The USA is a violent land. And perhaps that might be OK, if we limited the violence to us. But we’ve become the world’s leading exporter of deadly weaponry, a fact I was reminded of this morning as I read William Hartung’s latest article on the military-industrial complex at TomDispatch.com. In detailing the ever-growing power of the Complex, Hartung had this telling sentence:
When pressed, Raytheon officials argue that, in enabling mass slaughter, they are simply following U.S. government policy.
Tragic as that statement is, it’s also true. As I’ve written about before, weapons ‘r’ us. Our so-called peacetime economy is geared to war, homeland security, surveillance, and other forms of violent and coercive technologies and products. Even as America seeks to prevent other countries from acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD), we’re actively seeking to sell WMD to others, as long as those weapons are Made in the USA and go to “allies” that pay promptly, like the Saudis.
Being the world’s leading purveyor of violence can only lead to America’s spiritual death, as Martin Luther King Jr. argued so eloquently a half-century ago. As MLK’s words show, this tragic reality is nothing new in America. As Senator J. William Fulbright noted in 1970, the U.S. emerged after World War II to become “the world’s major salesman of armaments.” Fulbright went further and quoted Marine Corps General David M. Shoup, a Medal of Honor recipient, and Shoup’s conclusion that “America has become a militaristic and aggressive nation.” Remember, this was fifty years ago, when the U.S. at least faced a real threat from Communism, no matter how much we inflated it. We face no equivalent threat today, no matter how much the Pentagon hyperventilates about China and Russia.
Returning to Hartung’s article, I like his title: “Eisenhower’s Worst Nightmare.” Indeed it is, in the sense that the military-industrial complex is, ultimately, an American complex. Which makes me think of another Eisenhower sentiment: that only Americans can truly hurt America. That our biggest enemy is within our borders: our own violence, aggression, fear, and hatred, especially of others.
Ike was right about the Complex, and he was right about how America would truly be hurt and defeated. The enemy is not from without. No walls will keep him out. No — the enemy is within. And it won’t — indeed, it can’t — be defeated by weapons and violence. Indeed, more weapons and violence only make it stronger.
Be an indispensable nation, America. Be exceptional. Be great. As Melania Trump might say, Be Best. How? Stop exporting violence. And stop the hurt within.
Once again, the USA leads the world in weapons sales, notes SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The 100 biggest arms producers accounted for $375 billion in weapons sales in 2016, with US firms having by far the largest share at $217 billion. That’s right: the US accounts for roughly 58% of the global arms trade. We’re #1! We’re #1!
Not only do we arm our friends but our foes as well, notes FP: Foreign Policy, which has the following SitRep (situation report) for today:
U.S. weapons used by ISIS. A new report from Conflict Armament Research, a U.K.-based weapons tracking group, outlines in fascinating detail the industrial-scale weapons manufacturing capabilities the Islamic State boasted of in its prime… But what might be most notable are the American-supplied weapons found amid the ruins — the aftermath of secretive American efforts to provide small rebel groups with anti-tank rockets and other guided munitions. The transfer of the rockets, purchased from European countries, violated end-user agreements signed by the United States pledging not to transfer the weapons to third parties. In some cases, it took only a few weeks for the weapons to end up in the hands of Islamic State fighters after being delivered to allegedly friendly forces.
Let’s face it: $217 billion is an enormous amount of money, and the weapons trade is enormously profitable to the US. America’s wars are not coming to an end anytime soon: there’s simply too much money being made on manufacturing and selling war.
This puts me to mind of observations made by Father Daniel Berrigan, who served prison time for protesting the Vietnam War. Berrigan wrote with eloquence against war, and his words from a half-century ago are as timely today as they were during the Vietnam protests:
“we are powerless to inquire why it is easier to continue to slaughter than to stop it, why the historical cult of violence has become the mainstay of policy–both foreign and domestic, or why our economy so requires warmaking that perpetual war has united with expanding profits as the chief national purpose.”
And that was when the US still had a manufacturing base for consumer goods that hadn’t withered from “free” trade deals like NAFTA and other globalization efforts. The global market the US dominates today is not for consumer goods but for wares of destruction.
When you sow the winds of weaponry and war, and profit mightily from it, do you not eventually have to reap the whirlwind of destruction?
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.
Be sure to check out TomDispatch.com, a regular antidote to the mainstream media.
Today, the essence of U.S. military “strategy” is targeting. The enemy is treated as vermin to be exterminated with the right bug bomb. As if those bombs had no negative consequences; as if we learned nothing from the overuse of DDT, for example.
