Within the U.S. “defense” establishment there’s an eagerness to refight the Cold War with Russia and China, notes Michael Klare at TomDispatch.com. The “long war” on terror, although still festering, is not enough to justify enormous defense budgets and traditional weapon systems like aircraft carriers, bomber and fighter jets, and tanks and artillery. But hyping the Russian and Chinese threats, as Defense Secretary James Mattis is doing, is a proven method of ensuring future military growth along well-trodden avenues.
Hence an article at Fox News that I saw this morning. Its title: “Here’s why Russia would lose a second Cold War — and would be unwise to start one.” The article happily predicts the demise of Russia if that country dares to challenge the U.S. in a Cold War-like binge of military spending. Bring it on, Russia and China, our defense hawks are effectively saying. But recall what happened when George W. Bush said “Bring it on” in the context of the Iraq insurgency.
Our military leaders envision Russian and Chinese threats that directly challenge America’s conventional and nuclear supremacy. They then hype these alleged threats in the toughest war of all: budgetary battles at the Pentagon and in Congress. The Navy wants more ships, the Air Force wants more planes, the Army wants more soldiers and more weapons — and all of these are more easily justified when you face “peer” enemies instead of guerrillas and terrorists whose heaviest weapons are usually RPGs and IEDs.
Yet Russia and China aren’t stupid. Why should they challenge the U.S. in hyper-expensive areas like aircraft-carrier-building or ultra-modern “stealth” bombers when they can easily assert influence in unconventional and asymmetric ways? The Russians, for example, have proven adept at exploiting social media to exacerbate political divisions within the U.S., and the Chinese too are quite skilled at cyberwar. More than anything, however, the Chinese can exploit their financial and economic clout, their growing dominance of manufacturing and trade, as the U.S. continues to hollow itself out financially in a race for conventional and nuclear dominance in which its main rival is its own distorted reflection.
In essence, then, America’s “new” National Defense Strategy under Trump is a return to the Reagan era, circa 1980, with its much-hyped military buildup. Yet again the U.S. is investing in military hardware, but China and Russia are investing more in software, so to speak. It makes me think of the days of IBM versus Bill Gates. Bill Gates’ genius was recognizing the future was in the software, the operating systems, not in the hardware as IBM believed.
But the U.S. is being led by hardware guys. A hardware guy all the way, Donald Trump is all about bigger missiles and massive bombs. Indeed, later this year he wants a parade of military hardware down Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s as if we’re living in 1975 — time to review the troops, comrade general.
Who knew the triumphant “new world order” of 1991 would become a quarter-century later a sad and tragic quest by the USA to refight the very Cold War we claimed back then to have won? Isn’t it easy to envision Trump boasting like an old-style Soviet leader of how, under his “very stable genius” leadership, “America is turning out missiles like sausages”?
The Kennedy Administration: Camelot or Incompetence?
President John F. Kennedy is surrounded by myths, the most famous of which is Camelot. The Kennedys brought youth and glamour to the White House, a reprieve from the perceived stodginess of Ike and Mamie Eisenhower (as well as the “square” and indeed criminal Nixon White House to come). They seemed the perfect couple, John and Jackie, and it seems churlish and graceless to note how much of this was image. Kennedy was a notorious womanizer, a fact both known and suppressed by a fawning Washington Press Corps. Jackie came across as a traditional wife: loyal, unobjectionable, limited by her times but also steely in her grace and fortitude after her husband was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963 (the latest movie that captures this awful event is Jackie, starring Natalie Portman).
Kennedy’s father, Joe Sr., taught his sons a sense of winning at all costs. A sense of recklessness. Kennedy’s older brother, Joe Jr. died leading a risky bombing mission in World War II, and John F. Kennedy nearly died when he lost his PT boat in action in the Pacific. The loss of PT-109 was depicted as a heroic act, as the young JFK helped to save some of his crew, but one may question how he came to lose his boat in the first place. JFK’s perfect marriage, as already mentioned, was a sham, and despite his relative youth, he was not in the best of health, plagued by a bad back, Addison’s disease, and other health issues. His Pulitzer-prize winning book, “Profiles in Courage,” was largely ghost written. JFK’s life was often more a triumph of image than a profile in courage.
