Why we fight. Causes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Second in a series discussing the effect of our Long War on America.

1.  How will the Long War affect America? Will it make us stronger or weaker? Crazy? Unleash our dark side?
3.  Killing prisoners, our new tactic in the War on Terror?
4.  Bloodlust – a natural by-product of a long war?

One of the oddest aspects of our wars is their lack of factual grounding.  We fight the enemy, against whom so many war-bloggers exhort us to extreme ferocity.  Yet the reason we fight is seldom discussed, merely assumed.  The relatively few explanations raise more questions than the answers.  Our disinterest in the question — and acceptance of moonshine as substantive reasons to wage war — say much about the post-WWII period of continual readiness for war, and how it has warped our thinking.

Let’s look at one such essay, by one of our leadering war advocates.  Much of Peter’s essay — as with almost all his works — is reasonable.  Some it brilliant.  But the overall direction and conclusions epitomize the mixture of hubris and paranoia that seems to dominate America’s geopolitical thinking.  For more on this see America’s Most Dangerous Enemy.

It’s interesting speculation.  But only crazy people would go to war on the basis of such day-dreams. For a deeper (and longer) analysis of the Long War, see the links at the end of this post.

  • Wishful Thinking and Indecisive Wars“, Ralph Peters, Journal of International Security Affairs, Spring 2009 — This fascinating essay deserves to be read in full, as this excerpt touches only on a few of its themes.


History parades no end of killers-for-god in front of us. The procession has lasted at least five thousand years. At various times, each major faith — especially our inherently violent monotheist faiths — has engaged in religious warfare and religious terrorism. When a struggling faith finds itself under the assault of a more powerful foreign belief system, it fights: Jews against Romans, Christians against Muslims, Muslims against Christians and Jews. When faiths feel threatened, externally or internally, they fight as long as they retain critical mass. Today the Judeo-Christian/post-belief world occupies the dominant strategic position, as it has, increasingly, for the last five centuries, its rise coinciding with Islam’s long descent into cultural darkness and civilizational impotence. Behind all its entertaining bravado, Islam is fighting for its life, for validation.

Islam, in other words, is on the ropes, despite no end of nonsense heralding “Eurabia” or other Muslim demographic conquests.  …

Islam today is composed of over a billion essentially powerless human beings, many of them humiliated and furiously jealous. So Islam fights and will fight, within its meager-but-pesky capabilities. Operationally, it matters little that the failures of the Middle Eastern Islamic world are self-wrought, the disastrous results of the deterioration of a once-triumphant faith into a web of static cultures obsessed with behavior at the expense of achievement. The core world of Islam, stretching from Casablanca to the Hindu Kush, is not competitive in a single significant sphere of human endeavor (not even terrorism since, at present, we are terrorizing the terrorists).

We are confronted with a historical anomaly, the public collapse of a once-great, still-proud civilization that, in the age of super-computers, cannot build a reliable automobile: enormous wealth has been squandered; human capital goes wasted; economies are dysfunctional; and the quality of life is barbaric. Those who once cowered at Islam’s greatness now rule the world. The roughly one-fifth of humanity that makes up the Muslim world lacks a single world-class university of its own. The resultant rage is immeasurable; jealousy may be the greatest unacknowledged strategic factor in the world today.

Embattled cultures dependably experience religious revivals: What does not work in this life will work in the next. All the deity in question asks is submission, sacrifice — and action to validate faith. Unlike the terrorists of yesteryear, who sought to change the world and hoped to live to see it changed, today’s terrorists focus on god’s kingdom and regard death as a promotion. We struggle to explain suicide bombers in sociological terms, deciding that they are malleable and unhappy young people, psychologically vulnerable. But plenty of individuals in our own society are malleable, unhappy and unstable. Where are the Western atheist suicide bombers?

… We will not even accept that the struggle between Islam and the West never ceased. Even after Islam’s superpower status collapsed, the European imperial era was bloodied by countless Muslim insurrections, and even the Cold War was punctuated with Islamist revivals and calls for jihad. The difference down the centuries was that, until recently, the West understood that this was a survival struggle and did what had to be done (the myth that insurgents of any kind usually win has no historical basis). Unfortunately for our delicate sensibilities, the age-old lesson of religion-fueled rebellions is that they must be put down with unsparing bloodshed—the fanatic’s god is not interested in compromise solutions. The leading rebels or terrorists must be killed. We, on the contrary, want to make them our friends.

Once he establishes to his satisfaction that Islam is the enemy, the utmost ferocity is justified.  We are good; the enemy is evil.  Anything we do is justified.

