The Biden administration says it wants to remove U.S. combat troops from Iraq. Hooray! Mission finally accomplished, right? It may be 18 years after George W. Bush declared it to be so, but who’s counting the years?
Not so fast. For President Biden still wants to keep roughly 2000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq for training and advisory purposes. So much for mission accomplished.
Why can’t U.S. troops just leave — for good? If Iraq can’t defend itself after nearly two decades of U.S. “training” in the war on terror, maybe it’s finally time to admit our limits (or our folly) and simply leave.
It almost seems like America’s system of “defense” is an imperial project — an effort to enlarge American power at almost any cost (and the Iraq war has cost America in the trillions of dollars).
This is the telling argument of Tom Engelhardt’s latest post at TomDispatch.com. The U.S. is the empire that dare not speak its name, even as it begins to collapse due to perpetual war externally and perpetual rancor internally. And, believe me, as former President Trump would say, those two are related. He should know, given how he tapped that rancor and aggravated it for his own purposes.
Here’s an excerpt from Engelhardt’s latest, where he points out what might be termed the Pentagon Paradox: The more America’s generals fail, the more they succeed (more money, more promotions, more power):
Still, let’s face it, this isn’t the set of conflicts that, once upon a time, involved invasions, massive air strikes, occupations, the killing of staggering numbers of civilians, widespread drone attacks, the disruption of whole countries, the uprooting and displacement of more than 37 million people, the deployment at one point of 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan alone, and the spending of untold trillions of American taxpayer dollars, all in the name of fighting terror and spreading democracy. And think of it as mission (un)accomplished in the truest sense imaginable.
In fact, that idea of spreading of democracy didn’t really outlast the Bush years. Ever since, there’s been remarkably little discussion in official Washington about what this country was really doing as it warred across significant parts of the planet. Yes, those two decades of conflict, those “forever wars,” as they came to be called first by critics and then by anyone in sight, are at least winding, or perhaps spiraling, down — and yet, here’s the strange thing: Wouldn’t you think that, as they ended in visible failure, the Pentagon’s stock might also be falling? Oddly enough, though, in the wake of all those years of losing wars, it’s still rising. The Pentagon budget only heads ever more for the stratosphere as foreign policy “pivots” from the Greater Middle East to Asia (and Russia and the Arctic and, well, anywhere but those places where terror groups still roam).
In other words, when it comes to the U.S. military as it tries to leave its forever wars in someone else’s ditch, failure is the new success story.
And how! Maybe we need a new saying in America: Nothing succeeds like failure. It’s truly paradoxical until you realize that someone is always winning and profiting from this failure, even as the rest of America suffers.
Engelhardt’s book above has a well-judged title: “A Nation Unmade By War.” But perhaps we can improve it? How about “An Empire Unmade By War”?
In my latest article for TomDispatch, I write that America is programmed for war. It’s a feature of our polity and our politics and our culture, not a bug. In some sense, we are a country made by war, and that’s not a good feature for a self-avowed democracy to have. Here’s an excerpt:
I know, I know: President Joe Biden has announced that our combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 9/11 of this year, marking the 20th anniversary of the colossal failure of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to defend America.
Of course, that other 9/11 in 2001 shocked us all. I was teaching history at the U.S. Air Force Academy and I still recall hushed discussions of whether the day’s body count would exceed that of the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day of the Civil War. (Fortunately, bad as it was, it didn’t.)
Hijacked commercial airliners, turned into guided missiles by shadowy figures our panicky politicians didn’t understand, would have a profound impact on our collective psyche. Someone had to pay and among the first victims were Afghans in the opening salvo of the misbegotten Global War on Terror, which we in the military quickly began referring to as the GWOT. Little did I know then that such a war would still be going on 15 years after I retired from the Air Force in 2005 and 80 articles after I wrote my first for TomDispatch in 2007 arguing for an end to militarism and forever wars like the one still underway in Afghanistan.
Over those years, I’ve come to learn that, in my country, war always seems to find a way, even when it goes badly — very badly, in fact, as it did in Vietnam and, in these years, in Afghanistan and Iraq, indeed across much of the Greater Middle East and significant parts of Africa. Not coincidentally, those disastrous conflicts haven’t actually been waged in our name. No longer does Congress even bother with formal declarations of war. The last one came in 1941 after Pearl Harbor. During World War II, Americans united to fight for something like national security and a just cause. Today, however, perpetual American-style war simply is. Congress postures, but does nothing decisive to stop it. In computer-speak, endless war is a feature of our national programming, not a bug.
Two pro-war parties, Republicans and Democrats, have cooperated in these decades to ensure that such wars persist… and persist and persist. Still, they’re not the chief reason why America’s wars are so difficult to end. Let me list some of those reasons for you. First, such wars are beyond profitable, notably to weapons makers and related military contractors. Second, such wars are the Pentagon’s reason for being. Let’s not forget that, once upon a time, the present ill-named Department of Defense was so much more accurately and honestly called the Department of War. Third, if profit and power aren’t incentive enough, wars provide purpose and meaning even as they strengthen authoritarian structures in society and erode democratic ones. Sum it all up and war is what America now does, even if the reasons may be indefensible and the results so regularly abysmal.
Support Our Troops! (Who Are They, Again?)
The last truly American war was World War II. And when it ended in 1945, the citizen-soldiers within the U.S. military demanded rapid demobilization — and they got it. But then came the Iron Curtain, the Cold War, the Korean War, fears of nuclear Armageddon (that nearly came to fruition during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962), and finally, of course, Vietnam. Those wars were generally not supported — not with any fervor anyway — by the American people, hence the absence of congressional declarations. Instead, they mainly served the interests of the national security state, or, if you prefer, the military-industrial-congressional complex.
That’s precisely why President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued his grave warning about that Complex in his farewell address in 1961. No peacenik, Ike had overseen more than his share of military coups and interventions abroad while president, so much so that he came to see the faults of the system he was both upholding and seeking to restrain. That was also why President John F. Kennedy called for a more humble and pacific approach to the Cold War in 1963, even as he himself failed to halt the march toward a full-scale war in Southeast Asia. This is precisely why Martin Luther King, Jr., truly a prophet who favored the fierce urgency of peace, warned Americans about the evils of war and militarism (as well as racism and materialism) in 1967. In the context of the enormity of destruction America was then visiting on the peoples of Southeast Asia, not for nothing did he denounce this country as the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.
Collectively, Americans chose to ignore such warnings, our attention being directed instead toward spouting patriotic platitudes in support of “our” troops. Yet, if you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize those troops aren’t really ours. If they were, we wouldn’t need so many bumper stickers reminding us to support them.
With the military draft gone for the last half-century, most Americans have voted with their feet by not volunteering to become “boots on the ground” in the Pentagon’s various foreign escapades. Meanwhile, America’s commanders-in-chief have issued inspiring calls for their version of national service, as when, in the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush urged Americans to go shopping and visit Disney World. In the end, Americans, lacking familiarity with combat boots, are generally apathetic, sensing that “our” wars have neither specific meaning to, nor any essential purpose in their lives.
