The phrase “thinking about the unthinkable” has always been associated with the unthinkable cataclysm of a nuclear war, and rightly so. Lately, though, I’ve been pondering another kind of unthinkable scenario, nearly as nightmarish (at least for a democracy) as a thermonuclear Armageddon, but one that’s been rolling out in far slower motion: that America’s war on terror never ends because it’s far more convenient for America’s leaders to keep it going -- until, that is, it tears apart anything we ever imagined as democracy.
I fear that it either can’t or won’t end because, as Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out in 1967 during the Vietnam War, the United States remains the world’s greatest purveyor of violence -- and nothing in this century, the one he didn’t live to see, has faintly proved him wrong. Considered another way, Washington should be classified as the planet’s most committed arsonist, regularly setting or fanning the flames of fires globally from Libya to Iraq, Somalia to Afghanistan, Syria to -- dare I say it -- in some quite imaginable future Iran, even as our leaders invariably boast of having the world’s greatest firefighters (also known as the U.S. military).
Scenarios of perpetual war haunt my thoughts. For a healthy democracy, there should be few things more unthinkable than never-ending conflict, that steady drip-drip of death and destruction that drives militarism, reinforces authoritarianism, and facilitates disaster capitalism. In 1795, James Madison warned Americans that war of that sort would presage the slow death of freedom and representative government. His prediction seems all too relevant in a world in which, year after year, this country continues to engage in needless wars that have nothing to do with national defense.
You wage war long, you wage it wrong
To cite one example of needless war from the last century, consider America’s horrendous years of fighting in Vietnam and a critical lesson drawn firsthand from that conflict by reporter Jonathan Schell. “In Vietnam,” he noted, “I learned about the capacity of the human mind to build a model of experience that screens out even very dramatic and obvious realities.” As a young journalist covering the war, Schell saw that the U.S. was losing, even as its military was destroying startlingly large areas of South Vietnam in the name of saving it from communism. Yet America’s leaders, the “best and brightest” of the era, almost to a man refused to see that all of what passed for realism in their world, when it came to that war, was nothing short of a first-class lie.
Why? Because believing is seeing and they desperately wanted to believe that they were the good guys, as well as the most powerful guys on the planet. America was winning, it practically went without saying, because it had to be. They were infected by their own version of an all-American victory culture, blinded by a sense of this country’s obvious destiny: to be the most exceptional and exceptionally triumphant nation on this planet.
As it happened, it was far more difficult for grunts on the ground to deny the reality of what was happening -- that they were fighting and dying in a senseless war. As a result, especially after the shock of the enemy’s Tet Offensive early in 1968, escalating protests within the military (and among veterans at home) together with massive antiwar demonstrations finally helped put the brakes on that war. Not before, however, more than 58,000 American troops died, along with millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians.
In the end, the war in Indochina was arguably too costly, messy, and futile to continue. But never underestimate the military-industrial complex, especially when it comes to editing or denying reality, while being eternally over-funded for that very reality. It’s a trait the complex has shared with politicians of both parties. Don’t forget, for instance, the way President Ronald Reagan reedited that disastrous conflict into a “noble cause” in the 1980s. And give him credit! That was no small thing to sell to an American public that had already lived through such a war. By the way, tell me something about that Reaganesque moment doesn’t sound vaguely familiar almost four decades later when our very own “wartime president” long ago declared victory in the “war” on COVID-19, even as the death toll from that virus approaches 150,000 in the homeland.
In the meantime, the military-industrial complex has mastered the long con of the no-win forever war in a genuinely impressive fashion. Consider the war in Afghanistan. In 2021 it will enter its third decade without an end in sight. Even when President Trump makes noises about withdrawing troops from that country, Congress approves an amendment to another massive, record-setting military budget with broad bipartisan support that effectively obstructs any efforts to do so (while the Pentagon continues to bargain Trump down on the subject).
The Vietnam War, which was destroying the U.S. military, finally ended in an ignominious withdrawal. Almost two decades later, after the 2001 invasion, the war in Afghanistan can now be -- the dream of the Vietnam era -- fought in a "limited" fashion, at least from the point of view of Congress, the Pentagon, and most Americans (who ignore it), even if not the Afghans. The number of American troops being killed is, at this point, acceptably low, almost imperceptible in fact (even if not to Americans who have lost loved ones over there).
More and more, the U.S. military is relying on air power, unmanned drones, mercenaries, local militias, paramilitaries, and private contractors. Minimizing American casualties is an effective way of minimizing negative media coverage here; so, too, are efforts by the Trump administration to classify nearly everything related to that war while denying or downplaying "collateral damage" -- that is, dead civilians -- from it.
Their efforts boil down to a harsh truth: America just plain lies about its forever wars, so that it can keep on killing in lands far from home.
When we as Americans refuse to take in the destruction we cause, we come to passively accept the belief system of the ruling class that what’s still bizarrely called “defense” is a “must have” and that we collectively must spendsignificantly more than a trillion dollars a year on the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and a sprawling network of intelligence agencies, all justified as necessary defenders of America’s freedom. Rarely does the public put much thought into the dangers inherent in a sprawling “defense” network that increasingly invades and dominates our lives.
Meanwhile, it’s clear that low-cost wars, at least in terms of U.S. troops killed and wounded in action, can essentially be prolonged indefinitely, even when they never result in anything faintly like victory or fulfill any faintly useful American goal. The Afghan War remains the case in point. “Progress” is a concept that only ever fits the enemy -- the Taliban continues to gain ground -- yet, in these years, figures like retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus have continued to call for a “generational” commitment of troops and resources there, akin to U.S. support for South Korea.