As President, Kennedy made many unwise decisions. He escalated American involvement in Laos and Vietnam, setting the stage for a major commitment of U.S. ground troops by President Lyndon Johnson early in 1965. He oversaw the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which backfired badly on the inexperienced U.S. commander-in-chief. As Lawrence Freedman put it in his book, Kennedy’s Wars (2000), “This was exactly the sort of move—gambling on the basis of insufficient strength and then abandoning the operation before it was complete—that made [Dean] Acheson despair.” Freedman further cites Acheson as saying European leaders compared JFK’s bungling to “a gifted amateur practicing with a boomerang and suddenly knocking himself cold. They were amazed that so inexperienced a person should play with so lethal a weapon.”
Greater lethality was to come the next year with the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is often sold as JFK’s moment of steely toughness, when he made the Soviets blink and back down, but as a recent book by Daniel Ellsberg reveals, that crisis nearly resulted in nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It was yet another instance of JFK’s tendency toward taking big risks as a way of proving himself. Almost precipitating nuclear Armageddon, however, is terrifying way to prove one’s fitness for office.
Even before JFK became president, he fabricated what today might be called “alternative facts.” He invented a missile gap vis-à-vis the Soviet Union that didn’t exist. In fact, the true missile gap was the opposite of what JFK claimed, in that the U.S. had many more nuclear ICBMs than the Soviets did. When he became president, JFK embarked on a strategic policy of “Flexible Response” (suggested by General Maxwell Taylor) that activated and empowered more conventional operations by the U.S. military. In practice what this meant was that the U.S. became embroiled in conflicts that were secondary to national interests; worst of all, of course, was a major land war in Vietnam that was essentially a lost cause even before Kennedy chose to escalate it with more advisers and materiel aid.
Defenders of JFK suggest he grew in office and would have seen the folly of continuing in Vietnam, but there’s little evidence to support this narrative. The recent Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War cites Kennedy as saying the U.S. couldn’t win in Vietnam, but that he couldn’t order a withdrawal because to do so would cost him his reelection in 1964. JFK, moreover, fancied the notion of Flexible Response, his New Look military and its emphasis on special ops forces such as the Green Berets, and he saw Vietnam as a test bed for a “counterinsurgency” approach to defeating communism. What LBJ did in 1965 in escalating that conflict by committing U.S. ground troops is probably what JFK would have done if he had lived. (In his book, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, Fredrik Logevall suggests JFK may have had the political will to resist escalation in 1965, effectively allowing South Vietnam to fall to communism, an intriguing if unprovable scenario.)
In sum, JFK set the stage for America’s disastrous war in Southeast Asia while provoking the Soviet Union into an escalatory nuclear arms race that threatened the world with extinction. Profiles in courage these are not.
It’s worth briefly comparing JFK’s record to that of Richard Nixon, who has no Camelot myths attached to him. Nixon, of course, was and is vilified as “Tricky Dick” and dismissed as one of America’s worst presidents. He deserves opprobrium for his mendacious, meretricious, and murderous policies vis-à-vis Southeast Asia, especially his well-nigh treasonous meddling in peace negotiations in 1968, before he was elected president. Nixon and Henry Kissinger saw themselves as the world’s powerbrokers, working to overthrow governments they disliked, as in Chile with the coup against Allende. But Nixon and Kissinger deserve a measure of credit for opening negotiations with communist China as well as starting a process of détente with the Soviet Union. Nixon showed a capacity for growth in office even as he permitted his own ego and paranoia to undermine his administration’s accomplishments in foreign policy.
The point here is not to praise Nixon, a man of considerable gifts but also of crippling flaws. Rather, the point is to highlight an overly fawning approach to the presidency of John F. Kennedy. His administration, rather than serving as a shining moment, a Camelot, ultimately was an exercise in imagery and incompetence.
In a recent article for TomDispatch.com, I argued that Americans have embraced weapons and warriors, guns and gun exports, prisons and guards, all supported by a steady stream of fear. The end result has been a cesspool of violence largely of our own making. In such an environment, a man like Donald Trump, more opportunist than populist, more power-driven than public servant, more cynic than idealist, has ample opportunities to thrive.
The complete article is here; in this excerpt, I focus on Trump’s rise as well as the rise of a uniquely American anti-hero, the vigilante Dark Knight, AKA Batman.
Since the end of the Cold War, America has been exporting a mirror image of its domestic self — not the classic combo of democracy and freedom, but guns, prisons and security forces. Globally, the label “Made in the USA” has increasingly come to be associated with violence and war, as well, of course, as Hollywood action flicks sporting things that go boom in the night.
Such exports are now so commonplace that, in some cases, Washington has even ended up arming our enemies. Just consider the hundreds of thousands of small arms sent to Iraq and Afghanistan that were simply lost track of. Many of them evidently ended up on sale at local black markets.
Or consider the weapons and equipment Washington provided to Iraq’s security forces, only to see them abandoned on the battlefield and captured by the Islamic State.
Look as well at prisons like Gitmo — which Donald Trump has no intention of ever closing — and Abu Ghraib, and an unknown number of black sites that were in some of these years used for rendition, detention and torture, and gave the United States a reputation in the world that may prove indelible.
And, of course, American-made weaponry like tear gas canisters and bombs, including cluster munitions, that regularly finds its way onto foreign soil in places like Yemen and, in the case of the tear gas, Egypt, proudly sporting those “Made in the USA” labels.
Strangely, most Americans remain either willfully ignorant of, or indifferent to, what their country is becoming. That American-made weaponry is everywhere, that America’s warriors are all over the globe, that America’s domestic prisons are bursting with more than two million captives, is even taken by some as a point of pride…
Increasingly, Americans are submerged in a violent cesspool of our own making. As a man who knows how to stoke fear as well as exploit it, President Trump fits into such an atmosphere amazingly well. With a sense of how to belittle, insult and threaten, he has a knack for inflaming and exploiting America’s collective dark side.
But think of Trump as more symptom than cause, the outward manifestation of an inner spiritual disease that continues to eat away at the country’s societal matrix. A sign of this unease is America’s most popular superhero of the moment. He even has a new Lego movie coming. Yes, it’s Batman, the vigilante alter-ego of Bruce Wayne, ultra-rich philanthropist and CEO of Wayne Enterprises.
The popularity of Batman, Gotham City’s Dark Knight, reflects America’s fractured ethos of anger, pain, and violence. Americans find common cause in his tortured psyche, his need for vengeance, his extreme version of justice. But at least billionaire Bruce Wayne had some regard for the vulnerable and unfortunate.
America now has a darker knight than that in Donald J. Trump, a man who mocks and assaults those he sees as beneath him, a man whose utterances sound more like a Batman villain, a man who doesn’t believe in heroes — only in himself.
The Dark Knight may yet become, under Trump, a genuine dark night for America’s collective soul. Like Batman, Trump is a product of Gotham City. And if this country is increasingly Gotham City writ large, shining the Batman symbol worldwide and having billionaire Trump and his sidekick — Gen. Michael Flynn? — answer the beacon is a prospect that should be more than a little unnerving.
It wasn’t that long ago that another superhero represented America — Superman. Chivalrous, noble, compassionate, he fought without irony for truth, justice and the American way. And his alter ego, of course, was mild-mannered Clark Kent, a reporter no less.
In Trump’s America, imagine the likelihood of reporters being celebrated as freedom fighters as they struggle to hold the powerful accountable. Perhaps it’s more telling than its makers knew that in last year’s dreary slugfest of a movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the bat rode high while the son of Krypton ended up six feet under.
Let me, in this context, return to that moment when the Cold War ended.
Twenty-five years ago, I served as escort officer to Gen. Robinson Risner as he spoke to cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Risner’s long and resolute endurance as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War — captured in his memoir, The Passing of the Night — had made him something of a real-life superhero to us then.
He talked to the cadets about public service, love of country and faith in God — noble virtues, based on humility, grace and inner strength. As I look back to that night, as I remember how Gen. Risner spoke with quiet dignity of the virtues of service and sacrifice, I ask myself how America today could have become such a land of weapons and warriors, guns and gun exports, prisons and fear, led by a boastful and boorish bullyboy.
How did America’s ideals become so twisted? And how do we regain our nobility of purpose? One thing is certain — the current path, the one of ever greater military spending, of border walls and extreme vetting, of vilification of the Other, justified in terms of toughness and “winning,” will lead only to further violence and darker (k)nights.
