War, American Style

769px-National_Security_Agency_headquarters,_Fort_Meade,_Maryland

The National Security Agency, just one of seventeen agencies devoted to intelligence

W.J. Astore

A common belief shared by U.S. political pundits and a compliant and complicit U.S. media is that America never chooses its wars: it’s dragged into them.  Last October, I read an article in the “liberal” New York Times that caught the mood perfectly.  It worried the U.S. was being “sucked into” wars in the Middle East, drawn in, inexorably, by forces the world’s lone superpower couldn’t control.  As if America’s leaders had no choice.  As if they (and we) couldn’t walk away whenever we so chose.

What foolishness.  By choice the U.S. has been meddling in the greater Middle East for decades (consider the CIA-orchestrated coup in Iran in 1953, to cite only one example).  America is not being “sucked in” by uncontrollable forces.  Our leaders choose to meddle – most often in extremely violent and prejudicial ways – in regions of the world they understand poorly, if at all

And poor understanding comes despite a massive intelligence complex featuring 17 agencies chewing through $70 billion a year.  Indeed, according to a Washington Post study, the U.S. has nearly 1300 government organizations and nearly 2000 private companies devoted to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence.

Let’s look at a tiny piece of that complex: the presence of 1500 intel operatives working daily to provide “actionable intelligence” for U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in Florida.  Roughly the equivalent of a military regiment of high-priced intelligence operatives sits on its collective butt in Florida, gazing at computer screens, producing its own fog of war about the Middle East.

Indeed, much of war, American style has degenerated into watching people killed at a distance.  Think of video footage from drone strikes that call to mind snuff films.  Want explosive climaxes?  As Peter Van Buren noted, they’ve got the war porn for you.

War, American style features lots of bragging about the military (We’re Number One!), lots of grinding in wars that last forever, but no satisfying climaxes, whether in Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya.  Lots of steroidal militarism, but no clear military victories.

Donald Trump had a fleeting moment of sanity when he said in the last presidential debate that the U.S. after 9/11 wasted three or four trillion dollars on wars with nothing to show for it.  That money should have been invested in America instead, he said, which caused Carly Fiorina to denounce him for sounding like Barack Obama!  Yes, Obama the “feckless weakling,” according to that man-burger, Chris Christie.

Ergo I can suggest one safe bet for 2016: more war.  At least we’re number one at something.

Update: I added this to the comments section below, but will also put it here for new readers.

Ten Features of War, American Style

1. Wars are no longer declared by Congress, and thus they are not waged in the name of the people.
2. Wars are now fought by “warriors” rather than by citizen-soldiers. Citizens are excluded from wars by choice and by design; they are reduced to cheerleaders and told to go shopping.
3. Wars no longer have a discernible end point. (How do you end a war on terror?)
4. Wars are supported by both parties and by the corporate-owned media as well. Dissenters to war are pushed to the margins and dismissed as unserious and/or misguided and/or unpatriotic.
5. War damage is confined largely to foreigners; American life continues on, undisturbed by war.
6. Major corporations continue to profit from war; similarly, the USA remains dominant in the world arms trade.
7. “Security” has become the byword of America, a security that is linked to a strong military presence overseas and a strong police presence at home. “Security” has become synonymous with guns and prisons in Lockdown USA. In other words, a war mentality has spread deeply into American consciousness, so much so that few people recognize its signs anymore. (Peace, love, understanding? Get thee behind me, Hippie!)
8. Related to (7): The celebration of all things military. Baseball uniforms with camouflage. Camouflage headsets for football coaches. Constant celebrations of military “heroes” in “private” venues, some of them paid for using public (taxpayers’) dollars.
9. No need for elites to risk their sons and daughters in war (no draft), thus apathy. When they do express some concern, they’re largely unable to critique war and U.S. foreign policy since they’ve been trained to defer to “experts.” Those experts? Mostly retired military officers, many with conflicts of interest, e.g. they work for defense contractors that profit from continuous war.
10. Fear. Fear is both a product of war and a generator of it. Fear is constantly stoked in the USA.

Chris Hedges, of course, is superb on this general question. Read his “War Is A Force that Gives Us Meaning.”

18 thoughts on “War, American Style

  1. You’ve pointed out a glaring Achilles Heel of America, a massively large and expensive military-intelligence complex that is trying to assert superpower dominance around the world fabricating what is in the national interest with often failing outcomes and blow back. After decades of failures there is no accountability which shows a failing democracy comprised of a two party lock on power. Without clearly identifying the real purpose of government this is what happens: publicly funded chaos by well paid educated fools harming the republic all approved by a majority in Congress.

    • This puny little USurped Federal Government is coming to judgment……from God. The Empire it created is crumbling. The Nazi Police State it desired will turn on itself and devour itself. And the Ruling Elite Cabal that headed it will BE beheaded.
      God is coming. Are you ready, Babylon?……. No, you’re not.

