The Dead Rhetoric of War
A French-language version of this article was published Monday in the newspaper Le Monde.
The intoxication of war, fueled by the euphoric nationalism that swept through the country like a plague following the attacks of 9/11, is a spent force in the United States. The high-blown rhetoric of patriotism and national destiny, of the sacred duty to reshape the world through violence, to liberate the enslaved and implant democracy in the Middle East, has finally been exposed as empty and meaningless. The war machine has tried all the old tricks. It trotted out the requisite footage of atrocities. It issued the histrionic warnings that the evil dictator will turn his weapons of mass destruction against us if we do not bomb and “degrade” his military. It appealed to the nation’s noble sacrifice in World War II, with the Secretary of State John Kerry calling the present situation a “Munich moment.” But none of it worked. It was only an offhand remark by Kerry that opened the door to a Russian initiative, providing the Obama administration a swift exit from its mindless bellicosity and what would have been a humiliating domestic defeat. Twelve long years of fruitless war in Afghanistan and another 10 in Iraq have left the public wary of the lies of politicians, sick of the endless violence of empire and unwilling to continue to pump trillions of dollars into a war machine that has made a small cabal of defense contractors and arms manufacturers such as Raytheon and Halliburton huge profits while we are economically and politically hollowed out from the inside. The party is over.
The myth of war, as each generation discovers over the corpses of its young and the looting of its national treasury by war profiteers, is a lie. War is no longer able to divert Americans from the economic and political decay that is rapidly turning the nation into a corporate oligarchy, a nation where “the consent of the governed” is a cruel joke. War cannot hide what we have become. War has made us a nation that openly tortures and holds people indefinitely in our archipelago of offshore penal colonies. War has unleashed death squads — known as special operations forces — to assassinate our enemies around the globe, even American citizens. War has seen us terrorize whole populations, including populations with which we are not officially at war, with armed drones that circle night and day above mud-walled villages in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. War has shredded, in the name of national security, our most basic civil liberties. War has turned us into the most spied-upon, monitored, eavesdropped and photographed population in human history. War has seen our most courageous dissidents and whistle-blowers — those who warned us of the crimes of war and empire, from Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning to Edward Snowden — become persecuted political prisoners or the hunted. War has made a few very rich, as it always does, as our schools, libraries and firehouses are closed in the name of fiscal austerity, basic social service programs for children and the elderly are shut down, cities such as Detroit declare bankruptcy, and chronic underemployment and unemployment hover at 15 percent, perhaps 20. No one knows the truth anymore about America. The vast Potemkin village we have become, the monstrous lie that is America, includes the willful manipulation of financial and official statistics from Wall Street and Washington.
We are slowly awakening, after years on a drunken bender, to the awful pain of sobriety and the unpleasant glare of daylight. We are being forced to face grim truths about ourselves and the war machine. We have understood that we cannot impart our “virtues” through violence, that all talk of human rights, once you employ the industrial weapons of the modern battlefield, is absurd. We see through the Orwellian assertions made by Barack Obama and John Kerry, who have assured the world that the United States is considering only an “unbelievably small, limited” strike on Syria that is not a war. We know that the Pentagon’s plan to obliterate the command bunkers, airfields or the artillery batteries and rocket launchers used to fire chemical projectiles is indeed what the politicians insist it is not — a war. We know that the launching of several hundred Tomahawk missiles from destroyers and submarines in the Mediterranean Sea on Syrian military and command installations would be perceived by the Syrians — as we would should such missiles be launched against us — as an act of war. A Tomahawk carries a 1,000-pound bomb or 166 cluster bombs. One Tomahawk has appalling destructive power. Hundreds mean indiscriminate death from the sky. We have heard the careful parsing that does not preclude, should the Pandora’s box of war be opened and chaos envelope Syria, the possible deployment of troops on the ground. We have listened to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concede that “there is a probability for collateral damage.” We know this means civilians will be killed to prevent the regime of Bashar Assad from killing civilians. Only the circular logic of war makes such a proposition rational. And this circular logic, no longer obscured by the waving of flags, the bombast of “glory and honor,” the cant of politicians, the self-exaltation that comes with the disease of nationalism, means that Barack Obama and the war machine he serves are going to face a wave of popular revulsion if he starts another war.
Chris Hedges is a former Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times. He is the author, with Joe Sacco, of “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.”