You remember. It was supposed to be twenty-first-century war, American-style: precise beyond imagining; smart bombs; drones capable of taking out a carefully identified and tracked human being just about anywhere on Earth; special operations raids so pinpoint-accurate that they would represent a triumph of modern military science. Everything “networked.” It was to be a glorious dream of limited destruction combined with unlimited power and success. In reality, it would prove to be a nightmare of the first order.
If you want a single word to summarize American war-making in this last decade and a half, I would suggest rubble. It’s been a painfully apt term since September 11, 2001. In addition, to catch the essence of such war in this century, two new words might be useful: rubblize and rubblization. Let me explain what I mean.
In recent weeks, another major city in Iraq has officially been “liberated” (almost) from the militants of the Islamic State. However, the results of the U.S.-backed Iraqi military campaign to retake Mosul, that country’s second largest city, don’t fit any ordinary definition of triumph or victory. It began in October 2016 and, at nine months and counting, has been longer than the World War II battle of Stalingrad. Week after week, in street to street fighting, with U.S. airstrikes repeatedly called in on neighborhoods still filled with terrified Mosulites, unknown but potentially staggering numbers of civilians have died. More than a million people — yes, you read that figure correctly — were uprooted from their homes and major portions of the Western half of the city they fled, including its ancient historic sections, have been turned into rubble.
This should be the definition of victory as defeat, success as disaster. It’s also a pattern. It’s been the essential story of the American war on terror since, in the month after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush loosed American air power on Afghanistan. That first air campaign began what has increasingly come to look like the full-scale rubblization of significant parts of the Greater Middle East.
By not simply going after the crew who committed those attacks but deciding to take down the Taliban, occupy Afghanistan, and in 2003, invade Iraq, Bush’s administration opened the proverbial can of worms in that vast region. An imperial urge to overthrow Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, who had once been Washington’s guy in the Middle East only to become its mortal enemy (and who had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11), proved one of the fatal miscalculations of the imperial era.
So, too, did the deeply engrained fantasy of Bush administration officials that they controlled a high-tech, precision military that could project power in ways no other nation on the planet or in history ever had; a military that would be, in the president’s words, “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.” With Iraq occupied and garrisoned (Korea-style) for generations to come, his top officials assumed that they would take down fundamentalist Iran (sound familiar?) and other hostile regimes in the region, creating a Pax Americana there. (Hence, the particular irony of the present Iranian ascendancy in Iraq.) In the pursuit of such fantasies of global power, the Bush administration, in effect, punched a devastating hole in the oil heartlands of the Middle East. In the pungent imagery of Abu Mussa, head of the Arab League at the time, the U.S. chose to drive straight through “the gates of hell.”
Rubblizing the Greater Middle East
In the 15-plus years since 9/11, parts of an expanding swathe of the planet — from Pakistan’s borderlands in South Asia to Libya in North Africa — were catastrophically unsettled. Tiny groups of Islamic terrorists multiplied exponentially into both local and transnational organizations, spreading across the region with the help of American “precision” warfare and the anger it stirred among helpless civilian populations. States began to totter or fail. Countries essentially collapsed, loosing a tide of refugees on the world, as year after year, the U.S. military, its Special Operations forces, and the CIA were increasingly deployed in one fashion or another in one country after another.
Though in case after case the results were visibly disastrous, like so many addicts, the three post-9/11 administrations in Washington seemed incapable of drawing the obvious conclusions and instead continued to do more of the same (with modest adjustments of one sort of another). The results, unsurprisingly enough, were similarly disappointing or disastrous.
Despite the doubts about such a form of global warfare that candidate Trump raised during the 2016 election campaign, the process has only escalated in the first months of his presidency. Washington, it seems, just can’t help itself in its drive to pursue this version of war in all its grim imprecision to its increasingly imprecise but predictably destructive conclusions. Worse yet, if the leading military and political figures in Washington have their way, none of this may end in our lifetime. (In recent years, for example, the Pentagon and those who channel its thoughts have begun speaking of a “generational approach” or a “generational struggle” in Afghanistan.)
If anything, so many years after it was launched, the war on terror shows every sign of continuing to expand and rubble is increasingly the name of the game. Here’s a very partial tally sheet on the subject: