Turning Temporary Problems Into Permanent Ones: America’s Real Military “Strategy”

Tom Engelhardt.  Introduction by W.J. Astore.

Readers of Bracing Views are familiar with Michael Murry’s frequent contributions to our site.  One of Mike’s more penetrating comments originated from a discussion he had with the late Sri Lankan Ambassador Ananda W. P. Guruge.  As Mike recently recounted, Guruge “certainly had it right when he told me once why his government had refused America’s offer of military aid against the Tamil insurgency in that little island country: If the Americans come, they will just draw an arbitrary line through a temporary problem and make it permanent.”

Dr. Ananda W. P. Guruge. From closertotruth.com

Not many people have noticed how America’s wars, which used to have clear ending dates, like VE and VJ days in 1945 at the end of World War II, presently never seem to end.  In his introduction to Bill Hartung’s new article at TomDispatch.com, “Destabilizing the Middle East (Yet More),” Tom Engelhardt reminds us of how U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere simply never end.  Instead, they fester, they surge and shrink, they metastasize, they become, as Dr. Guruge noted, permanent.

That reality of permanent war is arguably the most insidious problem facing American democracy today.  I didn’t say it; James Madison did:

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.  War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.  In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.  The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both.  No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …

Why do so many Americans fail to see this?  Because believing is seeing.  I heard that line on “American Gods” recently, a compelling reversal of “seeing is believing.”  It applies here because America’s leaders believe in war, and Americans in general believe in their military, and believing is seeing.  A belief in the efficacy of war and the trustworthiness of the military drives America’s “kinetic” actions around the world, and that belief, that faith, serves to make wars permanent.

Believing is seeing.  It explains why our wars, despite catastrophic results that are so plainly in sight, persist without end.  W.J. Astore

America’s Endless Wars

Tom Engelhardt

Not that anyone in a position of power seems to notice, but there’s a simple rule for American military involvement in the Greater Middle East: once the U.S. gets in, no matter the country, it never truly gets out again.  Let’s start with Afghanistan. The U.S. first entered the fray there in 1979 via a massive CIA-led proxy war against the Soviets that lasted until the Red Army limped home in 1989. Washington then took more than a decade off until some of the extremists it had once supported launched the 9/11 attacks, after which the U.S. military took on the role abandoned by the Red Army and we all know where that’s ended — or rather not ended almost 16 years later. In the “longest war” in American history, the Pentagon, recently given a free hand by President Trump, is reportedly planning a new mini-surge of nearly 4,000 U.S. military personnel into that country to “break the stalemate” there.  Ever more air strikes and money will be part of the package. All told, we’re talking about a quarter-century of American war in Afghanistan that shows no sign of letting up (or of success). It may not yet be a “hundred-years’ war,” but the years are certainly piling up.

Then, of course, there’s Iraq where you could start counting the years as early as 1982, when President Ronald Reagan’s administration began giving autocrat Saddam Hussein’s military support in his war against Iran.  You could also start with the first Gulf War of 1990-1991 when, on the orders of President George H.W. Bush, the U.S. military triumphantly drove Saddam’s army out of Kuwait.  Years of desultory air strikes, sanctions, and other war-like acts ended in George W. Bush’s sweeping invasion and occupation of Iraq in the spring of 2003, a disaster of the first order.  It punched a hole in the oil heartlands of the Middle East and started us down the path to, among other things, ISIS and so to Iraq War 3.0 (or perhaps 4.0), which began as an air campaign in August 2014 and has yet to end.  In the process, Syria was pulled into the mix and U.S. efforts there are still ratcheting up almost two years later.  In the case of Iraq, we’re minimally talking about almost three decades of intermittent warfare, still ongoing.

And then, of course, there’s Somalia. You remember the Blackhawk Down incident in 1993, don’t you? That was a lesson for the ages, right? Well, in 2017, the Trump administration is sending more advisers and trainers to that land (and the U.S. military has recently suffered its first combat death there since 1993). U.S. military activities, including drone strikes, are visibly revving up at the moment. And don’t forget Libya, where the Obama administration (along with NATO) intervened in 2011 to overthrow autocrat Muammar Gaddafi and where the U.S. military is still involved more than six years later.

Last but hardly least is Yemen.  The first U.S. special ops and CIA personnel moved into a “counter-terrorism camp” there in late 2001, part of a $400 million deal with the government of then-strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the CIA conducted its very first drone assassination in that country in November 2002. Almost 16 years later, as TomDispatch regular Bill Hartung reports, the U.S. is supporting a grim Saudi air and ground war of terror there, while its own drone strikes have risen to new highs.

