TomDispatch

We're all prisoners of war now

"POWs Never Have A Nice Day." That sentiment was captured on a button a friend of mine wore for our fourth grade class photo in 1972. That prisoners of war could never have such a day was reinforced by the sad face on that button. Soon after, American POWs would indeed be released by their North Vietnamese captors as the American war in Vietnam ended. They came home the next year to a much-hyped heroes' welcome orchestrated by the administration of President Richard Nixon, but the government would never actually retire its POW/MIA (missing-in-action) flags. Today, almost half a century later, they continue to fly at federal installations, including the U.S. Capitol as it was breached and briefly besieged last week by a mob incited by this country's lame-duck president, ostensibly to honor all U.S. veterans who were either POWs or never returned because their bodies were never recovered.

Remembering the sacrifices of our veterans is fitting and proper; it's why we set aside Memorial Day in May and Veterans Day in November. In thinking about those POWs and the dark legacy of this country's conflicts since World War II, however, I've come to a realization. In the ensuing years, we Americans have all, in some sene, become prisoners of war. We're all part of a culture that continues to esteem war, embrace militarism, and devote more than half of federal discretionary spending to wars, weaponry, and the militarization of American culture. We live in a country that leads the world in the export of murderous munitions to the grimmest, most violent hotspots on the planet, enabling, for example, a genocidal conflict in Yemen, among other conflicts.

True, in a draft-less country, few enough Americans actually don a military uniform these days. As 2021 begins, most of us have never carried a military identification card that mentions the Geneva Convention on the proper and legal treatment of POWs, as I did when I wore a uniform long ago. So, when I say that all Americans are essentially POWs, I'm obviously using that acronym not in a legal or formal way, but in the colloquial sense of being captured by some phenomenon, held by it, subjected to it in a fashion that tends to restrict, if not eliminate, freedom of thought and action and so compromises this country's belief in sacred individual liberties. In this colloquial sense, it seems to me that all Americans have in some fashion become prisoners of war, even those few "prisoners" among us who have worked so bravely and tirelessly to resist the phenomenon.

Ask yourself this question: During a deadly pandemic, as the American death toll approaches 400,000 while still accelerating, what unites "our" representatives in Congress? What is the only act that draws wide and fervent bipartisan support, not to speak of a unique override of a Trump presidential veto in these last four years? It certainly isn't providing health care for all or giving struggling families checks for $2,000 to ensure that food will be on American tables or that millions of us won't be evicted from our homes in the middle of a pandemic. No, what unites "our" representatives is funding the military-industrial complex to the tune of $740.5 billion in fiscal year 2021 (though the real amount spent on what passes for "national security" each year regularly exceeds a trillion dollars). Still, that figure of $740.5 billion in itself is already higher than the combined military spending of the next 10 countries, including Russia and China as well as U.S. allies like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Not only that, but Congress added language to the latest defense bill that effectively blocked efforts by President Trump before he leaves office on January 20th to mandate the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan (and some troops from Germany). Though it's doubtful he would have accomplished such goals anyway, given his irresolute nature, that Congress worked to block him tells you what you need to know about "our" representatives and their allegiance to the war complex.

That said, an irresolute Trump administration has been most resolute in just one area: selling advanced weaponry overseas. It's been rushing to export American-made bombs, missiles, and jets to the Middle East before turning over government efforts to shill for America's merchants of death to President Joe Biden and his crew of deskbound warriors.

Speaking of Biden, that he selected retired General Lloyd Austin III to be his secretary of defense sends the strongest possible signal of his own allegiance to the primacy of militarism and war in American culture. After all, upon retiring, General Austin promptly cashed in by joining the board of directors of United Technologies from which he received $1.4 million in "stock and other compensation" before it merged with giant weapons-maker Raytheon and he ended up on the board of that company. (He holds roughly $500,000 in Raytheon stock, a nice supplement to his six-figure yearly military pension.)

How better than selecting him as SecDef to ensure that the "military" and the "industrial" remain wedded in that famed complex? America's secretary of defense is, of course, supposed to be a civilian, someone who can exercise strong and independent oversight over America's ever-growing war complex, not a lifelong military officer and general to boot, as well as an obvious war profiteer.

War Is Peace

As Quincy Institute President Andrew Bacevich so aptly put it, "many Americans have made their peace with endless war." Within America's war culture, peace activists like Medea Benjamin and organizations like Veterans for Peace are seen as not just "radical," but genuinely aberrant. Meanwhile, an unquestioning acceptance of the fact that this country is now eternally at war across significant parts of the planet is considered normal, even respectable. Certainly, not something to put real time or thought into considering.

As a result, warmongers like former Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton are touted in some quarters as hard-headed realists. In seeing the world as a hostile place that Americans need to (but somehow, almost 20 years later, can't) dominate means their heads are screwed on straight, unlike those screwy thinkers who advocate for peace. But as Dorothy Day, the Catholic peace activist, once said: "Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system."

That Americans mostly refuse to see permanent war as filthy and rotten, or to think much about it or the "defense" budget that goes with it showcases the triumph of a broader war culture here. Whereas this country's profligate and prodigal military complex has given us stunning failure after stunning failure overseas (just consider all those disastrous efforts to win "hearts and minds" from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq and on and on), it has proved stunningly successful in winning — or at least taming — hearts and minds in the homeland. How else to explain the way those trillion-dollar-plus "national security" budgets are routinely rubber-stamped by Congress with hardly a murmur of protest?

In the twenty-first century, Americans are suffering a form of cognitive capture in which war has become the new normal. As an astute reader at my blog, Bracing Views, put it: "Our desire to live without war is held in a stockade, and every day that we wake up and walk out into the yard that understanding is being broken down by the powerful monied elites."

Perhaps you've noticed, in fact, how every president from George W. Bush in 2001 on has been proud to pose at some point as a "wartime" president. Perhaps you've noticed as well that this country can't or won't close Gitmo, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, flooded with prisoners from the global war on terror beginning late in 2001, men who will likely be imprisoned until death does us part.In America's collective stockade of the mind, activism for peace is an aberration, while acceptance of the war state is second nature. Small wonder that Biden's proposed cabinet and administration features so many neocon-style policymakers who made their peace with war, whether in Iraq and Afghanistan or Libya and Syria (Antony Blinken as secretary of state; Jake Sullivan as national security advisor; retired general Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense; and Avril Haines as director of national intelligence). Biden's hawkish picks avidly place their faith in U.S. military power. And they will be advising a new president, who once supported war in Iraq himself and talks not of reducing "defense" spending but of boosting it.

Perhaps this is why the U.S. government "tortured some folks," as President Obama put it in 2014, and abused Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. (Avril Haines, Biden's proposed national intelligence director, once helped suppress evidence of just such abuse and torture.) Perhaps this is why every president starting with George W. Bush has unapologetically smited evildoers around the world via robotic assassin drones. (Remember, the drone assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Suleimani at Baghdad International Airport by one Donald J. Trump?) Perhaps this is also why U.S. bombing never seems to stop and those wars never end, even when a president comes into office promising that they will. After all, it's so empowering to be a "wartime" president!

In his novel 1984, George Orwell put it simply enough when he coined the slogan "war is peace" for his fictional dystopian society. Randolph Bourne put it no less simply when, during World War I, he explained that "war is the health of the state." Rosa Brooks, who worked at the Pentagon, put it bluntly when she titled her 2016 book How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. What we have in America today is warfare as welfare, a form of man-made disaster capitalism, profitable for a few at the expense of the many.

Say it again: We are all POWs now.

The Time I Met a Real POW

In the early 1990s, when I was a young captain in the U.S. Air Force, I served as an escort officer for Brigadier General Robinson Risner. It's not too much to say that Risner is held in awe in the Air Force. A skilled fighter pilot and Korean War ace, he was a colonel and on the cover of Time magazine in 1965, just as the Vietnam War was ramping up, after which he was shot down and became a POW. He later wrote The Passing of the Night, a harrowing account of the seven years he spent as a prisoner in the "Hanoi Hilton," the sardonic name American POWs gave North Vietnam's Hoa Lo Prison.

What sustained Risner through torture and those years of captivity was his Christian faith and patriotism. I vividly recall a talk he gave at the Air Force Academy about his experiences and how that faith of his had sustained him. I've never heard a more vivid evocation of the spirit of duty, honor, and country sustained by faith in a higher power. I was proud to have a photo taken with General Risner, as we stood next to the trophy named after him and annually awarded to the top graduate of the Air Force's Weapons School, the AF's Top Gun, so to speak.

Risner was gracious and compelling, and I was humbled to meet a POW who'd endured and overcome as much as he had. Yet, back then (to be honest), I never gave a thought to his actions as a fighter pilot leading bombing missions during Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam. Since the U.S. government had chosen not to officially declare war against North Vietnam, whether his missions were even legal should have been open to question. Lacking such an official declaration, one could argue that Risner and U.S. POWs like him did not enjoy the legal protections of the Geneva Convention. Using American terminology today, Risner might then have been termed an "enemy combatant" to be held indefinitely, as the U.S. today holds captives at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, POWs who have little hope of ever being released.

To your average American captured by U.S. war culture, objections here are easy. Of course, Risner's bombing missions were legal. Of course, he deserved to be recognized as a POW and treated decently. America never goes to war without righteous cause, in this case the containment of Communism by any means short of nuclear weapons. The North Vietnamese saw it differently, however, perhaps because it was they who were being bludgeoned and flattened by U.S. military power.

My point is neither to praise Risner nor to bury him. Rather, it's to bury war and the culture that breeds and then feeds on it. The more Americans facilitate war (largely by ignoring it and so giving it our tacit approval), the more Washington funds it, the more other people die because of "our" wars and "our" weaponry, the more this country becomes a POW nation writ large.

My Friend's Button Again

Remember my friend's button, the one that insisted POWs never have a nice day? As a POW nation writ large, it should apply to all of us. America won't have a nice day again until it extricates itself from war in all its manifestations. There will be no nice day until Congress stops funding munitions makers and starts seeking peace and helping the sick and poor. There will be no nice day until Americans hate war with all the passion now saved for "patriotic" flag waving. There will be no nice day until presidents bless peacemakers instead of beseeching God to protect the troops.

So, the next time you see a POW/MIA flag outside a federal building, don't dismiss it as a relic of America's past. Think about its meaning and relevance in an era of constant global warfare and colossal military spending. Then, if you dare, ask yourself if you, too, are a POW of sorts — not in the strictly legal sense that applies to formal militaries in declared wars, but in the sense of this country being captured by war in all its death, destruction, and despair. And then ask yourself, what does America have to do, collectively, to break out of the POW camp in which it's imprisoned itself?

Upon that question hinges the future of the American republic.

Copyright 2021 William J. Astore

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

Billionaires, markets, and the ugly essence of the United States in 2021

Sometimes things only make sense when seen through a magnifying lens. As it happens, I'm thinking about reality, the very American and global reality clearly repeating itself as 2021 begins.

We all know, of course, that we're living through a once-in-a-century-style pandemic; that millions of people have lost their jobs, a portion of which will never return; that the poorest among us, who can withstand such acute economic hardship the least, have been slammed the hardest; and that the global economy has been kneecapped, thanks to a battery of lockdowns, shutdowns, restrictions of various sorts, and health-related concerns. More sobering than all of this: more than 360,000 Americans (and counting) have already lost their lives as a result of Covid-19 with, according to public health experts, far more to come.

And yet, as if in some galaxy far, far away, there also turns out to be another, so much more upbeat side to this equation. As Covid-19 grew ever worse while 2020 ended, the stock market reached heights that hadn't been seen before. Ever.

