Remember the days when America had to be attacked before it went to war? And when it did, it made formal Congressional declarations of the same?
In December 1941, the Japanese attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor as well as elsewhere in the Pacific. In response to those attacks, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress for a formal declaration of war. Nazi Germany then declared war on the U.S., after which the U.S. responded in kind. Compared to the future wars of U.S. empire, Americans were generally united and had some understanding of what the war (World War II, of course) was about.
We haven’t had that kind of unity and clarity since 1945, which is certainly the biggest reason America has suffered so many setbacks and defeats in unpromising places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In all three of those places, there really wasn’t a clear and compelling cause for war, hence there was no Congressional declaration of the same. Hmm … maybe that should have told us something?
In Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution by Congress followed on the heels of an “attack” that had never happened. In Iraq, the “evil dictator” didn’t have the weapons of mass destruction we accused him of having, nor had he played any role in the 9/11 attacks. In Afghanistan, the Taliban had played a secondary role in providing a safe haven to Osama bin Laden prior to 9/11, but it was Al Qaeda, not the Taliban, that was behind the 9/11 attacks.
Indeed, since 15 of the 19 Al Qaeda terrorists were Saudi, as well as their leader, Osama bin Laden, it would have made much more sense to have declared war on Saudi Arabia and invade that country than to have invaded Afghanistan. Of course, it made no sense at all to have declared a general “war on terror,” and rather unsurprisingly, that 20-year-war has only succeeded in spreading terror further.
Now we turn to today’s situation between Russia and Ukraine. Frankly, I don’t see a border dispute between these two countries as constituting a major threat to U.S. national security. It’s certainly no reason for America to go to war. Yet the Biden Administration is taking a hard line with its economic sanctions, its weapons shipments, and its troop deployments to the region.
Somehow, America’s leaders seem to think that such actions will deter, or at least punish, Russia and its leader. But there’s another possibility, one equally as likely, that sanctions and weapons and troops will lead to escalation and a wider war, and for what reason? A Russian-Ukrainian border dispute? This dispute might resolve itself if the U.S. and NATO just had the sense and patience to mind its own business.
A rush to war made sense in 1941, when the U.S. faced powerful and implacable enemies that were focused on its destruction. It hasn’t made sense since then, nor does it make sense today.
For a time, don’t ask, don’t tell, was the U.S. military’s policy about homosexuality within the ranks. In short, if you weren’t a heterosexual, you were supposed to keep quiet (don’t tell) about it. At the same time, the military wasn’t about to ask you whether you were “straight” or not. It was a compromise engineered by the Clinton administration that left more than a few people of all persuasions disgruntled.
There is another don’t ask, don’t tell, policy that I would argue is far worse than the Clinton compromise about sexual orientation. What do I mean?
U.S. military officials work very hard to discourage Americans from asking about America’s wars (don’t ask), and at the same time they work very hard not to tell us anything meaningful about those same wars (don’t tell).
It was my wife who quipped about this other “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as she read Daniel Hale’s letter posted at this site. You see, people like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Daniel Hale are trying to tell us about America’s wars, whether it’s illegal domestic surveillance and the war on terror or war crimes in Iraq or war crimes related to drone killings in Afghanistan. They are not supposed to tell. At the same time, we the people are not supposed to ask.
Other than serving as cheerleaders of “our” troops, Americans are expected to remain passive when it comes to war and the military. We can, if we wish, remain blissfully ignorant, which is exactly what the “experts” at the Pentagon want from us. Leave it to us, the experts say, and we won’t tell you anything that’ll disturb your peace. Whatever you do, don’t ask probing questions of us. Indeed, don’t ask anything at all, except perhaps “How do I sign up?” if you’re young and of military age.
Of course, this is the very opposite of how Democracy should work. We are supposed to ask our government what it’s doing in our name, and they are supposed to tell us even if we won’t like the answers.
But America is no longer a democracy.
As a retired military officer, I’m well aware that discipline is important, that secrecy can be vital, and that loyalty is everything. But loyalty to what? The U.S. Constitution, I hope, and the idea that leaders and their actions should be accountable to the people since they (in theory) wage war and kill people in our name. But when wars are no longer declared by Congress, and when the people are no longer rallied to a cause, we have the exercise of unlawful power, of less-than-legal war, which is why we need people to step forward with courage informed by their conscience.
Sadly, precisely because of their courage and their acts of conscience, they are always punished. They are punished because they are not supposed to tell us any uncomfortable truths, and we are not supposed to ask for any of the same.
