The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's
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 TomDispatch.com - 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:
Crudely put, it would go something like: one kidnapped and murdered blond white child in California equals 300 Egyptians drowned in a ferry accident, 3,000 Bangladeshis swept away in a monsoon flood, 300,000 Congolese killed in a bloodletting civil war.
The language of empire is a relentless desensitization covert op - with its cortege of "anti-Iraqi forces", "dead-enders", "bitter enders", "Ba'athist remnants", "terrorists", "insurgents" ("Guerrillas"? Don't even think about it), "aerial bombing", "covert" operations and "collateral damage". Suffering is never related to the (invisible) Other; after all, American reporters are always embedded with American troops (and some later even profit from it all and conquer Hollywood, as in the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker). No wonder Tom finds a wealth of material to compile what he defines as the "Dictionary of American Empire-Speak".
War and terror. War on terror. War of terror. The marriage is for life.
Tom stresses how the George W Bush-Barack Obama continuum - which follows the Bush senior-Bill Clinton continuum - is impregnated with the terror obsession. "It is a Bush legacy that no president is likely to reverse soon, if at all." No surprises here. As every student of American history knows, the "indispensable nation" armchair neo-cons so much revere was in fact built on vast territory and mineral wealth "liberated" - via terror - from Native Americans.
By dwelling on the language of empire, Tom had to make a few pit stops to examine the hagiography of the warriors-functionaries of Empire. Such as General Stanley McChrystal, a former protege of Rumsfeld who led the Pentagon's mega-secret Joint Special Operations Command - an executive torture and death squad in Iraq - and who always had wet dreams about AfPak, that is, an extended war in South/Central Asia.
McChrystal symbolizes a crucial imperial link - "both a legacy figure from the worst days of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era and the firstborn child of Obama-era Washington's growing desperation and hysteria over the wars it inherited." An army of imperial stenographers has hailed "warrior-scholar" McChrystal as a sort of Jedi knight, much as the man who picked him, CentCom commander General David Petraeus, has been deified in a Wagnerian Ring manner (with drones). Tom is succinct enough on Petraeus: "His greatest skill ... has been in fostering the career of David Petraeus." As for McChrystal, he is more like a cross between Joseph Conrad's Kurtz in Heart of Darkness and Captain Willard in Coppola's Apocalypse Now.
As for those who believed in Obama, may they dwell eternally in a valley of tears. As if the destruction of the US Constitution by the Bush/Cheney war on terror was not enough, the Obama administration has expanded the ultra-vague definition of "terrorist" to include "domestic extremists" - that is, any American dissenting from world hegemony-related US government policies. Referring to Obama's AfPak war, Tom stresses how the Pentagon succeeded in "boxing in a president who had already locked himself into a conflict he had termed both ‘the right war' and a 'necessary' one." Thus, "President Obama ended up essentially where General McChrystal began."
This triviality would be Monty Pythonish if it was not tragic - for Americans and for all non-Americans who grew up cherishing the best that America has to offer. Gore Vidal has been warning for decades how the industrial-military complex has hijacked the Republic. Not only the complex - but also Big Pharma, the insurance lobby, Wall Street and Big Oil; the current BP-provoked destruction of the priceless ecological systems in the Gulf of Mexico is an evil twin of the Wall Street-provoked 2008 (and ongoing) financial debacle. Make no mistake; these oligarchic corporate powers will never be voted out of the republic, will never be really held accountable.
Tom's book - which should be read in tandem with F William Engdahl's Full Spectrum Dominance - is invaluable in showing how the empire walks the walk and talks the talk. His conclusion is that "it's Pentagon time, and it's we who fund that clock that ticks toward eternity". Yes, the road to the new American dream - full spectrum dominance - goes on forever.
A reader may be allowed to draw a much more somber conclusion. Little do most of those living in a perverse war-based society and war-based economy - without even acknowledging it - know, the American republic, for all practical purposes, is as good as dead.
Check out: The American Way of War: How Bush's wars became Obama's by Tom Engelhardt. Haymarket Books (June 1, 2010).