Those who use violence to shape the world, as we have done in the Middle East, unleash a whirlwind. Our initial alliances—achieved at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dead, some $3 trillion in expenditures and the ravaging of infrastructure across the region—have been turned upside down by the cataclysm of violence. Thirteen years of war, and the rise of enemies we did not expect, have transformed Hezbollah fighters inside Syria, along with Iran, into our tacit allies. We are intervening in the Syrian civil war to assist a regime we sought to overthrow. We promised to save Iraq and now help to dismember it. We have delivered Afghanistan to drug cartels and warlords who preside over a ruin of a nation where 60 percent of the children are malnourished and the Taliban is poised to take power once NATO troops depart. The entire misguided enterprise has been a fiasco of gross mismanagement and wanton bloodletting. But that does not mean it will be stopped.
More violence is not going to rectify the damage. Indeed, it will make it worse. But violence is all we know. Violence is the habitual response by the state to every dilemma. War, like much of modern bureaucracy, has become an impersonal and unquestioned mechanism to perpetuate American power. It has its own internal momentum. There may be a few courageous souls who rise up within the apparatus to protest war’s ultimate absurdity, but they are rapidly discarded and replaced. The state rages like an insane King Lear, who in his madness and desire to revenge himself on his two daughters and their husbands decides that:
It were a delicate stratagem to shoe
A troop of horse with felt. I’ll put ’t in proof.
And when I have stol’n upon these sons-in-law,
Then, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!
And kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill is the mantra chanted with every new setback in the Middle East. How many times have we rejoiced at the murder of those we demonized—Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and dozens of others. But as soon as one hunt for the fountainhead of evil ends, another begins. Those we kill are swiftly replaced. Fresh terrorist groups take the place of the old. The Khorasan Group, the U.S. government assures us, is a more sinister and deadlier version of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which was once touted as a more sinister version of al-Qaida. We cannot extinguish our enemies. They spring out of the ground like the legion of hostile warriors that rose up when Cadmus sowed his dragon’s teeth. Our violence spawns violence and never-ending configurations of enraged militants. We will keep spawning them until we stop occupying the Middle East.
Endless war, which results in endless terror, leaves the arms manufacturers and generals giddy with joy. It is a boon to the state, which is possessed of an excuse to extinguish what few liberties we have left. It fuels the militancy and hatred that fanatics need to justify their slaughter and attract recruits. But it is a curse to humankind.
The barbarism of modern industrial warfare creates complex bureaucratic mechanisms that exist to perpetuate and manufacture death. We are hostages to those mechanisms. “The soul that is enslaved to war cries out for deliverance,” Simone Weil observed, “but deliverance itself appears to it an extreme and tragic aspect, the aspect of destruction.”
“Thus war effaces all conceptions of purpose or goal, including even its own ‘war aims,’ ” she wrote. “It effaces the very notion of war’s being brought to an end. Consequently, nobody does anything to bring this end about. In the presence of an armed enemy, what hand can relinquish its weapon? The mind ought to find a way out, but the mind has lost all capacity to so much as look outward. The mind is completely absorbed in doing itself violence. Always in human life, whether war or slavery is in question, intolerable sufferings continue, as it were, by the force of their own specific gravity, and so look to the outsider as though they deprived the sufferer of the resources which might serve to extricate him.”
Violence as a primary form of communication has become normalized. It is not politics by other means. It is politics. Democrats are as infected as Republicans. The war machine is impervious to election cycles. It bombs, kills, maims, tortures, terrorizes and destroys as if on autopilot. It dispenses with humans around the globe as if they were noisome insects. No one dares lift his or her voice to protest against a war policy that is visibly bankrupting the United States, has no hope of success and is going to end with new terrorist attacks on American soil. We have surrendered our political agency and our role as citizens to the masters of war.
“It seems to me that nearly the whole Anglo-Saxon race, especially of course in America, have lost the power to be individuals,” wrote the artist Roger Fry. “They have become social insects like bees or ants.”
Søren Kierkegaard in “The Present Age” warned that the modern state seeks to eradicate conscience and absorb individuals into a public that can be shaped and manipulated by those in power. This public is not real. It is, as Kierkegaard wrote, a “monstrous abstraction, an all-embracing something which is nothing, a mirage.” In short, we became part of a herd, “unreal individuals who never are and never can be united in an actual situation or organization—and yet are held together as a whole.” Those who question the public, those who denounce endless war, are dismissed as dreamers or freaks. But only they, according to the Greek definition of the polis, can be considered citizens.
In endless war it does not matter whom we fight. Endless war is not about winning battles or promoting a cause. It is an end in itself. In George Orwell’s novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” Oceania is at war with Eurasia and allied with Eastasia. The alliance then suddenly is reversed. Eurasia becomes an ally of Oceania and Eastasia is the enemy. The point is not who is being fought. The point is maintaining a state of fear and the mass mobilization of the public. War and national security are used to justify the surrender of citizenship, the crushing of dissent and expanding the powers of the state. The point is war itself. And if the American state, once a sworn enemy of Hezbollah, gives air cover to Hezbollah fighters in Syria, the goals of endless war remain gloriously untouched.
But endless war is not sustainable. States that wage endless war inevitably collapse. They drain their treasuries, are hated by the wretched of the earth, and militarize and strangle their political, social and cultural life while impoverishing and repressing their populations. They are seduced by what Sigmund Freud called the “death instinct.” This is where we are headed. The only question is when it will unravel.
Edward Gibbon observed about the Roman Empire’s own lust for endless war: ” ... [T]he decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious: and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted for so long.”