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Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War

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Working for International Peace
Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War
{Professor Rubenstein has recently published a book with the above title. He was subsequently interviewed about the book. Herewith follows a substantial part of that interview.}

Q. In REASONS TO KILL, you study the arguments that American Presidential administrations have made throughout history as we’ve mobilized for war. What reoccurring themes did you find in our rhetorical and philosophical strategies?

A. In this book I study the arguments and images used by U.S. presidential administrations and other pro-war advocates to persuade ordinary citizens to support America’s foreign wars. These methods of persuasion have got to be powerful, since they ask people to pay the human costs as well as the financial costs of war. The basic question I ask is: What convinces ordinarily skeptical Americans to send their sons, daughters, sweethearts, neighbors, and countrymen to kill other people and risk their own bodies and minds in battle?

The overall answer, I found, is that Americans are persuaded to fight by appeals to widely shared and deeply held moral and spiritual values – values associated with what some call our civil religion. The most common themes are these:

Self-defense -- We have a moral right and duty to defend our nation against unjustified attacks. (The problem is that we have vastly expanded the definition of self-defense. The “self” we are now defending is not just America’s soil and people, but U.S. troops, civilians, and allied forces around the globe. This “America abroad” represents the most dominant empire since ancient Rome.)

Evil enemies -- We have a moral duty to destroy diabolical leaders who commit atrocities against their own people, threaten their neighbors, and seek world domination. (The problem is that we often label adversaries absolutely evil when they are not really satanic and can be dealt with in ways short of total war. Sometimes we label a whole people evil, which can lead to violence on a horrific scale.)

Humanitarian interventions and moral crusades -- We have a special mission to secure the values of democracy, human rights, civil order, and moral decency around the world, by military means if necessary. (The problem is that the U.S. is a superpower with its own interests and cultural biases, not a disinterested liberator of the oppressed. More often than not, we end up acting like the tyrants and aggressors we oppose.)

Patriotic duty -- We earned our freedom by fighting for it. When Uncle Sam asks us to fight, even die, for our nation, we should be prepared to do so. (The problem is that patriotism has never meant killing and dying on command. Generations of American patriots have demanded that the government justify war-making by showing that there is a real threat to the nation and that violence is needed to counter it. What I call communal patriotism creates a special problem by excluding anti-war dissenters from the American community.)

National honor -- If we don’t demonstrate that we are willing to fight, we will lose face and credibility, bad people will take advantage of us, and we will become a humiliated second-rate nation. For the same reason, once we have committed the nation to a war, we cannot retreat or withdraw without dishonor. (The problem is that this is not a moral doctrine; it is an insecure cowboy machismo posing as morality. Most American wars since the end of World War II have ended in something short of victory, and most should not have been fought at all.)

No peaceful alternative -- Either negotiations to avert war have failed or they would be fruitless, since the enemy cannot be trusted to keep its word. The only alternative to war is therefore dishonorable appeasement. (The problems are that the U.S. refuses to negotiate in good faith as much as any other nation, and that, even where it is attempted, negotiation falls short of conflict resolution. Without serious attempts at conflict resolution – that is, ending violence by eliminating its underlying causes – war is never a last resort.)

Q. You were inspired to write REASONS TO KILL by the 2003 Iraq invasion, which many now agree began with the false pretense of Saddam Hussein possessing Weapons of Mass Destruction – but you were even alarmed by the first Iraq war Desert Storm, which is considered more “justified.” Can you talk about the distinction we make here, and add your thoughts too?

A. The first Iraq war, the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, was a momentous turning point for America, since President George H.W. Bush intended to use it to put an end to the “Vietnam Syndrome.” The reason that Operation Desert Storm was not justified is that it was unnecessary. Even though our Ambassador misled Saddam Hussein into believing that we would remain neutral if he entered Kuwait, Saddam was clearly wrong to invade that country. But there is overwhelming evidence that he could have been evicted peacefully without receiving any concessions. In January 1991 he offered to withdraw unconditionally, so long as he could take his military equipment with him. The first President Bush rejected the offer and launched Operation Desert Storm because his primary aims were to destroy Saddam’s armed forces, degrade Iraq’s infrastructure, and eliminate that nation as a major player in the Gulf region – not just to liberate Kuwait.

Even so, Bush the First did not characterize Saddam Hussein as a diabolical Evil Enemy who must be removed from office, even if that meant dispatching an American army of occupation to Iraq. That is why he allowed him to return to power in Baghdad after his defeat in the Gulf War. Ten years later, however, Saddam was diabolized by neo-conservatives, including the second President Bush. The neo-cons saw “regime change” as a way to liberate the Iraqi people, protect Israel, and pave the way for the democratization of the Middle East. And – oh yes – to guarantee U.S. control over the world’s second largest proven reserves of oil.

The second Iraq War was blatantly unnecessary. Not only were the charges against Saddam’s government (possession of WMD and al-Qaeda connections) false, but we know now that the Iraqi dictator invited U.S. officials and military forces to enter his country to search for illegal weapons, and even offered to hold elections under UN supervision in order to avert an all-out war. Once again, American officials initiated a war not because it was unavoidable, but because they did not wish to avoid it. Once again, the American people were sold a war on the basis of an appeal to their most cherished values, including the right to self-defense, the need to destroy an evil enemy, and the duty of humanitarian intervention.

