The Ruins of War, Then and Now

Against the Current, No. 171, July/August 2014

The Editors

THE GREATNESS OF Eugene V. Debs as a socialist and antiwar leader speaks to us across the century since he issued the 1915 appeal “Never Be A Soldier.” Debs was agitating against U.S. entry into the “Great War” that has become known to history as World War I. Debs himself would be sentenced to federal prison for his antiwar politics:

“War is the crimson carnival where the drunken devils are unchained and the snarling dogs are “sicked” upon one another by their brutal masters; where they shoot off one another’s heads, rip open one another’s bellies and receive their baptism of patriotic devotion to their masters’ anointed moneybags in a thousand spurting geysers of their own blood and brains and guts.

“Working men and working women of America! Let us swear by all that is dear to us and all that is sacred to our cause, never to become a soldier and never to go to war!

“If the pot-bellied masters insist upon the Crimson Carnival, the Devil’s Bloody Debauch, they will henceforth rip out their own loins and livers, riot in their own blood and entrails and offer up their own mangled and putrescent carcasses on the blood-drenched altar of Mars and Mammon. . . .” —Eugene V. Debs (1915) (The full text is online at

World War I changed the world, the practice of war, and the United States in manifold ways. In this issue of Against the Current, we begin what will be an extensive retrospective on this global imperialist slaughter and its consequences. Here we will offer a few observations on the ruins not only of “The War to End War” which certainly didn’t, but of the inability of antiwar, labor and socialist forces in the subsequent century to put an end to the ever-growing global war machine.

The World that War Made

We live today in a country where the President of the United States can order secret warfare, including remote-control drone strikes and assassination without trial of U.S. citizens, where all communications inside and outside U.S. territory are subject to secret monitoring and collection, and where publicly revealing such facts can lead to prosecution for “espionage.” These are manifestations of the permanent war state and the “Imperial Presidency,” so profoundly accelerated by the dynamics of World War I as the United States emerged as the leading global military and political superpower.

Here’s how another author describes the pull of patriotism on the population and the socialist left:

“In August 4, 1914, the [Ger­man] Social Democrats stood in the Reichstag and…voted the kaiser’s war credits, joining the orgy of patriotism as the armies of the Reich smashed into Belgium. Marxists were stunned…As the horrors of the western front unfolded, they waited. But even Ypres, Passchendaele, and the Somme, where hundreds of thousands of British soldiers went to their deaths over a few yards of mud, did not cause the workers to rise up in the homeland of the Industrial Revolution. Neither the French nor the German working class broke at Verdun. The 1917 mutiny in the French trenches was quickly put down.”

The writer of those lines, rightwing ideologue Patrick Buchanan, considers this behavior a notable manifestation of the strength of European civilization of that age, in contrast to its present deplorable condition weakened by the sexual revolution, immigration and secularization. (The Death of the West, 73-74)  Buchanan’s peculiar pathologies aside, what can we say about the similarities and differences of today’s world from that of 1914?

If World War I was the classic all-out conflict over colonial empires, “in order to decide whether England or Germany — this or that finance capital — should rule the world” as Lenin wrote in the conclusion of State and Revolution, today’s wars certainly look different.

Following World War II, the Cold War and post-Cold War eras have seen one horrific “East-West” war in Korea and dozens of brutal wars, large and “small” (although not for the affected populations), of imperial powers against their colonies or nations struggling for independence. Those wars continue to cast long shadows — from Vietnam to Congo, from the devastated countries of Central America from which hundreds of thousands of people desperately seek escape to the United States, to the Korean peninsula where U.S. troops remain stationed six decades after the truce.

Yet there are no shooting wars today among what are called “advanced capitalist” states. Analyzing modern-day imperial dynamics is a separate problem.

Still, many underlying issues from a century ago remain. Each war, under the patriotic/nationalist guise of “supporting the troops” and “honoring their service,” becomes the occasion not for ending war, but rather for promoting the next one. World War I soldiers were celebrated for heroic sacrifice, being conveniently unavailable to tell how they really died — choking on poison gas, screaming for their mothers, cursing the officers who sent them into hopeless battles. Thousands of troops from all belligerent states, suffering from what we now know to be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, were summarily shot for the crime of “desertion” from the front lines.

Poisons of War

What about war now? To begin with, the physical and human ruins of the recent losing U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will haunt those societies, and our own, for decades to come. In addition to some hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths, public health is a catastrophe from all kinds of military toxins, including depleted uranium, left behind from U.S. attacks on population centers.

An estimated 2.8 million Iraqis remained displaced, even before the horrific scenes unfolding as these lines are written ( A sectarian meltdown of Iraq may be underway, as the society’s foundations were fatally weakened by the U.S. invasion and occupation.

