The Most Important Country the U.S. Military Has Conquered

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Yes, the U.S. military is involved throughout the world.  But even smart maps like this one neglect the one country truly conquered by that military: the USA

W.J. Astore

When the U.S. military boasts of “global reach, global power,” it’s not kidding.  As Nick Turse notes in his latest article at TomDispatch.com, that military’s Special Operations forces deployed in one way or another to 149 countries in 2017, roughly 75% of countries on the globe.  Talk about reach!  Meanwhile, those forces have more than doubled since 2001, sitting at 70,000 effectives today, the equivalent to five divisions.  (Consider it a military within the military.)  All of this has come at tremendous cost, with this year’s defense budget sitting at $700 billion–and rising for the foreseeable future.

For all the bucks, what about the bang–what about results?  Let’s just say that Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Niger, and other U.S. military interventions haven’t gone well.

Yet there is one country where the U.S. military truly rules; one country which the U.S. military has truly conquered.  Where and which?  The USA, of course.  No matter its losses and frustrations overseas, the U.S. military keeps winning more money and influence here at home.  Congress loves it, presidents love it, our culture (mostly) loves it, or at least is urged to “support” it irrespective of results.

It’s not just the trillions of dollars it’s consumed since 9/11 or the extent to which retired generals rule the roost in Washington.  Think about popular culture: our sports, our toys, our TV and movies.  Kids dress up as soldiers on Halloween.  Toys are of the “Call of Duty” variety.  In TV shows like “SEAL Team,” Special Forces are all the rage.  Hollywood has embraced them too, in movies like “Act of Valor” and the upcoming “12 Strong,” about a small team of American “horse soldiers” in Afghanistan soon after 9/11, riding to the rescue like so many John Waynes.

And one more item, a vitally important one, to consider: there is no talk of peace, anytime, anywhere, in the mainstream media, hence no talk of declining military budgets.

The military has conquered us.  Indeed, global military action is a rare area of bipartisan accord in Washington, whether the commander-in-chief is Bush or Obama or Trump.

So, while it’s true the U.S. military is in an astonishing 149 countries, the one that really matters is the USA.  It may lose in Afghanistan or Somalia, but it has won here — and that’s all that really matters to the further growth and vitality of America’s national security state.

The “War on Terror”: The Globalization of Perpetual War

W.J. Astore

At TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt has a revealing article on the truly global nature of America’s war on terror, accompanied by a unique map put together by the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.  The map reveals that America’s war on terror has spread to 76 countries, as shown below:

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This metastasizing of “counterterror” efforts is truly paradoxical: the more the U.S. military works to stop terror, the more terror spreads.  “Progress” is measured only by the growth of efforts to stem terror networks in more and more countries.  But the notion of “progress” is absurd: That 76 countries are involved in some way in this war on terror is a sign of regress, not progress.  After 16 years and a few trillion dollars, you’d think terror networks and efforts to eradicate them would be decreasing, not increasing.  But the war on terror has become its own cancer, or, in social-media-speak, it’s gone viral, infecting more and more regions.

A metaphor I like to use is from Charles Darwin.  Consider the face of nature — or of terrorism — as a series of tightly interlinked wedges.  Now, consider the U.S. military and its kinetic strikes (as well as weapons sales and military assistance) as hammer blows.  Those hammer blows disturb and contort the face of nature, fracturing it in unpredictable ways, propagating faults and creating conditions for further disturbances.

By hammering away at the complex ecologies of regions, the U.S. is feeding and complicating terrorism with its own violence.  Yet new fracture lines are cited as evidence of the further growth of terrorism, thus necessitating more hammer blows (and yet more military spending).  And the cycle of violence repeats as well as grows.

A sensible approach: Stop hammering away with missiles and bombs and drones.  Stop feeding the terrorist wolf with more blood and violence.

But the U.S. government is caught up in a seemingly endless cycle of violence and war, as Engelhardt notes here:

Let me repeat this mantra: once, almost seventeen years ago, there was one [country, Afghanistan, the U.S. targeted]; now, the count is 76 and rising.  Meanwhile, great cities have been turned into rubble; tens of millions of human beings have been displaced from their homes; refugees by the millions continue to cross borders, unsettling ever more lands; terror groups have become brand names across significant parts of the planet; and our American world continues to be militarized

This should be thought of as an entirely new kind of perpetual global war.  So take one more look at that map.  Click on it and then enlarge it to consider the map in full-screen mode.  It’s important to try to imagine what’s been happening visually, since we’re facing a new kind of disaster, a planetary militarization of a sort we’ve never truly seen before.  No matter the “successes” in Washington’s war, ranging from that invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to the taking of Baghdad in 2003 to the recent destruction of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq (or most of it anyway, since at this moment American planes are still dropping bombs and firing missiles in parts of Syria), the conflicts only seem to morph and tumble on.

A new kind of perpetual global war: Engelhardt nails it.  To end it, we need to stop feeding it.  But as the map above indicates, it seems likely that U.S. hammer blows will continue and even accelerate, with results as violently unpredictable as they are counterproductive.

