the 1960s, in response to the Vietnam War, young Americans vowed to
“make love, not war.” Ever since 9/11, if not before,
America has a new vow: Make War, Not Love.
American empire believes it must dominate the world stage. Partly
this is due to hubris unleashed by the fall of the Soviet Union in
1991. As Colin Powell put it that year:
no longer have the luxury of having a threat to plan for. What we
plan for is that we’re a superpower. We are the major player on
the world stage with responsibilities around the world, with
interests around the world.”
you define the world as your “stage” and define yourself
as a military and economic “superpower,” as the
a hubristic and militaristic foreign policy almost naturally follows.
And so it has.
15 years ago, I got involved in a heartfelt argument with a
conservative friend about whether it was wise for this country to
shrink its global presence, especially militarily. He saw us as a
benevolent actor on the world stage. I saw us as overly ambitious,
though not necessarily malevolent, as well as often misguided and in
denial when it came to our flaws. I think of his rejoinder to me as
the “empty stage” argument. Basically, he suggested that
all the world’s a stage and, should this country become too
timid and abandon it, other far more dangerous actors could take our
place, with everyone suffering. My response was that we should, at
least, try to leave that stage in some fashion and see if we were
missed. Wasn’t our own American stage ever
enough for us? And if this country were truly missed, it could always
return, perhaps even triumphantly.
course, officials in Washington and the Pentagon do like to imagine
themselves as leading “the indispensable nation” and are
generally unwilling to test any other possibilities. Instead, like so
many ham actors, all they want is to eternally mug and try to
dominate every stage in sight.
truth, the U.S. doesn’t really have to be involved in every war
around and undoubtedly wouldn’t be if certain actors (corporate
as well as individual) didn’t feel it was just so profitable.
If my five answers above were ever taken seriously here, there might
indeed be a wiser and more peaceful path forward for this country.
But that can’t happen if the forces that profit from the status
quo — where bellum (war) is never ante- or post- but simply
ongoing — remain so powerful. The question is, of course, how
to take the profits of every sort out of war and radically downsize
our military (especially its overseas “footprint”), so
that it truly becomes a force for “national security,”
rather than national insecurity.
of all, Americans need to resist the seductiveness of war, because
endless war and preparations for more of the same have been a leading
cause of national decline. One thing I know: Waving blue-and-yellow
flags in solidarity with Ukraine and supporting “our”
troops may feel good but it won’t make us good. In fact, it
will only contribute to ever more gruesome versions of war.
striking feature of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that, after so
many increasingly dim years, it’s finally allowed America’s
war party to pose as the “good guys” again. After two
decades of a calamitous “war on terror” and unmitigated
disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and so many other
places, Americans find themselves on the side of the underdog
Ukrainians against that “genocidal”
Putin. That such a reading of the present situation might be
uncritical and reductively one-sided should (but doesn’t) go
without saying. That it’s seductive because it feeds both
American nationalism and narcissism, while furthering a mythology of
redemptive violence, should be scary indeed.
it’s high time to call a halt to the Pentagon’s unending
ham-fisted version of a world tour. If only it were also time to try
dreaming a different dream, a more pacific one of being perhaps a
first among equals. In the America of this moment, even that is
undoubtedly asking too much. An Air Force buddy of mine once said to
me that when you wage war long, you wage it wrong. Unfortunately,
when you choose the dark path of global dominance, you also choose a
path of constant warfare and troubled times marked by the cruel risk
of violent blowback (a phenomenon of which historian and critic
presciently warned us in the years before 9/11).
certainly feels it’s on the right side of history in this
Ukraine moment. However, persistent warfare should never be confused
with strength and certainly not with righteousness, especially on a
planet haunted by a growing sense of impending doom.