War Train, Soundin’ Louder

train
War train, vintage World War II.  Peace train nowhere in sight.

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I look afresh at the many reasons why America’s wars persist — and why the “war train” is soundin’ ever louder across America and indeed much of the world.

Here’s an excerpt; please read the entire article at TomDispatch.

Think of this as the new American exceptionalism. In Washington, war is now the predictable (and even desirable) way of life, while peace is the unpredictable (and unwise) path to follow. In this context, the U.S. must continue to be the most powerful nation in the world by a country mile in all death-dealing realms and its wars must be fought, generation after generation, even when victory is never in sight. And if that isn’t an “exceptional” belief system, what is?

If we’re ever to put an end to our country’s endless twenty-first-century wars, that mindset will have to be changed. But to do that, we would first have to recognize and confront war’s many uses in American life and culture.

War, Its Uses (and Abuses)

A partial list of war’s many uses might go something like this: war is profitable, most notably for America’s vast military-industrial complex; war is sold as being necessary for America’s safety, especially to prevent terrorist attacks; and for many Americans, war is seen as a measure of national fitness and worthiness, a reminder that “freedom isn’t free.” In our politics today, it’s far better to be seen as strong and wrong than meek and right.

As the title of a book by former war reporter Chris Hedges so aptly put it, war is a force that gives us meaning. And let’s face it, a significant part of America’s meaning in this century has involved pride in having the toughest military on the planet, even as trillions of tax dollars went into a misguided attempt to maintain bragging rights to being the world’s sole superpower.

And keep in mind as well that, among other things, never-ending war weakens democracy while strengthening authoritarian tendencies in politics and society. In an age of gaping inequality, using up the country’s resources in such profligate and destructive ways offers a striking exercise in consumption that profits the few at the expense of the many.

In other words, for a select few, war pays dividends in ways that peace doesn’t. In a nutshell, or perhaps an artillery shell, war is anti-democratic, anti-progressive, anti-intellectual, and anti-human. Yet, as we know, history makes heroes out of its participants and celebrates mass murderers like Napoleon as “great captains.”

What the United States needs today is a new strategy of containment — not against communist expansion, as in the Cold War, but against war itself. What’s stopping us from containing war? You might say that, in some sense, we’ve grown addicted to it, which is true enough, but here are five additional reasons for war’s enduring presence in American life:

  • The delusional idea that Americans are, by nature, winners and that our wars are therefore winnable: No American leader wants to be labeled a “loser.” Meanwhile, such dubious conflicts — see: the Afghan War, now in its 18th year, with several more years, or even generations, to go — continue to be treated by the military as if they were indeed winnable, even though they visibly aren’t. No president, Republican or Democrat, not even Donald J. Trump, despite his promises that American soldiers will be coming home from such fiascos, has successfully resisted the Pentagon’s siren call for patience (and for yet more trillions of dollars) in the cause of ultimate victory, however poorly defined, farfetched, or far-off.
  • American society’s almost complete isolation from war’s deadly effects: We’re not being droned (yet). Our cities are not yet lying in ruins (though they’re certainly suffering from a lack of funding, as is our most essential infrastructure, thanks in part to the cost of those overseas wars). It’s nonetheless remarkable how little attention, either in the media or elsewhere, this country’s never-ending war-making gets here.
  • Unnecessary and sweeping secrecy: How can you resist what you essentially don’t know about? Learning its lesson from the Vietnam War, the Pentagon now classifies (in plain speak: covers up) the worst aspects of its disastrous wars. This isn’t because the enemy could exploit such details — the enemy already knows! — but because the American people might be roused to something like anger and action by it. Principled whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning have been imprisoned or otherwise dismissed or, in the case of Edward Snowden, pursued and indicted for sharing honest details about the calamitous Iraq War and America’s invasive and intrusive surveillance state. In the process, a clear message of intimidation has been sent to other would-be truth-tellers.
  • An unrepresentative government: Long ago, of course, Congress ceded to the presidency most of its constitutional powers when it comes to making war. Still, despite recent attempts to end America’s arms-dealing role in the genocidal Saudi war in Yemen (overridden by Donald Trump’s veto power), America’s duly elected representatives generally don’t represent the people when it comes to this country’s disastrous wars. They are, to put it bluntly, largely captives of (and sometimes on leaving politics quite literally go to work for) the military-industrial complex. As long as money is speech (thank you, Supreme Court!), the weapons makers are always likely to be able to shout louder in Congress than you and I ever will.
  • America’s persistent empathy gap. Despite our size, we are a remarkably insular nation and suffer from a serious empathy gap when it comes to understanding foreign cultures and peoples or what we’re actually doing to them. Even our globetrotting troops, when not fighting and killing foreigners in battle, often stay on vast bases, referred to in the military as “Little Americas,” complete with familiar stores, fast food, you name it. Wherever we go, there we are, eating our big burgers, driving our big trucks, wielding our big guns, and dropping our very big bombs. But what those bombs do, whom they hurt or kill, whom they displace from their homes and lives, these are things that Americans turn out to care remarkably little about.

