One of the most fascinating features of religious cults is that their tenets are impervious to empirical refutation, or even disconfirmation. Every apparent exception to the reigning narrative, every refractory datum, has a ready explanation compatible with the story already believed by the cult members. The teachings are in effect metaphysical, which is why the group is able to continue to recite what they regard as “the gospel” no matter what transpires.
Conceptually trapped within a fantasy world of their leader’s creation, the acolytes have been indoctrinated to believe that their leader is special and has privileged access to the truth. So devoted are his loyal followers that when the cult leader claims that he will effect a miracle, but this does not come to pass, they piously respond that they have not been faithful enough. The failure of the leader to do what he claimed he would do is taken to demonstrate not that he is a shyster or a fraud, but that he has not been adequately supported by the members of the group.
Accordingly, the cult members step up their proselytizing efforts and go out on street corners to sell flowers to bring in even more funds for their exalted leader. To outsiders this may seem utterly absurd, but to the members of the cult, it makes perfect sense. Strongly reinforcing their beliefs is the fact that everyone around them agrees. When an outsider approaches with the news that the group members have been conned and are laboring in a state of total delusion, they balk and spurn what they take to be the benighted critic. If he dares to persist in challenging their worldview, then they may label him either evil or insane.
These very same dynamics, witnessed in religious cult after cult since time immemorial, are observable throughout the military industrial complex or, to be more precise: the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics-banking complex, the octopoid tentacles of which support one another by claiming that all of them are contributing to the greater good through defending values such as freedom and democracy. It matters not to subscribers to the militarism creed that war itself is the most oppressive and tyrannical of means, imposing as it does the will of the killers upon anyone unlucky enough to live where they have decided to drop their bombs.
Nor is any importance attached to the actual effects of the bombing. No matter how many people are killed and maimed, military supporters continue religiously to bleat, “Freedom is not free!” convinced as they are that anything labeled “defense” is everywhere and always good. They rally behind calls for military intervention wherever and whenever the warriors please, and when a mission ceases in one place, they redirect their energies to the next so-called just war.
The church in this case may have been replaced by the military state, but the cult dynamics used to defend, maintain and promote the expansion of the institution are one and the same. On the most obvious level, people who dare to oppose war are denounced, derided, diminished, discredited and deplatformed. When all else fails, dissidents can always be destroyed. For those who stand ready to defend any war, anywhere, for any reason, war opponents are fairly easy to marginalize and dismiss, and even more so in recent years, since the highly effective commandeering of the mainstream media by the government. As in any cult, when everyone who is anyone already agrees, including all of the “experts” showcased by the media, then nearly no one notices that there’s anything wrong.
Soundbites are most helpful in efforts to silence critics and accordingly form the core of the MIC’s rhetorical arsenal. Anyone who, for example, points out the rationality of Vladimir Putin’s security concerns as NATO plays war games near the Russian border is immediately denounced as “Putin’s puppet.” Again, when inquiring minds raised questions about the purported use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, the same response, mutatis mutandis, was wielded by advocates of intervention. Anyone who dared to point out that Bashar al-Assad had no rational reason for resorting to the use of such extreme means was reflexively labeled an “Assad apologist” and, by extension, because Russia was an ally of Syria, a “Kremlin crony.” This despite the fact that false-flag provocation tactics by factions hoping to garner international support for their cause have been witnessed in recent history, for example, in Kosovo.
The refusal to listen to the complaints of the enemy is a prime example of the fact-free approach of a cult in maintaining the basic tenets to which all members subscribe. In the interventionist’s worldview, it does not matter in the least what anyone already labeled “The Evil Enemy” claims to think. The content of his utterances is treated as irrelevant because those clamoring for war have already concluded that he is evil. From there, it is a short step to refuse any form of negotiation. George H. W. Bush used this tactic to garner support for Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the first full-scale U.S. war since Vietnam.
Denouncing the enemy as evil and irrational is a ploy as old as war itself, but pronouncing them incapable even of articulating their very own grievances has been a dominant approach in the twenty-first century. Military supporters often point to the 1991 Gulf War as an example of a resounding U.S. military victory, and if history had ended in 1992, then that would have been the last word on the matter. But the consequences of President George H.W. Bush’s war on Iraq—the U.S. occupation of Middle Eastern territories, the massive destruction caused by bombing, and the crushing sanctions imposed on the people of Iraq—provoked the attacks of September 11, 2001, according to the orchestrators themselves.
U.S. politicians promoted instead the evidence-free notion that what happened on that day was an expression of the terrorists’ hatred of our freedom. Accordingly, rather than reassess their policies in the Middle East, the government opted to double down, multiplying the grounds for grievances already articulated by the members of nonstate factions such as Al Qaeda, and generating sympathy for their cause. Predictably enough (to anyone who understands how violence breeds violence), ISIS emerged in Iraq in response to the 2003 invasion, and the U.S. occupation itself led to the spread of al Qaeda affiliates all over the Middle East and Africa throughout the war on terror.
None of the U.S. government’s twenty-first-century military experiments has been successful by any even vaguely empirical measure, such as stability, democratization, or economic prosperity in the lands attacked. Instead, the U.S. military has left chaos, misery and corpses in its wake. Yet those who dare to take issue with this veritable orgy of killing, including Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning, among others, are facilely recast as traitors who not only sympathize with the enemy but aid and abet them as well.