It’s a remarkable record and one to keep in mind as you consider Hartung’s account of President Trump’s fervent decision to back the Saudis in a big league way not just in their disastrous Yemeni war, but in their increasingly bitter campaign against regional rival Iran.  After so many decades of nearly unending conflict leading only to more of the same and greater chaos, you might wonder whether an alarm bell will ever go off in Washington when it comes to the U.S. military and war in the Greater Middle East — or is Iran nextTom

To continue reading Bill Hartung’s article at TomDispatch.com, click here.

11 thoughts on “Turning Temporary Problems Into Permanent Ones: America’s Real Military “Strategy”

  1. I’d question the characterization of the GME war as the “longest” US war. Consider our military involvement in Viet Nam from 1943 (training, advising, funding, supplying Uncle Ho against the Japanese) until 1975, with various stages and alliances (WWII, French re-insertion, take-over from the French, Ngo period, Lansdale period, SF advisory period, troop build-up, S&D, wind-down, withdrawal) and it seems our “longest war” was and remains the one waged in Indochine/Viet Nam. I do not see many indications that any US President or Congress will man-up and accept the mantle of the “…first American President to lose a war…” anytime soon, so the GME War will very likely supercede the Indochine War as the US’ longest. Permanent war seems to be the new game; profits all around, losses borne by those with no stakes in the Dow.


  2. Herman Goring had some insight into this. Goring was interviewed in his cell after the war.

    Göring: Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.

    Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.

    Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
    My what a concept “only Congress can declare wars” unless they give a president near dictatorial power to start, and continue never ending wars. When is the last time the “people” here in America have had a say in these wars???

    A few years ago I volunteered at the VA as a driver. VA provided the vans and I drove Vets to and from the hospital. One Vet I spoke with a Gulf War-Afghanistan grunt type was shocked when I told him during the Vietnam War a draftee was one year in Nam and done. One and done as I put it unless you decided to go back. If I recall right this Vet had redeployed three or four times to Iraq and Afghanistan. Now his shelf life as a Warrior had expired since he was disabled.


    1. Yes, that Goring quote has stayed with me. Frame the war as “defensive” and attack anti-war people as “traitors.” Look at what Nixon had planned for Daniel Ellsberg (an ex-Marine) and those “long-hair hippie types” who were protesting against Vietnam:


      So, we wage war not only on other peoples but on our own people, should they have the audacity to exercise their rights to free speech and lawful protest.


  3. I once had the honor and privilege of taking some graduate courses in Buddhism and Sanskrit from Dr Guruge at a small Buddhist start-up college in Rosemead, California, where I worked as the coordinator of computer services. He spoke five or six languages fluently and had written something like thirty-five books. He often would regale me with stories of his career in the Sri Lankan Civil Service, designed and implemented originally by the British who called “their” island nation Ceylon. Dr Guruge said that the British knew everything worth knowing about bureaucracy.

    For example: Dr Guruge told me that when he first began his career at the Ministry of Education, he asked his superior for instructions. The Minister told him: “If anyone submits a request to the department you will answer him as follows: ‘The department regrets that we cannot accede to your request at this time.’ If he submits the request to you a second time, you will answer him as follows: ‘The department regrets that we cannot accede to your request at this time.’ And if the persistent pest has the bloody cheek to ask you a third time, then send the request along with your recommendation and I’ll make a decision.”

    Later, as he moved up in the Ministry of Education, Dr Guruge had some reform proposals that required the Prime Minister’s signature of approval. Unfortunately, two other senior bureaucrats stood in his way and opposed his program. “What did you do?” I asked him. “I forced their early retirement,” he replied with just the hint of a malicious smile.

    Dr. Guruge — who loved France and considered it his adopted country — once described his life as an ambassador as follows: “I’m an honest man sent abroad to lie for my country.”

    And speaking of France, he told me that the French Minister of Education can look at the date and day of the week on a calendar and tell you which page of which textbook every tenth grade student in France has before them to study. Some fairly well-educated countries actually do have educational “systems” worthy of the name.

    On the subject of corruption in government, he once told me: “Yes, corruption exists everywhere. If you want something from, say, the French Minister of Education, then you will need to do something for him in return. But in the United States, the sheer scale of the corruption beggars the imagination.” As an example, he told me of first arriving in the U.S. to take up his new post as ambassador. He found himself met at the airport and taken to dinner by a lobbyist intermediary for an American Congressman who offered “to be your Congressman for Sri Lanka.” As it turned out the Congressman wanted to offer the standard 35-to-1 deal, which entailed 35 million dollars in foreign aid in return for each million dollars contributed to the upkeep of the Congressman’s mistress in Washington, D.C. Not wanting to give offense unnecessarily, Ambassador Guruge replied that he would have to clear the proposal with his government before he could agree to any such arrangement. Naturally, the Congressman did not want that level of official scrutiny, so Dr Guruge never heard from him or his lobbyist intermediary again. Not long afterwards, though, at a Washington dinner party, Ambassador Guruge happened to meet Pakistan’s ambassador — a rather distinguished lady — who told him that she had received the same offer from the same lobbyist representing the same congressman. These people simply have no acquaintance with the concept of shame.

