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Is War the Answer?


The protest slogan goes, “War is not the answer.” That’s direct enough, but what is it that war is or is not the answer to? Is war ever the answer? Book after book has been written to examine the latter question. I will keep my scope narrower: are the ways in which we’re currently using war actually solving problems?

There is a component of American national mythology surrounding the notion of a “just war.” A just war has clear heroes and villains. The villains have carried out some evil act: a cowardly sneak attack, a crime against humanity, or committed some other offense against human decency and/or the laws of war. The heroes are righteous, not just in their casus belli, but in how they conduct warfare: they will fight only until the enemy is defeated to the point of surrender, and will avoid inflicting unnecessary damage and civilian casualties as much as possible.

In the American saga, of course, the United States is always the hero. Our Revolutionary War was fought, the story goes, to throw off the yoke of an unjust tyranny. The reality was more complex, in that it was essentially a taxation dispute between wealthy colonists and the British monarchy. To be sure, the actions of the Crown were unjust, but there is room to argue that initiating a war–which is bound to cause excess human deaths and misery–for the sake of protecting wealth is no more just. Indeed, Canada still exists as part of the British Commonwealth, and they could hardly be described as crushed under monarchist jackboots. Admittedly, hindsight is 2020. But the American national myth begins with this idea of just wars, and it is a recurring theme in our history. What are the wars that still capture our imagination?

The Civil War? A just war to end slavery.

World War II? A just war to bring down the totalitarian, genocidal Third Reich.

Wars that cannot be boiled down so easily are conveniently swept under the rug; they are harder to describe in terms of heroes and villains, so we don’t give them much thought. This allows us to ignore our mistakes, to neglect the lessons of our own history.

There are indeed wars that we lost. Korea and Vietnam come to mind, both being foolish misadventures to stop the spread of Communism in southeast Asia. In the case of Korea, we were only half-successful, and the stalemate that resulted leaves both North and South in a precarious state of relations. With Vietnam, we failed completely. The country now endures as a socialist republic, and isn’t much of a threat to anyone.

In addition to Korea and Vietnam, there are the dozens of proxy wars we engaged in during the Cold War. In those, we rarely risked our own soldiers, instead funding all manner of questionable paramilitary groups and strongmen so long as they promised to crush communism (and indeed, economic leftism more generally) wherever they found it. Our record on such proxy wars is mixed: we won some, we lost some. In most cases, however, the people of the countries involved lost, sometimes quite badly. The US cannot take the full blame for these conflicts, considering that many of them would’ve occurred with or without us, but we do need to take responsibility for the extent to which we lengthened particular civil wars and increased the ability of our sponsored side to inflict mass casualties on the other(s). Since the lives being lost were not American, we scarcely gave them a second thought, and at a broader level, we considered the Cold War a just war because it was the forces of freedom and democracy against totalitarian oppression. Again, of course, this is a distortion. The Soviet Union was a deeply repressive, violent regime, but we had no qualms about supporting regimes of equal caliber so long as they favored private enterprise over state ownership of capital. It was an economic war wearing an ideological mask–a recurring theme.

At the end of the Cold War, the United States was left standing, intact. Another just war won, another notch in our belt.

Then, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Images of innocent Kuwaitis fleeing destruction moved us to action. What our government had initially dismissed as a border dispute between Iraq and Kuwait gained enough public attention that we felt compelled to act. Iraq was forced out of Kuwait–the small nation of innocents was saved from the brutal madman (who was once our brutal madman, but never mind). Largely omitted from our victorious narrative is that, as Iraqi troops withdrew back into their home country per the terms of the UN resolution meant to end hostilities, the United States engaged in a turkey shoot. In less euphemistic terms, we seized the opportunity to kill tens of thousands of retreating soldiers and destroy their war materiel. But it’s fine, because we won.

More importantly, we got our bravado back. The defeat of Iraq in 1991 has been credited with exorcising the ghosts of Vietnam. No longer would the warmaking capabilities of the United States be in doubt. We could destroy anyone, anywhere, anytime, and we wanted the whole world to know it. As with the conclusion to the Second World War, we were the good guys pounding the bad guys into dust, and we won because we were in the right.

