“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
The United States of America has been at war for ninety-three percent of its existence and almost one-hundred percent of the twenty-first century. War and violent conflicts seem to be characteristics inherent not only to our own country but to humanity as a whole. Consequently, one might ask why we should bother discussing war and the horrors it brings. Why should we not just accept war as an inevitability and hope that we and our loved ones are impacted as little as possible by it? The answer to this question is multi-faceted, but part of the explanation lies in the distinction between just wars and forever wars.
What constitutes a just war is undeniably different for cultures across the globe. For example, radical Islamic fundamentalists have a far different conception of a just war than the average American. However, there is a growing consensus in the international community of what a just war truly is, with many tenets being derived from the just war theory. Some principles of this theory include having a cause in congruence with basic human morality and decency, the ends being proportional to the means, and having the war be declared by a proper authority among other precepts. International bodies such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court set boundaries on what the purposes of war should be and how wars should be conducted, notions originating at least as far back as the time of Plato but culminating in the immediate aftermath of World War II with the creation of peacekeeping bodies like the United Nations.
On the other hand, forever war is a war that has lost any sense of its initial justifications and possesses no clear conditions that will bring the war to its conclusion. This status is achieved when two conditions are met: Firstly, when a belligerent adopts unachievable objectives, and secondly, when the belligerent is also not at risk of being defeated itself. When a war becomes a forever war, the conflict becomes a seemingly bottomless pit of human lives, limbs, and money where no lasting impacts are achieved.
Where the line is drawn between just war and forever war is difficult to discern, mainly because a conflict can begin as a just war and devolve into forever war. The obvious example of this occurring is with the War on Terror, an on-going war against non-state actors primarily in the Middle East who follow various extreme interpretations of the Quran aim to subjugate the world under their fundamentalist version of the Dar al-Islam. As Americans are all too aware, this war began after September 11, 2001 when four coordinated terrorist attacks were carried out by the Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda which murdered 2,974 innocent Americans. Following these attacks, President George W. Bush rallied the nation to war and, with massive public support, began the righteous hunt for the masterminds behind the deadly strikes.
Forcing Osama bin Laden and his accomplices to answer for their crimes was just. Much else was not. From the whole premise of the 2003 invasion of Iraq to possibly thousands of civilians killed in U.S. military drone strikes to 852 American soldiers killed in a retrospectively pointess surge of troops in 2007 in Iraq, the War on Terror contains many examples where the premises of just war were violated. The 2007 surge, for example, operated on the faulty premise‒admitted as such by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Michael Mullen‒that more troops in Iraq would actually have an effect without Iraqi sovereignty and security.
Not only has the War on Terror devolved into a forever war, it has also been an abject failure. The original source of Islamist fundamentalism, Saudi Arabia, was left undisturbed for economic reasons, and the inept Iraqi security forces the United States knowingly propped up upon withdrawing from the country in 2011 were crushed by ISIS in the following years. Most recently, as all of us have witnessed, the state of Afghanistan fell back into the hands of the Taliban for very similar reasons as Iraq fell to ISIS‒corruption, lack of cohesion among Afghan troops, and low Afghani public support for its army to name a few‒once the United States concluded its twenty year long occupation of the country.
The War on Terror is not the first forever war that the United States has fought. The Vietnam War also took on characteristics of a forever war, containing instances of governmental dishonesty, war crimes against civilians, and low public support. While this conflict eventually ended, it only did so after the United States finally realized achieving its goals was hopeless and, again, had no lasting positive impact for the United States. In spite of the failures of the Vietnam War, the United States failed to learn of the dangers and inherent problems associated with forever war, evidenced enough by the War on Terror.
With all of these obvious problems associated with forever war, one must then ask the question: Why have we not learned our lesson? Despite calls to end these pointless conflicts from the likes of former Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former President Barack Obama, President Joe Biden, and even former President Donald Trump, America’s infatuation with forever war is not done. It is also worth noting that these sentiments from Barack Obama and Joe Biden are somewhat suspect given the former’s failure to withdraw from Afghanistan while in office despite supposed plans to do so and the latter’s vote to invade Iraq in 2002. To give President Biden his due, his tune may have changed somewhat with the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, as messy and ill-planned as it was. While this withdrawal was a step in the right direction, the root cause of forever war has still not been expunged from the national system.
