The March of Folly

by Phil Anderson

Someday, when historians look back on this bizarre tale, they will have to explain one thing above all: Why, year after year, in the face of obvious and repetitive failure in such conflicts, was no one in Washington capable of imagining another course of action?” Thomas M. Engelhardt, author and commentator, speaking about U.S. wars in the Middle East since 2001.  

“Perpetual War has become the new “normal” and the American people barely bat an eye.” Mary Hladky, Military Families Speak Out  

Historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a book many years ago that explored "one of the most compelling paradoxes of history: the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests" (The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam).

The book examines a number of historical examples where governments engaged in obvious folly. The common thread from the examples is that:

1) the leaders responsible for the folly were warned in advance of the potential for disaster,

2) they had feasible alternatives to the policies and action taken, and

3) many people (not just one deluded leader) allowed the foolishness to happen. Other leaders, advisers, legislators, and citizens bought into the folly.  

Today the march to folly continues. Many current news stories make this abundantly clear. There is hardly any issue in which our national leadership is rationally addressing the problems we face.

Pick out any problem you want – exposure to poisons in our food and water, climate change, crumbling infrastructure, crippling cost of healthcare, immigration, affordable housing shortages, nuclear proliferation, or endless war – and the warnings of experts are being ignored. Feasible alternatives are not being considered. The general public is oblivious to the problems or blindly participating in the folly.  

There is no better example of folly than the militarism and perpetual war dominating our domestic and foreign policy since 9/11. To paraphrase Tom Engelhardt (quoted above), despite the obvious and frequent failure of these militarized policies, our national leadership persists in the folly. We are neck deep in the big muddy and the bi-partisan damn fools say “push on.” As history professor and former Lt. COL William J. Astore (USAF-RET) says,   

“... current U.S. foreign policy fails to deliver what’s needed to make us, and the world, safer and more secure. Instead, it relies on engaging in “endless wars” and throwing billions of dollars into wasteful and destabilizing weapons systems.”  

“A new strategy for America should involve getting out of those shadowy regions of no-win war. Instead, an expanding U.S. military establishment continues to compound the strategic mistakes of the last 16 years. Seeking to dominate everywhere but winning decisively nowhere, it may yet go down as the greatest self-defeating force in history.”  

Many Americans now accept endless war as normal and necessary. As will be amply demonstrated on Veteran's Day next week, the American people have swallowed the militaristic propaganda hook, line and sinker. Again listen to Lt. COL Astore,    

“It comes as no surprise, then, that America’s generals have learned so little of real value from their twenty-first-century losses... The question isn’t why they think the way they do. The question is why so many Americans share their vision. The future is now. Isn’t it time that the U.S. sought to invade and occupy a different "land" entirely: an undiscovered country -- a future -- defined by peace?  

Andrew Bacevich is a retired U.S. Army colonel and Vietnam combat veteran. His son was killed in Iraq. He writes about the American empire and the false belief that we are “exceptional.” He ascribes our veneration of military veterans to guilt.

He says, “To assuage uneasy consciences, the numerous who don’t serve [in the all-volunteer military] proclaim their excessive regard for the few who do. This has vaulted America’s combating women and men to the highest of the nation’s ethical hierarchy.“  

But despite the patriotic holiday lip service to honoring and “supporting the troops,” many American really don't care. Mary Hladky, with Military Families Speak Out, has written,  

Unfortunately, the American public is totally disengaged from the country’s wars and its military interventions. Less than 1% of Americans serve in the military. The rest of Americans have been asked to sacrifice nothing. There is no draft and since 9/11 no increased taxes to pay for these wars. With no “skin in the game”, and the wars rarely covered in the media, it is easier for people, with very busy lives, to just accept that the government is keeping them safe, no need to question.”  

But we must question the folly of endless war. There are many alternatives to our militarized foreign policy. The peace advocacy group Peace Action has a plan called “A Progressive Foreign Policy Vision” (see www.peaceaction.org/platform). They say,  

“The current paradigm hasn’t just been costly — it’s backfired. It has made us less safe by fueling violent extremism, alienating allies, and destabilizing entire regions. Meanwhile, creative diplomatic approaches and international cooperation to address challenges like nuclear proliferation and global tensions are woefully underfunded. We need a new foreign policy vision that reorders our foreign policy priorities to put diplomacy and international cooperation first.” World Beyond War is an international organization with a practical agenda to reorder our foreign policy and achieve a more peaceful world.

I wrote about their alternative security system to replace militarized national security with “common security” in the June 6 and 13 Reader editions.  

Ending the “march of folly” will require an aware and engaged public. To this end Veterans For Peace and the Acting for Justice Hub of Peace Church are sponsoring an event on Armistice/Veterans Day to explore the connections between war, militarism and the climate crisis.

They will also discuss the World Beyond War movement, with the possibility of forming a local chapter in the Twin Ports to address these issues. The public is invited.  

What: War, Militarism, and the Climate Crisis: Presentation & Discussion

When: Monday, November 11 (Armistice/Veterans Day) at 6:30 pm-8:00 pm

Where: Fireside Room, Peace United Church of Christ, 1111 N 11th Ave E, Duluth