Is America Hooked on War?
by Tom Engelhardt
"War is peace" was one of the
memorable slogans on the facade of the Ministry of Truth, Minitrue
in "Newspeak," the language invented by George Orwell
in 1948 for his dystopian novel 1984. Some 60 years later, a quarter-century
after Orwell's imagined future bit the dust, the phrase is, in
a number of ways, eerily applicable to the United States.
Last week, for instance, a New York Times
front-page story by Eric Schmitt and David Sanger was headlined
"Obama Is Facing Doubts in Party on Afghanistan, Troop Buildup
at Issue." It offered a modern version of journalistic Newspeak.
"Doubts," of course, imply dissent,
and in fact just the week before there had been a major break
in Washington's ranks, though not among Democrats. The conservative
columnist George Will wrote a piece offering blunt advice to the
Obama administration, summed up in its headline: "Time to
Get Out of Afghanistan." In our age of political and audience
fragmentation and polarization, think of this as the Afghan version
of Vietnam's Cronkite moment.
The Times report on those Democratic doubts,
on the other hand, represented a more typical Washington moment.
Ignored, for instance, was Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold's end-of-August
call for the president to develop an Afghan withdrawal timetable.
The focus of the piece was instead an upcoming speech by Michigan
Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
He was, Schmitt and Sanger reported, planning to push back against
well-placed leaks (in the Times, among other places) indicating
that war commander General Stanley McChrystal was urging the president
to commit 15,000 to 45,000 more American troops to the Afghan
Here, according to the two reporters,
was the gist of Levin's message about what everyone agrees is
a "deteriorating" U.S. position: "[H]e was against
sending more American combat troops to Afghanistan until the United
States speeded up the training and equipping of more Afghan security
Think of this as the line in the sand
within the Democratic Party, and be assured that the debates within
the halls of power over McChrystal's troop requests and Levin's
proposal are likely to be fierce this fall. Thought about for
a moment, however, both positions can be summed up with the same
The essence of this "debate"
comes down to: More of them versus more of us (and keep in mind
that more of them -- an expanded training program for the Afghan
National Army -- actually means more of "us" in the
form of extra trainers and advisors). In other words, however
contentious the disputes in Washington, however dismally the public
now views the war, however much the president's war coalition
might threaten to crack open, the only choices will be between
more and more.
No alternatives are likely to get a real
hearing. Few alternative policy proposals even exist because alternatives
that don't fit with "more" have ceased to be part of
Washington's war culture. No serious thought, effort, or investment
goes into them. Clearly referring to Will's column, one of the
unnamed "senior officials" who swarm through our major
newspapers made the administration's position clear, saying sardonically,
according to the Washington Post, "I don't anticipate that
the briefing books for the [administration] principals on these
debates over the next weeks and months will be filled with submissions
from opinion columnists... I do anticipate they will be filled
with vigorous discussion... of how successful we've been to date."
State of War
Because the United States does not look
like a militarized country, it's hard for Americans to grasp that
Washington is a war capital, that the United States is a war state,
that it garrisons much of the planet, and that the norm for us
is to be at war somewhere at any moment. Similarly, we've become
used to the idea that, when various forms of force (or threats
of force) don't work, our response, as in Afghanistan, is to recalibrate
and apply some alternate version of the same under a new or rebranded
name -- the hot one now being "counterinsurgency" or
COIN -- in a marginally different manner. When it comes to war,
as well as preparations for war, more is now generally the order
of the day.
This wasn't always the case. The early
Republic that the most hawkish conservatives love to cite was
a land whose leaders looked with suspicion on the very idea of
a standing army. They would have viewed our hundreds of global
garrisons, our vast network of spies, agents, Special Forces teams,
surveillance operatives, interrogators, rent-a-guns, and mercenary
corporations, as well as our staggering Pentagon budget and the
constant future-war gaming and planning that accompanies it, with
The question is: What kind of country
do we actually live in when the so-called U.S. Intelligence Community
(IC) lists 16 intelligence services ranging from Air Force Intelligence,
the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Defense Intelligence
Agency to the National Reconnaissance Office and the National
Security Agency? What could "intelligence" mean once
spread over 16 sizeable, bureaucratic, often competing outfits
with a cumulative 2009 budget estimated at more than $55 billion
(a startling percentage of which is controlled by the Pentagon)?
What exactly is so intelligent about all that? And why does no
one think it even mildly strange or in any way out of the ordinary?
What does it mean when the most military-obsessed
administration in our history, which, year after year, submitted
ever more bloated Pentagon budgets to Congress, is succeeded by
one headed by a president who ran, at least partially, on an antiwar
platform, and who has now submitted an even larger Pentagon budget?
