Introduction To “War Is A Lie” By David Swanson
Not a single thing that we commonly believe about wars that helps keep them around is true. Wars cannot be good or glorious. Nor can they be justified as a means of achieving peace or anything else of value. The reasons given for wars, before, during, and after them (often three very different sets of reasons for the same war) are all false. It is common to imagine that, because we’d never go to war without a good reason, having gone to war, we simply must have a good reason. This needs to be reversed. Because there can be no good reason for war, having gone to war, we are participating in a lie.
A very intelligent friend recently told me that prior to 2003 no American president had ever lied about reasons for war. Another, only slightly better informed, told me that the United States had not had any problems with war lies or undesirable wars between 1975 and 2003. I hope that this book will help set the record straight. “A war based on lies” is just a long-winded way of saying “a war.” The lies are part of the standard package.
Lies have preceded and accompanied wars for millennia, but in the past century war has become far more deadly. Its victims are now primarily non-participants, often almost exclusively on one side of the war. Even the participants from the dominant side can be drawn from a population coerced into fighting and isolated from those making the decisions about or benefitting from the war. Participants who survive war are far more likely now to have been trained and conditioned to do things they cannot live with having done. In short, war ever more closely resembles mass murder, a resemblance put into our legal system by the banning of war in the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact in 1928, the United Nations Charter in 1945, and the International Criminal Court’s decision to prosecute crimes of aggression in 2010. Arguments that might have sufficed to justify wars in the past might not do so now. War lies are now far more dangerous things. But, as we will see, wars were never justifiable.
A defensive war remains legal, even if not necessarily moral. But any defensive war is also a war of illegal aggression from the other side. All sides in all wars, even wars with two clear aggressors, always claim to be acting defensively. Some actually are. When a powerful military attacks a weak and impoverished nation halfway around the globe, those who fight back may tell lies — about the aggressors, about their own prospects for victory, about atrocities they commit, about rewards for martyrs in paradise, etc., — but they do not have to lie the war into existence; it has come to them. The lies that create wars, and the lies that allow war to remain one of our tools of public policy, must be addressed before any others.
This book focuses, not exclusively but heavily, on the United States’ wars, because the United States is my country and because it is the leading war maker in the world right now. Many people in our country are inclined to a healthy skepticism or even fanatical certainty of disbelief when it comes to statements our government makes about anything other than wars. On taxes, Social Security, healthcare, or schools it simply goes without saying: elected officials are a pack of liars.
When it comes to wars, however, some of the same people are inclined to believe every fantastical claim that comes out of Washington, D.C., and to imagine they thought it up for themselves. Others argue for an obedient and non-questioning attitude toward “our Commander in Chief,” following a pattern of behavior common among soldiers. They forget that in a democracy “we the people” are supposed to be in charge. They also forget what we did to German and Japanese soldiers following World War II, despite their honest defense of having followed their commanders’ orders. Still other people are just not sure what to think about arguments made in support of wars. This book is, of course, addressed to those who are thinking it through for themselves.
The word “war” conjures up in many people’s minds the U.S. Civil War or World War I. We hear constant references to “the battlefield” as if wars still primarily involved pairs of armies lined up against each other in an open space. Some of today’s wars are more usefully referred to as “occupations” and can be visualized more as a Jackson Pollock painting with three colors splattered everywhere, one representing the occupying army, a second representing the enemy, and a third representing innocent civilians — with the second and third colors only distinguishable from each other using a microscope.
But hot occupations involving constant violence must be distinguished from the many cold occupations consisting of foreign troops stationed permanently in allied nations. And what to make of operations involving the steady bombing of a nation from unmanned drones piloted by men and women on the other side of the world? Is that war? Are secret assassination squads sent into yet other nations to work their will also taking part in war? What about arming a proxy state and encouraging it to launch attacks on a neighbor or its own people? What about selling weaponry to hostile nations around the world or facilitating the spread of nuclear weapons? Perhaps not all unjustifiable warlike actions are actually acts of war. But many are actions to which domestic and international laws of war should be applied and which we should have public knowledge of and control over. In the U.S. system of government, the legislature shouldn’t cede the constitutional power of war to presidents simply because the appearance of wars has changed. The people shouldn’t lose their right to know what their government is doing, simply because its actions are warlike without actually being war.
While this book focuses on the justifications that have been offered for wars, it is also an argument against silence. People should not permit congress members to campaign for office without explaining their positions on the funding of wars, including undeclared wars consisting of repeated drone strikes or bombings into foreign nations, including quick wars that come and go in the course of a term of Congress, and including very long wars that our televisions forget to remind us are still going on.
The U.S. public may be more opposed to wars now than ever before, the culmination of a process that has taken over a century and a half. Anti-war sentiment was extremely high between the two world wars, but it is now more firmly established. However, it fails when confronted with wars in which few Americans die. The steady drip of a handful of U.S. deaths each week in a war without end has become part of our national scenery. Preparation for war is everywhere and rarely questioned.
