The Persistence of War

“War is man at his worst.” This is the wise conclusion of Jesse Ventura, former governor, wrestler, and Vietnam veteran. Heroes save lives; they don’t take them: more wise words from Ventura. Given war’s murderous brutality and sheer awfulness, why does it persist? And why are Americans constantly preparing for it? Here are a few thoughts from a piece I wrote six years ago.

Bracing Views

A young Tom Cruise loving his machine gun in "Taps" A young Tom Cruise loving his machine gun in “Taps”

W.J. Astore

“[W]ar is a distressing, ghastly, harrowing, horrific, fearsome and deplorable business.  How can its actual awfulness be described to anyone?”  Stuart Hills, By Tank Into Normandy, p. 244

“[E]very generation is doomed to fight its war, to endure the same old experiences, suffer the loss of the same old illusions, and learn the same old lessons on its own.”  Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War, p. 81

The persistence of war is a remarkable thing.  Two of the better books about war and its persistence are J. Glenn Gray’s “The Warriors” and Chris Hedges “War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.”   Hedges, for example, writes about “the plague of nationalism,” our willingness to subsume our own identities in the service of an abstract “state” as well as our eagerness to serve that state by killing…

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2 thoughts on “The Persistence of War

  1. Concerning Orwellian “war” as the operative American governing paradigm, the late Professor Sheldon Wolin explains what he calls “The Wartime Imaginary” in Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2006):

    “… what attracted decision-makers to choosing ‘war’ is that Americans of the twentieth century had no direct experience of it and hence were receptive to having warfare imagined for them – and Hollywood happily obliged with ‘war movies.’ Save for actual combatants sent overseas and economic shortages at home, World War II was unexperienced. After 1945 ‘war’ was a tabula rasa on which opinion-makers and government decision-makers were free to constitute its meaning in terms that pretty much suited their purposes, allowing them to set the character of public debate and to acquire a vastly enlarged range of governmental powers – powers that, when they did not violate the Constitution, deformed it. … The meaning of war was given a plasticity that allowed the new image-makers to set its parameters as they pleased .” [emphasis added]
    . . .
    The development of an extended relationship between the military and the corporate economy began in earnest. National defense was declared inseparable from a strong economy. The fixation upon mobilization and rearmament inspired the gradual disappearance from the national political agenda of the regulation and control of corporations. The defender of the free world needed the power of the globalizing, expanding corporation, not an economy hampered by ‘trust-busting.’ … The ultimate merger would be between capitalism and democracy. Once the identity and security of democracy were successfully identified with the Cold War and the methods of waging it, the stage was set for the intimidation of most politics left of right.” [emphasis added]

    Americans at home know nothing of war and those Americans sent abroad in service to imperial corporate interests have no language in which they can communicate their sense of betrayal to those fellow citizens whose acquiescence in their exploitation make it not just possible but inevitable.


    1. Yes. War is imagined for us. And when it’s not imagined, it’s reinterpreted. Consider Reagan saying that the Vietnam War was a noble cause rather than an unmitigated disaster. Consider the myth of the “Surge” in Iraq. Defeats are turned into victories, if only for a moment, and for temporary political advantage.

      When war’s not imagined or reinterpreted, it’s simply elided. Wars are reduced to ritualistic exercises in “supporting our troops,” as if it’s a wonderful idea to employ young people as bullet-catchers.

      And of course war service is touted as uniquely heroic, which is why Jesse Ventura’s words about heroism as lifesaving, not life-taking, are so needed today in America.


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