The remarkable thing about the United States, as it has become more and more a "weapons culture" and permanent-war-making empire, is that it has clearly been busting itself as well as a string of external targets. While it has been busting others with bombs, it has been busting itself at home with a class and race war and systematic neglect of the needs of a huge and growing underclass and a shrinking middle class. The "it" here who makes these choices and carries out these policies is a small elite of business and financial leaders, politicians, and security state entrepreneurs and functionaries, helped along by the mainstream intellectuals and media who have normalized the imperial priorities. Democracy has been corrupted. The public can vote, but effectively only for candidates who will continue the imperial project and de facto class war. This is a peculiar form of self-destruction, an "own nation-busting" by choice (of the elite, with the majority unable to do anything about it).
The weapons culture doing its thing abroad has, of course, had an easy time in carrying out extremely violent and nation-busting actions and larger enterprises. The bombings of Japan during the Second World War were an ominous harbinger of things to come. There were intensive fire bombing air raids carried out by the U.S. Air Force on some 67 Japanese cities. Among the many carried out against Tokyo, 279 B-29s dropped around 1,700 tons of bombs on that city on March 9-10, 1945, creating a huge firestorm, killing over 100,000 people, injuring hundreds of thousands, and destroying over 285,000 buildings and homes. In August, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing outright some 220,000 people and leaving large numbers with bomb damage—the Japanese estimate for these is over 400,000. The city bombing raids and induced firestorms were deliberately civilian-oriented, as were the atomic bombing assaults. U.S. President Harry Truman actually lied on this point, claiming Hiroshima was a military target. These monumental and historic war crimes were hardly remarked as such at the time, or since, and first class war criminal (FCWC) Harry Truman is even treated by many liberals as a model of a tough but decent Democrat who should be emulated by today's bunglers and softies.
Korea and Indochina
Nation-busting was even more thorough in Korea and Indochina. In Korea, the U.S. Air Force used very large quantities of napalm, deliberately and by policy attacked columns of refugees, "burned down every town in North Korea and South Korea too" (General Curtis LeMay), and bombed the four North Korean dams that supplied drinking water and support for rice cultivation, with the deliberate aim of starving the civilian population. As Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings point out, "The last time an act of this kind had been carried out, which was by the Nazis in Holland in 1944, it had been deemed a war crime at Nuremberg" (Korea: The Unknown War). The United States may have used biological weapons in this war and Truman gave serious consideration to the atomic bombing of North Korea, though he did enough busting without it. The number of civilian casualties in North Korea was over two million and the country was left devastated and prostrate. These major war crimes were carried out under the auspices of the United Nations, but the UN was only a political front for the United States, as it would be, along with NATO, so often in the future.
The U.S. war against Vietnam was as ruthless as that against Korea. Once again the United States used its advanced technological resources against a peasant society without mercy, employing enormous amounts of napalm, cluster bombs, heavy bombs, and chemical weapons with deliberate programs of defoliating rice crops as well as forest cover ("Operation Ranch Hand"—we're good at these charming names: in Korea it was "Operation Rat Killer"). It is of interest that virtually all the napalm was dropped on the southern part of Vietnam, which we were allegedly "saving" from "aggression" from North Vietnam. (It was safe to do it in South Vietnam because our puppet government wouldn't publicize this and complain to the world, as the North Vietnamese would.) In fact, the only real aggression was that of the United States, attempting to impose a minority government on that distant land and committing monumental war crimes in the process. By Vietnamese estimate, 3 million civilians were killed outright, 300,000 people were missing, 4.4 million wounded, and 2 million were harmed by toxic chemicals. The land was ravaged by bombs, Rome Plows, and chemical weapons. This murderous enterprise was followed by an 18-year boycott of the victim, who "won" the war only in the sense that it successfully blocked the aggressor from taking control of the ravaged country. The U.S. mainstream media has never used the word "aggression" to describe this genuine aggression and the "international community" never felt any "responsibility to protect" this aggression victim, left to be freely invaded, napalmed, and ravaged by the super-bully led by FCWCs Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
Many other countries have been ravaged by U.S. power, directly in the cases of Cambodia, Laos, Greece, Cuba, Serbia, and Somalia, or through proxies in the cases of Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, the Congo, Palestine, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, among others. But let us jump to Iraq, where the United States has been the principal in a three-phased ravaging and genocidal operation.
