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.”
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.