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War Talk, the Death of the Social, and Disappearing Children: A Lesson for Obama

War is now defined almost exclusively as a punitive and militaristic process.

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Under the Bush administration, the language of war has taken on a distinctly new register, more expansive in both its meaning and its consequences. War no longer needs to be ratified by Congress since it is now waged by various government agencies that escape the need for official approval. War has become a permanent condition adopted by a nation state that is largely defined by its repressive functions in response to its powerlessness to regulate corporate power, provide social investments for the populace and guarantee a measure of social freedom. This has been evident not only in the all-embracing militarization of public life that emerged under the combined power and control of neoliberal zealots, religious fanatics and far right-wing conservatives, but also in the destruction of a liberal democratic political order and a growing culture of surveillance, inequality and cynicism.

The concept of war occupies a strange place in the current lexicon of foreign and domestic policy. It no longer simply refers to a war waged against a sovereign state such as Iraq, nor is it merely a moral referent for engaging in acts of national self defense. The concept of war has been both expanded and inverted. It has been expanded in that it has become one of the most powerful concepts for understanding and structuring political culture, public space and everyday life. Wars are now waged against crime, labor unions, drugs, terrorism and a host of alleged public disorders. Wars are not just declared against foreign enemies, but against alleged domestic threats.

The concept of war has also been inverted in that is has been removed from any concept of social justice – a relationship that emerged under President Lyndon Johnson and exemplified in the war on poverty. War is now defined almost exclusively as a punitive and militaristic process. This can be seen in the ways in which social policies have been criminalized so that the war on poverty developed into a war against the poor, the war on drugs became a war waged largely against youth of color and the war against terrorism continues as a war against immigrants, domestic freedoms and dissent itself. In the Bush-Cheney view of terrorism, war is individualized as every citizen becomes a potential terrorist, who has to prove that he or she is not dangerous. Under the rubric of the every-present state of emergency and its government-induced media panics, war provides the moral imperative to collapse the “boundaries between innocent and guilty, between suspects and non-suspects.”[1] War provides the primary rhetorical tool for articulating a notion of the social as a community organized around shared fears rather than shared responsibilities and civic courage. War is now transformed into a slick, Hollywood spectacle designed to both glamorize a notion of hyper-masculinity fashioned in the conservative oil fields of Texas and fill public space with celebrations of ritualized militaristic posturing touting the virtues of either becoming part of ” an Army of one” or indulging in commodified patriotism by purchasing a new (hybrid) Hummer.

War as spectacle easily combines with the culture of fear to divert public attention away from domestic social problems, define patriotism as consensus, enable the emergence of a deeply antidemocratic state and promote what Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald has called the “war on the constitution.” The political implications of the expanded and inverted use of war as a metaphor can also be seen in the war against “big government,” which is really a war against the welfare state and the social contract itself – this is a war against the notion that everyone should have access to decent education, health care, employment, and other public services. One of the most serious issues to be addressed in the debate about Bush’s concept of permanent war is the effect it is having on one of our most vulnerable populations, children, and the political opportunity this issue holds for articulating a language of both opposition and possibility.

Wars are almost always legitimated in order to make the world safe for “our children’s future,” but the rhetoric belies how their future is often denied by the acts of aggression put into place by a range of ideological state apparatuses that operate on a war footing. This would include the horrible effects of the militarization of schools, the use of the criminal justice system to redefine social issues such as poverty and homelessness as violations of the social order and the subsequent rise of a prison-industrial complex as a way to contain those youth for whom class and race loom large as a generation of suspects. Under the rubric of war, security and antiterrorism, children are “disappeared” from the most basic social spheres that provide the conditions for a sense of agency and possibility, as they are rhetorically excised from any discourse about the future. Children now pass easily from school to the criminal justice system to the prison. Unemployed youth disappear from the discourse of social concern only to reappear in the demonizing and punishing rhetoric of the criminal, drug addict and thug. One particularly repugnant example of the “disappearing” of children was made clear in a report issued by the Equal Justice Initiative in 2007. The report states, “In the United States, dozens of 13- and 14-year-old children have been sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole after being prosecuted as adults.”[2] In this case, the United States has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world “where a 13-year old is known to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.”[3] What is to be said about a country that is willing to put young children behind bars until they die? These alleged criminals are not adults, but immature and underdeveloped children who are too young to marry, drive a car, get a tattoo and/or go to scary movies, but not too old to be put in prison for the rest of their lives. According to a recent Equal Justice Initiative report, “at least 2,225 people are serving sentences of death in prison for crimes they committed under the age of 18.”[4] Even more disturbing is the fact that “73 children sentenced to die in prison who are either 13 or 14 years old.”[5] Moreover, on any given day in the United States, 9500 juveniles under the age of 18 are locked up in adult penal institutions.”[6] At the current time, 44 states and the District of Columbia can try 14-year-olds in the adult criminal system.[7]

The Bush administration’s aggressive attempts during the last eight years to reduce the essence of democracy to profit making, shred the social contract, elevate property rights over human rights, privatize and corporatize public schools and promote tax cuts that benefit the rich and destroy social programs and public investments failed completely when applied to the vast majority of citizens, but especially failed when applied to children. And yet, children provide one of the most important referents for exposing and combating such policies. Making visible the suffering and oppression of children cannot help but challenge the key assumptions of “permanent war” and market-driven policies designed to destroy public institutions and prevent government from providing important services that ameliorate ignorance, poverty, racism, inequality and disease. Children offer a crucial rationale for engaging in a critical discussion about the long-term consequences of current policies. Any debate about war, regime change and military intervention is both unethical and politically irresponsible if it doesn’t recognize how such policies affect children. For the Obama administration, the focus on children may be one place to begin to develop a unifying rallying point of political struggle and resistance in order to make clear to a broader public that a permanent war strategy and discourse of moral absolutes of the past promote democracy neither abroad nor at home, and its alleged value can best be understood in the hard currency of human suffering that children all over the globe are increasingly forced to pay.


[1] Ulrich Beck, Ibid, “The Silence of words and Political Dynamics in the World Risk Society,” p. 3.
[2] The Equal Justice Initiative, Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison, (Montgomery, AL: The Equal Justice Initiative, 2007). Online:
[3] Ibid., The Equal Justice Initiative, Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison.
[4] Ibid., The Equal Justice Initiative, Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison.
[5] The Equal Justice Initiative, Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison,
[6] Marian Wright Edelman, “Juveniles Don’t Belong in Adult Prisons,” Children’s Defense Fund, (August 1, 2008). Online at:’t-belong-in_b_116747.html
[7] Marian Wright Edelman, “Juveniles Don’t Belong in Adult Prisons,” Children’s Defense Fund, (August 1, 2008). Online at:’t-belong-in_b_116747.html

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