Meanwhile, again in the thoroughly cheery news column, banks in 2021 will be able to resume their march toward billions of dollars in share buybacks, courtesy of the Federal Reserve opting to support such a bank-and-stock-market stimulus. The Fed's green light for this activity on December 18th will allow mega-banks to return to those share buybacks (which constitute 70% of the capital payout that they provide shareholders). In June 2020, the Fed had banned the practice ostensibly to help them better navigate risks caused by the pandemic.

Those very financial institutions can now pour money into purchasing their own stocks again rather than, say, into loans to struggling small businesses endangered by pandemic-instigated economic disaster. As soon as Wall Street got the good news from the Fed as 2020 ended, JPMorgan Chase, the nation's biggest bank, wasted no time in announcing its intent to buy a staggering $30 billion of its own shares in the new year. And as if by magic, those shares leapt 5% that very day. Other mega-banks followed suit, as did their share prices.

Now, for reasons you'll soon understand, take a little trip back in history with me to the eve of Halloween, 1938, when Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre dramatized his adaptation of H.G. Wells' 1898 sci-fi-meets-dystopia-meets-imperialism novel, The War of the Worlds, on the radio. As Martians "invaded" New Jersey (it had been London in the novel) with mayhem in mind, panic evidently ensued among some radio listeners who thought they were hearing perfectly real reports about an alien invasion of Planet Earth. Later accounts suggest that the media blew that reaction out of proportion ("fake news," 1938-style?), yet people who tuned in late and missed the set-up about the fictitious nature of the program did indeed panic.

And it's not hard to understand why they might have done so at that moment. There had already been surprises galore. The world, after all, had barely recovered from the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed. It was also still reeling from the fiery Hindenburg disaster of 1937 in which a German airship blew up in New Jersey, as well as from the escalation of tensions and hostilities in both Asia and Europe that would lead to World War II. Perhaps people already equated or conflated the Martian invasion on the radio with fantasies about a potential German invasion of this country. In some papers, after all, reports on the reaction to Welles's performance were set right next to news of war clouds brewing in Europe and Asia. With or without Welles, people were on edge.

Whatever the case, fear has been both a great motivator and an anxiety provoker when it comes to the media, whether in 1938 or today. At the moment, the focus is on economic and health-related fears in all-too-ample supply. It is also on the disconnect that exists between the real economic world that most of us live in and turbo-boosted stock markets. These distorted markets are the result of wealth inequality that once would have been unimaginable in this country. In a way, economically speaking, you might say that today we're suffering the equivalent of an invasion from Mars.

From the Financial Crisis to the Pandemic

It's not hard these days to imagine the chaos people would feel if their lives or livelihoods were threatened by an external, uncontrollable force like those Martians. After all, we're in a pandemic age in which the gaps between the rich, the poor, and the middle class are being reinforced in endlessly stunning ways, a world in which some people have the means to remain remarkably safe, secure, and alive, while others have no means at all.

Covid-19 is not, of course, from Mars or sent by aliens, but in terms of its impact, it's as if it were. And the pandemic is, in the end, only exacerbating, sometimes in radical ways, problems that already were bad enough, particularly economic inequality.

Remember that, long before Covid-19 hit, the financial crisis of 2008 was met by a multi-trillion-dollar Wall Street bailout. At the same time, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to zero, while purchasing U.S. Treasury and mortgage bonds from the very banks that had sparked the disaster. Its own assets then rose from $870 billion to $4.5 trillion between August 2007 and August 2015. On the other hand, the U.S. economy never quite reached a growth level of, on average, more than 2% annually in the years after that near collapse, even as the stock market regained all its losses and so much more. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, aided by an ultra-loose monetary policy, steadily rose from a financial-crisis low of 6,926 on March 5, 2009 to 27,090 by March 4, 2020, which was when Covid-19 briefly trashed its rally.

However, within a month of the market dip that followed widespread shutdowns, its climb was refortified by similar but larger maneuvers, as Federal Reserve policy was once again deployed to save the rich under the auspices of saving the economy. Rally 2.0 took the Dow to a new record of 30,606.48 as 2020 closed.

On the other side of reality, I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that, according to recent Federal Reserve reports, the U.S. wealth gap continued to widen dramatically as economic inequality increased yet again in 2020 thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. That's because the health and economic devastation it inflicted affected low-wage service workers, low-income earners, and people of color so much more than the upper-middle class and elite upper class.

Meanwhile, as 2020 ended, the richest 10% of Americans owned more than 88% of the outstanding shares of companies and mutual funds in the U.S. The top 1% also controlled more than 88 times the wealth of the bottom 50% of Americans. Simply put, the less you had, the less you could afford to lose any of it. Indeed, the combined net worth of the top 1% of Americans was $34.2 trillion (about one-third of all U.S. household wealth), while the total for the bottom half was $2.1 trillion (or 1.9% of that wealth).

And yet, American billionaires scored monumentally during the pandemic, due particularly to their lofty position in the stock market. The planet's 2,200 or so billionaires got wealthier by $1.9 trillion in 2020 alone and were worth about $11.4 trillion in mid-December 2020 (up from $9.5 trillion a year earlier). Twenty-first-century tycoons like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos raked it in specifically because of all the money pouring into shares of their stock. Even bipartisan congressional stimulus measures meant for necessary relief turned into a chance to elevate fortunes at the highest echelons of society.

If you want to grasp inequality in the pandemic moment, consider this: while the market soared, more than 25.5 million Americans were the recipients of federal unemployment benefits. The S&P 500 stock market index added a total of $14 trillion in market value in 2020. In essentially another universe, the number of people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and didn't regain them was about 10 million. And that figure doesn't even count people who can't go to work because they have to take care of others, their workplace is restricted, or they're home-schooling their kids.

The Martians and the Inequality Gap

In The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells evokes a species — humanity — rendered helpless in the face of a force greater than itself and beyond its control. His depiction of the grim relationship between the Martians and the humans they were suppressing (meant to remind readers of the relationship between British imperialists and those they suppressed in distant lands) cast an eerie light on the power and wealth gap in Great Britain and around the world at the turn of the twentieth century.

The book was written in the Gilded Age, when rapid economic growth, particularly in the United States, bred a new class of "robber barons." Like the twenty-first-century version of such beings, they, too, made money from their money, while the economic status of workers slipped ever lower. It was an early version of a zero-sum game in which the spoils of the system were increasingly beyond the reach of so many. Those at the top ferociously accumulated wealth, while the majority of the rest of the population barely got by or drowned.

A crisis of inequality had been sparked by the Industrial Revolution itself, which started in England and then crossed the Atlantic. By the late nineteenth century, America's "robber barons" were insanely wealthy. As economist Thomas Piketty wrote, there was a steeper increase in wealth inequality during the Gilded Age than ever before in American history. In 1810, the top 1% of Americans held 25% of the country's total wealth; between 1870 and 1910 that share leapt to 45%.

Today, the top 1% of Americans possess more wealth than the whole of the middle class, a phenomenon first true in 2010 and still the reality of our moment. By 2018, about 75% of the $113 trillion in aggregate U.S. household assets were financial ones; that is, tied up in stocks, ETF's, 401Ks, IRAs, mutual funds, and similar investments. The majority of nonfinancial assets in that mix was in real estate.

Its ultra-loose policies made it cheaper to borrow money, but not as attractive to invest it in low-interest-rate, less risky securities like Treasury bonds. As a result, the Fed incentivized those with extra money to grow it through quicker, often riskier investments in the stock market or real estate. By 2020, there were bidding wars for suburban houses by urbanites seeking refuge from coronavirus-stricken cities with all-cash offers, something beyond the reach of most traditional buyers.Even before the pandemic, only the richest 20% of American households had recovered fully (or, in the case of the truly wealthy, more than fully) from the financial crisis. That's mostly because since that crisis, fewer households had participated in the stock market or owned real estate and so had no chance to capitalize on increases in the values of either.

Much of the appreciation in stock market and real-estate values has been directly or indirectly related to the Fed's actions. By the end of December 2020, its balance sheet had increased by $3.164 trillion, reaching a total of $7.35 trillion, 63% more than its book at the height of the decade following the 2008 disaster.

Though Congress passed two much-needed Covid-related stimulus packages that extended unemployment benefits, while offering two one-off payments and a Paycheck Protection Program support for smaller businesses, the impact of those acts paled in comparison to the tax breaks and power of investment the stock market provided the well-off and corporate kingpins.

While markets leapt to record highs, poverty in the United States also rose last year from 9.3% in June to 11.7% in November 2020. That added nearly eight million Americans to the ranks of the poor, even as America's 659 billionaires held double the wealth of the 165 million poorest Americans.

The Martians Are Here

The gap between incoming and outgoing federal funds rose, too. The U.S. deficit increased by $3.3 trillion during 2020. The size of the public debt issued by the Treasury Department reached $27.5 trillion. Total federal revenue was $3.45 trillion, while the corporate tax part of that was just $221 billion, or a paltry 6.4%. What that means is that in an ever more unequal America, 93.6% of the money flowing into the government's till comes from individuals, not corporations.

And though many larger and mid-size corporations filed for bankruptcy protection due to coronavirus related shutdowns, the brunt of absolute closures hit smaller local businesses — from restaurants to hair salons to health-and-wellness shops — much harder, only exacerbating economic disparity at the community level.

In other words, the real problem when it comes to inequality isn't the total amount of taxes received versus money spent in a time of crisis, but the composition of federal revenue that's wildly out of whack (something the pandemic has only made worse). Take the defense sector, for example. The U.S. government doled out $738 billion to the Pentagon for fiscal year 2020. The contracts to defense-related private companies in the last year for which data was available, fiscal year 2018, totaled roughly 62% of a full defense budget of $579 billion, or $358 billion. Now imagine this: that amount alone dwarfed the total of all corporate taxes flowing into the U.S. Treasury in 2019.

Inequality is about the disparity between people and countries with respect to income, wealth, or power. The more that corporations keep relative to their bottom line when compared with ordinary citizens, the more the stock market rises relative to the real economy. The more that individuals, rather than corporations, shoulder the burden of tax revenues, the greater the inherent inequality in society. The more that financial assets appreciate on money seeking to multiply itself in the quickest way possible (think of it as like a virus), the greater the distortion created.

The Fed can focus on its inflation-versus-full-employment dual-mandate all it wants, while pushing policies that distort the value of the real economy compared to financial assets. But the reality is that the more those Fed-inflated assets grow relative to real ones, the greater the inequality gap. That's plain math and it's the ugly essence of the United States of America as 2021 begins.

The market doesn't care about politics. It's a creature that acts in accordance with the goals of its largest participants. The real economy, on the other hand, requires far more effort — planning, prioritizing, and executing programs and projects that can produce tangible profits. We're a long way from a world that puts investment in the real economy ahead of those soaring financial markets. That gap, in fact, might as well be like the distance between Earth and Mars. In the midst of a pandemic, as billionaires only grow richer and the markets soar, can there be any question that we're experiencing a Martian invasion?

Copyright 2020 Nomi Prins

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.

Nomi Prins, a former Wall Street executive, is a TomDispatch regular. Her latest book is Collusion: How Central Bankers Rigged the World (Bold Type Books). She is currently working on her new book, Permanent Distortion (Public Affairs). She is also the author of All the Presidents' Bankers: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power and five other books. Special thanks to Craig Wilson for his superb research on this piece.

Why Trump will leave Biden with a unique opportunity to close the door on 20 years of war

"This is a different kind of war, which we will wage aggressively and methodically to disrupt and destroy terrorist activity," President George W. Bush announced a little more than two weeks after the 9/11 attacks. "Some victories will be won outside of public view, in tragedies avoided and threats eliminated. Other victories will be clear to all."