Consider this the unofficial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that helps to drive America’s wars. It’s still very much in effect; it’s also yet another sign of the death of participatory democracy in America.
When I taught the core course in military history at the U.S. Air Force Academy, it focused on “major” wars. A review of my syllabus from 20 years ago confirms that we spent most of our time teaching military cadets about the American Revolutionary War, the U.S. Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea and the Cold War, and Vietnam. There were special lessons that focused on airpower history and strategic thinkers like Clausewitz and Jomini, but the main focus was on “conventional” wars. I was OK with this, since mastering the course material was my main challenge, not challenging subjects within the course.
An astute student of U.S. military history would quickly note what’s missing. Genocidal wars against Native Americans were rarely mentioned. There were no specific lessons devoted to the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the Filipino Insurrection, or any of America’s frequent regime-change wars in Latin America. American imperialism wasn’t specifically addressed. Critiques of American imperialism by critics like Mark Twain and General Smedley Butler were rarely (if ever) heard.
What that means is this: America’s young officers go out into the world with little knowledge of America’s military interventions beyond the victories (more or less) in World Wars I and II, stalemate in Korea, and a misbegotten war in Vietnam that America could (and perhaps should) have won with better tactics and/or less civilian interference, or so they are often taught. Small wonder that disasters like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and others occur and persist, though I wouldn’t put the blame for these simply on a lack of critical teaching about America’s various for-profit cock-ups and screw-ups.
This was on my mind as I read Kevin Tillman’s recent article at TomDispatch.com. As Tillman notes, America’s regime-change wars and propensity for foreign coups came home to our own country on January 6th with the storming of the Capitol. That such an action so deeply shocked Americans is a sign of our collective amnesia when it comes to remembering the totality of our military history.
Here’s an except from his article, which I encourage you to read in its entirety at TomDispatch:
Kevin Tillman, Capitol Blowback
Just about everyone was shocked by what happened at the Capitol building on January 6th. But as a former soldier in America’s forever wars, horrifying as the scenes were, I also found what happened strangely familiar, almost inevitable. I thought that, if only we had taken our country’s imperial history seriously, none of us would have found that day either shocking or unprecedented.
Honestly, it could only seem that way if you imagined our domestic politics as completely separate from our foreign policy. But if we’re to learn anything from that maladroit attempt at a government-toppling coup, it should be that they are anything but separate. The question isn’t whether then-President Donald Trump incited the assault on the Capitol — of course he did. It is rather: Since when have we cared if an American president lies to incite an illegal insurrection? In all honesty, our commanders-in-chief have been doing so abroad for generations with complete impunity. It was only a matter of time before the moral rot finally made its way home.
Back in 2007, I actually met Nancy Pelosi whom those insurrectionists were going after — “Tell Pelosi we’re coming for that b**ch. Tell f***ing Pelosi we’re coming for her!” — in that very Capitol building. That day, my family was testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform concerning the U.S. government’s disinformation campaign about how, three years earlier, my brother Pat Tillman had died in Afghanistan (as a result of “friendly,” not enemy, fire). We would testify alongside former soldier Jessica Lynch who had suffered a similar disinformation fate in the wake of a tragic ambush of her convoy in Nasiriyah, Iraq, where soldiers died and she was taken prisoner. After the hearing, we discussed the case with Pelosi, who then took us on a brief personal tour of the halls of the building. Given the circumstances, it was a thoughtful gesture and a humbling experience.
So, it was personally quite unsettling to watch that rabid mob of insurrectionists storm our Capitol, some actively seeking to kill the woman who had walked our family through those same halls, wearing her signature green business suit. To see people desecrating that building over grievances rooted in demonstrable and absurd untruths manufactured by President Trump was both grotesque and shameful.
And yet, however surreal, disappointing, disqualifying, even treasonous that assault and the 57-43 Senate acquittal of the president would be, what took place should, in another sense, not have been a shock to anyone. The idea that January 6th was something new for this country and so a unique affront to the American idea of democracy, not to speak of common decency, was simply wrong. After all, ever since 1945, this country has regularly intervened in elections all over the globe and done far worse as well. What’s disorienting, I suppose, is that this time we did it to ourselves.
Around the Globe, Generation after Generation
My own limited experience with American interventionism involves the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. After the September 11th attacks, I enlisted in the U.S. Army with Pat. We would be assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment and our unit would in March 2003 be sent into Iraq, one of so many tools in the Bush administration’s war of aggression there. We would help remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein by force. It was hardly the mission I had in mind when I signed up, but I was naive when it came to foreign policy. Being part of illegal invasions, however, leaves lasting impressions.
