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The Missing Peace Dividend


I recall watching the TV news the evening that Germans were taking sledgehammers to the Berlin Wall. They were smashing it into little souvenirs, reminders of a world split in two for decades. I allowed myself to feel happy for a people who had never known any type of freedom, anything of life that was not under authoritarian rule. After all, Hitler’s fascism ruled from 1933 to the end of WWII, and that was followed by an equally repressive communist regime under the Soviet thumb. Good for the East Germans, finally.

Then there was the night when the hammer and sickle came down from the Kremlin, and the Russian flag was raised in its place. The Soviet Union, the “Evil Empire,” was no more. Now there would just be Russia and the various other former Soviet republics. People there would be free. The Cold War was over, and there was talk of a peace dividend.

Peace. No more fear of the bomb and mutually assured destruction. What a thought for those of us who were taught to duck and cover in elementary school in the 1950s!

Whatever happened to that peace dividend, all that money and personnel resources the United States was going to save with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War? It was discussed in all the papers, so it had to be real, right?

Apparently, not right. The peace dividend we were promised never materialized. And today, our military budget is more then twice that of any other country and more than that of many other countries combined.

Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the United States went to war. There was a bombing at the World Trade Center in 1993, followed by our involvement in Bosnia and Somalia. Then came 9/11, followed by Afghanistan and a second war with Iraq. Now we bomb for so-called “humanitarian reasons,” as in Libya. There’s talk of Iran being next.

The results are that people on the Left and Right cling to government through fear of terrorism, and our basic liberties are being trashed. Federal agents can now write their own search warrants because of the Patriot Act, and now there’s the potential of unlimited detention of U.S. citizens because of the National Defense Authorization Act. Making matters worse is that there are now airborne drones flying here in the United States, drones that are capable of carrying weapons as well as cameras as they fly over U.S. cities.

The best explanation of the absence of the peace dividend lies in a statement rarely printed in the papers, mentioned on TV, or used anywhere by the mainstream media: “War is the health of the state.”

The statement is from Randolph Bourne, a U.S. progressive from the late 19th century and early 20th century. He was writing in response to the bloodshed of WWI. His meaning was explored by Howard Zinn in History is a Weapon:

“War is the health of the state” … Indeed, as the nations of Europe went to war in 1914, the governments flourished, patriotism bloomed, class struggle was stilled, and young men died in frightful numbers on the battlefields — often for a hundred yards of land, a line of trenches.”

So, what happened to the peace dividend? It’s Bourne’s observation that answers the question. The peace dividend was eaten up by the statist mentality that war, any war, is valid so long as it keeps the political class in power, keeps the people dutiful, and provides for those “flourishing” governments.

Businesses and families are supposed to flourish, not governments.

But war — or the threat of war — breeds nationalism, not genuine patriotism. People think they’re rallying around the flag, but they’re really rallying around the power of government. And the power lingers long after the war is over.

A war on poverty will work to rally the people around the government by making them feel sorry for others; but a war on drugs will work better, because that war has people to fight against. The citizens can conjure up the image of evil drug dealers, people to hate.

Hate works for government types. Hate Germans, Soviets, Japanese, drug dealers, Middle Easterners or any group that doesn’t want the United States meddling in their business. Hate ‘em all because they hate us, we’re told. And many of us obey.

Wars and their threat breed fear; and fear breeds dependency on, and loyalty to, governments even when the dependency is unwarranted and the loyalty undeserved.

People didn’t count on Bourne’s truism. But add it to Lord Acton’s observation on the corrupting influence of power and we have a good explanation of the mess we have today. The peace dividend disappeared as quickly as a government cash surplus, as quickly as a campaign promis

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    Rich Schwartzman is managing editor at Chadds Ford Live in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.