Humanitarian War vs. Humanity

But look at the sort of rhetoric that successfully sells new wars:

“This conflict started Aug. 2, when the dictator of Iraq invaded a small and helpless neighbor. Kuwait, a member of the Arab League and a member of the United Nations, was crushed, its people brutalized. Five months ago, Saddam Hussein started this cruel war against Kuwait; tonight, the battle has been joined.”

Thus spoke President Bush the Elder upon launching the Gulf War in 1991. He didn’t say he wanted to kill people. He said he wanted to liberate helpless victims from their oppressors, an idea that would be considered leftist in domestic politics, but an idea that seems to create genuine support for wars. And here’s President Clinton speaking about Yugoslavia eight years later:

“When I ordered our armed forces into combat, we had three clear goals: to enable the Kosovar people, the victims of some of the most vicious atrocities in Europe since the Second World War, to return to their homes with safety and self-government; to require Serbian forces responsible for those atrocities to leave Kosovo; and to deploy an international security force, with NATO at its core, to protect all the people of that troubled land, Serbs and Albanians alike.”

Look also at the rhetoric that is used to successfully keep wars going for years:

“We will not abandon the Iraqi people.”
Secretary of State Colin Powell, August 13, 2003.

“The United States will not abandon Iraq.”
President George W. Bush, March, 21, 2006.

If I break into your house, smash the windows, bust up the furniture, and kill half your family, do I have a moral obligation to stay and spend the night? Would it be cruel and irresponsible for me to “abandon” you, even when you encourage me to leave? Or is it my duty, on the contrary, to depart immediately and turn myself in at the nearest police station? Once the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had begun, a debate began that resembled this one. As you can see, these two approaches are many miles apart, despite both being framed as humanitarian. One says that we have to stay out of generosity, the other that we have to leave out of shame and respect. Which is right?

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly told President Bush “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You’ll own it all.” According to Bob Woodward, “Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called this the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it.” Senator John Kerry cited the rule when running for president, and it was and is widely accepted as legitimate by Republican and Democratic politicians in Washington, D.C.

The Pottery Barn is a store that has no such rule, at least not for accidents. It’s illegal in many states in our country to have such a rule, except for cases of gross negligence and willful destruction. That description, of course, fits the invasion of Iraq to a T. The doctrine of “shock and awe,” of imposing such massive destruction that the enemy is paralyzed with fear and helplessness had long since been proven as hopeless and nonsensical as it sounds. It hadn’t worked in World War II or since. Americans parachuting into Japan following the nuclear bombs were not bowed down to; they were lynched. People have always fought back and always will, just as you probably would. But shock and awe is designed to include the complete destruction of infrastructure, communication, transportation, food production and supply, water supply, and so forth. In other words: the illegal imposition of great suffering on an entire population. If that’s not willful destruction, I don’t know what is.

The invasion of Iraq was also intended as a “decapitation,” a “regime change.” The dictator was removed from the scene, eventually captured, and later executed following a deeply flawed trial that avoided evidence of U.S. complicity in his crimes. Many Iraqis were delighted with the removal of Saddam Hussein, but quickly began to demand the withdrawal of the United States military from their country. Was this ingratitude? “Thank you for deposing our tyrant. Don’t let the doorknob hit you in the ass on your way out!” Hmm. That makes it sound as if the United States wanted to stay, and as if the Iraqis owed us the favor of letting us stay. That’s quite different from staying reluctantly to fulfill our moral duty of ownership. Which is it?


How does one manage to own people? It’s striking that Powell, an African American, some of whose ancestors were owned as slaves in Jamaica, told the president he would own people, dark skinned people against whom many Americans held some degree of prejudice. Powell was arguing against the invasion, or at least warning of what would be involved. But did owning people necessarily have to be involved? If the United States and its fig-leaf “coalition” of minor contingents from other nations had pulled out of Iraq when George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” in a flight suit on an aircraft carrier in San Diego Harbor on May 1, 2003, and not disbanded the Iraqi military, and not laid siege to towns and neighborhoods, not inflamed ethnic tensions, not prevented Iraqis from working to repair the damage, and not driven millions of Iraqis out of their homes, then the result might not have been ideal, but it almost certainly would have involved less misery than what was actually done, following the pottery barn rule.

