Ending Wars, Not “Winning” Them, Should Be America’s Goal


Beware the tunnels you choose to go down (Wikimedia)

W.J. Astore

You can’t win wars that should never have been fought.  The U.S. should never have fought the Iraq and Afghan wars, nor should we have fought the Vietnam War.

It’s not that we need to know and master the foreign enemy.  We need to know and master the enemy within.  The domestic enemy.  For the U.S. is defeating only itself in fighting these wars.  Yet “experts” in the military and government focus on how to prosecute war more effectively; rarely do they think seriously about ending or, even better, avoiding wars.

Part of this is cultural.  Americans are obsessed with the idea of winning, defined in terms of dominance, specifically military/physical dominance, taking the fight to the enemy and never backing down.  The best defense is a good offense, as they say in the NFL.  Winning is the only thing, as Vince Lombardi said.  While those maxims may apply to football, they don’t apply to wars that should never have been fought.

Turning from football to tunnels, how about that image made popular during the Vietnam War that “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel”?  Victory, in other words, is in sight and can be reached if we “stay the course” until the tunnel’s end.  Few ask why we’re in the tunnel to begin with.  Why not just avoid the tunnel (of Vietnam, of Iraq, of Afghanistan) and bask in the light of liberty here in the USA?  Indeed, why not brighten liberty’s torch so that others can see and enjoy it?  But instead U.S. military forces are forever plunging into foreign tunnels, groping in the dark for the elusive light of victory, a light that ultimately is illusory.

Another point is that the Pentagon is often not about winning wars without; it’s about winning wars within, specifically budgetary wars.  Here the Pentagon has been amazingly successful, especially in the aftermath of the Cold War, which should have generated a major reduction in U.S. military spending (and overseas military deployments).  The other “war” the Pentagon has won is the struggle for cultural authority/hegemony in the USA.  Here again, the Pentagon has won this war, as represented by presidents from Bush to Obama to Trump boasting of the 4F military (the finest fighting force since forever), and as represented by the fact that the military remains the most trusted governmental institution in America.  Indeed, most Americans don’t even think of “our” military as being part of the federal government.  They think of it as something special, even as they profess to distrust Congress and hate “big government.”  Yet nothing screams “big” like our steroidal federal military, and few entities are more wasteful.

My point is that many military commentators and critics frame the problem wrongly.  It’s not about reforming the U.S. military so that it can win wars.  Americans must reform our culture and our government so that we can avoid wars, even as we end the ones we’re in.  For constant warfare is the enemy of democracy and the scourge of freedom.

A final point about winning that’s rarely acknowledged: America’s wars overseas are not all about us.  Winning (whatever that might mean) should be unconscionable when it comes at the price of hundreds of thousands of dead, millions of refugees, and regions blasted and destabilized.

In sum, ending wars is winning them.

16 thoughts on “Ending Wars, Not “Winning” Them, Should Be America’s Goal

  1. Maybe the supreme irony of all this is that a military that can’t defeat even lightly armed guerrillas in country after country around the world can so easily, as you say, defeat the will of the American public to grab so much of our government’s revenues. I’ve been reading Al McCoy’s new book, and he describes the innovation in weapons technology that results from each new war as a kind of victory in itself, but he seems to miss the point that military power is about actually imposing a country’s political will on others. Seen in this light, endless streams of new weapons that can’t win wars amount only to a “technology fetish,” as Gabriel Kolko always described it.

    Peace! Nicolas J S Davies


  2. “Attention! Your attention, please! A newsflash has this moment arrived from the Malabar front. Our forces in South India have won a glorious victory. I am authorized to say that the action we are reporting may well bring the war within measurable distance of its end. Here is the newsflash …”

    Bad news coming, thought Winston. And sure enough, following on a gory description of the annyhilation of a Eurasian army, with stupendous figures of killed and prisoners, came the announcement that, as from next week, the chocolate ration would be reduced from thirty grams to twenty.

