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To Stop the Next War Before It Starts, We Need to Confront Militarism Itself

We didn’t invade Iran, but the war machine rages on. To stop it, we need a strong and sustained antiwar movement.

A Yemeni child holds a drawing during an anti-war exhibition displaying models made by school children on January 9, 2020, in Sana'a, Yemen.

The antiwar movement can never quite declare victory. Even in the best of times, the possibility of war always looms. But in this moment, it’s still possible to announce a small win.

The imminent threat of war with Iran seems to have passed. We’re still not out of the woods — not by a long shot. Yet compared to the peak of recent tensions — in which the Trump administration seemed mere seconds from launching the U.S. into another catastrophic, endless war — this is progress.

The crisis that is now hopefully in retreat was caused by a series of reckless decisions from an ignorant, capricious president and his cabinet of war-hungry sycophants. But their decisions did not emerge from a vacuum — they were the flowering of a problem with much deeper roots. We came to the brink of war not only because of the choices of one man, but because the United States is profoundly, enduringly and systemically militaristic.

To stop the next war before it starts, we need to fight militarism itself.

The 2020 U.S. defense budget is an astonishing $738 billion. That’s $738 billion that is not being spent on education, health care or combating the climate crisis but instead fuels a sprawling global network of over 800 military bases, seemingly endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, and a relentless war machine that inherently pushes policymakers toward further intervention.

About half of that $738 billion goes directly to for-profit military contractors. Tellingly, in the 24 hours after the assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani, the stocks of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers jumped by $13 billion. These war profiteers then fill the corridors of Congress (or run for vice president) demanding more: more money to the overstuffed Pentagon coffers, more weapons contracts with foreign countries regardless of the human costs, and more endless wars.

But it’s not only those directly involved in war-making who stand to profit. U.S. military ventures abroad, from outright invasions to Pentagon-backed coups, are often done with the intent of opening economies for corporate plunder. Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld penned an op-ed unapologetically calling to reorganize the country on neoliberal lines, including privatizing state assets and opening oilfields to foreign investment. In short, the U.S. has an imperial incentive for war.

Numerous overlapping systems of oppression compound this profit motive. It is the poor, not the rich, who are sent to fight. It is foreign countries, not our own, that are torn apart. It is Brown and Black (not white) people who bear the brunt of the suffering. It is the ruling class, not the ruled, who stand to rally support through fearmongering and jingoism.

From this militaristic foundation emerges a shared set of beliefs that reinforce the call for war: an underlying assumption that the U.S. is exceptional in its good intentions; a military culture embodied in Super Bowl flyovers and the recruitment of young working-class people in their places of education and a bipartisan consensus that the U.S. has the right, and ability, to police the entire world.

While President Trump’s unique incompetence brought us to the brink of war with Iran, President Obama’s famous coolheaded decision-making brought us past it in Libya. Electing more “reasonable” policymakers is not enough. We need to upend the systems that keep the militaristic status quo in place.

That is the role of the antiwar movement. Unfortunately, the movement we have today is not up to the task.

When imminent crisis looms, millions of people rally to the fight. But when the threat of a new war fades, a much smaller movement remains — one that, despite the best efforts of many, is still too white, disconnected from impacted communities and lacking in intersectionality.

To disrupt the inseparable systems of imperialism, racism and corporate power that drive us to war, our movement must go beyond one-off protests and isolated antiwar advocacy. Our movement must be founded on strategic organizing of the disenfranchised. Our movement must be intersectional, united with the labor, environmental, anti-racist and immigrant movements with whose fates it is tied. Our movement must be grassroots, emerging from the lives of everyday people impacted by the war machine. Above all, our movement must build power.

So far, through a concerted mobilizing effort, a massive display of grassroots opposition and not a small amount of good fortune, we have managed to prevent all-out war with Iran. In the future, we might not be so lucky. To stop the next war before it starts, we need to pull militarism out by the roots — we need the strength of the people.

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