Or what if the United States had congratulated Iraq on its disarmament, of which the U.S. government was fully apprised? What if we had removed our military from the area, eliminated the no-fly zones, and ended the economic sanctions, the sanctions Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had been discussing in 1996 in this exchange on the television program 60 Minutes:

“LESLEY STAHL: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

ALBRIGHT: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”

Was it? So much was accomplished that a war was still needed in 2003? Those children couldn’t have been spared for seven more years and identical political results? What if the United States had worked with the demilitarized Iraq to encourage a demilitarized Middle East, including all its nations in a nuclear-free zone, encouraging Israel to dismantle its nuclear stockpile instead of encouraging Iran to try to acquire one? George W. Bush had lumped Iran, Iraq, and North Korea into “an axis of evil,” attacked unarmed Iraq, ignored nuclear-armed North Korea, and begun threatening Iran. If you were Iran, what would you have wanted?

What if the United States had provided economic aid to Iraq, Iran, and other nations in the region, and led an effort to provide them with (or at least lifted sanctions that are preventing the construction of) windmills, solar panels, and a sustainable energy infrastructure, thus bringing electricity to more rather than fewer people? Such a project could not possibly have cost anything like the trillions of dollars wasted on war between 2003 and 2010. For an additional relatively tiny expense, we could have created a major program of student exchange between Iraqi, Iranian, and U.S. schools. Nothing discourages war like bonds of friendship and family. Why wouldn’t such an approach have been at least as responsible and serious and moral as announcing our ownership of somebody else’s country just because we’d bombed it?

Part of the disagreement, I think, arises over a failure to imagine what the bombing looked like. If we think of it as a clean and harmless series of blips on a video game, during which “smart bombs” improve Baghdad by “surgically” removing its evildoers, then moving on to the next step of fulfilling our duties as the new landlords is easier. If, instead, we imagine the actual and horrific mass-murder and maiming of children and adults that went on when Baghdad was bombed, then our thoughts turn to apologies and reparations as our first priority, and we begin to question whether we have the right or the standing to behave as owners of what remains. In fact, smashing a pot at the Pottery Barn would result in our paying for the damage and apologizing, not overseeing the smashing of more pots.


Another major source of the disagreement between pro- and anti-potterybarners, I think, comes down to a powerful and insidious force known as racism. Remember President McKinley’s proposing to govern the Philippines because the poor Filipinos couldn’t possibly do it themselves? William Howard Taft, the first American Governor-General of the Philippines, called the Filipinos “our little brown brothers.” In Vietnam, when the Vietcong appeared willing to sacrifice a great many of their lives without surrendering, that became evidence that they placed little value on life, which became evidence of their evil nature, which became grounds for killing even more of them.

If we set aside the pottery barn rule for a moment and think, instead, of the golden rule, we get a very different sort of guidance. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If another nation invaded our country, and the result was immediately chaos; if it was unclear what form of government, if any, would emerge; if the nation was in danger of breaking into pieces; if there might be civil war or anarchy; and if nothing was certain, what is the very first thing we would want the invading military to do? That’s right: get the hell out of our country! And in fact that’s what the majority of Iraqis in numerous polls have told the United States to do for years. George McGovern and William Polk wrote in 2006:

“Not surprisingly, most Iraqis think that the United States will never withdraw unless forced to do so. This feeling perhaps explains why a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll showed that eight out of every ten Iraqis regarded America not as a ‘liberator’ but as an occupier, and 88 percent of the Sunni Muslim Arabs favored violent attacks on American troops.”

Of course, those puppets and politicians benefitting from an occupation prefer to see it continue. But even within the puppet government, the Iraqi Parliament refused to approve the treaty that Presidents Bush and Maliki drew up in 2008 to extend the occupation for three years, unless the people were given a chance to vote it up or down in a referendum. That vote was later repeatedly denied precisely because everyone knew what the outcome would have been. Owning people out of the kindness of our hearts is one thing, I believe, but doing it against their will is quite another. And who has ever willfully chosen to be owned?


Is generosity really a motivator behind our wars, whether the launching of them or the prolonging of them? If a nation is generous toward other nations, it seems likely it would be so in more than one way. Yet, if you examine a list of nations ranked by the charity they give to others and a list of nations ranked by their military expenditures, there’s no correlation. In a list of the wealthiest two-dozen countries, ranked in terms of foreign giving, the United States is near the bottom, and a significant chunk of the “aid” we give to other countries is actually weaponry. If private giving is factored in with public giving, the United States moves only slightly higher in the list. If the money that recent immigrants send to their own families were included, the United States might move up a bit more, although that seems like a very different kind of giving.

