America may Shutter the Gov’t, but not the Gov’t’s Wars (Astore)

William J. Astore writes at Tomdispatch:

There is a new normal in America: our government may shut down, but our wars continue.  Congress may not be able to pass a budget, but the U.S. military can still launch commando raids in Libya and Somalia, the Afghan War can still be prosecuted, Italy can be garrisoned by American troops (putting the “empire” back in Rome), Africa can be used as an imperial playground (as in the late nineteenth century “scramble for Africa,” but with the U.S. and China doing the scrambling this time around), and the military-industrial complex can still dominate the world’s arms trade.

In the halls of Congress and the Pentagon, it’s business as usual, if your definition of “business” is the power and profits you get from constantly preparing for and prosecuting wars around the world.  “War is a racket,” General Smedley Butler famously declared in 1935, and even now it’s hard to disagree with a man who had two Congressional Medals of Honor to his credit and was intimately familiar with American imperialism.

War Is Politics, Right?

Once upon a time, as a serving officer in the U.S. Air Force, I was taught that Carl von Clausewitz had defined war as a continuation of politics by other means.  This definition is, in fact, a simplification of his classic and complex book, On War, written after his experiences fighting Napoleon in the early nineteenth century.

The idea of war as a continuation of politics is both moderately interesting and dangerously misleading: interesting because it connects war to political processes and suggests that they should be fought for political goals; misleading because it suggests that war is essentially rational and so controllable.  The fault here is not Clausewitz’s, but the American military’s for misreading and oversimplifying him. 

Perhaps another “Carl” might lend a hand when it comes to helping Americans understand what war is really all about.  I’m referring to Karl Marx, who admired Clausewitz, notably for his idea that combat is to war what a cash payment is to commerce.  However seldom combat (or such payments) may happen, they are the culmination and so the ultimate arbiters of the process.

War, in other words, is settled by killing, a bloody transaction that echoes the exploitative exchanges of capitalism.  Marx found this idea to be both suggestive and pregnant with meaning. So should we all.

Following Marx, Americans ought to think about war not just as an extreme exercise of politics, but also as a continuation of exploitative commerce by other means.  Combat as commerce: there’s more in that than simple alliteration.

In the history of war, such commercial transactions took many forms, whether as territory conquered, spoils carted away, raw materials appropriated, or market share gained.  Consider American wars.  The War of 1812 is sometimes portrayed as a minor dust-up with Britain, involving the temporary occupation and burning of our capital, but it really was about crushing Indians on the frontier and grabbing their land.  The Mexican-American War was another land grab, this time for the benefit of slaveholders.  The Spanish-American War was a land grab for those seeking an American empire overseas, while World War I was for making the world “safe for democracy” — and for American business interests globally.

Even World War II, a war necessary to stop Hitler and Imperial Japan, witnessed the emergence of the U.S. as the arsenal of democracy, the world’s dominant power, and the new imperial stand-in for a bankrupt British Empire.

Korea?  Vietnam?  Lots of profit for the military-industrial complex and plenty of power for the Pentagon establishment.  Iraq, the Middle East, current adventures in Africa?  Oil, markets, natural resources, global dominance.

In societal calamities like war, there will always be winners and losers.  But the clearest winners are often companies like Boeing and Dow Chemical, which provided B-52 bombers and Agent Orange, respectively, to the U.S. military in Vietnam.  Such “arms merchants” — an older, more honest term than today’s “defense contractor” — don’t have to pursue the hard sell, not when war and preparations for it have become so permanently, inseparably intertwined with the American economy, foreign policy, and our nation’s identity as a rugged land of “warriors” and “heroes” (more on that in a moment).

War as Disaster Capitalism

Consider one more definition of war: not as politics or even as commerce, but as societal catastrophe.  Thinking this way, we can apply Naomi Klein’s concepts of the “shock doctrine” and “disaster capitalism” to it.  When such disasters occur, there are always those who seek to turn a profit.

Most Americans are, however, discouraged from thinking about war this way thanks to the power of what we call “patriotism” or, at an extreme, “superpatriotism” when it applies to us, and the significantly more negative “nationalism” or “ultra-nationalism” when it appears in other countries.  During wars, we’re told to “support our troops,” to wave the flag, to put country first, to respect the patriotic ideal of selfless service and redemptive sacrifice (even if all but 1% of us are never expected to serve or sacrifice).

We’re discouraged from reflecting on the uncomfortable fact that, as “our” troops sacrifice and suffer, others in society are profiting big time.  Such thoughts are considered unseemly and unpatriotic.  Pay no attention to the war profiteers, who pass as perfectly respectable companies.  After all, any price is worth paying (or profits worth offering up) to contain the enemy — not so long ago, the red menace, but in the twenty-first century, the murderous terrorist.

