Biden Admin Rebecca Gordon

Can We Finally Stop Marching to Disaster?

It’s almost twenty years since 9/11, why is it still all war, all the time?
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stands in front of a map of Syria and Iraq ISIS, during an update to the media, Friday, May 19, 2017, at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

By Rebecca Gordon / TomDispatch

It was the end of October 2001. Two friends, Max Elbaum and Bob Wing, had just dropped by. (Yes, children, believe it or not, people used to drop in on each other, maskless, once upon a time.) They had come to hang out with my partner Jan Adams and me. Among other things, Max wanted to get some instructions from fellow-runner Jan about taping his foot to ease the pain of plantar fasciitis. But it soon became clear that he and Bob had a bigger agenda for the evening. They were eager to recruit us for a new project.

And so began War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, a free, bilingual, antiwar tabloid that, at its height, distributed 100,000 copies every six weeks to more than 700 antiwar organizations around the country. It was already clear to the four of us that night — as it was to millions around the world — that the terrorist attacks of September 11 would provide the pretext for a major new projection of U.S. military power globally, opening the way to a new era of “all-war-all-the-time.” War Times was a project of its moment (although the name would still be apt today, given that those wars have never ended). It would be superseded in a few years by the explosive growth of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. Still, it represented an early effort to fill the space where a peace movement would eventually develop.

We were certainly right that the United States had entered a period of all-war-all-the-time. It’s probably hard for people born since 9/11 to imagine how much — and how little — things changed after September 2001. By the end of that month, this country had already launched a “war” on an enemy that then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told us was “not just in Afghanistan,” but in “50 or 60 countries, and it simply has to be liquidated.”

Five years and two never-ending wars later, he characterized what was then called the war on terror as “a generational conflict akin to the Cold War, the kind of struggle that might last decades as allies work to root out terrorists across the globe and battle extremists who want to rule the world.” A generation later, it looks like Rumsfeld was right, if not about the desires of the global enemy, then about the duration of the struggle.

Here in the United States, however, we quickly got used to being “at war.” In the first few months, interstate bus and train travelers often encountered (and, in airports, still encounter) a new and absurd kind of “security theater.” I’m referring to those long, snaking lines in which people first learned to remove their belts and coats, later their hats and shoes, as ever newer articles of clothing were recognized as potential hiding places for explosives. Fortunately, the arrest of the Underwear Bomber never led the Transportation Security Administration to the obvious conclusion about the clothing travelers should have to remove next. We got used to putting our three-ounce containers of liquids (No more!) into quart-sized baggies (No bigger! No smaller!).

It was all-war-all-the-time, but mainly in those airports. Once the shooting wars started dragging on, if you didn’t travel by airplane much or weren’t deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, it was hard to remember that we were still in war time at all. There were continuing clues for those who wanted to know, like the revelations of CIA torture practices at “black sites” around the world, the horrors of military prisons like the ones at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, and the still-functioning prison complex at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. And soon enough, of course, there were the hundreds and then thousands of veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars taking their places among the unhoused veterans of earlier wars in cities across the United States, almost unremarked upon, except by service organizations.

So, yes, the wars dragged on at great expense, but with little apparent effect in this country. They even gained new names like “the long war” (as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis put it in 2017) or the “forever wars,” a phrase now so common that it appears all over the place. But apart from devouring at least $6.4 trillion dollars through September 2020that might otherwise have been invested domestically in healthcare, education, infrastructure, or addressing poverty and inequality, apart from creating increasingly militarized domestic police forces armed ever more lethally by the Pentagon, those forever wars had little obvious effect on the lives of most Americans.

Of course, if you happened to live in one of the places where this country has been fighting for the last 19 years, things are a little different. A conservative estimate by Iraq Body Count puts violent deaths among civilians in that country alone at 185,454 to 208,493 and Brown University’s Costs of War project points out that even the larger figure is bound to be a significant undercount:

“Several times as many Iraqi civilians may have died as an indirect result of the war, due to damage to the systems that provide food, health care, and clean drinking water, and as a result, illness, infectious diseases, and malnutrition that could otherwise have been avoided or treated.”

And that’s just Iraq. Again, according to the Costs of War Project, “At least 800,000 people have been killed by direct war violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan.”

Of course, many more people than that have been injured or disabled. And America’s post-9/11 wars have driven an estimated 37 million people from their homes, creating the greatest human displacement since World War II. People in this country are rightly concerned about the negative effects of online schooling on American children amid the ongoing Covid-19 crisis (especially poor children and those in communities of color). Imagine, then, the effects on a child’s education of losing her home and her country, as well as one or both parents, and then growing up constantly on the move or in an overcrowded, under-resourced refugee camp. The war on terror has truly become a war of generations.

