Weekends are a good time to sit back, reflect, and think. Here are a few ideas I’ve been thinking about:
1. Remember 9/11/2001? Of course you do. Almost everyone back then seemed to compare it to Pearl Harbor, another date that would live in infamy — and that was a big mistake. In 1941, the USA was attacked by another sovereign nation. In 2001, we were attacked by a small group of terrorists. But international terrorism was nothing new, and indeed the U.S. was already actively combating Al Qaeda. The only new thing was the shock and awe of the 9/11 attacks — especially the images of the Twin Towers collapsing.
By adopting the Pearl Harbor image, our response was predetermined, i.e. the deployment of the U.S. military to wage war. Even that wasn’t necessarily a fatal mistake, if we’d stopped with Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban. But, as Henry Kissinger said, Afghanistan wasn’t enough. Someone else had to pay, in this case the unlucky Iraqis. And then the U.S. military was stuck with two occupations that it was fated to lose. And millions of Afghan and Iraqi people suffered for our leaders’ mistakes.
But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of 9/11 was how no one in Washington took the blame for it. I don’t recall any high-level firings. The buck stopped nowhere. Same with torture. The buck stopped nowhere. Officialdom looked the other way, including the next administration under the “change” candidate, Barack Obama. He changed nothing in this area. His mantra about “looking forward” meant learning nothing from history.
It’s this lack of accountability, perhaps, that made Trump possible. He lies constantly and blunders and blusters, yet (so far) there’s no accountability for that either. People just expect our government to be composed of con men and serial liars, so why not just elect one as president?
No accountability after 9/11 and torture led to “no accountability” Trump.
2. Another thought on 9/11: The 9/11 war-driven response was part of American exceptionalism. What I mean is this: America is not supposed to be on the receiving end of “shock and awe.” We are supposed to be the givers of it. As Americans, we were totally unprepared, psychologically, for such a blow. (A Soviet nuclear attack, a million times more devastating, would have made more “sense” in that the danger was drummed into us.) An attack by hijacked airliners, a mutant form of airpower? Well, America is supposed to rule the skies. We bomb others; they don’t bomb us. Right?
It was all so shocking and destabilizing, hence the “rally around the flag” effect and the blank check issued by Congress to Bush/Cheney for what has proved to be a forever war on terror — or something. And now, with Trump and crew, is the new “something” Iran?
3. In our military-first culture, projects like the B-21 stealth bomber are just accepted as business as usual — the cost of keeping America “safe.” We had more debate about weapons systems during the Cold War, when we truly faced an existential threat. Now, weapons ‘r’ us. It’s a peculiar moment in American history, a sort of cult of the gun, whether that “gun” is a bomber, missile, aircraft carrier, etc.
Put differently, our personal insecurities (due to debt, health care, jobs, weather catastrophes, fear of immigrants, etc.) have driven a cult of security in which guns and related military technologies have been offered as a palliative or even a panacea. Feel secure — buy a gun. Feel secure — build a new stealth bomber. Stand your ground — global strike. The personal is the political is the military.
4. If Reagan’s motto was “trust — but verify” with the Soviet Union, Trump’s motto with North Korea is simply “trust.” Yes — it’s a good thing that Trump is no longer threatening to bring nuclear fire and fury to the North Koreans, but his recent meeting with Kim Jong-un, large in image, was short on substance. Will those verification details be worked out in the future? Do the North Koreans have any intent to give up their nuclear weapons? Both are doubtful. So, does Trump deserve a Nobel peace prize? About as much as Obama did.
5. I’ve never witnessed a man destroy a political party like Trump has taken apart the Republicans. It’s a remarkable achievement, actually. And I don’t mean that as a compliment. I was once a Gerald Ford supporter in the 1976 election, and I voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984. (We make mistakes when we’re young; that said, Walter Mondale was an uninspiring Democratic candidate.) I thought the Republican Party had principles; I think it did in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, the only “principles” are money and power, as in getting more of both. If that means kowtowing to Trump, so be it. Kneel before Zod, Republicans!
That’s enough for my Saturday afternoon. Fire away in the comments section, readers!
[Note: I originally wrote this article for Truthout, where it appeared in August 2011. Little has changed since then; indeed, the current president has surrounded himself with advisers who are both screaming hawks and true believers in U.S. military strength. It’s a curious feature of American exceptionalism that our leaders parrot the notion that the U.S. military is “the finest fighting force” in history — and this boast comes despite disastrous results in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. As my dad used to say, the best don’t have to boast.]
A line at the tail end of Nicholas Schmidle’s article in The New Yorker (August 8, 2011) on SEAL Team Six’s takedown of Osama bin Laden captured the military zeitgeist of the moment. Upon meeting the SEAL team, President Obama gushed that the team was, “literally, the finest small-fighting force that has ever existed in the world.”
