Forever Wars Kevin Tillman

Tillman: How America’s Forever Wars and Interventions Fueled the Assault on the Capitol

[Blink O’fanaye / CC BY-NC 2.0

B Kevin Tillman / TomDispatch

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.

27 comments

  1. “I enlisted in the U.S. Army with Pat. We would be assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment … one of so many tools in the Bush administration’s war of aggression … 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. … Examples of American interference in the governance of foreign countries via coups, regime change, and other ploys are commonplaces of our modern history … When it came to overthrowing other governments, our presidents regularly peddled obvious and verifiable lies.”
    . . .
    Back in ’83, as a naive 17-year old I enlisted into an ARNG Airborne Ranger LRRP company. I enjoyed the challenge & camraderie (loved working with the “old” 30+ yr-old Vietnam vets) for eight years. But, the the first Gulf War opened my eyes. Until then, I had never before paid much attention to politics. The lies & B.S. leading up to that war was the final straw for me. I didn’t want to be a “tool” fighting in war I didn’t believe in. So, I got out (ironically after being “stopped lost” for a month during the war). For the past 30 years, I’ve been lucky to have worked as a firefighter. A much better job than the Army for doing good.

    It’s good to hear from Kevin again. I’ve occasionally spoken with his mother and tried to help their family out with their battle for the truth (see my extensive blog posts at the feralfirefighter blog which describes in detail the bi-partisan whitewash of those responsible for the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death).

    Here’s a few books, I’ve recently read, that discuss the birth of the American empire: “Tomorrow, the World” by Stephen Wertheim, “Crash Course” by H. Bruce Franklin, and “The Jakarta Method” by Vincent Bevins.

  2. We simply MUST end these GD Forever Wars…

    Doing that will require that We, The People take over our government and gain control as, arguably, we never have been before (with the notable exception of having FDR as president).

    So, of course, The Right’s going to the capitol was justified – violence was not, however, as a person as left as it gets (See this for a definition of terms: http://thetroypress.com/articles/art/20210314/art.20210314.html) I PERSONALLY WITNESSED (on live-stream video, of course) the opening of the barricades BY THE POLICE _and_ the opening of the capital doors BY THE POLICE, so nobody should be charged merely with being in the capitol building, only for whatever violence they perpetrated…

    … This was simply a mis-guided “solution” (reaction) to a very legitimate problem; our elections aren’t fair, from how candidates are chosen, to the primaries and to the general, and BOTH parties WANT it this way or it would already have been secured LONG ago! Anyone who doesn’t see that needs to wake up and see what’s in front of them!

    The question is, What Do We Do About It?!

    The FIRST thing we must start doing is to STOP with the “Lesser Evil” voting and START voting THIRD PARTY in every election in massive numbers; when they offer us shitty candidates, DON’T VOTE FOR THEM!

    That alone, if we did it in massive numbers, would transform American politics overnight.

    1. I should have added that simply not voting is no solution – in fact we ALL need to register and do everything we can to vote – because not voting cedes what little power you may have to the ultra-rich; we outnumber them and that’s the ONLY thing we have going for us! Don’t throw away your vote by NOT voting, and don’t throw away your vote by voting for a shitty candidate because you’re afraid of the OTHER shitty candidate!

      1. You lost me on the “not voting’ comment. I call BS. In this country voting is a placebo to make people think they have choice. We have no say in debates, questions, candidates, coverage, anything to do with elections. Those decisions are all made for us by Power. All that matters is that the chosen foul candidates pledge fealty to the party of choice. In a recent election in my state, my options were a serial harasser who repeatedly used his power to satisfy his appetites, (and was eventually removed from his previous position) and an ex-mayor who had raped his town’s coffers. Who should I vote for? Does it matter which of these was D or R? One of them won. Voting does NOTHING when you have no say in ANY aspect of the election. And none of us do. Until millions of us continuously march in the streets demanding better for our neighbors, we will continue to be doomed to failure, while swallowing the placebo pill we call elections.

      2. I agree that American Elections are a fraud….Whichever side of the 1-party we vote for, we will be supporting endless war and Corporate hanky-panky.

