Politics William Astore

Five Reasons Why Washington Can’t Break Its War Addiction

The horrifying war in Ukraine may be a catastrophe for the Ukrainians and, in the end, the Russians, too, but for the U.S. military-industrial complex it’s clearly going to be a heaven on earth.
[Jernej Furman / CC BY 2.0]

By William J. Astore | TomDispatch

Why has the United States already become so heavily invested in the Russia-Ukraine war? And why has it so regularly gotten involved, in some fashion, in so many other wars on this planet since it invaded Afghanistan in 2001?  Those with long memories might echo the conclusion reached more than a century ago by radical social critic Randolph Bourne that “war is the health of the state” or recall the ancient warnings of this country’s founders like James Madison that democracy dies not in darkness, but in the ghastly light thrown by too many bombs bursting in air for far too long.

In 1985, when I first went on active duty in the U.S. Air Force, a conflict between the Soviet Union and Ukraine would, of course, have been treated as a civil war between Soviet republics. In the context of the Cold War, the U.S. certainly wouldn’t have risked openly sending billions of dollars in weaponry directly to Ukraine to “weaken” Russia. Back then, such obvious interference in a conflict between the USSR and Ukraine would have simply been an act of war. (Of course, even more ominously, back then, Ukraine also had nuclear weapons on its soil.)

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, everything changed. The Soviet sphere of influence gradually became the U.S. and NATO sphere of influence. Nobody asked Russia whether it truly cared, since that country was in serious decline. Soon enough, even former Soviet republics on its doorstep became America’s to meddle in and sell arms to, no matter the Russian warnings about “red lines” vis-à-vis inviting Ukraine to join NATO. And yet here we are, with an awful war in Ukraine on our hands, as this country leads the world in sending weapons to Ukraine, including Javelin and Stinger missiles and artillery, while promoting some form of future victory, however costly, for Ukrainians.

Here’s what I wonder: Why in this century has America, the “leader of the free world” (as we used to say in the days of the first Cold War), also become the leader in promoting global warfare? And why don’t more Americans see a contradiction in that reality? If you’ll bear with me, I have what I think are at least five answers, however partial, to those questions:

* First and above all, war is — even if so many Americans don’t normally think of it that way — immensely profitable. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. military-industrial complex recognized a giant business opportunity. During the Cold War, the world’s biggest arms merchants were the U.S. and the USSR.  With the Soviet Union gone, so, too, was America’s main rival in selling arms everywhere. It was as if Jeff Bezos had witnessed the collapse of Walmart. Do you think he wouldn’t have taken advantage of the resulting retail vacuum?

Forget about the “peace dividends” Americans were promised then or downsizing the Pentagon budget in a major way. It was time for the big arms manufacturers to expand into markets that had long been dominated by the USSR.  Meanwhile, NATO chose to follow suit in its own fashion, expanding beyond the borders of a reunified Germany. Despite verbal promises to the contrary made to Soviet leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev, it expanded into Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Romania, among other countries — that is, to the very borders of Russia itself, even as U.S. weapons contractors made a killing in supplying arms to such new NATO members.  In the spirit of management guru Stephen Covey, it may have been a purely “win-win” situation for NATO, the U.S., and its merchants of death then, but it’s proven to be a distinctly lose-lose situation for Russia and now especially for Ukraine as the war there drags on and on, while the destruction only mounts.

* Second, when it comes to promoting war globally, consider the U.S. military’s structure and mission. How could this country possibly return to anything like what, so long ago, was known as “isolationism” when it has at least 750 military bases scattered liberally on every continent except Antarctica? How could it not promote war in some fashion, when that unbelievably well-funded military’s mission is defined as projecting power globally across all “spectrums” of combat, including land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace?  What could you expect when its budget equals those of the next 11 militaries on this planet combined or when the Pentagon quite literally divides the whole world into U.S. military commands headed by four-star generals and admirals, each one a Roman-style proconsul?  How could you not imagine that Washington’s top officials believe this country has a stake in conflicts everywhere under such circumstances? Such attitudes are an obvious product of such a structure and such a sense of armed global mission.

