TomDispatch

The military's failing war against Covid-19

Herd immunity? Don't count on it. Not if that "herd" is the U.S. military.

According to news reports, at least a third of active-duty military personnel or those in the National Guard have opted out of getting the coronavirus vaccine. That figure, by the way, doesn't even include American troops stationed around the world, many of whom have yet to be offered the chance to be vaccinated. As a Navy spouse whose husband has moved to five separate U.S. duty stations in the decade we've been together, one thing is hard for me to imagine: an administration pledging to do everything it can to beat this pandemic has stopped short of using its executive powers to ensure that our 2.3 million armed forces members are all vaccinated.

From the point of view of those in the military refusing the vaccine, there's a simple reality (or perhaps I mean surreality) to this situation. There's so much disinformation about Covid-19 and the vaccination programs meant to deal with it floating around, particularly in the world of social media, that no one should be surprised that a third of the military here has flatly refused the shots. Even public efforts of the armed forces to dispel myths about the vaccine have not made a dent in these figures. For example, the decision of Army commanders at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to develop a local podcast on the subject and create what they call "vaccine ambassadors" in their own ranks have still left them facing an uphill battle. (Vaccine acceptance at that base was, as of February, below 50%.)

And note as well that vaccination rates are lowest among young soldiers. Sadly enough, in the midst of this country's incipient fourth wave of the disease, it's younger people who are increasingly catching it. Keep in mind that the military is disproportionately made up of evangelical Christians, a population among whom vaccine skepticism and resistance are already rampant. And take my word for it, much of the toxic rhetoric floating around American social media on such subjects is already seeping into the military's command culture as well.

In the communities where my husband and I have worked since the pandemic hit these shores, for example, I've met one commander who believes that God, not a vaccine, will decide whether he lives or dies. Another young officer I ran into believes that the risk of side effects from such vaccines outweighs any risk from the virus itself. Such attitudes are also sweeping into the larger military community, which is why a military spouse and mother assured me that our immune system is capable of beating the virus, no vaccine needed.

Reactions like theirs suggest how hard it will be, not just in the military, but in the country at large, to achieve "herd immunity." Sadly, despite the quarantining of those who test positive for the coronavirus, there has been far less action within the military (as in American society at large) to contain those who could become vectors for the disease than would be desirable, though it's long been known that asymptomatic spread is a significant contributor to the pandemic.

What stuns me as a military spouse is how little the Pentagon — a distinctly top-down organization that operates by command, not wish — is doing about the problem of troops opting out of being vaccinated. Why isn't Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin more forcefully denouncing those within the military community who discourage vaccination and don't get vaccinated themselves? What better use of his public position than to protect the lives of those troops being offered the vaccine, as well as those military personnel and their families who, as yet, have no access to such shots, and civilians still vulnerable to the virus in military communities around the world? Why isn't every commander photographing himself or herself getting a needle in the arm?

It's true that the military can't order troops to be vaccinated (as with many other vaccines) because the Federal Drug Administration has not yet officially "approved" any of the Covid-19 vaccines except under an "emergency-use authorization." And despite calls to do so by some Democratic lawmakers, President Biden has not made such shots mandatory for all military members and seems reluctant to do so in the future.

However, as Nation journalist Andrew McCormick has explained, there are many things the military could still do (but isn't doing) until such a moment arrives. These include offering paid time off, financial bonuses, and upgrades in military healthcare plans as incentives to those willing to get vaccinated. So far, there's no evidence that the Pentagon (which I reached out to on the subject without response) is willing to move in such a direction. Sadly, it seems that the health of our military, their families, and the communities they live and serve in just isn't the foremost concern of either the high command or an administration that in other areas has been impressive in its response to the pandemic.

Vaccine Passports? Not in This Military

Under such circumstances, the U.S. military, whose members have already sustained hundreds of thousands of cases of Covid-19, poses an ongoing threat not just to its own communities or Americans more generally, but to the world. It could lend a hand elsewhere in spreading a deadly virus that has to date killed more than 560,000 Americans and 2.9 million other people around the world.

Lack of testing and contact tracing make it impossible to tell just how big a role the military already plays in spreading the virus, but hundreds of thousands of service members and those associated with them, including family members and contractors, have gotten it. By one count, despite the youth and health of the military, about 0.9% of total recorded U.S. coronavirus cases to date are among its members, its contractors, or its dependent family members — a military community that comprises roughly .7% of the population. That means it's definitely pulling its weight when it comes to contributing to recorded cases around the country.

Such cases and deaths among the troops (and those associated with them) have been due in no small part to the Department of Defense's negligence in keeping its own personnel safe from the virus. For that, you can blame, at least in part, sloppy, piecemeal safety protocols and the continued circulation of troops from one station to another around the country and the world. It's not even clear whether the 3,000 military personnel assigned to vaccinate American civilians at hundreds of sites globally have themselves received the vaccine.

Consider it an irony, then, that the military's insistence on training its troops to fill a variety of roles — in other words, on rotating them through various garrisons and jobs during their careers — is meant to prepare them for a situation in which national security threats might not allow that sort of circulation to continue. With more than half a million Americans already dead from an easy-to-spread disease (more than the dead from both world wars, Vietnam, and the 9/11 attacks combined), what better moment than this to make sure that the troops stay put for a while? Why not order that each member of the armed forces assigned to rotate among duty stations have a vaccine passport? But no such luck. Not in this military. Not now.

And that's not all. In many cases, there is no vaccine available even for service members stationed at bases overseas who actually want to be vaccinated. For example, at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where nearly 60,000 troops and their families are currently stationed, only key personnel like medical workers and food staff have received vaccinations so far. In some cases, even where first doses have been administered, second doses are simply not available. Only about 20% of the U.S. forces stationed in South Korea, a country known for its successful management of the virus, had been vaccinated by mid-March.

At a time when the United States has achieved an average rate of three million inoculations daily and more than a third of U.S. adults have already received at least one shot, lack of military access should be (but isn't) considered shameful.

And keep in mind that the dangers of a significantly unvaccinated military are high. Given their jobs and the proximity of their homes to U.S. military installations, a striking number of people have little choice but to come in contact with American military personnel. I'm thinking now of the hundreds of millions of civilians living in the many countries where the United States military now operates, often from significant-sized military bases. When it comes to the dangers of Covid-19 spreading, add in Americans living in close proximity to the 440 military bases in this country.

In nations where the virus remains uncontained, unvaccinated American troops are both threatened and threatening. Afghanistan and Iraq, where the United States has been at war for the better part of two decades, are no exceptions. As elsewhere, it's unclear how many of the approximately 6,000 U.S. troops (and thousands of American contractors attached to that military) still stationed in those countries are vaccinated.

My Life in Pandemic America

Now, let me turn to my own family. My husband is a naval officer and we're privileged. We have three graduate degrees between us and dual incomes. I can do most of my job as a clinical social worker serving people from the armed forces and war-afflicted countries at home. My husband recently transferred from a remarkably pandemic-exposed Pentagon to a civilian agency post where he can also largely work from home (except — sigh — when someone from the Pentagon must be greeted in person). We've been lucky to be able to juggle the work and childcare demands of this pandemic period largely from the safety of our rural home. We're both vaccinated as well.

And yet, we're worried. For his job, my husband has had to calculate the risk to life of countless real and potential military catastrophes. He's also focused professionally on damage control when war-traumatized troops drive drunk, beat their wives, or abuse their children. He carries with him memories and fears of violence, most of it from within the armed forces. Given the unnecessary threats to life and limb he's witnessed through his work, he's vigilant about our family not being exposed any more than necessary to the threat of Covid-19.

All of this means that we've remained relatively isolated in our new home. In this pandemic year-plus, we haven't attended events in the community, eaten in restaurants, gone to friends' houses for dinner, or traveled at all. And yes, we're lucky because we're so untypical of most of our military. With so much at stake, its leadership needs to focus on containing the virus within its ranks in a way it simply hasn't, particularly with more contagious variants of the disease spreading rapidly.

I wish that President Biden would listen to the small group of lawmakers currently pressing his administration for greater safety within the military and for him to use his executive powers to mandate vaccinations among the troops. I wish he would devote as much effort and time to ensuring that military bases carried out their vaccination efforts in a competent and accountable manner, as his administration has in so many civilian locales throughout this country.

Imagine what it would mean for troops and families to pose no more than a negligible risk when it comes to the transmission of this virus. At least that would allow us to check off one major risk to health and life on the list of our mounting human rights abuses as a country and to go back to the long project of reckoning with the costs of endless armed conflict around the world.

Copyright 2021 Andrea Mazzarino

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.

Andrea Mazzarino, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded Brown University's Costs of War Project. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States as a mass-killing machine

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

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

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

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

Have Gun — Will Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cornering the Arms Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

Far, Far from Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

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

The looming risk of a new cold war

The future isn't what it used to be. As a teenager in the 1970s, I watched a lot of TV science fiction shows, notably Space: 1999 and UFO, that imagined a near future of major moon bases and alien attacks on Earth. Movies of that era like Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey envisioned colossal spaceships and space stations featuring international crews on mind-blowing missions to Jupiter and beyond. Who'd have thought that, 20 years after Kubrick's alternate reality of 2001, we humans would effectively be marooned on a warming "sixth extinction" planet with no moon bases and, to the best of my knowledge, no alien attacks either.

Sure, there's been progress of a sort in the heavens. Elon Musk's Space X may keep going down in flames, but the Chinese now have their very own moon rocks. As the old-timey, unmanned Voyager probe continues to glide beyond our solar system, Mars is a subject for research by new probes hailing from the United Arab Emirates, China, and the U.S. Meanwhile, the International Space Station continues conducting research in low-earth orbit.

As with space exploration, so, too, with America's military. What amazes me most in 2021 is how much of its structure and strategy resembles what held sway in 1981 when I joined the Air Force as a college student in ROTC. Instead of futuristic starship troopers flying around with jetpacks and firing lasers, the U.S. military is still essentially building the same kinds of weaponry we were then. They're newer, of course, glitzier, if often less effective, but this country still has a Navy built around aircraft carriers, an Air Force centered on fighter jets and stealth bombers, and an Army based on tanks, helicopters, and heavy brigades. Admittedly, that Army may soon spend $20 billion on "augmented reality goggles" for the troops. (Perhaps those goggles will be programmed so that "reality" always looks like we win.)

As in the days of the old Cold War — and we may indeed be heading into a new cold war in 2021 — America is even witnessing a $100-billion revival of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, weapons that were vulnerable by the 1960s and obsolete by the 1980s. Consider them doubly-obsolete and no less escalatory in the 2020s. And despite having an ever larger and overly secretive military within the military, Special Operations Command, today's forces are generally structured in a way eerily similar to those I joined two generations ago. Think of it as the Pentagon's version of science fiction in which stasis rules instead of progress.