In Afghanistan, we’re told, “America’s longest war” will sort-of end sometime in 2015 — for Americans, but not for Afghans. If that nation avoids permanent civil war it will be under some kind of warlord-Taliban coalition, in which women are likely to be thrown backward to the time of Taliban rule when they had no rights at all — losing the gains they’d made during the pro-Communist regime of 1978-1990 and even under the monarchy that preceded it.

To achieve these miserable results in Iraq and Afghanistan, the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations have spent something over two trillion dollars and lost close to 5300 soldiers in combat; thousands more are returning with grievous physical and emotional wounds, some as human time bombs who periodically explode in shooting rampages, violent domestic abuse, or suicide.

Veterans Administration medical services, long plagued by bureaucratic ineptitude, have now  become a literal crime scene as records on waiting times were systematically falsified on orders of VA administrators to hide their inability to deal with rapidly increasing urgent needs for care for returning soldiers.

That’s only the beginning. Forty years after the United States’ war in Vietnam — in which over 58,000 U.S. troops and something like 2.5 million Vietnamese died — the chemical poisoning of that country “still casts a long shadow. Vietnamese accept almost as an article of faith that America’s aerial and ground spraying poisoned their environment, perhaps for decades to come, and is to blame for severe birth defects that afflict hundreds of thousands of their children…

“Here at home, the war has not ended for many of the 2.8 million servicemen and women who went to Vietnam. These ailing veterans are convinced that their cancers and nervous disorders and skin diseases — not to mention congenital maladies afflicting some of their children — are a result of their contact with Agent Orange.” (

The now nearly forgotten Gulf War Syndrome, from the 1991 U.S. war in Kuwait and Iraq, sickened up to a quarter million of the 700,000 U.S. troops deployed in that victorious operation, and as many as ten thousand may have died from its effects. The numbers of Iraqi civilian victims cannot be estimated. Because the existence of this illness was covered up for so long, the exact cause(s) haven’t been identified — possible factors include experimental vaccines, depleted uranium and burning oil wells, but a major cause may have been exposure to toxins spread from blowing up Iraq’s chemical weapons facilities.

These are only a slice of the damages from U.S. wars. To these, add millions of cluster bombs that Israel dropped in Lebanon at the conclusion of its failed 2006 invasion of that country. The devastation in Chechnya from Russia’s suppression of the Chechen independence struggle. The constant danger of wars over borders between India and Pakistan. And on and on.

Syria’s civil war, with its considerable outside intervention on all sides — in support of the regime, the opposition or jihadist forces — appears likely to continue for a long time yet with its indescribable human costs and possibly the disintegration of the country. Let’s not forget that in very recent memory, the same Syrian regime that is slaughtering its population today was one of those “anti-terror” allies to which the United States shipped “rendition” prisoners for interrogation under torture.

The World that Makes Wars

This brief sketch barely scratches the surface of the recent carnage of war, let alone the legacy of the past century — from the Nazi genocide and nuclear weapons that can annihilate civilization to “local” proxy wars. Two issues remain to be addressed, however inadequately.

“Africa’s World War” as author Gerard Prunier describes that holocaust (Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe) has devastated half a continent. It’s a war over many things — including raw materials, sex trafficking and intercommunal genocide while the world stood by. The root causes, however, go back to the destabilization of the newly independent Congo resulting from the CIA-sponsored assassination of its first prime minister Patrice Lumumba, organized under the Eisenhower administration and carried out in 1961 under John F. Kennedy with the collaboration of Belgian intelligence.

Following this Cold War “success,” Congo sank into political chaos and subsequently the rule of the kleptocrat Joseph Mobutu (Mobutu Sese Seko), from which it never recovered. It’s another of those stories that are essential to understanding the world we live in, yet are never taught in any level of the education systems of the ostensibly “civilized” countries that perpetrated it.

Finally, even while wars continue to take place, the effects and threats of conflict have the capacity to destroy civilization without a shot being fired. In a growing number of flashpoint arenas — the South China Sea, the Arctic Ocean, the Mediterranean coast of Israel and Palestine, the Black Sea coastal waters of Crimea — territorial conflicts involve access to deep-water oil and natural gas drilling. Blowouts on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and increased greenhouse gas emissions that push climate change toward a point of no return, are inevitable consequences.

Meanwhile, in the spreading aftershocks of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the Obama administration is ramping up a longterm program to replace Russia’s natural gas supplies to western Europe. Whatever reductions in emissions might be achieved by the president’s announced regulations on coal-fired plants — if they ever come into effect — are likely to be overwhelmed by the global scramble for access to fossil fuel sources and supply routes.

It’s weirdly as if the early 20th century competition for raw materials and markets has been replicated 100 years later, with civilization’s very survival now at stake even if the guns remain (mostly) silent. If World War I inaugurated the era of classic global imperialist conflict, we live today with its legacy and with a century’s worth of unresolved new as well as old contradictions. Another century of the same is simply not survivable. A new world is possible, and absolutely necessary.

July/August 2014, ATC 171