Tom Engelhardt

Biden's indirect admission highlights the steady decline of American empire

It was all so long ago, in a world seemingly without challengers. Do you even remember when we Americans lived on a planet with a recumbent Russia, a barely rising China, and no obvious foes except what later came to be known as an "axis of evil," three countries then incapable of endangering this one? Oh, and, as it turned out, a rich young Saudi former ally, Osama bin Laden, and 19 hijackers, most of them also Saudis, from a tiny group called al-Qaeda that briefly possessed an "air force" of four commercial jets. No wonder this country was then touted as the greatest force, the superest superpower ever, sporting a military that left all others in the dust.

And then, of course, came the launching of the Global War on Terror, which soon would be normalized as the plain-old, uncapitalized "war on terror." Yes, that very war — even if nobody's called it that for years — began on September 11, 2001. At a Pentagon partially in ruins, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, already aware that the destruction around him was probably Osama bin Laden's responsibility, ordered his aides to begin planning for a retaliatory strike against… Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Rumsfeld's exact words (an aide wrote them down) were: "Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not."

Things related and not. Sit with that phrase for a moment. In their own strange way, those four words, uttered in the initial hours after the destruction of New York's World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, still seem to capture the twenty-first-century American experience.

Within days of 9/11, Rumsfeld, who served four presidents before recently stepping off this world at 88, and the president he then worked for, George W. Bush, would officially launch that Global War on Terror. They would ambitiously target supposed terror networks in no less than 60 countries. (Yep, that was Rumsfeld's number!) They would invade Afghanistan and, less than a year and a half later, do the same on a far grander scale in Iraq to take down its autocratic ruler, Saddam Hussein, who had once been a hand-shaking buddy of the secretary of defense.

Despite rumors passed around at the time by supporters of such an invasion, Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11; nor, despite Bush administration claims, was his regime then developing or in possession of weapons of mass destruction; nor, if we didn't act, would an Iraqi mushroom cloud have one day risen over New York or some other American city. And mind you, both of those invasions and so much more would be done in the name of "liberating" peoples and spreading American-style democracy across the Greater Middle East. Or, put another way, in response to that devastating attack by those 19 hijackers armed with knives, the U.S. was preparing to invade and dominate the oil-rich Middle East until the end of time. In 2021, almost two decades later, doesn't that seem like another lifetime to you?

By the way, you'll note that there's one word missing in action in all of the above. Believe me, if what I just described had related to Soviet plans during the Cold War, you can bet your bottom dollar that word would have been all over Washington. I'm thinking, of course, of "empire" or, in its adjectival form, "imperial." Had the Soviet Union planned similar acts to "liberate" peoples by "spreading communism," it would have been seen in Washington as the most imperial project ever. In the early years of this century, however, with the Soviet Union long gone and America's leaders imagining that they might reign supreme globally until the end of time, those two words were banished to history.

It was obvious that, despite the unprecedented 800 or so military bases this country possessed around the world, imperial powers were distinctly a thing of the past.

"Empires Have Gone There and Not Done It"

Now, keep that thought in abeyance for a moment, while I take you on a quick tour of the long-forgotten Global War on Terror. Almost two decades later, it does seem to be drawing to some kind of lingering close. Yes, there are still those 650 American troops guarding our embassy in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and there is still that "over-the-horizon capacity" the president cites for U.S. aircraft to strike Taliban forces, even if American troops only recently abandoned their last air base in Afghanistan; and yes, there are still about 2,500 American troops stationed in Iraq (and hundreds more at bases across the border in Syria), regularly being attacked by Iraqi militia groups.

Similarly, despite the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia as the Trump years ended, over-the-horizon airstrikes against the terror group al-Shabaab, halted when Joe Biden entered the Oval Office, have just been started again, assumedly from bases in Kenya or Djibouti; and yes, the horrendous war in Yemen continues with the U.S. still supporting the Saudis, even if by offering "defensive," not "offensive" aid; and yes, American special operators are also stationed in staggering numbers of countries around the globe; and yes, prisoners are still being held in Guantanamo, that offshore Bermuda Triangle of injustice created by the Bush administration so long ago. Admittedly, officials in the new Biden Justice Department are at least debating, however indecisively, whether those detainees might have any due process rights under the Constitution (yes, that's the U.S. Constitution!) and their numbers are at a historic low since 2002 of 39.

Still, let's face it, this isn't the set of conflicts that, once upon a time, involved invasions, massive airstrikes, occupations, the killing of staggering numbers of civilians, widespread drone attacks, the disruption of whole countries, the uprooting and displacement of more than 37 million people, the deployment at one point of 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan alone, and the spending of untold trillions of American taxpayer dollars, all in the name of fighting terror and spreading democracy. And think of it as mission (un)accomplished in the truest sense imaginable.

In fact, that idea of spreading of democracy didn't really outlast the Bush years. Ever since, there's been remarkably little discussion in official Washington about what this country was really doing as it warred across significant parts of the planet. Yes, those two decades of conflict, those "forever wars," as they came to be called first by critics and then by anyone in sight, are at least winding, or perhaps spiraling, down — and yet, here's the strange thing: Wouldn't you think that, as they ended in visible failure, the Pentagon's stock might also be falling? Oddly enough, though, in the wake of all those years of losing wars, it's still rising. The Pentagon budget only heads ever more for the stratosphere as foreign policy "pivots" from the Greater Middle East to Asia (and Russia and the Arctic and, well, anywhere but those places where terror groups still roam).

In other words, when it comes to the U.S. military as it tries to leave its forever wars in someone else's ditch, failure is the new success story. Perhaps not so surprisingly, then, the losing generals who fought those wars, while eternally promising that "corners" were being turned and "progress" made, have almost all either continued to rise in the ranks or gotten golden parachutes into other parts of the military-industrial complex. That should shock Americans, but really never seems to. Yes, striking percentages of us support leaving Afghanistan and the Afghans in a ditch somewhere and moving on, but it's still generally a big "thank you for your service" to our military commanders and the Pentagon.

Looking back, however, isn't the real question — not that anyone's asking — this: What was America's mission during all those years? In reality, I don't think it's possible to answer that or explain any of it without using the forbidden noun and adjective I mentioned earlier. And, to my surprise, after all these years when it never crossed the lips of an American president, Joe Biden, the guy who's been insisting that "America is back" on this failing planet of ours, actually used that very word!

In a recent news conference, irritated to find himself endlessly discussing his decision to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, he fielded this question from a reporter: "Given the amount of money that has been spent and the number of lives that have been lost, in your view, with making this decision, were the last 20 years worth it?"

His response: "I argued, from the beginning [in the Obama years], as you may recall — it came to light after the administration was over… No nation has ever unified Afghanistan, no nation. Empires have gone there and not done it."

So, there! Yes, it was vague and could simply have been a reference to the fate in Afghanistan, that famed "graveyard of empires," of the British empire in the nineteenth century and the Soviet one in the twentieth century. But I can't help thinking that a president, however minimally, however indirectly, however much without even meaning to, finally acknowledged that this country, too, was on an imperial mission there and globally as well, a mission not of spreading democracy or of liberation but of domination. Otherwise, how the hell do you explain those 800 military bases on every continent but Antarctica? Is that really spreading democracy? Is that really liberating humanity? It's not a subject discussed in this country, but believe me, if it were any other place, the words "empire" and "imperial" would be on all too many lips in Washington and the urge to dominate in such a fashion would have been roundly denounced in our nation's capital.

A Failing Empire with a Flailing Military?

Here's a question for you: If the U.S. is "back," as our president has been claiming, what exactly is it back as? What could it be, now that it's proven itself incapable of dominating the planet in the fashion its political leaders once dreamed of? Could this country, which in these years dumped trillions of taxpayer dollars into its forever wars, now perhaps be reclassified as a failing empire with a flailing military?

Of course, such a possibility isn't generally acknowledged here. If, for instance, Kabul falls to the Taliban months from now and U.S. diplomats need to be rescued from the roof of our embassy there, as happened in Saigon in 1975 — something the president has vehemently denied is even possible — count on one thing: a bunch of Republicans and right-wing pundits will instantly be down his throat for leaving "too fast." (Of course, some of them already are, including, as it happens, the very president who launched the 2001 invasion, only to almost instantly refocus his attention on invading Iraq.)

Even domestically, when you think about where our money truly goes, inequality of every sort is only growing more profound, with America's billionaires ever wealthier and more numerous, while the Pentagon and those weapons-making corporations float ever higher on taxpayer dollars, and the bills elsewhere go unpaid. In that sense, perhaps it's time to start thinking about the United States as a failing imperial system at home as well as abroad. Sadly, whether globally or domestically, all of this seems hard for Americans to take in or truly describe (hence, perhaps, the madness of Donald Trump's America). After all, if you can't even use the words "imperial" and "empire," then how are you going to understand what's happening to you?

Still, forget any fantasies about us spreading democracy abroad. We're now in a country that's visibly threatening to lose democracy at home. Forget Afghanistan. From the January 6th assault on the Capitol to the latest (anti-)voting laws in Texas and elsewhere, there's a flailing, failing system right here in the U.S. of A. And unlike Afghanistan, it's not one that a president can withdraw from.

Yes, globally, the Biden administration has seemed remarkably eager to enter a new Cold War with China and "pivot" to Asia, as the Pentagon continues to build up its forces, from naval to nuclear, as if this country were indeed still the reigning imperial power on the planet. But it's not.

The real question may be this: Three decades after the Soviet empire headed for the exit, is it possible that the far more powerful American one is ever so chaotically heading in the same direction? And if so, what does that mean for the rest of us?

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

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.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

An all-American horror story: We're living with multiple sci-fi nightmares of the first order

Yes, once upon a time I regularly absorbed science fiction and imagined futures of wonder, but mainly of horror. What else could you think, if you read H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds under the covers by flashlight while your parents thought you were asleep? Of course, that novel was a futuristic fantasy, involving as it did Martians arriving in London to take out humanity. Sixty-odd years after secretly reading that book and wondering about the future that would someday be mine, I'm living, it seems, in that very future, however Martian-less it might be. Still, just in case you hadn't noticed, our present moment could easily be imagined as straight out of a science-fiction novel that, even at my age, I'd prefer not to read by flashlight in the dark of night.

I mean, I was barely one when Hiroshima was obliterated by a single atomic bomb. In the splintering of a moment and the mushroom cloud that followed, a genuinely apocalyptic power that had once rested only in the hands of the gods (and perhaps science-fiction authors) became an everyday part of our all-too-human world. From that day on, it was possible to imagine that we — not the Martians or the gods — could end it all. It became possible to imagine that we ourselves were the apocalypse. And give us credit. If we haven't actually done so yet, neither have we done a bad job when it comes to preparing the way for just such a conclusion to human history.

