I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier: A Mother’s Plea for Peace

My copy of the sheet music (1915)
My copy of the sheet music (1915)

W.J. Astore

The year was 1915.  Europe, indeed much of the world, was embroiled in the devastating Great (or World) War.  Under President Woodrow Wilson, the United States was proud to have stayed out of the war, the massive bloodletting of which seemed peculiarly European, an “Old World” form of militarized madness that most Americans wanted no part of.  In fact, in 1916 Wilson would be reelected in large part because he had kept America out of Europe’s great war.  (Of course, the very next year the United States did choose to join the war effort against Germany.)

Yet in 1915 the idea of celebrating the military, nobilizing the military experience, finding higher purpose and meaning in war, was the furthest thing from the minds of most Americans.  Unlike the America of 2015, there was no mantra of “support our troops,” no publicity campaigns that encouraged citizens to “salute” the troops.  What publicity existed discouraged Americans from getting involved in war, a fact exhibited by some old sheet music that I recently ran across in a local thrift shop.

“I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier,” copyright 1915 and “respectfully dedicated to Every Mother – Everywhere,” shows a mother protectively holding her grown son as visions of battle assault her mind near the family hearth.  It was a popular song; you can listen to an old Edison recording here.

The lyrics are as simple as they are telling:

Ten million soldiers to the war have gone,

Who may never return again.

Ten million mothers’ hearts must break,

For the ones who died in vain.

Head bowed down in sorrow in her lonely years,

I heard a mother murmur thro’ her tears:

Chorus:

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier,

I brought him up to be my pride and joy,

Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder,

To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?

Let nations arbitrate their future troubles,

It’s time to lay the sword and gun away,

There’d be no war today,

If mothers all would say,

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.

(Chorus)

What victory can cheer a mother’s heart,

When she looks at her blighted home?

What victory can bring her back,

All she cared to call her own.

Let each mother answer in the years to be,

Remember that my boy belongs to me!

Nowadays, such lyrics seem hopelessly quaint and naïve, or even cowardly and defeatist.  America must stand up to evildoers around the world.  We must fight ISIS and other elements of radical Islam.  We must “stay the course” in Afghanistan.  We must maintain large and deadly military forces, ever ready to slay other mothers’ sons and daughters in the name of making peace.  Or so we are told, almost daily, by our leaders.

Indeed, our new national chorus goes something like this:  Let’s have another drink of war!  We haven’t had too many.  Keep the bullets coming and the blood flowing.  That is the way to victory!

But as we dream about “victory” by arms, we should recall the line from “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier”:

What victory can bring her back, All she cared to call her own.

Unlike in 1915, that’s a question that’s never asked in today’s America.

Making War on Everything is the American Way

When you're at war, even your own youth become potential enemies.  A sign after the Kent State shootings
When you’re at war, even your own youth become potential enemies. A sign after the Kent State shootings (1970)

W.J. Astore

Here are a few excerpts from my latest article at TomDispatch.com.  I urge you to read the entire article here.  Thank you!

War on drugsWar on poverty. War in Afghanistan. War in Iraq. War on terror. The biggest mistake in American policy, foreign and domestic, is looking at everything as war. When a war mentality takes over, it chooses the weapons and tactics for you.  It limits the terms of debate before you even begin. It answers questions before they’re even asked.

When you define something as war, it dictates the use of the military (or militarized police forces, prisons, and other forms of coercion) as the primary instruments of policy.  Violence becomes the means of decision, total victory the goal.  Anyone who suggests otherwise is labeled a dreamer, an appeaser, or even a traitor.

War, in short, is the great simplifier — and it may even work when you’re fighting existential military threats (as in World War II).  But it doesn’t work when you define every problem as an existential one and then make war on complex societal problems (crime, poverty, drugs) or ideas and religious beliefs (radical Islam).

America’s Omnipresent War Ethos

Consider the Afghan War — not the one in the 1980s when Washington funneled money and arms to the fundamentalist Mujahideen to inflict on the Soviet Union a Vietnam-style quagmire, but the more recent phase that began soon after 9/11.  Keep in mind that what launched it were those attacks by 19 hijackers (15 of whom were Saudi nationals) representing a modest-sized organization lacking the slightest resemblance to a nation, state, or government.  There was as well, of course, the fundamentalist Taliban movement that then controlled much of Afghanistan.  It had emerged from the rubble of our previous war there and had provided support and sanctuary, though somewhat grudgingly, to Osama bin Laden.

