Americans Can’t Give Up The Cult of War

The endless conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East are ritual, not strategy.

US soldiers stand next to coffins bearing the remains of missing soldiers from the Vietnam War on a military transport plane during a repatriation ceremony at Danang airport on April 15, 2018. (Linh Pham/AFP/Getty Images)
US soldiers stand next to coffins bearing the remains of missing soldiers from the Vietnam War on a military transport plane during a repatriation ceremony at Danang airport on April 15, 2018. (Linh Pham/AFP/Getty Images)

For the warriors of the Aztec Empire, there was no greater glory than to fight in the flower wars. These ritual conflicts, which lasted for more than half a century, saw fighters from rival city-states—mostly under the heel of the Aztecs to one degree or another—clash with the Aztecs on prearranged conditions, with the losers captured for ritual sacrifice. Without these sacrifices, the Aztecs believed, disaster would strike.

To Americans today, the idea of a ritualized conflict in which young men are routinely sacrificed for no greater purpose than superstition seems horrifying and barbaric. But future historians will render the same judgment on America’s permanent wars and on the ritual glorification of the military that sustains the sacrifices of U.S. soldiers.

Like the United States, the Aztecs began their forever war after a shock to the system. The Aztec 9/11 was a great famine that shook the foundations of the empire. As a result, to rephrase the neoconservative foreign-policy analyst and Iraq War advocate Michael Ledeen, the Aztecs decided that every now and then they needed to throw a crappy little city-state against the wall and this would somehow fix things. This state of affairs was considered so agreeable that it continued for decades, with the flower wars seen as a symbol of Aztec regional hegemony.

To modern Westerners, they might look like a death cult, but the Aztecs saw themselves as upholding a voluntary rules-based order with their client states, built around ritual warfare that prevented the sun from being extinguished. The only problem was the recalcitrance of the rival city-state of Tlaxcala—a rogue state that stubbornly refused to submit to Aztec dominance.

Although Aztec power was more than sufficient to guarantee hegemony, the Aztecs continued to prosecute their campaign against city-states like Tlaxcala to demonstrate their strength and burnish their prestige. The result was a hostile power eager to throw in with the strange pale men from across the sea with advanced technology. This did not work out for the Aztecs.

The United States accomplished its goals in the Afghan war when a team of Navy SEALs stormed Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound and gave him a richly deserved bullet to the head. So why is the United States still there? America has clearly gotten its pound of flesh. There are now more Sunni Islamist militants than ever. Never-ending deployments place massive strains on personnel, drain resources, and divert funding needed for modernization so the United States remains competitive versus its peer adversaries.

Yet despite this, America’s forever wars seem unlikely to end anytime soon. And their purpose has transformed. Like much else in U.S. foreign policy, the geopolitical purpose is secondary to the pride and ceremony involved. Americans may bristle at the insinuation that they are engaged in ritual bloodshed. But the facts point that way. If victory was seen as a pressing national priority, then the fact that only 56 percent of Afghan territory is under friendly control more than 17 years into the war should be viewed as a national scandal and disgrace.

If the costs of war were viewed as unacceptable by the U.S. government and public, it would be over. Likewise, if the United States well and truly desired to be rid of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he would have been killed a long time ago, yet he continues to cross American “red lines” and gas his citizens with more or less impunity. (The occasional Tomahawk being a perfectly acceptable price for the regime in exchange for the destruction of its enemies and the reclamation of its territory.)

But while victory is not a priority, defeat is unacceptable. As President Donald Trump once put it, “winners aren’t losers,” and America’s homegrown blood cult has reached such a frenzied height that admitting defeat is tantamount to heresy, even if stopping the wars would save the lives of actual soldiers. In other words, while the wars are a bottomless pit in terms of grand strategy, they serve a domestic socio-political need.