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In the crusade against Communism, otherwise known as the Cold War, the U.S. saw “freedom” as its core strength. Our liberties were contrasted with the repression of our chief rival, the USSR. We drew strength from the idea that our system of government, which empowered people whose individualism was guided by ethics based on shared values, would ultimately prevail over godless centralism and state-enforced conformity. An important sign of this was our belief in citizen-soldiers rather than warriors, and a military controlled by democratically-elected civilians rather than by dictators and strong men.
Of course, U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War could be amoral or immoral, and ethics were often shunted aside in the name of Realpolitik. Even so, morality was nevertheless treated as important, and so too were ethics. They weren’t dismissed out of hand.
Fast forward to today. We no longer see “freedom” as a core U.S. strength. Instead, too many of us see freedom as a weakness. In the name of defeating radical Islamic terrorism, we’ve become more repressive, even within the USA itself. Obedience and conformity are embraced instead of individualism and liberty. In place of citizen-soldiers, professional warriors are now celebrated and the military is given the lion’s share of federal resources without debate. Trump, a CEO rather than a statesman, exacerbates this trend as he surrounds himself with generals while promising to obliterate enemies and to revive torture.
In short, we’ve increasingly come to see a core national strength (liberty, individualism, openness to others) as a weakness. Thus, America’s new crusades no longer have the ethical underpinnings (however fragile they often proved) of the Cold War. Yes, the Cold War was often unethical, but as Tom Engelhardt notes at TomDispatch.com today, the dirty work was largely covert, i.e. we were in some sense embarrassed by it. Contrast this to today, where the new ethos is that America needs to go hard, to embrace the dark side, to torture and kill, all done more or less openly and proudly.
Along with this open and proud embrace of the dark side, America has come increasingly to reject science. During the Cold War, science and democracy advanced together. Indeed, the superior record of American science vis-à-vis that of the Soviet Union was considered proof of the strength and value of democracy. Today, that is no longer the case in America. Science is increasingly questioned; evidence is dismissed as if it’s irrelevant. “Inconvenient truths” are no longer recognized as inconvenient — they’re simply rejected as untrue. Consider the astonishing fact that we have a president-elect who’s suggested climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China.
Yesterday, I saw the following comment online, a comment that summed up the new American ethos: “Evidence and facts are for losers.” After all, President-elect Trump promised America we’d win again. Let’s not let facts get in the way of “victory.”
That’s what a close-minded crusader says. That the truth doesn’t matter. All that matters is belief and faith. Obey or suffer the consequences.
Where liberty is eroded and scientific evidence is denied, you don’t have democracy. You have something meaner. And dumber. Something like autocracy, kleptocracy, idiocracy. And tyranny.
In two recent speeches, President Obama has repeated the conceit that the United States is “the indispensable nation.” Apparently, that means the U.S. must lead “the free world,” with a none-too-subtle corollary that other “free” nations must follow. Yet the conceit of indispensability gets the U.S. into serious trouble. It facilitates interventionism and meddling, and when the U.S. intervenes and meddles, it’s almost always in military ways, often disastrously (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya are just three recent examples).
This is hardly surprising. The U.S. military has roughly 800 bases worldwide. Its aircraft carriers are essentially mobile American bases, bristling with weapons and munitions. The U.S. spends roughly $600 billion a year maintaining this military and empire, even as it continues to dominate the world’s arms trade. This heavy investment in weaponry and war-making, abetted by a mentality that celebrates “global reach, global power,” is a strange way to define your nation as being “indispensable.”
How did America come to invest so much of itself in military weaponry and incessant wars? One reason is the quest for total safety. As one of my friends put it:
It [the notion of total safety] must be a post-1941 thing [after the shocking sneak attack on Pearl Harbor]. I think in both cases (1917 [U.S. entry into World War I] and 1941 and maybe 2001) the question Americans have asked is how to keep an evil “over there” somehow from affecting us. In all three cases, I think the answer was neutrality until neutrality no longer seemed to offer safety. My guess is that the idea that total safety required global involvement comes from c.1948, fears of the USSR’s globalism, atomic paranoia, and the desire to protect and preserve the new American affluence. Thus NSC-68 gets passed with nary a whisper of opposition.
