War on drugs. War 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 mujahedeen 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 United States 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 to eliminate not just Al Qaeda but any terror outfits anywhere on Earth, even as the United States 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 1990–91, but what began as the equivalent of a military coup (a k a 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.
Radical Islam has drawn strength from these American-led “wars.” Indeed, radical Islamists cite the intrusive and apparently permanent presence of American troops and bases in the Middle East and Central Asia as confirmation of their belief that US forces are leading a crusade against them—and by extension against Islam itself. (And in a revealing slip of the tongue, President Bush did indeed once call his “war on terror” a “crusade.”) Considered in these terms, such a war is by definition a losing effort, because each “success” only strengthens the narrative of Washington’s enemies. There’s simply no way to win such a war except by stopping it. Yet that course of action is never on the proverbial “table” of options from which officials in Washington are said to choose their strategies. To do so, in the context of war thinking, would mean to admit defeat (even though true defeat arrived the very instant the problem was first defined as war).
Our leaders persist in such violent folly at least in part because they fear the admission of defeat above all else. After all, nothing is more pejorative in American politics or culture than to be labeled a loser in war, someone who “cuts and runs.”
In the 1960s, despite his own serious misgivings about the ongoing conflict in Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson set the gold standard in his determination not to be the first American president to lose a war, especially in a “damn little pissant country” like Vietnam. So he persisted—and the conflict turned him into a loser anyway and destroyed his presidency.
Even as he waged war, as historian George Herring has noted, LBJ did not want to be known as a “war president.” Two generations later, another Texan, George W. Bush, grasped the “war president” moniker with genuine enthusiasm. He, too, vowed he would win his war when things started to go sour. Staring down a growing insurgency in Iraq in the summer of 2003, Bush did not shy from the challenge. “Bring ’em on,” he said in what was supposed to be a Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry–style moment. Now Washington is sending troops back into Iraq for the third time to engage an even more intractable insurgency, the Islamic State’s radical version of Islam, a movement originally fed and bred partly in Camp Bucca, an American military prison in Iraq.
And just to set the record straight, President Obama, too, accepted the preeminence of war in American policy in his 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo. There, he offered a stirring defense of America’s role and record as “the world’s sole military superpower”:
“Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest—because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.”
It was a moment that defined the Obama presidency as being remarkably in tune with America’s already omnipresent war ethos. It was the very negation of “hope” and “change” and the beginning of Obama’s transition, via the CIA’s drone assassination program, into the role of assassin-in-chief.
Everything Is Jihad
Recent American leaders have something in common with their extremist Islamic counterparts: all of them define everything, implicitly or explicitly, as a jihad, a crusade, a holy war. But the violent methods used in pursuit of various jihads, whether Islamic or secular, simply serve to perpetuate and often aggravate the struggle.
Think of America’s numerous so-called wars and consider if there’s been any measurable progress made in any of them. Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty” in 1964. Fifty-one years later, there are still startling numbers of desperately poor people and, in this century, the gap between the poorest many and richest few has widened to a chasm. (Since the days of President Ronald Reagan, in fact, one might speak of a war on the poor, not poverty.) Drugs? Forty-four years after President Richard Nixon proclaimed the war on drugs, there are still millions in jail, billions being spent, and drugs galore on the streets of American cities. Terror? Thirteen years and counting after that “war” was launched, terror groups, minor in numbers and reach in 2001, have proliferated wildly, and there is now something like a “caliphate”—once an Osama bin Laden fantasy—in the Middle East: ISIS in power in parts of Iraq and Syria, Al Qaeda on the rise in Yemen, Libya destabilized and divvied up among ever more extreme outfits, innocents still dying in US drone strikes. Afghanistan? The opium trade has rebounded big time, the Taliban is resurgent, and the region is being destabilized. Iraq? A cauldron of ethnic and religious rivalries and hatreds, with more US weaponry on the way to fuel the killing, in a country that functionally no longer exists. The only certainty in most of these American “wars” is their violent continuation, even when their original missions lie in tatters.
The very methods the United States employs and the mentality its leaders adopt ensure their perpetuation. Why? Because drug addiction and abuse can’t be conquered by waging a war. Neither can poverty. Neither can terror. Neither can radical Islam be defeated through armed nation-building. Indeed, radical Islam thrives on the very war conditions that Washington helps to create. By fighting in the now- familiar fashion, you merely fan its flames and ensure its propagation.
It’s the mindset that matters. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, places that for most Americans exist only within a “war” matrix, the United States 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.
Two Curious Features of America’s New Wars
Historically, when a nation declares war, it does so to mobilize national will, as the United States clearly did in World War II. Accompanying our wars of recent decades, however, has been an urge not to mobilize the people, but demobilize them—even as the “experts” are empowered to fight and taxpayer funds pour into the national security state and the military-industrial complex to keep the conflicts going.
Recent wars, whether on drugs or in the Greater Middle East, are never presented as a challenge we the people can address and solve together, but as something only those who allegedly possess the expertise and credentials—and the weapons—can figure out or fight. George W. Bush summed up this mindset in classic fashion after 9/11 when he urged Americans to go shopping and visit Disney World and leave the fighting to the pros. War, in short, has become yet another form of social control. Have a gun or a badge of some sort and you can speak forcefully and be listened to; otherwise, you have no say.
In addition, what makes America’s new wars unique to our moment is that they never have a discernible endpoint. For what constitutes “victory” over drugs or terror? Once started, these wars by definition are hard to stop.
Cynics may claim there’s nothing new here. Hasn’t America always been at war? Haven’t we always been a violent people? There’s truth in this. But at least Americans of my grandfather’s and father’s generation didn’t define themselves by war.
What America needs right now is a 12-step program to break the urge to feed further our national addiction to war. The starting point for Washington—and Americans more generally—would obviously have to be taking that first step and confessing that we have a problem we alone can’t solve. “Hi, I’m Uncle Sam and I’m a war-oholic. Yes, I’m addicted to war. I know it’s destructive to myself and others. But I can’t stop—not without your help.”
True change often begins with confession. With humility. With an admission that not everything is within one’s control, no matter how violently one rages; indeed, that violent rage only aggravates the problem. America needs to make such a confession. Only then can we begin to wean ourselves off war.