There is nothing new under the sun, especially when it comes to our tendency toward war.
Reckless and belligerent as our president is, it would be wrong to think our bellicose nature was invented in 2016.
Operation Desert Storm, under Bush 41, was, to his credit, a model of broad coalition-building and narrowly defined strategic goals.
Bill Clinton shifted toward diplomacy by cruise missile. A 2000 article in the Chicago Journal of International Law phrased it well: “A striking characteristic of the Clinton era has been an increased American propensity to employ military power as an adjunct of foreign policy ... President Bill Clinton has employed U.S. forces with striking frequency in a remarkable array of circumstances.”
Bush 43 walked us into war in Iraq, based on entirely false justifications, and 17 years later we are worse off than when we started, at the expense an estimated 600,000 lives — more than the population of Milwaukee.
Obama ordered more than 500 drone strikes during his presidency, vastly increasing the precedent of the executive taking military action with no Congressional authorization and very little oversight.
All that set the table for our current president and his high-stakes game of chicken with the Iranian government, with millions of innocent human beings, their lives and well-being, hanging in the balance.
But, even the last 30 years don’t fully explain our national war culture.
In 2017, Arthur Charpentier, a Canadian professor and actuarial scientist, calculated America has been at war, at some point during each year, for 93% of our years since 1776.
That sounds ridiculous if you only consider the six wars your history teacher mentioned. But, add in our smaller wars and interventions — most of which had far more to do with profit than security — and subtract the parsing between killing people in a “conflict” versus killing them in a war, and you get a nation that has been in an almost constant state of war since its birth.
We now spend $735 billion a year on “defense” — more than Russia and China combined.
As psychologist Abraham Maslow pointed out, if all you have is hammers, everything begins to look like nails. If you’re spending $735 billion a year on hammers, you’re going to start looking for a few nails, and the United States, for generations, has worked hard to find enough conflicts to justify our defense budget, the greed of the corporations that profit from it, and to ensure the careers of the politicians they buy.
In our lust for war, we are deficit spending at a rate of $900 billion a year, and CBO predicts it will exceed $1 trillion a year beginning in 2022.
Yet, despite all that spending on military adventurism, we remain woefully inept at responding to the train wreck of climate change unraveling before our eyes, even though the Pentagon last year estimated climate change threatens two-thirds of our mission-critical military bases.
As we rattle sabers at Iran, our allies in Australia suffer fires that have burned an area larger than Maryland, and claimed roughly 2,000 homes, 25 human lives and as many as a billion animals — and yes, that’s also related to climate change. Closer to home, about 300,000 homes and businesses this week were without water and millions lost electricity and suffered property damage from earthquakes in Puerto Rico.
But, our national attention is consumed with a few Iranian missiles that shuffled around a bit of sand in Iraq.
And what does our national obsession with war gain us? Are we any more secure than we were 10, 20 or 30 years ago? Any reasonable measure says we are, in fact, less secure.
At home, our infrastructure crumbles, 18% of American children are food insecure, 27.5 million Americans have no health coverage, and many with health coverage are forced by high co-pays and deductibles to forgo preventive care and necessary medication.
Compared to the top 36 developed nations, we rank third-worst in infant mortality, second-worst in homelessness, worst in obesity and in the bottom quarter for life expectancy. We rank 27th among developed nations in health care and education.
Last April, former president Jimmy Carter, as reported by NPR, explained why the United States, once a leader in all these areas, is falling so far behind, especially to China.
“Since 1979, do you know how many times China has been at war with anybody? None. And we have stayed at war,” Carter said.
“China has not wasted a single penny on war,” he continued, “and that’s why they’re ahead of us. In almost every way.”
Our response to Chinese ascendancy, ironically, has been to spend even more on defense, and to fall further and further behind. We have forgotten, it seems, the Soviet Union collapsed because they bankrupted themselves with untenable defense spending.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not, properly speaking, a pacifist. There are times when it is necessary, even a moral imperative, to fight. And we need and should honor our military.
But, if we do not temper our war culture, and better balance our overseas military adventures with the needs of Americans here at home, historians centuries hence will have no problem discerning how the American republic collapsed under the weight of its own bloodlust.