Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, America heard something about “peace dividends” and “a new world order.” With the Soviet Union gone, the Cold War over, America could take all the hundreds of billions it had been spending on weapons and wars and spend it instead on America. We could, in theory, embrace peace, reinvest in America, and save our children from a world of incessant wars and preparations for the same.
It was not to be.
The collapse of the Soviet Union coincided with Desert Shield/Storm, when America allegedly kicked its “Vietnam Syndrome” once and for all, according to then-President George H.W. Bush. This “syndrome” was allegedly inhibiting America’s pursuit of righteous victory through military means, and the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait was allegedly proof that America was back and that military force had powerful efficacy for good.
Out went the idea of peace dividends. This was America’s moment to dominate, a Pax Americana achieved through military force or threats of the same. U.S. dominance of the Middle East contributed to the decision by Al Qaeda to launch attacks against the USA, but any U.S. culpability for 9/11 was swept away by another President Bush, George W., who explained that Al Qaeda had no rationale for 9/11 other than their hatred of American freedoms.
The aftermath of 9/11 was an orgy of American violence directed against “evildoers” everywhere. It was a two-decade global war on terror, GWOT as jihad, leading to wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere. Even as these wars proved disastrous, those who advocated for them saluted themselves as being right but (perhaps) for the wrong reason, the “wrong” reason being some version of having loved America too much, whereas those who’d opposed these wars were “wrong” even though events had proven them to be right (they were wrong apparently because they didn’t love America enough, especially its domineering government).
It’s been a long time, more than three decades, since I’ve heard anyone mention peace dividends. Even when President Biden ended the Afghan War in 2021, military spending soared upwards, and this was before the Russia-Ukraine War. With the Hamas attacks on Israel and the impending invasion and destruction of Gaza by the IDF, America will likely embrace war and increase military spending with even more fervor.
War is America’s growth stock. Our politicians brag that military aid to countries like Ukraine and Israel serves to create jobs in America. Rarely is any mention made of Russian dead, of Palestinian dead, or for that matter of any dead, as America dominates the global trade in weaponry. The idea of “the merchants of death,” the opposition by the U.S. Senate in the 1930s to making profits by killing people, seems like ancient history, seems absurd, given America’s tight embrace of militarism. If we’re not fighting wars we’re arming others to fight wars. And we console ourselves that we’re only providing “good guys” with guns, for, as the NRA taught us, the only way to stop bad guys with guns is to give good guys even more guns.
Perhaps that’s the essence of U.S. foreign policy today. We give “good guys” like Ukrainians and Israelis all the guns they want to go kill “bad guys” like Russians and Palestinians while congratulating ourselves for “investing” in America’s arms manufactures. Indeed, members of Congress have said that providing older weapons from U.S. stockpiles of the same to countries like Ukraine is positively wonderful, since it forces the U.S. military to buy new weapons for itself, helping to create more jobs among the makers of guns, ammo, and bombs. What a win-win!
Lately I’ve been reading a lot about President Lyndon Johnson and how his “Great Society” and fight against poverty was done in by the calamitous Vietnam War in the 1960s. What’s tragic today in America is that we no longer have a vision of a great society, a better society, a fairer, more just, and more equitable society. Endless war and wildly excessive military expenditures is our only vision.
The result is that “peace” has become a word rarely heard in America, a Pollyanna-like concept, easily dismissed as pie-in-the-sky. In fact, the last U.S. president to speak sincerely and powerfully for peace was John F. Kennedy, and that was sixty years ago. No president since JFK has stood before us to advance a vision of eventual world peace rather than of endless war and expensive preparations for the same.
We are told and taught today that peace is impossible and war is inevitable. Those who promote peace are dismissed as dreamers and weaklings as the “warriors” and hawks are promoted for their alleged realism and toughness.
Constant wars and preparations for the same destroy democracy and lead to spiritual death, to cite the words of James Madison and Martin Luther King Jr. Those are the true dividends of war, not jobs in American factories producing bullets and bombs. The true dividends of peace are a restoration of democracy and spiritual renewal in America.
Which dividends as a people do we truly want?
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.