You might recall DDT, the miracle insecticide of the 1950s and 1960s. It wiped out bad bugs (and a lot of good ones as well) while leading to DDT-resistant ones. It also damaged the entire ecology of regions (because DDT is both persistent and bio-accumulative). Something similar is happening in the Greater Middle East. The U.S. is killing bad “bugs” (terrorists) while helping to breed a new generation of smarter “bugs.” Meanwhile, constant violence, repetitive bombing, and other forms of persistent meddling are accumulating in their effects, damaging the entire ecology of the Greater Middle East.
The U.S. government insists the solution is all about putting bombs on target, together with Special Forces operating as bug zappers on the ground. At the same time, the U.S. sells billions of dollars in weaponry to our “friends” and allies in the region. Israel just got $38 billion in military aid over ten years, and Saudi Arabia has yet another major arms deal pending, this time for $1.15 billion (with Senator Rand Paul providing that rare case of principled opposition based on human rights violations by the Saudis).
Of course, the U.S. has provided lots of guns and military equipment to Iraqi and Afghan security forces, which often sell or abandon them to enemies such as ISIS and the Taliban. The special inspector general in Afghanistan reported in 2014 that “As many as 43% of all small arms supplied to the Afghan National Security Forces remain unaccounted for – meaning more than 200,000 guns, including M2s, M16s, and M48s, are nowhere to be found.” A recent tally this year that includes Iraq suggests that 750,000 guns can’t be accounted for, according to Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), a London-based charity. The Pentagon’s typical solution to missing guns is simply to send more of them. Thus the U.S. is effectively arming its enemies as well as its allies, a business model that’s a win-win if you’re an arms merchant.
The essence of U.S. strategy makes me think of a Warren Zevon song lyric, “Send lawyers, guns, and money.” As we’ve seen, U.S. lawyers can authorize anything, even torture, even as U.S. guns and money go missing and end up feeding war and corruption. The tag line of Zevon’s song is especially pertinent: “The shit has hit the fan.” How can you flood the Greater Middle East with U.S.-style bureaucracy, guns and money, and not expect turmoil and disaster?
Back in World War II, the USA was an arsenal of democracy. Now it’s just an arsenal. Consider Bill Hartung’s article on U.S. military weaponry that’s flooding the Middle East. The business of America is war, with presidential candidates like Donald Trump just wanting to dump more money into the Pentagon.
There is no end to this madness. Not when the U.S. economy is so dependent on weapons and war. Not when the U.S. national security state dominates the political scene. Not when Americans are told the only choices for president are Trump the Loose Cannon or Hillary the Loaded Gun.
There was a time when American democracy, however imperfectly practiced, and American ideals served to inspire peoples and independence movements around the world. Heck, even Ho Chi Minh in the 1940s confessed his admiration for Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Declaration of Independence. But now it seems all that really matters in our foreign policy is troops and weapons. If we’re not basing troops or at least deploying them to a country, or if we’re not exporting arms to a country, we believe we have no influence.
Take this headline from FP: Foreign Policy.
The United States is in danger of losing its clout in Baghdad. Courage on the battlefield is how respect is won in the Middle East. The lack of U.S. presence in the fight for Tikrit is allowing Iran, whose forces are leading the charge, to gain leverage in Baghdad. FP’s Lara Jakes and Kate Brannen: “It is clear that the top U.S. priority in Iraq is to defeat the Islamic State — and deal later with Iran’s ever-growing influence in Baghdad. Yet that trade-off carries long-term consequences, and it’s not clear Washington has thought them through.”
So: Unless we’re fighting wars in Iraq (or Syria, or maybe even Iran?), the United States has no leverage. Indeed, in Iraq the U.S. risks being emasculated by the Iranians, who are swinging their big dicks in the form of tanks, rockets, and so on.
And those primitive Iraqis: All they respect is military force, right? If that’s so, why don’t they love America? After all, no country has “courageously” bombed them more over the last 25 years.
Talk about projection! Maybe it’s not the Iraqis or other unnamed Middle Easterners who are enthralled by “courage on the battlefield.” Maybe it’s all those “American sniper” wannabees, especially in Congress.
Consistent with Members of Congress clamoring for more war, America’s real ambassadors today are special forces and the special ops “community.” As Nick Turse noted for TomDispatch.com:
During the fiscal year that [started on October 1, 2013 and] ended on September 30, 2014, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed to 133 countries — roughly 70% of the nations on the planet — according to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bockholt, a public affairs officer with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). This capped a three-year span in which the country’s most elite forces were active in more than 150 different countries around the world, conducting missions ranging from kill/capture night raids to training exercises. And this year could be a record-breaker. Only a day before the failed raid that ended Luke Somers life — just 66 days into fiscal 2015 — America’s most elite troops had already set foot in 105 nations, approximately 80% of 2014’s total.”