As a military historian, I was struck by the sweeping nature of that boast.
The “finest small-fighting force” ever in the history of the world? What about the Spartan 300 who gave their all at Thermopylae against the Persians, thereby saving Greek civilization for posterity? What about those Royal Air Force pilots in the Battle of Britain, about whom Winston Churchill said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”? Turning to an American example, what about the Rangers lionized by President Ronald Reagan for their sacrificial service at Pointe du Hoc to mark the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy during World War II?
Such caveats are not meant to diminish the bravery and toughness of the SEALs and other US Special Forces teams; the deadly risks they take are only too evident, as the helicopter crash in Afghanistan on August 6  reminds us. But immoderate boasts of how the US military is the “best ever” contributes to a myth of American omnipotence that has disturbing implications for the conduct of our wars and even for the future of our country.
The historian George Herring made an important point when he noted that a key reason the US lost in Vietnam was “the illusion of American omnipotence, the traditional American belief that the difficult we do tomorrow, the impossible may take a while.” Because of this illusion, we’re psychologically unprepared when events go south, therefore, we tend, as Herring notes, to “find scapegoats in our own midst: the poor judgment of our leaders, the media, or the anti-war movement.”
We’re so wrapped up in our own ethnocentric drama, Herring suggests, that we deny any agency or initiative to the enemy, as well as the vital importance of “the nature of the conflict itself, the weakness of our ally, the relative strength of our adversary.” We have no context, in other words, in which to process setbacks, to reconsider our commitment of troops overseas, to know when it’s both prudent and wise to walk away. How can we, when we’re always at pains to celebrate our troops as the finest warriors ever on planet Earth?
Our military is full of highly motivated professionals, but no matter how tempting it may be, we should take great care in elevating them to the pantheon of the warrior heroes of Valhalla. For only the dead gain access to its hall.
Nor should we mistake warrior prowess for true national security. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in his State of the Union address in 1957, “National security requires far more than military power. Economic and moral factors play indispensable roles.” Eschewing Ike’s wisdom, our government today equates national security with astronomical defense budgets and global military intervention, never mind the damage done to our economy or to our moral standing.
Better than anyone, perhaps, Ike came to recognize the perils of misplaced power and the folly of placing too much faith in military action. Afforded the luxury of space provided by two oceans, rich natural resources and the wisdom of the founders who forged a representative democracy (however imperfect) based on personal liberty, the United States had the option of preferring peace and prosperity to war and destitution.
Yet, partly because we’ve come to believe in our own military omnipotence, we seem today to be determined to choose the latter option of war and destitution. We persist in dissipating our economy and our energy in endless military action, a fate Ike perhaps had in mind when he said, “Only Americans can hurt America.”
We can do better. And one small step we can take is to stop boasting of how great we supposedly are at fielding the “finest” fighting forces ever.
“The president announced last week that American troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond the planned withdrawal at the end of 2016. This is a devastating blow. We’ve already spent $716 billion and counting on the war in Afghanistan alone, plus countless lives lost and derailed.”
Of course, not the same American troops will “remain” in Afghanistan until 2017 (or 2024, or who knows what year). U.S. troops, intelligence operatives, privatized paramilitaries, and assorted imperial straphangers are constantly rotating in and out of war zones around the world, sometimes on yearly tours, often on much shorter ones. This reality got me to thinking about American imperialism as a peculiar form of global tourism. All those repetitive, fairly short-term, “tours” to foreign countries, followed by new American tour groups (fresh deployments of new combat units). The result is needless repetition, endless waste, and flat learning curves for Americans. For the locals who have to endure America’s “tours,” the results are often far worse — and unlike Americans they usually can’t get on a boat or helicopter or jet and leave.
I was stimulated to write this new article on America’s “tourists of empire,” which appears at TomDispatch.com today. You can read it in full here. I’ve included some excerpts below. I hope this article provides a contrary perspective on U.S. military efforts around the world.
Tourists of Empire: America’s Peculiar Brand of Global Imperialism
The United States is a peculiar sort of empire. As a start, Americans have been in what might be called imperial denial since the Spanish-American War of 1898, if not before. Empire — us? We denied its existence even while our soldiers were administering “water cures” (aka waterboarding) to recalcitrant Filipinos more than a century ago. Heck, we even told ourselves we were liberating those same Filipinos, which leads to a second point: the U.S. not only denies its imperial ambitions, but shrouds them in a curiously American brand of Christianized liberation theology. In it, American troops are never seen as conquerors or oppressors, always as liberators and freedom-bringers, or at least helpers and trainers. There’s just enough substance to this myth (World War II and the Marshall Plan, for example) to hide uglier imperial realities.
Denying that we’re an empire while cloaking its ugly side in missionary-speak are two enduring aspects of the American brand of imperialism, and there’s a third as well, even if it’s seldom noted. As the U.S. military garrisons the planet and its special operations forces alone visit more than 140 countries a year, American troops have effectively become the imperial equivalent of globetrotting tourists. Overloaded with technical gear and gadgets (deadly weapons, intrusive sensors), largely ignorant of foreign cultures, they arrive eager to help and spoiling for action, but never (individually) staying long…
Call it Imperial Tourist Syndrome, a bizarre American affliction that creates its own self-sustaining dynamic. To a local, it might look something like this: U.S. forces come to your country, shoot some stuff up (liberation!), take some selfies, and then, if you’re lucky, leave (at least for a while). If you’re unlucky, they overstay their “welcome,” surge around a bit and generate chaos until, sooner or later (in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, much, much later), they exit, not always gracefully (witness Saigon 1975 or Iraq 2011).
And here’s the weirdest thing about this distinctly American version of the imperial: a persistent short-time mentality seems only to feed its opposite, wars that persist without end. In those wars, many of the country’s heavily armed imperial tourists find themselves sent back again and again for one abbreviated tour of duty after another, until it seems less like an adventure and more like a jail sentence.
The paradox of short-timers prosecuting such long-term wars is irresolvable because, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in the twenty-first century, those wars can’t be won. Military experts criticize the Obama administration for lacking an overall strategy, whether in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere. They miss the point. Imperial tourists don’t have a strategy: they have an itinerary. If it’s Tuesday, this must be Yemen; if it’s Wednesday, Libya; if it’s Thursday, Iraq …
It was a dynamic already obvious five decades ago in Vietnam: a ticket-punching mentality that involved the constant rotation of units and commanders; a process of needless reinvention of the most basic knowledge as units deployed, bugged out, and were then replaced by new units; and the use of all kinds of grim, newfangled weapons and sensors, everything from Agent Orange and napalm to the electronic battlefield and the latest fighter planes and bombers — all for naught. Under such conditions, even the U.S. superpower lacked staying power, precisely because it never intended to stay. The “staying” aspect of the Vietnam War was often referred to in the U.S. as a “quagmire.” For the Vietnamese, of course, their country was no “big muddy” that sucked you down. It was home. They had little choice in the matter; they stayed — and fought.
Combine a military with a tourist-like itinerary and a mentality to match, a high command that in its own rotating responsibilities lacks all accountability for mistakes, and a byzantine, top-heavy bureaucracy, and you turn out to have a surefire recipe for defeat. And once again, in the twenty-first century, whether among the rank and file or at the very top, there’s little continuity or accountability involved in America’s military presence in foreign lands. Commanders are constantly rotated in and out of war zones. There’s often a new one every year. (I count 17 commanders for the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military coalition, since December 2001.) U.S. troops may serve multiple overseas tours, yet they are rarely sent back to the same area. Tours are sequential, not cumulative, and so the learning curve exhibited is flat…
At some level, the U.S. military knows it’s screwed. That’s why its commanders tinker so much with weapons and training and technology and tactics. It’s the stuff they can control, the stuff that seems real in a way that foreign peoples aren’t (at least to us). Let’s face it: past as well as current events suggest that guns and how to use them are what Americans know best.
But foreign lands and peoples? We can’t control them. We don’t understand them. We can’t count on them. They’re just part of the landscape we’re eternally passing through — sometimes as people to help and places to rebuild, other times as people to kill and places to destroy. What they aren’t is truly real. They are the tourist attractions of American war making, sometimes exotic, sometimes deadly, but (for us) strangely lacking in substance.
I read the news today, oh boy. President Obama has decided to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2017, effectively kicking the war to the next president. According to the New York Times, “The Obama administration sees the choice to slow down the United States’ Afghan exit as the best of bad options.” Not to be cynical, but the decision to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2017 is obviously intended to prevent an Iraq-like collapse in 2016, a collapse that Republicans would seize upon in next year’s election cycle to portray democrats as weak and feckless. All politics is local, as Tip O’Neill said.
Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires, but the United States believes if we whistle loud enough past it, no harm will come to us. In other words, we refuse to learn anything from history, the theme of an article I wrote back in 2009 for TomDispatch on the lessons of Vietnam for Obama, recently anointed as presidential savior. Sections (2) and especially (4) below seem especially germane to today’s news of yet another extension to America’s troop commitment to Afghanistan.