When you look at the top nations in terms of military spending per- capita, none of the wealthy nations from Europe, Asia, or North America make it anywhere near the top of the list, with the single exception of the United States. Our country comes in eleventh, with the 10 nations above it in military spending per capita all from the Middle East, North Africa, or central Asia. Greece comes in 23rd, South Korea 36th, and the United Kingdom 42nd, with all other European and Asian nations further down the list. In addition, the United States is the top exporter of private arms sales, with Russia the only other country in the world that comes even remotely close to it.

More importantly, of the 22 major wealthy countries, most of which give more to foreign charity than do we in the United States, 20 haven’t started any wars in generations, if ever, and at most have taken small roles in U.S.-dominated war coalitions; one of the other two countries, South Korea, only engages in hostilities with North Korea with U.S. approval; and the last country, the United Kingdom, primarily follows the U.S. lead.

Civilizing the heathen was always viewed as a generous mission (except by the heathen). Manifest destiny was believed to be an expression of God’s love. According to anthropologist Clark Wissler, “when a group comes into a new solution to one of its important cultural problems, it becomes zealous to spread that idea abroad, and is moved to embark upon an era of conquest to force the recognition of its merits.” Spread? Spread? Where have we heard something about spreading an important solution? Oh, yes, I remember:

“And the second way to defeat the terrorists is to spread freedom. You see, the best way to defeat a society that is — doesn’t have hope, a society where people become so angry they’re willing to become suiciders, is to spread freedom, is to spread democracy.”

— President George W. Bush, June 8, 2005.

This isn’t a stupid idea because Bush speaks hesitantly and invents the word “suiciders.” It’s a stupid idea because freedom and democracy cannot be imposed at gunpoint by a foreign force that thinks so little of the newly free people that it is willing to recklessly murder them. A democracy that is required beforehand to remain loyal to the United States is not a representative government, but rather some sort of strange hybrid with dictatorship. A democracy imposed in order to demonstrate to the world that our way is the best way is unlikely to create a government of, by, and for the people.

U.S. commander Stanley McChrystal described a planned but failed attempt to create a government in Marja, Afghanistan, in 2010; he said he would bring in a hand-picked puppet and a set of foreign handlers as “a government in a box.” Wouldn’t you want a foreign army to bring one of those to your town?

With 86 percent of Americans in a February 2010 CNN poll saying our own government is broken, do we have the know-how, never mind the authority, to impose a model of government on someone else? And if we did, would the military be the tool with which to do it?


Judging from past experience, creating a new nation by force usually fails. We generally call this activity “nation-building” even though it usually does not build a nation. In May 2003, two scholars at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a study of past U.S. attempts at nation building, examining — in chronological order — Cuba, Panama, Cuba again, Nicaragua, Haiti, Cuba yet again, the Dominican Republic, West Germany, Japan, the Dominican Republic again, South Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Panama again, Haiti again, and Afghanistan. Of these 16 attempts at nation building, in only four, the authors concluded, was a democracy sustained as long as 10 years after the departure of U.S. forces.

By “departure” of U.S. forces, the authors of the above study clearly meant reduction, since U.S. forces have never actually departed. Two of the four countries were the completely destroyed and defeated Japan and Germany. The other two were U.S. neighbors — tiny Grenada and Panama. The so-called nation building in Panama is considered to have taken 23 years. That same length of time would carry the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq to 2024 and 2026 respectively.

Never, the authors found, has a surrogate regime supported by the United States, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, made the transition to democracy. The authors of this study, Minxin Pei and Sara Kasper, also found that creating lasting democracies had never been the primary goal:

“The primary goal of early U.S. nation-building efforts was in most cases strategic. In its first efforts, Washington decided to replace or support a regime in a foreign land to defend its core security and economic interests, not to build a democracy. Only later did America’s political ideals and its need to sustain domestic support for nation building impel it to try to establish democratic rule in target nations.”

Do you think an endowment for peace might be biased against war? Surely the Pentagon-created RAND Corporation must be biased in favor of war. And yet a RAND study of occupations and insurgencies in 2010, a study produced for the U.S. Marine Corps, found that 90 percent of insurgencies against weak governments, like Afghanistan’s, succeed. In other words, the nation-building, whether or not imposed from abroad, fails.

In fact, even as war supporters were telling us to escalate and “stay the course” in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, experts from across the political spectrum were in agreement that doing so couldn’t accomplish anything, much less bestow generous benefits on Afghans. Our ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, opposed an escalation in leaked cables. Numerous former officials in the military and the CIA favored withdrawal. Matthew Hoh, a senior U.S. civilian diplomat in Zabul Province and former marine captain, resigned and backed withdrawal. So did former diplomat Ann Wright who had helped reopen the embassy in Afghanistan in 2001. The National Security Advisor thought more troops would “just be swallowed up.” A majority of the U.S. public opposed the war, and the opposition was even stronger among the Afghan people, especially in Kandahar, where a U.S. Army-funded survey found that 94 percent of Kandaharis wanted negotiations, not assault, and 85 percent said they viewed the Taliban as “our Afghan brothers.”

Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and funder of the escalation, John Kerry noted that an assault on Marja that had been a test run for a larger assault on Kandahar had failed miserably. Kerry also noted that Taliban assassinations in Kandahar had begun when the United States announced a coming assault there. How then, he asked, could the assault stop the killings? Kerry and his colleagues, just before dumping another $33.5 billion into the Afghanistan escalation in 2010, pointed out that terrorism had been increasing globally during the “Global War on Terror.” The 2009 escalation in Afghanistan had been followed by an 87 percent increase in violence, according to the Pentagon.

The military had developed, or rather revived from Vietnam days, a strategy for Iraq four years into that war that was also applied to Afghanistan, a kind-hearted strategy known as Counter-Insurgency. On paper, this required an 80 percent investment in civilian efforts at “winning hearts and minds” and 20 percent in military operations. But in both countries, this strategy was only applied to rhetoric, not reality. Actual investment in non-military operations in Afghanistan never topped 5 percent, and the man in charge of it, Richard Holbrooke, described the civilian mission as “supporting the military.”

Rather than “spreading freedom” with bombs and guns, what would have been wrong with spreading knowledge? If learning leads to the development of democracy, why not spread education? Why not provide funding for children’s health and schools, instead of melting the skin off children with white phosphorous? Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi proposed, following the September 11, 2001, terrorism, that instead of bombing Afghanistan, the United States could build schools in Afghanistan, each named for and honoring someone killed in the World Trade Center, thus building appreciation for generous aid and understanding of the damage done by violence. Whatever you think of such an approach, it’s hard to argue it wouldn’t have been generous and perhaps even in line with the principle of loving one’s enemies.


The hypocrisy of generously imposed occupations is perhaps most apparent when done in the name of uprooting previous occupations. When Japan kicked European colonialists out of Asian nations only to occupy them itself, or when the United States liberated Cuba or the Philippines in order to dominate those countries itself, the contrast between word and deed jumped out at you. In both of these examples, Japan and the United States offered civilization, culture, modernization, leadership, and mentoring, but they offered them at the barrel of a gun whether anyone wanted them or not. And if anyone did, well, their story got top play back home. When Americans were hearing tales of German barbarity in Belgium and France during World War I, Germans were reading accounts of how dearly the occupied French loved their benevolent German occupiers. And when can you not count on the New York Times to locate an Iraqi or an Afghan who’s worried that the Americans might leave too soon?

Any occupation must work with some elite group of natives, who in turn will of course support the occupation. But the occupier should not mistake such support for majority opinion, as the United States has been in the habit of doing since at least 1899. Nor should a “native face” on a foreign occupation be expected to fool people:

“The British, like the Americans,…believed that native troops would be less unpopular than foreigners. That proposition is…dubious: if native troops are perceived to be puppets of foreigners, they may be even more violently opposed than the foreigners themselves.” Native troops may also be less loyal to the occupier’s mission and less trained in the ways of the occupying army. This soon leads to blaming the same deserving people on whose behalf we’ve attacked their country for our inability to leave it. They are now “violent, incompetent, and untrustworthy,” as the McKinley White House portrayed the Filipinos, and as the Bush and Obama White Houses portrayed Iraqis and Afghans.

In an occupied nation with its own internal divisions, minority groups may truly fear mistreatment at the hands of the majority should the foreign occupation end. That problem is a reason for future Bushes to heed the advice of future Powells and not invade in the first place. It’s a reason not to inflame internal divisions, as occupiers tend to do, much preferring that the people kill each other than that they unite against foreign forces. And it’s a reason to encourage international diplomacy and positive influence on the nation while withdrawing and paying reparations.

