Why It’s Hard for Most People in the US to Talk About War

When former U.S. President George W. Bush released a statement on Ukraine — “condemning Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine,” and calling on the American people to “stand in solidarity with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people as they seek freedom and the right to choose their own future” — I thought to myself, Not now, man. You’re hurting more than you’re helping. And that’s because, as very few Americans will need reminding, the Bush administration took advantage of the public’s emotional vulnerability after the 9/11 militia attacks and preexisting racial dynamics to successfully fabricate the bogeyman of “weapons of mass destruction” and lead the United States to invade and occupy Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of fighting terror.

As Russia is bombing Ukraine under the purported banner of “de-nazification,” so too is the U.S. still dropping bombs in the name of combating “terror.” According to the monitoring group Airwars, the United States Coalition in Iraq and Syria is responsible for at least one civilian death in Syria, AFRICOM declared a strike in Somalia, and the U.S. is alleged to have made a strike in Yemen — all this year. To underscore the devastation these airstrikes can have on local communities, The New York Times recently published a detailed report investigating this and how supposed Pentagon accountability measures are not actually functioning.

I think of statements like Bush’s as sort of “moral lemons” — stances that might look good at first glance, but actually don’t take you anywhere if you buy them. The U.S.’s “moral lemons” are actually a key part of the Russian disinformation strategy. Platforms like RT, Ruptly, Soapbox, Redfish, Breakthrough News, and more take advantage of the lack of accountability around U.S. war crimes to pump out social-media-friendly content on the subject alongside Kremlin disinformation.

Such disinformation includes claims that, for example, Syrian first responders are actually terrorists, or that NATO is entirely to blame for the invasion of Ukraine, or that distort legitimate concerns about the far right in Ukraine into sweeping claims aimed at justifying the military invasion. It’s remarkably successful, including with many people who are vocally against the “war on terror” and other U.S. wars and interventions — an issue area that is resource-scarce, shame and guilt-driven, and prone to burning people out. But it cannot be emphasized enough: The U.S.’s own imperialist hypocrisy is in a symbiotic relationship with Russian imperialist propaganda. They feed off each other as a means to stir up their own nationalism.

But left-oriented commentators are not the only ones who struggle to talk about war. Many more people will struggle to talk about war in a way that doesn’t reflect their own racial biases. For example, CBS News Foreign Correspondent Charlie D’Agata was swiftly condemned and later apologized for saying: “ [Ukraine] is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully too — city, where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.”

Nick Bilton at Vanity Fair said in a now-deleted tweet: “This is arguably the first war we’ve seen (actually seen in real-time) take place in the age of social media,” seemingly forgetting how the Syrian struggle against authoritarianism was so well-documented online, it directly led to dramatic growth in open-source intelligence investigation as a field.

And as Dalia Hatuqa pointed out on Twitter in response to a tweet by the AP regarding Ukraine and Gaza, biases go down to the prepositional level. “Notice the use of ‘in’ and ‘on’ here,” she says, illustrating how framing Israeli airstrikes as happening “in” Gaza as opposed to “on” Gaza makes it harder for the reader to suss out power dynamics underlying the occupation.

Indeed, most people in the U.S. have no idea how to talk about war. And in a country that pours investments into producing sophisticated drone weapons, developing and exporting policing methods, and recruiting young people into the military — not to mention killing millions of people through our military operations — conversations about war these days are relatively few and far between, except in moments like this one, when the issue tops international headlines.

Still, with the rise in popularity of the phrase “end endless wars,” it seems that most people in the United States say they don’t like war: An AP poll finds that 66 percent of Americans don’t believe the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting, for example, while a majority also don’t want the U.S. to take a major role in Russia’s assault on Ukraine. Despite the fact that war, weapons, and security are a foundational part of our culture and a primary financial priority (half of U.S. income taxes go directly to the Pentagon, where we collectively outspend the world on defense), people in the U.S. are currently unenthusiastic about war. So why can’t most of us talk about this central element of our society in useful terms?

To put it simply: Not liking war is not the same as being antiwar. Where war involves a style of conflict engagement that is rooted in domination, subjugation and armament, being antiwar involves a style of conflict engagement that is rooted in cooperation, collaboration and disarmament. This means many things, on the practical and spiritual level. For example, there are literal campaigns for nonproliferation and weapons disarmament. There is also the ability of disarming someone emotionally in order to de-escalate conflict.

But to help you imagine what antiwar work looks like on a societal level: The 2020 summer protests calling to defund and abolish police were under the politics of abolition, which itself is also antiwar, as abolition seeks to change the way we understand and engage in conflict, security and safety. Also consider the level of civil mobilization we witnessed in the lead-up to Biden’s inauguration: Almost every sector of society made a statement backing the peaceful transfer of power. The idea that an election could be stolen was so widely repugnant, it forced even “nonpolitical” organizations to take a stance.

Today, the level of civil noncompliance with the Russian state in support of Ukrainian sovereignty is astounding: In sports, banking, media, in meeting rooms and on the streets, people are speaking up and refusing to go along with “business as usual.” I cheer loudly for noncompliance against Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian state in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and not without emotion: Russian bombing raids decimated Ghouta, Douma, Aleppo and many other cities in Syria.

And so, because I detest war, I have to push for the same treatment to be applied to all militarized offenses, from Yemen to Occupied Palestine to Syria to Myanmar and beyond. Call for a ceasefire and disarmament. Amplify strategic messaging on how to desert the army. Freeze assets of the wealthiest state backers. Pressure companies to drop contracts. And so on. This would mean noncompliance with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, the Assad regime and the Myanmar state, to name a few states, until disarmament.

This would, of course, mean noncompliance with the United States. And this brings us back to the heart of the issue of why it’s difficult to talk about war in this country. One point that people who are rightly skeptical of the United States struggle with goes something like this: Yes, Russian imperialism is bad, but I am in the United States and I am only responsible for the United States. Everything that is happening is all very sad, but we have to focus on resisting our own state’s aggression, since it’s being done in our name and is our primary responsibility.

Questions of the moral responsibility that U.S. citizens bear in regards to war, and their duty to act and in what ways, have been debated for many decades. But my instinct is that contemporary manifestations of this sentiment are influenced in no small part by the protests leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and protests continuing after the fact. Notably, on February 15, 2003, over 800 cities worldwide mobilized against the U.S. war on Iraq. It did not stop the United States. One glaring difference between this effort to stop war and other case studies is the degree to which we see the usual “neutral” or “nonpolitical” power players take a stance. I don’t believe we saw Coca-Cola cutting contracts with the U.S. military, or sports teams refusing to play the U.S. on the world stage — and it’s worth asking why. In a way, people are saying: We tried noncompliance with war before and it wasn’t enough to stop one of the most hellish campaigns wrought in our name.

While I can understand why any person might conclude “People in the U.S. only have to worry about the imperialism done in our names,” I do not advise anyone to stay there ideologically, as it’s a position rooted often in fear and is ultimately isolationist. Consider for example, that within our own country are people who have fled wars started by other imperial states — should we tell them to check their political realities at the border? Consider also that states themselves collaborate on policing, surveillance and military campaigns. Consider that wealth and capital also operate transnationally. And consider that people from war zones and the so-called “Global South” have been writing explicitly to U.S. left commentators criticizing our navel-gazing, or as Volodymr Artiukh called it in his recent letter, “U.S.-splaining.

So, what should a U.S. antiwar left do today? Take advantage of this moment to educate on Putinism and Russian state propaganda. Acknowledge how the role of NATO is fitting into the conversation today, dispel myths, and offer resources to help more people learn about what it is. Promote the idea of Russians leaving or deserting the army while in battle, and amplify cases of Russian dissent. Connect with former Soviet Union organizations who share the same principles against war and work together on narrative strategy. Educate about the racial inequities of war — of how racial hierarchies play out at borders, of how Russia’s devastating years’ long military campaign in Syria was normalized. Update your geopolitical map: Russia is still bombing Syria, also has a military presence in Libya, backs Ethiopia in its war on Tigray and is the leading arms supplier to the Modi regime.

And at the same time, we must pour more resources into antiwar work, because without accountability, reparations and reconciliation for U.S. war crimes, it will continue to be challenging for us to talk about war. I’m particularly inspired by the youth-led energy of Dissenters, which is “building local teams of young people across the country to force our elected officials and institutions to divest from war and militarism” and working collaboratively to create new antiwar ecosystems. In addition to materially supporting groups like these, let’s also agitate at our workplaces to make it easier for workers to donate our time to antiwar work and thereby build more vibrant antiwar cultures.