War, What Is It Good For?

By Tom Engelhardt. Originally published at Tom Dispatch.

I was born on July 20, 1944, amid a vast global conflict already known as World War II.  Though it ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 before I could say much more than “Mama” or “Dada,” in some strange fashion, I grew up at war. 

Living in New York City, I was near no conflict in those years or in any since. My dad, however, had volunteered for the Army Air Corps at age 35 on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He fought in Burma, was painfully silent about his wartime experiences, and died on Pearl Harbor Day in 1983. He was the operations officer for the 1st Air Commandos and his war, in some strange sense, came home with him. 

Like so many vets, then and now, he was never willing to talk to his son about what he had experienced, though in my early years he still liked his friends to call him “Major,” his rank on leaving the military.  When his war did come up in our house, it was usually in the form of anger — because my mother had shopped at a nearby grocery store whose owners, he claimed, had been “war profiteers” while he was overseas, or because my first car, shared with a friend, was a used Volkswagen (German!), or my mom was curious to go — god save us! — to a Japanese restaurant! 

The strange thing, though, was that, in those same years, for reasons we never discussed, he allowed me briefly to have a Japanese pen pal and, though my dad and I never talked about the letters that boy and I exchanged, we did soak the stamps off the envelopes he sent and paste them into our latest Scott stamp album. 

As for evidence of my father’s wartime experience, I had two sources.  In the guest room closet in our apartment, he had an old green duffle bag, which he’d go through now and then. It was filled to the brim with everything from Army Air Corps documents to his portable mess kit and even — though I didn’t know it then — his pistol and bullets from the war. (I would turn them over to the police upon his death a quarter-century later.) 

Though he wouldn’t talk with me about his wartime experience, I lived it in a very specific way (or at least so it felt to me then). After all, he regularly took me to the movies where I saw seemingly endless versions of war, American-style, from the Indian wars through World War II.  And when we watched movies of his own conflict (or, in my early years, replays of Victory at Sea on our TV at home) and he said nothing, that only seemed to confirm that I was seeing his experience in all its glory, as the Marines inevitably advanced at film’s end and the “Japs” died in a spectacle of slaughter without a comment from him. 

From those Indian wars on, as I wrote long ago in my book The End of Victory Culture, war was always a tale of their savagery and our goodness, one in which, in the end, there would be an expectable “spectacle of slaughter” as we advanced and “they” went down.  From the placement of the camera flowed the pleasure of watching the killing of tens or hundreds of nonwhites in a scene that normally preceded the positive resolution of relationships among the whites.  It was a way of ordering a wilderness of human horrors into a celebratory tale of progress through devastation, a victory culture that, sooner or later, became more complicated to portray because World War II ended with the atomic devastation of those two Japanese cities and, in the 1950s and 1960s, the growing possibility of a future global Armageddon.

If war was hell, in my childhood at the movies, killing them wasn’t, whether it was the Indians of the American West or the Japanese in World War II.

So, yes, I grew up in a culture of victory, one I played out again and again on the floor of my room.  In the 1950s, boys (and some girls) spent hours acting out tales of American battle triumph with generic fighting figures: a crew of cowboys to defeat the Indians and win the West, a bag or two of olive-green Marines to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima.

If ours was a sanguinary tale of warfare against savages in which pleasure came out of the barrel of a gun, on floors nationwide we kids were left alone, without apparent instruction, to reinvent American history. Who was good and who bad, who could be killed and under what conditions were an accepted part of a collective culture of childhood that drew strength from post-World War II Hollywood.

What Would My Dad Think?

Today, 60-odd years later, having never been to war but having focused on it and written about it for so long, here’s what I find eerily strange: since 1945, the country with the greatest military on the planet that, in budgetary terms, now leaves the next nine countries combined in the dust, has never — and let me repeat that: never! — won a war that mattered (despite engaging in all too many spectacles of slaughter).  Stranger yet, in terms of lessons learned in the world of adult culture, every lost war has, in the end, only led this country to invest more taxpayer dollars in building up that very military.  If you needed a long-term formula for disaster in a country threatening to come apart at the seams, it would be hard to imagine a more striking one. So long after his death, I must admit that sometimes I wonder what my dad would think of it all.

Here’s the thing: the American experience of war since 1945 should have offered an all-too-obvious lesson for us, as well as for the planet’s other great powers, when it comes to the value of giant military establishments and the conflicts that go with them.

Just think about it a moment, historically speaking.  That global victory of 1945, ending all too ominously with the dropping of those two atomic bombs and the slaughter of possibly 200,000 people, would be followed in 1950 by the start of the Korean War.  The statistics of death and destruction in that conflict were, to say the least, staggering.  It was a spectacle of slaughter, involving the armies of North Korea and its ally the newly communist China versus South Korea and its ally, the United States.  Now, consider the figures: out of a Korean population of 30 million, as many as three million may have died, along with an estimated 180,000 Chinese and about 36,000 Americans.  The North’s cities, bombed and battered, were left in utter ruin, while the devastation on that peninsula was almost beyond imagining. It was all too literally a spectacle of slaughter and yet, despite ours being the best-armed, best-funded military on the planet, that war ended in an all-too-literal draw, a 1953 armistice that has never — not to this day! — turned into an actual peace settlement. 

