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Authors: Tom Engelhardt

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BOOK: American Way of War
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What do you make of a world in which the U.S. military 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 they 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 handheld 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. In September 2009, the
Pentagon correspondent Thom Shanker, for instance, wrote a rare piece on the subject, but it 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 congressional study of that “highly competitive” market told a different story: The United States, with $37.8 billion in arms sales (up $12.4 billion from 2007), controlled 68.4 percent 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 United States inked $29.6 billion in weapons agreements or 70.1 percent of the market. Russia was a vanishingly distant second at $3.3 billion, or 7.8 percent of the market. In other words, with 70 percent of the market, the United States 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?
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 is war.
American Newspeak
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, it has also been sundered from a set of words that once accompanied it. It lacks, for instance, “victory.” After all, when was the last time the United States 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 U.S. military was last truly victorious 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—it, too, has been emptied of meaning and all but discredited. Appropriately enough, diplomacy, the part of government that 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.
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 United States 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, in Warspeak.
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—as of 2010, there were almost four hundred of them, macro to micro, in Afghanistan 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.
Shock and Awe: How We Got Hit
The World Before September 11
September 2001. The “usually disengaged” president, as columnist Maureen Dowd labeled him, had just returned from a prolonged, brush-cutting Crawford vacation to much criticism and a nation in trouble. One Republican congressman complained that “it was hard for Mr. Bush to get his message out if the White House lectern had a ‘Gone Fishing’ sign on it.”
Democrats were on the attack. Journalistic coverage seemed to grow ever bolder. George W. Bush’s poll figures were dropping. A dozen prominent Republicans, fearful of a president out of touch with the national mood, gathered for a private dinner with Karl Rove to “offer an unvarnished critique of Bush’s style and strategy.” Next year’s congressional elections suddenly seemed up for grabs. The president’s aides were desperately scrambling to reposition him as a more “commanding” figure, while, according to the polls, a majority of Americans felt the country was headed in the wrong direction. At the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld had “cratered”; in the Middle East “violence was rising.”
An editorial in the
New York Times
caught the moment this way in its opening sentence: “A simple truth of human existence is that it is vastly easier to amplify fear than it is to assuage it.” Now, there was a post-9/11 truth—except that the editorial was headlined “The Statistical
Shark” and its next sentence wasn’t about planes smashing into buildings or the way the Bush administration had since wielded the fear card, but another hot-button issue entirely. It went: “Consider the shark attacks that have occurred in Florida, Virginia and North Carolina this summer.”
This was, in fact, September 6, 2001, the waning days of a man-bites-dog summer in which headlines had been dominated by the deaths of David Peltier, a 10-year-old boy in Florida, and Sergei Zaloukaev, a 28-year-old in North Carolina, in fatal shark attacks. Just the day before, in fact, the
had carried a piece by William J. Broad reassuring readers that scientists did not believe the world was facing a shark “rampage.” “If anything,” Broad concluded, “the recent global trend in shark attacks is down.”
It was just past Labor Day. Congress was barely back in session. Heywood Hale Broun, the sportswriter, would die at eighty-three that relatively quiet week, while Mexican president Vicente Fox swept triumphantly into Washington, and a new book, featured on
’s cover, would carry the title,
The Accidental President.
The Sunday
New York Times
Arts & Leisure section was promoting “the new season” in entertainment, while that night a highly publicized ten-part miniseries was premiering on HBO—
Band of Brothers
, a Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg production that followed a platoon of “greatest generation” soldiers deep into Germany. If World War II nostalgia was on the tube, war elsewhere in the American world was also largely on screen. On September 7,
journalist Thom Shanker reported on a classified war game, a computer-generated simulation played out by “the nation’s senior commanders” which determined that the U.S. military could “decisively defeat one potential adversary, North Korea, while repelling an attack from Iraq”—even if “terrorists [attacked] New York City with chemical weapons.”
All in all, that week before September 11 was a modestly uneventful one. An afternoon spent revisiting the version of it in the
New York Times
, via a library microfiche machine, making my way through that paper, day by day, section by section, plunged me into a nearly forgotten world in which the Democrats still controlled the Senate by a single vote and key Republican senators—it was Texan Phil Gramm’s turn to announce his retirement that week—were going down like bowling pins. (Jesse Helms
and Strom Thurmond had preceded Gramm, “adding a new element of uncertainty to the 2002 race.”) The president had been met by exceedingly gloomy economic news as the unemployment rate jumped that Saturday to 4.9 percent—another 100,000 jobs lost—a full point above election day, ten months earlier; and Wall Street responded with a sell-off that dropped the Dow Jones to 9,600. Republicans were “panicked,” the administration adrift, and we wouldn’t see the likes of it again for four years.
Eerie Resonances
A number of post-9/11 subjects were in the paper that week: Torture was in the headlines—leading off the culture page that Saturday (“Torture Charge Pits Professor vs. Professor”) in a memory piece, date-lined Santiago, on Augusto Pinochet’s brutal military rule in Chile. (The anniversary of his bloody coup, September 11, 1973, was approaching.)
Then, too, an American citizen had been imprisoned without charges for eighteen months—but it was electrical engineer Fuming Fong and China was holding him.
Anthrax made the op-ed page—but only because Russian scientists had developed a new type that could “overcome the standard Russian and American vaccines.”
Terrorism in the United States was in the news—an Oklahoma prosecutor was seeking the death penalty for Terry L. Nichols in the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building bombing.
“Violence in the Middle East” was on the front page—but in that week, it had only one meaning: the endless Israeli/Palestinian conflict. (The first Israeli-Arab suicide bomber had just struck.)
The Taliban could be found on the front page on September 7 (and inside on subsequent days)—but only because the mullahs were trying eight foreign aid workers for preaching Christianity. The bemused articles (“Another Strange Kabul Problem: Finding a Lawyer”) were of the weird-foreigners variety.
Military recruitment was a topic of interest then as now—the army, after switching ad agencies and slogans (“Army of One” for “Be All You Can Be”) had just conducted an “elaborate event” at the Pentagon, swearing into service its 75,800th recruit of the year, nineteen-year-old Rodrigo
Vasquez III of Karnes City, Texas, in order to highlight meeting its recruitment goals a month ahead of schedule in the “most successful recruiting year since at least 1997.”
BOOK: American Way of War
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