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The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's

A review of Tom Engelhardt's new book on America's favorite pastime.

Reviewed: The American Way of War: How Bush's wars became Obama's by Tom Engelhardt. Haymarket Books (June 1, 2010). Price US$16.95, 269 pages.

Tom Engelhardt is "a national treasure" - as University of Michigan professor Juan Cole aptly puts it. A treasure of a man, author, crack book editor and master of ceremonies of the essential website - a project of the Nation Institute - his latest book is composed of 29 essays originally published online from March 2004 to early 2010, and slightly revamped. What's in a title? In this case, all of it, no holds barred: America as we know it, defined and explained according to its ethos - war.

War, the Vietnam-era 1970 Motown mega-hit written by Whitfield-Strong and sung by Edwin Starr, went like this:
War ... huh ... yeah
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing ... say it again y'all.

But if we're talking about the US industrial-military complex, war means absolutely everything. Like an extended Motown shuffle with some hard-hitting Stax breaks, and never devoid of an all too human sense of humor and pathos, Tom's book takes us for the ride. And though the landscape surveyed is all too familiar for anyone who has followed George "Dubya's" wars, it ain't pretty; and it does lead to a black hole in our collective soul.

Appropriately, this collection of essays is a tribute to Chalmers Johnson and his relentless, ongoing analysis of the US global empire of bases, in books ranging from Blowback to Nemesis. It's all here - the "war-is-peace" American newspeak so cherished by assorted Project for a New American Century neo-con, armchair warriors. But was it always like this? Not really. Right at the start, crack media-shredder machine Tom takes us through the pages of the New York Times a few days before 9/11. And - surprise! - none of the usual suspects are in town.

"Saddam Hussein didn't make it into the paper that week. Kim Jong-il was nowhere in sight. Osama bin Laden barely slipped into print - twice deep into articles - as "the accused terrorist" being hosted by the strange Taliban government. The "axis of evil", of course, did not exist, nor did the global "war on terror", and the potential enemy of the week, pushed by former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld (himself on the defensive over the military budget and arguments with his generals), was "the rising China threat".

Iran was scarcely a blip on the news radar screen; Syria rated not a mention. Also missing were just about any of the names we came to consider second nature to the post-9/11 news. No "Scooter" Libby. No Valerie Plame. No Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton or Douglas Feith.

So just when a section of the power oligarchy was about to elect China as the next Soviet Union in a 21st century Cold War remix, they stumbled upon a much weaker, and more convenient, foe. In itself, and coming from the paper of record, that's more than enough to debunk "Islamic terror" as fiction - invoked to legitimize a fabricated war against choice Muslim nations, which is a cover for the same old Cold War-era global, unilateral hegemonic agenda. As for 9/11, Tom could be making too much of the testimony by al-Qaeda's master brain Khalid Shaikh Mohammed - extracted by Central Intelligence Agency torture - but then again very few writers in the early 2000s had enough inside information to debunk the immensely flawed official version of 9/11.

The key merit of this book is its analysis of the language of empire - how those who control power and weapons also control the Word. In the absence of a Barthes, a Lacan or a Derrida - which could disperse the American newspeak oil slick but at the price of thousands of pages, Tom lasers on the state of contemporary, corporate American journalism. Suffice to quote his unspoken calculus of the value of life and death in terms of newsworthiness in the US:

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