Let's put this in perspective. In the pandemic year 2020, 76 years after two American atomic bombs left the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in ashes, the world's nuclear powers actually increased spending on nuclear weapons by $1.4 billion more than they had put out the previous year. And that increase was only a small percentage of the ongoing investment of those nine — yes, nine — countries in their growing nuclear arsenals. Worse yet, if you happen to be an American, more than half of the total 2020 "investment" in weaponry appropriate for world-ending scenarios, $37.4 billion to be exact, was plunked down by our own country. (A staggering $13.3 billion was given to weapons maker Northrop Grumman alone to begin the development of a new intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, the one thing our thoroughly troubled world obviously needs.) In all, those nine nuclear powers spent an estimated $137,000 a minute in 2020 to "improve" their arsenals — the ones that, if ever used, could end history as we know it.

In the Dust of the History of Death

Imagine for a second if all that money had instead been devoted to creating and disseminating vaccines for most of the world's population, which has yet to receive such shots and so be rescued from the ravages of Covid-19, itself a death-dealing, sci-fi-style nightmare of the first order. But how could I even think such a thing when, in the decades since this country dropped that first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, it's learned its atomic lessons all too well? Otherwise, why would its leaders now be planning to devote at least $1.7 trillion over the next three decades to "modernizing" what's already the most modern nuclear arsenal on the planet?

Let me just add that I visited Hiroshima once upon a time with a Japanese colleague who had been born on an island off the coast of atomically destroyed Nagasaki. In 1982, he took me to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which, despite exhibiting a carbonized child's lunchbox and permanently imprinted human shadows, can obviously offer a visitor only a hint of what it was actually like to experience the end of the world, thanks to a single bomb. And yet I found the experience so deeply unsettling that, when I returned home to New York City, I could barely talk about it.

Admittedly, though nine countries now possess nuclear weapons, most of them significantly more powerful than the single bomb that turned Hiroshima into a landscape of rubble, not one has ever been used in war. And that should be considered a miracle on a planet where, when it comes to weapons and war, miracles of any sort tend to be few and far between. After all, it's estimated that, in 2020, this country alone had more than 5,000 nuclear weapons, at least 1,300 of them deployed and ready to use — enough, that is, to destroy several worlds.

Consider it an irony of the first order, then, that U.S. leaders have spent years focused on trying to keep the Iranians from making a single nuclear weapon, but not for a day, not for an hour, not for a second on keeping this country from producing ever more of them and the delivery systems that would distribute them anywhere on this planet. In that light, just consider, for instance, that, in 2021, the U.S. is preparing to invest more than $100 billion in producing a totally new ICBM, whose total cost over its "lifespan" (though perhaps the correct word would be "deathspan") is already projected at $264 billion — and that's before the cost overruns even begin. All of this for a future that… well, your guess is as good as mine.

Or consider that, only recently, the American and Russian heads of state, the two countries with by far the biggest nuclear arsenals, met in Geneva, Switzerland, and talked for hours, especially about cyberwar, while spending little appreciable time considering how to rein in their most devastating weaponry and head the planet toward a denuclearized future.

And keep in mind that all of this is happening on a planet where it's now commonplace scientific knowledge that even a nuclear war between two regional powers, India and Pakistan, could throw so many particulates into the atmosphere as to create a nuclear winter on this planet, one likely to starve to death billions of us. In other words, just one regional nuclear conflict could leave the chaos and horror of the Covid-19 pandemic in the unimpressive dust of the history of death.

A Slow-Motion Hiroshima?

And yet, here's perhaps the strangest thing of all: we're still convinced that, since the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no matter how much world-ending weaponry has been stockpiled by China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, none has been used. Unfortunately, that should increasingly be seen as a Martian-less fantasy of the first order.

While it's seldom thought of that way, climate change should really be reimagined as the equivalent of a slow-motion nuclear holocaust. Hiroshima took place in literally seconds, a single blinding flash of heat. Global warming will prove to be a matter of years, decades, even centuries of heat.

That all-too-apocalyptic phenomenon was set off in the nineteenth century via the coal-burning that accompanied the industrial revolution, first in Great Britain and then elsewhere across the planet. It's only continued over all these years thanks to the burning, above all, of fossil fuels — oil and natural gas — and the release of carbon (and methane) into the atmosphere. In the case of climate change, there are no ICBMs, no nuclear-missile-armed submarines, no nuclear bombers. Instead, there are oil and natural gas companies, whose CEOs, regularly abetted by governments, have proven all too ready to destroy this planet for record profits. They've been perfectly willing to burn fossil fuels in a criminal fashion until, quite literally, the end of time. Worse yet, they generally knew just what kind of harm they were causing long before most of the rest of us and, in response, actively supported climate denialism.

No, there was no mushroom cloud, but rather a "cloud" of greenhouse gases forming over endless years beyond human vision. Still, let's face it, on this planet of ours, not in 2031 or 2051 or 2101 but right at this very moment, we're beginning to experience the equivalent of a slow-motion nuclear war.

In a sense, we're already living through a modern slo-mo version of Hiroshima, no matter where we are or where we've traveled. At this moment, with an increasingly fierce megadrought gripping the West and Southwest, the likes of which hasn't been experienced in at least 1,200 years, among the top candidates for an American Hiroshima would be Phoenix (118 degrees), Las Vegas (114 degrees), the aptly named Death Valley (128 degrees), Palm Springs (123 degrees), and Salt Lake City (107), all record temperatures for this season. A recent report suggests that temperatures in famed Yellowstone National Park are now as high or higher than at any time in the past 20,000 years (and possibly in the last 800,000 years). And temperatures in Oregon and Washington are already soaring in record fashion with more to come, even as the fire season across the West arrives earlier and more fiercely each year. As I write this, for instance, California's Big Sur region is ablaze in a striking fashion, among growing numbers of western fires. Under the circumstances, ironically enough, one of the only reasons some temperature records might not be set is that sun-blocking smoke from those fires might suppress the heat somewhat.

You should know that you're on a different planet when even the most mainstream of news sources begins to put climate change in the lead in environmental pieces, as in this recent first sentence of a CNN report: "The incredible pictures of a depleted Lake Mead, on the Nevada-Arizona border, illustrate the effects of drought brought on by climate change."

You could also imagine our modern Hiroshimas in the Florida Keys, where inexorably rising sea levels, due in part to the massive melting of ice in Greenland and Antarctica, are already threatening that especially low-lying part of that southern state. Or perhaps the Gulf Coast would qualify, since the heating waters of the Atlantic are now creating record tropical-storm and hurricane seasons that, like the heat and fires in the West, seem to arrive earlier each year. (One Florida city, Miami, is already contemplating building a massive seawall to protect itself against devastating future storm surges.)

In this desperately elongated version of nuclear war, everything being experienced in this country (and in a similar fashion around the world, from Australia's brutally historic wildfires to a recent heat wave in the Persian Gulf, where temperatures topped 125 degrees) will only grow ever more extreme, even if, by some miracle, those nuclear weapons are kept under wraps. After all, according to a new NASA study, the planet has been trapping far more heat than imagined in this century so far. In addition, a recently revealed draft of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report suggests that our over-heating future will only grow worse in ways that hadn't previously been imagined. Tipping points may be reached — from the melting of polar ice sheets and Arctic permafrost (releasing vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere) to the possible transformation of much of the Amazon rain forest into savannah — that could affect the lives of our children and grandchildren disastrously for decades to come. And that would be the case even if greenhouse-gas releases are brought under control relatively quickly.

Once upon a time, who could have imagined that humanity would inherit the kinds of apocalyptic powers previously left to the gods or that, when we finally noticed them, we would prove eerily unable to respond? Even if another nuclear weapon is never used, we stand capable, in slow-motion fashion, of making significant parts of our world uninhabitable — or, for that matter, if we were to act soon, keeping it at least reasonably habitable into the distant future.

Imagine, just as a modest start, a planet on which every dollar earmarked for nuclear weapons would be invested in a green set of solutions to a world growing by the year ever warmer, ever redder, ever less inhabitable.

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

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.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Washington is operating on an obvious formula for disaster

Let me start with my friend and the boat. Admittedly, they might not seem to have anything to do with each other. The boat, a guided-missile destroyer named the USS Curtis Wilbur, reportedly passed through the Straits of Taiwan and into the South China Sea, skirting the Paracel Islands that China has claimed as its own. It represented yet another Biden-era challenge to the planet's rising power from its falling one. My friend was thousands of miles away on the West Coast of the United States, well vaccinated and going nowhere in Covid-stricken but improving America.

As it happens, she's slightly younger than me, but still getting up there, and we were chatting on the phone about our world, about the all-too-early first wildfire near Los Angeles, the intensifying mega-drought across the West and Southwest, the increasing nightmare of hurricane season in the Atlantic and so on. We were talking about the way in which we humans — and we Americans in particular (though you could toss in the Chinese without a blink) — have been wreaking fossil-fuelized havoc on this planet and what was to come.

And oh yes, we were talking about our own deaths, also to come at some unknown future moment but one not as far away as either of us might wish. My friend then said to me abashedly, "I sometimes think it's lucky I won't be here to see what's going to happen to the world." And even as she began stumbling all over herself apologizing for saying such a thing, I understood exactly what she meant. I had had the very same thought and sense of shame and horror at even thinking it — at even thinking I would, in some strange sense, get off easy and leave a world from hell to my children and grandchildren.

Nothing, in fact, could make me sadder.

And you know what's the worst thing? Whether I'm thinking about that "destroyer" in the Strait of Taiwan or the destruction of planet Earth, one thing is clear enough: it wouldn't have to be this way.

China on the Brain

Now, let's focus on the Curtis Wilbur for a moment. And in case you hadn't noticed, Joe Biden and his foreign-policy team have China on the brain. No surprise there, though, only history. Don't you remember how, when Biden was still vice president, President Obama announced that, in foreign and especially military policy, the U.S. was planning a "pivot to Asia"? His administration was, in other words, planning on leaving this country's war-on-terror disasters in the Greater Middle East behind (not that he would actually prove capable of doing so) and refocusing on this planet's true rising power. Donald Trump would prove similarly eager to dump America's Greater Middle Eastern wars (though he, too, failed to do so) and refocus on Beijing — tariffs first, but warships not far behind. Now, as they withdraw the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the Biden team finds itself deep in its own version of a pivot-to-Asia strategy, with their collective foreign-policy brain remarkably focused on challenging China (at least until Israel briefly got in the way).

Think of it as a kind of pandemic of anxiety, a fear that, without a major refocus, the U.S. might indeed be heading for the imperial scrapheap of history. In a sense, this may prove to be the true Achilles heel of the Biden era. Or put another way, the president's foreign-policy crew seems, at some visceral level, to fear deeply for the America they've known and valued so, the one that was expected to loom invincibly over the rest of the planet once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991; the imperial power our politicians (until Donald Trump) had long hailed as the greatest, most "exceptional" nation on the planet; the one with "the finest fighting force that the world has ever known" (Barack Obama), aka "the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world" (George W. Bush).

We're talking, of course, about the same great power that, after almost 20 years of disastrous wars, drone strikes, and counterterror operations across vast stretches of the planet, looks like it is sinking fast, a country whose political parties can no longer agree on anything that matters. In such a context, let's consider, for a moment, that flu-like China obsession, the one that leaves Washington's politicians and military leaders with strikingly high temperatures and an irrational urge to send American warships into distant waters near the coast of China, while regularly upping the ante, militarily and politically.

In that context, here's an obsessional fact of our moment: these days, it seems as if President Biden can hardly appear anywhere or talk to anyone without mentioning China or that sinking country he now heads and that sinking feeling he has about it. He did it the other week in an interview with David Brooks when, with an obvious on-the-page shudder, he told the New York Times columnist, "We're kind of at a place where the rest of the world is beginning to look to China." Brrr… it's cold in here (or maybe too hot to handle?) in an increasingly chaotic, still partly Trumpian, deeply divided Washington, and in a country where, from suppressing the vote to suppressing the teaching of history to encouraging the carrying of unlicensed weapons, democracy is looking ill indeed.

Oh, and that very same week when the president talked to Brooks, he went to the Coast Guard Academy to address its graduating class and promptly began discussing — yes! — that crucial, central subject for Washingtonians these days, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. ("When nations try to game the system or tip the rules in their favor, it throws everything off balance. That's why we are so adamant that these areas of the world that are the arteries of trade and shipping remain peaceful — whether that's the South China Sea, the Arabian Gulf, and, increasingly, the Arctic.") You didn't know, did you, that a guided-missile destroyer, not to speak of aircraft carrier battle groups, and other naval vessels had been anointed with the job of keeping "freedom of navigation" alive halfway across the planet or that the U.S. Coast Guard simply guards our coastlines.

These days, it should really be called the Coasts Guard. After all, you can find its members "guarding" coasts ranging from Iran's in the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea. Evidently, even the coast of the island of Taiwan, which, since 1949, China has always claimed as its own and where a subtle dance between Beijing and Washington has long played out, has become just another coast for guarding in nothing less than a new "partnership." ("Our new agreement for the Coast Guard to partner with Taiwan," said the president, "will help ensure that we're positioned to better respond to shared threats in the region and to conduct coordinated humanitarian and environmental missions.") Consider that a clear challenge to the globe's rising power in what's become ever more of a showdown at the naval equivalent of the O.K. Corral, part of an emerging new cold war between the two countries.

And none of this is out of the ordinary. In his late April address to Congress, for instance, President Biden anxiously told the assembled senators and congressional representatives that "we're in a competition with China and other countries to win the twenty-first century… China and other countries are closing in fast" — and in his own strange way, Donald Trump exhibited similar worries.

What Aren't We Guarding?

Now, here's the one thing that doesn't seem to strike anyone in Congress, at the Coast Guard Academy, or at the New York Times as particularly strange: that American ships should be protecting "maritime freedom" on the other side of the globe, or that the Coast Guard should be partnering for the same. Imagine, just for a second, that Chinese naval vessels and their Coast Guard equivalent were patrolling our coasts, or parts of the Caribbean, while edging ever closer to Florida. You know just what an uproar of shock and outrage, what cries of horror would result. But it's assumed that the equivalent on the other side of the globe is a role too obvious even to bother to explain and that our leaders should indeed be crying out in horror at China's challenges to it.

It's increasingly clear that, from Japan to the Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, Washington is pushing China hard, challenging its positions big time and often in a military fashion. And no, China itself, whether in the South China Sea or elsewhere, is no angel. Still, the U.S. military, while trying to leave its failed terror wars in the dust, is visibly facing off against that economically rising power in an ever more threatening manner, one that already seems too close to a possible military conflict of some sort. And you don't even want to know what sort of warfare this country's military leaders are now imagining there as, in fact, they did so long ago. (Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame only recently revealed that, according to a still-classified document, in response to the Chinese shelling of Taiwan in 1958, U.S. military leaders seriously considered launching nuclear strikes against mainland China.)

Indeed, as U.S. Navy ships are eternally sent to challenge China, challenging words in Washington only escalate as well. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks put it in March, while plugging for an ever-larger Pentagon budget, "Beijing is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system… Secretary [of Defense Lloyd] Austin and I believe that the [People's Republic of China] is the pacing challenge for the United States military."

And in that context, the U.S. Navy, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard are all "pacing" away. The latest proposed version of an always-rising Pentagon budget, for instance, now includes $5.1 billion for what's called the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, "a fund created by Congress to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region." In fact, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command is also requesting $27 billion in extra spending between 2022 and 2027 for "new missiles and air defenses, radar systems, staging areas, intelligence-sharing centers, supply depots and testing ranges throughout the region."

And so it goes in the pandemic world of 2021.

Though seldom asked, the real question, the saddest one I think, the one that brings us back to my conversation with my friend about the world we may leave behind us, is: What aren't we guarding on this planet of ours?

A New Cold War on a Melting Planet?

Let's start with this: the old pattern of rising and falling empires should be seen as a thing of the past. It's true that, in a traditional sense, China is now rising and the U.S. seemingly falling, at least economically speaking. But something else is rising and something else is falling, too. I'm thinking, of course, about rising global temperatures that, sometime in the next five years, have a reasonable chance of exceeding the 1.5 degree Celsius limit (above the pre-industrial era) set by the Paris Climate Accords and what that future heat may do to the very idea of a habitable planet.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the U.S., the Atlantic hurricane season is only expected to worsen, the mega-drought in the Southwest to intensify (as fires burn ever higher in previously wetter mountainous elevations in that region), and so on. Within this century, major coastal cities in this country and China like New Orleans, Miami, Shanghai, and Hong Kong could find themselves flooded out by rising sea levels, thanks in part to the melting of Antarctica and Greenland. As for a rising China, that supposedly ultimate power of the future, even its leadership must know that parts of the north China plain, now home to 400 million people, could become quite literally uninhabitable by century's end due to heat waves capable of killing the healthy within hours.

In such a context, on such a planet, ask yourself: Is there really a future for us in which the essential relationship between the U.S. and China — the two largest greenhouse gas emitters of this moment — is a warlike one? Whether a literal war results or not, one thing should be clear enough: if the two greatest carbon emitters can't figure out how to cooperate instead of picking endless fights with each other, the human future is likely to prove grim and dim indeed. "Containing" China is the foreign-policy focus of the moment, a throwback to another age in Washington. And yet this is the very time when what truly needs to be contained is the overheating of this planet. And in truth, given human ingenuity, climate change should indeed be containable.

And yet the foreign-policy wing of the Biden administration and Congress (where Democrats are successfully infusing money into the economy under the rubric of a struggle with China, a rare subject the Republicans can go all in on) seem focused on creating a future of eternal Sino-American hostility and endless armed competition. In the already overheated world we inhabit, who could honestly claim that this is a formula for "national security"?

Returning to the conversation with my friend, I wonder why this approach to our planet doesn't seem to more people like an obvious formula for disaster. Why aren't more of us screaming at the top of our lungs about the dangers of Washington's urge to return to a world in which a "cold war" is a formula for success? It leaves me ever more fearful for the planet that, one of these days, I will indeed be leaving to others who deserved so much better.

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

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.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

A timeline of carnage: The U.S. refuses to be at peace

Here's the strange thing in an ever-stranger world: I was born in July 1944 in the midst of a devastating world war. That war ended in August 1945 with the atomic obliteration of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by the most devastating bombs in history up to that moment, given the sweet code names "Little Boy" and "Fat Man."

I was the littlest of boys at the time. More than three-quarters of a century has passed since, on September 2, 1945, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and General Yoshijiro Umezu signed the Instrument of Surrender on the battleship U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, officially ending World War II. That was V-J (for Victory over Japan) Day, but in a sense for me, my whole generation, and this country, war never really ended.

The United States has been at war, or at least in armed conflicts of various sorts, often in distant lands, for more or less my entire life. Yes, for some of those years, that war was "cold" (which often meant that such carnage, regularly sponsored by the CIA, happened largely off-screen and out of sight), but war as a way of life never really ended, not to this very moment.

In fact, as the decades went by, it would become the "infrastructure" in which Americans increasingly invested their tax dollars via aircraft carriers, trillion-dollar jet fighters, drones armed with Hellfire missiles, and the creation and maintenance of hundreds of military garrisons around the globe, rather than roads, bridges, or rail lines (no less the high-speed version of the same) here at home. During those same years, the Pentagon budget would grab an ever-larger percentage of federal discretionary spending and the full-scale annual investment in what has come to be known as the national security state would rise to a staggering $1.2 trillion or more.

In a sense, future V-J Days became inconceivable. There were no longer moments, even as wars ended, when some version of peace might descend and America's vast military contingents could, as at the end of World War II, be significantly demobilized. The closest equivalent was undoubtedly the moment when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the Cold War officially ended, and the Washington establishment declared itself globally triumphant. But of course, the promised "peace dividend" would never be paid out as the first Gulf War with Iraq occurred that very year and the serious downsizing of the U.S. military (and the CIA) never happened.

Never-Ending War

Consider it typical that, when President Biden recently announced the official ending of the nearly 20-year-old American conflict in Afghanistan with the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from that country by 9/11/21, it would functionally be paired with the news that the Pentagon budget was about to rise yet again from its record heights in the Trump years. "Only in America," as retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and historian William Astore wrote recently, "do wars end and war budgets go up."

Of course, even the ending of that never-ending Afghan War may prove exaggerated. In fact, let's consider Afghanistan apart from the rest of this country's war-making history for a moment. After all, if I had told you in 1978 that, of the 42 years to follow, the U.S. would be involved in war in a single country for 30 of them and asked you to identify it, I can guarantee that Afghanistan wouldn't have been your pick. And yet so it's been. From 1979 to 1989, there was the CIA-backed Islamist extremist war against the Soviet army there (to the tune of billions and billions of dollars). And yet the obvious lesson the Russians learned from that adventure, as their military limped home in defeat and the Soviet Union imploded not long after — that Afghanistan is indeed the "graveyard of empires" — clearly had no impact in Washington.

Or how do you explain the 19-plus years of warfare there that followed the 9/11 attacks, themselves committed by a small Islamist outfit, al-Qaeda, born as an American ally in that first Afghan War? Only recently, the invaluable Costs of War Project estimated that America's second Afghan War has cost this country almost $2.3 trillion (not including the price of lifetime care for its vets) and has left at least 241,000 people dead, including 2,442 American service members. In 1978, after the disaster of the Vietnam War, had I assured you that such a never-ending failure of a conflict was in our future, you would undoubtedly have laughed in my face.

And yet, three decades later, the U.S. military high command still seems not faintly to have grasped the lesson that we "taught" the Russians and then experienced ourselves. As a result, according to recent reports, they have uniformly opposed President Biden's decision to withdraw all American troops from that country by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In fact, it's not even clear that, by September 11, 2021, if the president's proposal goes according to plan, that war will have truly ended. After all, the same military commanders and intelligence chiefs seem intent on organizing long-distance versions of that conflict or, as the New York Times put it, are determined to "fight from afar" there. They are evidently even considering establishing new bases in neighboring lands to do so.