Mary McCarthy in Vietnam, Barack Obama in Afghanistan
Seven Lessons and Many Questions for the President
By William Astore (written in 2009)
In 1967, outraged by the course of the Vietnam War, as well as her country’s role in prolonging and worsening it, Mary McCarthy, novelist, memoirist, and author of the bestseller The Group, went to Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, to judge the situation for herself. The next year, she went to the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. She wrote accounts of both journeys, published originally in pamphlet format as Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968), and later gathered with her other writings on Vietnam as a book, The Seventeenth Degree (1974). As pamphlets, McCarthy’s accounts sold poorly and passed into obscurity; deservedly so, some would say.
Those who’d say this, however, would be wrong. McCarthy brought a novelist’s keen eye to America’s activities and its rhetoric in Vietnam. By no means a military expert, not even an expert on Vietnam — she only made a conscious decision to study the war in Vietnam after she returned from her trip to Saigon — her impressionistic writings were nevertheless insightful precisely because she had long been a critical thinker beholden to no authority.
Her insights into our approach to war-fighting and to foreign cultures are as telling today as they were 40 years ago, so much so that President Obama and his advisors might do well to add her unconventional lessons to their all-too-conventional thinking on our spreading war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
What were those lessons? Here are seven of them, each followed by questions that, four decades later, someone at President Obama’s next press conference should consider asking him:
1. McCarthy’s most fundamental objection was to the way, in Vietnam, the U.S. government decided to apply “technology and a superior power to a political situation that will not yield to this.” At the very least, the United States was guilty of folly, but McCarthy went further. She condemned our technocentric and hegemonic form of warfare as “wicked” because of its “absolute indifference to the cost in human lives” to the Vietnamese people.
Even in 1967, the widespread, at times indiscriminate, nature of American killing was well known. For example, U.S. planes dropped roughly 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia during the war, nearly five times the tonnage used against Germany during World War II. The U.S. even waged war on the Vietnamese jungle and forest, which so effectively hid Vietnamese guerrilla forces, spraying roughly 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides (including the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange) on it.
In her outrage, McCarthy dared to compare the seeming indifference of many of her fellow citizens toward the blunt-edged sword of technological destruction we had loosed on Vietnam to the moral obtuseness of ordinary Germans under Adolf Hitler.
Questions for President Obama: Aren’t we once again relying on the destructive power of technology to “solve” complex political and religious struggles? Aren’t we yet again showing indifference to the human costs of war, especially when borne by non-Americans? Even though we’re using far fewer bombs in the Af-Pak highlands than we did in Vietnam, aren’t we still morally culpable when these “precision-guided munitions” miss their targets and instead claim innocents, or hit suspected “terrorists” who suddenly morph into wedding parties? In those cases, do we not seek false comfort in the phrase, C’est la guerre, or at least that modern equivalent: unavoidable collateral damage?
2. As Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 by calling for “peace with honor” in Vietnam, McCarthy offered her own warning about the dangers that arose when the office of the presidency collided with an American desire never to be labeled a loser: “The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.”
Questions for President Obama: Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?
3. Though critical of the U.S. military in Vietnam, McCarthy was even more critical of American civilian officials there. “On the whole,” she wrote, they “behaved like a team of promoters with a dubious ‘growth’ stock they were brokering.” At least military men were often more forthright than the civilians, if not necessarily more self-aware, McCarthy noted, because they were part of the war — the product, so to speak — not its salesmen.
Questions for President Obama: In promising to send a new “surge” of State Department personnel and other civilians into Afghanistan, are you prepared as well to parse their words? Are you braced in case they sell you a false bill of goods, even if the sellers themselves, in their eagerness to speak fairy tales to power, continually ignore the Fantasyland nature of their tale?
4.Well before Bush administration officials boasted about creating their own reality and new “facts on the ground” in Iraq, Mary McCarthy recognized the danger of another type of “fact”: “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”
Questions for President Obama: If your surge in Afghanistan fails, will you be able to de-escalate as quickly as you escalated? Or will the fact that you’ve put more troops in harm’s way (with all their equipment and all the money that will go into new base and airfield and road construction), and committed more of your prestige to prevailing, make it even harder to consider leaving?
5.A cursory reading of The Pentagon Papers, the famously secret government documents on Vietnam leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, reveals how skeptical America’s top officials were, early on, in pursuing a military solution to the situation in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, knowing better, the “best and brightest,” as journalist David Halberstam termed them in his famous, ironic book title, still talked themselves into it; and they did so, as McCarthy noted, because they set seemingly meaningful goals (“metrics” or “benchmarks,” we’d say today), which they then convinced themselves they were actually achieving. When you trick yourself into believing that you’re meeting your goals, as Halberstam noted, there’s no reason to reexamine your course of action.
Questions for President Obama: Much has been written about an internal struggle within your administration over the wisdom of surging in Afghanistan. Now, you, too, have called for the setting of “benchmarks”for your new strategy’s success. Are you wise enough to set them to capture the complexities of political realities on the ground rather than playing to American strengths? Are you capable of re-examining them, even when your advisors assure you that they are being achieved?