The USA Is Number One — In Weapons Sales

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Arms Sales and Profits: Up, Up, and Away!

W.J. Astore

Once again, the USA leads the world in weapons sales, notes SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.  The 100 biggest arms producers accounted for $375 billion in weapons sales in 2016, with US firms having by far the largest share at $217 billion.  That’s right: the US accounts for roughly 58% of the global arms trade. We’re #1!  We’re #1!

Not only do we arm our friends but our foes as well, notes FP: Foreign Policy, which has the following SitRep (situation report) for today:

U.S. weapons used by ISIS. A new report from Conflict Armament Research, a U.K.-based weapons tracking group, outlines in fascinating detail the industrial-scale weapons manufacturing capabilities the Islamic State boasted of in its prime… But what might be most notable are the American-supplied weapons found amid the ruins — the aftermath of secretive American efforts to provide small rebel groups with anti-tank rockets and other guided munitions. The transfer of the rockets, purchased from European countries, violated end-user agreements signed by the United States pledging not to transfer the weapons to third parties. In some cases, it took only a few weeks for the weapons to end up in the hands of Islamic State fighters after being delivered to allegedly friendly forces.  

Let’s face it: $217 billion is an enormous amount of money, and the weapons trade is enormously profitable to the US.  America’s wars are not coming to an end anytime soon: there’s simply too much money being made on manufacturing and selling war.

This puts me to mind of observations made by Father Daniel Berrigan, who served prison time for protesting the Vietnam War.  Berrigan wrote with eloquence against war, and his words from a half-century ago are as timely today as they were during the Vietnam protests:

“we are powerless to inquire why it is easier to continue to slaughter than to stop it, why the historical cult of violence has become the mainstay of policy–both foreign and domestic, or why our economy so requires warmaking that perpetual war has united with expanding profits as the chief national purpose.”

And that was when the US still had a manufacturing base for consumer goods that hadn’t withered from “free” trade deals like NAFTA and other globalization efforts.  The global market the US dominates today is not for consumer goods but for wares of destruction.

When you sow the winds of weaponry and war, and profit mightily from it, do you not eventually have to reap the whirlwind of destruction?

Trump Is Sending Us All to the Cornfield

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Let the 6-year-old rule, unless you prefer the cornfield (Twilight Zone)

W.J. Astore

Let’s state the obvious: Donald Trump is a climate change denier.  And this is for political as well as petty reasons.  When it comes to his investments, his resorts, he is not stupid enough to deny the evidence of his own eyes.  As I wrote a year ago:

On global warming, Trump is essentially a skeptic on whether it exists (“hoax” and “con job” are expressions of choice), even as he seeks to protect his resorts from its effects. Along with this rank hypocrisy, Trump is advocating an energy plan that is vintage 1980, calling for more burning of fossil fuels, more drilling and digging, more pipelines, as if fossil fuel consumption was totally benign to the environment and to human health.

His climate change skepticism is politically motivated and calculated to appeal to his base.  No surprise there.  But Trump also revels in anti-intellectualism, which has a strong tradition in the U.S.

Sure, intellectuals mess up, and more than a few can find a fourth side to every three-sided problem.  But Trump only sees one side to every three-sided problem.  His side. Like a temperamental child, he thinks he can create his own reality, regardless of facts. And the rest of us now have to put up with the spoiled brat until 2020 (or impeachment, which is unlikely before 2018, at the earliest).

Trump reminds me of the spoiled kid in the famous “Twilight Zone” episode, “It’s A Good Life.”  In that episode, a six-year-old kid prone to temper tantrums and getting his own way rules with absolute power over his parents and the townfolk of “Peaksville.”

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Don’t offend this kid (Bill Mumy, the child-tyrant in “It’s A Good Life”)

Anyone who offends the petty tyrant (played memorably by Billy Mumy) is punished, often in gruesome ways.  A more merciful result is to be “sent to the cornfield,” a euphemism for death.

Welcome to Peaksville, America.  And think only good thoughts of our six-year-old leader.  Unless, of course, you prefer the cornfield.

Splinterlands: A Dystopic Novel for Our Trumpian Age

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W.J. Astore

Equal parts amusing and alarming, John Feffer’s dystopian novel, Splinterlands, begins with Hurricane Donald, which floods Washington DC only five years from now.  You may deny climate change, Feffer suggests, but Mother Nature will have the last word.  She will unleash catastrophes and chaos that, combined with political fragmentation driven by hyper-aggressive capitalism and myopic nationalism, lead to a truly New World (Dis)order, characterized by confessional wars, resource shortfalls, and, within two generations, the end of the world as we know it.

Can “prophets of disintegration” like Donald Trump, driven by “market authoritarianism” and their own hubris, remake the world in their own chaotic image?  Feffer makes a persuasive case that they can.  Instead of seeing “the end of history” as a triumph of liberal democracy and a beneficial global marketplace driven by efficiency and technology, Feffer sees the possibility of factionalism of all sorts, a rejection of tolerance and diversity and the embrace of intolerance, identity politics, and similar exclusionary constructs.

