Making War on Everything is the American Way

When you're at war, even your own youth become potential enemies.  A sign after the Kent State shootings
When you’re at war, even your own youth become potential enemies. A sign after the Kent State shootings (1970)

W.J. Astore

Here are a few excerpts from my latest article at TomDispatch.com.  I urge you to read the entire article here.  Thank you!

War on drugsWar on poverty. War in Afghanistan. War in Iraq. War on terror. The biggest mistake in American policy, foreign and domestic, is looking at everything as war. When a war mentality takes over, it chooses the weapons and tactics for you.  It limits the terms of debate before you even begin. It answers questions before they’re even asked.

When you define something as war, it dictates the use of the military (or militarized police forces, prisons, and other forms of coercion) as the primary instruments of policy.  Violence becomes the means of decision, total victory the goal.  Anyone who suggests otherwise is labeled a dreamer, an appeaser, or even a traitor.

War, in short, is the great simplifier — and it may even work when you’re fighting existential military threats (as in World War II).  But it doesn’t work when you define every problem as an existential one and then make war on complex societal problems (crime, poverty, drugs) or ideas and religious beliefs (radical Islam).

America’s Omnipresent War Ethos

Consider the Afghan War — not the one in the 1980s when Washington funneled money and arms to the fundamentalist Mujahideen to inflict on the Soviet Union a Vietnam-style quagmire, but the more recent phase that began soon after 9/11.  Keep in mind that what launched it were those attacks by 19 hijackers (15 of whom were Saudi nationals) representing a modest-sized organization lacking the slightest resemblance to a nation, state, or government.  There was as well, of course, the fundamentalist Taliban movement that then controlled much of Afghanistan.  It had emerged from the rubble of our previous war there and had provided support and sanctuary, though somewhat grudgingly, to Osama bin Laden.

With images of those collapsing towers in New York burned into America’s collective consciousness, the idea that the U.S. might respond with an international “policing” action aimed at taking criminals off the global streets was instantly banished from discussion.  What arose in the minds of the Bush administration’s top officials instead was vengeance via a full-scale, global, and generational “war on terror.”  Its thoroughly militarized goal was not just to eliminate al-Qaeda but any terror outfits anywhere on Earth, even as the U.S. embarked on a full-fledged experiment in violent nation building in Afghanistan.  More than 13 dismal years later, that Afghan War-cum-experiment is ongoing at staggering expense and with the most disappointing of results.

While the mindset of global war was gaining traction, the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq.  The most technologically advanced military on Earth, one that the president termed “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known,” was set loose to bring “democracy” and a Pax Americana to the Middle East.  Washington had, of course, been in conflict with Iraq since Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991, but what began as the equivalent of a military coup (aka a “decapitation” operation) by an outside power, an attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein and eliminate his armed forces and party, soon morphed into a prolonged occupation and another political and social experiment in violent nation-building.  As with Afghanistan, the Iraq experiment with war is still ongoing at enormous expense and with even more disastrous results …

It’s the mindset that matters.  In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, places that for most Americans exist only within a “war” matrix, the U.S. invades or attacks, gets stuck, throws resources at the problem indiscriminately, and “makes a desert and calls it ‘peace'” (to quote the Roman historian Tacitus).  After which our leaders act surprised as hell when the problem only grows.

Sadly, the song remains monotonously the same in America: more wars, made worse by impatience for results driven by each new election cycle.  It’s a formula in which the country is eternally fated to lose…

b. traven asked me about “First Causes” when it comes to America’s permanent war mentality. With respect to the Middle East, he mentioned the Saudis and Israelis and the extent to which the USA kowtows to each. Here is my quick response:

I’d say that our war mentality pre-dates our tango with the Saudis and Israelis.  We really didn’t come to support them in a big way until the early 1970s, and by that point Korea and Vietnam and the military-industrial complex had already created a permanent war mentality.

First Cause(s): It’s so hard to say.  The Cold War and anti-Communist hysteria played a powerful role.  So did our culture: the John Wayne mentality.  American exceptionalism and our own myths.  The misreading of history: We must always resist violently or we’re risking another Munich.  Capitalism and the pursuit of profit by any means, to include violence.  Violence itself as a means to profit.

Maybe that’s it: Naked greed feeds wanton aggression.

