Tomgram: William Astore, Operation Enduring War

Hope and Change Fade, but War Endures
Seven Reasons Why We Can’t Stop Making War
By William J. Astore

Reprinted with permission of

If one quality characterizes our wars today, it’s their endurance.  They never seem to end.  Though war itself may not be an American inevitability, these days many factors combine to make constant war an American near certainty.  Put metaphorically, our nation’s pursuit of war taps so many wellsprings of our behavior that a concerted effort to cap it would dwarf BP’s efforts in the Gulf of Mexico.

Our political leaders, the media, and the military interpret enduring war as a measure of our national fitness, our global power, our grit in the face of eternal danger, and our seriousness.  A desire to de-escalate and withdraw, on the other hand, is invariably seen as cut-and-run appeasement and discounted as weakness.  Withdrawal options are, in a pet phrase of Washington elites, invariably “off the table” when global policy is at stake, as was true during the Obama administration’s full-scale reconsideration of the Afghan war in the fall of 2009.  Viewed in this light, the president’s ultimate decision to surge in Afghanistan was not only predictable, but the only course considered suitable for an American war leader.  Rather than the tough choice, it was the path of least resistance.

Why do our elites so readily and regularly give war, not peace, a chance?  What exactly are the wellsprings of Washington’s (and America’s) behavior when it comes to war and preparations for more of the same?

Consider these seven:

1.  We wage war because we think we’re good at it — and because, at a gut level, we’ve come to believe that American wars can bring good to others (hence our feel-good names for them, like Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom). Most Americans are not only convinced we have the best troops, the best training, and the most advanced weapons, but also the purest motives.  Unlike the bad guys and the barbarians out there in the global marketplace of death, our warriors and warfighters are seen as gift-givers and freedom-bringers, not as death-dealers and resource-exploiters.  Our illusions about the military we “support” serve as catalyst for, and apology for, the persistent war-making we condone.

2.  We wage war because we’ve already devoted so many of our resources to it.  It’s what we’re most prepared to do.  More than half of discretionary federal spending goes to fund our military and its war making or war preparations.  The military-industrial complex is a well-oiled, extremely profitable machine and the armed forces, our favorite child, the one we’ve lavished the most resources and praise upon.  It’s natural to give your favorite child free rein.

3.  We’ve managed to isolate war’s physical and emotional costs, leaving them on the shoulders of a tiny minority of Americans.  By eliminating the draft and relying ever more on for-profit private military contractors, we’ve made war a distant abstraction for most Americans, who can choose to consume it as spectacle or simply tune it out as so much background noise.

4.  While war and its costs have, to date, been kept at arm’s length, American society has been militarizing fast.  Our media outlets, intelligence agencies, politicians, foreign policy establishment, and “homeland security” bureaucracy are so intertwined with military priorities and agendas as to be inseparable from them.  In militarized America, griping about soft-hearted tactics or the outspokenness of a certain general may be tolerated, but forceful criticism of our military or our wars is still treated as deviant and “un-American.”

5.  Our profligate, high-tech approach to war, including those Predator and Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles, has served to limit American casualties — and so has limited the anger over, and harsh questioning of, our wars that might go with them.  While the U.S. has had more than 1,000 troops killed in Afghanistan, over a similar period in Vietnam we lost more than 58,000 troops.  Improved medical evacuation and trauma care, greater reliance on standoff precision weaponry and similar “force multipliers,” stronger emphasis on “force protection” within American military units: all these and more have helped tamp down concern about the immeasurable and soaring costs of our wars.

6.  As we incessantly develop those force-multiplying weapons to give us our “edge” (though never an edge that leads to victory), it’s hardly surprising that the U.S. has come to dominate, if not quite monopolize, the global arms trade.  In these years, as American jobs were outsourced or simply disappeared in the Great Recession, armaments have been one of our few growth industries.  Endless war has proven endlessly profitable — not perhaps for all of us, but certainly for those in the business of war.

7.  And don’t forget the seductive power of beyond-worse-case, doomsday scenarios, of the prophecies of pundits and so-called experts, who regularly tell us that, bad as our wars may be, doing anything to end them would be far worse.  A typical scenario goes like this: If we withdraw from Afghanistan, the government of Hamid Karzai will collapse, the Taliban will surge to victory, al-Qaeda will pour into Afghan safe havens, and Pakistan will be further destabilized, its atomic bombs falling into the hands of terrorists out to destroy Peoria and Orlando.

