- When Is Postwar?
Speaking at the National Defense University on May 23, 2013, President Barack Obama announced his intention to scale back the war on terror that began more than a decade earlier in the weeks after September 11, 2001. He proposed to realign his administration’s counterterrorism policy, restricting the use of drone strikes, redoubling efforts to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, and checking his own office’s power to wage war. In this hour-long address, Obama emphasized the need for moderation in continuing to “fight terrorism without keeping America on a perpetual war footing.” Not condemning the Bush administration directly, he referred to the war on terror as a war of “self-defense” and a “just war” that must nonetheless be brought to a close.1 Casting a historical line from the Revolutionary War and Civil War to the Cold War and twenty-first-century counterterrorism, he admitted that warfare has changed. “But our commitment to constitutional principles has weathered every war, and every war has come to an end.”2 Although one cannot foretell the success of this policy shift, historians and cultural critics are challenging the idea that every war has, as Obama suggests, “come to an end.” Three recent books in different ways speak to the meaning of warfare in the postwar period: Jon Wiener’s How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey across America (2012), Mary Dudziak’s War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences (2012), and James Sparrow’s Warfare State: World War [End Page 949] II Americans and the Age of Big Government (2011). Together they trace the origin of present-day American militarism and analyze the politics of the way we think about and remember war today.
In the United States, the term postwar is used to refer to the period after the surrender of Japan on September 2, 1945, the “official” end of World War II.3 But of course there has been no shortage of warfare since then. These “limited” wars are distinguished from the “total” wars that came before them and sometimes not called wars at all: they are “conflicts,” “hostilities,” “policy actions,” or “operations.” The idea of postwar therefore does not only mask decades of military campaigns; it is an argument that war always ends, that the ending is a defining feature of war. This thinking has met resistance, however. Giorgio Agamben, for one, has criticized the war on terror as epitomizing a “state of exception” in which the legal order is itself withheld. This state of exception is neither inside nor outside the legal order but rather designates a “zone of indistinction” through which state-sanctioned violence is carried out and concealed.4 Although Agamben emphasizes that this zone of indistinction is not a product of modernity (as Michel Foucault suggested) but the original relation of politics, he characterizes George W. Bush’s conduct after September 11, 2001, as the moment at which “the emergency becomes the rule, and the very distinction between peace and war … becomes impossible.”5 Wiener, Dudziak, and Sparrow suggest otherwise, locating this moment far earlier in American history. The line distinguishing emergency from rule and peace from war became “impossible” long before Bush declared a war on terror.6
The historian Jon Wiener analyzes how the Cold War is being memorialized in the United States today. He toured dozens of historical sites and memorials––some existing only online or in stagnated legislation––to understand the cultural legacy of the nuclear arms race and proxy wars that underwrote the American global imaginary for half a century. Many of these sites originate in the same political agenda. When...