Ending the war on everything

It’s time to declare peace on people, places and the planet

• by Geoff Olson

“War!” Edwin Starr roared in the 1969 Motown protest song of the same name, “What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” Yet from the evidence of everyday speech, you might get the impression it must be good for something. North American social programs, foreign policy, medical research, business communications and sports talk are riddled with explicit references to war.

War on Crime. War on Poverty. War on Homelessness. War on Drugs. War on Gangs. War on Terror. War on Human Trafficking. War on Cancer. War on Obesity. For decades, pressing social policy initiatives have name-checked humanity’s most destructive collective habit.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover kicked off the semantic ball in 1930 with his “War on Crime.” Rather than target organized crime networks, Hoover’s G-Men went after lone criminals such as John Dillinger and “Baby Face” Nelson. Strangely, the FBI’s most infamous cross-dresser denied the very existence of the Mafia for decades. By the late sixties, the war morphed into something else entirely, with the FBI spying on tens of thousands of “radicals” in universities, antiwar organizations and social justice groups.

The militaristic meme lay dormant until 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the “War On Poverty” in his first State of the Union speech. (Johnson’s program produced real results, although the poverty rate in the US has not fallen for over 30 years.) Richard Milhous Nixon followed in 1971 by announcing the “War on Drugs,” a globe-girdling campaign of prohibition, foreign military aid and paramilitary intervention. Nations around the world suddenly found their diplomatic and trade relations with the US bundled together with the prosecution and apprehension of their domestic drug traffickers and users.

Modern business communications are riddled with military references, including the past campaigns of long-dead warriors. Uncounted numbers of MBA graduates and middle managers have flipped through Sun Tzu’s The Art of War or the Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun in an effort at self-advancement in the workplace. The battlefield rhetoric seeps from conference rooms, best-selling books, motivational posters and corporate retreats. An effective CEO “lays siege” to competitors, through “trench warfare,” “surgical strikes,” “carpet bombing” or “guerrilla warfare.” In this zero-sum-game language, success is always measured by someone else’s failure.

The War on Everything cajoles us into believing we must continually battle against the forces of darkness, which swirl from a competitor’s brand to a terrorist’s laptop to the cargo hold of a Columbian jet to the DNA of a malignant tumour. There is no room for peace, which is the incidental byproduct of war’s tribal bonding.

The mainstream media plays its part, too. Every December – the month supposedly dedicated to peace on Earth – commentators on Fox News revive their talk about a supposed “War on Christmas,” conducted by the nations’ multiculturalists. In Toronto, Mayor Rob Ford declared a “War on Graffiti” and now fulminates about an urban “War on Cars.”

Our leaders in politics, industry and communications appear to be hooked – semantically, at least – on sticking white hats and black hats on every other aspect of our lives.


In professional sports, especially football, the language of war is so blatant we hardly even recognize it as such. Years ago, comedian George Carlin contrasted baseball, “a nineteenth-century pastoral game,” with football, “a twentieth-century technological struggle.” Carlin mused, “In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz… With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line. In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! – I hope I’ll be safe at home!”

In 2009, the NFL announced it was cooling its overuse of military-speak in its promotional materials. However, old habits die hard. Later that year, the NFL reinvited Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of the Central Command, to make the Super Bowl’s opening coin toss, and had the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform a pregame flyover at Raymond James Stadium. The flyovers are now fixtures in the yearly rituals. (Five Navy F-18 strike fighters flew over Cowboys Stadium to open Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas.)

“From fighter jet flyovers to military performances at halftime shows, the National Football League and U.S. military have shared more than 40 years of Super Bowl history,” notes the official homepage of the United States Army. Little wonder that World War II general and US President Dwight D. Eisenhower allegedly said, “The true mission of American sports is to prepare young people for war.”

