Why War Fails

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Common Dreams

Why War Fails

I suggest there is something important to be learned from the recent experience of the United States and Israel in the Middle East: that massive military attacks are not only morally reprehensible but useless in achieving the stated aims of those who carry them out.

In the three years of the Iraq War, which began with shock-and-awe bombardment and goes on with day-to-day violence and chaos, the United States has failed utterly in its claimed objective of bringing democracy and stability to Iraq. American soldiers and civilians, fearful of going into the neighborhoods of Baghdad, are huddled inside the Green Zone, where the largest embassy in the world is being built, covering 104 acres and closed off from the world outside its walls.

I remember John Hersey's novel The War Lover, in which a macho American pilot, who loves to drop bombs on people, and also to boast about his sexual conquests, turns out to be impotent. George Bush, strutting in his flight jacket on an aircraft carrier, and announcing victory in Iraq, has turned out to be an embodiment of the Hersey character, his words equally boastful, his military machine equally impotent.

The Israeli invasion and bombing of Lebanon has not brought security to Israel. Indeed, it has increased the number of its enemies, whether in Hezbollah or Hamas, or among Arabs who belong to neither of those groups.

That failure of massive force goes so deep into history that Israeli leaders must have been extraordinarily obtuse, or blindly fanatic, to miss it. The memory is not lost to Professor Ze'ev Maoz at Tel Aviv University, writing recently in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz about a previous Israeli invasion of Lebanon: "Approximately 14,000 civilians were killed between June and September of 1982, according to a conservative estimate." The result, aside from the physical and human devastation, was the rise of Hezbollah, whose rockets provoked another desperate exercise of massive force.

The history of wars fought since the end of World War II reveals the futility of large-scale violence. The United States and the Soviet Union, despite their enormous firepower, were unable to defeat resistance movements in small, weak nations. Even though the United States dropped more bombs in the Vietnam War than in all of World War II, it was still forced to withdraw. The Soviet Union, trying for a decade to conquer Afghanistan, in a war that caused a million deaths, became bogged down and also finally withdrew.

Even the supposed triumphs of great military powers turn out to be elusive. After attacking and invading Afghanistan, President Bush boasted that the Taliban were defeated. But five years later, Afghanistan is rife with violence, and the Taliban are active in much of the country. Last May, there were riots in Kabul, after a runaway American military truck killed five Afghans. When U.S. soldiers fired into the crowd, four more people were killed.

After the brief, apparently victorious war against Iraq in 1991, George Bush Sr. declared (in a moment of rare eloquence): "The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula." Those sands are bloody once more.

The same George Bush presided over the military attack on Panama in 1989, which killed thousands and destroyed entire neighborhoods, justified by the "war on drugs." Another victory, but in a few years, the drug trade in Panama was thriving as before.

The nations of Eastern Europe, despite Soviet occupation, developed resistance movements that eventually compelled the Soviet military to leave. The United States, which had its way in Latin America for a hundred years, has been unable, despite a long history of military interventions, to control events in Cuba, or Venezuela, or Brazil, or Bolivia.

Overwhelming Israeli military power, while occupying the West Bank and Gaza, has not been able to stop the resistance movement of Palestinians. Israel has not made itself more secure by its continued use of massive force. The United States, despite two successive wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not more secure.

More important than the futility of armed force, and ultimately more important, is the fact that war in our time always results in the indiscriminate killing of large numbers of people. To put it more bluntly, war is terrorism. That is why a "war on terrorism" is a contradiction in terms.

The repeated excuse for war, and its toll on civilians-and this has been uttered by Pentagon spokespersons as well as by Israeli officials-is that terrorists hide among civilians. Therefore the killing of innocent people (in Iraq, in Lebanon) is "accidental" whereas the deaths caused by terrorists (9/11, Hezbollah rockets) are deliberate.

This is a false distinction. If a bomb is deliberately dropped on a house or a vehicle on the ground that a "suspected terrorist" is inside (note the frequent use of the word "suspected" as evidence of the uncertainty surrounding targets), it is argued that the resulting deaths of women and children is not intended, therefore "accidental." The deaths of innocent people in bombing may not be intentional. Neither are they accidental. The proper description is "inevitable."

So if an action will inevitably kill innocent people, it is as immoral as a "deliberate" attack on civilians. And when you consider that the number of people dying inevitably in "accidental" events has been far greater than all the deaths of innocent people deliberately caused by terrorists, one must reconsider the morality of war, any war in our time.

It is a supreme irony that the "war on terrorism" has brought a higher death toll among innocent civilians than the hijackings of 9/11, which killed up to 3,000 people. The United States reacted to 9/11 by invading and bombing Afghanistan. In that operation, at least 3,000 civilians were killed, and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes and villages, terrorized by what was supposed to be a war on terror. Bush's Iraq War, which he keeps linking to the "war on terror," has killed between 40,000 and 140,000 civilians.

More than a million civilians in Vietnam were killed by U.S. bombs, presumably by "accident." Add up all the terrorist attacks throughout the world in the twentieth century and they do not equal that awful toll.

If reacting to terrorist attacks by war is inevitably immoral, then we must look for ways other than war to end terrorism.

And if military retaliation for terrorism is not only immoral but futile, then political leaders, however cold-blooded their calculations, must reconsider their policies. When such practical considerations are joined to a rising popular revulsion against war, perhaps the long era of mass murder may be brought to an end.

Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn (August 24, 1922 - January 27, 2010) was a historian, playwright, and activist. Howard authored many books, including A People’s History of the United States,” “Voices of a People’s History (with Anthony Arnove), and A Power Governments Cannot Suppress."

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