It's true, of course, that, thanks to the vanity of our last president, a new Space Force has been added to the services (though without moon bases, alien interceptors, or much of anything else yet). And one sci-fi-style "advance," drone warfare, has become increasingly automated and unbounded. Otherwise, this country's war song of 2021 remains much the same as 2001 or even 1981. It still has a force structure designed first and foremost to deter and defeat another great power like China and Russia, the very bogeymen I first raised my right hand to defend America against 40 years ago. Indeed, the Cold War is simply being rebooted and rebranded for a new century, a century more likely to be China's than America's.

Nowadays, instead of speaking about the "containment" of communism and the Soviet Union, as in the Cold War, the talk is of prevailing in "near-peer" conflicts. (Note how the U.S. military may have near-peers but is ultimately peerless, since there can't be any question that we're number one, militarily speaking.) Who are those "near-peers" so intent on challenging America and spoiling our freedom-driven version of imperialism? China and Russia, mainly, with Iran and North Korea tossed in as minor-league risks. Again, for my 1981 junior military self, it's déjà vu all over again. Iran as a perfidious enemy? Check. Russia and China as autocratic menaces? Check. An unpredictable North Korea? Check.

Thinking about this the other day, I realized that the generals and admirals currently making force-structure decisions for our military are my contemporaries. They're men (and a few women) who, like me, are in their late fifties and early sixties. They came of age as I did after the calamity of the Vietnam War and largely agree, I assume, that President Ronald Reagan's defense buildup of the 1980s was instrumental in the collapse of the Soviet Union and America's putative victory in the Cold War. They're still going with what they know, and what they know are aircraft carriers, fighter jets, and tanks, with plenty of nukes thrown in as what still passes for a "deterrent."

Is this a classic case of a known tendency among military commanders to prepare for the next war by refighting the last one? Or is there even more at work here? And if, by the way, this country supposedly won the last Cold War roughly 30 years ago, why is our military so earnestly preparing to contest it again, using essentially the same weapons and mindset? Why risk refighting a war you've already won?

Before tackling these questions, consider the moment when I joined the military. In 1981, America's armed forces were still recovering from the trauma of defeat in Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia). And if there was one thing the Pentagon knew for sure, it was this: it didn't want to repeat the disaster of the Vietnam War ever again. The safe way to go was to focus on the Cold War against — President Ronald Reagan's term — the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union. Such a course had the particular benefit of feeding and fattening the military-industrial complex in the Reagan era without the need to fight another disastrous counterinsurgency war.

Fast forward to 2021. Curiously enough, America's armed forces are once again recovering from the trauma of a conflict — the "war on terror" — that, over nearly 20 years, has largely been lost. For most Pentagon officials, repeating disasters like Iraq and Afghanistan ad infinitum would be anything but a desirable course. So, once again, it's back to the past, an all-too-comfortable return to planning for future wars against near-peer threats.

Instead of unconventional warfare against so-called asymmetrical foes (think Islamist militias with roadside bombs), we're back to relatively symmetrical warfare using staggeringly expensive conventional weaponry, as well as skills and mindsets that have the concomitant benefit of justifying huge Pentagon budgets long into the future. Think of it as a win-win situation for all, or so the U.S. military evidently now believes. And if the expected war never comes, at least that military will be replenished with lots of new weaponry (at considerable taxpayer expense).

Of Military Pathologies

I mentioned I was (and remain) a sci-fi fan. In the 1970s, in fact, I avidly watched reruns of the original Star Trek. Lately, one episode, "A Taste of Armageddon," has been on my mind. It featured two planets, Eminiar VII and Vendikar, at war with each other for 500 years. Here was the catch: those planets no longer used real weapons. Instead, they fought bloodlessly with computer-simulated attacks, even as citizens marked as "dead" had to report to disintegration chambers in a bizarre ritual meant to keep the peace through a computer-driven holocaust. The peoples of these two planets had become so accustomed to endless war that they couldn't imagine an alternative, especially one that ended in a negotiated peace.

So many years later, I can't help thinking that our country's military establishment has something in common with the leaders of Eminiar VII and Vendikar. There's so much repetition when it comes to America's wars — with little hope of negotiated settlements, little talk of radically different approaches, and a remarkably blasé attitude toward death — especially when it's largely the death of others; when foreign peoples, as if on another planet, are just "disintegrated," whether by monster bombs like MOAB or more discrete Hellfire missile strikes via remotely piloted drones.

What gives? Right now, America's military leaders are clearly turning back to the war they'd prefer to be fighting, the one they think they can win (or at least eternally not lose). A conventional warlike state vis-à-vis those near-peers seems to play to their skills. It's also a form of "war" that makes loads of money for the military-industrial complex, driving lucrative acquisition decisions about weaponry in a remarkably predictable fashion.

Near-peer "war" remains largely a fantasy set of operations (though with all-too-real dangers of possible conflagrations to come, right up to nuclear disaster). In contrast, real war, as in this century's terror wars, is a realm of chaos. So much the better to keep things as predictable as possible. Fresh and original ideas about war (and peace) are unlikely to prove profitable for the military-industrial complex. Worse yet, at an individual level, they could damage one's chances for promotion or, on retirement, for future posts within the industrial part of that complex. It's a lot healthier to salute smartly, keep planning for a near-peer future, and conform rather than fall on one's sword for a dissenting idea (especially one related to peace and so to less money for the Pentagon).

A Lesson from Space: 1999

During the Reagan years, as a young lieutenant, I recall reading Tom Clancy's novel Red Storm Rising while on duty at the Air Force's Cheyenne Mountain Complex, the ultimate bomb shelter. Clancy envisioned a war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact that happily never happened in real life. Today's version of Red Storm Rising might be 2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and retired Admiral James Stavridis. The plot: a naval clash between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea escalates into a world war and devastating nuclear attacks. Miscalculation is the order of the day. In it, 2034 becomes a year of Armageddon.

That near-future war novel is obviously meant to be a warning of sorts, but it also reveals something potentially fatal about Washington's collective military and political mindset. We exaggerate the threats we face, ranging from our response to the 9/11 attacks to our present fears about China taking our place as the leader of the global pack. Thanks to such fears, we misinterpret the actions of others and, in response, dream of and plan for violent conflict instead of nonviolent accord. (Why is it that there are always "war games" but never "peace games"?) Yet even as we plan for war and invest mightily in its future, we continue to self-righteously claim that we seek peace.

This militaristic mindset made me recall an episode of Space: 1999 produced in 1974, near the tail end of the Vietnam War. In "War Games," the Earth's moon, now traveling freely through space thanks to an accident that blasted it out of orbit, nears a planet that seems ideal for human habitation. The intrepid crew stranded on Moonbase Alpha, led by its commander John Koenig (actor Martin Landau), is eager to colonize that planet but instead experiences a devastating attack.

The catch: that attack happens just in the minds of Koenig and his crew. The aliens on that planet, far more advanced than humans, live in peace but are capable of tapping the deepest fears and fantasies of the desperate humans, showing them just how incompatible they are with an alien species that knows neither war, hate, nor violence. Faced with such harrowing self-awareness, Koenig and his crew reluctantly decide to remain on the moon, their barbarism denying them the very sanctuary they seek.

Nearly half a century later, it seems that we're still stranded on Moonbase Alpha. It hardly occurs to us to question how the Pentagon's mad military scenarios about near-peer wars could indeed end in nuclear annihilation.

The "red storm" imagined in Tom Clancy's thriller never came to pass as the Soviet Union collapsed within five years of its publication. Will a cataclysmic war driven by intense rivalries between the U.S. and China (and/or Russia) also fail to come to pass, perhaps due to wise diplomacy and sound policy based on mutual tolerance and enlightened morality? Or is our fate to be ever more massive military budgets and incendiary provocations from the South China to the Baltic seas and so nuclear brinksmanship to the end of time?

The U.S. military's new emphasis on near-peer conflicts will undoubtedly help funnel trillions of dollars into yet more weaponry, including a revamped nuclear arsenal, but it does not bode well for reasoned diplomacy or anything like peace on this planet. Absent some fresh thinking at the Pentagon and elsewhere in this country, the alternative may well be that, sooner or later, our reborn cold war flares hot, perhaps this time destroying humanity's life on this planet.

Such an ending, lived with so endlessly but never experienced during that first Cold War, when schoolkids regularly prepared for Armageddon by "ducking and covering" under their desks, should be unthinkable and intolerable. It should be a plot line reserved for the most outlandish and farfetched fictional thrillers and nothing else. If only.

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.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular and a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals. His personal blog is Bracing Views.

The threat from within: Right-wing extremism lurks in the U.S. military

It was around noon and I was texting a friend about who-knows-what when I added, almost as an afterthought: "tho they seem to be invading the Capitol at the mo." I wasn't faintly as blasé as that may sound on January 6th, especially when it became ever clearer who "they" were and what they were doing. Five people would die due to that assault on the Capitol building, including a police officer, and two more would commit suicide in the wake of the event. One hundred forty police would be wounded (lost eye, heart attack, cracked ribs, smashed spinal disks, concussions) and the collateral damage would be hard even to tote up.

I'm not particularly sentimental about anyone-can-grow-up-to-be-president and all that — in 2017, anyone did — but damn! This was democracy under actual, not rhetorical, attack.

As the list of people charged in connection with that insurrection rose, ways of analyzing their possible motivations grew ever more creative: at least nine of the rioters who broke into the Capitol had a history of violence against women; almost 60% had had money troubles; and above all, 50, or 14.5%, of the 356 people arrested at last count, had military connections, as did the woman killed by a policeman that day. (Veterans and active-duty personnel account for 7.5% of the U.S. population.) More than a fifth of the arrested veterans have been charged with "conspiracy."

The need to understand why an estimated 800 people ransacked the Capitol, attacked the police, and threatened elected representatives, journalists, and the basic functioning of American democracy is both practical and emotional. Thinking that we know what motivated the rioters makes their rebellion feel a little more manageable (at least to me) and might just help prevent something like it from happening again.

Given my background — I've been writing about soldiers and veterans for years — my management technique has been to look at the military links to that assault.

I'm hardly alone. In one of the few times other than Veterans Day in this century when American journalists seem to have remembered that our military was crucial to our national experience, a number of them began covering that link. A regularly updated NPR list shows that almost all of those with military affiliations in the Capitol that day were veterans. Several had previously been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan; one had worked on presidential helicopters and so (like another of the rioters) would have had a top-secret security clearance; one, who wasn't actually at the Capitol but whom the FBI is eyeing for conspiracy charges, was on the staff of former congressman Ron Paul; and one had even been in the Peace Corps. Nearly all of them were men and nearly all were white. Two were Citadel cadets, but only two were active-duty personnel. (One of those had, in the past, come to work at a Navy yard in New Jersey decked out in a Hitler mustache and hairdo and reportedly made anti-Semitic comments daily. He got admonished for the mustache; the comments continued.)

