NEW YORK — The news that President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize immediately brought to mind comparisons with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who received the same prize back in 1973. In the outpourings of sharply divided reactions that ensued, a great many, it turned out, conjured the same specter — natural enough for those of us who lived through those oppressive years of the monstrous hegemon, the United States, on the rampage.
Rewarding a man for burning and pulverizing women and children is just like a prize committee named for the inventor of dynamite, a poet friend said. That may have been a bit unkind to Alfred Nobel, but Kissinger never struck us as a man of peace. He was merely devious. As it turned out, he had a heavy hand in the overthrow and death of Chilean President Salvador Allende that had occurred just about a month before the Nobel Committee decided to give him the prize.
As Chilean U.N, Ambassador Heraldo Munoz explained in a recent talk, for the Chileans, “9/11” means that day.
Kissinger’s conduct since has not been redemptive, either. Gore Vidal, the great chronicler of American history, has even created the term “Kissingers” in his dishonor, as it were — for those who move from “high office to even higher, lucrative eminence, as lobbyists for foreign powers, often hostile to our interests.”
Not that Barack Obama appears to be anywhere near as mendacious, for now. He has been in office for too short a period — another point made about this award. The main doubt cast on the decision of course lies elsewhere. Obama has not just failed to extract U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan “with all deliberate speed” — if I may employ the term once used for desegregation in this country. Calling what the U.S. has been doing in Afghanistan “a war of necessity,” he has increased the troops there and the mechanical slaughter (from drone aircraft) in its neighbor, Pakistan.
But now a couple of scholars have asserted that Obama’s acceptance of the Nobel Prize may be unconstitutional (Article I, Section 9, the emolument clause), and that has reminded me of the idea, now seldom contemplated, that is one of Nobel’s own conditions for the peace prize: “the abolition or reduction of standing armies.” America’s having gigantic military might has been the basic problem for some time. Having or not having “standing armies” was one contentious issue at the birth of this nation.
In “The Federalist Papers,” the compilation of arguments for the federation of the 13 states, Alexander Hamilton felt compelled to reject “one specific objection” to one of “the powers to be conferred upon the federal government” — the maintenance of “standing armies in time of peace” (No. 24).
Hamilton put up this argument because at least two states, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, flatly stated in their constitutions: “As standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up.” Also, four other states said the same thing, though with the proviso that it could be done if the legislature consented.
James (Bill of Rights) Madison — one of the two other authors of “The Federalist Papers,” the third being John Jay — did not say anything substantive on standing armies, but elsewhere he did make some astute observations on war, among them this: “Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies.”
The Union, born partly of the English-French struggle for global hegemony, of course created standing armies and has since remained as militarily expansionist as England and France. Madison’s words be damned.
Still, something changed in the ruling stratum of America in the mid-20th century, argued C. Wright Mills, in his famous 1956 polemic, “The Power Elite.” It was “the military ascendancy.” Largely as a result of Pearl Harbor and America’s subsequent overwhelming victory, U.S. politicians, who before then had been generally “hostile” to the military, became solicitous of the views of generals and admirals. Thus the soldiers came to “define the reality of [America’s] international relations in a military way.”
Four years after Mills’ book came out, Dwight Eisenhower, who had easily slid from the highest-ranking military officer to the highest-ranking civilian, famously warned, in his farewell speech, against the predominance of “the military- industrial complex.” It had become that bad.
You can argue that, proportionately, the power of the military has waned, especially since the Vietnam War, as Alan Wolfe does in his afterword to the 2000 edition of Mills’ book. But America’s military status as global overlord hasn’t changed. The country now maintains 700 to 900 military bases overseas. The civilian masters know this. So “the Bush-Cheney junta,” as Vidal calls it, could go on a rampage, again.
Will Barack Obama view the Nobel Peace Prize as a brake and try to reduce America’s standing army, abolishing it being unimaginable? Or is he going to keep wielding America’s military might as he has been disposed to so far, at every turn?
To take this speculation further, will the world wake up someday and begin subjecting U.S. presidents to international law? Will some countries begin bringing lawsuits and summonses against them? Will Obama end up being dogged by such suits and summonses, like Kissinger?
Incidentally, the latest person I know who seriously took the standing army as inimical to liberty, just as many contemporaries of Hamilton and Madison did, was Timothy McVeigh — yes, the man who took responsibility for the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in 1995, and was executed. When asked for his own Bill of Rights, he proposed, as Article 2, that “there shall be no standing military force during peacetime.”
Being a decorated infantryman in the Gulf War, McVeigh knew what havoc a standing army could bring, not just overseas but domestically as well. Gore Vidal understood his cause.
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.