Democracy and War

300px-James_Madison_1894_Issue-2$
James Madison knew that endless war is the harshest enemy of liberty

W.J. Astore

Democracies should be slow to start wars and quick to end them.  James Madison taught us that.  Why is America today the very opposite of this?

I thought of this as I read Danny Sjursen’s fine article at TomDispatch.com.  Sjursen, a retired Army major, is a strong critic of America’s forever wars.  He served in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost soldiers under his command.  He knows the bitter cost of war and expresses it well in his article, which I encourage you to read.  Here’s an excerpt:

Recently, my mother asked me what I thought my former students [West Point cadets] were now doing or would be doing after graduation. I was taken aback and didn’t quite know how to answer.

Wasting their time and their lives was, I suppose, what I wanted to say. But a more serious analysis, based on a survey of U.S. Army missions in 2019 and bolstered by my communications with peers still in the service, leaves me with an even more disturbing answer. A new generation of West Point educated officers, graduating a decade and a half after me, faces potential tours of duty in… hmm, Afghanistan, Iraq, or other countries involved in the never-ending American war on terror, missions that will not make this country any safer or lead to “victory” of any sort, no matter how defined.

Repetition.  Endless repetition.  That is the theme of America’s wars today.

Remember the movie “Groundhog Day,” with Bill Murray?  Murray’s character repeats the same day, over and over again.  He’s stuck in an infinite loop from which he can’t escape.  Much like America’s wars today, with one exception: Murray’s character actually learns some humility from the repetition.  He shows a capacity for growth and change.  And that’s how he escapes his loop.  He changes.  He grows.  The U.S. military’s leadership?  Not so much.

But I don’t just blame the senior leaders of the U.S. military.  They’re not that dumb.  It’s the system of greed-war they and we inhabit.  Why change endless war when certain powerful forces are endlessly profiting from it?  War, after all, is a racket, as General Smedley Butler knew.  It’s a racket that’s contrary to democracy; one that buttresses authoritarianism and even kleptocracy, since you can justify all kinds of theft in the cause of “keeping us safe” and “supporting our troops.”

Danny Sjursen, a true citizen-soldier, remembers that war is supposed to be waged in accordance with the Constitution and only to protect our country against enemies.  But being a citizen-soldier has gone out of style in today’s military.  Everyone is supposed to identify as a warrior/warfighter, which has the added benefit of suppressing thought about why we fight.

Eager to fight, slow to think, might be the new motto of America’s military.  Such a motto,  consistent with forever war, is inconsistent with democracy.

A Perpetual War Machine

52504708-6849-4bf7-99db-c88804164a6c
Fighting in Kabul in August. The Afghan capital is increasingly under attack by militants, highlighting the lack of Coalition progress in the war (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

W.J. Astore

Scientists tell us a perpetual motion machine is impossible (that pesky 2nd law of thermodynamics about entropy), but America’s leaders are proving a perpetual war machine is quite possible, as events in Afghanistan prove.  The USA is now entering the 18th year of its Afghan war, with regress rather than progress being the reality of nearly a trillion dollars committed to this war.  At TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt notes that “Though few realized it at the time [in 2001], the American people married war. Permanent, generational, infinite war is now embedded in the American way of life, while just about the only part of the government guaranteed ever more soaring dollars, no matter what it does with them, is the U.S. military.”  At Slate.com, Fred Kaplan notes that the Afghan War

has been going on for 17 years now… making it the longest war in American history. Yet we are no closer than we have ever been to accomplishing our objectives, in part because those objectives have been so sketchily, inconsistently, and unrealistically defined.

In fact, the Taliban is gaining strength; other jihadist groups, including ISIS and a revivified al-Qaida, are joining the fight (against the Afghan government, Western forces, and the Taliban); the Afghan Army is suffering casualties at an alarming rate; the chaos is spiraling to unsustainable levels.

Nevertheless, the USA persists in its folly.  There are many reasons for this, but I’d like to focus on one: the warrior ethos in the U.S. military.  “Warriors wanted,” say new U.S. Army TV ads and web campaigns.  The warrior ethos, according to the Army, compels us to never accept defeat.  Check out goarmy.com/warriors to get your lesson on America’s warrior ethos.  The site says the Army must be “unbeatable.”  The site says “We never accept defeat.”

