Forever War: A Peculiar Form of American Zen


W.J. Astore

As a teenager, I read Joe Haldeman’s book, “The Forever War.”  The title intrigued, as did the interstellar setting.  Haldeman’s soldiers are caught up in a conflict whose rules keep changing, in part due to time dilation as predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity.  But there’s one thing the soldiers know for certain: no matter what year the calendar says it is, there will always be war.

For the United States today, something similar is true.  Our government, our leaders, have essentially declared a forever war.  Our military leaders have bought into it as well.  The master narrative is one of ceaseless war against a shifting array of enemies.  One year it’s the Taliban in Afghanistan.  The next it’s Al Qaeda.  The next it’s Iraq, followed by Libya and ISIS.  Echoing the time dilation effects of Haldeman’s book, Russia and China loom as enemies of the American future as well as of the past.  One thing is constant: war.

Our government and leaders can no longer imagine a time of peace.  For them the whole world has become a zone of conflict, an irredeemable realm of crusaders jumping from place to place, country to country, even time to time.  I say “time to time” because I had a student, an Army infantry veteran, who described Afghan villages to me as “primitive” and “like traveling back to Biblical times.”  Indeed, U.S. troops are much like Haldeman’s soldiers, jumping in and out of foreign lands, in both “primitive” and modern times, the one constant again being war.

Why the “forever war”?  In part because we as a country have allowed war to become too profitable, even as we’ve assigned it too much meaning in our collective lives.  The USA is a country whose past is littered with wars, whose present is defined by war and preparations for it, and whose bellicose future is seemingly already determined by those who see generational conflicts ahead of us.  In fact, they’re already planning to profit from them.

War, in short, is a peculiar form of American zen, a defining mindset.  When we’re not actually fighting wars, we’re contemplating fighting them.  Our form of meditation is ceaseless violent action.  Wherever the USA goes, there it is, exporting troops and weapons and, if not war itself, the tools and mindset that are conducive to war.

4 thoughts on “Forever War: A Peculiar Form of American Zen

  1. The United States waging war in the name of profit is not new nor is it unique to the 21st century. In his 1935 book, “War is a Racket, Maj. General Smedley Butler, USMC (Ret.) describes how U.S. corporations and financiers made millions off of the country’s involvement in WWI and predicts how those capitalists would do the same again as the storm clouds gathered for WWII. General Butler juxtaposed the massive profits garnered by U.S. businesses in WWI against the suffering of the troops who fought, the anguish of the wounded and their families as well as the grief of the families whose sons never returned. General Butler offers a prescription for ending what to him was the national obsession with waging wars that only benefited the wealthy while asking the country’s young men to pay the price of those conflicts in blood. The book is a must read for anyone who believes the United States waging endless war is something new to the 21st century.


  2. One solution I would like to see would be not allowing retired officers to work for the contractors or military related businesses. While this could be considered discriminatory one could simply allow them to choose and if they choose to work for the private sector feeding the military they would be disenrolled from all military benefits such as insurance, pension and VA benefits. That might be enough of a disincentive for them to decide to take their generous retirements and get a new career rather than milk their old one.

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