In the American popular consciousness, our notion of war comes primarily from that one. We had a clear villain, a truly evil empire that it was our moral imperative to take down. We had allies to defend, support, and even rescue from their own destruction. It’s the perfect just war narrative, and it happens to be true enough in the broad strokes that it’s difficult to counter. Allied victory involved actions that were unquestionably war crimes, such as the firebombing of populated areas solely to inflict massive civilian casualties. There is still much debate over the ultimate purpose of dropping nuclear bombs on Japan, as well. Was it a strategic signal to Stalin? Was it the only way to avoid a land invasion of Japan? Was Japan on the verge of surrendering already? Did American leaders not realize just how powerful a weapon they had on their hands? Arguments persist for each of these scenarios and various combinations thereof; there may never be a final, clear answer as each is probably true to some extent. But what matters most is that we won: we beat our enemies into submission, and we were just because a) Hitler was evil and b) Japan attacked us first. (Again, however, Japan was provoked by an American oil embargo that crippled the Japanese war machine. “There are no innocents in war” can be read many ways.)

Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of the heroic WW2 narrative is the way it eliminates nuance and demands that we force all subsequent wars into its pattern. Wars that don’t fit the pattern are dismissed. Korea is the “forgotten war.” Vietnam, we’ve done our best to forget about. Desert Storm, we won–a just war! The Balkan conflicts of the ‘90s, we barely remember, likely due to the complex nature of the conflict and the US’ more limited role, even though it had a clear villain in the form of Milosevic.

Moving forward to Afghanistan, however, things become even murkier. The Taliban aren’t good guys by any stretch–their Medieval vision of Islam further ravaged an already-devastated Afghanistan, a country in ruins as the victim of another American/Soviet proxy war. Filled with righteous anger after the 911 attacks, we wanted someone, anyone, to pay a price. It is not often argued that the United States should have stayed out of Afghanistan. At a minimum, it is suggested that we should have gone in, destroyed the Taliban and as much of al-Qaeda as possible, and left the nation-building to the Afghans themselves. We rarely examine whether the invasion of Afghanistan was itself a worthwhile, much less just, endeavor. Given the very small amount of time that passed between the initial attacks and our invasion, there was clearly not much of a window for long-term planning or strategy. The purpose was to hit them, hard and without mercy, to show our strength. We wanted to get Osama bin Laden, certainly, but we’d settle for bombing anyone remotely like him back to the Stone Age.

All told, the US may not have made Afghanistan much worse–it was already badly broken, a failed state by virtually any measure–but we also failed to make it markedly better. As a nation-building experiment, Afghanistan has been an abject failure, and we gave possible outcomes little consideration before committing ourselves to the conflict. We seemed to think, based on little more than our own sense of righteousness, that we could destroy the terrorists who’d hurt us if we just bombed them hard enough.

Through a parade of lies almost comical in extent and arrogance, we expanded our War on Terror into Iraq, decapitating Saddam Hussein’s regime and systematically purging his Baath Party from power, which controlled virtually all civil institutions. Even more unforgivably in Iraq–a campaign we had ample time to plan–there was deliberately no effort to engage in post-Saddam planning. The Bush administration assumed that Iraqis would embrace their American liberators with flowers and open arms, when in reality we took what was a fairly stable (if very repressive) government, ripped it apart, and attempted to build a new one from scratch. Putting the mendacious pretext aside, while democratizing a country that lacks such a tradition may be laudable from a values standpoint, it is hopelessly naive in practical terms. People accustomed to being ruled by dictators do not magically discover their love for democracy the moment they’re first exposed to it. It is a cultural tradition that takes decades (if not longer) to build–it doesn’t arise overnight through the sheer magic of democracy’s awesomeness.

Our hubris cost us, but it’s cost the people of Iraq and the broader Middle East a lot more. Without Saddam’s civil institutions, without his well-trained military, Iraq fell into chaos. Sectarian conflicts kept under wraps for decades suddenly boiled over–another consequence we failed to anticipate. The “troop surge” of 2007 is widely credited with bringing the country back from the brink, but in fact more boots on the ground isn’t what made  the difference. Instead, it was American forces shifting from a policy of putting down unrest to actively engaging the local populace in anti-insurgency activities. Most importantly, getting Sunni leadership to back these efforts–the so-called Sunni Awakening–is what made the surge (at least temporarily) successful. The key lesson here is that our will cannot be imposed on others who don’t share our goals, and when we make no effort to include the people who will actually be affected in our decisionmaking plans, we can hardly expect them to buy in when the time comes to execute. Our “guide” leading up to the invasion of Iraq was one Ahmed Chalabi, a man who could charitably be described as an opportunist, but perhaps more accurately as a crook, and who never enjoyed broad popular support in Iraq either before or after the US-led invasion. But he made for a convenient voice for Iraqis–he told our neoconservative strategists what they wanted to hear, so we could justify the push for war.