What is NSC-68? We must turn the clock back to 1950, the Cold War, and the Truman Administration, as detailed here by The History Channel:
According to the [National Security Council’s] report, the United States should vigorously pursue a policy of “containing” Soviet expansion. NSC-68 recommended that the United States embark on rapid military expansion of conventional forces and the nuclear arsenal, including the development of the new hydrogen bomb. In addition, massive increases in military aid to U.S. allies were necessary as well as more effective use of “covert” means to achieve U.S. goals. The price of these measures was estimated to be about $50 billion; at the time the report was issued, America was spending just $13 billion on defense.
Under President Trump, we’re likely to see a new version of NSC-68, another expansion of the U.S. military (and U.S. militarism), along with covert action by a newly empowered CIA, this time in the name of containing and defeating radical Islam rather than godless communism.
Defense company stocks are already soaring at the prospect of much higher military spending under Trump, notes William Hartung today at TomDispatch.com. Trump is difficult to predict, so Hartung takes him at his word in this passage:
A window into Trump’s thinking [on defense] can be found in a speech he gave in Philadelphia in early September. Drawing heavily on a military spending blueprint created by Washington’s right-wing Heritage Foundation, Trump called for tens of thousands of additional troops, a Navy of 350 ships (the current goal is 308), a significantly larger Air Force, an anti-missile, space-based Star Wars-style program of Reaganesque proportions, and an acceleration of the Pentagon’s $1 trillion “modernization” program for the nuclear arsenal (now considered a three-decade-long project).
Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that, if Trump faithfully follows the Heritage Foundation’s proposal, he could add more than $900 billion to the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade.
In other words, Obama’s America, the “indispensable nation,” is likely under Trump to channel enormous resources into more weapons even as Trump’s military advisers, men like retired general Mike Flynn, posture for a no-holds-barred crusade against “the cancer” of radical Islam around the globe.
Here’s a harsh truth: America has allowed its arsenal of democracy of World War II fame to become simply an arsenal. A nation that fought in the name of democracy in two world wars has become one that wages endless wars driven by a crusader’s righteousness.
I’ve been writing for TomDispatch.com and the amazing Tom Engelhardt since 2007. When I wrote my first article, “Saving the Military from Itself: Why Medals and Metrics Mislead,” I never imagined I would come to write 37 more for Tom and his site over the next eight years. TomDispatch has given me an opportunity to write about topics like the elimination of nuclear weapons, the rise of American militarism, the perils of calling all troops in the military “heroes,” the over-hyping of American military prowess by our leaders, and many others. In all my articles, I hope I’ve offered a contrary perspective on the U.S. military as well as American culture, among other subjects.
My latest article, America’s mutant military, is a personal odyssey of sorts. I reflect on how the military has changed since I entered it in 1985. Today’s post-Cold War U.S. military is, to put it bluntly, not as I envisioned it would be as the Berlin Wall was falling and the Soviet Union was collapsing. Today’s military still has its Cold War weaponry and mindset largely intact, even as a new “mutant” military has emerged, based on special ops and connected to corporations and intelligence agencies, a military hybrid that is often shrouded in secrecy even as it’s celebrated openly in Hollywood action films.
My essay runs 2300 words, so I encourage you to read all of it at TomDispatch. What follows are a few excerpts from it:
It’s 1990. I’m a young captain in the U.S. Air Force. I’ve just witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, something I never thought I’d see, short of a third world war. Right now I’m witnessing the slow death of the Soviet Union, without the accompanying nuclear Armageddon so many feared. Still, I’m slightly nervous as my military gears up for an unexpected new campaign, Operation Desert Shield/Storm, to expel Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s military from Kuwait. It’s a confusing moment. After all, the Soviet Union was forever (until it wasn’t) and Saddam had been a stalwart U.S. friend, his country a bulwark against the Iran of the Ayatollahs. (For anyone who doubts that history, just check out the now-infamous 1983 photo of Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy for President Reagan, all smiles and shaking hands with Saddam in Baghdad.) Still, whatever my anxieties, the Soviet Union collapsed without a whimper and the campaign against Saddam’s battle-tested forces proved to be a “cakewalk,” with ground combat over in a mere 100 hours.
