The Firing Line

With no war dividend, workers ask: What the hell are we doing in Iraq?

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CRISIS ABOUNDS, head for the Roosevelt Room! In anxious times nothing seems quite so appealing as the consolation of going back. Fashion houses took the lead on this in 2000-01, draping models in couture interpretations of World War II Army drab. Liberals followed a few years later, envisioning in the wake of Hurricane Katrina a “national conversation” toward vast public works: “George Bush, meet Dr. New Deal,” wrote William Greider. This summer, against a backdrop of Iranian defiance, Hezbollah’s humiliation of U.S./Israeli firepower, and more horror in Iraq, came Newt Gingrich, indulging an opportunist’s appreciation for fear and an if-only sense of nostalgia by proposing that Americans rally themselves for World War III.

“A trial balloon for 2008?” pundits inquired as to the intentions of the “de facto leader of the GOP.” The balloon deflated before it had liftoff, notwithstanding the efforts of right-wing radio, Joe Lieberman, and the Bush team bellowing “Islamofascism!” and “appeasement!” to blow air into it. Americans, it turns out, aren’t keening for Victory Gardens and the draft any more than they are for Eisenhower jackets. They are too acquainted with rationing of a sort already, and with the dead, wounded, and disturbed. Even the lucky ones who haven’t lost income or a job or a child and aren’t at risk of doing so are cynical. This election cycle, the so-called security moms were telling pollsters they are sick of war. Iraq looks lost, the Taliban is regrouping, nothing feels safer, it’s a sweat to keep up, damn the SUV, those soccer runs cost dearly, and God only knows what it will take to heat the house this winter.

Something interesting has happened at the intersection of economic decline and the road to Baghdad. After more than a generation of organizing economic relations for lower expectations, worker insecurity, and super-enrichment of the moneyed at the expense of everyone else, capitalism is failing to accomplish one of its historical tasks: organizing support for war. That’s the good news in a gloomy time, and not only Republicans and Democrats but also the left might want to revise their strategies.

It used to be an article of faith that war abroad brought benefits at home, not just in the warmth of perceived national unity but in hard cash—jobs and rising living standards. It was mass production in mills and on assembly lines for World War II that finally brought the country out of the Depression, after all. The New Deal simply saved capitalism from itself and, through redistribution, rural electrification, and wage and hour laws, created a sense of common purpose, of faith in government that made the call to war that much easier. All the cant about “the greatest generation” obscures the fact that most Americans were poor then; they had nowhere to go but up. War helped them get there. From 1929 to 1947 real wages for production workers rose 67 percent. The path was hardly even or equal, the claim of “one nation” always wishful. The war’s end brought grave dislocations for the newest members of the industrial workforce—blacks and women. But the reconstruction of Europe and Japan helped, Korea helped, the GI Bill helped, the Cold War buildup and the postwar consumer frenzy helped a lot. Blacks had bases from which to mount the modern civil rights movement, and after Rosie the Riveter was sent packing from the factory to the family room, at least she got a dishwasher and a gin and tonic until time and women’s liberation presented more options.

That résumé glosses over worlds of pain, implicit in placards for the 1963 March on Washington: “For Jobs and Freedom.” The war in Vietnam didn’t answer either demand, and Lyndon Johnson’s halfway measure, the War on Poverty, would be the era’s other lost war. But even that forgotten campaign brought benefits. Women especially found a place in the vast enlargement of the public social-service sector, the growth of which, combined with racism, alarm over unrest, and higher wages from wartime expansion, provided enough of a distraction to keep a large portion of the older white middle class and the most privileged, mostly white sectors of the working class in the war column through most of the Vietnam years. The New Deal’s unfinished business remained just that and its mirage of common purpose vanished, but with real wages rising 68 percent from 1947 to 1973, it was easy to say: War is the engine, its payoff destined to thwart a sustained antiwar politics.