When the United States is forced to go to war — or decides to go to war—it must intend to win. That means that rather than setting civilian apparatchiks to calculate minimum force levels, we need to bring every possible resource to bear from the outset—an approach that saves blood and treasure in the long run. And we must stop obsessing about our minor sins. Warfare will never be clean, soldiers will always make mistakes, and rounds will always go astray, despite our conscientious safeguards and best intentions. Instead of agonizing over a fatal mistake made by a young Marine at a roadblock, we must return to the fundamental recognition that the greatest “war crime” the United States can commit is to lose.

… The point of all this is simple: Win. In warfare, nothing else matters. If you cannot win clean, win dirty. But win. Our victories are ultimately in humanity’s interests, while our failures nourish monsters.

… To convince Imperial Japan of its defeat, we not only had to fire-bomb Japanese cities, but drop two atomic bombs.

A last note:  as usual with such writings, Peters considers the war against Islam as equivalent to WWII — where we found nations that had already overrun much of the world.

For a detailed rebuttal to Peters see  “Lt. Col. Ralph Peters on Journalists: ‘Kill Them All’“, Richard Silverstein, posted at Tikun Olam, 21 May 2009.


There are also those advocating nation-building, by which they usually mean some form of western institutions (usually democracy), to Afghanistan.  For an example of this see “Why are we still in Afghanistan?“, Uncle Jimbo, Blackfive, 3 August 2009.  Why we should do this in Afghanistan and not a dozen other similar nations (e.g., Somalia) is seldom discussed.  Nor do they often consider the likelihood of success, the cost, or the benefits (if successful).

This is another mixture of paranoia (all threats must be eliminated) and hubris (we can do anything, at any cost).

About Ralph Peters

Peters has published extensively in the professional military literature, and made many powerful and brilliant contributions.  He is a retired U.S. Army officer, a strategist, an author, a journalist who has reported from various war zones, and a lifelong traveler. He is the author of 24 books, including Looking for Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World and the forthcoming The War after Armageddon, a novel set in the Levant after the nuclear destruction of Israel.

Request for comments

Please post references to other essays and studies giving  justifications for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some key posts on the FM site about the Long War

About the foundation of these wars:  America takes another step towards the “Long War”.

For another perspective on its causes see America’s Most Dangerous Enemy.

Why we fight in Iraq:

Why we fight in Afghanistan:


If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below.  You may find answers to your questions in these.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts on the FM site about America’s grand strategy — how we relate to the rest of the world:

  1. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy , 1 March 2006
  2. Why We Lose at 4GW , 4 January 2007
  3. America takes another step towards the “Long War” , 24 July 2007
  4. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? , 28 October 2007
  5. ABCDs for today: About Blitzkrieg, COIN, and Diplomacy , 21 February 2008
  6. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past , 30 June 2008  – chapter 1 in a series of notes
  7. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris , 1 July 2008 – chapter 2
  8. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles , 2 July 2008 — chapter 3
  9. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work , 7 July 2008 — chapter 4
  10. Justifying the use of force, a key to success in 4GW , 8 July 2008 – chapter 5
  11. A lesson in war-mongering: “Maritime Strategy in an Age of Blood and Belief” , 8 July 2008 — chapter 6
  12. The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008
  13. Is America a destabilizing force in the world?, 23 January 2009
  14. The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009

11 thoughts on “Why we fight. Causes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

  1. I’m not so certain that I could answer yes to Ralph Peters’ question “Is Afghanistan a better place today for most Afghans, for the world and for us than it was on September 10, 2001?”

    One could argue that the Taliban were the basis of a strong central government in Afghanistan. That their values are less than palatable to us Westerners. Well, tough. Saudi-Arabia is also not my cup of tea and doesn’t appear too different to the Taliban… Shall we invade there to?

    As for centralization, Norway springs to mind where the Kings of Norway allied themselves with the Church (starting with the Vikingchief Olav 1. Tryggvason (AD 995)”) and fought a merciless campaign against the heathens (aka political rivals). The net result was a strong central power and weak nobles compared to the rest of Western Europe.

  2. Peters: ‘The point of all this is simple: Win. In warfare, nothing else matters. If you cannot win clean, win dirty. But win. Our victories are ultimately in humanity’s interests, while our failures nourish monsters.”

    This is the rant of a nut case. Peters and is no different that the monsters he wants to see vanquished.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The question is why such views have such broad acceptance among our government, military, and general public.