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the war on terror, including America's undeclared conflict in Afghanistan. After that war's original moniker, Operation Infinite Justice, was nixed for offending Muslim sensibilities, the Pentagon rebranded it Operation Enduring Freedom. Despite neither a clear victory, nor the slightest evidence that enduring freedom had ever been imposed on that country, "U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan ended," according to the Defense Department, in 2014. In reality, that combat simply continued under a new name, Operation Freedom's Sentinel, and grinds on to this very day.

Like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and Freedom's Sentinel failed to live up to their names. Nor did any of the monikers slapped on America's post-9/11 wars ever catch the public imagination; the battlefields spread from Afghanistan and Iraq to Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, Libya, Syria, Niger, Burkina Faso, and beyond — at a price tag north of $6.4 trillion and a human toll that includes at least 335,000 civilians killed and at least 37 million displaced from their homes. Meanwhile, those long-promise clear victories never materialized even as the number of terrorist groups around the world proliferated.

Last month, America's top general offered an assessment of the Afghan War that was as apt as it was bleak. "We believe that after two decades of consistent effort, we've achieved a modicum of success," said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley. "I would also argue over the last five to seven years at a minimum, we have been in a condition of strategic stalemate." Milley's soundbites provided appellations far more apt than those the Pentagon dreamt up over the years. Had the Defense Department opened the post-9/11 wars with names like Operation Modicum of Success or Operation Strategic Stalemate, Americans would at least have had a realistic idea of what to expect in the ensuing decades as three presidents waged undeclared wars without achieving victories anywhere across the Greater Middle East or Africa.

What the future will bring in terms of this country's many armed conflicts is murkier than ever as the Trump administration pursues an array of 11th-hour efforts interpreted as last-minute attempts to make good on pledges to end this country's "endless wars" or simply as sour-grapes shots at upending, undermining, and sabotaging the "deep state" (the CIA in particular), while handcuffing or kneecapping the incoming Biden administration's future foreign policy. As it happens, however, President Trump's flailing final gambits, while by no means ending America's wars, provide the Biden administration with a unique opportunity to put those conflicts in the history books, should the president-elect choose to take advantage of the inadvertent gift his predecessor provided.

The Third President Not to End the War on Terror

For four years, the Trump administration has waged a multifront war, not only in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and elsewhere around the globe, but with the Pentagon as well. Donald Trump entered the White House vowing to stop America's ceaseless foreign interventions and repeatedly teased ending those "endless wars." He didn't. Instead, he and his administration continued to wage America's many conflicts, surged troops into Afghanistan and Syria, and threatened nuclear strikes against enemies and allies alike.

When the president finally began making halting gestures toward curtailing the country's endless conflicts and attempted to draw down troops in various war zones, the Pentagon and State Department slow walked, slow rolled, and stymied their commander-in-chief, deceiving him, for example, when it came to something as basic as the actual number of U.S. troops in Syria. Even after striking a 2020 deal with the Taliban to settle the Afghan War and ordering significant troop withdrawals from that country and others as he became a lame-duck president, he failed to halt a single armed intervention that he had inherited.

Far from ending endless wars, President Trump escalated the most endless of them: the conflicts in Afghanistan and Somalia where America has been intermittently involved since the 1970s and 1990s, respectively. Air strikes in Somalia have, for instance, skyrocketed under the Trump administration. From 2007 to 2017, the U.S. military conducted 42 declared air attacks in that country. Under President Trump, 37 strikes were conducted in 2017, 48 in 2018, and 63 in 2019. Last year, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) acknowledged 53 air strikes in Somalia, more than during the 16 years of the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The reasons for that increase remain shrouded in secrecy. In March 2017, however, President Trump reportedly designated parts of Somalia as "areas of active hostilities," while removing Obama-era rules requiring that there be near certainty that airstrikes will not injure or kill noncombatants. Although the White House refuses to explicitly confirm or deny that this ever happened, retired Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, who headed Special Operations Command Africa at the time, told the Intercept that the "burden of proof as to who could be targeted and for what reason changed dramatically." That change, he noted, led AFRICOM to conduct strikes that previously would not have been carried out.

The uptick in airstrikes has been disastrous for civilians. While Africa Command recently acknowledged five deaths of noncombatants in Somalia from all such airstrikes, an investigation by Amnesty International found that, in just nine of them, 21 civilians were killed and 11 others injured. According to the U.K.-based monitoring group Airwars, evidence suggests that as many as 13 Somali civilians have been killed by U.S. strikes in 2020 alone, and Trump's recent decision to withdraw U.S. forces from there will not end those air attacks, much less America's war, according to the Pentagon. "While a change in force posture, this action is not a change in U.S. policy," reads a Defense Department statement that followed Trump's withdrawal order. "The U.S. will retain the capability to conduct targeted counterterrorism operations in Somalia and collect early warnings and indicators regarding threats to the homeland."

During its first year in office, the Trump administration relaxed the rules of engagement and escalated the air war in an effort to gain leverage at the bargaining table. "From 2017 through 2019, civilian deaths due to U.S. and allied forces' air strikes in Afghanistan dramatically increased," wrote Crawford. "In 2019, airstrikes killed 700 civilians — more civilians than in any other year since the beginning of the war in 2001 and 2002." After the U.S. and the Taliban reached a tentative peace agreement last February, U.S. air strikes declined, but never completely ceased. As recently as last month, the U.S. reportedly conducted one in Afghanistan that resulted in civilian casualties.The war in Afghanistan has followed a similar trajectory under President Trump. Far from deescalating the conflict as it negotiated a peace deal with the Taliban and pursued troop drawdowns, the administration ramped up the war on multiple fronts, initially deploying more troops and increasing its use of U.S. air power. As in Somalia, civilians suffered mightily, according to a recent report by Neta Crawford of Brown University's Costs of War project.

As those civilian deaths from air power were spiking, an elite CIA-trained Afghan paramilitary unit known as 01, in partnership with U.S. Special Operations forces, was involved in what Andrew Quilty, writing at the Intercept, termed "a campaign of terror against civilians," including a "string of massacres, executions, mutilation, forced disappearances, attacks on medical facilities, and air strikes targeting structures known to house civilians." In all, the unit killed at least 51 civilians in Afghanistan's Wardak province between December 2018 and December 2019. As Akhtar Mohammad Tahiri, the head of Wardak's provincial council, told Quilty, the Americans "step on all the rules of war, human rights, all the things they said they'd bring to Afghanistan." They are, he said, "conducting themselves as terrorists. They show terror and violence and think they'll bring control this way."

President Biden's Choice

"We are not a people of perpetual war — it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought," Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller wrote as part of a two-page memo to Defense Department employees last November, adding, "All wars must end." His predecessor, Mark Esper, was reportedly fired, at least in part, for resisting President Trump's efforts to remove troops from Afghanistan. Yet neither Miller nor Trump turned out to be committed to actually ending America's wars.

After losing his bid for reelection in November, the president did issue a series of orders drawing down some troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Virtually all military personnel are to be withdrawn from Somalia. There, however, according to the Pentagon, some or all of those forces will simply be "repositioned from Somalia into neighboring countries in order to allow cross-border operations," not to speak of continuing "targeted counterterrorism operations" in that country. This suggests that the long-running U.S. air war will continue uninterrupted.

The same goes for the other war zones where American troops are slated to remain and no cessation of air strikes has been announced. "You're still going to have the ability to do the missions that we've been doing," a senior Pentagon official said last month regarding Afghanistan. Miller echoed this during a recent trip to that country when he said: "I especially want to see and hear the plan for our continued air support role." Ironically enough, Miller's all-wars-must-end November memo actually championed a forever-war mindset by insisting on the necessity of "finishing the war that al-Qaida brought to our shores in 2001."

In classic the-U.S.-has-finally-turned-the-corner fashion, Miller asserted that America is "on the verge of defeating al-Qaida and its associates" and "must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish." To anyone who might have thought he was signaling that the war on terror was coming to a close, Miller offered a message that couldn't have been more succinct: "This war isn't over."

At the same time, Miller and several other post-election Trump political appointees, including his chief of staff Kash Patel and Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Ezra Cohen-Watnick, have sought to make significant last-minute policy changes at the Pentagon, rankling members of the national security establishment. Last month, for example, Trump administration officials delivered to the Joint Chiefs of Staff a proposal to decouple the leadership of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command. Miller also sent a letter to CIA Director Gina Haspel informing her that a longstanding arrangement in which the Pentagon offered support to the Agency is in jeopardy.

News reports indicated that the Department of Defense is reviewing its support for the CIA. The reason, former and current administration and military officials told Defense One, was to determine whether Special Operations forces should be diverted from the Agency's counterterrorism operations to missions "related to competition with Russia and China." The New York Times suggested, however, that the true purpose could be to "make it difficult" for the CIA to conduct operations in Afghanistan.

The troop drawdowns and eleventh-hour policy changes have been cast by pundits and national security establishment boosters as the spiteful final acts of a lame-duck president. Whatever they may be, they also represent a genuine opportunity for a president-elect who has voiced support for a shift in national security policy. "Biden will end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have cost us untold blood and treasure" reads the plan for "Leading the Democratic World" at JoeBiden.com. There, too, in the fine print, however, lurk a set of Miller-esque fight-to-the-finish loopholes, as the italicized words in this sentence suggest: "Biden will bring the vast majority of our troops home from Afghanistan and narrowly focus our mission on al-Qaeda and ISIS."

Under an agreement the Trump administration struck with Taliban negotiators last year, the United States promised to remove all remaining troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, if that group upholds its commitments. Were the Biden team to take advantage of both the Trump administration's withdrawal pact and its last-ditch effort to handcuff the CIA, a significant part of the American war there would simply expire later this spring. While this would undoubtedly elicit anguished howls from supporters of that failed war, President Biden could defer to Congress's constitutionally assigned war powers, leaving it to the legislative branch to either declare war in that country after all these years or simply allow the conflict to end.

He could also use the bully pulpit of the presidency to call for sunsetting the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, a 60-word resolution passed by Congress three days after the September 11th attacks, which has been used to justify 20 years of war against groups like the Islamic State that didn't even exist on 9/11. He could do the same with the 2002 Iraq Authorization for Use of Military Force, which authorized the war against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, but was nonetheless cited last year in the Trump administration's justification for the drone assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Suleimani.

Almost two decades after President George W. Bush launched "a different kind of war"; more than a decade after President Barack Obama entered the White House promising to avoid "stupid wars" (while promising to win the "right war" in Afghanistan); six months after President Trump committed to "ending the era of endless wars," President-elect Biden enters the White House with an opportunity to begin to make good on his own pledge to "end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East."

As President Bush put it in 2001: "Some victories will be won outside of public view, in tragedies avoided and threats eliminated." America's twenty-first-century wars have, instead, been tragedies for millions and have led to a proliferation of threats that damaged the United States in fundamental ways. President-elect Biden has recognized this, noting that "staying entrenched in unwinnable conflicts only drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention, and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power."

Failed forever wars are, however, also a Joe Biden legacy. As a senator, he voted for that 2001 AUMF, the 2002 AUMF, and then seconded a president who expanded America's overseas interventions — and nothing in his personal history suggests that he will take the bold actions necessary to follow through on putting an end to America's overseas conflicts. "It's long past time we end the forever wars," he announced in 2019. As it happens, on entering the Oval Office he will be faced with a monumental choice: to be either the first U.S. president of this century not to double down on doomed overseas conflicts or the fourth to find failure in wars that can never be won.