After that, another decade-plus passed before this country’s true disaster of the twentieth century, the war in Vietnam — the first American war I opposed — in which, once again, the U.S. Air Force and our military more generally proved destructive almost beyond imagining, while at least a couple of million Vietnamese civilians and more than a million fighters died, along with 58,000 Americans.

And yet, in 1975, with U.S. troops withdrawn, the southern regime we had supported collapsed and the North Vietnamese military and its rebel allies in the South took over the country.  There was no tie as there had been in Korea, just utter defeat for the greatest military power on the planet.

The Rise of the Pentagon on a Fallen Planet

Meanwhile, that other superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, had — and this should sound familiar to any American in 2023 — sent its massive military, the Red Army, into… yes, Afghanistan in 1979. There, for almost a decade, it battled Afghan guerrilla forces backed and significantly financed by the CIA and Saudi Arabia (as well as by a specific Saudi named Osama bin Laden and the tiny group he set up late in the war called — yes, again! — al-Qaeda). In 1989, the Red Army limped out of that country, leaving behind perhaps two million dead Afghans and 15,000 of its own dead. Not so long after, the Soviet Union itself imploded and the U.S. became the only “great power” on planet Earth. 

Washington’s response would be anything but a promised “peace dividend.” Pentagon funding barely dipped in those years. The U.S. military did manage to invade and occupy the tiny island of Grenada in the Caribbean in 1983 and, in 1991, in a highly publicized but relatively low-level and one-sided encounter, drove Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in what would later come to be known as the First Gulf War. It would be but a preview of a hell on Earth to come in this century.

Meanwhile, of course, the U.S. became a singular military power on this planet, having established at least 750 military bases on every continent but Antarctica.  Then, in the new century, in the immediate wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, President George W. Bush and his top officials, incapable of imagining a comparison between the long-gone Soviet Union and the United States, sent the American military into — right! — Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government there. A disastrous occupation and war followed, a prolonged spectacle of slaughter that would only end after 20 years of blood, gore, and massive expense, when President Biden pulled the last U.S. forces out amid chaotic destruction and disorder, leaving — yes, the Taliban! — to run that devastated country. 

In 2003, with the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq (on the false grounds that Saddam Hussein was developing or had weapons of mass destruction and was somehow linked to Osama bin Laden), the Second Gulf War began. It would, of course, be a disaster, leaving several hundred thousand dead Iraqis in its wake and (as in Afghanistan) thousands of dead Americans as well.  Another spectacle of slaughter, it would last for endless years and, once again, Americans would draw remarkably few lessons from it.

Oh, and then there’s the war on terror more generally, which essentially helped spread terror around significant parts of the planet. Nick Turse recently caught this reality with a single statistic: in the years since the U.S. first began its counter-terror efforts in West Africa early in this century, terror incidents there have soared by 30,000%.

And the response to this? You know it all too well. Year after year, the Pentagon’s budget has only grown and is now heading for the trillion-dollar mark.  In the end, the U.S. military may have achieved just one success of any significance since 1945 by becoming the most valued and best-funded institution in this country. Unfortunately, in those same years, in a genuinely strange fashion, America’s wars came home (as they had in the Soviet Union once upon a time), thanks in part to the spread of military-style assault rifles, now owned by one in 20 Americans, and other weaponry (and the barrage of mass killings that went with them). And there remains the distinctly unsettling possibility of some version of a new civil war with all its Trumpian implications developing in this country.

I doubt, in fact, that Donald Trump would ever have become president without the disastrous American wars of this century. Think of him, in his own terrorizing fashion, as “fallout” from the war on terror.

There may never, in fact, have been a more striking story of a great power, seemingly uncontested on Planet Earth, bringing itself down in quite such a fashion. 

Last Words

Today, in Ukraine, we see but the latest grim example of how a vaunted military, strikingly funded in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union — and I’m talking, of course, about Russia’s army — has once again been sent into battle against lesser forces with remarkably disastrous results.  Mind you, Vladimir Putin and crew, like their American counterparts, should have learned a lesson from the Red Army’s disastrous experience in Afghanistan in the previous century.  But no such luck.

There should, of course, be a larger lesson here — not just that there’s no glory in war in the twenty-first century but that, unlike in some past eras, great powers are no longer likely to experience success, no matter what happens on the battlefield.

Let’s hope that the rising power on this planet, China, takes note, even as it regularly organizes threatening military exercises around the island of Taiwan, while the Biden administration continues to ominously heighten the U.S. military presence in the region.  If China’s leaders truly want to be successful in this century, they should avoid either the American or Russian versions of war-making of our recent past. (And it would be nice if the Cold Warriors in Washington did the same before we end up in a conflict from hell between two nuclear powers.)

It’s decades too late for me to ask my father what his war truly meant to him, but at least when it comes to “great” powers and war these days, one lesson seems clear enough: there simply is nothing great about them, except their power to destroy not just the enemy, but themselves as well.

I can’t help wondering what my dad might think if he could look at this increasingly disturbed world of ours.  I wonder if he wouldn’t finally have something to say to me about war.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. v

    Stating the Soviets left 2 Mio dead civilians in ’89 behind is like blaming the Russians for the dead civilians in Syria after their intervention. Just plain stupid. The author has no understanding about what happened during that time in Afghanistan.

    1. Kouros

      The Soviets fretted so much and vacillated before going in, which was a reactive move (typically to Russians) to the US arming of various groups (not government).

      While the government the Russians left in place outlasted USSR by several years…

      1. Polar Socialist

        It would have lasted even longer, but that great friend of The West stooped providing it with weapons and ammunition because, Bill, his BFF, asked nicely.