First, there was the Persian Gulf War of January 16-February 27, 1991 that followed Iraq's occupation of Kuwait in August 1990. That occupation was virtually invited by the Bush administration (this dispute is "Arab business," U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam Hussein just days before his invasion-occupation), which then refused to allow an Iraqi exit without a war. The war was notorious for its one-sidedness, its "turkey shoot" killing of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and refugees on the "Highway of Death," and its deliberate destruction of Iraq's infrastructure, including electric power stations, water purification facilities, and sanitation systems, with the clear understanding of the potential of these infrastructure attacks to cause disease and other health problems (Thomas Nagy, "A Secret Behind the Sanctions: How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraqs's Water Supply," the Progressive, September 2001).
The follow-up phase was the "sanctions of mass destruction" era (1991-2003) during which the United States and Britain, once again with a UN cover, refused to allow Iraq to import the means of repairing its damaged facilities, with the result that hundreds of thousands of children and perhaps a million total Iraqi civilians perished in consequence—"a necessary cause of the deaths of more people in Iraq than have been slain by all so-called weapons of mass destruction throughout history (John and Karl Mueller, "Sanctions of Mass Destruction," Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999; see also Joy Gordon, "Cool War: Economic sanctions as a weapon of mass destruction," Harper's, November 2002).
The sanctions of mass destruction were ended shortly after the United States, acting nominally on the basis of lies about Iraq's threatening but non-existent "weapons of mass destruction," launched its 2003 war of aggression against Iraq that killed possibly a million more Iraqis, "displaced four million (over a million abroad), destroyed entire cities such as Fallujah, set off a Sunni-Shiite civil war, allowed Baghdad to be ethnically cleansed of its Sunnis, practiced systematic and widespread torture before the eyes of the Muslim Middle East and the world" (Juan Cole), and permitted and even participated in the destruction of much of the rich trove of cultural monuments for which Iraq is (was) famous. In this case, the UN was not initially involved in the attack, but it soon came around and gave the aggressor sanction to manage the victim country. Of course, the "responsibility to protect" and "humanitarian intervention" to help Iraqis victimized by the U.S. has not been mentioned in the Western propaganda system. The problem for the West has been how to help quell the Iraqi resistance to the superpower bully's aggression in the interest of bringing "stability" (after the bully had produced maximum instability).
In the case of Afghanistan, the Bush administration attacked that country a month after 9/11, but with enough advance warning so that any Al Qaeda planners located there would have had plenty of time to exit (and most of the planning and action seems to have been carried out in Saudi Arabia, Germany, and the United States itself, not Afghanistan). This was once again an illegal war carried out without UN sanction and hardly a war of self-defense. It was a war of vengeance and a war designed to advance the U.S. project of enlarging its power in the Middle East and Caspian Sea area, with Iraq already in the sights of the Bush-Cheney planners.
It was also a war of indiscriminate violence with the systematic bombing of sites with large civilian populations and the regular targeting of virtually anything that moved. At least five wedding parties have been bombed in the U.S. war and there have been open admissions that civilians in many places were Taliban-friendly and thus legitimate targets (see "Tragic Errors in U.S. Military Policy," Z Magazine, November 2002). The U.S. war-managers could get away with this, once again, because of media subservience and UN-NATO collaboration. Marc Herold estimated that the United States was killing 41-47 civilians per day during the initial bombing war era (October 7, 2001-December 10, 2001). This daily toll was the size of the "Racak massacre" in Kosovo in January 1999, which put the U.S.-UK media into a frenzy of indignation and calls for action; but that was an alleged massacre by a Western target, hence useful in war mobilization, hence very bad business (see "Body Counts in Imperial Service," Z Magazine, February 2002).