With images of those collapsing towers in New York burned into America’s collective consciousness, the idea that the U.S. might respond with an international “policing” action aimed at taking criminals off the global streets was instantly banished from discussion.  What arose in the minds of the Bush administration’s top officials instead was vengeance via a full-scale, global, and generational “war on terror.”  Its thoroughly militarized goal was not just to eliminate al-Qaeda but any terror outfits anywhere on Earth, even as the U.S. embarked on a full-fledged experiment in violent nation building in Afghanistan.  More than 13 dismal years later, that Afghan War-cum-experiment is ongoing at staggering expense and with the most disappointing of results.

While the mindset of global war was gaining traction, the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq.  The most technologically advanced military on Earth, one that the president termed “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known,” was set loose to bring “democracy” and a Pax Americana to the Middle East.  Washington had, of course, been in conflict with Iraq since Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991, but what began as the equivalent of a military coup (aka a “decapitation” operation) by an outside power, an attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein and eliminate his armed forces and party, soon morphed into a prolonged occupation and another political and social experiment in violent nation-building.  As with Afghanistan, the Iraq experiment with war is still ongoing at enormous expense and with even more disastrous results …

It’s the mindset that matters.  In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, places that for most Americans exist only within a “war” matrix, the U.S. invades or attacks, gets stuck, throws resources at the problem indiscriminately, and “makes a desert and calls it ‘peace'” (to quote the Roman historian Tacitus).  After which our leaders act surprised as hell when the problem only grows.

Sadly, the song remains monotonously the same in America: more wars, made worse by impatience for results driven by each new election cycle.  It’s a formula in which the country is eternally fated to lose…

b. traven asked me about “First Causes” when it comes to America’s permanent war mentality. With respect to the Middle East, he mentioned the Saudis and Israelis and the extent to which the USA kowtows to each. Here is my quick response:

I’d say that our war mentality pre-dates our tango with the Saudis and Israelis.  We really didn’t come to support them in a big way until the early 1970s, and by that point Korea and Vietnam and the military-industrial complex had already created a permanent war mentality.

First Cause(s): It’s so hard to say.  The Cold War and anti-Communist hysteria played a powerful role.  So did our culture: the John Wayne mentality.  American exceptionalism and our own myths.  The misreading of history: We must always resist violently or we’re risking another Munich.  Capitalism and the pursuit of profit by any means, to include violence.  Violence itself as a means to profit.

Maybe that’s it: Naked greed feeds wanton aggression.

What say you, readers?  Why is America always at war with itself and the world?

Do We Learn Anything from History?

Worthless?
Worthless?

W.J. Astore

As a historian, I like to think we learn valuable lessons from history.  Those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them, or so my students tell me, paraphrasing (often unknowingly) the words of George Santayana.

We applaud that saying as a truism, yet why do we persist in pursuing mistaken courses?  Why two costly and destructive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Why an energy policy that exploits dirty fossil fuels at the expense of the environment?  Why a foreign policy that is dominated by military interventionists in love with Special Forces and drones?

In part, I think, because our decision makers have no respect for the lessons of history.  They think the lessons don’t apply to them.  They think they can make history freely: that history is like a blank canvas for their creative (and destructive) impulses.  They figure they are in complete control.  Hubris, in other words.

Such hubris was captured in a notorious boast of the Bush Administration (in words later attributed to Karl Rove) that judicious study of the past was, well, antiquarian and passé.  Why?  Because men like Karl Rove would strut the historical stage to create an entirely new reality.  And the rest of us would be reduced to impotent watchers, our only role being to applaud the big swinging dicks at their climactic “mission accomplished” moments.  In Rove’s words:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Rove’s rejection of history stemmed from hubris.  For the character of Joaquin in Scott Anderson’s novel Triage, history is “The worst invention of man” for a very different reason.  History was to be reviled because it tries to make rational what is often irrational; history invents reasons for what is often unreasonable or beyond reason.

In Joaquin’s words:

“We invented history for the same reason we invented God, because the alternative is too terrible to imagine.  To accept that there is no reason for any of it, that we are only animals—special animals, maybe, but still animals—and there is no explaining the things we do, that happen to us—too awful, no?  … To hell with history.  If there is anything to be learned from any of it, it is only that civilization is fragile, that in war it takes nothing for a man—any man, fascist, communist, schoolteacher, peasant, it doesn’t matter—to become a beast.”

