Just about everyone was shocked by what happened at the Capitol building on January 6th. But as a former soldier in America’s forever wars, horrifying as the scenes were, I also found what happened strangely familiar, almost inevitable. I thought that, if only we had taken our country’s imperial history seriously, none of us would have found that day either shocking or unprecedented.
Honestly, it could only seem that way if you imagined our domestic politics as completely separate from our foreign policy. But if we’re to learn anything from that maladroit attempt at a government-toppling coup, it should be that they are anything but separate. The question isn’t whether then-President Donald Trump incited the assault on the Capitol — of course he did. It is rather: Since when have we cared if an American president lies to incite an illegal insurrection? In all honesty, our commanders-in-chief have been doing so abroad for generations with complete impunity. It was only a matter of time before the moral rot finally made its way home.
Back in 2007, I actually met Nancy Pelosi whom those insurrectionists were going after — “Tell Pelosi we’re coming for that b**ch. Tell f***ing Pelosi we’re coming for her!” — in that very Capitol building. That day, my family was testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform concerning the U.S. government’s disinformation campaign about how, three years earlier, my brother Pat Tillman had died in Afghanistan (as a result of “friendly,” not enemy, fire). We would testify alongside former soldier Jessica Lynch who had suffered a similar disinformation fate in the wake of a tragic ambush of her convoy in Nasiriyah, Iraq, where soldiers died and she was taken prisoner. After the hearing, we discussed the case with Pelosi, who then took us on a brief personal tour of the halls of the building. Given the circumstances, it was a thoughtful gesture and a humbling experience.
So, it was personally quite unsettling to watch that rabid mob of insurrectionists storm our Capitol, some actively seeking to kill the woman who had walked our family through those same halls, wearing her signature green business suit. To see people desecrating that building over grievances rooted in demonstrable and absurd untruths manufactured by President Trump was both grotesque and shameful.
And yet, however surreal, disappointing, disqualifying, even treasonous that assault and the 57-43 Senate acquittal of the president would be, what took place should, in another sense, not have been a shock to anyone. The idea that January 6th was something new for this country and so a unique affront to the American idea of democracy, not to speak of common decency, was simply wrong. After all, ever since 1945, this country has regularly intervened in elections all over the globe and done far worse as well. What’s disorienting, I suppose, is that this time we did it to ourselves.
Around the Globe, Generation after Generation
My own limited experience with American interventionism involves the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. After the September 11th attacks, I enlisted in the U.S. Army with Pat. We would be assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment and our unit would in March 2003 be sent into Iraq, one of so many tools in the Bush administration’s war of aggression there. We would help remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein by force. It was hardly the mission I had in mind when I signed up, but I was naive when it came to foreign policy. Being part of illegal invasions, however, leaves lasting impressions.
That particular intervention in Iraq began with a barrage of administration lies about Saddam’s supposed supply of weapons of mass destruction, his reputed links to al-Qaeda, and the idea that we were liberating the Iraqi people. Some of us actually were assigned to run around Baghdad, “east, west, south, and north somewhat,” looking for those nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The whole invasion would prove catastrophic, of course, resulting in the destruction of Iraqi society, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers, even as that country’s leadership was removed and its military disbanded (mission accomplished!). Of course, neither President George W. Bush, nor the rest of the top officials of his administration were held responsible for what happened.
So, when I watched the January 6th insurrection unfold, my mind was immediately drawn to the period leading up to the Iraq war — except this time, the drumbeat of lies had to do with massive voter fraud, voting irregularities, “dead voters,” rigged software, and other fabrications. Obviously, the two events were drastically different in scale, complexity, and destructiveness. Still, they seemed to share common fundamental threads.
Examples of American interference in the governance of foreign countries via coups, regime change, and other ploys are commonplaces of our modern history. Among the best known would be the replacing of a number of democratically elected leaders like Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh with the Shah (1953), Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz with Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas (1954), Chilean President Salvador Allende with General Augusto Pinochet (1973), or Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in a U.S.-backed coup (2009). In other words, we’re not talking about a few one-off mistakes or a couple of dumb wars.
In truth, there has been an endless supply of such U.S. interventions around the globe: invasions, military coups, soft coups, economic sanctions, secretly funding candidates of Washington’s choice, the fueling of existing conflicts, you name it and it’s probably happened.
Take for example our neighbors in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. I honestly don’t know if there is a single nation in Latin America that hasn’t fallen victim to a U.S. intervention of some sort: Argentina (1976), Bolivia (1971), Brazil (1964), Cuba (1961), El Salvador (the 1980s), Grenada (1983), Haiti (2004), Honduras (1980 and 2009), Panama (1989), Paraguay (1962), Peru (1968), Suriname (the 1980s), Uruguay (1973), Venezuela (the present moment). Maybe Costa Rica was spared?
Venezuela is a particularly interesting case because for 20 years — three consecutive presidencies — Washington has unsuccessfully supported multiple coup attempts, levied crippling illegal economic sanctions, and engaged in other types of tricks to topple former president Hugo Chávez and the current President Nicolás Maduro. Coincidentally, in January 2019, former President Trump recognized Juan Guaidó, a member of the Venezuelan National Assembly, as that country’s president. Guaidó had declared himself president after he didn’t like the results of an election (not unlike Mr. Trump two years later).