What does this tell you about Washington and about the viability
of non-militarized alternatives to the path George W. Bush took?
What does it mean when the new administration, surveying nearly
eight years and two wars' worth of disasters, decides to expand
the U.S. Armed Forces rather than shrink the U.S. global mission?
What kind of a world do we inhabit when,
with an official unemployment rate of 9.7% and an underemployment
rate of 16.8%, the American taxpayer is financing the building
of a three-story, exceedingly permanent-looking $17 million troop
barracks at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan? This, in turn, is
part of a taxpayer-funded $220 million upgrade of the base that
includes new "water treatment plants, headquarters buildings,
fuel farms, and power generating plants." And what about
the U.S. air base built at Balad, north of Baghdad, that now has
15 bus routes, two fire stations, two water treatment plants,
two sewage treatment plants, two power plants, a water bottling
plant, and the requisite set of fast-food outlets, PXes, and so
on, as well as air traffic levels sometimes compared to those
at Chicago's O'Hare International?
What kind of American world are we living
in when a plan to withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq involves
the removal of more than 1.5 million pieces of equipment? Or in
which the possibility of withdrawal leads the Pentagon to issue
nearly billion-dollar contracts (new ones!) to increase the number
of private security contractors in that country?
What do you make of a world in which the
U.S. has robot assassins in the skies over its war zones, 24/7,
and the "pilots" who control them from thousands of
miles away are ready on a moment's notice to launch missiles --
"Hellfire" missiles at that -- into Pashtun peasant
villages in the wild, mountainous borderlands of Pakistan and
Afghanistan? What does it mean when American pilots can be at
war "in" Afghanistan, 9 to 5, by remote control, while
their bodies remain at a base outside Las Vegas and then can head
home past a sign that warns them to drive carefully because this
is "the most dangerous part of your day"?
What does it mean when, for our security
and future safety, the Pentagon funds the wildest ideas imaginable
for developing high-tech weapons systems, many of which sound
as if they came straight out of the pages of sci-fi novels? Take,
for example, Boeing's advanced coordinated system of hand-held
drones, robots, sensors, and other battlefield surveillance equipment
slated for seven Army brigades within the next two years at a
cost of $2 billion and for the full Army by 2025; or the Next
Generation Bomber, an advanced "platform" slated for
2018; or a truly futuristic bomber, "a suborbital semi-spacecraft
able to move at hypersonic speed along the edge of the atmosphere,"
for 2035? What does it mean about our world when those people
in our government peering deepest into a blue-skies future are
planning ways to send armed "platforms" up into those
skies and kill more than a quarter century from now?
And do you ever wonder about this: If
such weaponry is being endlessly developed for our safety and
security, and that of our children and grandchildren, why is it
that one of our most successful businesses involves the sale of
the same weaponry to other countries? Few Americans are comfortable
thinking about this, which may explain why global-arms-trade pieces
don't tend to make it onto the front pages of our newspapers.
Recently, the Times Pentagon correspondent Thom Shanker, for instance,
wrote a piece on the subject which appeared inside the paper on
a quiet Labor Day. "Despite Slump, U.S. Role as Top Arms
Supplier Grows" was the headline. Perhaps Shanker, too, felt
uncomfortable with his subject, because he included the following
generic description: "In the highly competitive global arms
market, nations vie for both profit and political influence through
weapons sales, in particular to developing nations..." The
figures he cited from a new congressional study of that "highly
competitive" market told a different story: The U.S., with
$37.8 billion in arms sales (up $12.4 billion from 2007), controlled
68.4% of the global arms market in 2008. Highly competitively
speaking, Italy came "a distant second" with $3.7 billion.
In sales to "developing nations," the U.S. inked $29.6
billion in weapons agreements or 70.1% of the market. Russia was
a vanishingly distant second at $3.3 billion or 7.8% of the market.
In other words, with 70% of the market, the U.S. actually has
what, in any other field, would qualify as a monopoly position
-- in this case, in things that go boom in the night. With the
American car industry in a ditch, it seems that this (along with
Hollywood films that go boom in the night) is what we now do best,
as befits a war, if not warrior, state. Is that an American accomplishment
you're comfortable with?
On the day I'm writing this piece, "Names
of the Dead," a feature which appears almost daily in my
hometown newspaper, records the death of an Army private from
DeKalb, Illinois, in Afghanistan. Among the spare facts offered:
he was 20 years old, which means he was probably born not long
before the First Gulf War was launched in 1990 by President George
H.W. Bush. If you include that war, which never really ended --
low-level U.S. military actions against Saddam Hussein's regime
continued until the invasion of 2003 -- as well as U.S. actions
in the former Yugoslavia and Somalia, not to speak of the steady
warfare underway since November 2001, in his short life, there
was hardly a moment in which the U.S. wasn't engaged in military
operations somewhere on the planet (invariably thousands of miles
from home). If that private left a one-year-old baby behind in
the States, and you believe the statements of various military
officials, that child could pass her tenth birthday before the
war in which her father died comes to an end. Given the record
of these last years, and the present military talk about being
better prepared for "the next war," she could reach
2025, the age when she, too, might join the military without ever
spending a warless day. Is that the future you had in mind?