As a good Catholic, I was taught that wisdom begins with the fear of God.  A secular version might be that wisdom begins with the fear of history.  Our history.  Because it teaches us what we’re capable of.  We invent all sorts of seemingly reasonable excuses to kill one another.  We grow bored, so we kill.  In the words of Joaquin, we come to slaughter one another “because we wanted to see how blood ran, because it seemed an interesting thing to do.  We killed because we could.  That was the reason.”

The beginning of wisdom is not the fear of God.  It’s the fear of ourselves—the destruction that we as humans are capable of in the name of creating new realities.  The historical record provides a bible of sorts that records our harshness as well as our extraordinary capacity for self-deception.  Such knowledge is not to be reviled, nor should it be dismissed.

The more we dismiss history—the more we exalt ourselves as unconstrained creators of new realities—the more we pursue policies that are unwise—perhaps even murderously so.  If we learn nothing else from history, let us learn that.

The Predatory Nature of War

A predatory war bird: The A-10 Warthog
A predatory war bird: The A-10 Warthog

W.J. Astore

Are we fighting a war on terror, or a war against predators? Surely the latter is more accurate. We see terrorists as predators. We fear them as such. They’re hiding in the weeds, morphing into the background, only to emerge to kill innocents with seemingly arbitrary (and thus very scary) rapacity. Therefore, following Barbara Ehrenreich’s amazing book, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (1997), “vulnerable” Americans believe they must band together to kill or cage these predators. It’s the way we control our instinctive fear of being prey — we’d much rather be the hunter than the hunted.

When you see the enemy as murderous predators with no soul but that of a demon with a hunger to kill, why bother trying to understand them? Just go ahead and torture them.  They’re soulless predators bent on killing your loved ones. Or go ahead and kill them, perhaps from the skies with drones: death by aerial sniper. Torture or death: it simply doesn’t matter when you’re dealing with mindless predators.

But, and here’s the rub, who are the real predators? Are we not predators too? We sure pose as such. Look at our heavily armed drones and their names: Predator, Reaper. Look at our war birds and their names and nose art: eagles and falcons and raptors and warthogs with shark’s teeth painted around the 30mm Gatling gun of the A-10 Warthog. Are we not predatory as well?

We reap what we sow. In the name of extinguishing predators, we become that which we wish to extinguish. In the name of saving lives, we kill. We fortify everything. We even spy on our closest allies because you just never know — they might be predators too.

President Obama says his number one priority is keeping America safe, and we applaud. But his number one priority should be upholding our Constitution. It’s our communal laws and system of justice — our Constitutional safeguards — that ultimately keep us safe, not our predatory actions.

Our quest to destroy the world’s predators is inuring us to our own predatory nature.  The wild passions of war rule; endless cycles of violence are the result.

Surely the war on terror is the ultimate oxymoron, since war itself produces terror.  War feasts on terror. Indeed, war is the ultimate predator.  The more we wage it in the name of eliminating the predators among us, the more we ensure its predations will continue.

Such is the paradox of war.

War! What Is It Good For? Profit and Power

Boeing B-52 bomber over Vietnam
Boeing B-52 bomber over Vietnam

I started writing for TomDispatch, a remarkable contrarian site founded and edited by Tom Engelhardt, a fine editor/writer and even finer gentleman, in October 2007.  My first article was on the Petraeus surge and how President Bush and his administration were hiding behind the absurdly bemedaled and beribboned uniform of that general.

Tom Engelhardt’s generous and consistent support of my writing opened new possibilities for me.  More importantly, Tom helped me to think for myself.  I’ve also met some great people through my writing, including the co-founder of The Contrary Perspective, b. traven.

I’ve greatly enjoyed the six years I’ve written for TomDispatch.  What follows is my 33rd original article (or “Tomgram,” as we like to call them) — and yes, it’s hard for me to believe that number, since I really thought I’d write only one or two.  Thanks so much Tom, Nick, and all the other editors and writers at TomDispatch.  It’s been a fun and enlightening ride.

