A bipartisan panel of high-profile figures from the national security establishment recently completed its report on the United States’ policy surrounding drones. Of the panel’s several conclusions, the one that understandably received the most attention in the media was the concern that the ease with which the U.S. is able to conduct drone operations creates a “slippery slope” that could lead to a state of permanent war. In this scenario, no longer will there be clearly defined periods of war and peace, but rather a vague, endless conflict, whereby the U.S. Government can and will assert the right to target and kill anyone, anywhere, with virtually no meaningful legal, political, or ethical constraints. The panel also criticized the “secret rationales” behind this “long-term killing” and the “lack of any cost-benefit analysis” conducted by the government regarding the entire enterprise.
But there is one key question we should ask – which this panel, given its establishment makeup, would never dream of asking – and that is whether or not we should accept the very premise that permanent war is an undesirable outcome for people in power. Virtually everyone accepts the existence of an insatiable military-industrial complex in the U.S.; it strains credulity to believe that the key players in this complex, from the national security establishment to private economic interests, feel anything but dread about the prospect of a demilitarized foreign policy and a lasting peace. So let’s start talking honestly and admit that, while the average American surely finds the specter of permanent war terribly depressing, many people in positions of influence do not. It might not be considered “civil” to say this out loud, but there are now decades of evidence supporting this accusation, and we are fooling ourselves if we pretend everyone’s interests are aligned just because the issue happens to be something as grave as war and peace.
The truth is that the military-industrial complex would be in a bit of a jam if the so-called “War on Terror” – the term is not appropriate, given how much terror in the world with which the U.S. is not, in fact, at war – comes to a something resembling an end. In the decades following World War II, the U.S., of course, had one colossal enemy in the Soviet Union. The conflict with the Soviets propped up the complex all the way up to the early 1990s; virtually all military spending and instances of unilateral aggression were always sold to the American people on the grounds that the Evil Empire had to be stopped at all costs. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a clear problem: for the first time in more than a half a century, the U.S. had no obvious, terrifying adversary. Peace seemed like it might be on the horizon, and this was clearly unacceptable, but how could the war machine possibly keep rolling along after the enemy about which it had been obsessed for nearly half a century had been defeated? “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia” probably wouldn’t work.
Into the void stepped people like Saddam, Gaddafi, and bin Laden: tyrants and terrorists who the U.S. had, of course, worked with over the years when it was convenient. Islamic radicalism (along with secular Arab nationalism when necessary) would serve as the new Soviet communism: the sprawling enemy, capable of boundless evil, against whose onslaught we must always remain vigilant. Quaint notions of civil liberties and reasonable cost-benefit analysis would have to be disregarded: we were once again at war. This time, allegedly, against terrorism.
This War on Some Terror has only really been raging for twenty years or so, since the U.S. fully turned its attention away from the Soviet Union. The military-industrial complex got nearly fifty years out of the Cold War, so the new war can hardly be abandoned after twenty, lest we find ourselves without any monstrous enemies, and with something resembling peace visible on the horizon. We spend so much time wondering why the U.S. would invade Iraq, why it would risk killing so many civilians, why it would torture, when all these things are proven to increase the threat of terrorism. But the people controlling the levers of power in the U.S. are not stupid. They are not simply ignorant of the fact that, say, terrorizing villages with drones will radicalize the population and create more enemies than it will eliminate.
It’s rather jarring to acknowledge that important people in the U.S. power structure would prefer war to peace. But these are simple institutional realities in a capitalist state where there is so much profit to be made from war: it would be almost irrational to expect, say, defense industry executives to genuinely want military conflict to subside. So when discussing why we have found ourselves in this “Forever War,” let’s stop pretending it’s because of honest policy mistakes, and understand that it’s about powerful interests wanting it to be so. We have known for a long time that war is a racket.