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

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By Tom Engelhardt

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

(Since 2007, I’ve had the distinct honor of writing for Tom Engelhardt and 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 Marawi in the southern Philippines, all in ruins in the wake of the conflicts Washington set off in the post–9/11 years, and try to put a price on them. Those views of mile upon mile of rubble, often without a building still standing untouched, should take anyone’s breath away. Some of those cities may never be fully rebuilt.

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

Opening the Gates of Hell

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest of Tom’s article here at TomDispatch.com.

America’s Wars as a Bad Novel

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America’s bad novel has a one-word title: War (with apologies to Tolstoy)

W.J. Astore

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.

Ending Wars, Not “Winning” Them, Should Be America’s Goal

 

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Beware the tunnels you choose to go down (Wikimedia)

W.J. Astore

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.

In sum, ending wars is winning them.

On Memorial Day, Is There Room to Honor Former Enemies?

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W.J. Astore

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.