From TomDispatch this evening:  Winners and losers in the business of war American-style — William J. Astore, “The Business of America Is War, Disaster Capitalism on the Battlefield and in the Boardroom” http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175762/

The Business of America Is War
Disaster Capitalism on the Battlefield and in the Boardroom
By William J. Astore

There is a new normal in America: our government may shut down, but our wars continue.  Congress may not be able to pass a budget, but the U.S. military can still launch commando raids in Libya and Somalia, the Afghan War can still be prosecuted, Italy can be garrisoned by American troops (putting the “empire” back in Rome), Africa can be used as an imperial playground (as in the late nineteenth century “scramble for Africa,” but with the U.S. and China doing the scrambling this time around), and the military-industrial complex can still dominate the world’s arms trade.

In the halls of Congress and the Pentagon, it’s business as usual, if your definition of “business” is the power and profits you get from constantly preparing for and prosecuting wars around the world.  “War is a racket,” General Smedley Butler famously declared in 1935, and even now it’s hard to disagree with a man who had two Congressional Medals of Honor to his credit and was intimately familiar with American imperialism.

War Is Politics, Right?

Once upon a time, as a serving officer in the U.S. Air Force, I was taught that Carl von Clausewitz had defined war as a continuation of politics by other means.  This definition is, in fact, a simplification of his classic and complex book, On War, written after his experiences fighting Napoleon in the early nineteenth century.

The idea of war as a continuation of politics is both moderately interesting and dangerously misleading: interesting because it connects war to political processes and suggests that they should be fought for political goals; misleading because it suggests that war is essentially rational and so controllable.  The fault here is not Clausewitz’s, but the American military’s for misreading and oversimplifying him.

Perhaps another “Carl” might lend a hand when it comes to helping Americans understand what war is really all about.  I’m referring to Karl Marx, who admired Clausewitz, notably for his idea that combat is to war what a cash payment is to commerce.  However seldom combat (or such payments) may happen, they are the culmination and so the ultimate arbiters of the process.

War, in other words, is settled by killing, a bloody transaction that echoes the exploitative exchanges of capitalism.  Marx found this idea to be both suggestive and pregnant with meaning. So should we all.

Following Marx, Americans ought to think about war not just as an extreme exercise of politics, but also as a continuation of exploitative commerce by other means.  Combat as commerce: there’s more in that than simple alliteration.

In the history of war, such commercial transactions took many forms, whether as territory conquered, spoils carted away, raw materials appropriated, or market share gained.  Consider American wars.  The War of 1812 is sometimes portrayed as a minor dust-up with Britain, involving the temporary occupation and burning of our capital, but it really was about crushing Indians on the frontier and grabbing their land.  The Mexican-American War was another land grab, this time for the benefit of slaveholders.  The Spanish-American War was a land grab for those seeking an American empire overseas, while World War I was for making the world “safe for democracy” — and for American business interests globally.

Even World War II, a war necessary to stop Hitler and Imperial Japan, witnessed the emergence of the U.S. as the arsenal of democracy, the world’s dominant power, and the new imperial stand-in for a bankrupt British Empire.

Korea?  Vietnam?  Lots of profit for the military-industrial complex and plenty of power for the Pentagon establishment.  Iraq, the Middle East, current adventures in Africa?  Oil, markets, natural resources, global dominance.

In societal calamities like war, there will always be winners and losers.  But the clearest winners are often companies like Boeing and Dow Chemical, which provided B-52 bombers and Agent Orange, respectively, to the U.S. military in Vietnam.  Such “arms merchants” — an older, more honest term than today’s “defense contractor” — don’t have to pursue the hard sell, not when war and preparations for it have become so permanently, inseparably intertwined with the American economy, foreign policy, and our nation’s identity as a rugged land of “warriors” and “heroes” (more on that in a moment).

War as Disaster Capitalism

Consider one more definition of war: not as politics or even as commerce, but as societal catastrophe.  Thinking this way, we can apply Naomi Klein’s concepts of the “shock doctrine” and “disaster capitalism” to it.  When such disasters occur, there are always those who seek to turn a profit.

Most Americans are, however, discouraged from thinking about war this way thanks to the power of what we call “patriotism” or, at an extreme, “superpatriotism” when it applies to us, and the significantly more negative “nationalism” or “ultra-nationalism” when it appears in other countries.  During wars, we’re told to “support our troops,” to wave the flag, to put country first, to respect the patriotic ideal of selfless service and redemptive sacrifice (even if all but 1% of us are never expected to serve or sacrifice).