As a former Air Force officer, even if now retired, I must admit that it took me too long to realize this country’s wars had remarkably little to do with me — or you, for that matter — because we simply have no say in them. That doesn’t mean our leaders don’t seek to wage them in our name. Even as they do so, however, they simultaneously absolve us of any need to serve or sacrifice. We’re essentially told to cheer “our” troops on, but otherwise look away and leave war to the professionals (even if, as it turns out, those professionals seem utterly incapable of winning a single one of them).
Please read the rest of my article here at TomDispatch.com.
Joe Biden is America’s new president, but nothing has changed on the war front. In Iraq, a U.S. airstrike has killed the top leader of the Islamic State, notes today’s New York Times. The paper notes that “the United States has about 2,500 troops left on three Iraqi military bases. While Iraqi capability in fighting the Islamic State group has improved, the country still relies on intelligence, surveillance assets and air support from the US-led coalition.”
Remember when U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011? Of course, despite all the military training and equipment the U.S. showered on a new Iraqi military, that military totally collapsed in 2014 under pressure from the Islamic State. Naturally, the U.S. military took no blame, even as the collapse opened a door for more U.S. military intervention. And so the fighting persists, but at a low-enough level that it stays off of most American radar screens.
Revealingly, this is how the Iraqi parliament responded to the latest U.S. “victory” on terror: “After the drone strike, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution demanding the government expel US forces from Iraq, a move that has not been implemented.”
Do you think President Biden will listen to the Iraqi parliament and withdraw U.S. troops once and for all?
War has been made much too easy in America. Imagine if Joe Biden, or Donald Trump, or Barack Obama, or George W. Bush, actually had to lead troops from the front, exposing themselves to potential harm as they waged America’s wars overseas. It’s easy to sit in the Oval Office and push paper that translates into killing people. I’m not getting nostalgic for the age of Napoleon or the time of kings and queens, but there’s something to be said for physical and moral courage and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for what one believes.
This put me to mind of a passage from Tana French’s novel, “The Likeness,” from 2008. French writes the following “rant” for one of her characters:
“Look at the old wars, centuries ago: the king led his men into battle. Always. That was what the ruler was: both on a practical level and on a mystical one, he was the one who stepped forwards to lead his tribe, put his life at stake for them, become the sacrifice for their safety. If he had refused to do that most crucial thing at that most crucial moment, they would have ripped him apart—and rightly so: he would have shown himself to be an impostor, with no right to the throne. The king was the country; how could he possibly expect it to go into battle without him? But now…Can you see any modern president or prime minister on the front line, leading his men into the war he’s started? And once that physical and mystical link is broken, once the ruler is no longer willing to be the sacrifice for his people, he becomes not a leader but a leech, forcing others to take his risks while he sits in safety and battens on their losses. War becomes a hideous abstraction, a game for bureaucrats to play on paper; soldiers and civilians become mere pawns, to be sacrificed by the thousands for reasons that have no roots in any reality. As soon as rulers mean nothing, war means nothing; human life means nothing. We’re ruled by venal little usurpers, all of us, and they make meaninglessness everywhere they go.” (pages 320-21, emphasis added)
It’s a powerful passage that has much to say about America’s seemingly eternal wars against someone somewhere.
For America’s rulers, war has largely become “kinetic action” at an entirely safe distance, so far away as to become almost an imaginary construct, except for the vast profits earned from it. To most Americans, as French suggests, it has become an exercise in meaninglessness. And whatever else war is or should be, it should have meaning, otherwise it’s just killing for nothing.
All this talk of coups, and U.S. military veterans’ involvement in the same, reminds me of an article I wrote for TomDispatch.com exactly eleven years ago in 2010. In the article, I suggested the possibility of “a very American coup” in 2016, and I wrote that “A military that’s being used to fight unwinnable wars is a military prone to return home disaffected and with scores to settle.” Recent events at the U.S. Capitol suggest that many Americans do have scores to settle, and some of them are disaffected veterans.
Of course, my vintage 2010 crystal ball wasn’t completely clear, but I think I got a few things more or less right, especially my prescriptions for preventing coups, which still apply today, I’d argue. What do you think, readers?
The wars in distant lands were always going to come home, but not this way.
It’s September 2016, year 15 of America’s “Long War” against terror. As weary troops return to the homeland, a bitter reality assails them: despite their sacrifices, America is losing.
Iraq is increasingly hostile to remaining occupation forces. Afghanistan is a riddle that remains unsolved: its army and police forces are untrustworthy, its government corrupt, and its tribal leaders unsympathetic to the vagaries of U.S. intervention. Since the Obama surge of 2010, a trillion more dollars have been devoted to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and other countries in the vast shatter zone that is central Asia, without measurable returns; nothing, that is, except the prolongation of America’s Great Recession, now entering its tenth year without a sustained recovery in sight.
Disillusioned veterans are unable to find decent jobs in a crumbling economy. Scarred by the physical and psychological violence of war, fed up with the happy talk of duplicitous politicians who only speak of shared sacrifices, they begin to organize. Their motto: take America back.
Meanwhile, a lame duck presidency, choking on foreign policy failures, finds itself attacked even for its putative successes. Health-care reform is now seen to have combined the inefficiency and inconsistency of government with the naked greed and exploitative talents of corporations. Medical rationing is a fact of life confronting anyone on the high side of 50. Presidential rhetoric that offered hope and change has lost all resonance. Mainstream media outlets are discredited and disintegrating, resulting in new levels of information anarchy.
Protest, whether electronic or in the streets, has become more common — and the protestors in those streets increasingly carry guns, though as yet armed violence is minimal. A panicked administration responds with overlapping executive orders and legislation that is widely perceived as an attack on basic freedoms.
Tapping the frustration of protesters — including a renascent and mainstreamed “tea bag” movement — the former captains and sergeants, the ex-CIA operatives and out-of-work private mercenaries of the War on Terror take action. Conflict and confrontation they seek; laws and orders they increasingly ignore. As riot police are deployed in the streets, they face a grim choice: where to point their guns? Not at veterans, they decide, not at America’s erstwhile heroes.
A dwindling middle-class, still waving the flag and determined to keep its sliver-sized portion of the American dream, throws its support to the agitators. Wages shrinking, savings exhausted, bills rising, the sober middle can no longer hold. It vents its fear and rage by calling for a decisive leader and the overthrow of a can’t-do Congress.
Savvy members of traditional Washington elites are only too happy to oblige. They too crave order and can-do decisiveness — on their terms. Where better to find that than in the ranks of America’s most respected institution: the military?
A retired senior officer who led America’s heroes in central Asia is anointed. His creed: end public disorder, fight the War on Terror to a victorious finish, put America back on top. The United States, he says, is the land of winners, and winners accept no substitute for victory. Nominated on September 11, 2016, Patriot Day, he marches to an overwhelming victory that November, embraced in the streets by an American version of the post-World War I GermanFreikorps and the police who refuse to suppress them. A concerned minority is left to wonder (and tremble) at the de facto military coup that occurred so quickly, and yet so silently, in their midst.