Such fevered nightmares, impossible to disprove, may be conjured at any moment to scare critics into silence.  They are a convenient bogeyman, leaving us cowering as we send our superman military out to save us (and the world as well), while preserving our right to visit the mall and travel to Disney World without being nuked.

The truth is that no one really knows what would happen if the U.S. disengaged from Afghanistan.  But we do know what’s happening now, with us fully engaged: we’re pursuing a war that’s costing us nearly $7 billion a month that we’re not winning (and that’s arguably unwinnable), a war that may be increasing the chances of another 9/11, rather than decreasing them.

Capping the Wellsprings of War

Each one of these seven wellsprings feeding our enduring wars must be capped.  So here are seven suggestions for the sort of “caps” — hopefully more effective than BP’s flailing improvisations — we need to install:

1.  Let’s reject the idea that war is either admirable or good — and in the process, remind ourselves that others often see us as “the foreign fighters” and profligate war consumers who kill innocents (despite our efforts to apply deadly force in surgically precise ways reflecting “courageous restraint”).

2.  Let’s cut defense spending now, and reduce the global “mission” that goes with it.  Set a reasonable goal — a 6-8% reduction annually for the next 10 years, until levels of defense spending are at least back to where they were before 9/11 — and then stick to it.

3.  Let’s stop privatizing war.  Creating ever more profitable incentives for war was always a ludicrous idea.  It’s time to make war a non-profit, last-resort activity.  And let’s revive national service (including elective military service) for all young adults.  What we need is a revived civilian conservation corps, not a new civilian “expeditionary” force.

4. Let’s reverse the militarization of so many dimensions of our society.  To cite one example, it’s time to empower truly independent (non-embedded) journalists to cover our wars, and stop relying on retired generals and admirals who led our previous wars to be our media guides.  Men who are beholden to their former service branch or the current defense contractor who employs them can hardly be trusted to be critical and unbiased guides to future conflicts.

5.  Let’s recognize that expensive high-tech weapons systems are not war-winners.  They’ve kept us in the game without yielding decisive results — unless you measure “results” in terms of cost overruns and burgeoning federal budget deficits.

6.  Let’s retool our economy and reinvest our money, moving it out of the military-industrial complex and into strengthening our anemic system of mass transit, our crumbling infrastructure, and alternative energy technology.  We need high-speed rail, safer roads and bridges, and more wind turbines, not more overpriced jet fighters.

7.  Finally, let’s banish nightmare scenarios from our minds.  The world is scary enough without forever imagining smoking guns morphing into mushroom clouds.

There you have it: my seven “caps” to contain our gushing support for permanent war.  No one said it would be easy.  Just ask BP how easy it is to cap one out-of-control gusher.

Nonetheless, if we as a society aren’t willing to work hard for actual change — indeed, to demand it — we’ll be on that military escalatory curve until we implode.  And that way madness lies.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and TomDispatch regular.  He has taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School and currently teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology.  He may be reached at [email protected].

This article originally appeared on

Copyright 2010 William J. Astore

Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs His sixth and latest book, just published, is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books). Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands and Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.



  1. Number 3 on Astore’s list of why we wage war is quite true. On the other hand, do we want to go back to the draft? The fact that it’s easier for politicians to send volunteers to fight and die doesn’t delegitimize the volunteer concept. Reinstituting the draft is a nonstarter politically, but let’s assume for a moment that it will happen at some point. Would we really be less likely to wage war with a conscripted force? Vietnam was a pointless war, but we still fought it. I see no reason to believe that if we somehow went back to a conscripted force, we would stop using it.

    Is Afghanistan doing more damage to America than Vietnam did? In terms of loss of life, damage to the economy, and disruption of the social fabric, Vietnam was clearly more damaging. The fact that most Americans can tune out Iraq or Afghanistan is a positive thing, not the reverse. Those who are fighting and dying are there by choice. The nation as a whole goes on. Wars like Afghanistan are comparable to “Queen Victoria’s little wars” of 19th century Britain. The main difference is that we have not learned to fight on the cheap the way the British did. In part of course this is because of the hideous expense of technology. Indeed, the biggest reason we shouldn’t be fighting these long wars is the dollar cost. (Nevertheless, it is domestic spending and mismanagement of the civilian economy that is bankrupting our country. Miltary spending as a percentage of GDP or the federal budget is far lower than it was a generation ago.)

