Why war? A question every American should be asking

Vietnam Veterans Against the War march in Philadelphia in 1970.

As the United States charges once more into war, little debate has centered on the actual utility of war. Instead, policymakers and pundits have focused their comments on combating the latest danger to our nation and its interests as posed by Islamic State militants.

In late August, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel claimed Islamic State was an “imminent threat to every interest we have” and that the sophisticated group was “beyond anything we’ve seen.” With few dissenting voices, either in Congress or in the American media, U.S. air forces plunged again into the unstable region of the Middle East. The only remaining deliberation, it seemed, was whether “boots on the ground” were necessary to dismantle and defeat this new threat to democracy and freedom.

For well over a decade – one might suggest over multiple decades – the United States has been engaged in war, yet so few in the public sphere seem willing to ask, as a Vietnam-era hit song did: “War, what is it good for?”

It seems plausible to argue that war is a phenomenon increasingly serving itself rather than any durable political goals. Military theorists from an earlier age sought to place war firmly in its political context.

In the early 1800s, Carl von Clausewitz, while acknowledging that war’s results should never be regarded as final, still spoke of war performing a political purpose. A century later, Britain’s Basil Liddell Hart suggested that strategists should look beyond war to the “subsequent peace.”

But what if peace never comes? What if war only engenders new enemies and new threats?

Read more