        I recall reading one of the victorious warlords later commented bitterly that had they know what would came after the Soviets they wouldn’t have fought “shouravi”.

      2. John9

        Under today’s censorship regime in the US, Engelhardt walks a very fine line to make a few of his points about US Warmongering. I’m surprised to see as much of his stuff around in public as there is.
        A little performative Russia-Bad is part of that dance.
        If we had left the Russians alone in Afghanistan, maybe educated women would be walking around now in western clothes with a fair degree of independence.
        Russia went into Afghanistan at the request of a beleaguered commie/socialist government. We chose to help the jihad Whahabist crazies because markets.

    1. JCC

      I remember well when I first heard it, 1970 and I bought the 45 record. I remember because some in my family hated that song and I responded by playing it daily, and loud.

      They all eventually came around.

      The one thing I noticed in this article, and one that is common and always bugs me a liitle is the classic “the Pentagon’s budget has only grown and is now heading for the trillion-dollar mark”.

      We are long past the trillion dollar mark when people take the time to look at the money “hidden” in budgets like the Dept of Energy and their shouldering of all Nuke maintenance expenses as well as the Dept of Veterans Affairs, and the Dept of Health, Education and Welfare and its spending money in various military personel support functions.

      The cost is killing us all.

  2. nippersdad


    “Mind you, Vladimir Putin and crew, like their American counterparts, should have learned a lesson from the Red Army’s disastrous experience in Afghanistan in the previous century. But no such luck.”

    …kind of ignores the minimum of seven years warning and subsequent eight years of direct provocations that brought Russia onto the battlefield. How long can one expect to poke the bear before one gets bitten?

    1. Mark Gisleson

      Mauling. Bears do bite but it’s part of a much bigger package as Ukraine has learned and continues to learn.

    2. Detroit Dan

      What this misses is that Russia intervened in a civil war in Ukraine, in support of ethniic Russians and that these people are now citizens Russia. Does that sound at all like the invasion of Afghanistan? Purin and Russia have learned lessons that haven’t registered with Engelhardt. There have been no disastrous wars under Putin’s Russia — just victories in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine.

      1. nippersdad

        Perhaps notable by its’ absence in Englehardt’s post was any reference to the war in Yugoslavia. One of the most deft things about the run-up to the SMO was when Putin scrupulously adhered to the laws we changed post hoc in order to make our own Yugoslavia venture “legal” under international law.

        Seems like that would be kind of hard to miss were one arguing in good faith.

        1. Mike

          He also missed Panama- although a victory in the sense US military minds count victory, it was also a bloodbath for those supporting Noriega. And Nicaragua, El Salvador, our presence in Somalia, etc, etc. If Americans did not realize how militaristic and reactionary their country had become by then, will the realization come with a nuclear mallet? It’s nice to feel safe and cushy, even if only in your fantasies, but time waits for no fantasy.

    3. rudi from butte

      Remember Putin addressing (I think) the UN when he asked the West if they have any idea about what they have done in the Middle East? The amount of destruction and the tens of millions of lives destroyed etc. etc….not to mention the destruction of Europe.

      According to Tom…the Russians should also ignore all that and take the high road.

  3. Regis II

    The current Russian experience in Ukraine reminds me of that quote from a U.S. Army officer during the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the village to save it.”

    Even if there is some overall justification for a Russian response to the years of provocation by an arrogant NATO, the choice of remedies – warfare – must seem like a case of the cure being worse than the disease for the Ukrainians the Russians claim they are defending.

      1. bdy

        I’ve repeated the mental exercise often enough: “what might Moscow have done differently?”

        It keeps coming up: “let the Russian oblasts of Ukraine fall.”

        In spite of the many elephants in the Russian room — mostly generational atrocities against Ukrainians, it’s hard to find fault in the SMO, given the alternatives. Equally hard to imagine a path toward lasting peace. Heartbreaking.

        1. nippersdad

          If one puts the “generational atrocities against Ukraininans” into context, though, this conflict has been ongoing since the Ninth century; they have been fighting religiious wars with some version of Lithuania and Poland for as long as history can remember. As such it is something that we really have no part in or answer to, and should have just been ignored. There really is no path to a peace that has proven evanescent for a thousand years now.

          The ingredients that really get me are the use of Nazis to privatize Eastern Europe for the benefit of a few people who, IMHO, should really have met Madame Guillotine twenty years ago. I, too, can find little fault with the Russians reaction, and it really does anger me that we have been put in this position at all by “our own”.

          I think I can confidently guess what Engelhardt’s Father would have said about this, because I, too, had many members in my own family who fought in WWII. One of them, in particular, would be eagerly awaiting the Russians opportunity to pee in the Dneiper, as he did in the Rhine. He should just be grateful that his Father didn’t live to see days like these when we have forgotten the only thing that Nazis are good for; target practice.

          1. Polar Socialist

            It was not as much a religious war as pure, genuine Frankish (“German”) creed. Charlemagne wanted to be the inheritor of the Roman Empire, so he had to turn Franks and everyone he could against the legal Roman heir, the Emperor in Constantinople.

            Not the eastern and western churches were in total agreement, but they were still considered to exists in unity, a catholic christian church, if you please. When in 962 Pope John XII asked Germans for help against Lombardians, the Germans helped on the condition that they would take over the Roman church and Byzantine would be driven away from Italy.

