The Many Purposes of War

Why can’t we bring them home? (U.S. Marine in Afghanistan; photo by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum)

W.J. Astore

Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist who wrote at the end of the Napoleonic Era, is noted for saying that war is a continuation of politics.  That saying explains much of current U.S. military war-making, but only if you first and foremost focus on domestic politics – and economics.

Wars make money for weapons makers, and the U.S. dominates the world’s arms trade.  Wars require a large “defense” establishment, and the U.S. national security state has essentially become a fourth branch of government that threatens to eat the rest.  Wars tend to strengthen reactionary elements within society, shunting to the fringes those who argue for peace amid a climate of fear.  Wars, in short, have their purposes – it’s just that the salient ones often differ from the stated ones.  For clarity, it often helps to follow the money.  Who profits from war?  Addressing that question will explain many of the reasons why America’s wars have no promise of ending.

In the meantime, current U.S. war-making looks something like this:

  1. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the pursuit of “stability” (whatever that means) mainly through the arming and training of indigenous security forces. Using Afghans and Iraqis as foot soldiers, as well as a heavy reliance on private military contractors (mercenaries), reduces the U.S. military “footprint” on the ground, which reduces U.S. casualties and thus domestic interest in as well as opposition to these wars. Typical U.S. governmental actions include military training, selling weapons, and providing air support (mainly in the form of bombing and reconnaissance).

Waging these wars, at the end of long logistical lines, is profligate in dollars — witness the high cost of indigenous forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, which rarely perform anywhere close to U.S. expectations — which has the added benefit of justifying enormous “defense” budgets in the U.S.

What these wars don’t promise is either “victory” or closure.  But that’s not the main point of them.  U.S. politicians like George W. Bush and Barack Obama are not concerned with victory: they’re focused on sustaining illusions of progress for domestic political gain.  For example, the recent recapture of Falluja from ISIS is defined by the U.S. government as “progress,” even though that city had already been “pacified,” i.e. largely destroyed at high cost to U.S. forces, more than a decade ago.

  1. In the war on terror, the heavy use of special operations forces and drones, both to kill terrorists and to interdict their supplies, logistics, and sources of their funding. Again, the emphasis is on minimizing U.S. casualties, which is the key consideration in U.S. domestic politics. American lives are not risked in drone attacks, and relatively few Americans have been killed in special ops raids, which, because they are often so highly classified, rarely register in the U.S. media unless Americans are indeed killed.

Here again, it’s unclear if any real progress is being made in this war, but the Obama administration in particular has sold such raids and strikes as killing thousands of terrorists while minimizing U.S. casualties.  Such claims serve to squelch, if only temporarily, Republican claims that Obama is weak and soft on defense.  Domestic political concerns, rather than long lasting effectiveness, once again rule.

  1. Confrontation with “peer” rivals like Russia and China. This is old-school stuff, a variant of Cold War containment and deterrence. “Pivots” to the Pacific and the rhetorical pillorying of Vladimir Putin help to justify massive U.S. military spending that approaches $750 billion each and every year.  The war on lightly armed terrorists isn’t enough to sustain this figure, but reports that China’s getting an aircraft carrier or Russia’s working on nuclear weapons justify new U.S. carriers and a trillion-dollar splurge on U.S. nuclear arsenals.

Here again, U.S. war-making is driven far more by domestic politics (and economics) than by needs-driven analysis of national defense.  Exaggerating peer threats like China and Russia keeps a sclerotic Pentagon, a supine Congress, and a bloated military-industrial complex happy.

At this point, an astute reader might ask: But what is the real Clausewitzian strategy for war-making in the United States?  How is war a continuation of politics?  Again, one must look to U.S. domestic politics to address this question.  “Toughness” must be demonstrated, therefore wars must be continued, no matter how costly and unpromising, if only to keep up appearances.  President Obama, for example, has refused to make key decisions about the Afghan war, leaving it to the next president to decide whether the U.S. commitment of troops continues after 2017.  There’s an outstanding chance that the next U.S. president will continue that war, placing it on the backburner to simmer until the next election cycle in 2020.