Every one of the 2,977 lives lost on 9/11 was unique and invaluable. But the U.S. response has been grotesquely disproportionate — and worse than we War Times founders could have imagined that October night so many years ago.

Those wars of ours have gone on for almost two decades now. Each new metastasis has been justified by George W. Bush’s and then Barack Obama’s use of the now ancient 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which Congress passed in the days after 9/11. Its language actually limited presidential military action to a direct response to the 9/11 attacks and the prevention of future attacks by the same actors. It stated that the president

“…is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Despite that AUMF’s limited scope, successive presidents have used it to justify military action in at least 18 countries. (To be fair, President Obama realized the absurdity of his situation when he sent U.S. troops to Syria and tried to wring a new authorization out of Congress, only to be stymied by a Republican majority that wouldn’t play along.)

In 2002, in the run-up to the Iraq War, Congress passed a second AUMF, which permitted the president to use the armed forces as “necessary and appropriate” to “defend U.S. national security against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” In January 2020, Donald Trump used that second authorization to justify the murder by drone of Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian general, along with nine other people.

Trump Steps In

In 2016, peace activists were preparing to confront a Hillary Clinton administration that we expected would continue Obama’s version of the forever wars — the “surge” in Afghanistan, the drone assassination campaigns, the special ops in Africa. But on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, something went “Trump” in the night and Donald J. Trump took over the presidency with a promise to end this country’s forever wars, which he had criticized relentlessly during his campaign. That, of course, didn’t mean we should have expected a peace dividend anytime soon. He was also committed to rebuilding a supposedly “depleted” U.S. military. As he said at a 2019 press conference,

“When I took over, it was a mess . . . One of our generals came in to see me and he said, ‘Sir, we don’t have ammunition.’ I said, ‘That’s a terrible thing you just said.’ He said, ‘We don’t have ammunition.’ Now we have more ammunition than we’ve ever had.”

It’s highly unlikely that the military couldn’t afford to buy enough bullets when Trump entered the Oval Office, given that publicly acknowledged defense funding was then running at $580 billion a year. He did, however, manage to push that figure to $713 billion by fiscal year 2020. That December, he threatened to veto an even larger appropriation for 2021 — $740 billion — but only because he wanted the military to continue to honor Confederate generals by keeping their names on military bases. Oh, and because he thought the bill should also change liability rules for social media companies, an issue you don’t normally expect to see addressed in a defense appropriations bill. And, in any case, Congress passed the bill with a veto-proof majority.

As Pentagon expert Michael Klare pointed out recently, while it might seem contradictory that Trump would both want to end the forever wars and to increase military spending, his actions actually made a certain sense. The president, suggested Klare, had been persuaded to support the part of the U.S. military command that has favored a sharp pivot away from reigning post-9/11 Pentagon practices. For 19 years, the military high command had hewed fairly closely to the strategy laid out by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld early in the Bush years: maintaining the capacity to fight ground wars against one or two regional powers (think of that “Axis of Evil” of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran), while deploying agile, technologically advanced forces in low-intensity (and a couple of higher-intensity) counterterrorism conflicts. Nineteen years later, whatever its objectives may have been — a more-stable Middle East? Fewer and weaker terrorist organizations? — it’s clear that the Rumsfeld-Bush strategy has failed spectacularly.

Klare points out that, after almost two decades without a victory, the Pentagon has largely decided to demote international terrorism from rampaging monster to annoying mosquito cloud. Instead, the U.S. must now prepare to confront the rise of China and Russia, even if China has only one overseas military base and Russia, economically speaking, is a rickety petro-state with imperial aspirations. In other words, the U.S. must prepare to fight short but devastating wars in multiple domains (including space and cyberspace), perhaps even involving the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the Eurasian continent. To this end, the country has indeed begun a major renovation of its nuclear arsenal and announced a new 30-year plan to beef up its naval capacity. And President Trump rarely misses a chance to tout “his” creation of a new Space Force.

Meanwhile, did he actually keep his promise and at least end those forever wars? Not really. He did promise to bring all U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by Christmas, but acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller only recently said that we’d be leaving about 2,500 troops there and a similar number in Iraq, with the hope that they’d all be out by May 2021. (In other words, he dumped those wars in the lap of the future Biden administration.)

