Wars Cannot Be Both Planned and Avoided

Congress held an emergency meeting to defund NPR, and then did nothing as the President spent vastly more money on bombing Libya. President Obama didn’t have to ask for the funding, because the Pentagon had enough lying around for just such an occasion.

A fundamental lie that keeps war going is the idea that we avoid war by preparing for it. “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” said Theodore Roosevelt, who favored building a big military just in case, but of course not actually using it unless forced to.

This worked out excellently, with the few minor exceptions of Roosevelt’s mobilization of forces to Panama in 1901, Colombia in 1902, Honduras in 1903, the Dominican Republic in 1903, Syria in 1903, Abyssinia in 1903, Panama in 1903, the Dominican Republic in 1904, Morocco in 1904, Panama in 1904, Korea in 1904, Cuba in 1906, Honduras in 1907, and the Philippines throughout Roosevelt’s presidency.

The first people we know of who prepared for war — the Sumerian hero Gilgamesh and his companion Enkido, or the Greeks who fought at Troy (just prior to the original “Odyssey Dawn”) — also prepared for the hunting of wild animals. Barbara Ehrenreich theorizes that,

“. . . with the decline of wild predator and game populations, there would have been little to occupy the males who had specialized in hunting and anti-predator defense, and no well-trodden route to the status of ‘hero.’ What saved the hunter-defender male from obsolescence or a life of agricultural toil was the fact that he possessed weapons and the skills to use them. [Lewis] Mumford suggests that the hunter-defender preserved his status by turning to a kind of ‘protection racket’: pay him (with food and social standing) or be subject to his predations.

“Eventually, the presence of underemployed hunter-defenders in other settlements guaranteed a new and ‘foreign’ menace to defend against. The hunter-defenders of one band or settlement could justify their upkeep by pointing to the threat posed by their counterparts in other groups, and the danger could always be made more vivid by staging a raid from time to time. As Gwynne Dyer observes in his survey of war, ‘pre-civilized warfare…was predominantly a rough male sport for underemployed hunters.'”

In other words, war may have begun as a means of achieving heroism, just as it is continued based on the same mythology. It may have begun because people were armed and in need of enemies, since their traditional enemies (lions, bears, wolves) were dying out. Which came first, the wars or the weapons? That riddle may actually have an answer. The answer appears to be the weapons. And those who do not learn from prehistory may be doomed to repeat it.

We like to believe in everyone’s good intentions. “Be prepared” is the Boy Scouts’ motto, after all. It’s simply reasonable, responsible, and safe to be prepared. Not to be prepared would be reckless, right?

The problem with this argument is that it’s not completely crazy. On a smaller scale it’s not completely crazy for people to want guns in their homes to protect themselves from burglars. In that situation, there are other factors to consider, including the high rate of gun accidents, the use of guns in fits of rage, the ability of criminals to turn home owners’ guns against them, the frequent theft of guns, the distraction the gun solution causes from efforts to reduce the causes of crime, etc.

On the larger scale of war and arming a nation for war, similar factors must be considered. Weapon-related accidents, malicious testing on human beings, theft, sales to allies who become enemies, and the distraction from efforts to reduce the causes of terrorism and war must all be taken into account. So, of course, must the tendency to use weapons once you have them. At times, more weapons can’t be produced until the existing stock is depleted and new innovations are tested “on the battlefield.”

But there are other factors to consider as well. A nation’s stockpiling of weapons for war puts pressure on other nations to do the same. Even a nation that intends to fight only in defense, may understand “defense” to be the ability to retaliate against other nations. This makes it necessary to create the weaponry and strategies for aggressive war, and even “preemptive war,” encouraging other nations to do the same. When you put a lot of people to work planning something, when that project is in fact your largest public investment and proudest cause, it can be difficult to keep those people from finding opportunities to execute their plans.


In the aftermath of World War I, a British military body called the Holland Committee reached this conclusion:

“It is impossible to divorce the study of defence (sic) against gas from the study of the use of gas as an offensive weapon, as the efficiency of the defence depends entirely on an accurate knowledge as to what progress is being or is likely to be made in the offensive use of the weapon.”