As the U.S. deploys its special ops forces around the planet, part of their mission, stated or unstated, is to encourage foreign military sales (FMS in the trade). Naturally, in selling weapons to various “allies” around the world, the United States continues to dominate the world’s arms trade, a lead that we’re supposed to keep until the year 2021. Think about it. What other sector of industrial manufacturing will the U.S. dominate for the next seven years?
Here’s an excerpt from the Grimmett Report (2012) that tracks weapons sales around the globe. Note that U.S. dominance of the global arms trade has come under a Democratic president who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize:
Recently, from 2008 to 2011, the United States and Russia have dominated the arms market in the developing world, with both nations either ranking first or second for each of these four years in the value of arms transfer agreements. From 2008 to 2011, the United States made nearly $113 billion in such agreements, 54.5% of all these agreements (expressed in current dollars). Russia made $31.1 billion, 15% of these agreements. During this same period, collectively, the United States and Russia made 69.5% of all arms transfer agreements with developing nations, ($207.3 billion in current dollars) during this four-year period. In 2011, the United States ranked first in arms transfer agreements with developing nations with over $56.3 billion or 78.7% of these agreements, an extraordinary increase in market share from 2010, when the United States held a 43.6% market share. In second place was Russia with $4.1 billion or 5.7% of such agreements. In 2011, the United States ranked first in the value of arms deliveries to developing nations at $10.5 billion, or 37.6% of all such deliveries. Russia ranked second in these deliveries at $7.5 billion or 26.8%.”
When it comes to deploying troops to foreign countries or to selling weapons overseas, the U.S. is indeed Number One. And that is precisely the problem. Troops and weapons do not spread freedom. Troops are trained to fight wars; they are trained to kill. Weapons are designed to kill. It’s a foreign policy based on a readiness — a willingness — perhaps even an eagerness — to kill.
For U.S. foreign policy, our national security state has reached one clear conclusion: the sword is mightier (and far more profitable) than the pen. Sorry, Thomas Jefferson.
Update (3/19/15): Greg Laxer makes an excellent point in the comments about how many weapons the U.S. gives away to foreign countries, i.e. bought and paid for by the American taxpayer. Incredibly, much of this weaponry gets “lost” and is often diverted to American enemies. The latest story out of Yemen speaks to half a billion dollars worth of weaponry getting “lost.” Here’s the story, written by Craig Whitlock and courtesy of the Washington Post:
The Pentagon is unable to account for more than $500 million in U.S. military aid given to Yemen, amid fears that the weaponry, aircraft and equipment is at risk of being seized by Iranian-backed rebels or al-Qaeda, according to U.S. officials.With Yemen in turmoil and its government splintering, the Defense Department has lost its ability to monitor the whereabouts of small arms, ammunition, night-vision goggles, patrol boats, vehicles and other supplies donated by the United States. The situation has grown worse since the United States closed its embassy in Sanaa, the capital, last month and withdrew many of its military advisers.
In recent weeks, members of Congress have held closed-door meetings with U.S. military officials to press for an accounting of the arms and equipment. Pentagon officials have said that they have little information to go on and that there is little they can do at this point to prevent the weapons and gear from falling into the wrong hands.
“We have to assume it’s completely compromised and gone,” said a legislative aide on Capitol Hill who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
U.S. military officials declined to comment for the record. A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said there was no hard evidence that U.S. arms or equipment had been looted or confiscated. But the official acknowledged that the Pentagon had lost track of the items.
“Even in the best-case scenario in an unstable country, we never have 100 percent accountability,” the defense official said.
Yemen’s government was toppled in January by Shiite Houthi rebels who receive support from Iran and have strongly criticized U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. The Houthis have taken over many Yemeni military bases in the northern part of the country, including some in Sanaa that were home to U.S.-trained counterterrorism units. Other bases have been overrun by fighters from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
As a result, the Defense Department has halted shipments to Yemen of about $125 million in military hardware that were scheduled for delivery this year, including unarmed ScanEagle drones, other types of aircraft and Jeeps. That equipment will be donated instead to other countries in the Middle East and Africa, the defense official said.
