Andrew Bacevich: America’s Permanent Wars as Mere Background Noise

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By Andrew J. Bacevich, an author, most recently, of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. Originally published at TomDispatch

Consider, if you will, these two indisputable facts.  First, the United States is today more or less permanently engaged in hostilities in not one faraway place, but at least seven.  Second, the vast majority of the American people could not care less. 

Nor can it be said that we don’t care because we don’t know.  True, government authorities withhold certain aspects of ongoing military operations or release only details that they find convenient.  Yet information describing what U.S. forces are doing (and where) is readily available, even if buried in recent months by barrages of presidential tweets.  Here, for anyone interested, are press releases issued by United States Central Command for just one recent week:

September 19: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

September 20: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

Iraqi Security Forces begin Hawijah offensive

September 21: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

September 22: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

September 23: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

Operation Inherent Resolve Casualty

September 25: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

September 26: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

Ever since the United States launched its war on terror, oceans of military press releases have poured forth.  And those are just for starters.  To provide updates on the U.S. military’s various ongoing campaigns, generals, admirals, and high-ranking defense officials regularly testify before congressional committees or brief members of the press.  From the field, journalists offer updates that fill in at least some of the details — on civilian casualties, for example — that government authorities prefer not to disclose.  Contributors to newspaper op-ed pages and “experts” booked by network and cable TV news shows, including passels of retired military officers, provide analysis.  Trailing behind come books and documentaries that put things in a broader perspective.

But here’s the truth of it.  None of it matters.

Like traffic jams or robocalls, war has fallen into the category of things that Americans may not welcome, but have learned to live with.  In twenty-first-century America, war is not that big a deal. 

While serving as defense secretary in the 1960s, Robert McNamara once mused that the “greatest contribution” of the Vietnam War might have been to make it possible for the United States “to go to war without the necessity of arousing the public ire.” With regard to the conflict once widely referred to as McNamara’s War, his claim proved grotesquely premature.  Yet a half-century later, his wish has become reality.

Why do Americans today show so little interest in the wars waged in their name and at least nominally on their behalf?  Why, as our wars drag on and on, doesn’t the disparity between effort expended and benefits accrued arouse more than passing curiosity or mild expressions of dismay? Why, in short, don’t we give a [expletive deleted]? 

Perhaps just posing such a question propels us instantly into the realm of the unanswerable, like trying to figure out why people idolize Justin Bieber, shoot birds, or watch golf on television. 

Without any expectation of actually piercing our collective ennui, let me take a stab at explaining why we don’t give a @#$%&!  Here are eight distinctive but mutually reinforcing explanations, offered in a sequence that begins with the blindingly obvious and ends with the more speculative.  

Americans don’t attend all that much to ongoing American wars because: 

1. U.S. casualty rates are low. By using proxies and contractors, and relying heavily on airpower, America’s war managers have been able to keep a tight lid on the number of U.S. troops being killed and wounded.  In all of 2017, for example, a grand total of 11 American soldiers have been lost in Afghanistan — about equal to the number of shooting deaths in Chicago over the course of a typical week. True, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries where the U.S. is engaged in hostilities, whether directly or indirectly, plenty of people who are not Americans are being killed and maimed.  (The estimated number of Iraqi civilians killed this year alone exceeds 12,000.) But those casualties have next to no political salience as far as the United States is concerned.  As long as they don’t impede U.S. military operations, they literally don’t count (and generally aren’t counted).

2. The true costs of Washington’s wars go untabulated.  In a famous speech, dating from early in his presidency, Dwight D. Eisenhower said that “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”  Dollars spent on weaponry, Ike insisted, translated directly into schools, hospitals, homes, highways, and power plants that would go unbuilt.  “This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense,” he continued.  “[I]t is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” More than six decades later, Americans have long since accommodated themselves to that cross of iron.  Many actually see it as a boon, a source of corporate profits, jobs, and, of course, campaign contributions.  As such, they avert their eyes from the opportunity costs of our never-ending wars.  The dollars expended pursuant to our post-9/11 conflicts will ultimately number in the multi-trillions.  Imagine the benefits of investing such sums in upgrading the nation’s aging infrastructure.  Yet don’t count on Congressional leaders, other politicians, or just about anyone else to pursue that connection. 

3. On matters related to war, American citizens have opted out.  Others have made the point so frequently that it’s the equivalent of hearing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” at Christmastime.  Even so, it bears repeating: the American people have defined their obligation to “support the troops” in the narrowest imaginable terms, ensuring above all that such support requires absolutely no sacrifice on their part.  Members of Congress abet this civic apathy, while also taking steps to insulate themselves from responsibility.  In effect, citizens and their elected representatives in Washington agree: supporting the troops means deferring to the commander in chief, without inquiring about whether what he has the troops doing makes the slightest sense.  Yes, we set down our beers long enough to applaud those in uniform and boo those who decline to participate in mandatory rituals of patriotism.  What we don’t do is demand anything remotely approximating actual accountability.