The feared post-occupation violence is not, however, usually a persuasive argument for extending the occupation. For one thing, it’s an argument for permanent occupation. For another, the bulk of the violence that is depicted back in the imperial nation as a civil war is still usually violence directed against the occupiers and their collaborators. When the occupation ends, so does much of the violence. This has been demonstrated in Iraq as troops have reduced their presence; the violence has decreased accordingly.

Most of the violence in Basra ended when the British troops there ceased patrolling to control the violence. The plan for withdrawal from Iraq that George McGovern and William Polk (the former senator and a descendant of former President Polk, respectively) published in 2006 proposed a temporary bridge to complete independence, advice that went unheeded:

“The Iraqi government would be wise to request the short-term services of an international force to police the country during and immediately after the period of American withdrawal. Such a force should be on only temporary duty, with a firm date fixed in advance for withdrawal. Our estimate is that Iraq would need it for about two years after the American withdrawal is complete. During this period, the force probably could be slowly but steadily cut back, both in personnel and in deployment. Its activities would be limited to enhancing public security.…It would have no need for tanks or artillery or offensive aircraft .…It would not attempt…to battle the insurgents. Indeed, after the withdrawal of American and British regular troops and the roughly 25,000 foreign mercenaries, the insurgency, which was aimed at achieving that objective, would lose public support.…Then gunmen would either put down their weapons or become publicly identified as outlaws. This outcome has been the experience of insurgencies in Algeria, Kenya, Ireland (Eire), and elsewhere.”


It’s not just the continuation of wars that is justified as generosity. Initiating fights with evil forces in defense of justice, even while it inspires less than angelic sentiments in some war supporters, is generally also presented as pure selflessness and benevolence. “He is keeping the World safe for Democracy. Enlist and Help Him,” read a U.S. World War I poster, fulfilling President Wilson’s directive that the Committee on Public Information present the “absolute justice of America’s cause,” and the “absolute selflessness of America’s aims.” When President Franklin Roosevelt persuaded Congress to create a military draft and to allow the “lending” of weaponry to Britain before the United States entered World War II, he compared his Lend-Lease program to loaning a hose to a neighbor whose house was on fire.

Then, in the summer of 1941, Roosevelt pretended to go fishing and actually met with Prime Minister Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland. FDR came back to Washington, D.C., describing a moving ceremony during which he and Churchill had sung “Onward Christian Soldiers.” FDR and Churchill released a joint statement created without the peoples or legislatures of either country that laid out the principles by which the two leaders’ nations would fight the war and shape the world afterwards, despite the fact that the United States was still not in the war. This statement, which came to be called the Atlantic Charter, made clear that Britain and the United States favored peace, freedom, justice, and harmony and had no interest whatsoever in building empires. These were noble sentiments on behalf of which millions could engage in horrible violence.

Until it entered World War II, the United States generously provided the machinery of death to Britain. Following this model, both weapons and soldiers sent to Korea and subsequent actions have for decades been described as “military aid.” Thus the idea that war is doing someone a favor was built into the very language used to name it. The Korean War, as a U.N.-sanctioned “police action,” was described not only as charity, but also as the world community’s hiring a sheriff to enforce the peace, just as good Americans would have done in a Western town. But being the world’s policeman never won over those who believed it was well intentioned but didn’t think the world deserved the favor. Nor did it win over those who saw it as just the latest excuse for war. A generation after the Korean War, Phil Ochs was singing:

Come, get out of the way, boys
Quick, get out of the way
You’d better watch what you say, boys
Better watch what you say
We’ve rammed in your harbor and tied to your port
And our pistols are hungry and our tempers are short
So bring your daughters around to the port
‘Cause we’re the Cops of the World, boys
We’re the Cops of the World

By 1961, the cops of the world were in Vietnam, but President Kennedy’s representatives there thought a lot more cops were needed and knew the public and the president would be resistant to sending them. For one thing, you couldn’t keep up your image as the cops of the world if you sent in a big force to prop up an unpopular regime. What to do? What to do? Ralph Stavins, coauthor of an extensive account of Vietnam War planning, recounts that General Maxwell Taylor and Walt W. Rostow,

“. . . wondered how the United States could go to war while appearing to preserve the peace. While they were pondering this question, Vietnam was suddenly struck by a deluge. It was as if God had wrought a miracle. American soldiers, acting on humanitarian impulses, could be dispatched to save Vietnam not from the Viet Cong, but from the floods.”

