Reinforcing the Mindset of War

During Campaign 2008, Barack Obama promised to “end the mindset” that led to the Iraq War, but more than six years later, he has failed to live up to that commitment as the same belligerent “mindset” continues to grow and to spread, as Nicolas J S Davies explains.

By Nicolas J S Davies

As I wrote this essay on the 12th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq (March 19-20), the news was filled with its violent repercussions across the Middle East and the world. The latest atrocity was a multiple suicide bombing at two mosques in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, that have killed at least 137 people. Two days ago,  24 people, mostly foreign tourists, were killed in Tunis.

War rages on in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia and Nigeria. Our leaders seem paralyzed, unable to contain or control the seemingly endless and spreading storm of violence they have unleashed. Their stated reasons for their own use of violence – yes, Western use of military force is a form of violence too – ring increasingly hollow: security, stability, democracy, humanity. They have failed catastrophically to deliver any of these anywhere.

President Barack Obama on the campaign trail. (Photo credit:

President Barack Obama on the campaign trail. (Photo credit:

My mind drifts back to Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech at the Riverside Church in New York in 1967. He listed several reasons for speaking out against the Vietnam War at that moment, but I am thinking about one in particular. He explained:

“My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action.

“But they asked, and rightly so, ‘What about Vietnam?’ They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”

Today the dilemma Dr. King described has been globalized. If it was legitimate or effective for our government to use massive violence in pursuit of its political  objectives, how would it be wrong for others to do likewise?

Nobody can deny the failures and frustrations that drive young men to join Islamic State or its affiliates. BBC reporter Safa AlAhmad filed an extensive report on the crisis in Yemen just before the suicide bombings in Sanaa. She warned that even educated young Yemenis are turning to the Islamic State (also known as IS, ISIS or ISIL) as a radical solution to their problems, after all else has failed them. She wrote:

“In other parts of Bayda (formerly Al-Qaeda territory), some people say al-Qaeda isn’t tough enough. Ahmad Khamis, a prominent local jihadist, says he loves Islamic State. ‘IS is a reality and they control land. They will take over districts and will engage in direct battle. They won’t retreat from battle, just like in Iraq,’ he says. ‘This is our hope to be ruled by Islam and freed from Shia occupation.’”

But this logic of violence is not so different from that of our own soldiers, generals and politicians. Once war is unleashed, the prescribed response to setbacks and defeats is to use even greater violence. America’s unrivaled military budget and endless investment in more advanced and more destructive weapons is predicated on that assumption. We must have “military superiority.” We must be able to militarily defeat any enemy. Anything less will leave us vulnerable. This is the same logic that draws young people to join the Islamic State, the strongest Islamist fighting force.

It is easy to see that this logic leads only to total, endless war on all sides. This is the very nightmare that world leaders confronted in 1945 when they stepped back from the abyss and signed the United Nations Charter, prohibiting the use of military force except in self-defense or at the request of the UN Security Council.

Will our leaders finally admit that they reneged on that commitment, seduced by the same mirage of security through strength and military supremacy as past aggressors like Nazi Germany?

At the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev warned that the “the world is on the brink of a new Cold War.” He went on to place the blame squarely on U.S. and Western leaders:

“The West, and particularly the United States, declared victory in the Cold War. Euphoria and triumphalism went to the heads of Western leaders. Taking advantage of Russia’s weakening and the lack of a counterweight, they claimed monopoly leadership and domination in the world, refusing to heed words of caution from many of those present here.”

Many Americans now understand that it has been a terrible folly to confuse the power to destroy with the power to build a better world. The two are quite distinct, and building a better world requires neither air strikes nor “boots on the ground” but working together, talking through problems and, even more important, listening to others.

In 2008, Americans went to the polls and elected a President who told us during a debate, “I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place That’s the kind of leadership that I think we need from the next President of the United States. That’s what I intend to provide.”

That is still the kind of leadership we need from the President of the United States. Barack Obama’s failure to provide it for the past six years has compounded the problem and spread untold violence and misery across even more of the world.

Proxy and covert war may be more politically palatable to President Obama and his colleagues, but death and violence are the same whether Americans blame them for it or not. A Houthi woman in Yemen told BBC reporter Safa AlAhmad how her three children were killed by artillery fire from the Yemeni armed forces that the U.S. armed, trained and conducted joint operations with.

She collected her children’s bodies in small, bloody pieces and is still distraught that the only part of their faces she could find was a single ear. No wonder the Houthis, who now control Sanaa, write “Death to America” on walls all over the city.

Ending the mindset that unleashes such horrors requires a genuine renunciation of America’s post-Cold War triumphalism, myths of military supremacy and record military budgets. In their place we need a new commitment to peace, diplomacy and international cooperation, and a serious recommitment to the letter and spirit of the UN Charter’s prohibition on the use of force.

Nicolas J S Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. Davies also wrote the chapter on “Obama At War” for the book, Grading the 44th President: A Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.