The funding of what has become non-stop U.S. military intervention abroad also reflects the dynamics of a cult. When the U.S. government failed to take action to thwart the attacks of September 11, 2001, despite being in possession of intelligence pointing toward the possible use of airliners for just such a purpose, the responsible bureaucrats were not taken to task for their incompetence. Strikingly, the Pentagon was unable even to protect the perimeters of its very own physical building. Yet, rather than being redressed, the Department of Defense was rewarded with massive budget increases and granted the latitude to do whatever the president and his entourage deemed justified in responding to the attacks, up to and including extraordinary rendition, torture, and summary execution of suspects, all of which contradict the founding principles of the United States.
Far from admitting that the very Bush administration bureaucrats who ignored their pre-9/11 intelligence briefings were inept, military supporters accepted on faith everything they said. They swallowed hook, line and sinker the interpretation according to which what happened on September 11, 2001, had nothing whatsoever to do with past U.S. military policies of aggression. Rather than pursue the responsible parties, the administration rebranded the crimes of a small group of nonstate actors as a declaration of war, and mobilized the entire military in response. In October 2002, the U.S. Congress, through an open-ended Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), granted President George W. Bush the authority to wage war where and when he pleased, without further need to confer with lawmakers. The rest is history.
In 2021, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan finally ended after twenty years of attempting to destroy the Taliban. In the process, many thousands of civilians were killed and millions more harmed and displaced. Throughout the war on terror, thousands of U.S. troops also came to ruin. But when President Biden withdrew the remaining troops from “the graveyard of empires,” the response of interventionists was simply to ignore that the government had wasted trillions of dollars and sown corruption throughout the Middle East, upending entire societies in multiple lands. The congress did not investigate waste and call for reform, but opted instead to dramatically increase the defense budget.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange claimed in 2011 that the seemingly endless war on Afghanistan was effectively a money-laundering operation, what would be an outlandish claim, if not for the fact that, with the benefit of hindsight, it appears to be true. Of course, many of the members of the War Party who supported the two decades of wrecking-ball policies in the Middle East probably did not consciously believe themselves to be supporting a money-laundering operation. Even some of those with clear financial interests in perpetuating the war on terror may have clung delusively to their irrefutable article of faith, that conflict abroad should be addressed through the application of military force. What cannot be denied is that the country was indeed returned to its former leaders, the notoriously oppressive Taliban, whose patience and perseverance were rewarded by the inheritance of all of the weapons and equipment left behind.
Whether or not Assange is right that some subset of the MIC is concerned solely with war profiteering, it is certainly not the case that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan came about because the government suddenly had a change of heart and decided that the Taliban were not bad guys after all. The simplest, most charitable, and least conspiratorial explanation of what happened is that the U.S. government finally recognized after twenty years of terrorizing, maiming and killing the people of Afghanistan that the mission was, after all, just another Fool’s Errand.
Yet even assuming the most charitable of all possible interpretations, that the architects of the war on terror were not corrupt but merely incompetent, the failure of the Afghanistan mission has in no way deterred the War Party from rallying for even more interventions. President Biden recently reintroduced troops to Somalia, apparently under one of the infinite AUMFs granted to George W. Bush twenty years ago, and nearly no one (aside from the usual antiwar, mostly libertarian, suspects) demurred.
The persistence of the preposterous idea that the people of the nation are being somehow defended through a perpetual-motion program of state-inflicted mass homicide abroad, its nearly total imperviousness to effective critique, is ensured by the hordes of lesser folk who do not themselves craft policy but have been hoodwinked into reciting the tired refrains of propagandists over and over again. The use of mass homicide as a first not a last resort has by now been normalized in the minds of the populace, despite the fact that it does not solve but exacerbates problems in conflict zones. The massive allocation of weapons to Ukraine has been supported by every member of the War Party duopoly, as though the failed war on terrorism never even took place.
“Isolationism” continues to be denounced as an immoral approach to foreign policy, even in the face of the ever-lengthening list of failed and counterproductive missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and beyond. Those who point out that, given Russia’s formidable nuclear arsenal, the only sane way out of the Ukraine-Russia conflict is through negotiation brokered by third-party outsiders are needless to say subjected to the usual array of mischaracterizations and denunciations. Undeterred even by the very real risk of nuclear war, interventionists reflexively label as isolationists any critics who oppose any military initiative, no matter how irrational.
The surprising degree to which militarism has infiltrated ostensibly nonmilitary aspects of society is revealed by Nick Turse in The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives. In the years since 2009, when The Complex was published, the amoeba-like seepage of military influence has spread like an indelible dye to tinge nearly every facet of American culture. The millions of minor cogs of the military machine are in some cases operating purely opportunistically: mercenarily driven military contractors and subcontractors, the dependable warmongering hacks, and of course the network newscasters who promote the War Party line. But among the many proponents of any- and every war are also plenty of people who by dint of repetition and impressive powers of self-deception (think: Bill Kristol and Max Boot) appear truly to believe that every military intervention they promote is just and righteous.
The number of people who have not already pledged allegiance to the MIC is dwindling, as its tentacles continue to divide and spread, capturing more and more people whose gainful employment depends upon the success of what is, all euphemisms aside, an industry of homicide. With the mainstream media entirely coopted by the military colossus and its pseudo-diplomat defenders such as President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken, it may seem that all is lost. How can anyone throw a wrench into such a sprawling killing machine?
The U.S. government’s multifaceted military agenda—challenging Iran, China and Russia simultaneously, collaboration with and weapons sales to confirmed murderers in Saudi Arabia, ongoing attempts to expand the executive’s power—may succeed in demoralizing some critics into silence. But the takeover is not yet complete, and those who have recognized the creeping cooption of the republic by hawks must continue to speak out before it is too late. Nothing is more important at this unique moment in history than that we reject all efforts by pro-military propagandists to inculcate in the populace the central tenets of this cult: that offensive military action is a form of defense, and bombs have the power to do anything more than terrorize and destroy.