The Disease of Permanent War / By Chris Hedges

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Permanent war is not only profitable—and therefore inevitable in the present system, as there’s a class at the top that derives power and wealth from its occurrences; it’s also unavoidable because the US bourgeoisie has its fingers in all corners of the earth, meddling in every nation’s affairs and constantly in need of military intervention.—Eds.


By Chris Hedges

uscolonies1899balancecartoon1899 cartoon. Uncle Sam balances his new possessions, which are depicted as savage children. The figures are identified as Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Cuba, Philippines, and the Mariana Islands. It was just the beginning of the new American imperialism.

Dateline: May 18, 2009— The embrace by any society of permanent war is a parasite that devours the heart and soul of a nation. Permanent war extinguishes liberal, democratic movements. It turns culture into nationalist cant. It degrades and corrupts education and the media, and wrecks the economy. The liberal, democratic forces, tasked with maintaining an open society, become impotent. The collapse of liberalism, whether in imperial Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire or Weimar Germany, ushers in an age of moral nihilism. This moral nihilism comes is many colors and hues. It rants and thunders in a variety of slogans, languages and ideologies. It can manifest itself in fascist salutes or Christian crusades. It is, at its core, all the same. It is the crude, terrifying tirade of mediocrities who find their identities and power in the perpetuation of permanent war.

It was a decline into permanent war, not Islam, which killed the liberal, democratic movements in the Arab world, ones that held great promise in the early part of the 20th century in countries such as Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iran. It is a state of permanent war that is finishing off the liberal traditions in Israel and the United States. The moral and intellectual trolls — the Dick Cheneys, the Avigdor Liebermans, the Mahmoud Ahmadinejads –personify the moral nihilism of perpetual war. They manipulate fear and paranoia. They abolish civil liberties in the name of national security. They crush legitimate dissent. They bilk state treasuries. They stoke racism.

“War,” Randolf Bourne commented acidly, “is the health of the state.” In “Pentagon Capitalism” Seymour Mellman described the defense industry as viral. Defense and military industries in permanent war, he wrote, trash economies. They are able to upend priorities. They redirect government expenditures towards their huge military projects and starve domestic investment in the name of national security. We produce sophisticated fighter jets, while Boeing is unable to finish its new commercial plane on schedule and our automotive industry goes bankrupt. We sink money into research and development of weapons systems and neglect renewable energy technologies to fight global warming. Universities are flooded with defense-related cash and grants, and struggle to find money for environmental studies. This is the disease of permanent war.

Massive military spending in this country, climbing to nearly $1 trillion a year and consuming half of all discretionary spending, has a profound social cost. Bridges and levees collapse. Schools decay. Domestic manufacturing declines. Trillions in debts threaten the viability of the currency and the economy. The poor, the mentally ill, the sick and the unemployed are abandoned. Human suffering, including our own, is the price for victory.


The American media are experts at whitewashing or simply celebrating US military exploits without ever addressing these filthy wars’ historical context, let alone their morality. Fox News, notorious for its rightwing biases is far from exceptional in this regard.

Citizens in a state of permanent war are bombarded with the insidious militarized language of power, fear and strength that mask an increasingly brittle reality. The corporations behind the doctrine of permanent war — who have corrupted Leon Trotsky’s doctrine of permanent revolution — must keep us afraid. Fear stops us from objecting to government spending on a bloated military. Fear means we will not ask unpleasant questions of those in power.

Fear means that we will be willing to give up our rights and liberties for security. Fear keeps us penned in like domesticated animals.

Mellman, who coined the term permanent war economy to characterize the American economy, wrote that since the end of the Second World War, the federal government has spent more than half its tax dollars on past, current, and future military operations. It is the largest single sustaining activity of the government. The military industrial establishment is a very lucrative business. It is gilded corporate welfare. It comes with guaranteed profits. Defense systems are sold before they are produced. Military industries are permitted to charge the federal government for huge cost overruns. Massive profits are always guaranteed.

Foreign aid is given to countries such as Egypt, which receives some $3 billion in assistance and is required to buy American weapons with $1.3 billion of the money. The taxpayers fund the research, development and building of weapons systems and then buy them on behalf of foreign governments. It is a bizarre circular system. It defies the concept of a free-market economy. These weapons systems are soon in need of being updated or replaced. They are hauled, years later, into junk yards where they rust.

It is, in economic terms, a dead end. It sustains nothing but the permanent war economy. Those who profit from permanent war are not restricted by the economic rules of producing goods, selling them for a profit, then using the profit for further investment and production. They operate, rather, outside of competitive markets. They erase the line between the state and the corporation. They leech away the ability of the nation to manufacture useful products and produce sustainable jobs. Mellman used the example of the New York City Transit Authority and its allocation in 2003 of $3 billion to $4 billion for new subway cars. New York City asked for bids, and no American companies responded. Melman argued that the industrial base in America was no longer centered on items that maintain, improve, or are used to build the nation’s infrastructure. New York City eventually contracted with companies in Japan and Canada to build its subway cars. Mellman estimated that such a contract could have generated, directly and indirectly, about 32,000 jobs in the United States. In another instance, of 100 products offered in the 2003 L.L. Bean catalogue, Mellman found that ninety-two were imported and only eight were made in the United States.

