The U.S. Military Takes Us Through the Gates of Hell


By Tom Engelhardt

[This essay is the introduction to Tom Engelhardt’s new book, A Nation Unmade by War, a Dispatch Book published by Haymarket Books.]

(Since 2007, I’ve had the distinct honor of writing for Tom Engelhardt and  Tom is a patriot in the best sense of that word: he loves his country, and by that I mean the ideals and freedoms we cherish as Americans.  But his love is not blind; rather, his eyes are wide open, his mind is sharp, and his will is unflagging.  He calls America to account; he warns us, as Dwight D. Eisenhower did, about the many dangers of an all-powerful national security state; and, as Ike did sixty years ago, he reminds us that only Americans can truly hurt America.  I think Ike would have commended his latest book, “A Nation Unmade by War.”  Having read it myself, I highly recommend it to thinking patriots everywhere.  W.J. Astore.)

Tom Engelhardt, A Staggeringly Well-Funded Blowback Machine

As I was putting the finishing touches on my new book, the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute published an estimate of the taxpayer dollars that will have gone into America’s war on terror from September 12, 2001, through fiscal year 2018. That figure: a cool $5.6 trillion (including the future costs of caring for our war vets). On average, that’s at least $23,386 per taxpayer.

Keep in mind that such figures, however eye-popping, are only the dollar costs of our wars. They don’t, for instance, include the psychic costs to the Americans mangled in one way or another in those never-ending conflicts. They don’t include the costs to this country’s infrastructure, which has been crumbling while taxpayer dollars flow copiously and in a remarkably — in these years, almost uniquely — bipartisan fashion into what’s still laughably called “national security.” That’s not, of course, what would make most of us more secure, but what would make them — the denizens of the national security state — ever more secure in Washington and elsewhere. We’re talking about the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. nuclear complex, and the rest of that state-within-a-state, including its many intelligence agencies and the warrior corporations that have, by now, been fused into that vast and vastly profitable interlocking structure.

In reality, the costs of America’s wars, still spreading in the Trump era, are incalculable. Just look at photos of the cities of Ramadi or Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa or Aleppo in Syria, Sirte in Libya, or Marawi in the southern Philippines, all in ruins in the wake of the conflicts Washington set off in the post–9/11 years, and try to put a price on them. Those views of mile upon mile of rubble, often without a building still standing untouched, should take anyone’s breath away. Some of those cities may never be fully rebuilt.

And how could you even begin to put a dollars-and-cents value on the larger human costs of those wars: the hundreds of thousands of dead? The tens of millions of people displaced in their own countries or sent as refugees fleeing across any border in sight? How could you factor in the way those masses of uprooted peoples of the Greater Middle East and Africa are unsettling other parts of the planet? Their presence (or more accurately a growing fear of it) has, for instance, helped fuel an expanding set of right-wing “populist” movements that threaten to tear Europe apart. And who could forget the role that those refugees — or at least fantasy versions of them — played in Donald Trump’s full-throated, successful pitch for the presidency? What, in the end, might be the cost of that?

Opening the Gates of Hell

America’s never-ending twenty-first-century conflicts were triggered by the decision of George W. Bush and his top officials to instantly define their response to attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center by a tiny group of jihadis as a “war”; then to proclaim it nothing short of a “Global War on Terror”; and finally to invade and occupy first Afghanistan and then Iraq, with dreams of dominating the Greater Middle East — and ultimately the planet — as no other imperial power had ever done.

Their overwrought geopolitical fantasies and their sense that the U.S. military was a force capable of accomplishing anything they willed it to do launched a process that would cost this world of ours in ways that no one will ever be able to calculate. Who, for instance, could begin to put a price on the futures of the children whose lives, in the aftermath of those decisions, would be twisted and shrunk in ways frightening even to imagine? Who could tote up what it means for so many millions of this planet’s young to be deprived of homes, parents, educations — of anything, in fact, approximating the sort of stability that might lead to a future worth imagining?

Though few may remember it, I’ve never forgotten the 2002 warning issued by Amr Moussa, then head of the Arab League. An invasion of Iraq would, he predicted that September, “open the gates of hell.” Two years later, in the wake of the actual invasion and the U.S. occupation of that country, he altered his comment slightly. “The gates of hell,” he said, “are open in Iraq.”

His assessment has proven unbearably prescient — and one not only applicable to Iraq. Fourteen years after that invasion, we should all now be in some kind of mourning for a world that won’t ever be. It wasn’t just the US military that, in the spring of 2003, passed through those gates to hell. In our own way, we all did. Otherwise, Donald Trump wouldn’t have become president.

