The Necessity of WarAugust 20th, 2009

Obama says Afghanistan is a “war of necessity,” but what he’s really talking about is the necessity of war, the institutional mandate that keeps our armies continuously engaged, with or without a legitimate reason. To all appearances, Obama’s casus belli in Afghanistan is mostly personal. Like the coach of a successful athletic team, he looks at the contest as a “must-win” proposition. The fans are depending on him. They won’t accept defeat. Since his team isn’t winning this one, his only hope is to prolong the contest. But there’s more to it than that.

It’s almost a law of nature that military power begets warfare. Armies must engage in combat to keep the ranks tight, to keep the blood flowing so that fighting spirit doesn’t ever ebb, and to keep the money flowing, so that the profiteers are happy and the civilians are kept poor enough to bargain away their kids. There are weapons and tactics to test, foreign resources to exploit, and potential adversaries to frighten. These are the obligations of military power, and they can’t be discharged without a continual state of war and a compliant public. That’s where the President comes in.

If Obama were a courageous man, he would acknowledge that his armies are exhausted, that their mission can’t be achieved by force of arms, that the people at home–the fans–have lost interest in the contest. But Obama, like the rest of our leaders, is not a courageous man. He’s a pampered prodigy who must demonstrate his bravery and resolve vicariously. This qualifies him perfectly to keep the pampered public pliant. After all, if he were not a noble, virtuous and responsible leader, would young people willingly sacrifice everything for him?

A better question might be whether the sacrifices really are made willingly. Put yourself in the boots of the modern warrior. Separated from home and family for months at a time. Friends dead or maimed. Word from home only in bits and pieces. Experience so upsetting it can’t be discussed. Fear and dread all day and all night. Moral and ethical limits evaporated. Peers getting ahead, settling in to permanent lives. No end in sight. And for what? For America? For the folks back home?

What do the folks back home even know about Afghanistan? What do they know about the last ten kids who got killed there? Not their names or their towns or their jobs or the circumstances of their deaths, and we don’t care to know either. When they die, we call them “troops,” not soldiers, reducing them to the status of machinery. Do we think the average GI hasn’t noticed that nobody really cares what happens to him? Transformed by the bloodshed and sheer brutality of their experience, soldiers can’t talk to their families except by censoring out everything that matters. As for the families, they eventually quit accepting the grim logic of military life, that there’s some higher purpose in the sacrifice they make.

Imagine yourself the mother, wife or child of a soldier in Afghanistan. Struggling to maintain normality in a splintered, anxious family, simmering amidst the chaotic culture and values of the civilians around you, who so skilfully evade even the tiniest sacrifice for any higher purpose, you soon feel embarrassed to be giving up so much for them. You try to understand how sane people like you and your soldier could have become involved in such a senseless enterprise, and you’re exposed to constant discussion–sometimes all in your own head–about whether your GI cares more about his buddies than his family. A nation that would call on a tiny, self-denying minority to bear the entire burden of warfare–is that a nation worth defending? Do we think military families don’t notice that nobody really cares about their sacrifice?

Obama doesn’t mention any of this when he talks about his war of necessity. That’s because of the character of the necessity. War is not only a political prop; it’s also a profitable business and an effective diversion. If the leaders can continue to maintain the illusion that it’s a sporting event, an entertainment, a contest of gladiators, they can distract attention from the looting of our treasure by their patrons, relatives and financiers.

We’re forced to concede Obama’s point, acknowledging that war is an utter necessity in our system. It’s not just militarism and the ego satisfaction that comes with the glorification of the leaders, but it’s also the money that can be made by the people who control the leaders. Win-win. Except for the grunts carrying the carbines. Better hope they don’t discover justice and train their rifles on us.