            Until then there was no difference between the Byzantine and Roman liturgy, as most of the Italian bishops preferred the Orthodox way – it was the original, after all. The Germans decided differently.

            So, technically, when the Russians and the Polish were Christianized, they kinda, sorta still belonged to the same church, with the same liturgy and mostly the same theology. Great majority of the Christendom was located east of Constantinople, after all. Even regardless of the spread of Islam a few centuries earlier.

            1. nippersdad

              This is true, the Great Schism wasn’t until 1054. But isn’t it interesting how the Eastern Slavs and Western ones have, literally, always been at war since they first started recording their history? Add the Southern Slavs into the mix and it just has quagmire written all over it. I suppose their name should be a clue; Slav is the root for the English word slave, after all. Those poor people have been manipulated against each other since before the Roman empire split.

              This was just something that we should never have had anything to do with.

          2. hk

            Remember, too, that Lithuania did not (formally) become part of (Catholic) Christendom until 1387, almost at the end of the Middle Ages. It was hardly a foregone conclusion that they should join the West rather than the East (there were already many Orthodox Lithuanian aristocrats and many Russian noble houses trace their ancestry to LIthuania–in fact, many of them became Russian rather than convert to Catholicism.). The Western Crusades against the Russians came mostly via the Baltic–the Germans and the Scandanavians (especially the Swedes), with the Teutonic Knights (and similar organizations that got folded into that order eventually) being the well-known antagonist (although their roles have been inflated by myths and propganda), and even there, the crusades were officially directed mostly at the pagan tribes (including, or, even especially, the Lithuanians).

            Polish-Russian conflicts come later, not until Lithuania and Poland were largely joined together. Yes, there were strong religious overtones there, too, but slightly different from the Northern Crusades era. (Always thought it funny that Sigismund III, the King of Poland and the claimant to Russian Czardom who actually took Moscow in 1610, was a Vasa, a member of the Swedish royal family, who warred against his relatives to “restore” Catholicism in Sweden.)

            1. nippersdad

              My hat’s off to all of you who can keep this stuff straight. This really is the best commentariat on the interwebs, and I would love to see a Blinken or a Nuland debate here with you all. The State Department, with all of its resources, clearly has nothing to match it.

              Were such a debate to be had, I have a feeling it would be short lived and immediately censored.

              1. Paleobotanist

                Can anyone recommend a good, cynical book (that casts a jaundiced eye on all sides) on Eastern European history in English or French?

                I know bits from here and there, mostly Russian history.


                1. Polar Socialist

                  Anything by Anne Applebaum would be very cynically written and with extremely jaundiced eye, albeit only towards one actor and only one actor.

                  Seriously though, A History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change by Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries comes close. It covers two millennia and a dozen of states, so it’s a tome (700+ pages). Besides apparently being critical and at times controversial, it also covers a lot of the argumentation by historians.
                  Caveat: I haven’t read it myself. Yet.

              2. hk

                I did not know too much about this until now, but apparently, this intervention was not very well received on the non-Polish end: Boleslaw intervened on behalf of “Sviatopolk the Accursed” against his brother, “Yaroslav the Wise.” Who knows what the “reality” was like in that era, but still….

      2. Regis II

        When evaluating this conflict I start with the following proposition: There are no good guys in war.

        Whenever the current crop of warmongers in the USA want to justify engaging in the latest misadventure they only point to the enemy du jour as the reincarnation of a certain mustachioed corporal from Bavaria. This is because, of all of the wars to choose from, the second world war came closest to good guys vs. bad guys. It was the exception that proves the rule.

        How far would they get if instead they tried to roll out “Remember the Maine,” or tried to evoke the dastardly Kaiser?

        And the extended discussion on this little thread, reviewing a thousand years of history and the warfare which took place during that period, does not revolve around a “good guys vs. bad guys” narrative. It’s all about factions of elites trying to gain an upper hand for themselves.

        And that is what is happening in Ukraine right now. To believe otherwise is to be sucked into the propaganda of one side or the other.

    1. Kouros

      There is a lot of destruction done by Ukrainians as well. As in trying even to salt the earth so that Russians cannot use anything after the war.

  4. NotTimothyGeithner

    Vaunted military? Is this the new cope? Pretending western propaganda hasn’t been a Yaknov Smirnov impression this whole time. Now the Russians have a super Afghanistan.

    It’s interesting the author mentions the Pacific War. The US had the success it did because Japan lacked the capacity to supply it’s soldiers. My grandfather was in combat from March 42′ to January ’45 (the points system didn’t really work in the Pacific). He didn’t talk about it either, but we know how the war was fought. Minus the craziness of Tarawa and the problems of island hopping, the Russians are letting the superior fire power do the work for them while the G7 is begging for shells and every promised wunder weapon has been blown up.

    Then the message is a warning to he Chinese while the US is aggressive. Is it Covid brain fog?

    1. Richard

      The “didn’t talk about the war” meme has been around for a long time, and I dissent. I am a contemporary of Engelhardt and my father fought in the war, a Navigator in B-17s flying from Foggia, Italy. He didn’t talk about his the war experiences either. But, then, he didn’t talk with his children about other youthful experiences. Neither really did my mother. But, who does, when you think about it? Do I? No. Do the kids want to hear about it? No. As I see it, kids pick up fragments from parental conversations with generational peers at family get-togethers, mostly pieces of stories that have become ritualized with retelling.