  3. Peters is a known psychopath with a long record of such nonsense. He is so bad he dosent even serve as a starting point for looking at US culture.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I use him as an exemplar. He sells books — appears on TV, has a column in a major newspaper, and is widely quoted. So if he is a “psychopath”, that just deeps the mysterty of why such views have such broad acceptance among our government, military, and general public.

  4. A curious article FM. It reads one part admonishment to anyone who as moral qualms about what we are doing over there, or the “intelligenisa” who challange the means and the ends. The other half feels like a lament for an earlier time when War was more simple and few doubted the efficacy of western military might and even fewer lost any sleep over the loss of life.

    He is right in one comment that guerilla war is old as war itself and rarely do our leaders factor in the enemy, human pyshcoogy and 5000 years of precedents. Curious then, that he seems to cast them aside as the meaningless carpings of jaded western handwringing of a people who have no moral courage.

    And that is the other reason we are losing. A lack of moral courage…nothing at all to do with our current strategy being so cock-eyed it was always going to come to grief. He claims we don’t understand hisory but he seems to lack perspective himself.
    A better understanding of that region and the imperial ambitions that came to a grubby, tatty and indignified end would have led him to write a more nuanced article.

    he attacks the media (an easy target) for not taking “our” side. Forgive me if I am wrong, but I am struggling to think of any major news outlet that was overwhelmingly against the war and preached against it. It is only now that is asking questions. This is in part because it does not shape events as much as it mirrors the concerns of its readers.

    He is correct in that there is a disconnect between civilian society and the military. This is one of the principle reasons that our politicians can keep getting themselves mired in conflicts they can’t win, and then can’t bring themselves to get out of…lest they admit the error of having went in.

    But he forgets how much war costs in hard cash not just in blood spilt…let alone how much it would cost rebuild a society that has none of the things we take for granted. He is correct that there is a lot of wishful thinking, that democracy is some sort of default setting that people naturally aspire to. But then most of our problems can be layed down to assumptions made by the architects of war (a phrase I use in its broadest sense)and vested interests….never forget the vested interests.

    He yearns for a military and a bloodsoaked just war, unfettered by morals, unhindered by politicians and lobbyists. Truth is though that ever since the first Kings looked at their neighbours lands and thought “I want a piece of that” war has been a tangled mess of politics & vested interests. I can really only look at the 2nd World war coming close to being referred to as in any way just. And yet, take a peek in the dark recesses of that conflict and you will find a politics, economics, dealing and double dealing as well as horror.

    In the end, all i know is this. The might empires of Persian and Rome are no more. They didn’t end because they didn’t want to be empires anymore or was it due to self loathing. They weren’t shy of destroying their enemies, but they always found people ready to fight them. Had their methods really worked the world would be a different place today.

    Is Peters really saying our only option is Afghanistan Delenda est…perhaps not but it’s sad to see people who think the only choices we have is either holocaust or humiliation.

  5. Indian Investor

    I think the topic of this blog is to examine the reasons why America goes to war. All wars, throughout history have been fought over economic interests. Of course economic interests have never been allowed to be projected as the principal reasons for the war.
    Even India’s freedom struggle, that was mainly a civil disobedience movement, had as one of its strongest bases – economic interests of the common Indians – freedom from usurious customs duties on imported British goods, freedom from unbearably high land taxes, etc were examples. Arguably the most famous amongst such examples was Gandhi’s march to Dandi, where he boiled the sea water and made his own salt – in a protest against the unbearably high British taxes on Indians’ salt.
    But Gandhi’s war was a peaceful struggle for freedom, to establish the universal equal dignity of all human beings. Economic and political interests – such as freedom from forced cultivation of opium for the British State monopoly on opium in India – and greater representation in the British Administration – Swaraj – were only minor pieces and stages of that struggle.

  6. Indian Investor: “I think the topic of this blog is to examine the reasons why America goes to war. All wars, throughout history have been fought over economic interests.”

    And all generalizations are false, as we know. If you look for hidden economic causes that underlie any arbitrarily chosen war, then you are likely to find them. People always have economic interests—be it simply to assure that they get another meal, or something more ambitious like control of a trade route. To say that all wars are really fought out of economic interests may even be true, but—as the historian John Lucaks likes to say—”true, but not true enough“. Or, as I like to say, “reductionist to the point of idiocy”.

    What makes the American wars of the last half century or so seem crazy (at least to me) is that there is no rational justification for them. The arguments that are presented to the public make no sense—but neither does any explanation based on national self-interest. You seem to rest comfortably in the conviction that it’s all being done for money. But what do you have to back up this conviction, other than that it makes you feel comfortable? If you persuaded me that the war in Afghanistan is being fought for secret economic reasons, then I would be grateful to you, for it would then at least make sense. It would be slightly better to be led by bad men than by men with no sense at all.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Agreed. Most single factor explanations for human behavior, like “all wars are fought over economic interests” is absurd. Adherents justify such nonsense by asserting it loudly.

