Are All Wars Local?

Carl von Clausewitz. Postage stamp issued in 1981, 150 years after his death.

W.J. Astore

Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House when Ronald Reagan was president in the 1980s, liked the saying, “All politics is local.”

Carl von Clausewitz, the famous Prussian theorist of war in the time of Napoleon, taught that war is the continuation of politics by other (violent) means.

Does it follow from this that all wars are, in a sense, local?

It doesn’t seem so at first glance. Americans tend to see wars like Iraq and Afghanistan as distant events that are disconnected from our daily lives. (Obviously, if a loved one is in the military and deployed overseas, concern and connection are greatly heightened.)

But when we begin to see the local costs of war, fully to see them, the way they poison lives, infect and erode democracy, and compromise the very climate we live in, we may finally act to put a stop to war.

No matter how distant and obscure America’s wars may be (and who among us really knows what’s happening this minute in Somalia, to cite one example), there are effects that are local.  And until we calculate those costs, and confront the waste and inhumanity of them, we simply won’t work synergistically to end them.

What are some of these local costs? As President Eisenhower said in his famous “cross of iron” speech, every warship we build, every rocket we fire, every warplane we launch, represents a theft from those who hunger, a theft from projects such as building schools or repairing roads and bridges. Every dollar we spend on war is a dollar we don’t spend here in America on our own sustenance, our own health as a civil society. Meanwhile, the dreadful costs incurred by wasteful wars, which will eventually exceed $8 trillion for the Iraq and Afghan wars, drives up our national debt, which is then cited, rightly or wrongly, as a reason to curb domestic spending. Profligacy for war, austerity for ordinary Americans, seems to be the new American way. And it’s impoverishing our democracy and our civic culture.

Other effects of war would include the costs of aiding veterans who are wounded, whether in body or mind or both, in our local communities. It would include the militarization of local police forces with surplus military weaponry that is then used to suppress legitimate dissent. And, if you’ve lived on or near a military base, you’ve likely experienced noise pollution to go with environmental pollution and degradation, much of it kept classified or otherwise hidden from view.

America’s wars, in short, are never truly distant and disconnected from our lives. They are instead connected to us, shaping our vision of what’s possible and impossible, what’s inevitable and what’s preventable, what’s normal and what’s abnormal.

A state of permanent war is not normal, America. Its effects are all around us and they are not good. But the good news is that, just as the effects of war are local, so too can the fight against war be local. Raise your voice and take a stand against war. If all politics is local, the political fight against war can and should be local too.

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.