      1. Michael

        My wife’s father was in World War II, and he, like his friends, also did not want to talk about it to his family. From what I have heard, his children would have been very interested to hear about it. He did, also, talk to his family about his youthful experiences, including one hilarious incident in which he told superstitious men conveying a corpse in a truck to the medical school that everything would be all right as long as they kept the body pointing north (which they did, and it made them feel better). His nephews also had considerable interest in his war experiences. In fact, the group he had been in won a group medal of honor for its activities (I hadn’t known there was such a thing until I heard about this). There are indeed newspaper stories about veterans whose families wanted to hear about the war but still wouldn’t talk about it (e.g., New York Times, June 5, 2019).

      2. Michael

        My wife’s father was in World War II, and he, like his friends, also did not want to talk about it to his family. From what I have heard, his children would have been very interested to hear about it. He did, also, talk to his family about his youthful experiences, including one hilarious incident in which he told superstitious men conveying a corpse in a truck to the medical school that everything would be all right as long as they kept the body pointing north (which they did, and it made them feel better). His nephews also had considerable interest in it. In fact, the group he had been in won a group medal of honor for its activities (I hadn’t known there was such a thing until I heard about this). There are indeed newspaper stories about veterans whose families wanted to hear about the war but still wouldn’t talk about it (e.g., New York Times, June 5, 2019).

      3. Cat Burglar

        Mine talked, and I listened. He commanded an army rifle platoon on missions into the jungle to clear out Imperial Army units after the Marines had carved out a beachhead. He was a gentle man and a good Dad, but had to drink a pint of hard liquor every night to keep the dreams from waking him up.

        A boy could learn a lot of interesting things. Did you know that to keep a pile of corpses from collecting flies, you can have them hosed down with a flamethrower periodically to “put a crust” on them? How about the time the whole company was pinned down by enemy fire, so profoundly scared they were physically unable to make themselves get up off the ground; or the time my Dad and a couple other guys, heedless of their safety, went right up to a pillbox firing on them, to drop a grenade in the slit? According to him, you could never tell on any day if you were going to be immobilized by fear, or totally without fear — it was not under your control. He told a lot of stories, but he left out the most horrible, and some he just left as hints for my future reflection — how come they only took one prisoner in three years? (The soldier came out of the bush and tagged along the end of their column as they walked into camp, without them knowing it.) After overrunning an enemy position, after previous bad experiences, Dad and his men pulled out their .45s and went around to each enemy soldier’s body on the ground a put a bullet in their skull. I understood that you can’t know what it is like if you haven’t been there, and, like Shalamov said about the Gulag, there are things it is better not to know.

        I still have the illustrated child’s edition of Moby Dick he gave me when I was five. Later I worked as an antiwar activist.

  5. Robert Gray

    > Today, in Ukraine, … a vaunted military … Russia’s army — has once again been sent into battle
    > against lesser forces with remarkably disastrous results.

    Wait a minute … is he saying that the results have been disastrous for the Russians?!? Must be, since the ‘lesser forces’ can only be the Banderites … oops, sorry, plucky Ukrainians. Looks like Tom is drinking the kool-ade.

    1. The Rev Kev

      Had the same reaction to that sentence. The Russian army was seriously outnumbered by a well-equipped Ukrainian military in the first few months of the war but managed to destroy them. Still outnumbered, they destroyed a second Ukrainian military equipped that masses of NATO equipment. They are now on the verge of destroying a third Ukrainian army and breaking through some of the most heavily fortified defenses on the planet at minimal cost to themselves. That’s soldiering

  6. pjay

    Typical Engelhardt. Useful observations about events *within* his ideological (cognitive?) boundaries, but obfuscation once he ventures outside these boundaries – as in his comments on Ukraine. I say this with all sincerity. I don’t care how poignant your condemnation of our past wars or current War Machine; if you do not understand why Ukraine is occurring you do not fully understand the dangers that Machine presents to the world.

    1. John Wright

      Englehardt does not mention that Russia’s influence around the world has increased, particularly in the global south as they have conducted their SMO.

      This is evidenced by the countries that did not fall in line with USA dictates/sanctions.

      The USA, with its vastly larger military budget vs Russia, $842 billion vs $65.9 billion, is seemingly unable to help the Ukrainians/NATO push Russia back to pre-SMO borders.

      Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Ukraine, I find it difficult to believe the USA’s military efforts are having a positive effect on the USA’s world wide image.

      And the USA’s cost of Iraq/Afghanistan is estimated to be around 8 Trillion USD by some.

      Englehardt may be overly invested in “but we meant well” view of USA diplomacy and military actions that USA liberal humanitarian hawks seem to have internalized.

  7. Rip Van Winkle

    Follow the money. Those calling the shots and supplying the choreography and propaganda aren’t dumb.

    For example, it takes a really smart person to answer every question on an ACT/SAT test correctly. Likewise it takes a really smart (smarter?) person to answer every question incorrectly.

    The wars are not what they are portrayed to be.

  8. Steve H.

    > Year after year, the Pentagon’s budget has only grown and is now heading for the trillion-dollar mark. In the end, the U.S. military may have achieved just one success of any significance since 1945 by becoming the most valued and best-funded institution in this country.

    >> The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987):

    >> The task facing American statesmen over the next decades, therefore, is to recognize that broad trends are under way, and that there is a need to “manage” affairs so that the relative erosion of the United States’ position takes place slowly and smoothly, and is not accelerated by policies which bring merely short-term advantage but longer-term disadvantage.