The Taliban was quickly ousted from rule in Afghanistan with the aid and cooperation of warlords no more democratic or humane than their predecessors. The new order in Afghanistan—with an elected but U.S.-imposed ruler, local warlord rule, growing corruption, and a quick shift of U.S. attention and resources to the invasion-occupation of Iraq—has been a spectacular failure. The growing social crisis of high unemployment, very high maternal, infant, and child mortality rates, corruption and mistreatment of (mainly) the Pashtuns by the Kabul government and the still bombing-prone occupation forces—all provided the groundwork for a Taliban comeback. Haji Farid, a lawmaker from the Kapisa province, said recently that, "Every time an American soldier gets killed, they bomb an entire village" (Press TV, December 29, 2009).
As Tariq Ali noted in early 2008, "By common consent, Karzai's government does not even control its own capital, let alone provide an example of 'good governance.' Reconstruction funds vanish into cronies' pockets or go to pay short-contract Western consultants. Police are predators rather than protectors. The social crisis is deepening. Increasingly, Western commentators have evoked the spectre of failure—usually in order to spur encore un effort. A Guardian leader [editorial] summarizes: 'Defeat looks possible, with all the terrible consequences that will bring'" (Tariq Ali, "Afghanistan: Mirage of a good war," New Left Review, March-April 2008).
The U.S. and Western answer has been "surging," both within Afghanistan and across the border into Pakistan. As usual, the surge has mainly been via intensified bombing raids, including the greater use of drones, so that the civilian death and injury rate has escalated, almost tripling between 2006 and 2007, and then "a massive and unprecedented surge in the use of air power in Afghanistan in 2008" (Human Rights Watch). In December 2009, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said that "2,038 civilians had died in the first 10 months of 2009 as a result of the U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan." A steady stream of news reports have spoken of 10, 30, and up to 147 civilians killed in air raids, as usual normalized and treated without indignation in the mainstream media. This has fed the decline in authority of the Karzai government and the growth in support of the only force more or less effectively resisting the foreign occupation and its corrupt local auxiliary—the Taliban.
The surge has advanced under the Obama administration and NATO has made this surge and crusade their first order of business in the interest of Western credibility, a successful War on Terror, and "stability." This has had substantial support among Western liberals, who decried the Iraq War as a diversion from that War on Terror, which they swallowed as real, centered in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and not a cover for the projection of U.S. power. For critics of the Obama surge, a main formula has been that Afghanistan was a "graveyard of empires" and that this was an "unwinnable war." That it was mainly a graveyard of Afghanis, as well as a further war of aggression, was outside the orbit of acceptable thought.
These surges in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan (and Pakistan), are busting these distant victims in the now traditional U.S. manner, keeping the cruise missile and bomb industries and the military-industrial complex busy and prosperous, but with alternative-use sacrifices that the United States can no longer afford. The weapons culture now shares its preeminence with banker-Wall Street culture. With the two of them in command, and with the support of the pro-Israel lobby, the lower 90 percent of the population are means, not ends, of government and public policy activity.
This is reflected in the steady rise of inequality, and with it the economic and political power to protect and even advance that inequality. This accounts for the spectacular government bailouts of the bankers who produced the economic crisis, and the inability or unwillingness of the Obama administration to do anything comparable for its mass constituency, mired in unemployment, debt, falling incomes, home foreclosures, and insecurity. The "market" is happy, and the military-industrial complex is doing very well, as Obama gets credit in the establishment for putting the market first and proving his non-wimpiness by his escalated nation-busting abroad. He joins a great tradition in having the "courage" to ignore the cries—and interests—of his democratic base.
Edward S. Herman is an economist, social and media critic, and author of numerous articles and books, including the classic Washington Connection and Third World Fascism(with Noam Chomsky).