Bloodless War in Ukraine

W.J. Astore

Tune In to War, Turn On to Heroes, Otherwise Drop Out

In 2010, I wrote an article for TomDispatch on “the new American isolationism.” I argued that Americans were being kept isolated from the horrific costs of the war on terror, rather than pursuing old-style isolationist policies to keep us out of war. Here’s how I opened that article:

“A new isolationism is metastasizing in the American body politic.  At its heart lies not an urge to avoid war, but an urge to avoid contemplating the costs and realities of war. It sees war as having analgesic qualities — as lessening a collective feeling of impotence, a collective sense of fear and terror.  Making war in the name of reducing terror serves this state of mind and helps to preserve it.  Marked by a calculated estrangement from war’s horrific realities and mercenary purposes, the new isolationism magically turns an historic term on its head, for it keeps us in wars, rather than out of them.”

This is as true today as it was when I wrote it a dozen years ago. Americans are never encouraged to look at the ugly face of war, unless it involves alleged war crimes by “evildoers” like Russia. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Americans have been encouraged to think about alleged mass rapes, mass murder, deliberate targeting of civilians, and the like. Alleged crimes by Ukraine, by comparison, are largely dismissed as Russian propaganda.

All wars produce atrocities because war itself is an atrocity. Tell me how constant artillery shelling won’t produce civilian casualties; tell me how bullets being sprayed everywhere, missiles being fired from a distance, explosive drones being employed, mines being planted, bombs being dropped: tell me how war won’t kill innocents. Tell me how war, in all its confusion and chaos, won’t produce “friendly fire” casualties. (Remember Pat Tillman?) Tell me how POWs won’t be mistreated by both sides, despite the Geneva Convention, or how civilian populations won’t be exploited in one way or another. War has always been recognized as a plague on humanity and civilization, which is why it should be the absolute last resort.

Yet far too often war is sold as necessary, even desirable, with heavy censorship accompanying it. Recall that in the Bush/Cheney years, as U.S. KIA (killed in action) figures rose, especially in Iraq, Americans weren’t allowed to see flag-draped caskets returning to our soil. Out of sight, out of mind, right? We were told to salute the generals and support “our” troops, but not to question Bush and Cheney’s wars and not to consider their horrific costs, certainly not to Iraqis and Afghans or other “foreigners.”

Grisly images like this one of a dead Iraqi soldier were not shown in America

Today in America, Ukrainians are almost universally celebrated as the good guys, the Russians are bad, thus the more dead Russians the better. Not surprisingly, Ukraine’s leader is Time Magazine’s person of the year. He is a hero, Putin is the devil, and that’s all you need to know.

Demonizing an enemy is a dangerous thing, for how can you negotiate with the devil? It’s a surefire way of firing people up but also of prolonging a war, which means more destruction, more atrocities, and a lot more body bags. Yes, I want Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. Yes, I don’t want Putin to “win” in any sense of the word. But at what price total victory for Ukraine?

So I read passages that Ukraine must “push back” and “expel” the Russian invader and that all territory must be “won back.” Bloodless phrases that reduce war to something like a game of Risk, where troops are just counters on a game board, and where winning and losing is determined by a roll of the dice.

In actuality what expressions like these mean is perhaps another 100,000 Russian and Ukrainian troops killed and wounded; buildings and homes blasted;  plants and animals obliterated by more human-caused destruction; water and the land itself poisoned. 

Will it be worth it?  Is there perhaps another way? Couldn’t Ukrainians and Russians come together to talk, to settle their differences, without more killing?  How many more widows must be made, how many more children must be killed or left as orphans, in the cause of “victory”?

I’m told it’s not up to me to decide. I’m encouraged to support Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in his holy war against the evil Putin. But all I see is more and more dead bodies, even as more and more “Made in USA” weapons are sent to Ukraine to multiply the dead, even as my taxpayer dollars help to fund it.

And, once again, I am kept isolated from it all, physically of course but also mentally, encouraged to tune in to pro-Ukrainian war coverage, to turn on to heroic leaders like Zelensky, but otherwise to drop out of truly thinking about war and its horrendous costs as well as its escalatory pressures.

The MYOB Foreign Policy

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Listen to my parents, America!

W.J. Astore

My parents taught me a lot of common sense sayings.  You’ve probably heard this one: mind your own business, or MYOB.  Most people have enough problems of their own; it’s not a good idea to compound one’s problems by messing around with other people’s lives.

What’s common sense for individuals is also common sense for nations.  Think of the USA.  We’ve got plenty of problems: crumbling infrastructure, inefficient and inadequate health care, too many people in too many prisons, social divides based on race and sex and class, drug and alcohol abuse, not enough decent-paying jobs, huge budgetary deficits, the list goes on.  Yet instead of looking inwards to address our problems, too often we look outwards and interfere in the lives of others.  How can we solve other people’s problems when we can’t solve our own?

Consider our nation’s foreign policy, which is basically driven by our military.  We have a global array of military bases, somewhere around 700.  We spend roughly $700 billion a year on national “defense” and wars, ensuring that we have “global reach, global power.”  To what end?  Our nation’s first president, George Washington, famously warned us to avoid foreign entanglements.  The nation’s great experiment in republican democracy, Washington knew, could easily be compromised by unwise alliances and costly wars.

This is not an argument for isolationism.  The USA, involved as it is in the global economy, could never be isolationist.  With all those military bases, and all those U.S. military units deployed around the world, we could never turn completely inwards, pretending as if the rest of the world didn’t exist.

No – not isolationism.  Rather a policy of MYOB.  Don’t intervene when it’s not our business.  And especially don’t intervene using the U.S. military.  Why?  Because U.S. troops are not charitable or social workers.

The U.S. military is supposed to be for national defense.  It’s not an international charity.  Even military aid is somewhat questionable.  And if you profit from it, as in weapons sales, it smacks of mercenary motives.

As a good friend of mine put it:

I have become rather isolationist myself in my old age.  The way I see it, we have the natural resources and (hopefully) the intellectual capital to be largely self-sufficient.  We should enter the international marketplace as a self-reliant vendor of goods and services, ready to trade fairly with those who are of a similar mind.  The rest can pound sand (no pun intended).  Charity begins at home, and we should know by now that our ideology, while “ideal” for America, is not deployable or even beneficial to other countries steeped in ancient cultures of a different nature.

My friend then added the following caveat:

The remaining challenge is how you protect basic human rights, where you can.  That is something I feel we have an obligation to attempt to do, but don’t know how to do so without crossing other lines.  Perhaps that is how Mother Teresa became St. Teresa of Calcutta.

That’s an excellent question.  Again, my response is that U.S. troops are not social workers.  Charity and social work is best left to people like Saint (Mother) Teresa.  Soldiers may be necessary to protect aid convoys and the like, but military intervention in the name of humanitarianism often ends in disaster, e.g. Somalia.  And of course “humanitarian” motives are often used as a cloak to disguise other, far less noble, designs.

Again, the U.S. military is never going to be a do-nothing, isolationist, military.  The USA itself will never return to isolationism.  What we need to do is to recognize our limitations, realize that other countries and peoples often don’t want our help, or that they’d be better off without our often heavy-handed approach when we do intervene.

We need, in short, to take care of our own business here in the USA, and to let other peoples and nations take care of theirs.  Listen to my parents, America: MYOB.

U.S. Foreign Policy: Too Much Captain Kirk–and William Shatner

Fire those phasers, America!
Fire those phasers, America!

W.J. Astore

Much of our foreign policy is driven by fear–fear that if we don’t act, whether in the Middle East or Africa or elsewhere–the bad people there will thrive, after which they’ll come for us in the good old USA.  Most of us will recall George W. Bush’s saying, “We’ll fight them over there so that we don’t have to fight them here.”  But what if constantly fighting them “over there” is a guarantee of blowback right here in Homeland USA?

As one of my conservative friends (Yes – I have them!) says, “If they (the enemy) stay over there, I’ll airlift knives, forks, and condiments to them.”

Well, we’ll never know unless we try.  Call the cavalry home, America.  Send in the cutlery and condiments. And let’s see what happens.

OK, call me an isolationist.  All these American machinations in and deployments to the Middle East and Africa – paraphrasing Otto von Bismarck, to me they aren’t worth the bones of a single Pennsylvanian grenadier.  Isn’t the Middle East of today roughly the equivalent to the Balkans of c.1910?  Except for the oil, why bother with Iraq and Iran?  Radical Islam is no picnic, but a direct threat to the USA?  Come on.  If we leave, my bet is radical Islam will burn itself out.

Our constant interventions in the Middle East merely fan the flames of radicalism there, except when we throw fuel on the fire by sending lots of weapons or burning a Koran or wiping out (accidently, of course) another convoy of civilians with Hellfire missiles.  If we’re the enemy’s “Great Satan,” let’s leave and see how they do in a paradise without the US serpent in it.

The problem is that our foreign policy “experts” are subservient to national and international (corporate and financial) interests (among others), and those interests, along with their own hubris, make it impossible for them to order strategic withdrawals, much less imagine them.

Put briefly, our experts see the world as a stage (or as a staging area for military forces), upon which the USA must play the leading role.  They believe that if we don’t occupy that stage, and dominate it, some other country will, e.g. China will take over Africa.

The US military, meanwhile, favors “proactive,” forward-leaning, can-do, spirit.  The mentality is: We must act, or someone else will.  And our way of acting is necessarily a military way, since that is what our nation favors–and funds.

For my fellow “Star Trek” fans, the U.S. government is like the aggressive, action-driven Captain Kirk (even better: the bombastic, scene-hogging William Shatner), but without Mr. Spock or Dr. McCoy at his side to provide cool logic or warm compassion.  So all we get is warp drive and phasers (or lots of histrionic overacting and scene-stealing, a la Shatner).

We can do better, America.  Let’s start by calling the cavalry home.  Cutlery and condiments to the fore!