The Alien Nature of U.S. Military Interventions

Independence_day_movieposter

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I focus on the “alien” nature of U.S. military interventions.  Here are some excerpts from my article:

The latest Independence Day movie, despite earning disastrous reviews, is probably still rumbling its way through a multiplex near you. The basic plot hasn’t changed: ruthless aliens from afar (yet again) invade, seeking to exploit our precious planet while annihilating humanity (something that, to the best of our knowledge, only we are actually capable of). But we humans, in such movies as in reality, are a resilient lot. Enough of the plucky and the lucky emerge from the rubble to organize a counterattack. Despite being outclassed by the aliens’ shockingly superior technology and awe-inspiring arsenal of firepower, humanity finds a way to save the Earth while — you won’t be surprised to know — thoroughly thrashing said aliens.

Remember the original Independence Day from two decades ago? Derivative and predictable it may have been, but it was also a campy spectacle — with Will Smith’s cigar-chomping military pilot, Bill Pullman’s kickass president in a cockpit, and the White House being blown to smithereens by those aliens. That was 1996. The Soviet Union was half-a-decade gone and the U.S. was the planet’s “sole superpower.” Still, who knew that seven years later, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, an all-too-real American president would climb out of a similar cockpit in a flight suit, having essentially just blown part of the Middle East to smithereens, and declare his very own “mission accomplished” moment?

In the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan and the “shock and awe” assault on Iraq, the never-ending destructiveness of the wars that followed, coupled with the U.S. government’s deployment of deadly robotic drones and special ops units across the globe, alien invasion movies aren’t — at least for me — the campy fun they once were, and not just because the latest of them is louder, dumber, and more cliché-ridden than ever. I suspect that there’s something else at work as well, something that’s barely risen to consciousness here: in these years, we’ve morphed into the planet’s invading aliens.

Think about it. Over the last half-century, whenever and wherever the U.S. military “deploys,” often to underdeveloped towns and villages in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, it arrives very much in the spirit of those sci-fi aliens. After all, it brings with it dazzlingly destructive futuristic weaponry and high-tech gadgetry of all sorts (known in the military as “force-multipliers”). It then proceeds to build mothership-style bases that are often like American small towns plopped down in a new environment. Nowadays in such lands, American drones patrol the skies (think: the Terminator films), blast walls accented with razor wire and klieg lights provide “force protection” on the ground, and the usual attack helicopters, combat jets, and gunships hover overhead like so many alien craft. To designate targets to wipe out, U.S. forces even use lasers!

In the field, American military officers emerge from high-tech vehicles to bark out commands in a harsh “alien” tongue. (You know: English.) Even as American leaders offer reassuring words to the natives (and to the public in “the homeland”) about the U.S. military being a force for human liberation, the message couldn’t be more unmistakable if you happen to be living in such countries: the “aliens” are here, and they’re planning to take control, weapons loaded and ready to fire.

Other U.S. military officers have noticed this dynamic. In 2004, near Samarra in Iraq’s Salahuddin province, for instance, then-Major Guy Parmeter recalled asking a farmer if he’d “seen any foreign fighters” about. The farmer’s reply was as simple as it was telling: “Yes, you.” Parmeter noted, “You have a bunch of epiphanies over the course of your experience here [in Iraq], and it made me think: How are we perceived, who are we to them?”

Americans may see themselves as liberators, but to the Iraqis and so many other peoples Washington has targeted with its drones, jets, and high-tech weaponry, we are the invaders.

Do you recall what the aliens were after in the first Independence Day movie? Resources. In that film, they were compared to locusts, traveling from planet to planet, stripping them of their valuables while killing their inhabitants. These days, that narrative should sound a lot less alien to us. After all, would Washington have committed itself quite so fully to the Greater Middle East if it hadn’t possessed all that oil so vital to our consumption-driven way of life? That’s what the Carter Doctrine of 1980 was about: it defined the Persian Gulf as a U.S. “vital interest” precisely because, to quote former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s apt description of Iraq, it “floats on a sea of oil.”

Consider it an irony of alien disaster movies that they manage to critique U.S. military ambitions vis-à-vis the “primitive” natives of far-off lands (even if none of us and few of the filmmakers know it). Like it or not, as the world’s sole superpower, dependent on advanced technology to implement its global ambitions, the U.S. provides a remarkably good model for the imperial and imperious aliens of our screen life.

Read more at TomDispatch.com.

4 thoughts on “The Alien Nature of U.S. Military Interventions

  1. Do you really want to know how the largely Muslim peoples of the Middle East and Africa see the invading and occupying U.S. military today? They see us just as their ancestors saw the zealous, land-grabbing religious Christian fanatics from Europe back in the Middle Ages who got all dressed up in heavy metal armor — the military “high tech” of the time — and then invaded “the Holy Land,” trying to set up their own little Christian “kingdoms.” We in the “West” call these invaders “Crusaders for the Cross, ” but the local middle easterners called them:

    The Terrible Worm in his Iron Cocoon

    The terrible worm in his iron cocoon:
    The knight in his armor enclosed,
    Has gone off again on a global Crusade
    Which has left his own country exposed.