The wars serve as a grand ritual of American civil religion in which sacrifice and martyrdom are props for a vision of the imperium, even at the cost of the empire’s actual strategic objectives. The troops are symbolic avatars for American values, but as actual human beings, they are expendable. Not only does conflict provide an enemy to define America against, but warfare itself is seen as a crucible in which the national character is defined and the soldier placed in the role of Christ, expected to redeem America through his (and in the popular imagination, it is always his, not her) suffering.

As in reality, war tends to be unpleasant, and actual interaction with the wars and their consequences is kept to a minimum, largely restrained to using veterans and the military as set-piece props and video game-like footage of airstrikes on cable news. This reverential detachment is necessary to maintain what the theologian Jon Pahl calls “innocent domination,” which he defines as “systems of domination, hegemony, or power … that are largely absent of malice on the part of the perpetrators.” The United States is, in Pahl’s words, an “empire of sacrifice.” The magnitude of the backlash against Trump’s plans to withdraw from Syria from a normally supine Republican Party and the speed of the president’s backpedaling demonstrate how deeply ingrained this ritual is in American life.

Thus, Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling is seen as heresy despite not even being meant as an insult to the military, whereas the president attempting to dismantle veterans‘ healthcare barely registers as a minor scandal. The American public asks service members to fight in wars it does not believe in and for which no credible plans for victory have been presented, and in exchange they get to fly F-15s over the Super Bowl and consume free hot wings and martinis once a year at Applebee’s. This does not seem like an equitable bargain.

To be clear, the military is far from blameless. Indeed, pressure from military commanders has caused both Trump and former President Barack Obama to continue these campaigns against their own inclinations. Nobody wants to be the president who lost a war.

The transformation of veterans and retired generals and admirals into a sort of secular priesthood is not an encouraging development, particularly when the military is the last remaining federal institution with bipartisan support. America, like the Aztecs, seems destined to fall deeper and deeper into naval-gazing bloodletting as a bizarre ritual of symbolic primacy.

Rather than take the necessary steps to fight the next major-power conflict, the U.S. Army has decided to dress for the last one. Rather than address the stresses of some 17 years of constant deployments, the Trump administration has decided to target immigrant and transgender soldiers and betray allied translators. It seems like making sure the military looks like it supposedly should (pale, male, and conservative) is a higher priority than addressing shortages in manpower, proficiencies, and readiness. Insofar as the military is seen as an instrument for leadership to project its image of American values, this holds a certain kind of twisted logic.

The problem, of course, is that rituals of primacy for domestic consumption tend to fall apart when confronted with extrinsic forces that challenge the dominance of the performing power. When confronted with disease and the Tlaxcala’s new Spanish allies, the weaknesses of the Aztec polity were made starkly manifest, and the whole edifice collapsed under smallpox and steel.

While an invasion of the U.S. homeland from an unknown continent by alien invaders is obviously quite unlikely, America’s self-destructive spiral of unending warfare is not taking place in a vacuum. The United States should stop expending money and lives on the rituals of power in the periphery and refocus on the actual threat to U.S. dominance posed by peer competitors such as China. To this end, America should move toward negotiated settlements in Syria and Afghanistan and abandon the notion that a clear victory is ever possible or likely.

This will be an ugly process, and the trustworthiness of the Assadists, Taliban, and other frankly despicable U.S. adversaries is basically nil. The damage is done, and the cost of a pullout will be bloody and painful to those who once trusted the United States. America has a moral obligation to mitigate the suffering resulting from its failures as best it can through humanitarian assistance, the resettlement of refugees, and cooperation with the international community. However, U.S. foreign policy must be shaped by the reality on the ground. Kandahar cannot be turned into Kansas with the finite amount of time and resources the United States is willing to allocate.

Rival powers can and are taking advantage of U.S. foreign overcommitment and domestic instability to pursue goals detrimental to the United States. When the collective delusion of imperial grandeur sustained through sacrificial performance can no longer be reconciled with objective reality, then, like the Aztecs, the whole thing may fall apart.

Joseph Lovell is a graduate of the  Patterson School of Diplomacy and freelance writer. His views do not reflect that of his employer.

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