The Unz Review - Mobile
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
 
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information



=>
 Tom Engelhardt BlogviewTeasers

U.S. Marines are, for the first time, deploying to Syria (with more to come). There’s talk of an “enduring” U.S. military presence in Iraq, while additional U.S. troops are being dispatched to neighboring Kuwait with an eye to the wars in both Iraq and Syria. Yemen has been battered by a veritable blitz of drone strikes and other air attacks. Afghanistan seems to be in line for an increase in American forces. The new president has just restored to the CIA the power to use drones to strike more or less anywhere on the “world battlefield,” recently a Pentagon prerogative, and is evidently easing restrictions on the Pentagon’s use of drones as well. U.S. military commanders are slated to get more leeway to make decisions locally and the very definition of what qualifies as a “battlefield” looks like it’s about to change (which will mean even less attention to “collateral damage” or civilian casualties). President Trump may soon designate various areas outside more or less official American war zones — since the U.S. Congress no longer declares war, they can’t truly be official — as “temporary areas of active hostility.” That will grant U.S. commanders greater leeway in launching attacks on terror groups in places like Somalia. In fact, this already seems to have happened in Yemen, according to the New York Times, opening the way for a disastrous Special Operations Forces raid there that caused the death of a Navy SEAL and possibly nine Yemeni children (the youngest three months old), while evidently accomplishing next to nothing.

In other words, in the early months of the Trump era, U.S. wars and conflicts across the Greater Middle East are being expanded and escalated. This isn’t exactly a new process, and isn’t yet at the level of either the failed Iraqi Surge of 2007 or the failed Afghan one of 2010. Still, you might think that the almost instant failure of that Yemen raid would have rung a few familiar warning bells in Washington when it comes to escalating America’s wars in the region. If so, you would evidently be oh-so-wrong. The history of the last 15 years tells us that in Washington such setbacks couldn’t matter less. At the moment, the generals who have headed down these very paths before are evidently recommending to an eager new president that it’s the height of wisdom to head down them again.

As TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East, points out today, this is now business as usual in militarized Washington in the twenty-first century. It’s so much the law of the land that the Pentagon has developed the perfect language for masking, perhaps to itself as much as others, just how dismally familiar this process actually is.

(Reprinted from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
 
How the Invasion of Iraq Came Home

If you want to know where President Donald Trump came from, if you want to trace the long winding road (or escalator) that brought him to the Oval Office, don’t look to reality TV or Twitter or even the rise of the alt-right. Look someplace far more improbable: Iraq.

Donald Trump may have been born in New York City. He may have grown to manhood amid his hometown’s real estate wars. He may have gone no further than Atlantic City, New Jersey, to casino-ize the world and create those magical golden letters that would become the essence of his brand. He may have made an even more magical leap to television without leaving home, turning “You’re fired!” into a household phrase. Still, his presidency is another matter entirely. It’s an immigrant. It arrived, fully radicalized, with its bouffant over-comb and eternal tan, from Iraq.

Despite his denials that he was ever in favor of the 2003 invasion of that country, Donald Trump is a president made by war. His elevation to the highest office in the land is inconceivable without that invasion, which began in glory and ended (if ended it ever did) in infamy. He’s the president of a land remade by war in ways its people have yet to absorb. Admittedly, he avoided war in his personal life entirely. He was, after all, a Vietnam no-show. And yet he’s the president that war brought home. Think of him not as President Blowhard but as President Blowback.

“Go Massive. Sweep It All Up”

To grasp this, a little escalator ride down memory lane is necessary — all the way back to 9/11; to, that is, the grimmest day in our recent history. There’s no other way to recall just how gloriously it all began than amid the rubble. You could, if you wanted, choose the moment three days after the World Trade Center towers collapsed when, bullhorn in hand, President George W. Bush ascended part of that rubble pile in downtown Manhattan, put his arm around a firefighter, and shouted into a bullhorn, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you!… And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

If I were to pick the genesis of Donald Trump’s presidency, however, I think I would choose an even earlier moment — at a Pentagon partially in ruins thanks to hijacked American Airlines flight 77. There, only five hours after the attack, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, already aware that the destruction around him was probably Osama bin Laden’s responsibility, ordered his aides (according to notes one of them took) to begin planning for a retaliatory strike against… yes, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. His exact words: “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” And swept almost instantly into the giant dust bin of what would become the Global War on Terror (or GWOT), as ordered, would be something completely unrelated to 9/11 (not that the Bush administration ever admitted that). It was, however, intimately related to the deepest dreams of the men (and woman) who oversaw foreign policy in the Bush years: the elimination of Iraq’s autocratic ruler, Saddam Hussein.

Yes, there was bin Laden to deal with and the Taliban and Afghanistan, too, but that was small change, almost instantly taken care of with some air power, CIA dollars delivered to Afghan warlords, and a modest number of American troops. Within months, Afghanistan had been “liberated,” bin Laden had fled the country, the Taliban had laid down their arms, and that was that. (Who in Washington then imagined that 15 years later a new administration would be dealing with a request from the 12th U.S. military commander in that country for yet more troops to shore up a failing war there?)

Within months, in other words, the decks were clear to pursue what George W. Bush, Dick Cheney & Co. saw as their destiny, as the key to America’s future imperial glory: the taking down of the Iraqi dictator. That, as Rumsfeld indicated at the Pentagon that day, was always where they were truly focused. It was what some of them had dreamed of since the moment, in the first Gulf War of 1990-1991, when President George H.W. Bush stopped the troops short of a march on Baghdad and left Hussein, America’s former ally and later Hitlerian nemesis, in power.

The invasion of March 2003 was, they had no doubt, to be an unforgettable moment in America’s history as a global power (as it would indeed turn out to be, even if not in the way they imagined). The U.S. military that George W. Bush would call “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known” was slated to liberate Iraq via a miraculous, high-tech, shock-and-awe campaign that the world would never forget. This time, unlike in 1991, its troops would enter Baghdad, Saddam would go down in flames, and it would all happen without the help of the militaries of 28 other countries.