In sum, the new American way of war-making consists of methods rather than strategies, methods that produce endless war that serve mostly domestic political and economic purposes.  A telltale sign that things are going really poorly is when the U.S. military declares another “surge” of its ground forces, which whether in Iraq in 2007 or Afghanistan in 2009-10 seemed calculated not to produce victory or closure but again to squelch domestic political opposition from hawkish rivals.  That in itself is considered a “win” for whichever administration is in power.

What is never considered in U.S. war-making is ending the wars.  Domestically, attempts at limiting U.S. war-making are instantly tarred with the brush of “cutting and running,” of weakness, even of cowardice.  Rare is the U.S. president who dares to stand up to those clamoring for war.

Attempts to downsize the global presence of the U.S. military are similarly equated with weakness.  As a result, no U.S. president (or major party candidate for president, like Clinton or Trump) dares to suggest it.  Refusing to walk away, fearing loss of face but especially fearing domestic political defeat, presidents as diverse as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in the 1960s and lately Bush and Obama have embraced the folly of waging unwinnable wars.  It’s likely little will change in 2017, irrespective of which major party wins the election.

Both presidential nominees of the major parties, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have promised to make the U.S. military bigger and better.  But for what purpose?  A bigger, badder military is the purpose, and again it’s driven by domestic political and economic imperatives.  You have to go outside the major parties, to the Libertarians or the Greens, to hear any talk of significant military reductions.  Libertarians have talked of military reductions of 20%, the Greens of deeper cuts of up to 50%.  In today’s militarized America, those parties aren’t going anywhere.

War-making as a continuation of domestic politics for political and economic profit – it sure explains a lot about the actions of the U.S. government and military.  It may not be what Carl von Clausewitz had in mind, but it surely is America’s reality.

10 thoughts on “The Many Purposes of War

  1. Right after WWII while in college, I worked four summers as a tool design draftsman with companies still producing war materials. Dad wanted me to continue with one of them to make a career for myself, but I decided I didn’t want to support war the rest of my life, so I went in a different direction. Very neat, to see from these posts, that I really made the right decision


  2. Everything you say about domestic politics and following the money is absolutely the case and should be more well-understood. The aspect of “appearances,” particularly the appearance of “toughness”, for the sake of public perception is troubling because it plays to simple-minded definitions and baser understandings rather than coming to terms with what it means to be “tough,” and the relative value of that toughness in any given situation.

    As to the “war on terror”, it is a ruse. It is absolutely clear that there is progress being made simply in the fact that this canard is still believed to be an actual “war” and is progressing apace. The Russians did more to set back ISIS in four weeks than the U.S. had in a year of phoney-baloney.


    1. The “war on terror” is one and the same as the destruction of Iraq and the dirty war on Syria. It’s one and the same.


  3. “… war hysteria increases in intensity as one rises in the social scale. … It is in the ranks of the Party, and above all of the Inner Party, that the true war enthusiasm is found.” — George Orwell, 1984

    Hence, that “exceptional” American breed of special snowflake just itching to become Commander-in-Brief so that You-Know-Her and her gaggle of glass-ceiling gladiators can pull the trigger for real:

    Hothouse Orchids
    (From The Triumph of Strife: an homage to Dante Alighieri and Percy Shelley, lines 239-294)

    So too with all the others of this kind
    Concerned with just themselves and their careers
    Who play at war with only this in mind:

    To entertain the mob and hear its cheers.
    For when they could have served and fought and learned
    They hit the gas instead and shifted gears

    Bypassing lessons better men had earned
    Prolonging thus their adolescent years.
    Yet never having all for which they yearned,

    The corners of their mouths connect their ears,
    So broad their grins in hopes of votes to buy
    Just like the Cheshire cat that disappears

    Behind a smile substantial as a sigh.
    Their empty words live on while soldiers die.