    His lines of supply girdle heaven and earth;
    Expenses grow terribly huge;
    While folks back at home find themselves unemployed,
    Yet they shrug, after them the deluge.

    Or so they suppose as the flood of lost jobs
    Washes over their living room floors,
    While off in Iraq, and Afghanistan, too,
    Their troops break in through the front doors,

    Then haul off the males in the household to jail
    For “being of age” to resist:
    A “crime,” we insist, ‘cause our saying makes “law,”
    Enforced by the gun and the fist.

    The troop in his tank behind sunglasses blank,
    In his man-from-mars uniform finds,
    That grabbing the native oppressed by the balls
    Beats winning their hearts and their minds.

    Now bankruptcy rules in the land of the fools
    Where the terrible worms got their start
    Then charged off to do what the world would soon rue
    As not worth the tiniest fart.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2009

    Somebody ought to make a movie about the Terrible Worms — or Crusading Cancerous Cockroaches — that one can easily locate pretty much anywhere on planet earth today, outside of China and Russia perhaps. From what I’ve read of the movie reviews, one could hardly do worse than this latest Hollywood turkey. I don’t blame Will Smith for finding something better to do with his time, energy, and reputation. Twenty years on the road to nowhere, certainly as concerns this movie if taken at face value, but, ironically, it probably does represent the decline of the American Empire if viewed as a symbolic, critical, and commercial flop.

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    1. Just a note on the reference to the U.S. military grabbing balls instead of winning hearts and minds. Back in counter-insurgency school before deploying to the now-defunct Republic of South Vietnam in the summer of 1970, our instructors told us that, officially, we should try to “win the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people. Once we got to Southeast Asia, though, we rapidly learned the practical and actual translation of official U.S. military doctrine: “Grab ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.”

      I seriously doubt that anything has changed with the terrible worms over the last forty years. Lots of balls grabbed-at, if not actually grabbed. Not many, if any, hearts and minds won.

      Take it from someone who knows, fellow crimestoppers: Never accept at face value anything that the U.S. military says officially about what it intends to do or how it intends to do it. The two seldom, if ever, agree in real life. Fuck up and Move Up remains the order of the day in the officer caste. Commendation Accumulation Syndrome rampant everwhere you look. Accountability for failure on a global scale nowhere to be found. A decade of disaster in Southeast Asia and an even longer disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan ought to have made that perfectly clear to the casual, sentient turnip by now. But then, we’re talking about the United States here, the Land of Movie-time “War.” …

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      1. Just in case anyone should question my jaundiced views of “strategic” “thinking” — and I use those terms advisedly — at the highest levels of the U. S. military, consider the following from Frances Fitzgerald’s timeless study of American Interventionism, Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam:

        “In early 1967 [General William] Westmoreland gave a most complicated and interesting explanation for the rationale behind the President’s “ceiling” on the number of American troops. “If,” he said, “you crowd in too many termite killers, each using a screwdriver to kill the termites, you risk collapsing the floors or the foundation. In this war, we’re using screwdrivers to kill termites because it’s a guerilla war and we cannot use bigger weapons. We have to get the right balance of termite killers to get rid of the termites without wrecking the house.” To continue this extraordinary metaphor, the American force had managed to wreck the house without killing the termites; they had, further, managed to make the house uninhabitable for anyone except termites. In a different manner, they had made the [American-created puppet government] house unlivable as well.” (Westmoreland quoted in Newsweek, 27 March 1967 – almost a year before the Tet Offensive of 1968.”

        Yep. There you have “Big Thinking” at the shallow end of the American national gene pool. Now give us General Tommy Franks who “doesn’t do body counts” (when the U.S. military produces nothing but numbers of dead foreign bodies — for decades) and General David Petraeus (who takes an old counter-insurgency manual from the 1960s seriously) and you have … more medals and promotions than any galactically incompetent military establishment has any right to dream about.

        America can get by with a Coast Guard and 50 state militias. Anything more than that and you get William Westmoreland, Tommy Franks, David Petraues, and decades of pointless, needless, ruinous disaster, at home and abroad. Way past time to drastically demobilize — or RIF (reduction in force) — the standing U.S. military. As our founding generation warned us: it will be, without a doubt, the death of the Republic, if the Republic hasn’t died already, which it probably has. The U.S. military doesn’t seem able to identify a real “enemy” or do anything about such enemies as someone may point out to them, but our Vaunted Visigoths can certainly locate and fleece the U.S. taxpayer, the only real enemy that they fear.

        They haven’t won a war since 1945 but our “military experts” obviously have more than enough time, energy, and taxpayer dollars to advise Hollywood and Superbowl advertisers on how to make “war” movies and propaganda stunts. That they can do, not that we need them to do it.

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      2. Yes — far too many commendations. I remember responding to a survey when I was a young LT. I was asked, “What would you change about the military?” My quick answer was to get rid of all the “everyman” ribbons, e.g. basic training, longevity, good conduct, and so on. Someone with less than two or three years of service shouldn’t be wearing six or eight ribbons. Nowadays, you have generals like Petraeus whose uniform was festooned with ribbons, badges, medals, and other insignia. Boy Scout merit badges — but often without the merit.

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