It is weird to be old enough to see history repeat itself. It’s especially out there when you aren’t even that old. I was in high school when the United States invaded Afghanistan, and a freshman in college when we went into Iraq. Those two memories, however, taught me and others my age the unmistakable sound of the drums of war.
Once we’d lived to hear them we could read history in a new way, and they sounded through its pages. Someone who came of age in the post-Vietnam 1970s or the 1980s would have read those books or watched those films about the summer of 1939 or the spring of 1914 or the end of 1860 and wouldn’t have felt that tone ringing out.
But anyone who has seen what it looks like when a real war gathers its evils together can’t help but hear the pounding.
Last week, we heard it all again, and the sick sense it called up in the pits of our guts made it hard to focus on really anything else. The worst part of the distraction is that the opening shot may have rung out, but it looks more like a warm-up than the contest to come. The drums are still building, they haven’t reached their real crescendo just yet.
What do they sound like? First comes the shock and outrage of some unpardonable offense by an enemy until then just annoying; now they are wicked and deadly. The breaking news sirens, and the breathless this-just-in-ism of the coverage, trigger an initial burst of national adrenaline.
This prompts all the serious, somber, responsible elements of the political class — that is to say, those individuals most invested in the imperial order — to begin the serious, somber, responsible insistence that “Something must be done.”
The real sign that the drums are sounding is when the liberals really dig into the “Do something” position. Risible old penis-skinned war fiends such as John McCain want to let slip the dogs over the dumbest shit, always.
When the Nicholas Kristofs, and the Clintons, and MSNBC or their pathetic predecessors start to speak the magic words ― “normally there’s nobody more anti-war than me, but…” or “there’s nobody who’s been tougher on the president than me, but …” — the beat is unavoidable.
After the elite consensus, we get the flogging of the prophets. Each time, a courageous and perspicacious few stand up and remind everybody of the last time we fucked everything up. They dare to imagine the lives of those who committed the capital offense of being born in a place we’ve decided to destroy.
The most dangerous among them go so far as to point out all the ways in which the United States or other imperial powers are much graver risks to human life, and freedom, and global peace, and stability than this monster of the week could ever hope to be.
The liberals proudly lead the flogging, so geeked to be part of the tough guy club at last. They still can’t hold a candle to the real hardasses . They need to set aside their “idealism” and live in reality. They need to get with the program or the drums will be beat out on their asses.
While this is coming to pass the imperial state begins to perform its war dance. Ultimatums are made, and the beat drops when the emperor or his foreign minister announce that this other government no longer meets their minimum standards for existence.
Elections or other forms of sovereign approval aside, the only vote that counts — the vote of the global capitalist order and its imperial head — has been cast against them. They can vacate or be destroyed. They never vacate.
Of course, before this drop they perform the pantomime of international legality and constitutional legitimacy. They draw out starkly just how captive to imperialist interests the institutions of international law have really become, feigning deliberation over a decision that’s already been made.
To be fair, the imperialists reluctantly show off the true value of these bodies, the latent opportunity there for a venue where the exploited and marginalized of the world can join forces to resist our follies. They protest, and their protests are a rare moment of nobility in the whole thing. But the drums are irresistible, and even these bastions of global hope for a different future are incapable of slowing their acceleration.
This is also when, traditionally, the U.S. Congress shows the opposite character — its total inability to do anything that doesn’t reek of murder. Its fundamental, congenital obligation to evildoing for the sake of concentrated wealth shines through as the handful of principled men and women who got lost on their way through life and ended up wasting their time in those halls beat their heads against the drums and fail, always.
Bipartisan consensus congeals as one wing of the war party salivates and the other sheds self-righteous tears ― one is eager and proud, the other quietly resolved and full of sadness that this is “The Thing That Must Be Done.” This is why those of us who refuse to salute during the National Anthem do what we do. We remember these moments and it makes national pride embarrassing.
This time, the drumbeat caught some folks off guard because the initial volley here was launched at Syria without international or congressional consultation, and this is giving us a new variety of liberal concern trolling — those who want to do something but don’t think we should do it without all the normal bullshit.
Pres. Donald Trump and his villainous crew of budding war criminals assure us that they are putting together an international effort, and Senators Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer may be wagging fingers here and there but they are very clear that they will deliver a bipartisan vote for whatever disaster this democidal, fascist clown decides he wants to dive into.
We’ll get the Cicero-esque floor speeches and the dramatic showdowns at the United Nations with earpieces and all — don’t feel cheated, liberals. This attack this week was just a warm up, remember.
This brings us to the very bad news and the almost-good news. The very bad news is that Trump is truly one of the most simple-minded and easiest manipulated figures in Western political history, and he’s gotten a perfectly Pavlovian lesson this week that if he wants to be treated as a serious president worthy of respect, all he has to do is take dramatic military action.