* Third, consider the power of the dominant narrative in Washington in these years. Despite the never-ending war-footing of this country, Americans are generally sold on the idea that we constitute a high-minded nation desirous of peace. In a cartoonish fashion, we’re always the good guys and enemies, like Putin’s Russia now, uniquely evil. Conforming to and parroting this version of reality leads to career success, especially within the mainstream media.  As Chris Hedges once so memorably put it: “The [U.S.] press goes limp in front of the military.”  And those with the spine to challenge such a militarist narrative are demoted, ostracized, exiled, or even in rare cases imprisoned. Just ask whistleblowers and journalists like Chelsea ManningJulian AssangeDaniel Hale, and Edward Snowden who have dared to challenge the American war story and paid a price for it.

* Fourth, war both unifies and distracts. In this century, it has helped unify the American people, however briefly, as they were repeatedly reminded to “support our troops” as “heroes” in the fight against “global terror.” At the same time, it’s distracted us from the class war in this country, where the poor and working class (and, increasingly, a shrinking middle class as well) are most definitely losing out. As financier and billionaire Warren Buffett put the matter: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

* Fifth, wars, ranging from the Afghan and Iraq ones to the never-ending global war on terror, including the present one in Ukraine, have served as distractions from another reality entirely: America’s national decline in this century and its ever-greater political dysfunction. (Think Donald Trump, who didn’t make it to the White House by accident, but at least in part because disastrous wars helped pave the way for him.)

Americans often equate war itself with masculine potency. (Putting on “big boy pants” was the phrase used unironically by officials in President George W. Bush’s administration to express their willingness to launch conflicts globally.)  Yet by now, many of us do sense that we’re witnessing a seemingly inexorable national decline. Exhibits include a rising number of mass shootingsmass death due to a poorly handled Covid-19 pandemic; massive drug-overdose deaths; increasing numbers of suicides, including among military veterans; and a growing mental-health crisis among our young.

Political dysfunction feeds on and aggravates that decline, with Trumpism tapping into a reactionary nostalgia for a once “great” America that could be made “great again” — if the right people were put in their places, if not in their graves. Divisions and distractions serve to keep so many of us downtrodden and demobilized, desperate for a leader to ignite and unite us, even if it’s for a cause as shallow and false as the “stop the steal” Capitol riot on January 6, 2021.

Despite the evidence of decline and dysfunction all around us, many Americans continue to take pride and comfort in the idea that the U.S. military remains the finest fighting force in all of history — a claim advanced by presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden, among so many other boosters.

All the World’s A Stage

About 15 years ago, I got involved in a heartfelt argument with a conservative friend about whether it was wise for this country to shrink its global presence, especially militarily. He saw us as a benevolent actor on the world stage.  I saw us as overly ambitious, though not necessarily malevolent, as well as often misguided and in denial when it came to our flaws. I think of his rejoinder to me as the “empty stage” argument.  Basically, he suggested that all the world’s a stage and, should this country become too timid and abandon it, other far more dangerous actors could take our place, with everyone suffering. My response was that we should, at least, try to leave that stage in some fashion and see if we were missed.  Wasn’t our own American stage ever big enough for us?  And if this country were truly missed, it could always return, perhaps even triumphantly.

Of course, officials in Washington and the Pentagon do like to imagine themselves as leading “the indispensable nation” and are generally unwilling to test any other possibilities.  Instead, like so many ham actors, all they want is to eternally mug and try to dominate every stage in sight.

In truth, the U.S. doesn’t really have to be involved in every war around and undoubtedly wouldn’t be if certain actors (corporate as well as individual) didn’t feel it was just so profitable. If my five answers above were ever taken seriously here, there might indeed be a wiser and more peaceful path forward for this country. But that can’t happen if the forces that profit from the status quo — where bellum (war) is never ante- or post- but simply ongoing — remain so powerful. The question is, of course, how to take the profits of every sort out of war and radically downsize our military (especially its overseas “footprint”), so that it truly becomes a force for “national security,” rather than national insecurity.