America's "forever wars" — once known as the Global War on Terror and, when the administration of George W. Bush launched it, proudly aimed at 60 countries — do seem to be slowly winding down. Unfortunately, other kinds of potential wars, especially new cold wars with China and Russia (involving new kinds of high-tech weaponry) only seem to be gearing up.

War in Our Time

In these years, one key to so much of this is the fact that, as the Vietnam War began winding down in 1973, the draft was ended and war itself became a "voluntary" activity for Americans. In other words, it became ever easier not only to not protest American war-making, but to pay no attention to it or to the changing military that went with it. And that military was indeed altering and growing in remarkable ways.

In the years that followed, for instance, the elite Green Berets of the Vietnam era would be incorporated into an ever more expansive set of Special Operations forces, up to 70,000 of them (larger, that is, than the armed forces of many countries). Those special operators would functionally become a second, more secretive American military embedded inside the larger force and largely freed from citizen oversight of any sort. In 2020, as Nick Turse reported, they would be stationed in a staggering 154 countries around the planet, often involved in semi-secret conflicts "in the shadows" that Americans would pay remarkably little attention to.

Since the Vietnam War, which roiled the politics of this nation and was protested in the streets of this country by an antiwar movement that came to include significant numbers of active-duty soldiers and veterans, war has played a remarkably recessive role in American life. Yes, there have been the endless thank-yous offered by citizens and corporations to "the troops." But that's where the attentiveness stops, while both political parties, year after endless year, remain remarkably supportive of a growing Pentagon budget and the industrial (that is, weapons-making) part of the military-industrial complex. War, American-style, may be forever, but — despite, for instance, the militarization of this country's police and the way in which those wars came home to the Capitol last January 6th — it remains a remarkably distant reality for most Americans.

One explanation: though the U.S. has, as I've said, been functionally at war since 1941, there were just two times when this country felt war directly — on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and on September 11, 2001, when 19 mostly Saudi hijackers in commercial jets struck New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

And yet, in another sense, war has been and remains us. Let's just consider some of that war-making for a moment. If you're of a certain age, you can certainly call to mind the big wars: Korea (1950-1953), Vietnam (1954-1975) — and don't forget the brutal bloodlettings in neighboring Laos and Cambodia as well — that first Gulf War of 1991, and the disastrous second one, the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Then, of course, there was that Global War on Terror that began soon after September 11, 2001, with the invasion of Afghanistan, only to spread to much of the rest of the Greater Middle East, and to significant parts of Africa. In March, for instance, the first 12 American special-ops trainers arrived in embattled Mozambique, just one more small extension of an already widespread American anti-Islamist terror role (now failing) across much of that continent.

And then, of course, there were the smaller conflicts (though not necessarily so to the people in the countries involved) that we've now generally forgotten about, the ones that I had to search my fading brain to recall. I mean, who today thinks much about President John F. Kennedy's April 1961 CIA disaster at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba; or President Lyndon Johnson's sending of 22,000 U.S. troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965 to "restore order"; or President Ronald Reagan's version of "aggressive self-defense" by U.S. Marines sent to Lebanon who, in October 1983, were attacked in their barracks by a suicide bomber, killing 241 of them; or the anti-Cuban invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada that same month in which 19 Americans were killed and 116 wounded?

And then, define and categorize them as you will, there were the CIA's endless militarized attempts (sometimes with the help of the U.S. military) to intervene in the affairs of other countries, ranging from taking the nationalist side against Mao Zedong's communist forces in China from 1945 to 1949 to stoking a small ongoing conflict in Tibet in the 1950s and early 1960s, and overthrowing the governments of Guatemala and Iran, among other places. There were an estimated 72 such interventions from 1947 to 1989, many warlike in nature. There were, for instance, the proxy conflicts in Central America, first in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas and then in El Salvador, bloody events even if few U.S. soldiers or CIA agents died in them. No, these were hardly "wars," as traditionally defined, not all of them, though they did sometimes involve military coups and the like, but they were generally carnage-producing in the countries they were in. And that only begins to suggest the range of this country's militarized interventions in the post-1945 era, as journalist William Blum's "A Brief History of Interventions" makes all too clear.

Whenever you look for the equivalent of a warless American moment, some reality trips you up. For instance, perhaps you had in mind the brief period between when the Red Army limped home in defeat from Afghanistan in 1989 and the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, that moment when Washington politicians, initially shocked that the Cold War had ended so unexpectedly, declared themselves triumphant on Planet Earth. That brief period might almost have passed for "peace," American-style, if the U.S. military under President George H. W. Bush hadn't, in fact, invaded Panama ("Operation Just Cause") as 1989 ended to get rid of its autocratic leader Manuel Noriega (a former CIA asset, by the way). Up to 3,000 Panamanians (including many civilians) died along with 23 American troops in that episode.

And then, of course, in January 1991 the First Gulf War began. It would result in perhaps 8,000 to 10,000 Iraqi deaths and "only" a few hundred deaths among the U.S.-led coalition of forces. Air strikes against Iraq would follow in the years to come. And let's not forget that even Europe wasn't exempt since, in 1999, during the presidency of Bill Clinton, the U.S. Air Force launched a destructive 10-week bombing campaign against the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.

And all of this remains a distinctly incomplete list, especially in this century when something like 200,000 U.S. troops have regularly been stationed abroad and U.S. Special Operations forces have deployed to staggering numbers of countries, while American drones regularly attacked "terrorists" in nation after nation and American presidents quite literally became assassins-in-chief. To this day, what scholar and former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson called an American "empire of bases" — a historically unprecedented 800 or more of them — across much of the planet remains untouched and, at any moment, there could be more to come from the country whose military budget at least equals those of the next 10 (yes, that's 10!) countries combined, including China and Russia.

A Timeline of Carnage

The last three-quarters of this somewhat truncated post-World War II American Century have, in effect, been a timeline of carnage, though few in this country would notice or acknowledge that. After all, since 1945, Americans have only once been "at war" at home, when almost 3,000 civilians died in an attack meant to provoke — well, something like the war on terror that also become a war of terror and a spreader of terror movements in our world.

As journalist William Arkin recently argued, the U.S. has created a permanent war state meant to facilitate "endless war." As he writes, at this very moment, our nation "is killing or bombing in perhaps 10 different countries," possibly more, and there's nothing remarkably out of the ordinary about that in our recent past.

The question that Americans seldom even think to ask is this: What if the U.S. were to begin to dismantle its empire of bases, repurpose so many of those militarized taxpayer dollars to our domestic needs, abandon this country's focus on permanent war, and forsake the Pentagon as our holy church? What if, even briefly, the wars, conflicts, plots, killings, drone assassinations, all of it stopped?

What would our world actually be like if you simply declared peace and came home?

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the 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.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

The United States as a mass-killing machine

By the time you read this piece, it will already be out of date. The reason's simple enough. No matter what mayhem I describe, with so much all-American weaponry in this world of ours, there's no way to keep up. Often, despite the headlines that go with mass killings here, there's almost no way even to know.

On this planet of ours, America is the emperor of weaponry, even if in ways we normally tend not to put together. There's really no question about it. The all-American powers-that-be and the arms makers that go with them dream up, produce, and sell weaponry, domestically and internationally, in an unmatched fashion. You'll undoubtedly be shocked, shocked to learn that the top five arms makers on the planet — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics — are all located in the United States.

Put another way, we're a killer nation, a mass-murder machine, slaughter central. And as we've known since the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, there could be far worse to come. After all, in the overheated dreams of both those weapons makers and Pentagon planners, slaughter-to-be has long been imagined on a planetary scale, right down to the latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) being created by Northrop Grumman at the cost of at least $100 billion. Each of those future arms of ultimate destruction is slated to be "the length of a bowling lane" and the nuclear charge that it carries will be at least 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. That missile will someday be capable of traveling 6,000 miles and killing hundreds of thousands of people each. (And the Air Force is planning to order 600 of them.)

By the end of this decade, that new ICBM is slated to join an unequaled American nuclear arsenal of — at this moment — 3,800 warheads. And with that in mind, let's back up a moment.

Have Gun — Will Travel

Before we head abroad or think more about weaponry fit to destroy the planet (or at least human life on it), let's just start right here at home. After all, we live in a country whose citizens are armed to their all-too-labile fingertips with more guns of every advanced sort than might once have been imaginable. The figures are stunning. Even before the pandemic hit and gun purchases soared to record levels — about 23 million of them (a 64% increase over 2019 sales) — American civilians were reported to possess almost 400 million firearms. That adds up to about 40% of all such weaponry in the hands of civilians globally, or more than the next 25 countries combined.

And if that doesn't stagger you, note that the versions of those weapons in public hands are becoming ever more militarized and powerful, ever more AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, not .22s. And keep in mind as well that, over the years, the death toll from those weapons in this country has grown staggeringly large. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote recently, "More Americans have died from guns just since 1975, including suicides, murders and accidents (more than 1.5 million), than in all the wars in United States history, dating back to the Revolutionary War (about 1.4 million)."

In my childhood, one of my favorite TV programs was called Have Gun — Will Travel. Its central character was a highly romanticized armed mercenary in the Old West and its theme song — still lodged in my head (where so much else is unlodging these days) — began:

"Have gun will travel is the card of a man.
A knight without armor in a savage land.
His fast gun for hire heeds the calling wind.
A soldier of fortune is the man called Paladin."

Staggering numbers of Americans are now ever grimmer versions of Paladin. Thanks to a largely unregulated gun industry, they're armed like no other citizenry on the planet, not even — in a distant second place — the civilians of Yemen, a country torn by endless war. That TV show's title could now be slapped on our whole culture, whether we're talking about our modern-day Paladins traveling to a set of Atlanta spas; a chain grocery store in Boulder, Colorado; a real-estate office in Orange, California; a convenience store near Baltimore; or a home in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Remember how the National Rifle Association has always defended the right of Americans to own weapons at least in part by citing this country's hunting tradition? Well, these days, startling numbers of Americans, armed to the teeth, have joined that hunting crew. Their game of choice isn't deer or even wolves and grizzly bears, but that ultimate prey, other human beings — and all too often themselves. (In 2020, not only did a record nearly 20,000 Americans die from gun violence, but another 24,000 used guns to commit suicide.)

As the rate of Covid-19 vaccination began to rise to remarkable levels in this country and ever more public places reopened, the first mass public killings (defined as four or more deaths in a public place) of the pandemic period — in Atlanta and Boulder — hit the news big-time. The thought, however, that the American urge to use weapons in a murderous fashion had in any way lessened or been laid to rest, even briefly, thanks to Covid-19, proved a fantasy of the first order.

At a time when so many public places like schools were closed or their use limited indeed, if you took as your measuring point not mass public killings but mass shootings (defined as four or more people wounded or killed), the pandemic year of 2020 proved to be a record 12 months of armed chaos. In fact, such mass shootings actually surged by 47%. As USA Today recounted, "In 2020, the United States reported 611 mass shooting events that resulted in 513 deaths and 2,543 injuries. In 2019, there were 417 mass shootings with 465 deaths and 1,707 injured." In addition, in that same year, according to projections based on FBI data, there were 4,000 to 5,000 more gun murders than usual, mainly in inner-city communities of color.

In the first 73 days of Joe Biden's presidency, there were five mass shootings and more than 10,000 gun-violence deaths. In the Covid-19 era, this has been the model the world's "most exceptional" nation (as American politicians of both parties used to love to call this country) has set for the rest of the planet. Put another way, so far in 2020 and 2021, there have been two pandemics in America, Covid-19 and guns.

And though the weaponization of our citizenry and the carnage that's gone with it certainly gets attention — President Biden only recently called it "an international embarrassment" — here's the strange thing: when reporting on such a binge of killings and the weapons industry that stokes it, few here think to include the deaths and other injuries for which the American military has been responsible via its "forever wars" of this century outside our own borders. Nor do they consider the massive U.S. weapons deliveries and sales to other countries that often enough lead to the same. In other words, a full picture of all-American carnage has — to use an apt phrase — remained missing in action.

Cornering the Arms Market

In fact, internationally, things are hardly less mind-boggling when it comes to this country and weaponry. As with its armed citizenry, when it comes to arming other countries, Washington is without peer. It's the weapons dealer of choice across much of the world. Yes, the U.S. gun industry that makes all those rifles for this country also sells plenty of them abroad and, in the Trump years, such sales were only made easier to complete (as was the selling of U.S. unmanned aerial drones to "less stable governments"). When it comes to semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 or even grenades and flamethrowers, this country's arms makers no longer even need State Department licenses, just far easier-to-get Commerce Department ones, to complete such sales, even to particularly abusive nations. As a result, to take one example, semi-automatic pistol exports abroad rose 148% in 2020.

But what I'm particularly thinking about here are the big-ticket items that those five leading weapons makers of the military-industrial complex eternally produce. On the subject of the sale of jet fighters like the F-16 and F-35, tanks and other armored vehicles, submarines (as well as anti-submarine weaponry), and devastating bombs and missiles, among other things, we leave our "near-peer" competitors as well as our weapons-making allies in the dust. Washington is the largest supplier to 20 of the 40 major arms importers on the planet.

When it comes to delivering the weapons of war, the U.S. leads all its competitors in a historic fashion, especially in the war-torn and devastated Middle East. There, between 2015 and 2019, it gobbled up nearly half of the arms market. Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia was its largest customer, which, of course, only further stoked the brutal civil war in Yemen, where U.S. weapons are responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians. As Pentagon expert William Hartung wrote of those years, U.S. arms deliveries to the region added up to "nearly three times the arms Russia supplied to MENA [the Middle East and North Africa], five times what France contributed, 10 times what the United Kingdom exported, and 16 times China's contribution." (And often enough, as in Iraq and Yemen, some of those weapons end up falling into the hands of those the U.S. opposes.)

In fact, in 2020, this country's arms sales abroad rose a further 2.8% to $178 billion. The U.S. now supplies no fewer than 96 countries with weaponry and controls 37% of the global arms market (with, for example, Lockheed Martin alone taking in $47.2 billion in such sales in 2018, followed by the four other giant U.S. weapons makers and, in sixth place, the British defense firm BAE).

This remains the definition of mayhem-to-come, the international version of that spike in domestic arms sales and the killings that went with it. After all, in these years, deaths due to American arms in countries like Afghanistan and Yemen have grown strikingly. And to take just one more example, arms, ammunition, and equipment sold to or given to the brutal regime of Rodrigo Duterte for the Philippine military and constabulary have typically led to deaths (especially in its "war on drugs") that no one's counting up.

And yet, even combined with the dead here at home, all of this weapons-based slaughter hardly adds up to a full record when it comes to the U.S. as a global mass-killing machine.

Far, Far from Home

After all, this country has a historic 800 or so military bases around the world and nearly 200,000 military personnel stationed abroad (about 60,000 in the Middle East alone). It has a drone-assassination program that extends from Afghanistan across the Greater Middle East to Africa, a series of "forever wars" and associated conflicts fought over that same expanse, and a Navy with major aircraft carrier task forces patrolling the high seas. In other words, in this century, it's been responsible for largely uncounted but remarkable numbers of dead and wounded human beings. Or put another way, it's been a mass-shooting machine abroad.

Unlike in the United States, however, there's little way to offer figures on those dead. To take one example, Brown University's invaluable Costs of War Project has estimated that, from the beginning of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to late 2019, 801,000 people, perhaps 40% of them civilians, were killed in Washington's war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. Of course, not all of those by any means were killed by the U.S. military. In fact, some were even American soldiers and contractors. Still, the figures are obviously sizeable. (To take but one very focused example, from December 2001 to December 2013 at TomDispatch, I was counting up civilian wedding parties taken down by U.S. air power in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. I came up with eight well-documented ones with a death toll of nearly 300, including brides, grooms, musicians, and revelers.)

Similarly, last December, Neta Crawford of the Costs of War Project released a report on the rising number of Afghan civilians who had died from U.S. air strikes in the Trump years. She found that in 2019, for instance, "airstrikes killed 700 civilians — more civilians than in any other year since the beginning of the war." Overall, the documented civilian dead from American air strikes in the war years is in the many thousands, the wounded higher yet. (And, of course, those figures don't include the dead from Afghan air strikes with U.S.-supplied aircraft.) And mind you, that's just civilians mistaken for Taliban or other enemy forces.

Similarly, thousands more civilians were killed by American air strikes across the rest of the Greater Middle East and northern Africa. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which followed U.S. drone strikes for years, estimated that, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, by 2019 such attacks had killed "between 8,500 and 12,000 people, including as many as 1,700 civilians — 400 of whom were children."

And that, of course, is just to begin to count the dead in America's conflicts of this era. Or thought of another way, in this century, the U.S. military has been a kind of global Paladin. Its motto could obviously be "have gun, will travel" and its forces and those allied to it (and often supplied with American arms) have certainly killed staggering numbers of people in conflicts that have devastated communities across a significant part of the planet, while displacing an estimated 37 million people.

Now, return to those Americans gunned down in this country and think of all of this as a single weaponized, well-woven fabric, a single American gun culture that spans the globe, as well as a three-part killing machine of the first order. Much as mass shootings and public killings can sometimes dominate the news here, a full sense of the damage done by the weaponization of our culture seldom comes into focus. When it does, the United States looks like slaughter central.

Or as that song from Have Gun — Will Travel ended:

Paladin, Paladin,
Where do you roam?
Paladin, Paladin,
Far, far from home.

Far, far from home — and close, close to home — indeed.

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the 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.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

America unmasked: Life in a wounded and wounding land

Here's one of the things I now do every morning. I go to the online Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and check out the figures there — global coronavirus cases and deaths, U.S. coronavirus cases and deaths. And I do so the way that, not so long ago, I would have opened the sports pages and checked out the latest scores of whatever New York team I was rooting for.

Where it was once a matter of the Knicks winning 109-92 or the Mets losing 4-2, it's now those other, always rising, ever grimmer figures — say, 29,607,486 and 538,087. Those are the ever-updated numbers of reported American cases and deaths in what, until the arrival of the Biden administration, was a pathetically chaotic, horrifically mismanaged, and politically depth-charged struggle with Covid-19. In certain Republican-run states now rushing to unmask and open anything and everything to the limit, in places where crowds gather as if nothing had truly happened in the past year (as at Florida beaches this spring), we may face yet another future "wave" of disease — the fourth wave, if it happens — in a country at least parts of which seem eternally eager to teeter at the edge of a health cliff. That it wouldn't have had to be this way we know from the success of the city of Seattle, which faced the first major coronavirus outbreak in this country a year ago and now has, as the New York Times reports, "the lowest death rate of the 20 largest metropolitan regions in the country."

Think of Covid-19-watching as the sport from hell. And when you look at those ever-changing figures — even knowing that vaccinations are now swiftly on the rise in this country (but not everywhere on this beleaguered planet of ours) — they should remind you daily that we live in a deeply wounded land on a deeply wounded planet and that, no matter the fate of Covid-19, it's only likely to get worse.

Here, for instance, is another figure to attend to, even though there's no equivalent to that Johns Hopkins page when it comes to this subject: 40%. That's the percentage of the human population living in tropical lands where, as this planet continues to heat toward or even past the 1.5-degree Fahrenheit mark set by the Paris climate accord, temperatures are going to soar beyond the limits of what a body (not carefully ensconced in air-conditioned surroundings) can actually tolerate. Climate change will, in other words, prove to be another kind of pandemic, even if, unlike Covid-19, it's not potentially traceable to bats or pangolins, but to us humans and specifically to the oil, gas, and coal companies that have over all these years powered what still passes for civilization.

In other words, just to take the American version of climate change, from raging wildfires to mega-droughts, increasing numbers of ever-more-powerful hurricanes to greater flooding, rising sea levels (and disappearing coastlines) to devastating heat waves (and even, as in Texas recently, climate-influenced freezes), not to speak of future migration surges guaranteed to make border crossing an even more fraught political issue, ahead lies a world that could someday make our present pandemic planet seem like a dreamscape. And here's the problem: at least with Covid-19, in a miracle of modern scientific research, vaccines galore have been developed to deal with that devastating virus, but sadly there will be no vaccines for climate change.

The Wounding of Planet Earth

Keep in mind as well that our country, the United States, is not only an especially wounded one when it comes to the pandemic; it's also a wounding one, both at home and abroad. The sports pages of death could easily be extended, for instance, to this country's distant wars, something Brown University's Costs of War Project has long tried to do. (That site is, in a sense, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center for America's grim, never-ending conflicts of the twenty-first century.)

Choose whatever post-9/11 figures you care to when it comes to our forever wars and they're all staggering: invasions and occupations of distant lands; global drone assassination campaigns; or the release of American air power across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa (most recently, the strike President Biden ordered in Syria that killed a mere "handful" of militia men — 22, claim some sources — a supposedly "proportionate" number that did not include any women or children, though it was a close call until the president canceled a second strike). And don't forget Washington's endless arming of, and support for, countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates engaged in their own orgies of death and destruction in Yemen. Pick whatever figures you want, but the wounding of this planet in this century by this country has been all too real and ongoing.

The numbers, in fact, remain staggering. As has been pointed out many times at TomDispatch, the money this country puts into its "defense" budget tops that of the next 10 countries (China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil) combined. And when it comes to selling weaponry of the most advanced and destructive kind globally, the U.S. leaves every other country in the dust. It's the arms dealer of all arms dealers on Planet Earth.

And if you happen to be in the mood to count up U.S. military bases, which are on every continent except Antarctica, this country garrisons the planet in a way no previous power, not even imperial Britain, did. It has an estimated 800 such bases, while, just for the sake of comparison, China, that other fearsome rising power the U.S. military is now so focused on, has… hmmm, at least one such base, in Djibouti, Africa (remarkably close — you won't be surprised to learn — to an American military base there). None of this really has much of anything to do with "national security," but it certainly adds up to a global geography of wounding in a rather literal fashion. In this sense, on this planet in this century, the United States has truly — to use a word American politicians have long loved to apply to this country — proven "exceptional."

