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 Manning, Julian Assange, Daniel 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 shootings; mass 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.
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.