6.In her day, Mary McCarthy recognized the inequities of burden-sharing at home when it came to the war in Vietnam: “Casualty figures, still low [in 1967], seldom strike home outside rural and low-income groups — the silent part of society. The absence of sacrifices [among the privileged classes] has had its effect on the opposition [to the war], which feels no need, on the whole, to turn away from its habitual standards and practices — what for? We have not withdrawn our sympathy from American power and from the way of life that is tied to it — a connection that is more evident to a low-grade G.I. in Vietnam than to most American intellectuals.”
Questions for President Obama: Are you willing to listen to the common G.I. as well as to the generals who have your ear? Are you willing to insist on greater equity in burden-sharing, since once again most of the burden of Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen on “the silent part of society”? Are you able to recognize that the “best and brightest” in the corridors of power may not be the wisest exactly because they have so little to lose (and perhaps much to gain) from our “overseas contingency operations”?
7.McCarthy was remarkably perceptive when it came to the seductiveness of American technological prowess. Our technological superiority, she wrote, was a large part of “our willingness to get into Vietnam and stay there… The technological gap between us and the North Vietnamese constituted, we thought, an advantage which obliged us not to quit.”
Questions for President Obama: Rather than providing us with a war-winning edge, might our robot drones, satellite imagery, and all our other gadgetry of war seduce us into believing that we can “prevail” at a reasonable and sustainable cost? Indeed, do we think we should prevail precisely because our high-tech military brags of “full spectrum dominance”?
One bonus lesson from Mary McCarthy before we take our leave of her: Even now, we speak too often of “Bush’s war” or, more recently, “Obama’s war.” Before we start chattering mindlessly about Iraq and Afghanistan as American tragedies, we would do well to recall what McCarthy had to say about the war in Vietnam: “There is something distasteful,” she wrote, “in the very notion of approaching [Vietnam] as an American tragedy, whose protagonist is a great suffering Texan [President Lyndon Baines Johnson].”
Yes, there is something distasteful about a media that blithely refers to Bush’s or Obama’s war as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans suffer. For American troops, after all, are not the only ones paying the ultimate price when the U.S. fights foreign wars for ill-considered reasons and misguided goals.
You read it here first: the fatal flaw in U.S. foreign policy is training wheels. Yes, those supplemental wheels you add to your child’s bike when she’s first trying to learn how to balance herself as she pedals.
How so? Listen closely to America’s leaders as they talk about helping Iraqis, Afghans, and other peoples. A common expression they use is training wheels, which they visualize themselves as affixing to or removing from the Iraqi or Afghan governmental bike. Because the idea of democracy is apparently so new and novel to foreign peoples, and because these foreigners basically act like so many children when it comes to governing themselves equitably, the U.S. must treat them like so many unskilled and tippy children on bikes. We must affix training wheels to their bikes of state, and at the proper moment – a moment that only American adults can determine – those training wheels must then be removed.
Sounds simple – or is it?
Some examples suggest it’s not so simple. In January 2004, President George W. Bush told his fellow Republicans that Iraqis were ready to “take the training wheels off” and assume some responsibility for their own self-government. Yet a decade later in June 2014, retired General Michael Hayden, formerly head of the NSA and CIA, claimed that America “took the training wheels off the new Iraqi government far too early,” and by “too early” Hayden meant 2011, not seven years earlier in 2004.
Another American “adult” in the room, retired General Anthony Zinni, formerly commander of US Central Command, disagreed with Hayden, saying in December 2014 that those training wheels were still very much on in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, and that it was now high time for us to take them off. That may have surprised Vice President Joe Biden, who said back in November 2010 that it was time for Afghans to remove their governmental training wheels, and if they didn’t, “Daddy” would do it for them.
In fact, those were Biden’s exact words on Larry King Live: “Daddy is going to start to take the training wheels off … next July , so you [Afghan leaders had] better practice riding.” That admonition from their American “Daddy” in 2010 has failed over the last half-decade to inspire Afghan leaders to pedal smartly for American-style democracy.
And there’s the rub. You don’t win foreign peoples to your side by treating them like so many unskilled and tippy children. You don’t condescend to them by comparing their efforts to children trying to learn to ride a bike for the first time. And you certainly don’t shake a finger at them that “Daddy” has lost patience and is going to remove the training wheels, whether they’re ready or not.
So, how do Americans respond when their Iraqi or Afghan “children” get angry at “Daddy” for messing with their training wheels? Whether oblivious or indifferent to their own condescension, Americans respond by treating their foreign “children” as ingrates. “Ingratitude, the vilest weed that grows,” to cite Eugene O’Neill’s play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, generates anger – and violence.
