It may be hard to believe now, but in 1970 the protest song “War,” sung by Edwin Starr, hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That was at the height of the Vietnam antiwar movement and the song, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, became something of a sensation. Even so many years later, who could forget its famed chorus? “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” Not me. And yet heartfelt as the song was then—“War, it ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker. War, it’s got one friend, that’s the undertaker…”—it has little resonance in America today.
But here’s the strange thing: In a way its authors and singer could hardly have imagined, in a way we still can’t quite absorb, that chorus has proven eerily prophetic—in fact, accurate beyond measure in the most literal possible sense. War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. You could think of American war in the 21st century as an ongoing experiment in proving just that point.
Looking back on almost 15 years in which the United States has been engaged in something like permanent war in the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, one thing couldn’t be clearer: the planet’s sole superpower with a military funded and armed like none other and a “defense” budget larger than the next seven countries combined (three times as large as number two spender, China) has managed to accomplish—again, quite literally—absolutely nothing, or perhaps (if a slight rewrite of that classic song were allowed) less than nothing.
Unless, of course, you consider an expanding series of failed states, spreading terror movements, wrecked cities, countries hemorrhaging refugees, and the like as accomplishments. In these years, no goal of Washington—not a single one—has been accomplished by war. This has proven true even when, in the first flush of death and destruction, victory or at least success was hailed, as in Afghanistan in 2001 (“You helped Afghanistan liberate itself—for a second time,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to US Special Operations forces), Iraq in 2003 (“Mission accomplished”), or Libya in 2011 (“We came, we saw, he died,” Hillary Clinton on the death of autocrat Moammar El-Qaddafi).