We don’t have such a politics now, but almost no one’s talking payoff either, as insecurity at home and abroad feed off each other. Republican mothers in suburban Columbus tell the Washington Post they’re frustrated with a war that has made Ohio No. 5 in deaths and diverts attention from the precarious economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects there will be 93,000 steelworkers in 2014; there were 720,000 in 1970. An Amtrak conductor out of Springfield, Massachusetts, tells a passenger he’s never seen things so bad and wonders “why there isn’t a revolution.” In Detroit, Ford reels from overreliance on heavy trucks and SUVs, cutting production by 21 percent and anticipating 30,000 permanent layoffs. On a neighborhood corner in Columbia, South Carolina, a group of men rail against the war, their wages, the white man, and how hard it is out there, especially for young brothers, as 72 percent of black men in their 20s without a high school diploma are jobless. On the rural fringe of Utica, New York, a graduate student keeps his thermostat at 55 and waits out the coldest days in a heated bar with retirees and sidelined hard hats. An Iraq veteran’s wife in Fresno, California, flaunts a bumper sticker on her Chevy Suburban: “Mission Accomplished, My Ass!” Her husband, having quit the Army on her ultimatum, says, “The fact is I’m a trained killer,” and agonizes over how else he’ll support their little girls. The BLS forecasts that the greatest employment opportunities will be in low-wage retail work. A retired executive in West Virginia fumes that a credit card company hit him with more than 30 percent interest. A jobless woman near Sarasota, Florida, can’t support another child and doesn’t have $400 in cash or credit for an abortion, but at six weeks she can’t yet get emergency help from a strapped abortion fund for low-income women; nearing the second trimester she’ll be an emergency, the fund will kick in, and the price will drop, to $200 she also doesn’t have. An editor for a financial securities firm despises her job and the caution she must exercise daily so as not to jeopardize it while her daughter’s in college. A New Orleans florist joins the throng of local shop owners trying to reopen but rejected for loans by the Small Business Administration. Threatened with gutted wages and pensions, 83 percent of unionized Delphi workers take a deal to quit. The BLS records 251,341 “separations” due to mass layoffs in the private, nonfarm sector for the second quarter of 2006, from manufacturing to food service, professional and technical services to retail trade, emergency health care to support services; not even finance, insurance, and real estate are exempt.

For each snapshot there are myriad amplifying statistics, charting the effects of nearly 30 years of policy, under Republicans and Democrats, in boom times and in slumps, affirming militarism as a given but employment as a crapshoot, inequality inevitable, and life on the edge of ruin a fact for all but the richest or the already ruined. Since the early 1980s an estimated 30 million people, from line workers to professionals, have been permanently chucked from full-time jobs as part of a business strategy, while average real wages have tumbled, so that by 2004 more than 55 percent of available jobs paid no more than $13.25 an hour and nearly 40 percent of the workforce earned no more than $10 an hour. It’s not that business and its political patrons previously were not cutthroat and now they are, only that the extent of exclusion has been so grotesque. From 1929 to 1947 the real income of the richest 1 percent fell 17 percent; from 1947 to 1973it rose 38 percent; from 1980 to 2004 it rose 132 percent. It’s hard to throw a party, shut out almost everyone, and then hope to generate whoops of solidarity from the uninvited. No doubt the Global War on Terror has boosted the ranks of low-wage security guards and high-wage security system designers, just as it has kept some aircraft engine builders and Hummer makers who might otherwise have been furloughed on the job. But because neither the war nor the economy depends deeply on heavy industry, because government policy is not geared for redistribution and the private economy no longer turns on the concept that excess profits will be spread around in the form of higher wages and benefits, the co-opted worker has given way to the anxious worker.

The midterm elections can have no bearing on this reality, as Republicans “stay the course” and Democratic opposition amounts to arguing for a stingy minimum wage hike, not a renewed social contract; for a more competently fought war, not an end to war and threats of war as policy. Yet there is opportunity here. The majorities registering opposition to the war are an inchoate bunch. Antiwar forces would like to take credit for that opposition, but they are playing catch-up, reflecting mass opinion but without a mass movement capable of doing something about it or a message that compellingly unites the twin poles of insecurity. It never is wise, or moral, to oppose war on cost-benefit terms. What if it were “worth it”? But neither is there sense, or inspiration, in addressing war as if it were some walled phenomenon, over there, without implication here except as grist for playroom slogans like “Books Not Bombs.” As old fighters from an earlier antiwar movement said, the aim is to stop not just this war but “the seventh war from now”; that means challenging the setup that rewards violence and casual destruction at home and abroad. That is no longer too exotic a message for most people to hear.


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