Dammit, why can’t these foreign “kids” learn to ride their democratic bikes? Time to cut their allowance (in this case, American aid). Or perhaps it’s even time for a good ass whooping with Daddy’s belt (in this case, drones firing Hellfire missiles).
Those foreign ingrates! We gave them everything — lots of money, lots of aid, American troops and advisers, even “training wheels” for their bikes of democracy — and they still despise us. Why?
I’ll tell you why. They don’t hate us for our freedoms, as former President George W. Bush once claimed. But they may very well despise us for our training wheels – and for all the smugness and paternalism and condescension they represent.
Here are a few excerpts from my latest article at TomDispatch.com. I urge you to read the entire article here. Thank you!
War on drugs. War on poverty. War in Afghanistan. War in Iraq. War on terror. The biggest mistake in American policy, foreign and domestic, is looking at everything as war. When a war mentality takes over, it chooses the weapons and tactics for you. It limits the terms of debate before you even begin. It answers questions before they’re even asked.
When you define something as war, it dictates the use of the military (or militarized police forces, prisons, and other forms of coercion) as the primary instruments of policy. Violence becomes the means of decision, total victory the goal. Anyone who suggests otherwise is labeled a dreamer, an appeaser, or even a traitor.
War, in short, is the great simplifier — and it may even work when you’re fighting existential military threats (as in World War II). But it doesn’t work when you define every problem as an existential one and then make war on complex societal problems (crime, poverty, drugs) or ideas and religious beliefs (radical Islam).
America’s Omnipresent War Ethos
Consider the Afghan War — not the one in the 1980s when Washington funneled money and arms to the fundamentalist Mujahideen to inflict on the Soviet Union a Vietnam-style quagmire, but the more recent phase that began soon after 9/11. Keep in mind that what launched it were those attacks by 19 hijackers (15 of whom were Saudi nationals) representing a modest-sized organization lacking the slightest resemblance to a nation, state, or government. There was as well, of course, the fundamentalist Taliban movement that then controlled much of Afghanistan. It had emerged from the rubble of our previous war there and had provided support and sanctuary, though somewhat grudgingly, to Osama bin Laden.
With images of those collapsing towers in New York burned into America’s collective consciousness, the idea that the U.S. might respond with an international “policing” action aimed at taking criminals off the global streets was instantly banished from discussion. What arose in the minds of the Bush administration’s top officials instead was vengeance via a full-scale, global, and generational “war on terror.” Its thoroughly militarized goal was not just to eliminate al-Qaeda but any terror outfits anywhere on Earth, even as the U.S. embarked on a full-fledged experiment in violent nation building in Afghanistan. More than 13 dismal years later, that Afghan War-cum-experiment is ongoing at staggering expense and with the most disappointing of results.
While the mindset of global war was gaining traction, the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq. The most technologically advanced military on Earth, one that the president termed “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known,” was set loose to bring “democracy” and a Pax Americana to the Middle East. Washington had, of course, been in conflict with Iraq since Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991, but what began as the equivalent of a military coup (aka a “decapitation” operation) by an outside power, an attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein and eliminate his armed forces and party, soon morphed into a prolonged occupation and another political and social experiment in violent nation-building. As with Afghanistan, the Iraq experiment with war is still ongoing at enormous expense and with even more disastrous results …
It’s the mindset that matters. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, places that for most Americans exist only within a “war” matrix, the U.S. invades or attacks, gets stuck, throws resources at the problem indiscriminately, and “makes a desert and calls it ‘peace'” (to quote the Roman historian Tacitus). After which our leaders act surprised as hell when the problem only grows.
Sadly, the song remains monotonously the same in America: more wars, made worse by impatience for results driven by each new election cycle. It’s a formula in which the country is eternally fated to lose…
b. traven asked me about “First Causes” when it comes to America’s permanent war mentality. With respect to the Middle East, he mentioned the Saudis and Israelis and the extent to which the USA kowtows to each. Here is my quick response:
I’d say that our war mentality pre-dates our tango with the Saudis and Israelis. We really didn’t come to support them in a big way until the early 1970s, and by that point Korea and Vietnam and the military-industrial complex had already created a permanent war mentality.
First Cause(s): It’s so hard to say. The Cold War and anti-Communist hysteria played a powerful role. So did our culture: the John Wayne mentality. American exceptionalism and our own myths. The misreading of history: We must always resist violently or we’re risking another Munich. Capitalism and the pursuit of profit by any means, to include violence. Violence itself as a means to profit.
I read old stuff. Heck, I’m a historian: that’s what I’m supposed to do. So I was reading an old pamphlet on “The Indiana World War Memorial” (circa 1940) and came across the Pledge of Allegiance as it was recited before McCarthyism reared its ugly head in the 1950s:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
You’ll notice what’s missing: that whole idea of “under God.” Those words were added in the early 1950s as a way of contrasting God-fearing (and God-favored, if you’ll recall American exceptionalism) Americans to the godless Communists.