Even if military “defense” were not understood to include retaliation against a distant enemy, there is no way to develop defensive weapons without researching offensive weapons. In fact, there may be no way to develop defensive weapons at all. What weapon defends against box cutters on airplanes or a chemical weapon attack? In the 1930s, some argued that search lights, sound detectors, anti-aircraft guns, and wire nets to catch bombs, combined with gas masks and shelters could protect everyone from airplanes. How’d that work out? Most war planners knew it was hopeless, and so backed a the-best-defense-is-to-go-on-offense-first approach.

War supporters still like to cite General George Patton as the source for “The best defense is a good offense,” although I’m sure the idea predates him. It turns out that researching weapons and potential weapons in the hopes that some technological, rather than diplomatic, means of defense will occur to you means, first and foremost, researching offensive weapons.

Attempting to deploy defensive weapons, such as a “missile defense” system creates other problems. That system has not been proven capable of defense, but it is clearly capable of offense. This leads to understandable skepticism about its true purpose. Deployment of the system’s components in other countries creates targets for attack, serving the opposite purpose from defense. And the system, viewed with suspicion, is taken as a threat, thus antagonizing potential enemies in a way that something unequivocally defensive would not.

The way to peace turns out to lie not through war preparations, but through peace preparations. Preparing for war very often, though not always, leads to the launching of wars, wars that in many cases would probably not have happened without the preparations. Even the Project for the New American Century could not have advocated for the demonstration of the United States’ military preeminence had the United States not built up a military dramatically larger than (though obviously not powerful enough to crush) anyone else’s.

When Winston Churchill spoke in New York City on October 9, 1929, his $12,500 speaker’s fee was paid by the chairman of African Explosives and deputy chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries which manufactured bombs, ammunition, and poison gas. Imperial Chemical was a descendant of the company of Alfred Nobel (the arms manufacturer and creator of the eponymous “peace prize”), and it worked with Dupont in the United States and I.G. Farben in Germany, the latter being the supplier of gas for the Nazis’ gas chambers. Churchill spoke in support of larger militaries.

In President Franklin Roosevelt’s office were an ashtray with a ship on it, a cigarette lighter in the shape of a ship’s wheel, a barometer, a ship’s clock, paintings of sea battles, and a model of a destroyer. Throughout the White House were ship models and paintings and lithographs of naval battles. A portrait of the president in the New York Times Magazine on April 3, 1938, carried the caption:

“The sea and things of the sea, the navy and its ships and men and guns are probably the outstanding passions of the President’s life.”

If instead of Churchill and Roosevelt, Britain and the United States had placed in power men or women who lacked affection for weapons and financial interests in weapons, would war have been as likely to occur and to take the form that it did? (E.L.F. Wood, Lord Halifax, would likely have made peace with Germany, but Churchill insisted on war.)

And if war had to happen, would it have been as bloody had we not armed the other side? In 1934, the French arms company Schneider sold 400 tanks to Hitler’s Germany, and the British company Vickers sold Hitler 60 airplanes. Meanwhile, the U.S. company Boeing sold three two-engine airplanes to Germany. Pratt and Whitney sold BMW (Bavarian, not British, Motor Works) the rights to build one of its engines. The Sperry Corporation had a patent agreement with the German company Askania. Sperry made bombsights and gyroscopic stabilizers. American companies sold Germany crankshafts, cylinder heads, control systems for anti-aircraft guns, and enough components to produce a hundred planes a month. According to at least some monthly reports from the U.S. government during the 1930s, Germany was the third largest purchaser of U.S. weapons.

Beginning in 1938, Lockheed licensed the Tachikawa and Kawasaki companies in Japan to build 200 transport bombers. Before the United States cut off oil to Japan, it had been — right up through 1940 — shipping Japan tens of millions of dollars’ worth of “aviation gas” each year, relabeling the substance “high-grade motor fuel” in order to avoid highlighting its purpose.

Between June 1962 and January 1964 only 179 of approximately 7,500 weapons captured from the Vietcong had come from the Soviet bloc. The other 95 percent were U.S. weapons that had been provided to the South Vietnamese.

So, perhaps stockpiling weapons can increase the likelihood of wars, and selling piles of weapons to the other side can make the wars bloodier, but didn’t the accumulating mountain of weaponry during the Cold War lead to a bloodless victory?