For the same reason that Smedley Butler suggested restricting U.S. military ships to within 200 miles of the United States, one might suggest restricting the U.S. military to fighting wars. Troops sent for disaster relief have a way of creating new disasters. U.S. aid is often suspect, even if well-intended by U.S. citizens, because it comes in the form of a fighting force ill equipped and ill prepared to provide aid. Whenever there’s a hurricane in Haiti, nobody can tell whether the United States has provided aid workers or imposed martial law. In many disasters around the world the cops of the world don’t come at all, suggesting that where they do arrive the purpose may not be entirely pure.

In 1995 the cops of the world stumbled into Yugoslavia out of the goodness of their hearts. President Clinton explained:

“America’s role will not be about fighting a war. It will be about helping the people of Bosnia to secure their own peace agreement.…In fulfilling this mission, we will have the chance to help stop the killing of innocent civilians, especially children….”

Fifteen years later, it’s hard to see how Bosnians have secured their own peace. U.S. and other foreign troops have never left, and the place is governed by a European-backed Office of High Representative.


Women gained rights in Afghanistan in the 1970s, before the United States intentionally provoked the Soviet Union to invade and armed the likes of Osama bin Laden to fight back. There has been little good news for women since. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) was established in 1977 as an independent political/ social organization of Afghan women in support of human rights and social justice. In 2010, RAWA released a statement commenting on the American pretense of occupying Afghanistan for the sake of its women:

“[The United States and its allies] empowered the most brutal terrorists of the Northern Alliance and the former Russian puppets — the Khalqis and Parchamis — and by relying on them, the US imposed a puppet government on Afghan people. And instead of uprooting its Taliban and Al-Qaeda creations, the United States and NATO continue to kill our innocent and poor civilians, mostly women and children, in their vicious air raids.”

In the view of many women leaders in Afghanistan, the invasion and occupation have done no good for women’s rights, and have achieved that result at the cost of bombing, shooting, and traumatizing thousands of women. That’s not an unfortunate and unexpected side effect. That is the essence of war, and it was perfectly predictable. The Taliban’s tiny force succeeds in Afghanistan because people support it. This results in the United States indirectly supporting it as well.

At the time of this writing, for many months and likely for years, at least the second largest and probably the largest source of revenue for the Taliban has been U.S. taxpayers. We lock people away for giving a pair of socks to the enemy, while our own government serves as chief financial sponsor. WARLORD, INC.: Extortion and Corruption Along the U.S. Supply Chain in Afghanistan, is a 2010 report from the Majority Staff of the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives. The report documents payoffs to the Taliban for safe passage of U.S. goods, payoffs very likely greater than the Taliban’s profits from opium, its other big money maker. This has long been known by top U.S. officials, who also know that Afghans, including those fighting for the Taliban, often sign up to receive training and pay from the U.S. military and then depart, and in some cases sign up again and again.

This must be unknown to Americans supporting the war. You can’t support a war in which you’re funding both sides, including the side against which you are supposedly defending Afghanistan’s women.


Senator Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2007 and 2008 on a platform that called for escalating the war in Afghanistan. He did just that shortly after taking office, even before devising any plan for what to do in Afghanistan. Just sending more troops was an end in itself. But candidate Obama focused on opposing the other war – the War on Iraq — and promising to end it. He won the Democratic primary largely because he was lucky enough not to have been in Congress in time to vote for the initial authorization of the Iraq war. That he voted over and over again to fund it was never mentioned in the media, as senators are simply expected to fund wars whether they approve of them or not.

Obama did not promise a speedy withdrawal of all troops from Iraq. In fact, there was a period in which he never let a campaign stop go by without declaring “We have to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in.” He must have mumbled this phrase even in his sleep. During the same election a group of Democratic candidates for Congress published what they titled “A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq.” The need to be responsible and careful was premised on the idea that ending a war quickly would be irresponsible and careless. This notion had served to keep the Afghanistan and Iraq wars going for years already and would help keep them going for years to come.