    — George Orwell, 1984

    My Taiwanese wife loves to crack sardonic jokes about Orwell’s use of the the word “Victory” as a brand name for substandard, shoddy products like Victory Mansions (rundown tenement housing), Victory Cigarettes (tobacco that falls out of its paper wrapping), and Victory Gin (stomach-churning, raw alcohol). On our last two trips back to the United States, we noticed an increase in the number of beggars at freeway offramps and ramshackle tent encampments under freeway overpasses and along dry-river-bed drainage canals not far from Anaheim Stadium. My wife calls them “Channel View Estates” after the fake real estate development in the movie Inherent Vice. Just the other day, I saw pictures of the clean, modern Moscow metropolitan subway contrasted with the San Francisco Metro showing passed out drug addicts littering the hallways. When President Trump gave that truly awful Inaugural Address, he did speak one truth when he mentioned the economic “carnage” wrought by his three immediate predecessors in office, all of them sitting on the stage right behind him. Of course, as soon as he could, he teamed up with the Republicans and Democrats in Congress to cut the taxes of the .01% even further while gutting the pitiful Dodd-Frank banking regulations put in place by President Obama even as he bailed out the bank frauds who caused the 2008 crash in the first place. Some people like to speak of a new Gilded Age, with income inequality, homelessness, and poverty reaching unimaginable magnitudes. Others speak of a Neo Feudalism. For my part, I would rather call this economic retrogession in America the Gelded Age, seeing as how anything resembling testicular fortitude on the part of our “representatives” has vanished when confronted with EASY MONEY: the surgeon’s scalpel making capons (i.e., castrated chickens) out of our self-styled “hawks.”

    Victory Eunuchs, anyone?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Come to think of it, I did address this very American concept of the self-created political eunuch in verse may years ago.

      From The Triumph of Strife: an homage to Dante Alighieri and Percy Shelley (lines 575-588)

      The Gelded Age

      The tiny Texas tyro’s tantrums taint
      What once our country held in wise reserve
      Into a corner he proceeds to paint

      The nation’s laws he idly swore to serve
      Which leaves them less than merely empty noise
      Precocious playthings pious pimps preserve

      To feather friendly nests requires such ploys
      As ex-post-facto, one-time-only laws
      What Gelded Age has known such jaded joys?

      Like signing statutes stuffed with special flaws
      Designed by thieves to make theft less a chore
      Posterity our politician paws

      Removing risk from crimes that heretofore
      Contained at least enough as not to bore.

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


  3. may your readership expand exponentially, sir william astore. YOU are the illuminating ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, as are the comments offered by the inimitable michael murray and nicholas davies, all 3 of whom sport sounder minds, arête, and sophrosyne equiponderance than the putative leaders of the ‘free world’.

    at least the grump-trump w/ his nasty scowls, is too moronic to even comprehend the meaning of the now-trite and trivial phraseology of imperious narcissists who vaunt their faux-democracies’ and maculated ideologies. the context of such tired-out phrases is beyond the purview of his mental machinery.


  4. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” — Upton Sinclair

    Certain key words and phrases — like “winning” and “losing” — mean different things to different people, so that what often passes for reasoned discourse reveals itself, upon closer inspection, as essentially a verbal dispute: not a debate about concepts and substantive issues, but a mere — and unacknowledged — quibbling about the meaning of word-like noises. It seldom helps to assume that other people mean the same things as we do just because we can utter, like accomplished parrots (as I. A. Richards put it), stereotypical noises that sound similar and usually produce predicatble behavior on the part of those who hear them. As Sheldon Wolin explained in his absolutely essential Democracy, Inc., Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2008):

    “That the patriotic citizen unswervingly supports the military and its huge budgets means that conservatives have succeeded in persuading the public that the military is distinct from government. Thus the most substantial element of state power is removed from public debate” [emphasis added].