Forever war is forever profitable.  Think of the Lockheed Martins of the world.  In their commerce with the Pentagon, as well as the militaries of other nations, they ultimately seek cash payment for their weapons and a world in which such weaponry will be eternally needed.  In the pursuit of security or victory, political leaders willingly pay their price.

Call it a Clausewitzian/Marxian feedback loop or the dialectic of Carl and Karl.  It also represents the eternal marriage of combat and commerce.  If it doesn’t catch all of what war is about, it should at least remind us of the degree to which war as disaster capitalism is driven by profit and power.

For a synthesis, we need only turn from Carl or Karl to Cal — President Calvin Coolidge, that is.  “The business of America is business,” he declared in the Roaring Twenties.  Almost a century later, the business of America is war, even if today’s presidents are too polite to mention that the business is booming.

America’s War Heroes as Commodities

Many young people today are, in fact, looking for a release from consumerism.  In seeking new identities, quite a few turn to the military.  And it provides.  Recruits are hailed as warriors and warfighters, as heroes, and not just within the military either, but by society at large.

Yet in joining the military and being celebrated for that act, our troops paradoxically become yet another commodity, another consumable of the state.  Indeed, they become consumed by war and its violence.  Their compensation?  To be packaged and marketed as the heroes of our militarized moment. Steven Gardiner, a cultural anthropologist and U.S. Army veteran, has written eloquently about what he calls the “heroic masochism” of militarized settings and their allure for America’s youth.  Put succinctly, in seeking to escape a consumerism that has lost its meaning and find a release from dead-end jobs, many volunteers are transformed into celebrants of violence, seekers and givers of pain, a harsh reality Americans ignore as long as that violence is acted out overseas against our enemies and local populations. 

Such “heroic” identities, tied so closely to violence in war, often prove poorly suited to peacetime settings.  Frustration and demoralization devolve into domestic violence and suicide.  In an American society with ever fewer meaningful peacetime jobs, exhibiting greater and greater polarization of wealth and opportunity, the decisions of some veterans to turn to or return to mind-numbing drugs of various sorts and soul-stirring violence is tragically predictable.  That it stems from their exploitative commodification as so many heroic inflictors of violence in our name is a reality most Americans are content to forget. 

You May Not Be Interested in War, but War Is Interested in You

As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky pithily observed, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”  If war is combat and commerce, calamity and commodity, it cannot be left to our political leaders alone — and certainly not to our generals.  When it comes to war, however far from it we may seem to be, we’re all in our own ways customers and consumers.  Some pay a high price.  Many pay a little.  A few gain a lot.  Keep an eye on those few and you’ll end up with a keener appreciation of what war is actually all about.

No wonder our leaders tell us not to worry our little heads about our wars — just support those troops, go shopping, and keep waving that flag.  If patriotism is famously the last refuge of the scoundrel, it’s also the first recourse of those seeking to mobilize customers for the latest bloodletting exercise in combat as commerce.

Just remember: in the grand bargain that is war, it’s their product and their profit.  And that’s no bargain for America, or for that matter for the world. 

William Astore, a TomDispatch regular, is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF).  He edits the blog and may be reached at

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Copyright 2013 William J. Astore

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11 Responses

  1. The Dupont family is the wealthiest is the U.S.

    Around the start of the 19th century the Dupont business empire began humbly as a snall gunpowder mill run by a French immigrant family. By WWI 40% of all explosives shot by the Allies were manufactured by Dupont. Dupont had the highest corporate profits in history during that war to that point and distributed 2/3rds to its shareholders via dividends.

    In 1914, Pierre Dupont became chairman of General Motors and the Dupont company invested 25 million in purchasing its stock. Dupont eventually divested its GM holdings due to a Clayton anti-trust suit. GM eventually via a subsidiary assisted in the rearming of Germany beore WWII.

    Dupont enjoyed vast revenues during the Korean and Vietnam Wars supplying the U.S. Armed Forces with not only explosives but also nylon for parachutes and other items assisting in warfare.

    William Boeing, Leroy Grumman, Henry Crown, William P. Lear, Glenn Curtiss, Samuel Colt and others created vast business empires predicated on supplying America’s war efforts.

    The organizing principle of the United States government has historically been for war. The authority of the federal government over its citizenry resides in its constitutional executive power to initiate and continue armed conflict. 800,000 M-16 rifles were left behind in Vietnam that were manufactured by Colt Industries. Agent Orange was produced in bulk quantities by Dow Chemical to defoliate Indochinese jungles. The A-10 combat aircraft was built by Fairchild. The then-record federal budget deficits during the LBJ administration were fueled by defense spending in Vietnam.