It would instead be an act of imperial loneliness befitting the last superpower on planet Earth. The Iraqis would, of course, greet us as liberators and we would set up a long-term garrison state in the oil heartlands of the Middle East. At the moment the invasion was launched, in fact, the Pentagon already had plans on the drawing boards for the building of four permanent U.S. mega-bases (initially endearingly labeled “enduring camps”) in Iraq on which thousands of U.S. troops could hunker down for an eternity. At the peak of the occupation, there would be more than 500 bases, ranging from tiny combat outposts to ones the size of small American towns — many transformed after 2011 into the ghost towns of a dream gone mad until a few were recently reoccupied by U.S. troops in the battle against the Islamic State.

ORDER IT NOW

In the wake of the friendly occupation of now-democratic (and grateful) Iraq, the hostile Syria of the al-Assad family would naturally be between a hammer and an anvil (American-garrisoned Iraq and Israel), while the fundamentalist Iranian regime, after more than two decades of implacable anti-American hostility, would be done for. The neocon quip of that moment was: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.” Soon enough — it was inevitable — Washington would dominate the Greater Middle East from Pakistan to North Africa in a way no great power ever had. It would be the beginning of a Pax Americana moment on planet Earth that would stretch on for generations to come.

Such was the dream. You, of course, remember the reality, the one that led to a looted capital; Saddam’s army tossed out on the streets jobless to join the uprisings to come; a bitter set of insurgencies (Sunni and Shia); civil war (and local ethnic cleansing); a society-wide reconstruction program overseen by American warrior corporations linked to the Pentagon that resulted in vast boondoggle projects that achieved little and reconstructed nothing; prisons from hell (including Abu Ghraib) that bred yet more insurgents; and finally, years down the line, the Islamic State and the present version of American war, now taking place in Syria as well as Iraq and slated to ramp up further in the early days of the Trump era.

Meanwhile, as our new president reminded us recently in a speech to Congress, literally trillions of dollars that might have been spent on actual American security (broadly understood) were squandered on a failed military project that left this country’s infrastructure in disarray. All in all, it was quite a record. Thought of a certain way, in return for the destruction of part of the Pentagon and a section of downtown Manhattan that was turned to rubble, the U.S. would set off a series of wars, conflicts, insurgencies, and burgeoning terror movements that would transform significant parts of the Greater Middle East into failed or failing states, and their cities and towns, startling numbers of them, into so much rubble.

Once upon a time, all of this seemed so distant to Americans in a Global War on Terror in which President Bush quickly urged citizens to show their patriotism not by sacrificing or mobilizing or even joining the military, but by visiting Disney World and reestablishing patterns of pre-9/11 consumption as if nothing had happened. (“Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”) And indeed, personal consumption would rise significantly that October 2001. The other side of the glory-to-come in those years of remarkable peace in the United States was to be the passivity of a demobilized populace that (except for periodic thank-yous to its military) would have next to nothing to do with distant wars, which were to be left to the pros, even if fought to victory in their name.

That, of course, was the dream. Reality proved to be another matter entirely.

Invading America

In the end, a victory-less permanent war across the Greater Middle East did indeed come home. There was all the new hardware of war — the stingrays, the MRAPs, the drones, and so on — that began migrating homewards, and that was the least of it. There was the militarization of America’s police forces, not to speak of the rise of the national security state to the status of an unofficial fourth branch of government. Home, too, came the post-9/11 fears, the vague but unnerving sense that somewhere in the world strange and incomprehensible aliens practicing an eerie religion were out to get us, that some of them had near-super powers that even the world’s greatest military couldn’t crush, and that their potential acts of terror were Topeka’s greatest danger. (It mattered little that actual Islamic terror was perhaps the least of the dangers Americans faced in their daily lives.)

All of this reached its crescendo (at least thus far) in Donald Trump. Think of the Trump phenomenon, in its own strange way, as the culmination of the invasion of 2003 brought home bigly. His would be a shock-and-awe election campaign in which he would “decapitate” his rivals one by one. The New York real estate, hotel, and casino magnate who had long swum comfortably in the waters of the liberal elite when he needed to and had next to nothing to do with America’s heartland would be as alien to its inhabitants as the U.S. military was to Iraqis when it invaded. And yet he would indeed launch his own invasion of that heartland on his private jet with its gold-plated bathroom fixtures, sweeping up all the fears that had been gathering in this country since 9/11 (nurtured by both politicians and national security state officials for their own benefit). And those fears would ring a bell so loud in that heartland that it would sweep him into the White House. In November 2016, he took Baghdad, USA, in high style.

In this context, let’s think for a moment about how strangely the invasion of Iraq, in some pretzeled form, blew back on America.

Like the neocons of the Bush administration, Donald Trump had long dreamed of his moment of imperial glory, and as in Afghanistan and again in Iraq in 2001 and 2003, when it arrived on November 8, 2016, it couldn’t have seemed more glorious. We know of those dreams of his because, for one thing, only six days after Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in the 2012 election campaign, The Donald first tried to trademark the old Reagan-inspired slogan, “Make America great again.”

Like George W. and Dick Cheney, he was intent on invading and occupying the oil heartlands of the planet which, in 2003, had indeed been Iraq. By 2015-2016, however, the U.S. had entered the energy heartlands sweepstakes, thanks to fracking and other advanced methods of extracting fossil fuels that seemed to be turning the country into “Saudi America.” Add to this Trump’s plans to further fossil-fuelize the continent and you certainly have a competitor to the Middle East. In a sense, you might say, adapting his description of what he would have preferred to do in Iraq, that Donald Trump wants to “keep” our oil.