  2. Adult access to excessive quantities of power/money trigger a re-release of hormones far surpassing levels experienced during the onset of puberty and the succeeding decade or so. The condition persists into senior years for most of the afflicted, and the only known medicinal treatment is resounding national economic disaster, often brought about via catastrophic military misadventure sometimes resulting in a failed state.

    This particular manifestation of insanity is too often unrecognized by a sufficient number of societal members to enable timely intervention efforts. Those afflicted suffer severe cognitive dissonance while simultaneously drawing upon a vast reservoir of motivated reasoning, resulting in limited efficacy of attempted remedial treatment as well as virtually no chance of victims of the disease even recognizing they are ill.

    • Very good diagnosing here, “Dr. lsnrchrd1”! Yes, I believe our deluded “leaders” ARE in need of an intervention. How many millions of citizens descending upon Washington DC would it take, though, to let them know we’re serious about THEIR need to change?!!? The walls of self-denial tend to get built very high and thick. I have worked with addicts in a para-professional context. Our nation has become addicted to warfare and will continue seeking new “fixes” without a serious awakening. I hold my viewing of commercial TV broadcasts to an absolute minimum but I can’t have the set on for more than 15 minutes without being confronted with images of uniformed men and women, often in combat gear, trying to sell me on one thing or another. It is nothing less than hideous.

  3. Yes, predominantly what is done in the name of U.S foreign policy Is not a coerced “reaction,” but is rather a “chosen” set of actions to promote particular objectives which serve very particular interests. And I agree that the national “security” boondoggle isn’t producing a good return for the investment. And drone strikes and jingoism are abhorrent.
    But I’m unsure of the idea (notwithstanding its popularity) that U.S. foreign policy directives are a series of failures and bungles born of misunderstanding or incompetence. Now, if the objectives of U.S. actions abroad were “good” ones (human rights, civil investment) then yes, utter stupidity and failure is the word. But I’m of the idea that foreign policy is carried out for strict interests and those interests are being served well. The people who are “supposed” to be doing well are doing well & to hell with everything & everyone else (especially the poor folk who happen to live around black gold).
    I wonder, how would Trump “invest” in America, and what were his positions with regard to the invasion and occupation of Iraq (and the use of military in general)? Blah, blah, blah.

  4. I think it’s appropriate to see America as a nation of aggressive people led by aggressive leaders. History certainly provides ample evidence to support that view. But, putting aside Americans’ myriad cultural traits which lead to aggressive behavior, I’m more interested in the specific motivations and rationale of U.S. leaders regarding their consequential decisions to apply military force and to pursue other means of conflict.

    For example, the Cold War (which never really ended) was first and foremost an economic contest between capitalism and communism, and only secondarily a political contest between representative democracy and totalitarianism. Yet, American politicians and the media focused almost exclusively on the latter.

    Likewise, the tumultuous situation in the Middle East – although much more complicated – seems to be equally misrepresented and misunderstood. Recently, I color-coded a map of the region which immediately showed a clear delineation between the U.S.’s Sunni Muslim allies and Russia’s Shiite Muslim allies. In my view, these battles lines are not incidentally reflective of current Anglo-Russo geopolitics, but are more indicative of America’s Cold War mentality. Specifically, I see U.S. motivations as sympathetic towards the Sunnis because: 1) they are more amenable towards western capitalism, and 2) they are less hostile towards Israel than are the Shiites. In any case, the U.S. framing of its Middle East involvement as a “war on terror” seems rather disingenuous since its two major allies (Saudi Arabia and Turkey) are primarily fighting against Shiite Iran/Assad/Hezbollah and the Kurds, and not against the Sunni Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL).

    • “Rather disingenuous” to say the least. Saudi Arabia & Turkey not only do not fight ISIS, they supply and support them.
      The Sunni-Shia delineation matters to the U.S. only insofar as its usefulness (not disputing the actual alliances you reference) to divisive designs. The U.S. has killed a lot of Sunnis and removed (and ostracized) the Sunni Ba’ath in Iraq.

  5. Prof. Astore may be getting used to this, so I hope to not discomfit him. I often feel compelled to elucidate some of his points, things I feel should have been said but weren’t. For instance, on this latest article: 1.) the US gets “sucked into wars” by the driving force of economic necessities. Of course, in the modern world, this means fossil fuel resources above all. If they can’t outright own these, the rulers of our land desperately wish to at least control their flow, their distribution. From what I’ve read the past few years, it took much longer than had been anticipated pre-2003 invasion of Iraq to get the oil operations there running smoothly again (excluding the little problem of “ISIS” gaining a foothold in the oil-producing zones). Hubris breeds over-optimism about the success of military operations. It also leads to disregard of cultural norms of the folks who inhabit the invaded land. With oil flowing again, we could say that from the US ruling class’s perspective, that invasion was a success. No need to keep track of how many Iraqis died (and continue to die). The relatively few dead GIs could be declared “heroes” one and all and tossed in the ground; 2.) as for the “high-priced intelligence operatives” sitting on their collective butt in Florida: Chelsea Manning was a PFC in the US Army with no pre-enlistment specialized training in espionage or intel-analysis when her conscience got her into a world of trouble. A PFC is not a highly-paid individual. Private corporations are certainly squeezing dandy profits from their US government contracts, at expense of the taxpayer, in this realm, and I call that a scandal of major proportions. But that doesn’t mean everyone involved in said ops is getting rich; 3.) as for Donald you-know-who, we must grasp that his perspective is: “Had I been Commander-in-Chief [in 2003], victory would have been quick and decisive. No wishy-washy dancing around issues like ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’! It would have been balls-to-the-wall, Major Kong riding-that-H-bomb-to-its-target war!! And that’s what I’ll give you going forward if you just have the wisdom and courage to put me in the White House come November.”