Copyright 2020 Nick Turse

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.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Type Media Center. He is the author most recently of Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan and of the bestselling Kill Anything That Moves.

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

The lessons of two failed wars

In choosing a title for his final, posthumously published book, the prominent public intellectual Tony Judt turned to a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village, published in 1770. Judt found his book's title in the first words of this couplet:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay

A poignant sentiment but let me acknowledge that I'm not a big Goldsmith fan. My own preferences in verse run more toward Merle Haggard, whose country music hits include the following lyric from his 1982 song "Are the Good Times Really Over?":

Is the best of the free life behind us now
And are the good times really over for good?

I wonder, though: Is it possible that the insights of an eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish novelist-poet and a twentieth-century American singer-songwriter, each reflecting on a common theme of decadence and each served up with a dollop of nostalgia, just might intersect?

Allow me to try the reader's patience with a bit more of Goldsmith:

O luxury! thou curst by Heaven's decree,
How ill exchanged are things like these for thee!
How do thy potions, with insidious joy,
Diffuse their pleasures only to destroy!
Kingdoms, by thee, to sickly greatness grown,
Boast of a florid vigour not their own;
At every draught more large and large they grow
A bloated mass of rank unwieldy woe.
Down, down they sink, and spread a ruin round.

Powerful stuff, but here's Haggard making a similar point without frills:

I wish a buck was still silver
It was back when the country was strong
Back before Elvis
Before the Vietnam War came along...
Are we rolling down hill
Like a snowball headed for Hell?
With no kind of chance
For the Flag or the Liberty Bell

Let me concede from the outset that these laments emerge directly from the heart of the patriarchy. In our present moment, some will discount the complaints of Messrs. Goldsmith and Haggard as not to be taken seriously. As the second decade of the twenty-first century draws to a close, bellyaching white guys tend not to command a lot of sympathy.

Still, with this abysmal year finally ending, the melancholy notes sounded by Goldsmith and Haggard strike me as apt. The Age of Biden -- or given our preference for faux intimacy, the Age of Joe and Kamala -- beckons. Yet I'm anything but certain that 2021 will inaugurate a happier time.

That said, for those who believe history has its own rhymes and rhythms, the election of Biden and Harris just might herald a turning point of sorts. After all, for more than a century now, presidential elections occurring in even numbered years ending in zero have resulted in big changes.

Don't take my word for it. Check the record.

Thanks to the assassin who prematurely terminated William McKinley's presidency, the election of 1900 inaugurated the reformist Progressive Era. Two decades later, Americans yearning for a return to "normalcy" voted for Warren G. Harding. Instead of normalcy, they got the splashy upheaval of the Twenties and the ensuing Great Depression.

Once the balloting in 1940 handed Franklin Roosevelt an unprecedented third term, hopes entertained by some Americans of staying out of World War II were doomed. Global war vaulted the United States to a position of global primacy -- and soon gave rise to new challenges. John F. Kennedy's election in 1960 empowered a generation "born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace" to address those challenges. Unanticipated complications ensued, as they did again in 1980 and 2000, the former initiating the Reagan Revolution, the latter election of George W. Bush setting the stage for the Global War on Terror and, by extension, Donald Trump.

The challenges awaiting Biden and Harris arguably outweigh those that confronted any of those past administrations, Roosevelt's excepted. In a recent New York Times column, the man who lost that disputed 2000 election, Al Gore, inventoried the most pressing problems that Biden's team will confront. In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, they include:

"40 years of economic stagnation for middle-income families; hyper-inequality of incomes and wealth, with high levels of poverty; horrific structural racism; toxic partisanship; the impending collapse of nuclear arms control agreements; an epistemological crisis undermining the authority of knowledge; recklessly unprincipled behavior by social media companies; and, most dangerous of all, the climate crisis."

That makes for quite a daunting catalog. Yet note this one striking omission: Gore makes no mention of America's seemingly never-ending penchant for war and military adventurism.

Before the Vietnam War Came Along

Surely, though, war has contributed in no small way to "the bloated mass of rank unwieldy woe" besetting our nation today. And were Merle Haggard to update "Are the Good Times Really Over?" he would doubtless include the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq alongside Vietnam as prominent among the factors that have sent this country caroming downward.

In the evening of my life, as I reflect on the events of our time that ended up mattering most, the wars in Vietnam and Iraq top my list. Together, they define the poles around which much of my professional life has revolved, whether as a soldier, teacher, or writer. It would be fair to say that I'm haunted by those two conflicts.

I could write pages and pages on how Vietnam and Iraq differ from each other, beginning with the fact that they are separated in time by nearly a half-century. Locale, the contours of the battlefields, the character of combat, the casualties inflicted and sustained, the sheer quantity of ordnance expended -- when it comes to such measures and others, Vietnam and Iraq differ greatly. Yet while those differences are worth noting, it's the unappreciated similarities between them that are truly instructive.

Seven such similarities stand out:

First, Vietnam and Iraq were both avoidable: For the United States, they were wars of choice. No one pushed us. We dove in headfirst.

Second, both turned out to be superfluous, undertaken in response to threats -- monolithic Communism and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction -- that were figments of fevered imaginations. In both cases, cynicism and moral cowardice played a role in paving the way toward war. Dissenting voices were ignored.

Third, both conflicts proved to be costly distractions. Each devoured on a prodigious scale resources that might have been used so much more productively elsewhere. Each diverted attention from matters of far more immediate importance to Americans. Each, in other words, triggered a massive hemorrhage of blood, treasure, and influence to no purpose whatsoever.

Fourth, in each instance, political leaders in Washington and senior commanders in the field collaborated in committing grievous blunders. War is complicated. All wars see their share of mistakes and misjudgments. But those two featured a level of incompetence unmatched since Custer's Last Stand.

Fifth, thanks to that incompetence, both devolved into self-inflicted quagmires. In Washington, in Saigon, and in Baghdad's "Green Zone," baffled authorities watched as the control of events slipped from their grasp. Meanwhile, in the field, U.S. troops flailed about for years in futile pursuit of a satisfactory outcome.

Sixth, on the home front, both conflicts left behind a poisonous legacy of unrest, rancor, and bitterness. Members of the Baby Boom generation (to which I belong) have chosen to enshrine Vietnam-era protest as high-minded and admirable. Many Americans then held and still hold a different opinion. As for the Iraq War, it contributed mightily to yawning political cleavages that appear unlikely to heal anytime soon.

And finally, with both political and military elites alike preferring simply to move on, neither war has received a proper accounting. Their place in the larger narrative of American history is still unsettled. This may be the most important similarity of all. Both Vietnam and Iraq remain bizarrely undigested, their true meaning yet to be discerned and acknowledged. Too recent to forget, too confounding to ignore, they remain anomalous.

The American wars in Vietnam and Iraq are contradictions that await resolution.

Jaw, Jaw, Not War, War

For that very reason, when politicians (including Joe Biden) talk about war, they talk about others, their all-time favorite being the one fought against Nazi Germany between December 1941 and May 1945. There -- and not in Vietnam or Iraq -- do members of the establishment find the lessons that they have enshrined as permanently relevant.

The first American war against Germany in 1917-1918 doesn't carry much weight at all. Just a couple of years ago, its centennial came and went virtually unnoticed. Likewise, the war against Japan that occurred in tandem with the second war against Germany seldom gets much attention either. We "remember Pearl Harbor" and that's about it.

The war against the Nazis, however, is a gift that never stops giving. It yields a great bounty of lessons: never appease; never hesitate to call evil by its name; never back down; and never flinch from the challenges of leadership, which necessarily implies a willingness to use force. And in moments of distress, channel your inner Winston Churchill circa 1940: "Never surrender!"

The problem with clinging to such ostensibly canonical lessons today is that we are no longer the nation that defeated Nazi Germany. The United States was establishing itself as the dominant industrial power on the planet then, while Washington still had the capacity to mobilize the American people pursuant to what was described at the time as a "Great Crusade." A taken-for-granted tradition of white supremacy underwrote a cultural unity that lent more than a modicum of substance to the claims of e pluribus unum. None of this remains faintly relevant today.

When it comes to present-day policy, the relevant fact is that we are the nation that failed in both Vietnam and Iraq. Along the way, we lost our status as the planet's dominant industrial power. Meanwhile, Washington forfeited its authority to mobilize the American people for war. More recently, cleavages stemming from class, race, religion, gender, and ethnicity, split the country into antagonistic factions. Al Gore was merely premature when, as vice president, he famously mistranslated the nation's motto as "out of one, many."

Now, if you prioritize Vietnam and Iraq over the war against Nazi Germany, you'll come face-to-face with a very different set of lessons. Here are four that the Biden administration might do well to contemplate.

First, situating the United States within a larger entity called the West -- a notion dating from the time when America and Great Britain (with plentiful help from the Soviet Union) rallied to defeat Hitler -- no longer works. The West doesn't exist. These days when the United States opts for war, it must expect to fight alone or with only nominal allied assistance. This was true in Vietnam and again in Iraq. No grand coalition will form.

Second, however gussied up or camouflaged, imperialism no longer retains the slightest legitimacy. Peoples once classified as inferior, usually on the basis of skin color, no longer tolerate outsiders telling them how to govern themselves. Few Americans are willing to acknowledge the imperial motives that have long shaped this country's global policies. The Vietnamese and Iraqis opposing the U.S. military presence in their midst entertained few doubts on that score; hence, the fierceness with which they defended their right to self-determination.

Third, if the United States remains intent on exporting its version of freedom and democracy, it will have to devise far less coercive ways of doing so. Rather than using armed force to alter the political landscape in faraway places, elites should acknowledge the limited utility of military power. Calling on the troops to defend, deter, and contain works far better than charging them to invade, occupy, and transform.

Fourth, dumb wars deplete. Vietnam and Iraq both inflicted untold damage on the American economy. With the U.S. government currently running an annual deficit of some $3 trillion, we can't afford to squander any more money on ill-advised military campaigns. A less known quote attributed to Churchill commends itself in our present situation: "Jaw, jaw, jaw is better than war, war, war."

As it enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, the United States is badly in need of more jaw, jaw and less war, war -- more fix, fix, and less fight, fight.

Over to You, Joe

I am not enamored of presidents. I'm even less of a fan of "presidentialism" -- the belief, firmly held by American elites, that the fate of the planet turns on what the president of the United States says or does (or doesn't do). For that reason, I have learned not to expect much of whoever happens to occupy the Oval Office.

In practice, the Most Powerful Man in the World usually turns out to be not all that powerful. Rather than directing History with a capital H, he (not yet she), like the rest of us, is pretty much just along for the ride. In their own ways, Goldsmith and Haggard implicitly endorsed such a fatalistic perspective.

In political circles, a different view tends to prevail. Today, virtually all Democrats and many in the media ascribe to Donald Trump full blame for the mess in which this country finds itself. Yet Americans would do well to temper their expectations of what supplanting Trumpism with Bidenism is likely to produce.

On January 20, 2021, the "torch" to which John F. Kennedy memorably referred in his inaugural address will once again be passed. Let's hope that, in grasping it, Biden and Harris will heed one of the principal lessons of the Kennedy era: no more Vietnams. To which I would simply add: no more Iraqs (or Afghanistans, or Yemens, or... well, you know the list). Only then might it become possible to undertake the daunting task of repairing our country.

Good luck, Joe. You, too, Kamala. In the coming days, you're both going to need a truckful of it.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory. His new book After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed will be published in 2021.