But ending wars and occupations is necessary and just, not reckless and cruel. And it need not amount to “abandonment” of the world. Our elected officials find it hard to believe, but there are ways other than war of relating to people and governments. When a petty crime is underway, our top priority is to stop it, after which we look into ways of setting things right, including deterring future crimes of the same sort and repairing the damage. When the largest crime we know of is underway, we do not need to be as slow about ending it as possible. We need to end it immediately. That is the kindest thing we can do for the people of the country we are at war with. We owe them that favor above all others. We know their nation may have problems when our soldiers leave, and that we are to blame for some of those problems. But we also know that they will have no hope of good lives as long as the occupation continues.

RAWA’s position on the occupation of Afghanistan is that the post-occupation period will be worse the longer the occupation continues. So, the first priority is to immediately end the war. War kills people, and there is nothing worse. As we will see in chapter eight, war primarily kills civilians, although the value of the military- civilian distinction seems limited. If another nation occupied the United States, surely we would not approve of killing those Americans who fought back and thereby lost their status as civilians. War kills children, above all, and horrifically traumatizes many of the children it does not kill or maim. This is not exactly news, yet it must be constantly relearned as a corrective to frequent claims that wars have been sanitized and bombs made “smart” enough to kill only the people who really need killing.

In 1890 a U.S. veteran told his children about a war he’d been part of in 1838, the forced relocation of Cherokee Indians:

“In another home was a frail Mother, apparently a widow and three small children, one just a baby. When told that she must go, the Mother gathered the children at her feet, prayed a humble prayer in her native tongue, patted the old family dog on the head, told the faithful creature goodbye, with a baby strapped on her back and leading a child with each hand started on her exile. But the task was too great for that frail Mother. A stroke of heart failure relieved her suffering. She sunk and died with her baby on her back, and her other two children clinging to her hands.

“Chief Junaluska who had saved President [Andrew] Jackson’s life at the battle of Horse Shoe witnessed this scene, the tears gushing down his cheeks and lifting his cap he turned his face toward the heavens and said, ‘Oh my God, if I had known at the battle of the Horse Shoe what I know now, American history would have been differently written.”

In a video produced in 2010 by Rethink Afghanistan, Zaitullah Ghiasi Wardak describes a night raid in Afghanistan. Here’s the English translation: “I am the son of Abdul Ghani Khan. I am from the Wardak Province, Chak District, Khan Khail Village. At approximately 3:00 a.m. the Americans besieged our home, climbed on top of the roof by ladders.… They took the three youngsters outside, tied their hands, put black bags over their heads. They treated them cruelly and kicked them, told them to sit there and not move.

“At this time, one group knocked on the guest room. My nephew said: ‘When I heard the knock I begged the Americans: “My grandfather is old and hard of hearing. I will go with you and get him out for you.”‘ He was kicked and told not to move. Then they broke the door of the guest room. My father was asleep but he was shot 25 times in his bed.…Now I don’t know, what was my father’s crime? And what was the danger from him? He was 92 years old.”

War would be the greatest evil on earth even if it cost no money, used up no resources, left no environmental damage, expanded rather than curtailed the rights of citizens back home, and even if it accomplished something worthwhile. Of course, none of those conditions are possible.

The problem with wars is not that soldiers aren’t brave or well intentioned, or that their parents didn’t raise them well. Ambrose Bierce, who survived the U.S. Civil War to write about it decades later with a brutal honesty and lack of romanticism that was new to war stories, defined “Generous” as follows: “Originally this word meant noble by birth and was rightly applied to a great multitude of persons. It now means noble by nature and is taking a bit of a rest.”

Cynicism is funny, but not accurate. Generosity is very real, which is of course why war propagandists falsely appeal to it on behalf of their wars. Many young Americans actually signed up to risk their lives in the “Global War on Terror” believing they would be defending their nation from a hideous fate. That takes determination, bravery, and generosity. Those badly deceived young people, as well as those less befuddled who nonetheless enlisted for the latest wars, were not sent off as traditional cannon fodder to fight an army in a field. They were sent to occupy countries in which their supposed enemies looked just like everyone else. They were sent into the land of SNAFU, from which many never return in one piece.

SNAFU is, of course, the army acronym for the state of war: Situation Normal: All Fucked Up.

DAVID SWANSON is the author of “War Is A Lie.” from which this is excerpted.


David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is executive director of and campaign coordinator for Swanson’s books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at and He hosts Talk Nation Radio. He is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and was awarded the 2018 Peace Prize by the U.S. Peace Memorial Foundation. Longer bio and photos and videos here. Follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswanson and FaceBook, and sign up for: