I never quite understood the logic of the “laws of war.” The idea of a “just war” is a little more complicated, but also weak. Stanford historian Ian Morris’s recent book* claims war has reduced human violence over the past ten thousand years. Sometimes a really counter-intuitive but brash idea can garner a lot of attention, whether it is valid or not. For now, I’ll retain the belief that war causes waste for the many and creates wealth for the few.
War is destruction. It is hard not to be outraged by military or ‘paramilitary’ aggression in any form. Increasingly, in modern warfare civilians are targeted and die in greater proportions than combatants. Certainly, I can understand the outrage and indignation felt on hearing of or seeing barbaric practices such as, in recent cases, the ISIS/ISIL beheading of journalists attempting to report on the events in a war. I was as offended as the next person on becoming aware of the CIA engaging in “extraordinary rendition” of persons to be tortured at “black sites.” I cannot accept the “collective punishment” of Palestinians in the outdoor prison that is Gaza. But drone attacks on wedding parties in Afghanistan are no less arbitrary and tortuous for the victims. Many more examples from all sides of all wars could be listed as barbaric too. It seems the “laws of war” are never enforced, except by the victor against the vanquished after the fight.
Immoral laws? It’s not about law. Unlike pre-industrial “man to man” battles, acts of war today are usually criminal in a more fundamental sense. Recent so called wars, it seems to me, consist not so much in armies facing each other on a battlefield. Rather, they are pure acts of destruction of mostly civilian population and their livelihood.
What we are left with is the Waste of War, the largely indiscriminate torture and killing of innocent civilians all around the world. The waste of war has a parallel in the relationship of the late stages of the industrial era to the populations whose lives are wasted by capital “investment.” On the one hand, the proportion of civilian deaths and injury to those of combatants in modern wars has steadily risen. Not only has technology made this possible, but the practices of war have increasingly incorporated indiscriminate attacks on civilians. On the other hand, industrial investments have increasingly degraded the lives of workers and produced more and more unemployed poor. The financialized economy is rapidly wasting humanity with its destruction.
“Qui bene?”: Profit from Waste
An old sociological rule says that if you want to understand an organized course of action, you must apply the principle of “Qui bene?” – Who benefits? In the case of war, as with other organized actions, we must throw out all the rhetoric of the leadership. The self-righteous indignation directed at “the enemy” may have some footing. Saddam Hussein was a dictator, supported by the U.S. not long before being declared the enemy. Then he became the excuse for massive destruction of the nation he ruled. While there are complex personal and political reasons for that “war of choice” based on official lies, the outcome tells the main story. Instead of looking for explanations in Iraq, simply ask the question: Who benefited? Iraqis now live in destitution.
In Obama’s re-branding of the “war on terror,” the beneficiaries of war continue to be the bankers and “defense” industrialists. This is not because winning a war makes it safe for them to operate and make a profit. No, war is itself is their most profitable enterprise. In the present cases, the more drone attacks in Yemen, the more missiles must be replaced. The more F-14 bombings and missile strikes on houses, hospitals, and UN shelters in Gaza, the more replacements will be purchased from the U.S. “defense industry.” Air strikes destroy ISIS-captured U.S.-built artillery in Iraq. New weapons and equipment must be bought by the military to replace those abandoned by Iraqi troops we pretended to have “trained.” Waste is profit.
It’s all a waste. Vast quantities of “surplus” military hardware and weapons are now given to civilian police departments in the U.S. in the deliberate militarization of police forces and law-enforcement culture. A parallel militarization of mass-media entertainment supports the idea of ‘lower classes’ – the poor – as another enemy. Nearly every “law enforcement” problem on television is solved by the equivalent of war. The implicit model of policing in both media and police culture involves massive force against the civilian population-as-enemy.
Wasting the New Enemy
War is waste. In our Incarceration Nation, law enforcement wastes human lives by both detention/incarceration/stigmatization and by police violence. That’s a strong statement, but not so far from the everyday on-the-ground truth. The increasing proportion of the ‘wasting’ of civilians in war is matched by the growing willingness to shoot and kill citizens at home. Increasingly militarized attempts are made to quell civil disturbances resulting from lives wasted in cities across America due to their worsening isolation from the economy. A new element is emerging in the escalating “class war” waged by extreme wealth against the population.
Civilian police forces are becoming the destructive agents of wealth against the growing numbers of poor that extreme wealth creates. Whenever the injustices of the economy that serves only the interests of wealth are raised, some apologist pundit objects that “class war” is being incited. Quite the contrary. The war of the wealthy class against the rest of us has been going on since the reforms following the Great Depression. Abandonment of those reforms allowed them near total control of all significant income and wealth. They have nearly won their class war. But in doing so they are destroying the very economy that sustains their extreme power. It can’t last.
* Ian Morris, War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.