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 Centuy: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Andrew Bacevich

Trump's broken promise shows how the American empire is rotting from within

It was the end of October 2001. Two friends, Max Elbaum and Bob Wing, had just dropped by. (Yes, children, believe it or not, people used to drop in on each other, maskless, once upon a time.) They had come to hang out with my partner Jan Adams and me. Among other things, Max wanted to get some instructions from fellow-runner Jan about taping his foot to ease the pain of plantar fasciitis. But it soon became clear that he and Bob had a bigger agenda for the evening. They were eager to recruit us for a new project.

And so began War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, a free, bilingual, antiwar tabloid that, at its height, distributed 100,000 copies every six weeks to more than 700 antiwar organizations around the country. It was already clear to the four of us that night -- as it was to millions around the world -- that the terrorist attacks of September 11th would provide the pretext for a major new projection of U.S. military power globally, opening the way to a new era of "all-war-all-the-time." War Times was a project of its moment (although the name would still be apt today, given that those wars have never ended). It would be superseded in a few years by the explosive growth of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. Still, it represented an early effort to fill the space where a peace movement would eventually develop.

All-War-All-the-Time -- For Some of Us

We were certainly right that the United States had entered a period of all-war-all-the-time. It's probably hard for people born since 9/11 to imagine how much -- and how little -- things changed after September 2001. By the end of that month, this country had already launched a "war" on an enemy that then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told us was "not just in Afghanistan," but in "50 or 60 countries, and it simply has to be liquidated."

Five years and two never-ending wars later, he characterized what was then called the war on terror as "a generational conflict akin to the Cold War, the kind of struggle that might last decades as allies work to root out terrorists across the globe and battle extremists who want to rule the world." A generation later, it looks like Rumsfeld was right, if not about the desires of the global enemy, then about the duration of the struggle.

Here in the United States, however, we quickly got used to being "at war." In the first few months, interstate bus and train travelers often encountered (and, in airports, still encounter) a new and absurd kind of "security theater." I'm referring to those long, snaking lines in which people first learned to remove their belts and coats, later their hats and shoes, as ever newer articles of clothing were recognized as potential hiding places for explosives. Fortunately, the arrest of the Underwear Bomber never led the Transportation Security Administration to the obvious conclusion about the clothing travelers should have to remove next. We got used to putting our three-ounce containers of liquids (No more!) into quart-sized baggies (No bigger! No smaller!).

It was all-war-all-the-time, but mainly in those airports. Once the shooting wars started dragging on, if you didn't travel by airplane much or weren't deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, it was hard to remember that we were still in war time at all. There were continuing clues for those who wanted to know, like the revelations of CIA torture practices at "black sites" around the world, the horrors of military prisons like the ones at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, and the still-functioning prison complex at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. And soon enough, of course, there were the hundreds and then thousands of veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars taking their places among the unhoused veterans of earlier wars in cities across the United States, almost unremarked upon, except by service organizations.

So, yes, the wars dragged on at great expense, but with little apparent effect in this country. They even gained new names like "the long war" (as Donald Trump's Secretary of Defense James Mattis put it in 2017) or the "forever wars," a phrase now so common that it appears all over the place. But apart from devouring at least $6.4 trillion dollars through September 2020 that might otherwise have been invested domestically in healthcare, education, infrastructure, or addressing poverty and inequality, apart from creating increasingly militarized domestic police forces armed ever more lethally by the Pentagon, those forever wars had little obvious effect on the lives of most Americans.

Of course, if you happened to live in one of the places where this country has been fighting for the last 19 years, things are a little different. A conservative estimate by Iraq Body Count puts violent deaths among civilians in that country alone at 185,454 to 208,493 and Brown University's Costs of War project points out that even the larger figure is bound to be a significant undercount:

Several times as many Iraqi civilians may have died as an indirect result of the war, due to damage to the systems that provide food, health care, and clean drinking water, and as a result, illness, infectious diseases, and malnutrition that could otherwise have been avoided or treated.

And that's just Iraq. Again, according to the Costs of War Project, "At least 800,000 people have been killed by direct war violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan."

Of course, many more people than that have been injured or disabled. And America's post-9/11 wars have driven an estimated 37 million people from their homes, creating the greatest human displacement since World War II. People in this country are rightly concerned about the negative effects of online schooling on American children amid the ongoing Covid-19 crisis (especially poor children and those in communities of color). Imagine, then, the effects on a child's education of losing her home and her country, as well as one or both parents, and then growing up constantly on the move or in an overcrowded, under-resourced refugee camp. The war on terror has truly become a war of generations.

Every one of the 2,977 lives lost on 9/11 was unique and invaluable. But the U.S. response has been grotesquely disproportionate -- and worse than we War Times founders could have imagined that October night so many years ago.

Those wars of ours have gone on for almost two decades now. Each new metastasis has been justified by George W. Bush's and then Barack Obama's use of the now ancient 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which Congress passed in the days after 9/11. Its language actually limited presidential military action to a direct response to the 9/11 attacks and the prevention of future attacks by the same actors. It stated that the president

...is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

Despite that AUMF's limited scope, successive presidents have used it to justify military action in at least 18 countries. (To be fair, President Obama realized the absurdity of his situation when he sent U.S. troops to Syria and tried to wring a new authorization out of Congress, only to be stymied by a Republican majority that wouldn't play along.)

In 2002, in the run-up to the Iraq War, Congress passed a second AUMF, which permitted the president to use the armed forces as "necessary and appropriate" to "defend U.S. national security against the continuing threat posed by Iraq." In January 2020, Donald Trump used that second authorization to justify the murder by drone of Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian general, along with nine other people.

Trump Steps In

In 2016, peace activists were preparing to confront a Hillary Clinton administration that we expected would continue Obama's version of the forever wars -- the "surge" in Afghanistan, the drone assassination campaigns, the special ops in Africa. But on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, something went "Trump" in the night and Donald J. Trump took over the presidency with a promise to end this country's forever wars, which he had criticized relentlessly during his campaign. That, of course, didn't mean we should have expected a peace dividend anytime soon. He was also committed to rebuilding a supposedly "depleted" U.S. military. As he said at a 2019 press conference,

When I took over, it was a mess... One of our generals came in to see me and he said, 'Sir, we don't have ammunition.' I said, 'That's a terrible thing you just said.' He said, 'We don't have ammunition.' Now we have more ammunition than we've ever had.

It's highly unlikely that the military couldn't afford to buy enough bullets when Trump entered the Oval Office, given that publicly acknowledged defense funding was then running at $580 billion a year. He did, however, manage to push that figure to $713 billion by fiscal year 2020. That December, he threatened to veto an even larger appropriation for 2021 -- $740 billion -- but only because he wanted the military to continue to honor Confederate generals by keeping their names on military bases. Oh, and because he thought the bill should also change liability rules for social media companies, an issue you don't normally expect to see addressed in a defense appropriations bill. And, in any case, Congress passed the bill with a veto-proof majority.

As Pentagon expert Michael Klare pointed out recently, while it might seem contradictory that Trump would both want to end the forever wars and to increase military spending, his actions actually made a certain sense. The president, suggested Klare, had been persuaded to support the part of the U.S. military command that has favored a sharp pivot away from reigning post-9/11 Pentagon practices. For 19 years, the military high command had hewed fairly closely to the strategy laid out by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld early in the Bush years: maintaining the capacity to fight ground wars against one or two regional powers (think of that "Axis of Evil" of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran), while deploying agile, technologically advanced forces in low-intensity (and a couple of higher-intensity) counterterrorism conflicts. Nineteen years later, whatever its objectives may have been -- a more-stable Middle East? Fewer and weaker terrorist organizations? -- it's clear that the Rumsfeld-Bush strategy has failed spectacularly.

Klare points out that, after almost two decades without a victory, the Pentagon has largely decided to demote international terrorism from rampaging monster to annoying mosquito cloud. Instead, the U.S. must now prepare to confront the rise of China and Russia, even if China has only one overseas military base and Russia, economically speaking, is a rickety petro-state with imperial aspirations. In other words, the U.S. must prepare to fight short but devastating wars in multiple domains (including space and cyberspace), perhaps even involving the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the Eurasian continent. To this end, the country has indeed begun a major renovation of its nuclear arsenal and announced a new 30-year plan to beef up its naval capacity. And President Trump rarely misses a chance to tout "his" creation of a new Space Force.

Meanwhile, did he actually keep his promise and at least end those forever wars? Not really. He did promise to bring all U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by Christmas, but acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller only recently said that we'd be leaving about 2,500 troops there and a similar number in Iraq, with the hope that they'd all be out by May 2021. (In other words, he dumped those wars in the lap of the future Biden administration.)

In the meantime in these years of "ending" those wars, the Trump administration actually loosened the rules of engagement for air strikes in Afghanistan, leading to a "massive increase in civilian casualties," according to a new report from the Costs of War Project. "From the last year of the Obama administration to the last full year of recorded data during the Trump administration," writes its author, Neta Crawford, "the number of civilians killed by U.S.-led airstrikes in Afghanistan increased by 330 percent."

In spite of his isolationist "America First" rhetoric, in other words, President Trump has presided over an enormous buildup of an institution, the military-industrial complex, that was hardly in need of major new investment. And in spite of his anti-NATO rhetoric, his reduction by almost a third of U.S. troop strength Germany, and all the rest, he never really violated the post-World War II foreign policy pact between the Republican and Democratic parties. Regardless of how they might disagree about dividing the wealth domestically, they remain united in their commitment to using diplomacy when possible, but military force when necessary, to maintain and expand the imperial power that they believed to be the guarantor of that wealth.

And Now Comes Joe

On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will become the president of a country that spends as much on its armed forces, by some counts, as the next 10 countries combined. He'll inherit responsibility for a nation with a military presence in 150 countries and special-operations deployments in 22 African nations alone. He'll be left to oversee the still-unfinished, deeply unsuccessful, never-ending war on terror in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia and, as publicly reported by the Department of Defense, 187,000 troops stationed outside the United States.

Nothing in Joe Biden's history suggests that he or any of the people he's already appointed to his national security team have the slightest inclination to destabilize that Democratic-Republican imperial pact. But empires are not sustained by inclination alone. They don't last forever. They overextend themselves. They rot from within.

If you're old enough, you may remember stories about the long lines for food in the crumbling Soviet Union, that other superpower of the Cold War. You can see the same thing in the United States today. Once a week, my partner delivers food boxes to hungry people in our city, those who have lost their jobs and homes, because the pandemic has only exacerbated this country's already brutal version of economic inequality. Another friend routinely sees a food line stretching over a mile, as people wait hours for a single free bag of groceries.

Perhaps the horrors of 2020 -- the fires and hurricanes, Trump's vicious attacks on democracy, the death, sickness, and economic dislocation caused by Covid-19 -- can force a real conversation about national security in 2021. Maybe this time we can finally ask whether trying to prop up a dying empire actually makes us -- or indeed the world -- any safer. This is the best chance in a generation to start that conversation. The alternative is to keep trudging mindlessly toward disaster.

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new Dispatch book on the history of torture in the United States.

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 WarII.

Copyright 2020 Rebecca Gordon

Hunger in America: On the frontlines of the COVID-19 nightmare

As autumn fades and winter looms, the dire predictions public-health experts made about Covid-19 have, unfortunately, proven all-too-accurate. On October 27th, 74,379 people were infected in the United States; less than a month and a half later, on December 9th, that number had soared to 218,677, while the 2020 total has just surpassed 15 million, a number no other country, not even India, which has a population three times that of the U.S., has surpassed

And now, it seems, the third wave of the virus has arrived. As recently as late October, the embattled Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, warned that "we are in for a whole lot of hurt" and that infections could reach 100,000 a day. As it happens, he was wildly optimistic. A little more than a month later, there were more than twice that many. Is it possible, however, that the current surge is due in part to increased testing, as President Trump and others have regularly claimed? Here's the problem. Even if that theory were true, it can't account for the spiraling death toll, which is now more than 300,000 and could hit 450,000 by February, according to Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nor can it explain the daily Covid-19 hospitalizations, the first round of which peaked at 59,712 on July 23rd, dropped pretty steadily to a low of 28,606 on September 20th, and then started to soar, reaching 106,671 on December 9th.

