It may be hard to believe now, but in 1970 the protest song “War,” sung by Edwin Starr, hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That was at the height of the Vietnam antiwar movement and the song, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, became something of a sensation. Even so many years later, who could forget its famed chorus? “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” Not me. And yet heartfelt as the song was then — “War, it ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker. War, it’s got one friend, that’s the undertaker…” — it has little resonance in America today.
But here’s the strange thing: in a way its authors and singer could hardly have imagined, in a way we still can’t quite absorb, that chorus has proven eerily prophetic — in fact, accurate beyond measure in the most literal possible sense. War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. You could think of American war in the twenty-first century as an ongoing experiment in proving just that point.
Looking back on almost 15 years in which the United States has been engaged in something like permanent war in the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, one thing couldn’t be clearer: the planet’s sole superpower with a military funded and armed like none other and a “defense” budget larger than the next seven countries combined (three times as large as number two spender, China) has managed to accomplish — again, quite literally — absolutely nothing, or perhaps (if a slight rewrite of that classic song were allowed) less than nothing.
Unless, of course, you consider an expanding series of failed states, spreading terror movements, wrecked cities, countries hemorrhaging refugees, and the like as accomplishments. In these years, no goal of Washington — not a single one — has been accomplished by war. This has proven true even when, in the first flush of death and destruction, victory or at least success was hailed, as in Afghanistan in 2001 (“You helped Afghanistan liberate itself — for a second time,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to U.S. special operations forces), Iraq in 2003 (“Mission accomplished“), or Libya in 2011 (“We came, we saw, he died,” Hillary Clinton on the death of autocrat Muammar Gaddafi).
Of all forms of American military might in this period, none may have been more destructive or less effective than air power. U.S. drones, for instance, have killed incessantly in these years, racking up thousands of dead Pakistanis, Afghans, Iraqis, Yemenis, Syrians, and others, including top terror leaders and their lieutenants as well as significant numbers of civilians and even children, and yet the movements they were sent to destroy from the top down have only proliferated. In a region in which those on the ground are quite literally helpless against air power, the U.S. Air Force has been repeatedly loosed, from Afghanistan in 2001 to Syria and Iraq today, without challenge and with utter freedom of the skies. Yet, other than dead civilians and militants and a great deal of rubble, the long-term results have been remarkably pitiful.
From all of this no conclusions ever seem to be drawn. Only last week, the Obama administration and the Pentagon again widened their air war against Islamic State militants (as they had for weeks been suggesting they would), striking a “suspected Islamic State training camp” in Libya and reportedly killing nearly 50 people, including two kidnapped Serbian embassy staff members and possibly “a militant connected to two deadly attacks last year in neighboring Tunisia.” Again, after almost 15 years of this, we know just where such “successes” lead: to even grimmer, more brutal, more effective terror movements. And yet, the military approach remains the American approach du jour on any day of the week, any month of the year, in the twenty-first century.
Put another way, for the country that has, like no other on the planet in these years, unleashed its military again and again thousands of miles from its “homeland” in actions ranging from large-scale invasions and occupations to small-scale raids and drone assassination strikes, absolutely nothing has come up roses. From China’s Central Asian border to north Africa, the region that Washington officials began referring to as an “arc of instability” soon after 9/11 and that they hoped to garrison and dominate forever has only become more unstable, less amenable to American power, and ever more chaotic.
By its very nature, war produces chaos, but in other eras, particularly for great powers, it has also meant influence or dominance and created the basis for reshaping or controlling whole regions. None of this seems in the cards today. It would be reasonable to conclude, however provisionally, from America’s grand military experiment of this century that, no matter the military strength at your command, war no longer translates into power. For Washington, war has somehow been decoupled from its once expected results, no matter what weaponry has been brought to bear or what kind of generalship was exercised.
An Arms Race of One
Given that, sooner or later, the results of any experiment should be taken into account and actions recalibrated accordingly, here’s what’s curious. Just listen to the fervent pledges of the presidential candidates in the Republican debates to “rebuild” the U.S. military and you’ll sense the immense pressure in Washington not to recalibrate anything. If you want the definition of a Trumpian bad deal, consider that all of them are eager to pour further staggering sums into preparing for future military endeavors not so different from the present ones. And don’t just blame the Republicans. Such behavior is now hardwired into Washington’s entire political class.
The essential failure of air power in these years has yielded the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a plane once expected to cost in the $200 billion range whose price tag is now estimated at a trillion dollars or more over the course of its lifetime. It will, that is, be the most expensive weapons system in history. Air power’s powerlessness to achieve Washington’s ends has also yielded the newly unveiled Long-Range Strike Bomber for which the Pentagon has already made a down payment to Northrop Grumman of $55 billion. (Add in the usual future cost overruns and that sum is expected to crest the $100 billion mark long before the plane is actually built.) Or at the level of planetary destruction, consider the three-decade, trillion-dollar upgrading of the U.S. nuclear arsenal now underway and scheduled to include, among other things, smaller, more accurate “smart” nukes — that is, first-use weaponry that might indeed be brought to future battlefields.
That none of this fits our world of war today should be — but isn’t — obvious, at least in Washington. In 2016, not only has military action of just about any sort been decoupled from success of just about any sort, but the unbelievably profitable system of weapons production woven into the fabric of the capital, the political process, and the country has also been detached from the results of war; the worse we do militarily, that is, the more frenetically and expensively we build.