It Can Happen Here, Unless We Act
Yes, it can happen here. In some ways, it’s already happening. But the key question is: at this late date, how can it be stopped? Here are some vectors for a change in course, and in mindset as well, if we are to avoid our own stealth coup:
1. Somehow, we need to begin to reverse the ongoing militarization of this country, especially our ever-rising “defense” budgets. The most recent of these, we’ve just learned, is a staggering $708 billion for fiscal year 2011 — and that doesn’t even include the $33 billion President Obama has requested for his latest surge in Afghanistan. We also need to get rid of the idea that anyone who suggests even minor cuts in defense spending is either hopelessly naïve or a terrorist sympathizer. It’s time as well to call a halt to the privatization of military activity and so halt the rise of security contractors like Xe (formerly Blackwater), thereby weakening the corporate profit motive that supports and underpins the American version of perpetual war. It’s time to begin feeling chastened, not proud, that we’re by far the number one country in the world in arms manufacturing and the global arms trade.
2. Let’s downsize our global mission rather than endlessly expanding our military footprint. It’s time to have a military capable of defending this country, not fighting endless wars in distant lands while garrisoning the globe.
3. Let’s stop paying attention to major TV and cable networks that rely on retired senior military officers, most of whom have ties both to the Pentagon and military contractors, for “unbiased” commentary on our wars. If we insist on fighting our perpetual “frontier” wars, let’s start insisting as well that they be covered in all their bitter reality: the death, the mayhem, the waste, the prisons, and the torture. Why is our war coverage invariably sanitized to “PG” or even “G,” when we can go to the movies anytime and see “R” rated, pornographically violent films? And by the way, it’s time to be more critical of the government’s and the media’s use of language and propaganda. Mindlessly parroting the Patriot Act doesn’t make you patriotic.
4. It’s time to elect a president who doesn’t surround himself with senior “civilian” advisors and ambassadors who are actually retired military generals and admirals, one who won’t accept a Nobel Peace Prize by defending war in theory and escalating it in practice.
5. Let’s toughen up. Let’s stop deferring to authority figures who promise to “protect” us while abridging our rights. Let’s stop bowing down before men and women in uniform, before they start thinking that it’s their right to be worshipped and act accordingly.
6. Let’s act now to relieve the sort of desperation bred by joblessness and hopelessness that could lead many — notably male workers suffering from the “He-Cession” — to see a militarized solution in “the homeland” as a credible last resort. It’s the economy, stupid, but with Main Street’s health, not Wall Street’s, in our focus.
7. Let’s take Sarah Palin and her followers seriously. They’re tapping into anger that’s real and spreading. Don’t let them become the voices of the angry working (and increasingly unemployed) classes.
8. Recognize that we face real enemies in our world, the most powerful of which aren’t in distant Afghanistan or Yemen but here at home. The essence of our struggle to sustain our faltering democracy should not be against “terrorists,” with their shoe and crotch bombs, but against various powerful, perfectly legal groups here whose interests lie in a Pentagon that only grows ever stronger.
9. Stop thinking the U.S. is uniquely privileged. Don’t take it on faith that God is on our side. Forget about God blessing America. If you believe in God, get out there and start trying to earn His blessing through deeds.
10. And, most important of all, remember that fear is the mind-killer that makes militarism possible. Ramping up “terror” is an amazingly effective way of shredding our Constitution. Putting our “safety” above all else is asking for trouble. The only way we’ll be completely safe from the big bad terrorists, after all, is when we’re all living in a maximum security state. Think of walking down the street while always being subject to a “full-body scan.”
That’s my top 10 things we need to do. It’s a daunting list and I’m sure you have a few ideas of your own. But have faith. Ultimately, it all boils down to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words to a nation suffering through the Great Depression: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. These words came to mind recently as I read the following missive from a friend and World War II veteran who’s seen tough times:
“It’s very hard for me to accept how soft the American people have become. In 1941, with the western world under assault by powerful and deadly forces, and a large armada of ships and planes attacking us directly, I never heard a word of fear as we faced three powerful nations as enemies. Sixteen million of us went into the military with the very real possibility of death and I never once heard of fear, except from those exposed to danger. Now, our people let [their leaders] terrify them into accepting the destruction of our economy, our image in the world, and our democracy… All this over a small group of religious fanatics [mostly] from Saudi Arabia whom we kowtow to so we can drive 8-cylinder SUV’s. Pathetic!”
“How many times have I stood in ‘security lines’ at airports and when I complained of the indignity of taking off shoes and not having water and the manhandling of passengers, have well educated people smugly said to me, ‘Well, they’re just keeping us safe.’ I look at the airport bullshit as a training ground to turn Americans into docile sheep in a totalitarian state.”
A public conditioned to act like sheep, to “support our troops” no matter what, to cower before the idea of terrorism, is a public ready to be herded. A military that’s being used to fight unwinnable wars is a military prone to return home disaffected and with scores to settle.
Angry and desperate veterans and mercenaries already conditioned to violence, merging with “tea baggers” and other alienated groups, could one day form our own Freikorps units, rioting for violent solutions to national decline. Recall that the Nazi movement ultimately succeeded in the early 1930s because so many middle-class Germans were scared as they saw their wealth, standard of living, and status all threatened by the Great Depression.
If our Great Recession continues, if decent jobs remain scarce, if the mainstream media continue to foster fear and hatred, if returning troops are disaffected and their leaders blame politicians for “not being tough enough,” if one or two more terrorist attacks succeed on U.S. soil, wouldn’t this country be well primed for a coup by any other name?
Don’t expect a “Seven Days in May” scenario. No American Caesar will return to Washington with his legions to decapitate governmental authority. Why not? Because he won’t have to.
As long as we continue to live in perpetual fear in an increasingly militarized state, we establish the preconditions under which Americans will be nailed to, and crucified on, a cross of iron.
William J. Astore teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology (firstname.lastname@example.org). A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), he has also taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism.
At the American Conservative, I discuss the War on Terror, the nomination of General (retired) Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense, the lack of an American anti-war movement, and why we never see a “peace dividend” in the USA. My discussion begins at the 16-minute point.
Also, articles by Matt Taibbi and David Sirota suggest that the biggest winner of the latest Covid-relief stimulus talks in Congress is, believe it or not, the military-industrial complex. Right now there are no plans to send money to the American people, even as nearly 15 million have lost their employer-sponsored health care and millions more face eviction or foreclosure in the new year.
“Amazing” Hypocrisy: Democrats Make Wreck of Covid-19 Relief Negotiations Democrats stonewalled all year on a new pandemic relief package. Now they’re proposing a new plan that undercuts even Republican proposals, and screws everyone but – get this – defense contractors, by Matt Taibbi at https://taibbi.substack.com/p/amazing-hypocrisy-democrats-make
Taibbi quotes one aide as saying: “There are no direct payments for regular working people, people living off tips. But they made sure there’s a provision in there to help defense contractors who aren’t working right now. They get what they’re looking for.”
