America Is Programmed for War

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch, I write that America is programmed for war. It’s a feature of our polity and our politics and our culture, not a bug. In some sense, we are a country made by war, and that’s not a good feature for a self-avowed democracy to have. Here’s an excerpt:

Why don’t America’s wars ever end?

I know, I know: President Joe Biden has announced that our combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 9/11 of this year, marking the 20th anniversary of the colossal failure of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to defend America.

Of course, that other 9/11 in 2001 shocked us all. I was teaching history at the U.S. Air Force Academy and I still recall hushed discussions of whether the day’s body count would exceed that of the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day of the Civil War. (Fortunately, bad as it was, it didn’t.)

Hijacked commercial airliners, turned into guided missiles by shadowy figures our panicky politicians didn’t understand, would have a profound impact on our collective psyche. Someone had to pay and among the first victims were Afghans in the opening salvo of the misbegotten Global War on Terror, which we in the military quickly began referring to as the GWOT. Little did I know then that such a war would still be going on 15 years after I retired from the Air Force in 2005 and 80 articles after I wrote my first for TomDispatch in 2007 arguing for an end to militarism and forever wars like the one still underway in Afghanistan.

Over those years, I’ve come to learn that, in my country, war always seems to find a way, even when it goes badly — very badly, in fact, as it did in Vietnam and, in these years, in Afghanistan and Iraq, indeed across much of the Greater Middle East and significant parts of Africa. Not coincidentally, those disastrous conflicts haven’t actually been waged in our name. No longer does Congress even bother with formal declarations of war. The last one came in 1941 after Pearl Harbor. During World War II, Americans united to fight for something like national security and a just cause. Today, however, perpetual American-style war simply is. Congress postures, but does nothing decisive to stop it. In computer-speak, endless war is a feature of our national programming, not a bug.

Two pro-war parties, Republicans and Democrats, have cooperated in these decades to ensure that such wars persist… and persist and persist. Still, they’re not the chief reason why America’s wars are so difficult to end. Let me list some of those reasons for you. First, such wars are beyond profitable, notably to weapons makers and related military contractors. Second, such wars are the Pentagon’s reason for being. Let’s not forget that, once upon a time, the present ill-named Department of Defense was so much more accurately and honestly called the Department of War. Third, if profit and power aren’t incentive enough, wars provide purpose and meaning even as they strengthen authoritarian structures in society and erode democratic ones. Sum it all up and war is what America now does, even if the reasons may be indefensible and the results so regularly abysmal.

Support Our Troops! (Who Are They, Again?)

The last truly American war was World War II. And when it ended in 1945, the citizen-soldiers within the U.S. military demanded rapid demobilization — and they got it. But then came the Iron Curtain, the Cold War, the Korean War, fears of nuclear Armageddon (that nearly came to fruition during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962), and finally, of course, Vietnam. Those wars were generally not supported — not with any fervor anyway — by the American people, hence the absence of congressional declarations. Instead, they mainly served the interests of the national security state, or, if you prefer, the military-industrial-congressional complex.

Ike knew the score

That’s precisely why President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued his grave warning about that Complex in his farewell address in 1961. No peacenik, Ike had overseen more than his share of military coups and interventions abroad while president, so much so that he came to see the faults of the system he was both upholding and seeking to restrain. That was also why President John F. Kennedy called for a more humble and pacific approach to the Cold War in 1963, even as he himself failed to halt the march toward a full-scale war in Southeast Asia. This is precisely why Martin Luther King, Jr., truly a prophet who favored the fierce urgency of peace, warned Americans about the evils of war and militarism (as well as racism and materialism) in 1967. In the context of the enormity of destruction America was then visiting on the peoples of Southeast Asia, not for nothing did he denounce this country as the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.

Collectively, Americans chose to ignore such warnings, our attention being directed instead toward spouting patriotic platitudes in support of “our” troops. Yet, if you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize those troops aren’t really ours. If they were, we wouldn’t need so many bumper stickers reminding us to support them.

