What's to Blame for America's Senseless Wars?

Why do we Americans continue to engage in futile wars?

U.S. Marines and Afghan border police off-load from a helicopter in Afghanistan.
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Louis Rene Beres is a professor of International Law at Purdue University. Born in Zurich, Switzerland at the end of World War II, he is the author of many major books and articles dealing with world politics, law, literature, and philosophy.

Where there were great military actions, there lies whitening now the jawbone of an ass.

–Saint-John Perse

I am in Vietnam, wondering just how any U.S. president could ever have imagined a purposeful American war in this part of the world. My considerable wonderment has as much to do with the obvious vacancy of 1960s and 1970s-era conceptual justifications (Vietnam as a threatened "domino" was the preferred metaphor) as with patently overwhelming operational difficulties. Notwithstanding the carefully cultivated and contrived images of an indispensable conflict, this was a war that never had a single defensible raison d'etre, and that never displayed any conceivable way of being won.


Lately, it was Iraq, although now already officially ended, at least for us. In Afghanistan, a war is still ongoing, even for us. Allegedly, at least for us, the Afghan war will soon be over. For the Afghans, however, it will be status quo ante bellum.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

At best.

Plainly, over the years, with the now-prominent and plainly unique exception of North Korea, the doctrinal adversary has changed, from "communism" to "Islamism" or "Jihadism." This time, moreover, our adversary is indisputably real and formidable. It is not merely another imagined foe, one conveniently extrapolated from too-neatly fashioned figures of speech, or deduced from other similarly facile analogies.

Still, once again, it remains a war that can never be gainful, and can never be won. Not on a battlefield.


Like Hercules, facing down the mythic Hydra, as soon as we manage to chop off one enemy "head," many others will promptly grow in its place. When the Jihadist enemy is seemingly vanquished in one country or another, it will readily reappear in another. After Iraq and Afghanistan, we will be facing similar and resurgent adversaries in such indecipherable venues as Sudan; Mali; Yemen; Somalia; Syria; Egypt; and, even in U.S.-backed "Palestine."

Ironically, in the case of President Barack Obama's enthusiastic support for a "Two-State Solution," formalized Palestinian statehood will open up yet another major front in the still-metastasizing Jihad against secular Western democracies.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

How, we Americans should finally inquire, do we routinely manage to descend from one war-policy forfeiture to the next, somehow learning absolutely nothing from our oft-bloodied past, and, somehow, proceeding headlong and headstrong to the next utterly predictable calamity? The most obvious answer seems to lie in the continuing intellectual inadequacies of our leaders.

In turn, assuming that we truly live in a genuine democracy, these critical shortcomings are the associated expression of a docile American electorate that determinedly knows nothing, and wants to know nothing, of historical truth.

For us, military and foreign policy judgments are typically a reassuring pretext for crudely chauvinistic eruptions. More often than we might care to admit, these judgments are the outcome of unwitting self-parody, rather than of any suitably analytic thought.

Plus ce change, plus c'est la meme chose. "The more things change, the more they remain the same." And why not?

"When the throne sits on mud," observed the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, "mud sits on the throne." We herd-directed Americans stand distant not only from Plato's enviable ideal of a "philosopher-king," but also from the vastly more modest expectation of prepared elected leaders who may have actually learned how to think.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Before this condition can change, individual citizens will first have to learn to take themselves seriously as persons. Among other things, this will require rejection of our flagrantly demeaning amusement society, and a corresponding embrace of intellectual originality, industry, and authentic (not merely vocational) learning. In essence, this means that before we can finally rid ourselves of the deeply-institutionalized American penchant to initiate protracted and useless wars, we will first have to make ourselves capable of rendering substantially more sensible and well-reasoned foreign policy prescriptions.