The warmongers’ insatiable desire for violence

The dirty little (but open) secret is that people like Jonah Goldberg never really cared for all the finer points of the case for or against war, all the geopolitical calculations. They wanted blood and revenge for the attacks of 9/11 and the people of Iraq and Afghanistan were merely the most convenient targets for their bloodlust. In a macabre way we are fortunate, despite the barbarism of his views, to have people like Goldberg because he moves around in the circles of influential opinion makers, and he often reveals what they say in limited circles and might prefer not to have repeated to a broader public. He is like a child who blurts out to visitors the unflattering things his parents said about them just before their arrival, causing red-faced embarrassment all around.

Here is what Goldberg said right after the invasion of Afghanistan.

In the weeks prior to the war to liberate Afghanistan, a good friend of mine would ask me almost every day, “Why aren’t we killing people yet?” And I never had a good answer for him. Because one of the most important and vital things the United States could do after 9/11 was to kill people. Call it a “forceful response,” “decisive action” – whatever. Those are all nice euphemisms for killing people. And the world is a better place because America saw the necessity of putting steel beneath the velvet of those euphemisms.

So the war was to simply kill people, any people, in order to satiate the desire for revenge of him and his friends. But his statement, as horrific as he sounds, is not the worst thing he has said about what the circles he moves in really feels. For them, the Afghan war, especially in its initial stages, was too easy and did not produce enough blood to satisfy them. So they moved on to Iraq, where in urging the invasion of Iraq, Goldberg gave this novel justification, invoking another influential neoconservative warmonger Michael Ledeen:


So how does all this, or the humble attempt at a history lesson of my last column, justify tearing down the Baghdad regime? Well, I’ve long been an admirer of, if not a full-fledged subscriber to, what I call the “Ledeen Doctrine.” I’m not sure my friend Michael Ledeen will thank me for ascribing authorship to him and he may have only been semi-serious when he crafted it, but here is the bedrock tenet of the Ledeen Doctrine in more or less his own words: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” That’s at least how I remember Michael phrasing it at a speech at the American Enterprise Institute about a decade ago (Ledeen is one of the most entertaining public speakers I’ve ever heard, by the way).

So we should attack Iraq because we need to periodically kick some small country in the teeth, just because we can, and to show the world “we mean business”. If that results in more than a half million Iraqis dead, well, that’s the price of hard-headed realism.

But Goldberg thinks that Michael Ledeen’s barbaric ideas must be taken seriously. After all, we are assured that Ledeen is an entertaining speaker. Michael Ledeen, by the way, is described as a “scholar” at the American Enterprise Institute (a warmongering “think tank”) and has been one of the leading advocates of the US initiating regime changes in one Middle East country after the next. In an interview on Fresh Air Ledeen makes the extraordinary claim to interviewer Terry Gross that Iran has been attacking the US for 27 years! Justin Raimondo analyzes Ledeen’s contribution to the warmongering efforts among the pundit class.

This is what passes for serious thinking among these people. But while Goldberg now says the war in Iraq was wrong, he quickly adds that “I must confess that one of the things that made me reluctant to conclude that the Iraq war was a mistake was my general distaste for the shabbiness of the arguments on the antiwar side.”

What does it say about a person who hesitates to say he is wrong about such a major issue because of his “distaste” for his opponents? Furthermore, to be lectured to on the “shabbiness” of the antiwar arguments by someone like Goldberg who has advanced the most cruel and bloody and shallow arguments that he has for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, is like being lectured on the proper treatment of prisoners by Dick Cheney.

But Goldberg and Ledeen, as I said, are not alone in this kind of barbaric thinking. Max Boot, then editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal was disappointed in the early days of the Afghanistan war because, like Goldberg, it did not produce enough blood to satisfy him. He criticized the fact that it was primarily an air war and did not produce enough casualties on the American side! Writing on November 14, 2001 when the Taliban government had just abandoned Kabul because of American air strikes, he said:

It may seem churlish in this hour of victory to raise doubts about how the triumphs of the past few days have been achieved, but the manner in which we have fought the war in Afghanistan may yet come back to haunt us.

This is not a war being won with American blood and guts. It is being won with the blood and guts of the Northern Alliance, helped by copious quantities of American ordnance and a handful of American advisers. After Sept. 11, President Bush promised that this would not be another bloodless, push-button war, but that is precisely what it has been.

Boot seems genuinely disappointed by Bush not carrying through on his promise that the war would not be bloodless. He bemoans the lack of US casualties and worries that “the longer term danger is that the war in Afghanistan will do nothing to dispel the widespread impression that Americans are fat, indolent, and unwilling to fight the barbarians on their own terms.” He is concerned that “Our bombing campaign reveals great technical and logistical prowess, but it does not show that we have the determination to stick a bayonet in the guts of our enemy.” He thinks that to dispel this image of Americans being ‘soft’, US soldiers must be willing to kill and be killed in close-up combat in order to convince the world that the US can take serious casualties.

I am always amazed at the ease with which some people can long for the deaths of other people. Apart from the Goldberg-like fascination with bloody imagery, I always wonder what such people mean when they say “we” in such contexts. To me it reinforces the idea that these chickenhawk pundits like Boot and Ledeen and Goldberg really do imagine themselves as warriors, and they like to imagine themselves fighting alongside the soldiers, and vicariously enjoying sticking bayonets into people and watching blood and gore spill out. All this macho posturing (like the use of the gratuitously violent imagery “stick a bayonet in the guts”) while staying safely out of danger must stem from some serious insecurities in their psyche.