All this puts me sadly in mind of a song popular in my youth, a time when Cat Stevens sang of a “peace train” that was “soundin’ louder” in America. Today, that peace train’s been derailed and replaced by an armed and armored one eternally prepared for perpetual war — and that train is indeed soundin’ louder to the great peril of us all.

Please read the rest of the article here at TomDispatch.com.

22 thoughts on “War Train, Soundin’ Louder

  1. I would only quibble with one word in this article, and that is your use of the word “powerful” in the 7th line.  This is not power. – Nicolas

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    1. Yes. “Powerful” by their definition — judged by weaponry. The old “arsenal of democracy” idea, except we’re no longer a democracy. We just have the arsenal.

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  2. I just read your article in TD. In my opinion you buried the reason for never ending wars. You mention exceptionalism. I call that concept preeminence. With it is one of the few ways we try to fill the void, or as you said in fewer words, try to give meaning to life. There can be no doubt our lives are becoming increasingly meaningless so we double down and double down again with what we know despite the self-destruction. https://thelastwhy.ca/poems/2015/6/25/life-a-reaction-to-the-void

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    1. Yes. “War is a force that gives us meaning,” as Chris Hedges wrote. It provides (false) meaning and purpose. It’s an amazingly powerful force, which is one reason why only Congress should declare war.

      And the last time that happened in the USA was December of 1941.

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  3. Doug Barr–It appears to me you are trying to blur some lines, or perhaps you are confused about, what one might call general human psychology and the official policies of a specific government, that of the USA. [As a student of Anthropology, I point out that though our primate ancestors are prone to outbursts of violence, there is no evidence that making war, especially in the contemporary phase of human society, fulfills an innate “need.”] Yes, the US seeks to be “pre-eminent”–or to be blunter, DOMINANT–over the rest of the globe. Where “exceptionalism”–which I have designated the American Disease–enters the picture is the attempt to justify military aggression by suggesting (some are less subtle and openly assert) that the US somehow has been granted a “right” to do this by “a higher power.” (Apparently God Himself revealed to George W. Bush that he was born to be “a war president” and the genius Rick Perry asserted recently that Donald Trump was put in the presidency by direct Divine action.) A “right” to send assassin drones anywhere, anytime, to target anyone who’s been designated a Bad Guy. This is absurd, if not insane, on the face of it. (In olden times, Rudyard Kipling called it “the white man’s burden” to bring civilization to less “enlightened” peoples.) If there was an international court that had some teeth, the US would be vigorously swatted down, ordered to cease and desist. But one of the greatest tragedies of our time is that there is no power on Earth that could stand up to this Monster (as John Kay and his band Steppenwolf rightly identified the US 50 years ago) even if it could find the backbone to make the attempt.

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    1. Good point, Greg. It’s the idea “might makes right” — when it’s America’s might. Because we’re exceptional and see further and fight noble causes and so on …

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  4. I think that the main reason of the current level of militarism in the USA foreign policy is that after dissolution of the USSR neo-conservatives were allowed to capture the State Department and foreign policy establishment. This process actually started under Reagan. During Bush II administration those “crazies from the basement” fully controlled the US foreign policy and paradoxically they continued to dominate in Obama administration too.

    They preach “Full Spectrum Dominance” (Wolfowitz doctrine) and are not shy to unleash the wars to enhance the USA strategic position in particular region (color revolution can be used instead of war, like they in 2014 did in Ukraine). Of course, being chichenhawks, neither they nor members of their families fight in those wars.