The answer to this question can be found by applying the age-old adage: follow the money. War is expensive; from training, equipping, and paying soldiers to building and deploying missiles, tanks, helicopters, and other armaments to, in the case of the War on Terror, enabling vast corruption in the officer ranks of allied forces. All in all, the costs of war are immense.
In order to understand the approximately $8 trillion price tag for post-9/11 wars, we must first look for its origin point. The majority of post-9/11 military spending comes from federal borrowing, a process which increases the national debt and the US budget deficit among other things. This military spending is also, for the most part, not subject to spending caps. This is because this type of spending is classified as war-related activities or Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), thus circumventing the spending caps to which other defense spending is subject. Further examples of federal spending that is subject to caps are education, environmental protection, and science spending.
This process of federal borrowing to pay for war stands in stark contrast to how it has historically been funded. Former Presidents Truman, LBJ, and others used taxes on corporate profits, estate taxes, and taxes on the ultra-wealthy to pay for their foreign engagements. Now, instead of large corporations and the extremely wealthy shouldering much of the burden for war (monetarily, at least), the weight instead falls upon average Americans through large-scale negative macroeconomic impacts such as a ballooning of the national debt.
From there, the process of tracking the money becomes a bit more complicated. Both the massive scale of military spending and the profound secrecy the federal government employs to obscure the ways in which money is spent make it difficult to fully understand what money goes where‒and perhaps more importantly, in whose pockets it ends up. However, there are still broader metrics that can be followed to get a sense of how these colossal sums of money are being circulated. By tracking the earnings data of various defense contracting companies‒companies that manufacture and sell arms to governments‒we can see that war is incredibly profitable for corporations like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, and Boeing. Another facet into which these shadowy funds may have ended up is in private military companies, better known as mercenaries, like the infamous Blackwater who have been known to be involved in scandals of their own in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, just because a handful of corporations are making billions of dollars from warfare does not mean that the federal government is powerless to end these forever wars. The problem is that despite what the capabilities of the government may be, the incentive to take real action against forever war is simply not there. Corporate lobbyists and super PACs, two other cans of worms, bear great gifts for politicians willing to keep their mouths shut and approve Pentagon contracts and arms sales for these defense firms. Not only this but certain members of Congress can even be awarded cushy jobs on the executive boards of these companies when they leave office, although this practice is even more apparent with the generals who make the strategic and tactical decisions about the very wars in question. This funnel opens on both ends, evidenced by President Biden’s Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin being a sitting board member of Raytheon Technologies when appointed. Bearing these sorts of incentive structures in mind, the root cause of forever war becomes clear: money.
To give each side its fair shake, it is worth pointing out that forever war and, more specifically, the War on Terror are neither, just like all else in life, completely terrible. Some posit that the decline in fundamentalist terrorism in the West since 2001 can be at least partially attributed to the United States’ presence in Afghanistan. Furthermore, over the course of the United States’ occupation of Afghanistan, literacy rates increased, girls received the opportunity to attend school, and popular sympathy for the Taliban and other opposition groups declined. In short, the life of the average Afghan (mostly) improved during the U.S. occupation.
However, can the same be said for the average American during this time? The wealth gap between the rich and poor has grown, real wages have declined, and healthcare costs have increased six-fold (adjusted for inflation) since 1970, with much of this increase happening since 2001. Additionally, the federal government spent trillions more dollars funding the War on Terror than have been spent on infrastructure projects here in the United States since 2001. While charity for suffering people around the world is surely important, the government of any nation should first concern itself with the issues facing its own citizens before allocating vast resources to conflicts that show no real promise of success.
This resource allocation disparity is exactly what former President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about in his farewell address to the nation. A lifelong military man and successful World War II general, Eisenhower intimately understood the costs of war. He knew better than most how the United States could fall under the sway of what he termed the military-industrial complex, the “immense military establishment and…large arms industry” that captains the ship of forever war today. Eisenhower called upon the American people to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” Needless to say, President Eisenhower would be appalled at the state of our country over these past twenty years.
To build a more perfect union, the eternal goal of this nation, we as a citizenry must assess our priorities, recognize the real issues that face us today, and demand with all our might that our elected officials hear and understand our needs and put them before the pointless pursuit of forever war. We do this for ourselves and for those who are yet to come.
Categories: Foreign Affairs