That particular intervention in Iraq began with a barrage of administration lies about Saddam’s supposed supply of weapons of mass destruction, his reputed links to al-Qaeda, and the idea that we were liberating the Iraqi people. Some of us actually were assigned to run around Baghdad, “east, west, south, and north somewhat,” looking for those nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The whole invasion would prove catastrophic, of course, resulting in the destruction of Iraqi society, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers, even as that country’s leadership was removed and its military disbanded (mission accomplished!). Of course, neither President George W. Bush, nor the rest of the top officials of his administration were held responsible for what happened.
So, when I watched the January 6th insurrection unfold, my mind was immediately drawn to the period leading up to the Iraq war — except this time, the drumbeat of lies had to do with massive voter fraud, voting irregularities, “dead voters,” rigged software, and other fabrications. Obviously, the two events were drastically different in scale, complexity, and destructiveness. Still, they seemed to share common fundamental threads.
Examples of American interference in the governance of foreign countries via coups, regime change, and other ploys are commonplaces of our modern history. Among the best known would be the replacing of a number of democratically elected leaders like Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh with the Shah (1953), Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz with Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas (1954), Chilean President Salvador Allende with General Augusto Pinochet (1973), or Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in a U.S.-backed coup (2009). In other words, we’re not talking about a few one-off mistakes or a couple of dumb wars.
In truth, there has been an endless supply of such U.S. interventions around the globe: invasions, military coups, soft coups, economic sanctions, secretly funding candidates of Washington’s choice, the fueling of existing conflicts, you name it and it’s probably happened.
Take for example our neighbors in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. I honestly don’t know if there is a single nation in Latin America that hasn’t fallen victim to a U.S. intervention of some sort: Argentina (1976), Bolivia (1971), Brazil (1964), Cuba (1961), El Salvador (the 1980s), Grenada (1983), Haiti (2004), Honduras (1980 and 2009), Panama (1989), Paraguay (1962), Peru (1968), Suriname (the 1980s), Uruguay (1973), Venezuela (the present moment). Maybe Costa Rica was spared?
[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 TomDispatch.com. 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 Marawiin 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 unsettlingother 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 TomDispatch.com.
A curious feature of America’s wars is their lack of thematic coherence. Lacking a clear beginning (other than the 9/11 attacks), they also lack a clear end point. It’s all middle – repetition without meaning, action without progress, like a bad novel that introduces lots of characters but that never goes anywhere. Look at the rolling cast of characters in charge of America’s wars in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Other than generals who disgraced themselves in ways unrelated to combat performance (David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal), their names are unmemorable.
The American people have largely cast aside the “bad novel” of America’s wars. They find it boring, repetitive, inconsequential (at least to them). But that doesn’t mean people aren’t paying for it, each and every day.
In the absence of Congressional declarations, America’s wars today are not being waged in the name of the people. Cowed by the Executive branch and coerced by money, a spineless Congress willingly sidelines itself. In turn the Executive branch keeps the American people isolated from war even as it misleads them with lies and half-truths.
And thus the American people refuse to take ownership of these wars. And who can blame them, since these wars aren’t being fought in their name or for their interests. America’s wars are the preserve of the commander-in-chief and his various “experts” in and out of uniform, men like retired general and current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, John Bolton, the new National Security Advisor, and Mike Pompeo, the CIA chief who now leads the State Department. Unconcerned with the will and concerns of the people, these men favor aggressive stances and support U.S. military interventions around the globe.
What’s the solution to America’s “bad novel”? Ignoring or disowning it only empowers its authors and their predilection for waging war, however falsely, in our name. Instead, we have to overcome America’s ethos of violence and its climate of fear. Campaign finance reform is vital if we want to suppress the influence of war profiteers. Cutting the Pentagon budget by at least 20% is essential as well. Finally, we need to educate ourselves about war, and to insist that wars are fought only when authorized by Congress, and only as a last resort instead of the first.
If we don’t take these steps, America will be forever stuck reading a bad novel with a one-word title: War.
You can’t win wars that should never have been fought. The U.S. should never have fought the Iraq and Afghan wars, nor should we have fought the Vietnam War.
It’s not that we need to know and master the foreign enemy. We need to know and master the enemy within. The domestic enemy. For the U.S. is defeating only itself in fighting these wars. Yet “experts” in the military and government focus on how to prosecute war more effectively; rarely do they think seriously about ending or, even better, avoiding wars.
