Tomgram: Engelhardt, A Big-Time War of Terror

This article originally appeared at To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Living on the Wrong World
A Planetary Cease Fire Is Desperately Needed

On this planet of ours, it almost doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong when it comes to our wars.

Actually, let me correct that thought slightly: it certainly does matter, but what matters so much more is that we humans simply can’t stop fighting them. That is (or at least should be) a stunning and deeply saddening reality. What obvious lessons we seem congenitally incapable of learning! In the previous century, after all, there were two truly global wars, World War I and World War II, that were estimated to have left significantly more than 100 million military personnel and civilians dead, while decimating parts of the planet. The second of those conflicts ended with the obliteration of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, 1945, with the loss of possibly 200,000 dead, and the arrival in our world of a shattering new weapon, the atomic bomb. After so many centuries of endless warfare, it finally brought humanity to the edge of future annihilation.

And since those fateful August days so long ago, ever more nations — with the addition of North Korea early in this century, the number has risen to nine — have acquired nuclear weapons, while the nations that had them only continue to “improve” and expand their arsenals. My own country, in fact, is planning to spend something like $1.5 trillion (yes, trillion!) “modernizing” its already vast arsenal of nukes deliverable from the land, the sea, or the air, and undoubtedly, in the years to come, from space. Russia is doing the same and the Chinese are hustling to “catch up” in their ability to take down this planet in a big-time fashion.

It is — or at least should be — incredible to think that today, 78 years after the first test atomic bomb was exploded in New Mexico, even a relatively modest nuclear war between two countries like India and Pakistan (as opposed to powers like the United States and Russia with monster nuclear arsenals) could induce a global nuclear winter that would be likely to starve to death most of humanity. Worse yet, at this point, that’s undoubtedly not even the worst nuclear scenario imaginable.

The Most Remarkable Accomplishment

Not so very many years ago, in the period after the Cold War officially ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, I would have found it strange to be writing a piece about nuclear weapons. I mean, yes, they were still obviously around in Russia, and in the U.S. But after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, those two powers had at least started signing nuclear pacts, including the START agreement in 1991 to reduce the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals significantly. And that seemed so hopeful then.

Given who we are, I’ve always found it somewhat miraculous that, since those atomic bombs were dropped on two Japanese cities, even as nuclear weapons spread and grew ever more powerful, another never was used (unless you count the above-ground nuclear tests of the 1950s that did indeed harm small numbers of human beings). Now, however, the great powers on the planet are once again in a global nuclear arms race; key arms treaties have been left in the dust of history; rumors are rife about such weaponry spreading into space; and two nuclear powers — Russia and Israel — are at war at this very moment (even if not with each other). The Russian leadership has indeed threatened to use what are now called “tactical” nuclear weapons in its conflict with Ukraine, though most of them are significantly more powerful than the bombs that took out Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only recently, in fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin similarly threatened to use nuclear weaponry against European countries and the possible “destruction of civilization.”

And yes, a mildly antinuclear movie, a biopic of Robert Oppenheimer, the man who first developed such weaponry, did come out in this country and was a massive hit (right up there with a nuclear movie of another sort, Barbie). In a sense, someday, if there are any of us left to look back on this past we’re now living through, the greatest “achievement” of humanity might be viewed as our ever more stunning ability to nuke ourselves and everything else in sight, the works, the whole shebang. Honestly, that might be the most remarkable accomplishment of our species, if, of course, we don’t use them again.

Oh, wait, I almost forgot! In our strange brilliance, we humans came up with not one but two ways to utterly devastate humanity and the planet we live on. While the first, atomic weaponry, remains an ongoing threat of instantaneous destruction and horror, the second, a slow-motion version of ultimate destruction, the literal broiling of this planet over decades rather than minutes or hours, was launched almost two centuries ago. It was then that we humans began burning fossil fuels — coal, oil, and later natural gas — to power our industrialization and then our world. Today, the heating of this planet continues to accelerate day by day, month by month, year by year, decade by decade. Heat records of a surprising sort are now regularly being set locally and globally, while storms are becoming more devastating, droughts ever more “mega,” and forest fires fiercer, longer-lived, and more destructive.