Coincidentally, a cautionary letter from the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film just crossed my desk; its words encapsulate what Feffer is warning us about.  The film directors denounced “the climate of fanaticism and nationalism we see today in the US and so many other countries.”  The letter goes on to say that:

“The fear generated by dividing us into genders, colors, religions and sexualities as a means to justify violence destroys the things that we depend on – not only as artists but as humans: the diversity of cultures, the chance to be enriched by something seemingly ‘foreign’ and the belief that human encounters can change us for the better. These divisive walls prevent people from experiencing something simple but fundamental: from discovering that we are all not so different.”

The problem, of course, is that many people prefer divisive walls, while finding meaning in fanaticism, nationalism, and the politics of difference.  We are now, Feffer writes, in a period of Great Polarization. His book is about what will happen if that polarization wins out.  He writes:

“The middle dropped out of the world.  Extremes of wealth and ideology flourished.  Political moderates became an endangered species and ‘compromise’ just another word for ‘appeasement.’  First came the disagreements over regulatory policy, then sharper political divides.  Finally, as the world quick-marched itself back through history, came the return of the war of all against all.  The EU, committed to the golden mean, had no way of surviving in such an environment without itself going to extremes.”

The result?  By the 2020s, the EU “evaporated like so much steam.” With Brexit ongoing, with the EU under increasing stress daily, Feffer’s scenario of an evaporating EU seems more than plausible.

Meanwhile, another breaking news item just crossed my desk: President Trump is seeking a $54 billion increase to America’s defense budget, to be funded by deep cuts to other federal agencies such as the EPA and Education.  Trump and his team see the world as a dangerous place, and the military as the best and only means to “protect” America, as in “America first.”  But by its nature the U.S. military is a global force, and more money for it means more military adventurism, driving further warfare, fragmentation, and chaos, consistent with Feffer’s vision of a future “splinterlands.”

As one of Feffer’s characters says, “There’s always been enormous profits in large-scale suffering.”  Feffer’s dystopic novel — like our real world today — features plenty of that. People suffer because of climate change.  Energy shortages.  Wars.  Water shortages.  Even technology serves to divide rather than to unite people, as many increasingly retreat into virtual “realities” that are far more pleasant than the real world that surrounds them.

Feffer’s book, in short, is provocative in the best sense.  But will it provoke us to make wiser, more inclusive, more compassionate, more humane choices?  That may be too much to ask of any book, but it’s not too much to ask of ourselves and our leaders.  The dystopic alternative, illustrated so powerfully in Feffer’s Splinterlands, provides us with powerful motivation to shape a better, less splintered, future.

 

The Calamitous 21st Century

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W.J. Astore

We’re only sixteen years into the 21st century, but it seems like a “best of times, worst of times” kind of epoch.  It’s the best of times for the aristocracy of the rich, and the worst of times for the poor and disadvantaged, especially when they live close to or in war zones.

Perhaps that’s a statement of the obvious, except the gap between the richest and poorest continues to grow.  Their worlds, their realities, are so different as to be virtually disconnected.  This is a theme of several recent science fiction films, including the “Hunger Games” series (the Capitol versus the Districts) and “Elysium,” in which the privileged rich literally live above the sordid earth with its teeming masses.

Some of the big fears of our present century include the emergence of a “super bug,” a contagion that is highly resistant to traditional drugs.  We’ve overused antibiotics and are slowly breeding new strains of bacteria that modern medicine can no longer defeat.  Meanwhile, many people in the U.S. still lack health care, or they’re reluctant to use it because it’s too expensive for them.  And then there are the workers who lack sick leave.  They force themselves to go to work, even when sick, because they need the money.  How long before inadequate health care and sick workers facilitate the conditions for the spread of a plague?

And then there’s the contagion of violence and war.  America’s wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa are basically open-ended.  They are today’s version of the “Hundred Years’ War” between England and France, an on-again, off-again struggle for dominance that sprawled across two centuries.  In fact, America’s “war on terror,” with its “surgical strikes” and reliance on technology as a quasi-panacea, seems to be breeding new types of “super-bug” terrorists who are highly resistant to traditional techniques of policing and war.

In this effort, one thing is certain: No U.S. president will be declaring “peace” or even “normal” times for the next decade or two (or three).

Finally, let’s not forget global warming.  The Pentagon and the CIA haven’t.  Republicans may have their share of climate change deniers, but when it comes to the U.S. national security state, contingency plans are already in place for the disasters awaiting us from global warming.  Competition for scarce resources (potable water especially, but food and fuel as well) combined with more intense storms, widespread flooding, and much warmer temperatures, will generate or aggravate wars, famines, and plagues.

Are we living in a failed or failing world?

In “A Distant Mirror,” the historian Barbara Tuchman wrote about the calamitous 14th century of plagues and wars and a mini-ice age in the northern hemisphere. We seem to be facing a calamitous 21st century of plagues and wars and a mini-hothouse age.  It’s a grim prospect.

The question is: Can we act collectively to avert or avoid the worst of these calamities?  Or are we fated to dance our very own 21st-century danse macabre?