Back in 2010 I wrote a book called War Is A Lie. Five years later, after having just prepared the second edition of that book to come out next spring, I came across another book published on a very similar theme in 2010 called Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War, by Richard E. Rubenstein.
Rubenstein, as you can tell already, is much more polite than I. His book is very well done and I’d recommend it to anyone, but perhaps especially to the crowd that finds sarcasm more offensive than bombs. (I’m trying to get everyone except that crowd to read my book!)
Pick up Rubenstein’s book if you want to read his elaboration on this list of reasons why people are brought around to supporting wars: 1. It’s self-defense; 2. The enemy is evil; 3. Not fighting will make us weak, humiliated, dishonored; 4. Patriotism; 5. Humanitarian duty; 6. Exceptionalism; 7. It’s a last resort.
Well done. But I think Rubenstein’s respect for war advocates (and I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense, as I think we must respect everyone if we are to understand them) leads him toward a focus on how much they believe their own propaganda. The answer to whether they do believe their own propaganda is, of course — and I assume Rubenstein would agree — yes and no. They believe some of it, somewhat, some of the time, and they try hard to believe a bit more of it. But how much? Where do you put the emphasis?
Rubenstein begins by defending, not the chief war marketers in Washington, but their supporters around the United States. “We agree to put ourselves in harm’s way,” he writes, “because we are convinced that the sacrifice is justified, not just because we have been stampeded into okaying war by devious leaders, scaremongering propagandists, or our own blood lust.”
Now, of course, most war supporters never put themselves within 10,000 miles of harm’s way, but certainly they believe a war is noble and just, either because the evil Muslims must be eradicated, or because the poor oppressed peoples must be liberated and rescued, or some combination. It is to the credit of war supporters that increasingly they have to believe wars are acts of philanthropy before they’ll support them. But why do they believe such bunk? They’re sold it by the propagandists, of course. Yes, scaremongering propagandists. In 2014 many people supported a war they had opposed in 2013, as a direct result of watching and hearing about beheading videos, not as a result of hearing a more coherent moral justification. In fact the story made even less sense in 2014 and involved either switching sides or taking both sides in the same war that had been pitched unsuccessfully the year before.
Rubenstein argues, rightly I think, that support for war arises not just out of a proximate incident (the Gulf of Tonkin fraud, the babies out of incubators fraud, the Spanish sinking the Maine fraud, etc.) but also out of a broader narrative that depicts an enemy as evil and threatening or an ally as in need. The famous WMD of 2003 really did exist in many countries, including the United States, but belief in the evil of Iraq meant not only that WMD were unacceptable there but also that Iraq itself was unacceptable whether or not the WMD existed. Bush was asked after the invasion why he’d made the claims he’d made about weapons, and he replied, “What’s the difference?” Saddam Hussein was evil, he said. End of story. Rubenstein is right, I think, that we should look at the underlying motivations, such as the belief in Iraq’s evil rather than in the WMDs. But the underlying motivation is even uglier than the surface justification, especially when the belief is that the whole nation is evil. And recognizing the underlying motivation allows us to understand, for example, Colin Powell’s use of fabricated dialogue and false information in his UN presentation as dishonest. He didn’t believe his own propaganda; he wanted to keep his job.
According to Rubenstein, Bush and Cheney “clearly believed their own public statements.” Bush, remember, proposed to Tony Blair that they paint a U.S. plane with UN colors, fly it low, and try to get it shot. He then walked out to the press, with Blair, and said he was trying to avoid war. But he no doubt did partially believe some of his statements, and he shared with much of the U.S. public the idea that war is an acceptable tool of foreign policy. He shared in widespread xenophobia, bigotry, and belief in the redemptive power of mass murder. He shared faith in war technology. He shared the desire to disbelieve in the causation of anti-U.S. sentiment by past U.S. actions. In those senses, we cannot say that a propagandist reversed the public’s beliefs. People were manipulated by the multiplication of the terror of 9/11 into months of terrorizing in the media. They were deprived of basic facts by their schools and newspapers. But to suggest actual honesty on the part of war makers is going too far.
Rubenstein maintains that President William McKinley was persuaded to annex the Philippines by “the same humanitarian ideology that convinced ordinary Americans to support the war.” Really? Because McKinley not only said the poor little brown Filipinos couldn’t govern themselves, but also said that it would be bad “business” to let Germany or France have the Philippines. Rubenstein himself notes that “if the acerbic Mr. Twain were still with us, he would very likely suggest that the reason we did not intervene in Rwanda in 1994 was because there was no profit in it.” Setting aside the damaging U.S. intervention of the previous three years in Uganda and its backing of the assassin that it saw profit in allowing to take power through its “inaction” in Rwanda, this is exactly right. Humanitarian motivations are found where profit lies (Syria) and not where it doesn’t, or where it lies on the side of mass killing (Yemen). That doesn’t mean the humanitarian beliefs aren’t somewhat believed, and more so by the public than by the propagandists, but it does call their purity into question.
Rubenstein describes the Cold War thus: “While fulminating against Communist dictatorships, American leaders supported brutal pro-Western dictatorships in scores of Third World nations. This is sometimes considered hypocrisy, but it really represented a misguided form of sincerity. Backing anti-democratic elites reflected the conviction that if the enemy is wholly evil, one must use ‘all means necessary’ to defeat him.” Of course a lot of people believed that. They also believed that if the Soviet Union ever collapsed, U.S. imperialism and backing for nasty anti-communist dictators would come to a screeching halt. They were proved 100% wrong in their analysis. The Soviet threat was replaced by the terrorism threat, and the behavior remained virtually unchanged. And it remained virtually unchanged even before the terrorism threat could be properly developed — although it of course has never been developed into anything resembling the Soviet Union. In addition, if you accept Rubenstein’s notion of sincere belief in the greater good of doing evil in the Cold War, you still have to acknowledge that the evil done included massive piles of lies, dishonesty, misrepresentations, secrecy, deception, and completely disingenuous horseshit, all in the name of stopping the commies. Calling lying (about the Gulf of Tonkin or the missile gap or the Contras or whatever) “really … sincerity” leaves one wondering what insincerity would look like and what an example would be of someone lying without any belief that something justified it.
Rubenstein himself doesn’t seem to be lying about anything, even when he seems to have the facts wildly wrong, as when he says the most of America’s wars have been victorious (huh?). And his analysis of how wars start and how peace activism can end them is very useful. He includes on his to-do list at #5 “Demand that war advocates declare their interests.” That is absolutely crucial only because those war advocates do not believe their own propaganda. They believe in their own greed and their own careers.