“War is Hell! Ask the man who fought one,” New York, between 1986 and 1974 © Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee | Wikimedia Commons
As Bill Clinton was first running for president, I was just starting out as a weekly op-ed columnist for the Boston Globe. One of my first columns, published weeks before the 1992 election, was titled “The Words We Want Clinton to Speak: War No More!” Another column that same month was called “Vietnam: A Burdened Conscience for All.” In Clinton’s first weeks as president, my columns carried titles like “A Second Chance to Rectify the Arms Folly,” and “A Gandhi-Style Force for Peace in Bosnia?” That quickly, I’d found my theme.
By the time of George W. Bush’s presidency, I’d found my voice as well. My many columns written against Bush’s post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were published as a stand-alone book entitled Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War. By the end of my tenure as a Globe columnist two decades later, I was still at it. Three of the last columns I published, in 2015, were called “By Making War, US Unleashed Mass Rape,” “Making Weapons of Our Own Destruction,” and “Just Say No to More Nukes.”
Across 23 years, I was, in effect, obliged to make and offer judgements about important public questions and, alas, across those decades, as these titles indicate, that all too often meant taking a position against American war-making. My position was summed up in the subtitle of my history of the Pentagon, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power. The apparently extreme subtitle, which gave my critics a club, was, in fact, from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address.
I was no political scientist, no strategist, no expert of any kind. But I was a Catholic raised on the doctrine of Original Sin, a condition embodied in that plea, “To Thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.” That legacy gave me an inbred feel for the universality of fallenness; therefore, on those matters of war, I could criticize my own people without claiming to be superior to them. And, perhaps more to the point, I was a general’s son who’d broken with his father over a war, and while I saw aslant the world that he and his Pentagon partners had created, I always saw it from inside. For better and for worse, I have the eyes of a soldier’s son through which I see everything.
But the government lies that underwrote the war in Vietnam, along with the chain of deceptions that went on to justify U.S. interventions in Central America and the Middle East—unjust wars that cost millions of lives—made me a knee-jerk skeptic when it came to Washington’s announced national security policies.
When critics, sometimes including my editors at the Globe, demanded of me, “How can you say that?” my only answer ever was, “I can say it because it’s what I think.” And on this war or that one, I thought America was wrong.
Now I can say, even acknowledging the irrational elements that shaped many of my perceptions, I was mainly right.
But Putin was the warmonger now. With his criminal invasion of Ukraine pressing the issue, I had to review my own assessments about war and peace—which required both political analysis and self-examination.
Given the debates triggered by Putin’s aggression—with some placing blame mainly on America’s immediate post-Cold War triumphalism—it seemed natural to begin such an examination of conscience by reviewing the Clinton administration’s responses to that pivotal moment—and my own. And because, as analysis quickly showed, so much of the present crisis in Ukraine had roots in those years, as I had claimed my place in the commentariat, I was quickly made uncomfortable by what I had assumed were my own most deeply held convictions. If I found them now to be layered with contradictions, what then?
Clinton took office at the start of 1993, a golden moment following the astounding turn toward disarmament that Ronald Reagan had taken with Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s, and that George H. W. Bush had continued with Boris Yeltsin when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The young Bill Clinton had famously been a critic of the war in Vietnam, and so he was widely expected to cash in the “peace dividend” he’d inherited from his two more hawkish predecessors. The path toward further nuclear disarmament had been mapped out, and the ground for wholly new structures of international security—a trading, as it was said, of “mutual assured destruction” for “mutual assured safety”—had been prepared. But it was not to be, mainly—as I saw it—because of decisions made in Washington.
Bending to the will of a Pentagon that intimidated him, the newly sworn-in Clinton declined to further dismantle the two main pillars of America’s Cold War belligerence: he halted significant reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal that Reagan and Bush had already cut in half; and instead of shelving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as an anti-Soviet relic, exactly as the Warsaw Pact had disappeared, Clinton resuscitated NATO, and expanded it to include former client-states of the Soviet Union.
