The United States has been at war — major boots-on-the-ground conflicts and minor interventions, firefights, air strikes, drone assassination campaigns, occupations, special ops raids, proxy conflicts, and covert actions — nearly nonstop since the Vietnam War began. That’s more than half a century of experience with war, American-style, and yet few in our world bother to draw the obvious conclusions.
Given the historical record, those conclusions should be staring us in the face. They are, however, the words that can’t be said in a country committed to a military-first approach to the world, a continual build-up of its forces, an emphasis on pioneering work in the development and deployment of the latest destructive technology, and a repetitious cycling through styles of war from full-scale invasions and occupations to counterinsurgency, proxy wars, and back again.
So here are five straightforward lessons — none acceptable in what passes for discussion and debate in this country — that could be drawn from that last half century of every kind of American warfare:
1. No matter how you define American-style war or its goals, it doesn’t work. Ever.
2. No matter how you pose the problems of our world, it doesn’t solve them. Never.
3. No matter how often you cite the use of military force to “stabilize” or “protect” or “liberate” countries or regions, it is a destabilizing force.
4. No matter how regularly you praise the American way of war and its “warriors,” the U.S. military is incapable of winning its wars.
5. No matter how often American presidents claim that the U.S. military is “the finest fighting force in history,” the evidence is in: it isn’t.
And here’s a bonus lesson: if as a polity we were to take these five no-brainers to heart and stop fighting endless wars, which drain us of national treasure, we would also have a long-term solution to the Veterans Administration health-care crisis. It’s not the sort of thing said in our world, but the VA is in a crisis of financing and caregiving that, in the present context, cannot be solved, no matter whom you hire or fire. The only long-term solution would be to stop fighting losing wars that the American people will pay for decades into the future, as the cost in broken bodies and broken lives is translated into medical care and dumped on the VA.
Heroes and Turncoats
One caveat. Think whatever you want about war and American war-making, but keep in mind that we are inside an enormous propaganda machine of militarism, even if we barely acknowledge the space in our lives that it fills. Inside it, only certain opinions, certain thoughts, are acceptable, or even in some sense possible.
Take for an example the recent freeing of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from five years as a captive of the Haqqani network. Much controversy has surrounded it, in part because he was traded for five former Taliban officials long kept uncharged and untried on the American Devil’s Island at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It has been suggested that Sgt. Bergdahl deserted his post and his unit in rural Afghanistan, simply walked away — which for opponents of the deal and of President Obama makes the “trade for terrorists” all the more shameful. Our options when it comes to what we know of Bergdahl’s actions are essentially to decry him as a “turncoat” or near-voluntary “terrorist prisoner” or ignore them, go into a “support the troops” mode, and hail him as a “hero” of the war. And yet there is a third option.
According to his father, in the period before he was captured, his emails home reflected growing disillusionment with the military. (“The U.S. army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs [sergeants] are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.”) He had also evidently grown increasingly uncomfortable as well with the American war in that country. (“I am sorry for everything here. These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.”) When he departed his base, he may even have left a note behind expressing such sentiments. He had reportedly told someone in his unit earlier, “If this deployment is lame… I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan.”
That’s what we know. There is much that we don’t know. However, what if, having concluded that the war was no favor to Afghans or Americans and he shouldn’t participate in it, he had, however naively, walked away from it without his weapon and, as it turned out, not into freedom but directly into captivity? That Sgt. Bergdahl might have been neither a military-style hero, nor a turncoat, but someone who voted with his feet on the merits of war, American-style, in Afghanistan is not an option that can be discussed calmly here. Similarly, anyone who took such a position here, not just in terms of our disastrous almost 13-year Afghan War, but of American war-making generally, would be seen as another kind of turncoat. However Americans may feel about specific wars, walking away from war, American-style, and the U.S. military as it is presently configured is not a fit subject for conversation, nor an option to be considered.
It’s been a commonplace of official opinion and polling data for some time that the American public is “exhausted” with our recent wars, but far too much can be read into that. Responding to such a mood, the president, his administration, and the Pentagon have been in a years-long process of “pivoting” from major wars and counterinsurgency campaigns to drone wars, special operations raids, and proxy wars across huge swaths of the planet (even while planning for future wars of a very different kind continues). But war itself and the U.S. military remain high on the American agenda. Military or militarized solutions continue to be the go-to response to global problems, the only question being: How much or how little? (In what passes for debate in this country, the president’s opponents regularly label him and his administration “weak” for not doubling down on war, from the Ukraine and Syria to Afghanistan).
Meanwhile, investment in the military’s future and its capacity to make war on a global scale remains staggeringly beyond that of any other power or combination of powers. No other country comes faintly close, not the Russians, nor the Chinese, nor the Europeans just now being encouraged to up their military game by President Obama who recently pledged a billion dollars to strengthen the U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe.