ORDER IT NOW

Like the U.S. military in 2003, he, too, arrived on the scene with plans to turn his country of choice into a garrison state. Almost the first words out of his mouth on riding that escalator into the presidential race in June 2015 involved a promise to protect Americans from Mexican “rapists” by building an unforgettably impregnable “great wall” on the country’s southern border. From this he never varied even when, in funding terms, it became apparent that, from the Coast Guard to airport security to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as president he would be cutting into genuine security measures to build his “big, fat, beautiful wall.”

It’s clear, however, that his urge to create a garrison state went far beyond a literal wall. It included the build-up of the U.S. military to unprecedented heights, as well as the bolstering of the regular police, and above all of the border police. Beyond that lay the urge to wall Americans off in every way possible. His fervently publicized immigration policies (less new, in reality, than they seemed) should be thought of as part of a project to construct another kind of “great wall,” a conceptual one whose message to the rest of the world was striking: You are not welcome or wanted here. Don’t come. Don’t visit.

All this was, in turn, fused at the hip to the many irrational fears that had been gathering like storm clouds for so many years, and that Trump (and his alt-right companions) swept into the already looted heartland of the country. In the process, he loosed a brand of hate (including shootings, mosque burnings, a raft of bomb threats, and a rise in hate groups, especially anti-Muslim ones) that, historically speaking, was all-American, but was nonetheless striking in its intensity in our present moment.

Combined with his highly publicized “Muslim bans” and prominently publicized acts of hate, the Trump walling-in of America quickly hit home. A drop in foreigners who wanted to visit this country was almost instantly apparent as the warning signs of a tourism “Trump slump” registered, business travel bookings took an instant $185 million hit, and the travel industry predicted worse to come.

This is evidently what “America First” actually means: a country walled off and walled in. Think of the road traveled from 2003 to 2017 as being from sole global superpower to potential super-pariah. Thought of another way, Donald Trump is giving the hubristic imperial isolation of the invasion of Iraq a new meaning here in the homeland.

And don’t forget “reconstruction,” as it was called after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In relation to the United States, the bedraggled land now in question whose infrastructure recently was given a D+ grade on a “report card” issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Donald Trump promises a trillion-dollar infrastructure program to rebuild America’s highways, tunnels, bridges, airports, and the like. If it actually comes about, count on one thing: it will be handed over to some of the same warrior corporations that reconstructed Iraq (and other corporate entities like them), functionally guaranteeing an American version of the budget-draining boondoggle that was Iraq.

As with that invasion in the spring of 2003, in 2017 we are still in the (relative) sunshine days of the Trump era. But as in Iraq, so here 14 years later, the first cracks are already appearing, as this country grows increasingly riven. (Think Sunni vs. Shia.)

And one more thing as you consider the future: the blowback wars out of which Donald Trump and the present fear-gripped garrison state of America arose have never ended. In fact, just as under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, so under Donald Trump, it seems they never will. Already the Trump administration is revving up American military power in Yemen, Syria, and potentially Afghanistan. So whatever the blowback may have been, you’ve only seen its beginning. It’s bound to last for years to come.

There’s just one phrase that could adequately sum all this up: Mission accomplished!

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

(Reprinted from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
 

The other day, I walked across much of Manhattan Island on the street where I grew up. Once upon a time, in a space of just four blocks along that very street there were four movie theaters (no small wonder in the 1950s). Only The Paris Theater, somewhat the worse for wear, still stands. Tao, a pan-Asian restaurant, has replaced one of them; the other two were obliterated, their buildings razed and built anew in a city that regularly eats itself for breakfast.

At one of those two, the RKO 58th Street, I spent a significant part of my childhood watching John Wayne, Audie Murphy, and other monumental war heroes of the big screen (and, in Murphy’s case, an actual war hero as well) go to hell and back defeating America’s enemies. It was, I have to say, thrilling. Sometimes I would be sitting there right next to my dad and who could have asked for better than that? After all, in World War II he had been operations officer for the First Air Commandos in Burma, so who knew better than he what war was all about? He took me to such films, watched them with me, and never, not once, told me that anything I had seen onscreen wasn’t the god’s honest truth about how it all went down.

Strangely (at least to the young Tom Engelhardt), he rarely talked, no less bragged or told stories of any sort, about “his” war, the one I knew so well onscreen. In this, as Susan Faludi wrote years ago, he was undoubtedly typical of what we’ve come to call “the greatest generation” — they thought otherwise — but who might better have been labeled, at least by their sons, the silent generation. It was true that, on occasion, my father would suddenly burst into unpredictable rage over the owners of a local store who, he believed, had been “war profiteers,” or over the thought of going to a Japanese restaurant or owning a German Volkswagen. A few times in my childhood, he even pulled a scuffed green duffle bag filled with war memorabilia out of the back of his closet and let me watch as he silently sorted through it all, including his mess kit, wartime photos, two-sided silk maps of Burma, and his old service revolver. I would be suitably awed. Even then, though, he said next to nothing about his war.

All this came to mind as I read today’s post by TomDispatch regular Michael Klare on our new president and the war that ended at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the most glorious of global triumphs and the most terrifying of apocalyptic conclusions. It was, of course, the war I, like every other American boy of that moment including Donald Trump, had watched reverentially in movie theaters and on TV as the Marines eternally advanced to victory, or Merrill’s Marauders won the day, or the Nazis were mowed down. Meanwhile, at school we all “ducked and covered” under our desks, as sirens wailed outside and CONELRAD broadcast its warnings from a radio on our teacher’s desk, all the while imagining that war’s “victory weapon” annihilating us all.

And yet who could doubt that we Americans were the ultimate victors, that the U.S. military was glorious beyond compare, that the war my father wouldn’t talk about we had won, won, won, won, or that, in its onscreen form, as absorbed by the young Donald J. Trump, it became, as Klare argues convincingly, the bedrock foundation for his present military policies, the ones that he swears will finally leave America “winning” again for the first time in years. What would Audie Murphy or my father think now?

(Reprinted from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
 

“More than 25 years ago, as I sat on the roof of our house watching the neighborhood’s furniture float down the street, I thought things couldn’t get any worse. Everything I owned was under water. The capital of my country was ruined. Mother Earth was exacting its revenge upon its most arrogant inhabitants. As it turned out, things got a lot worse.”

I’m sure, like the rest of us, you haven’t forgotten that disastrous event either, that moment in 2022 when a climate-charged Hurricane Donald tore through Washington leveling the city, and our nation’s capital was subsequently moved to Kansas. While no one could have predicted such an event in all its details, there were few firsthand observers of that rampaging super-storm who had foreseen the fragmented, degraded world we now inhabit in a more clear-eyed manner than Julian West (the observer quoted above) whose 2020 bestseller Splinterlands eerily foresaw this present shattered globe of ours.

Okay, okay, here’s where I fess up: it’s true that geo-paleontologist Julian West (a namesake for the hero of Edward Bellamy’s nineteenth century utopian novel, Looking Backward) is just a fantasy stand-in for John Feffer, the author of the actual dystopian novel Splinterlands. And if that isn’t complicated enough for you, keep in mind that Feffer named that hurricane after Donald Trump while he was still writing his book back in 2016 just as the election campaign was gearing up, so he certainly does have a Julian West-style sense of what’s to come. Now, of course, Hurricane Donald has hit Washington in a tweet-charged storm of chaos and dystopian energy. And so today, Feffer turns his attention to what to make of that human hurricane at a moment when Americans are signaling their dystopian fears by driving novels like 1984 to the tops of bestseller lists — and not just in bastions of anti-Trumpist feeling either. So strap your jet pack to your back and take off with Feffer into a present that feels all too much like some dystopian future to all too many of us.

(Reprinted from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
 
• Tags: TomDispatch Archives 

Every now and then, I think back to the millions of people who turned out in this country and across the globe in early 2003 to protest the coming invasion of Iraq. Until the recent Women’s March against Donald Trump, that may have been the largest set of demonstrations in American history or, at the very least, the largest against a war that had yet to be launched. Those who participated will remember that the protests were also a sea of homemade signs, some sardonic (“Remember when presidents were smart and bombs were dumb?”), some blunt (“Contain Saddam — and Bush”), some pointed indeed (“Pre-emptive war is terrorism”). In one of those demonstrations, I was carrying a sign which read “The Bush administration is a material breach” (a reference to that crew’s insistence that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was in “material breach” of a U.N. resolution for not fully disclosing its efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction… you know, those non-existent nukes that were slated to create future mushroom clouds over American cities). There was even one humorous sign I noted then that seems relevant to our Dystrumpian moment and the president’s stated wishes to “keep” Iraqi oil: “How did USA’s oil get under Iraq’s sand?”

But here’s the essential thing: the invasion to come had disaster written all over it and millions of people saw that perfectly clearly. They were, of course, the ones who weren’t consulted then and would never be remembered when what they feared actually occurred and played out so catastrophically. Unlike those who got us into the Iraq nightmare, one of the great blunders of modern times, or those who later prosecuted the ongoing war there, they would never be asked for their reflections on it.

They are now largely forgotten, as is the thought that, then as now, it didn’t necessarily take an expert to tell you the obvious: that America’s never-ending wars in the Middle East would come to no good; that all the promises about “winning,” whether then or today, have been or will prove so much hogwash. It didn’t take an expert, then or now, to know that Washington’s military-first efforts to “win” across the Greater Middle East were fated to end badly, whether we’re talking about the famed “surge” of 2007 in Iraq, President Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan in 2009, or, in the age of Trump, the sudden surge of American air strikes in Yemen in the wake of a failed and now-controversial raid in which a Navy SEAL and possibly 10 children died. It seems that those included the most intensive day of drone strikes ever ordered and, more generally, an intensification of the Obama era campaign in that country. (This from a president who was supposed to be a noninterventionist!)

From 2003 on, it hasn’t been all that difficult to see just how poorly all of this would play out even as it happened. Of the surge in Iraq, for example, I wrote in 2008: “If you want a prediction, here it is and it couldn’t be simpler: This cannot end well. Not for Washington. Not for the U.S. military. Not for Americans. And, above all, not for Iraqis.” And I was hardly alone in my “insight.”

Nonetheless, no matter what I or others outside the American mainstream media wrote at the time (and since), the surge’s cachet remained — and remains — strong indeed. That’s why it couldn’t be more useful to hear from an actual expert on just what went wrong and why. On the 10th anniversary of the original “surge” in Iraq, Major Danny Sjursen, TomDispatch regular, former history instructor at West Point, and the author of Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, offers a personal look at the building of a legend, which helped make careers, including those of Trump’s top generals, and kept a disastrous war going.

(Reprinted from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
 

Donald Trump, now preparing to lead the country into the latest version of our endless wars, recently offered this look back at American military prowess: “We have to start winning wars again. I have to say, when I was young, in high school and college, everybody used to say we never lost a war. We never lost a war, remember?… And now we never win a war. We never win. And don’t fight to win.” It was a curious bit of “history.” Logically, his memories should have been of victory-less wars, given the ones of his growing up years: Korea and Vietnam (which he evidently avoided thanks to a trumped-up medical condition and whose massive oppositional movement he seems to have ignored).

Born in July 1944, I’m two years older than President Trump and so understand just where he’s coming from: the movies. In those years of his youth and mine, sitting in the darkness catching Hollywood’s vivid version of reality, we both watched Americans win wars ad infinitum. In fact, this is hardly the first time I’ve thought about the on-screen wars of my childhood, actual war, and an American president. Here’s what I wrote back in January 2006, while considering the experiences of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney:

“In the 1940s and 1950s, when the generation of men now ruling over us were growing up, boys could disappear into a form of war play — barely noticed by adults and hardly recorded anywhere — that was already perhaps a couple of hundred years old. In this kind of play, there was no need to enact the complicated present by recreating a junior version of an anxiety-ridden Cold War garrison state… For children in those years, there was still a sacramental, triumphalist version of American history, a spectacle of slaughter in which they invariably fell before our guns. This spectacle could be experienced in any movie theater, and then played out in backyards and on floors with toy six guns (or sticks) or little toy bluecoats, Indians, and cowboys, or green, inch-high plastic sets of World War II soldiers. As play, for those who grew up in that time, it was sunshine itself, pure pleasure. The Western (as well as its modern successor, the war film) was on screen everywhere then.

“When those children grew up (barely), some of them went off to Vietnam, dreaming of John Wayne-like feats as they entered what they came to call ‘Indian country,’ while others sallied off to demonstrate against the war dressed either in the cast-off World War II garb of their fathers or in the movie-inspired get-ups of the former enemy of another age — headbands and moccasins, painted faces, love beads… as well as peace (now drug) pipes. Sometimes, they even formed themselves into ‘tribes.’

“As it turns out, though, there was a third category of young men in those years: those who essentially steered clear of the Vietnam experience, who, as our vice president put it inelegantly but accurately, had ‘other priorities in the sixties.’ Critics have sometimes spoken of such Bush administration figures as ‘chickenhawks’ for their lack of war experience. But this is actually inaccurate. They were warriors of a sort — screen warriors. They had an abundance of combat experience because, unlike their peers, they never left the confines of those movie theaters, where American war was always glorious, our military men always out on some frontier, and the Indians, or their modern equivalents, always falling by their scores before our might as the cavalry bugle sounded or the Marine Hymn welled up. By avoiding becoming either the warriors or the anti-warriors of the Vietnam era, they managed to remain quite deeply embedded in centuries of triumphalist frontier mythology. They were, in a sense, the Peter Pans of American war play.

“…From that same childhood undoubtedly came President Bush’s repeated urge to dress up in an assortment of ‘commander-in-chief’ military outfits, much in the style of a G.I. Joe ‘action figure.’ (Think: doll). It’s visibly clear that our president has long found delight — actual pleasure — in his war-making role, as he did in his Top Gun, ‘mission accomplished’ landing on that aircraft carrier back in 2003…”

Only the other day, Donald Trump made his own landing on an aircraft carrier and strode its deck togged out in a USS Gerald R. Ford green bomber jacket and baseball cap, showing similar pleasure in the experience. It should have had an eerie resonance for us all as we pondered just where our next movie commander-in-chief might lead us. Who could have imagined that, so many decades after the onscreen childhood that The Donald and I shared, we’d all still be at the movies and, as TomDispatch regular and American Nuremberg author Rebecca Gordon points out today, in an American world of forever war as well?

(Reprinted from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
 

Let’s think about the logic of it all for a moment. The 2016 Pentagon budget came in at just over $600 billion and that royal sum, larger than the combined military investments of the next seven countries, was hardly the full measure of the money U.S. taxpayers spent on what we like to call “national security.” Add everything in — including funding for the Department of Homeland Security and for veterans affairs — and you’re approaching a trillion dollars annually, according to the Project on Government Oversight. No other country spends anything faintly like it, which means the United States has a military that, by any normal measure, is unmatched on planet Earth.

For the last 15 years, that military has been engaged in a series of wars and conflicts across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa that have been both unending and by anyone’s standards remarkably unsuccessful, if not disastrous. Or put another way, the greatest military around, sent into action for a decade and a half and funded in a way that no other military comes close to, hasn’t notched a victory to its name in its twenty-first-century era of permanent war.

Now for that matter of logic. In response to such over-the-top outlays of taxpayer dollars and such a record of unsuccessful wars, the Trump administration is moving fast to improve the situation by… yes, of course… working to massively increase spending on the U.S. military and national security, while slashing the budgets of outfits ranging from the State Department (goodbye, diplomacy!) to the Environmental Protection Agency (goodbye, relatively unpolluted surroundings!) to education and “social safety net programs” (don’t be young and poor!). Trump will reportedly call for adding a “supplemental” $30 billion to the 2017 defense budget and a whopping $54 billion in 2018, an increase of close to 10%. To put that sum into perspective, ask yourself where the U.S. military would rank internationally if that were its entire military budget. The answer: 7th in the world (according to 2015 figures). It would come just after Great Britain at $55.5 billion and would outrank India ($51.3 billion), France ($50.9 billion), and Japan ($40.9 billion). Put another way, despite recent rising fears about Russia, that $54 billion alone would be more than 80% of the total Russian military budget of 2015.

In other words, there will be more planes, ships, troops, and weaponry of every sort — armaments industry stocks naturally rose on the news — to fight America’s disastrous wars, while domestically the “security” of the American people will be slashed in just about every imaginable way. (And to add a touch of humor to the mix, Republican Senator John McCain promptly attacked President Trump for his miserly approach to the needs of the U.S. military.) As TomDispatch regular William Hartung, author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex, points out today, if you add into all this Trump’s bevy of generals (and his ideologues), you have a fabulous formula for permanent war into the (un)foreseeable future.

(Reprinted from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
 

Here’s a little fact of our age: Rear Admiral Peter Clark is the 16th commander of America’s notorious prison complex at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, opened in January 2002, and it seems he won’t be the last. As the New York Times recently reported, the Trump administration is already readying a draft executive order that would direct the Pentagon to use that prison to “detain suspected members of ‘Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces, including individuals and networks associated with the Islamic State.’” One such terror suspect, Abu Khaybar, held in Yemen by “another country” and long associated with al-Qaeda, is supposedly being eyed as the possible first new Guantánamo detainee since the end of the Bush era.

Consider all of this a guarantee that what might be the world’s most notorious prison will undoubtedly have a 17th, 18th, and 19th commander — brought to you by the job-creating administration of Donald J. Trump who, during the 2016 election campaign, swore that he would keep that prison open and “load it up with some bad dudes.” In addition, instead of spending what he claimed was $40 million a month sprucing up Gitmo, he “guaranteed” that he would do it for “peanuts.” Post-election, according to no less of an authority than White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, the president still “believes that Guantánamo Bay does serve a very, very healthy purpose in our national security.” Of course, the Islamic State agrees with both of them that it would be “healthy” indeed — for ISIS, that is, which has already staged horrific videoed torture and killing scenes, while mockingly dressing its prisoners in the orange jumpsuits Guantánamo made (in)famous.

All I can say is thank god that, despite promising on day one of his presidency to shut down Guantánamo within a year, President Obama didn’t issue an executive order in his last months in office to do so (as he certainly could have). It would have set a terrible example of executive overreach for President Trump and might have led him, despite endless Republican complaints about such overreach during the Obama era, to resort to rule by executive order himself. (Sad!) So all looks upbeat indeed when it comes to the future of Guantánamo-style extra-legality and to that crown jewel in what was once a Bermuda Triangle of offshore injustice, even if we don’t yet know whether the Trump administration will send U.S. citizens there. Unfortunately, not all Americans have experienced the benefits of Gitmo equally. TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and an expert on Guantánamo, who has written on that subject for this website for more than a decade, is certainly one of those. She tells her sad story today.

(Reprinted from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
 

If you had asked Americans about Afghanistan before 1979, it’s a reasonable bet that most of us wouldn’t have known much about that country or even been able to locate it on a map. Perhaps only to the “freaks” of that era, in search of a superb hashish high, would its name have rung a special bell. It was, after all, a key stop — considered particularly friendly and welcoming — on what was then called “the hippy trail.” In those years, you would have been taken for either an idiot or a mad person if you had told any American, freak or not, that between 1979 and 2017, the United States would engage in two wars in that country, the first against the Soviet Union and the second against the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other terror outfits; that Washington would be at war there for more than a quarter of a century (with a decade-plus off during a brutal Afghan civil war and the rise of the Taliban); and that almost 16 years into its second Afghan War, its generals would be considering how many more U.S. troops to recommend that a new president send in to continue the conflict into the distant future.

And yet that’s a perfectly reasonable summary of the situation from the moment Washington dispatched the CIA (and piles of money) to that region to give the Soviet Union, which had sent the Red Army into Kabul in 1979, a “bloody nose” and its own “Vietnam.” The irony: they succeeded. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called his country’s war there “the bleeding wound” and when the Red Army finally limped out of Afghanistan in 1989, the Soviet Union itself was at the edge of implosion. From that experience, the political leadership in Washington seemed to draw only one lesson: it could never happen to us. Sending an American army of occupation into Kabul and then, like the Soviets, pouring money into the military and the wars that followed would never result in a “bleeding wound,” not for the “sole superpower” on planet Earth. The result, as TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore writes today, has been a bloody wound par excellence or at least one hell of a bloody nose. As once again an American commander there calls for yet more U.S. troops and Defense Secretary James Mattis, who as the head of Central Command once oversaw the Afghan War, considers just what Washington’s next steps should be, rest assured of one thing: based on the record to date, they’re not likely to be steps in the direction the Russians took in 1989 — not yet, anyway.

(Reprinted from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
 
How the U.S. Invaded, Occupied, and Remade Itself

It’s been epic! A cast of thousands! (Hundreds? Tens?) A spectacular production that, five weeks after opening on every screen of any sort in America (and possibly the world), shows no sign of ending. What a hit it’s been! It’s driving people back to newspapers (online, if not in print) and ensuring that our everyday companions, the 24/7 cable news shows, never lack for “breaking news” or audiences. It’s a smash in both the Hollywood and car accident sense of the term, a phenomenon the likes of which we’ve simply never experienced. Think of Nero fiddling while Rome burned and the cameras rolled. It’s proved, in every way, to be a giant leak. A faucet. A spigot. An absolute flood of non-news, quarter-news, half-news, crazed news, fake news, and over-the-top actual news.

And you know exactly what — and whom — I’m talking about. No need to explain. I mean, you tell me: What doesn’t it have? Its lead actor is the closest we’ve come in our nation’s capital to an action figure. Think of him as the Mar-a-Lego version of Batman and the Joker rolled into one, a president who, as he told us at a news conference recently, is “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life” and the “least racist person” as well. As report after report indicates, he attacks, lashes out, mocks, tweets, pummels, charges, and complains, showering calumny on others even as he praises his achievements without surcease. Think of him as the towering inferno of twenty-first-century American politics or a modern Godzilla eternally emerging from New York harbor.

As for his supporting cast? Islamophobes, Iranophobes, white nationalists; bevies of billionaires and multimillionaires; a resurgent stock market gone wild; the complete fossil fuel industry and every crackpot climate change “skeptic” in town; a press spokesman immortalized by Saturday Night Live whose afternoon briefings are already beating the soap opera General Hospital in the ratings; a White House counselor whose expertise is in “alternative facts”; a national security adviser who (with a tenure of 24 days) seemed to sum up the concept of “insecurity”; a White House chief of staff and liaison with the Republicans in Congress who’s already being sized up for extinction, as well as a couple of appointees who were “dismissed” or even frog-marched out of their offices and jobs for having criticized The Donald and not fessed up… honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up, or rather only Trump himself can do so. And by the way, just so you know, based on the last weeks of “news” I could keep this paragraph going more or less forever without even breaking into a sweat.