You’ll recall, of course, that our nation was founded in part on religious freedom. The idea you could worship any god or gods you wanted to, or none at all. We should return to the original “godless” pledge. It served us quite well in World War II; it would serve us quite well today.
After all, Americans have no monopoly on God. Furthermore, God does not uniquely bless us. To believe that is to violate the real Ten Commandments, for to believe you are uniquely blessed by God is tantamount to raising yourself to the level of God. No — as Abraham Lincoln wisely said, we must not assume that God is on our side; we must pray that we are on His side.
Speaking of the Ten Commandments, Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch.com has a compelling list of his “ten commandments” in America’s ongoing war on terror. Like Lincoln, Engelhardt is wise enough not to assume that God is always chanting “USA! USA!”
Here are Engelhardt’s “ten commandments” for America and for a better world. I urge you to read the rest of his article at this link:
1. Thou shalt not torture: Torture of every horrific sort in these years seems to have been remarkably ineffective in producing useful information for the state. Even if it were proved effective in breaking up al-Qaeda plots, however, it would still have been both a desperately illegal (if unpunished) act and a foreign policy disaster of the first order.
2. Thou shalt not send drones to assassinate anyone, American or not: The ongoing U.S. drone assassination campaigns, while killing individual terrorists, have driven significant numbers of people in the backlands of the planet into the arms of terror outfits and so only increased their size and appeal. Without a doubt, such drone strikes represent a global war of, not on, terror. In the process, they have turned the president into our assassin-in-chief and us into an assassin nation.
3. Thou shalt not invade another country: D’oh!
4. Thou shalt not occupy another country: By the way, how did that work out the last two times the U.S. tried it?
5. Thou shalt not upgrade thy nuclear arsenal: The U.S. has now committed itself to a trillion-dollar, decades-long upgrade of its vast arsenal. If any significant portion of it were ever used, it would end human life as we know it on this planet and so should be considered a singular prospective crime against humanity. After years in which the only American nuclear focus was on a country — Iran — with no nuclear weapons, that this has happened without serious debate or discussion is in itself criminal.
6.Thou shalt not intercept the communications of thy citizens or others all over the world or pursue the elaboration of a global surveillance state based on criminal acts: There seems to be no place the NSA has been unwilling to break into in order to surveil the planet. For unimaginable reams of information that have seemingly been of next to no actual use, the NSA and the national security state have essentially outlawed privacy and cracked open various amendments to the Constitution. No information is worth such a price.
7. Thou shalt not be free of punishment for crimes of state: In these years of genuine criminality, official Washington has become a crime-free zone. No matter the seriousness of the act, none — not one committed in the name of the state in the post-9/11 era, no matter how heinous — has been brought into a courtroom.
8. Thou shalt not use a massive system of secret classification to deprive Americans of all real knowledge of acts of state: In 2011, the U.S. classified 92 million documents and the shroud of secrecy over the business of the “people’s” government has only grown worse in the years since. Increasingly, for our own “safety” we are only supposed to know what the government prefers us to know. This represents, of course, a crime against democracy.
9. Thou shalt not act punitively toward those who want to let Americans in on what the national security state is doing in their name: The fierce and draconian campaign the Obama administration has launched against leakers and whistleblowers is unprecedented in our history. It is a growing challenge to freedom of the press and to the citizen’s right to know.
10. Thou shalt not infringe on the rights of the citizenry to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: Need I even explain?”
Why not make a pledge, America, to these “commandments”? For they will help us to ensure liberty and justice for all.
A popular headline in the media is to describe the Afghan War as “America’s longest,” as in this brief summary today from Foreign Policy:
The war in Afghanistan, America’s longest, is now formally over. The 13-year war, which claimed more than 2,200 American lives and cost more than one trillion dollars, ended quietly at a ceremony in Kabul yesterday. U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders promised their ongoing commitment under the rebranded Operation Resolute Support and insisted the war was a success. But the Taliban is poised for a comeback with a recent surge in violence in Kabul and around the country. There are concerns that Afghanistan’s military and fragile political institutions will crumble as the United States leaves.
There’s a big problem with this. America’s longest war, by far, is not the recent Afghan War; it was its more or less continuous effort against Native Americans from the early 1600s to the late 1800s. Americans like to forget that native peoples populated the land before European settlers began to arrive, and that these native peoples had to be killed, or corralled, or otherwise subjugated or shunted aside in the name of Manifest Destiny and in the pursuit of profit.