    War has been a facet of big business financed by Wall Street and made the U.S. the pre-eminentworld’s “policeman” at a heavy financial cost that has created vast fortunes for a few.

    • “The organizing principle of the United States government has historically been for war. The authority of the federal government over its citizenry resides in its constitutional executive power to initiate and continue armed conflict.”

      The organizing principle of the United States government has historically been intitutionalized in the checks and balances among the three branches: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. At times it has been directed toward war. At times it has been directed toward economic recovery after a depression or a recession. At times it has been directed toward advancing civil rights.

      To say that the organizing principle of the US government has been for war, and to say that the authority of the government resides in its constitutional executive power to initiate and continue armed conflict represent either a misunderstanding or a deliberate distortion of what the principles and authority of the US Government are.

      • More likely, there are misunderstandings between stated and perhaps intended principles on the one hand, and organizational principles which outside observers attribute to the system to describe recurring patterns of the its behavior, on the other.

        As Groucho Marx remarked: These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.

        … checks and balances among the three branches: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. At times it has been directed toward war. At times it has been directed toward economic recovery after a depression or a recession. At times it has been directed toward advancing civil rights.

        In the historical record, you won’t actually find many examples of any of the three branches actively directing efforts to advance civil rights. If you look closely there happened to be a strong movement originating outside of the three branches every time there was an advance, with some branches of government being more responsive than others.

        Likewise, directing efforts to recovery has been and still is to an alarming degree connected to military Keynesianism since at least WWII. This is really in keeping with the article and the first comment.

        Neither the executive, the legislature, nor the judicial branch have put noticeable breaks on the business of war in recent memory, even though the president was voted into office on the coattails of anti-war sentiment.

        While the legislature supposedly has the mandate to declare wars, it is painfully transparent that it seldom bothers to uphold appearances rubberstamping the “unitary executive’s” war powers (admittedly the recent aborted push to war with Syria might have played out differently)

        As for the legislature… they have been complicit in concocting legal opinions that concur that wars are really interventions, interventions are really kinetic actions, torture is interrogation, and targeted killings exist in a sphere between war and peace where international law somehow doesn’t apply and so on.

        While there have historically been a few legal/congressional barriers for selling weapons directly to certain regimes, those have been circumvented through selling weapons secretly or through intermediaries. Even these barriers are now being dismantled by the Obama administration.

        The mismatch you correctly feel between the analysis presented in the article and comments vs. the stated principles of government may be more due to behavior not conforming to principles rather overzealous analysis.

      • Your comments are disingenuous at best Bill. It reminds me of the arguments among Classicists that Romanists should focus on the role of women and slaves and the place of cultural diversity in the Roman Empire, and focus less on Caesar, all the while neglecting the central fact of Roman history: Rome’s growth through a series of wars, some defensive, most for the purpose of out and out conquest, with the added benefit of the appropriation of resources from despoiled provinces.

        But you obfuscate and confuse the issue by speaking of checks and balances. The key point made by the writer stands. The central event of American history is its expansion from 13 colonies on the eastern seaboard to the conquest and appropriation of the continent, to the vast hegemony we maintain over large tracts of foreign territory either by force or threat of force.

        And do you really think checks and balances pertinent in a system in which the president has arrogated to himself the supreme authority over the life and death of a citizen? And do you think this Genie will be put back in the bottle by another president? And do you trust it to be used with care by any who might do so? Are you not aware that such restraints were put in place precisely because the founders mistrusted human character? Or will you simply dismiss, as you are wont to do, these concerns as paranoid fantasy?

        “At times it has been directed toward economic recovery after a depression or a recession. At times it has been directed toward advancing civil rights.”

        That is a distortion of the most willful and disingenuous sort. The economic well-being of our people, the complete enfranchisement of our citizenry, the expansion of civil rights, has certainly not, at any time in our history, been pursued or obtained with the same ease with which we have gone to war in so many instances. You make it sound rhetorically as if the three are on an equal political footing (at times . . . at times . . . at times). Yet it was far easier politically to gin up wars and proxy wars – to invade Grenada, to wage a bloody experiment in Central America, to wage two wars in Iraq, than it ever was say, to empower on any level people of color in this country. If it is true in the late 20th and early 21st century, it was more true throughout much of the previous history of our country.

