Forever War: A Peculiar Form of American Zen

As a teenager, I read Joe Haldeman’s book, The Forever War. The title intrigued, as did the interstellar setting. Haldeman’s soldiers are caught up in a conflict whose rules keep changing, in part due to time dilation as predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity. But there’s one thing the soldiers know for certain: no matter what year the calendar says it is, there will always be war.

For the United States today, something similar is true. Our government, our leaders, have essentially declared a forever war. Our military leaders have bought into it as well. The master narrative is one of ceaseless war against a shifting array of enemies. One year it’s the Taliban in Afghanistan. The next it’s Al Qaeda. The next it’s Iraq, followed by Libya and ISIS. Echoing the time dilation effects of Haldeman’s book, Russia and China loom as enemies of the American future as well as of the past. One thing is constant: war.

Our government and leaders can no longer imagine a time of peace. For them the whole world has become a zone of conflict, an irredeemable realm of crusaders jumping from place to place, country to country, even time to time. I say “time to time” because I had a student, an Army infantry veteran, who described Afghan villages to me as “primitive” and “like traveling back to Biblical times.” Indeed, U.S. troops are much like Haldeman’s soldiers, jumping in and out of foreign lands, in both “primitive” and modern times, the one constant again being war.

Why the “forever war”? In part because we as a country have allowed war to become too profitable, even as we’ve assigned it too much meaning in our collective lives. The USA is a country whose past is littered with wars, whose present is defined by war and preparations for it, and whose bellicose future is seemingly already determined by those who see generational conflicts ahead of us. In fact, they’re already planning to profit from them.

War, in short, is a peculiar form of American zen, a defining mindset. When we’re not actually fighting wars, we’re contemplating fighting them. Our form of meditation is ceaseless violent action. Wherever the USA goes, there it is, exporting troops and weapons and, if not war itself, the tools and mindset that are conducive to war.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

4 thoughts on “Forever War: A Peculiar Form of American Zen”

  1. As Sheila the Zen dog, I agree with 95% of this essay, yet my fur bristles to any mention of Zen with war. Not that this hasn’t happened in history at all, but as far as “our (U.S.) form of meditation is ceaseless, violent action”… Let me put it this way. I contemplate ceaseless, violent action against the neighbor cat, who keeps coming into our yard and treating it like a litter box. Yet my Zen meditative practice helps me let that go. Peace is the Buddhist practice.

    If my Zen practice were to actually be a “defining mindset”, that would be like putting my views and opinions into a block of cement, the opposite of a flexible Zen practice.

    My human Master, (a wonderful guy I might say), has just told me I might be being a little too literal, that I’m ignoring the point of the essay, about the U.S. involvement in war. Well, maybe that’s true. I’m against war. I’ve let a raccoon sleep in my doghouse, for the sake of peace.

  2. It is the wheel. The reason the future can be so easily seen is the wheel turning. What is, was before and will be again. I think the generals and the puppet presidents and congress critters know, and know why. They see the wheel coming back as always, trying to catch the pattern at just quite the right time and they can die with more toys than the other overgrown toddlers.

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