In short, the military-industrial complex wins again. The American people? They lose again.
Back in May of 2019, I wrote an article here on General William Westmoreland and the Vietnam War. Westmoreland was conventional in every sense of the word; it was his misfortune to be put in charge of an unconventional war in Southeast Asia, a war he didn’t understand but also one that was unnecessary for U.S. security and incredibly wasteful to boot. Relieved of command by being booted upstairs, Westmoreland went to his grave convinced that the war was winnable. If only he’d received the reinforcements he needed …
Today at TomDispatch.com, Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and author, imagines Westmoreland grousing in a bar with two other generals: George S. Patton of World War II fame, and an imaginary general of today’s wars, Victor Constant. Let’s just say General Constant does not cover himself in glory, failing to live up to his victor(ious) first name as he loses himself in vapid catchphrases he’s gleaned from PowerPoint briefings on war and its meaning. Much like today’s generals, in fact.
So, with the blessing of TomDispatch.com, here is that barroom conversation, as imagined by Colonel (ret.) Bacevich:
Patton and Westy Meet in a Bar A Play of Many Parts in One Act By Andrew Bacevich
It’s only mid-afternoon and Army Lieutenant General Victor Constant has already had a bad day.1 Soon after he arrived at the office at 0700, the Chief2 had called. “Come see me. We need to talk.”
The call was not unexpected. Any day now, POTUS3 will announce the next four-star to command the war effort in Afghanistan — how many have there been? — and Constant felt certain that he’d be tapped for the job. He’d certainly earned it. Multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, worse still, at the Pentagon. If anyone deserved that fourth star, he did.
Unfortunately, the Chief sees things differently. “Time’s up, Vic. I need you to retire.” Thirty-three years of service and this is what you get: your walking papers, with maybe a medal thrown in.
Constant returns to his office, then abruptly tells his staff that he needs some personal time. A 10-minute drive and he’s at the O-Club, where the bar is just opening. “Barkeep,” he growls. “Bourbon. Double. Rocks.” On the job long enough to have seen more than a few senior officers get the axe, the bartender quietly complies.
Constant has some thinking to do. For the first time in his adult life, he’s about to become unemployed. His alimony payments and college tuition bills are already killing him. When he and Sally have to move out of quarters,4 she’s going to expect that fancy house in McLean or Potomac that he had hinted at when they were dating. But where’s the money going to come from?
He needs a plan. “Barkeep. Another.” Lost in thought, Constant doesn’t notice that he’s no longer alone. Two soldiers — one boisterous, the other melancholy — have arrived and are occupying adjacent bar stools.
The first of them smells of horses. To judge by his jodhpurs and riding crop, he’s just returned from playing polo. He has thinning gray hair, small uneven teeth, a high-pitched voice, and a grin that says: I know things you never will, you dumb sonofabitch. He exudes arrogance and charisma. He is George S. Patton. He orders whiskey with a beer chaser.
The second wears Vietnam-era jungle fatigues, starched. His jump boots glisten.5 On his ballcap, which he carefully sets aside, are four embroidered silver stars. He is impeccably groomed and manicured. The nametape over his breast pocket reads: WESTMORELAND. He exudes the resentment of someone who has been treated unfairly — or thinks he has.
“Westy! Damned if you still don’t look like TIME’s Man of the Year back in ’65! Ease up, man! Have a drink. What’ll it be?”
“Just water for me, General. It’s a bit early in the day.”
“Shit. Water? You think my guys beat the Nazis by filling their canteens with water?”
Westmoreland sniffs. “Alcohol consumption does not correlate with battlefield performance — although my troops did not suffer from a shortage of drink. They never suffered from shortages of anything.”
Patton guffaws. “But you lost! That’s the point, ain’t it? You lost!”
The bickering draws Victor Constant out of his reverie. “Gentlemen, please.”
“Who are you, bucko?” asks Patton.
“I am Lieutenant General Victor Constant, U.S. Army. To my friends, I’m VC.”
“VC!” Westy nearly falls off of his stool. “My army has generals named after the Vietcong?”
Patton intervenes. “Well, VC, tell us old timers what you’re famous for and why you’re here, drinking in uniform during duty hours.
“Well, sir, first of all, I’m a warrior. I commanded a company in combat, then a battalion, then a brigade, then a division. But I’m here now because the chief just told me that I need to retire. That came as a bit of a blow. I don’t know what Sally is going to say.” He stares at his drink.
Patton snorts. “Well, my young friend, sounds like you’ve seen plenty of action. All that fighting translates into how many wins?”
“Wins?” VC doesn’t quite grasp the question.
“Wins,” Patton says again. “You know, victories. The enemy surrenders. Their flag comes down and ours goes up. The troops go home to a heroes’ welcome. Polo resumes.”
Westy interjects. “Wins? Are you that out of touch, George? The answer is: none. These so-called warriors haven’t won anything.”
“With all due respect, sir, I don’t think that’s fair. Everyone agrees that, back in ’91, Operation Desert Storm was a historic victory. I know. I was there, fresh out of West Point.”
Patton smirks. “Then why did you have to go back and do it again in 2003? And why has your army been stuck in Iraq ever since? Not to mention Syria! And don’t get me started on Afghanistan or Somalia! The truth is your record isn’t any better than Westy’s.”
“Now, see here, George. You’re being unreasonable. We never lost a fight in Vietnam.” He pauses and corrects himself. “Well, maybe not never, but very rarely.”
“Rarely lost a fight!” Patton roars. “What does that have to do with anything? That’s like you and your thing with body counts! Dammit, Westy, don’t you know anything about war?”
VC ventures an opinion. “General Westmoreland, sir, I’m going to have to agree with General Patton on this one. You picked the wrong metric to measure progress. We don’t do body counts anymore.”
“Well, what’s your metric, sonny?”
VC squirms and falls silent.
His hackles up, Westy continues. “First of all, the whole body-count business was the fault of the politicians. We knew exactly how to defeat North Vietnam. Invade the country, destroy the NVA,6 occupy Hanoi. Just like World War II: Mission accomplished. Not complicated.”
He pauses to take a breath. “But LBJ and that arrogant fool McNamara7 wouldn’t let us. They imposed limits. They wouldn’t even mobilize the reserves. They set restrictions on where we could go, what we could attack. General Patton here had none of those problems in ’44-’45. And then the press turned on us. And the smartass college kids who should have been fighting communists started protesting. Nothing like it before or since — the home front collaborating with the enemy.”
Westy changes his mind about having a drink. “Give me a gin martini,” he barks. “Straight up. Twist of lemon. And give VC here” — his voice drips with contempt — “another of whatever he’s having.”
The bartender, who has been eavesdropping while pretending to polish glassware, grabs a bottle and pours.
“Hearts and minds, Westy, hearts and minds.” Patton taunts, obviously enjoying himself.