I admit that I was surprised by all this, although I probably shouldn't have been. After all, last year, even in the age of Trump, the FBI had opened 68 investigations into domestic extremism involving current or former members of the military.

I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that many of those veterans were affiliated with the far-right Proud Boys or Oath Keepers and much has been made of why such groups would want to engage people with military experience who bring with them training, skills, possible access to weaponry, and the twisted credibility of government-issued hero status. Far less was said about why people in the military might be attracted to far-right groups.

The Link Between Extremist Culture and the Military

A week after the Capitol invasion, 14 Democratic senators wrote a letter calling on the Pentagon's Inspector General to investigate "white supremacy" and "extremism in the military." The next month, a House subcommittee held a hearing under the rubric "Alarming Incidents of White Supremacy in the Military — How to Stop It?" Meanwhile, on February 5th, the first Black secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, directed commanding officers at all levels to conduct a one-day stand-down before April 1st to address extremism in the military and provide training in avoiding involvement with extremist groups. At the same time, the Pentagon admitted that it didn't have a handle on the scope of the problem or what to do about it.

The link between extremist culture and the military goes way back, as do efforts to track and deal with it. The names of the groups have changed over the years — they used to sound German, now they sound moralistic — but the problem hasn't. For instance, in 2009, Operation Vigilant Eagle, an FBI program focused on the recruitment of veterans by white supremacist groups, came to light, and that same year a Department of Homeland Security assessment warned that "right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans" — returning, that is, from America's distant, never-ending wars. Conservative politicians, media personalities and veterans' groups found that DHS report insulting to veterans and got it withdrawn.

Keep in mind that active-duty service members are officially restricted in their political activities, so there were undoubtedly many still in uniform who didn't show up at the Capitol but would have liked to do so. And though the Proud Boys have focused their recruiting on the military and law enforcement, it's hardly necessary to join such loosely structured groups to support their ideology and aims. A 2019 Military Times survey, for example, found that 36% of military respondents had "witnessed examples of white supremacy and racist ideologies" in the ranks.

Military rules tend to delineate the rights soldiers don't have more than those they do, but Department of Defense Directive 1325.6 gives active-duty members the right to participate in political demonstrations as long as they are off base, out of uniform, within the United States, representing only themselves, and not slandering the president or high officials. However, activities like fundraising for, distributing the political material of, or wearing the totemic clothing of white supremacist and other extremist groups could indeed get you kicked out of the military, as could certain kinds of social media posts.

Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) has been pushing to track the social media activities of all enlistees and the Pentagon claims that it's looking for a "scalable way" to add that into background checks.

Members of the armed forces have a duty to report such behavior, though don't count on that, since it's probably seen as snitching. Commanders also have considerable leeway when it comes to how they might respond to the proscribed actions.

It goes without saying, of course, that soldiers are not supposed to engage in any kind of violence — except the violence they're ordered to take part in as soldiers.

That's Not Okay — ish

America's military was designed to be politically neutral and has prided itself on being nondiscriminatory and merit-based, traits theoretically crucial to maintaining an all-volunteer force (though in racial terms over the years it's been anything but, at least when it came to the high command). All branches now purport to screen for supremacist, extremist, or criminal-gang involvement at the time of enlistment and military leaders, who probably don't want troublemakers in their commands, are reportedly taking pains to confirm that such extremists will not be tolerated.

Except when they are.

The design of military justice makes it hard to track advocates of extremist violence, as there is no centralized record-keeping for such things and, often enough, such behavior is simply brushed aside.

In my own unscientific survey, I recently asked two active-duty soldiers and three Iraq War veterans if they had encountered right-wing extremism while in the service. Four initially said no — the fifth, a Black sailor, at one point had had a noose dangled in his face — but then began recounting tales of what was permitted or considered normal behavior: a U.S.-based paramedic talking about avoiding a Black neighborhood where he would encounter "animals"; a call from a friend and Stryker platoon leader in Germany who found arbeit macht frei, the slogan at the gates of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, carved into the interior of some of his unit's vehicles; a fellow recruit at basic training revealing a giant swastika on his back. He was soon sent packing, but had made it through the enlistment process where such things are supposed to be caught. (My source thought his quick dismissal came only because his training instructor was Black. He didn't consider such a response typical.)

Nobody I talked to was okay with any of this, but one active-duty soldier admitted, "When I was most brainwashed, I saw it as cathartic, being comfortable without having to worry about 'cancel culture.'"

Extremism in a World of Never-Ending War

Organizing within the military isn't easy. At least, it wasn't for antiwar activists during the Vietnam and Iraq War years (as I found out when researching my book, War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built). But maybe what's going on now among the soldiers of the far right isn't organizing as much as a signaling or sharing of interests and affinities, particularly on the Internet. Or maybe it's "self-radicalizing" — reading extremist material, following the websites of supremacist groups, or connecting on social media; what, in other circumstances, we might call educating yourself — which breeds sympathy, if not membership.

As separate as the military may seem from civilian culture, it's anything but immune to the vicious discord which now plagues this country. But the military was fertile territory for right-wing sympathies long before Donald Trump became president or the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers came along. The turning of the post-Vietnam War military into an all-volunteer force only seems to have exacerbated such tendencies. As an Army captain emailed me, "The military recruits heavily from the same population that extremist organizations do — socially isolated, downwardly mobile, and economically vulnerable young men." Jonathan Hutto, a Black veteran who challenged the racism he encountered in the Navy, wrote that his shipmates didn't need to be "inculcated with Racist-Fascist Ideology" because they had arrived primed for it by their families and communities.

A former captain in the Marines told me that veterans often find themselves battling with the VA over benefits and services they thought they'd been promised when they went to war and that leaves them embittered against the government. Their difficulty in even talking honestly about their war experiences, not to speak of the PTSD they may be experiencing, often leaves them feeling out of sync with the country — and so they become ready recruits for extremist and white supremacist groups that offer them a sense of belonging.

Active-duty service members also often feel betrayed by recruitment promises which never pan out and multiple deployments in distant war zones which accomplish little or nothing at all. Speaking of that sense of resentment, Garett Reppenhagen, executive director of Veterans For Peace, says, "They just can't pinpoint where it comes from. The frustration is legitimate. It's just focused wrongly."

Kathleen Belew, a historian much cited in the wake of the January 6th insurrection, studied the appeal to veterans of white-power groups in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. In her book Bring the War Home, she explains how they came to see the state as the enemy and patriotism as something other than defending the nation. The parallels to today, while striking, lack one reality of this moment: unlike in the Vietnam era, America's wars in this century have simply never ended and so continue to produce alienated veterans.

It's striking, after all, that the veterans who joined the Capitol insurrection weren't exactly kids. In fact, only seven military-connected rioters arrested so far are 30 or younger.

Unlike with Vietnam (long as it was), when wars never end but continue, as if on a Mobius strip of belligerency and repetitious deployments, there is no aftermath, no recovery. People now old enough to enlist have never known a United States not at war. As a result, the pressures now at play and producing extremism in the military could be seen as related to what one veteran I interviewed termed a larger "cultural project" that, however unexamined, is aimed at creating an ever-more-militarized (which also means an ever-more-extreme) society.

Here, war is sold, not just as acceptable, but as necessary to maintain the vaunted American way of life. Meanwhile, its actualities are largely cloaked from scrutiny until they shimmer into a very pricey item loved by both parties. It's called the Pentagon budget.

An Increasingly Militarized Heritage

However many military-related figures broke into the Capitol on January 6th, what if the tendency toward violent extremism is more endemic to that military than we'd like to think? What if the very purpose of such a military creates the conditions for the racism and violence we're now seeing? What if far-right radicals aren't some enemy out there but a seamless outgrowth of the institution we think of as so categorically American? And if all that's so, what have we really been thanking service members for, so devotedly all these years?

A military is, of course, innately hierarchical, authoritarian, and adversarial, and war, by definition, is terror. Tenets inculcated from basic training on — venerating tradition, idealizing heroism, valuing action for action's sake, equating masculinity with militarism, and thinking of anyone who disagrees with you as potentially treasonous — are eerily similar to the ideology of far-right groups. And don't forget this either: American wars of the past 70 years have functioned by reducing the enemy to gooks, sand n***s, and hajis (the last, a term of respect in Islam twisted into an epithet by American troops) — in other words, using baked-in racism to dehumanize enemies and make it easier to hate and kill them.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm by no means saying that everyone in the U.S. military is racist or enamored of violence, or that they condone or support racist, violent ideologies. What's true, however, is that the military's actions are based on dividing the world into friends and foes: the first to be protected out of all proportion to the threat, the second to be humiliated and defeated out of all proportion to the need — though, in this century, ironically enough, the defeated have turned out to be us.

Such overkill in attitude and approach naturally bleeds into society as a whole (even when its members are paying remarkably little attention to the wars being fought in distant lands). Of his country's treatment of Palestinians, the Israeli novelist David Grossman wrote, "I could not understand how an entire nation like mine, an enlightened nation by all accounts, is able to train itself to live as a conqueror without making its own life wretched."

Only a small crew of people in the military actually join radical right-wing groups and there's little question that its leadership is concerned about those who do. But there is an inheritance of violence in our increasingly militarized land that ought to concern us all, too.

Copyright 2021 Nan Levinson

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.

Nan Levinson's most recent book is War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built. A TomDispatch regular, she teaches journalism and fiction writing at Tufts University.

The American death spiral

Fifty-four years ago, standing at the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his now-famous "Beyond Vietnam" sermon. For the first time in public, he expressed in vehement terms his opposition to the American war in Vietnam. He saw clearly that a foreign policy defined by aggression hurt the poor and dispossessed across the planet. But it did more than that. It also drained this country of its moral vitality and the financial resources needed to fight poverty at home. On that early spring day, exactly one year before his assassination in 1968, Dr. King warned that "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death," a statement that should ring some bells in April 2021.

In his sermon, Dr. King openly wrestled with a thorny problem: how to advance nonviolent struggle among a generation of Black youth whose government had delivered little but pain and empty promises. He told the parishioners of Riverside Church that his years of work, both in the South and the North, had opened his eyes to why, as a practitioner of nonviolence, he had to speak out against violence everywhere — not just in the U.S. — if he expected people to take him at his word. As he explained that day:

"As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems… But they asked, and rightly so, 'what about Vietnam?' They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government."