With the military draft gone for the last half-century, most Americans have voted with their feet by not volunteering to become “boots on the ground” in the Pentagon’s various foreign escapades. Meanwhile, America’s commanders-in-chief have issued inspiring calls for their version of national service, as when, in the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush urged Americans to go shopping and visit Disney World. In the end, Americans, lacking familiarity with combat boots, are generally apathetic, sensing that “our” wars have neither specific meaning to, nor any essential purpose in their lives.

As a former Air Force officer, even if now retired, I must admit that it took me too long to realize this country’s wars had remarkably little to do with me — or you, for that matter — because we simply have no say in them. That doesn’t mean our leaders don’t seek to wage them in our name. Even as they do so, however, they simultaneously absolve us of any need to serve or sacrifice. We’re essentially told to cheer “our” troops on, but otherwise look away and leave war to the professionals (even if, as it turns out, those professionals seem utterly incapable of winning a single one of them).

Please read the rest of my article here at

16 thoughts on “America Is Programmed for War

  1. Welcome back with another thought provocative report, William. I was missing you.

    We covered Ike’s 1953 CROSS OF IRON speech with all the enlightened Principles he abandoned 4 months later, with the CIA intervention orchestrating the Coup in Iran.

    As you point out, after 8 years dealing with the CEOs of the War Industries, their Lobbyists, and Congress, all wanting War Production and jobs in their Congressional Districts, Ike returned to the fundamentals of his 1953 speech with his retirement Military-Industrial Complex speech Americans ignore to this Day.

    Ike spelled out the hurdles in stopping America programmed for War this way,
    Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

    Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plow shares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defence; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defence establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

    This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

    In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

    We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

    President Kennedy picked up on the elements of Ike’s MIC speech, and the secrecy you bewail in Tomdispatch.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am glad that, after decades of “serving” your country, you are starting to figure things out. I have two suggestions about that:

    (1) Don’t use the word “serve” in that fashion. It suggests something more honorable, moral, ethical, constructive than what is really going on.

    (2) Don’t refer in positive terms to what “America’s founders intended.” The USA has been a plutocracy thinly disguised as a plutocracy ever since its “founding” in land theft, genocide, slavery, and indentured servitude.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Being a historian myself and having taught U.S. history, I agree that our history has featured genocide, slavery, land theft, indentured servitude, and other forms of nastiness. I agree the founders were imperfect, complicit, and often much less than their words. All this being said, there was a nobility of purpose to the founders; their ideals were not always out of place. What we need is to correct and broaden their vision. All people are created equal. All should be able to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

      In concrete form, that means putting an end to plutocracy; working toward democracy; securing fair pay, health care, protecting privacy, for all. And so on.

      I don’t think we should reject the founders tout court because some were slave owners, because they were limited and imperfect men, because they were elitist and flawed. No — we accept their wisdom while rejecting their flaws and denouncing their crimes.

      Furthermore, it behooves us to look in the mirror and to see our own flaws, our own imperfections, our own weaknesses. As the song goes, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror/I’m asking him to change his ways.”

      Liked by 4 people

  3. Thanks for enclosing so much material in this educational piece. There’s a lot to unpack when resourcing the links.
    I read this book by Michael Karlberg a good while back; and I still I pick it back up at times to refresh my commitment to changing our current dynamic. The title:
    Beyond the Culture of Contest … From Adversarialism To Mutualism in the Age of Interdependence
    Here’s Michael at TedTalk discussing his ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. While I can’t help but agree with all your points, Professor, the phrasing of your title concerns me.

    I’m seeing increasing numbers of articles that speculate on the likelihood of a violent break with China and/or Russia, the possibilities that the U.S. may be drawn into conflict over Taiwan, the Ukraine, and so on. The overarching concept is, “WAR,” [used once here only to illustrate] when our focus should be on achieving and extending PEACE.

    As linguistic genius George Lakoff has said repeatedly, framing is everything. His most-cited book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” is most instructive in this case. Merely by incessantly emphasizing combat, writers, broadcasters, and various officials are ensuring that its possibility moves toward probability, because it’s top of mind. Certainly, in the case of the Biden administration, it almost seems as if the constant drumbeat has been formulated to accustom the population to the thought of conflict with China, and thereby prepare the path. Gin up hostility in Americans’ minds, so to speak. The people in charge are creating a collective consciousness geared toward the “inevitability” of an outbreak of fighting.

