Nations love killing bad guys. Nations love to kill bad guys while claiming the noblest of intent: to save one’s compatriots from imminent, mortal harm. And nations love having killed bad guys before the terrible consequences — the pain and suffering of reprisal — hit.

These crude axioms drive the euphoria felt by a vocal portion of the American public at the killing of Iranian Quds commander Qassem Soleimani.

That Trump ordered the strike adds to its luster. To members of his cult the murder proves Trump a master of manly resolve, besting his feckless predecessors. He has set and enforced a red line at the death of Americans by foreign hands.  He has made a spectacle of lethal force, brandished as deterrence.  He has put the world on notice that American power is back, even in an era of obvious retreat.

Killing Soleimani “needed to happen and President Donald Trump was the man to do it,” crows Judge Jeanine Piro, a Fox News Trump favorite. “Trump took action to prevent a war, not start one,” gushes fellow Fox sycophant Greg Gutfield, parroting Trump’s double-speak.  

It’s the perfect murder, sublime in its righteous simplicity and tough guy appeal.  As with Trump’s “perfect call” with Ukraine, his loyalists do not dare say otherwise, save a smattering of arch-isolationists.

Yet many, equally vocal members of the American public are refusing to rally around the flag, the commander-in-chief, and his surging swagger.  It remains too weary of war, suspicious of all things Trump, and alert to perilous risk.

Countless pundits, protestors, and some politicians are rightly asking questions about the timing, justification by “imminent threat,” and likely results of the strike. To the most informed, the situation looks the most grim. “We need to presume now that we are in a state of war with Iran,” insists Brett McGurk, former U.S. envoy of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. And Americans “have to assume the absolute worst” with respect to consequences.

How did the United States get into a war that, up until a week ago, no one but a small cadre of Iran hawks seemed to want?  The predicate was of course Trump pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement in hopes that economic sanctions would force a better deal and roll back Iranian aggression. The opposite consequences were predictable: to embolden Iranian hardliners, encourage Iran’s bad behavior, and tempt the restart its nuclear program. With the Iranian threat re-gathering in this way, military action like the killing of Soleimani becomes the inexorable means of containing Iran.

Maybe the Trump administration was genuinely surprised that its “maximum pressure” failed.  Maybe, by the cunning of its hardliners, the campaign was designed to fail, and thus hopscotch America to war. Either way, the killing of Soleimani follows suit.

Or maybe nothing was quite so thought out. Recall the opinion of a U.K. ambassador that Trump’s pullout from the nuclear pact was “an act of diplomatic vandalism, seemingly [undertaken] for ideological and personality reasons” because it “was Obama’s deal.” As to the assassination, consider the savvy conjecture that Trump’s “immediate impulse was probably to shock the liberal domestic audience, vicariously make himself feel tough, and assert raw executive power.”

Which theory is truest is impossible to say, and right now it hardly matters. The most urgent question presented by this galloping crisis is what attitude to take towards it. The answer must be resolute opposition to war with Iran and an unequivocal demand: rapid de-escalation, with schoolyard threats replaced by real diplomacy and the genuine goal of peace. And the hour for this message is now.

The time to stop a war is before it begins or, failing that, in its earliest stages.

That is the screaming lesson of the Iraq and even Afghanistan wars.  For months before U.S. bombs hit Baghdad in 2003, a sizable protest movement and some within the political and military establishment warned of the hazards of U.S. military action, while doubting claims of Iraqi WMD. The risks included the massive loss of life, further destabilization of a volatile region, and an open-ended commitment slowly sapping blood and treasure. The war that unfolded featured that and worse — civil war in Iraq, U.S. torture at Abu Ghraib, and a new terrorist threat (Al Qaeda in Iraq, morphing into ISIS) that had not before existed.  Far better to heighten than suspend doubt when presented with dubious arguments for war.  Far better to reject catastrophe than struggle to manage it from within.  

Officially started in October 2001 to avenge 9/11 and prevent future attacks, the war in Afghanistan had at first overwhelming public support. A handful of intrepid voices dissented, urging international police action against Al Qaeda in lieu of war.  “Once war begins,” wrote a critic just before the U.S. assault, “it will develop a momentum, a logic and a justification of its own, and we’ll lose sight of why it’s being fought in the first place.” A decade ago or more, a majority of Americans lost a sense of its necessity and purpose. Many in the military command itself, as the Washington Post recently revealed, have long judged the war a disaster.

More chilling was the warning of Rita Lasar, whose brother died in the World Trade Center. “I pray that we, this country that has been so deeply hurt,” she wrote just after 9/11, “not do something that will unleash forces that we will not have the power to bring back.” The violence America unleashed cannot be undone.  Neither have its troops been brought back, while Afghans bear the brunt of endless war. 

