Overcoming war think

After nine years, it feels like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may drag on forever. Obama’s announcements of a gradual drawdown and pullout are at odds with the 50,000 military “advisors” in Iraq and the seemingly-thriving armed resistance to occupation in Afghanistan. We’ve been living with war for so long that we’ve become numb and apparently unable to resist. Anti-war protests are either tiny or don’t happen at all. War now seems normal and even invisible to many people. But these wars are not inevitable nor are they permanent — we can still rise up and stop them.

A key lesson of these wars is that power has its limits. The US military — the most powerful, modern, well-funded fighting force in history with all its drones and computers and disciplined hierarchy — can’t really win these wars against a handful of ragtag, do-it-yourself, guerilla fighters. Understanding that power is limited is crucial to our resistance to these wars as well as our struggle against corporate domination of our lives and industrial destruction of the earth.

There is always the option to resist. The people who win aren’t the ones who are “realistic” and who look at long odds and conclude, “oh, it isn’t worth even trying.” Every resistance movement is going to feel lost and hopeless sometimes — its participants too weak and isolated and the opposition too strong. The key is having the courage to continue anyway. How can we take this lesson from these wars and apply it to stopping them?

Living in a permanent and pervasive war culture is deeply corrosive on a social and psychological level to everyone in the US and around the world. The war culture empowers greedy and selfish elements of society who dominate others with fear, concentrate power based on violence, and seek to crush local control in favor or massive corporate, military and political hierarchies. Right-leaning military contractors and their politician counterparts are the biggest winners of these wars.

Living with only minimal popular resistance to these wars over these last nine years, has put radicals on the defensive in struggles across the board, even those that are seemingly unrelated to the war. War-think has fed an atmosphere of fear, strengthening hierarchical solutions and weakening community self-determination and cooperation. It is perhaps no accident that the most vigorous “movement” in the US today is the Tea Party, whose approach is based almost entirely on fear of the “other” being channeled into a blinding rage. This constant sense of being “against” without any positive vision for a better world is a symptom of a war-based outlook with its cycles of destruction and scorched earth. Building a new, better society requires vision, sharing and creativity — never easy but even more difficult to nurture as the war drags on.

On a human level, the wars are grinding up thousands of people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, while concentrating suffering in economically-struggling communities within the US that provide the bulk of troops through an informal poverty draft. There’s never enough money for workers or poor people during the current recession, yet there is always plenty to spend on war.

War culture can become a self-perpetuating psychological/political cycle in which popular movements to stop the war seem weak, frivolous and ineffective and those waging the war appear to be all-powerful, “serious, realistic” men and therefore unquestionable. The justification for the war no longer matters — the priority becomes winning so the people sacrificed so far will not have died in vain.

When the US invaded Iraq, millions of people colorfully and lovingly went into the streets to protest. Governments and the media bent over backwards to ignore the resistance or trivialize us as naive, and this strategy took its toll on our morale. The leaders had learned the lessons of Vietnam well — but they were the wrong lessons. After Vietnam, military and political leaders claimed they would never fight another unwinnable, ill-defined, colonial, foreign war. But what they really understood was that to fight, they had to keep control over the home front.

There is no easy strategy to stop the war or liberate ourselves from the industrial machine that is killing the earth, but it is clear that whatever we’re collectively trying isn’t working the way it is supposed, to, and we have to take some chances and try some new strategies. The way the war has become a background track to our lives is related in some subtle but real way to the sense of meaningless, resignation, and social isolation that so many people feel. It is tied in some complex way to growing corporate power and our inability to reach a social consensus on the phasing out of fossil fuels.

A bold, broad resistance would address all of it at once, painting a positive vision for the future based on values of cooperation, love, and community — an awe for the time in which we live and the earth we live on. Our goal must be to change the dialogue and transcend simplistic and limiting terms of debate that pre-determine the outcomes in line with what is “acceptable” for our rulers. We refuse to pick between paper and plastic, the Taliban or the US Army, free markets or a dehumanizing welfare bureaucracy. The error is deeper than picking the wrong options — the error is thinking that there are only two options.

We need to reject simplistic thinking and morality — good or evil — and humbly embrace the complexity of human individuals and social projects. Simplistic thinking is like mental junk food: empty calories. People are yearning for honest new types of discourse that treat them as intelligent, capable individuals who can actively participate in community to reach common goals. The current moment is full of dangers and disappointments, but also opportunities because the rulers are not all-powerful, they have no clothes, and people won’t be satisfied being ruled through fear forever.