Although the loss of weapons and equipment already delivered to Yemen would be embarrassing, U.S. officials said it would be unlikely to alter the military balance of power there. Yemen is estimated to have the second-highest gun ownership rate in the world, ranking behind only the United States, and its bazaars are well stocked with heavy weaponry. Moreover, the U.S. government restricted its lethal aid to small firearms and ammunition, brushing aside Yemeni requests for fighter jets and tanks.
In Yemen and elsewhere, the Obama administration has pursued a strategy of training and equipping foreign militaries to quell insurgencies and defeat networks affiliated with al-Qaeda. That strategy has helped to avert the deployment of large numbers of U.S. forces, but it has also met with repeated challenges.
Washington spent $25 billion to re-create and arm Iraq’s security forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, only to see the Iraqi army easily defeated last year by a ragtag collection of Islamic State fighters who took control of large parts of the country. Just last year, President Obama touted Yemen as a successful example of his approach to combating terrorism.
“The administration really wanted to stick with this narrative that Yemen was different from Iraq, that we were going to do it with fewer people, that we were going to do it on the cheap,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “They were trying to do with a minimalist approach because it needed to fit with this narrative . . .that we’re not going to have a repeat of Iraq.”
Auditors with the Government Accountability Office found that Humvees donated to the Yemeni Interior Ministry sat idle or broken because the Defense Ministry refused to share spare parts. (Government Accountability Office)
Washington has supplied more than $500 million in military aid to Yemen since 2007 under an array of Defense Department and State Department programs. The Pentagon and CIA have provided additional assistance through classified programs, making it difficult to know exactly how much Yemen has received in total.
U.S. government officials say al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen poses a more direct threat to the U.S. homeland than any other terrorist group. To counter it, the Obama administration has relied on a combination of proxy forces and drone strikes launched from bases outside the country.
As part of that strategy, the U.S. military has concentrated on building an elite Yemeni special-operations force within the Republican Guard, training counterterrorism units in the Interior Ministry and upgrading Yemen’s rudimentary air force.
Making progress has been difficult. In 2011, the Obama administration suspended counterterrorism aid and withdrew its military advisers after then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh cracked down against Arab Spring demonstrators. The program resumed the next year when Saleh was replaced by his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in a deal brokered by Washington.
In a 2013 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the primary unclassified counterterrorism program in Yemen lacked oversight and that the Pentagon had been unable to assess whether it was doing any good.
Among other problems, GAO auditors found that Humvees donated to the Yemeni Interior Ministry sat idle or broken because the Defense Ministry refused to share spare parts. The two ministries also squabbled over the use of Huey II helicopters supplied by Washington, according to the report.
A senior U.S. military official who has served extensively in Yemen said that local forces embraced their training and were proficient at using U.S. firearms and gear but that their commanders, for political reasons, were reluctant to order raids against al-Qaeda.
“They could fight with it and were fairly competent, but we couldn’t get them engaged” in combat, the military official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with a reporter.
All the U.S.-trained Yemeni units were commanded or overseen by close relatives of Saleh, the former president. Most were gradually removed or reassigned after Saleh was forced out in 2012. But U.S. officials acknowledged that some of the units have maintained their allegiance to Saleh and his family.
According to an investigative report released by a U.N. panel last month, the former president’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, looted an arsenal of weapons from the Republican Guard after he was dismissed as commander of the elite unit two years ago. The weapons were transferred to a private military base outside Sanaa that is controlled by the Saleh family, the U.N. panel found.
It is unclear whether items donated by the U.S. government were stolen, although Yemeni documents cited by the U.N. investigators alleged that the stash included thousands of M-16 rifles, which are manufactured in the United States.
The list of pilfered equipment also included dozens of Humvees, Ford vehicles and Glock pistols, all of which have been supplied in the past to Yemen by the U.S. government. Ahmed Saleh denied the looting allegations during an August 2014 meeting with the U.N. panel, according to the report.
Many U.S. and Yemeni officials have accused the Salehs of conspiring with the Houthis to bring down the government in Sanaa. At Washington’s urging, the United Nations imposed financial and travel sanctions in November against the former president, along with two Houthi leaders, as punishment for destabilizing Yemen.
Ali Abdullah Saleh has dismissed the accusations; last month, he told The Washington Post that he spends most of his time these days reading and recovering from wounds he suffered during a bombing attack on the presidential palace in 2011.
There are clear signals that Saleh and his family are angling for a formal return to power. On Friday, hundreds of people staged a rally in Sanaa to call for presidential elections and for Ahmed Saleh to run.
Although the U.S. Embassy in the capital closed last month, a handful of U.S. military advisers have remained in the southern part of the country at Yemeni bases controlled by commanders that are friendly to the United States.
Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.