But this is ridiculous.  All armies lose battles.  The greatest generals of history suffered setbacks. In fact, it’s often wise to accept defeat or to make a strategic retreat.  And some wars aren’t worth fighting to begin with.

Apply the warrior ethos to Afghanistan: The USA will never accept defeat. Which means the war will go on forever, since it never was ours to win to begin with.

Waging a no-win war is not a measure of warrior toughness; it’s a sign of stubborn stupidity.

America’s Surging Warrior Ethos

W.J. Astore

I’ve written a lot about America’s warrior ethos and how it represents a departure from a citizen-soldier ideal as embodied by men like George Washington and Major Dick Winters (of “Band of Brothers” fame).  This warrior ethos grew in the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam and the ending of the draft.  It gained impetus during the Reagan years and was symbolized in part by the development of fictional rogue symbols of warrior-toughness such as John Rambo.  Today’s U.S. military has various warrior codes and songs and so on, further reinforcing ideals of Spartan toughness.

John_Rambo
The Rambo Ideal: “Sir, Do We Get to Win This Time?” (Wiki)

My writings against this warrior hype have, on occasion, drawn fire from those who identify as warriors.  I’d like to share two examples.

Here is the first:

The day that we encourage our soldiers to be anything but warriors is the day that we start losing battles and wars. If we are controlled by citizens who are our ultimate leaders then it is up to them to handle the niceties of diplomacy and nation building.  But most of them don’t have the balls to get into the thick of things and try and convert the citizens of the place we are fighting to play at being nice children in the sand pile.  We had to dominate Japan to the nth degree to get them to surrender and so the same for Germany.  You academics never to cease to amaze me with your naïveté.

This reader cites World War II and America’s victory over Japan and Germany without mentioning the Greatest Generation’s embodiment of the citizen-soldier ideal and their rejection of Japanese and Nazi militarism.  Back then, America’s victory was interpreted as a triumph of democracy over authoritarian states like Japan and Germany.  While it’s true the Soviet Union played the crucial role in defeating Nazi Germany, the Soviets ultimately lost the Cold War, another “victory” by a U.S. military that didn’t self-identify as warriors.  Despite this history, this reader suggests that America’s recent military defeats are attributable to weak civilian leadership and a lack of warrior dominance.  He fails to notice how America’s new ethos of the warrior, inculcated over the last 30 years, has produced nothing close to victory in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

My second example comes from a U.S. Marine:

I watched the transition we made from life takers and widow makers to peace keepers and other terms that did us no good whatsoever.  Then, in 1987, along came a new Commandant, General Al Grey, who resurrected the warrior ethos in our Corps.

We were told, and accepted the fact, that the best way to win a war or battle was to kill the enemy in numbers that could not be sustained.  We did just that during Desert Storm.  I flew 67 combat missions in an F/A-18 and took great pride and satisfaction in killing as many Iraqis as I could so that when our infantry and other ground units pushed through the berms and other obstacles, they had a clear path to their objectives.

We need more emphasis on killing the enemy and maintaining a warrior ethos and less drivel from folks like you who think it’s some type of a debating match rather than combat we undertake when our nation goes to war.

Basically, this Marine argues that war is killing.  Kill enough of the enemy and you win.  Of course, winning by attrition and body count failed during the Vietnam War, but I’m guessing this Marine would argue that the U.S. military simply didn’t kill enough of the enemy there.

This Marine further sets up a straw man argument.  Nowhere did I write or even suggest that war is “some type of debating match.”  Nowhere did I write or even suggest that war doesn’t involve combat and killing.  But criticism of the warrior ideal is often caricatured in this way, making it easier to dismiss it as “naïve” or “drivel.”

The warrior ethos is surging in America today, and not just within the military.  Witness the U.S. media’s positive reaction to President Trump’s missile strikes on Syria or the use of “the mother of all bombs” against ISIS in Afghanistan.  Gushing media praise comes to presidents who let slip the “beautiful” missiles and “massive” bombs of war.

Two centuries ago, the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, did so over an American fortress that was under attack on our soil.  They gave proof through the night that America’s citizen-soldiers were defending our country (our flag was still there).  Nowadays, our rocket’s red glare appears in Syrian skies, our bombs bursting do so in remote regions of Afghanistan, giving proof through the night that America’s warrior ethos is anywhere and everywhere, killing lots of foreign peoples in the name of “winning.”

Call me naïve, say I write drivel, but I don’t see this as a victory for our democracy, for our country, or even for our “warriors.”