  6. Thanks for all of your comments. If we were to make a list of the common features of war, American style, it would look something like this:

    1. Wars are no longer declared by Congress, and thus they are not waged in the name of the people.
    2. Wars are now fought by “warriors” rather than by citizen-soldiers. Citizens are excluded from wars by choice and by design; they are reduced to cheerleaders and told to go shopping.
    3. Wars no longer have a discernible end point. (How do you end a war on terror?)
    4. Wars are supported by both parties and by the corporate-owned media as well. Dissenters to war are pushed to the margins and dismissed as unserious and/or misguided and/or unpatriotic.
    5. War damage is confined largely to foreigners; American life continues on, undisturbed by war.
    6. Major corporations continue to profit from war; similarly, the USA remains dominant in the world arms trade.
    7. “Security” has become the byword of America, a security that is linked to a strong military presence overseas and a strong police presence at home. “Security” has become synonymous with guns and prisons in Lockdown USA. In other words, a war mentality has spread deeply into American consciousness, so much so that few people recognize its signs anymore. (Peace, love, understanding? Get thee behind me, Hippie!)
    8. Related to (7): The celebration of all things military. Baseball uniforms with camouflage. Camouflage headsets for football coaches. Constant celebrations of military “heroes” in “private” venues, some of them paid for using public (taxpayers’) dollars.
    9. No need for elites to risk their sons and daughters in war (no draft), thus apathy. When they do express some concern, they’re largely unable to critique war and U.S. foreign policy since they’ve been trained to defer to “experts.” Those experts? Mostly retired military officers, many with conflicts of interest, e.g. they work for defense contractors that profit from continuous war.
    10. Fear. Fear is both a product of war and a generator of it. Fear is constantly stoked in the USA.

    Chris Hedges, of course, is superb on this general question. Read his “War Is A Force that Gives Us Meaning.”

    • This time I will stun you with the brevity of my comments! Of course war is still waged “in our name”! It’s “merely” our informed consent that isn’t required. As for war being “a force that gives us meaning,” of course it doesn’t have to be. For decades I have refused to write or utter statements like “we shouldn’t be invading that nation.” I am not part of that “we”!! I am not “America”!!! I always speak of “the United States” as an entity apart from me. Not to try to distance myself morally absolutely, as I am involuntarily involved by dint of being a US citizen, but to make it clear these actions are NOT being done in MY name as an individual. As a new calendar year approaches, let us bear in mind (call it a cliche at this point if you must) that if we wish to live in a better world, we need to start with ourselves and “be the change we want to see in that world.”

      • Greg: I could have written, “wars without the consent of the people” in my first point. But I think America’s recent wars truly haven’t been “waged in the name of the people.” Rather, they’ve been wars run by an almost unitary executive branch for the needs of a few.

        In general, most Americans have given a form of (passive) consent for these wars by not protesting and resisting them.

        If these wars were truly for the needs of the people/democracy/our values, we’d see a formal declaration of war, as we did in World War II.

        More than a few historians have noted the mistake (perhaps a fatal one) of waging war without the wider support of the people. This doesn’t work in a democracy, especially when wars are prolonged.

        The fact that our “leaders” do everything they can to avoid formal declarations of war tells us something of immense value: that the wars they seek to wage are not in our interests, are not consistent with the values and ideals advanced by the U.S. Constitution.

        And, in that sense, I’d argue these wars are not being waged in the people’s name, as in “We, the people …”

    • To venture a two-pronged wild guess: 1.) they have been conditioned, Pavlovian style, to stand up and salute any decision to use military force; and 2.) they haven’t exactly been brought up to think independently. I haven’t seen the phrase “ditto heads” (unquestioning believers of whatever nonsense Rush Limbaugh spouts) lately, but sadly, that describes all too many of our fellow citizens these days.

  7. “5. War damage is confined largely to foreigners; American life continues on, undisturbed by war.”
    Isn’t that the most agonizing insight? We live in an endless state of peace and our wealth is being built on selling war.

  8. Pingback: W.J. Astore: War, American Style | Vox Populi

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