4. Terrorism gets hyped and hyped and hyped some more. While international terrorism isn’t a trivial problem (and wasn’t for decades before 9/11), it comes nowhere close to posing an existential threat to the United States.  Indeed, other threats, notably the impact of climate change, constitute a far greater danger to the wellbeing of Americans.  Worried about the safety of your children or grandchildren?  The opioid epidemic constitutes an infinitely greater danger than “Islamic radicalism.”  Yet having been sold a bill of goods about a “war on terror” that is essential for “keeping America safe,” mere citizens are easily persuaded that scattering U.S. troops throughout the Islamic world while dropping bombs on designated evildoers is helping win the former while guaranteeing the latter.  To question that proposition becomes tantamount to suggesting that God might not have given Moses two stone tablets after all.

5. Blather crowds out substance. When it comes to foreign policy, American public discourse is — not to put too fine a point on it — vacuous, insipid, and mindlessly repetitive.  William Safire of the New York Times once characterized American political rhetoric as BOMFOG, with those running for high office relentlessly touting the Brotherhood of Man and the Fatherhood of God.  Ask a politician, Republican or Democrat, to expound on this country’s role in the world, and then brace yourself for some variant of WOSFAD, as the speaker insists that it is incumbent upon the World’s Only Superpower to spread Freedom and Democracy.  Terms like leadership and indispensable are introduced, along with warnings about the dangers of isolationism and appeasement, embellished with ominous references to Munich.  Such grandiose posturing makes it unnecessary to probe too deeply into the actual origins and purposes of American wars, past or present, or assess the likelihood of ongoing wars ending in some approximation of actual success. Cheerleading displaces serious thought.

6. Besides, we’re too busy.  Think of this as a corollary to point five.  Even if the present-day American political scene included figures like Senators Robert La Follette or J. William Fulbright, who long ago warned against the dangers of militarizing U.S. policy, Americans may not retain a capacity to attend to such critiques.  Responding to the demands of the Information Age is not, it turns out, conducive to deep reflection.  We live in an era (so we are told) when frantic multitasking has become a sort of duty and when being overscheduled is almost obligatory.  Our attention span shrinks and with it our time horizon.  The matters we attend to are those that happened just hours or minutes ago.  Yet like the great solar eclipse of 2017 — hugely significant and instantly forgotten — those matters will, within another few minutes or hours, be superseded by some other development that briefly captures our attention.  As a result, a dwindling number of Americans — those not compulsively checking Facebook pages and Twitter accounts — have the time or inclination to ponder questions like: When will the Afghanistan War end?  Why has it lasted almost 16 years?  Why doesn’t the finest fighting force in history actually win?  Can’t package an answer in 140 characters or a 30-second made-for-TV sound bite?  Well, then, slowpoke, don’t expect anyone to attend to what you have to say.

7. Anyway, the next president will save us.  At regular intervals, Americans indulge in the fantasy that, if we just install the right person in the White House, all will be well.  Ambitious politicians are quick to exploit this expectation.  Presidential candidates struggle to differentiate themselves from their competitors, but all of them promise in one way or another to wipe the slate clean and Make America Great Again.  Ignoring the historical record of promises broken or unfulfilled, and presidents who turn out not to be deities but flawed human beings, Americans — members of the media above all — pretend to take all this seriously.  Campaigns become longer, more expensive, more circus-like, and ever less substantial.  One might think that the election of Donald Trump would prompt a downward revision in the exalted expectations of presidents putting things right.  Instead, especially in the anti-Trump camp, getting rid of Trump himself (Collusion!  Corruption!  Obstruction!  Impeachment!) has become the overriding imperative, with little attention given to restoring the balance intended by the framers of the Constitution.  The irony of Trump perpetuating wars that he once roundly criticized and then handing the conduct of those wars to generals devoid of ideas for ending them almost entirely escapes notice.

8. Our culturally progressive military has largely immunized itself from criticism.  As recently as the 1990s, the U.S. military establishment aligned itself with the retrograde side of the culture wars.  Who can forget the gays-in-the-military controversy that rocked Bill Clinton’s administration during his first weeks in office, as senior military leaders publicly denounced their commander-in-chief?  Those days are long gone.  Culturally, the armed forces have moved left.  Today, the services go out of their way to project an image of tolerance and a commitment to equality on all matters related to race, gender, and sexuality.  So when President Trump announced his opposition to transgendered persons serving in the armed forces, tweeting that the military “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail,” senior officers politely but firmly disagreed and pushed back.  Given the ascendency of cultural issues near the top of the U.S. political agenda, the military’s embrace of diversity helps to insulate it from criticism and from being called to account for a less than sterling performance in waging wars.  Put simply, critics who in an earlier day might have blasted military leaders for their inability to bring wars to a successful conclusion hold their fire.  Having women graduate from Ranger School or command Marines in combat more than compensates for not winning.

A collective indifference to war has become an emblem of contemporary America.  But don’t expect your neighbors down the street or the editors of the New York Times to lose any sleep over that fact.  Even to notice it would require them — and us — to care.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Most of the above is pretty familiar I think to most NC readers, but I must admit that no.8 was something I hadn’t thought of before. I’d wondered over they years why the soft middle of liberalism in the US had become so accommodating to militarism compared to 20 or 30 years ago, and of course this is one answer. Even outlets like the Guardian has in the past had articles on how there has been so much ‘progress’ on integrating women in the the military. In a way, you have to admire the shamelessness of it all, using social justice rhetoric and actions to suppress criticism of imperialism.

