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William Astore Headshot

Why We Fight? Oil.

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I'm old enough to remember the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and long lines for gasoline in the United States. A joke that circulated among my schoolmates caught the spirit of the moment. It involved calculators, which were fairly new back then for the masses. It went like this: 142 Arabs fight 154 Israelis for control of 69 oil wells for five years. Who wins?

Punch the numbers 142, 154, and 69 into your calculator and then multiply by 5 and you get 71077345. Turn the calculator upside down and those numbers spell out "ShELLOIL," or so we joked. Call it the cynicism of 11-year-olds.

Thirty years later, as an Air Force officer I recall a discussion of what we should name the operation to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein. Wags in my office suggested the obvious: Operation IRAQI LIBERATION, with lots of chuckles about the resulting acronym (OIL). Call it the cynicism of 40-somethings.

Fighting for vital resources is nothing new in history, and nothing new in U.S. history either. Smedley Butler, the famous U.S. Marine general who penned War Is a Racket, wrote in the 1930s that "those damned oil companies" should fly their own flag -- perhaps one with a gas pump on it -- over foreign lands that they viewed as their personal property. Call it the cynicism of a retired major-general who twice was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

But is it cynicism -- or just plain honesty? Consider the book by Greg Muttitt on the Iraq war and its fallout, which places oil back where it belongs, front and center, in American motivations and machinations. This is hardly surprising, for recall the words of then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz that Iraq floated on a sea of oil, or the background of then-Vice President Dick Cheney and his overweening ambition to dominate global energy resources.

Our nation's great thirst for oil should come as no surprise to anyone. Even former President George W. Bush gave a speech in which he declared that the U.S. was addicted to foreign oil. What's surprising is that we continue to wrap our wars in the rhetoric of "freedom" even as we pursue the fix that our leaders believe they need to thrive: foreign oil, and lots of it.

There's plenty of oil still in the ground in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, and at $100 a barrel for oil and $4.00 a gallon for gasoline, you're talking trillions of dollars for oil companies over the next few decades.

Considering the vast profits involved, you don't have to be a cynic to recognize that concerns about oil continue to drive our nation's foreign policy. But you do have to be willing to face that fact; and you do have to be willing, like General Smedley Butler was willing, to ignore the siren song about waging war for freedom and democracy.

As former President Bush said, we're addicted to oil. And history has shown we're willing to fight for it, though the biggest winners may well be powerful energy companies.

Don't believe me? Read Smedley Butler or Greg Muttitt. Or just ask to see an 11-year-old's calculator.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.