“Yes, hearts and minds. Don’t you think, George, that we understood the importance of winning over the South Vietnamese? But after Diem’s assassination,8 the Republic of Vietnam consisted of little more than a flag. After D-Day, you didn’t need to create France. You just needed to kick out the Germans and hand matters over to De Gaulle.”9
Westmoreland is becoming increasingly animated. “And you fought alongside the Brits. We were shackled to a Vietnamese army that was miserably led and not eager to fight either.”
“Monty was a horse’s ass,”10 Patton interjects, apropos of nothing.
“The point is,” Westmoreland continues, “liberating Europe was politically simple. Defending South Vietnam came with complications you could never havedreamed of. Did the New York Times pester you about killing civilians? All you had to do to keep the press on your side was not to get caught slapping your own soldiers.”
“That was an isolated incident and I apologized,” Patton replies, with a tight smile. “But the fact is, Westy, all your talk about ‘firepower and mobility’ didn’t work. ‘Search and destroy’? Hell, you damn near destroyed the whole U.S. Army. And the war ended with the North Vietnamese sitting in Saigon.”
“Ho Chi Minh City,” Victor Constant offers by way of correction.
“Oh, shut up,” Patton and Westmoreland respond simultaneously.
Patton leans menacingly toward Victor Constant and looks him right in the eye. “Have you seen my movie, son?”11
“Yes, of course, sir. Several times.”
“Then you should understand what war is all about. You ‘hold onto him by the nose’ and you ‘kick him in the ass.’ That’s what I said in the movie. Why is that so hard to understand? How is it that my soldiers could defeat those Hun bastards and you and your crew can’t manage to take care of a few thousand ‘militants’ who don’t have tanks or an air force or even decent uniforms, for God’s sake?”
“Hearts and minds, George, hearts and minds.”
“What’s that supposed to mean, Westy?”
“Your kick-them-in-the-ass approach isn’t good enough these days. You studied Clausewitz — war is politics with guns. Now, I’ll give you this much: in Vietnam, we never got the politics right. We couldn’t solve the puzzle of making war work politically. Maybe there wasn’t a solution. Maybe the war was already lost the day I showed up. So we just killed to no purpose. That’s a failure I took to my grave.”
A bead of perspiration is forming on Westmoreland’s lip. “But these guys” — he nods toward Constant — “now, we’ve got a generation of generals who think they’ve seen a lot of war but don’t know squat about politics — and don’t even want to know. And we’ve got a generation of politicians who don’t know squat about war, but keep doling out the money. There’s no dialogue, no strategy, no connecting war and politics.”
Victor Constant is mystified. Dialogue? He rouses himself to defend his service. “Gentlemen, let me remind you that the United States Army today is far and away the world’s finest military force. No one else comes close.”
Westy just presses on. “So what has your experience in war taught you? What have you learned?”
Patton repeats the question. “What have you learned, Mr. Warrior? Tell us.”
Learned? After several drinks, Victor Constant is not at his best. “Well, I’ve learned a lot. The whole army has.”
He struggles to recall recent PowerPoint briefings that he’s dozed through. Random phrases come to mind. “Leap-ahead technology. Dominant maneuver in an ever-enlarging battlespace. Simultaneous and sequential operations. Artificial Intelligence. Quantum computing. Remote sensing. Machine learning. Big data analytics. 5G technology. High-fidelity, multi-domain training.”
However dimly, VC realizes he’s babbling. He pauses to catch his breath. “It’s all coming, if they’ll just give us the money.”
Patton stares at him silently. Victor Constant senses that it’s time to go home.
“Can I call you a taxi?” Westmoreland asks.
“No, sir, thank you.” With as much dignity as he can muster, Victor Constant straightens his tie, finds his headgear, and walks unsteadily toward the door.
What have I learned? What did they even mean? He was a general officer in the best army in the world. Maybe the best army ever. Wasn’t that enough? He needed to ask Sally.
1 Victor Constant is the name of the ski slope at the United States Military Academy, called such in memory of a cadet ski instructor killed in an accident during World War II. To my knowledge, there is no officer bearing that name in the U.S. Army. Return to story.
4 Many of the army’s most senior officers are housed at government-owned quarters at Fort Myers, Virginia, and Fort McNair in Washington. Return to story.
5 Beginning in World War II, U.S. Army paratroopers sported a distinctive style of black leather boot, more fashionable than standard army issue. After the war, Westmoreland attended jump school and commanded the 101st Airborne Division. Return to story.
7 Lyndon Johnson served as U.S. president from November 1963 to January 1969. Robert Strange McNamara filled the post of defense secretary from 1961 to 1968. Return to story.
8 The November 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem destroyed whatever slight political legitimacy the Republic of Vietnam had possessed. Return to story.
9 Charles De Gaulle was the leader of the Free French during World War II. Return to story.
10 Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, the senior British commander in the European Theater of Operations in World War II, had a low opinion of American officers from U.S. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower on down. Return to story.
While the mainstream media focuses on alleged threats from without, the most insidious dangers are those from within America, as I argue in my latest article for TomDispatch.com. Here’s an excerpt:
Killing Democracy in America The Military-Industrial Complex as a Cytokine Storm
By William J. Astore
The phrase “thinking about the unthinkable” has always been associated with the unthinkable cataclysm of a nuclear war, and rightly so. Lately, though, I’ve been pondering another kind of unthinkable scenario, nearly as nightmarish (at least for a democracy) as a thermonuclear Armageddon, but one that’s been rolling out in far slower motion: that America’s war on terror never ends because it’s far more convenient for America’s leaders to keep it going — until, that is, it tears apart anything we ever imagined as democracy.
I fear that it either can’t or won’t end because, as Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out in 1967 during the Vietnam War, the United States remains the world’s greatest purveyor of violence — and nothing in this century, the one he didn’t live to see, has faintly proved him wrong. Considered another way, Washington should be classified as the planet’s most committed arsonist, regularly setting or fanning the flames of fires globally from Libya to Iraq, Somalia to Afghanistan, Syria to — dare I say it — in some quite imaginable future Iran, even as our leaders invariably boast of having the world’s greatest firefighters (also known as the U.S. military).
Scenarios of perpetual war haunt my thoughts. For a healthy democracy, there should be few things more unthinkable than never-ending conflict, that steady drip-drip of death and destruction that drives militarism, reinforces authoritarianism, and facilitates disaster capitalism. In 1795, James Madison warned Americans that war of that sort would presage the slow death of freedom and representative government. His prediction seems all too relevant in a world in which, year after year, this country continues to engage in needless wars that have nothing to do with national defense.
You Wage War Long, You Wage It Wrong
To cite one example of needless war from the last century, consider America’s horrendous years of fighting in Vietnam and a critical lesson drawn firsthand from that conflict by reporter Jonathan Schell. “In Vietnam,” he noted, “I learned about the capacity of the human mind to build a model of experience that screens out even very dramatic and obvious realities.” As a young journalist covering the war, Schell saw that the U.S. was losing, even as its military was destroying startlingly large areas of South Vietnam in the name of saving it from communism. Yet America’s leaders, the “best and brightest” of the era, almost to a man refused to see that all of what passed for realism in their world, when it came to that war, was nothing short of a first-class lie.
