what's to blame for
AMERICA'S SENSELESS WARS
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
René Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue
University. He is author of many books and articles dealing
with international politics. His columns have appeared in the
New York Times, Washington Post, The Jerusalem
Post and OUPblog
(Oxford University Press). This article was originally
published in US News & World Report.
there were great military actions,
there lies whitening now
the jawbone of an ass.
I am in Vietnam,
wondering just how any U.S. president could ever have imagined
a purposeful American war in this part of the world. My considerable
wonderment has as much to do with the obvious vacancy of 1960s
and 1970s-era conceptual justifications (Vietnam as a threatened
"domino" was the preferred metaphor) as with patently
overwhelming operational difficulties. Notwithstanding the carefully
cultivated and contrived images of an indispensable conflict,
this was a war that never had a single defensible raison
d'être, and that never displayed any conceivable
way of being won.
it was Iraq, although now already officially ended, at least
for us. In Afghanistan, a war is still ongoing, even for us.
Allegedly, at least for us, the Afghan war will soon be over.
For the Afghans, however, it will be status quo ante bellum.
over the years, with the now-prominent and plainly unique exception
of North Korea, the doctrinal adversary has changed, from "communism"
to 'Islamism' or 'Jihadism.' This time, moreover, our adversary
is indisputably real and formidable. It is not merely another
imagined foe, one conveniently extrapolated from too-neatly
fashioned figures of speech, or deduced from other similarly
once again, it remains a war that can never be gainful, and
can never be won. Not on a battlefield.
Hercules, facing down the mythic Hydra, as soon as we manage
to chop off one enemy "head," many others will promptly
grow in its place. When the Jihadist enemy is seemingly vanquished
in one country or another, it will readily reappear in another.
After Iraq and Afghanistan, we will be facing similar and resurgent
adversaries in such indecipherable venues as Sudan; Mali; Yemen;
Somalia; Syria; Egypt; and, even in U.S.-backed "Palestine."
in the case of President Barack Obama's enthusiastic support
for a 'Two-State Solution,' formalized Palestinian statehood
will open up yet another major front in the still-metastasizing
Jihad against secular Western democracies.
we Americans should finally inquire, do we routinely manage
to descend from one war-policy forfeiture to the next, somehow
learning absolutely nothing from our oft-bloodied past, and,
somehow, proceeding headlong and headstrong to the next utterly
predictable calamity? The most obvious answer seems to lie in
the continuing intellectual inadequacies of our leaders.
turn, assuming that we truly live in a genuine democracy, these
critical shortcomings are the associated expression of a docile
American electorate that determinedly knows nothing, and wants
to know nothing, of historical truth.
us, military and foreign policy judgments are typically a reassuring
pretext for crudely chauvinistic eruptions. More often than
we might care to admit, these judgments are the outcome of unwitting
self-parody, rather than of any suitably analytic thought.
ça change, plus c'est la même chose. "The
more things change, the more they remain the same." And
the throne sits on mud," observed the philosopher Friedrich
Nietzsche, "mud sits on the throne." We herd-directed
Americans stand distant not only from Plato's enviable ideal
of a "philosopher-king," but also from the vastly
more modest expectation of prepared elected leaders who may
have actually learned how to think.
this condition can change, individual citizens will first have
to learn to take themselves seriously as persons. Among other
things, this will require rejection of our flagrantly demeaning
amusement society, and a corresponding embrace of intellectual
originality, industry, and authentic (not merely vocational)
learning. In essence, this means that before we can finally
rid ourselves of the deeply-institutionalized American penchant
to initiate protracted and useless wars, we will first have
to make ourselves capable of rendering substantially more sensible
and well-reasoned foreign policy prescriptions.
now, let us be candid, in a society that remains addicted to
suffocating reality shows, complete with their openly vulgar
dedications to Schadenfreude (taking joy in the suffering
of others), the so-called life of the American mind continues
to atrophy. In this now literally mind-numbing nation, true
wisdom normally takes a willing back seat to shamelessly disjointed
political platforms and to smugly empty witticisms.
we Americans continue to accept, as inevitable corollary, a
stunningly banal and perilous national politics. How, for example,
do we plan to deal effectively with an almost-nuclear and potentially
irrational leadership in North Korea? Are we prepared, intellectually,
to figure out what to do next? The answer should be obvious.
in the 1950s, Harvard historian Perry Miller published a book
titled The Life of the Mind in America. Then, thoughtful
references to a vital literary tradition rooted primarily in
Emerson, Thoreau, and the American Transcendentalists were instantly
recognizable to the average citizen reader. Not today. Now,
any work offered with a similar title would need to be a very
short book indeed. More than likely, because virtually no Americans
are even willing to challenge themselves beyond the flagrantly
manufactured demands of moment-to-moment social networking,
it would have to be marketed as a relentlessly biting satire,
or even as a grotesque caricature of America's frenetic civilizational
Praise of Folly, written by the renaissance humanist Desiderius
Erasmus in 1509, the narrator, dressed conspicuously in the
garb of a court jester, claims that she is humankind's greatest
benefactor. Nursed, says Folly, by Drunkenness and Ignorance,
her closest followers naturally include Self-Love, Pleasure,
Flattery, and Sound Sleep. Later, in Chapter 31, the long parade
of blemished people upon whom she gleefully confers her special
"benefits" moves dramatically from the young and hot-blooded,
to the pitiful and grotesque.
as all remaining human illusions are finally stripped away,
mercilessly, Folly still offers unreservedly high praise to
Ignorance and Lunacy. And ultimately, as the ironic and satiric
banter turn to acid, Folly concisely sums up her contrived frivolity
with an approving citation to words of Sophocles: "For
ignorance," recalls Folly," always provides the happiest
do we Americans continue to engage in futile wars? In the final
analysis, Erasmus would have had the best answer. So long as
we insistently prefer Folly to Wisdom - because "ignorance
always provides the happiest life" - there will never be
a compassionate or prudent national military policy.