But Boot foresaw a possible bright side. Perhaps the Taliban would not give up so easily and that could produce more blood and US casualties. He goes on:

It is still not too late to dispel the illusion of American weakness; in fact, we may have no choice in the weeks ahead. The Taliban, still shielding Osama bin Laden, remain holed up in southern Afghanistan, a land where the Northern Alliance is unlikely to venture.
. . .
Of course the Taliban in the south may complete their collapse within a matter of days. But if they do not, U.S. forces may still have to go cave-to-cave, as U.S. Marines once went cave-to-cave on Tarawa, Saipan and Okinawa, incinerating the enemy in their redoubts.

He ends on a remarkably disingenuous note, saying “It is not a pleasant thing to contemplate more battles, greater bloodshed” when it is clear that this is exactly what he desires.

Now that the situation in Afghanistan is unraveling, the Taliban is resurgent, and the US and coalition forces actually have been forced to go cave-to-cave and are incurring serious casualties (350 US troop deaths and 150 from the other NATO nations so far), not to mention the huge numbers of Afghans who have also died, Boot may have got his wish.

William Kristol is another person in March 2003 who thought that Americans should stop being such wimps and should be ready to have lots of people die to show their toughness, as long as it is not him and his friends who actually risk death, of course.

“I think the American people are going to have great tolerance for the war taking longer, and they are going to have great tolerance for more casualties,” said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. “The American people don’t have tolerance for defeat or equivocation.”

Kristol said he did not welcome a tougher fight, but, he said, “in a certain way, the willingness to stick it out would be as impressive as” a quick victory, because such toughness would dispute the “core [Osama] bin Laden claim that America is a weak horse,” that after suffering 19 casualties in Somalia, “they fled.”

Similarly, that “entertaining speaker” Michael Ledeen also displayed insouciance about casualties as long as he is not the one at any risk. He makes the extraordinary claim that Americans as a whole actually love war, projecting on other people his own bloodlust.

I think the level of casualties is secondary. I mean, it may sound like an odd thing to say, but all the great scholars who have studied American character have come to the conclusion that we are a warlike people and that we love war. . . . What we hate is not casualties but losing. And if the war goes well and if the American public has the conviction that we’re being well-led and that our people are fighting well and that we’re winning, I don’t think casualties are going to be the issue.

The arguments for invading Iraq are being increasingly revealed to be beneath contempt and even coming from people like Henry Kissinger, whom I had hoped had disappeared from the public scene. It turns out that this Vietnam-era war criminal has been a regular confidante of Bush and Cheney, peddling once again his patented violent solutions. Scott Horton, writes in the Antiwar blog:

Along the lines of Justin Raimondo’s article about Jonah Goldberg and the Ledeen Doctrine, one of the most sickening yet, as far as I can tell, unremarked upon bits of hearsay in Bob Woodward’s new book, State of Denial, is about the bloodlust of Henry Kissinger, apparently as relayed to Woodward by former Bush speechwriter Mike Gerson. From page 408:

“Why did you support the Iraq war?” Gerson asked him.

“Because Afghanistan wasn’t enough,” Kissinger answered. In the conflict with radical Islam, he said, they want to humiliate us. “And we need to humiliate them.”

(Bob Woodward has made a career out of being the “court stenographer”, carefully reflecting the views of the people in power and being very deferential to them in order to gain access. The fact that his latest book reveals all the dissension in the administration says that there is realization within the administration that the Iraq war has simply fallen apart.)

So all these “serious” people say that we should invade a country and kill people in the Middle East just because we can, to prove to the world that we are tough, and to humiliate them. And when these actions produce violent reactions, these very same people turn around with hurt and puzzled looks and ask “Why do they hate us?”


POST SCRIPT: Great moments in presidential oratory

For a little bit of humor, see here.


  1. says

    I don’t think you’re being fair to Max Boot. I’d encourage all readers to read the whole piece that was quoted from -- in it he goes into specific problems that would be caused by not having enough boots on the ground, much of which seems quite prescient 5 years later:

    The short-term problem is that it will be hard to shape a peace in Afghanistan without having forces on the ground. The administration hoped in vain that the Northern Alliance would not enter Kabul, but who was going to keep them out, once the Taliban collapsed like a punch-drunk fighter? In the Spanish-American War, the Philippine and Cuban insurrectos were kept out of Manila and Havana, respectively, by American armies of occupation. But 100 Special Forces troopers cannot occupy Kabul.

    The hope in Washington is that we can send Muslim peacekeepers--Turks, Bangladeshis, Indonesians--into the Afghan capital. Perhaps this will work, but the precedents are not auspicious.
    It would be a gross dereliction of our imperial responsibilities if we allowed something similar to happen in Afghanistan. Worse, it would be dangerous: It would risk turning Afghanistan once again into a den of terrorists driven by homicidal hatred of the West.
    The point is not that we should suffer casualties; our commanders should do everything they responsibly can to safeguard their men’s lives. World War I-style bloodlettings are worse than criminal; they are stupid. But the military’s highest goal in planning a campaign should not be to avoid any casualties. Yet this appears to be what Gen. Tommy Franks has done in Afghanistan, as his predecessors did in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo.

    Terms like “imperial responsibilities” are a pretty clear sign that Boot is not on the side of the angels, but the message I take from this editorial is not that Boot is gratuitously bloodthirsty.

    For what it’s worth, I am still angry with Clinton for the cowardly way in which the Balkan campaign was conducted. His fault was not that he spared some American servicemens’ lives, it was that by ordering bombing from 3 miles high he traded those volunteer servicemens’ lives for the lives of innocent Serbs and Croat peasants killed as “collateral damage” because the bombers were too far away to tell a tank from a tractor. I think that Boot’s argument is closer to this than to the homicidal insanity of Goldberg and Ledeen.

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