Most of all, Americans need to resist the seductiveness of war, because endless war and preparations for more of the same have been a leading cause of national decline.  One thing I know: Waving blue-and-yellow flags in solidarity with Ukraine and supporting “our” troops may feel good but it won’t make us good.  In fact, it will only contribute to ever more gruesome versions of war.

A striking feature of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that, after so many increasingly dim years, it’s finally allowed America’s war party to pose as the “good guys” again. After two decades of a calamitous “war on terror” and unmitigated disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and so many other places, Americans find themselves on the side of the underdog Ukrainians against that “genocidal” “war criminal” Vladimir Putin.  That such a reading of the present situation might be uncritical and reductively one-sided should (but doesn’t) go without saying. That it’s seductive because it feeds both American nationalism and narcissism, while furthering a mythology of redemptive violence, should be scary indeed.

Yes, it’s high time to call a halt to the Pentagon’s unending ham-fisted version of a world tour.  If only it were also time to try dreaming a different dream, a more pacific one of being perhaps a first among equals. In the America of this moment, even that is undoubtedly asking too much. An Air Force buddy of mine once said to me that when you wage war long, you wage it wrong. Unfortunately, when you choose the dark path of global dominance, you also choose a path of constant warfare and troubled times marked by the cruel risk of violent blowback (a phenomenon of which historian and critic Chalmers Johnson so presciently warned us in the years before 9/11).

Washington certainly feels it’s on the right side of history in this Ukraine moment. However, persistent warfare should never be confused with strength and certainly not with righteousness, especially on a planet haunted by a growing sense of impending doom.

Copyright 2022 William J. Astore

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular and a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals. His personal blog is Bracing Views.

15 comments

  1. Filthy Nazi’s . . . Ahh, just give an olive branch a chance.

    Absurdity.

    War is economic war. War is cultural war. War is Capitalism. War is banks and IMF’s and Chosen People’s madness in Israel, and the millionaire and billionaire class. That is war war war.

    But to let the Nazi’s murder and maim and steal? Astore knows nothing about Russian history — Long Live Russia and today, V Day for Russia, the world. The Nazi’s have moved to South America, to Israel, to Canada and USA, Mexico, and, of course, EuroTrash has always been a Nazi land. Even before the Nazi’s were called nazi!

    Oh well, Astore and his democratic pary insanity.

    H.R. 2509 / S. 1139 would:

    Repeal the Military Selective Service Act (thereby eliminating Presidential authority to order men to register with the Selective Service System for a possible military draft and eliminating criminal penalties for failure or refusal to register);

    Abolish the Selective Service System (thereby ending contingency planning by the SSS for the Health Care Personnel Delivery System or any other form of special-skills draft);

    Prohibit all other Federal agencies from imposing civil sanctions (denial of federal student financial aid, federally-funded jobs, etc.) for nonregistration or using nonregistration as a basis for other adverse determinations (denial of naturalization as a U.S. citizen, etc.);

    “Preempt” (and thereby override and prohibit) all state sanctions for nonregistration (denial of drivers’ licenses, state financial aid, state jobs, etc.); and

    Preserve the rights of conscientious objectors under other laws and regulations (such as applicants for reassignment to noncombatant duties or discharge from the military on the basis of conscientious objection).

    The United States had an active draft from 1940 to 1973 (except for one year between 1947 and 1948). It also had numerous wars including in Korea and Vietnam. The Vietnam War not only persisted for many years during the draft, killing far more people than any U.S. war since, but also continued for two years after the draft ended. And the only reason the war could continue was because the military had a steady stream of draftees.

    Wars have usually been facilitated by a draft, not prevented. The drafts in the U.S. civil war (both sides), the two world wars, and the war on Korea did not end those wars, despite being much larger and in some cases fairer than the draft during the U.S. war on Vietnam.