And remind me, what have we learned from such a world? Well, the United States certainly learned that it needed a military beyond compare and began pouring what would, in the end, be untold trillions of dollars into it. (As of 2023, our yearly “defense” spending would add up to more than that of the next 10 countries combined.) Between the end of World War II and this moment, my country would also fight wars in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq (twice), and on a smaller (or do I mean larger?) scale its so-called war on terror stretching from Pakistan across South Asia to the Middle East (where only lately the Biden administration has been launching multiple air strikes in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen), and deep into Africa. Today, in the wake of all that and having assumedly learned something from more than a century of war-making, death, and destruction (and since the end of World War II, not a significant victory anywhere on the planet), my country has — yep, you guessed it! — been upping its “defense” budget in a big-time fashion, heading for the trillion-dollar mark annually.

It all makes perfect sense, right?

Meanwhile, having discovered that nukes were capable of obliterating life as we knew it on Planet Earth, we also came to realize that, by mining for, drilling for, producing, and then burning fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas — in a distinctly unprecedented fashion, we were, in fact, engaging in a war not on, but of terror against this planet and every living thing, us included. The casualties from climate change (and it is indeed changing this planet in an all too disastrous fashion) are growing more numerous, as are the refugees from places that are already becoming too uncomfortably hot to handle. And yet, with that now common knowledge and the last 10 months — month by sweltering month of record heat globally, the hottest months, one after another, in human history, a leading candidate for president of the United States is running on a platform of, as he puts it, “drill, drill, drill,” ensuring that, should he win, the country that’s already the largest producer of oil and natural gas on Planet Earth will be leading us all ever more directly into hell in a proverbial handbasket.

A Planetary War of Terror

Mind you, given that, in some fashion, we’re all involved in what can only be thought of as a war of terror aimed at this planet, it’s not just the Trumpists who are all too ready to ignore the reality of what we’re actually doing in the twenty-first century. After all, with the planet on edge and war itself an all-too-obvious contributor to global warming, Russia, Ukraine, Hamas, and Israel are all now engaged in conflicts without any obvious end in sight that won’t just ensure the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people but help heat the Earth to the boiling point. And let me add that my own president, Joe Biden, has put significant energy into feeding the Gazan war (including hundreds of millions of dollars of arms shipments to Israel), no matter that doing so might help turn our part of the planet over to President Drill, Drill, Drill!

And lest I sell humanity short by focusing too much on my own country, let’s not forget the devastating internal conflicts in lands ranging from Pakistan to Sudan to Ethiopia, where yet more of us are being slaughtered every day. And who knows where war will break out next? Venezuela and Guyana? North and South Korea (after all, the leader of North Korea only recently threatened the South with an atomic fate)? Or perhaps the South China Sea or Taiwan? The Biden administration, for instance, only recently deployed five of this country’s 11 aircraft carriers to the Pacific in a clear challenge to China, just in case major wars in Europe and the Middle East weren’t enough for us. No one knows, but given our history, one thing seems painfully certain — war will undoubtedly break out again and again and again.

And of course, war can now erupt in new ways, not just the old-fashioned ones. After all, though it’s never thought of in this fashion, the United States is indeed at war right now. And no, I’m not thinking about the vast quantities of weaponry that we’re delivering to Israel (or not at the moment delivering to Ukraine). I’m thinking instead about the fact that my country produced record levels of oil in 2023 and has become the world’s largest supplier of natural gas (and, mind you, that’s with a president who has taken crucial steps to whittle down our use of such fuels).

And yes, significant moves are being made in Europe and elsewhere (though not in major fossil-fuel producer Russia) to repower humanity in a fashion that will indeed cut fossil-fuel use in a major way, but it’s simply not enough. China, for instance, is moving faster than any other country when it comes to installing renewable energy and so changing its energy landscape. Unfortunately, it still uses more coal and continues to build far more new coal power plants than all the other countries on this planet combined. And consider it anything but strange that the major private fossil-fuel companies are still making absolute fortunes producing products that might as well be slow-motion versions of atomic weaponry and, unbelievably enough, some of them are still expanding their search for more of the same.

So, both apocalyptic war and war on the planet itself are now, sadly enough, ever more deeply woven into the human constellation. Meanwhile, it seems all too obvious that we can’t stop fighting older-style wars either, killing staggering numbers of people, destroying lands, and devastating parts of this world and those living on it.

Isn’t it strange that, after all these millennia, we humans just keep on keeping on, that we can’t seem to truly face, no less truly deal with, who and what we are and what we repeatedly do to ourselves, not to speak of the rest of this planet? The logic of what should be done and how we should live with one another seems all too obvious in a world that today finds itself entering an ever more hellish state. It’s time not just for a “cease fire” in Gaza, but for the declaration of some kind of planetary cease fire.

But can we truly imagine such a thing?  Who knows?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.