An interview with Joel Andreas,
author of comic book expose,
"Addicted to War:
Why the U.S. Can't Kick Militarism"
- by Nicole Aschoff and Pankaj Mehta
What in inspired you to write "Addicted to War: Why the US Can't Kick Militarism"?
The first gulf war in 1991. The war, and the media's coverage of it, were outrageous. People didn't understand what was actually going on and didn't understand the underlying causes of the war, I felt I had to do something. People weren't getting information from the mainstream news media. I wanted to make a different kind of information available to people. My father actually suggested the idea for the book. The initial idea was just to write an 8-page commentary on the war. When I started writing I realized that in order to really understand the war peopled needed an historical understanding of US foreign policy. I had written a comic book in the 70's called: "The Incredible Rocky"- an unauthorized biography of the Rockafeller family. It was distributed widely through progressive grassroots networks; it sold over a 100,000 copies. My father was familiar with this earlier book and suggested I create something similar about the Gulf War.
Why did you choose to write this book in comic form?
I guess you would have to then ask why I created the "The Incredible Rocky". I was a teenager and I liked to draw. I was getting interested in politics and wanted to educate others, so I put the two together. The direct inspiration was a Mexican cartoonist, Rius. He wrote some well known comic books including "Marx for Beginners" and "Cuba for Beginners," that were translated into English. He actually put out a weekly comics magazine that was quite successful. I realized that the comic book form was an effective medium to reach people. When I wanted to create an educational tool about the Gulf War, I turned again to this form. It is easy to pick up and read. People don't have to be into reading thick tomes to learn. By doing it as a comic book, it's more available and accessible.
In the book you continuously juxtapose the "public" proclamations for war - bringing democracy and human rights - with what government officials say among themselves. Can you comment about the justifications for this last Iraq war and the idea that the U.S. is bringing democracy to Iraq?
I was actually just thinking about this because we are planning to make a movie based on the book - an animated documentary, a whole new genre. The book is divided into three chapters, each focusing on a different era of American militarism. In all three eras, the ideological justification takes two forms. First, there is a terrifying enemy that will overwhelm us if we don't take violent measures. Second, we are bringing democracy and freedom around the world. In the first era Americans were taught to be fearful of the Native American "savages". During the Cold War it was about communism. The rhetoric was very similar. We have to aggressively fight against them or they will kill or enslave us all. Today, it's the terrorists. It's always the same structure. In every case you see that though these ideological justifications become very important to people, there are definitely geopolitical and economic interests involved. Economic interests are often very important, whether its land, markets, or resources - in the case of Iraq, oil.
Your book focuses a great deal on the military industrial complex. What role does it play in the larger U.S. economy?
It's this war that has really brought the role of the military industrial complex (MIC) home to me. I am doing a new edition of the book, updating it to include the present war. It's going to press in two weeks. I added a new chapter about the MIC called "The War Profiteers". I used to think arguments saying wars are fought to justify the MIC, were focusing only on secondary issues. But now it's so clear that the folks who run the government are from the MIC and are definitely thinking about the interests of the MIC when making policy decisions. I think this war underlines how important the MIC has become. Government enterprises and private contractors are mixed together in gigantic concerns. The influence of these concerns is everywhere. You drive north and you see the military shipyards in New Jersey and the huge Boeing plant south of Philadelphia. You drive south and you see the huge research centers connected to the Pentagon. I was attending a dinner for new faculty members here at Johns Hopkins and met the guy in charge of the [Hopkins] Applied Physics Laboratory. It turns out the laboratory is a huge complex with thousands of employees. They have government contracts to research missile design and other things. The MIC is a big part of this university. Recently I have come to realize how the US economy, more than any other economy, is organized around the military. This question might be analyzed from a long-term strategic perspective, as Giovanni [Arrighi] does. US economic supremacy is declining in the world. Yet, it still has an overwhelming military superiority. It's natural to turn in this period from largely economic means of dominating the world to military means
You quote President Taft as saying: "I accept responsibility for active intervention to secure for our capitalists opportunity for profitable investment". What are the class dimensions of militarism?
Well Taft talked about it pretty clearly. In the US there is a pretty well entrenched capitalist class that holds political sway. The ties between the government, politicians and corporations are tight. They are all closely linked. You can't talk about any US foreign policy decisions without thinking of the relationship between the state and corporations.