Think of it as the trifecta moment: Vietnam syndrome vanquished forever, Saddam’s army destroyed, and the U.S. left standing as the planet’s “sole superpower.”
Post-Desert Storm, the military of which I was a part stood triumphant on a planet that was visibly ours and ours alone. Washington had won the Cold War. It had won everything, in fact. End of story. Saddam admittedly was still in power in Baghdad, but he had been soundly spanked. Not a single peer enemy loomed on the horizon. It seemed as if, in the words of former U.N. ambassador and uber-conservative Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. could return to being a normal country in normal times.
[But it didn’t happen. With the Soviets gone, the U.S. military itself was now uncontained, and many hankered to use its power to achieve America’s goal of global power.]
Yet even as civilian leaders hankered to flex America’s military muscle in unpromising places like Bosnia and Somalia in the 1990s, and Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen in this century, the military itself has remained remarkably mired in Cold War thinking. If I could transport the 1990 version of me to 2015, here’s one thing that would stun him a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union: the force structure of the U.S. military has changed remarkably little. Its nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, submarine-launched SLBMs, and nuclear-capable bombers remains thoroughly intact. Indeed, it’s being updated and enhanced at mind-boggling expense (perhaps as high as a trillion dollars over the next three decades). The U.S. Navy? Still built around large, super-expensive, and vulnerableaircraft carrier task forces. The U.S. Air Force? Still pursuing new, ultra-high-tech strategic bombers and new, wildly expensive fighters and attack aircraft — first the F-22, now the F-35, both supremely disappointing. The U.S. Army? Still configured to fight large-scale, conventional battles, a surplus of M-1 Abrams tanks sitting in mothballs just in case they’re needed to plug the Fulda Gap in Germany against a raging Red Army. Except it’s 2015, not 1990, and no mass of Soviet T-72 tanks remains poised to surge through that gap.
[Along with the persistence of America’s “Cold War” military, a new military emerged, especially in the aftermath of 9-11.]
In 2015, so many of America’s “trigger-pullers” overseas are no longer, strictly speaking, professional military. They’re mercenaries, guns for hire, or CIA drone pilots (some on loan from the Air Force), or warrior corporations and intelligence contractors looking to get in on a piece of the action in a war on terror where progress is defined — official denials to the contrary — by body count, by the number of “enemy combatants” killed in drone or other strikes.
Indeed, the very persistence of traditional Cold War structures and postures within the “big” military has helped hide the full-scale emergence of a new and dangerous mutant version of our armed forces. A bewildering mish-mash of special ops, civilian contractors (both armed and unarmed), and CIA and other intelligence operatives, all plunged into a penumbra of secrecy, all largely hidden from view (even as they’re openly celebrated in various Hollywood action movies), this mutant military is forever clamoring for a greater piece of the action.
While the old-fashioned, uniformed military guards its Cold War turf, preserved like some set of monstrous museum exhibits, the mutant military strives with great success to expand its power across the globe. Since 9/11, it’s the mutant military that has gotten the lion’s share of the action and much of the adulation — here’s looking at you, SEAL Team 6 — along with its ultimate enabler, the civilian commander-in-chief, now acting in essence as America’s assassin-in-chief.
Think of it this way: a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military is completely uncontained.
[And an uncontained military, in a country that celebrates its troops as heroes, that boasts of itself as having the best military in all of recorded history, does not bode well for America’s democratic future.]
In America’s war on terror, the groundhog always sees its own shadow, meaning six (or more) years of additional war. War is indeed the new normal in America, as I argue in this article today for TomDispatch.com.
War Is the New Normal Seven Deadly Reasons Why America’s Wars Persist
By William J. Astore
It was launched immediately after the 9/11 attacks, when I was still in the military, and almost immediately became known as the Global War on Terror, or GWOT. Pentagon insiders called it “the long war,” an open-ended, perhaps unending, conflict against nations and terror networks mainly of a radical Islamist bent. It saw the revival of counterinsurgency doctrine, buried in the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam, and a reinterpretation of that disaster as well. Over the years, its chief characteristic became ever clearer: a “Groundhog Day” kind of repetition. Just when you thought it was over (Iraq, Afghanistan), just after victory (of a sort) was declared, it began again.