  7. If you read his piece, he’s basically saying, “We need to kill some of their innocent little girls (by stray bullets, regrettably unavoidable), because they’d sure as hell be willing to kill a bunch of ours if they could, but fortunately they can’t.” Though obscured by his rhetoric, there is a core calculus at work here I believe is relevant. In our brave new domestic political world, one already clearly polarized along demographic lines by women with children, who tend to vote for a strong offensive posture, and those without, who lean more left, I wonder? How many of “their” innocent’s deaths does it take to equal one of ours? Though never presented in such stark terms, the question is being answered as a practical matter every moment we “Take the fight over there”, and thus “Stop them from attacking here”. It looks like the answer is 1000 to 1, or 10,000 to 1. Seriously, ask an American woman voter with children what she thinks a fair ratio should be.

  8. Pingback: Why we fight. Causes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. « Fabius … | Afghanistan Today

  9. FM, IMO your question cuts to the core of the taxonomy of warfare … 2GW (WWII), 4GW (insurgency), etc.

    As far as why certain people believe in certain classifications of war … good question. Why do people belive in one religion vcersus another? I suppose there are cultural components that are worthy of much analysis by anthropological PhD candidates.

    No links here, other than a simple suggestion to trudge through much (if not all) of the d-n-i website.

  10. In re-reading Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest last night, it struck me that Halberstam describes the Pentagon as wrapped up in an anti-Communist frenzy in the early 1960s. Apparently the Kennedy White House had to restrain the generals from their more extreme military proposals, including Curtis LeMay’s “Bomb them back into the stone age” and the proposed use of nuclear weapons.

    This suggests that an important part of the impetus for U.S. foreign military intervention has been overlooked: it comes from the internal Pentagon political climate. To see what caused the anti-Red frenzy in the early 1960s inside the Pentagon, recall that Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hearings about alleged communist subversion in the army had occurred in 1954, only 7 years earlier. Presumably being accused of getting “soft on communism” left a deep impression on the Pentagon brass, and they overreacted with extreme anti-communism to Kennedy’s Viet Nam intervention.

    Something similar may be happening today. Recent news reports have detailed massive evangelical fundamentalist Christian proselytizing at the Air Force Academy and in the army. (To date, the U.S. Navy appears to have been much less impacted by fundamentalist Christian ideology.)

    Articles like Fundamentalist Christian Crusade at Air Force Academy Sparks Official Military Investigation and An Air Force chaplain who complained that evangelical Christians were trying to “subvert the system” by winning converts among cadets at the Air Force Academy was removed from administrative duties last week, and Jesus killed Mohammed: the Crusade for a Christian military and Backward Christian soldiers — Evangelicals are taking over the U.S. miliary… appear to form a pattern.

    If evangelical fundamentalist Christians are indeed making a bid to strongly influence the U.S. military (“take over the U.S. military” sounds too much like “Seven Days in May”), this could reveal an internal Pentagon political dynamic which would explain our otherwise inexplicable global war on Islamic fundamenalist terrorism.

  11. In an earlier post mention was made of the Truman Doctrine, confronting the Soviet Union, which began with the Berlin Blockade when the Russians tried to follow up their destruction of the West German currency — they had the plates from a spy in our Treasury –, and continued in Korea. This caused the reversal of our historic decision to disarm as we had in 1865 and 1919 and retain a huge standing army. Use it or lose it. We continued to use it as we all know and despite Clinton’s decision to hollow out the force by liquidating four divisions without a change of doctrine, management or acquisition, we have found a new enemy to fit the doctrine. One reason we fight is because we can. Another is because we have restricted our capacity to operate. Saddam needed to be gone because he was able to maintain himself in power only by making war. Since the UN would not finish off what we initiated in Gulf1, he should have been assassinated. Well, its illegal under American law. Why? We seem to have no problem with dictators who stay within their borders. Clinton had dinner the other night with one who operates slave labor camps. Now we are looking at several countries who are threatening to upend the world order by introducing nuclear weapons into their equation == N. Korea, Pakistan, Iran. A true game changer is creeping toward us. If fighting in A. gives some comfort to those charged with responsibility for our well=being, they need to be told they are blowing smoke up their own rear ends. We need new thinking and new tools and we need them very soon.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: