The Basic Case:
As the world’s top war maker — always in the name of “defense” — the United States demonstrates well that war is counterproductive on its own terms.
A December 2014 Gallup poll of 65 nations found the United States to be far and away the country considered the largest threat to peace in the world, and a Pew poll in 2017 found majorities in most countries polled viewing the United States as a threat. Any other nation hoping to match the United States in these polls would need to wage a lot more “defensive” wars before it could generate the same levels of fear and resentment.
It’s not just the world outside the United States or even outside the U.S. military that is aware of this problem. It has become almost routine for U.S. military commanders, usually just after retiring, to argue that various wars or tactics are creating more new enemies than the enemies they are killing.
Terrorism has predictably increased during the war on terrorism (as measured by the Global Terrorism Index). Almost all (99.5%) of terrorist attacks occur in countries engaged in wars and/or engaged in abuses such as imprisonment without trial, torture, or lawless killing. The highest rates of terrorism are in “liberated” and “democratized” Iraq and Afghanistan. The terrorist groups responsible for the most terrorism (that is, non-state, politically motivated violence) around the world have grown out of U.S. wars against terrorism.
Here are some facts from Peace Science Digest: “Deployment of troops to another country increases the chance of attacks from terror organizations from that country. Weapons exports to another country increase the chance of attacks from terror organizations from that country. 95% of all suicide terrorist attacks are conducted to encourage foreign occupiers to leave the terrorist’s home country.”The wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the abuses of prisoners during them, became major recruiting tools for anti-U.S. terrorism. In 2006, U.S. intelligence agencies produced a National Intelligence Estimate that reached just that conclusion. The Associated Press reported: “The war in Iraq has become a cause célèbre for Islamic extremists, breeding deep resentment of the U.S. that probably will get worse before it gets better, federal intelligence analysts conclude in a report at odds with President Bush’s contention of a world growing safer. … [T]he nation’s most veteran analysts conclude that despite serious damage to the leadership of al-Qaida, the threat from Islamic extremists has spread both in numbers and in geographic reach.”
A study of nations that participated in the War on Afghanistan found that in proportion to the number of troops they sent there, they experienced terrorist blowback. So, the war on terrorism reliably and predictably produced terrorism.
Veterans of U.S. kill teams in Iraq and Afghanistan interviewed in Jeremy Scahill’s book and film Dirty Wars said that whenever they worked their way through a list of people to kill, they were handed a larger list; the list grew as a result of working their way through it. General Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan told Rolling Stone in June 2010 that “for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and others have meticulously documented the names of many innocents killed by drone strikes.
In 2013, McChrystal said there was widespread resentment against drone strikes in Pakistan. According to the Pakistani newspaper Dawn on February 10, 2013, McChrystal, “warned that too many drone strikes in Pakistan without identifying suspected militants individually can be a bad thing. Gen. McChrystal said he understood why Pakistanis, even in the areas not affected by the drones, reacted negatively against the strikes. He asked the Americans how they would react if a neighbouring country like Mexico started firing drone missiles at targets in Texas. The Pakistanis, he said, saw the drones as a demonstration of America’s might against their nation and reacted accordingly. ‘What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world,’ Gen. McChrystal said in an earlier interview. ‘The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.’”
As early as 2010, Bruce Riedel, who coordinated a review of Afghanistan policy for President Obama said, “The pressure we’ve put on [jihadist forces] in the past year has also drawn them together, meaning that the network of alliances is growing stronger not weaker.” (New York Times, May 9, 2010.) Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said that while “drone attacks did help reduce the Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, they also increased hatred of America” and damaged “our ability to work with Pakistan [in] eliminating Taliban sanctuaries, encouraging Indian-Pakistani dialogue, and making Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal more secure.” (New York Times, August 15, 2011.)
Michael Boyle, part of President Obama’s counter-terrorism group during his 2008 election campaign, says the use of drones is having “adverse strategic effects that have not been properly weighed against the tactical gains associated with killing terrorists. … The vast increase in the number of deaths of low-ranking operatives has deepened political resistance to the U.S. programme in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries.” (The Guardian, January 7, 2013.) “We’re seeing that blowback. If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted,” echoed Gen. James E. Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (New York Times, March 22, 2013.)
These views are not uncommon. The CIA’s station chief in Islamabad in 2005-2006 thought the drone strikes, then still infrequent, had “done little except fuel hatred for the United States inside Pakistan.” (See The Way of the Knife by Mark Mazzetti.) The top U.S. civilian official in part of Afghanistan, Matthew Hoh, resigned in protest and commented, “I think we’re engendering more hostility. We’re wasting a lot of very good assets going after midlevel guys who don’t threaten the United States or have no capacity to threaten the United States.”
War’s weapons risk intentional or accidental apocalypse.
We can either eliminate all nuclear weapons or we can watch them proliferate. There’s no middle way. We can either have no nuclear weapons states, or we can have many. This is not a moral or a logical point, but a practical observation backed up by research in books like Apocalypse Never: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World by Tad Daley. As long as some states have nuclear weapons others will desire them, and the more that have them the more easily they will spread to others still.
The Doomsday Clock is as close to midnight as it has ever been.