The trauma and fear following 9/11 — manipulated to malign ends — do not exist today, making the urgent zeal of today’s warmongers all the more contrived and galling.  War thrives on passion, whether in defense of country, or to avenge a shared wound, or by the seduction of promised victory. We must deprive this already stupid war of any animating emotion, easily exploited as cover for imperial ambition and rogue agendas.

The United States is not under dire threat from Iran, no matter its proxy wars in which America is also a belligerent. There is nothing worthy or possible to win here, least of all the imposition of America’s will on that large, proud, and deeply militarized society. Too many have learned too well since 9/11 what can go wrong when steamrolling into war. 

We know the ruse of “mission accomplished” and the often false appearance of early and easy triumph. We know the intolerable price of human suffering, among soldiers and helpless civilians. We know that wars lead to war crimes, which tarnish the nation’s soul and breed new enemies. 

Trump knows or cares about none of this, whatever his discarded fantasy of ending endless wars.

The war hawks around him make careers playing games of empire with the fates of nations and peoples. Their cynicism is a given.  Trump’s deepest cultists will gleefully cheer America into Armageddon if their leader wishes it. But the vast majority of the country — including his heartland backers sick of their communities being used as cannon fodder — knows better.

It is time for all of us to say so, before it is too late.

There is no formula and little precedent for stopping wars as they roar to life.  Maximum pressure with the full range of the civic toolkit therefore makes best sense.

Congressional debate is a good place to start, though it has both limits and risks. With the impeachment hearings as prologue, Republicans will gerrymander their arguments around Trump’s talking points, no matter how ludicrous. They will accuse Democrats of coddling terrorists and other enemy-of-the-people sins. They will play the “nothing to see here” card by insisting that no one is calling for World War Three — just that Trump be allowed to school Iran in some advanced game of chicken and chess. And they will present all opposition to war as, at bottom, Trump hatred.

Antiwar Democrats and whomever their allies must reject these frames and argue about war and peace, the good of the country and the world, not Trump.  More than that, they must resist the Pavlovian call to make “containing Iran” midst frenzied tensions the great national imperative. Playing armchair strategist, one can easily wind up assenting to a kinder, gentler war around narrow objectives. Themselves destructive, small wars can quickly become big wars, especially after one’s troops start dying. The goal must be to lessen tensions to then rebuild a temperate co-existence with Iran — not endorse military half-measures.

Antiwar forces must hit the streets as well.  It’s a familiar ritual that can feel futile.  In February 2003, up to 30 million people rallied worldwide to say no to war in Iraq, to no seeming effect. But street protests remains necessary as expressions of both public opinion and passion. They can till the soil for vast fields of antiwar sentiment to later blossom.

Worry and warnings, denunciations of caprice and empire, must flood every inch of public discourse. And military personnel must plead for clemency and life, resisting improper orders as the law and their conscience may dictate. 

None of this, of course, may work to forestall or reverse a spiraling war, in which a bellicose Iran has some say. The human guardrails in the Trump administration are gone. The law is for Trump no constraint. Widely anointed the only ones to reel him in, congressional Republicans with some shred of standards have been the biggest no-shows in American politics. The U.S. military has proven pliable and dutiful to a fault under Trump. As yet, seeming cracks in his fanatical base are mere surface fractures, quickly cauterized with new doses of MAGA bromides and hate.

So if there be escalating war, let it be the war of a vain and petulant tyrant, on the lonely island of martial mayhem.  One day, the rising tides of democracy and disgust will drown him and his accomplices for their betrayal, to leave in their wake the calm waters of peace.

Jeremy Varon is Professor of History at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College and a member of Historians for Peace and Democracy.

2 thoughts on “Saying No to a Stupid War

  1. I’m on Jeremy’s side on this, wholeheartedly. I agree, no war. No way. Not now. It’s not justified. But then neither was the Iraq War, for which the war criminals who lied to justify it and stayed in power despite doing it, are considered heroes by probably about half of Americans today. During “peace time” (what’s that mean anyway?) where are the protests about that?

    And what of all that anti-Iraq War protest? I know about it. I participated. I did the manicured marches in midtown Manhattan, corralled between police barricades. Great photo ops that day. It felt good to know we weren’t completely alone, but then what? War anyway.

    Enough of us knew it was a lie before it started, enough of us knew the Supreme Court gave Dubya the election years earlier – we protested then too. Hell, let’s be honest, Reagan should have been jailed– JAILED! — for trading American captives for his first election.

    If not that, his legacy should be utterly smeared by the grotesquely racist remarks he made to Nixon decades ago, that we all now know about. Not a transcript, a recording!!

    And yet, more than half of Americans consider Reagan the ultimate American hero. Jeremy is right, we need to oppose this potential war forcefully, but who are we protesting against? The problem isn’t THEM, it’s US — maybe not you and me, but the person right next to you, on both sides of you…close to, if not more than, half of Americans….

    –the growing pessimist

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