Q. Our recent wars have been compared to Vietnam in many ways, but are there other parallels to more distant conflicts you’ve noticed as you reexamined our history?

A. Yes, definitely. One important parallel between wars like our current struggle in Afghanistan and earlier conflicts in which our government invaded other nations, the government claimed that weakly governed territories (“failing states”) would be used by hostile forces to attack us.

In the First Seminole War (1816-18), General Andrew Jackson led a U.S. army into Spanish-owned West Florida because Seminole Indians were said to be using that territory to raid American settlements on the southern frontier. In fact, Jackson and his men were enraged by the Seminoles’ willingness to welcome escaped slaves to their community, and the alleged Indian raids were actually reprisals for attacks on Indian villages made by white men trying to reclaim their “property.” A generation later, the same sort of exaggerated claim of self-defense was used to justify the Mexican-American War and the seizure of California. If we didn’t grab California, said President James K. Polk, some hostile power might do so. This was called national self-defense, but it was really a form of aggression.

The present Afghan War has also been sold to Americans as a struggle to pacify a lawless country in order to prevent it from being used as a terrorist base by al-Qaeda. But this claim is as questionable as were Jackson’s and Polk’s. There are virtually no al-Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan. Many experts feel that we could negotiate an enforceable deal with the Taliban that would prevent them from returning, if only we were willing to let the Afghans resolve their own internal conflicts. The projection of U.S. power into Central Asia has reasons other than self-defense against terrorists. It is time that they were exposed and discussed.

A second fascinating parallel is the similarity between the Spanish-American War and more recent conflicts in which U.S. leaders claim to be acting as the liberators of oppressed populations. In 1898 we went to war allegedly to liberate Cuba from Spanish domination. Most Americans who supported that war did so because they were outraged by Spanish atrocities against the Cubans fighting for independence. But Presidents McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt decided that the Cubans were not ready for self-government and reduced that country to a dependency of the United States. Worse yet, after conquering the Philippines, the U.S. government refused to give that country its independence and fought a ghastly war of counter-insurgency that killed more than 200,000 Filipinos. In the Philippines, as in modern Iraq and Afghanistan, the main argument used to justify occupation and savage warfare was that we were helping to “develop” the country economically and politically.

Third, there are some strong parallels between World War I and the War on Terrorism. Americans were sold on joining in the incredible slaughter of World War I, and ended up losing 100,000 U.S. lives, because of propaganda insisting that Kaiser Wilhelm II (the “Beast of Berlin”) was out to conquer the world, including the United States. But Germany was no more interested in world conquest than were Britain and France and never posed any threat to America’s independence or great power status. In a similar way, terrorists like Usama bin Laden are said to be interested in extending their power across the globe and in forcing us all to become Muslims. Nonsense! Their real interests are to reduce Western power over their part of the world, not to occupy ours.

A further parallel is controversial but important. When German U-boats sank American ships trying to deliver goods to England and France, these attacks were viewed as barbaric assaults against innocent civilians. But the British blockade of Europe, which caused tens of thousands of civilians to die of malnutrition and disease, was ignored, although it was at least as barbaric as the U-boat campaign.

In a similar way, the atrocious and inexcusable attacks against Americans on September 11, 2001 were used to direct our hostility against foreign extremists without considering the suffering that we and other Western powers had inflicted on Muslims in Iraq and the Middle East – an important contributor to this extremism. In such cases, the most creative response is to heal the broken relationship, not just to take revenge against the extremists. What good is it to kill terrorists unless we change the conditions that continually reproduce them? But changing those conditions means re-evaluating and changing our own government’s behavior as well as the behavior of others.

Q. What were your thoughts on Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech?

A. I found President Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech very disappointing – the same old ideas about war and peace flimsily disguised as a new foreign policy. “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man,” Obama said. “At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease.” It makes you wonder who researched the speech. Few good modern anthropologists believe that war is “natural” to human beings. The archeological evidence suggests that early humans were peaceful creatures, and that war did not appear until people began settling in densely populated river valleys, where classes of warriors and priests first appeared. Moreover, almost as soon as this happened, the morality of war was questioned by religious figures like Isaiah of Jerusalem (8th century BCE).

Even more questionable was Obama’s use of the theory of the Just War to justify America’s current “war on terrorism.” “Evil does exist in the world,” said the president. “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms.”

Obama is quite right about Hitler – but the analogy between the Nazis and Islamist extremists will not hold water. Since World War II, every American president who wants to fight a war, from Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam to George W. Bush in Iraq, has called the enemy of the moment a new Adolf Hitler. Hitler made an agreement with Britain and France at Munich and then tore it up. But how does Obama know that negotiations with al Qaeda would be useless? Has he even offered to speak with the terrorists? Clearly not. He makes this assertion because he is convinced that they are diabolical and that one cannot negotiate with the devil.

