By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, September 30, 2022
I wholeheatedly and enthusiastically recommend Andrew Bacevich’s latest book, On Shedding An Obsolete Past, to almost everybody. I have second thoughts only on recommending 350 pages of denouncing warmaking to those who are already out ahead of it and have come to understand the need to abolish wars and militarism before those things abolish us.
Bacevich names not one war relevant to the current day that he supports or justifies. He vaguely supports the U.S. blob consensus on WWII but finds it irrelevant to a radically altered world — and quite rightly so. My book, Leaving World War II Behind, both debunks the myths and determines that WWII is irrelevant to the maintenance of a military today. And yet, Bacevich maintains that you can justify war “when all other means of achieving genuinely essential objectives have been exhausted or are otherwise unavailable. A nation should go to war only when it has to — and even then, ending the conflict as expeditiously as possible should be an imperative.”
In 350 brilliant, historically-informed pages powerfully denouncing war, Bacevich does not squeeze in one word on what a “genuinely essential objective” might be, nor any explanation of what it might look like for means to be exhausted, nor any elaboration of whether the mandate to end a war expeditiously should or should not lead to nuclear obliteration. Nor does Bacevich ever seriously consider or critique or engage with any of the numerous authors, including the leader of his church, who demand total abolition of war. We are given neither an example of a justifiable war nor an imagined scenario of what one could be. And yet, Bacevich wants the corrupt U.S. military refocused on real and emerging threats — with, you guessed it, no explanation of what those are.
He also wants the purging of all three- and four-star officers, with a “precondition for promotion to those ranks confinement in a reeducation camp run by Iraq and Afghanistan war amputees, with a curriculum designed by Veterans For Peace.” That most such amputees have never been to the United States and speak limited English and would not willingly train U.S. military officials is not relevant here, because Bacevich — one can be sure based on several other references to casualties — means only U.S. amputees. But there is a problem with suggesting that Veterans For Peace would train U.S. military officers. Veterans For Peace works for the abolition of war. It won’t even accept U.S. government funds for victims of Agent Orange, due to concern for its organization’s credibility as an opponent of U.S. militarism — all U.S. militarism (and everybody else’s militarism).
It’s an understandable mistake. I’ve tried asking proponents of defunding the police to support deescalation training for police, and been told that that amounts to funding police and is therefore the problem. I’ve even asked libertarians to support moving military funding to both tax cuts and the funding of good things and been told that funding urgent human and environmental needs is no better than funding wars. But we ought to be able to expect a basic understanding of war abolition, even when disagreeing with it and even if joking. Bacevich’s remark may be a tongue-in-cheek joke. But Bacevich declares: “this is no time for half-measures” without grasping that for a war abolitionist, training U.S. troops is at the very best a half measure.
Of course, I get it. Bacevich is writing for a society gone war mad, with never a voice for peace anywhere in the corporate media. His task is to protest what he rightly calls the normalization of war. He might even secretly suspect that abolition would be a good idea. But what would be gained by saying so? Better to nudge things in that direction, and allow a reverse arms race and an evolving understanding and the momentum of progress to make abolition gradually appear acceptable . . . and then support it.
One trouble with that approach is, I believe, readers who think. I mean, what is to become of the reader who wants to know exactly how abnormal war should be? Where is an example of a society in an age with just the right and proper amount of war as something correctly abnormal? After Bacevich’s various questionings of politicians who keep various wars going after it has become “apparent that a war is a mistake,” what can one do with the reader who asks what a war that is not a mistake looks like? After reading Bacevich’s repeated denunciations of the U.S. military for failing to win any wars, what if a reader asks what a won war would look like and (if such a description were possible) what would be the good of having won a war?
Here’s an even trickier conundrum. According to Bacevich, those U.S. military members who have died in the wars of recent decades “died in service to their country. Of that there is no doubt. Whether they died to advance the cause of freedom or even the wellbeing of the United States is another matter entirely.” Bacevich goes on to suggest that the wars have been fought for “oil, dominion, hubris,” and other unflattering things. So, why am I not permitted to doubt that this has been a service to a country? In fact, how can I avoid doubting that wasting trillions of dollars that could have positively transformed billions of lives, to engage in killing and injuring and making homeless and traumatizing millions of people, doing immense damage to the natural environment and political stability and the rule of law and civil liberties and U.S. and global culture — how can I possibly refrain from doubting that this is any service at all?
