Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

ONE DAY left in this Mid-Year Campaign. This is our hour of need.
If you value independent journalism, please support Common Dreams.

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.


Anti-war demonstrators attend a rally outside the White House. The action also took place in 153 cities in 20 countries for the Global Day of Protest. Washington, D.C., January 25, 2020. (Photo: Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Untangling Ourselves From the Dark Side of War

Waging war, or not, is a choice. Mainstream geopolitical reporting pretty much ignores this miniscule reality and covers the ever-simmering possibility of war.

Robert C. Koehler

Guess what? I direct the following insight to, among others, the U.S. Congress, which annually and without comment, with only a few objectors, passes a trillion-dollar (and growing) military budget, by far the largest such budget on Planet Earth.

"You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war."

The words are those of Albert Einstein, in a letter to a congressman 75 years ago. He adds, pointing out a truth that is still waiting to resonate culturally and politically: "The very prevention of war requires more faith, courage, and resolution than are needed to prepare for war."

"The U.S., operating on the dark side—and with the participation of four presidents—has dropped 337,000 bombs on countries across the Middle East."

These words take a while to sink in, but as they do, some crucial—crucially ignored—realities emerge. The first is that waging war, or not, is a choice. Mainstream geopolitical reporting pretty much ignores this miniscule reality and covers the ever-simmering possibility of war—here, there, and everywhere—as though it's beyond human control, like a hurricane or a flood or a volcanic eruption. It's certainly beyond the control of ordinary folks like you and me, who are spectators in the process and nothing more.

Robert Farley, for instance, writing at Business Insider about the planet's vulnerable geopolitical future, discusses what he calls the "most dangerous flashpoints for the eruption of World War III"—disputed and problematic sites such as Ukraine, Taiwan, Iran, and North Korea—where the big powers . . . Russia, China, the USA . . . might lose it with one another.

I'm not criticizing his political analysis, simply noting his portrayal of the planet's dominant nations as smugly objective forces. For instance: "The pandemic isn't over," he writes, "but it is becoming part of the background noise of international politics, and great powers are recalibrating and reasserting their interests."

What "interests" is he talking about? The unaddressed assumption here is that there is nothing more than a simplistic military-political will operating at the national level across Planet Earth, a will that is only capable of asserting itself through violence, including nuclear violence, and with seriously limited capacity for self-reflection and no complex understanding even of its own interests. And this is our future: We're probably going to blow ourselves up.

And, my God, there is indeed way too much truth to this, but if the mainstream coverage surrenders to this partial truth and leaves Einstein out—leaves out the fact that war is never inevitable and always a choice—the truth threatens to become absolute. This is what I truly fear.

The interest of power, when it reaches a certain level of dominance, is more power. Period. And confronting this interest requires the courage Einstein spoke of. Here's an example of the difficulty involved in doing so, even if you are, let us say, president of the United States, and happen to believe in the U.N. Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which became international law in 1970. Article VI of the treaty reads:

"Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."

Uh . . . that was half a century ago.

Kim Petersen, addressing the matter, noted that Barack Obama—the guy who, before he took office, promised to do such things as close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp—also expressed commitment to a reduction in the country's stock of nuclear weapons. What he wound up doing instead, Peterson writes, is "authorizing a $1 trillion nuclear modernization."

So what's going on? "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war." Electing a president who promises hope and change obviously isn't enough. The reality of our government is deep. There is a dark side, much of which is "classified," and it could well be that the dark side rules, no matter who is president. But acknowledging this doesn't mean surrendering to the inevitability of World War III—rather, just the opposite. Only by acknowledging that we live in something that isn't really (or fully) a democracy can we truly start to become players in the planet's future.

Here's how Dick Cheney put it when he spoke on "Meet the Press" several days after 9/11: "We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. . . . A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we're going to be successful. That's the world these folks operate in, and so it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal."

Now it's twenty years later. The U.S., operating on the dark side—and with the participation of four presidents—has dropped 337,000 bombs on countries across the Middle East, as well as legitimized torture in its secret prisons, in the process feeding and expanding terrorism, i.e., war itself. Waging war means waging terror. It means operating on the dark side.

This is not how we will survive. This is not our future. This is not our choice. We have enough of a democracy to listen to Einstein.

"The very prevention of war requires more faith, courage, and resolution than are needed to prepare for war."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. Koehler has been the recipient of multiple awards for writing and journalism from organizations including the National Newspaper Association, Suburban Newspapers of America, and the Chicago Headline Club.  He’s a regular contributor to such high-profile websites as Common Dreams and the Huffington Post. Eschewing political labels, Koehler considers himself a “peace journalist. He has been an editor at Tribune Media Services and a reporter, columnist and copy desk chief at Lerner Newspapers, a chain of neighborhood and suburban newspapers in the Chicago area. Koehler launched his column in 1999. Born in Detroit and raised in suburban Dearborn, Koehler has lived in Chicago since 1976. He earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Columbia College and has taught writing at both the college and high school levels. Koehler is a widower and single parent. He explores both conditions at great depth in his writing. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at

Just ONE DAY left in our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

As US Rolls Back Reproductive Rights, Sierra Leone Moves to Decriminalize Abortion

"I'm hopeful today's announcement gives activists in the U.S., and especially Black women given the shared history, a restored faith that change is possible and progress can be made."

Brett Wilkins ·

'Indefensible': Outrage as New Reporting Shines Light on Biden Deal With McConnell

The president has reportedly agreed to nominate an anti-abortion Republican to a lifetime judgeship. In exchange, McConnell has vowed to stop blocking two Biden picks for term-limited U.S. attorney posts.

Jake Johnson ·

Assange Makes Final Appeal Against US Extradition

"If Julian Assange is not free, neither are we," said a protester at a Friday demonstration against the WikiLeaks founder's impending transfer. "None of us is free."

Brett Wilkins ·

'Payoff for 40 Years of Dark Money': Supreme Court Delivers for Corporate America

"It was the conservative court's larger agenda to gut the regulatory state and decimate executive powers to protect Americans' health and safety," warned one expert.

Jake Johnson ·

NARAL Pro-Choice Endorses Fetterman—Who Vows to End Senate Filibuster to Protect Abortion Rights

"We know we can count on him to boldly fight for abortion rights and access," said the head of one of the nation's largest reproductive rights advocacy groups.

Jon Queally ·

Common Dreams Logo