The late Senator J. William Fulbright described the reach of the military-industrial establishment in his 1970 book “The Pentagon Propaganda Machine.” Fulbright explained how the Pentagon influenced and shaped public opinion through multimillion dollar public relations campaigns, Defense Department films, close ties with Hollywood producers, and use of the commercial media. The majority of the military analysts on television are former military officials, many employed as consultants to defense industries, a fact they rarely disclose to the public. Barry R. McCaffrey, a retired four-star Army general and military analyst for NBC News, was, The New York Times reported, at the same time an employee of Defense Solutions, Inc., a consulting firm. He profited, the article noted, from the sale of the weapons systems and expansion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan he championed over the airwaves.

Our permanent war economy has not been challenged by Obama and the Democratic Party. They support its destructive fury because it funds them. They validate its evil assumptions because to take them on is political suicide. They repeat the narrative of fear because it keeps us dormant. They do this because they have become weaker than the corporate forces that profit from permanent war.

The hollowness of our liberal classes, such as the Democrats, empowers the moral nihilists. A state of permanent war means the inevitable death of liberalism. Dick Cheney may be palpably evil while Obama is merely weak, but to those who seek to keep us in a state of permanent war it does not matter. They get what they want. Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote Notes from the Underground to illustrate what happens to cultures when a liberal class, like ours, becomes sterile, defeated dreamers. The main character in Notes from the Underground carries the bankrupt ideas of liberalism to its logical extreme.

He becomes the enlightenment ideal. He eschews passion and moral purpose. He is rational. He prizes realism over sanity, even in the face of self-destruction. These acts of accommodation doom the Underground Man, as it doomed imperial Russia and as it will doom us.

“I never even managed to become anything: neither wicked nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect,” the Underground Man wrote. “And now I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and utterly futile consolation that it is even impossible for an intelligent man seriously to become anything, and only fools become something.”

We have been drawn into the world of permanent war by these fools. We allow fools to destroy the continuity of life, to tear apart all systems, economic, social, environmental and political, that sustain us. Dostoevsky was not dismayed by evil. He was dismayed by a society that no longer had the moral fortitude to confront the fools. These fools are leading us over the precipice. What will rise up from the ruins will not be something new, but the face of the monster that has, until then, remained hidden behind the facade.

Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. His most recent book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, will be out in July, but is available for pre-order.

3 comments on “The Disease of Permanent War / By Chris Hedges
  1. Chris hedges is a combative and often brilliant political analyst, but like all liberals (in his case, “left-liberal”) he doesn’t know nor seem to care much about the complexities of history. The main issues I find a bit jarring in his otherwise excellent essay are two, to wit, the ahistoricalism of his pronouncements, and his penchant to equate “all totalitarianisms” as the same disease, which leaves humanity pretty much stuck with capitalism till kingdom come.

    The lack of fuller context to inform his views is seen in his assertion that “Arab liberals” fell prey to militarisms in the region. This isd a bit unfair. Arab liberals—or, we might say, “modernising elites with “western-style notions” did not have full control of their destinies because their appearance on the stage of history coincided with the discovery of oil and foreign imperial meddling in their nations—from Iran to Saudi Arabia. This situation continues to this day. Leaving such enormously significant exogenous causes for an event’s occurrence—in this case the putative defeat of liberals by the military caste or other forms of authoritarianism—does not make for good historiography.

  2. Liberals, who Hedges rebukes (without noting he is himself one) are loath to introduce hard left categories such as “class” in their analyses, thereby consigning all study of the causation of human events to the opaque influence of individual character. Thus it is not so much a system organized around class goals and structures that produces leaders that fill their executive posts with stubborn regularity, it is rogue leaders, aberrations to an otherwise good system, etc.

    In passages such as this, Hedges betrays the liberal myopia he decries:

    “Our permanent war economy has not been challenged by Obama and the Democratic Party. They support its destructive fury because it funds them. They validate its evil assumptions because to take them on is political suicide. They repeat the narrative of fear because it keeps us dormant. They do this because they have become weaker than the corporate forces that profit from permanent war.

    The hollowness of our liberal classes, such as the Democrats, empowers the moral nihilists. A state of permanent war means the inevitable death of liberalism…”

    He writes these observations as if liberals could act differently! He forgets that liberals have always supported wars with plenty of gusto. Liberal Kennedy and Johnson prosecuted most of the Vietnam War; and anticommunist witchhunts have been totally supported by mainstream liberalism and probably still are. Lastly I should point out that what the author calls “moral nihilism” is the very essence, the true face of capitalist policy. How could a system based on pure commercialism, selfishness and opportunism sprout anything else?

    Eternal angry surprise at these realities is what defines a liberal, and by that standard, Hedges remains a liberal. I therefore agree entirely with reader Watkins’ comments above.

  3. Liberals often have the right attitude of disgust with the system’s crimes and depredations, but remain blind and deaf to their structural foundation.

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