    For some reason despite his election platform Trump also populated his administration with neoconservatives. So it might be that maintaining the USA centered global neoliberal empire is the real reason and the leitmotiv of the USA foreign policy. that’s why it does not change with the change of Administration: any government that does not play well with the neoliberal empire gets in the hairlines.

    Which also means that the USA foreign policy is not controlled by the elected officials but by the “DeepState” (look at Vindman and Fiona Hill testimonies for the proof). So this is kind of Catch 22 in this the USA have found itself. We will be bankrupted by our neoconservative foreign establishment (which self-reproduce in each and every administration). and we can do nothing to avoid it.

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    1. Good point. But why the rise of the neocons? Why did they prosper? I’d say because of the military-industrial complex. Or you might say they feed each other, but the Complex came first. And of course the Complex is a dominant part of the Deep State. How could it not be? Add in 17 intelligence agencies, Homeland Security, the Energy Dept’s nukes, and you have a dominant DoD that swallows up more than half of federal discretionary spending each year.

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      1. I agree, but it is a little bit more complex. You need an ideology to promote the interests of MIC. You can’t just say — let’s spend more than a half of federal discretionary spending each year..

        That’s where neo-conservatism comes into play. So they are not only lobbyists for MIC, but they also serve as “ideological support”, trying to manipulate public opinion in favor of militarism.

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        1. Yes. Ideology is vital. During the Cold War it was all about containing/resisting/defeating the godless Communists. Once they were defeated, what then? We heard brief talk about a “peace dividend,” but then the neocons came along, selling full-spectrum dominance and America as the sole superpower.

          The neocons were truly unleashed by the 9/11 attacks, which they exploited to put their vision in motion. The Complex was only too happy to oblige, fed as it was by massive resources.

          Think about how no one was punished for the colossal intelligence failure of 9/11. Instead, all the intel agencies were rewarded with more money and authority via the PATRIOT Act.

          The Afghan war is an ongoing disaster, the Iraq war a huge misstep, Libya a total failure, yet the Complex has even more Teflon than Ronald Reagan. All failures slide off of it.

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          1. There is a still bigger picture to consider in all this. I don’t want to open the door to conspiracy theory–personally, I find the claim that explosives were placed inside the World Trade Center prior to the strikes by aircraft on 9/11 risible–but it certainly was convenient for the Regime Change Gang that the Saudi operatives were able to get away with what they did on that day, and in preparations leading up to it. Leaving that specific incident aside, the bigger picture is that the brains behind the Deep State understand that global capitalism is running out of new resources (which includes human labor) to exploit. Why is the US so concerned with Africa right now, with spies and Special Forces operatives all over that continent? Africa is the final frontier for development/exploitation. (The US is also deeply concerned about China’s setting down business roots there, and wants to counterbalance their activities.) Once the great majority of folks in Africa have cellphones and subscriptions to Netflix…whither capitalism? Trump denies the severity of the climate crisis because that is part of the ideology/theology of the GOP. The brains in the US Ruling Class know full well that natural resources will become ever more valuable moving forward, as weather disasters make it harder to access them. Thus, the Neo-Cons (you thought I’d never get around to them, right?) came to the fore because they advocate the unbridled use of brute military force to obtain what they want from the world. Or, to use their own terminology, the US “must have the capability to project force anywhere on the planet” at a moment’s notice. President Obama was fully in agreement with that concept. Beware the wolf masquerading as a peaceable sheep!

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          2. Good point, Greg. Trump is more than obvious about his desire for oil, though that’s a bit old fashioned. Shouldn’t we be more concerned about lithium, which Bolivia seems to have in abundance?

            https://news.yahoo.com/bolivia-huge-untapped-reserves-gears-soaring-lithium-demand-013650510.html

            Hmm, I wonder why there was a coup in Bolivia, with a new, corporate-friendly, leader garnering instant U.S. support?

            Our leaders like to say we value human rights around the world, but what they really manifest is greed. It all makes sense in a Gekko- or Machiavellian kind of way.

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          3. Bill, “if there was a just God in Heaven,” words about human rights would turn to ashes in the mouths of the hypocritical politicians spouting them!!

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  5. Well, God’s not in heaven; He’s in our genes and in the laws of physics. He’s also a concept in our psyches that we seek to emulate, or to actually become…We want to be God…Remember the Genesis story?

