The Many Purposes of War

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Why can’t we bring them home? (U.S. Marine in Afghanistan; photo by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum)

W.J. Astore

Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist who wrote at the end of the Napoleonic Era, is noted for saying that war is a continuation of politics.  That saying explains much of current U.S. military war-making, but only if you first and foremost focus on domestic politics – and economics.

Wars make money for weapons makers, and the U.S. dominates the world’s arms trade.  Wars require a large “defense” establishment, and the U.S. national security state has essentially become a fourth branch of government that threatens to eat the rest.  Wars tend to strengthen reactionary elements within society, shunting to the fringes those who argue for peace amid a climate of fear.  Wars, in short, have their purposes – it’s just that the salient ones often differ from the stated ones.  For clarity, it often helps to follow the money.  Who profits from war?  Addressing that question will explain many of the reasons why America’s wars have no promise of ending.

In the meantime, current U.S. war-making looks something like this:

  1. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the pursuit of “stability” (whatever that means) mainly through the arming and training of indigenous security forces. Using Afghans and Iraqis as foot soldiers, as well as a heavy reliance on private military contractors (mercenaries), reduces the U.S. military “footprint” on the ground, which reduces U.S. casualties and thus domestic interest in as well as opposition to these wars. Typical U.S. governmental actions include military training, selling weapons, and providing air support (mainly in the form of bombing and reconnaissance).

Waging these wars, at the end of long logistical lines, is profligate in dollars — witness the high cost of indigenous forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, which rarely perform anywhere close to U.S. expectations — which has the added benefit of justifying enormous “defense” budgets in the U.S.

What these wars don’t promise is either “victory” or closure.  But that’s not the main point of them.  U.S. politicians like George W. Bush and Barack Obama are not concerned with victory: they’re focused on sustaining illusions of progress for domestic political gain.  For example, the recent recapture of Falluja from ISIS is defined by the U.S. government as “progress,” even though that city had already been “pacified,” i.e. largely destroyed at high cost to U.S. forces, more than a decade ago.

  1. In the war on terror, the heavy use of special operations forces and drones, both to kill terrorists and to interdict their supplies, logistics, and sources of their funding. Again, the emphasis is on minimizing U.S. casualties, which is the key consideration in U.S. domestic politics. American lives are not risked in drone attacks, and relatively few Americans have been killed in special ops raids, which, because they are often so highly classified, rarely register in the U.S. media unless Americans are indeed killed.

Here again, it’s unclear if any real progress is being made in this war, but the Obama administration in particular has sold such raids and strikes as killing thousands of terrorists while minimizing U.S. casualties.  Such claims serve to squelch, if only temporarily, Republican claims that Obama is weak and soft on defense.  Domestic political concerns, rather than long lasting effectiveness, once again rule.

  1. Confrontation with “peer” rivals like Russia and China. This is old-school stuff, a variant of Cold War containment and deterrence. “Pivots” to the Pacific and the rhetorical pillorying of Vladimir Putin help to justify massive U.S. military spending that approaches $750 billion each and every year.  The war on lightly armed terrorists isn’t enough to sustain this figure, but reports that China’s getting an aircraft carrier or Russia’s working on nuclear weapons justify new U.S. carriers and a trillion-dollar splurge on U.S. nuclear arsenals.

Here again, U.S. war-making is driven far more by domestic politics (and economics) than by needs-driven analysis of national defense.  Exaggerating peer threats like China and Russia keeps a sclerotic Pentagon, a supine Congress, and a bloated military-industrial complex happy.

At this point, an astute reader might ask: But what is the real Clausewitzian strategy for war-making in the United States?  How is war a continuation of politics?  Again, one must look to U.S. domestic politics to address this question.  “Toughness” must be demonstrated, therefore wars must be continued, no matter how costly and unpromising, if only to keep up appearances.  President Obama, for example, has refused to make key decisions about the Afghan war, leaving it to the next president to decide whether the U.S. commitment of troops continues after 2017.  There’s an outstanding chance that the next U.S. president will continue that war, placing it on the backburner to simmer until the next election cycle in 2020.

In sum, the new American way of war-making consists of methods rather than strategies, methods that produce endless war that serve mostly domestic political and economic purposes.  A telltale sign that things are going really poorly is when the U.S. military declares another “surge” of its ground forces, which whether in Iraq in 2007 or Afghanistan in 2009-10 seemed calculated not to produce victory or closure but again to squelch domestic political opposition from hawkish rivals.  That in itself is considered a “win” for whichever administration is in power.