    In a real sense the debate over a volunteer versus a conscipted force is irrelevant anyway, for we have moved into a new era of global politics and conflict in which small armies and technology carry out policies formulated by elites without the participation of the people. Mass armies no longer match well with the sophisticated technology modern militaries possess. Even had we won in Vietnam, the draft would have disappeared. The era of mass armies is over, at least for this phase of world history. The current aspects will play out over many decades, possibly even centuries. I have at other times on this blog pointed to Spengler as a teacher for the future. I don’t endorse his philosophy in toto by any means; but here he is right on the money.

    I hesitate to criticize Mr. Astore too strongly, given that he is a man with considerable experience in both the military and academic fields. I find that I agree with some of his points, but I also feel he strains to make his advocacy cover some of his conclusions, rather than exploring the facts wherever they may lead. This obviously weakens his overall argument. The forced metaphor in his first paragraph sets the stage for some and perhaps much of what follows.

  2. In Britain, it’s 60 years since the draft (“National Service”) was ended. It hasn’t stopped Britain getting involved in foreign wars; although it is, or at least should be, clear to us Brits that our small professional armed forces can do a short sharp war such as the Falklands conflict against Argentina in 1982, but can’t sustain a presence in Afghanistan.

    What both Britain and the USA need to do is to stop attempting to be police officer to the world at large, if for no other reason that we’re crap at doing it!

  3. Police don’t get their authority from their sidearms or batons but from their cred in the community. I keep to Jefferson’s creed that all gov’ts get their consent from the governed.

    I think Jon and Sec. Bird misstate Astore’s point, not that we should have a draft for a massive military, but that it democratizes the war cost and of course if everyone participated in national service–military or no, perhaps we’d all be better citizens. I think you fall into a bit of a strawman there.

    Further, the little Victorian wars can be pointed to as the first straws of the camel’s burden. It was that very engagement that defines the end of the British Empire. Victorian wars in Indo/Af/Pak resulted in the 1950’s retreat of the Empire.

    Jon, I think you miss the point, you weakly nod to, about conscription raising the social political cost of war at home. I want to challenge you on your war spending idea.

    First, let’s visit the conservatives favorite deception, that payroll taxes aren’t income taxes. OK, fair enough. Since the rich don’t pay payroll taxes, they must silence their critiques of “entitlement spending.” Second, of income taxes, the military takes a greater share than ever before. So, it is not domestic spending that is bankrupting us, it is war spending which is half of our discretionary budget. Follow sophists and straw men and you find yourself being out maneuvered by a asshole idealist.

  4. But Britain was a very successful world policeman in the period between Waterloo and the 1930s. In the ’30s it made bad choices (a result of the trauma of 1914-18) — failing to oppose Hitler when he could still be stopped, then deciding to fight him under the most unfavorable circumstances. The result was the collapse of the Empire, a major blow to Western civilization and world order. The U.S. created the National Security State to carry on the British Empire “by other means” — but to the benefit of Wall Street and the American economy, rather than the City and the British economy. However, except for a brief period in the early Cold War years, we never showed the wisdom or moderation that marked British policy in the century 1815-1914. And so the American Century never quite panned out, and we have the mess that is America today.

  5. I’m not going engage further on the “war spending -domestic spending” debate. I have my views and the fact that many people on the left disagree with them is fine. I just don’t care enough about the debate here to say more.

    I brought up the draft business ’cause I felt like talking about it. I had my own reasons for doing so, and since Lobelog is willing to print my effusions, well, why not blather on? On the issue of national service, I’m against conscripting people except in cases of declared war. The concept of “national service.” i.e., the state compelling us all to perform tasks that supposedly benefit the nation, the community, or whatever, is socialism pure and simple, and I’m utterly opposed to it. In my state all schoolkids from 6th grade on MUST perform 10 hours of community service annually. I’m home-schooling my kid this year in part so that she doesn’t have to do those 10 hours. I’m all for voluntary community service, but the fact that the educrats in the state capital or the district can compel her to perform it if she’s in school is in my opinion a minor form of tyranny. (Of course, the main reason I’m home-schoolong her is because approximately half of the people involved in public education are second-raters or worse. And in 6th grade at least I’m not going to spend $8,000 for private school. I’ll mention that my daughter is the top student in her class and her test scores are almost off the charts — in spite of the public school system. She has those grades and gets along wonderfully socially, yet she detests school.)

    On the 19th century wars leading to Britain’s downfall you are, as usual, wrong. You ought to spend less time blogging away and more time with your nose in a history book. You almost invariably misstate the facts, and when you don’t, your interpretation is laughable. A typical product of the public school system, I daresay.

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