It was 1967, and the world was on fire. War at home and abroad demonstrably began to rear its head, and long-held American values of moral exceptionalism and widespread prosperity were rapidly destabilizing. A Democratic president escalated warfare half a world away, and the generals offered red-herring rationales about resource control and the necessity of finishing the job in order to defeat evil.
Also that year, a large petroleum company named BP positioned itself as a global leader in overseas oil production, with its national sponsors
specifically taking measures “to inhibit undue governmental interference in the international oil trade.” Meanwhile, Israel exerted its control over Gaza following the Six-Day War, with its actions being endorsed by the US even as many others decried them as violating international law.
BP, Israel and the war machine all operating with impunity: what year were we talking about, again? Indeed, the more things change … and the rest, as they say, is history. Or actually, the rest is the present, and – unless we work to break the cycle – likely the future as well. As George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” To which we might add, “quite literally.”
In that fateful year of 1967, Country Joe and the Fish immortalized the utility of the anti-war rag with a song that barely needs updating to fit today’s news cycle:
Yeah, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He’s got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in [Afghanistan]
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.
And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop [Afghanistan.]
Speculating on possible answers to their own musical query about the reasons for war, Joe, et al. continued their ditty by casting a gaze upon certain likely suspects:
Well, come on generals, let’s move fast;
Your big chance has come at last….
Well, come on Wall Street, don’t move slow,
Why man, this is war au-go-go.
There’s plenty good money to be made
By supplying the Army with the tools of the trade.
Today, it gets even better than that. In addition to greasing the skids of military contracting, it turns out that Afghanistan is potentially resource-rich to the tune of up to one, two, three trillion dollars, including certain minerals that are mostly precious to the workings of the digital age and that could render Afghanistan “the Saudi Arabia of lithium” according to intentionally leaked Pentagon memos. As David Sirota notes, there’s nothing new about this knowledge of Afghan treasures, but the more important point is the naked assertion of “resource control” as an unabashed national interest sufficient to legitimately deploy the armed forces apparatus. In this lexicon, “war for oil” moves from being a peace placard to becoming a military mantra.
Still, there’s nothing new about this turn of events, either. Upon invading Iraq, we were told that the exploitation of oil resources there could make the war essentially “pay for itself” – as if that would somehow overcome objections and justify the bloodbath. In 2008, as documented by Dr. Tom Clonan in The Irish Times, the US Army published a document outlining its modernization strategy, boldly asserting a vision of “perpetual warfare over dwindling resources” for the foreseeable future:
“We have entered an era of persistent conflict … a security environment much more ambiguous and unpredictable than that faced during the cold war …. We face a potential return to traditional security threats posed by emerging near-peers as we compete globally for depleting natural resources and overseas markets.”
Regarding Afghanistan, the revisionist invocation of “resource control” as a justification for the necessity of war actually utters a truth long understood by analysts and scholars. At root, warfare is always about resources despite oftentimes being couched in terms of human liberation or national defense. The baseline economic function of militarism is apparent in our federal budgeting process and the sheer scope of the enterprise. It is often said that “war is a continuation of politics by other means,” yet, perhaps more to the point is that it serves as a continuation of the economy by similar means, as Thomas Friedman observed in “The Lexus and the Olive Tree”:
“The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas…. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”
It is of no moment if we spend more to wage a war than the potential resource return on our investment might yield, since the same basic interests make out just fine on both the expenditure and recompense side of the equation. Capitalism and militarism are inextricably intertwined, as Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler famously wrote in 1935:
“War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes…. I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”
Butler’s exegesis of war is remarkably prescient and unfortunately still spot on. Could you imagine the implications if General Petraeus were to offer such remarks today? Then again, the Pentagon basically admits as much in its protean rationale for continuing the Afghan war on the basis of “hidden treasures untold” and “resource control as essential to national security.” Yes, war and the economy are inherently linked – and both are shrilly performing about as well these days. When Butler described war as a “racket,” he, thus, might also have used that word in another sense, namely as a cacophony that drowns out good sense and meaningful discussion alike.
Alas, from 1935 to 1967 to 2010, it’s one, two, three “war au-go-go” … and the song (more like a dirge at this point) sadly remains the same.