Bacevich, from my perspective, has another problem that may be somewhat separable from his support for maintaining the institution of war. Like the libertarians mentioned above, he avoids any suggestion that the U.S. government move the money to anything useful or engage in doing anything at all. He’s wonderful on what the U.S. government should stop doing. But there’s no discussion of replacing war with cooperation or the international rule of law. Bacevich puts “debt” in his lists of major concerns, not hunger, not poverty. But if one could imagine an ideal theoretical just war being launched tomorrow, could it possibly do so much more good than harm as to justify the past 80 years of, not just evil wars, and not just the maintenance of the risk of nuclear apocalypse, but also the diversion of such resources away from urgent human needs that vastly more lives have been lost to that prioritization than to the wars? And even if we could imagine, in the current system of laws and governments, a just war popping up among hundreds of unjust ones, don’t we have a responsibility to work on structural changes that create alternatives to war?
The main trouble with a reader who thinks, I suspect, is the logic of militarism. There is a logic to it. If you believe that there must or should be wars, then it makes a certain sense to want to be prepared to win them all, and to want to start them rather than have others start them against you. Of course we’ll never get to the elimination of war without first reducing war by stages. But the understanding that we are eliminating war makes a heck of a lot more sense than the idea of doing war halfway. Of course we live in an age in which millions of people think God and Heaven are real yet don’t devote every waking moment (in fact hardly a passing thought) to them, as I certainly would if I could make any sense of believing such things. Nonsense and contradiction are not always a barrier to political movements, but — all else equal — shouldn’t we avoid them?
Having made the case for ending all war and dismantling all weapons in countless books and articles and webinars, I won’t make it here, but will refer anyone interested to a website that seeks to debunk the common reasons for supporting the institution of war, and to provide a series of reasons for ending war. Feedback on where the case falls short is very much appreciated. We’ve done various public debates on the topic and would certainly welcome holding such a friendly debate with Bacevich. Meanwhile, here are books that support ending all war. I think advocates for dramatically scaling back, but keeping, the war machine ought to at least engage with and demonstrate the errors of these books.
THE WAR ABOLITION COLLECTION:
Abolishing State Violence: A World Beyond Bombs, Borders, and Cages by Ray Acheson, 2022.
Against War: Building a Culture of Peace by Pope Francis, 2022.
Ethics, Security, and The War-Machine: The True Cost of the Military by Ned Dobos, 2020.
Understanding the War Industry by Christian Sorensen, 2020.
No More War by Dan Kovalik, 2020.
Strength Through Peace: How Demilitarization Led to Peace and Happiness in Costa Rica, and What the Rest of the World Can Learn from a Tiny Tropical Nation, by Judith Eve Lipton and David P. Barash, 2019.
Social Defence by Jørgen Johansen and Brian Martin, 2019.
Murder Incorporated: Book Two: America’s Favorite Pastime by Mumia Abu Jamal and Stephen Vittoria, 2018.
Waymakers for Peace: Hiroshima and Nagasaki Survivors Speak by Melinda Clarke, 2018.
Preventing War and Promoting Peace: A Guide for Health Professionals edited by William Wiist and Shelley White, 2017.
The Business Plan For Peace: Building a World Without War by Scilla Elworthy, 2017.
War Is Never Just by David Swanson, 2016.
A Global Security System: An Alternative to War by World Beyond War, 2015, 2016, 2017.
A Mighty Case Against War: What America Missed in U.S. History Class and What We (All) Can Do Now by Kathy Beckwith, 2015.
War: A Crime Against Humanity by Roberto Vivo, 2014.
Catholic Realism and the Abolition of War by David Carroll Cochran, 2014.
War and Delusion: A Critical Examination by Laurie Calhoun, 2013.
Shift: The Beginning of War, the Ending of War by Judith Hand, 2013.
War No More: The Case for Abolition by David Swanson, 2013.
The End of War by John Horgan, 2012.
Transition to Peace by Russell Faure-Brac, 2012.
From War to Peace: A Guide To the Next Hundred Years by Kent Shifferd, 2011.
War Is A Lie by David Swanson, 2010, 2016.
Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace by Douglas Fry, 2009.
Living Beyond War by Winslow Myers, 2009.
Enough Blood Shed: 101 Solutions to Violence, Terror, and War by Mary-Wynne Ashford with Guy Dauncey, 2006.
Planet Earth: The Latest Weapon of War by Rosalie Bertell, 2001.
Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence by Myriam Miedzian, 1991.