We are more saturated with militarism than ever before. The military and its support industries eat up an increasingly larger share of the economy, providing jobs intentionally spread across all congressional districts. Military recruiters and recruitment advertising are ubiquitous. Sporting events on television welcome “members of the United States armed forces viewing in 177 nations around the world” and nobody blinks. When wars begin, the government does whatever it has to do to persuade enough of the public to support the wars. Once the public turns against wars, the government just as effectively resists pressure to bring them to a swift end. Some years into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a majority of Americans told pollsters it had been a mistake to begin either of those wars. But easily manipulated majorities had supported those mistakes when they were made.
Up through the two world wars, nations demanded ever greater sacrifices from the majority of their populations to support war. Today, the case for war must overcome people’s resistance to arguments that they know have fooled them in the past. But, in order to support war, people need not be convinced to make great sacrifices, enlist, register for a draft, grow their own food, or curtail their consumption. They just have to be convinced to do nothing at all, or at most to tell pollsters on the phone that they support a war. The presidents who took us into the two world wars and deeper into the Vietnam War were elected claiming they’d keep us out, even as they also saw political advantages to getting in.
By the time of the Gulf War (and following British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s patriotic boost of support during her speedy 1982 war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands) the prospect of electoral gains, at least from quick wars, had come to dominate political thinking. President Bill Clinton was widely suspected, accurately or not, of launching military actions to distract from his personal scandals. George W. Bush made no secret of his hunger for war when running for president, blurting out at a December 1999 six-way New Hampshire Primary debate, which the media concluded he’d won, “I’d take him out, take out the weapons of mass destruction. . . . I’m surprised he’s still there.” Bush later told the New York Times he’d meant “take ‘em out” referring to the weapons, not the ruler of Iraq. Presidential candidate Barack Obama promised to end one war but escalate another and enlarge the war-making machine.
That machine has changed over the years, but some things haven’t. This book looks at examples of what I take to be the main categories of war lies, examples taken from around the world and through the centuries. I could have arranged this story in chronological order and named each chapter for a particular war. Such a project would have been both endless and repetitive. It would have produced an encyclopedia when what I thought was needed was a guidebook, a how-to manual to be employed in preventing and ending wars. If you want to find everything I’ve included about a particular war, you can use the index at the back of the book. I recommend, however, reading the book straight through in order to follow the debunking of common themes in the war lying business, lies that keep coming back like zombies that just won’t die.
This book is aimed at exposing the falsehood of all the more and less coherent rationales that have been offered for wars. If this book succeeds in its intent, the next time a war is proposed there will be no need to wait to see whether the justifications turn out to be false. We will know that they are false, and we will know that even if true they will not serve as justifications. Some of us knew there were no weapons in Iraq and that even if there had been that could not have legally or morally sanctioned war.
Going forward, our goal should be war preparedness in a particular sense: we should be prepared to reject lies that might launch or prolong a war. This is just what the overwhelming mass of Americans did by rejecting lies about Iran for years following the invasion of Iraq. Our preparedness should include a ready response to that most difficult argument to refute: silence. When there’s no debate at all over whether to bomb Pakistan, the pro-war side automatically wins. We should mobilize not only to halt but also to prevent wars, both of which actions require applying pressure to those in power, a very different thing from persuading honest observers.
Yet, persuading honest observers is the place to start. War lies come in all shapes and sizes, and I have grouped them into what I see as the dominant themes in the chapters that follow. The idea of “the big lie” is that people who would themselves more readily tell small fibs than giant whoppers will be more reluctant to doubt a big lie from someone else than to doubt a small one. But it’s not strictly the size of the lie that matters, I think, so much as the type. It can be painful to realize that people you look up to as leaders recklessly waste human lives for no good reason. It can be more pleasant to suppose they would never do such a thing, even if supposing this requires erasing some well-known facts from your consciousness. The difficulty is not in believing that they would tell enormous lies, but in believing that they would commit enormous crimes.
The reasons often given for wars are not all legal reasons and not all moral reasons. They don’t always agree with each other, but they are usually offered in combination nonetheless, since they appeal to different groups of potential war supporters. Wars, we are told, are fought against evil demonic peoples or dictators who have already attacked us or might soon do so. Thus, we are acting in defense. Some of us prefer to see the enemy’s entire population as evil, and others to place the blame only on their government. For some people to offer their support, wars must be seen as humanitarian, fought on behalf of the very people other supporters of the same war would like to see wiped off the face of the earth. Despite wars becoming such acts of generosity, we are nonetheless careful to pretend that they are unavoidable. We are told and believe that there is no other choice. War may be a horrible thing, but we have been forced into it. Our warriors are heroes, while those who set the policy have the noblest of motives and are better qualified than the rest of us to make the critical decisions.
Once a war is underway, however, we don’t continue it in order to defeat the evil enemies or to bestow benefits on them; we continue wars primarily for the good of our own soldiers currently deployed on the “battlefield,” a process we call “supporting the troops.” And if we want to end an unpopular war, we do that by escalating it. Thus we achieve “victory,” which we can trust our televisions to accurately inform us of. Thus do we make a better world and uphold the rule of law. We prevent future wars by continuing the existing ones and preparing for ever more.
Or so we like to believe.