    Like crocodiles they practice crying tears
    Till they can shed them from a single eye:
    An ersatz empathy to mask the fears

    That glassy, shining, saucer eyes belie:
    Their plan to rush ahead and celebrate
    A victory they’ll win when pigs can fly

    Has only turned to mourning now that fate
    Has served us broken eggshells for a meal
    And eaten all the lunch upon our plate

    While leaving them to consummate a deal
    For omelets promised off a menu fake.
    Our soldiers suffer agonies too real

    While those in charge continue on the take
    And “leaders” off the top the profits rake.

    So as our blood and money drain away
    In torrents sinking into desert sands
    She ponders which new pose to strike today

    And urges war on hapless foreign lands
    To demonstrate how chicken hawks can cluck
    While grabbing cash and limply shaking hands

    Oblivious to soldiers vainly stuck
    In quagmires authorized by this vain hack
    Who daily finds new ways to pass the buck.

    With heels worn round from lying on her back
    And lips chapped raw from lying when upright
    She hides from each imagined new attack

    Too weak to wage the peace in her own right
    But always strong for someone else’s fight.

    An image of irresolute intrigue
    She offers up herself somewhere in line.
    No mighty branch but just a slender twig,

    She dithers while our monarch’s friends consign
    Our freedoms to more hot air overblown.
    Obsessed with sewer sailors who malign

    Her party’s past no matter how it shone
    She promises to settle in advance
    For any scrap of meat from off the bone,

    And then proceeds read her true romance:
    A plan for how to satisfy her greed
    While those who perish get no second chance.

    Our frantic warnings she chose not to heed.
    If only we’d decide then she would “lead.”

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006-2010


    1. Imagine if our leaders, before committing troops to war, thought of their sons and daughters as being in the first wave. You know: the Chelseas, the Malias, and so on.

      Of course, there have been leaders (Stalin comes to mind) who cared little for their progeny. But it sure as hell is easy to send other people’s kids to war, rather than one’s own.


  4. Peter Van Buren, at his website, WeMeantWell, recently authored an article entitled: Tell Us Why We’re At War, Candidates. In the comments section, I posted a reply in which I objected to Mr Van Buren’s use of the Orwellian misnomer, “war,” and since the same word occurs in the title of this article: namely, “The Many Uses of War,” I think my objections apply here as well. I wrote:

    “As always, Peter, I appreciate your work and do not doubt for a moment your sincerity. Still, I feel it necessary to question the terminology that you employ in the title of your article: namely, “Tell Us Why We’re At War, Candidates.”

    In the first place, and as you ought to know as well as anybody, “we” — meaning the people of the United States — are not “at war.” We are “at AUMF” (pronounced “owmph”). And what does it mean for the United States to be “at AUMF”? Well, as someone on another website wrote succinctly:

    “The anti-terrorism operation currently conducted by U.S. forces [for fourteen years now] is being justified under the same AUMF used to go after Al Qaida, but now it’s being used to justify supporting Al Qaida with the goal of “regime change” in Syria.”

    Being “at AUMF,” then, means arming, funding, “advising,” and otherwise using the same people that American presidents claim to have once wanted — and still wish — to exterminate. In other words “AUMF” means fighting ourselves. Now, how does one square this obvious and ugly truth with the use of a vapid and meaningless word like “war”? Answer: One can’t.

    So, Peter, may I suggest that you cease using the meaningless word “war” — which no congress has declared since 1941 — and start using the properly descriptive word “AUMF.” Please stop perpetuating the problem by endlessly repeating the Orwellian Newspeak employed by our very own government and “leaders” to deceive us. Please revert to using Oldspeak, or plain English. Please help to enlarge our vocabulary rather than aid our government in restricting it to little more than orthodox slogans. After all: Don’t you know we’re at AUMF?”

    In view of the above appeal, then, might I suggest that the title of this article should have read: “The Many Uses of AUMF“? And should someone ask: “What do you mean by “owmph,? We can answer: “You know. Arming, funding, and providing air cover for the same crazy bastards who flew four of our planes into three of our bulidings, killing 3,000 of our fellow citizens on 9/11/2001. AUMF means fighting ourselves.” Very useful.


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