Remember the good ol’ days when the United States Congress would declare war on a nation before, you know, the bullets start flying? I imagine not, since the last time Congress declared war was on “June 4, 1942 [when] the Senate approved a resolution unanimously declaring war with Rumania.” Since then all the ‘conflicts’ in which we have engaged–from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as all the other lovely foreign interventions we’ve taken part in–were technically not wars. Sure, American soldiers died; enemy soldiers died; and civilian soldiers died. And sure, that sounds a lot like war, it’s just a war we fight by proxy–not so much against the nation in which we fight and die as against the other players that also have a stake in that nation.
Just consider the facts, and ask yourself why we spent American blood and treasurer in Korea, or Vietnam. The answer is that we were afraid of communism taking hold: it’s what was called the Domino Theory–let one country fall into the hands of the communists, and an entire region will follow suit. Fearing a direct confrontation with the Russians, we fought them by proxy. When the Mujahideen, including Osama Bin Laden, were fighting the Soviets in Afghansistan, we happily gave them funding, weapons and training. When the Vietcong sought to unify Vietnam and oust the despotic and corrupt South Vietnamese leader, we first sent in military ‘advisors,’ then dropped bombs, then sent in hundreds of thousands of troops (and bombed the shit out of the country). When Iraq was battled Iran, we cozied up to Saddam Hussein (there are even photos of our friend Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with the erstwhile dictator) because, well, Iran was our enemy at the time and Iraq was, conveniently, doing our bidding. And on and on and on.
After the fall of the Berlin wall we were the only Superpower left in the world, leaving many a bloodthirsty Pentagon and CIA employee bored and antsy. Fortunately for them, a new threat emerged, terrorism, and what was so great about this challenge was that the threat could emerge from anywhere: no longer did we have to focus our efforts on only one country. But it wasn’t until after 9/11 that our armed forces were given cart blanche to pursue terrorism wherever they saw fit, and so it is that today we have troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, but our drones and weapons are falling on and flowing through Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Israel and who knows where else.
What’s making things even more tricky is that, not only are we fighting terrorism directly and by proxy through countries and militias that we arm and support, but other proxy wars are being fought in those same countries. Take Syria, where Iran, Hezbolla and Russia have strong financial, geopolitcal and religious reasons for keeping Bashar Al-Assad in power, and where the Gulf states (such as Saudi Arabia) are terrified of increased Shiite influence in the region. At the same time, the U.S. and Israel are playing a waiting game–recognizing that 90,000 civilians have died, that the current regime is committing crimes against humanity, but also that the rebel forces run the gamut from secularists to Wahabi fundamentalists. Or consider Egypt, where for 30 years we supported Hosni Mubarak because he maintained a fragile peace with Israel, ignoring the human rights abuses he perpetuated. So shameful is our support that when Mubarak’s henchmen tried to stave off the nascent revolution, they did so with American made tear gas. That kinda makes it hard to believe in the sincerity of our desire for spreading democracy, don’t you think?
The world has gotten much more complicated than when the US Constitution was written and the Congress given power to declare war. So instead of reframing that power, we have given the military and the CIA a blank check to buy as many toys (planes, tanks, drones, missiles, aircraft carriers, amphibious assault crafts, helicopters–fun!) as they want and to send Americans to die and be maimed around the world. We are a nation run amok, a nation claiming to be a beacon of freedom and democracy while at the same time torturing suspected terrorists and detaining them indefinitely; infringing on domestic civil rights; wantonly dropping bombs wherever a terrorist might be, but where a civilian is almost always killed; giving millions of dollars to warlords and drug lords and all sorts of shady characters in the hopes of furthering our interests; and spending ever more money on war even as we slash programs for education, infrastructure, science, anti-poverty, environmental and other programs that benefit our citizens.
It is time for us to end this madness. The other day President Obama asked that the War Powers Act be modified to limit the power of the Executive Branch to wage war. Good. Now we just need to reconsider our priorities. Over the last 40 years, 5,600 Americans have died in terrorist attacks. Tragic, without a doubt, but keep in mind that 25-30,000 Americans die every year from traffic accidents. So why aren’t we spending billions of dollars to make our roads safer or to tackle obesity (2.8 million adults around the world die every year from it) or any number of other more common causes of death? Why aren’t we spending billions of dollars to lower our appalling poverty rate of 16%, or our poor health and educational outcomes? I’m of the opinion that it’s because our system of deciding when to use military force is outdated, broken and unjust and, as a result, our priorities are shaped by a bunch of people that get their rocks off (pardon the expression) from thinking about, planning and carrying out war. Shift the power away from the warmongers and into the hands of people that are more excited by the pursuit of justice and righteous action than by the sound of explosions and the thirst for revenge, and perhaps we can slowly start to build a better nation and foster a better world.