In the meantime in these years of “ending” those wars, the Trump administration actually loosened the rules of engagement for air strikes in Afghanistan, leading to a “massive increase in civilian casualties,” according to a new report from the Costs of War Project. “From the last year of the Obama administration to the last full year of recorded data during the Trump administration,” writes its author, Neta Crawford, “the number of civilians killed by U.S.-led airstrikes in Afghanistan increased by 330 percent.”

In spite of his isolationist “America First” rhetoric, in other words, President Trump has presided over an enormous buildup of an institution, the military-industrial complex, that was hardly in need of major new investment. And in spite of his anti-NATO rhetoric, his reduction by almost a third of U.S. troop strength Germany, and all the rest, he never really violated the post-World War II foreign policy pact between the Republican and Democratic parties. Regardless of how they might disagree about dividing the wealth domestically, they remain united in their commitment to using diplomacy when possible, but military force when necessary, to maintain and expand the imperial power that they believed to be the guarantor of that wealth.

And Now Comes Joe

On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will become the president of a country that spends as much on its armed forces, by some counts, as the next 10 countries combined. He’ll inherit responsibility for a nation with a military presence in 150 countries and special-operations deployments in 22 African nations alone. He’ll be left to oversee the still-unfinished, deeply unsuccessful, never-ending war on terror in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia and, as publicly reported by the Department of Defense, 187,000 troops stationed outside the United States.

Nothing in Joe Biden’s history suggests that he or any of the people he’s already appointed to his national security team have the slightest inclination to destabilize that Democratic-Republican imperial pact. But empires are not sustained by inclination alone. They don’t last forever. They overextend themselves. They rot from within.

If you’re old enough, you may remember stories about the long lines for food in the crumbling Soviet Union, that other superpower of the Cold War. You can see the same thing in the United States today. Once a week, my partner delivers food boxes to hungry people in our city, those who have lost their jobs and homes, because the pandemic has only exacerbated this country’s already brutal version of economic inequality. Another friend routinely sees a food line stretching over a mile, as people wait hours for a single free bag of groceries.

Perhaps the horrors of 2020 — the fires and hurricanes, Trump’s vicious attacks on democracy, the death, sickness, and economic dislocation caused by Covid-19 — can force a real conversation about national security in 2021. Maybe this time we can finally ask whether trying to prop up a dying empire actually makes us — or indeed the world — any safer. This is the best chance in a generation to start that conversation. The alternative is to keep trudging mindlessly toward disaster.

Rebecca Gordon
Rebecca Gordon

An adjunct professor at University of San Francisco, Rebecca Gordon received her PhD from Graduate Theological Union. Her latest book is “American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes”. She spent many years as an activist in a variety of movements, including for women’s and LGBTQ+ liberation, the Central America and South Africa solidarity movements and for racial justice in the United States.

16 comments

  1. They weren’t going hungry in the Soviet Union. They stood in line to supplement their boring diet. It takes a capitalist economy to allow the people to starve.

    1. You must detail your time period. If you don’t think people starved during 1930s collectivization in the Soviet Union, the Great Leap Forward in China, under the Khmer Rouge, and so on … then this is an absurd point.

      If you are talking about post-WWII Soviet Union, then yes, they were not starving — but they didn’t stand in line for spices or Vietnamese mango juice. It was for protein, better-made clothing items, etc.

      1. “If you’re old enough, you may remember stories about the long lines for food in the crumbling Soviet Union, that other superpower of the Cold War.”

        She made it clear what period she meant.

      2. There is starvation and there is privation, there is malnutrition and there is having to spend way too much of your time securing the basics. Considering that in a communist country, securing healthy food should be the last concern for the masses, it was an obvious sign of systemic failure six, seven, eight decades after your revolution if, in an industrialized nation with great natural resources (arable land, water, fishing and oil/gas, among others) you can’t provide the basics. Centralized economies have run into some major problems, even as they can perform amazing feats — especially in times of crisis. In the winter of 1987-88, I was in Moscow and the ministry of computers could not show us a single computer they possessed. No fruits or vegtables were available in stores unless you had dollars and could go to the diplomat store. For produce, families relied almost entirely on the truck farms grown on the dachas by grandparents. Across the Soviet Block in cities, the norm was to join a line first, and only then ask those in front of you what was being offered — often something pathetic like some Hungarian paprika or a stringy sausages which would run out almost immediately. It is fine to argue that this is, in some ways, better than forcing millions to beg, dumpster dive or relay on charity food banks, but you would not see many at that time enthusiastic about the status quo. Two things always seemed easy to get in that era’s Moscow: Vodka and ice cream — so it wasn’t all bad!

