It has been equal parts bemusing and bedeviling to watch as many liberals and moderates get on board with the latest episode of U.S. military adventurism. Equally fascinating has been the ostensible conservative response firmly opposing U.S. actions in Libya, since in a not-too-far bygone administration this faction never met a war they didn't like. These fickle vicissitudes of partisan politics point to a singularly troubling principle underlying our collective moral compass when it comes to foreign policy — namely that we lack such a compass, and thus principle is subsumed by expediency.
Has it always been so? “There never was a good war, or a bad peace,” Benjamin Franklin once said. Most might agree with the latter, but the former is a more challenging proposition. Depending upon the framing and protagonists pushing the agenda, as well as the exigencies and interests involved, wars tend to draw significant public support and are oftentimes provided with revisionist sensibilities of virtues such as valor or liberation. While we cannot argue that war accomplishes nothing, the question remains exactly what it does achieve, and at what cost.
Simply put, war kills. It kills people, environments, economies, cultures, psyches, and futures. It does so in an organized, calculated, and premeditated manner. Whatever its purported aims, were it not for the well-crafted legal and moral exceptions we make for combat operations, war is at root nothing less than murder. Rarely if ever does it fit any legalistic notion of self-defense or the ethical injunctions contemplated by the oxymoronic invocation of the “just war” doctrine — both of which require proportionate responses to perceived threats and the exhaustion of all other plausible remedies (including retreat) before resort to force is warranted.
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On another level, we might ask whether war can ever bring peace. We’ve been through the so-called “war to end all wars” already, and that was a century (and myriad intervening wars) ago. The flaw lies in the failure to grasp the simple mechanical proposition that “violence begets violence,” but is also lodged firmly within the militaristic mindset that governs the behavior, as I wrote back in 2009:
The military view prioritizes result over process and ends over means, and abstracts peoples and places into targets and territories. Even soldiers on the side of 'good' are dehumanized and denied basic rights as they are conscripted to fight ostensibly for 'freedom.' Individuals, communities, values, cultures, and bioregions are all expendable for the greater good of winning the war. How else do we explain the pervasive mentality reflected in the notion that 'we had to destroy the village in order to save it' and the obvious point that we have been at war almost continuously for over two centuries?
War is, in short, illogical, self-defeating, and demonstrably anti-humanistic. Arguments suggesting otherwise ought to be met with great skepticism if not outright disdain, regardless of whose party or which figurehead is making them. Buying into the “good war” rhetoric — especially when it pulls our heartstrings or appeals to our sense of right — is a slippery slope toward continuing the entire enterprise, of which the far greater portion comprises the bad and the ugly as opposed to any such notion of the good.
We Have Met the Enemy…
One of the paradoxes of war is that those waging it, whatever their intentions going in, cannot help but become part of the problem in the process. The means of “overwhelming force” and “superior firepower” merely serve to validate such notions as primary ways of attaining one’s goals, sending a message to others — including present and future foes alike — that is duly noted and often acted upon. When we seek to democratize at the barrel of a machine gun or liberate by aerial assault, the inconsistency is palpable and the ultimate ends remain elusive even after we declare “mission accomplished.” At the end of the day, we come to realize that destroying the “other side” is a logical impossibility, since we cannot accomplish it without doing the same to ourselves in the process. The “war on terror” is an object lesson, as the U.S. has gone morally, legally, and economically bankrupt while waging it.
In this sense, war causes us to become the very thing we are allegedly fighting against. This is a truism reflected in the operational concept of “collateral damage,” whereby civilian casualties are excused as part and parcel of the effort. While it may look different from our vantage point, the net effect on the deceased and grieving is no different than if it had been an intentional act of brutality or terrorism such as those we attribute to the enemy. Consider the following historical statement, and ask yourself how it would sound if uttered by Osama bin Laden rather than Winston Churchill:
You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terrors. Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.
War establishes a moral equivalence between battling factions, no matter the stated aims invoked to justify its utilization. In time, our platitudes and practices come to resemble those plied by the demonized other. On the eve of invading Afghanistan, George W. Bush asserted that “we’re a peaceful nation;” a decade later the violence there is as great as it has ever been. In 2010, the U.S. found itself placing 85th (out of 149) in a report ranking the most peaceful nations on earth, trailing countries including China, Cuba, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Chile, the United Arab Emirates, and –wait for it — Libya. As Pogo prophetically observed, “we have met the enemy, and it is us.”
The Trojan Horse of 'Humanitarian Intervention'
Still, it is easy to be seduced by the language of protecting “human freedom” and the notion that “countless lives have been saved” due to our benign interventions, as President Obama recently asserted regarding Libya. In a perfect world, a nation (even a superpower) might be able to wield its power for such positive ends. But we live in the world of realpolitik, in which the bedrock moral tenet is the advancement of our own national interests. Notions of promoting democracy or removing tyrants are wholly subordinate to the utilitarian needs in any given situation, and it is eminently clear that “morals alone won’t move us to attack.” Indeed, it is beyond peradventure that we will support dictators and stifle nascent democracies when that is strategically advantageous — including the very same autocrats that we sometimes later invoke as an excuse for incursion.
In fact, if we do intervene, we are likely to do so at a level commensurate with our perceived strategic interests, and not based on the gravity of the human rights situation. In this manner, we can observe a continuum of interventionism stretching from Rwanda and Darfur through Libya and Iraq that marks the terrain. Such a map of U.S. interventions would align much more closely with the global distribution of valuable resources than it would with the appearance of human rights violations and repressive regimes. Where the two overlap, a convenient “Trojan Horse” moment is presented, and a lot of people normally opposed to warfare will be all too willing to sign on to the mobilization — notwithstanding the hypocrisy and inconsistency of our foreign policies, as some analysts have recently opined:
The U.S.-led attacks against an autocrat in oil-rich Libya have opened the Obama administration to questions about why it’s holding back from more robust support for opposition forces challenging other dictators. What is the difference, some have asked, between the situation in Libya and the uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria and even sub-Saharan African nations such as Ivory Coast? The bombardment by Washington and its allies of the air defenses and troops of Moammar Gadhafi, unquestionably an international pariah, was motivated by a desire to prevent a possible slaughter of rebels fighting to end his erratic 42-year reign…. But the military intervention begs many questions and illustrates once again the stark inconsistencies in an American foreign policy that tries to balance democratic ideals against pragmatic national interests.
The First Casualty of War
An oft-repeated (and ill-attributed) aphorism is that “the first casualty of war is truth.” Unfortunately, this means that other casualties will follow, and the reasons why are likely to be shrouded in manipulation and deception. Margaret Mead argued in 1940, as the world surged toward yet another devastating war, that “warfare is only an invention.” Looking at the evolution of social inventions among various cultures, Mead concluded her landmark work with a reminder that “if we despair over the way in which war seems such an ingrained habit of most of the human race, we can take comfort from the fact that a poor invention will usually give place to a better invention.”
By now, we stand in desperate need of this new invention, and must further recognize that it will not be found by cheerleading for military interventions. Such a practice of picking and choosing which wars are “good” fosters a political landscape in which we are left powerless to contest bald-faced assertions like those made by Dick Cheney (and subsequently repeated by many others) as the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq in 2003: “Now, I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”
If we want to help oppressed peoples and promote pacific relations in the world, then we ought to first free ourselves from despotism and militarism, and second help others to help themselves without turning them into dependents or collateral damage in the process. The search for a better invention is likewise a search for truth, both in our nation’s policies and our own complicity with them. We can call it by many different names and practice it in myriad ways, but in the final analysis the antidote to war has always been as basic as working for peace in all of our endeavors.