What is never considered in U.S. war-making is ending the wars.  Domestically, attempts at limiting U.S. war-making are instantly tarred with the brush of “cutting and running,” of weakness, even of cowardice.  Rare is the U.S. president who dares to stand up to those clamoring for war.

Attempts to downsize the global presence of the U.S. military are similarly equated with weakness.  As a result, no U.S. president (or major party candidate for president, like Clinton or Trump) dares to suggest it.  Refusing to walk away, fearing loss of face but especially fearing domestic political defeat, presidents as diverse as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in the 1960s and lately Bush and Obama have embraced the folly of waging unwinnable wars.  It’s likely little will change in 2017, irrespective of which major party wins the election.

Both presidential nominees of the major parties, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have promised to make the U.S. military bigger and better.  But for what purpose?  A bigger, badder military is the purpose, and again it’s driven by domestic political and economic imperatives.  You have to go outside the major parties, to the Libertarians or the Greens, to hear any talk of significant military reductions.  Libertarians have talked of military reductions of 20%, the Greens of deeper cuts of up to 50%.  In today’s militarized America, those parties aren’t going anywhere.

War-making as a continuation of domestic politics for political and economic profit – it sure explains a lot about the actions of the U.S. government and military.  It may not be what Carl von Clausewitz had in mind, but it surely is America’s reality.

A Century of Mass Slaughter

Big Bertha (wiki)
Big Bertha (wiki)

W.J. Astore.  Also featured at Huffington Post.

This August marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. That “Great War” was many things, but it was most certainly a war of machines, of dreadnought battleships and “Big Bertha” artillery, of newfangled airplanes and tortoise-like tanks. Industrial juggernauts like Great Britain, France, and Germany succeeded more or less in mobilizing their economies fully for war; their reward was reaping the horrors of death-dealing machinery on a scale theretofore thought impossible.

In that summer of 1914, most experts expected a short war, so plans for sustaining machine-age warfare through economic mobilization were lacking. Confronted by trench warfare and stalemate on the Western Front which owed everything to modern industrialism and machinery, the “big three” antagonists strove to break that stalemate using the means that had produced it: weapons and munitions. Those empires caught up in the war that were still industrializing, e.g. Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, found themselves at a serious disadvantage.

Together, Britain and France forged an industrial alliance that proved (with help from the U.S.) to be a war-winning “arsenal of democracy.” Yet this alliance contributed to an overvaluing of machines and munitions at the soldiers’ expense. For Entente leaders — even for old-school cavalry officers like Britain’s Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig — new artillery with massive stockpiles of shells promised to produce the elusive breakthrough and a return to mobile warfare and glorious victory.

Thus it was that at the Battle of the Somme that began on July 1, 1916, British soldiers were reduced to trained occupiers. Lengthy pre-battle artillery barrages, it was believed, would annihilate German defenders, leaving British troops to slog uncontested across no-man’s land to occupy the enemy’s shattered and empty trenches.

But those trenches were not empty. Germany’s defenses survived Britain’s storm of steel largely intact. And Britain’s soldiers paid the price of misplaced faith in machine warfare: nearly 20,000 dead on that first day, with a further 40,000 wounded.

The Somme is but one example of British and French commanders being overwhelmed by the conditions of machine warfare, so much so that they placed their faith in more machines and more munitions as the means to victory. After underestimating the impact of technology on the battlefield up to 1914, commanders quickly came to overestimate it. As a result, troops were inadequately trained and tactics inadequately developed.

As commanders consumed vast quantities of machinery and munitions, they became accustomed to expending lives on a similarly profligate scale. Bodies piled up even as more economic means were tapped. Meanwhile, the staggering sacrifices required by destructive industrialism drove nations to inflate strategic ends. Industrialized warfare that spat out lead and steel while consuming flesh and bone served only to inflame political demands, negating opportunities for compromise. Total victory became the only acceptable result for both sides.

In retrospect it’s remarkable how quickly leaders placed their faith in the machinery of war, so much so that military power revved uncontrollably, red-lined, then exploded in the faces of its creators. Industrialized destruction and mass slaughter were the predictable outcomes of a crisis whose resolution was driven by hardware — more weaponry, more machinery, more bodies. The minds of the men who drove events in that war could not sanction negotiation or compromise; those were forms of “weakness” that neither side could accept. Such murderous inflexibility was captured in the postwar observation of novelist Virginia Woolf that “It was a shock to see the faces of our rulers in the light of the shell fire. So ugly they looked — German, English, French — so stupid.” Note how she includes her own countrymen, the English, in the mix of the ugly and the stupid.

In World War I, Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum of war as an extreme form of politics became tragically twisted to war as the only means of politics, with industrialized mass destruction as the only means of war. The resulting failure to negotiate a lasting peace came as no surprise since the war had raced not only beyond politics, but beyond the minds of its military and political leaders.

The Great War had unleashed a virus, a dynamic of destruction, that would only be suppressed, and even then only imperfectly, by the wanton destruction of World War II. For what was Auschwitz but a factory of death, a center for mass destruction, a mechanized and murderous machine for efficient and impersonal slaughter, a culmination of the industrialized slaughter (to include mass gassing) of World War I?

The age of mass warfare and mass destruction was both catalyst for and byproduct of the age of machinery and mass production. Today’s age is less industrial but no less driven by machinery and mass consumption (which requires a form of mass destruction inflicted largely on the environment).

Aerial drones and cyber warfare are already providing disturbing evidence that the early 21st century may yet echo its predecessor in introducing yet another age of misplaced faith in the machinery of warfare. The commonality remains the vulnerability of human flesh to steel, as well as human minds to manipulation.

A century has passed, yet we’re still placing far too much faith in the machinery of war.

War! What Is It Good For? Profit and Power

Boeing B-52 bomber over Vietnam
Boeing B-52 bomber over Vietnam

I started writing for TomDispatch, a remarkable contrarian site founded and edited by Tom Engelhardt, a fine editor/writer and even finer gentleman, in October 2007.  My first article was on the Petraeus surge and how President Bush and his administration were hiding behind the absurdly bemedaled and beribboned uniform of that general.

Tom Engelhardt’s generous and consistent support of my writing opened new possibilities for me.  More importantly, Tom helped me to think for myself.  I’ve also met some great people through my writing, including the co-founder of The Contrary Perspective, b. traven.

I’ve greatly enjoyed the six years I’ve written for TomDispatch.  What follows is my 33rd original article (or “Tomgram,” as we like to call them) — and yes, it’s hard for me to believe that number, since I really thought I’d write only one or two.  Thanks so much Tom, Nick, and all the other editors and writers at TomDispatch.  It’s been a fun and enlightening ride.

From TomDispatch this evening:  Winners and losers in the business of war American-style — William J. Astore, “The Business of America Is War, Disaster Capitalism on the Battlefield and in the Boardroom” http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175762/

The Business of America Is War
Disaster Capitalism on the Battlefield and in the Boardroom
By William J. Astore

There is a new normal in America: our government may shut down, but our wars continue.  Congress may not be able to pass a budget, but the U.S. military can still launch commando raids in Libya and Somalia, the Afghan War can still be prosecuted, Italy can be garrisoned by American troops (putting the “empire” back in Rome), Africa can be used as an imperial playground (as in the late nineteenth century “scramble for Africa,” but with the U.S. and China doing the scrambling this time around), and the military-industrial complex can still dominate the world’s arms trade.

In the halls of Congress and the Pentagon, it’s business as usual, if your definition of “business” is the power and profits you get from constantly preparing for and prosecuting wars around the world.  “War is a racket,” General Smedley Butler famously declared in 1935, and even now it’s hard to disagree with a man who had two Congressional Medals of Honor to his credit and was intimately familiar with American imperialism.

War Is Politics, Right?

Once upon a time, as a serving officer in the U.S. Air Force, I was taught that Carl von Clausewitz had defined war as a continuation of politics by other means.  This definition is, in fact, a simplification of his classic and complex book, On War, written after his experiences fighting Napoleon in the early nineteenth century.

The idea of war as a continuation of politics is both moderately interesting and dangerously misleading: interesting because it connects war to political processes and suggests that they should be fought for political goals; misleading because it suggests that war is essentially rational and so controllable.  The fault here is not Clausewitz’s, but the American military’s for misreading and oversimplifying him.

Perhaps another “Carl” might lend a hand when it comes to helping Americans understand what war is really all about.  I’m referring to Karl Marx, who admired Clausewitz, notably for his idea that combat is to war what a cash payment is to commerce.  However seldom combat (or such payments) may happen, they are the culmination and so the ultimate arbiters of the process.

War, in other words, is settled by killing, a bloody transaction that echoes the exploitative exchanges of capitalism.  Marx found this idea to be both suggestive and pregnant with meaning. So should we all.

Following Marx, Americans ought to think about war not just as an extreme exercise of politics, but also as a continuation of exploitative commerce by other means.  Combat as commerce: there’s more in that than simple alliteration.