    Leaving aside theology though…For me, Jay Hanson has nailed it:

    http://www.jayhanson.org/loop.htm

    The thing in which he erred, and a whole of other people aren’t getting right either, however, was his belief that we are now at ultimate limits on exosomatic energy, that renewables can’t ever deliver as much energy as fossils have, but truth is they have potential to deliver a lot more, and then too we might even get a controlled nuclear fusion breakthrough.

    The situation now is that we have next-paradigm techs that require extremely large investments to implement and at the same time we are running on the status quo totally unsustainable energy-and-everything- else paradigm and expecting continued economic growth. We are in a super hi-stress transition period and will be so for another few generations. The instinctive pressures to continue increasing power and competing for it combined with our Tower-of-Babel divisiveness of cultures and all kinds of -isms are setting us up for continued and intensifying warfare. Moreover, even IF, a mighty big IF, we make it through this dangerous period without self-/ecosystem-destruction/totally unrecoverable modern economic collapse, what next?

    My view is that it would probably be better that we undergo modern economic collapse so that we lose the power to destroy our species, a lot of others, and make the earth unlivable. That may just happen but in the meantime, here we are, each parts of amoral amoebae (hierarchical mega social entities) in the transition danger zone with the same genes we’ve always had driving us along.

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    1. I’m not a “fan” of NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman, but he “hit it out of the park” many years ago (could even be about 20, given how time flies for me) when he wrote that what’s needed is a “Manhattan Project level” undertaking to accelerate transition to renewable energy sources. Surprise, surprise, “the political will” was lacking. And clearly still is. Global warming is an irreversible catastrophe, but only part of what we might call Planetary Suicide Syndrome. While some scientists continue to pursue the Magic Bullet to finally vanquish cancer (think of the profit margin on THAT product!), the mechanism of the status quo continues to pump the environment full of horrid poisons, deplete the ocean fisheries, dump the waste from factory farming on us, etc. This will not end prettily, fellow humans.

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  6. Jimmy Carter was right with his so-called malaise speech. Just think if we had listened to him. But along came Reagan and there went the solar panels off of the White House …

    Carter was probably the last president we had who understood science.

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    1. Not to nitpick, but…’Big Dog’ Clinton was no dummy. Reagan, of course, genuinely was. Publicly declared that trees “cause air pollution.” Trump is also not a dummy, at bottom. But as we know, all he cares about is the Trump brand and Trump name. Which he has deluded himself into believing will be a shining beacon throughout US history. Hard to believe sometimes what’s happening around us is real!!

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      1. Yes Greg, Clinton definitely wasn’t a dummy in the academic sense — he was a Rhodes scholar who went to Oxford or Cambridge (too busy to look it up) which IS impressive (at first glance at least… recall that ‘W’ went to Yale & Harvard, ‘nuff said) — but how f*****g smart is a guy who’s a married POTUS, with an adversarial Republican Party in Congress (who had already accused him of numerous extra-marital trysts — probably accurately in at least some instances) and 24/7 media always looking for sex-stories to tittilate the public with, who has sexual relations with an unmarried, low-level employee?? WTF would she have to lose in telling the world about it? Maybe he thought he could operate like JFK, but if so, he wasn’t paying attention to the cultural changes during the 30+ intervening years.

        And I voted for Clinton in ‘92 & 96, so it’s not like I was an anti-Clinton person (though I’vet evolved into one), but that was such a MAJOR political mistake, that I could no longer think of him as ‘smart’ in the general sense of the term.

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        1. Big Bill’s actions are easily explained: 1.) he’s a sex addict; and 2.) he thought Office of the President would shield him. Just like a certain incumbent feels the Impeachment provisions in Constitution simply don’t apply to him. Anyhow, we were talking about Science in general, and though Clinton may not have studied that in any great depth he certainly would not have been a climate change denier. Sadly, his VP boasted of his environmental awareness and concern, but left office with pretty much ZERO accomplished in that arena. In fact, he had to be “outed” in the media before he undertook a “greening” of his big mansion in Tennessee!!

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  7. Excellent article WJA! You really hit the nail on the head! It’s heartening to read such logical, humanitarian arguments, since those sentiments are so rarely found in the mainstream media.

    Thank you!

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