A Veteran’s Perspective On War

A Moral Case for the Warfare State?

When can war be morally justified? Libertarians will typically draw from a broad range of non-interventionist philosophical thoughts ranging from total pacifism to defensive-only measures of varying degrees.  One side believes that steadfast, “turn the other cheek” pacifism has little utility in an increasingly globalized world. Yet the other side of the coin is equally difficult to digest.  What is to be said for the neoconservative war hawk’s “shoot first” foreign policy; is it any more easily justifiable?

Veterans in particular have a fairly accepting view of war.  Often in the military community, it’s seen as the logical means to achieving a secure homeland. The argument goes that without a large and advanced military, we would fall behind the power curve of the most elite militaries and they would subsequently burn our cities and loot our coffers.  Obviously, this is a logical leap.  The need for an advanced military only arises as war itself does.  Remaining on the cutting edge of military technology suggests that we walk the razor’s edge of war and peace at any given moment.  Some may argue that this is our reality, but that doesn’t necessarily need to be the case.

Preparedness is, of course, important.  However, Seymour Melman, a Columbia University professor focusing much of his time on the warfare state’s effect on the economy, found that the US of the 1960’s had the equivalent of 6 tons of TNT per person on the planet.  He wondered, “Have we become more secure than when we had only 1 ton of TNT per human being on earth?”  Naturally, we haven’t.  What we have become is poorer and simultaneously more accepting of the pulsating mass that is the modern warfare state.  The distortion that the “overkill” material Melman reference’s has on the economy is profound.  Imagine the possibilities for innovation that would be possible, if not for the time and effort wasted on militaristic chest beating. Beyond that, shouldn’t we question how the stockpiling of such armaments and their distribution in strategic areas around the world impacts our chances of peace with other powers?

Historically, James Madison, known as the “Father of the Constitution”, was resolutely against standing armies.  In his opinion, the threat of a military that could act at any given moment at the sole discretion of the federal government was a recipe for tyranny. As a matter of fact, non-interventionism is the true militaristic history of this country.  Even the World Wars of the early and mid twentieth century had huge numbers of dissenters, such as the recently repopularized America First movement”.  As Tom Woods notes on his podcast, even Pat Buchanan began questioning the military leviathan after the collapse of the USSR.  What need do we have as American’s to have troops stationed on every inhabitable continent on the world; does this really make us safer since the fall of the Red Army?

My “Come to Jesus” Moment

When September 11, 2001 happened, I was a 5th grader playing on the playground.  Almost to the day a decade later, I found myself in Afghanistan with the Marine Corps as a truck driver providing security for Afghan owned-and-operated civilian fuel trucks.  It was the Wild West to 20 year old me, and I loved it.  Our mission was to ensure the safe movement of fuel and other gear from base to base.  The Taliban, whose mission seemingly paralleled that of Osama bin Laden, would rarely bother targeting the local drivers, but would rather hit the tanks of the thin-skinned trucks.  They knew the absurd costs of fuel we paid, and that we expected losses on every mission.  The irony of millions of American dollars being soaked up by Afghan sand as we worked to plug holes with torn rags wasn’t lost on me even then.  Yet, I had no question about the infallibility of American foreign policy at the time, or the good we were doing for our countrymen by being there.  That has since changed.

The abject poverty experienced by the average Afghan in the Helmand province is astonishing.  There, the humanity of the perceived enemy became real to me.  Intel briefs prior to our arrival, and ‘in country’, suggested that many of the combatants we engaged weren’t actually Taliban, and surely weren’t al-Qaeda.  They were often average Afghan’s either coerced into taking up arms to protect their families from the Taliban’s threats, or simply defending their villages from occupiers they didn’t want around.  It changed my perspective on a war seemingly no one there could rationalize.

In Marc Guttman’s book “Why Peace?” Alex Peterson’s chapter entitled “Discovering Nationalism and The Revolutionary Spirit in Iraq’s Insurgency” speaks to a similar revelation.  The enemy insurgents we’re fighting often have a much more comprehensible position for violence against the US than simply jihad; many of the men taking up arms against occupiers in Iraq are educated professionals.  One must wonder how we would react in a similar circumstance.

