Democracy and War

James Madison knew that endless war is the harshest enemy of liberty

W.J. Astore

Democracies should be slow to start wars and quick to end them.  James Madison taught us that.  Why is America today the very opposite of this?

I thought of this as I read Danny Sjursen’s fine article at  Sjursen, a retired Army major, is a strong critic of America’s forever wars.  He served in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost soldiers under his command.  He knows the bitter cost of war and expresses it well in his article, which I encourage you to read.  Here’s an excerpt:

Recently, my mother asked me what I thought my former students [West Point cadets] were now doing or would be doing after graduation. I was taken aback and didn’t quite know how to answer.

Wasting their time and their lives was, I suppose, what I wanted to say. But a more serious analysis, based on a survey of U.S. Army missions in 2019 and bolstered by my communications with peers still in the service, leaves me with an even more disturbing answer. A new generation of West Point educated officers, graduating a decade and a half after me, faces potential tours of duty in… hmm, Afghanistan, Iraq, or other countries involved in the never-ending American war on terror, missions that will not make this country any safer or lead to “victory” of any sort, no matter how defined.

Repetition.  Endless repetition.  That is the theme of America’s wars today.

Remember the movie “Groundhog Day,” with Bill Murray?  Murray’s character repeats the same day, over and over again.  He’s stuck in an infinite loop from which he can’t escape.  Much like America’s wars today, with one exception: Murray’s character actually learns some humility from the repetition.  He shows a capacity for growth and change.  And that’s how he escapes his loop.  He changes.  He grows.  The U.S. military’s leadership?  Not so much.

But I don’t just blame the senior leaders of the U.S. military.  They’re not that dumb.  It’s the system of greed-war they and we inhabit.  Why change endless war when certain powerful forces are endlessly profiting from it?  War, after all, is a racket, as General Smedley Butler knew.  It’s a racket that’s contrary to democracy; one that buttresses authoritarianism and even kleptocracy, since you can justify all kinds of theft in the cause of “keeping us safe” and “supporting our troops.”

Danny Sjursen, a true citizen-soldier, remembers that war is supposed to be waged in accordance with the Constitution and only to protect our country against enemies.  But being a citizen-soldier has gone out of style in today’s military.  Everyone is supposed to identify as a warrior/warfighter, which has the added benefit of suppressing thought about why we fight.

Eager to fight, slow to think, might be the new motto of America’s military.  Such a motto,  consistent with forever war, is inconsistent with democracy.

6 thoughts on “Democracy and War

  1. “eager to fight, slow to think”… a condign apothegm for what constitutes US military war-planners’ modus vivendi in the DOD, pentagon, and national ‘insecurity’ state. astore, sjursen, manning, snowden, englehardt, fetzer, and astrange, among others, are the most courageous defenders of the constitution, ethical rectitude, and compassion for america’s deluded, as well as for the internationally dispossessed and disadvantaged who are scrabbling and scratching about inside our US-garrisoned planet. this is precisely because they have learned how to THINK for themselves and to convey their higher levels of mentation to the vulgate… the recipients of the slubberdegulions who are slinging around mass-media balderdash.


  2. “Democracies should be slow to start wars and quick to end them. James Madison taught us that. Why is America today the very opposite of this?”

    The question answers itself. It is because America is no longer a democracy – is no longer governed by the will of the people.


    1. Ironic note: Ancient Athens, the acclaimed home of democracy, was also not a democracy for all. 1/3 of Athen’s people were slaves. We also acclaimed ourselves (so to speak) a democracy, and started out with slaves.

      Maybe we should make war democratic. Just like two kids who want to fight in school – when the coach makes them put on gloves and step into a ring. When the leaders of any set of countries want to fight, instead of letting them send others to kill and be killed, we should put those leaders in a room, with a mess of the latest guns and let them go at it. My guess is you wouldn’t hear a sound.

      Or, as the Jason Bourne character confronts his would-be assassin the end of the 2ncd (I think) movie, “Do you even know why you are supposed to kill me?” Think of all the people who don’t have any kind of beef with each other who gather in armies to kill each other just because some poobahs have a spat. Why??????


  3. If you looked at Europe in the 18th and 19th Centuries, you find Emperors, Kings and Princes, who were all interrelated one way or another and the political alliances too. Vast power rested in the hands of these leaders.

    Our Constitution at least held out the promise of Representative Democracy, even this was flawed by slavery and woman lacking the vote. The War making powers rested with Congress. War was a serious venture and should not be in the hands of single person in the Royal Aristocracy.

    There were asterisks for sure in the 19th and early 20th centuries as the Marines were sent to various places around the world in particular Latin America to enforce not the Monroe Doctrine, but American Imperialism.

    Korea and later Vietnam sidestepped the debate of war or no war and the approval needed to actually Declare War. The power of the President and the diminution of Congressional Legislative Power, was codified in a sense by the Imperial Presidency. Our Presidents since LBJ have become Shoguns, with powers of war making far beyond what IMHO the Founding Fathers intended.

    Anyone these days who seriously questions or protests the Shogunate War making power of a President will have their “Patriotic Credentials” vigorously checked.

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  4. Yet another excellent article WJA! (Yeah, I KNOW I sound like the proverbial ‘broken record’*, but it’s so-SO refreshing to read a PEACEFUL perspective like this that cuts through the omnipresent militarism and its propaganda in our current US culture. Sometimes this era seems like what I imagine it was like for anti-war advocates in pre-war Germany or Japan in the 1930’s — sane voices ignored [or persecuted] due to the public distraction/apathy/nationalism).

    And to add to what ML was saying, here’s one list** of US armed-interventions between 1798 & 2005. Set-aside about 10 minutes to read them all…

    (* For our younger readers, this expression refers to the way a scratched or cracked phonograph/hi-fi record would cause the record-player to endlessly repeat about 3 or 4 seconds of audio. It was quite annoying.)
    (** )


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