Permanent Warfare: The Ascent of American Militarism

(Originally published 8 June, 2014)

“To state the matter bluntly, Americans in our time have fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and out-sized expectations regarding the efficacy of force”

Andrew J. Bacevich (Vietnam war-veteran, author of The New American Militarism )

We witnessed the power of Islamic extremism at its most sinister in September 2001 as thousands of lives were lost (including that of over thirty Muslims, one of whom carried an unborn child) in New York. 9/11 was a day that quite possibly changed the United States of America forever and for quite the wrong reasons. It heralded in the 9/11 decade, a time in which the world saw America ignite it’s ignominious ‘Global War on Terror’ and a second dawn for Washington’s  unquestionable use of military power under the administration of George Bush.  What we saw on 9/11 was not just the terrorism of Al-Qaeda, but the beginning of a new militarism in America that contaminates the ‘democracy’ of the nation and has spited the face of its foreign policy and continues to do so under the Obama administration.

The statistics, when you compare the military budget of the United States  to that of the rest of global military expenditure, are colossal. In 2014 the official U.S defence budget (including military spending, veterans, and foreign military aid) is currently at $785.9 billion (roughly 20% of the federal budget). The U.S spends more on its military than the all other military powers around the globe combined whilst the Russian Federation and People’s Republic of China stand at only a third of U.S expenditure. The U.S Marine Corps is larger than the entire British Army and the military have between 700-800 military bases abroad. Simply put the U.S military is the most powerful the world has seen, the question is how can they sustain it and why do they continue to maintain such volatile if undemocratic power? Why don’t we question such power?

Most of our generation have only known the United States’ as the world’s dominant super-power back in the day when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disintegrated somewhat anti-climatically into history. Surely the battle of ideologies was over, capitalism (for now) had won, why was there a need to sustain such astonishing military capabilities especially when the debt of the nation is now currently $21 trillion? The answer is rooted in both long-term factors inherent in America’s political system and short-term factors which is dominated by a inherent obsession with ‘global power projection’ and a case of spending money you don’t have.

Historian Bagevich blames this new found militarism on a number of factors one being the tempestuous relationship between civilian and military authority when it came to armed conflict. The disaster of the ‘War on Terror’, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Vietnam War has shown how terrible wars can be run by those in the White House. Yet the wars are fought under myths, illusions, and the lies of American ‘exceptionalists’, neoconservatives and those who believe America has a ‘duty’ to lead the world as the supreme example of ‘democratic ideals’ founded in the American constitution.

Communism was the ideology to invest millions of lives into Vietnam and the U.S.A ran into the quagmire of South-East Asia overlooking key political and cultural aspects of Vietnam and its surrounding area. Thousands of Americans died in the name of ‘American patriotism’, the military was entirely destabilized and the United States buckled. It was not until Operation Desert Storm that this credibility was restored through a series of reforms that placed more military control in overall strategy that failed so miserably in Vietnam in the hands of civilian puppeteers.

All that changed on 9/11. A new ideology threatened the United States in the form of Islamic extremism. Over 2,600 American civilians were dead (excluding foreign nationals and the hijackers) and the White House stood humiliated. Internal and petty rivalries within its own bureaucracy had overlooked the escalating threat of the extremist organisation. The presidency had failed the American people and  those culpable for this failure and the death of so many have yet to answer the questions.

9/11 was the pretext under which civilian authority and neoconservatives could reimpose themselves in these most opportunistic of tragic circumstances. The PATRIOT Act was installed and the Global War on Terror (GWOT) began as the PATRIOT ACT quotes “to deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, and for other purposes.”  Supporters claim that it’s been instrumental in a number of investigations and arrests of terrorists, while critics counter the act gives the government too much power, threatens civil liberties and undermines the very democracy it seeks to protect.