        Moreover you convolute principles with actions. Stated principles are one thing, actions quite another. As for authority: authority – not necessarily legal but certainly political, which can count for a great deal more in reality – rests with where the people think it rests. The military has an enormous command of the public discourse in this country, while voices for peace, particularly in build ups to war, are given little if any space in large media outlets. If you think the voices in our society for social and economic justice are on an equal footing, which your contrary argument against the writer certainly implies, then you will need to argue that one mightily. Organizing principles may be one thing; but the historically reality towards which those organizing principles have been and are directed, ones that too frequently favor militarism at the expense of the social contract, cannot be so easily explained away.

        • My comment was in response to the original poster’s declaration that the organizing principle of the US Government was for war and the its authority over the citizenry is its constitutional Executive power to initiate and continue armed conflict.

          Neither you nor the original poster have offered any evidence at all that the “organizing principle of the US Government is for war.” Yes, the US Government has engaged in wars at various times in our history. We have just as often engaged in any number of activities that have nothing to do with war. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, for example, President Roosevelt marshalled the force of the US Government, through various agencies formed for the task, in an attempt to get people back to work and the economy moving again.

          The claim that the US Government’s authority over the citizenry lies in its Constitutiional Executive authority to initiate and continue armed conflict is naive in the extreme. There is absolutely nothing to substantiate such a claim. The US Government’s authority over the citizenry lies in any number of Constitutional and Legislative acts, from taxation to enforcement of contracts. The US Government’s authority has a much broader provenance than just the authority to “initiate and continue armed conflict.”

  2. “Congress may not be able to pass a budget, but the U.S. military can still launch commando raids in Libya and Somalia, the Afghan War can still be prosecuted, Italy can be garrisoned by American troops (putting the “empire” back in Rome), Africa can be used as an imperial playground (as in the late nineteenth century ‘scramble for Africa’”

    The author undermines any positive things he may have to say with his breathless hyperbolic statement cited above. The commando raids in Libya and Somalia were specific actions to capture dangerous terrorists, not an exercise in imperial overreach. To suggest that US NATO troops garrisoned in Italy put the “empire” back in rome is a risible comparison to the Roman Empire. And if he thinks AFRICOM and US activity in Africa bears the slightest resemblance to the nineteenth century “scramble for Africa,” I suggest he read the history of that era, particularly Leopold’s personal fiefdom of the Congo.

    • One has to admire the tenacity and disingenuity of the rear guard in fighting off any attacks on or challenges to or even questions about the indisputable US (actually, largely post-US these days) plutokleptocracy and their various forces and presences. Pick a paragraph from the pending post and try to make it sound risibliculous via straw men, red herrings, subtle ad hominems and the other tools of bloggerimpeachment, together with little condescending pats on the back like “undermines any positive things he may have to say.” Backed up by unsupported and often insupportable “authoritative assertions.”

      The Chinese may be doing a better job of gutting Africa than “we” are, but it’s only because “we” are lumbering idiots trying to force-fit the tools of militarization and “our” affection for sneaky-petery and skulduggery onto the hubs and levers of those too corrupt, arbitrarily Imperially defined, “nation-states” over there…

  3. Also from Naomi Klein’s book is the notion that the war on terrorism is not meant to be won as its real purpose is to sustain the security industrial complex and the economy that has grown around it. And of course its original purpose was to instill the culture of fear and create a pretext for global hegemony and continuous warfare.

    When the Cold War ended a new pretext for militarism had to, be created and 9/11 was it, and of course it was just pure luck for the neocons that this new Pearl Harbor happened when it did. We simply replace one tyranny with another and the world contiues to go to hell in a hand cart.

    • Yes, Islam supplanted communism as the target of the military-industrial complex. This occurred following the end of the USSR and was augmented by 9/11.

  4. The military budget today is welfare for white patriots, from weapons corporations to unemployable bullies in rural Red states. Those corporations have shifted from the advanced parts of the US to the far-right backwaters to align with their pro-war, anti-labor Congressmen. Now they keep each other in power. Far below them, the rural kids facing no real job prospects use the military to attain status and a pension, able to say they are “real” Americans as opposed to the still-unemployed non-whites in the cities. A elite few of these, in turn, become the private contractors of our Occupations and aid missions, rake in more pay than they would in a lifetime in the civilian economy, and come home as men of substance, certain to contribute to the local GOP and far-right churches, and maybe become small businessmen locked into the ideology of free market nostalgia. Men of influence in their communities, the bourgeois layer between the corporations and the poorer veterans.

    Like the antebellum South with its plantation owners who bankrolled the militia whose lower ranks came from a neo-feudal class structure, or even the original model, feudal Europe with the more dangerous peasants co-opted as soldiers and the smarter ones knighted to lord over their fellows, but obligated to fight their lord’s wars. Property = weapons = support for the system.

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