We’re discouraged from reflecting on the uncomfortable fact that, as “our” troops sacrifice and suffer, others in society are profiting big time.  Such thoughts are considered unseemly and unpatriotic.  Pay no attention to the war profiteers, who pass as perfectly respectable companies.  After all, any price is worth paying (or profits worth offering up) to contain the enemy — not so long ago, the red menace, but in the twenty-first century, the murderous terrorist.

Forever war is forever profitable.  Think of the Lockheed Martins of the world.  In their commerce with the Pentagon, as well as the militaries of other nations, they ultimately seek cash payment for their weapons and a world in which such weaponry will be eternally needed.  In the pursuit of security or victory, political leaders willingly pay their price.

Call it a Clausewitzian/Marxian feedback loop or the dialectic of Carl and Karl.  It also represents the eternal marriage of combat and commerce.  If it doesn’t catch all of what war is about, it should at least remind us of the degree to which war as disaster capitalism is driven by profit and power.

For a synthesis, we need only turn from Carl or Karl to Cal — President Calvin Coolidge, that is.  “The business of America is business,” he declared in the Roaring Twenties.  Almost a century later, the business of America is war, even if today’s presidents are too polite to mention that the business is booming.

America’s War Heroes as Commodities

Many young people today are, in fact, looking for a release from consumerism.  In seeking new identities, quite a few turn to the military.  And it provides.  Recruits are hailed as warriors and warfighters, as heroes, and not just within the military either, but by society at large.

Yet in joining the military and being celebrated for that act, our troops paradoxically become yet another commodity, another consumable of the state.  Indeed, they become consumed by war and its violence.  Their compensation?  To be packaged and marketed as the heroes of our militarized moment. Steven Gardiner, a cultural anthropologist and U.S. Army veteran, has written eloquently about what he calls the “heroic masochism” of militarized settings and their allure for America’s youth.  Put succinctly, in seeking to escape a consumerism that has lost its meaning and find a release from dead-end jobs, many volunteers are transformed into celebrants of violence, seekers and givers of pain, a harsh reality Americans ignore as long as that violence is acted out overseas against our enemies and local populations.

Such “heroic” identities, tied so closely to violence in war, often prove poorly suited to peacetime settings.  Frustration and demoralization devolve into domestic violence and suicide.  In an American society with ever fewer meaningful peacetime jobs, exhibiting greater and greater polarization of wealth and opportunity, the decisions of some veterans to turn to or return to mind-numbing drugs of various sorts and soul-stirring violence is tragically predictable.  That it stems from their exploitative commodification as so many heroic inflictors of violence in our name is a reality most Americans are content to forget.

You May Not Be Interested in War, but War Is Interested in You

As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky pithily observed, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”  If war is combat and commerce, calamity and commodity, it cannot be left to our political leaders alone — and certainly not to our generals.  When it comes to war, however far from it we may seem to be, we’re all in our own ways customers and consumers.  Some pay a high price.  Many pay a little.  A few gain a lot.  Keep an eye on those few and you’ll end up with a keener appreciation of what war is actually all about.

No wonder our leaders tell us not to worry our little heads about our wars — just support those troops, go shopping, and keep waving that flag.  If patriotism is famously the last refuge of the scoundrel, it’s also the first recourse of those seeking to mobilize customers for the latest bloodletting exercise in combat as commerce.

Just remember: in the grand bargain that is war, it’s their product and their profit.  And that’s no bargain for America, or for that matter for the world.

William Astore, a TomDispatch regular, is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF).  He edits the blog contraryperspective.com and may be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 William J. Astore.

An Open Letter to Congress on Syria

Quicker, easier, more seductive -- and wrong
Quicker, easier, more seductive — and wrong

Here is the letter that I sent to my senators and congressman on Syria. Whether you agree or disagree, I urge you to email or call your representatives. Let them hear your voice!

I implore you to vote “no” on military intervention in Syria. No vital U.S. interest is at stake, and an attack will have unforeseen consequences that are nearly impossible to predict. The proper response to the Assad regime’s use of poison gas is not more killing. I don’t want American cruise missiles slamming into Syrian bodies in my name. Neither should you.

Respectfully yours,

William Astore, professor and retired lieutenant colonel (USAF)

Astore may be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.