For the conspiratorial-minded (and I get letters like this regularly at TomDispatch), it’s easy enough to see the growing chaos and collapse in the Greater Middle East as purposeful, as what the military-industrial complex desires; nothing, in other words, succeeds (for weapons makers) like failure. The more failed states, the more widespread the terror groups, the greater the need to arm ourselves and, as the planet’s leading arms dealer, others. This is, however, the thinking of outsiders. For the weapons makers and the rest of that complex, failure or success may increasingly be beside the point.
Count on this: were the U.S. now triumphant in an orderly Greater Middle East, the same Republican candidates would still be calling for a build-up of the U.S. military to maintain our victorious stance globally. If you want proof of this, you need only step into your time machine and travel back a quarter-century to the moment the Soviet Union collapsed. Thought of a certain way, that should have been the finale for a long history of arms races among competing great powers. What seemed like the last arms race of all between the two superpowers of the Cold War, the one that brought the planet to the brink of annihilation, had just ended.
When the Soviet Union imploded and Washington dissolved in a riot of shock and triumphalism, only one imperial force — “the sole superpower” — remained. And yet, despite a brief flurry of talk about Americans harvesting a “peace dividend” in a world bereft of major enemies, what continued to be harvested were new weapons systems. An arms race of one rolled right along.
And of course, it goes right on today in an almost unimaginably different world. A quarter century later, militarily speaking, two other nations might be considered great powers. One of them, China, is indeed building up its military and acting in more provocative ways in nearby seas. However, not since its disastrous 1979 border war with Vietnam has it used its military outside its own borders in a conflict of any kind.
The Russians are obviously another matter and they alone at this moment seem to be making an imperial success of warfare — translating, that is, war making into power, prestige, and dominance. In Syria (and possibly also Ukraine), think of that country as experiencing its version of America’s December 2001 Afghanistan or April 2003 Iraq moments, but don’t for a second imagine that it will last. The Russians in Syria have essentially followed the path Washington pioneered in this century, loosing air power, advisers, and proxy forces on an embattled country. Their bombing campaign and that of the allied Syrian air force have been doing in spades what air power generally does: blow away stuff on the ground, including hospitals, schools, and the like.
Right now, with the Syrian Army and its Iranian and Lebanese helpers advancing around the city of Aleppo and elsewhere, everything looks relatively sunny for the Russians (as long as your view is an airborne one), but give it a year, or two or three. Or just ask yourself, what exactly will such “success” translate into, even if a Bashar al-Assad regime regains significant power in a country that, in most senses, has simply ceased to exist? Its cities, after all, are in varying states of destruction, a startling 11.5% of its people are estimated to have been killed or injured, and a significant portion of the rest transformed into exiles and refugees (with more being produced all the time).
Even if the Islamic State and other rebel and insurgent groups, ranging from those backed by the U.S. to those linked to al-Qaeda, can be “defeated,” what is Russia likely to inherit in the Middle East? What, in far better circumstances, did the U.S. inherit in Afghanistan or Iraq? What horrendous new movements will be born from such a “victory”? It’s a nightmare just to think about.
Keep in mind as well that, unlike the United States, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is no superpower. Despite its superpower-style nuclear arsenal and its great power-ish military, it’s a rickety energy state shaken by bargain-basement oil prices. Economically, it doesn’t have the luxury of waste that the U.S. has when it comes to military experimentation.
Generally speaking, in these last years, war has meant destruction and nothing but destruction. It’s true that, from the point of view of movements like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, the chaos of great power war is a godsend. Even if such groups never win a victory in the traditional sense (as the Islamic State has), they can’t lose, no matter how many of their leaders and followers are wiped out. In the same way, no matter how many immediate successes Washington has in pursuit of its war on terror, it can’t win (and in the end neither, I suspect, can Russia).
Has War Outlived Its Usefulness?
Relatively early in the post-9/11 presidency of George W. Bush, it became apparent that his top officials had confused military power with power itself. They had come to venerate force and its possible uses in a way that only men who had never been to war possibly could. (Secretary of State Colin Powell was the sole exception to this rule of thumb.) On the U.S. military, they were fundamentalists and true believers, convinced that unleashing its uniquely destructive capabilities would open the royal road to control of the Greater Middle East and possibly the planet as well.
About this — and themselves — they were supremely confident. As an unnamed “senior adviser” to the president (later identified as Bush confidant Karl Rove) told journalist Ron Suskind, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Ever since then, no small thanks to the military-industrial complex, military power has remained the option of choice even when it became clear that it could not produce a minimalist version of what the Bush crew hoped for. Consider it something of an irony, then, that the U.S. may still be the lone superpower on the planet. In a period when military power of the first order doesn’t seem to translate into a thing of value, American economic (and cultural) power still does. The realm of the dollar, not the F-35, still rules the planet.
So here’s a thought for the songwriters among you: Could it be that war has in the most literal sense outlived its usefulness, at least for the United States? Could it be that the nature of war — possibly any war, but certainly the highly mechanized, high-tech, top-dollar form that the United States fights — is now all unintended and no intended consequences? Do we need another Edwin Starr singing a new song about what war isn’t good for, but with the same punch line?
In fact, give it a try yourself. Say it with me: Absolutely nothing.
One more time and really hit that “nothing”: Absolutely nothing!
Now, could someone in Washington act accordingly?
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.
[Note: Let me offer a deep bow of thanks to TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse for helping, as he so often does, to talk me through this one! Tom]