What say you, readers?  Why is America always at war with itself and the world?

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17 thoughts on “Making War on Everything is the American Way

  1. Skimmed thru this article (eyes not functioning) but noted your ending about First Causes. In this you speak to conditions that I mentioned and always speak to. It is an important question particularly because our society actively avoids history so it can rewrite it in the mythological ways that we then are taught. People are so muddled that they actually think/believe today that Democracy IS Capitalism. In fact they are diametrically opposed concepts. One believes in equality and humanity for all people; the other promotes self-interest regardless of the means or methods., a totally unethical concept. Even Adam Smith who promoted Capitalism understood that without strong controls Capitalism would do what we see it has done.

    It is unfortunate that the Corporate beast that controls this country has succeeded in frightening people of the concept of Socialism, creating a myth that says Socialism is Fascism. However, if anyone looks around we are galloping toward a Fascist state with Corporations gaining more and more control of all the institutions of our society and destroying democratic principles and humanitarian values. The tactics include many divide and conquer projects. By this I mean using racism to keep working people at war with each other over jobs and housing and fear mongering of the other. Agism pits older people with younger people over funds for medicare vs public education. Sexism, Ablism, etc. Most recently we have the fights spearheaded by fundamentalist right wing religious groups over abortion rights and accepting gay people as legitimate human beings. The reality is that every populace movement has always been socialistic, and still is. People lobby for workers rights, workers benefits, social security, govt funded and supported health care, public education, public building and maintenance of roads and bridges, government job programs just to name a few. People also fight corporate war mongering policies and want our taxes to stay home and be used for the public’s benefit.

    The neo-Con dream is just that, one big Con! It promotes self-centeredness that only serves to isolate people from each other. Isolation weakens the public. There is power in numbers and that is one of the biggest fears of the corporate government. Again, a continuation of the destruction of democratic mandates in our Constitution. The very idea that a business can be seen as a person solely for the right to dump millions of dollars into buying elections and then creating gerrymandering to destroy a real public election is very frightening. We have seen what this meant in the last couple of elections. It is the only that those ideas can win; i.e., by destroying a real collective public vote. This type of politic, not only seeks to weaken a public voice, but promotes the military-industrial-prison complex. Most people do not know that 85% of prisons are private businesses these days. Their owners interests are for harsher prison sentences as money is to be made from all these people who happen to be primarily people of color and poor folk. This is the plan for dealing with poverty in this country–turning it into practically free prison labor which is a form of slavery. So we have not come very far on this score.

    So first causes need to be seen in terms of the economic system we have. All social institutions derive from this one; they develop to support the demands of the economy. In our case, it is a capitalist structure that sees people only as means to their end which is profit and power.

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      1. “b. traven asked me about “First Causes” when it comes to America’s permanent war mentality. With respect to the Middle East, he mentioned the Saudis and Israelis and the extent to which the USA kowtows to each.” Quote from Prof. Astore above.

        I do agree with Prof. Astore that the “permanent war mentality” in our leadership and many citizens has been generations in the making by propaganda from our politicians, media, rewrites of history, and a general public intellectual laziness. But my question to him on the “first causes” was directed at our current futile policies in the middle east vis a vis the Muslim world.

        In my opinion it is very important not to generalize the responsibility for failures but to look for “first causes” of the tragic and explosive chaos that has now engulfed the Middle East. That “first cause” lies at the feet of Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of
        whom energize and rationalize the neo liberal (Democrats) and neo conservative (republican) interventionist policies. We can do something about ‘first cause” like the Saudis spreading and financing the spread of their hate filled Wahhabi religion that enthuses sectarianism between Shia and Sunni and rationalizes beheading and medieval torture. Combine that with the fuel the state of Israel throws on the fire by their illegal expansionism and assaults on Palestinians and there is a lethal mixture that our country can and should label both of these renegade states as enemies of Middle East peace and sanction them. It could be done if we recognize the “first cause” rather than a fuzzy, ambiguous “war mentality”.

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      2. “War mentality” might be fuzzy, but it’s no less powerful for that reason. This may seem like a random thought, but how often have you heard the term “war hero” in America? How about “peace hero”?