Now, as we find ourselves enmeshed in Iraq War 3.0, what better way to memorialize the post-9/11 American way of war than through repetition. Back in July 2010, I wrote an article for TomDispatch on the seven reasonswhy America can’t stop making war. More than four years later, with the war on terror still ongoing, with the mission eternally unaccomplished, here’s a fresh take on the top seven reasons why never-ending war is the new normal in America. In this sequel, I make only one promise: no declarations of victory (and mark it on your calendars, I’m planning to be back with seven new reasons in 2019).
1. The privatization of war: The U.S. military’s recourse to private contractors has strengthened the profit motive for war-making and prolonged wars as well. Unlike the citizen-soldiers of past eras, the mobilized warrior corporations of America’s new mercenary moment — the Halliburton/KBRs (nearly $40 billion in contracts for the Iraq War alone), the DynCorps ($4.1 billion to train 150,000 Iraqi police), and the Blackwater/Xe/Academis ($1.3 billion in Iraq, along with boatloads of controversy) — have no incentive to demobilize. Like most corporations, their business model is based on profit through growth, and growth is most rapid when wars and preparations for more of them are the favored options in Washington.
“Freedom isn’t free,” as a popular conservative bumper sticker puts it, and neither is war. My father liked the saying, “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” and today’s mercenary corporations have been calling for a lot of military marches piping in $138 billion in contracts for Iraq alone, according to the Financial Times. And if you think that the privatization of war must at least reduce government waste, think again: the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan estimated in 2011 that fraud, waste, and abuse accounted for up to $60 billion of the money spent in Iraq alone.
To corral American-style war, the mercenaries must be defanged or deflated. European rulers learned this the hard way during the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century. At that time, powerful mercenary captains like Albrecht von Wallenstein ran amok. Only Wallenstein’s assassination and the assertion of near absolutist powers by monarchs bent on curbing war before they went bankrupt finally brought the mercenaries to heel, a victory as hard won as it was essential to Europe’s survival and eventual expansion. (Europeans then exported their wars to foreign shores, but that’s another story.)
2. The embrace of the national security state by both major parties:Jimmy Carter was the last president to attempt to exercise any kind of control over the national security state. A former Navy nuclear engineer who had served under the demanding Admiral Hyman Rickover, Carter cancelled the B-1 bomber and fought for a U.S. foreign policy based on human rights. Widely pilloried for talking about nuclear war with his young daughter Amy, Carter was further attacked for being “weak” on defense. His defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980 inaugurated 12 years of dominance by Republican presidents that opened the financial floodgates for the Department of Defense. That taught Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council a lesson when it came to the wisdom of wrapping the national security state in a welcoming embrace, which they did, however uncomfortably. This expedient turn to the right by the Democrats in the Clinton years served as a temporary booster shot when it came to charges of being “soft” on defense — until Republicans upped the ante by going “all-in” on military crusades in the aftermath of 9/11.
Since his election in 2008, Barack Obama has done little to alter the course set by his predecessors. He, too, has chosen not to challenge Washington’s prevailing catechism of war. Republicans have responded, however, not by muting their criticism, but by upping the ante yet again. How else to explain House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in March? That address promises to be a pep talk for the Republicans, as well as a smack down of the Obama administration and its “appeasenik” policies toward Iran and Islamic radicalism.
Serious oversight, let alone opposition to the national security state by Congress or a mainstream political party, has been missing in action for years and must now, in the wake of the Senate Torture Report fiasco (from which the CIAemerged stronger, not weaker), be presumed dead. The recent midterm election triumph of Republican war hawks and the prospective lineup of candidates for president in 2016 does not bode well when it comes to reining in the national security state in any foreseeable future.
3. “Support Our Troops” as a substitute for thought. You’ve seen them everywhere: “Support Our Troops” stickers. In fact, the “support” in that slogan generally means acquiescence when it comes to American-style war. The truth is that we’ve turned the all-volunteer military into something like aforeign legion, deploying it again and again to our distant battle zones and driving it into the ground in wars that amount to strategic folly. Instead of admitting their mistakes, America’s leaders have worked to obscure them by endlessly overpraising our “warriors” as so many universal heroes. This may salve our collective national conscience, but it’s a form of cheap grace that saves no lives — and wins no wars.
Instead, this country needs to listen more carefully to its troops, especially the war critics who have risked their lives while fighting overseas. Organizations like Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace are good places to start.