7 comments for “Reinforcing the Mindset of War

  1. jer
    March 24, 2015 at 19:23

    ‘O’ may (or may no) be on the same wavelength as those very unfettered warmongers (neocons) today lording inside the U.S. capital, but one thing’s for sure – after 2016, the next resident in the Whiter House ain’t going to waste time on unleashing the dogs of war on the rest of the planet. The Pacific forces’ generals and admirals are already keeping their fingers crossed on the successful deployment of several new American missiles, in particular, the NSM, the LRSM, and the LRSO (NUCLEAR-TIPPED). These are tactical missiles, including the nuclear-tipped ones, and the Pacific forces plus allies plan to use them on N. Korea, China (and possibly Russia), counting that a first- strike with these weapons alone will certainly result in sure regime-change for these nations. These missiles will ‘kick own the fornt door’, so to speak, via two twin blows – destroying the front-line defence of the targeted nation(s) while also in the same instance crippling their (alleged) nuclear reprisal forces. A two-for-one throw of the dice by the US military in the western Pacific. Thus starting 2017, the POTUS will be executing and obeying directives from the US military which reckons that such type of lightning war with their spanking new fifth-gen missiles is extremely winnable. Thus after ‘O’ leaves the scene the next president will surely be worse than either adolf or hideki of the last century.

  2. Peter Loeb
    March 24, 2015 at 06:52


    It is no longer valid to measure Barack Obama by what he said in 2008. Our willingness to believe this political “savior” only demonstrates our weakness. Not to single out Obama, many
    It no longer makes sense to compare Barack Obama with his campaign oratory of 2008. Many
    others in our history have shared his facility with words. One ought not to confuse them with
    “fact”. More likely our dreams that these words were more than political shows us our own

    I look forward to your more in-depth analyses of what is actually happening, not what is claimed is happening. (Such claims do indicate directions—or they may not.)

    I recall as another example scholar Michael Byers’ book on WAR LAW citing the meaningless
    words of President Harry Truman at the founding conference of the UN: “We all have to
    recognize—no matter how great our strength—that we must deny ourselves the license to
    do as we please.” What fine oratory! And yet the scholar presented this as “fact”, a statement
    of US policy and commitment. We all recognize that this was not the case. Coming from
    the mouth of a confirmed “anti-communist” as Truman was and as all US politicians are, it
    could not be. It is important to distinguish oratory from truth.

    I remember your article on the Shanghai Cooperative Organization which I no longer can
    locate as well as your excellent work on Iraq, BLOOD ON OUR HANDS…

    Thanks in advance for your upcoming analyses which I eagerly await.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  3. Steq
    March 23, 2015 at 13:18

    “We must be able to militarily defeat any enemy. Anything less will leave us vulnerable”. The above statement, from this incisive article, just about says it all, as far as what concerns the USA. Which enemy and what vulnerability? The enemy is, of course, anyone who gets in the way. Vulnerablity? Well, I suppose that is that which their enemies will exploit, and a weakness the Americans cannot defend. What is it? ISIS?Russia? Aliens? I don’t really know, but apparently someone does. However, my own humble guess can be summed up in one word; Ports. Close them down to N.American shipping and game over.

  4. Gregory Kruse
    March 23, 2015 at 12:23

    In that photo he bears a striking resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman. What, me worry?

  5. Rusty
    March 22, 2015 at 20:03

    Very well said. Had we put the investment made in endless foreign wars since WWII against democracy and socialism, into international humanitarian programs, we would have lifted the most unfortunate half of humanity from desperate poverty, providing them health and a decent standard of living, and we would have friends everywhere. Most of the present conflicts would have been avoided or much reduced. Instead we have enemies everywhere and declining security.

    It is true that the minority president presumed to care for the unfortunate is the most effective shill for oligarchy, and the woman secretary of state presumed to seek peace is the most effective warmonger. But the economic concentrations that did not exist when our Constitution was written have come to control our elections and mass media, denying us the very tools needed to restore democracy. They have waged war upon the US, the definition of treason in our Constitution. The US can restore democracy only by waging war upon itself. Jefferson said that “the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants,” and that is ever more clear today. It is the traitors wrapped in the flag, the politicians and judges and right wing warmongers, whose blood must restore democracy. History may look back upon a generation of geriatric suicide bombers dethroning the oligarchy, or it may see only millions of cowards consenting to be enslaved.

    • D505
      March 23, 2015 at 10:30

      Powerful commentary, including by Rusty. I hope there is still some hope, some tiny ray of possibility, that we could have a president saying– “I don’t just want to end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into the war in the first place. That’s the kind of leadership that I think we need from the next President of the United States. That’s the kind of leadership I intend to provide”–and capable of follow through. Is it a foolish idea to think an alternative third party for peace might arise in 2016 and begin the badly needed reform? It is a strange irony that what seemed a brilliant system, potentially, in 1776, has come to replace itself with what it was trying to destroy. It does seem we have leaders for such an alternative party but the question is how hopeless the public has become, how overcome with lies and fears and hypocrisy. The progressive press, such as Consortium News, suggests there is a considerable thinking, sympathetic audience for this possibility of another chance within the voting system. But is there?

  6. Joe Tedesky
    March 22, 2015 at 02:00

    The Author puts it so well. The whole time I was reading this wonderful piece I kept hearing Dick Cheney’s voice in my head muttering…’but, we have the biggest military in the world NOW’!

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