The last chapter is entitled "Resisting Militarism". In this vein, what do you think of the current anti-war movement?
Well, I was very impressed and uplifted by the recent antiwar movement. I think that when people don't have much of a historical perspective they tend to get very enthusiastic when the movement is in the upswing and then get very depressed in the inevitable downswing. When you look at it in the long term, you see cycles. The last two cycles are impressive because its clear things have fundamentally changed since Vietnam. Before, and even during Vietnam, the anti-war movement was slow to get going; there were no large protests until well into the war. Vietnam has fundamentally changed things. After Vietnam, an antimilitarist consciousness developed in the United States. There has continued to be a large segment of the population that is anti-militarist and generally skeptical about war. It is impressive that in the two Iraq wars, the movement developed so quickly. And the most promising thing about this last antiwar cycle is its international character.
Do you think the global justice movement has something to do with the international character of the anti-war movement?
Certainly. That's why the international movement was able to form so quickly. Among a certain conscious minority, there is a definite anti-imperialist attitude. However, the anti-war movement is much broader. It attracts people who don't necessarily have a sophisticated understanding, but are nevertheless anti-militarist. Many people were deflated when the war started in spite of the massive international resistance, but I believe this is a short-term view. Because there was such a strong anti-war movement, the invasion caused the US to be isolated. The US population is polarized in its opinions about the war and the U.S. is isolated internationally. This is going to be a major constraining force on US militarism. It ties the hands of the US. The anti-war movement has had a huge impact.
In Addicted to War you point out the fundamental continuity of U.S. militarism from the late 1870s to the present. Many people today view the current administration as a break from the past in terms of both action and ideology. Do you think that people are mistaken in framing the current situation as a particular product of the Bush administration rather than understanding it as a systemic phenomenon?
This is the case particularly for people who don't take a long-term view. They see the intensification under the Bush administration and see the situation as going from non-militarist to militarist. The truth is, this country has been militarist for its entire history. There has been a change, but not a fundamental change. The current policies are a continuation of an approach that the US has taken since the Indian wars. Nevertheless, even though the Bush administration is not fundamentally different, there has been an intensification of the militarist approach. At this point, I think a good part of the ruling class and the politicians think the war was a mistake in terms of their own interests. The actions of the Bush administration have weakened the position of the United States internationally. In many ways, the Clinton administration was a much more savvy promoter of the interests of the US ruling class.
Do you think the election results of 2004 will greatly affect the future actions of the U.S. in Iraq?
The results of the 2000 election had an impact. If the Supreme Court had ruled in Gore's favor, it's likely he would have invaded Afghanistan after 9-11, just as Bush did, but it's unlikely he would have invaded Iraq. So, there was a difference between Gore and Bush. U.S. militarism did not start with Bush. Every administration - Democratic or Republican - has used U.S. military power aggressively, and often the Democrats have been more aggressive than the Republicans. The difference now is that Bush has taken U.S. militarism to a new level. But Bush's extreme militarism has met strong resistance - in Iraq, internationally, and in the U.S. - and it's in deep trouble. This resistance will constrain any administration in the future. The next administration, whether it's headed by Bush or the Democratic nominee, will muddle through Iraq and will probably do more or less the same things there.
Finally, as a sociologist you are familiar with a wide array of theoretical work. What do you think radical theory, and theory in general, has to offer today's activists?
For many years, I was an activist, not a sociologist. There are really two questions. One, is theory important? Two, can we learn something from theories that aren't radical? I always thought theory was important. If you only understand your immediate circumstances, you go into situations pretty blind. All the problems political movements encounter today have been seen in some form before. So if we know theory, we can learn from the past and avoid costly mistakes. Political movements must have a theoretical and historical understanding. In terms of what kind of theory activists should study, radical theory - like Marxism - is probably the most immediately useful for activists, because it is takes up questions encountered in trying to advance a radical agenda. But it's also important to read people who have insights into the world that radical theories miss. My understanding of the world has also been greatly enriched by reading other theorists, like Weber, Mosca, and Michel. Liberal theory is the dominant paradigm in the world today, so it in order to understand how the world works, we must understand it. The ideological foundations of policy need to be understood.
More than 100,000 copies of this political comic book are in print.
Joel Andreas is currently Assistant Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. More information about Addicted to War can be found at http://www.addictedtowar.com.