Exceptionalism and the Empathy Gap: The lasting impact of an endless war culture on a finite planet
In waging endless war, Americans are also, in effect, mutinying against the planet. In the process, we are spoiling the last, best hope of earth: a concerted and pacific effort to meet the shared challenges of a rapidly warming and changing planet.
It is no surprise that American blood is still being spilled in war after war across the Greater Middle East and Africa, even as foreign peoples pay a far higher price in lives lost and cities ruined. And I keep asking myself: Why, in this century, is the distinctive feature of America’s wars that they never end? Our leaders persist in such repetitive folly and the seemingly eternal disasters that go with it.
Why do America’s disastrous wars persist? I can think of many reasons, some obvious and easy to understand, like the endless pursuit of profit through weapons sales for those very wars, and some more subtle but no less significant, like a deep-seated conviction in Washington that a willingness to wage war is a sign of national toughness and seriousness.
There is another distinctive aspect of our forever-war moment: Peace is no longer even a topic in America today. The very word, once at least part of the rhetoric of Washington politicians, has essentially dropped out of use entirely.
War, in other words, is our new normal, America’s default position on global affairs, and peace, some ancient, long-faded dream. And when your default position is war, whether against the Taliban, ISIS, “terror” more generally, or possibly even Iran or Russia or China, is it any surprise that war is what you get?
When you garrison the world with an unprecedented 800 or so military bases, when you configure your armed forces for what’s called power projection, when you divide the globe – the total planet – into areas of dominance (with acronyms like CENTCOM, AFRICOM, and SOUTHCOM) commanded by four-star generals and admirals, when you spend more on your military than the next seven countries combined, when you insist on modernizing a nuclear arsenal (to the tune of perhaps $1.7 trillion) already quite capable of ending all life on this and several other planets, what can you expect but a reality of endless war?
Think of this as the new American exceptionalism. In Washington, war is now the predictable and even desirable way of life, while peace is the unpredictable and unwise path to follow. In this context, the U.S. must continue to be the most powerful nation in the world by a country mile in all death-dealing realms and its wars must be fought, generation after generation, even when victory is never in sight. And if that isn’t an “exceptional” belief system, what is?
If we are ever to put an end to our country’s endless twenty-first-century wars, that mindset will have to be changed. But to do that, we would first have to recognize and confront war’s many uses in American life and culture.
War, Its Uses and Abuses
A partial list of war’s many uses might go something like this: war is profitable, most notably for America’s vast military-industrial complex; war is sold as being necessary for America’s safety, especially to prevent terrorist attacks; and for many Americans, war is seen as a measure of national fitness and worthiness, a reminder that “freedom isn’t free.” In our politics today, it’s far better to be seen as strong and wrong than meek and right.
As the title of a book by former war reporter Chris Hedges so aptly put it, war is a force that gives us meaning. And let’s face it, a significant part of America’s meaning in this century has involved pride in having the toughest military on the planet, even as trillions of tax dollars went into a misguided attempt to maintain bragging rights to being the world’s sole superpower.
Among other things, a never-ending war weakens democracy while strengthening authoritarian tendencies in politics and society. In an age of gaping inequality, using up the country’s resources in such profligate and destructive ways offers a striking exercise in consumption that profits the few at the expense of the many.
In other words, for a select few, war pays dividends in ways that peace does not. In a nutshell, or perhaps an artillery shell, war is anti-democratic, anti-progressive, anti-intellectual, and anti-human. Yet, as we know, history makes heroes out of its participants and celebrates mass murderers like Napoleon as “great captains.”
What the United States needs today is a new strategy of containment – not against communist expansion, as in the Cold War, but against war itself. What is stopping us from containing war? You might say that, in some sense, we have grown addicted to it, which is true enough, but here are five additional reasons for war’s enduring presence in American life:
- The delusional idea that Americans are, by nature, winners and that our wars are therefore winnable: No American leader wants to be labeled a “loser.” Meanwhile, such dubious conflicts – see: the Afghan War, now in its 18th year, with several more years, or even generations, to go – continue to be treated by the military as if they were indeed winnable, even though they visibly aren’t. No president, Republican or Democrat, not even Donald J. Trump, despite his promises that American soldiers will be coming home from such fiascos, has successfully resisted the Pentagon’s siren call for patience (and for yet more trillions of dollars) in the cause of ultimate victory, however poorly defined, farfetched, or far-off.
- American society’s almost complete isolation from war’s deadly effects: We’re not being droned, yet. Our cities are not yet lying in ruins, though they’re certainly suffering from a lack of funding, as is our most essential infrastructure, thanks in part to the cost of those overseas wars. It’s nonetheless remarkable how little attention, either in the media or elsewhere, this country’s never-ending war-making gets here.
- Unnecessary and sweeping secrecy: How can you resist what you essentially don’t know about? Learning its lesson from the Vietnam War, the Pentagon now classifies (in plain speak: covers up) the worst aspects of its disastrous wars. This isn’t because the enemy could exploit such details — the enemy already knows! — but because the American people might be roused to something like anger and action by it. Principled whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning have been imprisoned or otherwise dismissed or, in the case of Edward Snowden, pursued and indicted for sharing honest details about the calamitous Iraq War and America’s invasive and intrusive surveillance state. In the process, a clear message of intimidation has been sent to other would-be truth-tellers.
- An unrepresentative government: Long ago, of course, Congress ceded to the presidency most of its constitutional powers when it comes to making war. Still, despite recent attempts to end America’s arms-dealing role in the genocidal Saudi war in Yemen, overridden by Donald Trump’s veto power, America’s duly elected representatives generally don’t represent the people when it comes to this country’s disastrous wars. They are, to put it bluntly, largely captives of (and sometimes on leaving politics quite literally go to work for) the military-industrial complex. As long as money is speech, the weapons makers are always likely to be able to shout louder in Congress than you and I ever will.
- America’s persistent empathy gap. Despite our size, we are a remarkably insular nation and suffer from a serious empathy gap when it comes to understanding foreign cultures and peoples or what we’re actually doing to them. Even our globetrotting troops, when not fighting and killing foreigners in battle, often stay on vast bases, referred to in the military as “Little Americas,” complete with familiar stores, fast food, you name it. Wherever we go, there we are, eating our big burgers, driving our big trucks, wielding our big guns, and dropping our very big bombs. But what those bombs do, whom they hurt or kill, whom they displace from their homes and lives, these are things that Americans turn out to care remarkably little about.
Even the Pentagon knows that our most serious enemy is climate change, not China or Russia or terror. Assuming we do not annihilate ourselves with nuclear weapons first, our real enemy is the endless war we are waging against Planet Earth. The U.S. military is also a major consumer of fossil fuels and therefore a significant driver of climate change. Meanwhile, the Pentagon, like any enormously powerful system, only wants to grow more so, but what’s welfare for the military brass isn’t wellness for the planet.
There is, unfortunately, only one Planet Earth, or Spaceship Earth, if you prefer, since we’re all traveling through our galaxy on it. Thought about a certain way, we are its crew members, yet instead of cooperating effectively as its stewards, we seem determined to fight one another. If a house divided against itself cannot stand, as Abraham Lincoln pointed out so long ago, surely a spaceship with a disputatious and self-destructive crew is not likely to survive, no less thrive.
In other words, in waging endless war, Americans are also, in effect, mutinying against the planet. In the process, we are spoiling the last, best hope of earth: a concerted and pacific effort to meet the shared challenges of a rapidly warming and changing planet.
Spaceship Earth should not be allowed to remain Warship Earth as well, not when the existence of significant parts of humanity is already becoming ever more precarious. Think of us as suffering from a coolant leak, causing cabin temperatures to rise even as food and other resources dwindle. Under the circumstances, what’s the best strategy for survival: killing each other while ignoring the leak or banding together to fix an increasingly compromised ship?
Unfortunately, for America’s leaders the real “fixes” remain global military and resource domination, even as those resources continue to shrink on an ever-more fragile globe. If America’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen prove anything, it’s that every war scars our planet – and hardens our hearts. Every war makes us less human as well as less humane. Every war wastes resources when these are increasingly at a premium. Every war is a distraction from higher needs and a better life.
Despite all of war’s uses and abuses, its allures and temptations, it is time that we Americans showed some self-mastery, as well as decency, by putting a stop to the mayhem. Few enough of us experience “our” wars firsthand and that’s precisely why some idealize their purpose and idolize their practitioners. But war is a bloody, murderous mess and those practitioners, when not killed or wounded, are marred for life because war functionally makes everyone involved into a murderer.
We need to stop idealizing war and idolizing its so-called warriors. At stake is nothing less than the future of humanity and the viability of life, as we know it, on Spaceship Earth.