America’s Refusal to Face the Hard Moral Issues of War

We had to destroy Fallujah to save it (2004)

We had to destroy Fallujah to save it (2004)

Daniel N. White

James Fallows, a noted journalist and author of National Defense (1981), is tits on a boar useless these days. That’s my conclusion after reading his Atlantic Monthly cover story, The Tragedy of the American Military, in which he asks, Why do the best soldiers in the world keep losing?  It is a truly terrible article that, regrettably, is mainstream U.S. journalism’s best effort by one of their better talents to answer a vitally important question.

Right off the bat, I’m going to have to say that the U.S. Army doesn’t produce “the world’s best soldiers” — and it never has. We Americans don’t do infantry as well as others do. This is reasonably well known. Anyone who wants to dispute the point has to dispute not me but General George Patton, who in 1944 said:  “According to Napoleon, the weaker the infantry the stronger the artillery must be.  Thank God we’ve got the world’s best artillery.”   Operational analysis of us by the German Wehrmacht and the PLA(China) said the same thing, and everyone militarily knowledgeable has seen and read them.  We should know that about ourselves by now and we don’t, and the fact that we don’t, particularly after a chain of military defeats by lesser powers, says a good deal bad about us as a people and society.  The Atlantic and James Fallows are both professionally derelict to continue printing these canards about our infantry prowess.  “The world’s best” — there is no excuse for such hyperbolic boasting.

Why the U.S. keeps losing its wars, and why James Fallows has no clue as to why, is revealing of the American moment.  It’s painfully obvious the U.S. has lost its most recent wars because it has lacked coherent and achievable objectives for them.  (Or no objectives that our ruling elites were willing to share with us.)

Just what, exactly, was the end result supposed to be from invading Iraq in 2003?  If the Taliban were willing as they stated to hand over Osama Bin Laden to us, why did we invade Afghanistan?   Why did we then start a new war in Afghanistan once we overthrew the Taliban?

Of course, this isn’t the first time in recent history that the U.S. has fought wars with no coherent rationale. Vietnam had the same problem.  The Pentagon Papers showed that insofar as we had a rationale it was to continue the war for sufficiently long enough to show the rest of the world we weren’t to be trifled with, even if we didn’t actually win it.  Dick Nixon was quite upfront in private about this too; that’s documented in the latest Nixon Tapes book.

Not having clear and achievable political objectives in a war or major military campaign is a guarantee of military failure.  Here’s what arguably the best Allied general in WWII had to say about this, William Slim, from his superlative memoirs, Defeat into Victory, writing of the Allied defeat in Burma, 1942:

Of these causes {of the defeat}, one affected all our efforts and contributed much to turning our defeat into disaster—the failure, after the fall of Rangoon, to give the forces in the field a clear strategic object for the campaign….Yet a realistic assessment of possibilities there and a firm, clear directive would have made a great deal of difference to us and to the way we fought.  Burma was not the first, nor was it to be the last, campaign that had been launched on no very clear realization of its political or military objects.  A study of such campaigns points emphatically to the almost inevitable disaster that must follow.  (Italics mine)   Commanders in the field, in fairness to them and their troops, must be clear and definitely told what is the object they are locally to attain.”

Anyone who wishes to dispute the lack of clear and achievable objectives for America’s wars should try to answer the question of what a U.S. victory in Iraq or Afghanistan would look like.  What would be different in the two countries from a U.S. victory?  How would the application of force by the U.S. military have yielded these desired results, whatever they were?

I invite anyone to answer these questions.  They should have been asked, and answered, a long time ago.  All the parties concerned—the political class, the intelligentsia, the moral leadership, and the military’s senior officer corps—in America have failed, stupendously, by not doing so.

Indeed, the lack of coherent objectives for these wars stems from the fraudulence of our pretenses for starting them.  Even senior U.S. and UK leaders have acknowledged the stage-management of falsehoods about weapons of mass destruction for a rationale for war with Iraq.  When wars are started on falsehoods, it isn’t reasonable to expect them to have honest (or moral) objectives.

The question then arises: What were the real objectives of these wars?  Economic determinists/Marxists look to oil as the underlying reason, but this can’t be it.  None of the economic determinist explanations for the Vietnam War made a lick of sense then or now, and any arguments about war for oil make an assumption, admittedly a remotely possible one, about the ruling elites in the U.S. and UK not being able to read a financial balance sheet.  The most cursory run of the financials under the best possible assumptions of the promoters of the wars showed Iraq as a giant money loser, world’s third largest oil reserves or not.  Economic reasons for a war in Afghanistan?  Nobody could ever be that dumb, not even broadcast journalists.

Judging from the results, the real intent of our political leadership was to create a state of permanent war, for narrow, behind the scenes, domestic political reasons.  The wars were/are stage-managed domestic political theater for current political ruling elites.  The main domestic objective sought was a Cold-War like freezing of political power and authority in current form by both locking up large areas of political debate as off-limits and increasing the current distribution of societal resources toward economic elites.  This was the real objective of both sides in the Cold War, Americans and Russians both, once things settled out after 1953, and most historians just lack the ability and perspective to see it.

