and enemy” concepts through which he asserts that governments have the right to demand complete allegiance to the state by its citizenry even unto death, and, consequently, utilizing this ‘blind faith’ in order to exterminate our enemy and annihilate his culture.
However, I believe that we need to ask ourselves, what is the true function of the state? Did not man create the state to serve him? Shouldn’t the state, like the police force, be there to protect and serve? What happens when the state serves itself at the expense of its citizens?
This is exactly what led Daniel Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers. In a nut shell, the Pentagon Papers proved that the leaders in the federal government knew that the war in Vietnam could not be won, but continued to execute it anyway. It proves that the multiple administrations lied to the American public about the war and cared for neither its own military personnel nor the Vietnamese people. Ellsberg was not a radical. He was an employee of the RAND corporation and a US Marine officer. As an officer, Ellsberg swore an oath of office which reads in part: “I solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely…” What is important to note about the oath is that an officer in the U.S. military does not swear allegiance or obedience to the President or any senior officer. I believe that this is because officers are required to THINK, to ANALYZE, to EVALUATE, to JUDGE. Ellsberg did this with the information he had in his possession. He concluded that the government in power and prosecuting the war in Vietnam was an enemy of the people and the Constitution which he swore to uphold. As Ellsberg stated in “Hearts & Minds”, “People believe that the US chose the wrong side in the Vietnam War. We didn’t choose the wrong side. We were the wrong side.” What was the result of his action? He was arrested and jailed. President Nixon had him declared the “most dangerous man in America.” There is a 2009 documentary which tells Ellsberg’s story. http://www.mostdangerousman.org/
So who was the real patriot, the nationalist willing to give his life to his country, as Schmitt might say? Were the real patriots Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon or was it Dan Ellsberg? Was the real patriot George W. Bush or Pat Tillman? Was the real patriot Dick Cheney or Ray McGovern? I believe that those who were willing to stand up to the powers-that-be and tell them that they were wrong and that their actions were hurting not helping the nation, did so truly out of love for their country and its citizens. It was definitely, not for pride, power, or money.
Someone in class mentioned that during the state of exception, the federal government did things which were contrary to American values or that American values were temporarily suspended during the state of exception. This is undoubtedly true. However, I would argue that the true test of American values would be for us and our leadership to continue to manifest these American values most especially during the state of exception.
Well, it appears that I’ve rambled on for almost two pages, so I’ll stop now. I believe that these were some of the things that Alan was trying to get across in his discussion of Schmitt in terms of awakening our awareness to what Schmitt said and the ramifications of such a philosophy.
One last note – Today (May 7th), coincidentally, is the day in 1954 that the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu by the Vietnamese.