American entertainers are regular tapped for football’s mass programming. The performance by pop singer Madonna at the Super Bowl XLV halftime show underlined the nation’s resurgent triumphalism. The parading Roman centurions, swordsmen and predatory bird imagery gave her live gig a gung-ho makeover. When she performed Like a Prayer gospel-style with Cee Lo Green and a formation of black-robed singers, it looked like a cross between a black mass, Mad Max’s Beyond Thunderdome and a very confused episode of Glee. In a chthonic closer at the ground zero of US gladiatorialism, Madge disappeared with a puff of smoke into a hole in the ground, as the words “World Peace” glittered across the stage in a thousand points of light.

The military and professional football trade terms like bacteriophages exchanging genes: Nixon called a Vietnam bombing campaign “Operation Linebacker” while Manitoba is home to the “Winnipeg Blue Bombers.” With that in mind, we shouldn’t think our Canadian Football League is any less war-minded than its American counterpart. Consider the pomp and circumstance that surrounded the transport of the Grey Cup trophy in 2007. In its voyage to the host city of Toronto, the CFL’s Holy Grail was “given the VIP treatment,” according to CBC anchorman Peter Mansbridge. Bagpipes ushered the gleaming fetish object out of its home at the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and into a waiting limousine. The broadcast cut to a shot of the Cup reclining in the limo’s back seat, travelling Trump-style through the streets of Hamilton.

The trophy then had a police escort to the Ivor Wynne Stadium where it was picked up by police helicopter, flown to a nearby airport and transferred to a Canadian forces helicopter. The Canadian navy entered the picture to escort the Cup across a lake and hand it off to the Canadian army, which transported it in a military convoy to Toronto City Hall. All three armed services played fealty to the Cup, which finished its journey in, yes folks… a tank.


If you think the connection between pigskin and epaulettes couldn’t possibly get any tighter, think again. The skies of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other nations are patrolled by death-dealing drones: unmanned, camera-equipped Predators and Reapers. This has resulted in a flood of raw battlefield surveillance video and more work for US forces in distinguishing friend from foe while sidestepping the messy PR problem of obliterated wedding parties. The solution, according to a report the New York Times, is television sports production trucks.

Picking up on the story, ESPN notes, “Football broadcasters have long benefited from specialized software that allows them to quickly organize and utilize real-time video information – think instant replays, player-specific highlights, infographics – and the U.S. Air Force is installing a $500 million computer system that works in similar fashion. Military analysts reportedly spent time inside broadcast vans outside NFL stadiums, studying how TV crews tagged Tom Brady.”

Targeted assassinations of insurgents in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and throughout the mideast are routinely performed by joystick from command posts in the American Southwest. The gap between virtual killing and killing virtually is closing; some years back, the Pentagon released the source code for soldiers’ virtual training exercises to commercial games developers. When it comes to the CIA’s remotely piloted drone attacks and digital media, who knows? Perhaps one day there will be “an app for that.”

The War on Everything never seems to attain final victory, which is just over an endlessly retreating horizon. The War on Terror has only multiplied enemies abroad while curtailing civil liberties at home. The War on Drugs often comes bundled with the War on Terror, which has strengthened narcotrafficking networks at the expense of the public purse and resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent bystanders in Latin America while sweeping millions of minor drug offenders into a widening US prison-industrial complex. The drug war is now regarded as an abject failure by many policy experts, judicial figures, retired politicians and law enforcement officials.

Ironically, while all the above-mentioned programs are still going gangbusters, Lyndon Johnson’s laudatory War on Poverty has not advanced any further since the sixties – presumably because the enemy was too subtle or devious to engage for long.


Let’s turn now to the War on Cancer. A global network of private laboratories, drug companies, university departments and foundations have been focused for decades on finding a magic bullet or armoury of weapons that will supposedly destroy this cellular scourge once and for all. Like many other public policy wars, it has shown only incremental wins, as cancer rates continue to climb in industrialized countries. However, the war has also generated massive profits for the pharmaceutical-industrial complex and helped create a planetary gulag for rats, cats, pigs, monkeys, apes and other laboratory animals.

