America has a runaway empire — and we must dismantle it before it destroys us
Yoda, the Jedi Master in the Star Wars films, once pointed out that the future is all too difficult to see and it's hard to deny his insight. Yet I'd argue that, when it comes to the U.S. military and its wars, Yoda was just plain wrong. That part of the future is all too easy to imagine. It involves, you won't be shocked to know, more budget-busting weaponry for the Pentagon and more military meddling across the globe, perhaps this time against "near-peer" rivals China and Russia, and a global war on terror that will never end. What's even easier to see is that peace will be given no chance at all. Why? Because it's just not in the interests of America's deeply influential military-congressional-industrial complex.
When that vast complex, which President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about six decades ago, comes to my mind, I can't help thinking of a song from the last years of the then seemingly endless Cold War. (How typical, by the way, that when the Soviet Union finally imploded in 1991, it barely affected Pentagon funding.)
"The future's so bright (I gotta wear shades)" was that 1986 song's title. And I always wonder whether that future could indeed be nuclear-war bright, given our military's affection for such weaponry. I once heard the saying, "The [nuclear] triad is not the Trinity," which resonated with me given my Catholic upbringing. Still, it's apparently holy enough at the Pentagon or why would the high command there already be planning to fund the so-called modernization of the American nuclear arsenal to the tune of at least $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years? Given this nation's actual needs, that figure blows me away (though not literally, I hope).
What is that "triad" the complex treats as a holy trinity? It consists of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs; nuclear-weapons-capable bombers like the B-1, B-2, and the venerable B-52; and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs. Given our present vast nuclear arsenal, there's no strategic need for building new ICBMs at a price beyond compare. In fact, as the most vulnerable "leg" of the triad, the ones the Air Force currently has should be decommissioned.
Nor is there a strategic need for an ultra-expensive new bomber like the Air Force's proposed B-21 Raider (basically, an updated version of the B-2 Spirit "stealth" bomber that's most frequently used these days for flyovers at big college and Super Bowl football games). America's Ohio-class nuclear submarines that still wander the world's oceans armed with Trident missiles are more than capable of "deterring" any conceivable opponent into the distant future, even if they also offer humanity a solid shot at wholesale suicide via a future nuclear winter. But reason not the need, as Shakespeare once had King Lear say. Focus instead on the profits to be made (he might have added, had he lived in our time and our land) by building "modernized" nukes.
As my old service, the Air Force, clamors for new nuclear missiles and bombers, there's also the persistent quest for yet more fighter jets, including overpriced, distinctly underperforming ones like the F-35, the "Ferrari" of fighter planes according to the Air Force chief of staff. If the military gets all the F-35s it wants, add another $1.7 trillion to the cost of national "defense." At the same time, that service is seeking a new, "lower-cost" (but don't count on it) multirole fighter — what the F-35 was supposed to be once upon a time — even as it pursues the idea of a "6th-generation" fighter even more advanced (read: pricier) than 5th-generation models like the F-22 and F-35.
I could go on similarly about the Navy (more Ford-class aircraft carriers and new nuclear-armed submarines) or the Army (modernized Abrams tanks; a new infantry fighting vehicle), but you get the idea. If Congress and the president keep shoveling trillions of dollars down the military's gullet and those of its camp followers (otherwise known as "defense" contractors), count on one thing: they'll find ever newer ways of spending that dough on anything from space weaponry to robot "companions."
Indeed, I asked a friend who's still intimate with the military-industrial complex what's up with its dreams and schemes. The military's latest Joint Warfighting Concept, he told me, "is all about building Systems of Systems based in AI [artificial intelligence] and quantum computing." Then he added: "All it will do is give us more sophisticated ways to lose wars." (You can see why he's my friend.) The point is that AI and quantum computing sound futuristically super-sexy, which is why they'll doubtless be used to justify super-expensive future budgetary requests by the Pentagon.
In that context, don't you find it staggering how much the military spent in Afghanistan fighting and losing all too modernistically to small, under-armed units of the Taliban? Two trillion-plus dollars to wage a counterinsurgency campaign that failed dismally. Imagine if, in the next decade or two, the U.S. truly had to fight a near-peer rival like China. Even if the U.S. military somehow won the battles, this nation would undoubtedly collapse into bankruptcy and financial ruin (and it would be a catastrophe for the whole endangered planet of ours). It could get so bad that even Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk might have to pay higher taxes, if, that is, they haven't already slipped the surly bonds of Earth to mingle with the twinkling stars.
If America's post-9/11 war-on-terror military spending, including for the Afghan and Iraq wars, has indeed reached the unimaginable sum of $8 trillion, as Brown University's Costs of War Project estimates, imagine how much a real war, a "conventional" war, featuring the air force, the fleet, big battalions, and major battles, would cost this country. Again, the mind (mine at least) boggles at the prospect. Which is not to say that the U.S. military won't fight for every penny so that it's over-prepared to wage just such a war (and worse).
The idea that this country faces a perilous new cold war that could grow hot at any moment, this time with China, crops up in unusual places. Consider this passage by Dexter Filkins, a well-known war reporter, that appeared recently in the New Yorker:
"We've spent decades fighting asymmetrical wars, but now there's a symmetrical one looming. The United States has never faced an adversary of China's power: China's G.D.P. is, by some measures, greater than ours, its active-duty military is larger than ours, and its weapon systems are rapidly expanding. China appears determined to challenge the status quo, not just the territorial one but the scaffolding of international laws that govern much of the world's diplomatic and economic relations. If two forever wars are finally coming to an end, a new Cold War may await."