Among so many subjects I haven’t even mentioned, including Melania and former wife Ivana — is it even possible that she could become the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic? — there are, of course, the Trump kids and their businesses and the instantly broken promises on (such an old-fashioned phrase) their conflicts of interest and the conflicts about those conflicts and the presidential tweets, threats, and bluster that have gone with them, not to speak of the issue of for-pay access to the new president. And how about Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner (another walking conflict of you-know-what), who reputedly had a role in the appointment of the new ambassador to Israel, a New York bankruptcy lawyer known for raising millions of dollars to fund a West Bank Jewish settlement and for calling supporters of the liberal Jewish group J Street “far worse than kapos” (Jews who aided the Nazis in their concentration camps). Kushner has now been ordained America’s ultimate peacemaker in the Middle East. And don’t forget that sons Donald and Eric are already saving memorabilia for the future Trump presidential library, a concept that should take your breath away. (Just imagine a library with those giant golden letters over its entrance to honor a man who proudly doesn’t read books and, as with presidential executive orders and possibly even volumes he’s “written,” signs off on things he’s barely bothered to check out.)

And speaking of Rome (remember Nero fiddling?), have you noticed that these days all news roads lead back to… well, Donald Trump? Take my word for it: nothing happens in our world any longer that doesn’t relate to him and his people (or, by definition, it simply didn’t happen). Since he rode that Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race in June 2015, his greatest skill has, without any doubt, been his ability to suck up all the media air in any room, whether that “room” is the Oval Office, Washington, or the world at large. He speaks at a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, amid angry outbursts on leaks from the intelligence community and attacks on “the dishonest media” for essentially firing his national security adviser, he suddenly turns his attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue and says, “So, I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two but honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians — if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.” And the world as we’ve known it in the Middle East is suddenly turned upside down and inside out.

Generalizing

In its way, even 20 months after it began, it’s all still so remarkable and new, and if it isn’t like being in the path of a tornado, you tell me what it’s like. So no one should be surprised at just how difficult it is to step outside the storm of this never-ending moment, to find some — any — vantage point offering the slightest perspective on the Trumpaclysm that’s hit our world.

ORDER IT NOW

Still, odd as it may seem under the circumstances, Trump’s presidency came from somewhere, developed out of something. To think of it (as many of those resisting Trump now seem inclined to do) as uniquely new, the presidential version of a virgin birth, is to defy both history and reality.

Donald Trump, whatever else he may be, is most distinctly a creature of history. He’s unimaginable without it. This, in turn, means that the radical nature of his new presidency should serve as a reminder of just how radical the 15 years after 9/11 actually were in shaping American life, politics, and governance. In that sense, to generalize (if you’ll excuse the pun), his presidency already offers a strikingly vivid and accurate portrait of the America we’ve been living in for some years now, even if we’d prefer to pretend otherwise.

After all, it’s clearly a government of, by, and evidently for the billionaires and the generals, which pretty much sums up where we’ve been heading for the last decade and a half anyway. Let’s start with those generals. In the 15 years before Trump entered the Oval Office, Washington became a permanent war capital; war, a permanent feature of our American world; and the military, the most admired institution of American life, the one in which we have the most confidence among an otherwise fading crew, including the presidency, the Supreme Court, public schools, banks, television news, newspapers, big business, and Congress (in that descending order).

Support for that military in the form of staggering sums of taxpayer dollars (which are about to soar yet again) is one of the few things congressional Democrats and Republicans can still agree on. The military-industrial complex rides ever higher (despite Trumpian tweets about the price of F-35s); police across the country have been armed like so many military forces, while the technology of war on America’s distant battlefields — from Stingrays to MRAPs to military surveillance drones — has come home big time, and we’ve been SWATified.

This country has, in other words, been militarized in all sorts of ways, both obvious and less so, in a fashion that Americans once might not have imagined possible. In the process, declaring and making war has increasingly become — the Constitution be damned — the sole preoccupation of the White House without significant reference to Congress. Meanwhile, thanks to the drone assassination program run directly out of the Oval Office, the president, in these years, has become an assassin-in-chief as well as commander-in-chief.

Under the circumstances, no one should have been surprised when Donald Trump turned to the very generals he criticized in the election campaign, men who fought 15 years of losing wars that they bitterly feel should have been won. In his government, they have, of course, now taken over — a historic first — what had largely been the civilian posts of secretary of defense, secretary of homeland security, national security adviser, and National Security Council chief of staff. Think of it as a junta light and little more than the next logical step in the further militarization of this country.

It’s striking, for instance, that when the president finally fired his national security adviser, 24 days into his presidency, all but one of the other figures that he reportedly considered for a post often occupied by a civilian were retired generals (and an admiral), or in the case of the person he actually tapped to be his second national security adviser, a still-active Army general. This reflects a distinct American reality of the twenty-first century that The Donald has simply absorbed like the human sponge he is. As a result, America’s permanent wars, all relative disasters of one sort or another, will now be overseen by men who were, for the last decade and a half, deeply implicated in them. It’s a formula for further disaster, of course, but no matter.

Other future Trumpian steps — like the possible mobilization of the National Guard, more than half a century after guardsmen helped desegregate the University of Alabama, to carry out the mass deportation of illegal immigrants — will undoubtedly be in the same mold (though the administration has denied that such a mobilization is under serious consideration yet). In short, we now live in an America of the generals and that would be the case even if Donald Trump had never been elected president.

Add in one more factor of our moment: we have the first signs that members of the military high command may no longer feel completely bound by the classic American prohibition from taking any part in politics. General Raymond “Tony” Thomas, head of the elite U.S. Special Operations Command, speaking recently at a conference, essentially warned the president that we are “at war” and that chaos in the White House is not good for the warriors. That’s as close as we’ve come in our time to direct public military criticism of the White House.