    On April 24, 2019, the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service heard testimony from Major General John R. Evans, Jr., Commanding General, U.S. Army Cadet Command; Mr. James Stewart, Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel & Readiness); and Rear Admiral John Polowczyk, Vice Director of Logistics for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

    They all testified that the Selective Service System was important for insuring and enabling their war-making plans.

    Stewart said that enacting a draft would show national resolve in support of war-making efforts. John Polowczyk said, “I think that gives us some ability to plan.”

    1. @Paul+Haeder
      And now that there’s no draft, there’s no peace or anti-war movement to speak of. The draft is what caused the major revolt on college campuses across the U.S. during the Vietnam war. Now college kids couldn’t care less about the U.S. military murdering people all over the world. Fighting to end the draft during the Vietnam war was the biggest political mistake of my life.

      Furthermore, the lack of a draft didn’t prevent the U.S. from invading and occupying Afghanistan for 20 years. It didn’t prevent the U.S. from invading and occupying Iraq. It didn’t prevent the U.S. (by NATO proxy) from murdering thousands of people in Libya and totally destroying the country that had the highest standard of living in the region. It didn’t prevent the U.S. (by terrorist Islamic fanatic proxy) from invading Syria, occupying 1/3 of it, and stealing its oil, which is ongoing. It didn’t prevent the U.S. from supporting what amounts to a nationalist group in Ethiopia start a civil war against a democratically elected government there. It didn’t prevent the U.S. (by Nazi proxy) from fomenting a coup in Ukraine, removing a democratically elected president.

      I’m not contradicting anything you wrote. I’m just saying that there’s another legitimate side to this issue. Personally I favor a draft with NO EXCEPTIONS so that everyone has skin in the game, so to speak. If the lack of a draft means fewer people in the military, that’s a good thing too, but neither of these things work to stop U.S. war, and overall I come down on the side of having a draft.

      If Americans want to stop all these U.S. wars — and it’s clear that even if they do, they don’t at all prioritize doing so — they need to stop being the master hyperconsumers on the planet. That’s what causes all these wars; if the U.S. doesn’t have all these resources to fight for, it won’t make all these wars. We also have to abolish the military/intelligence/industrial complex that has far too much influence over foreign affairs, but let’s start with being more evolved people and cutting way back on our consumption.

  2. The young child has nightmares he cannot share with his parents because they will say “Oh it’s only a dream” as if the current infatuation with violence and winning while destroying nature and our mother earth is not a reflection of our earliest fears.

    1. Notice the discussion of Russian conscription in case the war in Ukraine lingers on.

  3. Excellent article. There is only one point that I might quibble with, and it’s the same point many of those with a “progressive” point of view are pushing, the idea that since we provoked Russia, and I agree that we did, then we shouldn’t support Ukraine in defense of its nation.

    Yes, regrettably, we are feeding our military. However, giving Russia justification for their abominable brutality is siding with their propaganda.

    No war is justified. So how do we stop it, then. Become conscientious objectors like I did during the Vietnam War? Of course, I’m being facetious.

    We must condemn Russia just as much as we condemn ourselves.

    In order to help Ukraine, we are in a rock and hard place, but when push comes to shove, what else can we do but help them?

      1. Agreed. This war would not have happened but for the 3 billion dollars worth of weapons and Victoria Nuland’s work leading up to the 2014 coup. Giving them more weapons is just ridiculous. Food and relief aid only, plus negotiations.

    1. @Tom Calarco
      Baloney! The more arms the U.S. sends to Ukraine, the more Ukrainians get killed. Simple as that. If you really want to help Ukraine, you need to pressure the U.S. government to stop sending them arms and support negotiating a peace settlement. The U.S. has already said publicly that it doesn’t want peace, what it wants is to drag the war on as long as possible in order to weaken Russia and Putin.

      Americans should NOT condemn Russia as much as they condemn the U.S. for two main reasons as follows, in no particular order: 1) We live in the U.S. not in Russia. We have no influence, control, or responsibility for what Russia does. But we do have at least some responsibility for what the U.S. does; and 2) loudly criticizing Russia for invading Ukraine is taking hypocrisy to a new level. I’m not going to bother listing all the murderous wars the U.S. has prosecuted in the last 20+ years alone, but suffice to say that EACH U.S. president during that time killed more people than Russia has during that time.