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, PK.

      This happens in the UK, too. Ministry of Defence recruitment videos online and BBC propaganda, especially during Trooping The Colour, single out ethnic minority and LGBTQIX et al personnel, including the former who can wear headdress as befits their ethnic or religious background instead of guards bearskins.

    2. DJG

      PlutoniumKun: The secret, though, is that keeping casualties to a minimum means that the military can go about its self-proclaimed program of being the great equalizer. When Tiffany comes back in a coffin, and then twenty more Tiffanies come back in coffins, there may be some misgivings among the public. Combine points 1 and 8 = a reprieve from accountability.

    3. BoycottAmazon

      One thing about the Draft, when it was no longer disproportionately blacks and poor whites coming, in the early and middle part of the war but middle class white draftee’s coming back in body bags mid 60’s, then the anti-war movement started to take on weight.

      Separately, PK, replied with an interesting link on you comment vis China in yesterday’s links.

    4. TroyMcClure

      Isn’t it something how easily the rhetoric of social justice is so effortlessly rolled out in service of the most vile of ends? Makes one wonder what value there is in such politics when all is said and done.

    5. rd

      This is at the heart of Trump’s tweets about NFL players protesting by kneeling during the anthem.

      Trump and conservatives are making the protests about being “disrespectful of soldiers and veterans” when the protestors are actually protesting racism and police brutality. Unfortunately, the flag and national anthem have been turned into just something that soldiers have fought and died for instead of a symbol of the US Constitution that has been the primary legal vehicle by which civil rights have been advanced in the US over the past 150 years, and especially the past 60 years.

      The country started being so militarized in its thinking during the Cold War that shooting student protestors at Kent State had substantial public support. Much of this way of thinking is continuing today, mainly in rural and suburban whites. First the Communists and now Moslems have been turned into the “Other” that is at the heart of all of our problems, instead of allowing for introspection into ourselves. So one nutty Islamic radical who doesn’t even succeed (hello Richard Reid) can cause aggravation and delays for millions of people while a white guy can slaughter and injure hundreds of people and that is not supposed to be viewed emotionally in a way that would disrupt our “freedoms”.

      War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. – George Orwell, 1984

      George Orwell is becoming more and more relevant to our times. It is good to see that behavioral economists are winning Nobel Prizes as it may illuminate more about how people can be bamboozled by these preachy calls for nationalistic fervor in order to further specific agendas that are not discussed.

      First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
      Because I was not a Socialist.

      Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
      Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

      Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
      Because I was not a Jew.

      Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

      Reinold Niemoller

  2. oaf

    ” a source of corporate profits, jobs, and, of course, campaign contributions”
    “well, by golly…you mean there’s money to be made this way?!?!?

  3. Skip Intro

    War is the area of broadest consensus between the major parties, with Dems trying to prove they are tough, and of course rake in ‘contributions’ from military contractors, and keep the expenditures trickling back onto their ‘constituents’.
    Reducing war has no political champions who have not been marginalized, or in Trump’s case, quickly set straight.

  4. Wukchumni

    WW2: All sides wore identifiable uniforms

    Korean War: All sides wore identifiable uniforms

    Vietnam War: Only we wore identifiable uniforms

    Desert Storm: All sides wore identifiable uniforms

    Afghanistan War: Only we wore identifiable uniforms

    Iraq War: (first month) All sides wore identifiable uniforms

    Iraq War: Only we wore identifiable uniforms

    Sense a pattern here?

    1. rd

      Asymetrical warfare.

      The big question about winning in asymmetrical warfare is: What is winning?

      When you are in somebody else’s country, the two sides often have very different definitions of what winning means. Usually the occupying entity uses the amount of cities and countryside occupied as the initial definition. After a while it morphs into body count of dead “enemy combatants.” This gets very confusing once it is realized that women and children can be combatants. Once women and children get included in the body counts, then winning usually turns into losing as the local population becomes enraged. There are exceptions, like Carthage, where the population is simply wiped out and the civilization is simply destroyed. The Americas were like that because disease was able to do 90%+ of the killing without Europeans directly engaged.

      The asymmetrical side, views winning as whether or not the occupiers really want to go through the pain or not. Once the occupier’s home country wearies of the costs of “winning” then the asymmetrical side can win. This has repeated over and over in history (Afghanistan – numerous times, Vietnam – French and US, British Empire – everywhere by 1948).

  5. funemployed

    As someone who was just growing into the politically conscious stage of life in 2001, and is now rapidly approaching 40, I’d add that for a lot of people my age and younger, constant war has been the norm for their whole adult lives, so the idea of not-war-all-the-time is a culturally alien concept to them.

    1. Anon

      Anyone born after WWII has seen the US involved in some type of “warfare”. Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, Drug War, Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine (via proxy), and most recently Las Vegas.

      Violence is what we do best.

      1. Dan

        The US was founded on war and has been “at war” in some capacity for all of its existence.