    > I doubt, in fact, that Donald Trump would ever have become president without the disastrous American wars of this century.

    >> Temporal dynamics of relative wage in the United States, 1780–2019

    >> The fundamental structural-demographic driver for instability is relative wage or, alternatively, relative income.

  9. spud

    typical modern democrat bleeding heart type, totally ignoring reality. he never mentions why iraq happened, like bill clinton should have ended it, he did not, he made it worse, and on top of that, made sure through legislation that the next president was to invade the country.


    When Iraq Was Clinton’s War
    Chip Gibbons
    Bill Clinton’s “quiet war” on Iraq set the stage for George W. Bush’s bloody invasion.

    Five years later, Clinton signed the “Iraq Liberation Act” into law, formalizing the US’s demand for regime change. The legislation, which also appropriated $97 million to fund Iraqi opposition groups, was followed up with yet more military action: Operation Desert Fox.

    and it was bill clinton that broke international law with the war against yugoslavia, setting up the precedence for succession in any country.

    and actually the russians trapped in the ukraine had far far far more standing than the kosovo liberation army which was in fact a terrorist organization.


    When Iraq Was Clinton’s War
    Chip Gibbons
    Bill Clinton’s “quiet war” on Iraq set the stage for George W. Bush’s bloody invasion.
    before bill clinton destroyed yugoslavia and broke george bushes promise to the russians, there was his rape of africa, the scars are still there: Bill Clinton ordered the attack, arguing that the compound was storing nerve gas, American officials have acknowledged over the years that the evidence that prompted President Clinton to order the missile strike on the Shifa plant was not as solid as first portrayed. Indeed, officials later said that there was no proof that the plant had been manufacturing or storing nerve gas, as initially suspected by the Americans, or had been linked to Osama bin Laden, who was a resident of Khartoum in the 1980’s… no apology has been made and no restitution offered, which has Sudan’s government steaming, even seven years after the ground shook and the dark sky over Khartoum turned light as the plant was hit.

    where ever there are people dying and exploited for profit, you will find bill clintons blood soaked hands.

    as far as the election of trump, he acts like that is a bad thing, what is his problems with no new wars, wages exceeded inflation, import prices were down, he got rid of the TPP so called trade, surely outright fascism pushed by democrats, tried to make piece with north korea, got rid of the fascists investor state dispute so called mechanism which was a democrat policy, operation warp speed, there maybe a few other good things he did.

    in fact, trump was a far far far better president than bill clinton, barack obama, and biden.

    it did not take much to be better, but better he was.

  10. Boomheist

    If you can, find a copy of the book “Endless Enemies,” written over 40 years ago, and reflect that since that book came out this country has invaded or messed in Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine, among others….https://www.amazon.com/Endless-Enemies-Jonathan-Kwitny/dp/0140080937

    Should be required reading for every ninth grader along with Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” but surely both these books, if even considered, will be cancelled and banned as so many others….

    We are savage.

  11. nippersdad

    I wonder when it will register with the State Department how closely Bakhmut resembles the battle of Debaltsevo? They might need a head’s up that yet another Normandy Process will not fly with the Russians this time. The Russians still have the T-shirt, and new ideas may quickly become necessary.

  12. TomW

    The only question remaining in this war is whether Russia will satisfy itself with Eastern Ukraine. Which is about all it can digest.
    Meanwhile, TPTB are working full time to promote a military response to its perceived security competition with China. The US needs to wake up to the fact that carrier task force strategy is obsolete, and there is nothing else that will plausibly take their place.
    And its love of modern ‘combined arms’ battle is also obsolete. Along with manned aircraft and surprise. The future is robotic warfare. Swarms of drones. Etc.
    There is no reason our ‘China Problem’ has to devolve to warfare. Especially when we have no winning options. Other than take a Mulligan.

  13. HH

    The U.S. has not fought a war of decision since 1945. The Russians are fighting such a war in Ukraine. They will win because they have superior resources, clear objectives, and the will to secure victory. The U.S. neocons are ideologues blind to military and economic realities. Their failures will continue to inflict damage on the U.S. The great danger is that they will drag us into a nuclear war before they are removed from power.

  14. A guy in Washington DC

    Englerardt was lucky. His 35 year-old father did what he had to do and lived through it. Tom got the message. “Don’t go unless you have to”, so I assume he dodged the Vietnam war, unlike the many kids who got a different message from thier returning, rear-area fathers.

    On the Ukraine offensive this spring. Rivers are hard to cross. Villages have basements and are easy to defend. Landmines make attacks costly.

    On rivers. The eleven NATO-organized Ukrainian brigades could try to cross the Dnipro River in the south near Kherson but the river is almost a mile wide there. Bad idea. So the Ukrainians have only one avenue of advance that limits river crossings and that is on the south-east side of the Dnipro River south of Zaporizhia. Keep an eye on Huliople.

    Villages and basements. The Russians seem to have done what the Ukrainians did between 2014 and 2020. They have built a defense in depth using fortified villages with interlocking fields of fire and pre-planned artillery support. For you military history buffs, this is Kursk 1943. Let the attackers gain some ground but at a high cost. The Ukrainian army, for all its courage and new NATO equipment, doesn’t have enough men and machines to grind through a 20 mile belt of villages.