        I was born a Democrat and must have been brain dead and delusional to actually donate to Bill Clinton’s campaign….I’ve learned my lesson.

      3. Us older folks been living this shit long time and not agreeing but not knowing or seeing where to go or how to go tho we had examples in organizations like Black Panthers that tried to bring together people, not based on race, but class and caste and wages.  Panther’s knew there was a reason some were poor of all races, and tried to bring them together.  Pandemic added to the number of poor.  Ain’t all uneducated.  Chris Hedges recent post about bandaids seems pretty right on.

      4. Kaiso,

        “You lost me on the “not voting’ comment. I call BS.”

        Good luck with your not getting shot in your revolution – that’s your only other choice.

        You’re being entirely NON strategic.

        Art

  3. Well written. Thank you for sharing your tho’ts. They are more so valued by your experience.

  4. Thanks, Mr. Tillman, for this useful and succinct description of this nation’s foreign misdeeds. The parallel you draw between foreign and domestic policies is crucial to changing our horrible plight.

  5. Thank you, Kevin. It is a pity that the fine words of Joe Biden have not been accompanied by worthwhile actions. His policies on Russia,Venezuela, Assange, Iran, Syria and of course Israel seem identical to those of Trump, and his SoS as bad as Pompass and H. Clinton, with retreads from Obama like Victoria Nuland and Samantha Power likely to cause as much mischief as in the past.

    1. I agree. Hard to trust a man with his record. Does he care now cause his kids and grandkids are influencing him? When did he begin giving a shit about anyone but his own circle of elites? yes, hard to trust, just like a brother who is about to die, like some of us, but now wants reconnection and forgiveness after 45 years of never knowing his siblings because his wife is afraid of us???Made me think of Cruz and blaming his children. Got to stand up, people. Stand up if you care. Don’t care about getting shot down. Care about standing up.

  6. Pat Tillman and his murder by his own fellow soldier and the grotesque lies the military told (after his murder) to cover it up
    should tell any honest person that Veterans for Peace is the only
    sane answer.
    The Tillman brothers are actual heroes – a quality missing from
    the fruit salad chested generals who have failed upward onto
    American CIA/Media screens.

  7. Does anyone have a prediction about when “most” of America will wake up to their military might and how that is tied to their standard of living, which OMG, no one wants to mess with even though a number of us, at least know, that it is on the pain of the poor we enjoy our over the top lifestyle. Who gives a shit about the poor anyway. We know it was not our outsourcing of jobs, etc. that made them poor. Oh hell no. Their just lazy assholes, the rich say, having never walked an inch, much less a mile in anyone’s shoes but their own.

  8. Never understood that “weapons of mass destruction” deal regarding Iraq….So what if they had them?….The USA, the most dangerous country on earth and the only one which actually HAS used them, had no business telling other countries what to do….And whether Iraq had them or did not was never the point….GWH and Tony Blair had already decided to make war either way.

    1. Nonproliferation of nuclear weapons is a bit more complicated than that…much of the world has believed since Hiroshima that it was crucial to prevent further spread of nuclear weapons, not just the United States.

      1. Any US claim that “it was crucial to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons”, was the ultimate hypocrisy….If it truly believed this, it was their duty to set an example….But they lied….Quite the contrary, the intention was ALWAYS to obtain the largest arsenal in the world….And at present they continue to build more….By far, American bellicosity makes it the most dangerous country world-wide and the most likely to use nukes again….Iraq, Iran, et al, are totally justified in their wish to obtain their own nukes as defense against US belligerence. …Non-proliferation is a myth.

      2. I agree with your analysis of the US motives, although remember that the Soviets got going pretty quickly and the Nazis were working on it until they were defeated.

        The danger of proliferation are not a myth, despite the hypocrisy you note.

