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Our Perpetual War Political Culture

Andrew Bacevich observes [1] that Washington mostly ignores the war in Afghanistan, and finds that our political leaders appear uninterested in bringing it to an end. He concludes:

That our impulsive commander in chief may one day initiate some new war in a fit of pique is a worrisome prospect. That neither President Trump nor anyone else in Washington seems troubled that wars once begun drag on in perpetuity is beyond worrisome.

One of the more striking things about the paltry foreign policy debate in the 2016 campaign is that the war in Afghanistan was never mentioned in any of the presidential debates, and scarcely came up at any other time. As I recall, neither candidate said anything substantive about the longest foreign war in our history, and neither of them was ever asked to say anything. That was consistent with the overall neglect of our ongoing involvement in multiple foreign wars. The problem here isn’t just that both major party candidates would have taken conventionally hawkish positions in favor of continuing the war indefinitely, but that they didn’t think they had to take a public position because unending war is now simply our default mode of operation. Our political leaders and our media don’t just consider perpetual war to be tolerable, but for the most part seem to find it so unimportant as to not be worth their time. This is irresponsible neglect on their part, but almost no one notices their negligence because the immediate costs of the war are borne by a small number of Americans. The rest of the country can go about its business without having to pay any attention to a war that is now over fifteen years old, and that suits the people running the war just fine.

Political leaders in Washington know now that the public will accept open-ended, desultory wars for a very long time as long as there are relatively few American casualties. Most of our politicians think that our government must exercise “leadership” in the world in the form of military action, so they can’t imagine bringing foreign wars to an end and make no effort to do so. Ending a foreign war, no matter how unsuccessful it has been, would represent an “abandonment” of that unquestionable “leadership” role. Most of our politicians will never fault a president for initiating, escalating, or continuing an unnecessary war, but they will denounce him if he decides not to start or join one. Under those circumstances, a president usually isn’t going to risk being blamed for the aftermath of a withdrawal when he can avoid scrutiny and criticism by keeping a war going, and the longer the war goes on the harder it becomes for a later president to be the one to pull the plug.

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19 Comments To "Our Perpetual War Political Culture"

#1 Comment By collin On March 17, 2017 @ 10:48 am

Like everything else, The Simpsons said first with future Lisa in 2056 stating “throw in the towel and make Afghanistan a state.”

#2 Comment By Jon On March 17, 2017 @ 1:39 pm

I think it is important to understand the winners and losers here. Who wins by endless war? Obviously the top military leaders who get a ribbon and a combat stamp on their resumes. The equipment manufacturers make enormous profits. Their employees get good-paying jobs. Politicians get significant campaign donations from those same manufacturers. And they get to act like they are tough guys to that part of the population that thinks that’s important.

The losers are the family and friends of those American soldiers who are killed and maimed, and the family and friends of those killed and maimed by those who turn to terrorism to avenge whatever pain our soldiers inflicted upon them.

The second group is obviously a far tinier and less wealthy and influential than the first group.

And the rest of us have no where to go since the system is favored by both political parties. And Americans, as a nation, will never vote for other parties. So here we are. It’s not changing. Really it can’t.

I can assure you though that I would never let any of my children enlist in the military. They won’t die “for our freedom”.

#3 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On March 17, 2017 @ 1:58 pm

What is beyond the pale is the idea the 45th POTUS was going to “Make America Great Again” at home. Secure the borders and address immigration, “create (re-patriate) jobs”, etc. If the proposed budget is any indication, the primary jobs to be created are in the R&D/Manufacturing sector of the MIC, and the (enlisted) military (with a couple PMC contracts to keep the Secretary of Education’s brother off welfare). All the talk about “draining the swamp” is nothing if not ironic, as the 43rd and 44th POTUS’s “built” some pretty impressive swamps in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it would appear the 45th POTUS has his eyes on new swamps in Yemen, Syrian, and perhaps North Korea. The establishment is dead! Long live the establishment!

#4 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 17, 2017 @ 2:02 pm

Odd, to me, to focus on “Washington” and “politicians.” As the author himself says, the US public can go on with its “business” more or less indefinitely, as long as the war stays at the current Afghanistan level (or perhaps even somewhat higher). Beyond that, the public (left, right, and center) is now more or less permanently convinced that there is always some super-dangerous “Other” out there, one which warrants erring on the side of intervention. The “Other” can change over time, from Al Qaeda to the Taliban to ISIS, each of which pretty much all sectors of the US public have considered, at one time or another, to be so exceptional in their evil as to justify at least low level war against them. And, of course, a good portion of the public has, at one time or another, been convinced that Saddam, Gaddafi, the Iranians, Assad, Milosevic, and so on and so forth, were as bad or as dangerous. Finally, our society and culture are now saturated with militarism. Washington politicians of both parties genuflect to the military, yes. But even in daily, every day life there is no escape from the ubiquitous, public worship of the military.

We have a failure here that goes much deeper than national politics. We have a country that bought much too deeply into military solutions based on its history through WWII. Since then, we have refused to demoblize. During the Cold War, there was at least a plausible excuse for continuing on a war footing permanently. But now there is no excuse. True, since Vietnam, the public probably will not put up with a useless, morally unjustified, full on war, one which relies on draftees. And even the much lesser carnage of Iraq II generated strong public criticism. But our society, our people themselves, are OK with, and perhaps even expect, continual low level war fought mostly by Special Forces, by drones, by air strikes, by spies, by high tech gizmos, and so on. Only when the regular forces are taking real casualties over a long period of time do people wake up at all. And even then the question is still close.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 17, 2017 @ 3:58 pm

In light of cold war politics Vienna made perfect sense. But here’s what is funny. There is less justification for invading Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, or Syria, yet those supposed Vietnam protesters seem heck bent on mucking raking those states.

You get his largely by having an all volunteer corps.

There are lots of ways this bill can come due. And while I disagree that the country will not change, it may take several invoices for us to get the message.

#6 Comment By regular visitor On March 17, 2017 @ 5:36 pm

What a photo. A rogue’s gallery of bloody, corrupt interventionism …

#7 Comment By Ken Hoop On March 17, 2017 @ 7:33 pm

For America to have any chance to “win” in Afghanistan many more troops would have to be poured in, as the Afghan government will never be trusted enough to obtain sustaining power from a high degree of loyalty from Afghanis, adequate numbers of whom will rather support insurgencies against it as an American puppet.

But Americans could not accept anything like the casualties involved.

Thus the slow bleed will continue.

#8 Comment By rayray On March 17, 2017 @ 8:20 pm

@Ken Hoop
Your quotes around the word “win” say it all. There is no win in Afghanistan. There never was. For anyone. Afghanistan is not tactical, either militarily or politically.

So what are we dying for?


#9 Comment By ScottA On March 17, 2017 @ 9:50 pm

The only way the endless wars will ever end is for there to be a dramatic decrease in the number of Americans volunteering to be cannon fodder for the military-industrial complex and power mad politicians.

But unfortunately a lot of people still buy all the propaganda that the best way to serve this country is to join the military.

The best thing that could happen is for them not to join the military which would force a dramatic decline in our military budget, money that could then be used to pay our bills.

It would also rob our power crazed leaders of their power because they would no longer have pawns to move around the globe and do their dirty work for them.

#10 Comment By James On March 18, 2017 @ 12:18 pm

Follow the money, and virtually every choice in American foreign policy becomes quite clear. Those who naively think we are fighting for some “greater good” have no idea what is really happening.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 18, 2017 @ 1:14 pm

“The best thing that could happen is for them not to join the military which would force a dramatic decline in our military budget, money that could then be used to pay our bills.”

I am not sure you understand the dynamic here. The shift to technology will buffet this nonservice. Since the volunteer services began, service to country alone has ceased to be the sole means of serving the country. It is also a conduit for training, educational opportunity that translates outside the military. There will always be people willing to service for what that service provides as professional and personal opportunities.

In fact, I would hazard a guess that one learns more about the reason to serve country in the military than before signing up.

Technology even weighs against the need for a draft, but without a draft, the country never absorbs the cost as a nation and therefor the nee to question its use.

