War and Meaninglessness in America

W.J. Astore

Joe Biden is America’s new president, but nothing has changed on the war front. In Iraq, a U.S. airstrike has killed the top leader of the Islamic State, notes today’s New York Times. The paper notes that “the United States has about 2,500 troops left on three Iraqi military bases. While Iraqi capability in fighting the Islamic State group has improved, the country still relies on intelligence, surveillance assets and air support from the US-led coalition.”

Remember when U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011? Of course, despite all the military training and equipment the U.S. showered on a new Iraqi military, that military totally collapsed in 2014 under pressure from the Islamic State. Naturally, the U.S. military took no blame, even as the collapse opened a door for more U.S. military intervention. And so the fighting persists, but at a low-enough level that it stays off of most American radar screens.

Revealingly, this is how the Iraqi parliament responded to the latest U.S. “victory” on terror: “After the drone strike, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution demanding the government expel US forces from Iraq, a move that has not been implemented.”

Do you think President Biden will listen to the Iraqi parliament and withdraw U.S. troops once and for all?

War has been made much too easy in America. Imagine if Joe Biden, or Donald Trump, or Barack Obama, or George W. Bush, actually had to lead troops from the front, exposing themselves to potential harm as they waged America’s wars overseas. It’s easy to sit in the Oval Office and push paper that translates into killing people. I’m not getting nostalgic for the age of Napoleon or the time of kings and queens, but there’s something to be said for physical and moral courage and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for what one believes.

This put me to mind of a passage from Tana French’s novel, “The Likeness,” from 2008. French writes the following “rant” for one of her characters:

“Look at the old wars, centuries ago: the king led his men into battle.  Always.  That was what the ruler was: both on a practical level and on a mystical one, he was the one who stepped forwards to lead his tribe, put his life at stake for them, become the sacrifice for their safety.  If he had refused to do that most crucial thing at that most crucial moment, they would have ripped him apart—and rightly so: he would have shown himself to be an impostor, with no right to the throne.  The king was the country; how could he possibly expect it to go into battle without him?  But now…Can you see any modern president or prime minister on the front line, leading his men into the war he’s started?  And once that physical and mystical link is broken, once the ruler is no longer willing to be the sacrifice for his people, he becomes not a leader but a leech, forcing others to take his risks while he sits in safety and battens on their losses.  War becomes a hideous abstraction, a game for bureaucrats to play on paper; soldiers and civilians become mere pawns, to be sacrificed by the thousands for reasons that have no roots in any reality.  As soon as rulers mean nothing, war means nothing; human life means nothing.  We’re ruled by venal little usurpers, all of us, and they make meaninglessness everywhere they go.” (pages 320-21, emphasis added)

Tana French

It’s a powerful passage that has much to say about America’s seemingly eternal wars against someone somewhere.

For America’s rulers, war has largely become “kinetic action” at an entirely safe distance, so far away as to become almost an imaginary construct, except for the vast profits earned from it. To most Americans, as French suggests, it has become an exercise in meaninglessness. And whatever else war is or should be, it should have meaning, otherwise it’s just killing for nothing.