John Mueller’s Strange Take on “The Stupidity of War”

How can you not love a book called The Stupidity of War? I’m tempted to count the ways. John Mueller’s new book is an odd one, for which I hope there is a perfect audience out there — though I’m not sure who it is.

The book is virtually free of any contemplation of how it might be wiser to settle disputes nonviolently, of any analysis of the rising power and success of nonviolent action, of any discussion of the growth and potential of international institutions and laws, of any criticism of corrupt profit motives behind wars and war propaganda, of any rumination on how utterly dumb it is to improve the world by dropping bombs on people in mostly one-sided mass-slaughters of mostly civilians, of any thought that weapons dealing by the United States and other wealthy countries has put the same weapons on both sides of most wars and put most wars in places that manufacture no weapons, of any mention of the damage done to transparent self-governance or morality or the natural environment by war, and has only the barest acknowledgement of the financial tradeoffs available through conversion to peace. Also missing is any serious placing of militarist calculations in the context of the coming environmental and climate collapse.

Instead, this is a book driven by the (admirable, and obviously true) idea that war is a cultural choice that can be impacted by shifts in public opinion, combined with the (sort of weird but partly right) idea that wars and military buildups — while generally sensible and well-intentioned — have probably not been needed and are probably not needed now on remotely the scale of current U.S. militarism because the threats that Mueller thinks are actually feared by war planners and that I think are concocted by skilled propagandists are wildly overblown if extant.

However, Mueller largely measures public support for wars in the United States based on polling on whether people want the U.S. government to engage with the world at all. As it is possible to engage with the world through peaceful treaties, international bodies, actual aid, and cooperation on numerous projects that have nothing to do with war, this question doesn’t actually tell us anything about public support for militarism. This is the old “isolationist” or militarist choice that Mueller seems to know is nonsense but still uses, rather than looking at polling on moving money from militarism to human and environmental needs, or polling on whether wars ought to have been fought, or polling on whether presidents should get to start wars or whether the public should get to have a veto via referendum. Mueller actually proposes “appeasement” and “complacency” rather than energetic peaceful engagement with the world.

Mueller wants to scale back U.S. militarism dramatically, and argues that it probably should have been done at the end of World War II, and that various achievements attributed to militarism since World War II would probably have been better achieved without it. Yet he wants to keep alive various powerful propaganda points in favor of out-of-control militarism, including the need to contain non-U.S. governments and the fear of future “Hitlers” despite the virtual end of colonialism and conquest, and despite the impossibility of the original Hitler having done what he did without the Treaty of Versailles, Western governments’ support, Western corporations’ support, U.S. eugenics and race theory, U.S. segregationist law, or Western governments’ anti-Semitism.

If people who agree in general with Mueller and read this book are somehow convinced to scale back U.S. militarism by three quarters, that would work very well for me. The resulting reverse arms race would make the case for continued reduction and elimination much easier.

Mueller’s case for a lack of enemies of the U.S. government is part a comparison of investments and capacities, part an examination of intentions, and part a recognition that war doesn’t succeed on its own terms — neither large-scale war, nor the small-scale violence known as “terrorism” so often used to justify the larger scale violence called “war.” The book covers the stupidity of terrorism as well as the stupidity of war. On the ridiculously overblown foreign threats, Mueller is right — and I hope he’s listened to. He makes numerous excellent points regarding the certainty with which people predicted a third world war, a second 9-11, etc., and comparing the fear of Japan’s economy a few decades back with the fear of China’s now.

But the stumbling blocks thrown in the reader’s path include a prologue falsely claiming that war has almost disappeared. Some readers may wonder why they should then worry about it. Others may — as presumably Mueller intends — find the near-nonexistence of war to be a good reason to get rid of it. And yet others may struggle with what to believe in a book that unnecessarily loads up the prologue with factual errors.

A graph on page 3 shows “Imperial and colonial wars” ceasing to exist in the early 1970s, “International wars” around 2003, “Civil wars with little or no outside intervention” constituting the bulk of the acknowledged wars but shrinking to about 3 currently happening, and “Civil wars with outside intervention” making up another 3.

If you define wars as armed conflicts with more than 1,000 deaths per year, then you get 17 countries with wars underway. Mueller does not tell us which 6 he counts as wars or why. Of those 17, one is a war in Afghanistan the current stage of which was initiated in 2001 by the United States which subsequently dragged 41 other countries into it (of which 34 still have troops on the ground). Another is a war on Yemen led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the United States (which claims to be partially ceasing). Also on the list: Iraq, Syria, Ukraine (where Mueller tells the story of the coup with the coup missing), Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, etc. Apparently, these wars either do not exist or are “civil wars” with three of them involving “outside intervention” (albeit 100% of them with U.S.-made weapons). Mueller goes on to declare that there have been some “policing wars,” which seem to count as “international wars,” but to claim that the only recent ones have been the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. One of these apparently existed from about 2002 to 2002, and the other not at all, according to the graph. He later tells us that Libya, Syria, and Yemen are “civil wars.”

Mueller’s whole book is packed with, not just this sort of war-is-over pinkerism, but all the absurdly low casualty estimates, absurdly generous interpretation of (U.S.) intentions, and blinkered analysis of history (mixed in with some excellent analysis of history too!) that one expects of a supporter of increased militarism. Yet Mueller (tentatively and with all sorts of warnings) proposes dramatically decreased militarism. We should hope that there is an audience that reads this as 100% right on and comes around to the reduction if not the abolitionist cause.

Then maybe we can inform them that the Kellogg Briand Pact did not ban or even mention “aggression” but rather war, that world leaders did not do everything they could to avoid WWII, that the U.S. didn’t show up in Korea only after the war started, that the Korean War was not “worth carrying out,” that troubles between Iran and the United States did not “all begin in 1979,” that John Kerry was not an antiwar candidate for president, that Saudi Arabia was complicit in 9-11, that Russia didn’t “seize” Crimea, that Putin and Xi Jinping do not resemble Hitler, that war lies about nukes causing horrible wars in places like Iraq is not a logical reason to keep nukes around, that the reason to get rid of nukes is not that they’ve already destroyed us and not that they’ve come close but that the risk is in no way justified, that NATO is not a benevolent force for controlling its other members but a means of facilitating foreign wars and generating weapons sales, and that the reason not to have more “policing wars” is not only that they are politically unpopular but also that murdering people is evil.

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