      3. It’s true though that people staved under communism too. I was wrong about that.

  2. Great article. The powers that be, congress, executive branch, and the media have done a “great job” of militarizing America by joining Pentagon funding and overseas reach with a pervasive “American victory mindset” – “the troops are protecting our freedoms!!” and “We are the good guys!!” So everything the Pentagon does is for “our benefit”. This obviously needs to change, but will it?
    Plus, American media gives no coverage whatsoever to anti war groups and people, and this is a travesty.

  3. The only thing that will mitigate meaningless US-instigated wars all over the globe is the swiftly aggravated climate crisis. Of course, then, what’s left of the US will instigate wars for essential resources.

  4. While the author gets some anti-war cred against the Bush administration, her support for “anti-War” Biden is risible. Remember Biden wrote the Patriot Act six years before 9/11 (evidently some in Congress believed Americans would get upset if their rights were abridged for no good reasons, so it didn’t become Law until 9/11). Iraq didn’t start with Bush II, Bush I had his Gulf War, and Clinton had his sanctions that killed 500,000 Iraqi toddlers (worth it, said Albright). Obama/BIDEN inherited Afghanistan (where the US had been supporting bin Laden since Carter) and Iraq, but added Forever Wars in Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen, plus coups in Egypt, Honduras and Ukraine, plus National Emergencies with sanctions against Venezuela, Burundi and Central African Republic and the Russian Ukrainians.
    The Orange Abomination, most likely because of incompetence, was unable to move on new Forever Wars in Central Africa or elsewhere, despite such luminaries as John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and Eliott Abrams, and a succession of crazed Generals. Trump’s Forever War bona fides were the coup in Bolivia and “his” National Emergency with sanctions against Nicaragua.
    The only time in recent memory that Joe Biden did not support More War was when he objected to the Surge in Afghanistan, saying McChrystal’s desired 40,000 troops were not needed and only 20,000 more should be enough. A real Peacenik. Essentially Trump is not “dumping ‘his’ Wars into Biden’s lap, but rather returning them all intact. You can bank on Biden producing many more! The Democrat neolibs/neocons have replaced the Republicans as the party of War, military intelligence, and think tanks, and the author is living in an anti-war fantasy world if she cannot see that.

  5. Isn’t it ironic that the US has had decades long war(s) but the country has a number of so-called antiwar publications and groups that anyone can read or pay attention to yet they seem to have no affect on anything other than the perception of the targets who read them.

    There are many American who have done very well (financally and in other ways) from the so-called disaster of forever war. They are amongst the richest and most successful (by any definition) Americans.

    1. Ending the draft and making all wars high-tech and via proxy broke the back of the anti-war movement, perhaps permanently.

    2. I wouldn’t say it’s ironic so much as expected. Free speech is cheap and ineffectual. Privileged speech is expensive and effective.
      Here’s what I mean: You and I are fecklessly using free speech right now. And it will make not make a difference. Rupert Murdoch can adopt a cause and promote it at the Wall Street Journal, USA TODAY, FOX News etc.
      That is, the best way to dilute free speech in a country that guarantees free speech is the overwhelming of free speech with divisive news.
      And most importantly keep progressives off national news programs.
      The powers that be don’t mind Chris Hedges wailing from the peanut section. They just absolutely forbid him from calling the play by play action.
      It’s why Bernie Sanders was in Congress for almost 30 years before he became a regular on national news programs.
      It’s why Rachel Maddow does not interview Ralph Nadar or Noam Chomsky (I did not actually research this; someone correct me if I’m wrong; have Noam or Ralph been on Maddow’s show?).
      Give progressives all the minor forums they need to express their views — just keep them off of national news outlets.
      Meanwhile, use the national media to focus on divisive domestic issues pitting people against each other.
      That’s the way it works. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s a policy. And it’s not ironic, it’s working exactly as intended, though the ultimate results may indeed be ironic.
      The people trying to lead the world to a better place are sidelined, and lunatics definitely making the world a bad place have access to all the media they need, so much in fact that they can become President of the United States.

      1. All true, from my view. But also: Not enough people want to HEAR these voices. It is chicken/egg.

  6. Certainly could have exposed Obama for Libya and Syria a little more thoroughly, also ISIS just had their largest attack in 4 years, coincidence, or just prepping for Biden to continue as Obama 3.0, likely the latter. Buckle up Syria, here comes round 2 of the attack of the blue neocons.

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