4. Fighting a redacted war. War, like the recent Senate torture report, is redacted in America. Its horrors and mistakes are suppressed, its patriotic whistleblowers punished, even as the American people are kept in a demobilized state. The act of going to war no longer represents the will of the people, as represented by formal Congressional declarations of war as the U.S. Constitution demands. Instead, in these years, Americans were told togo to Disney World (as George W. Bush suggested in the wake of 9/11) and keep shopping. They’re encouraged not to pay too much attention to war’s casualties and costs, especially when those costs involve foreigners with funny-sounding names (after all, they are, as American sniper Chris Kyle so indelicately put it in his book, just “savages”).
Redacted war hides the true cost of a permanent state of killing from the American people, if not from foreign observers. Ignorance and apathy reign, even as a national security state that is essentially a shadow governmentequates its growth with your safety.
5. Threat inflation: There’s nothing new about threat inflation. We saw plenty of it during the Cold War (nonexistent missile and bomber gaps, for example). Fear sells and we’ve had quite a dose of it in the twenty-first century, from ISIS to Ebola. But a more important truth is that fear is a mind-killer, a debate-stifler.
Back in September, for example, Senator Lindsey Graham warned that ISIS and its radical Islamic army was coming to America to kill us all. ISIS, of course, is a regional power with no ability to mount significant operations against the United States. But fear is so commonplace, so effectively stoked in this country that Americans routinely and wildly exaggerate the threat posed by al-Qaeda or ISIS or the bogeyman du jour.
Decades ago, as a young lieutenant in the Air Force, I was hunkered down inCheyenne Mountain during the Cold War. It was the ultimate citadel-cum-bomb-shelter, and those in it were believed to have a 70% likelihood of surviving a five-megaton nuclear blast. There, not surprisingly, I found myself contemplating the very real possibility of a thermonuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, a war that would have annihilated life as we knew it, indeed much of life on our planet thanks to the phenomenon of nuclear winter. You’ll excuse me for not shaking in my boots at the threat of ISIS coming to get me. Or of Sharia Law coming to my local town hall. With respect to such fears, America needs, as Hillary Clinton said in an admittedly different context, to “grow a pair.”
6. Defining the world as a global battlefield: In fortress America, all realms have by now become battle spheres. Not only much of the planet, the seas, air, and space, as well as the country’s borders and its increasingly up-armored police forces, but the world of thought, the insides of our minds. Think of the 17 intertwined intelligence outfits in “the U.S. Intelligence Community” and their ongoing “surge” for information dominance across every mode of human communication, as well as the surveillance of everything. And don’t forget the national security state’s leading role in making cyberwar a reality. (Indeed, Washington launched the first cyberwar in history by deploying the Stuxnet computer worm against Iran.)
Think of all this as a global matrix that rests on war, empowering disaster capitalism and the corporate complexes that have formed around the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and that intelligence community. A militarized matrix doesn’t blink at $1.45 trillion dollars devoted to the F-35, a single under-performing jet fighter, nor at projections of $355 billion over the next decade for “modernizing” the U.S. nuclear arsenal, weapons that Barack Obama vowed to abolish in 2009.
7. The new “normal” in America is war: The 9/11 attacks happened more than 13 years ago, which means that no teenagers in America can truly remember a time when the country was at peace. “War time” is their normal; peace, a fairy tale.
What’s truly “exceptional” in twenty-first-century America is any articulated vision of what a land at peace with itself and other nations might be like. Instead, war, backed by a diet of fear, is the backdrop against which the young have grown to adulthood. It’s the background noise of their world, so much a part of their lives that they hardly recognize it for what it is. And that’s the most insidious danger of them all.
How do we inoculate our children against such a permanent state of war and the war state itself? I have one simple suggestion: just stop it. All of it. Stop making war a never-ending part of our lives and stop celebrating it, too. War should be the realm of the extreme, of the abnormal. It should be the death of normalcy, not the dreary norm.
It’s never too soon, America, to enlist in that good fight!
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a TomDispatch regular. His D.Phil. is in Modern History from the University of Oxford. He’s just plain tired of war and would like to see the next politician braying for it be deployed with a rifle to the front lines of battle. He edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.