    To set aside scientific, psychological reasoning, I’d swing to the mystical fu-fu realm and cite the Law of Attraction. That is, what we most dwell on is what we bring to ourselves, even if that concentration is on negative aspects. An endless refrain of, “I hate my job,” is only going to prolong one’s association with that job, because that “job” is the focus. Rather, the focus should be geared toward an affirmation of what is actually desired: “I want to move to a more fulfilling position.” Continually “putting it out there” in any form results in getting back what is projected. In simplest terms, reaping what one sows; hostility begets hostility. Therefore, the W-word should be surgically removed from our lexicon and replaced by P-E-A-C-E, as in, “How Can We Maintain Peace?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alternative Title: Let’s Reprogram America For Peace

      I agree: there’s way too much talk of war.


  5. I read the whole of this article, which is on Tom Dispatch and some other sites. It’s a fantastically fine statement from a principled and rational person, for which I thank you deeply. The only problem is, I don’t think that by and large the American people care in the least about the wars in which America destroys peoples, lives & livings, or about how America one-sidedly and in profound ignorance re-opens the Cold War, plays chicken with China, and blithely risks nuclear holocaust. There is no plausible anti-war movement, and the “progressives” in Congress are on board with the other war-for-profit mongers, doubtless working for the same masters. Given that, there are not two scenarios, one insane aned the other not, but only one scenario, worse even than you’ve imagined. Anything could be accomplished if people really cared and could work cooperatively with other people, but they don’t, and they can’t. They are too busy hating and trying to survive (inompatable goals). Chaney said what he did because he knew that what I have just said was true.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Well said. In general, Americans are much too complacent about the military, military spending, and war. Partly it’s because we’re kept isolated; partly it’s because we’re propagandized; partly it’s because we’re told to shut up and color; and partly it’s because we’re too busy hating, as you say.

      As Denise said above, we must stop accepting war and start working for peace. As Caitlin Johnstone says, again and again, we must ditch the war narrative for a new one that actually prioritizes life on earth — all life.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Another interesting read from Tom Dispatch. This caught my eye,
    Congress continued to raise its limits as military budgets only grew and, no less important, defense spending had a release valve that allowed staggering sums of money to flow without serious accounting into an off-budget fund meant especially for its wars and labelled “the overseas contingency operations account.”
    The Congressional Research Service has estimated that such supplemental spending from September 11, 2001, to fiscal year 2019 totalled an astonishing $2 trillion above and beyond the congressionally agreed upon Pentagon budget.

    On the subject of War, Hatred and Suffering, this comment was submitted to the New York Times earlier on this article and didn’t pass their approval yet,

    This report, in this Year of the Lord 2021, can be understood in the Spirit of these letters in the Bible.
    Israel ceased to exist some 700 years before Jesus walked through Judea and Samaria during the Occupation of Roman Palestine 2000 years ago.

    The woman said to him, Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.
    Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and you say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.

    Jesus said to her, Woman, believe me, the hour comes, when you shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.
    But the hour comes, and NOW is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeks such to worship him.
    God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
    John 4

    O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which kills the prophets, and stones them that are sent to you; how often would I have gathered your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!
    Behold, your house is left unto you desolate: and truly I say to you, You shall not see me, until the time come when you shall say, Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.
    Luke 13

    Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.
    And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.
    Revelation 16

    The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.
    Revelation 10

    ‘Israelis, Palestinians and Their Neighbours Worry: Is This the Big One?’


  7. An article I read today leaves me wondering, what is a US Coast Guard ship doing at the Strait of Hormuz firing off rounds to warn off Iranian ships? The US assumes the right to do as it pleases around the globe.


  8. This is precisely why Martin Luther King, Jr., truly a prophet who favored the fierce urgency of peace, warned Americans about the evils of war and militarism (as well as racism and materialism) in 1967. And it’s still true. Thank you WJ

    Liked by 1 person

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