A new war is "looming." Our adversary has more money and more troops than us and is seeking better weaponry. Its leadership wants to challenge a "status quo" (that favors America) and international laws (which this country already routinely breaks when our leaders feel in the mood).
Why are so many otherwise sane people, including Joe Biden's foreign policy team, already rattling sabers in preparation for a new faceoff with China, one that would be eminently avoidable with judicious diplomacy and an urge to cooperate on this embattled planet of ours?
Future Wars Won't Keep Americans Together
Looking at the U.S. from across an ocean, a British friend of mine was bemused by this country's propensity for turning rivals into dangers of the worst sort. He asked me whether the very unity of the United States hinges on hyping and then confronting external enemies, an "artificially contrived military commonality," as he put it, that may serve to prevent this country's states from performing their own little "Brexits."
He has a point. What is it about this country that makes our leaders so regularly revel in inflating threats to our well-being? War profits, of course, as well as the kinds of dangers that seem to justify an ever more colossal military. Still, I suggested to my friend that inflating such dangers hasn't induced a sense of national unity, though it has, at least, provided a major distraction from what, so late in the game, can still only be called class warfare. (Spoiler alert: the richest among us have already won that war, Karl Marx be damned.) They also, of course, offer our oligarchs and kleptocrats yet more opportunities to plunder taxpayer dollars.
Despite the recent wall-to-wall coverage on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 of how that moment united us in a desire for revenge, our wars generally haven't brought Americans together. (Remember the Civil War?) The lone exception was World War II, which is why it's still so constantly cited. Perhaps the Cold War provided some sense of unity, as long as you weren't the subject of a McCarthyite witch hunt, but the Vietnam War tore America apart. The memory of that nightmare undoubtedly helps explain why our leaders have worked so hard to ensure that today's wars happen in the background and are no more than an afterthought for most of us (which is exactly how the Pentagon and weapons makers want it).
As an Air Force buddy of mine said to me recently, you really can't blame members of the complex "for hustling an easy buck." It's what they're geared to do. "The bigger issue," he suggested, "is with their enablers, who are legion. Because society is so cut off from the military, most of us have no way to really understand what it does or to measure its effectiveness. You see the four stars and rows of ribbons on those generals and think they must know their business. The funny part is that, by the standards of the business world, these guys are failures, their ROI [return on investment] is terrible."
If I truly wanted to effect change, my friend added, I should focus on ordinary Americans. Wake them up, tell them tough truths, and forget about Congress and those defense contractors. His advice reminded me of a scene I witnessed recently at the beach. A small boy was aiming a squirt gun at the incoming tide. "Take that, wave!" he shouted, firing again and again. Sometimes I feel like that boy, firing my own squirt gun of critiques as wave after wave from America's oceanic military-congressional-industrial complex crashes at my feet. The riptide of militarism in the U.S. can be both exhausting and deadly.
Twenty years after the war on terror began and even with the war in Afghanistan seemingly over, most Americans remain remarkably isolated from this country's conflicts and the rest of what passes for "national defense." The first tough truth is this: America has a runaway empire. The second: Somehow, we must unite and dismantle it, before it dismantles us.
My Squirt-Gun Message
Here's the rest of my message to my fellow citizens. Stop rewarding the Pentagon and its failed generals and admirals with yet more money. Hold them accountable for their disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and elsewhere. Pay closer attention to current events. Seek out alternative media. Know when you're being conned. (Hint: any war in a far-off place you've barely heard of is almost sure to prove another con job.)
Recognize that the wars in our recent past have been disasters, reports of "progress" have been shams, and the national treasury has been continually plundered before our very eyes. In other words, your wallets and your purses have been emptied to buy more bullets and bombs to kill or uproot the lives of mostly brown and black people across the globe who posed you little threat and few of whom ever meant you any harm.
Some of those same foreigners, however, might well be pissed off by now and contemplating a measure of revenge, which is basically the definition of blowback, as Chalmers Johnson warned us before 9/11 even happened. Someone must break the never-ending twenty-first-century cycle of violence. Why not us for once?
Recognize, too, that greed is not good, especially when it's driven by profits from weapons that could quite literally extinguish life on Earth. Recall President Eisenhower's words that spending on wars and weapons represents a theft from those who hunger; that U.S. leaders, in building more weapons and prosecuting more wars, are stealing from the future of your own children and grandchildren. Learn how to hate not the alleged "evil" foreigners but war itself and the war machine that lives off it, as well as the terrible waste of it all. Refuse to follow leaders who yearn for yet another cold (no less hot) war, who sing that old siren song of uniting in a crusade against another "axis of evil."
Finally, recognize that this country is stronger together. That what unites us is more important than what divides us. Learn to ignore the methods of the richest few and their political allies, who work so hard to stir us up and keep us distracted, disunited, and angry at each other. Let them know that they're playing with fire.
So, maybe Yoda's right after all. The future is difficult to see. It's always in motion. The question is: Do we have the courage to unite and head in a new direction? Why not set a new course for peace and, in the process, remake our democracy?
It's surely better than the same old future of ever more weapons, ever more wars, and far less hope.
Copyright 2021 William J. Astore
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular and a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals. His personal blog is Bracing Views.
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