The Drums of War

The history of civilization was long taught in schools as the history of its wars – battles and dates. Humans are unique this way: male animals fight amongst themselves for access to females but leave each other exhausted and maybe wounded but not dead. What cultural or biological function does war among humans actually have?

In his classic dystopian novel, 1984, Orwell described a nation committed to endless war, the situation the US finds itself in today. In the book, the purpose of these wars is to control the population with patriotic rallies and surveillance, to cover up failings of the leadership and to get rid of excess industrial production. Some would also point to the powerful side-effects of technology first developed for the military that contribute to the head-long plunge into an Orwellian future such as the Internet.

Our defense industry today is perfectly suited for the third task Orwell lists: after all, it makes things that destroy themselves. This industry is so dominated by a small number of giant companies that they can dictate costs and prices to the Pentagon, knowing the military budget will bloat to oblige them. This military-industrial complex lives outside the market-based capitalist system; the current move to merge Raytheon and United Technologies will be one more step in concentration of this oligopoly, one that does not brook competition. We can’t say that Eisenhower didn’t warn us.

But the human price of war is very, very high. So how does a modern nation-state structure its sociology to enable it to endure wars? For one point of view, the French feminist author Virginie Despentes puts it this way: with the citizens’ army, men have a “deal” – be willing to fight the nation’s wars in exchange for a position of prestige in society. With this setup, the position of women is made subordinate to that of men.

However, this compact is being eroded today: the US has a professional army, as do France, England, Germany et al. Moreover, the professional American army recruits women to bolster the level of IQ in the military which is so important for today’s technology based warfare! The erosion (in the US since the Vietnam draft) of the citizens’ army as a source of power for men in society could be a factor in the rise of feminist activism.

The irony is that while endless wars continue, the world is actually less violent today than it has been for a long time now. According to Prof. Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, the rate of death in war has fallen by a factor of 100 over a span of 25 years. The wars of today just do not require the great conscript armies of the world wars such as the massive force of over 34 million men and women that the Soviet Union put together in WWII while suffering casualties estimated to be as high as 11 million. But at least no one has yet called for a return to major wars in order to “right things” for men in Western societies.

For its part, the US has been at war constantly since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and, indeed since December 1941 but for some gaps – very few when you include covert operations such as support for Saddam Hussein during the decade-long Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and the not-so-covert downing of an Iranian civil airliner with 288 people on board by the USS Vincennes in 1988; for more in the Reagan era, add the Iran-Contra scandal where the US backed counter-revolutionaries attempting to overthrow the democratically elected government in Nicaragua (carried out in flagrant violation of US law but, have no fear, all convicted perpetrators were pardoned by G.H.W. Bush). However, the armed forces are no longer a citizen’s army but rather a professional force in the service of the US President, Congress having given up its right alone to declare war (same for tariffs). This arrangement distances the wealthy and members of the government from war itself and insulates them and most of the population from war’s human consequences.

In addition to serving Orwell’s purposes, US wars have consistently been designed to further the interests of corporations – Dick Cheney, Halliburton and Iraq; multiple incursions in Central America and the Caribbean to benefit United Fruit; the annexation of Hawaii to benefit the Dole Food Company; shipping and a convenient revolution in Colombia to create Panama in order to build the canal. As another such example, the source of the US-Cuba conflict stems from the Cuban nationalizations of United Fruit plantations and the Cuban expropriations of hotels and gambling operations belonging to Meyer Lansky and the Mafia, back in 1959. From there things escalated to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and on to the current bizarre situation.

As the forever wars endure, on the home front the military are obsequiously accorded veneration once reserved for priests and ministers. Armistice Day, which celebrated the end of a war, now is Veterans Day making for two holidays honoring the armed forces, one in Spring and one in Fall. Sports events routinely are opened by Marine Color Guards accompanied by Navy jet flyovers. In fact, the military actually pays the National Football League for this sort of pageantry designed to identify patriotism with militarism.

The courage and skill of US armed forces members in the field are exemplary. But what makes all this veneration for the military suspect is how little success these martial efforts have been having. Let’s not talk about Vietnam. The first Iraq War (Iraq I) did drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait but all that was made necessary by the U.S. ambassador’s giving Saddam Hussein an opening to invade in the first place – Iraq I also failed to remove the “brutal dictator” Saddam, a misstep which later became a reason for Iraq II. The war in Afghanistan began with the failure to capture Osama Bin Laden at Tora Bora and today the Taliban are as powerful as ever and the poppy trade continues unabated. Iraq II led to pro-Iranian Shiite control of the government, Sunni disaffection and ISIS. Any progress in Syria or Iraq against ISIS has been spearheaded by the Kurds, allies whom the US has thrown under the bus lest the US incur the wrath of the Turks. The Libya that NATO forces bombed during 7 months in 2011 is now a failed state.

There are 195 countries in the world today. The US military is deployed in 150 of them. The outsized 2018 US military budget of some $6.8B was larger than the sum of the next seven such budgets around the world. Von Clausewitz famously wrote that war is an extension of diplomacy. But military action has all but replaced diplomacy for the US – “if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” For budget details, click  HERE .

Recently, the US was busy bombing Libya and pacifying Iraq. Right now the US is involved in hostilities in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. Provocations involving oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman appear to be leading to armed conflict with Iran; this is all so worrisomely reminiscent of WMDs and so sadly similar to the fraudulent claim of attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that led to the escalation of the Vietnam War (as revealed by the Pentagon Papers, McNamara’s memoirs and NSA documents made public in 2005).

London bookmakers are notorious for taking bets on American politics. Perhaps, they also could take bets on where the US is likely to invade next. Boots on the ground in Yemen? Instead would the smart money be on oil-rich Libya with its warlords and the Benghazi incident? But Libya was already bombed exhaustively – interestingly right after Gaddafi tried to establish a gold-based pan-African currency, the dinar, for oil and gas transactions. Others would bet on Iran since the drums of war have already started beating and the unilateral withdrawal of the US from the Iran nuclear deal does untie the President’s hands; moreover and ominously for them, Iran just dropped the dollar as its exchange currency. Also invading the Shiite stronghold would ingratiate the US with Sunni ally Saudi Arabia (thus putting the US right in the middle of a war of religion); then too it could please Bibi Netanyahu who believes attacking Persia would parallel the story line of the Book of Esther. What about an invasion of Iran simply to carve out an independent Kurdistan straddling Iran and Iraq – to make it up to the Kurds? And weren’t American soldiers recently killed in action in Niger? And then there’s Somalia. Venezuela next? Etc.

As Pete Seeger sang, “When will they ever learn”?

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