In the history of war, such commercial transactions took many forms, whether as territory conquered, spoils carted away, raw materials appropriated, or market share gained.  Consider American wars.  The War of 1812 is sometimes portrayed as a minor dust-up with Britain, involving the temporary occupation and burning of our capital, but it really was about crushing Indians on the frontier and grabbing their land.  The Mexican-American War was another land grab, this time for the benefit of slaveholders.  The Spanish-American War was a land grab for those seeking an American empire overseas, while World War I was for making the world “safe for democracy” — and for American business interests globally.

Even World War II, a war necessary to stop Hitler and Imperial Japan, witnessed the emergence of the U.S. as the arsenal of democracy, the world’s dominant power, and the new imperial stand-in for a bankrupt British Empire.

Korea?  Vietnam?  Lots of profit for the military-industrial complex and plenty of power for the Pentagon establishment.  Iraq, the Middle East, current adventures in Africa?  Oil, markets, natural resources, global dominance.

In societal calamities like war, there will always be winners and losers.  But the clearest winners are often companies like Boeing and Dow Chemical, which provided B-52 bombers and Agent Orange, respectively, to the U.S. military in Vietnam.  Such “arms merchants” — an older, more honest term than today’s “defense contractor” — don’t have to pursue the hard sell, not when war and preparations for it have become so permanently, inseparably intertwined with the American economy, foreign policy, and our nation’s identity as a rugged land of “warriors” and “heroes” (more on that in a moment).

War as Disaster Capitalism

Consider one more definition of war: not as politics or even as commerce, but as societal catastrophe.  Thinking this way, we can apply Naomi Klein’s concepts of the “shock doctrine” and “disaster capitalism” to it.  When such disasters occur, there are always those who seek to turn a profit.

Most Americans are, however, discouraged from thinking about war this way thanks to the power of what we call “patriotism” or, at an extreme, “superpatriotism” when it applies to us, and the significantly more negative “nationalism” or “ultra-nationalism” when it appears in other countries.  During wars, we’re told to “support our troops,” to wave the flag, to put country first, to respect the patriotic ideal of selfless service and redemptive sacrifice (even if all but 1% of us are never expected to serve or sacrifice).

We’re discouraged from reflecting on the uncomfortable fact that, as “our” troops sacrifice and suffer, others in society are profiting big time.  Such thoughts are considered unseemly and unpatriotic.  Pay no attention to the war profiteers, who pass as perfectly respectable companies.  After all, any price is worth paying (or profits worth offering up) to contain the enemy — not so long ago, the red menace, but in the twenty-first century, the murderous terrorist.

Forever war is forever profitable.  Think of the Lockheed Martins of the world.  In their commerce with the Pentagon, as well as the militaries of other nations, they ultimately seek cash payment for their weapons and a world in which such weaponry will be eternally needed.  In the pursuit of security or victory, political leaders willingly pay their price.

Call it a Clausewitzian/Marxian feedback loop or the dialectic of Carl and Karl.  It also represents the eternal marriage of combat and commerce.  If it doesn’t catch all of what war is about, it should at least remind us of the degree to which war as disaster capitalism is driven by profit and power.

For a synthesis, we need only turn from Carl or Karl to Cal — President Calvin Coolidge, that is.  “The business of America is business,” he declared in the Roaring Twenties.  Almost a century later, the business of America is war, even if today’s presidents are too polite to mention that the business is booming.

America’s War Heroes as Commodities

Many young people today are, in fact, looking for a release from consumerism.  In seeking new identities, quite a few turn to the military.  And it provides.  Recruits are hailed as warriors and warfighters, as heroes, and not just within the military either, but by society at large.

Yet in joining the military and being celebrated for that act, our troops paradoxically become yet another commodity, another consumable of the state.  Indeed, they become consumed by war and its violence.  Their compensation?  To be packaged and marketed as the heroes of our militarized moment. Steven Gardiner, a cultural anthropologist and U.S. Army veteran, has written eloquently about what he calls the “heroic masochism” of militarized settings and their allure for America’s youth.  Put succinctly, in seeking to escape a consumerism that has lost its meaning and find a release from dead-end jobs, many volunteers are transformed into celebrants of violence, seekers and givers of pain, a harsh reality Americans ignore as long as that violence is acted out overseas against our enemies and local populations.

Such “heroic” identities, tied so closely to violence in war, often prove poorly suited to peacetime settings.  Frustration and demoralization devolve into domestic violence and suicide.  In an American society with ever fewer meaningful peacetime jobs, exhibiting greater and greater polarization of wealth and opportunity, the decisions of some veterans to turn to or return to mind-numbing drugs of various sorts and soul-stirring violence is tragically predictable.  That it stems from their exploitative commodification as so many heroic inflictors of violence in our name is a reality most Americans are content to forget.

