In A Functioning Democracy, What Would War Look Like?

W.J. Astore

In a functioning democracy, which the USA decidedly isn’t, what would be the features of a necessary war, as in a war fought for defensive (and for defensible) reasons and purposes? Here are ten features that occur to me:

  1. A necessary war would readily gain the approval of Congress, and indeed there would be a formal declaration of war issued by Congress.
  2. National mobilization would be required to win as swiftly as possible.
  3. All Americans could clearly state the reasons for the war and the end goals.
  4. Americans would reject, as much as possible, a long and open-ended war, knowing that long wars are the enemy of democracy.
  5. Nearly all sectors of society would share the war’s burdens. (Think here of celebrities like Jimmy Stewart and sports stars like Ted Williams, among so many others, doing their bit for the war effort in World War II.)
  6. Sacrifices would be made on a national scale, including rationing of materials needed for the war effort.
  7. Taxes would go up to pay for the war effort. War bonds might be sold as well. Deficit spending wouldn’t be used to hide the costs of the war.
  8. Civilian leaders would be in control of the war effort. Military leaders who failed to produce results would be reassigned, demoted, or fired.
  9. As much as possible, freedom of the press would be encouraged so that Americans knew the true course and costs of war.
  10. When the war ended, again as quickly as possible, the nation would return to its default state of peace; military establishments bolstered during wartime would be demobilized.

Now let’s consider every U.S. war since World War II. Let’s focus especially on Iraq and Afghanistan. How many of these ten features would apply to these wars?

I’d argue that none of them apply.

That’s how you know these wars are not in the service of democracy, whether at home or overseas. They are also not defensive wars, nor are they defensible in ways that pass rigorous and honest debate among the people. (This is precisely why none of them came with Congressional declarations of war.)

I know my “top ten” list isn’t all-inclusive, but I think it’s a reasonable guide to whether the next war (and I’m sure more are coming) will be necessary and justifiable. It’s a safe bet it won’t be.

Readers, can you think of other ways we can tell whether war is truly justifiable? History teaches us that most wars are unjustifiable, offensive in nature, and therefore crimes against humanity.

In fact, since 1945 it’s often been America’s putative “enemies” who are more likely to be fighting a necessary war — it’s perhaps the chief reason why they so often win.

In sum, war is the enemy of democracy. You wage war long, you wage it wrong, assuming you want to keep a democracy. That so many American “thought-leaders” are still advocating for more war in Afghanistan is a clear sign that our country’s operating system is infected by malware that promotes militarism and war.

James Madison: No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare

Democracy and War

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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 TomDispatch.com.  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.