    Land mines. The US refuses to ratify the international treaty on land mines because the whole defense of the DMZ north of Seoul, Korea depends on them. Mines and the poor-man’s homemade mines that we call IUDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) are the bane of advancing mechanized armies. Ask the Americans in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Plus while the mechanized troops try to advance above ground through the mines and defensive artillery fire the defenders are sitting in their well-prepared and often underground positions waiting.

    So unless the NATOized Ukrainians have some magic up their sleeves or the Russians are even more unmotivated and incompetent than I expect, the Ukrainian spring offensive will not be a game-changer.

    1. nippersdad

      “Plus while the mechanized troops try to advance above ground through the mines and defensive artillery fire the defenders are sitting in their well-prepared and often underground positions waiting.”

      Just to add in aircover. IIRC, it was Mercouris that pointed out early on that Russian war doctrine does not require absolute dominance of the skies in order to send in the air force. They are testing all of that out now, and by the time of any offensive they will have their air force fully in the fight as well.

      1. Polar Socialist

        Complete air superiority is not possible in wars Russia expects to fight. Mostly just because of the sheer size of the theater.

        A “proper air war” on the air space of SMO would take an area about the size of the air war in Europe in 1944-45, when Allies had over 500,000 men and 6000 aircraft to drive the Luftwaffe from the sky.

        The no-fly zone over Iraq was one third or fourth of the size of the current air war over Ukraine.

  15. hk

    I do wonder if a problem is that ideologues (and this includes “pacifists” of various tripes.) don’t take what they are attacking seriously.

    Wars happen because there are things that people who go to war believe are important, important enough to fight for, to kill for, and to die for. We may not agree with them, but as long as it is serious enough for them, criticizing wars has to take their beliefs seriously and face it head on. I’ve noticed this on both sides of the debate over the current war in Ukraine: the supporters of Ukraine dismiss (even if they care to have any knowledge of) the myriad reasons Russians have taken up arms over Ukraine (and before, why Russian-speaking Ukrainians took up arms against Kiev) and reduce the causes of war to a caricature–Putin this, Putin that. The critics of the West likewise reduce the problem to similar caricatures–US hegemony, MIC, ideological brainwashing, etc. Even if they are true, there are reasons deeper than that–i.e. many people whom I know that buy into these stories are otherwise smart and sensible people (and yes, it is true that having civilized conversation with them on the topic has gotten hard–which compounds the problem)–the problem that every one of us here is very familiar with. But you can’t do much about the problem–even if you can’t bring them to change their views–without being able to understand what makes them tick, which can only be achieved by taking them “seriously.”

    Here, I think Engelhardt is falling into the problem where he is trying to attack the war by trying to dismiss it as a silly folly as a general matter–for that purpose, both Russians and the West need to be reduced to caricatures, thus the odd descriptions of the state of war for the Russians. This is doubly fallacious since this ensures that the message will be rejected out of hand by both sides and more (you don’t have to be supporters of one side or the other to know that they are “serious” about war and are being earnest about waging it, in their own ways.)

    1. Kouros

      “The choice that we faced in Ukraine — and I’m using the past tense there intentionally — was whether Russia exercised a veto over NATO involvement in Ukraine on the negotiating table or on the battlefield,” said George Beebe, a former director of Russia analysis at the CIA and special adviser on Russia to former Vice President Dick Cheney. “And we elected to make sure that the veto was exercised on the battlefield, hoping that either Putin would stay his hand or that the military operation would fail.”

      I don’t see a compelling reason coming from US/UKR

      1. hk

        I don’t mean to say that US/Ukr has a “morally compelling” case, but a set of motivations that are “rationalizable” from their own perspective and that view, for whatever reason, finds a widespread echo. Whatever we might believe, whatever “the truth” is, opposition to the conflict in the West is and, likely, will remain small for the foreseeable future and it’s not just because the publics are “sheep.”

        Whatever happens, the war will not end with a revolution toppling the regimes in Washington DC and London, and may not even end with regime changes in Paris or Berlin, as much as I hope to see their governments fall. Some kind of postwar settlement will have to be reached, willingly or otherwise, and that will require an understanding of what makes people on all sides tick. The West will remain a player, and a still a powerful one. Russians and Chinese will need to have a nuanced understanding (they do not need to like it or find it morally desirable) what makes the Western politics tick in order to (more or less) peacefully manage the aftermath.

      2. hk

        Let me rephrase what I’m thinking: in very few eventful affairs, let alone in wars where thousands die, do people really believe that their cause is unjust and they are knowingly and wifully engaging in “immoral” actions, at least from their own view. No amount of “we will win because our cause is just” (even if your cause may be just–who knows?) is relevant. If you are to wrap up the conflict in a reasonably peaceful and orderly fashion–and, unless Russia and China are capable of completely defeating United States and impose their terms unilaterally, some form of “settlement” (willing or otherwise) need to be reached by mutual consent (again, with or without overt willingness).

        Appeal to morality is not going to “work” for either side: it will keep everything on precipice, in danger of falling apart. Almost everyone, rightly or wrongly, believes that their side has the moral high grounds and no amount of hectoring from their enemies will change that (the Westerners don’t seem to understand it about Russians–but many people seem to not understand the same about the Westerners either.) This applies to large segments of influential public in the West, the people who are otherwise sensible. So somebody will have to understand what’s making the other side tick and make adjustments (again, this does not mean the morality of one side or the other is accepted). Since I don’t expect the Western leaders to do it, Russians (and maybe Chinese–I don’t trust the Chinese as much as I would the Russians) will have to. Or we are all glass.