This is a mistake. Islamist terrorists are relatively, not absolutely, evil. They are the violent, misguided fringe of a much larger movement with real grievances against America and the West. Bin Laden is the tip of an iceberg that can be melted – but not by the methods of total war used against Hitler and the Nazis. I would not negotiate with Usama bin Laden either, in the sense of bargaining with him, but I would offer to meet with any and all Islamic leaders who want to discuss what is wrong with their relationship with America and what to do about that. Such a meeting should be strictly confidential, open to influential figures who are not official leaders of any nation or group, and facilitated by impartial conflict resolvers. It might mark the beginning of a new era in Western-Islamic relations.

This kind of conflict resolution is exactly what the British and Irish did in connection with Northern Ireland – they used the services of an impartial peacemaker – America’s George Mitchell – to bring together violent extremists on both the Catholic and Protestant sides for serious analytical talks. The result was a split in each movement. The ultra-extremists on both sides isolated themselves, and militants who were calling each other children of the devil shortly before conclusion of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended up sharing power in a new Northern Ireland.

A final disappointment in Oslo was the president’s insistence that the U.S. “has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms,” and that we did this not for the sake of power, but out of the goodness of our hearts. This is a grotesque misreading of history. Six decades ago, we fought the Korean War, which could be justified as an effort to defend South Korean independence against a North Korean invasion, but the vast expansion of American power since then – with hundreds of military bases in more than 60 countries – has far more to do with U.S. geopolitical and economic interests than with “global security.” President Obama equates American power with global security. He is unwilling to say the “E word” – empire – or to recognize that trying to maintain an American empire makes both the world and the United States less secure.

Q. In REASONS TO KILL, you write about the crucial role of the Exodus story in our narrative, as our most revered Presidents have been called “American Moses” for leading us through wars. This metaphor has also recently been used for our racial history, as Obama’s been called an “American Joshua.” His administration is still young, and he inherited two conflicts from his predecessor, but does this extend? Do you see a major departure in how he’s handled his foreign policy from past generations?

A. No, for reasons just given, I do not. In my opinion, Obama is neither a Moses nor a Joshua – he is more of a King Zechariah, the well-meaning monarch Jeremiah criticized for putting his faith in weapons and armies instead of in the Lord. So far at least, Obama is no prophet. He deserves credit for moving America back from the rhetorical excesses of the Bush years to policies that seem more rational and judicious. But I emphasize the word “seem,” since many of these policies, especially regarding the war on terrorism, continue those of George W. Bush. In some cases, like the dispatch of 30,000 new U.S. troops to Afghanistan, they are more bellicose than those of Bush. A prophetic leadership would give us a new foreign policy paradigm based on justice and peace rather than empire and armaments.

This new paradigm, which some call conflict resolution or conflict transformation, is not a naïve dream. It represents a practical attempt to lower the amount of collective violence in the world by solving the problems that generate collective violence. Its bottom line is the satisfaction of basic human needs like the needs for identity, recognition, security, and human development. Prophets concern themselves more with human needs than with power, property, and prestige. Mr. Obama has not yet reached this level. Perhaps one day he will.

Q. Do you believe there’s no such thing as a “good war”?

A. No, I believe that there have been “good” wars, although very few and far between. World War II was a mostly good war. The Korean War, maybe, although that case is trickier, since America’s South Korean protégé was as brutal a dictator as his North Korean enemy, and General Douglas MacArthur tried to turn a war of defense into a war of conquest.

Justifying war involves three requirements: the war must be necessary, it must be fought for a good cause, and it must cause the minimum amount of human suffering consistent with vindicating that cause. No war since Korea has fulfilled these essential requirements.

World War II was necessary because it proved impossible to negotiate with Hitler or the Japanese government. (Hitler himself would not have been a factor if Germany had been treated decently at the end of World War I, instead of being impoverished and humiliated, but that is another story.) World War II was also fought for a good cause, since we could not co-exist with fascist regimes that enslaved and exterminated millions of people, and that commanded the most powerful economies outside the U.S. The violence used to defeat the Axis powers was justified up to a point, but it ended by subjecting enemy civilians to wildly excessive force. (That is why I call the war “mostly” just.) In my view, we did not need to cause a firestorm over undefended Dresden, incinerate Tokyo, or drop atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, taking hundreds of thousands of lives when our enemies were on the verge of surrendering.

At present, there is no way to justify a “War on Terrorism” that obfuscates America’s imperial role, portrays the leaders of mass movements like the Taliban and Hezbollah as isolated terrorists, corrupts societies subject to U.S. intervention, and inflames the structural situation that is generating anti-Western violence. It is not just a new foreign policy we need but a new way of understanding ourselves and the world we inhabit.

{Since 1987. Professor Richard Rubenstein has been a Professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR) at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. In 2007 he convened the first ever workshop of European and U.S. experts to discuss how best to integrate their research and ideas into foreign policy. The current address of the Institute is 2220 N. Washington Boulevard (Truland Building) in Arlington, Virginia 22201; telephone: (703) 993-1300.}

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