Perpetual War: Purpose, Methods & Effects

From the November-December 2014 #839

by Amelia Lefevre

Author’s note: The following piece was originally written as companion material to the SPC Steering Committee statement printed last month (PNL #838, Oct. 2014) titled, “A Better Approach to ISIS: Don’t Bomb!” The October article contends that the US has a demonstrable role in aiding ISIS’ progress so far. Adapted now to stand alone, the purpose of this article is to place that role in a context. The context is a global system of economic control dominated by US and other governments partnered with multinational corporations.


Purpose of Perpetual War


The United States’ covert manipulation of the political situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria, discussed in the companion piece to this article, is merely the current observable manifestation of its deeply and historically imperialist nature. To respond only to current events is to turn a blind eye to the machinery of global capitalist control, so we must look more deeply at the role of perpetual war in our society.


Aside from explicit wars waged by the US, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq, our government operates offensive military campaigns with drones throughout the Middle East and northern Africa. The US public largely ignores these efforts, started under Bush, Jr. and expanded under Obama, since it is not our own family members that are being endangered and slaughtered. Additionally, the US government regularly provides arms and military training to governments and other groups of its choice (for example, a murky list of approved rebel factions in Syria). In recent years these efforts have taken the guise of the War on Terror, part of a necessary global effort to protect US Americans and “American Values.”

However, digging below the surface we often find it is not USers or even a value system that is being protected, but rather the interests of large corporations. These companies seek to maintain control of resources to maximize profit with little regard for their workers, local people and the environment. If local residents were able to exercise full self-determination, they might understandably choose to expel such exploitive practices from their communities. However, the US and its allies work to stomp out any such resistance with tactics ranging from proxy wars to economic pressure and sometimes even direct military intervention.

The US and its allies perpetrate warfare to preserve corporations’ profit-making capabilities, and additionally many corporations benefit directly from military activity, regardless of its purpose. This is the structure known as the “military-industrial complex.” Boiled down to its simplest form, it works when corporations get lucrative (taxpayer-funded) contracts to produce expensive weapons and other warfare technology, and then these companies financially support politicians who try to throw more business in their direction. Politicians and corporate executives benefit monetarily; US workers and civilians in targeted countries suffer.


Methods of Perpetual War

The network of corporations and political leaders that comprise the corrupt military-industrial complex would not be able to operate without complicity from the media. A major pillar of perpetual war is a story to tell the public that provides cover for their actions. It is extremely important that the US and its allies are always portrayed as the good guys, working for the greater good, and that implies the presence of a bad guy or a force out to hurt.

One aspect of this storytelling is euphemistic, and often extremely hypocritical, language. We say we are fighting for “democracy” when what we really support is whichever government will allow our corporations to take advantage of their resources and workers. We use “humanitarian” missions as pretexts for massive, politically-motivated military force, such as in the case of the US/NATO bombing of Libya in 2011, while in reality the intervention allowed for thousands of militias to form across the country and the resulting slaughter of countless innocent people.

Complementing our portrayed role as the saviors of victimized peoples around the globe, we are presented with fear-based characterizations of various actors (Gaddafi, Assad, ISIS) to convince us of the necessity of war. The entire propaganda project called the War on Terror is an excellent example of this tactic. Justifications for war abroad rely heavily on inspiring fear in the public at large, as do justifications for arrest and imprisonment of nonviolent offenders at home. Both types of warfare target primarily people of color.


Effects of Perpetual War

Some of the military technology that is produced so amply comes back home to police departments, and we see our civilian police getting equipped with riot or SWAT gear, tanks and similar vehicles, and now drones. Why do we need these things in our communities?

With these changes in the police force, we see growing use of military-strength force against civilian populations and predominantly in communities of color and poor communities. In her essential The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander details Drug War incentive programs throughout the 1980s and 90s that rewarded police departments for drug arrests with cash grants and military surplus riot gear. One retired police chief told the New York Times, “I was offered tanks, bazookas, anything I wanted.” Along with the resulting abundance of military-style SWAT raids on the homes of suspected drug offenders came hundreds of cases of violence, often deadly, against people convicted of no crime. Like US war activity abroad, this unjustified taking of life is exacted upon disproportionately high numbers of poor people and people of color. 

Looking more broadly than the Drug War, which has led to the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of overwhelmingly black and brown nonviolent offenders, most recently the nation has seen the effects of fear tactics and police militarization on communities of color with the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and the behavior of police in the days following his death. After the unjustified murder of an unarmed teenager and the shameful way the police left his body uncovered in the street for hours, the people of Ferguson (who are mostly black) took to the streets in protest. Media portrayals of “angry rioters” and “thugs” made the heavily militarized response of the Ferguson police (who are mostly white) seem justified to many. This is no different from the media’s practice of portraying evil villains in faraway lands (who usually have brown or black skin) to justify US military action abroad.

Perpetual war abroad leads to increased violence with a racial bias here at home, and it also leads to structural violence against the poor. Over half of our national budget is devoted to the military and all manner of domestic human needs programs go woefully underfunded, from public education to affordable housing to healthcare to food assistance.

But we must not think of racism or racial disparity as some sort of byproduct of perpetual war. Racism and the doctrine of white supremacy are absolutely essential cogs in the war machine. Those who profit from the military-industrial complex need us to fear and hate each other so that we are unwilling to do what we are capable of: unite to shift global priorities away from profit making for a few and towards dignity and sustainability for all life.

Amelia is a staff organizer at SPC.