Those nations—beginning with Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland—had history-laden reasons to want protection from Russia, and NATO membership both strengthened their moves toward democracy and shored up political stability of the kind sorely lacking in the former Yugoslavia, which was then waging a savage war against itself. But, unlike the European Union, which was just coming into its own, NATO was an essentially military alliance, and its only conceivable adversary was Russia. Over subsequent years, eleven more nations would be added to NATO—all inclined to see Moscow as a threat.
But in the years following the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, NATO was not the only game in play, nor was it that moment’s only conceivable structure of European security. In 1994, a supplemental—and potentially superseding—structure was established, the Partnership for Peace. Russia was one of the first of 27 nations to join it. The partnership, as originally conceived, was a mutual security alliance, aimed at bridging the old East-West divide and institutionalizing the widespread wish for peace. It proposed joint military exercises between NATO and non-NATO nations, decidedly including Russia. It could have flourished with Russia as a member, and even replaced NATO as a continent-wide guarantor of conflict resolution. Despite the partnership’s character as a kind of American generated spin-off from NATO, Russia’s inclusion in the new international organization was a widely agreed no-brainer. As Lyndon Johnson once said, better to have a trouble maker inside the tent pissing out, than to have him outside the tent pissing in.
In 1995, Clinton urged Russian president Boris Yeltsin to stay with the partnership, promising as he did so, “I won’t support any change that undermines Russia’s security or redivides Europe.” But NATO’s expansion, pursued exactly then, did just that, and the enlarged NATO, pressing Russian borders, pre-empted the Partnership for Peace, which never took hold.
Defenders of Clinton’s decisions to protect America’s Cold War nuclear arsenal and expand NATO spoke of maintaining a “hedge” as an “insurance policy” against the chance that nascent Russian impulses toward democracy would fail and that Moscow would resume its threatening ways. I was like other critics in insisting that this “hedge” would be the insurance policy that starts the fire. I warned that Russia’s anti-democratic hawks would be empowered. The dovish arms-controllers in Moscow, who had led the way in Cold War weapons reductions, would be undercut. Russian citizens were already impoverished by the Soviet collapse, a catastrophe made worse by the “shock therapy” imposed on Moscow’s economy by Western financial systems. Such humiliations could well rekindle a Kremlin nostalgia for the brute force of Stalinism. In that case, the initiative in Moscow would be returned by Washington’s blatant power-plays to die-hard reactionaries, dooming the new spirit of international cooperation, and choking Russia’s fledgling democracy in its crib.
Bill Clinton didn’t need such warnings from me. He was savvy enough to see the danger himself. In 1996, the famously empathetic president described, with a kind of regret, the corner into which his policies were painting Russian president Boris Yeltsin: “We keep telling ol’ Boris, ‘OK, now, here’s what you’ve got to do next—here’s some more shit for your face.’ And that makes it real hard for him, given what he’s up against and who he’s dealing with.”
Once Clinton’s policies—especially NATO expansion—began to be harshly revisited in 2022 during the debates spawned by Putin’s war, the former president defended himself in an article appearing in the Atlantic. “I did everything I could to help Russia make the right choice and become a great 21st-century democracy,” he wrote. “Beginning in 1995, after the Dayton Accords ended the Bosnian War, we made an agreement to add Russian troops to the peacekeeping forces that NATO had on the ground in Bosnia. In 1997, we supported the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which gave Russia a voice but not a veto in NATO affairs, and supported Russia’s entry to the G7, making it the G8 . . . Throughout it all, we left the door open for Russia’s eventual membership in NATO, something I made clear to Yeltsin and later confirmed to his successor, Vladimir Putin . . . The failure of Russian democracy, and its turn to revanchism, was not catalyzed in Brussels at NATO headquarters. It was decided in Moscow by Putin.”