The Ascendancy of the Billionaires

As for those billionaires, let’s start this way: a billionaire is now president of the United States, something that, until this country was transformed into a 1% society with 1% politics, would have been inconceivable. (The closest we came in modern times was Nelson Rockefeller as vice president, and he was appointed by President Gerald Ford in 1974, not elected.) In addition, never have there been so many billionaires and multimillionaires in a cabinet — and that, in turn, was only possible because there are now so staggeringly many billionaires and multimillionaires in this country to choose from. In 1987, there were 41 billionaires in the United States; in 2015, 536. What else do you need to know about the intervening years, which featured growing inequality and the worst economic meltdown since 1929 that only helped strengthen the new version of the American system?

ORDER IT NOW

In swift order in these years, we moved from billionaires funding the political system (after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision opened the financial floodgates) to actually heading and running the government. As a result, count on a country even friendlier to the already fantastically wealthy — thanks in part to whatever Trump-style “tax cuts” are put in place — and so the possible establishment of a new “era of dynastic wealth.” From the crew of rich dismantlers and destroyers Donald Trump has appointed to his cabinet, expect, among other things, that the privatization of the U.S. government — a process until now largely focused on melding warrior corporations with various parts of the national security state — will proceed apace in the rest of the governing apparatus.

We were, in other words, already living in a different America before November 8, 2016. Donald Trump has merely shoved that reality directly in all our faces. And keep in mind that if it weren’t for the one-percentification of this country and the surge of automation (as well as globalization) that destroyed so many jobs and only helped inequality flourish, white working class Americans in particular would not have felt so left behind in the heartland of their own country or so ready to send such an explosive figure into the White House as a visible form of screw-you-style protest.

Finally, consider one other hallmark of the first month of the Trump presidency: the “feud” between the new president and the intelligence sector of the national security state. In these post-9/11 years, that state within a state — sometimes referred to by its critics as the “deep state,” though given the secrecy that envelops it, “dark state” might be a more accurate term — grew by leaps and bounds. In that period, for instance, the U.S. gained a second Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security with its own security-industrial complex, while the intelligence agencies, all 17 of them, expanded in just about every way imaginable. In those years, they gained a previously inconceivable kind of clout, as well as the ability to essentially listen in on and monitor the communications of just about anyone on the planet (including Americans). Fed copiously by taxpayer dollars, swollen by hundreds of thousands of private contractors from warrior corporations, largely free of the controlling hand of either Congress or the courts, and operating under the kind of blanket secrecy that left most Americans in the dark about its activities (except when whistle-blowers revealed its workings), the national security state gained an ascendancy in Washington as the de facto fourth branch of government.

Now, key people within its shadowy precincts find Donald Trump, the president who is in so many ways a product of the same processes that elevated them, not to their liking — even less so once he compared their activities to those of the Nazi era — and they seem to have gone to war with him and his administration via a remarkable stream of leaks of damaging information, especially about now-departed National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. As Amanda Taub and Max Fisher of the New York Times wrote, “For concerned government officials, leaks may have become one of the few remaining means by which to influence not just Mr. Flynn’s policy initiatives but the threat he seemed to pose to their place in democracy.”

This, of course, represented a version of whistle-blowing that, when directed at them in the pre-Trump era, they found appalling. Like General Thomas’s comments, that flood of leaks, while discomfiting Donald Trump, also represented a potential challenge to the American political system as it once was known. When the fiercest defenders of that system begin to be seen as being inside the intelligence community and the military you know that you’re in a different and far more perilous world.

So much of what’s now happening may seem startlingly new and overwhelming. In truth, however, it’s been in development for years, even if the specifics of a Trump presidency were not so long ago unimaginable. In March of 2015, for instance, two months before The Donald tossed his hair into the presidential ring, in a post at TomDispatch I asked if “a new political system” was emerging in America and summed the situation up this way:

“Still, don’t for a second think that the American political system isn’t being rewritten on the run by interested parties in Congress, our present crop of billionaires, corporate interests, lobbyists, the Pentagon, and the officials of the national security state. Out of the chaos of this prolonged moment and inside the shell of the old system, a new culture, a new kind of politics, a new kind of governance is being born right before our eyes. Call it what you want. But call it something. Stop pretending it’s not happening.”

We’re now living in Donald Trump’s America (which I certainly didn’t either predict or imagine in March 2015); we’re living, that is, in an ever more chaotic and aberrant land run (to the extent it’s run at all) by billionaires and retired generals, and overseen by a distinctly aberrant president at war with aberrant parts of the national security state. That, in a nutshell, is the America created in the post-9/11 years. Put another way, the U.S. may have failed dismally in its efforts to invade, occupy, and remake Iraq in its own image, but it seems to have invaded, occupied, and remade itself with remarkable success. And don’t blame this one on the Russians.

No one said it better than French King Louis XV: Après moi, le Trump.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

(Reprinted from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
 
Tom Engelhardt
About Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute where he is a Fellow. He is the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, as well as a collection of his Tomdispatch interviews, Mission Unaccomplished. Each spring he is a Teaching Fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Tomdispatch.com is the sideline that ate his life. Before that he worked as an editor at Pacific News Service in the early 1970s, and, these last three decades, as an editor in book publishing. For 15 years, he was Senior Editor at Pantheon Books where he edited and published award-winning works ranging from Art Spiegelman's Maus and John Dower's War Without Mercy to Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy. He is now Consulting Editor at Metropolitan Books, as well as co-founder and co-editor of Metropolitan's The American Empire Project. Many of the authors whose books he has edited and published over the years now write for Tomdispatch.com. He is married to Nancy J. Garrity, a therapist, and has two children, Maggie and Will.

His new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books), has just been published.


Personal Classics
Eight Exceptional(ly Dumb) American Achievements of the Twenty-First Century
How the Security State’s Mania for Secrecy Will Create You
Delusional Thinking in the Age of the Single Superpower