Who says the Pentagon leadership learned nothing from Vietnam? They learned how to wage open-ended wars basically forever, which has proved useful indeed when it comes to justifying and sustaining epic military budgets and the political authority that goes with them. But here’s the thing: in a democracy, if you wage war long, you wage it wrong. Athens and the historian Thucydides learned this the hard way in the struggle against Sparta more than two millennia ago. Why do we insist on forgetting such an obvious lesson?
“We have met the enemy and he is us”
World War II was arguably the last war Americans truly had to fight. My Uncle Freddie was in the Army and stationed at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked on December 7, 1941. The country then came together and won a global conflict (with lots of help) in 44 months, emerging as the planetary superpower to boot. Now, that superpower is very much on the wane, as Donald Trump recognized in running successfully as a declinist candidate for president in 2016. (Make America Great Again!) And yet, though he ran against this country’s forever wars and is now president, we’re approaching the third decade of a war on terror that has yielded little, spread radical Islamic terror outfits across an expanse of the planet, and still seemingly has no end.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump himself claimed only last year. Yet that’s exactly what this country has been doing, regardless of which party ruled the roost in Washington. And here’s where, to give him credit, Trump actually had a certain insight. America is no longer great precisely because of the endless wars we wage and all the largely hidden but associated costs that go with them, including the recently much publicized militarization of the police here at home. Yet, in promising to make America great again, President Trump has failed to end those wars, even as he’s fed the military-industrial complex with even greater piles of cash.
There’s a twisted logic to all this. As the leading purveyor of violence and terror, with its leaders committed to fighting Islamic terrorism across the planet until the phenomenon is vanquished, the U.S. inevitably becomes its own opponent, conducting a perpetual war on itself. Of course, in the process, Afghans, Iraqis, Libyans, Syrians, Somalis, and Yemenis, among other peoples on this embattled planet of ours, pay big time, but Americans pay, too. (Have you even noticed that high-speed railroad that’s unbuilt, that dam in increasing disrepair, those bridges that need fixing, while money continues to pour into the national security state?) As the cartoon possum Pogo once so classically said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Early in the Iraq War, General Petraeus asked a question that was relevant indeed: “Tell me how this [war] ends.” The answer, obvious to so many who had protested in the global streets over the invasion to come in 2003, was “not well.” Today, another answer should be obvious: never, if the Pentagon and America’s political and national security elite have anything to do with it. In thermodynamics class, I learned that a perpetual motion machine is impossible to create due to entropy. The Pentagon never took that in and has instead been hard at work proving that a perpetual military machine is possible... until, that is, the empire it feeds off of collapses and takes us with it.
America’s military complex as a cytokine storm
In the era of COVID-19, as cases and deaths from the pandemic continue to soar in America, it’s astonishing that military spending is also soaring to record levels despite a medical emergency and a major recession.
The reality is that, in the summer of 2020, America faces two deadly viruses. The first is COVID-19. With hard work and some luck, scientists may be able to mass-produce an effective vaccine for it, perhaps by as early as next spring. In the meantime, scientists do have a sense of how to control it, contain it, even neutralize it, as countries from South Korea and New Zealand to Denmark have shown, even if some Americans, encouraged by our president, insist on throwing all caution to the winds in the name of living free. The second virus, however, could prove even more difficult to control, contain, and neutralize: forever war, a pandemic that U.S. military forces, with their global strike missions, continue to spread across the globe.
Sadly, it’s a reasonable bet that in the long run, even with Donald Trump as president, America has a better chance of defeating COVID-19 than the virus of forever war. At least, the first is generally seen as a serious threat (even if not by a president blind to anything but his chances for reelection); the second is, however, still largely seen as evidence of our strength and exceptionalism. Indeed, Americans tend to imagine "our" military not as a dangerous virus but as a set of benevolent antibodies, defending us from global evildoers.
When it comes to America’s many wars, perhaps there’s something to be learned from the way certain people's immune systems respond to COVID-19. In some cases, the virus sparks an exaggerated immune response that drives the body into a severe inflammatory state known as a cytokine storm. That "storm" can lead to multiple organ failure followed by death, yet it occurs in the cause of defending the body from a viral attack.
In a similar fashion, America's exaggerated response to 19 hijackers on 9/11 and then to perceived threats around the globe, especially the nebulous threat of terror, has led to an analogous (if little noticed) cytokine storm in the American system. Military (and militarized police) antibodies have been sapping our resources, inflaming our body politic, and slowly strangling the vital organs of democracy. Left unchecked, this "storm" of inflammatory militarism will be the death of democracy in America.
To put this country right, what’s needed is not only an effective vaccine for COVID-19 but a way to control the "antibodies" produced by America’s forever wars abroad and, as the years have gone by, at home -- and the ways they’ve attacked and inflamed the collective U.S. political, social, and economic body. Only when we find ways to vaccinate ourselves against the destructive violence of those wars, whether on foreign streets or our own, can we begin to heal as a democratic society.
To survive, the human body needs a healthy immune system, so when it goes haywire, becomes wildly inflamed, and ends up attacking and degrading our vital organs, we’re in trouble deep. It’s a reasonable guess that, in analogous terms, American democracy is already on a ventilator and beginning to feel the effects of multiple organ failure.
Unlike a human patient, doctors can’t put our democracy into a medically induced coma. But collectively we should be working to suppress our overactive immune system before it kills us. In other words, it’s truly time to defund that military machine of ours, as well as the militarized version of the police, and rethink how actual threats can be neutralized without turning every response into an endless war.
So many years later, it's time to think the unthinkable. For the U.S. government that means -- gasp! -- peace. Such a peace would start with imperial retrenchment (bring our troops home!), much reduced military (and police) budgets, and complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and any other place associated with that “generational” war on terror. The alternative is a cytokine storm that will, in the end, tear us apart from within.
This article has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.