On Post-War Buyer’s Remorse
Or…The Vietnam Iraq Syndrome
I have to admit, I’m feeling pretty satisfied watching President Obama twisting himself into myriad contortions to justify US military intervention in Syria. I’m satisfied because I see this as one further step in a paradigm shift in which Americans reject the legitimacy of war and militarism altogether. The long march to a paradigm of peace has been a long time coming, and will not be realized any time soon, but time and again war has been exposed as a lie. It is only a matter of time before war becomes synonymous with lies in the minds of the people and is universally rejected.
9/11 was a huge setback for the peace movement. The slow re-establishment of American militarism that began under President Reagan in the 80’s blossomed in the fertile field of fear and paranoia resulting from that sudden and brutal attack. We Americans allowed ourselves to be conned into war with Afghanistan without so much as a peep. Americans, with few exceptions, embraced attacking Afghanistan because…well…because we were attacked and, therefore, we had to attack someone. Other options, other strategies, other ways of thinking about how a nation can deal with terrorism rather than by declaring war were not offered or, if suggested, were ignored.
Voices for peace, for treating terrorism as the crime that it is…regardless of who is perpetrating it… were mostly silenced. Those who would not remain quiet were marginalized and even vilified. The US was attacked. It was time to strike. War was the only viable response. We invaded Afghanistan despite the fact that not a single 9/11 terrorist was Afghan. Still, someone had to be attacked and destroying a country always makes one feel better, empowered.
With blood still dripping from our teeth, the Bush Administration turned our attention toward a new threat. They whipped up our war lust further with dystopian fantasies of hairy Arabs storming the US with Iraqi made chemical and biological weapons. Each speech was heavily punctuated with references to the iconic mushroom cloud as if it was always hanging over us. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Americans once again allowed ourselves to embrace the fallacy of war.
Now, Americans are waking from this bloody bacchanal, our economy wrecked, our dignity destroyed, our reputation among nations tattered. Our new perspective on war is no longer clouded by fear and blood-lust, so we can clearly see the lies, the subterfuge. We are angry, and not a little ashamed of the last twelve years. We are skeptical of our elected leaders and cynical of their intentions when they start talking of bombs and missiles and drones. The citizenry is no longer swayed so easily by the drums of war.
It’s not the first time. After World War I, the American public realized that war is not only senseless destruction, but that powerful forces influence the decision to go to war based on self-interest rather than national interest. In 1934, Republican Senator Gerald P. Nye conducted intensive investigations of US entry into the Great War. Rather than a “war to end all wars,” Nye saw an exchange of blood for profits. He said, “When the Senate investigation is over, we shall see that war and preparation for war is not a matter of national honor and national defense, but a matter of profit for the few.” The commission held the public attention and fanned popular ire and anti-war sentiment. When Nye became too critical of the late President Wilson, however, his inquiry was shut down by the Senate before it could be completed.
Shortly after the Nye Commission began sifting through the ubiquitous lies of war, one General Smedley Butler, a decorated war hero, published a version of his popular, nation-wide lecture series, War is a Racket. Butler noted that World War I saw the birth of over 20,000 new millionaires and billionaires in the United States. In his lecture he asked, “How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?” Ultimately, Butler had to ask how much average Americans had to pay to create these new millionaires and billionaires. “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.” Despite a thirty-four year military career, including two Medals of Honor, the most decorated marine up to that time concluded his lecture with, “TO HELL WITH WAR!”
Most Americans agreed with Butler’s conclusion. American politicians responded by passing multiple Neutrality Acts throughout the thirties. It took a direct attack against the United States at Pearl Harbor to reverse almost twenty-five years of anti-war sentiment characterized by Nye and Butler.
After the tumult, instability, meaningless deaths and wasted youth resulting from the Vietnam War, Americans were once again disenchanted with war. The power elite stoked fears of communism, the Domino Theory to justify destroying Vietnam to save it. After all, if a bunch of peasants along the Mekong became communist, it was only a matter of time before the Commies were sailing down the Mississippi. It took news of an attack against American forces in the Gulf of Tonkin, a mostly fictitious account it turns out, before President Johnson could justify his escalation of American Militarism.
Meanwhile, Americans watched almost 60,000 flag draped coffins find their way into American cemeteries, while government lies were revealed in the Pentagon Papers and other leaks. The atrocities committed at Mai Lai were played out on television. Heart-wrenching photo-journalism darkened our magazines and newspapers. The brutal imbecility of war was never more obvious to the American public.
American antipathy for war in the 1970’s and 80’s was referred to as the Vietnam Syndrome. This was of great concern to the politicians of this time, chomping at the bit for a war of their own. President Reagan’s unprecedented peacetime military build-up culminated in nothing more than a pathetic military operation against the not-so threatening nation of Grenada, population less than 100,000.
