Sometime in September 2007, retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and historian William Astore wrote me at TomDispatch to complain about America’s disastrous and already seemingly never-ending war in Iraq. The invasion of that country had taken place more than four years earlier and things had long gone from bad to worse. That very year, the administration of President George W. Bush had doubled down again in that country, sending in General David Petraeus and yet more troops for a “surge” — the first but hardly last one of these years — against Sunni rebels in that country. Astore noted one other strange thing: the generals in America’s already visibly faltering wars were sporting remarkable chestfuls of ribbons (in the case of Petraeus, nine rows of them) that reminded him eerily of the look of the military chiefs of the failing Soviet Union before its implosion in 1991. Typically, when you examined photos of America’s successful generals like Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Marshall of the World War II era, men who had genuinely overseen winning wars, they sported only one to three exceedingly modest rows of such decorations. It seemed to him to speak worlds about where the planet’s most exceptional and indispensable nation was heading, militarily speaking — and, once he pointed it out, it did to me, too.
So, in that September more than 12 years ago, I replied to his email suggesting that he might want to turn it into a piece for this website. He did so and more than 60 of his articles later, the U.S. is still involved in an Iraqi disaster (which has long since morphed into a strange set of other disasters, including the rise of ISIS, across the region) and America’s generals still sport chestfuls of putative honors that now accompany losing wars across a far greater expanse of the planet. If you don’t believe me, just check out a couple of recent photos of General Mark Milley, the latest chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose chest is essentially nothing but an assemblage of ribbons of every imaginable sort. And then consider what Astore has to say about the same all-American disaster a score of years later. Tom
American Exceptionalism Is Killing the Planet
The Many Abuses of Endless War
By William J. Astore
Ever since 2007, when I first started writing for TomDispatch, I’ve been arguing against America’s forever wars, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere. Unfortunately, it’s no surprise that, despite my more than 60 articles, American blood is still being spilled in war after war across the Greater Middle East and Africa, even as foreign peoples pay a far higher price in lives lost and cities ruined. And I keep asking myself: Why, in this century, is the distinctive feature of America’s wars that they never end? Why do our leaders persist in such repetitive folly and the seemingly eternal disasters that go with it?
Sadly, there isn’t just one obvious reason for this generational debacle. If there were, we could focus on it, tackle it, and perhaps even fix it. But no such luck.
So why do America’s disastrous wars persist? I can think of many reasons, some obvious and easy to understand, like the endless pursuit of profit through weapons sales for those very wars, and some more subtle but no less significant, like a deep-seated conviction in Washington that a willingness to wage war is a sign of national toughness and seriousness. Before I go on, though, here’s another distinctive aspect of our forever-war moment: Have you noticed that peace is no longer even a topic in America today? The very word, once at least part of the rhetoric of Washington politicians, has essentially dropped out of use entirely. Consider the current crop of Democratic candidates for president. One, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, wants to end regime-change wars, but is otherwise a self-professed hawk on the subject of the war on terror. Another, Senator Bernie Sanders, vows to end “endless wars” but is careful to express strong support for Israel and the ultra-expensive F-35 fighter jet. The other dozen or so tend to make vague sounds about cutting defense spending or gradually withdrawing U.S. troops from various wars, but none of them even consider openly speaking of peace. And the Republicans? While President Trump may talk of ending wars, since his inauguration he’s sent more troops to Afghanistan and into the Middle East, while greatly expanding drone and other air strikes, something about which he openly boasts.
War, in other words, is our new normal, America’s default position on global affairs, and peace, some ancient, long-faded dream. And when your default position is war, whether against the Taliban, ISIS, “terror” more generally, or possibly even Iran or Russia or China, is it any surprise that war is what you get? When you garrison the world with an unprecedented 800 or so military bases, when you configure your armed forces for what’s called power projection, when you divide the globe — the total planet — into areas of dominance (with acronyms like CENTCOM, AFRICOM, and SOUTHCOM) commanded by four-star generals and admirals, when you spend more on your military than the next seven countries combined, when you insist on modernizing a nuclear arsenal (to the tune of perhaps $1.7 trillion) already quite capable of ending all life on this and several other planets, what can you expect but a reality of endless war?