America Unmasked

At home, too, until recently, American political leadership has been wounding indeed. Keep in mind that this was in a country in which one political party is now a vortex of conspiracy theories, bizarre beliefs, wild convictions, and truths that are obvious lies, a party nearly a third of whose members view the QAnon conspiracy theory favorably, 75% of whose members believe that Joe Biden lost the 2020 election, and 49% of whose male members have no intention of being vaccinated for Covid-19 (potentially denying the country "herd immunity").

And just to put all this in perspective, not a single Republican "statesman" offered a vote of support when Joe Biden's congressional radicals passed a (temporary) $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill, parts of which were aimed at alleviating this country's historic levels of inequality. After all, in the pandemic moment, while so many Americans found themselves jobless, homeless, and hungry, the country's billionaires made an extra 1.3 trillion dollars (a figure that should certainly fit somewhere on the sports pages of death). Never, not even in the Gilded Age, has inequality been quite so extreme or wounding in the country that still passes for the greatest on the planet.

For the first time in its history, in 2017, a self-proclaimed billionaire became president of the United States and, with the help of a Republican Congress, passed a tax cut that left the rich and corporations flooded with yet more money. Admittedly, he was a billionaire who had repeatedly bankrupted his own businesses, always jumping ship just in time with other people's money in hand (exactly as he would do after helping to pandemicize this country, once again with oodles of his followers' money in his pocket).

As for me, shocking as the assault on the Capitol was on January 6th, I never thought that the Senate should have convicted Donald Trump for that alone. My feeling was that the House should have impeached him and the Senate convicted him for the far more serious and direct crime of murder. After all, he was the one who played a crucial role in turning the pandemic into our very own set of mask wars (even as he called on his followers, long before January 6th, to "liberate" a state capital building).

The half-baked, dismissive way he would deal with the coronavirus, its importance, and what should be done to protect us from it — even before he got a serious case of it, was hospitalized, and returned to the White House, still infectious, to tear off his mask in full public view — would functionally represent acts of murder. In effect, he unmasked himself as the killer he was. (A study in the International Journal of Health Services suggests that by July 2020 his personal decision to turn masks into a political issue had already resulted in between 4,000 and 12,000 deaths.)

Now, throw in other Republican governors like Greg Abbott of Texas and Tate Reeves of Mississippi, who knowingly refused to declare mask mandates or cancelled them early, and you have a whole crew of murderers to add to those Johns Hopkins figures in a moment when the all-American sport is surely death.

A Genuinely Green Planet?

Admittedly, I don't myself have any friends who have died of Covid-19, although I have at least two, even more ancient than I am, one 91 in fact, who have been hospitalized for it, devastated by it, and then have slowly and at least partially recovered from it. As for myself, since I had the foresight to be 75 when Covid-19 first hit and am now heading for 77, I've had my two vaccine shots in a world in which, thanks again at least in part to Donald Trump and to a social-media universe filled with conspiracy theories and misinformation, far too many Americans — one-third of mostly young military personnel, for instance! — are shying away from or refusing what could save us all.

So, we've been plunged into a nightmare comparable to those that have, in the past, been visited on humanity, including the Black Death and the Spanish Flu, made worse by leaders evidently intent on shuffling us directly into the graveyard. And yet, that could, in the end, prove the least of our problems. We could, as Joe Biden has only recently more or less promised, be heading for a future in which Covid-19 will be truly under control or becomes, at worst, the equivalent of the yearly flu.

Let's hope that's the case. Now, consider this: the one favor Covid-19 seemed to be doing for humanity by shutting so many of us in, keeping airlines passengers on the ground, taking vehicles off the road and even, for a while, ships off the high seas, was cutting down on the use of oil, coal, and natural gas and so greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere. In the year of Covid-19, carbon emissions dropped significantly. In December 2020, however, as various global economies like China's began to rev back up, those emissions were already reportedly a shocking 2% higher than they had been in December 2019 before the pandemic swept across the world.

In short, most of what might make it onto the sports pages of death these days may turn out to be the least of humanity's problems. After all, according to a new report, thanks in significant part to human activities, even the Amazon rain forest, once one of the great carbon sinks on the planet, is now releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than it's absorbing. And that should be a shock.

If you want to be further depressed, try this: on our planet, there are now two great greenhouse gas emitters, the United States (historically at the top of the charts) and China (number one at this moment). Given what lies ahead, here's a simple enough formula: if China and the United States can't cooperate in a truly meaningful way when it comes to climate change, we're in trouble deep. And yet the Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, remains remarkably focused on hostility to China and a military response to that country, an approach that someday is guaranteed to seem so out of touch as to be unbelievable.

Climate change will, over the coming decades, prove increasingly devastating to our lives. It could, in a sense, prove to be the pandemic of all the ages. And yet, here's the sad and obvious thing: the world doesn't have to be this way. It's true that there are no vaccinations against climate change, but we humans already know perfectly well what has to be done. We know that we need to create a genuinely green and green-powered planet to bring this version of a pandemic under control and we know as well that, over the next decades, it's a perfectly doable task if only humanity truly sets its mind to it.

Otherwise, we're going to find ourselves on an increasingly extreme planet, while the sports pages of death will only grow. If we're not careful, human history could, in the end, turn out to be the ultimate ghost story.

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the 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.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

The United States is visibly in an early stage of disintegration

Like Gregor Samsa, the never-to-be-forgotten character in Franz Kafka's story "The Metamorphosis," we awoke on January 7th to discover that we, too, were "a giant insect" with "a domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments" and numerous "pitifully thin" legs that "waved helplessly" before our eyes. If you prefer, though, you can just say it: we opened our eyes and found that, somehow, we had become a giant roach of a country.

Yes, I know, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are now in charge and waving their own little limbs wildly, trying to do some of what needs to be done for this sad land of the disturbed, over-armed, sick, and dying. But anyone who watched the scenes of Floridians celebrating a Super Bowl victory, largely unmasked and cheering, shoulder to shoulder in the streets of Tampa, can't help but realize that we are now indeed a roach nation, the still-wealthiest, most pandemically unmasked one on Planet Earth.

But don't just blame Donald Trump. Admittedly, we've just passed through the Senate trial and acquittal of the largest political cockroach around. I'm talking about the president who, upon discovering that his vice president was in danger of being "executed" ("Hang Mike Pence!") and was being rushed out of the Senate as a mob bore down on him, promptly tweeted: "Mike Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution."

Just imagine. The veep who had — if you don't mind my mixing my creature metaphors here — toadied up to the president for four endless years was then given a functional death sentence by that same man. You can't fall much deeper into personal roachdom than that. My point here, though, is that our all-American version of roacherie was a long time in coming.

Or put another way: unimaginable as The Donald might have seemed when he descended that Trump Tower escalator in June 2015 to hail his future "great, great wall," denounce Mexican "rapists," and bid to make a whole country into his apprentices, he didn't end up in the Oval Office for no reason. He was the symptom, not the disease, though what a symptom he would prove to be — and when it came to diseases, what a nightmare beyond all imagining.

Let's face it, whether we fully grasp the fact or not, we now live in a system, as well as a country, that's visibly in an early stage of disintegration. And there lies a remarkable tale of history happening at warp speed, of how, in not quite three decades, the USS Enterprise of imperial powers was transformed into the USS Roach.

Once Upon a Time on Earth…

Return for a moment to 1991, almost two years after the Berlin Wall fell, when the Soviet Union finally imploded and the Cold War officially ended. Imagine that you had been able to show Americans then — especially the political class in Washington — that 13-minute video of Trump statements and tweets interlarded with mob actions in the Capitol that the Democratic House impeachment managers used in their opening salvo against the former president. Americans — just about any of us — would have thought we were watching the most absurd science fiction or perhaps the single least reality-based bit of black comedy imaginable.

In the thoroughly self-satisfied (if somewhat surprised) Washington of 1991, the triumphalist capital of "the last superpower," that video would have portrayed a president, an insurrectionary mob, and an endangered Congress no one could have imagined possible — not in another nearly 30 years, not in a century, not in any American future. Then again, if in 1991 you had tried to convince anyone in this country that a walking Ponzi scheme(r) like Donald Trump could become president, no less be impeached twice, you would have been laughed out of the room.

After all, this country had just become the ultimate superpower in history, the last one ever. Left alone on this planet, it had a military beyond compare and an economy that was the heartland of a globalized system and the envy of the world. The Earth was — or at least to the political class of that moment seemed to be — ours for the taking, but certainly not for the losing, not in any imaginable future. The question then wasn't keeping them out but keeping us in. No "big, fat, beautiful walls" were needed. After all, Russia was a wreck. China was still emerging economically from the hell of the Maoist years. Europe was dependent on the U.S. and, when it came to the rest of world, what else need be said?

This was an American planet, pure and simple.

In retrospect, consider the irony. There had been talk then about a post-Cold War "peace dividend." Who would have guessed, though, that dividends of any sort would increasingly go to the top 1% and that almost 30 years later this country would functionally be a plutocracy overseen until a month ago by a self-professed multibillionaire? Who would have imagined that the American version of a peace dividend would have been siphoned off by more billionaires than anyplace else on earth and that, in those same years, inequality would reach historic heights, while poverty and hunger only grew? Who woulda guessed that whatever peace dividend didn't go to the ultra-wealthy would go to an ever-larger national security state and the industrial complex of weapons makers that surrounded it? Who woulda guessed that, in official post-Cold War Washington, peace would turn out to be the last thing on anyone's mind, even though this country seemed almost disarmingly enemy-less? (Remember when the worst imaginable combination of enemies, a dreaded "axis of evil," would prove to be Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, all embattled, distinctly tertiary powers?)Who woulda guessed that a military considered beyond compare (and funded to this day like no other) would proceed to fight war after war, literally decades of conflict, and yet — except for the quasi-triumph of the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein's Iraq — achieve victory in none of them? Staggering trillions of taxpayer dollars would be spent on them, while those billionaires were given untold tax breaks. Honestly, who would have guessed then that, on a planet lacking significant enemies, Washington, even six presidents later, would prove incapable of stopping fighting?

Who woulda guessed that, in September 2001, not Russia or Communist China, but a tiny group of Islamic militants led by a rich Saudi extremist the U.S. had once backed would send 19 (mostly Saudi) hijackers to directly attack the United States? They would, of course, cause death and mayhem, allowing President George W. Bush to launch an almost 20-year "global war on terror," which still shows no sign of ending. Who woulda guessed that, in the wake of those 9/11 terror attacks, the son of the man who had presided over the first Gulf War (but stopped short of felling Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein) and the top officials of his administration would come to believe that the world was his oyster and that the U.S. should dominate the Greater Middle East and possibly the planet in a way previously unimaginable? Who would have imagined that he would invade Iraq (having done the same in Afghanistan a year and a half earlier), effectively helping to spread Islamic extremism far and wide, while creating a never-ending disaster for this country?

Who woulda guessed that, in 2009, in the wake of a Great Recession at home, the next president, Barack Obama, would order a massive "surge" of forces into Afghanistan, a war already eight years old? Tens of thousands of new troops, not to speak of contractors, CIA operatives, and others would be sent there without faintly settling things.

By November 2016, when an antiquated electoral system gave the popular vote to Hillary Clinton but put Donald Trump, a man who promised to end this country's "endless wars" (he didn't) in the Oval Office, it should have been obvious that something was awry on the yellow brick road to imperial glory. By then, in fact, for a surprising number of Americans, this had become a land of grotesque inequality and lack of opportunity. And many of them would prove ready indeed to use their votes to send a message to the country about their desire to Trump that very reality.

From there, of course, with no Wizard of Oz in sight, it would be anything but a yellow brick road to January 6, 2021, when, the president having rejected the results of the 2020 election, a mob would storm the Capitol. All of it and the impeachment fiasco to follow would reveal the functional definition of a failing democracy, one in which the old rules no longer held.

Exiting the Superpower Stage of History

And, of course, I have yet to even mention the obvious — the still-unending nightmare that engulfed the country early in 2020 and that, I suspect, will someday be seen as the true ending point for a strikingly foreshortened American century. I'm thinking, of course, of Covid-19, the pandemic disease that swept the country, infecting tens of millions of Americans and killing hundreds of thousands in a fashion unmatched anywhere else on the planet. It would even for a time fell a president, while creating mayhem and ever more fierce division in unmasked parts of the country filled with civilians armed to the teeth, swept up in conspiracy theories, and at the edge of who knew what.

Call it a sign from the gods or anything you want, but call it startling. Imagine a disease that the last superpower handled so much more poorly than countries with remarkably fewer resources. Think of it as a kind of judgment, if not epitaph, on that very superpower.

Or put another way: not quite 30 years after the Soviet Union exited the stage of history, we're living in a land that was itself strangely intent on heading for that same exit — a crippled country led by a 78-year-old president, its system under startling pressure and evidently beginning to come apart at the seams. One of its political parties is unrecognizable; its presidency has been stripped of a fully functioning Congress and is increasingly imperial in nature; its economic system plutocratic; its military still struggling across significant parts of the planet, while a possible new cold war with a rising China is evidently on the horizon; and all of this on a planet that itself, even putting aside that global pandemic, is visibly in the deepest of trouble.

At the end of Franz Kafka's classic tale, Gregor Samsa, now a giant insect with a rotting apple embedded in its back, dies in roach hell, even if also in his very own room with his parents and sisters nearby. Is the same fate in store, after a fashion, for the American superpower?

In some sense, in the Trump and Covid-19 years, the United States has indeed been unmasked as a roach superpower on a planet going to — again, excuse the mixed animal metaphors — the dogs. The expected all-American age of power and glory hasn't been faintly what was imagined in 1991, not in a country that has shown remarkably few signs of coming to grips with what these years have truly meant.

Centuries after the modern imperial age began, it's evidently coming to an end in a hell that Joe Biden and crew won't be able to stop, even if, unlike the previous president, they're anything but intent on thoroughly despoiling this land. Still, Trump or Biden, at this point it couldn't be clearer that we need some new way of thinking about and being on this increasingly roach-infested planet of ours.

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the 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.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

The end of a pyromaniac's presidency

2021 has indeed begun and god knows what it has in store for us. But unless, somehow, we're surprised beyond imagining, The Donald is indeed going to leave the White House soon and, much as I hate to admit it, in some strange fashion we're going to miss him. Of course, it will be beyond a great relief to see his… well, let's just say him in the rearview mirror. While occupying the White House, he was, in a rather literal sense, hell on earth. Nonetheless, he was also a figure of remarkable fascination for anyone thinking about this country or that strangest of all species, humanity, and what we're capable of doing to ourselves.

So, here's my look back at our final Trumpian months (at least for a while). As I review the weeks just past, however, you may be surprised to learn that I'm not planning to start with the president's former national security adviser (of 23 days — "you're fired!") cum-convictee-cum-pardonee urging The Donald to declare martial law; nor will I review the president's endless tweets and fulminations about the "fraudulent" 2020 election or his increasing lame (duck!) assaults on all those he saw as deserting his visibly sinking Titanic, including Mitch McConnell ("the first one off the ship"); nor do I have the urge to focus on the conspiracy-mongress who captured the president's heart (or whatever's in that chest of his) with her claims about how "Venezuelan" votes did him in; nor even his doom-and-gloom "holiday" trip to Mar-a-Lago, including on Christmas Day his 309th presidential visit to a golf course; nor will I waste time on how the still-president of these increasingly dis-United States, while pardoning war criminals and pals (as well as random well-connected criminals), managed to ignore the rest of a country slipping into pandemic hell — cases rising, deaths spiraling, hospitals filling to the brim in a fashion unequaled on the planet — about which he visibly couldn't have cared less; nor will I focus on how, as Christmas arrived, he landed squarely on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's position of giving $2,000 checks to the American people and so for a few days became an honorary "socialist"; nor will I even spend time on his unique phone call for 11,780 votes in Georgia.

Instead, in this most downbeat of seasons, I'd like to begin with something more future-oriented, a little bit of December news you might have missed amid all the gloom and doom. So, just in case you didn't notice as 2020 ended in chaos and cacophony, as the president who couldn't take his eyes off a lost election sunk us ever deeper in his own version of the Washington swamp, there were two significantly more forward-looking figures in his circle. I'm thinking of his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner who plunked down $30 million on the most exclusive bit of real estate they could find in Florida, a small island with only 41 residences known among locals as the "billionaire's bunker."

They purchased a plot of land there on which they can assumedly build the most modest of multimillion-dollar mansions… but let the Hill describe it:

"The secluded spot sits on 1.8 acres and comes with 200 feet of waterfront and 'breathtaking sunset views.' A real estate listing dubs it an 'amazing parcel of land,' saying, 'This sprawling lot provides a rare opportunity to build your waterfront dream estate.' The listing boasts that the Miami island is 'one of the most exclusive and private neighborhoods in the world with its private country club and golf course, police force, and 24/7 armed boat patrol.'"

And better yet, though just off the coast of Miami, it's only 60 miles from what they may hope will be the alternate White House for the next four years, Mar-a-Lago.

The Future, Trump-Style

As far as I'm concerned, amid the year-ending chaos of the Trump presidency, nothing could have caught the essential spirit of the last four years better than that largely overlooked news story. Let's start at its end, so to speak. Instead of brooding nonstop about a lost election like you-know-who, Ivanka and Jared, both key presidential advisers, are instead going to pour millions of dollars into what might be thought of as a personal investment in the future on that island off the southern coast of Florida.

When it comes to the planet, this catches in a nutshell the essence of what's passed for long-term thinking in the Trump White House since January 2017. After all, the most notable thing about the southern coast of Florida, if you're in an investing (and lifestyle) mood, is this: as the world's sea levels rise (ever more precipitously, in fact) thanks to climate change, one of the most endangered places in the United States is that very coast. Flooding in the region has already been on the rise and significant parts of it could be underwater by 2050 with its inhabitants washed out of their homes well before that — and no personal police force or patrol boats will be able to protect Ivanka and Jared from that kind of global assault. Even Donald Trump, should he run and win again in 2024, won't be able to pardon them for that decision.

Put another way, the future of those two key Trump family members is a living example of what, in this world of ours, is usually called climate denialism; the "children," that is, have offered their own $30-million-plus encapsulation of the four-year environmental record of a 74-year-old president who couldn't imagine anyone's future except his own.

So, a climate-change endangered island? Why even bother to imagine such a future? In fact, the president made this point all too vividly when it came to Tangier Island, a 1.3-square-mile dot in the middle of Chesapeake Bay that global warming and erosion are imperiling and that is, indeed, expected to be gone by 2050. In 2017, the president called the mayor of its town (after CNN put out a story about the increasing problems of that Trump-loving isle). He assured him, as the mayor reported, that "we shouldn't worry about rising sea levels. He said that 'your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.'"

Though climate denialism is indeed the term normally used for this phenomenon, as a descriptor in the Trump years it fell desperately short of the mark. It's a far too-limited way of describing what the U.S. government has actually been doing. Withdrawing from the Paris climate accords, promoting oil exploration and drilling galore, and deep-sixing energy-related environmental regulations, Trump and his crew have not just been denying the obvious reality of climate change (as the West Coast burned in a historic fashion and the hurricane season ramped up dramatically in 2020), but criminally aiding and abetting the phenomenon in every way imaginable. They have, in fact, done their best to torch humanity's future. As I've written in these years, they rather literally transformed themselves into pyromaniacs even as they imagined unleashing, as the president proudly put it, "American energy dominance." The promotional phrase they used for their fossil-fuelized policies was "the golden era of American energy is now underway" — that golden glow assumedly being the flames licking at this overheating planet of ours.

IED-ing the American System

And of course, let's not forget that, for the president's daughter and son-in-law, dropping $30 million is just another day at the office. In that, they distinctly follow in the tradition of the bankruptee who has similarly dished out dough to his heart's content, while repeatedly leaving others holding the bag for his multiple business failures. (Undoubtedly, this is something the American people will experience when he finally jumps ship on January 20th, undoubtedly leaving the rest of us holding that very same bag.) Pardon me, but that $30 million dollars being plunked down on a snazzy plot of land — someday to be water — should remind us that we're talking about a crew who are already awash in both money (of every questionable sort) and, at least in the case of the president, staggering hundreds of millions of dollars in debts. It should remind us as well that we're dealing with families evidently filled with grifters and a now-pardoned criminal, too.

Make no mistake, from the moment Donald Trump walked into the White House, he was already this country's con-man-in-chief. Back when he was first running for president, this was no mystery to his ever-loyal "base," those tens of millions of voters who opted for him then and continue to stick by him no matter what. As I wrote in that distant 2016 election season,

"Americans love a con man. Historically, we've often admired, if not identified with, someone intent on playing and successfully beating the system, whether at a confidence game or through criminal activity. [At] the first presidential debate… Trump essentially admitted that, in some years, he paid no taxes ('that makes me smart') and that he had played the tax system for everything it was worth… I guarantee you that Trump senses he's deep in the Mississippi of American politics with such statements and that a surprising number of voters will admire him for it (whether they admit it or not). After all, he beat the system, even if they didn't."

And admire him they did and, as it happens, still do. He was elected on those very grounds and, despite his loss in 2020 (with a staggering 74 million voters still opting for him), a couple of weeks from now, he'll walk away from the White House with a final con that will leave him floating in a sea of money for months (years?) to come. Here's how New York Times reporters Shane Goldmacher and Maggie Haberman describe the situation:

"Donald J. Trump will exit the White House as a private citizen next month perched atop a pile of campaign cash unheard-of for an outgoing president, and with few legal limits on how he can spend it… Mr. Trump has cushioned the blow by coaxing huge sums of money from his loyal supporters — often under dubious pretenses — raising roughly $250 million since Election Day along with the national party. More than $60 million of that sum has gone to a new political action committee, according to people familiar with the matter, which Mr. Trump will control after he leaves office."

He was, in other words, in character from his first to last moment in office and, in his own way (just as his followers expected), he did beat the system, even if he faces years of potential prosecution to come.

Oh, and one more thing when it comes to The Donald. With a future Biden administration in mind, you might think of him not just as the con-man president but the Taliban president as well. After all, he's not only torn up but land-mined, or in Taliban terms IED-ed, both the federal government, including that "deep state" he's always denounced, and the American system of governing itself. ("This Fake Election can no longer stand…") And those improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, he and his crew have buried in that system, whether in terms of health care, the environment, or you name it are likely to go off at unexpected moments for months, if not years, to come.

So, when you say so long, farewell, aufwiedersehn, adieu to you-know-who, his children, and his pals, the odds are you won't ever be saying goodbye. Not really. Thanks to that $60 million-plus fund, that base of his, and all those landmines (many of which we don't even know are there yet), he'll be with us in one form (of disaster) or another for years to come — he, his children, and that island that, unfortunately, just won't sink fast enough.

Like it or not, after these last four years, whatever the Biden era may hold for us, Donald Trump proved a media heaven and a living hell. It's going to be quite a task in a world that needs so much else just to demine the American system after he leaves the White House (especially with Mitch McConnell and crew still in place). Count on one thing: we won't forget The Donald any time soon. And give him credit where it's due. There's no denying that, in just four years, he's helped usher us into a new American world that already couldn't be more overheated or underwhelming.

Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhardt

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the 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.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Partyland 2020: The Trumpists celebrate while the world burns

'Tis the season to be folly
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
Don(ald) we now our gay apparel,
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la!...

It's party time in the nation's capital and the Christmas spirit reigns supreme, even if the Texas Republican Party does want to secede from the Union. I mean, who doesn't?

And hey, don't you want to attend a party? After all, it'll be at the White House, masks purely optional, social distancing not particularly necessary. Too bad you already missed the Congressional Ball (redubbed the "Covid Ball") that The Donald and Melania so graciously hosted. Still, if you make it to one of the others, be sure to check out Melania's decorations, not to speak of her just-unveiled new White House tennis pavilion of which she should be proud, despite all the criticism. After all, unlike you-know-who, she used the moment to welcome non-Trumpian presidents to come! ("It is my hope that this private space will function as both a place of leisure and gathering for future first families.")

Meanwhile, even though more than 50 people in his circle have already been infected with Covid-19, her husband has been hosting up to 24 parties and celebrations of every sort at the White House this month. In other words, top-notch super-spreader Christmas fun until more or less the end of time. (If you're well over 65, like I am, it may quite literally be your last chance to have a blast.) And whatever you do, when you're freely wandering the White House, don't miss that tribute to essential workers in the Red Room!

If, however, you're of a slightly more serious frame of mind, how about cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at Mike Pompeo's State Department? Hurry it up because one thing is guaranteed: it's not going to be anywhere near as much fun in the Biden years. (I mean, so been-there, done-that, right?) And don't worry, since the State Department building has been deep-cleaned repeatedly due to reported Covid-19 infections there and pay no attention to the fact that State Department personnel are being urged to work from home. I guarantee you that it'll be a blast -- and I don't mean a bombing-Iran sort of blast either, though for all any of us knows, that might be in the works, too! After all, you could already have run into a bevy of foreign ambassadors and up to 900 guests (actually, fewer than 70 appeared) in rooms on the eighth floor of that building (but socially distanced, I swear) at gatherings that were supposed to go on until Christmas.

Whoa, rein in that sleigh, Santa! Sorry to disappoint, but Mike canceled his final superspreader party and went into quarantine last week after -- big shock! -- coming into contact with someone who had the coronavirus while hosting those "diplomats and dignitaries" at close quarters!

Deck the halls with boughs of folly indeed!

A Historical Switcheroo

And 2020! What a year to celebrate, right? The very year when Donald Trump won his second term as president in a landslide -- or am I confused? Did I mean lost the presidency in a landslide of pandemic deaths? Still, if in this "holiday" season, and in the true spirit of Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, I were to be offered the chance to remake the history of this century, here's the switcheroo I might choose to pull.

Let's start with this simple fact: on December 9th, more people died in a single day from Covid-19 (3,124) than died on September 11, 2001, in the ruins of the Twin Towers and part of the Pentagon (2,977). Or cumulatively speaking, think of it this way: more Americans have died in less than a year from the coronavirus than the 301,000 civilians that Brown University's Costs of War Project estimates have died in America's forever wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen since 2001.

Donald Trump's response to the pandemic has, of course, been to give awful advice, hold super-spreader rallies galore, and most recently host those ongoing, largely unmasked festivities at the White House; he has, that is, responded to the arrival of Covid-19 on our shores by committing murder big time. (Estimates are that, by February 2021, 450,000 Americans could be dead from the pandemic even as vaccines to prevent it begin to arrive. By the time this country is more or less safe -- if it ever truly is -- that number might be 600,000 (or almost in the range of the American toll in the "Spanish Flu" of 1918).

Now, to step back just a few years, consider the response of President George W. Bush to that one day of horrific death caused by 19 mostly Saudi hijackers aboard four commercial jets. In response to those 9/11 attacks, he launched what quickly became known as the Global War on Terror, promptly invaded Afghanistan, and a year and a half later did the same thing in Iraq. (That was, of course, something he and his top officials had begun thinking about -- quite literally, in the case of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- in the rubble of the Pentagon, even though that country's ruler, Saddam Hussein, had nothing whatsoever to do either with al-Qaeda or those terror attacks.) Of course, 19 years later, despite a president who swore he would end this country's "forever wars," the war on terror is still ongoing without a lasting victory or true success in sight.

Now, in this mad Trumpian Christmas season with increasing parts of the country in lockdown and Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths eternally rising into record-breaking territory, here's my fantasy proposition, my imagined historical switcheroo: What if, in response to 9/11, George W. Bush had, irresponsibly enough, simply thrown parties at the White House in high Trumpian-style; and what if, in response to the coronavirus crisis, Donald Trump had, responsibly enough, launched a global war on Covid-19 in true Bushian fashion? How differently history might have turned out.

The Blazing Fool Before Us

Instead, of course, Bush did launch those disastrous invasions and Trump did launch his own personal war on truth when it came to the pandemic (and so much else). The result, in both cases: crimes and deaths galore. Though it's seldom thought of that way, both of those twenty-first-century presidents of "ours" were, in a rather literal sense, mass murderers. In addition, thanks to the two of them and the cast of characters that accompanied them, we now live in a world of remarkable lies and self-delusion, whether we're talking about the U.S. military or our health and well-being.

After all, if you don't think this country is delusional when it comes to what still passes for "national security" consider this: just the other day, the Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who can evidently agree on so little else, passed a record veto-proof defense bill giving the Pentagon a staggering $740 billion dollars for the next fiscal year. (Talk about inequality in this country with so many Americans at the edge of eviction or even hunger and Congress doing next to nothing for them!) In fact, together they actually agreed to offer more money than the Pentagon even asked for when it came to purchasing new arms, including extra Lockheed Martin F-35 jet fighters, already the most expensive and possibly least effective warplanes in history. Meanwhile, across the planet, the weaponry into which all that "national security" money has been poured is still killing people, including startling numbers of civilians, in never-ending unsuccessful wars that have turned millions of people in distant countries into displaced persons and refugees.

Considering such funding to be for "national security" isn't just a joke, but a lie of the first order. It has, as a start, produced both global and national insecurity (while aiding the rise of what's now called right-wing populism). Those disastrous but disastrously well-funded wars launched by George W. Bush proved to be, above all else, acts of mass murder abroad, even as they also led to the deaths, injuries, or PTSD misery of significant numbers of Americans. Think of them, in fact, as, in the most literal sense imaginable, war crimes.

Of course, those acts of mass murder all took place in distant lands far from most American eyes, even as, in an ever more unequal society, they deprived so many here of needed assistance. In part, Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential campaign was a product of that mass murder abroad. And now, without ever actually ending those wars as he promised so vociferously, he's become a mass murderer at home in his own striking fashion. In this pandemic year, think of him, whether in relation to Covid-19 itself or the election that took place in its midst, as launching a kind of war on terror on both Americans and our political system.

In the process, he's helped create a world of staggering folly that should be eternally unmasked. (Whoops! Well, you know what I mean.) The America he's played such a part in producing has created a kind of mental chaos that's hard to take in. One nurse in unmasked South Dakota caught its sad spirit in this series of tweets:

"I have a night off from the hospital. As I'm on my couch with my dog I can't help but think of the Covid patients the last few days. The ones that stick out are those who still don't believe the virus is real. The ones who scream at you for a magic medicine and that Joe Biden is going to ruin the USA. All while gasping for breath on 100% Vapotherm. They tell you there must be another reason they are sick. They call you names and ask why you have to wear all that 'stuff' because they don't have Covid because it's not real... These people really think this isn't going to happen to them. And then they stop yelling at you when they get intubated. It's like a fucking horror movie that never ends. There's no credits that roll. You just go back and do it all over again."

She's right. No credits roll and yet the president and his men, as well as Republican governors like South Dakota's Kristi Noem who refuse to mandate masks are, in an obvious sense, aiding and abetting murders. Take, for instance, the president's lawyer, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani who traveled the country unmasked, ignoring social distancing guidelines wherever he went, to beat the post-election drums for Donald Trump. He then fell ill with Covid-19, was hospitalized, got special medications that most Americans could never receive thanks to his pal, and called into his own radio show from his hospital room to essentially denounce masking and social distancing and assure his listeners that Covid-19 was "curable." (Tell that to the more than 300,000 Americans who have already died from it.)

Now, don't such acts, multiplied many times over, qualify as part of what might be considered a homegrown war of (not on) terror in a world not of holly but folly this Christmas season? And I haven't even mentioned the crimes this president and his administration have committed against the environment or President Trump's criminal urge to torch the planet itself in a fashion that, given what we already know about climate change, will potentially result in so much more death, destruction, and displacement.

We live in a land of vast crimes against others and increasingly against ourselves. We also await a new president whose greatest ad line is simply that he is not Donald J. Trump (thank god!), though in all honesty that "new" has to be taken under advisement. Let's hope for the best, especially when it comes to climate change, but Joe Biden will, after all, be 78 years old -- by far the oldest president in our history -- on entering the Oval Office. He's the been-there, done-that man of our moment and, Obama appointee by Obama appointee, he seems largely intent on recreating a familiar past that helped create the very future we're now mired in.

As we await him in a country on edge, armed, angry, and in a conspiratorial frame of mind, as we face a Mitch McConnell Republican Party that would rather take down the future than negotiate much of anything, Donald Trump, the murderer, continues to prove himself the ultimate, possibly all-time, sore loser, even as he parties away at the White House. He gives a pandemic version of Christmas true meaning.

See the blazing fool before us,
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, 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.

Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhard

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