Though big-picture statistics like these should help us grasp the staggering magnitude of our current public-health crisis, what they don't reveal is the searing effects it's had on the lives of millions of Americans, even those who have managed to evade the virus or haven't seen friends or family fall ill or die from Covid-19. The pandemic has been especially hard for those on the front lines: doctors, nurses, and other hospital workers who experience battle fatigue and despair while besieged by suffering and deaths, visceral reminders of their own vulnerability.

In society at large, precautions -- lockdowns, social distancing, limits on festive gatherings -- necessary to keep Covid-19 at bay have increased loneliness and social isolation. Contrary to early expectations, reports of abuse and violence within families haven't actually spiraled, but experts suggest that may be because the victims, confined to their homes alongside their tormentors, are finding it harder to seek help and fear reporting what's happening to them. As for children, teachers are no longer seeing their pupils in person as regularly and so are less able to spot the typical warning signs of mistreatment.

Thankfully, the pandemic has yet to increase this country's already alarming suicide rate, but the same can't be said for levels of stress and depression, both of which have risen noticeably. School closures and the move to online learning have forced parents, particularly women, to scramble for childcare and to work less, even though many of them were barely getting by while working full-time, or stop working altogether, often a genuine disaster in poor families.

Not surprisingly, people who have been laid off or had their work hours reduced have fallen behind on their mortgage and rent payments. Although various federal and state moratoriums on such payments, as well as on evictions and foreclosures, were enacted, such protections will eventually end. And the moratoriums don't negate renters' or homeowners' obligations to settle accounts with their bankers and landlords somewhere down the line (which for many Americans may, in the end, prove an impossibility).

Food and the Pandemic

Apart from the illness and death it causes, perhaps the most poignant consequence of Covid-19 has been the way it's increased what's called "food insecurity" across the United States. That ungainly term doesn't refer to the chronic food scarcity and undernourishment, which afflicts more than 800 million people in poor countries, but rather to the disruption of people's typical food-consumption patterns. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) distinguishes between what it calls low food security ("reduced quality, variability, or desirability of diet") and the very low version of the same ("multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake").

Surveys by the USDA and the Census Bureau show that both variants have risen steeply during the pandemic. Just before the coronavirus struck, 35 million Americans, 11 million of them children, experienced food insecurity, the lowest figure in two decades. This year, those numbers are projected to reach 54 million and 18 million respectively. In 2018, 4% of American adults reported that at least some members of their family did not have enough to eat; by July 2020, that figure had hit 11%, according to a study by Northwestern University's Food Research and Action Center, and will only increase as the pandemic worsens.

Income supplements provided by the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that Congress passed in March in response to the economic problems created by Covid-19, increases in the government's Supplementary Nutritional Program (SNAP), and the Pandemic Electronic Benefit (P-EBT), which helps parents whose children no longer get free or subsidized school lunches, have made a difference -- but not enough to make up for lost or reduced income, lost homes, and other disasters of this moment. And sadly, any follow-up to the CARES Act, assuming Congress reaches some kind of agreement on its terms before the current legislation expires at the end of December, will almost certainly be far less generous than the original law. The SNAP increases already excluded the poorest seven million households that were then receiving the maximum amount, and the new increases now under discussion in Congress would add less than one dollar to a four-person family's maximum daily benefit. P-EBT expired in most states at the end of September, in some as early as July.

That food insecurity has "skyrocketed," as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities puts it, during the pandemic despite government assistance shouldn't come as a surprise. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Some have seen their earnings diminished because of furloughs, wage cuts, freezes, or reduced working hours. Others have looked for jobs in vain and finally given up (but aren't included in official unemployment statistics). Millions of adults have children who no longer receive those free or subsidized lunches because of the switch, in whole or part, to online teaching. Worse yet, as pandemic-induced firings, layoffs, and wage cuts have reduced incomes, and so consumer purchasing power, food prices, especially for meat, fish, and eggs, have only risen. Such costs have increased for other reasons as well. The pandemic has disrupted supply networks, national and international. Leery consumers, anticipating shortages or seeking to reduce trips to grocery stores to avoid being infected by Covid-19, have also resorted to panic buying and the stockpiling of food and other necessities.

Who You Are and Where You Live Matters Most

Of course, not everyone has been hit with equal force by rising food prices. Americans high on the income ladder can absorb such extra costs easily enough and, in any case, spend a substantially smaller portion of their income on groceries. According to the USDA, adults with incomes in the top fifth of society spent 8% of their income on food last year; for the bottom fifth, it was 36%. The first group also obviously has a lot more money available to stock up on food than that bottom fifth, so many of whom have also become jobless or seen their paychecks diminish since the pandemic started. In March, for example, 39% of those making less than $40,000 had already lost their jobs or had their paychecks reduced, but only 13% of those who earned $100,000 or more, and that gap continued into the fall.

Not surprisingly, then, the bigger the hit people took from the Covid-19 recession, the more likely they were to experience food insecurity, which is why aggregate statistics on the phenomenon and other societal problems attributable to the pandemic can be misleading. They tend to mask the reality that its effects have been felt primarily by the most vulnerable, while the others have been touched much more lightly, or not at all.

The variations are rooted in ethnicity and location as well as income level (and the three tend to be closely linked). A USDA report classified 19% of Black households and 16% of Hispanic households as food insecure in 2019, compared to 8% of their white counterparts. By this summer, food insecurity had increased significantly across the board, afflicting 36% of Black, 32% of Hispanic, and 18% of white households. While the pandemic has certainly made matters worse, African Americans had the highest rate among those three groups even before it started. This was especially true of counties -- the U.S. has more than 3,000 of them -- in which they were in the majority. In 2016, those particular counties accounted for a mere 3% of the national total, but 96% of them had "high food insecurity," as the Department of Agriculture defines it, as well as a poverty rate more than twice the national average (12.7% that year).

Native Americans have had the worst of it, however, since many of their families lack access to running water and plumbing (58 per 1,000 households compared to three per 1,000 for whites). Nearly 75% of Native Americans must travel more than a mile to reach a supermarket, compared to 40% of the population as a whole, and the disruption of supply chains has only diminished their food security further relative to other ethnic communities. Even prior to the pandemic, counties in which they (or Native Alaskans) constituted a majority were among those with the highest levels of food insecurity. Not coincidentally, in 2016, the poverty rate in nearly 70% of Native American-majority counties averaged a whopping 37%.

In other words, while every group has suffered in this pandemic year, race matters -- a lot -- when it comes to the degree of suffering.

So does income. In coronavirus-stricken America, only 1% of adults with an annual income exceeding $100,000 surveyed by the Census Bureau this summer responded that, during the preceding week, their household "sometimes or often did not have enough to eat." Compare that to 16% of those making $25,000-$35,000 and 28% of those earning less than $25,000.

Finally, food insecurity during the pandemic has varied by location as well. Ten states (and the District of Columbia) had the highest rates, ranging from Mississippi (33.5%), which stood atop this group, to Alabama (27%), which had the lowest. In between, in descending order, were Washington, D.C., Nevada, Louisiana, New York, New Mexico, Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

Food Banks and Pantries: On The Front Lines

The other day, a close friend described to me the daily scene at a food distribution center in New York City's Harlem neighborhood. Well before trucks laden with food pulled up early in the morning, he said, the lines had already started forming, hundreds of people waiting patiently in a queue that encircled the block. And that's just one of many neighborhoods in New York where this is all too typical these days. In Queens, for instance, one pantry regularly faces a demand so steep that lines can extend for eight blocks. Try to imagine what the waiting time must be. All told, 1.5 million people in the city, unable to buy the groceries they need, rely on food pantries, and New York is anything but unusual. Photographs abound of cars lined up by the hundreds, even thousands, at food pantries in major cities around the country.

Feeding America, a non-profit organization that supports 200 food storage centers and 60,000 pantries nationwide, reports that the country's food banks have provided the equivalent of more than 4.2 billion meals since March, a 50% increase compared to a year ago and 40% of the people who come to such pantries are first-time visitors. A Consumer Reports survey of grocery shoppers found that nearly a fifth of them had turned to a food pantry since the pandemic began (half of whom hadn't sought such help at all in 2019). In March, before the first wave of Covid-19 began to peak, 18 million Americans already used food pantries; by August, that number had climbed to 22 million, even though an additional 6.2 million people had received benefits from SNAP (the food-stamp program in common parlance) between March and May alone. By early July, 37.4 million people had signed up for SNAP compared to 35.7 million for all of last year.

Little wonder, then, that food banks, facing a tsunami of demand, have struggled to stay stocked amid rising prices, shortages, reduced donations from big chain supermarkets, and disrupted supply chains. It's also become even harder for them to raise the money they need to operate. Not a few have buckled under the strain and many have been forced to shut down. Pantries have also had a hard time mustering volunteers, in part because seniors, particularly vulnerable to the virus, made up a significant segment of such helpers. Not surprisingly, then, food banks and pantries have battled to function or simply survive in these months, while also having to implement an array of cumbersome and costly safety measures to keep volunteers, staff, and clients infection-free.

Despite their heroic role, such food banks and pantries are the equivalent of the proverbial finger in the dike. For Covid-induced food insecurity and hunger to decline significantly, the third wave of infections will have to subside and Congress will have to offer more effective aid. The Trump administration's recent proposal, blessed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to provide a one-shot $600 check to all adults (whether they're unemployed or not) certainly isn't. At the same time, vaccines will have to be produced in sufficient quantities and distributed rapidly. (We are far from ready on that front.) All this in a country where striking numbers of people look askance at vaccination -- in a December survey only 63% of Americans said they would be willing to get vaccinated against Covid-19 -- and are also drawn to conspiracy mongers whose appeal has grown, thanks in part to social media.

Once the virus is vanquished or at least brought under reasonable control, the economy can be reopened. Then, many of the nearly 11 million at-present unemployed people will perhaps have a shot at working again or having their employers end reduced hours and cut wages.

Here's hoping that these various stars align by summer 2021. We can then revert to pre-pandemic normalcy, even though that state of affairs was marked by substantial poverty -- 34 million people last year -- and rising inequality.

Rajan Menon, a TomDispatch regular, is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, senior research fellow at Columbia University's Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His latest book is The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention.

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 Rajan Menon

The myths of neoliberalism: Solutions to our most pressing problems are at hand — if only we use them

Martin Luther King, Jr., offered this all-too-relevant comment on his moment in his 1967 speech "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?"

The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent.

King concluded that American society was degrading human life by clinging to old thinking rather than turning to bold, visionary solutions -- words that (sadly enough) ring even truer in our day than in his.In late October as the coronavirus pandemic raged, the Economic Policy Institute released a study showing that it isn't just morally right but an economic necessity to deal with poverty in this country and fast. "If America does not address what's happening with visionary social and economic policy," as that study put it, "the health and well-being of the nation are at stake. What we need is long-term economic policy that establishes justice, promotes the general welfare, rejects decades of austerity, and builds strong social programs that lift society from below."

Even as, almost two months later, we remain trapped in an unprecedented crisis of spreading illness, there is increasingly clear evidence that, were those in power to make other choices, we would no longer need to live burdened by the social ills of old. Oddly enough, because of the Covid-19 crisis, we're being reminded (or at least should be reminded) that, in reality, solutions to many of the most pressing issues of our day are readily at hand if those issues were prioritized and the attention and resources of society directed toward them. In a moment overflowing with lessons, one of the least discussed is that scarcity is a lie, a political invention used to cover up vast reserves of capital and technology facilitating the enrichment of the few and justifying the pain and dispossession of so many others. Our present reality could perhaps best be described as mass abandonment amid abundance.

Indeed, the myth of scarcity, like other neoliberal fantasies, is regularly ignored when politically expedient and conjured up when the rich and powerful need help. The pandemic has been no exception. Over the last nine months, the wealth of American billionaires has actually increased by a third to nearly $4 trillion, even as tens of millions of Americans have filed for unemployment and more evictions loom than ever before in U.S. history. Now, politicians in Washington are haggling over a "compromise" relief bill that offers little in the way of actual relief, especially for those suffering the most.

At the same time, with the health of everyone, not just the poor and marginalized, at risk, the government has proven itself remarkably capable of mobilizing the necessary resources for decisive and historic action when it comes to producing a Covid-19 vaccine in record time. That the same could be done when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable and abolishing poverty should be obvious, if only the nation saw that, too, as a crisis worthy of attention.

Where There's a Will, There's a Way

In 1918, with an influenza pandemic raging in the United States, cities closed down and doctors prescribed painkillers like aspirin as a national debate (remarkably similar to the present one) raged over the necessity of quarantine and masks. At that time, the country simply had to wait for those who were infected to die or develop immunity. Before it was over (in a far less populous land), at least 675,000 Americans perished, more than in every one of our wars since the Civil War combined.

A century later, when the Covid-19 pandemic exploded this March, the country ground to a similar terrifying halt, but under different conditions: for one thing, the shutdown was accompanied by the promise that the government would invest billions of dollars in a potentially successful vaccine produced far faster than any ever before. Nine months later, after the Trump administration had funneled those billions into research and had guaranteed the manufacture and purchase of viable vaccines (radically reducing the business risk to pharmaceutical companies in the process), it appears that we are indeed there. Last month, multiple companies released trial data for just such vaccines that seem to be nearly 95% effective; and Great Britain has, in fact, just rolled out the first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine with the U.S. not far behind. On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer's vaccine for emergency use.

A long list of grave questions remains when it comes to the oversight of, and accountability of, those private companies that now hold the health of the world in their hands. Already, the British government has granted Pfizer, which stands to earn billions by beating the competition to market, legal indemnity from any complications that may arise from its vaccine, and the Trump administration has made similar agreements. Much also remains uncertain when it comes to how American-produced vaccines will be fairly distributed, here and across the world, and whether they will be safe, effective, and free. (I recently signed onto a public letter to the incoming Biden administration calling for a "people's vaccine.")

Still, it does seem that the historic speed with which this novel virus could eventually be curbed by just such a vaccine (or set of them) is likely to prove astonishing. Historically, on average, successful vaccines have taken 10 to 14 years to develop. Until now, the fastest effective one ever produced was the mumps vaccine and that took four years. Nearly as remarkable is how so many people have received the news of the coming of those coronavirus vaccines as if it were the norm. If anything, in a time of constant, rapid technological revolution, there's a noticeable impatience, stoked by Donald Trump and others, that it's taken this long.

The Covid-19 vaccine experience does show one thing, however -- what can be done when the resources of this country are marshalled to immediately address a crisis-level issue. Imagine if the same approach were taken when it came to systemic racism, climate change, or the poverty that has only deepened in the midst of the pandemic crisis. Indeed, if the political will were there, Americans could clearly tackle massive problems like hunger and homelessness no less effectively than developing a vaccine, instead of spending millions of dollars on cruel attempts to drive the homeless away by redesigning park benches and other urban architecture to repel those with nowhere to stay. After all, in cities like San Francisco, where homelessness is rampant, there are more vacant houses than there are homeless people.

Although the politics of austerity generally reign supreme on both sides of the aisle in Congress (especially when it comes to antipoverty programs like welfare), it's also true that public spending is regularly and abundantly martialed to solve issues that affect certain parts of society -- namely, the private sector and the military. From subsidies to major companies like big agriculture to critical R&D expenditures for Silicon Valley to public university research that benefits private industry, funding from the state is often the invisible backbone of American business operations and advances. Likewise, spending on the military makes up more than half of the federal discretionary budget, funding everything from the 800 American military bases that circle the planet to expensive and risky new technologies and war machines.

Lessons from the Pandemic

Back in March, the writer Arundhati Roy spoke of the pandemic as "a portal." She was perhaps suggesting that the widespread suffering caused by Covid-19 could open a doorway into a future in which we humans might begin to treat ourselves and the planet with greater devotion. In another sense, however, the pandemic has also been a portal into our past, a way of showing us the conditions that have laid the groundwork not just for the devastation that now consumes us but for possibly far worse to come.

No one could have expected this exact crisis at this exact moment in exactly this way. Yet, before Covid-19, society was already teetering under the weight of poverty and inequality, and a sober look at history offers clues as to why the United States now has the highest Covid-19 case tally and death toll in the world. Too many have died because our country's preexisting conditions of systemic injustice have gone untreated for so long and those in power never seem to learn the applicable lesson of this moment: pandemics spread along the fissures of society, both exposing them more and deepening them further.

Before Covid-19, there were already 140 million people in this country who were poor or a $400 emergency -- one job loss, accident, illness, or storm -- away from poverty. Across America that meant close to 80 million people were uninsured or underinsured, 60 million people had zero (zero!) wealth other than the value of a family car, more than a million people were defaulting on federal student loans annually, and more than 62 million workers were making less than $15 an hour, with more than two million in Florida alone making only $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage. And that's just to begin down a nightmarish list.

For Pamela Sue Rush and about 1.5 million other people, it meant a lack of access to piped water and sewage systems. Before Pamela, who is Black, contracted Covid-19 and died in July, she lived in a mobile home in Lowndes County, Alabama, where human waste festered in her backyard because she didn't have proper plumbing, and in a state that still hasn't expanded Medicaid, and in a country that has no federal guarantee of either healthcare or clean water. Covid-19 may have been the immediate cause of her death, but the underlying one was racism and poverty.

During these pandemic months, a popular notion has been that the virus is a great equalizer because everyone is susceptible. Yet the human and economic toll has been anything but equal across society. It will take more time to find out just what the mortality rate among the poor has been, but it's already clear that those of us with compromised immune systems, disproportionately poor and people of color, are at greater risk of hospitalization and death from the coronavirus, and early reports suggest that poorer counties have higher death rates. An unsurprising but alarming new study found that more than 400,000 Covid-19 cases are associated with the lifting of eviction moratoriums, forcing people out of the safety of their homes; such numbers will only worsen this winter as evictions continue, if such moratoriums aren't extended into the new year.

Beyond the toll of the virus itself, the economic fallout has been devastating for the poor. Between six and eight million people have fallen below the federal poverty line since March (although that measure is an old and broken standard). The true numbers are undoubtedly far higher. The last 38 weeks have seen unemployment claims greater than the worst week of the Great Recession of 2007-2008. Some economists are now talking about a possible quick bounce back once the virus is controlled and yet the long-term damage is only beginning to reveal itself. After all, 10 years after the Great Recession, a time when little in the way of long-term relief was provided, the majority of workers had still not recovered from it. That this crisis is already significantly deeper and wider should give us pause as we consider what the next decade will look like if this country doesn't alter its bleak course.

The fissures in our society were vast before Covid-19 hit and they've only broadened. A vaccine will address the most visible of them, but we as a nation will continue to stumble from crisis to crisis until we learn the most important lesson this moment can teach: that our yet-to-be-United States will only heal as a society when every person's needs are met. In a pandemic, one person without food, water, healthcare, or housing puts everyone at risk. The same is, in fact, true in non-pandemic times, for a society riven by poverty and deprivation will always be unstable and vulnerable.

Martin Luther King once told a crowd in St. Louis that "we must learn to live as brothers or perish together as fools." Today, the balance is tipping perilously toward the latter category, as Congress painfully debates a thoroughly anemic relief bill that promises little for most Americans and sets a dangerous precedent for the coming months. In a recent letter to Joe Manchin, the self-proclaimed "centrist" senator from West Virginia, Reverend William Barber II (my co-chair on the Poor People's Campaign) wrote:

"I am ashamed of this nation. I know you want to do the right thing, and Republicans are tying your hands, but please don't call this a 'centrist plan.' It's more cynical than centrist. It's damn near criminal that millions are hurting, billionaires are getting richer, sick people are dying, poverty is expanding, and the Senate can't do the right thing."

Indeed, the most important things to note in the coming stimulus bill are these: it protects corporations (that have not protected their workers) from any accountability or legal responsibility; it continues to bail out the rich, not the rest of us, with no provisions for stimulus checks and insufficient funding to states and municipalities; it lowers unemployment benefits to $300 per week (based on wages of $7.50 an hour) rather than $600 per week (based on $15 an hour); it is not only significantly less than the nation needs, but less than what was on offer months ago. The cynicism of this relief bill lies in the way it diminishes life for political gain and corporate profit and in the false contention that this is the most that's available to us, the best the nation can do.

The Ghosts of Christmas Present

Call it a cruel stroke of history that Congress should be deliberating on the welfare of millions only a few weeks before Christmas, especially since so many of the key players call themselves "Christians." This holiday season and the winter beyond it promise to be a long, dark portal to who knows where, as temperatures drop, Covid-19 cases continue to rise, and poverty and homelessness are transformed into so many more death certificates. The timing of Congress's new "relief" bill is particularly wicked if, as a Christian, you were to remember the details of Jesus's birth in that manger in Bethlehem.

After all, he was born a homeless refugee to an unmarried teenage mother and had to flee to Egypt with his family as a baby because the ruling authorities already deemed that this poor Palestinian Jewish boy would grow up to be a threat to the established order of injustice. But the powers and principalities of his day were never the only ones who mattered. There were always those who recognized in his birth that, to right the wrongs of society, to protect the lives of countless innocent victims, another way was possible, if society started with the poor and marginalized, not with those already full to the brim.

It's too bad that some of the congressional representatives who call themselves Christian are so unwilling to take a moment to consider the homeless revolutionary who was long ago sent to lead a moral movement from below. They should remember that the story of Christmas celebrates the birth of a poor, brown-skinned leader who, in the Gospel of Luke, is born to "scatter those who are proud, bring down rulers from their thrones, but lift up the humble. He fills the hungry with good things but sends the rich away empty."

In a time when more children are on the brink of being born into poverty, homelessness, and state-sanctioned violence, rather than, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "compress our abundance into the overfed mouths" of the wealthy and corporations, Americans would do well to recognize that scarcity could vanish and that it's time to address systemic inequality.

Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.

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 Liz Theoharis

A tipping point for fossil fuels: How to stop big energy before the threshold of total catastrophe

As Donald Trump gave in to the demand that the transition process to the Biden years officially begin, the administration and its fossil-fuel allies doubled down on their efforts to implement destructive environmental policies that President Biden might try to reverse. Those initiatives have included a campaign to jump-start oil drilling in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; the approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of the long-delayed Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline in Minnesota; and a push by utility companies to obtain funding and permits for the construction of 235 gas-fired power plants, each with a 30-year life expectancy.

In response, horrified progressives have sought to pressure the president-elect to appoint officials committed to blocking these and other similar projects. But the strategy of pressuring leading Democrats hasn't worked particularly well for environmentalists in the past and doesn't seem to be working now. Despite the movement's full-court press for a real environmentalist presence in the administration, Biden designated Congressman Cedric Richmond as his "liaison" with that very movement. Richmond voted in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline and, among Democrats in the House, he was the fifth-largest recipient of fossil-fuel cash.

Fortunately, a more promising strategy for defeating new fossil-fuel projects has been quietly bearing fruit, even in the Trump era. Climate and Indigenous organizers have been attacking Big Energy companies and their investors, using economic pressure, boycotts, lawsuits, and disruptive direct-action tactics to impede drilling, interrupt the transportation of oil and gas, and choke off the flow of financing to, and insurance for, such projects. This multipronged strategy has been so surprisingly successful that the companies themselves -- especially their sources of funding -- have begun divesting from fossil-fuel extraction and infrastructure. As our desperately overheated planet continues setting records, understanding the largely unnoticed success of recent resistance movements is crucial if we hope to prevent total ecological collapse.

Why the Fossil-Fuel Industry Is Vulnerable, But the End of Fossil Fuels Isn't Inevitable

The fossil-fuel industry and its champions in Congress recently complained that financial institutions were "discriminating against America's energy sector." Specifically, banks were "folding to activist environmental groups' pressure" by adopting "policies against investing in new oil and gas operations." Trump's Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) responded by trying to force Wall Street to fund drilling in the Arctic Refuge and undertake other new fossil-fuel initiatives.

Why have the banks suddenly become so unwilling to invest in a longtime favorite sector of theirs? One reason is that easy-to-access fossil fuels are getting scarcer. In this era of "extreme" energy, companies have found themselves investing striking amounts of Wall Street capital (and wreaking environmental devastation) to find, extract, and transport hydrocarbon deposits from deep oceans, the Arctic, oil sands, and shale. At a time when oil prices were reliably above $80 per barrel, such projects were enormously profitable. But the fracking boom of the Obama years burst that bubble, with oil prices dropping as low as $40 per barrel by 2015 and remaining well under $80 during the first three years of the Trump administration. Meanwhile, renewable energy sources (especially wind) were growing cheaper by the month and siphoning off investment capital, further reducing the demand for carbon-based power.

The global spread of Covid-19 tanked energy demand, turning the drop in oil prices into a nosedive. The pandemic itself, the economic lockdowns, the lack of travel that went with them, and a Saudi-Russian price war drove oil to a calamitous low of $19 per barrel in April 2020. The result was widespread bankruptcies among shale producers and weakening viability among major banks saddled with $300 billion in shaky hydrocarbon loans. To prevent further losses, those banks started to withhold funding for new projects, while oil companies wrote down the value of their reserves, implicitly acknowledging that many of them may never be extracted. A number of experts are now predicting that the "fracking revolution" has entered a period of terminal decline.

This potntially dire situation helps explain the latest Trump initiatives. In order to lock in the next generation of major fossil-fuel projects, the industry's partisans must convince the major oil companies to borrow and invest the many billions of dollars needed to complete them. They must also convince or coerce increasingly reluctant banks to fund the projects and induce insurers to underwrite ventures that are enormously risky.

This is a daunting but not impossible undertaking. The history of capitalism is strewn with the carcasses of major industries that fell into terminal crisis and were overtaken by new competitors. When it came to manufacturing, water power was replaced by electric power, just as fossil-fueled transportation replaced horses. But history is also littered with industries that somehow survived the challenge of apparently superior substitutes. The nuclear power industry, for instance, has survived despite its monumental costs, poor performance, and the environmental catastrophes associated with it. The reason: the U.S. government invested vast resources in it, forced other institutions to do the same, and suppressed political and economic resistance to it.

The same thing could happen with fossil fuels. The major carbon corporations wield so much power and remain so deeply embedded in the U.S. economy that they can call on governments for subsidies to keep them afloat, no matter the economic (let alone environmental) irrationality of continued fossil-fuel production. Trump's gambit in the Arctic Refuge, like his entire energy policy, has been anchored by attempts to increase such subsidies and so prolong the fossil-fuel era. The industry giants are also using the current crisis to acquire bankrupt competitors at low prices and consolidate production into a ruling oligopoly. The survivors could emerge even more powerful and so potentially even more capable of demanding handouts from the public.

Why Fossil Fuels Might Be Defeated

Ironically, the Trump administration's latest initiatives on behalf of fossil fuels also reveal how the industry can be defeated. Because investors are increasingly reluctant to fund troubled extraction and infrastructure projects, the industry has enlisted the U.S. government to force them to do so. The Arctic Refuge, a pristine wilderness area in Alaska where the Trump administration's OCC and the industry have, absurdly enough, invoked anti-discrimination law (alleging discrimination against both fossil-fuel producers and Indigenous Alaskans) to try to compel the banks to invest, is the most obvious case of this.

Their desperation reflects just how effective the resistance to fossil-fuel projects has been in recent years. All across the U.S. and Canada, climate and Indigenous organizers have successfully raised the level of risk attached to such investments. The industry is highly vulnerable to delays in both drilling and the construction of the transportation infrastructure necessary to deliver oil and gas. Delays raise production costs, while creating long-term uncertainty about the competitiveness of fossil fuels. Green resistance movements have created a credible threat of chronic delays to and interruptions of such projects, leading major lenders to begin shifting from reluctance-to-invest to outright refusal.

The OCC's efforts to strong-arm lenders are based on its recent finding "that some of the nation's largest banks had stopped doing business altogether with one or more major energy industry categories." As Alaskan lawmakers put it grimly, the banks were increasingly "folding to activist environmental groups' pressure."

Why has that pressure worked? By obstructing drilling and the construction of infrastructure (especially pipelines and power plants), the green movement has added to the industry's operating costs in increasingly bad times, while leaving investors fearing the risks now associated with those projects. In this way, it's won victories, even in a moment when the Trump administration was aggressively promoting fossil fuels, when a far-right majority controlled the Supreme Court, and when most congressional Democrats were sitting on their hands.

The movement has applied four mutually reinforcing strategies that, together, have often succeeded in blocking or at least delaying such projects and, in doing so, have rendered them ever less viable.

First, resistance groups mounted disruptive protests at extraction sites and along the routes of proposed oil and natural gas pipelines. Actions against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access (DAPL) pipelines, led by Indigenous communities seeking to protect their lands from devastation, have been the most visible examples of this. In addition to forcing months of delays in construction, these on-site protests inspired a broader movement against fossil fuels and gave added impetus to demands for regulators, judges, and politicians to intervene.

Second, the movement targeted regulators in an effort to prevent or postpone the issuing of permits for the projects. Even during the Obama era, federal regulators had mostly acted as "rubber stamps" for new fossil fuel projects. But the Standing Rock Sioux campaign against DAPL successfully pressured the Army Corps of Engineers to announce a new environmental review of the pipeline, delaying it until Trump took office.

Third, the movement has filed lawsuits based on industry violations of the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other laws. Such suits often challenged the validity of permits already issued, which slowed down industry operations and provided the movement with an alternative choke point when regulators and politicians proved unresponsive.

Finally, it targeted the "money pipeline," pressuring banks, insurers, and other large institutions to divest from fossil fuels. Initially, this strategy was largely symbolic, but no longer. It's now adding to the financial difficulties of Big Energy. Shell Oil Company, for instance, recently labeled the divestment movement a "material risk." In the case of the Arctic Refuge, the movement's pressure on Wall Street has made big loans harder to obtain and also led investment firms to put pressure on insurance companies to steer clear of projects there.

This four-pronged strategy has yielded many victories and now poses a credible threat to future fossil-fuel projects. In July 2020, for instance, the business media announced a cascade of ominous news affecting four important pipelines:

  • A federal judge ruled that the DAPL permit was in violation of NEPA and ordered a time-consuming full environmental review. Though the pipeline had been successfully built in North Dakota despite much resistance, it is now at risk of being permanently closed anyway.
  • An Indigenous landowners' lawsuit arguing that a second North Dakota pipeline, Marathon Oil's Tesoro High Plains line, illegally trespassed on their territory led the Bureau of Indian Affairs to order its closing after 67 years of operation.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling by a Montana district court judge that had stopped construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
  • Dominion Energy and Duke Energy cancelled their Atlantic Coast pipeline project "after years of delays and ballooning costs."

In response to that last cancellation, Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette complained that "the obstructionist environmental lobby has successfully killed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline." His attitude reflected a growing exasperation among industry leaders who have recently decried the "rising tide of protests, litigation, and vandalism" against pipelines and warned that the movement is reaching a new "level of intensity" with "more opponents" who are "better organized."

Indeed, the resistance has increased pessimism among industry executives and their investors. According to Bloomberg News, typically a gauge of Wall Street sentiments, the core big energy companies are ever more often concluding that "the mega-projects of the past are no longer feasible in the face of unprecedented opposition to fossil fuels and the infrastructure that supports them."

A Tipping Point?

The July decisions on the two North Dakota pipelines were especially significant since they threatened already operating projects. As one former pipeline executive put it, this meant that even projects that successfully weathered a storm of protests and secured the necessary permits to operate remained vulnerable and might be shuttered long before repaying their immense debts. With that prospect, "I think it's going to be incredibly difficult for anybody to invest in any kind of [fossil-fuel] infrastructure." Echoing his view, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum warned that the DAPL ruling might be "a tipping point, which actually could really cripple production in North Dakota."

Even if the industry ultimately wins some of its current battles, it might not be able to keep investors on board. The prospect that some future judicial decision could imperil their existing investments deprives them of "certainty from the government," as one industry lobbying group warned in March. This threat is compounded by the prospect that, in the Biden years to come, other parts of the government may finally begin taking action to stop climate destruction, which could leave fossil-fuel assets "stranded."

If the green movement can continue to disrupt the certainty that investing in oil fields and pipelines will return big profits, count on this: capitalists will begin to desert fossil fuels big time. Billionaire investment strategist Jeremy Grantham predicts a tipping point in the near future. He expects that investors will respond to the mounting threats to the fossil-fuel industry "very slowly" for a while and then "all at once." The point of resistance, then, is to increase the delays, closures, and disruptions that make fossil fuels a risky investment, therefore ensuring that the "all at once" tipping point arrives before humanity crosses the threshold of irreversible catastrophe.

What does all this mean for the current movement to win a Green New Deal? Electing pro-GND candidates has helped place it on the legislative agenda, but the movement must avoid the trap of investing all its energy and resources in electoral campaigns and lobbying. The Democratic Party leadership, including President-elect Biden, has mocked the Green New Deal and committed itself instead to a dangerous "all of the above" energy policy that includes plenty of oil, gas, and nuclear power. Even if Democrats were to win a Senate majority from the two January run-off elections in Georgia, Green New Deal legislation would remain a hard lift at best.

The environmental movement can, however, still move this country closer to a Green New Deal through the very same strategy that brought it victories during the Obama and Trump eras. By obstructing fossil-fuel projects at every turn, it can deprive the industry of the Wall Street investments it needs and lead private investors to view renewables, ever cheaper to produce, as a safer option. The government itself will be forced to invest in renewables in order to meet society's energy needs and provide jobs to replace those lost when fossil-fuel projects are blocked, as the climate movement has long demanded. Direct resistance to fossil fuels is the shortest and surest path to a renewable energy transition. When you make the building of more pipelines and gas-powered plants so much harder, you also make the Green New Deal and a livable planet so much more possible.

Richard Lachmann is professor of sociology at the State University of New York, Albany, and author of First-Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Powers (Verso, 2020). Michael Schwartz is distinguished teaching professor of sociology (emeritus) at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. Kevin Young is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Schwartz and Young are the co-authors, with Tarun Banerjee, of Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It (Verso, 2020).

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 Richard Lachmann, Michael Schwartz, and Kevin Young

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