Today is Memorial Day in the United States, so it is fitting that we at least consider why the men fight and die in the first place. First of all, I am of the view that war can be better understood by looking at geopolitical and economic factors rather than just the high ideals of lebensraum, a war to end all wars, freedom or democracy. These are generally called “realpolitik” explanations since it seeks to express politics based on practical and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical objectives. I’m not saying that geopolitical and economic factors are ever the reason for a country going to war, but rather provides a reason for going to war that is more compelling and more predictive, in short provides a better explanation of events than what is usually officially stated.
It is hard to explain the number of deaths in Iraq, both by sanctions and the subsequent invasion, in terms of WMD’s, terrorist attacks, or the invasion of Kuwait. It isn’t as mystifying if we enter in some considerations from the geopolitical and economic sphere, namely that Iraq has the third largest proven oil reserve behind Iran and Saudi Arabia. Oil is essential to the American economy and military, most people just think about it in terms transportation. But, in fact, oil is an integral part of our food chain, which starts with corn. Oil provides the pesticides, the fertilizers, the machinery that makes the industrial food chain, based on corn, go. Corn is fed to the chickens, cows and is processed into many of the chemicals that are used to make food, from high-fructose corn syrup in soda to xanthan gum.
We are in the process of building 14 permanent military bases in Iraq. This should not be surprising since we still have 2 Army and 2 Air Force bases still in Kuwait (Camp Doha, Camp Udairi, Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base, and Ali Al Salem Air Base). If the U.S. is so interested in promoting democracy around the world, why did we help overthrow Mossadegh in Iran, Allende in Chile, or support military Juntas in El Salvador? If Iran was truly our enemy as evidenced by our support of Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war, then why did we deal with the Iranians during the “Iran-Contra Affair?” None of these can be explained based on ethical or theoretical objectives, but can be understood in terms pragmatism and material factors with noticeably little regard for the much of the death, and suffering caused by these policies in foreign lands.
I can’t help but be reminded of the elementary school teacher who told me that animals didn’t eat humans because we didn’t taste good. In light of that information, it was hard to explain the massive hunts that took place anytime a carnivore attacked a human being. The animal was invariably hunted down and killed. I mean, if humans tasted bad, wouldn’t the animal take a taste and realize we didn’t taste good? We wouldn’t have to worry about an animal attacking a human again after its initial bad experience. The more contradictions I found, it became more obvious that the teacher lied. Evidence of cannibalism and man eating lions in Africa support the idea that humans taste just fine. Humans are relatively easy kills, assuming they don’t have a weapon. Add easy kill to just fine tastiness and you have an animal that is probably going to keep on attacking humans which is why humans so mercilessly hunt down and kill animals that learn this forbidden knowledge.
Most of the time, teachers didn’t outright lie, it is more of misleading through omission. It is not enough to explain the brutal act of dropping nuclear bombs (the only two that we had) on Hiroshima and Nagasaki without considering the implications for Europe and to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union wasn’t the reason, but rather a reason, with a vast multitude of factors up to and including the unconditional surrender of Japan. However, if we look at it in terms of just surrender in terms of the peace treaty, dropping the nuclear bomb didn’t change the final terms of surrender too much since the Emperor remained in power. The misleading and misunderstanding starts with our earliest education and continues into our adult lives.
Much of the modern rhetoric for war owes to Woodrow Wilson, who was an intellectual who first used the arguments like making the world safe for democracy. I can’t help but wonder if much of the eventual bloodshed over Vietnam would have been avoided if Wilson would have met with Ho Chi Minh. But, realistically, it wouldn’t have been. Wilson demonstrably held the idea that self-determination apparently doesn’t apply if you are not of European descent, under French colonial rule, and happen to be a communist. This is against the backdrop of United States, where films like “Birth of Nation” praised the Klu Klux Klan and the U.S. was in the midst of building its own fledgling empire.
That is to say, the arguments for an idealistic or ethical policy for war have always been off from the true motivations. If the Spanish-American war was to free people from the tyranny of Spanish rule, then why did we have to fight the Philippine-American War? As Mark Twain put it:
There is the case of the Philippines. I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess. Perhaps we could not have avoided it — perhaps it was inevitable that we should come to be fighting the natives of those islands — but I cannot understand it, and have never been able to get at the bottom of the origin of our antagonism to the natives. I thought we should act as their protector — not try to get them under our heel. We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now — why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I’m sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation.
I can’t help but but struck by the similarities between the situation we face now in Iraq and the conflict in Twain’s time. We face many of the same contradictions if we hold America’s policies to just theoretical, ethical standards or stated purpose. Taking in a pragmatic or materialistic view, we can come to more meaningful views of the motivations involved. That isn’t to say that war is always unjustified. I think that there are wars in our history that were justified, such as the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War 2, and the initial Gulf War. But, we can not deny some of the “realpolitik” motivations for each of these actions or discount them.
I wish the “realpolitik” motivations were more on the table. So a democracy can do a more honest accounting of the cost versus benefits of remaining an oil based economy, I think it will start looking a lot more expensive than $3.50 per gallon at the gas station. The reason the arguments are so contentious is because half the information is hidden, that it is hard to agree on an acceptable starting point. This is intentional. On the “realpolitik” stage, might may make right, but it doesn’t save you from an occasional sucker-punk.
Hopefully, this information helps to more honestly answer the question of why men and women die in the service of the government of the United States of America.