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America's Tragic Descent into Empire

Engelhardt's new book, "The American Way of War," explores the U.S.'s jaw-dropping transformation into a global military empire.
 
 
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The following is an excerpt from The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama'sby Tom Engelhardt (Haymarket, 2010).

"War is peace" was one of the memorable slogans on the facade of the Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue in "Newspeak," the language invented by George Orwell in 1948 for his dystopian novel 1984. Some sixty years later, a quarter century after Orwell's imagined future bit the dust, the phrase is, in a number of ways, eerily applicable to the United States. On September 10, 2009, for instance, a New York Times front-page story by Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger was headlined "Obama Is Facing Doubts in Party on Afghanistan, Troop Buildup at Issue." It offered a modern version of journalistic Newspeak.

"Doubts," of course, imply dissent, and in fact just the week before there had been a major break in Washington's ranks, though not among Democrats. The conservative columnist George Will wrote a piece offering blunt advice to the Obama administration, summed up in its headline: "Time to Get Out of Afghanistan." In our age of political and audience fragmentation and polarization, think of this as the Afghan version of Vietnam's Walter Cronkite moment.

The Times report on those Democratic doubts, on the other hand, represented a more typical Washington moment. Ignored, for instance, was Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold's call for the president to develop an Afghan withdrawal timetable. The focus of the piece was instead a planned speech by Michigan senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. He was, Schmitt and Sanger reported, hoping to push back against well-placed leaks (in the Times, among other places) indicating that war commander General Stanley McChrystal was urging the president to commit fifteen thousand to forty-five thousand more American troops to the Afghan War.

Here, according to the two reporters, was the gist of Levin's message about what everyone agreed was a "deteriorating" U.S. position: "[H]e was against sending more American combat troops to Afghanistan until the United States speeded up the training and equipping of more Afghan security forces."

Think of this as the line in the sand within the Democratic Party. Both positions could be summed up with the same word: More. The essence of this "debate" came down to: More of them versus more of us (and keep in mind that more of "them" -- an expanded training program for the Afghan National Army -- actually meant more of "us" in the form of extra trainers and advisers). In other words, however contentious the disputes in Washington, however dismally the public viewed the war, however much the president's war coalition might threaten to crack open, the only choices were between more and more. In such a situation, no alternatives are likely to get a real hearing.

Few alternative policy proposals even exist because alternatives that don't fit with "more" have ceased to be part of Washington's war culture. No serious thought, effort, or investment goes into them. Clearly referring to Will's column, one of the unnamed "senior officials" who swarm through our major newspapers made the administration's position clear, saying sardonically, according to the Washington Post, "I don't anticipate that the briefing books for the [administration] principals on these debates over the next weeks and months will be filled with submissions from opinion columnists. I do anticipate they will be filled with vigorous discussionof how successful we've been to date."

State of War

Because the United States does not look like a militarized country, it's hard for Americans to grasp that Washington is a war capital, that the United States is a war state, that it garrisons much of the planet, and that the norm for us is to be at war somewhere (usually, in fact, many places) at any moment. Similarly, we've become used to the idea that, when various forms of force (or threats of force) don't work, our response, as in Afghanistan, is to recalibrate and apply some alternate version of the same under a new or rebranded name -- the hot one now being "counterinsurgency," or COIN -- in a marginally different manner. When it comes to war, as well as preparations for war, more is now generally the order of the day.