Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

How We Go to War

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AS CITIZENS it’s vital that we understand the devious but predictable means by which our government gets us into wars.  When enough do, perhaps the day will come when we can stop our country from continually plunging into unjust and disastrous wars.

As we learn from the works of writers like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, the process by which we go to war is fairly consistent.  It can be seen as having four steps: (1) Motive, (2) Opportunity, (3) Pretext, and (4) Consent.

1. Motive

First the government needs some motive for fighting a war.  Almost always the motive is economic gain; occasionally it is self-defense; but it is never humanitarian.  If the government were motivated by sheer humanitarian concern, it would recognize that there are far better ways to help the poor and suffering of the world (e.g., with food, medicine and education) than by fighting wars.  Wars tend to produce worse humanitarian conditions than those they purportedly set out to remedy or prevent.

Often our government wants war to please foreign allies (e.g., Israel, Saudi Arabia).  However even in such cases motives are ultimately economic.  That is to say it isn’t the people of these countries that want the US to fight a proxy war for them, but rather elite oligarchs (e.g., Saudi billionaires) or vested interests (e.g., Israeli defense contractors) within those countries.

Besides motives specific to each situation there are also constant background factors that predispose our country to war.  Among these are (1) the military-industrial complex, which thrives on war, whether necessary or not; (2) banks and financial institutions, which can usually find ways to make huge profits from wars;  and (3) politicians for whom war is a way to gain popular support and/or to distract attention from domestic problems.

2. Opportunity

Having a motive isn’t enough.  There needs to be some window of opportunity that makes a military intervention appear to have reasonable probability of achieving its goal. An unpopular or authoritarian ruler or general domestic instability within a foreign nation are two examples.

This principle helps explain why there is usually a rush into war.  The politicians say, “We don’t have time to deliberate this carefully.  The situation is too urgent.  We must act immediately.”

It’s also important that the country being targeted for intervention not have too many powerful allies, and that it not itself pose a credible military threat.

3. Pretext

A government can’t very easily say, “we’re fighting this war for our own gain.” There needs to be a socially acceptable pretext.  Common ploys are as follows:

Exaggerate threats. Sometimes there already exists a convenient pretext, such as actual violations of human rights.  These are then exaggerated.  They are also presented in a one-sided way.  For example, we are told of terrible actions committed by a foreign ruler, but not of equivalent acts by opposing factions. Every effort is made to demonize and dehumanize the enemy.

Instigate. If there isn’t already a convenient pretext, our government has almost unlimited power to create one.  A standard method is to sponsor a rebellion within the target country.  This tactic has been used countless times by our government.

The example of the Panama Canal is illustrative.  At the beginning of the 20th century, the US had an immense economic interest in building a canal through the Isthmus of Panama.  At the time this area was part of Colombia.  Colombia was willing to lease rights for a canal to the US, but balked at the first offer, seeking better terms.  In response an angry Teddy Roosevelt promptly resorted to ‘Plan B’:  for the US to work with a faction of Colombian businessmen to orchestrate the secession of Panama.  A warship, the U.S. Nashville was promptly dispatched to Central America. Once it arrived offshore, a small revolutionary force (actually, a fire brigade paid by the New Panama Canal Company) declared Panama an independent country.  The Nashville then quickly landed its troops to keep Colombia from interfering; high-ranking Colombian military officials were also bribed.

From the newly independent Panama, the US procured extremely favorable arrangements for building and operating a canal, including de facto ownership of adjacent land (the Canal Zone remained a US territory until 1999).   As one Senator at the time put things, “We stole it fair and square.”

Some may say, “But it’s perfectly legitimate for the US to back a popular insurrection.  After all, didn’t the French help us during our revolution?”  There is, arguably, a small grain of truth to this argument — but no more than that.  There are dissidents and malcontents in every country.  The question never asked is whether such a group represent a popular rebellion, or merely a small faction.  When are rebels honest patriots, and when merely warlords, thugs, and greedy opportunists?

In this case the US helped orchestrate the secession of Panama.  Other times it connives to depose an inconvenient foreign regime via a coup.  Confirmed (from since-declassified official documents) cases of the CIA’s global campaign of regime-ousting coups include Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Congo (1960), the Dominican Republic (1961), and Brazil (1964).

But these are only the cases where our own official documents confirm the activity.  In addition there are over two dozen more instances where there is little doubt of active CIA involvement in a foreign coup. A classic study of this topic is William Blum’s Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II.

Outright lies. As people are only all too willing to assume the worst, this tactic seldom meets with much resistance.  The most wild, illogical and preposterous charges are accepted as truth.  There is no shortage of sources who will gladly concoct and feed to the government false stories, which news media happily repeat.  A classic, recent example of this is the ridiculous charge that Libyan president Qaddafi distributed Viagra to his troops to facilitate a genocidal campaign of rape. In reality, the only genocide that occurred in Libya is when the foreign-backed, armed and trained rebels, upon deposing and brutally killing Qaddafi, besieged the hapless sub-Saharan immigrants whom he, a staunch pan-Africanist, had brought into the country to supply construction labor.

