The United States has been at war for more years than it has been at peace. War is not a “last resort,” something we fall back on when diplomacy, sanctions and other tools fail. It has become our normal condition. Within just the past two decades, we have been engaged in two Iraqi wars and an ongoing war in Afghanistan, and perhaps soon we will be at war with Iran. We justify these adventures in terms of spreading freedom abroad and making our world safe for democracy, but we are accomplishing neither. Meanwhile, badly needed resources to confront a range of domestic challenges are redirected to the war efforts. Maybe it is time to reconsider how readily we prepare for and engage in war.
During times of crisis, real or imagined, we are fond of saying “all options are on the table.” We hope diplomacy, sanctions or other tools will work. But the world now knows we are more than ready to opt for the military option. If we ever suffered from a “Vietnam syndrome,” in which we hesitated to take military action, we have overcome it. President Obama so warned Iran in his speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) last spring. This is not to suggest that our leaders would not prefer diplomacy or other tools short of war. But somehow, some way, we have found ourselves almost always at war somewhere.
Nor do we suggest that the costs are unknown, at least some of them. But most are explained away as the inevitable collateral damage. From My Lai in Vietnam to the civilian murder spree in Afghanistan in March resulting in seventeen deaths, apparently at the hands of one US military officer, we regret such incidents but acknowledge that in times of war not everything and everyone can be controlled. Even the most strategic missions and surgical air strikes are going to have unintended casualties.
But there are broader costs that generally go unrecognized. For decades, Seymour Melman, the late professor of engineering and author of the classic book America’s Permanent War Economy, documented the vast material and human costs of war. In addition to the obvious lives lost (among our own military as well as that of our enemies, along with innocent civilians), there are the trillions of dollars spent on military hardware, and often we do not even know where the money is spent. In 2001 Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “We cannot track $2.3 trillion in transactions.” Additional human resource costs include the training of engineers who devote their careers to designing weaponry instead of building more energy-efficient schools and office buildings, more fuel-efficient modes of transportation, more affordable homes, along with longer-lasting roads, bridges and levees. Military expenditures do create some jobs and profits for some businesses and investors, but those jobs and more, along with equally if not more profitable investments, could easily be found elsewhere. Warfare is not a cost-effective form of social and economic welfare.
Perhaps more costly have been the compromises, if not corruption, of our fundamental values and identity as a nation. American exceptionalism has taken a wrong turn. The basic pursuit of knowledge, along with the freedom and democracy that knowledge should inspire, is often distorted as teachers, scholars, religious leaders and others are encouraged to support war at the expense of the more humane goals and values we presumably espouse. Those who support the status quo are those who count and, therefore, see their careers advance with the help of government contracts, while opponents are dismissed as irrelevant or worse. The real challenge is not how we can carry out war more efficiently or effectively to subdue our enemies, but rather to find alternatives to war. As Randolph Bourne observed shortly after World War I in his classic book War and the Intellectuals, “The real enemy is War rather than imperial Germany.” We could replace Germany with a host of countries since that “war to end all wars.”
Despite the many costs, it is increasingly evident that we are not effectively spreading freedom abroad or making the world much safer for democracy. At the same time, growing challenges at home are increasingly starved for resources as we maintain the warfare state and struggle with a debt crisis. Our leaders point with pride to democracy and freedom as core American values. But these values are compromised by what continues to be our permanent war economy and the routine use of war to resolve conflicts abroad and preserve our “unchallenged” position in the world.
We are not pacifists. Nor are we unaware that the world is often a dangerous place. But we need to restore war to its rightful place as truly a last resort, and not the normal state of the nation. This is why we need to begin to build an alternative to the warfare welfare state of America.
For more on how we can get out of America’s permanent state of war, read the new book by Raskin and Squires, Warfare Welfare: The Not So Hidden Costs of America's Permanent War Economy (Potomac Books 2012) and Peter Van Buren’s Six Critical Foreign Policy Questions That Won’t Be Raised in the Presidential Debates.