Looking across the Pacific Ocean, don’t forget about the wars we engaged in that ravaged Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, or about Washington’s support for Suharto’s 1965 military coup in Indonesia.
And, of course, who doesn’t remember what happened (and continues to happen) in the Greater Middle East from Iraq and Afghanistan to Syria, Yemen, and Iran, among other places? In the last nearly 20 years, Washington’s never-ending Global War On Terror has created a level of death, destruction, and displacement difficult to comprehend, though Brown University’s Costs of War Project has done a superb (if grim) job of trying to quantify it all.
And what I listed above is anything but comprehensive. The point is that, generation after generation, Americans have been directly or indirectly involved in or exposed to such rogue behavior, a type of interference that had already long become part of our national fabric by the time it made it to the Capitol.
End the Tradition
To be sure, this has been a bipartisan pattern, as the administrations of president after president, Democrat and Republican, engaged in it.
Even if we were to take the position that some of those interventions were somehow legal, moral, or necessary, the behavior itself has become completely normalized as a crucial go-to option for any president. It’s also worth noting just what types of nations have typically been targeted for such interventions — usually vulnerable states with weak economies and frail institutions. Whether democracies or dictatorships hasn’t seemed to matter. The populations of such countries have, however, almost invariably been nonwhite. Putting aside the obvious illegality, immorality, and even cowardice of picking on vulnerable nations, such acts historically have probably exacerbated the role of jingoism and xenophobia, as well as cultural and racial superiority in this country, just the sort of thinking so evident on January 6th. This behavior breeds disunity and hate.
When it came to overthrowing other governments, our presidents regularly peddled obvious and verifiable lies, broke or disregarded laws (domestic and international), and freely used violence and intimidation to gain power and profit, seldom being held accountable in any fashion for any of it. However such methods were to come home someday, what happened on January 6th should still be a wake-up call, forcing us all to see what it means when this signature American approach to foreign policy is used against our own democracy.
The Capitol insurrection should be (but hasn’t yet been) treated as a vivid reminder of the way this country’s foreign policy has undermined the American system, too. I see it as a form of “blowback,” to use the CIA term popularized long ago by Chalmers Johnson.
In some fashion, at least, it undoubtedly influenced the behavior of former president Trump and his followers, explaining why they believed it was a viable option to use force at the Capitol to stop democracy in its tracks. Based on our history, it was a strategy long deployed elsewhere without remorse or fear of repercussions in order to get what American leaders wanted.
What once might have seemed improbable for our democracy to suffer suddenly became a reality, one that had long been experienced by so many other peoples at our hands. And if changes aren’t made, it won’t be the last time either.
In his Inaugural Address, President Biden appeared willing to tackle many of the big challenges that our country now faces. He spoke with a kind of clarity, kindness, inclusion, and sanity that had been missing of late. Specifically, he addressed the needs of this nation:
“Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal. Much to build. And much to gain…. To overcome these challenges — to restore the soul and to secure the future of America — requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity… Uniting to fight the common foes we face: Anger, resentment, hatred. Extremism, lawlessness, violence. Disease, joblessness, hopelessness.”
President Biden also talked about the dangers of big lies and “alternative facts,” saying:
“There is truth and there are lies. Lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders — leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation — to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.”
No doubt President Biden’s concerns do need to be addressed in this time of troubles for us all and I believe he genuinely meant what he said. From the pandemic to inequality, there are obviously domestic issues, driven by developments inside our own borders that need serious attention.
However, any efforts to achieve such goals domestically will ultimately fail if those unsustainable contradictions outside our borders persist. If President Biden’s calls for unity are to produce tangible and lasting results, what’s needed is a holistic approach that extends to America’s behavior abroad.
In the past, even when President Trump spoke of calling a halt to our endless wars and interventions, the pattern continued. There always seemed to be some reason that made the next act of pillaging “necessary and appropriate.” This time, of course, I hope that the president and his staff will indeed have the courage to break with tradition, but based on the recent airstrike Biden ordered in Syria, a country his boss helped to ravage while he was vice president, what’s probably needed is an organized and vocal demand from the American people.
Since it’s clear that our executive branch has the unchecked power to illegally command insurrections here at home, invade and destroy vulnerable nations at will, relentlessly slaughter and displace families, starve foreign peoples through economic sanctions, foment coups abroad, handpick leaders for other countries with impunity, and send American troops to die for “lies told for power and profit” against manufactured “foes,” then it’s also legally within its power not to do any of that.
Perhaps exercising the power, authority, and responsibility to stop the illegal, unlawful, and immoral behavior around the globe could prove a major first step toward the president’s goals of unifying both our nation and a shared global community.
Kevin Tillman, who works in the software industry, joined the U.S. Army with his brother Pat in 2002 after the attacks of September 11th. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Pat was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. This is Kevin’s first TomDispatch piece.