My opinion is that overall the PATRIOT ACT was a beginning of a series of events that have only served to perhaps irrevocably harm the United States’ image and most importantly foreign civilians, their own civilians and soldiers, and others across the globe. Nearly 7,000 U.S soldiers have been killed in the GWOT, nearly eight times more wounded whilst hundreds of thousands suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. Nearly twenty thousand Afghanistan civilians are dead and over one hundred thousand were left dead as a consequence of the American/British occupation in Iraq. Today fifty people died in a series of bomb explosions in Baghdad, a familiar and tragic story, the legacy of the Bush and Blair administration’s attempt to impose ‘democracy’ on the Iraq and the Middle East. The Middle East today and the countries within are hardly beacons of hope for democracy as the Arab Spring appears more of a miscarriage than an emblem of hope for aspiring liberal and democratic peoples and nations.

American liberal and democratic ideals have been tainted by the Bush administration and sheer economic power. Trillions is being and has been spent on the GWOT, effectively on an enemy that cannot be defeated. Terrorism will always exist and has done long before the events of 9/11. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by the Black Hand Serbian terrorist organisation sparked World War I (alongside other factors). Terrorism cannot be eliminated because the relations of states and civilians, minorities, and oppressed peoples are built on resisting whether rightly or wrongly to what they consider excessively powerful and corrupt authority. Nelson Mandela and the current South African ruling party (ANC) were regarded as terrorists resisting apartheid the latter of which was a morally bankrupt, racist and oppressive regime.

I myself cannot offer a clear solution to the question of terrorism however one thing is for certain; military solutions are the easiest but least helpful and riskiest solution to the problem. When necessary and well-planned, to protect civilians, force is necessary and to suggest otherwise would be naive.  However invading countries based on the trumped up charges of WMD’s and installing a hollowed out democracy is hardly the answer to protecting our own shores from radicals and terrorism. The United Kingdom is no stranger to that as seen by the IRA, 7/7, and the horrific Woolwich incident.

The causes of terrorism are so inherently variable that to merely associate it with ‘global’ terms as the Bush administration did is to overlook a huge list of factors that create the conditions for the growth of terrorist groups. This list comprises of things like socio-economics, cultural differences, ethnicity, religion, state structure, politics, history, education, poverty and each factor shapes an individual consciously and unconsciously, radically or moderately. 

The war against Islamic extremism and terrorism is as illogical (if not more so) as the war on communism. If the United States are waging war on terrorism why aren’t the Obama administration in Nigeria fighting Boko Haram? Because it is as one of the officials in the White House described as a ‘hydra-headed’ entity where new enemies are created. The mighty Hercules when he fought the Hydra during his arduous twelve labors could not defeat it by conventional means of decapitation, he had to eliminate the source of growth at the neck by burning the neck with the aid of his servant.

For Washington eliminating the sources are beyond their capabilities and the military means have been overused and some argue exhausted. New methods are needed. This isn’t a story though, this is reality and too many people have died in the name of America’s overused trigger finger. Osama Bin Laden is dead but at what cost? The word terrorism is now a dirty word so applicable to any situation of violence that states can use it to crush dissidents in a population or turn public opinion against the ‘terrorists’ regardless of intended dissent or protest.

The 2nd Ukrainian Civil War would appear unusual to readers now simply because Kiev, CNN, and BBC would label and the enemies of pro-EU Kiev ‘Pro-Russian separatists’ rather than ‘Ukrainian rebels or civilians’ to distort Russian credibility on the whole crisis. The reality is that both sides (NATO and the EU included) have their hands mired in sewage, not just Putin and his government for what has happened in Ukraine.

Overlooking these factors has left the United States’ default policy as ‘permanent war’. War is unsustainable and never democratic. The last thirteen years have only seen the erosion of liberties and rights of the American people in the name of fighting an extremist entity that is realistically unbeatable. This not defeatist, it is plain realistic interpretation. The erosion of liberties has only led to the abhorrent mass-surveillance program, the empowerment of the NSA, the increasing militarized appearance of Homeland Security (since when did HS need enough bullets to sustain a Iraq war that would last 20 years?) and  the enabling of drones to kill American civilians (if determined a ‘terrorist’ threat). Let us not forget the void between rich and poor, the political and who can access power, the 1% who can access and dictate the levers of power.