Part of this is cultural. Americans are obsessed with the idea of winning, defined in terms of dominance, specifically military/physical dominance, taking the fight to the enemy and never backing down. The best defense is a good offense, as they say in the NFL. Winning is the only thing, as Vince Lombardi said. While those maxims may apply to football, they don’t apply to wars that should never have been fought.
Turning from football to tunnels, how about that image made popular during the Vietnam War that “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel”? Victory, in other words, is in sight and can be reached if we “stay the course” until the tunnel’s end. Few ask why we’re in the tunnel to begin with. Why not just avoid the tunnel (of Vietnam, of Iraq, of Afghanistan) and bask in the light of liberty here in the USA? Indeed, why not brighten liberty’s torch so that others can see and enjoy it? But instead U.S. military forces are forever plunging into foreign tunnels, groping in the dark for the elusive light of victory, a light that ultimately is illusory.
Another point is that the Pentagon is often not about winning wars without; it’s about winning wars within, specifically budgetary wars. Here the Pentagon has been amazingly successful, especially in the aftermath of the Cold War, which should have generated a major reduction in U.S. military spending (and overseas military deployments). The other “war” the Pentagon has won is the struggle for cultural authority/hegemony in the USA. Here again, the Pentagon has won this war, as represented by presidents from Bush to Obama to Trump boasting of the 4F military (the finest fighting force since forever), and as represented by the fact that the military remains the most trusted governmental institution in America. Indeed, most Americans don’t even think of “our” military as being part of the federal government. They think of it as something special, even as they profess to distrust Congress and hate “big government.” Yet nothing screams “big” like our steroidal federal military, and few entities are more wasteful.
My point is that many military commentators and critics frame the problem wrongly. It’s not about reforming the U.S. military so that it can win wars. Americans must reform our culture and our government so that we can avoid wars, even as we end the ones we’re in. For constant warfare is the enemy of democracy and the scourge of freedom.
A final point about winning that’s rarely acknowledged: America’s wars overseas are not all about us. Winning (whatever that might mean) should be unconscionable when it comes at the price of hundreds of thousands of dead, millions of refugees, and regions blasted and destabilized.
Judging by my local newspaper and email stream, Memorial Day is about sales and selling, a reminder that the business of America is business. But of course Memorial Day is truly about honoring the dead in America’s wars, the veterans who died defending freedom. Sadly, far too often wars are not fought for high ideals, but that is not the fault of the veteran.
As we remember American veterans this weekend, those who died in the name of defending our country and Constitution, we would do well to ask whether our sympathy for the dead should be limited only to those who fought under the U.S. flag, or whether we should extend it to “the enemy.” In other words, to all those who suffer and die in wars.
Consider the Vietnam War, a war the USA could and should have avoided. But we didn’t, and that war was prosecuted with a ruthlessness that was often barbaric. America lost more than 58,000 in that war, and their names are on the wall in Washington, D.C. We visit that wall and weep for our dead.
But what about the Vietnamese dead? Estimates vary, but Vietnam lost roughly three million people in that war, with some figures approaching four million. The war in Southeast Asia spread to Laos and Cambodia as well, leading to genocide and the “killing fields” of Cambodia. Do we weep for their dead?
Vietnam today has friendly relations with the USA. The enemy of the 1960s is, if not an ally, at least a trade partner. There are warm friendships shared between our peoples, nurtured by cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Vietnam.
So, in the case of the Vietnam War, as we remember the American Vietnam veteran, should we not make room in our hearts to remember the Vietnamese veteran as well?
Ultimately, our fellow human beings are not the enemy. War is the enemy. A will to destruction is the enemy. And those caught up in war–the innocent victims on all sides–are worthy of being memorialized.
Far too often, national flags become little more than tribal symbols, much like bikers’ gangs and their colors. Wear the wrong color, belong to a rival gang, and violence, even a mass shooting, is the result.
Are we fated to keep saluting our own colors while reviling the colors of others? Are we fated to keep marching off to war under the American flag while killing those who fly a different flag?
Yes, there are necessary wars. I for one wouldn’t want to live under the Nazi Swastika. But history shows that necessary and just wars are rare. For every past war fought for a “just” cause, so many more have been fought for loot, money, power, territory, radical ideologies of one sort or another, dynastic advantage, prestige, and on and on. The one constant is the troops on all sides who march and die.
A memorial day that remembers the “enemy” dead as well as our own would, perhaps, be a small step toward a memorial day in the future with far fewer war dead to memorialize.