Also featured at Huffington Post.

The Persistence of War

A young Tom Cruise loving his machine gun in "Taps"
A young Tom Cruise loving his machine gun in “Taps”

W.J. Astore

“[W]ar is a distressing, ghastly, harrowing, horrific, fearsome and deplorable business.  How can its actual awfulness be described to anyone?”  Stuart Hills, By Tank Into Normandy, p. 244

“[E]very generation is doomed to fight its war, to endure the same old experiences, suffer the loss of the same old illusions, and learn the same old lessons on its own.”  Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War, p. 81

The persistence of war is a remarkable thing.  Two of the better books about war and its persistence are J. Glenn Gray’s “The Warriors” and Chris Hedges “War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.”   Hedges, for example, writes about “the plague of nationalism,” our willingness to subsume our own identities in the service of an abstract “state” as well as our eagerness to serve that state by killing “them,” some “other” group that the state has vilified.

In warning us about the perils of nationalism, Hedges quotes Primo Levi’s words: “I cannot tolerate the fact that a man should be judged not for what he is but because of the group to which he belongs.”  Levi’s lack of tolerance stems from the hardest of personal experiences: surviving Auschwitz as an Italian Jew during the Holocaust.

Gray takes this analysis in a different direction when he notes that those who most eagerly and bloodthirstily denounce “them,” the enemy, are typically far behind the battle lines or even safely at home.  The troops who fight on the front lines more commonly feel a sort of grudging respect for the enemy, even a sense of kinship that comes with sharing danger in common.

Part of the persistence of war, in other words, stems from the ignorant passions of those who most eagerly seek it and trumpet its heroic wonders even as they stand (and strive to remain) safely on the sidelines.

Both Hedges and Gray also speak to the dangerous allure of war, its spectacle, its excitement, its awesomeness.  Even the most visceral and “realistic” war films, like the first thirty minutes of “Saving Private Ryan,” represent war as a dramatic spectacle.  War films tend to glamorize combat (think of “Apocalypse Now,” for example), which is why they do so little to put an end to war.

One of the best films to capture the dangerous allure of war to youth is “Taps.”  I recall seeing it in 1981 at the impressionable age of eighteen.  There’s a tiny gem of a scene near the end of the film when the gung ho honor guard commander, played by Tom Cruise before he was TOM CRUISE, mans a machine gun.  He’s firing against American troops sent to put down a revolt at a military academy, but Cruise’s character doesn’t care who he’s firing at.  He’s caught in the rapture of destruction.

He shouts, “It’s beautiful, man.  Beautiful.”  And then he himself is shot dead.

This small scene with Cruise going wild with the machine gun captures the adrenaline rush, that berserker capacity latent in us, which acts as an accelerant to the flames of war.

War continues to fascinate us, excite us.  It taps primal roots of power and fear and ecstasy all balled together.  It masters us, hence its persistence.

If and when we master ourselves, perhaps then we’ll finally put an end to war.

The U.S. Military’s Limited Critique of Itself Ensures Future Disasters

War is political, human, and chaotic.  Who knew?
War is political, human, and chaotic. Who knew?

W.J. Astore

In the New York Times on July 20, Major General H.R. McMaster penned a revealing essay on “The Pipe Dream of Easy War.”  McMaster made three points about America’s recent wars and military interventions:

1.  In stressing new technology as being transformative, the American military neglected the political side of war.  They forgot their Clausewitz in a celebration of their own prowess, only to be brought back to earth by messy political dynamics in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

2.  Related to (1), the U.S. military neglected human/cultural aspects of war and therefore misunderstood Iraqi and Afghan culture.  Cultural misunderstandings transformed initial battlefield victories into costly political stalemates.

3.  Related to (1) and (2), war is uncertain and unpredictable.  Enemies can and will adapt.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these points, or in the general’s broad lesson that “American forces must cope with the political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments. Wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be waged remotely.”

The last sentence is a dig at the Air Force and an argument for the continuing relevance of ground forces, which is unsurprising coming from an Army general who commands Fort Benning in Georgia.

But the sum total of McMaster’s argument is remarkably banal.  Yes, war is political, human, and chaotic.  Did our military professionals and civilian experts really forget this before making their flawed decisions to go to war after 9/11?