Furthermore, I would hazard a bet that should numbers decline so as to be burdensome (to the elite), they would simply turn to privateers, from anywhere –

I think we are already overextended. And should something catastrophic occur, we would be caught short.

#12 Comment By jcastarz On March 18, 2017 @ 4:23 pm

My 2-cents-worth:

The involvement of ALL U.S. citizens in our wars is needed. To achieve this, restore the National Military Draft as a 3rd-string back-up to both the All-Volunteer Force and the National Guard. The draft could kick in when deployment cycles for our 1st and 2nd string forces are nearing their maximums. To ensure social equity, remove all loopholes (such as the college exemption clause) from the draft; if you are called, you MUST serve. This will ensure that Every American (potentially) has skin in the game, and it will also guard against abusing our All-Volunteer Force and the National Guard to the extent that we have since Sept 11, 2001.

#13 Comment By Cassie On March 18, 2017 @ 4:25 pm

“But unfortunately a lot of people still buy all the propaganda that the best way to serve this country is to join the military.”

Some of them join up because there’s nothing else: no jobs, no hope of attending college, no way out of poverty than joining the military. There, they can at least learn some basic skills, including how to work as part of a team.

Politicians whose policies deliberately impoverish large swaths of the population, that like people to be kept ignorant and angry, also tend to be politicians who pursue deliberate bellicosity overseas.

It’s American Capitalism in action: create a market, and create the customers for that market.

#14 Comment By Toledo Twilight On March 18, 2017 @ 8:29 pm

Trump’s a businessman. He should be familiar with bad deals and failure and how to handle them. The stink of failure and bad deals hangs over nearly every one of our Middle East entanglements. They have been expensive, bloody, and futile. He ought to be cutting our losses and getting us out.

#15 Comment By a spencer On March 19, 2017 @ 3:56 am

Job for TAC intern: using the Freedom of Information Act, try to find out how much the US has spent on Yemen since March 2015. No need to exaggerate. Include humanitarian aid packages, whether they arrived or not.

The US gave Yemen significant aid prior to March 2015, most of it military. There were always strong arguments that it should be balanced with education, in particular, especially as AQAP started showing up in remote areas and opening schools of their own where there were none. That balance didn’t really happen; instead drones were sent to Abyan and Marib. Even when the US backed Saleh, then presumably Hadi, the government’s record on poverty and illiteracy was obscene. The nature of US aid to/interaction with Yemen explains a lot about the conflict. Who can forget that Yemen audaciously opposed the first Gulf War, before Saleh was brought to heel?

#16 Comment By paradoctor On March 19, 2017 @ 6:53 pm

Afghanistan is a special case of what I call the War Shortage; namely, that there’s not enough war to justify the size of the military. (Also you could call it a Military Surplus.)
Under conditions of war shortage, the war machine naturally conserves and recycles what few wars it has. Thus the forever-wars. Also, in a pinch, there are wars of choice, i.e. aggression.
There’s also a domestic Crime Shortage; or in other words, a police surplus.

#17 Comment By rayray On March 20, 2017 @ 1:17 am

That is really well put…and exactly right to me. My new favorite term, and the best one to explain Larison’s “perpetual war” is “War Shortage”. And fascinating how the same concept can play into “crime shortage”.

#18 Comment By Jack On March 21, 2017 @ 7:32 am

This is facilitated by the ending of the draft. When able bodied young men from every family were required to fulfill an obligation to serve in the military, almost every family was directly effected by a war. The few exceptions were the families that were able to avoid the draft by various methods. Now most families don’t even know someone serving in the military. The result is that they don’t have much connection to the horrors of war. In fact many have the use military force mentality to solve most problems. That’s because they or no-one they know will have to put their life at risk.

#19 Comment By John Litton On March 22, 2017 @ 6:44 pm

Our perpetual wars are an economic profit for the “military-industrial complex” and a salve for the patriotic poor. Our country would be far better off if we were to take the money and put it towards economic incentives like reviving our failing infrastructure. We will not stop the endless and needless war though until forced. How best? Revive the draft! Once everyone has skin in the game, the risk and pain will be equally borne. Once the wealthy and influential are required to sacrifice as much as the poor and middle classes, the war will end. The crowds in the streets will demand it.