    One of my favorite stories from Dr Guruge involved the subject of petroleum-based fertilizer. One day Ambassador Guruge got a phone call from the American lady trade representative who complained about Sri Lanka’s embargo of imported fertilizer from the United States. Dr Guruge told her of the Tamil insurgency raging at the time and that Sri Lankan scientists had told the governmnent that someone could make a bomb out the fertilizer. “Well,” said the U.S. lady trade rep, “If you had real scientists like we have here in America you wouldn’t believe such nonsense.” As the iron law of irony would have it, a few weeks later Timothy McVeigh blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City using a bomb made from a truck full of fertilizer. Dr Guruge told me that he called up the lady trade rep and asked her (with not a small touch of schadenfreude): “What do you think of our scientists now?” Priceless.

    A fine and decent man, and a truly great teacher, he had graduated from one of his country’s most prestigious schools. Years later, he returned to his alma mater to give a congratulatory speech to the graduating class. He reminded them of the school’s stern motto, engraved on the arch over the school’s entrance: “Learn, or Depart.” Dr. Guruge advised that they change that to “Learn AND Depart.” I never knew anyone more capable of reducing a complex concept to the absolute minimum number of words necessary to elegantly express and explain it.

    One of the most remarkable men that I ever met in my little life.


  4. Actually, the Third Reich had an even more succinct slogan for its virulent militarist imperialism: “Wherever the German soldier plants his boot, there he must remain.”

    The U.S. military has long since adopted this slogan as its very own, changing only the operative footwear adjective from “German” to “American.” Naturally, given the ease with which the American people tend to swallow post-modern bullshit tropes and mixed metaphors designed deliberately by their own government to deceive them, the U.S. military has managed to evade domestic scrutiny and political/economic accountability for decades of abject failure by simply maintaining that its soldier’s boots do not actually make contact with the ground (implying that they somehow float some unspecified distance above it). This resort to cute Orwellian Newspeak, although it ostensibly denies the “planting” of U.S. boots on sovereign foreign ground, cannot hide the red-faced U.S. military’s long history of repeatedly planting its own face on the ground or deliberately burying its own head in it.

    Hence, I suggest a slight American modification to both Dr. Guruge’s elegant dictum and the Third Reich’s arrogant slogan: Namely, “Wherever American generals have screwed the pooch, there they must keep screwing.” Or words to that effect.


    1. Mike: you may recall U.S. bases in Iraq were described as “enduring,” though their “endurance” was both vague and open-ended.

      Speak! So that I shall see thee. When I hear stuff like this, I know the U.S. military’s effort is doomed. Recall the recent talk of “stalemate” in Afghanistan, that we’re “not winning” there, that Afghan society is like a Petri dish with various terrorist strains swimming in it, and so forth.

      Perhaps next we’ll hear talk of draining the swamp in the Petri dish.


  5. Noam Chomsky said, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”

    Debate on American Imperialism and Militarism for that it what it is, must be carefully controlled. Debate is allowed to demonstrate that we follow the idea of a Free Press, but the rule book strictly limits the parameters.

    I cannot recall the last time the McMega-Media, TV, Radio, or print has ever in recent times seriously questioned not our strategy (more boots on the ground, more drone strikes, more air strikes, etc) but why if we have the best military we cannot achieve victory.

    Why has our political-military system failed??? This question cannot be asked.


    1. Watching the Congressional testimony on Afghanistan, I realized they not only avoid the question: they reframe it then answer that we’re a great success! Thus the Afghan war has been a “success” because no major terrorist attack on U.S. soil has come from Afghanistan since 9/11.

      Thus, 16 years of “stalemate” and a trillion dollars down the drain are framed as “success” for the U.S. military by Congress.

      Well, if this is success, I really fear what failure is going to look like.


  6. Everyone talks of Afganistan as a no win. Wrong,! We have the greatest Opiod proplem ever. I wonder we’re all the Herion is coming from? Could it be Afganistan and I wonder who is bringing it here. No Mabel tell me it’s not so not our Military.I thought it was Leroys brother!


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