But in his last year as president, 1999, Clinton had dealt a final insult to Moscow, one taken as a revelation of the disingenuous character of all assurances about NATO’s benign intentions, and that was the NATO war against Yugoslavia.
Described as a “humanitarian intervention,” the assault was mounted, over screaming Russian objections, in defense of Kosovar Albanians being brutalized by Serb paramilitaries in an apparent campaign of ethnic cleansing under Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević. The Balkans wars earlier in the decade, the worst in Europe since 1945, had been a stain on the 1990s, and the NATO intervention in Kosovo seemed like the West’s overdue attempt to reverse its impotence in the face of Serb atrocities.
But the victimization of Kosovo would turn out to have been exaggerated, and alternatives to the unprecedented NATO war were not seriously explored. The campaign involved, in the words of one scholar, “an egregious mismatch between ends and means.” A merciless bombardment was conducted entirely from the air. NATO’s emphasis on “force protection”—protecting the mainly American military lives in the air at the expense of civilian ones on the ground—kept attacking planes flying too high to actually protect the displaced Albanians from the thuggish paramilitaries tormenting them. The unrelenting rain of explosives had the effect of rallying the Serb population around the until-then widely detested leader, Milošević.
Whatever its motive, NATO’s air war was in no way an act of self-defense, and was therefore a blatant violation of the agreed upon “rules-based international order,” what NATO claimed to be upholding.
In the end, many Russians viewed the nearly three-month-long bombardment of Serb cities as an anti-Slavic assault from the West. In an anti-alchemy, the golden moment of post-Cold War promise had turned to lead. Bringing to climax what—despite Clinton’s “ol’ Boris” ambivalence—turned out to be the national security hubris of his administration, the war did indeed finally and fully empower reactionary extremists in Moscow, one of whom, within months, was elevated by Yeltsin to ride the wave of resentment to the Russian presidency—Vladimir Putin.
Twenty-two years later, Putin would justify his invasion of Ukraine as a “humanitarian intervention” of his own, and he would expressly cite NATO’s bombing of Belgrade—a bone still sticking in his throat. By 2022, of course, the Clinton-era hawkishness had been made to look relatively benign by what the United States had done after 9/11, with its savagely unjust “forever wars” against Iraq and Afghanistan, Islamophobic crimes which Putin could also use to justify his own aggressions.
But the savagery of the Russian assault on Ukraine—including the wholesale murder of civilians and mass rape deployed as a weapon of war—gave the lie to every possible warrant Putin or his sympathizers could offer. And now, the actual depth of his long history of malevolence came into sharper focus for many observers, from his brutal war in Chechnya, including the homicidal obliteration of the city of Grozny in 1999; his murderous use of banned poisons, whether against individual rivals or against a theater full of hostages in Moscow; and his elevation of corrupt cronies—mobsters, really—in the looting of Russia’s public wealth.
In the blinding glare of Russia’s brutal assault against Ukraine, the entire history of America’s post–Cold War national security strategies and policies was brought into the light again, as if only now could its real character be understood. The revisiting was often polemical, with arguments falling along a divide between “realists” who emphasized the validity of Putin’s complaints about sequential Western encroachments on Russia, and “neoconservatives” who insisted that Putin’s antidemocratic imperialism alone was enough to explain his war. The visceral discomfort I felt in the face of this debate between and among what a Ukrainian American friend called “parlor pundits” was a signal of the deeper question with which I was confronted.
Having faulted American policies myself—emphatically so from Clinton forward, when I took on that role of Boston Globe op-ed pundit—I nevertheless refused now to place blame for Putin’s war on America’s drive to protect, in the left-wing argot, its “global hegemony.” I was increasingly appalled by those who did so in the present circumstance, even parroting the Russian president’s talking points. Left-wing friends of mine—with the mantra “Putin is bad, but . . . ”—continued the habit of seeing the world and its tragedies almost exclusively through the lens of American miscalculation and malevolence, but I could not.