A Global Pandemic Cries Out for Global Cooperation

In 2020, the planet was swept up in a devastating pandemic. Millions died, tens of millions suffered. It was a moment, in Reverend King's spirit, that would have been ideal for imagining new global approaches to America's ongoing wars of the past century. It would similarly have been the perfect moment to begin imagining global cooperative approaches to public health, growing debt and desperation, and intellectual property rights. This especially given that the Covid-19 vaccines had been patented for mega-profits and were available only to some on this suffering planet of ours, a world vulnerable to a common enemy in which the fault lines in any country threaten the safety of many others.

Internationally, at the worst moment imaginable, U.S.-backed institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund continued to demand billions of dollars in debt payments from impoverished countries in the Global South, only forgiving them when their governments fell into step behind the U.S. and Europe, as Sudan has recently done. Moreover, Washington had a golden opportunity when the search for a Covid-19 vaccine threatened to change patent laws and force pharmaceutical companies to work with low-income nations. Instead, the U.S. government backed exclusive deals with Big Pharma, ensuring that vaccine apartheid would become rampant in this country, as well as across the rest of the world. By late March, 90% of the nearly 400 million vaccines delivered had gone to people in wealthy or middle-income countries, with vaccine equity within those countries being a concern as well.

Another menacing development is the thematically anti-Chinese legislation being developed in Congress right now. Three weeks ago, just as the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was nearly across the finish line, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was quietly laying the groundwork for another major legislative package focused on further inflaming a rising cold war with China. For Republicans, legislative action on China is in theory an absolute bullseye, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already made it clear that his support for Schumer's bill will only come if it includes a large increase — once again — in "defense" spending.

The timing and tenor of this debate, steeped as it is in Sinophobia, economic brinkmanship, and military hawkishness, is more than troublesome. Just a few weeks ago, eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were gunned down in Atlanta by a man plagued by his own toxic mix of religious extremism, white supremacy, and sexism. This followed a year in which there were close to 4,000 documented anti-Asian hate incidents in this country, fueled by a president who blamed the Chinese for Covid-19 and regularly used racist nicknames for the pandemic like the "Chinese virus" and the "kung flu."

In addition, an aggressive and potentially militarized anti-China bill is irresponsible when tens of thousands continue to contract the virus daily here at home and we are only beginning to understand the long-term economic consequences of the pandemic. At a time when there are 140 million poor or low-income people in this country, a fully revived and funded war not against China but against poverty should be seen as both a moral responsibility and a material necessity. At least now, poverty seems to be getting some attention in the pandemic era, but how sad that it took the disastrous toll of Covid-19 on American jobs, housing, and nutrition to put poverty on the national agenda. Now that it's there, though, we can't allow it to be sidelined by short-sighted preparations for a new cold war that could get hot.

Cruel Manipulation of the Poor

An inhumane approach to foreign policy and especially wars in distant lands was only half of the spiritual death that Dr. King warned about back in 1967: the other half was how the militarization of this society and a distortion of its moral priorities had brought war and immiseration home. That was what he meant in his sermon when spoke about the "cruel manipulation of the poor."

In 1967, King saw how American soldiers were fighting in Vietnam "on the side of the wealthy and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor." That hell was being created both in the Agent Orange-saturated lands of Vietnam and Laos and, in a different fashion, in so many poor and abandoned communities in the United States.

Dr. King mourned the "brutal solidarity" of disproportionately poor Black, Brown, and white Americans fighting together against the poor in Vietnam, only to return to a nation parts of which were still committed to inequality, discrimination, and racism (despite the struggle and advances of the Civil Rights movement) and remarkably blind to their suffering. In those last years of the 1960s, he watched as the promise of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty was betrayed by massive investments in what President Dwight D. Eisenhower had first dubbed a "military-industrial complex," and in a reactionary narrative, which would only become more emboldened in the years to come, that blamed the poor for their poverty.

Sadly, the decades to follow would, in so many ways, affirm his fears. And yet — to note a spark of hope amid the pandemic gloom — the last year has finally awakened an earnest concern on the part of some in the government to revive the spiritual health of the nation by committing in significant ways to the material health of the poor.

Indeed, ARPA's investments in poor and low-income communities should be celebrated, but the question remains: Why is the Biden administration's Covid-19 legislation so historic and rare? Why is it so unprecedented for the U.S. to invest $1.9 trillion in our own people in a country that, in these last years, has squandered 53% of every federal discretionary dollar on the Pentagon? How is it that we've become so steeped in a militarized economy that we don't bat an eye when politicians propose more funding for the military, even as they say spending on human welfare is irresponsible and unaffordable?

In the lead-up to the passage of ARPA, stalwart old guard Republicans attacked the legislation. In an op-ed for the National Review, Senator Marco Rubio denounced increased welfare spending as "not pro-family" and repeated the tired myth that welfare, by supposedly creating dependency, actually breaks up the nuclear family. So immersed was Rubio in his disdain for the poor that he punctuated his piece with this nonsensical claim: "If pulling families out of poverty were as simple as handing moms and dads a check, we would have solved poverty a long time ago." Is it really necessary to affirm in 2021 that more money in people's pockets actually does mean less poverty?

Meanwhile, longtime senior Democratic economic adviser and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers argued that the Covid-19 bill was the "least responsible" policy in four decades. He had, of course, long been a champion of the austerity policies that helped lead to enormous increases in inequality and poverty in this country. (Many other economists dispute his claim.) It's telling as well that members of the Biden Administration have distanced themselves from him.

Pro-austerity and anti-poor economic policies promoted by influential figures like Rubio and Summers are, in part, what's kept America in a spiritual death spiral since the days of Dr. King. A country now constantly haunted by death has long been consumed by violence and crisis. Sometimes, it's the literal physical violence of another mass shooting, driven by rage, hate, and desperation, or the further militarization of the border, or the use of militarized police violence to clear the most vulnerable from homeless encampments. Other times it's policy violence, whether involving punitive work requirements for food stamps or the refusal to expand Medicaid and make healthcare available and affordable to all. And always, in the background, as Dr. King would certainly have noted, if he were giving his sermon today, is the violence of America's never-ending wars that have eaten so many trillion dollars and killed and displaced so many people in distant lands.

Of particular concern today is the potential death of democracy that the insurrection of January 6th at the Capitol seemed so ominously to signal. I will never forget listening to a long-time organizer in Flint, Michigan, explain that "before they took away our water, they had to take away our democracy."

This was true in the fight for racial justice, welfare, and decent wages during the days of Dr. King and it's no less true in our many human rights struggles today. After all, since 2020, at least 45 states have introduced voter suppression bills, with the recent one in Georgia being only the most egregious and publicized. Such legislation is being proposed and passed by extremist politicians who understand that limiting access to the ballot through racism and a demonization of the poor is the surest way to prevent real and lasting change.

A Moral Revolution of Values

Immediately after cautioning about the spiritual death of the nation in that classic sermon of his, Dr. King made an abrupt and hopeful turn, reminding his audience that a moral revolution of values was urgently needed and that "America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war."

As both a preacher and theologian, he was acutely aware of the story of Jesus. After all, Dr. King, like the Jesus of the Bible, knew that a transformation of society in the image of peace would involve a full-scale reordering of priorities, dependent on a willingness to reject a politics of death and embrace one of life.

For that to happen, however, society would need to be flipped right side up and that, in Jesus's time, in Dr. King's, or in our own, represents a herculean task, one never likely to happen based on the goodwill of those in power. It requires the collective efforts of a movement of people committed to saving the heart and soul of their society.

In this moment following Easter Sunday 2021, 53 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., may we listen to his concerns and honor his enduring hopes by committing ourselves to building exactly such a movement here and now.

Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis

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.

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

'Those who play with fire will get burned': How a dangerous game of chicken risks a globe-shaking war

The leaders of China and the United States certainly don't seek a war with each another. Both the Biden administration and the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping view economic renewal and growth as their principal objectives. Both are aware that any conflict arising between them, even if restricted to Asia and conducted with non-nuclear weapons — no sure bet — would produce catastrophic regional damage and potentially bring the global economy to its knees. So, neither group has any intention of deliberately starting a war. Each, however, is fully determined to prove its willingness to go to war if provoked and so is willing to play a game of military chicken in the waters (and air space) off China's coast. In the process, each is making the outbreak of war, however unintended, increasingly likely.

History tells us that conflicts don't always begin due to planning and intent. Some, of course, start that way, as was the case, for instance, with Hitler's June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union and Japan's December 1941 attacks on the Dutch East Indies and Pearl Harbor. More commonly, though, countries have historically found themselves embroiled in wars they had hoped to avoid.

This was the case in June 1914, when the major European powers — Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire — all stumbled into World War I. Following an extremist act of terror (the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo), they mobilized their forces and issued ultimatums in the expectation that their rivals would back off. None did. Instead, a continent-wide conflict erupted with catastrophic consequences.

Sadly, we face the possibility of a very similar situation in the coming years. The three major military powers of the current era — China, the United States, and Russia — are all behaving eerily like their counterparts of that earlier era. All three are deploying forces on the borders of their adversaries, or the key allies of those adversaries, and engaging in muscle-flexing and "show-of-force" operations intended to intimidate their opponent(s), while demonstrating a will to engage in combat if their interests are put at risk. As in the pre-1914 period, such aggressive maneuvers involve a high degree of risk when it comes to causing an accidental or unintended clash that could result in full-scale combat or even, at worst, global warfare.

Provocative military maneuvers now occur nearly every day along Russia's border with the NATO powers in Europe and in the waters off China's eastern coastline. Much can be said about the dangers of escalation from such maneuvers in Europe, but let's instead fix our attention on the situation around China, where the risk of an accidental or unintended clash has been steadily growing. Bear in mind that, in contrast to Europe, where the borders between Russia and the NATO countries are reasonably well marked and all parties are careful to avoid trespassing, the boundaries between Chinese and U.S./allied territories in Asia are often highly contested.

China claims that its eastern boundary lies far out in the Pacific — far enough to encompass the independent island of Taiwan (which it considers a renegade province), the Spratly and Paracel Islands of the South China Sea (all claimed by China, but some also claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines), and the Diaoyu Islands (claimed by both China and Japan, which calls them the Senkaku Islands). The United States has treaty obligations to Japan and the Philippines, as well as a legislative obligation to aid in Taiwan's defense (thanks to the Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress in 1979) and consecutive administrations have asserted that China's extended boundary claims are illegitimate. There exists, then, a vast area of contested territory, encompassing the East and South China Seas — places where U.S. and Chinese warships and planes increasingly intermingle in challenging ways, while poised for combat.