In such a context, to suggest the sweeping failure of the American military over these last decades without sapping support for the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex would involve making the most breathtaking stab-in-the-back argument in the historical record. This was tried after the Vietnam War, which engendered a vast antiwar movement at home. It was at least conceivable at the time to blame defeat on that movement, a “liberal” media, and lily-livered, micromanaging politicians. Even then, however, the stab-in-the-back version of the war never quite stuck and in all subsequent wars, support for the military among the political class and everywhere else has been so high, the obligatory need to “support the troops” — left, right, and center — so great that such an explanation would have been ludicrous.
A Record of Failure to Stagger the Imagination
The only option left was to ignore what should have been obvious to all. The result has been a record of failure that should stagger the imagination and remarkable silence on the subject. So let’s run through these points one at a time.
1. American-style war doesn’t work. Just ask yourself: Are there fewer terrorists or more in our world almost 13 years after the 9/11 attacks? Are al-Qaeda-like groups more or less common? Are they more or less well organized? Do they have more or fewer members? The answers to those questions are obvious: more, more, more, and more. In fact, according to a new RAND report, between 2010 and 2013 alone, jihadist groups grew by 58%, their fighters doubled, and their attacks nearly tripled.
On September 12, 2001, al-Qaeda was a relatively small organization with a few camps in arguably the most feudal and backward country on the planet, and tiny numbers of adherents scattered elsewhere around the world. Today, al-Qaeda-style outfits and jihadist groups control significant parts of Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and even Yemen, and are thriving and spreading in parts of Africa as well.
Or try questions like these: Is Iraq a peaceful, liberated state allied with and under Washington’s aegis, with “enduring camps” filled with U.S. troops on its territory? Or is it a riven, embattled, dilapidated country whose government is close to Iran and some of whose Sunni-dominated areas are under the control of a group that is more extreme than al-Qaeda? Is Afghanistan a peaceful, thriving, liberated land under the American aegis, or are Americans still fighting there almost 13 years later against the Taliban, an impossible-to-defeat minority movement it once destroyed and then, because it couldn’t stop fighting the “war on terror,” helped revive? Is Washington now supporting a weak, corrupt central government in a country that once again is planting record opium crops?
But let’s not belabor the point. Who, except a few neocons still plunking for the glories of “the surge” in Iraq, would claim military victory for this country, even of a limited sort, anywhere at any time in this century?
2. American-style wars don’t solve problems. In these years, you could argue that not a single U.S. military campaign or militarized act ordered by Washington solved a single problem anywhere. In fact, it’s possible that just about every military move Washington has made only increased the burden of problems on this planet. To make the case, you don’t even have to focus on the obvious like, for example, the way a special operations and drone campaign in Yemen has actually al-Qaeda-ized some of that country’s rural areas. Take instead a rare Washington “success”: the killing of Osama bin Laden in a special ops raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. (And leave aside the way even that act was over-militarized: an unarmed Bin Laden was shot down in his Pakistani lair largely, it’s plausible to assume, because officials in Washington feared what once would have been the American way — putting him on trial in a U.S. civilian court for his crimes.) We now know that, in the hunt for bin Laden, the CIA launched a fake hepatitis B vaccination project. Though it proved of no use, once revealed it made local jihadists so nervous about medical health teams that they began killing groups of polio vaccination workers, an urge that has since spread to Boko Haram-controlled areas of Nigeria. In this way, according to Columbia University public health expert Leslie Roberts, “the distrust sowed by the sham campaign in Pakistan could conceivably postpone polio eradication for 20 years, leading to 100,000 more cases that might otherwise not have occurred.” The CIA has since promised not to do it again, but too late — and who at this point would believe the Agency anyway? This was, to say the least, an unanticipated consequence of the search for bin Laden, but blowback everywhere, invariably unexpected, has been a hallmark of American campaigns of all sorts.
Similarly, the NSA’s surveillance regime, another form of global intervention by Washington, has — experts are convinced — done little or nothing to protect Americans from terror attacks. It has, however, done a great deal to damage the interests of America’s tech corporations and to increasesuspicion and anger over Washington’s policies even among allies. And by the way, congratulations are due on one of the latest military moves of the Obama administration, the sending of U.S. militaryteams and drones into Nigeria and neighboring countries to help rescue those girls kidnapped by the extremist group Boko Haram. The rescue was a remarkable success… oops, didn’t happen (and we don’t even know yet what the blowback will be).
3. American-style war is a destabilizing force. Just look at the effects of American war in the twenty-first century. It’s clear, for instance, that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed a brutal, bloody, Sunni-Shiite civil war across the region (as well as the Arab Spring, one might argue). One result of that invasion and the subsequent occupation, as well as of the wars and civil wars that followed: the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Syrians, and Lebanese, while major areas of Syria and some parts of Iraq have fallen into the hands of armed supporters of al-Qaeda or, in one major case, a group that didn’t find that organization extreme enough. A significant part of the oil heartlands of the planet is, that is, being destabilized.
Meanwhile, the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the CIA’s drone assassination campaign in the tribal borderlands of neighboring Pakistan have destabilized that country, which now has its own fierce Taliban movement. The 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya initially seemed like a triumph, as had the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan before it. Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and the rebels swept into power. Like Afghanistan and Iraq, however, Libya is now a basket case, riven by competing militias and ambitious generals, largely ungovernable, and an open wound for the region. Arms from Gaddafi’s looted arsenals have made their way into the hands of Islamist rebels and jihadist extremists from the Sinai Peninsula to Mali, from Northern Africa to northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram is entrenched. It is even possible, as Nick Turse has done, to trace the growing U.S. military presence in Africa to the destabilization of parts of that continent.
4. The U.S. military can’t win its wars. This is so obvious (though seldom said) that it hardly has to be explained. The U.S. military has not won a serious engagement since World War II: the results of wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq ranged from stalemate to defeat and disaster. With the exception of a couple of campaigns against essentially no one (in Grenada and Panama), nothing, including the “Global War on Terror,” would qualify as a success on its own terms, no less anyone else’s. This was true, strategically speaking, despite the fact that, in all these wars, the U.S. controlled the air space, the seas (where relevant), and just about any field of battle where the enemy might be met. Its firepower was overwhelming and its ability to lose in small-scale combat just about nil.
It would be folly to imagine that this record represents the historical norm. It doesn’t. It might be more relevant to suggest that the sorts of imperial wars and wars of pacification the U.S. has fought in recent times, often against poorly armed, minimally trained, minority insurgencies (or terror outfits), are simply unwinnable. They seem to generate their own resistance. Their brutalities and even their “victories” simply act as recruitment posters for the enemy.
5. The U.S. military is not “the finest fighting force the world has ever known” or “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known,” or any of the similar over-the-top descriptions that U.S. presidents are now regularly obligated to use. If you want the explanation for why this is so, see points one through four above. A military whose way of war doesn’t work, doesn’t solve problems, destabilizes whatever it touches, and never wins simply can’t be the greatest in history, no matter the firepower it musters. If you really need further proof of this, think about the crisis and scandals linked to the Veterans Administration. They are visibly the fruit of a military mired in frustration, despair, and defeat, not a triumphant one holding high history’s banner of victory.
As for Peace, Not a Penny
Is there a record like it? More than half a century of American-style war by the most powerful and potentially destructive military on the planet adds up to worse than nothing. If any other institution in American life had a comparable scorecard, it would be shunned like the plague. In reality, the VA has a far better record of success when it comes to the treatment of those broken by our wars than the military does of winning them, and yet its head administrator was forced to resign recently amid scandal and a media firestorm.
As in Iraq, Washington has a way of sending in the Marines, setting the demons loose, leaving town, and then wondering how in the world things got so bad — as if it had no responsibility for what happened. Don’t think, by the way, that no one ever warned us either. Who, for instance, remembers Arab League head Amr Moussa saying in 2004 that the U.S. had opened the “gates of hell” in its invasion and occupation of Iraq? Who remembers the vast antiwar movement in the U.S. and around the world that tried to stop the launching of that invasion, the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets to warn of the dangers before it was too late? In fact, being in that antiwar movement more or less guaranteed that ever after you couldn’t appear on the op-ed pages of America’s major papers to discuss the disaster you had predicted. The only people asked to comment were those who had carried it out, beaten the drums for it, or offered the mildest tsk-tsk about it.
By the way, don’t think for a moment that war never solved a problem, or achieved a goal for an imperial or other regime, or that countries didn’t regularly find victory in arms. History is filled with such examples. So what if, in some still-to-be-understood way, something has changed on planet Earth? What if something in the nature of imperial war now precludes victory, the achieving of goals, the “solving” of problems in our present world? Given the American record, it’s at least a thought worth considering.
As for peace? Not even a penny for your thoughts on that one. If you suggested pouring, say, $50 billion into planning for peace, no less the $500 billion that goes to the Pentagon annually for its base budget, just about anyone would laugh in your face. (And keep in mind that that figure doesn’t include most of the budget for the increasingly militarized U.S. Intelligence Community, or extra war costs for Afghanistan, or the budget of the increasingly militarized Department of Homeland Security, or other costs hidden elsewhere, including, for example, for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which is buried in the Energy Department’s budget.)
That possible solutions to global problems, possible winning strategies, might come from elsewhere than the U.S. military or other parts of the national security state, based on 50 years of imperial failure, 50 years of problems unsolved and wars not won and goals not reached, of increasing instability and destruction, of lives (American and otherwise) snuffed out or broken? Not on your life.
Don’t walk away from war. It’s not the American way.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com, where this article first appeared. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, isTerminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.