*‘They Make War and Call it Peace’: The Shame of Obama’s Nobel Prize

Solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant:  ‘They make solitude [desert] and call it peace’.  So wrote the Roman historian Caius Tacitus almost 2,000 years ago.  The text from which this quote is drawn deserves a bit more scrutiny:  “Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominis imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant”, says Tacitus (Life of Agricola 30), which has generally been rendered as follows:     ‘To robbery, slaughter and rapaciousness [rapere] they give the false name of empire; where they make a solitude they call it peace.’  Tacitus was describing the conduct of the Romans, to whom the “further limits of Britain” had been thrown open.  By solitude, Tacitus meant a ‘desert’; they laid waste to a place and so rendered it a place of solitude [solitudinem].  Somehow, reading Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, delivered today in Oslo, Tacitus’s text comes to mind.

When nearly two months ago the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced the conferral of the peace prize upon Obama, one wondered what Obama had done to deserve the honor, or what qualifications the Committee’s members had to bestow the prize upon Obama – or indeed anyone else.  Both questions are easily answered.  The Norwegians know something about salmon and lingon berries, and they should content themselves with that knowledge, and leave judgments about international governance and peace-making to others.  (The results of their previous efforts to ‘broker peace’, to use the debased jargon of realpolitik, are there to be seen in Sri Lanka.)  As for Obama’s qualifications, many people are persuaded, and who knows Obama himself among them, that his (supposed) repudiation of the policies of his predecessor in the White House has alone made him an eminently worthwhile candidate for unusual and great honors.  Quite tickled pink with the idea of his rock star charm, Obama even made a flying visit to Denmark to help in Chicago’s bid to stage the Olympics, only to receive a rude shock when Chicago was thrown out of the final round of competition with the lowest number of votes.  Once Obama had been so slighted, it may be argued, something had to be done to assuage his wounds.  And the Nobel Peace Prize is certainly there for the taking.

Many of the left objected, as indeed they should have, to the conferral of the Nobel Peace Prize upon Barack Obama, who is a wartime President of the United States.  Obama had, in October, already ruled out immediate withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan and was even contemplating an increased American military presence in Afghanistan, a step that has now become official policy.  His administration has retained the previous administration’s policy of extraordinary rendition and has, again in keeping with the trend established by his predecessor, blocked attempts to release photographs and other evidence of abuse from Abu Ghraib.  The objection that a wartime President should not be conferred the Nobel Peace Prize is an entirely legitimate one, but one that is futile.  Others may occasionally forget that the President of the United States is also, in title and in fact, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the United States, but Obama’s acceptance speech today does not shy from this fact.  As Commander-in-Chief, Nobel Laureate Barack Obama presides over a military establishment with a budget that dwarfs the military expenditures of every other country.  In 2008, the Stockholm Peace Research Institute has reported, the United States spent $607 billion on its armed forces, accounting for 41.5% of the world’s military expenditures.  By comparison, China spent $85 billion, France $66 billion, Britain $65 billion, Russia $59 billion, and India $30 billion.  Whatever else the US might be, it is, and has been for some time, a war-making machine.  That is the most fundamental and ineradicable part of its identity.  War is an American addiction, and Obama is no freer of that addiction than any other power-monger in American history. Unfortunately, Obama is not merely the victim of that addiction; he is today charged with peddling that addiction – arms sales of the most advanced weaponry also fall under his jurisdiction, for example — with palpable consequences for the rest of the world.

Thus, in accepting the Nobel Prize, Obama had to engage in some exercise of sophistry.  He perforce had to begin with reflection that, even as he receives the award, he has authorized the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Obama has mastered the art of appearing ‘noble’, in pursuit of higher truths – in his Nobel speech, this manifests partly as repeated invocations to Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.  (Thankfully, Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace Prize, a matter of much regret to many well intentioned but hopelessly confused Indians who puzzle over his omission.)  Obama might have ruminated over the fact that the same Martin Luther King, only a year before his death, unhesitatingly described the United States ‘as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world’.  Independent-minded as he is or claims to be, Obama can rightfully claim that he can pick and choose what he likes from his alleged mentors.  As for Gandhi, that man seems to have an inescapable presence in Obama’s life, popping out of the bottle like some genie every now and then.   A few weeks ago, I wrote on this blog about how Obama, when asked by a schoolgirl who he would like to have had as his dinner guest, had identified Gandhi.  And, now, in his Nobel speech, here is Gandhi again:  “The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached – their faith in human progress – must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.”  How Obama loves that man!