        Many have postulated that the same financial interests are behind all the wars.

        At any rate, I think Woody Wilson said it best: “Is there any man here or any woman, let me say is there any child here, who does not know that the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial rivalry?”

  6. knowbuddhau

    In light of Yves’s admonition, that we can’t get there (world peace or at least a sudden end to our empire of bases) from where we are (world war with an empire of bases), that expecting officers, even retired ones, to go from “modern war-fighter” (btw, searching that phrase brings up mostly video war games) to radical anti-war activist, I tried. Can’t do it.

    Never like it when an essay opens with an attempt to assert indisputability. The second of the colonel’s “indisputable facts” is an opinion. And I disagree, most vehemently.

    9. Care less about war? Hardly. War is what we do. We have wars all over: drug wars and THE Drug War, a war on poverty, price wars of every sort (I remember a “coffee war” in Seattle in the 90s). Listen to football cheers. We even “gun down” runners in baseball. War is the go-to metaphor. It’s our very way of being in the world.

    Then he goes on to breezily dismiss over a century of propaganda. Has the historian not heard of Bernays, Lippman’s manufacture of consent, the Creel Commision, the rise of yellow journalism, et cetera? Take those attitudes and policies, apply them for over a century, fund it with billions and enlist the MSM and Hollywood, and then, when it has its intended consequence…blame the victims?

    Americans love being at war. Around here, a Navy town home to the loudest jets we have, people are proud to display bumper stickers (on their ginormous SUVs mostly) “I Love Jet Noise” and “Jets = Jobs.” War is what we do. More war means more jobs.

    And very prestigious jobs, too. Get killed doing it, or grievously injured and you’re a hero. You’ll be in the local paper and maybe even get on the news. But don’t expect much help. We’ve been taught to ignore the costs of war, even when measured in an outrageous daily veteran suicide rate. It seems we’re more eager to go to war than deal with its realities.

    Americans, by belief in a world constituted as a holy war, a founding myth of The Best of All Wars: The American Revolution [fanfare, genuflects] and then going on to “win the West” by war (that was explicitly genocidal, but somehow we gloss over that), and over a century of deliberate, concerted, institutional, pervasive propaganda, thoroughly love war. It makes us feel…exceptional.

    “Everybody else on the planet has to follow the rules. But not us. Cuz we’re the biggest and the baddest in the world, just look at our military. USA! USA! USA!” [as Growlers fly over, the crowds cheers are reduced to sonic rubble under the roar of The Sound of Freedom, every one of them deafened just a bit]. /s

    1. barry fay

      To just blithely expand the concept of “war” to include things that aren´t war at all but only symbolic language is not the path to any kind of valid criticism. The fact is that the society at large doesn´t care about our wars at all and would not be able to even name their locations.

      1. Wukchumni

        I don’t know about that. We’ve learned about places such as Fallujah, Tikrit, Helmand Province, Kandahar, etc.

        Who could put a price on that knowledge?

      2. Mel

        It’s the answer to the question “Why are Americans putting up with all this?” Because war is filling some kind of social and personal need. Hence the abstract wars on poverty, drugs, and what have you; if you want something done, call it a war. If it happens that people don’t know anything about an actual war, all the easier to project some sense of meaning or importance onto it.

    2. a different chris

      I agree with all you’ve said except….

      >Americans, by belief in a world constituted as a holy war

      You may be right by using the term “Americans” – but don’t confuse the loudest with the majority. I love dogs but don’t have a bumper sticker saying so. I am hoping that maybe the real “silent” majority does think this is stupid, and simply doesn’t realize that they are the majority. Remember Trump campaigned against this [family blog], and got a lot of cheers over it. Barry might be right that they “don’t care” but it also may be a feeling of helplessness.

      Not much of a hope, but it’s all I got.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        I have read that most polls show that a clear majority or at worst a plurality (as in it’s still the top vote-getter) wants the US out of its wars. But I can’t recall even seeing the question asked so directly.

    3. justanotherprogressive

      I think you need to amend your thesis to say: “Americans love war when they are not the ones fighting it.” We’ve turned over fighting wars to paid “mercenaries” who just put on a theatrical display for us – more “circenses”. Kind of like watching all those violent “shoot em up” and “car crash” movies……we all love watching those, but I doubt any of us would like to be in all those car crashes or be faced with deadly violence every day…..

      If all Americans were forced to participate when our leaders involve us in a war (as we should be), I think our attitudes about war would be quite different. Bring back the draft – watch what happens…..

      1. Tomonthebeach

        I completely agree with justanotherprogressive, that Bacevich overlooked – in this essay – the importance of having skin in the game. Vietnam led to national protests for several years when the draft started draining colleges and the war started returning dead next-door neighbors.

        Our mercenary military euphemized as “all-volunteer” means that we have gone back to letting the Hessians fight our wars just like the Brits did. During the draft, military pay was a joke – I was an officer for 18 months before my paycheck matched my after-school college job. Today, the military offers a path to upward mobility with competitive pay and benefits like housing and medical care that civilians starting out cannot afford. The result is that we now have twice the percentage of minorities in uniform than their percentage in the population. During Vietnam minority representation matched the census – a point not mentioned in Ken Burns’ documentary – only the bit about protests of too many minorities being killed.

        My draft registration card hangs framed below the case displaying 32 years worth of military memorabilia. I would never have served a day were it not for being called up – twice. Re-creating a national service requirement for all persons 18-20 (military or civilian/male, female, and ambiguous) would complement the parenting gap Boomers have created by indulging our adult offspring. It might instill values rapidly fading such as citizenship and care for one’s less-fortunate neighbors. It might even lead to a Congress that no longer puts Wall Street ahead of Main Street.

        1. kgw

          No way…The people who control government do not, in any way, deserve to ruin lives for aggressive war.

          1. justanotherprogressive

            Aren’t they doing that now? And who is speaking up against it? All those people watching it on TV, knowing that it’s happening to “other people”?

        2. Eclair

          Yes, minorities, (as well as poor kids in general,) who represent a higher percentage of people in uniform as well as a higher percentage of people in prison, than in the general population, are routinely offered two ‘career’ paths; induction or incarceration. Both will get you killed before your time.

    4. kgw

      Never like it when an essay opens with an attempt to assert indisputability. The second of the colonel’s “indisputable facts” is an opinion. And I disagree, most vehemently.

      How so?

    5. Jeremy Grimm

      I don’t believe the vast majority of Americans don’t care about our endless wars. I believe the American people do care about a great many things our rulers are doing and not doing.

      I would agree with the assertion: The American oligarchy benefits — in the short term — from our endless wars. I would agree with the assertion: What the American people care or don’t care about has little impact on the actions and inactions of the American oligarchy.

      Bacevich asserts in reason #7: “The irony of Trump perpetuating wars that he once roundly criticized and then handing the conduct of those wars to generals devoid of ideas for ending them almost entirely escapes notice.” I must confess the “irony” does indeed escape my notice. I noticed our representative system of government is misnamed.

  7. Wukchumni

    We’ve always been at war since December 9th 1941, when we discovered that the war business was the place to be, heck-disgruntled customers is what you’re aiming for, on the business end of some armed projectile.

  8. Wukchumni

    I wonder if there’s an endless supply of 1%’ers-not that kind, the Johnny got his gun types, whose granddaddy stormed the beaches of Normandy 8 days after D-Day, and his daddy’s M-16 got jammed often during his tour of duty in Vietnam.

  9. Disturbed Voter

    Guns or butter. Like in the 60s, we have chosen guns. This is all a matter of global economics (oil).

    The military has swung back and forth as a progressive force (in terms of manning, it isn’t progressive to make war). It was progressive in the Civil War to bring African-Americans into the military to fight. t was regressive to relegate them to a second rank mission (dig latrines) after WW I. It was progressive to reintegrate the military after WW II. It was regressive to disproportionately draft African-Americans during Vietnam. It was progressive to move to a volunteer military after Vietnam. It was regressive, but consistent to deny what had always gone on, that there were gays in the military. It was progressive, to embrace gays in the military. It will be semi-regressive if we resume the draft (for men and women).

    1. Lord Koos

      Out of sight, out of mind. Not having a draft is certainly a big factor, but I think the other huge factor is lack of media on the front lines. During the Vietnam conflict, gritty war footage was beamed into living rooms every night on the network news. Now that the only reporters covering the American side are those who are “embedded”, we get very little of that. The Iraq war showed just how dangerous it is to try to be a journalist who was not embedded, as we saw reporters targeted with live fire in Baghdad and elsewhere. Thus, we hear little to nothing about what is really happening in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan etc.

      Seeing how poorly the USA treats its veterans these days, I’m surprised that people still volunteer for the military.

      1. Dan

        People may be so far gone these days that even if they did see pictures of burning babies on TV it may not stir them to any significant action. Did knowledge of the atrocities committed against the Vietnamese cause Americans to revolt against the war back then, or was it only the US casualties that created the bulk of the antiwar sentiment?

        “I hated my part in the charade of murder and horror. My efforts were contributing to the deaths, to the burning alive of children – especially the children. The photographs of young Vietnamese children burned by napalm destroyed me.” -Ralph McGehee, CIA intel analyst

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      No, Johnson chose butter and guns and going to the Moon. We got inflation because he wouldn’t raise taxes when the economy was at full employment when he increased spending. So the elites said: “Inflation bad!” and used that as the excuse for less butter, which is what they preferred.

  10. christine

    What is missing from all of these discussions is the bottom line. Someone needs to quantify the number of jobs, the stock gains…and who gains from the stock gains, the entire economic picture of our reliance on guns (including the personal guns), and war to understand why no one can change this. It involves economic consequences for almost everyone in the country on some level. It has expanded beyond the ability to alter the picture without massive revolutionary/catastrophic changes.

    The bottom line on global warming is population growth on which capitalism relies for more consumers. Almost no one will address that either.

    When writers will not address the root cause of problems they may as well not write.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I have a problem looking for a “bottom line” because it smacks of Market-speak. War includes other issues than economic gain and loss although their economic gain and loss seems to be the chief concern of our rulers. Another concern is power in an oligarchy where war and guns are the primary domain of one group contending and cooperating with with other groups within the oligarchy. War brings about death, destruction, and grievous bodily and psychological injuries. It tears apart families, lovers, friends. War incurs many “costs” difficult to well reckon on a bottom line.