A related factor Americans aren’t supposed to discuss is how much of the drive to war was neo-con war promotion manipulated by Israel.  There’s no getting around the high percentage of Jewish neo-cons inside the Beltway.  There’s a seven decade-long history of American country-cousin Jews being manipulated by their Israeli city-slicker relations, too, but I’d call this a contributing factor and not a causative one.   But the willingness of American neo-cons to do Israel’s bidding and launch a war against Iraq is most disturbing and does require more research.  (They all seem to be willing to do it again in Iran–was there ever a neo-con ever against an Iran war ever?  Just look at the current situation vis-à-vis Iran, and the direct intervention by the Israeli Prime Minister into American foreign policy.)

There is one other possibility: that America’s leaders actually believed their own PR about spreading democracy.  That’s been known to happen, but under present circumstances, their coming to believe their own PR knowing it was false from the git-go would be something truly unique and horrifying.  But not impossible, I’m afraid.

Cui Bono? (To whose benefit) is always the question we need to ask and with 13 years of war the beneficiaries should be obvious enough.  Just follow the money, and follow those whose powers get increased.  James Fallows, and everyone else in the mainstream news media, hasn’t.

But the most pressing issue isn’t any of the above.  The most pressing issue is moral, and most importantly of all our society’s unwillingness to face the hard moral questions of war.

Above all else, war is a moral issue; undoubtedly the most profound one a society has to face.  Wars are the acme of moral obscenity.  Terrible moral bills inevitably accrue from the vile actions that warfare entails.  It has always been so.  As long as there has been civilization there has always been great debate as to what political or social wrongs warrant the commission of the crimes and horrors of war.  About the only definitively conceded moral rationale for war is self-defense against external attack.  Domestic political theater is nothing new as a reason for war, but it has been universally condemned as grotesquely immoral throughout recorded history.

Our country is ostrich-like in its refusal to acknowledge the moral obscenity of war and its moral costs.  Insofar as your average American is willing to engage with these moral issues, it is at the level of “I support our troops” to each other, combined with the “Thank you for your service” to anyone in uniform.  Moral engagement on the biggest moral issue there is, war, with these tiresome tropes is profoundly infantile.  It isn’t moral engagement; it is a (partially subconscious) willful evasion.

The Hollywood sugarcoated picture of what war is hasn’t helped here; blindness due to American Exceptionalism hasn’t helped either.  Our intellectual and moral leadership—churches in particular—have been entirely AWOL on the moral failings of our wars and the moral debts and bills from them we have accrued and continue to accrue.  And these bills will come due some day, with terrible interest accrued.   Anyone paying attention to how the rest of the world thinks knows that we currently incur the world’s contumely for our failings here on this issue.

Mr. Fallows and the Atlantic are both equally blind and AWOL on the moral issues of our wars.  The moral issues, and failings, of the wars are paramount and are completely undiscussed in the article, and the magazine, and always have been since before the wars began.  Mr. Fallows, and the Atlantic, by framing the war issue in terms of “why the best (sic) soldiers in the world keep losing our wars” are avoiding them in a somewhat more sophisticated way than the “Thank you for your service” simpletons are.  They should know better and they don’t, and they lack the situational- and self-awareness to understand that they are doing this.  They deserve our contempt for it.  They certainly have mine.

The issue isn’t why the world’s best (sic) soldiers keep losing our wars.  The issue is why we started and fought wars this stupid and wrong and show every sign of continuing to do so in the future.  Why do we learn nothing from our military defeats?  How can we remain so willfully and morally blind?  Well, types like James Fallows and The Atlantic Monthly are a large part of why.   Missing the biggest political and moral question in our lifetimes, for this many years, well, hell, The Atlantic Monthly and James Fallows are just tits on a boar useless these days.

Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to.  He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about.  He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now.  He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb.  He can be reached at

14 thoughts on “America’s Refusal to Face the Hard Moral Issues of War

  1. “Just follow the money” you say. I agree. The so called unsuccessful wars (enterprises of conquests) have been very successful for some people. Their conquest of wealth has been phenomenal.

  2. You hit the nail on the head here with a big bang. Our mainstream this and that are often worthless in reporting and analyzing major events accurately and factually in the life of the nation, especially war.

  3. Dear mr. White:

    Brilliant analysis! The bozo’s in Government and the Military are truly a citizen’s worst enemy – as if we don’t have enough trouble trying to earn a living in a fixed ponzi scheme. In my opinion, you have to be a blue collar working to “feel” how the system works. Well done and well written,


    Thomas Lunde

  4. Economic elite’s play the (moral) American Exceptionalism card every hand and seldom fail to rake in the pot. And why wouldn’t they? The US citizenry seldom questions doctrine of any sort, and American post-WWII world hegemony leadership right (natural order entitlement due to our obvious superiority), and un-shirkable responsibilities, is promoted as relentlessly as Viagra — but not limited mostly to the Sunday supplement and late night commercial television advertising. “Follow the money” is precisely right.