Probing Limits (and Defying Them)

The leaders of the U.S. and China are determined that their countries will defend what it defines as its strategic interests in such contested areas. For Beijing, this means asserting its sovereignty over Taiwan, the Diaoyu Islands, and the islands of the South China Sea, as well as demonstrating an ability to take and defend such territories in the face of possible Japanese, Taiwanese, or U.S. counterattacks. For Washington, it means denying the legitimacy of China's claims and ensuring that its leadership can't realize them through military means. Both sides recognize that such contradictory impulses are only likely to be resolved through armed conflict. Short of war, however, each seems intent on seeing how far it can provoke the other, diplomatically and militarily, without triggering a chain reaction ending in disaster.

On the diplomatic front, representatives of the two sides have been engaging in increasingly harsh verbal attacks. These first began to escalate in the final years of the Trump administration when the president abandoned his supposed affection for Xi Jinping and began blocking access to U.S. technology by major Chinese telecommunications firms like Huawei to go with the punishing tariffs he had already imposed on most of that country's exports to the U.S. His major final offensive against China would be led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who denounced that country's leadership in scathing terms, while challenging its strategic interests in contested areas.

In a July 2020 statement on the South China Sea, for instance, Pompeo slammed China for its aggressive behavior there, pointing to Beijing's repeated "bullying" of other claimants to islands in that sea. Pompeo, however, went beyond mere insult. He ratcheted up the threat of conflict significantly, asserting that "America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law" — language clearly meant to justify the future use of force by American ships and planes assisting friendly states being "bullied" by China.

Pompeo also sought to provoke China on the issue of Taiwan. In one of his last acts in office, on January 9th, he officially lifted restrictions in place for more than 40 years on U.S. diplomatic engagement with the government of Taiwan. Back in 1979, when the Carter administration broke relations with Taipei and established ties with the mainland regime, it prohibited government officials from meeting with their counterparts in Taiwan, a practice maintained by every administration since then. This was understood to be part of Washington's commitment to a "One China" policy in which Taiwan was viewed as an inseparable part of China (though the nature of its future governance was to remain up for negotiation). Reauthorizing high-level contacts between Washington and Taipei more than four decades later, Pompeo effectively shattered that commitment. In this way, he put Beijing on notice that Washington was prepared to countenance an official Taiwanese move toward independence — an act that would undoubtedly provoke a Chinese invasion effort (which, in turn, increased the likelihood that Washington and Beijing would find themselves on a war footing).

In the first high-level encounter between U.S. and Chinese officials in the Biden years, a meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18th and 19th, newly installed Secretary of State Antony Blinken used his opening remarks to lambaste the Chinese, expressing "deep concerns" over China's behavior in its mistreatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang Province, in Hong Kong, and in its increasingly aggressive approach to Taiwan. Such actions, he said, "threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability." Blinken has uttered similar complaints in other settings, as have senior Biden appointees to the CIA and Department of Defense. Tellingly, in its first months in office, the Biden administration has given the green light to the same tempo of provocative military maneuvers in contested Asian waters as did the Trump administration in its last months.

The Trump administration also took concrete actions on the military front, especially by increasing naval maneuvers in the South China Sea and in waters around Taiwan. The Chinese replied with their own strong words and expanded military activities. In response, for instance, to a trip to Taipei last September by Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Keith Krach, the highest-ranking State Department official to visit the island in 40 years, China launched several days of aggressive air and sea maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait. According to Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang, those maneuvers were "a reasonable, necessary action aimed at the current situation in the Taiwan Strait protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity." Speaking of that island's increasing diplomatic contact with the U.S., he added, "Those who play with fire will get burned."

Today, with Trump and Pompeo out of office, the question arises: How will the Biden team approach such issues? To date, the answer is: much like the Trump administration.

"Gunboat Diplomacy" Today

In the years leading up to World War I, it was common for major powers to deploy their naval forces in waters near their adversaries or near rebellious client states in that age of colonialism to suggest the likelihood of punishing military action if certain demands weren't met. The U.S. used just such "gunboat diplomacy," as it was then called, to control the Caribbean region, forcing Colombia, for example, to surrender the territory Washington sought to build a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Today, gunboat diplomacy is once again alive and well in the Pacific, with both China and the U.S. engaging in such behavior.

China is now using its increasingly powerful navy and coast guard on a regular basis to intimidate other claimants to islands it insists are its own in the East and South China Seas — Japan in the case of the Senkakus; and Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the case of the Spratlys and Paracels. In most instances, this means directing its naval and coast guard vessels to drive off the fishing boats of such countries from waters surrounding Chinese-claimed islands. In the case of Taiwan, China has used its ships and planes in a menacing fashion to suggest that any move toward declaring independence from the mainland will be met with a harsh military response.

For Washington in the Biden era, assertive military maneuvers in the East and South China Seas are a way of saying: no matter how far such waters may be from the U.S., Washington and the Pentagon are still not prepared to cede control of them to China. This has been especially evident in the South China Sea, where the U.S. Navy and Air Force regularly conduct provocative exercises and show-of-force operations intended to demonstrate America's continuing ability to dominate the region — as in February, when dual carrier task forces were dispatched to the region. For several days, the USS Nimitz and the USS Theodore Roosevelt, along with their accompanying flotillas of cruisers and destroyers, conducted mock combat operations in the vicinity of islands claimed by China. "Through operations like this, we ensure that we are tactically proficient to meet the challenge of maintaining peace and we are able to continue to show our partners and allies in the region that we are committed to promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific," was the way Rear Admiral Doug Verissimo, commander of the Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, explained those distinctly belligerent actions.

The Navy has also stepped up its patrols of destroyers in the Taiwan Strait as a way of suggesting that any future Chinese move to invade Taiwan would be met with a powerful military response. Already, since President Biden's inauguration, the Navy has conducted three such patrols: by the USS John S. McCain on February 4th, the USS Curtis Wilbur on February 24th, and the USS John Finn on March 10th. On each occasion, the Navy insisted that such missions were meant to demonstrate how the U.S. military would "continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows."

Typically, when the U.S. Navy conducts provocative maneuvers of this sort, the Chinese military — the People's Liberation Army, or PLA — responds by sending out its own ships and planes to challenge the American vessels. This occurs regularly in the South China Sea, whenever the Navy conducts what it calls "freedom of navigation operations," or FONOPs, in waters near Chinese-claimed (and sometimes Chinese-built) islands, some of which have been converted into small military installations by the PLA. In response, the Chinese often dispatch a ship or ships of its own to escort — to put the matter as politely as possible — the American vessel out of the area. These encounters have sometimes proven exceedingly dangerous, especially when the ships got close enough to pose a risk of collision.

In September 2018, for example, a Chinese destroyer came within 135 feet of the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur on just such a FONOP mission near Gavin Reef in the Spratly Islands, obliging the Decatur to alter course abruptly. Had it not done so, a collision might have occurred, lives could have been lost, and an incident provoked with unforeseeable consequences. "You are on [a] dangerous course," the Chinese ship reportedly radioed to the American vessel shortly before the encounter. "If you don't change course, [you] will suffer consequences."

What would have transpired had the captain of the Decatur not altered course? On that occasion, the world was lucky: the captain acted swiftly and avoided danger. But what about the next time, with tensions in the South China Sea and around Taiwan at a far higher pitch than in 2018? Such luck might not hold and a collision, or the use of weaponry to avoid it, could trigger immediate military action on either side, followed by a potentially unpredictable escalating cycle of countermoves leading who knows where.

Under such circumstances, a war nobody wanted between the U.S. and China could suddenly erupt essentially by happenstance — a war this planet simply can't afford. Sadly, the combination of inflammatory rhetoric at a diplomatic level and a propensity for backing up such words with aggressive military actions in highly contested areas still seems to be at the top of the Sino-American agenda.

Chinese and American leaders are now playing a game of chicken that couldn't be more dangerous for both countries and the planet. Isn't it time for the new Biden administration and its Chinese opposite to grasp more clearly and deeply that their hostile behaviors and decisions could have unforeseeable and catastrophic consequences? Strident language and provocative military maneuvers — even if only intended as political messaging — could precipitate a calamitous outcome, much in the way equivalent behavior in 1914 triggered the colossal tragedy of World War I.

Copyright 2021 Michael T. Klare

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.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the latest of which is All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change. He is a founder of the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy.

The grim truth about Biden's plan for the border

Joe Biden entered the White House with some inspiring yet contradictory positions on immigration and Central America. He promised to reverse Donald Trump's draconian anti-immigrant policies while, through his "Plan to Build Security and Prosperity in Partnership with the People of Central America," restoring "U.S. leadership in the region" that he claimed Trump had abandoned. For Central Americans, though, such "leadership" has an ominous ring.

Although the second half of his plan's name does, in fact, echo that of left-wing, grassroots organizations like the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), its content highlights a version of security and prosperity in that region that's more Cold War-like than CISPES-like. Instead of solidarity (or even partnership) with Central America, Biden's plan actually promotes an old economic development model that has long benefited U.S. corporations. It also aims to impose a distinctly militarized version of "security" on the people of that region. In addition, it focuses on enlisting Central American governments and, in particular, their militaries to contain migration through the use of repression.

Linking Immigration and Foreign Policy

The clearest statement of the president's Central America goals appears in his "U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021," sent to Congress on January 20th. That proposal offers a sweeping set of changes aimed at eliminating President Trump's racist exclusions, restoring rights to asylum, and opening a path to legal status and citizenship for the immigrant population. After the anti-immigrant barrage of the last four years, that proposal seems worth celebrating. It follows in the footsteps of previous bipartisan "comprehensive" compromises like the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act and a failed 2013 immigration bill, both of which included a path to citizenship for many undocumented people, while dedicating significant resources to border "security."

Read closely, a significant portion of Biden's immigration proposal focuses on the premise that addressing the root causes of Central America's problems will reduce the flow of immigrants to the U.S. border. In its own words, the Biden plan promises to promote "the rule of law, security, and economic development in Central America" in order to "address the key factors" contributing to emigration. Buried in its fuzzy language, however, are long-standing bipartisan Washington goals that should sound familiar to those who have been paying attention in these years.

Their essence: that millions of dollars in "aid" money should be poured into upgrading local military and police forces in order to protect an economic model based on private investment and the export of profits. Above all, the privileges of foreign investors must not be threatened. As it happens, this is the very model that Washington has imposed on the countries of Central America over the past century, one that's left its lands corrupt, violent, and impoverished, and so continued to uproot Central Americans and send them fleeing toward the United States.

Crucial to Biden's plan, as to those of his predecessors, is another key element: to coerce Mexico and Guatemala into serving as proxies for the wall only partially built along the southern border of the U.S. and proudly promoted by presidents from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump.

While the economic model lurking behind Biden's plan may be old indeed, the attempt to outsource U.S. immigration enforcement to Mexican and Central American military and police forces has proven to be a distinctly twenty-first-century twist on border policy.