      While I believe most Americans do care about our endless wars I also believe Americans are an unusually blood thirsty people. Why? I also believe the root causes for our endless wars are far more complex than any comment here might reasonably tackle.

      But while the writing or not writing about root causes is of concern I believe it is a lesser concern here. I think correctly identifying and characterizing root causes is the bigger issue.

      Global Warming is peripheral to our endless wars but it should not be excluded from consideration. Wars and military machines are responsible for a fair amount of pollution. Many of our wars support the interests of the big Petroleum Corporations in our oligarchy. Our Military with its hundreds of military bases around the world influences the flow of resources and wealth into our country assuring they accrue to our gain. The extraction and waste of those resources through the destruction executed by War contributes its part to the depletion of the resources we will need — as one world — to mitigate the effects of Global Warming such as that is possible. For the future the American military machine is concerned about responding to / managing the conflicts anticipated to arise as water, food and habitable land become more sparse even as energy costs grow.

      [I disagree with your assertion that population growth is a root cause of Global Warming. The root cause of Global Warming is greenhouse gases — primarily carbon dioxide — which humans added to our atmosphere at rates exceeding the capabity for world environments to absorb it. I believe you could make a good argument for identifying several human inventions — chiefly machine power driven by combustion and agriculture — as root causes for the tremendous growth in the world’s population. As a thought experiment — consider the impact removing a billion or so people in North America and Europe might have on near-term Global Warming. Maybe more than population growth is a problem — maybe a greater concern should be too large populations with certain consumption habits. (I am growing skeptical of how much Neoliberalism acts based a perceived need for more consumers considering the way so many consumer markets have been ravaged by their squeeze on wages and employment.)]

  11. Wukchumni

    In the 16 years of continuous war, not one thing has been asked of in terms of making do without, as was the norm during World War 2.

    Although it wasn’t as if individuals didn’t risk a paper cut removing the backing from a self adhesive ribbon sticker while affixing it to the rear echelon of their vehicles. So there’s that.

    1. JustAnObserver

      This is a good point since as a soveriegn currency issuer in a fiat world the US can fund all-the-wars-it-can-eat. And since the $$$ crerated are either (a) being blown up or (b) going abroad inflation is not (yet) an issue.

      MMT 101 ?

  12. Nancy E Sutton

    Yup…. nobody is ‘following the money‘… and the Def Con’s profits (including employees) are being paid in blood money (our ‘enemy’s’ if not ours, per technology). What’s heart breaking is that it is the most ‘Christianist’ elements/groups who are cheer leading this blindness. All Hail Mammon!!

  13. EoinW

    How about sharing the blame? It isn’t just Americans, this is happening throughout western cultures. The British(and Commonwealth countries) have also glorified its military. Heck even the Egyptians hold their military in high esteem. Outside of the Germans and Japanese, does anyone not glorify militarism? Given all the time which has passed since 1945, perhaps Germany and Japan are with us once more. Certainly the political elites want their militaries back.

    Amazing how we can rant and rave about being peace loving, yet still support our military and not see any contradiction. Now if our military was on its home soil then I could buy the defence argument. With troops half way around the world that is a load of bull. Add to that the endless wars they are participating in and it’s clear 99% of the people are no more interested in reality then they are interested in peace.

    Washington may be the driving force but it is all the nation states which project their military as part of the common good and people just accept that. Americans are not even exceptional when it comes to this issue. We’re all equally brainwashed and too intellectually lazy to overcome it.

    Let us hope the system falls apart before we get to nuclear war. My other hope, when I’m dreaming, is that the Russians/Chinese can cripple our technologically dependent military and deal NATO such a devastating blow that WW3 will end before it gets going. Now how many of you are offended by the idea of a Canadian cheering for the other side? That kind of captures the trap we are in. When push comes to shove we’ll root for the Wehrmacht because it’s our Wehrmacht. Getting back to the system collapse, it will take a horrible collapse before people begin to question what they have always accepted as fact: that our military is a force for good.

  14. Synoia

    Having women graduate from Ranger School or command Marines in combat more than compensates for not winning.

    Two points:

    1. Please define “win” in the current wars. Peace? All the Troops come home?
    2. If any of (1), then the Military (The Mic) looses, looses money and influence.

  15. Wukchumni

    We agreed to do stand up in Laughanistan and despite being booed off the stage repeatedly, we’re still trying new material.

  16. Chauncey Gardiner

    Thank you for this tightly woven and insightful post. The true costs of these perpetual wars are hidden and invisible to most Americans unless one takes the initiative and seeks that information. As an ordinary citizen, you can remain blissfully ignorant of these “military actions” unless you actively choose to do otherwise (and why wouldn’t you opt for the blue pill, Neo?…).

    Whether one stands for peace; for the US government adopting in practice the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; against the gradual moral and economic decay and erosion of our civil liberties that results from these wars; against more blood, trauma and PTSD of our troops; against the concentration of war powers in the executive branch of our federal government; against the dissipation of our nation’s wealth in military conflicts that, as Andrew Bacevich points out, do not pose an existential threat to the United States; for the development of an alternative economic and monetary system model for our country, and for a broad review of our geopolitical relationships and agreements.

  17. djrichard


    Yet having been sold a bill of goods about a “war on terror” that is essential for “keeping America safe,” mere citizens are easily persuaded that scattering U.S. troops throughout the Islamic world while dropping bombs on designated evildoers is helping win the former while guaranteeing the latter. To question that proposition becomes tantamount to suggesting that God might not have given Moses two stone tablets after all.

    The point of identifying evil doers is to throw them under the bus as part of a just cause, whether it’s invading another country or whether it’s simply to get one’s self elected. Sure the evil doers might be human beings, but who’s going to stand up for said human beings when they’ve been identified as evil doers?

    This is particularly useful when your opponent can be identified as providing succor to said evil doers. If your opponent doesn’t similarly throw them under the bus, well that surely means something, doesn’t it. And even if your opponent does disavow the evil doers and distance themselves, how much of that are they doing from their own volition rather than simply following the parade?

    And this parade is self perpetuating. Again, who’s going to stand up for the evil doers?

    1. djrichard

      Never let a good crisis go to waste. And if there isn’t a crisis, well then invent one. There’s always a reserve of evil doers available – if you can’t make hay from that, then dammit man how do you expect to sell regime change?

      And how do you expect to sell your own regime?

  18. soulipsis

    As has been discussed here on NC many times, most Americans very reasonably believe their opinions have no influence on political decisions. This conviction more than any other may be the reason more of us don’t speak up often about the war crimes of our nation.

  19. peter Fitzsimon

    I watched the Ken Burn’s Vietnam documentary, all 18 hours. I learned that Nixon was an even worse person than I had previously believed. The documentary placed most blame for the war on Nixon and Johnson with some blame going back to Harry Truman for his failure to encourage France to give up its empire. However, Burns ignored the other institutions of American culture which made it difficult for a political leader who ignored the accepted ideology of the times to remain in office . In these I include the media, movies, churches, schools and the major political parties. The majority of Americans supported the war long after it was known to be a lost cause. They elected Richard Nixon to a second term with the largest electoral vote in history. He lost only one state.

    1. Anon

      Well, I lived the Ken Burn’s documentary (a solid 20 years of my life). While your re-assessment of Nixon is warranted, the real takeaway from the documentary is that the US government will consistently lie to its citizens and continue to bomb “war zone” civilians mercilessly even when it says it is NOT! (Nixon won a resounding electoral college win, in part, because he said he would end the Vietnam War with honor. But subsequently carpet bombs civilians with B-52’s: more lies!!) Don’t Be Fooled Again.

      The Burn’s documentary is an expansive, but mildly stated, effort. When, in the last episode (?), the US fighter jet drops napalm on the civilian family and the now famous naked girl with burning skin is captured in a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph, the narrator (peter Coyote) intones that the pilot thought they were combatants! Umm, using napalm to directly attack/kill combatants is chemical warfare; and a war crime. No mention of war crimes throughout all 10 episodes.

  20. PhilM

    It seems to me that, since the World Wars, America has performed a miracle of optimization in the use of armed force. There is, at last and for the moment, a fine balance achieved among all the stakeholders: war profiteers profit; soldiers–men by their own admission willing (and even eager) to kill other men–are offered discipline, good-quality weapons, and sent into glorious combat outside our borders, in celebration of the military virtues; a last workshop of know-how is reserved to Americans, the rest having been sent to China; rapine and pillage are directed to be kept to a (relative) minimum; relatively fewer lives are wantonly destroyed for mere sadistic pleasure than in prior wars; escalation to total war for reasons of ego is avoided–that was true even in Vietnam, with Nixon in charge; territorial predation and racial genocide have vanished from the landscape of pragmatic war as waged by the US nowadays, whereas elsewhere they are, as they have always been, just another strategic option; refractory and tribal peoples are kept distracted by a modicum of destructive force carefully distributed about their homelands, so that their hostile impulses cannot be redirected against us in our homes by our enemies; the peaceful and timid are spared the rigors of compulsory military service and the threat of violence from abroad, so as to cultivate the finer virtues at home.

    Why all the complaining? Do you, faced with a relative paradise of humanitarian restraint, lament that there is war at all? Turn to the past, and learn the human condition! Surely you do not expect war to vanish, as long as there is a political organization beyond the tribe, and a competition for scarce resources? Let us pray that this is the only kind of war we, and even the people in the lands now war-torn, will live to see: it is more humane than war has ever been.

    So I would submit that America, and the west in general, have achieved a triumph of policy in the distribution of the burdens and fruits of war: a utilitarian optimization of war–maybe even the social-democratic avatar of military policy. It’s an extraordinary phenomenon, historically speaking. Maybe it should be celebrated, and its authors praised, lest a declared and total war come sooner than we hope or expect, to remind humanity again of its own eternal capacity for limitless evil.