If nuclear weapons continue to exist, there will very likely be a nuclear catastrophe, and the more the weapons have proliferated, the sooner it will come. Hundreds of incidents have nearly destroyed our world through accident, confusion, misunderstanding, and extremely irrational machismo. When you add in the quite real and increasing possibility of non-state terrorists acquiring and using nuclear weapons, the danger grows dramatically — and is only increased by the policies of nuclear states that react to terrorism in ways that seem designed to recruit more terrorists.
Possessing nuclear weapons does absolutely nothing to keep us safe; there is no trade-off involved in eliminating them. They do not deter terrorist attacks by non-state actors in any way. Nor do they add an iota to a dominant military’s ability to deter nations from attacking, given the United States’ ability to destroy anything anywhere at any time with non-nuclear weapons. Nukes also don’t win wars, and the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China have all lost wars against non-nuclear powers while possessing nukes. Nor, in the event of global nuclear war, can any outrageous quantity of weaponry protect a nation in any way from apocalypse.
War Comes home.
War abroad increases hatred at home and the militarization of police. While wars are fought in the name of “supporting” those fighting in the wars, veterans are given little assistance in dealing with the deep moral guilt, trauma, brain injury, and other hurdles in the way of adapting to nonviolent society. Those trained in mass killing by the U.S. military, for example, are disproportionately those who become mass shooters in the United States, where such behavior is of course no longer acceptable. And militaries lose or have stolen huge numbers of guns that are used in violent crimes that are not war.
War planning leads to wars.
“Speak softly and carry a big stick,” said Theodore Roosevelt, who favored building a big military just in case, but of course not actually using it unless forced to. This worked out excellently, with the few minor exceptions of Roosevelt’s mobilization of forces to Panama in 1901, Colombia in 1902, Honduras in 1903, the Dominican Republic in 1903, Syria in 1903, Abyssinia in 1903, Panama in 1903, the Dominican Republic in 1904, Morocco in 1904, Panama in 1904, Korea in 1904, Cuba in 1906, Honduras in 1907, and the Philippines throughout Roosevelt’s presidency.
The first people we know of who prepared for war — the Sumerian hero Gilgamesh and his companion Enkido, or the Greeks who fought at Troy — also prepared for the hunting of wild animals. Barbara Ehrenreich theorizes that,
“. . . with the decline of wild predator and game populations, there would have been little to occupy the males who had specialized in hunting and anti-predator defense, and no well-trodden route to the status of ‘hero.’ What saved the hunter-defender male from obsolescence or a life of agricultural toil was the fact that he possessed weapons and the skills to use them. [Lewis] Mumford suggests that the hunter-defender preserved his status by turning to a kind of ‘protection racket’: pay him (with food and social standing) or be subject to his predations.
“Eventually, the presence of underemployed hunter-defenders in other settlements guaranteed a new and ‘foreign’ menace to defend against. The hunter-defenders of one band or settlement could justify their upkeep by pointing to the threat posed by their counterparts in other groups, and the danger could always be made more vivid by staging a raid from time to time. As Gwynne Dyer observes in his survey of war, ‘pre-civilized warfare . . . was predominantly a rough male sport for underemployed hunters.’“
In other words, war may have begun as a means of achieving heroism, just as it is continued based on the same mythology. It may have begun because people were armed and in need of enemies, since their traditional enemies (lions, bears, wolves) were dying out. Which came first, the wars or the weapons? That riddle may actually have an answer. The answer appears to be the weapons. And those who do not learn from prehistory may be doomed to repeat it.
We like to believe in everyone’s good intentions. “Be prepared” is the Boy Scouts’ motto, after all. It’s simply reasonable, responsible, and safe to be prepared. Not to be prepared would be reckless, right?
The problem with this argument is that it’s not completely crazy. On a smaller scale it’s not completely crazy for people to want guns in their homes to protect themselves from burglars. In that situation, there are other factors to consider, including the high rate of gun accidents, the use of guns in fits of rage, the ability of criminals to turn home owners’ guns against them, the frequent theft of guns, the distraction the gun solution causes from efforts to reduce the causes of crime, etc.
On the larger scale of war and arming a nation for war, similar factors must be considered. Weapon-related accidents, malicious testing on human beings, theft, sales to allies who become enemies, and the distraction from efforts to reduce the causes of terrorism and war must all be taken into account. So, of course, must the tendency to use weapons once you have them. At times, more weapons can’t be produced until the existing stock is depleted and new innovations are tested “on the battlefield.”
But there are other factors to consider as well. A nation’s stockpiling of weapons for war puts pressure on other nations to do the same. Even a nation that intends to fight only in defense, may understand “defense” to be the ability to retaliate against other nations. This makes it necessary to create the weaponry and strategies for aggressive war, and even “preemptive war,” keeping legal loopholes open and enlarging them, and encouraging other nations to do the same. When you put a lot of people to work planning something, when that project is in fact your largest public investment and proudest cause, it can be difficult to keep those people from finding opportunities to execute their plans.
There are more effective tools than war for protection.
World BEYOND War has developed A Global Security System: An Alternative to War.
David Vine’s 2020 book The United States of War documents how the construction and occupation of foreign military bases generates rather than prevents wars in the areas of the bases.