The president has the issue right. Sometimes war is necessary, but only rarely, and then America should fight hard and finish the job. No more trying to fix failed states by supporting al‐Qaeda affiliates in the midst of civil wars in which no outsider can even name all the players. The conflicts are the Washington equivalent of fantasy football, paid for with the lives and wealth of Americans across the country — and people in other nations as well.
Conservatives should rediscover the hatred of war that animated their predecessors’ opposition to mad foreign adventures. For instance, in World War I it was the ostentatiously arrogant, hypocritical, and sanctimonious Woodrow Wilson, a proud progressive, backed by the Eastern commercial elite, who imagined that sacrificing Midwest farm boys in France’s Belleau Wood and elsewhere would somehow inaugurate a magical global utopia.
War is the ultimate big government program, “the health of the state,” as Randolph Bourne put it. War destroys lives, ravages families and communities, eliminates thrift, and undermines constitutional government. The Founders, who got so much right, also understood this point. Which is why they feared a standing army and designed the Constitution to place the power of declaring war — that is, deciding whether the president was authorized to send Americans off to fight — in Congress. At the Constitutional Convention James Wilson explained, “It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power of declaring war is in the legislature at large.” Those who risked Americans’ lives and wealth should be accountable to the people.
The horrendous cost of war has been evident over the last two decades. And the price keeps getting higher. For instance, the Watson Institute at Brown University just published a paper on the human displacement caused by conflicts collectively known as “the global war on terror.” It figures that an astonishing 37 million to 59 million people have been forced from their homes, some moving within their own countries, many fleeing to other nations. Noted the authors, “this exceeds those displaced by every war since 1900, except World War II.”
Underlying such mass flight is mass destruction. Even those who return typically find a very different life than before. The study noted, “Displacement has caused incalculable harm to individuals, families, towns, cities, regions, and entire countries physically, socially, emotionally, and economically.” And the pain persists. I have visited refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, and Thailand. In them people are born and grow up in a world where the future in all its facets is limited, circumscribed, even hopeless.
Obviously, the U.S. did not intend such a result. And there are many players in many of these conflicts. However, Washington started what became a regional conflict and willingly intervened in multiple national wars. The displacement caused by direct, substantial U.S. involvement is enormous: Iraq, 9.2 million; Syria, 7.1 million; Afghanistan, 5.3 million; Yemen 4.4 million; Libya, 1.2 million. This massive carnage achieved surprisingly few positive results.
Other war costs also are substantial. The U.S. was essentially bankrupt even before COVID-19 hit and state governments shut down much of the economy. Yet Washington wasted trillions of dollars on endless wars and nation‐building.
Brown University’s Neta Crawford reported,