People have emerged questioning this policy of permanent war and they need to be heard. People such as Andrew J. Bacevich, Chris Hedges, Edward Snowden,  Chelsea Manning all from different backgrounds (a veteran, a war-journalist, a government employee, a soldier) need to be understood not about who they are, but why they protested.

It is one thing to know who Nelson Mandela is or recognise dissidents, another to understand what they fought against and ask the disturbing questions. “Why should apartheid be a legitimate form of government?” or “Why is mass-surveillance in any shape or form lawful?” or “Why should a wall exist within Berlin?” or “Why am I in this job?” Asking questions  exceptional, blatant, or unusual renders individuals, states and even ourselves uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable questions are asked every single day and they way you deal with the question at hand no matter how troublesome they may be and how you react to it is key. Every one of us, state or individual has been guilty of air-brushing a problem or sweeping it under the carpet until it reemerges even bigger than before.

To question the norms is the duty of thinkers, to question is to be a dissenter, and even governments need them for regulation, restraint and control. They do not simply require ‘yes-men’. The men I mentioned are questioning (or have questioned) the system of the United States and when you connect the dots there are some very uncomfortable truths about regarding American debt, domestic and foreign policies and truths regarding contemporary Western culture.

The question revolving around Snowden is whether or not he is a traitor and narcissist or a hero of moral courage with extraordinary ability to stand against what was inherently wrong with mass-surveillance. The real question exposed by this whole situation and others since 9/11 should be why should the United States’ government need to bug Andrea Merkel and Ban Ki Moon’s meetings, are they classified as ‘terrorists’? Why should the United States be able to exercise military power unilaterally yet others like Russia can’t? ‘Why aren’t George Bush, John Yoo Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney behind bars as war criminals regarding the PATRIOT Act, unilateral invasions, Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (akatorture as seen in Bagram and Guantanamo Bay through a combination of psychological and physical methods), the expansion of the NSA’s power and their role in the ‘War on Terror’?

A unethical form of patriotism and American exceptionalism stalks the nation and seats of power where using military power is cherished as one of the pillars of what means to be an American. Before their reluctant entry into World War I and their late entry into World War II, many Americans prided themselves as being a nation of restraint, that war was a folly that destroyed man as witnessed by hundreds of years of European  history.

These values have been subverted and changed since the turn of the 20th century, many claiming that ‘American empire’ is the end product of the rise militarism and the manipulated idea of American exceptionalism. The balance of economic and military as well as civilian needs have been completed shattered by unrealistic expectations of fighting the ideology of terrorism.

Athens in classical Greece became the beacon of democracy for the ages yet it fell prey to imperialism. Athenian democracy existed only in name, gradually becoming an empire. Athens fell after decades of war, excess expenditure, geographical overextension and inner turmoil.

They were left a weakened entity and never recovere, their reputation was somewhat blemished by colonising and spreading their version of what is politically correct to other cultures, city states, tribes, and empires in the region.  What the others saw was greed, militarism, and conquest veiled in the lofty notions of democracy presented only at the tip of a sword, spear, hoplites’, mercenaries, and the leveling of cities who revolted against their opinions. Why isn’t the modern world any different? History doesn’t repeat itself it rhymes very well though.

Is the receding of American dominance a bad thing or welcome for now? Only time will tell. The United States has spited its own face in recent years and have had, to some extent, their hands tied by other international players, events and circumstances big and small. What we see as weakness on Obama’s part for failing to maintain the standard hegemony should be taken as a dose of realism. America, though irreplaceable in the international theater, must have its limits and restraints in the 21st century lest it fall into the realms of creating  new hallucinations and new, but very real enemies.

Matthew Williams