Think of this as the new American exceptionalism. In Washington, war is now the predictable (and even desirable) way of life, while peace is the unpredictable (and unwise) path to follow. In this context, the U.S. must continue to be the most powerful nation in the world by a country mile in all death-dealing realms and its wars must be fought, generation after generation, even when victory is never in sight. And if that isn’t an “exceptional” belief system, what is?
If we’re ever to put an end to our country’s endless twenty-first-century wars, that mindset will have to be changed. But to do that, we would first have to recognize and confront war’s many uses in American life and culture.
War, Its Uses (and Abuses)
A partial list of war’s many uses might go something like this: war is profitable, most notably for America’s vast military-industrial complex; war is sold as being necessary for America’s safety, especially to prevent terrorist attacks; and for many Americans, war is seen as a measure of national fitness and worthiness, a reminder that “freedom isn’t free.” In our politics today, it’s far better to be seen as strong and wrong than meek and right.
As the title of a book by former war reporter Chris Hedges so aptly put it, war is a force that gives us meaning. And let’s face it, a significant part of America’s meaning in this century has involved pride in having the toughest military on the planet, even as trillions of tax dollars went into a misguided attempt to maintain bragging rights to being the world’s sole superpower.
And keep in mind as well that, among other things, never-ending war weakens democracy while strengthening authoritarian tendencies in politics and society. In an age of gaping inequality, using up the country’s resources in such profligate and destructive ways offers a striking exercise in consumption that profits the few at the expense of the many.
In other words, for a select few, war pays dividends in ways that peace doesn’t. In a nutshell, or perhaps an artillery shell, war is anti-democratic, anti-progressive, anti-intellectual, and anti-human. Yet, as we know, history makes heroes out of its participants and celebrates mass murderers like Napoleon as “great captains.”
What the United States needs today is a new strategy of containment — not against communist expansion, as in the Cold War, but against war itself. What’s stopping us from containing war? You might say that, in some sense, we’ve grown addicted to it, which is true enough, but here are five additional reasons for war’s enduring presence in American life:
- The delusional idea that Americans are, by nature, winners and that our wars are therefore winnable: No American leader wants to be labeled a “loser.” Meanwhile, such dubious conflicts — see: the Afghan War, now in its 18th year, with several more years, or even generations, to go — continue to be treated by the military as if they were indeed winnable, even though they visibly aren’t. No president, Republican or Democrat, not even Donald J. Trump, despite his promises that American soldiers will be coming home from such fiascos, has successfully resisted the Pentagon’s siren call for patience (and for yet more trillions of dollars) in the cause of ultimate victory, however poorly defined, farfetched, or far-off.
- American society’s almost complete isolation from war’s deadly effects: We’re not being droned (yet). Our cities are not yet lying in ruins (though they’re certainly suffering from a lack of funding, as is our most essential infrastructure, thanks in part to the cost of those overseas wars). It’s nonetheless remarkable how little attention, either in the media or elsewhere, this country’s never-ending war-making gets here.
- Unnecessary and sweeping secrecy: How can you resist what you essentially don’t know about? Learning its lesson from the Vietnam War, the Pentagon now classifies (in plain speak: covers up) the worst aspects of its disastrous wars. This isn’t because the enemy could exploit such details — the enemy already knows! — but because the American people might be roused to something like anger and action by it. Principled whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning have been imprisoned or otherwise dismissed or, in the case of Edward Snowden, pursued and indicted for sharing honest details about the calamitous Iraq War and America’s invasive and intrusive surveillance state. In the process, a clear message of intimidation has been sent to other would-be truth-tellers.
- An unrepresentative government: Long ago, of course, Congress ceded to the presidency most of its constitutional powers when it comes to making war. Still, despite recent attempts to end America’s arms-dealing role in the genocidal Saudi war in Yemen (overridden by Donald Trump’s veto power), America’s duly elected representatives generally don’t represent the people when it comes to this country’s disastrous wars. They are, to put it bluntly, largely captives of (and sometimes on leaving politics quite literally go to work for) the military-industrial complex. As long as money is speech (thank you, Supreme Court!), the weapons makers are always likely to be able to shout louder in Congress than you and I ever will.
- America’s persistent empathy gap. Despite our size, we are a remarkably insular nation and suffer from a serious empathy gap when it comes to understanding foreign cultures and peoples or what we’re actually doing to them. Even our globetrotting troops, when not fighting and killing foreigners in battle, often stay on vast bases, referred to in the military as “Little Americas,” complete with familiar stores, fast food, you name it. Wherever we go, there we are, eating our big burgers, driving our big trucks, wielding our big guns, and dropping our very big bombs. But what those bombs do, whom they hurt or kill, whom they displace from their homes and lives, these are things that Americans turn out to care remarkably little about.
All this puts me sadly in mind of a song popular in my youth, a time when Cat Stevens sang of a “peace train” that was “soundin’ louder” in America. Today, that peace train’s been derailed and replaced by an armed and armored one eternally prepared for perpetual war — and that train is indeed soundin’ louder to the great peril of us all.
War on Spaceship Earth
Here’s the rub, though: even the Pentagon knows that our most serious enemy is climate change, not China or Russia or terror, though in the age of Donald Trump and his administration of arsonists its officials can’t express themselves on the subject as openly as they otherwise might. Assuming we don’t annihilate ourselves with nuclear weapons first, that means our real enemy is the endless war we’re waging against Planet Earth.
The U.S. military is also a major consumer of fossil fuels and therefore a significant driver of climate change. Meanwhile, the Pentagon, like any enormously powerful system, only wants to grow more so, but what’s welfare for the military brass isn’t wellness for the planet.
There is, unfortunately, only one Planet Earth, or Spaceship Earth, if you prefer, since we’re all traveling through our galaxy on it. Thought about a certain way, we’re its crewmembers, yet instead of cooperating effectively as its stewards, we seem determined to fight one another. If a house divided against itself cannot stand, as Abraham Lincoln pointed out so long ago, surely a spaceship with a disputatious and self-destructive crew is not likely to survive, no less thrive.
In other words, in waging endless war, Americans are also, in effect, mutinying against the planet. In the process, we are spoiling the last, best hope of earth: a concerted and pacific effort to meet the shared challenges of a rapidly warming and changing planet.
Spaceship Earth should not be allowed to remain Warship Earth as well, not when the existence of significant parts of humanity is already becoming ever more precarious. Think of us as suffering from a coolant leak, causing cabin temperatures to rise even as food and other resources dwindle. Under the circumstances, what’s the best strategy for survival: killing each other while ignoring the leak or banding together to fix an increasingly compromised ship?
Unfortunately, for America’s leaders, the real “fixes” remain global military and resource domination, even as those resources continue to shrink on an ever-more fragile globe. And as we’ve seen recently, the resource part of that fix breeds its own madness, as in President Trump’s recently stated desire to keep U.S. troops in Syria to steal that country’s oil resources, though its wells are largely wrecked (thanks in significant part to American bombing) and even when repaired would produce only a miniscule percentage of the world’s petroleum.
If America’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen prove anything, it’s that every war scars our planet — and hardens our hearts. Every war makes us less human as well as less humane. Every war wastes resources when these are increasingly at a premium. Every war is a distraction from higher needs and a better life.
Despite all of war’s uses and abuses, its allures and temptations, it’s time that we Americans showed some self-mastery (as well as decency) by putting a stop to the mayhem. Few enough of us experience “our” wars firsthand and that’s precisely why some idealize their purpose and idolize their practitioners. But war is a bloody, murderous mess and those practitioners, when not killed or wounded, are marred for life because war functionally makes everyone involved into a murderer.
We need to stop idealizing war and idolizing its so-called warriors. At stake is nothing less than the future of humanity and the viability of life, as we know it, on Spaceship Earth.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Copyright 2019 William J. Astore