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  2. An evolutionary biologist reading this may rightly correct this surmise of mine, and I will benefit from it, but I speculate that given sufficient time — if humanity avoids self-annihilation for long enough — innate aggression can be overcome by achieving to a sufficient degree human consciousness potential.

    This (too simplistic? I ain’t writin’ a book, here) conclusion includes the speculative premise that a human/other animals/plant replicating capacity survives 6th extinction climate change and consciousness evolution progresses.

    Should this state of being human in some speculative and somewhat dubious future become the overwhelming human condition, a state when the individual/societal aggression urge is near-ubiquitously absent (possible exception being incidences of ASPD-driven behavior by individuals or small groups, a scenario which necessarily precludes entire nations motivated to violence, or simply passively herded into it, by e.g. psychopathic leadership, obviously quite unlike our planetary history to date): is it necessary first for greed to be removed via adoption of some form of socialistic alternative to capitalism?

    Or will an alternative shift away from naked capitalism (my apologies, Yves Smith), necessitated by otherwise insurmountable existential economic crisis, simply administratively neuter innate human propensity to acquire and hoard (two principle components of greed), resulting in gradual change over time resulting in absence of obsessive desire for non-essential excess?

    I am gratified to answer my two questions above: I don’t know. (my apologies, Mark Twain)

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    1. Sorry again, Mark. I thought about looking up exactly how you phrased your remark, and now I wish I had. You wrote: ‘I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, so I did. I said I didn’t know.” One of my all time favorite pithy remarks.

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  3. Thanks, William, for baking down the issue to its essence, especially with your final comments above. Greed for money or power have driven every US war since the USAmerican Revolution. Some would say the revolution was fought for the same reasons, i.e., mainly to benefit the white, wealthy colonial land owners.
    Since we will probably never eliminate greed, perhaps the cause nearest the root is capitalism which is the great enabler for the greedy bastards.
    Veterans For Peace (veteransforpeace.org) works for peace but also confronts the system that breeds environmental and social injustice, for these are the building blocks of our warlike culture and foreign policy.
    Last, but certainly not least, please check out WorldBeyondWar.org for ways to break the paradigm about which you eloquently write.
    Thanks again, William.

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  4. Two brief (I swear!) comments: 1.) Glad to see discussion of socialism vs. capitalism going on. But I guess it’s up to me to state most bluntly: Capital rules over labor ONLY through the use (or mere threat) of VIOLENCE. That’s what the police are there for. Did you really think they just help little old ladies cross the street or lost kids get reunited with their families?; 2.) The war that will undo us all, daydreaming socialists [not implying everyone reading TCP is a socialist!] and Titans of Capital alike, is the neverending War Against Nature (WAN?). Once upon a time Humankind was blessed with an incredibly beautiful, magnificent planet. Now we’re accelerating our ride to hell on Earth. It’s a one-way trip, folks. Pessimism? Nihilism? No, realism. I believe it is easier to deal with horror if you face it with open eyes instead of cowering under your bed.

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  5. Greg.. You’ve made an insightful analysis of the end point of ‘free market capitalism’. When even the Pope sees it and the Catholic politicians, to a man ,refute his encyclical, you know we’re in trouble.

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  6. My gut reaction is that the Civil War embedded it in our consciousness. Look at the proliferation of monuments reflecting both sides’ self-perception of fighting for a grand cause, and songs like “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

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    1. AND
      “There does not appear to be any doubt that money is the agent which causes the decline of this strong, brave and self-confident people.” John B. Glubb in The Fate of Empires

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    1. It does appear to be a parallel of US policy in Iraq most glaringly (Afghanistan’s population is less concentrated in urban areas): pursue a policy that guarantees generating new enemies and keeps the orders rolling in to the War Industry for replacement materiel and new technologies. Who can blame the residents of Gaza for hesitating to rebuild infrastructure when officials of Israeli regime publicly promise additional attacks down the road? Of course the fundamental thing that has to be borne in mind about the Gaza Strip, the West Bank of the Jordan River and Syria’s Golan Heights is that Israel continues to occupy them nearly 50 years after seizing those territories in the “Six-Day War.” And thanks to the military backing provided with US taxpayer funds Israel merrily continues to thumb its nose at the great majority of the world’s people who oppose its Apartheid and murderous military policies, not to mention that pipsqueak operation called the UN!

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