  4. The US is using Ukraine as a tool to weaken Russia so that MATO at some point will further encroach upon the Russian influenced territories surrounding it. Why the Ukrainian people cannot see that they are the waste of this unholy war designed to let the Ukraine do the dirty work and lose the most people. This is exactly how Demonic Fascist Corporate and Government entities work. They seek global control while they do all they can to reduce the population to the 500mil. stated on the Georgia Guidestones. As people wake up to tis insanity and learn for future generations that no secrecy can ever be allowed to exist in any form in the future. so as to prevent humanity from experiencing such madness ever again.

    1. So, you blame the U.S. for the people the Russians are killing?

      1. The US is absolutely responsible for the decline of the relationship between Ukraine & Russia. It’s the height of irresponsibility that so many Americans adopt MSM Russophobic claptrap simple because they have been too lazy to do some reading and viewing of evidence and rather much enjoy the kumbaya of having a handy collective enemy.

        You post a one short snide question, about which you are not even seriously interested in an answer. And if you have to ask in a snide way, you are most likely unable to accept the truth if it were laid out for you in full detail with documents and evidence that many of us have been studying for the last ten years.

  5. The author brings to mind Thomas Pynchon: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.” Review his language:
    ” … time to call a halt to the Pentagon … time to try dreaming a different dream … In the America of this moment, even that is undoubtedly asking too much … An Air Force buddy of mine once said … Washington certainly feels ….”

    It’s all barking at the moon, noise for the sake of noise. And so we see that a military careerist is unlikely to ask the right questions about structural issues in a society.

    If you want an end to the Pentagon/Deep State jingoist tail wagging American society, require Americans to have a stake in the game: 1. make all CIA/Military/State Dept projects pay-as-you-go, 2. re-institute the Draft. Do those two simple things and Americans, who are experts at avoiding bad deals and finding good ones, will bring a halt to military industrial mayhem overnight. Otherwise? Fugetaboutit.

    ~~~
    Alstore is far too soft on the US. Those who have forgotten (or never learned) just how malfeasant, cancerous, and evil the US government is should read:

    Stephen Kinzer – 2013 – “The Brothers- John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War”
    Tim Weiner – 2007 – “Legacy of Ashes History of the CIA”
    James Carroll – 2006 – “House of War, The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power”

  6. “Why in this century has America … become the leader in promoting global warfare?”

    This century? Did William J. Astore sleep through the 20th century and is now unable to find any relevant information about it? Just off the top of my head, in the 20th century, the U.S., by proxy or directly, killed millions of people by war as follows:

    3 million in Vietnam
    1 million Indonesia
    1 million Mozambique
    1 million Angola
    3/4 million in Korea
    This doesn’t include Latin America, where the U.S. is responsible for at least tens of thousands of killings in Columbia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, to name a few again off the top of my head.

    This column reads at best as naive, at worst as propaganda. Wars are fought, first and foremost, for resources. Nowadays, “resources” can include pipelines, access to ports and other strategic areas, and other geopolitical reasons. Now we have the additional problem of the immensely powerful and mostly secret military/intelligence/industrial complex forcefully advocating for ever more war to enrich its members, so that’s another major factor. The five reasons listed in this column are some combination of minor and results of these causes.

    The bottom line is that if you want the U.S. to stop making war, you have to not only support and vote for peace candidates, you have to make a major effort to lower your consumption, starting with oil (i.e., get rid of your damn car!). Every drop of oil you consume is a vote for another oil war. Every needless thing you consume is a vote for war in general. War is a disease of civilization, because overpopulated societies (civilization is overpopulation by definition) can’t live on their own resources, so they have to steal someone else’s. THIS is what needs to be discussed, not these peripheral minor causes or symptoms of major causes of war.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: