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The institution of war is deeply ingrained in American culture. Backed by the greatest armed might ever assembled, America's capacity for war serves today as a primary tool of U.S. foreign policy. Whether brandished as a threat or actually applied, America's military power gives it great leverage in contests with other developed nations for strategic advantage on the world stage. Emboldened by its power, the U.S. can freely pursue opportunities to strengthen its security standing and economic potential with little fear of repercussions from any negative impact on strategic rivals. At the same time, as demonstrated with great clarity by the talking heads on America's cable news channels--predominantly CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC--American militarism is entirely outside the bounds of mainstream critique. It is instead an integral part of a national culture characterized by hypocritical self-righteousness and quick demonization of those who seriously challenge any aspect of it. As a consequence of this, the readiness to resort to armed force is so embedded in America's leadership elite, and the large segment of the populace still in step with it, that many people, regardless of their position on particular war-and-peace issues, accept as a given that predilections to war are embedded in the human genotype and therefore ineradicable.
Why I Believe War Can Be Ended
Based on my own belief that war and the threat of war always result in more bad than good, I participated in a spring, 2017 online study course conducted by the global anti-war activist organization World Beyond War. From information I gleaned there, I became convinced that militarism and war-making are neither the constructs of inherent human impulses, nor impossible to eradicate as social institutions. Here are four main reasons I came to those conclusions:
1) Making war is not an impulse inscribed in man's DNA. Scientists have determined the following: that man is not descended from killer apes, as was once believed; that the earliest human communities, extending over tens of thousands of years, show no evidence of attacks by one group on another; and that nations and cultures have abolished war in the past. As the prolific anti-war activist/author/speaker David Swanson has pointed out, Japan abolished war for centuries before its reintroduction from the West--a cultural shift that now seems once again underway.
2) The predilection to war is not instinctual, but a cultural meme that has a far greater influence on the nation's leadership elite than on ordinary citizens. Clearly, that is because Washington politicians, including the President, along with the defense establishment, weapons makers, and the mainstream media, all benefit in their career aspirations from working together to keep the deadly game going. Most ordinary citizens also lend their support, influenced by parents, schooling--even churches, and by the absence of any cultural inducement to challenge authority and march to the beat of a different drummer.
3) Because the nation's leadership elite has a vested interest in supporting war, it is highly unlikely that even the most compelling arguments against war will turn them into allies. The hope for doing that lies with ordinary citizens, who take their cues from the leaders but don't share either their vested interest in war or their rationalized conviction that war is part of what makes the world go round. The hope is that, over time, a critical mass of ordinary Americans can be convinced to accept, and then join in promoting, the compelling arguments that show war to be an atrocity that can and must be ended. If that happens, the politicians--who live for re-election--might well take heed and begin to rein in the defense establishment, the weapons manufacturers, and the mainstream media who march to their tune.
4) According to science journalist John Horgan, author of The End of War (2012), wars today are most commonly waged by advanced military powers against small groups of sectarian insurgents, religious extremists, and terrorists. Horgan projects that such conflicts will persist well into the future, but believes there are methods short of war, such as "police work" and "non-violent actions" (explained later in this article), that can prove effective in defusing them and opening the way to negotiated settlements. In my opinion, such alternatives to traditional war-making should be brought directly to the attention of the American Congress and the defense establishment in the form of expert testimony. The point would be to make sure that leaders responsible for war have no rational excuse for rejecting non-violent alternatives that are workable and effective, and also plainly more civilized and humane. It is arguable that successful efforts to end war will depend foremost on the success achieved by a mass anti-war movement in turning ordinary citizens from passive supporters of war to politically active opponents prepared to vote for anti-war candidates. It is also important, however, to make politicians aware that non-violent alternatives to war can actually work. That would provide them a politically safe and convincing rationale for leaving behind the venal and bloody realities of traditional militarism to pursue instead the humane goal of a binding international agreement to end all war.
It's Time To Replace "Peace through Strength" with "Strength through Peace"
For my own part, I find it hard to imagine any war--even plausibly defensive war--in which the in-your-face negatives inherent in it don't always outweigh the claimed higher purposes the "good guys" are fighting for. As already noted, I see militarism, both the continual preparation for war and war itself, as the response to a cultural meme, or shaping value. In America, that meme expresses itself in such notions as "Nice guys finish last" or Vince Lombardi's "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." As applied to foreign policy, it is framed by the slogan "Peace through Strength"--which, in practical terms, means a relentless push for strategic dominance (maximum economic and military advantage).
Since memes are ingrained cultural dispositions, however, and not based in biological instinct, I believe a well-organized mass anti-war movement can over time turn on its head the now dominant value of "Peace through Strength." What I'm looking for, as did Dennis Kucinich in his final presidential run in 2008, is "Strength through Peace." With that slogan as a motivating meme, our foreign policy would no longer be driven by the imperatives of strategic dominance, but by the empathetic impulse for creative collaboration with our neighbors around the world, aimed at ensuring every individual physical security and the freedom to pursue his or her own happiness.
Motivated by the value "Strength through Peace," we might well come to regard war as equivalent to murder, and to see rational compromise, not superior power, as the only viable solution to international conflicts. I wish that meme had already been dominant when President Trump threatened "fire and fury" against a desperate dynastic leader in North Korea who seeks to preserve his self-myth of personal power while fearing every day that those who wield the armed might of America are bent on depriving him of it. Wouldn't an iota of human empathy and reasoned understanding on our part--translated, perhaps, to a withdrawal of the latest hit-to-kill missile interceptor system in South Korea and a paring down of our military exercises with that ally--go a long way toward abating Kim Jung Un's fears and bellicose threats? Instead, given our continuing barbaric belligerence, all we have and can expect to have is the looming threat of heartless war with, this time, possibly cataclysmic consequences. In the end, a sound case can be made that war is not only unjustified as a first resort; it is not justified even as a last resort. This is made clear in two sentences from the book War Is a Lie (2010), whose author, David Swanson, is now director of the global anti-war activist organization World Beyond War.
The first sentence to which I have reference is this: "Any nation that chooses to fight a war wanted to fight a war, and was itself--therefore--impossible for the other nation to talk to." The second sentence elaborates on that point and expresses succinctly the nature of the "lie" David expounds. It reads: "Examine any war you like, and it turns out that if the aggressors had wanted to state their desires openly, they could have entered into negotiations rather than into battle. Instead, they wanted war--war for its own sake, or war for completely indefensible reasons that no other nation would willingly agree to." I've by now assimilated these points in words of my own that will serve in the future as my own conceptual frame for opposing war in any circumstances. The words are these: "No country that fights a war can claim it had no other choice. It can always choose not to do so, and seek first to negotiate the best possible terms to prevent impending aggression, or, if necessary, combat enemy occupation by peaceful resistance. No matter how great the compromise required, such a course will always be less bad, when weighed against the killing, suffering, social chaos, and moral degradation resulting from war, than any conceivable benefits to be gained by winning the war."
In his book War No More, the Case for Abolition (2013), Swanson offers three reasons why he believes war can be ended: first, that international disputes can be resolved in a plethora of ways without a resort to war; second, that war-making is not indigenous to human nature, but a culturally-based idea that is provisionally accepted within a society when sanctioned by its leaders; and, third, that, just as particular circumstances within a given cultural context can give rise to the idea that war is an acceptable means to resolve sectarian or national conflicts, so too can particular circumstances within the same cultural context give rise to the rejection of that idea.
I'm also intrigued by Swanson's call in the same book to keep the faith that war can in fact be ended, no matter what the contrary evidence. Toward that end, he pushes the idea of "innovative imagining"--a mindset that, unlike "wishful thinking," is grounded in reality. Precisely because war is only a motivating idea, or cultural meme, Swanson reminds us, and not an instinctual behavior, it will last only as long as the people allow it to last. That's the reality against which "innovative imagining" can prove effective. Even if it could be proved (and it has already been convincingly disproved) that no society has ever existed without war, Swanson argues, we should never give up the notion that our society can be the first to abolish it. We need to maintain a belief in our free will and capacity to avert war, since preparing for war because we've always done so in the past only makes it more likely.