    I had the truth of Professor Wolin’s (and Upton Sinclair’s) observation brought home to me back in the 1980s and early 1990s when I worked for the Hughes Aircraft Company in arch-conservative Orange County, California. I once asked a conservative friend and colleague how he could criticize government spending since government spending on the radars and communications equipment that we made paid our salaries. He looked me straight in the eye and said, almost heatedly: “No! Only social programs are ‘government spending.'” You really can’t have a discussion with someone who simply assumes away any meaning of any word that they do not want to consider.

    Back in the Nixon-Kissinger Fig Leaf Contingent (Southeast Asia detachment) many of us unimpressed enlisted participants would say: “We lost the day we started and we win the day we stop.” Naturally, what we meant by “stopping” and “winning” had little, if any, connection to what the professional career lifers meant when they said: “Don’t knock the war, it’s the only one we’ve got.” From everything I can see here in 2018, the pimped out Imperial Streetwalkers (busy patrolling those heroin-producing poppy fields for boy-buggering Afghan warlords) have won the day with their view of whatever they mean by whatever they say. Seldom do I ever hear of the general semanticists demanding: “What do you mean?” and “How do you know?”

    I keep having this vision of an American politician/general training a parrot to squawk something that sounds like, “Polly want a cracker” by giving the bird a cracker as a reward for each successful performance. In my vision, though, when the politician/general gets lazy and gives the bird a peanut or sesame seed as the behavior reinforcement, the pissed off parrot spits out the offered food and screams at him:

    “Damn it all! I said I wanted a cracker!”

    I thought of my recurrent vision again the other day when I read about an American four-star Marine Corps general telling an audience in Afghanistan that “We are the Mujahedeen.” No joke. He actually said that.

    “Polly want a cracker?”


    1. Thanks, Mike. I hadn’t seen the Mujahideen comment. Here’s a link for readers: http://www.talkmedianews.com/pentagon-news-as-it-break-from-the-pentagon/2018/05/03/were-the-mujahideen-marine-commandant-proclaims/

      This is more evidence of U.S. military self-delusion. Sure, a Marine general might see his troops as fighting for freedom. But it doesn’t matter how he sees them; what matters is how the Afghan people see them. And they definitely don’t see U.S. troops as Muslim freedom fighters. They just see them as yet another alien, foreign, occupying force, much like the British of the 19th century or the Soviets of the 20th.

      As you would say, Mike, with respect to a U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan, “time’s up.” Indeed, the time was up in 2002.


    2. MM — re: “No! Only social programs are ‘government spending.’”
      What the warmongers have done, 1984 style, is to turn English upside-down and inside-out. Tax money, they say, should be used for essential national defense and not siphoned off into “entitlements” for freeloaders who are a liability to the country and a waste of money.

      That’s a complete reversal of the actual situation.
      entitlement — the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment.
      The simple facts are that Social Security and Medicare provide essential social and medical services and are self-funded. But the freeloading Pentagon & friends get special treatment. They provide no essential services and are entirely funded out of the general fund, thus robbing citizens of essential services in education, transportation and — big problem — health care for the masses. It’s the members of the military-industrial-congressional complex who are the thieves depending upon entitlements to promote global death and destruction.

      ……extracted quotes from:
      Status of the Social Security and Medicare Programs
      Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees

      Social Security
      The Trustees project that the combined fund asset reserves at the beginning of each year will exceed that year’s projected cost through 2029.

      The Medicare program has two separate trust funds, the Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund and the Supplementary Medical Insurance (SMI) Trust Fund. The Trustees project that the HI Trust Fund will be depleted in 2029, one year later than projected in last year’s report. At that time dedicated revenues will be sufficient to pay 88 percent of HI costs. For SMI, the Trustees project that both Part B and Part D will remain adequately financed into the indefinite future.


  5. True that.

    I think one of the best pieces of evidence that the Pentagon is, at heart, just a self-protecting bureaucracy, is the custom of giving each of the three major services 1/3 of the Pentagon budget (and rolling the Marine budget up with the Navy).