        1. Kristiina

          Thank you for your (always) wise comments. Riffing from what you say, the western bloc seems to fuel itself by moral superiority, and those that are not compelled by moral arguments can be bought with money, as they do not have morals. Such a convenient one-two punch. And what sweeter deal could there be that you get to profit maximally and even wear the outfit of virtuous warrior? The Jens Stoltenbergs of this world, fomenting war, profiting from it, and topping it off with their moral virtues, they are a sight to behold. Hitler is peanuts compared to this.

          One part of our unfortunate constellation in the west is the myth that the “evil” should be annihilated. The dualism baked into the christian worldview is a convenient road to wars fought between “good” and “evil”. The Bhagavadgita battle is fought between two families, the viking legend Ragnarök battle is also between two clans, where they are only competing clans, not a battle between good and evil. This makes compassion possible. So christians and muslims (in jihad) share a thirst for battles of annihilation. An unfortunate myth, if there ever was one. If your worldview denies the right to exist for the opposing side, negotiating is impossible. These are profoundly human questions. Many know the battlefield of relationships: Can’t live with them, can’t shoot them. It is hard to reel in the vast culture-wide, dyed in the yarn projections. We would rather die than change.

    2. Regis II

      Wars happen because there are things that people who go to war believe are important, important enough to fight for, to kill for, and to die for.

      NO. Wars happen because elites think that there are things that the riff-raff should die for.

      I was one of those kids Englehard talks about who played with surplus world war II stuff. America could do no wrong as far as I was concerned until Vietnam, which I was against, before, during and after I spent my four years in the U.S. Navy.

      Yes, most of the career Navy that I met were gung-ho, but very few of the other enlisted pukes and even some officers were. One guy on my ship, when we were discussing conscientious objectors, said “I’m not conscientious about it. I just object.”

      Gung-ho attitudes generally fade into disillusionment because those who are not completely brainwashed learn soon enough that they have been lied to.

  16. R.S.

    AFAIR the “massive” Soviet military contingent in Afghanistan never exceeded 120k troops in total.

    I’d argue that 2 Mio figure is a bit dodgy. There’s probably just no good statistics, the estimates are anywhere from 600k to 2+ Mio in total (it was a genuine civil war after all). Mohammad Najibullah in 1988 gave the following numbers for the losses of the Soviet-backed side, and it was probably an underestimate.

    According to the statistics collected by us up to the present time, as a result of the undeclared war against the Republic of Afghanistan from 1978 to the present day, the number of those killed from among the armed forces and civilian supporters of the State alone reaches a figure of 243,900 people, of whom 208,200 were men and 35,700 were women. That figure also includes 20,700 children up to 10 years old. During the same period 77,700 people were injured, of whom 17,100 were women and about 900 were children.
    The UN General Assembly, 15th Special Session, 7 June 1988

    1. hk

      The situation in Afghanistan is even messier since, technically, Soviet forces were formally requested by the Afghan gov’t of Hafizullah Amin (although the Soviets outsmarted themselves by clumsily overthrowing Amin, whom they considered to be the main problem in Afghanistan–probably not incorrectly–with their own forces (who were, ironically, sent to Afghanistan theoretically to serve as bodyguards for Afghan leadership, and killed one of their own Army doctors who was serving as the personal physician to Amin in the process.) before sending the large combat forces.), while the CIA (as noted by Brzezinski himself) had been sponsoring Afghan insurgents for a long time before the Soviet troops (even the bodyguards) arrived in Afghanistan.

    2. Polar Socialist

      Wikipedia page about the “Soviet-Afghan war” (not Soviet participation in Afghan civil war), has a link to a paper published 4 years after the war that used population statistics tools for an an estimate of 7-800,000 extra deaths in Afghanistan during the war.

      The biggest raise in mortality was in males between 40-49, but also among the elderly of both sexes. They assumed that in a country where average lifetime expectancy was a tad over 40 even before the war, especially elderly die because even the minimum level of health care (or any care) deteriorates.

  17. DGL

    Being born between 1942 – 1945 was referred to by my friends as being “born under the gun.”

  18. Willow

    For millions of years, key evolutionary pressure on humans has always been ourselves. Mediated through the countervailing forces of war & disease.

  19. ian

    Seems like this is missing the obvious: recent wars haven’t been fought so much to defeat an enemy but because the well-connected make a ton of money off them.
    Smedley Butlers tome “War is a Racket” is as true today as it was in 1934, when it was writen.

  20. Dave

    War, What Is It Good For?


    We could try asking Presscott Bush Mr Profits “Über All!”

    Profits über Alles! American Corporations and Hitler

    He worked closely with a chap called Fritz Thyssen.
    Fritz wrote a book with the title, ahem
    I Paid Hitler by Thyssen Fritz

    Alas Fritz wasn’t the only person that was handing out the lolly to the European banker goons in the 20s, 30s, and 40s.

    More on Prescott

    We could try the president (LBJ). An old favourite from Naked Capitalism

    “I cannot get out of Vietnam, John. My friends are making too much money.”

    Or more recently Tony Blair and his go to Iraq and ‘get rich quick’ politics.

    He’s a member of Jeff’s Pervy Money Chase Bank International Council for WAR Crimes

    Prime numbers: How stamp duty-dodging Tony Blair became a multi-millionaire

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