Our Addiction to War

606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.

Reports of the US Military action killing Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s military force, has once again raised questions in the minds of many Americans about what we believe about military action and warfare. In recent days I’ve heard from my peace-church friends with many different emotions including a heaviness of heart, anger, frustration, and sadness. I’ve noticed other responses from friends who would hold a just-war ethic that there are moments that require quick and specific military action, all in the name of peace and freedom from oppression. This moment has brought us back to old debates about the military action of past US Presidents, and partisan arguing about everything from Hilary Clinton’s involvement in Benghazi, to the sparks that led to the War on Terror, to Eisenhower’s famous warning to citizens about the rise of the military–industrial complex. Many people – both pro- and anti-military intervention in the Middle East have reminded their friends and neighbors how few of us actually have a working knowledge of that region of our planet, from political movements and leaders to even country geographic location. 

It isn’t just Americans who are engaging in this debate. One of my Canadian friends recently texted me asking, “Do you think any foreign nation is bold enough to attack US shores? Or will this just escalate in the Middle East as in every other conflict the US is invoked in?” I’m not sure I have answers to questions like these, but I am increasingly aware of one thing specifically.

The United States of America is addicted to War. 

As Americans we have a long history of abusing military power. We’ve used it at times with religious justification, and a sense of God’s guiding power as we move our military around the globe. Trump’s first re-election event in 2020 was at a megachurch in Florida. During his talk he celebrated his own action to strike Iran’s military leader, and my guess is that not a single eyebrow was raised in the room. We’ve mixed faith, nationalism, and military action so frequently that few ever bother to point out that being followers of Christ should call us to peace, and not warfare. 

Our addiction to war is how we can continue to see ongoing warfare as a way to create peace. It is how we can express desire to use quick military action to prevent possible nuclear warfare, forgetting that we are still the only nation to drop atomic bombs on civilians during war. 

Our addiction is why we rarely name that the United State dropped millions of cluster bombs dropped on the Vietnamese and Laotian countryside during the Vietnam War era, leaving behind unexploded shells that continue to take the lives of people who uncover them more than 50 years after they were dropped. 

Our addiction is how we overlook that The War on Terror alone has cost almost a quarter of a million civilian casualties, while the number of those indirectly impacted with injury, displacement, loss of income, rising into the millions. The War in Afghanistan has lasted longer than the Vietnam War. The War in Iraq killed 4,419 U.S. soldiers and wounded 31,994 more. Taxpayers spent more than $800 billion on the Iraq War alone.

Last January Fox News reported (without a trace of self-reflective irony), that “Iran spends billions on weapons programs, while ignoring Iranians’ basic needs.” This report completely overlooked that our addiction does exactly the same thing in this country. The 2019 Department of Defense budget was almost 700 billion dollars (that’s billion with a B). This annual spending on our addiction occurs in a country that can’t seem to figure out how to pay for health coverage, education, or environmental initiatives for its own citizens, not to mention our ever-increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. 

But if there is any indicator of our addiction at its most intense, it may be the awareness that in 2020 the United States of America will celebrate its 244th year since the Declaration of Independence. During that time there have only been 16 years where the USA was not actively part of a military war effort or cause.

We are addicted because we cannot imagine a world in which we are not actively at war. We cannot imagine not having a significant portion of our national spending and economy going to our global war efforts. 

Perhaps in 2020 we need to consider borrowing from addiction recovery programs and begin with the admission that we are powerless in our addiction to warfare. My hunch is that is the necessary first step before we can begin to consider healing from this struggle.

May we hear these words of Jesus as we continue to seek peace – “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).

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