Augustine and the church fathers authored the doctrine of ‘the just war’, and Obama’s fond enunciation of this tenet — with which Jesus’s name should not be associated — of the Christian faith will be celebrated by some as a reflection of his ‘principled’ stand on the question of war.  One thought that the distinction between the ‘bad war’ (Iraq) and the ‘good war’ (Afghanistan) had been buried by intelligent minds, but Obama has just breathed new life into this sterile, not to mention stupid, distinction.  The usual platitudes about the presence of evil in this world, and the pain he feels at sending young men and women into the killing fields aside, I could not but notice the sleight of hand with which he dispatched the idea of nonviolent resistance, which Obama otherwise claims to champion, into oblivion.  “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies”, said Obama; “Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”  I’m not aware that an international nonviolent movement was even remotely contemplated, much less brought into existence, but it has become an article of unquestioned faith to argue that Gandhian-style nonviolent resistance would not have survived a minute against Nazi Germany.  Still, supposing that Obama is right in rehearsing this cliché, what is striking is that he should have used the most extreme example of the exercise of violence, namely totalitarian Nazi Germany, to support his call for war in Afghanistan.  So is Afghanistan an instance of the unmitigated evil that men can do?  And if al-Qaeda and Afghanistan – notice, too, the easy and implicit pairing of the two – are reminiscent of the days of Hitler, surely this is a ‘just war’?

The avid lovers of Foucault, and the myriad other postmodernists and poststructuralists, should all be on notice, if they were not previously, that in Obama we have the latest instantiation of the view that, in our progressive times, we shall be killed by kindness.


7 thoughts on “*‘They Make War and Call it Peace’: The Shame of Obama’s Nobel Prize

  1. Thank you for this post. The cynical use of Gandhi and King is disgusting! This whole farce just goes to show (yet again) why Nobel prizes ought not to be taken seriously.

    I am not sure I understand the last paragraph .. why do you invoke Foucault?


  2. What I find unfathomable is the end goal for these military adventures we seem so anxious to pursue. We invaded a sovereign nation in Iraq, apparently identifying it as an opportunity to experiment (neoconservative style) with a long-held theory by Rumsfeld/Cheney/Wolfowitz et al about “regime change”. We overthrew a bellicose but largely weakened dictator and our actions have directly or indirectly resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (men, women, and children). The neoconservative theory of regime change now has been unmasked as simple-minded and absurd.

    Now we distance ourselves from this “bad” war, while embracing a “good” war in Afghanistan. As with Vietnam before, intelligent men and women appear to be drawn inevitably to make bad decision after bad decision, deepening a conflict which seems so obviously a) pointless, and b) “unwinnable”.

    I think about the misjudgments, ignorance, and hubris that led to 58,000 US and millions of Vietnamese deaths. Our present struggle is destined for the same outcome, if perhaps with fewer US deaths (although many more horrific maimings). We all look back now and “tut tut” these actions as if they couldn’t be repeated and as if the current conflicts are totally different.

    As an American, I must ask what is the goal that my government hopes to achieve on my behalf?

    – world military hegemony? (there’s a reason we spend $600BN on defense and work hard to keep both allies and potential enemies technologically inferior)
    – defeating terrorism? (without recognizing poverty, powerlessness, and injustice that breeds it)
    – fighting them “there” rather than here? (hundreds and thousands of lives of men, women, and children are worth little so long as they are not American lives)


    • Hello Steve,

      As you can surmise, I would agree with your comments. Incidentally, I have yet to see a Vietnam War Memorial in this country which recognizes the 3 million Vietnamese killed in the conflict. Of course, one could say that no country recognizes the war casualties of another country; each country recognizes its own fallen soldiers. Still, I wonder whether the feeling persists here that other countries (especially those not belonging to the Western hemisphere) are indifferent to their own dead, and that an American life is, in any case, worth more than lives of people elsewhere. The increasing turn to drones in American warfare, on which I wrote a post last month, is another immense source of ethical concern, as here the supposition is that war can be fought through remote control. This is partly the logic of outsourcing.


      At 5:24 AM +0000 12/14/09,


  3. In my opinion, throughout history, All Empires have had terrible moral blind spots in their own very-personal perspectives of justice and of history, and thus in their personal views of smaller nations and of other peoples.

    That America might just be the most Just of all Empires in History, is small consolation.

    President Obama’s tortured logic in his Nobel acceptance delivery is due to his own personal experience with Realpolitik in his new job. He really has no choice. The constraining imperative comes with the territory of being First Leader of the American Empire.

    So that President Obama will sometimes be forced to make executive decisions, even possibly against his own better personal moral judgment in any given situation, should not surprise us. He is no different in this regard than any of his predecessors.

    That this dismays many of us is also no surprise. We want and should expect more from all of our leaders —— in that regard, we should never give up our higher expectations or give in to ‘reality’. Perhaps one day President Obama will pleasantly surprise us in this regard?

    What should worry us more is what the future holds. If America is a declining empire, as present evidence suggests to some observers, then she may yet lower her own standards. This is a terribly painful possibility, and one that I hope never comes to fruition. But then empires in decline are not known for taking the high road.


  4. I found this post very thought provoking! Specifically, I found the connection between Gandhi and Obama and the way that he links himself to Gandhi interesting. Obama’s words, evident in the quote, “The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached – their faith in human progress – must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey”, truly got me thinking. I feel like I should truly try to apply this reasoning to my life as I go forward, as it will definitely make me a happier and more loving person.


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