McMaster ends his critique with a few words of praise for the U.S. military’s adaptability.  The usual refrain: We messed up, but we learned from our mistakes, and are ready to take on new challenges, as long as the department of defense remains fully funded, and as long as America puts its faith in men like McMaster and not in machines/technology.

If those are the primary lessons our country should have learned since 9/11, we’re in big, big trouble.

So, here are three of my own “lessons” in response to McMaster’s.  They may not be popular, but that’s because they’re a little more critical of our military – and a lot more critical of America.

1.  Big mistakes by our military are inevitable because the American empire is simply too big, and American forces are simply too spread out globally, often in countries where the “ordinary” people don’t want us.  To decrease our mistakes, we must radically downsize our empire.

2.  The constant use of deadly force to police and control our empire is already sowing the deadly seeds of blowback.  Collateral damage and death of innocents via drones and other “kinetic” attacks is making America less safe rather than more.

Like the Romans before us, as Tacitus said, we create a desert with our firepower and call it “peace.”  But it’s not peace to those on the receiving end of American firepower.  Their vows of vengeance perpetuate the cycle of violence.  Add to this our special forces raids, our drone strikes, and other meddling and what you get is a perpetual war machine that only we can stop.  But we can’t stop it because like McMaster we keep repeating, “This next war, we’ll get it right.”

3.  We can’t defeat the enemy when it is us.  Put differently, what’s the sense in defeating the enemies of freedom overseas at the same time as our militarized government is waging a domestic crackdown on dissent (otherwise known as freedom of speech) in the “homeland”?

Articles like McMaster’s suggest that our military can always win future wars, mainly by fighting more intelligently.  These articles never question the wisdom of American militarization, nor do they draw any attention to the overweening size and ambition of the department of defense and its domination of American foreign policy.

Indeed, articles like McMaster’s, in reassuring us that the military will do better in the next round of fighting, ensure that we will fight again – probably achieving nothing better than stalemate while wasting plenty of young American (and foreign) lives.

Is it possible that the best way to win future wars is to avoid them altogether?  As simple as that question is, you will rarely hear it asked in the halls of power in Washington.

Forgotten Are the Peacemakers

Monument to Elihu Burritt in New Marlboro, Mass. (author's photo)
Monument to Elihu Burritt in New Marlboro, Mass. (author’s photo)
The Plaque in Honor of Burritt
The Plaque in Honor of Burritt (author’s photo)

Being Catholic, I’m a big fan of the Sermon on the Mount and Christ’s teaching that “blessed are the peacemakers.”  Yet in American history it seems that “forgotten are the peacemakers” would be a more accurate lesson.  We’re much more likely to remember “great” generals, even vainglorious ones like George S. Patton or Douglas MacArthur, than to recognize those who’ve fought hard against long odds for peace.

Elihu Burritt was one such peacemaker.  Known in his day as “The Learned Blacksmith,” Burritt fought for peace and against slavery in the decades before the Civil War in the United States.  He rose from humble roots to international significance, presiding over The League of Universal Brotherhood  in the 1840s and 1850s while authoring many books on humanitarian subjects.

Interestingly, peacemakers like Burritt were often motivated by evangelical Christianity.  They saw murder as a sin and murderous warfare as an especially grievous manifestation of man’s sinfulness.  Many evangelicals of his day were also inspired by their religious beliefs to oppose slavery as a vile and reprehensible practice.

Christian peacemakers like Burritt may not have had much success, but they deserve to be remembered and honored as much as our nation’s most accomplished generals.  That we neglect to honor men and women like Burritt says much about America’s character.

For if we truly are a peace-loving people, why do we fail to honor our most accomplished advocates for peace?

W.J. Astore

No Nation Can Preserve Its Freedom in the Midst of Continual Warfare

US Postage issue, 1894, $2
US Postage issue, 1894, $2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s title is from James Madison, architect of our Constitution.  Madison famously wrote against the perils of forever war.  In other words, he wrote about the perils we face today in our ongoing, seemingly unending, war on terror.

Here is what Madison warned us about:

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.  War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.  In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.  The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both.  No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …

Strong words — and words to ponder as we continue to maintain an enormous defense and homeland security complex with bases and commitments around the world.

How, indeed, do you maintain personal liberties and individual freedoms in a garrison state?  The short answer: you can’t.  Just read Madison.

W.J. Astore