Controlling Lucifer

The president negotiates our withdrawal from Afghanistan, proclaims mission accomplished - and the wars of the last decade continue winding down to nothing.

We'll be leaving behind an unstable country with one of the world's highest infant mortality rates and hundreds of armed insurgent groups. We haven't rescued or rebuilt the country or accomplished any objective that begins to justify the human and financial cost of this adventure. We just lost. 

But we're the most powerful nation on the planet. How is that possible? And, as Tom Engelhardt asks, "who exactly beat us? Where exactly is the triumphant enemy?"

He goes on, in an essay that ran this week on Common Dreams: "Did we in some bizarre fashion fight ourselves and lose? After all, last year, more American servicemen died from suicide than on the battlefield in Afghanistan; and a startling number of Americans were killed in 'green on blue' or 'insider' attacks by Afghan 'allies' rather than by that fragmented movement we still call the Taliban."

Did we fight ourselves and lose? This is a question for the millennium - a question in which the human future hangs in the balance. A rich, arrogant and unbelievably powerful nation, riding a tide of opportune vengeance, pursuing its global interests, invades a poor, backward country, then a year and a half later invades another. It pours multi-trillions of dollars into the adventure and unleashes the most sophisticated high-tech weaponry the world has ever seen. On the home front, the war is backed by at least 80 percent of the population. It's a good war, a righteous war, proclaimed by the prodigious public relations arm of the military-industrial consensus as a "war on terror" . . . a war on evil itself. 

And we lost. Or sort of lost - at least in the sense that we didn't win. As Andrew Bacevich wrote in 2010: "By 2007, the American officer corps itself gave up on victory, although without giving up on war. First in Iraq, then in Afghanistan, priorities shifted. High-ranking generals shelved their expectations of winning . . . . They sought instead to not lose. In Washington as in U.S. military command posts, the avoidance of outright defeat emerged as the new gold standard of success."

His essay was titled, "Is War Becoming Obsolete?" That is, is war becoming an ineffective means of achieving, not merely the aims of its own propaganda (the defeat of evil), but its actual, limited goals of regional dominance, the looting of natural resources, the containment of geopolitical rivals? And if so, does it matter?

Beyond such questions, I sense that a larger question lurks: Might it be that war isn't something we wage, so much as a force that wages us? And if that's the case, it doesn't particularly matter whether we win or lose because it's not in our control anyway, at least not in the way we think it is. War has been obsolete for at least the last century, in that the damage it inflicted shattered winner and loser alike, almost to the point of mutual suicide - not counting the United States, which emerged powerful and prosperous and on top of the world after World War II. It took another half-century or so for the lose-lose nature of war to catch up to us, and thus for us to begin noticing its obsolescence.

This may be a good time to begin assessing the nature of our loss in the war on terror, beyond the non-achievement of geopolitical ends and non-fulfillment of whatever our mission actually was. Certainly this loss includes expenditures in the trillions of dollars, contributing enormously to the national bankruptcy. 

And it also includes the thousands of American combat deaths and the hundreds of thousands of soldiers wounded, both physically and psychologically, during their extended deployments, or suffering from an array of mystery nerve, respiratory and multiple other illnesses- now called chronic multisymptom illness and declared, in a recent report by the federal Institute of Medicine, to be the same symptoms that several hundred thousand vets from the 1991 Gulf War still suffer from - which are the result of the toxic hell that modern warfare inflicts on its battle zones.

In the process of inflicting all this harm on ourselves, of course, we inflicted infinitely more harm on the nations we invaded, killing hundreds of thousands, displacing millions, and polluting Iraq and Afghanistan with radioactive waste from depleted uranium munitions and the toxins of unregulated burn pits, among much else. In 2010, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published the results of a study showing that Fallujah, Iraq, was experiencing higher rates of cancer, leukemia and infant mortality than Hiroshima and Nagasaki did in 1945.

Is war becoming obsolete? When war's toxic aftermath is endured only by the defeated "enemy," the winners can still cheer. But today there's no cheering on any side of the erstwhile war on terror. The pertinent question is: How do we stop our mad preparation for future wars?

And there's only one answer: Stop inventing enemies, whom we proceed to dehumanize. Once we begin the dehumanization process, we lose - not just figuratively, but literally, and in almost incalculable ways. Philip Zimbardo coined the term "the Lucifer Effect" to describe the sadistic corruption that consumes good-hearted men and women when they are given overwhelming power over others. We wage war thinking we can control the Lucifer Effect. We're always wrong.


Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at, visit his website at or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.


Related Suggestions

The opinions expressed herein, through this post or comments, contain positions and viewpoints that are not necessarily those of IslamiCity. These are offered as a means for IslamiCity to stimulate dialogue and discussion in our continuing mission of being an educational organization. The IslamiCity site may occasionally contain copyrighted material the use of which may not always have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. IslamiCity is making such material available in its effort to advance understanding of humanitarian, education, democracy, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, and such (and all) material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

Older Comments:
I think I agree with most of this article. I certainly agree with this line:

"And there's only one answer: Stop inventing enemies, whom we proceed to
dehumanize. Once we begin the dehumanization process, we lose"

It should be noted that everybody dehumanizes the distant other to some extent. At the
very least we insist on viewing the other in some simplistic manner that focuses on only
one or a few aspects of their lives. The dehumanization is greater and more malicious
the more threatened we feel by that other.

I submit to the readers of this site that from the typical American's perspective WE were
the ones dehumanized both by the twisted logic of al Qaeda and the spiteful masses
who cheered our humbling in 2001.

I further submit that any religion that sees non-believers as less than the believers takes
the believers a long way down the path of dehumanizing the other.

Currently the USA has the most power to hurt, and thus our dehumanization of distant
others is a very very big source of evil acts. I submit that we are learning our lessons, as
we have learned this lesson over the years (e.g. slavery, women's rights, civil rights). I
understand that's little comfort to those wronged as we learn.

Some day the USA will have much less power. Perhaps an Islamic country will have much
more power. At that point the non-believers will have much to fear. We'll be very much
the dehumanized other. Much of the Islamic world is currently purging or subjugating
its non-believers. Without non-believing neighbors it will be a very short path from the
foundational dehumanization of the infidel inspired by Islam to the type of complete
dehumanization that made murdering innocents seem so sensible to al Qaeda and its

It seems to me - and polls bear this out - that al Qaeda only became unpopular in the
Islamic world when it started killing Muslims.