No, it didn’t. It led to endless and very bloody proxy wars fought with “conventional” weapons, not to mention the post-Cold-War proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional nations — which can only look harmless up until the moment it eliminates all life on the planet.

The Cold War, just like the period that followed it, involved as much lying as any hot war. The way to build more weapons in an “arms race” is to pretend the other side is ahead of you. In May 1956, Curtis LeMay, head of Strategic Air Command, in testimony before a Senate subcommittee, claimed that Soviet aircraft production was outpacing that of the United States, creating a mad rush to “catch up.” In fact, the exact opposite was true, and LeMay almost certainly knew it. John Kennedy campaigned for president promoting a fictional “missile gap” with the Soviet Union, then boosted military spending by 15 percent in his first year. In reality, the United States had more missiles than the Soviet Union did, even before Kennedy doubled the production rate of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and increased the planned fleet of nuclear submarines. This, of course, encouraged the Soviet Union to try to keep pace.

All of this is good news for weapons makers, but not for peace planners. Having built all kinds of weapons, people tend to start thinking about how they might use some of them. They focus their attention on war plans, war scenarios, and hypothetical war contingencies, but not on planning for peace. In 1936, an English subcommittee strategized an air war on Germany. They determined that bombing German cities would not cause Germany to surrender, but — importantly — in spite of that knowledge, they developed plans for bombing German cities. In contrast, in 1938, when Clarence Pickett, a leader of the American Friends Service Committee asked Roosevelt to talk directly with Hitler to try to avoid war, Roosevelt replied that he’d thought about that but was more concerned with building up a strong air force. Planning for war was more important than working for peace. (More shocking to the contemporary eye, of course, is the phenomenon of a president communicating with a peace activist at all.)

In 2002 the British government produced a document known as “the Iraq Options Paper,” which recommended the steps that would be necessary as a precursor to a military attack on Iraq. Britain and the United States would have to slowly build up pressure to frighten Saddam Hussein. A refusal to admit U.N. inspectors could serve as a justification, but intense diplomatic work would be needed first to win support from the U.N. Security Council and other nations. Re-energizing the peace process between Israel and Palestine could help sell the world on attacking Iraq. A major media campaign would be needed to prepare public opinion. So much planning just to arrive at something the planners would claim was a last resort.

Of course, Iraq had no connection to al Qaeda, but the general and dangerously vague “war on terror” was driven by propaganda that substituted al Qaeda for the Cold War’s Soviet Union, inflating reports of the al Qaeda threat and pursuing policies that actually helped to build al Qaeda. In September 2010, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) produced a report overseen by a former deputy director of Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, MI-6. The report found that the threat from al Qaeda and the Taliban had been “exaggerated” by the western powers. The occupation of Afghanistan had “ballooned” out of all proportion from its original aim of disrupting and defeating al-Qaeda and in fact constituted “a long-drawn-out disaster.” The report admitted that the occupation was fuelling violence.

Always innovating, the United States at about the same time found another way to fuel probable future violence. In the largest U.S. weapons sale ever, the Obama administration arranged to sell Saudi Arabia 60 billion dollars worth of aircraft. Apparently Saudi Arabia would need these to fend off the menace of Iran, which possessed a small air force consisting largely of old planes supplied by none other than — you guessed it — the United States.


The most disturbing news about new weapons research and production usually comes from a terrific activist group called the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. In a recent Email, these were their top concerns:

“The U.S. is encircling Russia and China with ‘missile defense’ systems that are key elements in the Pentagon’s ‘first strike’ program. The U.S. is deploying Navy Aegis destroyers, with SM-3 interceptors on-board in Japan, South Korea, and Australia. Ground-based PAC-3 (Patriot) interceptors are being put in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

“Obama is also deploying PAC-3 missiles in Poland, 35 miles from Russia’s Kaliningrad border, and SM-3 missiles at new U.S. bases in Bulgaria and Romania. Aegis destroyers will also be deployed in the Black Sea further surrounding Russia.

“All of these missile deployments will be directed by U.S. space technology from bases around the globe. U.S. ‘missile offense’ makes it likely that a new arms race with Russia and China will move into space.”