    That funding gets set by custom, not by operational requirements, is a serious problem. In reality, the United States simply doesn’t need a large standing Army any more, and should rely on a better-funded National Guard, which already provides a disproportionate share of capabilities for the budget spent on it:

    I’d argue the same goes for the Air Force. It ought to be a small, high-tech force capable of scaling up operations in a crisis, just like the Army National Guard, and not constantly deploy abroad. Our bombs do enough damage with little benefit, so lets save some cash and cut taxes or something.

    Letting our politicians and Pentagon bureaucrats set our defense policy with no real national engagement is going to be the death of the USA.

    In line with this view, I recently wrote a blogpost, laying out my case for why the Trumpists will launch a war against Iran by 2020. Today, with the Iran nuclear deal likely getting scrapped (though maybe the orange buffoon will decide to zag when everyone expects him to zig?), we’re one step closer to that happening.

    Here’s my argument, for anyone interested:


    1. Thanks — your article is sobering, and the scenarios you suggest are possible.

      I wouldn’t rule out a war on Iran. Trump’s announcement today of pulling out of the nuclear pact sets the stage. Trump/Bolton want a settling of accounts with Iran, and Mattis is on the record as being especially critical of Iran as a major threat to stability in the region. (Of course, in toppling Saddam and ruining Iraq, the U.S. only made Iran stronger, which surely rankles with Mattis & Co.)

      Let’s always remember the role of Israel as well. Israel has seen most of its major threats disappear (as in neutralized or seriously weakened) over the last 30 years. Egypt and Jordan, Syria and Iraq, even the Saudis. The one remaining Muslim state that Israel sees as a direct threat is Iran. What better time to attack, while Trump is still president to rubber-stamp Israeli decisions?

      Furthermore, a war with Iran, perhaps igniting in the spring of 2020, would go far toward helping Trump get reelected, as you say. Antiwar forces will fail, for in the infamous words of Hermann Goering:

      “Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.”

      Trump will denounce the Democrats as weak, cowardly, and unpatriotic, and enough of them will bow to Trump and the chickenhawks to ensure his war proceeds and he wins again in November 2020. Of course, I hope I’m wrong about all this …


      1. I hope we’re all wrong about all of it! Or at the very least, saner voices will start to prevail. But at this point, there doesn’t seem to be anybody left in D.C. with the will or power to stop this slide to national oblivion. I keep waiting for some mega-billionaire like Bezos or Gates or whomever to realize that investing a few billion dollars in fixing the political system is probably a good way to protect their interests in the long term. Everyone keeps talking about ‘disruption’ being the essence of the contemporary digital economy, and I can’t help but think that the contemporary political system is ripe for a little creative destruction…


  6. The US is not capable of waging and winning a war against any country, and has proved it. Iran especially, as it has targeted its cruise missiles at the 40,000 US troops on half a dozen bases and command centers on the western Gulf and ships at sea, so the US would pay a high price for attacking Iran.


    1. The part where he says ‘Let me confess that I have now begun to entertain second thoughts’ did kind of throw me. I keep thinking it should be totally obvious to everyone that Trump represents a fundamental threat to America. As Masha Gessen warned a couple years back, you have to take would-be autocrats at their word. What they say and how they say it telegraphs their intentions.

      Maybe it is the academic training in discourse analysis (among other things, I’m a bit of a wanderer), but I’ve been paying attention to the rhetoric for precisely this reason. I also grew up in one of the few parts of California that went hard for Trump in 2016. I recognize the rhetoric, I know how totalitarian it actually is at heart (fascism draped in a flag and carrying a cross) and seeing it go nationwide has filled me with horror. A nightmare of my youth brought to life.

      The media has constantly tried to portray him as erratic, and his administration as governed only by chaos. Same thing happened in Germany in the ’30s. But spreading chaos is itself a strategy. Chaos is how you break apart established institutions, crack them open, set them up for failure and reconstruction in the image you prefer. Sure, day-to-day, things look a mess. But where it counts, at the crucial points, the Trumpists make policy decisions that all lead in the same dangerous direction: aggrandizement of Trump himself, a cult of personality intended to activate tribal loyalties and self-justify a seizure of the apparatus of the state FOR that tribe, and that tribe alone.


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