You May Not Be Interested in War, but War Is Interested in You

As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky pithily observed, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”  If war is combat and commerce, calamity and commodity, it cannot be left to our political leaders alone — and certainly not to our generals.  When it comes to war, however far from it we may seem to be, we’re all in our own ways customers and consumers.  Some pay a high price.  Many pay a little.  A few gain a lot.  Keep an eye on those few and you’ll end up with a keener appreciation of what war is actually all about.

No wonder our leaders tell us not to worry our little heads about our wars — just support those troops, go shopping, and keep waving that flag.  If patriotism is famously the last refuge of the scoundrel, it’s also the first recourse of those seeking to mobilize customers for the latest bloodletting exercise in combat as commerce.

Just remember: in the grand bargain that is war, it’s their product and their profit.  And that’s no bargain for America, or for that matter for the world.

William Astore, a TomDispatch regular, is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF).  He edits the blog contraryperspective.com and may be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 William J. Astore.

The U.S. Military’s Limited Critique of Itself Ensures Future Disasters

War is political, human, and chaotic.  Who knew?
War is political, human, and chaotic. Who knew?

W.J. Astore

In the New York Times on July 20, Major General H.R. McMaster penned a revealing essay on “The Pipe Dream of Easy War.”  McMaster made three points about America’s recent wars and military interventions:

1.  In stressing new technology as being transformative, the American military neglected the political side of war.  They forgot their Clausewitz in a celebration of their own prowess, only to be brought back to earth by messy political dynamics in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

2.  Related to (1), the U.S. military neglected human/cultural aspects of war and therefore misunderstood Iraqi and Afghan culture.  Cultural misunderstandings transformed initial battlefield victories into costly political stalemates.

3.  Related to (1) and (2), war is uncertain and unpredictable.  Enemies can and will adapt.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these points, or in the general’s broad lesson that “American forces must cope with the political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments. Wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be waged remotely.”

The last sentence is a dig at the Air Force and an argument for the continuing relevance of ground forces, which is unsurprising coming from an Army general who commands Fort Benning in Georgia.

But the sum total of McMaster’s argument is remarkably banal.  Yes, war is political, human, and chaotic.  Did our military professionals and civilian experts really forget this before making their flawed decisions to go to war after 9/11?

McMaster ends his critique with a few words of praise for the U.S. military’s adaptability.  The usual refrain: We messed up, but we learned from our mistakes, and are ready to take on new challenges, as long as the department of defense remains fully funded, and as long as America puts its faith in men like McMaster and not in machines/technology.

If those are the primary lessons our country should have learned since 9/11, we’re in big, big trouble.

So, here are three of my own “lessons” in response to McMaster’s.  They may not be popular, but that’s because they’re a little more critical of our military – and a lot more critical of America.

1.  Big mistakes by our military are inevitable because the American empire is simply too big, and American forces are simply too spread out globally, often in countries where the “ordinary” people don’t want us.  To decrease our mistakes, we must radically downsize our empire.

2.  The constant use of deadly force to police and control our empire is already sowing the deadly seeds of blowback.  Collateral damage and death of innocents via drones and other “kinetic” attacks is making America less safe rather than more.

Like the Romans before us, as Tacitus said, we create a desert with our firepower and call it “peace.”  But it’s not peace to those on the receiving end of American firepower.  Their vows of vengeance perpetuate the cycle of violence.  Add to this our special forces raids, our drone strikes, and other meddling and what you get is a perpetual war machine that only we can stop.  But we can’t stop it because like McMaster we keep repeating, “This next war, we’ll get it right.”

3.  We can’t defeat the enemy when it is us.  Put differently, what’s the sense in defeating the enemies of freedom overseas at the same time as our militarized government is waging a domestic crackdown on dissent (otherwise known as freedom of speech) in the “homeland”?

Articles like McMaster’s suggest that our military can always win future wars, mainly by fighting more intelligently.  These articles never question the wisdom of American militarization, nor do they draw any attention to the overweening size and ambition of the department of defense and its domination of American foreign policy.

Indeed, articles like McMaster’s, in reassuring us that the military will do better in the next round of fighting, ensure that we will fight again – probably achieving nothing better than stalemate while wasting plenty of young American (and foreign) lives.

Is it possible that the best way to win future wars is to avoid them altogether?  As simple as that question is, you will rarely hear it asked in the halls of power in Washington.