If you’re anywhere near Washington, D.C., this Memorial Day, I strongly recommend a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. There may be nowhere where American history is more highly concentrated in all its kooky cruel splendor — and so there’s also no better place to ask questions about it.
For instance, the grounds and the mansion at the entrance of Arlington once belonged to Robert E. Lee’s wife. Did we just seize it all during the Civil War, like a normal country? Not exactly: Instead we created a transparent sham where she was required to show up in person to pay her $92.07 in property taxes for 1864, and when she didn’t it was sold off at a public auction, with the U.S. government as the only bidder.
What about John F. Kennedy’s grave: Is all of him in there? No, his brain was removed during his autopsy and his body was buried without it. (The brain then spent some time at the National Archives before vanishing in 1966.)
And are there any Wiccans buried at Arlington? Presumably there always have been. But in 2007 the military added a pentacle to its official list of religious symbols that can be engraved on headstones, so it now can be publicly recognized.
But of course if you spend time with the dead from the Civil War and the Boxer Rebellion and Iwo Jima and Apollo 1, you’ll also find yourself asking larger questions. Every time I’ve gone there, as I’ve looked out from Lee’s hilltop mansion at the hundreds of thousands of soldiers quietly feeding the freshly-mown grass, I’ve wondered why human beings just can’t stop fighting wars.
The fervent pomp of Arlington to me always exudes desperation, as though we’re trying to suppress any acknowledgement that war’s the silliest thing people do. We sort ourselves into teams based on imaginary lines, dress up in costumes, pledge allegiance to pieces of cloth, and then mercilessly slaughter total strangers.
This reality — that waging war is both extremely unpleasant and fundamentally ridiculous, yet we keep doing it – indicates that it must serve some important purpose.
And all the history books I’ve ever read and all the history I’ve lived through suggests what that is: Wars are less about conflicts between societies than about conflicts within societies. Every country has a militaristic right-wing, and nothing helps that right-wing triumph over their domestic enemies more than a state of war. And just like a pharmaceutical company that doesn’t want to cure diseases when managing them is so profitable, their top priority is never bringing the war to an end, but maintaining and expanding their power within the country.
Amazing enough, Donald Trump recently told the National Governors Association exactly this, even if neither he nor they understood what he was saying. “We never win. And we don’t fight to win,” Trump declared. “$6 trillion we’ve spent in the Middle East … and we’re nowhere.”
But obviously Trump himself is somewhere: He’s in the White House. And lots of that $6 trillion is somewhere too, in the bank accounts of defense contractors. So if you understand who the real “we” are, we in fact have won the war on terror and are still winning. U.S. politics have been shoved hard to the right, making Trump possible, and since 2001 the value of Lockheed Martin stock has sextupled. The real we likewise have no interest in “fighting to win” in the sense Trump means — because that would require raising taxes on billionaires and drafting their children out of Stanford and Yale to go die in the sand, something that would quickly lead to the defeat of any president who tried it.
This perspective on the purpose of war was directly expressed by George W. Bush and his circle before he ever became president. Texas journalist and Bush family friend Mickey Herskowitz was hired to write a Bush biography for the 2000 campaign, and spent hours interviewing him. Herskowitz later said that Bush was already thinking about attacking Iraq — because, Bush said, “One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander in chief.” According to Herskowitz, people around Bush, including Dick Cheney, hoped to “start a small war. Pick a country where there is justification you can jump on, go ahead and invade.” Why? Because, Bush told Herskowitz, that would give him “political capital” that he could use to “get everything passed that I want to get passed.”
In other words, the actual country of Iraq had little to do with the Iraq War. Its main purpose wasn’t beating Saddam Hussein, it was beating Americans who wanted to stop Bush from privatizing Social Security.
Meanwhile, the motivations of our official enemies are the same: i.e., they’re consumed with gaining power in their own societies, and from their perspective we exist mainly as bit players in that drama. A key focus of Al Qaeda when planning its 2000 attack on the USS Cole was filming it so the footage could be used in a recruitment video — one needed, as the 9/11 Commission report put it, for “their struggle for pre-eminence among other Islamist and jihadist movements.” Unfortunately, the terrorist with the camera overslept and missed his compatriots blowing themselves up. So Al Qaeda then filmed a re-enactment and used that tape instead. Thus 17 Americans on the Cole were killed in real life, but zero Americans had to die to create what Al Qaeda truly wanted, a way to consolidate influence in their world.
The same dynamic was involved in the 9/11 operation itself. According to the commission’s report, part of Osama bin Laden’s motivation was that he believed the attack would benefit Al Qaeda “by attracting more suicide operatives, eliciting greater donations, and increasing the number of sympathizers willing to provide logistical assistance.” Just excise the word “suicide” and bin Laden sounds exactly like George W. Bush, planning to inflict spectacular ultra-violence thousands of miles away in hopes of getting bigger campaign contributions.
For Saddam Hussein’s part, all his foreign policy had one goal, keeping him in power for the next week. It’s true his 1990 invasion of Kuwait could easily have led to his overthrow and death in the medium term, and in fact it did in the long term. But that was irrelevant from his perspective, since the invasion eliminated the dire threats he faced in short term. As he explained after he was captured by the U.S., he had created an enormous military establishment during the Iran-Iraq War, something dangerous in a region with a long history of army coups. He went into Kuwait, he said, in part just to keep his generals busy.
What’s most surprising isn’t that politicians start wars to consolidate their own power, but that the people don’t always simply assume that leaders choose war for that reason. Of course, the main calculation for politicians when making decisions is whether or not those decisions will help tighten their grip on the levers of society. From prime ministers to dictators, anyone who doesn’t think about that first and foremost will be, evolutionarily speaking, selected against, and quickly find themselves outside the palace walls.
That’s why we need a Memorial Day, I believe, and so does seemingly every country on earth. At Arlington and at all the world’s solemn military cemeteries you can witness the endless ocean of young men and women who have been shot, gassed, incinerated, ripped limb from limb, shredded, driven to suicide. In the best of situations they died because of talented warmongers in other countries. In the worst it’s because we ourselves were so weak that we handed over power to killers who were delighted to see us die if it gave them a three week bump in their Gallup approval rating. We have to draw a veil of consecration across all of it, because looking at it directly is unbearable.