But such errors would not have mattered except for the rise of the Islamic State. Our story of Iraq would end with the successful surge–a triumph of numerical, military superiority!–and a gradual drawdown as Iraqis came to manage their own affairs, carefully stewarded by wise American authorities. The Islamic State blew the lid off such deceptions, showing that the Iraqi forces that we spent over $25 billion training and equipping amounted to nothing more than a paper tiger, running at the first sign of a real threat. The Iraqi government has itself been in disarray, mired in corruption while IS rules the north of the country virtually unchallenged. The country is itself dividing along sectarian lines: Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurd. What was meant to be a model for democracy in the Middle East has become a stark lesson in unintended consequences. The US probably doesn’t deserve all of the blame for the current state of Iraq–there were few credible predictions of an actual Islamic Caliphate arising in the Middle East back in 2003–but by destabilizing the region, we did our part to open the door. At this point, discussion no longer revolves around helping Iraq, but thwarting the Islamic State. We see a heinous enemy to destroy, and we want there to be a military solution. Why can’t we simply bomb them and bomb them until they no longer exist? Why does warfare not stop them?

The same goes for our ongoing drone warfare in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. War is viewed as a tool of foreign policy, alongside diplomacy and financial aid. If we can’t get what we want with money or negotiation, we’ll get it with the use of force. And if we don’t consider one party in a conflict to be legitimate, then absolute destruction is the only option on the table, and we feel this is right because these are bad people we’re killing. They’re terrorists who murder innocents, aren’t they? They’re terrorists plotting to destroy us, aren’t they? We train ourselves to believe this propaganda so we need not lose sleep over the reality of our foreign policy, over the short- and long-term consequences of our actions.

Fourteen years after 911, we still haven’t grasped the relevance of “blowback.” We believe there is some level of force that we can exert which will quell if not crush not those who’d do us harm. We ignore that the way we use drones not only kills many uninvolved civilians, it creates future enemies. We ignore that our endless, selfish meddling in the affairs of other countries teaches their citizens to despise us. We believe not only that our wars are just, but that all of our actions are just, because we are the United States, and the Greatest Country on Earth.

I can say all this because we’ve not changed our behavior at all, nor have we, as a country, demonstrated any serious reflection on our recent actions. A Democratic President had difficulty even getting his own party to support a rather modest accord with Iran–half the politicians in this country would just as soon nuke Tehran, a viewpoint putting us at odds with almost the entire planet. We still act as if this is our world and everyone else merely lives in it, and crosses us at their own peril. Our first resort in most foreign policy issues is to consider the use of force. We do not see ourselves as living in a world of equals with whom we must negotiate, but a world of vassals to control and enemies to destroy, and the former can become the latter at a moment’s notice.

Obama has turned out to be much more of a neoconservative than an internationalist, although the two are almost indistinguishable as they exist in American politics, and both are tinged with (neo)realist theory–essentially, might makes right, and you either enforce it through cooperative global institutions (internationalism) or go it alone, institutions be damned (neoconservatism).

What we make no effort to do is attempt to understand other cultures–friends and adversaries alike–and seek to find common ground on which to negotiate. We might even have to accept that sometimes there _is_ no common ground at the current point in time, and it’s best to walk away and come back to the table at a future time. We don’t have to do business with everyone; we don’t have the right to make people do business with us, either. We must pause to reflect on our actions–what actions we took, why we thought they were a good idea, and how their consequences played out. We must actually _learn. _If we refuse to pay attention, to learn the lessons our mistakes should be teaching us, we may well be forced to learn much harsher lessons. We have been fortunate that the turmoil which engulfs much of the world has rarely visited our own soil. We enjoy the luxury of relative, albeit incomplete, isolation. We remain proud and sure of our own righteousness. I suspect we would not all enjoy the experience of being humbled before the world, and it’s a prospect that becomes more and more likely, the more we inflict our own arrogance upon the world around us.