Why don’t America’s wars ever end?
I know, I know: President Joe Biden has announced that our combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 9/11 of this year, marking the 20th anniversary of the colossal failure of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to defend America.
Of course, that other 9/11 in 2001 shocked us all. I was teaching history at the U.S. Air Force Academy and I still recall hushed discussions of whether the day’s body count would exceed that of the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day of the Civil War. (Fortunately, bad as it was, it didn’t.)
Hijacked commercial airliners, turned into guided missiles by shadowy figures our panicky politicians didn’t understand, would have a profound impact on our collective psyche. Someone had to pay and among the first victims were Afghans in the opening salvo of the misbegotten Global War on Terror, which we in the military quickly began referring to as the GWOT. Little did I know then that such a war would still be going on 15 years after I retired from the Air Force in 2005 and 80 articles after I wrote my first for TomDispatch in 2007 arguing for an end to militarism and forever wars like the one still underway in Afghanistan.
Over those years, I’ve come to learn that, in my country, war always seems to find a way, even when it goes badly — very badly, in fact, as it did in Vietnam and, in these years, in Afghanistan and Iraq, indeed across much of the Greater Middle East and significant parts of Africa. Not coincidentally, those disastrous conflicts haven’t actually been waged in our name. No longer does Congress even bother with formal declarations of war. The last one came in 1941 after Pearl Harbor. During World War II, Americans united to fight for something like national security and a just cause. Today, however, perpetual American-style war simply is. Congress postures, but does nothing decisive to stop it. In computer-speak, endless war is a feature of our national programming, not a bug.
Two pro-war parties, Republicans and Democrats, have cooperated in these decades to ensure that such wars persist… and persist and persist. Still, they’re not the chief reason why America’s wars are so difficult to end. Let me list some of those reasons for you. First, such wars are beyond profitable, notably to weapons makers and related military contractors. Second, such wars are the Pentagon’s reason for being. Let’s not forget that, once upon a time, the present ill-named Department of Defense was so much more accurately and honestly called the Department of War. Third, if profit and power aren’t incentive enough, wars provide purpose and meaning even as they strengthen authoritarian structures in society and erode democratic ones. Sum it all up and war is what America now does, even if the reasons may be indefensible and the results so regularly abysmal.
Support our troops! (Who are they, again?)
The last truly American war was World War II. And when it ended in 1945, the citizen-soldiers within the U.S. military demanded rapid demobilization — and they got it. But then came the Iron Curtain, the Cold War, the Korean War, fears of nuclear Armageddon (that nearly came to fruition during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962), and finally, of course, Vietnam. Those wars were generally not supported — not with any fervor anyway — by the American people, hence the absence of congressional declarations. Instead, they mainly served the interests of the national security state, or, if you prefer, the military-industrial-congressional complex.
That’s precisely why President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued his grave warning about that Complex in his farewell address in 1961. No peacenik, Ike had overseen more than his share of military coups and interventions abroad while president, so much so that he came to see the faults of the system he was both upholding and seeking to restrain. That was also why President John F. Kennedy called for a more humble and pacific approach to the Cold War in 1963, even as he himself failed to halt the march toward a full-scale war in Southeast Asia. This is precisely why Martin Luther King, Jr., truly a prophet who favored the fierce urgency of peace, warned Americans about the evils of war and militarism (as well as racism and materialism) in 1967. In the context of the enormity of destruction America was then visiting on the peoples of Southeast Asia, not for nothing did he denounce this country as the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.
Collectively, Americans chose to ignore such warnings, our attention being directed instead toward spouting patriotic platitudes in support of “our” troops. Yet, if you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize those troops aren’t really ours. If they were, we wouldn’t need so many bumper stickers reminding us to support them.
With the military draft gone for the last half-century, most Americans have voted with their feet by not volunteering to become “boots on the ground” in the Pentagon’s various foreign escapades. Meanwhile, America’s commanders-in-chief have issued inspiring calls for their version of national service, as when, in the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush urged Americans to go shopping and visit Disney World. In the end, Americans, lacking familiarity with combat boots, are generally apathetic, sensing that “our” wars have neither specific meaning to, nor any essential purpose in their lives.
As a former Air Force officer, even if now retired, I must admit that it took me too long to realize this country’s wars had remarkably little to do with me — or you, for that matter — because we simply have no say in them. That doesn’t mean our leaders don’t seek to wage them in our name. Even as they do so, however, they simultaneously absolve us of any need to serve or sacrifice. We’re essentially told to cheer “our” troops on, but otherwise look away and leave war to the professionals (even if, as it turns out, those professionals seem utterly incapable of winning a single one of them).
You know that yellow “crime scene” tape the police use to keep curious bystanders at bay? Our government essentially uses “war scene” tape to keep the curious among us from fathoming what the military is doing across so much of the world. That “tape” most often involves the use of classification, with everything that might matter to us designated “secret” or “top secret” and not fit for our eyes to see. This cult of secrecy enables ignorance and reinforces indifference.
Anyone like a Chelsea Manning or a John Kiriakou who seeks to cut that tape and so let ordinary citizens examine any of our war crime scenes in all their ugliness is punished. You, John Q. Public, are not supposed to know of war crimes in Iraq. You, Jane Q. Public, are not supposed to know of CIA torture programs. And when you don’t know, and even when you do (if only a little), you have no ability to question this country’s warlords in any rigorous fashion. You have no ability to resist wars vigorously and you know it, so most likely you won’t act — as so many once did in the Vietnam era — to stop them.
For a self-styled democracy that should abjure such conflicts, war has instead become both omnipresent, omni-absent (if you’ll let me invent a word for our strange situation), and oddly mercenary in these disunited states of ours. Borrowing a line from The Godfather, war isn’t personal in America, it’s strictly business. Basically, this country has its very own powerful warlords, even if they don’t have personal names, just collective ones — like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon. In those wars of “ours” lies undeniable evidence that corporations are indeed citizens, as the Supreme Court declared in 2010 by judicial fiat in the eerily named “Citizens United” case. As a result, America’s corporate warlords are now a new kind of ultra-powerful citizen. Think of them as warped versions of Marvel superheroes, collectively profiting from incessant conflict.
Did I say America no longer has citizen-soldiers? Of course, America has them. In place of old-style heroes like Alvin York (from World War I) or Audie Murphy (from World War II), we now have “heroes” like Citizen Raytheon and Citizen Boeing. Remember, as Mitt Romney reminded us, “corporations are people, my friend.”
Your views on war don’t matter—or do they?
As I think about war, American-style, certain phrases pop into my head from the Catholic catechism: is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen. Apply that to America’s global conflicts and you’ve captured the grim reality of this forever-war moment, even if President Biden is now trying to get U.S. combat troops out of one of them (and others are looking fervently for ways to continue fighting it). Worse yet, behind the scenes, that “world without end” invariably threatens to become a world with an end as the Pentagon persists in building yet more nuclear weapons — the phrase of the moment is “modernizing the nuclear arsenal” — while pursuing an antagonistic new cold war with China and Russia.
Referring to Catholic doxology in this fashion may seem heretical to some, but thought about another way, it’s all too appropriate, as war in some sense is a widely shared cult, if not a religion, in America. Too many people believe in it, even worship it. Signs of this include the transformation of anyone who wears a military uniform into an automatic hero. People sacrifice their children to that cult. And even if you or your children choose not to serve (as so many Americans do), or if you’re among those rare citizens who vociferously protest against our wars, your tax dollars nevertheless feed a war machine that’s always cranking away, well-lubricated by our endless cash contributions.
While our coins still say “In God We Trust,” the god our nation’s leaders profess to trust is most assuredly a warrior, not the prince of peace. Under the circumstances and against a backdrop of perpetual war, no one should be surprised that this country is increasingly wracked by conflict and rent by violent impulses.
Common sense informed by history tells us that war is terror, atrocity, and murder. More than a few of America’s sons and daughters have indeed been transformed by war into murderers overseas — and that’s before “our” troops come home, haunted by deadly experiences and their physical and moral wounds. Yet despite their pain, despite those wounds, America’s war machine rumbles on, sowing the dragon’s teeth of future conflicts through vast weapons sales abroad and further military deployments that so often are justified, bizarrely enough, as helping to prevent war.
Of course, we’d like to think of our country as a shining city on a hill, but to others we must seem more like a citadel bristling with weaponry, a colossus of war. And sadly enough, too many of our fellow Americans in that citadel would rather be militarily strong and wrong than pacifically meek and right.
That grim reality was summed up for me by an offhand comment from that self-styled lord of war, then-Vice President Dick Cheney. Early in 2008, his administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq having cratered and with casualties mounting, he was reminded that public opinion in this country had turned against that war and people wanted it to end. “So?” Cheney replied.
Who cares if the people are against war? For that matter, who cares about right and wrong? What matters is what the national security state wants and what it wants is war till the end of time.
What is to be done? I see two possible paths for this country. One is to work to find ways to end all our wars and the massive global military presence that goes with them. In the process, we would begin to dismantle our imperial war machine and so hobble the military-industrial complex and its warlords. The other is the path this country remains on (despite Joe Biden’s inclination to end the Afghan War). If followed, it will continue to allow the petty Caesars among us to rage until this imperial power finally collapses under the weight of its military excesses and failures. One path would lead to a possible restoration of democracy and citizen empowerment as America’s founders intended; the other will undoubtedly terminate in the chaos of slow-motion collapse in a world threatened by nuclear annihilation.
There is no fate but what we make, said Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies. What’ll it be, America? Do we have the collective courage to make a better fate for ourselves by pulling the plug on the war machine?
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