Why Do Men Keep Making War? An Interview with Michael Klare

Michael Klare has had war in all its many ignominious manifestations on his mind for the past 60 years, going back to the heady days of the Cuban Missile crisis. For the same period of time, he has also had, on his mind, preparations for war, which seem to be ongoing and never ending, When he has not been thinking about war and the rush to war in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, he has been thinking about peace, always an elusive goal and especially right now when many nations are expanding their arsenal ofautonomous weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles. For years he was the Five Colleges Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College.

I met Klare when we were both undergraduates at Columbia in the early 1960. We were members of Action, a campus political party that aimed to overturn apathy and that called for the end of the Cold War and an end to the paternalism of the college administration which aimed to treat us as children. These days I hear him on the radio and read what he has to say in magazines like The Nation, and in books such as The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources and All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change.

Michael Klare is currently the secretary for the Arms Control Association board of directors and a senior visiting fellow working on emerging military technologies and how arms control strategies can mitigate their adverse impacts.

Always a diligent researcher who watches what he says, he has lately sounded an alarm so loudly that I decided to reach out to him and find out what was on his mind. This interview was conducted by email, with me in California and Klare in Massachusetts.

Q: When you look at the world, what major hot spots do you see?

A: I  regard Taiwan as the most dangerous hotspot. It is the one place where I believe two nuclear powers could come into direct conflict in the not-too-distant future. Taiwanese leaders seem to be moving ever closer to declaring independence, and Chinese leaders have pretty much said they will invade under those circumstances. Should that happen, it would be hard for the U.S. to avoid getting involved. That  would mean a U.S.-China conflict with unforeseeable but no doubt catastrophic consequences.

I also worry about a war erupting between the U.S./NATO and Russia. Tensions have risen enormously in recent weeks as Russia has mobilized troops on the Ukrainian border, and implicitly threatened invasion. I don’t think the U.S. or NATO would become directly involved in such an event, but it could send arms to Ukrainian forces, leading to Russian attacks on U.S./NATO supply bases, and a cycle of escalation. That, too, could get out of hand and trigger the use of nuclear weapons.

My third worry is Iran. If current negotiations between the signatories to the Iran nuclear deal (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the U.S.) collapse, and Iran proceeds to enrich uranium to a fissionable state, I expect an attack on its nuclear facilities by the U.S. and/or Israel. This, in turn, would likely lead to Iranian retaliation, including missile attacks on U.S. allies throughout the region and uprisings by Iranian-backed militias, resulting in region-wide conflict and chaos.

Q:  On a scale of one to ten, with one as the least likely and ten as the most likely, how likely is it that the US will go to war in the next year or so with Russians, the Iranians or the Chinese?

A: I would say it’s under five in each case for the next year, but over five in the next three years with one or the other. I believe there’s a 100% chance that we will see a Cuban Missile Crisis-like event in the next three years with either China or Russia or both. Forces would be poised for all-out, possibly nuclear war. It could go one way or the other, depending on the skills of the leaders in power at the time. My confidence in current leaders is not high.

Q; When you were in college in the early 1960s students and others, including members of  SANE and Women Strike for Peace, called for nuclear disarmament and “peaceful coexistence” between the rival super powers. What groups are raising those issues and making those demands in the US today?

A: Alas, there is much less such activity today. This is partly because young people are focused on other critical issues: climate change, racism, and economic inequity, among others, and because the threat of a major war has receded from public view. In the 1960s, nuclear annihilation was a constant fact of life. All young men faced the draft).

Still, some groups are raising crucial issues, including Peace Action, Win Without War, Back from the Brink, Code Pink, and the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy.

Q: Political scientists and pundits say we’re in a new Cold War. Is it really “new” and if so how new is it?

A: I think we’re in a “new” Cold War, in the sense that the “whole of government” (to use the current terminology) is being mobilized to contain and diminish China. You can see this in the policies of both the Trump and Biden administrations, and in proposed legislation such as the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (the “Schumer China bill”), which is intended to mobilize U.S. industry, government, and academia to outcompete China in key technical fields and create an impenetrable chain of U.S. allies surrounding China. The government mobilization also calls for restrictions on research and educational exchanges by Americans in China and Chinese in America. These are identical to the sort of measures seen during the original Cold War.

Still, several things are different now. Most significantly, we’re seeing the establishment of Cold War-like measures aimed at China. Russia is weaker than the former Soviet Union, but has proved adept at new, novel means of warfare, such as cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns, creating new challenges for NATO, since some of its own members, such as Poland and Hungary, have embraced many of the authoritarian practices of Russia. China, meanwhile, is much more economically powerful than Russia or the former Soviet Union. Contesting it on a global scale is proving a challenge for the U.S.