Provoke. Provocation is another regularly used tactic.  One simply needs to make aggressive advances towards a foreign government, with the calculated intention of provoking a military response.  That defensive response of the foreign government — which might be no more than a minor, face-saving action — is then vastly exaggerated, and demands are made for a full scale war in retaliation.

When in 1846 the US wanted to acquire large expanses of new territory, and most importantly, California, it stationed troops on the disputed border between Texas and Mexico.  The purpose was to provoke military action by Mexican troops.  Eventually an American scouting party sent into disputed territory ran into a Mexican scouting party; shots were fired and eleven Americans killed.  Scarcely had the blood from the skirmish dried before President Polk, a fervent expansionist, sent an outraged message to Congress, which then rushed to approve measures for all-out war.

An unwilling witness to proceedings in Texas, Colonel Ethan A. Hitchcock, wrote in his diary at the time:

I have said from the first that the United States are the aggressors…. We have not one particle of right to be here…. It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country [Mexico] as it chooses…. My heart is not in this business, but, as a military man, I am bound to execute orders.  (Zinn, 2010)

False-flag activities. There is almost always some dissatisfied faction within a foreign country that can be goaded by our government into staging a rebellion or coup.  But if all else fails, there is an even shadier recourse: false-flag operations.

These come in two varieties. One is to direct our covert operatives to pose as rebels or dissidents and perform an act of violence against a sitting regime. When the foreign government takes reprisals against the actual rebels, it is accused of being a brutal dictatorship, and this used as an excuse for our military intervention.

The other is for our operatives to perform or sponsor a malicious action posing as agents of the foreign government itself.  That government is then held responsible, and the events used to justify going to war.

4. Manufacture of Consent

Now all that is needed is to convince the American public to support the war.  Usually this isn’t very hard to do: unfortunately, many Americans still consider it their duty to support every war under a misguided sense of patriotism and maintenance of unity.

When every news source recites a war mantra like, “So-and-so is an evil dictator who kills his own people” the public begins to uncritically accept this as fact.   As is well documented, the same marketing techniques that are used to sell cars and laundry detergent are enlisted to manipulate the public thinking into accepting war.

Without going into detail here, we can briefly note several characteristic means of manufacturing consent for war.  These include:

  • Propaganda. The US government today can basically write its own news story and hand it to media sources to uncritically repeat. The number and nature of specific falsehoods is beyond counting.  (“Truth is the first casualty of war.”)
  • Censorship. News media do not publish information which might contradict the official government narrative of events.
  • Intimidation. At home, protestors, dissenters and other anti-war activists can be subjected to actual or implied intimidation, including black-listing, arrest, tax audits, and so on.
  • Conformity. Human beings are herd animals, and the government knows this.  Hence it tries to create the impression that a public consensus exists, even when it doesn’t.  Once people are told “most Americans support this war” they tend to go along with it.
  • Patriotic appeals. Having the Blue Angels fly over a football stadium is always a nice way to rouse the war spirit.  Or maybe have beer commercials featuring wounded veterans.  Call dissenters traitors.

Because the historical facts and the principles at work basically speak for themselves, this is an intentionally short article.  More information can be found in the sources listed below.  However the point of writing this is that today generally — and perhaps even more especially in the weeks preceding the November 2016 election — the public needs to be on its guard lest our government plunge us into another war.  Several potential crises are looming, including Syria, Libya, and the Ukraine.  All three of these fit the pattern outlined here.

Note in any case that everything said here applies only to how our government tries to create a perception of just cause for military intervention.  Establishment of just cause is only the first step of sincere war deliberations. Several other conditions must also be met, including: exhaustion of all other alternatives (i.e., the principle of last resort); assurance that the war will not create greater evils than it seeks to redress; and reasonable prospects of winning the war (which, as recent experience shows, are almost nil).  In actual practice, none of these other components of just war doctrine are realistically considered.  Once the case of a just cause has been made, we jump immediately into war.

All the more reason, then, to exercise utmost vigilance lest our government commence yet another disastrous military adventure.

In conclusion, it is vital that we as citizens examine the record of history to learn how our government lies us into wars.  As the anti-war journalist Richard Sanders put it:

The historical knowledge of how war planners have tricked people into supporting past wars is like a vaccine. We can use this understanding of history to inoculate the public with healthy doses of distrust for official war pretext narratives and other deceptive stratagems. Through such immunization programs we may help to counter our society’s susceptibility to ‘war fever.’

We must learn to habitually question all government narratives that try to lead us to war.  We should be skeptical in the utmost.   We need to train ourselves to ask questions like these:

What is the actual danger we are trying to address?

Where is the documented evidence of this danger?

Why is immediate and lethal force needed to redress this injustice?

Perhaps most importantly we should always ask:  who benefits (cui bono)?  If we do so we will inevitably find that the real motives are private gain.

Further Reading

Blum, William. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. Revised edition. Zed Books, 2003.

Perkins, John. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Berrett-Koehler, 2004.

Herman, Edward S.; Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Revised edition. Knopf Doubleday, 2011.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. Revised edition. Harper Collins, 2010.

Zinn, Howard. Zinn on War. 2nd edition. Seven Stories, 2011.

You can also find lot’s of videos (speeches, interviews, documentaries, etc.) featuring Zinn, Chomsky, Blum and Perkins.

 

 

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