They had the consolation, at least, of leaving old assumptions undisturbed, but I did not envy them that solace. I said in various arguments that “understanding” Putin’s monumental grievances against the West as generated by NATO expansion, the Kosovo war, or Washington’s other post-Cold War insults seemed perverse to me. Outrageously, it was a way of deflecting an urgent truth of the present moment, comparable, say, to “understanding” Hitler’s nursed resentment of Versailles Treaty injustices as the cause of the Nazi’s crimes, which would amount to blaming the Holocaust on Woodrow Wilson.
But my second-guessing had to be directed as much to myself as to others. Yes, Putin’s aggression in Ukraine absolutely had to be defeated. Indeed, it became clear early in the war that only the triumph of Ukraine’s self-defense would lead to an authentic peace. Anything else would leave at large a mauling Russian war machine, a danger to occupied portions of Ukraine, to neighboring Eastern European nations, and to the standing of democratic liberalism itself.
But that mandate did not lift the overarching requirement of a vigilant moral self-scrutiny on the part of every war-maker—and every war-objector. Prompted by the rush of feelings set loose by the war in Ukraine, I had to ask: what am I missing in all this now?
As for the past, did my own mainly critical assessments of U.S. national security policy across decades defined by American pre-emptive wars actually hold up? Many of my writings had an admonishing, sometimes self-righteous edge. Had my habit of reproving the failures of my own people—government, culture, gender, class, and race—undercut the empathy and forgiveness to which they, too, were entitled?
In the event, as the Russian aggression in Ukraine entered its third month, I was given an unexpected reason for a large second thought about the castigations I’d lodged in my book House of War.
I received an email with Chinese characters in the return address bar, and when I opened it, I read, “Hello Mr. Carroll, Hope this email finds you well. My name is Ying Wang, the publishing rights executive of Foreign Languages Press.” On Google, I learned that the Foreign Language Press is based in Beijing and describes itself as a “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist Publishing House.” It is openly attached to the Chinese Communist Party, “the sole ruling party of the People’s Republic of China.” The email went on, “We are very interested in the content of the book House of War. We hope to import this book’s copyright and translate it into Chinese and publish it in China.” On the press website, I read, “We believe in the necessity of providing the broadest possible access to revolutionary literature at an affordable cost. We publish books based on our understanding of the current needs and challenges that the International Communist Movement is facing.” The email went on, “We are willing to purchase your copyright for a fee, please consider our request and look forward to your reply.”
My reply to the email was easy to compose—“No.”
But there was nothing easy about the feelings stirred in me by the inquiry from, as we used to say, “Red China.” My book—an example of Beijing’s idea of “revolutionary literature?” Beijing—the regime even then carrying out draconian repressions against Tibet; genocide against the Uyghurs, the Muslim minority in China’s far western Xinjiang Province; and the squelching of democracy in Hong Kong? Beijing—Putin’s supporters in his aggression against Ukraine? I did not have to buy hysterical warnings about China as an existential threat to the American future to be appalled and ashamed that a book of mine held value for such an adversary. I cringed at the thought of what my father, were he alive, would make of this.
Although my book was largely critical of the power amassed by the Pentagon in the post-war period, it also paid tribute to my father and the men of his generation who, having seen to its resolution the struggle with Nazism and fascism, had then worked hard behind the scenes to bring the Cold War to its nonviolent end. They had maintained the balance in the Balance of Terror.
At the same time, my book was a survey of roads not taken across the half-century between the end of World War II and 9/11, forks in the road—Korea, Vietnam, Central America, the Middle East—at which American policy had gone off track, leading to the deaths of millions. House of War had been a product of my Vietnam-generated skepticism toward war-making. That it represented more than a radical screed was suggested by its having been honored with the PEN-John Kenneth Galbraith Award. But even so, I had to wonder. In the large reconsideration forced by Ukraine, I had to ask, what, if anything, had my anti-war obsessions prevented me from seeing?
James Carroll is the author, most recently, of The Truth at the Heart of the Lie.