So What’s Our Rationale?

Is it our nationalism fueling fervor for war?  If so, is that pride properly placed?  I sometimes see myself as a bit of a Boy Scout patriot.  I recognize, however, that admiring the ideals, history, culture and people of a certain geographical space does not require or equate to loving the government that presides over it or, its responsibility for the negative actions it takes.

Since September 11th we have been at war with terrorism.  Such a broad, enveloping term is borderline Orwellian.  How can we support a global (meaning super duper expensive) ‘war’ on an idea?  Short of a fully functioning world wide thought-police, it seems unlikely to ever succeed.  Surely, the wise leaders in Washington recognize this?  Then why bother?

Maybe Marine Corps General Smedley Butler was on to something.  Twice awarded the Medal of Honor, General Butler simply and brilliantly developed the grotesque link between money and split blood in his speech, “War is a Racket”.

Further, think of the invasion of our digital privacy, the onerous and ineffective means of securing air travel, the creation of Homeland Security and more border restrictions, the calls for limits on firearm sales to those on arbitrarily “terror lists,”, the suspension of Habeas Corpus and so on.  Are you truly any safer because of it?

There has been so little official recognition of the actions of our own government policies in fostering the environment for terrorism to grow.  We have direct fiscal and logistical links to many of the major Middle Eastern insurgency groups of the last three decades.  Yet we continue our foreign policy initiatives of toppling undesirable leaders by arming their detractors in the hopes of propping up more American-friendly ones. All of this intimate intervention in foreign governments and politics shouldn’t leave one perplexed as to why those respective peoples would be tired of our ‘help’, or shoulder animosity because of it.

Even if perpetual, fiscally crippling war in the Middle East sounds better to you than the growth of insurgencies abroad that could potentially cause us harm, consider this: how would a Caliphate with people to feed, an antiquated military, and a relatively modernized economy justify constant war abroad?  Wouldn’t we crush them if engaged, and find it easier to pressure them in such a case? Finally, doesn’t it feel like we are losing this so-called war when the enemy who thrives on instilling fear has resulted is us sacrifice our liberty and money in the name of protection?

With every military action since WWII questionable at best, given the uniformly terrible results, why are we still so quick to beat the drums of war?

To The Veteran and Civilian Alike

The veteran community in the US has been racked by depression, substance abuse and suicide.  It’s gut wrenching, and it’s infuriating.  There are many reasons for this, and it would be unfair to oversimplify, but I speculate that at least a portion of it is due in part to the inability of veterans to emotionally and rationally connect to the mission we’ve been a part of over the last 15 years.  It’s time we, as a community, take a long, hard look at the product of our country’s decisions in the Middle East and decide where our frustrations would be most appropriately placed.

Moreover, as a nation we need to examine the government’s role in our lives.  The increasing size and scope of government is undeniable over the last 100 years of our nations history.  The most glaringly obvious question to me is the morality of a single organization, comprised of imperfect individuals, having the self-proclaimed right to a monopoly on force.  Should the government possess the ability to conscript us, or our children, to fight and die on their behalf?   Is the government entitled to a stake in each of our paychecks that translates into terribly inefficient, fruitless warfare spending? If we were to attempt to deny them any of these self-proclaimed “rights of government,” they then reserve the right to use coercion and violence against us to regain compliance.

The War on Terror, for all its brutality and cost, gave us an entire generation of men and women equipped with a perspective we would be foolish to ignore.  The US government’s foreign policy over the last 4 presidential terms has been an abject failure.  Not necessarily because of the military’s shortcomings, but rather the mission objectives with which they were yoked.  Under no circumstances will we ever defeat or eradicate radical Islamic terrorism, communism, fascism, or whatever other ideological enemy comes before us.  Friedrich Nietzsche aptly noted, “beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” It’s time we re-awaken the quieted spirit of true individual freedom and self-empowerment, and unshackle our selves from the bondage of fear and subservience.

By John A. Dangelo III

Follow him on Twitter @rallyandrecall