How’s that for bad news? I’ll note also that in 2008, the United States shot down a Chinese spy satellite, justifying this successful test of new technology with a transparently false claim of concern over possible health risks. The claim was that if the satellite, which had gone off course, fell to earth its fuel tank could survive and present a toxic danger. The chances of a fuel tank surviving reentry were tiny, and someone would have had to breathe its fumes at close range for some time to be effected. That seems a small risk for an institution that has no reservations about coating towns with white phosphorous, napalm, and depleted uranium to address with a $60 million missile.

On top of ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, advocates of peace now have to take on a global and galactic arms race. And that may all be the easy part. In addition, the United States appears to be developing and implementing a strategy of unmanned drone wars, secret wars fought by special forces, targeted assassinations and regime changes, and occupations enforced by an ever more privatized and mercenary army.

On June 4, 2010, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration had “significantly expanded a largely secret U.S. war against al-Qaeda and other radical groups…. Special Operations forces have grown both in number and budget, and are deployed in 75 countries, compared with about 60 at the beginning of last year. In addition to units that have spent years in the Philippines and Colombia, teams are operating in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia.” The article continued:

“Commanders are developing plans for increasing the use of such forces in Somalia, where a Special Operations raid last year killed the alleged head of al-Qaeda in East Africa. Plans exist for preemptive or retaliatory strikes in numerous places around the world, meant to be put into action when a plot has been identified, or after an attack linked to a specific group.”

The best part of this strategy, according to the Post, was that Obama could avoid criticism by not acknowledging what he was doing, even if it was reported in the media:

“One advantage of using ‘secret’ forces for such missions is that they rarely discuss their operations in public. For a Democratic president such as Obama, who is criticized from either side of the political spectrum for too much or too little aggression, the unacknowledged CIA drone attacks in Pakistan, along with unilateral U.S. raids in Somalia and joint operations in Yemen, provide politically useful tools.”

The Post reported that Special Operations commanders had greater access to Obama than they’d had to Bush and were finding Obama willing to act more quickly and aggressively. That, plus the increased size and budget, might satisfy some people. Not these guys:

“Although pleased with their expanded numbers and funding, Special Operations commanders would like to devote more of their force to global missions outside war zones. Of about 13,000 Special Operations forces deployed overseas, about 9,000 are evenly divided between Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The Post noted that Obama claimed not to rely on Bush’s claims to inherent presidential war powers. Obama relied instead on the authorization Congress passed in 2001 allowing the president to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons” he determines “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the Sept. 11 attacks. But, the article also pointed out, many of the people now being targeted under that supposed authorization “had nothing to do with the 2001 attacks.”

How do people organize to put a stop to war making of this sort, war making often based on general lies about appropriate policy, but not based on any specific claims to justify each secret action?

Well, first of all, the massive and visible wars are not over yet. There are hundreds of thousands of troops, mercenaries, and contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ending major hot wars and occupations would be a wonderful problem to have, but it is one we cannot count on having anytime soon. We’ve just added a new one in Libya.

We’ll have to keep working for it. Chances are that occupations will be reduced, but not ended. Failures to meet deadlines and comply with treaties will offer opportunities to mobilize anti-war activism or to attempt a spinal implant on Congress. We can use that energy to enlarge a movement aimed at shutting down all forms of warfare.

If we reach a point at which our wars are all small and secret, we may want to put some energy into exposing atrocities. Secret atrocities, when exposed, can make bigger scandals than public shock and awings, especially if they are part of wars nobody even knew were happening. On September 9, 2010, the Guardian carried this headline: “US Soldiers ‘Killed Afghan Civilians for Sport and Collected Fingers as Trophies.'” The theory behind the strategy of promoting awareness of such stories is not that the soldiers will be demonized and that hatred will drive activism. Rather, the hope is that people will be ashamed and horrified by such things being done in their names and with their funds, and will mobilize to put a stop to it. They’ll put a stop to it by holding the top war planners accountable, and by defunding the military machine.

A campaign to defund the war machine can also be a campaign to fund jobs, schools, housing, transportation, green energy, and everything else that should be funded. Such a two-sided campaign can bring peace activists together with activists for domestic causes. When that happens in a big enough way, our culture will change, war lies will not seem credible, and war will be a thing of the past.

David Swanson is the author of “War Is A Lie” from which this is excerpted. http://warisalie.org

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