Scientists know cancer is largely a lifestyle disease, with genomic triggers in the environment. Many of its forms are associated with diet, stress, environmental toxins and radiation. Yet relatively little money has gone into preventative health measures; such investment in funds and public policy would soon collide with powerful industrial interests. This particular war, along with the feel-good “Pink Ribbon” and “Fuck Cancer” campaigns, can never succeed because the ends and means are completely backwards. We will never defeat cancer by staging after-the-fact attacks on an environmental symptom or by promoting think-positive bumpf for its victims. We will only reduce its cellular dominion by reaching peace with the planet – and that means defying the holy scripture of the balance sheet.


“War! What is it good for?” Unfortunately, Edwin Starr was dead wrong with his musical response: “Absolutely nothing!” It appears many modern wars are never meant to reach any definitive conclusion, if we go by the statements of political leaders and military commanders. In 2007, Senator John McCain said US forces might be in Iraq for “a hundred years.” Canada’s defence minister in 2006, Gordon O’Connor, observed, “It is impossible to defeat the Taliban militarily” in Afghanistan, a line echoed by British Brig.-Gen. Mark Carleton-Smith, who told the Daily Mail that an “absolute military victory in Afghanistan is impossible.” Canada’s former Chief of the Defence Staff General Rick Hillier was even more explicit in a statement reported in the Toronto Star in 2006: “That’s never been the strategy – to defeat them [the Taliban] militarily.”

In 1991, two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Washington policy journal Foreign Affairs quoted Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “I’m running out of demons, I’m running out of villains. I’m down to Castro and Kim Il Sung.” Ten years later, the War on Terror would tap a new pipeline of endlessly renewable enemies.

Both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have outlasted World War II in length and the talk of troop withdrawal by the US and Canada often fails to mention that private security forces have outnumbered the coalition’s armed forces for years and will continue to do so. The Global War on Terror – rebranded by the Pentagon in 2009 as “Overseas Contingency Operations” – is moving on under President Obama, “one of the most militarily aggressive American leaders in decades,” according to the New York Times. The winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize has presided over drone attacks in at least six countries, and has added four undeclared wars to his predecessor’s record: Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

As George Orwell wrote in his novel 1984, “In accordance with the principles of double-think, it does not matter if the war is not real. For when it is, victory is not possible. The war is not meant to be won, but it is meant to be continuous.” In the spirit of 1984’s Newspeak, there is no “Ministry of War” in AngloAmerican nations, only a “Department of Defence.”

War is the dark side of economist Joseph Schumpeter’s sunny vision of capitalism’s “creative destruction.” It is a cross-generational, mass spiritual affliction with its roots in the material world of energy and resources. It is, to put it in simpler terms, business conducted by other means. That was true long before George Bush Sr.’s Gulf War and his son’s “Shock and Awe” sequel. In 1933, US general Smedley Butler reminisced how he had spent 33 years in active military service as a member of America’s “most agile military force,” the Marine Corps. “I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”


When Lewis Carroll wrote, “Tweedledum and Tweedledee agreed to have a battle,” he was telling us mortal enemies are codependent; they need one another to define themselves. Zen philosopher Alan Watts connected this to the “game of black and white,” his description for a comic book worldview we learn at a young age. As we grow into adulthood, most of us learn the world is mostly a complicated spectrum of greys. Others remain stuck in the game of black and white their entire lives and some of them are rewarded handsomely for promoting this Manichean worldview.

Like the Great Oz, The War on Everything offers the audience impressive theatrical façades, even though behind the curtains it’s mostly timid technocrats, working the gears and pulleys for society’s plutocrats. Hypnotized by the brilliant spectacle, the Munchkins – young men and women – are forever marching off to battle under suspect banners. Most have no inkling the War on Everything is rarely about anticipated peace. It’s usually about indefinite conflict.

Words shape the reality we perceive and their thoughtful use can go a long way towards breaking what visionary poet William Blake called “mind-forged manacles.” Or as the old sixties expression put it, “Free your mind and your ass will follow.” We can start by rejecting war as a verbal placeholder for policy initiatives, while verbally declaring peace on people, places and things – starting with our very own hearts and minds. Perhaps the day will come when we can celebrate a final victory over war itself.


iphoto © Gavril Margittai

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