Consider this: War is now the American
way, even if peace is what most Americans experience while their
proxies fight in distant lands. Any serious alternative to war,
which means our "security," is increasingly inconceivable.
In Orwellian terms then, war is indeed peace in the United States
and peace, war.
Newspeak, as Orwell imagined it, was an
ever more constricted form of English that would, sooner or later,
make "all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended,"
he wrote in an appendix to his novel, "that when Newspeak
had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical
thought... should be literally unthinkable."
When it comes to war (and peace), we live
in a world of American Newspeak in which alternatives to a state
of war are not only ever more unacceptable, but ever harder to
imagine. If war is now our permanent situation, in good Orwellian
fashion it has also been sundered from a set of words that once
It lacks, for instance, "victory."
After all, when was the last time the U.S. actually won a war
(unless you include our "victories" over small countries
incapable of defending themselves like the tiny Caribbean Island
of Grenada in 1983 or powerless Panama in 1989)? The smashing
"victory" over Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War
only led to a stop-and-start conflict now almost two decades old
that has proved a catastrophe. Keep heading backward through the
Vietnam and Korean Wars and the last time the U.S. military was
truly victorious was in 1945.
But achieving victory no longer seems
to matter. War American-style is now conceptually unending, as
are preparations for it. When George W. Bush proclaimed a Global
War on Terror (aka World War IV), conceived as a "generational
struggle" like the Cold War, he caught a certain American
reality. In a sense, the ongoing war system can't absorb victory.
Any such endpoint might indeed prove to be a kind of defeat.
No longer has war anything to do with
the taking of territory either, or even with direct conquest.
War is increasingly a state of being, not a process with a beginning,
an end, and an actual geography.
Similarly drained of its traditional meaning
has been the word "security" -- though it has moved
from a state of being (secure) to an eternal, immensely profitable
process whose endpoint is unachievable. If we ever decided we
were either secure enough, or more willing to live without the
unreachable idea of total security, the American way of war and
the national security state would lose much of their meaning.
In other words, in our world, security is insecurity.
As for "peace," war's companion
and theoretical opposite, though still used in official speeches,
it, too, has been emptied of meaning and all but discredited.
Appropriately enough, diplomacy, that part of government which
classically would have been associated with peace, or at least
with the pursuit of the goals of war by other means, has been
dwarfed by, subordinated to, or even subsumed by the Pentagon.
In recent years, the U.S. military with its vast funds has taken
over, or encroached upon, a range of activities that once would
have been left to an underfunded State Department, especially
humanitarian aid operations, foreign aid, and what's now called
nation-building. (On this subject, check out Stephen Glain's recent
essay, "The American Leviathan" in the Nation magazine.)
Diplomacy itself has been militarized
and, like our country, is now hidden behind massive fortifications,
and has been placed under Lord-of-the-Flies-style guard. The State
Department's embassies are now bunkers and military-style headquarters
for the prosecution of war policies; its officials, when enough
of them can be found, are now sent out into the provinces in war
zones to do "civilian" things.
And peace itself? Simply put, there's
no money in it. Of the nearly trillion dollars the U.S. invests
in war and war-related activities, nothing goes to peace. No money,
no effort, no thought. The very idea that there might be peaceful
alternatives to endless war is so discredited that it's left to
utopians, bleeding hearts, and feathered doves. As in Orwell's
Newspeak, while "peace" remains with us, it's largely
been shorn of its possibilities. No longer the opposite of war,
it's just a rhetorical flourish embedded, like one of our reporters,
What a world might be like in which we
began not just to withdraw our troops from one war to fight another,
but to seriously scale down the American global mission, close
those hundreds of bases -- recently, there were almost 300 of
them, macro to micro, in Iraq alone -- and bring our military
home is beyond imagining. To discuss such obviously absurd possibilities
makes you an apostate to America's true religion and addiction,
which is force. However much it might seem that most of us are
peaceably watching our TV sets or computer screens or iPhones,
we Americans are also -- always -- marching as to war. We may
not all bother to attend the church of our new religion, but we
all tithe. We all partake. In this sense, we live peaceably in
a state of war.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American
Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He
is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the
Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing.
He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in
the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of
the mad Bush years.
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