In 1991, President H. W. Bush announced that “the Vietnam Syndrome is over” after the successful blitzkrieg of Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. He may have been a little pre-mature. Certainly, the Vietnam Syndrome was foremost in Colin Powell’s mind, and in the minds of his staff, as they prepared a decisive victory with a clear endgame. The heroic journalism that brought the Vietnam War home to Americans would no longer be tolerated as journalists were often excluded, or embedded through the military Public Relations offices. To head off protests, Americans were encouraged to “support the troops, even if you don’t support the war.” Protestors, of whom I was one, were soundly condemned as unpatriotic, measured against an archetype of Vietnam era activists who shamefully spit on returning soldiers. The nascent twenty-four hour news cycle ran mostly laudatory stories about American victories or documentaries on the awesome technology being used on the ground in Iraq.
Since Vietnam, it became standard practice among American military leadership to make sure that war was as invisible as possible. If it was not possible to keep the war behind the curtain, then it was incumbent upon the leadership to ensure that the operation was limited in scope and over before a significant protest movement could be mobilized. Thus President Clinton tap-danced around operations in Bosnia, a relatively well reported campaign, while he was also overseeing almost daily bombings of Iraq throughout his administration, virtually unreported.
American blood-lust was not whipped up again until after 9/11. This tragic event became the starting line for two of America’s longest and costliest conflicts. Looking back on the thousands of lives lost and the trillions of dollars spent, it is impossible to suggest that Americans have much to show for our efforts. We are not safer from terrorism. Our rights have not been protected, but rather trampled. Rose petals were not thrown at the feet of our soldiers as they liberated Afghanistan and Iraq from tyranny. Democracy did not blossom from the soil of nations bombed into oblivion. Al Qaeda was not destroyed, but rather used US violence as a public relations tool to recruit even more followers…
…and 9/11 still happened…
…and nothing can change that.
So now we are back where we started after the Paris Peace Conference 1919. Fatigued and disillusioned by the false promises that war will make things better, will restore honor, will enhance our credibility as a nation. We no longer blindly accept the legitimacy of war. And we shouldn’t accept war, for war is and always has been a lie. That we recognize this is a step toward a true civilization of man. That we never forget it…that is the key to the kingdom.
It’s certainly not the end of war. I’m optimistic, not delusional. Obama will almost certainly order a missile strike on Syria…just because, well, red lines and all that. However, Obama now has to content with the Iraq Syndrom. The fact that since Vietnam, indeed, since World War I and to an ever increasing degree since, our political leadership has been forced to conduct war largely in secret and has only been able to justify war in the face of direct attack is an indicator that we as a people are on the cusp of rejecting war in toto. We are also living in a world that is evolving in such a way that secrets, even secret wars, are increasingly difficult to keep. The peace movement can build on these two foundational elements to create a permanent critique of war, a perpetual rejection of militarism.
President Obama’s moral claims to a red line that was crossed when chemical weapons were used ring hollow to our ears. We demand proof before we act. We demand that if we act, our actions will save lives—an outcome that is in doubt. We demand that we act upon the correct antagonist. Many of us also see the inherent moral contradiction in a policy of using weapons of mass destruction, missiles and bombs, as a means of responding to the use of weapons of mass destruction, namely chemical weapons. What is the difference between sarin gas and cruise missiles, or cluster bombs? Many of us reject the notion that one way of killing is somehow more ethical than another.
That we, as a people, are making these demands upon our elected officials is another good sign. We allowed ourselves to be deceived into war twice as the new millennium dawned. The people are simply not willing to take anyone’s word for it any more (though to be honest, I have a feeling that if our President were a Republican, there would be significantly less controversy today). War is almost always premised on lies. This history cannot be denied and must not be forgotten. It is incumbent upon the peace movement to continue to educate the public about the great lie even in times of peace.
Since we have this foundation on which to build, the next steps are three-fold. First, we must protest the wars going on behind the curtain. The flying killer robots now employed in Pakistan, Yemen, and other unspecified US combat zones have no consciousness. They will never register as conscientious objectors. We must reject and condemn even remote control wars that are conducted in our name. Second, we must demand that our leadership formulate plans in response to direct attacks that do not involve war. The United States and our allies will almost certainly be attacked again in the future. If some entity has the grievance, the will and the means, they will attack. Our political leaders, our military, our flying killer robots cannot truly keep us safe. When attacked, we must respond, but we should respond in a sensible, tactical way that targets the guilty while protecting the innocent and preserving human rights. Don’t tell us this cannot be done. Thirdly, we as a people should demand policies that respect human boundaries and human rights; policies that promote a global community and reject international competition and build a sustainable global economy. Terrorists feed on hatred and anger, the very hatred and anger being perpetuated by unilateral war and flying killer robots raining destruction down on teenagers and wedding parties. Terrorism withers and dies in an environment of mutual respect and good will. American policies must promote that good will.
The seeds of world peace have been planted. Rejection of war is at hand. The lie is exposed. We reject the lie in Syria as we reject it throughout the world.
To quote General Butler.
To Hell with War!