  21. VietnamVet

    Andrew Bacevich is correct but I think he is missing points. The end of conscription allowed 7+ ongoing wars but there isn’t the man/woman power to win any of them. American life expectancy is declining since the Elite could care less about obese Deplorables without the draft. Things are going badly. The EU is breaking apart. Ukraine is a stalemated trench war. China, Iran and Russia have been forced into mutual assistance alliance. Syria moderate rebels are defeated. Only the Kurds remain to cut the Shiite Crescent for Israel. Saudi Arabia is cozying up to Russia. Turkey is lost. Donald J. Trump is President. One has to be totally dense not to realize that “Madman Diplomacy” is threatening nuclear war to take down Rocket Man.

    House of Cards tend to collapse suddenly.

  22. Crosley Bendix

    All of Andrew Bacevich’s reasons ring true for me. However, I think that the military’s embrace of left cultural politics may be more PR than substance, given the widespread sexual assault in the Army.
    I would add an additional reason for most American’s acceptance of permanent war: our duopoly-based political system. Many Americans (especially liberals in my experience) heavily identify with either the Democrats or the Republicans. If you do so then it is hard to admit that the party that you identify with is responsible for criminal behavior on a vast scale. I was a part of the local campus anti-war group. The moment that Obama was elected it dissolved, even though he deliberately and immediately signaled that he wanted policy continuity in this area by keeping Gates on as Secretary of Defense.

  23. RBHoughton

    I fear that is a short-sighted view for Americans to take. The spooks may have everyone’s electronic communications under control but every now and again some maniac gets through to cause death and injury. With the huge numbers of refugees swilling around the globe this is not going to get better. Can the Generals can keep war out of the homeland? That’s the test.

    I was told that relatively few Americans have passports. Apart from the troops who live in isolated compounds, relatively few Americans get to know the rest of the world and when they do its in a furtive way. Some years back my son told me of meeting a great many Canadians whilst hiking along the old Silk Road and it was not until later that some confessed they were actually Americans but ashamed to admit it in case they provoked anger. So when this author says Americans have learned to live with the constant wars, he seems to be referring to the older more sedate American who gets his jollies at home and would not dream of mixing with foreigners. I submit that is not the way to rule the planet.

    One thing that rather suggests the eternal War on Terror may actually have a sell-by date is Mrs Yellen’s recent suggestion that she should take $6t out of the government debt, presumably to mollify investors. That would appear to show the Fed crossing the lines and joining the good guys.

  24. S.Sivalenka.

    The Vietnam war was televised constantly and the images of the napalmed villages (and the infamous young naked girl ) really turned the tide of public opinion against it. CNN was built around showing cruise missiles bomb Saddam’s Iraq in the first war . But now the US public does not see any live feeds of the war zones in the middle east and elsewhere. This in combination with low troop casualities has given the war a very high support. Proxy and illegal wars are thus openly fought with no approval from Congress or blanket approval in spirit. This is the reality.

  25. Rod

    Should you call yourself an “American Citizen” if your only major participation in American Citizenry is paying sales tax while existing in this country?

    Should visits to VA Hospitals be a mando for all Elementry students?

    Since 4 of 8 have ‘oblivious citizen’ components.

    1. PhilM

      Citizenry of the non-militarized, bourgeois sort has successfully employed professional mercenary, or if you prefer, “volunteer” armies for at least six hundred years. Indeed, from the rise of the city-state in Italy, the mercenary army became the dominant European model, until the French Revolution, and it worked very well in restraining the horrors of total war. The years of the wars of religion, which were ideological, total wars, fought without the restraint that mercenaries show (although very often with mercenaries), were grim beyond description, and scarred Europeans for a century: frightened them even into making laws of war.

      There are people who are cut out to serve a happy lifetime as warriors, and they should be well compensated in that role as other forces of order, such as police and firefighters. Certainly the great generals should be compensated as much as the great healers, for they save just as many lives. But compulsion in this area is little more than slavery, and like slavery is an inefficient way to achieve a goal other than punishment. Draft armies are notoriously ineffective in the field, and destructive to morale at home; such a force is only apt to a nation that must conduct a total war it is otherwise unprepared for.

      Why is the mercenary army not an ideal way to avoid inflicting the trials of war on a segment of the populace that can remain blissfully naive, and who can perform a much more valuable service by remaining out of the killing fields, perhaps at home?

      Before you dismiss this out of hand, consider that such has been the policy of all societies, with a few notable and impressive exceptions, for the entire female sex since the dawn of time. And yet, women were somehow sufficiently cognizant of the horrors of war as to inspire what might be the first example of pacifist civil disobedience in Western literature, at least, the first that I know of: Aristophanes’ Lysistrata….

      Now, if you’re talking about a nation that wants to be a real democracy or republic on the American model of 1776, or the Swiss model of today, that’s another matter. Then you’ll need to put a weapon of war in every household. But that is no longer a viable political model today, outside of the Scandinavian or Swiss models.

      If one were designing a polity from scratch, it is sensible and traditional to require either property qualifications or military service before one can engage politically, even to vote. That’s a pretty retro position these days, admittedly. But I’m pretty sure it is what the current systems worldwide have achieved, only without advertising the fact.

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