      3. Kennedy, both JFK and RFK along with MLK were murdered because they sought such peace. That’s what the military industrial complex does, kill you if you get in their way, expose too much truth. Is that going to change? Peace doesn’t pay as well as war. Oh, and all the good jobs lost in making the weapons of war if we waged peace instead! That’s just the thing: those are called “good” jobs, and they are, but only in one way. Assisting or aiding the war machine, no matter how much it pays or covers your insurance, and gets your kids through college is not a “good” job in my book, but a selling of one’s soul for personal profit and gain: America in miniature, the Nuclear family. Your kids and your country would be so much better off if we all had higher principles and morals that we answered to, but we’ve been sold a bill of goods and a standard of a living. No one is going to give that up without a fight, and a great many people could give less than a flying f..k about third world, people who live with little, though their children still dance and sing and play among the ruins we’ve left them to, creating the new terrorist of tomorrow?? Most likely. We tend to create our own problems.

      4. Do you know JFK was speaking with Krushnev and Castro because those world leaders thought that nuclear was insane? In backdoor dialogue? Do you suspect like I do that he and his brother were assassinated by agents inspired by our own government? And like MLK, Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, and others, were condemned by a runaway white supremist military government? My ex-husband wore a belt that said in Italian, “What the world needs now, is the truth.” The world has needed the truth for a long time.

      5. I remember Robert Scheer interviewed G.W.H. Bush and was told that nuclear war was winnable. That attitude, while almost Top Secret from the bulk of Americans, clearly permeates the Neoliberal Establishment, and unlike BAD TRUMP, there are no checks on the present (or even preceding) Establishment administrations who would love to show America’s power. Again.

  9. “To stop democracy in its tracks” – if you think that what goes on in the Capitol is “democracy,” then I have a nice piece of dry swampland to sell you.

    And just because Biden tells his lies softly, instead of offending your sensibilities with crude tweets, it doesn’t make his lies any better.

  10. Destroy your world and everyone else’s world for personal profit and gain. It is a truly insane, government/military/corporate world that behaves that way. Why have not the psychologists picked up on the insanity of life led not by life and living, but war and death? Are they insane too?

  11. Mr. Tillman.
    My condolences on the loss of your brother.
    I agree with the gist of your thoughts. I only have a few things to add and a quibble (about which I may be wrong).
    Things to add: The media has been complicit in our forever wars. From public radio and TV to the corporate media, everyone jumps aboard when our government declares war. Go back to news from 2003 for a sampling.
    Similarly, the only way to get any kind of relevant background of US meddling in South American politics is to read FAIR. Corporate and public news coverage of current events in South America always pretends US meddling does not exist and has never occurred.
    A way to change this pathetic coverage is to give journalists the legal option to say: “In my view…” And then make it a ten million dollar fine to fire them for whatever they say after that.
    The corporate media titans will never change. Only journalists have the moral fiber to call a coup a coup, to call a targeted killing murder, to call an invasion an oil grab, to say sanctions starve children and do little to hurt the rulers of any given country. And not even all journalists have the courage to do that but those who do should be allowed to speak up without being fired.
    To the quibble: I don’t think it is a violation of US law to covertly overthrow governments or to facilitate a government’s overthrow. I believe that’s all covered in national security laws. You can thank a really nice guy and great domestic politician who was a total idiot when he came to foreign policy, President Truman, for that National Security Act.
    Getting any of that changed will be extremely difficult. But, in parallel with what you said, it is one reason why Americans don’t trust their government. They know our government has toppled benevolent rulers, turned a blind eye to drugs whose revenue provided psychopaths with weapons, and funded both sides of the Iran Iraq War hoping both countries would end up too weak to fight. Wrong on all counts.
    Blowback has become a flood of refugees showing up at our borders from states we helped fail.
    I doubt Biden is up to the task of addressing the issue from a foreign policy standpoint. But some of the younger progressives just might be.

  12. Yes, columnist Chris Hedges (in this fine web site), has written about how the work of empire tends to eventually bring war tactics back to the originating countries…..its screaming monkeys all the way down, however perhaps we should cut military funding by 50% and finance basic and applied research and development (not through the military industrial complexes), but directly into such things as advanced nanotechnology and biotechnology, super advanced computers (regular supercomputers and the new quantum computers), with a goal of contributing to the new fields of medical nanotechnology and biotechnology because we are really on the cusp of understanding all aging and diseases, please see sites like fightaging.org
    mprize.org and
    sens.org
    It should be noted that the google founders have always been interested in controlling aging, our current advances in microchips and the internet would not be possible if not for the explosive growth of computer technology people who know how to use it.

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