As historian John Grenier notes in The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814,
For the first 200 years of our military heritage, then, Americans depended on arts of war … [that included] razing and destroying enemy villages and fields; killing enemy women and children; raiding settlements for captives; intimidating and brutalizing enemy noncombatants; and assassinating enemy leaders.
For Grenier, America’s “first way of war” relied on “extravagant violence” often aimed at “the complete destruction of the enemy,” in this case various Native American peoples. This was indeed America’s longest war. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) its long duration and brutal violence, the war against indigenous peoples is rarely mentioned today, especially by those who seek to promote American exceptionalism.
Another longer war than the Afghan one, more recent in America’s memory, was the Cold War we fought against the Soviet Union and its allies from the close of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Lasting nearly half a century, this war ended in victory of a sort for the United States, even as its legacy continues to poison U.S. culture and foreign relations. For the Cold War left us with an enormous military-industrial-Congressional complex, to include nuclear forces capable of destroying the planet, which the U.S. continues to feed and even to enlarge. The result has been the growth of a second “shadow” government, a national security and surveillance state of enormous power, an apparatus with wide-reaching and unaccountable powers that is potentially a greater threat to American freedoms than the Soviet Union ever was.
When America forgets its longest wars, and especially when Americans forget the legacies of these wars, it’s more than history that suffers.
Update: Just after I wrote this, I came across this article on corporate “land grabs” that continue to bedevil Native Americans. Some would argue that the long war against native peoples never really ended. And to state a point that is perhaps obvious: the Afghan War grew out of the Cold War and U.S. efforts to embroil the Soviet Union in its own Vietnam in 1980. U.S. efforts to support the Afghan “freedom fighters” against the Soviets contributed to the rise of Osama bin Laden, who would eventually turn against the U.S. in the 1990s. America’s Afghan War, in other words, is not a 13-year war. To understand it, one must look back to 1979-80 and the machinations of a U.S. foreign policy establishment that was much more concerned with hobbling the Soviets than with helping the Afghan people.
One of the occupational hazards of being a historian is reading old books. The one in front of me is John Fiske’s The Destiny of Man (1884). Fiske was an American philosopher and popular writer on Darwinism, Spencerism, and many other representative isms of his day. Like many thinkers of the late 19th century, he believed in inevitable progress as well as the inherent superiority of men like himself.
From the vantage point of 2013, what is perhaps most striking about Fiske was his optimism that war was coming to an end. In his words:
The nineteenth century, which has witnessed an unprecedented development of industrial civilization, with its attendant arts and sciences, has also witnessed an unprecedented diminution of the primeval spirit of militancy. It is not that we have got rid of great wars, but that the relative proportion of human strength which has been employed in warfare has been remarkably less than in any previous age … In almost every case [of war since the Revolutionary War and Napoleon] the result has been to strengthen the pacific tendencies of modern society …[War] has now become narrowly confined in time and space, it no longer comes home to everybody’s door, and, in so far as it is still tolerated…it has become quite ancillary to the paramount needs of industrial civilization …the final extinction of warfare is only a question of time.
War was coming to an end, to be replaced by the reign of law, Fiske predicted in 1884. Thirty years later, the horrors of World War I came to visit (in one way or another) almost everyone’s door, with World War II proving an even more persistent caller. Today, the United States finds itself in a self-defined, and apparently endless, “war on terror.” What happened to Fiske’s pacific progress?
We all have blind spots. For Fiske one of those was the European imperialism of his day, which he didn’t treat as war since inferior brutes needed civilizing by Whites. Another was his belief in inevitable progress and the perfectibility of man, as shown by “the pacific principle of federalism” and the “due process of law,” which he believed would settle future disputes without war.
Rather than bashing Fiske, it’s perhaps more useful to ask what our blind spots might be. American exceptionalism is certainly one. Just as Fiske believed that the White man was inherently superior – the culmination and fruition of evolution and civilization – many Americans seem to believe that the United States is the best nation in the world, the most technologically advanced, the most favored by God. This belief that “When America does it, it’s OK; when another country does it, it’s wrong” is one that’s opened many a Pandora’s Box. A second blind spot is our belief that more and better technology will solve the most intractable problems. Consider global warming. It’s most definitely happening, driven in part by unbridled consumption of goods and fossil fuels. Our solution? Deny the problem exists, or avoid responsibility even as our country goes whole hog into boosting production of new (and dirtier) sources of fossil fuels via hydraulic fracturing (fracking).
Like Fiske, Americans by nature believe in their own exceptionalism. Like Fiske, Americans by nature are generally optimistic. But Fiske dismissed the horrors of imperialism even as he missed the looming disaster of mass industrialized killing in two world wars.
What are we dismissing? What are we missing? I’ve suggested we’re dismissing the blowback produced by our own exceptionalism even as we’re missing the peril we pose to the health of our planet. I encourage you to add your thoughts below.