    • I would add that the aforementioned elite’s insist on intrusive and destructive rights until the point when the bull finally exits the wrecked china shop. Cleanup of the mess they created? Not their problem. That is a task left to the little people.

  5. “Why do the best soldiers in the world keep losing?”

    Very funny! The answer is, of course, glaringly obvious: because they AREN’T “the world’s best soldiers”. How on earth could anyone know such a thing? Usain Bolt is probably the world’s best sprinter, and Novak Djokovic has a good claim to being the world’s best tennis player. But how the hell would you know who is the world’s best soldier? Especially if he hasn’t done any fighting lately? The only reason for this absurd, preposterous claim is that those soldiers belong to the USA, which BY DEFINITION has the best of everything. Well, it certainly has the best liars, stealth murderers, and hypocrites. But soldiers? Here’s an interesting exercise: name any country that doesn’t believe its soldiers are the best in the world.

  6. “…tits on a boar useless”! Ah, those colorful Texans! Dan White, I rise to the challenge of your questions and will bust my gut trying to be concise: 1.) the US military relies on overwhelming firepower and increasingly high tech toys (weapons). Americans on the whole are physically “soft” and haven’t been called upon to actually defend the home turf against an invading army since 1812-15 [we could quibble about the Civil War, but not right now, okay?]. A foreign, invading military is always at disadvantage fighting the guerrilla forces who actually live in the invaded turf; 2.) I’ll answer the question of objectives of the recent wars from Ruling Class’s perspective: to establish a stable, functioning regime (“democracy”) in a modernizing society, completely obedient to the US masters, from which resources can be imported and to which products can be exported. Supposedly everything was planned out to last detail (e.g. design for new postage stamps!) prior to 2003 invasion of Iraq. Quite possibly the planners for this event DID swallow their own propaganda and think victory would be as easy as a declaration of “Mission Accomplished”; 3.) on Vietnam: in his latest book, Christian Appy shows convincingly that during Eisenhower’s time there were, indeed, concerns for maintaining access to natural resources, but that ultimately the situation morphed into one where the US could not allow itself to be seen as “soft,” couldn’t be seen to back down or withdraw from an unwinnable war, certainly couldn’t publicly admit to being morally wrong. Afghanistan? I have no doubt that the opium poppies are the prime resource of interest; 4.) substituting “radical Islam” for “The International Communist Conspiracy” wasn’t good enough to keep Pentagon’s budget bloated, so now the evil Russkies are once again being vilified to the max. What indeed does it say about the morals of a nation when Perpetual War becomes essential to propping up its economy?; 5.) the military is mercenary now, supported by “civilian contractors,” and living Americans have never suffered the horrors of war on their home turf [to any extent, at any rate, the attacks of 9/11 having been so brief]. And don’t forget that the US military has no shortage of chaplains of all denominations daily blessing said military’s actions. Make sacrifices for the war effort? Yeah, it sure is easier to slap a yellow magnetic ribbon declaring “Support Our Troops” on the ol’ SUV; 6.) finally, for the umpteenth time, I publicly repudiate the notion that Israel is the tail wagging the US dog. If Israel’s existence didn’t serve the interests of the US Ruling Class–in which Jews are a tiny minority, I’m sure!–Israel would cease to exist.

    If I failed miserably to keep this brief…I blame Dan White!!

  7. I’ve said this before, but I think the Bush/Cheney crew were determined to do something — anything — to redeem their lost manhood after the debacle of 9/11. They needed a “victory,” and the Taliban wasn’t enough. Saddam Hussein and Iraq beckoned, and the Bush/Cheney crew knew that it would topple fairly easily and spectacularly. The “victory” in 2003 was Viagra for them, complete with Bush’s landing in a combat jet, a scene right out of “Independence Day.”

    Then, inexplicably, they refused to withdraw from Iraq. After declaring victory, they caught victory disease and stayed. And then they started to deny the facts before their face. Who can forget Rumsfeld saying that “We don’t do quagmires”? Or Bush saying about the Iraqi insurgents, “Bring them on”? Folly due to hubris.

    These men truly believed they could re-create the world. They were the true crusaders, men who truly believed their own PR. And ordinary Americans (and Iraqis and Afghans) paid the price — not America’s holy warrior-leaders.

    Nevertheless, Bush/Cheney largely evaded responsibility for the disaster of 9/11. But the way they did so was by compounding their original mistake. Through subsequent torture, invasions, and a refusal to admit mistakes, they ensured a forever war that is destroying democracy in America. Heck, even Obama embraced their agenda.

    Mission accomplished, Bush/Cheney! We are well on our way to a militaristic, authoritarian, even totalitarian, state.

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