His whole regime looked like it might not even make it to the midterms without some sort of major political collapse. Now he’s the quiet Winston Churchill at Mar-a-Lago leading us in this trying time. Why wouldn’t he keep escalating? The whole system is programmed at its root to reward war-making, and even an incurious dumbfuck such as Trump can figure this one out.
The almost-good news, however, is that there’s probably not a lot he is capable of doing beyond this. We launched missiles at an airfield a couple of times now. The ball is in Assad’s court, and if he decides to mix it up there will be airstrikes and whatnot to come for sure. But the shit the drummers really drive towards is invasion ― those glorious “boots on the ground.”
The United States has expanded global imperialist disregard for any sort of national integrity to the point that we have to rethink the very concept of invasion. But the real deal, with tens of thousands of folks rolling out in APCs, and tanks, and with statues getting pulled down — the whole nine yards — that takes a lot of finesse and political savvy.
Congress and whatever coalition-of-the-willing we can throw together aren’t even half of it. Securing transit rights and launching points and getting everybody into the right places at the right time takes some real focus and flexibility — two things Trump has never displayed.
All of this, naturally, is part of the drumbeat too, and Trump’s team appears to be nearly as inane and incapable as he is. I’m not certain that National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have it in them to do all that heavy lifting. Even if they started to, the odds that Trump would say or do something to fuck it all up are significant. An invasion may be beyond his capacity.
But this is what we said about him winning the election in the first place, isn’t it? He’s always been underestimated and counted out and it has always led to his promotion. Every contradiction in his regime, every one of his deepest ambitions can only be resolved or reached by getting into a really big war. If you want a really big war nowadays, Syria is where you’d go to find it.
If you wanted to start it you could do worse than to launch a few dozen cruise missiles at one of their airbases. So here it is, y’all — it’s the “Something We Needed to Do.” Enjoy it.
When the Afghan war began, I was a minor — for a week. I turned 18 seven days after the United States invaded — and trapped in a home and community where the most I could do is run my mouth, which is exactly what I did. The resistance to that war was pitifully isolated and hated, even though it was seeking to prevent what has become the longest war in U.S. history.
When we invaded Iraq, I was in college here in Austin and I stood with several hundred others as we shut down the major intersection next to the University of Texas campus. A month earlier, I had played an extremely minor and most marginal role in organizing a campus walkout against the coming war and participated in what is still the largest global day of protest in history.
The point is that I know what to do and what not to do in this scenario. What we do is resist. We fight. We refuse to let them lie about our times. I’ve already heard people — among them, those defending Hillary Clinton’s war support — say that nobody knew there were no WMDs in Iraq or that nobody would know how bad things would get there.
That’s a lie. We knew. We knew by the tens of millions and you can Google and find the pictures if you don’t believe me.
They will someday say that everyone thought Assad needed to be “dealt with,” that we all said that Something Must Be Done. Get into the streets and let the world know — we don’t think that, we don’t say that, we refuse to be hypnotized by the drums of war.
What we don’t do is repeat the mistakes of the last antiwar movement. It was too narrow. It focused on a specific military engagement, and for all the efforts to draw out the root causes and the contexts of that struggle we made a strategic choice to embrace “allies” that loved those roots and made their millions off that context.
They were for ending the war in Iraq, or at least changing it up enough so that it was easier to ignore, and that was good enough. We aren’t in Iraq — well, not much anyways — but the world is no more at peace, the United States is no less deadly for the billions of people who stand in the way of neoliberal corporate power. The movement was successful at bearing witness, but a failure at anything more substantive and sustainable.
Everyone notes that the antiwar movement flew the coop on holding President Barack Obama accountable for his mass murder, but this is the reason for that failure: it was an antiwar movement that was only anti-this-war. Maybe now that a hideous, billionaire, racist predator is at the helm we can more easily see the real culprits; namely, concentrated economic power, white supremacy, and war profiteering. Again, we have to hit the streets and make sure everyone hears it.
The drums are still ringing out and I wish I could say that it sounds like they are dimming or dying down, but they aren’t. I wish I could say that we are going to be able to stop the war to come, or that the movement that will accompany and resist it will be easy or fun or even not hated by the mainstream of this country.
But it won’t because we are all — by the hundreds of millions — bought into the system that kills people on the other side of the world and transfers their wealth and resources into our pockets. The drums play a compelling dance and we’ve all been taught it since we were born — maybe even before, as long as this country’s been playing it.
Refuse the call. Resist the rhythm. Stand up for a world without war — which we can make if we want it. Stay awake, and as always — stay defiant.
This piece was originally published on Defiant.