Why? Because believing is seeing and they desperately wanted to believe that they were the good guys, as well as the most powerful guys on the planet. America was winning, it practically went without saying, because it had to be. They were infected by their own version of an all-American victory culture, blinded by a sense of this country’s obvious destiny: to be the most exceptional and exceptionally triumphant nation on this planet.
As it happened, it was far more difficult for grunts on the ground to deny the reality of what was happening — that they were fighting and dying in a senseless war. As a result, especially after the shock of the enemy’s Tet Offensive early in 1968, escalating protests within the military (and among veterans at home) together with massive antiwar demonstrations finally helped put the brakes on that war. Not before, however, more than 58,000 American troops died, along with millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians.
In the end, the war in Indochina was arguably too costly, messy, and futile to continue. But never underestimate the military-industrial complex, especially when it comes to editing or denying reality, while being eternally over-funded for that very reality. It’s a trait the complex has shared with politicians of both parties. Don’t forget, for instance, the way President Ronald Reagan reedited that disastrous conflict into a “noble cause” in the 1980s. And give him credit! That was no small thing to sell to an American public that had already lived through such a war. By the way, tell me something about that Reaganesque moment doesn’t sound vaguely familiar almost four decades later when our very own “wartime president” long ago declared victory in the “war” on Covid-19, even as the death toll from that virus approaches 150,000 in the homeland.
In the meantime, the military-industrial complex has mastered the long con of the no-win forever war in a genuinely impressive fashion. Consider the war in Afghanistan. In 2021 it will enter its third decade without an end in sight. Even when President Trump makes noises about withdrawing troops from that country, Congress approves an amendment to another massive, record-setting military budget with broad bipartisan support that effectively obstructs any efforts to do so (while the Pentagon continues to bargain Trump down on the subject).
The Vietnam War, which was destroying the U.S. military, finally ended in an ignominious withdrawal. Almost two decades later, after the 2001 invasion, the war in Afghanistan can now be — the dream of the Vietnam era — fought in a “limited” fashion, at least from the point of view of Congress, the Pentagon, and most Americans (who ignore it), even if not the Afghans. The number of American troops being killed is, at this point, acceptably low, almost imperceptible in fact (even if not to Americans who have lost loved ones over there).
More and more, the U.S. military is relying on air power, unmanned drones, mercenaries, local militias, paramilitaries, and private contractors. Minimizing American casualties is an effective way of minimizing negative media coverage here; so, too, are efforts by the Trump administration to classify nearly everything related to that war while denying or downplaying “collateral damage” — that is, dead civilians — from it.
Their efforts boil down to a harsh truth: America just plain lies about its forever wars, so that it can keep on killing in lands far from home.
When we as Americans refuse to take in the destruction we cause, we come to passively accept the belief system of the ruling class that what’s still bizarrely called “defense” is a “must have” and that we collectively must spend significantly more than a trillion dollars a year on the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and a sprawling network of intelligence agencies, all justified as necessary defenders of America’s freedom. Rarely does the public put much thought into the dangers inherent in a sprawling “defense” network that increasingly invades and dominates our lives.
Meanwhile, it’s clear that low-cost wars, at least in terms of U.S. troops killed and wounded in action, can essentially be prolonged indefinitely, even when they never result in anything faintly like victory or fulfill any faintly useful American goal. The Afghan War remains the case in point. “Progress” is a concept that only ever fits the enemy — the Taliban continues to gain ground — yet, in these years, figures like retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus have continued to call for a “generational” commitment of troops and resources there, akin to U.S. support for South Korea.
Who says the Pentagon leadership learned nothing from Vietnam? They learned how to wage open-ended wars basically forever, which has proved useful indeed when it comes to justifying and sustaining epic military budgets and the political authority that goes with them. But here’s the thing: in a democracy, if you wage war long, you wage it wrong. Athens and the historian Thucydides learned this the hard way in the struggle against Sparta more than two millennia ago. Why do we insist on forgetting such an obvious lesson?
There’s a new article at The Atlantic by Mark Bowden that cites America’s generals to condemn Donald Trump’s leadership of the military. Here’s how the article begins:
For most of the past two decades, American troops have been deployed all over the world—to about 150 countries. During that time, hundreds of thousands of young men and women have experienced combat, and a generation of officers have come of age dealing with the practical realities of war. They possess a deep well of knowledge and experience. For the past three years, these highly trained professionals have been commanded by Donald Trump.
That’s quite the opening. A few comments:
It’s not a good thing that American troops have been deployed to nearly 150 countries over the last 20 years. Indeed, it points to the scattershot nature of U.S. strategy, such as it is, in the “global war on terror.”
Hundreds of thousands of troops have “experienced combat” — and this is a good thing? What wars have they won? What about the dead and wounded? What about the enormous monetary cost of these wars?
Dealing with “the practical realities of war” — Please tell me, again, how Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc., have played out?
“Highly trained professionals” with “a deep well of knowledge and experience.” Again, tell me which wars America has clearly won.
The gist of Bowden’s article is that Trump is capricious, vain, contrary, and ignorant. But his biggest sin is that he doesn’t listen to the experts in the military and the intelligence community, whereas George W. Bush and Barack Obama did.
Aha! Tell me again how things worked out for Bush and Obama. Bush led the USA disastrously into Afghanistan and Iraq; Obama “surged” in Afghanistan (a failure), created a disaster in Libya, and oversaw an expansion of Bush’s wars against terror. And these men did all this while listening to the experts, those “highly trained professionals” with those allegedly “deep” wells of knowledge and experience.
Given this record, can one blame Trump for claiming he’s smarter than the generals? Can one fault him for trying to end needless wars? He was elected, after all, on a platform of ending costly and foolish wars. Is he not trying, however inconsistently or confusingly, to fulfill that platform?
The point here is not to praise Donald Trump, who as commander-in-chief is indeed capricious and ignorant and too convinced of his own brilliance. The point is to question Bowden’s implied faith in the generals and their supposed “deep well” of expertise. For if you judge them by their works, and not by their words, this expertise has failed to produce anything approaching victory at a sustainable cost.
Bowden’s article concludes with this warning: In the most crucial areas, the generals said, the military’s experienced leaders have steered Trump away from disaster. So far.
“The hard part,” one general said, “is that he may be president for another five years.”
The generals “have steered Trump away from disaster.” Really. Tell me who’s going to steer the generals away from their disasters — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, the list goes on.
Bowden, it must be said, makes valid points about Trump’s weaknesses and blind spots. But in embracing and even celebrating the generals, Bowden reveals a major blind spot of his own.
How can Democrats win the presidency in 2020? The answer is simple: field a candidate who’s genuinely anti-war. A candidate focused on America and the domestic health of our country rather than on global empire. A candidate like Tulsi Gabbard, for example, who’s both a military veteran and who’s anti-war. (Gabbard does say, however, that she’s a hawk against terrorism.) Another possibility is Bernie Sanders, who’s beginning to hone his anti-war bona fides, and who’s always been focused on domestic issues that help ordinary Americans, e.g. a higher minimum wage, single-payer health care for all, and free college education at public institutions.
Many Democrats still don’t recognize that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 in part because she was more hawkish than Trump on foreign policy and wars. (As an aside, the burdens of war are most likely to fall on those people Hillary dismissed as “deplorables.”) Most Americans are tired of endless wars in faraway places like Afghanistan and Syria as well as endless global commitments that drive a “defense” budget that stands at $716 billion this year, increasing to $750 billion next year. Throwing more money at the Pentagon, to put it mildly, isn’t the wisest approach if your goal is to end wasteful wars and restore greatness here at home.
Many of Trump’s supporters get this. I was reading Ben Bradlee Jr.’s book, The Forgotten, which examines the roots of Trump’s victory by focusing on Pennsylvania. Bradlee interviews a Vietnam veteran, Ed Harry, who had this to say about war and supporting Trump:
“We’re tired. Since I’ve been born, we’ve been in a state of war almost all the time. When does it stop? We’re pissing away all our money building bombs that kill people, and we don’t take care of veterans at home that need the help.”
Harry says he voted for Trump “because he was a nonpolitician” rather than a liberal or conservative. Trump, the “nonpolitician,” dared to talk about America’s wasteful wars and the need to end them, whereas Hillary Clinton made the usual vague yet tough-sounding noises about staying the course and supporting the military.
Again, Democrats need to listen to and embrace veterans like Ed Harry when he says: “All the money pissed away on wars could be used here to take care of the needs of the people.”
I’d like to cite one more Vietnam veteran, Richard Brummett, who was interviewed in 2018 by Nick Turse at The Nation. Brummett, I think, would identify more as a liberal and Harry more as a conservative, but these labels really mean little because these veterans arrive at the same place: arguing against America’s endless wars.
Here’s what Brummett had to say about these wars: “I feel intense sadness that we’ve gotten the country into this. All these naive 20-year-olds, 18-year-olds, are getting chewed up by these wars–and then there’s what we’re doing to the people of all these countries. The list gets longer all the time: Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria. Who is benefiting from all this agony? I had the naive hope, in the years after Vietnam, that when I died–as a really old guy–the obituary would read: ‘America’s last combat veteran of any war died today.'”
If Democrats want to lose again, they’ll run a “centrist” (i.e. a pseudo-Republican) like Joe Biden or Kamala Harris who’ll make the usual noises about having a strong military and keeping the world safe by bombing everywhere. But if they want to win, they’ll run a candidate who’s willing to tell the truth about endless wars and their incredibly high and debilitating costs. This candidate will promise an end to the madness, and as a result he or she will ignite a fire under a large and diverse group of voters, because there are a lot of people out there like Harry and Brummett who are fed up with forever war.
Most Americans would say we have a military for national defense and security. But our military is not a defensive force. Defense is not its ethos, nor is it how our military is structured. Our military is a power-projection force. It is an offensive force. It is designed to take the fight to the enemy. To strike first, usually justified as “preemptive” or “preventive” action. It’s a military that believes “the best defense is a good offense,” with leaders who believe in “full-spectrum dominance,” i.e. quick and overwhelming victories, enabled by superior technology and firepower, whether on the ground, on the seas, in the air, or even in space or cyberspace.
Thus the “global war on terror” wasn’t a misnomer, or at least the word “global” wasn’t. Consider the article below today at TomDispatch.com by Stephanie Savell. Our military is involved in at least 80 countries in this global war, with no downsizing of the mission evident in the immediate future (perhaps, perhaps, a slow withdrawal from Syria; perhaps, perhaps, a winding down of the Afghan War; meanwhile, we hear rumblings of possible military interventions in Venezuela and Iran).
Here’s a sad reality: U.S. military troops and military contractors/weapons dealers have become America’s chief missionaries, our ambassadors, our diplomats, our aid workers, even our “peace” corps, if by “peace” you mean more weaponry and combat training in the name of greater “stability.”
We’ve become a one-dimensional country. All military all the time. W.J. Astore
Mapping the American War on Terror Now in 80 Countries, It Couldn’t Be More Global
By Stephanie Savell
In September 2001, the Bush administration launched the “Global War on Terror.” Though “global” has long since been dropped from the name, as it turns out, they weren’t kidding.
When I first set out to map all the places in the world where the United States is still fighting terrorism so many years later, I didn’t think it would be that hard to do. This was before the 2017 incident in Niger in which four American soldiers were killed on a counterterror mission and Americans were given an inkling of how far-reaching the war on terrorism might really be. I imagined a map that would highlight Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria — the places many Americans automatically think of in association with the war on terror — as well as perhaps a dozen less-noticed countries like the Philippines and Somalia. I had no idea that I was embarking on a research odyssey that would, in its second annual update, map U.S. counterterror missions in 80 countries in 2017 and 2018, or 40% of the nations on this planet (a map first featured in Smithsonian magazine).
As co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, I’m all too aware of the costs that accompany such a sprawling overseas presence. Our project’s research shows that, since 2001, the U.S. war on terror has resulted in the loss — conservatively estimated — of almost half a million lives in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone. By the end of 2019, we also estimate that Washington’s global war will cost American taxpayers no less than $5.9 trillion already spent and in commitments to caring for veterans of the war throughout their lifetimes.
In general, the American public has largely ignored these post-9/11 wars and their costs. But the vastness of Washington’s counterterror activities suggests, now more than ever, that it’s time to pay attention. Recently, the Trump administration has been talking of withdrawing from Syria and negotiating peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet, unbeknownst to many Americans, the war on terror reaches far beyond such lands and under Trump is actually ramping up in a number of places. That our counterterror missions are so extensive and their costs so staggeringly high should prompt Americans to demand answers to a few obvious and urgent questions: Is this global war truly making Americans safer? Is it reducing violence against civilians in the U.S. and other places? If, as I believe, the answer to both those questions is no, then isn’t there a more effective way to accomplish such goals?
Combat or “Training” and “Assisting”?
The major obstacle to creating our database, my research team would discover, was that the U.S. government is often so secretive about its war on terror. The Constitution gives Congress the right and responsibility to declare war, offering the citizens of this country, at least in theory, some means of input. And yet, in the name of operational security, the military classifies most information about its counterterror activities abroad.
This is particularly true of missions in which there are American boots on the ground engaging in direct action against militants, a reality, my team and I found, in 14 different countries in the last two years. The list includes Afghanistan and Syria, of course, but also some lesser known and unexpected places like Libya, Tunisia, Somalia, Mali, and Kenya. Officially, many of these are labeled “train, advise, and assist” missions, in which the U.S. military ostensibly works to support local militaries fighting groups that Washington labels terrorist organizations. Unofficially, the line between “assistance” and combat turns out to be, at best, blurry.
Some outstanding investigative journalists have documented the way this shadow war has been playing out, predominantly in Africa. In Niger in October 2017, as journalists subsequently revealed, what was officially a training mission proved to be a “kill or capture” operation directed at a suspected terrorist.
Such missions occur regularly. In Kenya, for instance, American service members are actively hunting the militants of al-Shabaab, a US-designated terrorist group. In Tunisia, there was at least one outright battle between joint U.S.-Tunisian forces and al-Qaeda militants. Indeed, two U.S. service members were later awarded medals of valor for their actions there, a clue that led journalists to discover that there had been a battle in the first place.
In yet other African countries, U.S. Special Operations forces have planned and controlled missions, operating in “cooperation with” — but actually in charge of — their African counterparts. In creating our database, we erred on the side of caution, only documenting combat in countries where we had at least two credible sources of proof, and checking in with experts and journalists who could provide us with additional information. In other words, American troops have undoubtedly been engaged in combat in even more places than we’ve been able to document.
Another striking finding in our research was just how many countries there were — 65 in all — in which the U.S. “trains” and/or “assists” local security forces in counterterrorism. While the military does much of this training, the State Department is also surprisingly heavily involved, funding and training police, military, and border patrol agents in many countries. It also donates equipment, including vehicle X-ray detection machines and contraband inspection kits. In addition, it develops programs it labels “Countering Violent Extremism,” which represent a soft-power approach, focusing on public education and other tools to “counter terrorist safe havens and recruitment.”
Such training and assistance occurs across the Middle East and Africa, as well as in some places in Asia and Latin America. American “law enforcement entities” trained security forces in Brazil to monitor terrorist threats in advance of the 2016 Summer Olympics, for example (and continued the partnership in 2017). Similarly, U.S. border patrol agents worked with their counterparts in Argentina to crack down on suspected money laundering by terrorist groups in the illicit marketplaces of the tri-border region that lies between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.
To many Americans, all of this may sound relatively innocuous — like little more than generous, neighborly help with policing or a sensibly self-interested fighting-them-over-there-before-they-get-here set of policies. But shouldn’t we know better after all these years of hearing such claims in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where the results were anything but harmless or effective?
Such training has often fed into, or been used for, the grimmest of purposes in the many countries involved. In Nigeria, for instance, the U.S. military continues to work closely with local security forces which have used torture and committed extrajudicial killings, as well as engaging in sexual exploitation and abuse. In the Philippines, it has conducted large-scale joint military exercises in cooperation with President Rodrigo Duterte’s military, even as the police at his command continue to inflict horrific violence on that country’s citizenry.
The government of Djibouti, which for years has hosted the largest U.S. military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, also uses its anti-terrorism laws to prosecute internal dissidents. The State Department has not attempted to hide the way its own training programs have fed into a larger kind of repression in that country (and others). According to its 2017 Country Reports on Terrorism, a document that annually provides Congress with an overview of terrorism and anti-terror cooperation with the United States in a designated set of countries, in Djibouti, “the government continued to use counterterrorism legislation to suppress criticism by detaining and prosecuting opposition figures and other activists.”
In that country and many other allied nations, Washington’s terror-training programs feed into or reinforce human-rights abuses by local forces as authoritarian governments adopt “anti-terrorism” as the latest excuse for repressive practices of all sorts.
A Vast Military Footprint
As we were trying to document those 65 training-and-assistance locations of the U.S. military, the State Department reports proved an important source of information, even if they were often ambiguous about what was really going on. They regularly relied on loose terms like “security forces,” while failing to directly address the role played by our military in each of those countries.
Sometimes, as I read them and tried to figure out what was happening in distant lands, I had a nagging feeling that what the American military was doing, rather than coming into focus, was eternally receding from view. In the end, we felt certain in identifying those 14 countries in which American military personnel have seen combat in the war on terror in 2017-2018. We also found it relatively easy to document the seven countries in which, in the last two years, the U.S. has launched drone or other air strikes against what the government labels terrorist targets (but which regularly kill civilians as well): Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. These were the highest-intensity elements of that U.S. global war. However, this still represented a relatively small portion of the 80 countries we ended up including on our map.
In part, that was because I realized that the U.S. military tends to advertise — or at least not hide — many of the military exercises it directs or takes part in abroad. After all, these are intended to display the country’s global military might, deter enemies (in this case, terrorists), and bolster alliances with strategically chosen allies. Such exercises, which we documented as being explicitly focused on counterterrorism in 26 countries, along with lands which host American bases or smaller military outposts also involved in anti-terrorist activities, provide a sense of the armed forces’ behemoth footprint in the war on terror.
Although there are more than 800 American military bases around the world, we included in our map only those 40 countries in which such bases are directly involved in the counterterror war, including Germany and other European nations that are important staging areas for American operations in the Middle East and Africa.
To sum up: our completed map indicates that, in 2017 and 2018, seven countries were targeted by U.S. air strikes; double that number were sites where American military personnel engaged directly in ground combat; 26 countries were locations for joint military exercises; 40 hosted bases involved in the war on terror; and in 65, local military and security forces received counterterrorism-oriented “training and assistance.”
A Better Grand Plan
How often in the last 17 years has Congress or the American public debated the expansion of the war on terror to such a staggering range of places? The answer is: seldom indeed.
After so many years of silence and inactivity here at home, recent media and congressional attention to American wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen represents a new trend. Members of Congress have finally begun calling for discussion of parts of the war on terror. Last Wednesday, for instance, the House of Representatives voted to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and the Senate has passed legislation requiring Congress to vote on the same issue sometime in the coming months.
On February 6th, the House Armed Services Committee finally held a hearing on the Pentagon’s “counterterrorism approach” — a subject Congress as a whole has notdebated since, several days after the 9/11 attacks, it passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump have all used to wage the ongoing global war. Congress has not debated or voted on the sprawling expansion of that effort in all the years since. And judging from the befuddled reactions of several members of Congress to the deaths of those four soldiers in Niger in 2017, most of them were (and many probably still are) largely ignorant of how far the global war they’ve seldom bothered to discuss now reaches.
With potential shifts afoot in Trump administration policy on Syria and Afghanistan, isn’t it finally time to assess in the broadest possible way the necessity and efficacy of extending the war on terror to so many different places? Research has shown that using war to address terror tactics is a fruitless approach. Quite the opposite of achieving this country’s goals, from Libya to Syria, Niger to Afghanistan, the U.S. military presence abroad has often only fueled intense resentment of America. It has helped to both spread terror movements and provide yet more recruits to extremist Islamist groups, which have multiplied substantially since 9/11.
In the name of the war on terror in countries like Somalia, diplomatic activities, aid, and support for human rights have dwindled in favor of an ever more militarized American stance. Yet research shows that, in the long term, it is far more effective and sustainable to address the underlying grievances that fuel terrorist violence than to answer them on the battlefield.
All told, it should be clear that another kind of grand plan is needed to deal with the threat of terrorism both globally and to Americans — one that relies on a far smaller U.S. military footprint and costs far less blood and treasure. It’s also high time to put this threat in context and acknowledge that other developments, like climate change, may pose a far greater danger to our country.