By now you’ve probably seen (or at least heard about) the recent WikiLeaks logs on Iraq (and previously on Afghanistan), which reveal a pattern of widespread brutality and official policies that belie any public overtures to liberation or human rights. For all of their impact and historical import, the WikiLogs are particularly noteworthy in that they confirm in stark detail what multitudes were saying before the respective invasions were launched. In those halcyon days before the age of overt adventurism and perpetual warfare, voices around the world from every demographic asserted the obvious inanity and base futility of war as a viable option. The latest WikiLeaks data dump — replete with episodes of torture, murder, and a people thoroughly terrorized in the name of freedom — demonstrates the farcical logic of militarism, and equally reminds us that there’s nothing at all funny about it.
Why were these prescient warnings, issued by literally millions around the globe, entirely ignored? How many Pentagon Papers and WikiLeaks do we need to have issued before the anti-war, pro-peace perspective is given its proper due as a credible source? What will it actually take once and for all to give the lie to war as a tool for achieving anything positive, and in the process finally to debunk the jingoistic fervor and liberatory propaganda that accompany it? Now that the WikiLogs have helped us move from the “fog of war” to a place of greater clarity, will the perpetrators, policymakers, and pliant pundits finally get their long-overdue comeuppance?
Cynical readers will no doubt recognize the rhetorical nature of these queries. So thorough is the American acculturation to the glory of war and the uprightness of nation that even unimpeachable evidence of atrocities is insufficient to break through the hegemonic facade. So deeply is the economy (and our concomitant creature comforts) bound up with the military-industrial complex that even unabashed torture of the dehumanized “other” becomes an acceptable form of “collateral damage” in our providential pursuit of happiness. Americans are equally fond of their McDonald’s and their McDonnell Douglas alike (or is it Burger King and Boeing?), and the rest of the world can simply choose which one they prefer as the leading edge of our democratizing munificence.
One aspect of all of this that begs further inquiry is the seeming ineptitude of the military planners. I refuse to accept the surface implication that they are operating in some sort of Peter Sellers-like, Strangelovian world of black comedy. They may be working from an inherently flawed model, but they aren’t incompetent. Why fight a war in such a manner as to continually fuel, fund, and foment the ostensible enemy’s engagement in the conflict? Why focus so much of the apparatus on the body, when any first-year cadet can tell you that winning a war is ultimately about conquering “hearts and minds”? Why flush billions (or trillions?) into the abyss on wars that even many of the professionals and generals will tell you (in a candid moment) are simply unwinnable? Just as George W. Bush hid his Machiavellian intellect (really!) behind a “bumbling fool” public persona, the war-makers often mask their intelligent designs underneath a veneer of patent absurdity.
I suggest to you that this is an artfully-constructed vision being plied by powerful interests. Upon launching the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, some military commanders in the field remarked that the battle plans being delivered were nonsensical and strategically bereft. The missions and objectives were never clearly defined, and the self-parodying “search for WMD” in Iraq (lampooned by the president himself at a subsequent press dinner) was a willy-nilly adventure in comic relief — to wit, Donald Rumsfeld’s classic remark that “we know where they are: they’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south, and north somewhat.” In another theater, after invading Afghanistan as the “central front” in the war on terror, we surreptitiously scaled back production for six years until somehow that all-quiet front became urgently loud again in convenient movie-villain fashion. A “surge redux” ensued, and — despite eventualities such as the leading drug kingpin in the region being kept firmly on our payroll — one can only anticipate an encore of Mission Accomplished any day now.
What explains the meteoric rise of this nascent Combat Theater-cum-Theater of the Absurd? Let me suggest a few possible lenses through which to view this lavishly-staged repertoire:
“War is a racket.” Major General Smedley Butler’s cogent rejoinder applies in force across the decades. War is good business, so much so that it pays to prolong it. A carefully-controlled system in which we stay just on top enough to keep the public from completely losing faith, yet also feed enough ammo and anger over to the other side to keep things slightly hot, makes for a good old-fashioned shooting match in perpetuity. If we can make a buck arming all sides, not to mention through the ongoing cycle of destruction-and-reconstruction, then all the better. Never overlook the crass commercial interests at work here, and the need to justify and draw down that 50+ percent standing “defense” line in the federal budget. This is all about marketing, and its machinations are wholly intentional, as former Bush II insider Andrew Card once famously noted when referring to the timing of initiating the Iraq war fervor: “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”
“There’s no such thing as a winnable war.” Sting’s Cold War elegy turns out to be even more clairvoyant than he may have intended. Not only is a winnable war logically impossible in the modern era of high-tech weapons and even higher associated costs, but the entire notion of “winning” is in itself most likely not the actual aim. Beyond the venal profiteering noted above, there’s also the overt invocation of “perpetual war” over resources and territories as part and parcel of the national security strategy. In this sense, war too becomes a type of “renewable resource,” a means to its own end, and a sine qua non of power. Winning isn’t the goal — forever fighting is. Planners don’t even make the pretense any longer of crafting an “exit strategy” before invading, but instead couch their intentions in language such as “changing conditions on the ground” or unattainable ends such as not resting “until every last terrorist” is eliminated. Winning is for losers; realists keep fighting, and thus become true winners.
“War, what is it good for?” The popular rhetorical refrain keeps looping through the years, and since the U.S. very nearly has been at war continuously for over two centuries, there must be an affirmative answer in the offing. Profits and power make for a strong opening response, but there’s more at work here. War provides the state with its sole and immutable raison d’etre, namely to protect and defend the homeland. It turns a generation of young combatants into de facto wards of the state with malleable minds and patriotic personas. It deflects our gaze from the real threats of economic meltdown, political complicity, and environmental apocalypse. It instantiates martial values throughout the culture from education to entertainment, and inculcates a notion of heroic masculinity that permits the perpetuation of patriarchy. War, in short, is good for a lot of spin-offs and ancillary benefits — to some segments of society, at least. Not me and you, perhaps, but who are we to quibble with a successful formula? Certainly the millions killed in war might hold another view, but their voices have been effectively silenced.
As I’ve said, there’s nothing funny about this. War is a nasty, mercenary business both on the battlefields and in the boardrooms alike. The most viable solution to ending this B-movie madness is to take up General Butler’s call to “smash the war racket” once and for all by following this basic outline: “We must take the profit out of war. We must permit the youth of the land who would bear arms to decide whether or not there should be war. We must limit our military forces to home defense purposes.” Perhaps this isn’t a perfect solution, but at least it would constitute a series of hesitant steps in the right direction. If we don’t heed this advice and take prompt measures to reduce war to its properly relegated status, then at the end of day we’ll likely find that the joke really is on us.