I don’t claim to be an expert on hell. I have no idea exactly what circle of it we’re now in, but I do know one thing: we are there…

Read the rest of Tom’s article here at

5 thoughts on “The U.S. Military Takes Us Through the Gates of Hell

  1. So here’s my question, as someone who (briefly) served, and whose father, both grandfathers, and a grandmother all served, in the US military:

    At what point does believing in ‘America’, however you define it, stop being moral and ethical? How many casualties can this nation inflict, without the rest of the world eventually deciding that we are the ones who must be hit by a boycott, divest, and sanctions movement? How many futile wars and civilian deaths does it take to render a country fundamentally unworthy of its citizens’ support?

    Frankly, I can’t help but think that we today are in a worse position than the Founders were vis a vis their “legitimate authority”. We are effectively taxed without meaningful representation, particularly in foreign affairs, where Congress has ceded almost all power to the Executive. I find it so strange that a society so steeped in the language of morality, is unwilling to recognize the basic immorality of killing thousands of people (in our own country as well as abroad) because some “legitimate authority” says that’s in the national interest.


    1. Excellent points. I suppose “America” means something different to everyone. To Budweiser, it’s the name of a cheap beer. To many others, it’s simply “America: love it or leave it.”

      We need to move beyond the cheap slogans and recall the high ideals of this country (and, yes, I know this country has often failed to live up to those ideals). We need to start acting as if human rights matter, as if life, all life, matters, including the life of the planet itself. For example, climate change must be fought, and nuclear weapons eliminated, if we are to avoid a planetary disaster.

      But the propaganda machine of this country is very strong. It works hard to keep the people divided, distracted, and downtrodden, as I’ve written about here.

      Trump (and people like him) is the logical culmination of this machine. He divides people, distracts them with bullshit, and keeps them downtrodden by funneling the money upwards. His reelection in 2020 is almost assured since the Democrats, with notable exceptions, are part of the machine (they’re simply less bombastic and crass than Trump) and either unwilling or unable to define a compelling alternative vision.

      So we must fight with the skills that we have, and never give up hope that we can effect change and make our country better. The alternative is surrender.


      1. All great points. As for myself, I believe the time has come to restructure the federal system entirely, which would require the necessary number of states getting together and Amending the Constitution.

        Which the media at large isn’t willing to discuss as an option, so far as I can tell. I’ve seen a smattering of articles talking about the Cabinet using the 25th Amendment to declare the “President” (I will only accept the legitimacy of the popular vote, never the electoral college) unfit, which seems to me far more radical and dangerous than going through the national debate about what kind of governing system we can all tolerate.

        The long-term alternative is the West Coast flipping the rest of the country the bird and doing its own thing, legally or not. California has already recognized its interests don’t match up with the Union at large, and the Pacific Northwest has Cascadia as a potential unifying idea. And once that starts, I wonder where it ends? Texas too could easily be an independent country, and I’m still unconvinced that New England shouldn’t be consolidated into one big state/country…


  2. First, there are no more wars. That is so 20th century. There are operations, like for Iraqi Freedom and Inherent Resolve and stuff like that. A little bombing here, a few drone or special ops assassinations there, running some al-Qaeda here and there, it’s a lot of expensive “kinetic” action because freedom isn’t free. Plus there’s more money going to operations that don’t include killing any foreigners, just looking busy in all the world-wide “combatant commands” to keep the imperial image up. The Navy does that, to include harassing China off its coast (when not colliding with merchant ships elsewhere).

    Where does all the Navy money go? “Freedom of Navigation” (i.e. bugging the Chinese) in the South China Sea? Who knows? There are no audits of the Pentagon budget (and no audits of the F-35 program, the most expensive military acquisition program in history) but — aha — the Navy (for one) is working on it, recently with a billion dollars going for four “sweetheart” contracts to their best-buddy “consultants” who will help Navy with “financial improvement” and perhaps an actual audit some day. See, Navy doesn’t have anyone who actually knows auditing, especially working with big numbers, so help is on the way.

    May 8, 2018 – Pentagon contract award
    Accenture Federal Services LLC, Arlington, Virginia (N00189-18-D-Z030); and Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., McLean, Virginia (N00189-18-D-Z031), are awarded an estimated $153,789,957 multiple award, cost-plus-fixed-fee, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract that will include terms and conditions for the placement of both cost-plus-fixed-fee and firm-fixed-price task orders for financial improvement and audit readiness in support of the Department of the Navy Financial Improvement and Audit Readiness program. This announcement is for two additional firms selected for award under request for proposals N00189-15-R-Z006. Each of the contracts will run concurrently and include a 12-month base ordering period, and four 12-month options for a total potential ordering period of 60 months if all options are exercised. If the options are exercised, the total estimated value of the four contracts combined will be $980,000,000 . . .

    Booz Allen — that’s where the last F-35 chief Chris Bogdan recently went, to become a Senior Vice President! . . .Good for Chris. And don’t blame him because the F-35 program is a humongous fiasco. Much.


    1. $700 billion and more: the money is staggering, hence the corruption too is staggering.

      I can see why the Pentagon hasn’t been audited: they can’t handle the truth of all the money that’s been wasted. Or maybe we just all prefer to look the other way …


Comments are closed.