Q: Over the past 70 years, who has benefitted in the US, economically and politically, from war and preparations for war?

A: There was a time, after WWII, when the US was the world’s most powerful country and was growing by leaps and bounds. That growth was shared by a majority of the population (the “baby boomer” generation). Since the 1980s, however, U.S. growth has slowed and the middle class has seen very little improvement in its economic status, while the cost of war and militarism has skyrocketed, sustaining a colossal military industry that has proved adept at wringing money from Congress (and U.S. taxpayers).

Defense contracts are distributed widely throughout Congressional districts, so every member of Congress perceives a benefit (jobs for constituents) even though defense spending produces only 1/10th the number of jobs as money spent on public education.

Q: Can any nation, or group of nations, actually “win” a war today? What does “winning” look like?

A: This is an interesting question with no easy answer. Any nuclear war would probably cause a “Nuclear Winter,” resulting in global agricultural collapse and mass starvation, so there can be no “winner” in a nuclear war. Counterinsurgency wars, on the other hand, can be kept going forever, but never really won, because any government backed by foreign forces (e.g. the former government of Afghanistan) will be deemed illegitimate by its own population, and so will collapse once those forces depart.

A non-nuclear war between major powers could probably be “won,” in military terms, but is likely to produce so much permanent hostility as to prove a meaningless victory, as the U.S. learned after its “victory” in Iraq in 2003, which was followed by a relentless insurgency.

Q: If you had the ear of Biden, Putin and Xi Jinping, what would you say?

A: Get on the phone, talk to each other, express your fears of death and annihilation, and try to find a face-saving compromise on the critical issues. Biden and Xi should agree to leave Taiwan in peace; Biden and Putin should agree to leave Ukraine in peace. There are face-saving ways to do this.

Q. After thousands of years, why do humans go on making war? Is making war part of the human condition?

A: 99% of wars, so far as we know, have been started by men. So you need to ask: Why do MEN keep making war? The Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan addresses this in her new book War: How Conflict Shaped Us. She says it’s a combination of culture (boys are raised to be aggressive), the pursuit of fame and riches, and a need to spread or defend one’s core identity beliefs, such as religion or nationalism. She also talks about conflicts over vital resources, such as food, water, and land. I happen to believe that’s the overriding consideration.

European settlers who arrived on this continent around 1600 fought one war after another with the Indigenous population to steal their land and the resources found here. That behavior is still occurring around the world.

Q: Was it hubris for the US to go into Afghanistan after the British and the Russians were defeated there militarily?

A: Folly would be a better world. And self-deception: To think we were somehow better at counterinsurgency than they were, when Vietnam should have taught us differently.

Q: How would you describe the “warrior class” in the US? Is it similar to warrior classes in other countries?

A: Ah, what an interesting question! Well, there’s the “warrior class” in Washington, made up of middle-aged and older white men who have never served in battle and have no intention of doing so, but make up the “national security establishment” that roots for higher military spending and greater U.S. military interventionism abroad. You could put practically every Republican senator in that category.

Then there’s the professional military officer corps. They are devoted to their branch of the military —Army, Navy, Air Force, etc.— and to the military institution as a whole. They go abroad to fight when ordered to do so, and cease fighting when that order comes. For the most part, they are not “warrior-minded.” They’re doing a job, professionally, and would just as readily avoid conflict as engage in it.

Within the military, some units—the Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Army Airborne— have a gung-ho attitude that is warrior-minded that gets them in trouble—like killing civilians and taking unnecessary risks.

Q: You lived through the War in Vietnam week by week, month by month and year by year. What events stand out most for you now after all this time?

A: Like many people at the time, I was stunned by the 1968 Tet Offensive. For the first time, it seemed, the arc of the war had shifted, to the possibility of a U.S. defeat. Before then, it seemed, US firepower was so vast that the US would prevail, no matter how valiant the Vietnamese opposition. After Tet, it seemed no increment of U.S. firepower would make a difference, and so every US (and Vietnamese) death after that was unnecessary, immoral and a travesty.

Q: In the 20th century there were individuals like MLK and Nelson Mandela who were truly peacemakers. Are there such individuals today?

A: I can’t think of many, but António Guterres, Secretary General of the UN is one.

Q:  Do you think there is such a thing as a “good war?” And if so what might it be?

A: I do not think there can be a “good war,” meaning a war undertaken by a state as a matter of deliberate choice. I believe there can be justifiable revolts against oppression, such as slave revolts or wars of national liberation. I also believe that resistance to invasion is justifiable.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.