Outsourcing the Border (from Bush to Biden)

The idea that immigration policy could be outsourced began long before Donald Trump notoriously threatened, in mid-2019, to impose tariffs on Mexican goods to pressure that country's new president into agreeing to his demand to collaborate with Washington's anti-immigrant agenda. That included, of course, Trump's controversial "remain in Mexico" policy that has continued to strand tens of thousands of asylum-seekers there.

Meanwhile, for almost two decades the United States has been bullying (and funding) military and police forces to its south to enforce its immigration priorities, effectively turning other countries' borders into extensions of the U.S. one. In the process, Mexico's forces have regularly been deployed on that country's southern border, and Guatemala's on its border with Honduras, all to violently enforce Washington's immigration policies.

Such outsourcing was, in part, a response to the successes of the immigrant rights movement in this country. U.S. leaders hoped to evade legal scrutiny and protest at home by making Mexico and Central America implement the uglier aspects of their policies.

President Trump blustered and bullied Mexico and various Central American countries far more openly than the previous two presidents while taking such policies to new levels. Under his orders, Mexico formed a new, militarized National Guard and deployed 12,000 of its members to the Guatemalan border, even as funding from Washington helped create high-technology infrastructure along Mexico's southern border, rivaling that on the U.S. border.It all began with the Mérida Initiative in 2007, a George W. Bush-initiated plan that would direct billions of dollars to military equipment, aid, and infrastructure in Mexico (with smaller amounts going to Central America). One of its four pillars was the creation of "a 21st century border" by pushing Mexico to militarize its southern border. By 2013, Washington had funded 12 new military bases along that border with Guatemala and a 100-mile "security cordon" north of it.

In response to what was seen as a child-migrant crisis in the summer of 2014 (sound familiar?), President Barack Obama further pressured Mexico to initiate a new Southern Border Program. Since then, tens of millions of dollars a year have gone toward the militarization of that border and Mexico was soon detaining tens of thousands of migrants monthly. Not surprisingly, deportations and human-rights violations against Central American migrants shot up dramatically there. "Our border today in effect is Mexico's border with Honduras and Guatemala," exulted Obama's former border czar Alan Bersin in 2019. A local activist was less sanguine, protesting that the program "turned the border region into a war zone."

Trump called for reducing aid to Central America. Yet under his watch, most of the $3.6 billion appropriated by Congress continued to flow there, about half of it aimed at strengthening local military and police units. Trump did, however, temporarily withhold civilian aid funds to coerce Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador into signing "safe third country" agreements that would allow the United States to deport people with valid asylum claims to those very countries.

Trump also demanded that Guatemala increase security along its southern border "to stem the flow of irregular migration" and "deploy officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to advise and mentor host nation police, border security, immigration, and customs counterparts." Once the Central American countries conceded to Trump's demands, aid was restored.

This February, President Biden suspended those safe third country agreements, but is clearly otherwise ready to continue to outsource border enforcement to Mexico and Central America.

The Other Side of Militarization: "Economic Development"

As Democratic and Republican administrations alike outsourced a militarized response to immigration, they also sought to sell their agendas with promises of economic-development aid to Central America. However, they consistently promoted the very kind of assistance that historically brought violence and poverty to the region — and so led directly to today's migrant crisis.

The model Washington continues to promote is based on the idea that, if Central American governments can woo foreign investors with improved infrastructure, tax breaks, and weak environmental and labor laws, the "free market" will deliver the investment, jobs, and economic growth that (in theory) will keep people from wanting to migrate in the first place. Over and over again in Central America's tormented history, however, exactly the opposite has happened. Foreign investment flowed in, eager to take advantage of the region's fertile lands, natural resources, and cheap labor. This form of development — whether in support of banana and coffee plantations in the nineteenth century or sugar, cotton, and cattle operations after World War II — brought Central America to its revolutions of the 1980s and its north-bound mass migration of today.

As a model, it relies on militarized governments to dispossess peasant farmers, freeing the land for foreign investors. Similarly, force and terror are brought to bear to maintain a cheap and powerless working class, allowing investors to pay little and reap fantastic profits. Such operations, in turn, have brought deforestation to the countryside, while their cheap exports to the United States and elsewhere have helped foster the high-consumption lifestyles that have only accelerated climate change — bringing ever fiercer weather, including the rising sea levels, more intense storms, droughts, and floods that have further undermined the livelihoods of the Central American poor.

Starting in the 1970s, many of those poor workers and peasants pushed for land reform and investment in basic rights like food, health, and education instead of simply further enriching foreign and local elites. When peaceful protest was met with violence, revolution followed, although only in Nicaragua did it triumph.

Washington spent the 1980s attempting to crush Nicaragua's successful revolution and the revolutionary movements against the right-wing military governments of El Salvador and Guatemala. The peace treaties of the 1990s ended the armed conflicts, but never addressed the fundamental social and economic divides that underlay them. In fact, the end of those conflicts only opened the regional floodgates for massive new foreign investment and export booms. These involved, among other things, the spread of maquiladora export-processing plants and the growing of new export-oriented "non-traditional" fruits and vegetables, as well as a boom in extractive industries like gold, nickel, and petroleum, not to speak of the creation of new infrastructure for mass tourism.

In the 1980s, refugees first began fleeing north, especially from El Salvador and Guatemala, then riven by war, repression, and the violence of local paramilitary and death squads. The veneer of peace in the 1990s in no way brought an end to poverty, repression, and violence. Both public and private armed forces provided "security" — but only to elites and the new urban and rural megaprojects they sponsored.

If a government did threaten investors' profits in any way, as when El Salvador declared a moratorium on mining licenses, the U.S.-sponsored Central America Free Trade Agreement enabled foreign corporations to sue and force it to submit to binding arbitration by a World Bank body. In the Obama years, when the elected, reformist president of Honduras tried to enact labor and environmental improvements, Washington gave the nod to a coup there and celebrated when the new president proudly declared the country "open for business" with a package of laws favoring foreign investors.

Journalist David Bacon termed that country's new direction a "poverty-wage economic model" that only fostered the rise of gangs, drug trafficking, and violence. Protest was met with fierce repression, even as U.S. military aid flowed in. Prior to the coup, Hondurans had barely figured among Central American migrants to the United States. Since 2009, its citizens have often come to predominate among those forced to flee their homes and head north.

President Obama's 2014 Alliance for Prosperity offered a new round of aid for investor-driven economic development. Journalist Dawn Paley characterized that Alliance as in "large part a plan to build new infrastructure that will benefit transnational corporations," including "tax breaks for corporate investors and new pipelines, highways, and power lines to speed resource extraction and streamline the process of import, assembly, and export at low-wage maquilas." One major project was a new gas pipeline to facilitate exports of U.S. natural gas to Central America.

It was Obama who oversaw Washington's recognition of the coup in Honduras. It was Trump who looked the other way when Guatemala in 2019 and Honduras in 2020 expelled international anti-corruption commissions. And it was Trump who agreed to downplay the mounting corruption and drug trafficking charges against his friend, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, as long as he promoted an investor-friendly economy and agreed to collaborate with the U.S. president's anti-immigrant agenda.

The January 2021 Caravan Marks the Arrival of the Biden Years

All signs point to the Biden years continuing what's become the Washington norm in Central America: outsourcing immigration policy, militarizing security there, and promoting a model of development that claims to deter migration while actually fueling it. In fact, President Biden's proposal designates $4 billion over four years for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to distribute. Such disbursement, however, would be conditioned on progress toward Washington-approved goals like "improv[ing] border security," "inform[ing]… citizens of the dangers of the journey to the southwest border of the United States," and "resolv[ing] disputes involving the confiscation of real property of United States entities." Significant resources would also be directed to further developing "smart" border technology in that region and to Border Patrol operations in Central America.

A preview of how this is likely to work came just as Biden took office in January 2021.

One predictable result of Washington's outsourcing of immigration control is that the migrant journey from Central America has become ever more costly and perilous. As a result, some migrants have begun gathering in large public "caravans" for protection. Their aim: to reach the U.S. border safely, turn themselves in to the border patrol, and request asylum. In late January 2021, a caravan of some 7,500 Hondurans arrived at the Guatemalan border in hopes that the new president in Washington would, as promised, reverse Trump's controversial remain-in-Mexico policy of apparently endless internment in crowded, inadequate camps just short of the U.S.

They hadn't known that Biden would, in fact, continue his predecessors' outsourcing of immigration policy to Mexico and Central America. As it happened, 2,000 tear-gas and baton-wielding Guatemalan police and soldiers (armed, trained, and supported by the United States) massed at the Guatemala-Honduras border to drive them back.

One former Trump official (retained by President Biden) tweeted that Guatemala had "carr[ied] out its responsibilities appropriately and lawfully." The Mexican government, too, praised Guatemala as it massed thousands of its troops on its own southern border. And Juan González, Biden's National Security Council director for the Western Hemisphere lauded Guatemala's "management of the migrant flow."

In mid-March, President Biden appeared to link a positive response to Mexico's request for some of Washington's surplus Covid-19 vaccine to further commitments to cracking down on migrants. One demand: that Mexico suspend its own laws guaranteeing humane detention conditions for families with young children. Neither country had the capacity to provide such conditions for the large number of families detained at the border in early 2021, but the Biden administration preferred to press Mexico to ignore its own laws, so that it could deport more of those families and keep the problem out of sight of the U.S. public.

In late January 2021, CISPES joined a large coalition of peace, solidarity, and labor organizations that called upon the Biden administration to rethink its Central American plans. "The intersecting crises that millions in Central America face are the result of decades of brutal state repression of democratic movements by right-wing regimes and the implementation of economic models designed to benefit local oligarchs and transnational corporations," CISPES wrote. "Far too often, the United States has been a major force behind these policies, which have impoverished the majority of the population and devastated the environment."

The coalition called on Biden to reject Washington's longstanding commitment to militarized security linked to the creation and reinforcement of investor-friendly extractive economies in Central America. "Confronting displacement demands a total rethinking of U.S. foreign policy," CISPES urged. As of mid-March, the president had not responded in any fashion to the plea. My advice: don't hold your breath waiting for such a response.

Copyright 2021 Aviva Chomsky

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.

A requiem for the American century: Biden faces the remnants of a quest for global primacy

"Ours is the cause of freedom.
We've defeated freedom's enemies before, and we will defeat them again…
[W]e know our cause is just and our ultimate victory is assured…
My fellow Americans, let's roll."

— George W. Bush, November 8, 2001

In the immediate wake of 9/11, it fell to President George W. Bush to explain to his fellow citizens what had occurred and frame the nation's response to that singular catastrophe. Bush fulfilled that duty by inaugurating the Global War on Terror, or GWOT. Both in terms of what was at stake and what the United States intended to do, the president explicitly compared that new conflict to the defining struggles of the twentieth century. However great the sacrifices and exertions that awaited, one thing was certain: the GWOT would ensure the triumph of freedom, as had World War II and the Cold War. It would also affirm American global primacy and the superiority of the American way of life.

The twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon now approaches. On September 11, 2021, Americans will mark the occasion with solemn remembrances, perhaps even setting aside, at least momentarily, the various trials that, in recent years, have beset the nation.

Twenty years to the minute after the first hijacked airliner slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, bells will toll. In the ensuing hours, officials will lay wreathes and make predictable speeches. Priests, rabbis, and imams will recite prayers. Columnists and TV commentators will pontificate. If only for a moment, the nation will come together.

It's less likely that the occasion will prompt Americans to reflect on the sequence of military campaigns over the two decades that followed 9/11. This is unfortunate. Although barely noticed, those campaigns — the term GWOT long ago fell out of favor — give every sign of finally winding down, ending not with a promised victory but with something more like a shrug. On that score, the Afghanistan War serves as Exhibit A.

President Bush's assurances of ultimate triumph now seem almost quaint — the equivalent of pretending that the American Century remains alive and well by waving a foam finger and chanting "We're number one!" In Washington, the sleeping dog of military failure snoozes undisturbed. Senior field commanders long ago gave up on expectations of vanquishing the enemy.

While politicians ceaselessly proclaim their admiration for "the troops," in a rare show of bipartisanship they steer clear of actually inquiring about what U.S. forces have achieved and at what cost. As for distracted and beleaguered ordinary Americans, they have more pressing things to worry about than distant wars that never panned out as promised.

Into the Graveyard of Empires

In his January 2001 farewell address, welcoming the dawn of the Third Millennium, President Bill Clinton asserted with sublime assurance that, during his eight years in office, the United States had completed its "passage into the global information age, an era of great American renewal." In fact, that new century would bring not renewal but a cascade of crises that have left the average citizen reeling.

First came 9/11 itself, demolishing assurances that history had rendered a decisive verdict in America's favor. The several wars that followed were alike in this sense: once begun, they dragged on and on. More or less contemporaneously, the "rise" of China seemingly signaled that a centuries-old era of Western global dominion was ending. After all, while the United States was expending vast sums on futile military endeavors, the People's Republic was accumulating global market share at a striking rate. Meanwhile, on the domestic front, a populist backlash against neoliberal and postmodern nostrums vaulted an incompetent demagogue into the White House.

As the worst pandemic in a century then swept across the planet, killing more Americans than died fighting World War II, the nation's chosen leader dithered and dissembled, depicting himself as the real victim of the crisis. Astonishingly, that bogus claim found favor with tens of millions of voters. In a desperate attempt to keep their hero in office for another four (or more) years, the president's most avid supporters mounted a violent effort to overturn the constitutional order. Add to the mix recurring economic cataclysms and worries about the implications of climate change and Americans have good reason to feel punch drunk.

It's hardly surprising that they have little bandwidth left for reflecting on the war in Afghanistan as it enters what may be its final phase. After all, overlapping with the more violent and costly occupation of Iraq, the conflict in Afghanistan never possessed a clear narrative arc. Lacking dramatic duels or decisive battles, it was the military equivalent of white noise, droning in the background all but unnoticed. Sheer endlessness emerged as its defining characteristic.

The second President Bush launched the Afghan War less than a month after 9/11. Despite what seemed like a promising start, he all but abandoned that effort in his haste to pursue bigger prey, namely Saddam Hussein. In 2009, Barack Obama inherited that by-now-stalemated Afghan conflict and vowed to win and get out. He would do neither. Succeeding Obama in 2017, Donald Trump doubled down on the promise to end the war completely, only to come up short himself.

Now, taking up where Trump left off, Joe Biden has signaled his desire to ring down the curtain on America's longest-ever armed conflict and so succeed where his three immediate predecessors failed. Doing so won't be easy. As the war dragged on, it accumulated complications, both within Afghanistan and regionally. The situation remains fraught with potential snags.

While in office, Trump committed to a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1st of this year. Although Biden recently acknowledged that meeting such a deadline would be "tough," he also promised that any further delay will extend no more than a few months. So it appears increasingly likely that a conclusion of some sort may finally be in the offing. Prospects for a happy ending, however, range between slim and nonexistent.

One thing seems clear: whether Washington's ongoing efforts to broker a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government succeed, or whether the warring parties opt to continue fighting, time is running out on the U.S. military mission there. In Washington, the will to win is long gone, while patience with the side we profess to support wastes away and determination to achieve the minimalist goal of avoiding outright defeat is fading fast. Accustomed to seeing itself as history's author, the United States finds itself in the position of a supplicant, hoping to salvage some tiny sliver of grace.

What then does this longest war in our history signify? Even if the issue isn't one that Americans now view as particularly urgent, at least a preliminary answer seems in order, if only because the U.S. troops who served there — more than three-quarters of a million in all — deserve one.

And there's also this: A war that drags on inconclusively for 20 years is not like a ballgame that goes into extra innings. It's a failure of the first order that those who govern and those who are governed should face squarely. To simply walk away, as Americans may be tempted to do, would be worse than irresponsible. It would be obscene.

A Fresh Bite of a Poisonous Imperial Apple

Assessing the significance of Afghanistan requires placing it in a larger context. As the first war of the post-9/11 era, it represents a particularly instructive example of imperialism packaged as uplift.

The European powers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries pioneered a line of self-regarding propaganda that imparted a moral gloss to their colonial exploitation throughout much of Asia and Africa. When the United States invaded and occupied Cuba in 1898 and soon after annexed the entire Philippine archipelago, its leaders devised similar justifications for their self-aggrandizing actions.

The aim of the American project in the Philippines, for example, was "benevolent assimilation," with Filipino submission promising eventual redemption. The proconsuls and colonial administrators Washington dispatched to implement that project may even have believed those premises. The recipients of such benefactions, however, tended to be unpersuaded. As Filipino leader Manuel Quezon famously put it, "Better a government run like hell by the Filipinos than one run like heaven by the Americans." A patriotic nationalist, Quezon preferred to take his chances with self-determination, as did many other Filipinos unimpressed with American professions of benign intentions.

This gets to the core of the problem, which remains relevant to the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan in the present century. In 2001, American invaders arrived in that country bearing a gift labeled "Enduring Freedom" — an updated version of benign assimilation — only to find that substantial numbers of Afghans had their own ideas about the nature of freedom or refused to countenance infidels telling them how to run their affairs. Certainly, efforts to disguise Washington's imperial purposes by installing Hamid Karzai, a photogenic, English-speaking Afghan, as the nominal head of a nominally sovereign government in Kabul fooled almost no one. And once Karzai, the West's chosen agent, himself turned against the entire project, the jig should have been up.

The U.S. war in Afghanistan has to date claimed the lives of more than 2,300 U.S. troops, while wounding another 20,000. Staggeringly larger numbers of Afghans have been killed, injured, or displaced. The total cost of that American war long ago exceeded $2 trillion. Yet, as documented by the "Afghanistan Papers" published last year by the Washington Post, the United States and its allies haven't defeated the Taliban, created competent Afghan security forces, or put in place a state apparatus with the capacity to govern effectively. Despite almost 20 years of effort, they haven't come close. Neither have the U.S. and its NATO coalition partners persuaded the majority of Afghans to embrace the West's vision of a suitable political order. When it comes to the minimum preconditions for mission accomplishment, in other words, the United States and its allies are batting 0 for 4.

Intensive and highly publicized American attempts to curb Afghan corruption have failed abysmally. So, too, have well-funded efforts to reduce opium production. With the former a precondition for effective governance and the latter essential to achieving some semblance of aboveboard economic viability, make that 0 for 6, even as the momentum of events at this moment distinctly favors the Taliban. With 75% of government revenues coming from foreign donors, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is effectively on the international dole and has no prospect of becoming self-sufficient anytime soon.

Whether the U.S.-led effort to align Afghanistan with Western values was doomed from the start is impossible to say. At the very least, however, that effort was informed by remarkable naïveté. Assessing the war a decade ago — 10 years after it began — General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of all coalition forces there, lamented that "we didn't know enough and we still don't know enough" about Afghanistan and its people. "Most of us — me included — had a very superficial understanding of the situation and history, and we had a frighteningly simplistic view of recent history, the last 50 years." Implicit in that seemingly candid admission is the suggestion that knowing more would have yielded a better outcome, that Afghanistan should have been "winnable."

For the thwarted but unreconstructed imperialist, consider this the last line of retreat: success could have been ours if only decision makers had done things differently. Anyone familiar with the should-have-beens trotted out following the Vietnam War in the previous century — the U.S. should have bombed more (or less), invaded the North, done more to win hearts-and-minds, etc. — will recognize those claims for what they are: dodges. As with Vietnam, to apply this if-only line of reasoning to Afghanistan is to miss that war's actual significance.

Minor War, Major Implications

As American wars go, Afghanistan ranks as a minor one. Yet this relatively small but very long conflict stands at the center of a distinctive and deeply problematic era in American history that dates from the end of the Cold War some 40 years ago. Two convictions defined that era. According to the first, by 1991 the United States had achieved something akin to unquestioned global military supremacy. Once the Soviets left the playing field, no opponent worthy of the name remained. That appeared self-evident.

According to the second conviction, circumstances now allowed — even cried out for — putting the U.S. military to work. Reticence, whether defined as deterrence, defense, or containment, was for wusses. In Washington, the temptation to employ armed force to overthrow "evil" became irresistible. Not so incidentally, periodic demonstrations of U.S. military might would also warn potential competitors against even contemplating a challenge to American global primacy.

Lurking in the background was this seldom acknowledged conviction: in a world chockablock full of impoverished, ineptly led nations, most inhabited by people implicitly classified as backward, someone needed to take charge, enforce discipline, and provide at least a modicum of decency. That the United States alone possessed the power and magnanimity to play such a role was taken for granted. After all, who was left to say nay?

So, with the passing of the Cold War, a new chapter in the history of American imperialism commenced, even if in policy circles that I-word was strictly verboten. Among the preferred euphemisms, humanitarian intervention, sometimes justified by a recently discovered "responsibility to protect," found particular favor. But this was mostly theater, an updating of Philippine-style benevolent assimilation designed to mollify twenty-first-century sensibilities.

In actual practice, it fell to the president of the United States, commonly and without irony referred to as "the most powerful man in the world," to decide where U.S. bombs were to fall and U.S. troops arrive. When American forces flexed their muscles in faraway places, ranging from Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, Afghanistan, Sudan, and the Philippines to Afghanistan (again), Iraq (again), Libya, various West African countries, Somalia (again), Iraq (for a third time), or Syria, authorization by the United Nations Security Council or Congress ranked as somewhere between incidental and unnecessary. For military actions that ranged from full-scale invasions to assassinations to a mere show of force, whatever justification the "leader of the Free World" chose to offer was deemed sufficient.

Military action undertaken at the behest of the commander-in-chief became the unspoken but definitive expression of American global leadership. That Bush the father, Clinton, Bush the son, Obama, and Trump would all wield extra-constitutional authority to — so the justification went — advance the cause of peace and freedom worldwide only testified to the singularity of the United States. In this way, an imperial presidency went hand-in-hand with imperial responsibilities and prerogatives.

At first imperceptibly, but more overtly with the passage of time, military adventurism undertaken by imperial presidents fostered a pattern of hypocrisy, dishonesty, cynicism, waste, brutality, and malaise that have today become pervasive. In certain quarters, the tendency persists to blame former President Trump for just about everything that ails this nation, including racism, sexism, inequality, public-health crises, and the coarsening of public discourse, not to speak of inattention to environmental degradation and our crumbling infrastructure. Without letting him off the hook, let me suggest that Washington's post-Cold War imperial turn contributed more to our present discontent and disarray than anything Trump did in his four years in the White House.

On that score, the Afghan War made a pivotal and particularly mournful contribution, definitively exposing as delusionary claims of U.S. military supremacy. Even in late 2001, only weeks after President George W. Bush had promised "ultimate victory," the war there had already gone off script. From early on, in other words, there was unmistakable evidence that military activism pursuant to neo-imperial ambitions entailed considerable risk, while exacting costs far outweighing any plausible benefits.

The longest war in U.S. history should by now have led Americans to reflect on the consequences that stem from succumbing to imperial temptations in a world where empire has long since become obsolete. Some might insist that present-day Americans have imbibed that lesson. In Washington, hawks appear chastened, with few calling for President Biden to dispatch U.S. troops to Yemen or Myanmar or even Venezuela, our oil-rich "neighbor," to put things right. For now, the nation's appetite for military intervention abroad appears to be sated.

But mark me down as skeptical. Only when Americans openly acknowledge their imperial transgressions will genuine repentance become possible. And only with repentance will avoiding further occasions to sin become a habit. In other words, only when Americans call imperialism by its name will vows of "never again" deserve to be taken seriously.

In the meantime, our collective obligation is to remember. The siege of ancient Troy, which lasted a decade, inspired Homer to write the Iliad. Although the American war in Afghanistan has now gone on almost twice as long, don't expect it to be memorialized in an epic poem. Yet with such poetry out of fashion, perhaps a musical composition of some sort might act as a substitute. Call it — just to suggest a title — "Requiem for the American Century." For one thing should be clear by now: over the course of the nation's longest war, the American Century breathed its last.

Copyright 2021 Andrew Bacevich

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.

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, is due out in June.

Three ways for Biden to finally begin an end of the War on Terror

In the first two months of Joe Biden's presidency, you could feel the country holding its breath. Sheltered in place, hidden behind masks, unsure about whether to trust in a safe-from-pandemic future, we are nonetheless beginning to open our eyes collectively. As part of this reemergence, a wider array of issues — those beyond Covid-19 — are once again starting to enter public consciousness. Domestically, attempts to repress (or preserve) voting rights have been consuming activists and dominating headlines, along with this country's missing infrastructure and a need to raise the minimum wage. The foreign affairs agenda isn't far behind. From rising great-power rivalries, notably with China and Russia, to cyberattacks like the Solarwinds hack that affected agencies across the government, to the question of whether American troops will leave Afghanistan, a growing number of issues loom for the administration, Congress, and the public in the months to come.

On the domestic front, the response to the new administration (and especially its $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill) has been a collective sigh of relief — as well as much praise, as well as fierce partisan Republican attacks — when it comes to the reform agenda being put in place domestically. In the realm of foreign affairs, however, criticism has been swift and harsh, owing to several early administration actions.

On February 25, at the president's order, the U.S. launched an airstrike against an Iranian-backed militia in Syria, killing 22. On February 26, the administration released an intelligence report pointing the finger at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, only to follow up with an announcement that, while there would be sanctions against individuals close to the prince, no retaliation against him would follow. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called the absence of strong retribution against MBS akin to letting "the murderer walk," setting an example for other "thuggish dictators" in the years to come.

Meanwhile, there is still, at best, indecision about whether or not the U.S. will pull its last troops out of Afghanistan by the May 1st deadline set during the Trump administration as part of a deal with the Taliban. President Biden recently termed meeting that date "tough." Others have called hesitancy about the May 1st deadline a step towards an escalation in violence and "even more deaths" in a nearly 20-year-old "unwinnable war." November has now been floated by the Biden administration as a more "reasonable" deadline.

While each of these acts (or the lack of them) should be scrutinized in light of the lessons of the past, a rush to condemn could prove too quick to be helpful. Yes, it would have been more satisfying if the administration had said, "We will respond in our own time and in our own way," when it came to the murder of Khashoggi. Yes, it would have been good to see a full-scale new drone policy in place prior to any future strikes. It will, however, take some time for the new administration to sort out the issues involved, to unearth what promises, deals, and threats were imposed by predecessors and to assess the meaningfulness of plans for a new agenda. My own suggestion: Why not set an agenda of expectations and goals — a list of imperatives if you will — and then check back in a relatively short time, perhaps six months from the January 20th inauguration of President Biden, to assess what's truly developed?

Given our chaotic and troubled world, the list of must-dos is already long indeed, but here's my own personal list of three, all tied to an issue I've followed closely for nearly the last two decades: the war on terror and how to end it.

Three Ways to Begin to End the War on Terror

The Biden administration has offered up its own list of priorities and challenges. Setting out its national security agenda, the president has committed his administration "to engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday's challenges, but today's and tomorrow's." In a new strategy paper, "Renewing America's Advantages: Interim National Security Strategic Guidance," his administration has made its priorities reasonably clear: the development of a multidimensional strategy, led by diplomacy and multilateralism (though not averse to the "disciplined" use of force if necessary) with an overriding commitment to strengthening democracy at home and abroad.

Among the priorities set out in that strategy is one that should — if carried out successfully — be a relief to us all: moving beyond the global war on terror. "The United States should not, and will not, engage in 'forever wars' that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars," the paper states, pointing to ending "America's longest war in Afghanistan," as well as the war in Yemen, and helping to end Africa's "deadliest conflicts and prevent the onset of new ones."These war-on-terror-related goals are not only upbeat but distinctly achievable, if kept at the forefront of the American foreign-policy agenda. To achieve them, however, the institutional remnants of the war on terror would have to be eradicated. And at the top of any list when it comes to that are the lingering war powers granted the president; the authority to commit "targeted killings" via drones in more and more places around the globe; and the existence of that symbol of injustice, the prison established by the Bush administration in 2002 at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Eliminating such foundational war-on-terror policies is essential, if we are to move into an era in which national security exists in tandem with the rule of law and adherence to constitutional norms.

So here, on those three issues, are the basics for my six-month check-backs in late June 2021.

The AUMFs

As far as I'm concerned, the first six-month marker for the Biden administration should be the repeal of the 2001 and 2002 congressional Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs) that granted the president the right to continue to pursue conflicts in the name of the war against terror without further recourse to Congress. Three presidents over the last nearly 20 years relied in ever-expanding ways on just that supposed authority to expand the war on terror any way they saw fit.

The first of those AUMFs, passed in Congress with a staggering unanimity (lacking only the brave "no" vote of California Representative Barbara Lee just days after September 11, 2001), authorized the president 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." The second authorized the president to use force "as he determines to be necessary and appropriate" to counter the (supposed) threat posed by Iraq to the "national security of the United States" and "to enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq," a reference to weapons of mass destruction monitoring and compliance. Both AUMFs provided a basis for future unilateral war-making decisions that excluded Congress and, as such, superseded its constitutional authorization to declare war.

Those two AUMFs, the first aimed at al-Qaeda, the second at Saddam Hussein's Iraq, have ever since been stretched to provide the president with the power to wage wars and engage in other military interventions across much of the Greater Middle East and increasing parts of Africa — and to focus on targets far removed from the perpetrators of 9/11. The 2001 AUMF has been used to justify military engagements and drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen among other places. And Donald Trump referred in part to the 2002 AUMF to justify the drone assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani at Baghdad International Airport in January 2020.

"Woefully outdated," those AUMFs have provided what one critic recently called "a blank check to wage war on virtually anyone at the president's discretion." In 2013, President Obama acknowledged that ever-expansive first AUMF and expressed his desire to engage

"Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF's mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That's what history advises. That's what our democracy demands."

Conversely, in May, 2020, Trump vetoed a bill forbidding him to take action against Iran without first obtaining Congressional approval. In sum, neither president stopped using those congressional authorizations.

Repeatedly, since 2001, Representative Barbara Lee and others in Congress have called for the repeal of the 2001 AUMF to no avail. In March 2019, Senators Tim Kaine and Todd Young introduced a bipartisan plan to repeal the 2002 AUMF on the grounds that Iraq was no longer an enemy. Lee led a parallel move in the House which voted to repeal the act. Nothing further happened, however.

"It makes no sense that two AUMFs remain in place against a country that is now a close ally. They serve no operational purpose, run the risk of future abuse by the president, and help keep our nation at permanent war," Kaine said. Given the increasing U.S. attacks in Iraq on Iranian-backed militias, this might prove an uphill battle, but it's nonetheless an important one. Kaine and Young have recently reintroduced legislation to repeal the 2002 authorization. Although for Biden's strike in Syria against Iranian-backed militias, the supposed powers of the commander-in-chief were cited rather than the 2002 AUMF, the worry is that, if tensions continue to escalate between Washington and Tehran, it will be cited in future attacks, however unrelated to its original intent.

On March 5th (two days after Kaine and Young introduced their plan), the White House announced through Press Secretary Jen Psaki that it would itself seek to "replace" the two authorizations "with a narrow and specific framework." In a further gesture towards a more constrained use of force, Biden reportedly cancelled a second strike in Syria after finding out that civilian casualties might result.

First Six-Month Check-Back: The repeal of those endlessly expansive authorizations is a must and should be a top priority for the Biden administration. Any new AUMFs should include consultations with Congress before any attacks are launched on potential foreign enemies, should limit exactly who those enemies might be, and specify both a time frame and the geographical reach of any authorization.

Targeted Killings

Under President Obama, drone warfare — the use of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) to target individuals and groups — became a signature tool in Washington's war on terror arsenal. Such "precision" strikes (chosen in "Terror Tuesday" meetings at the White House in the Obama years) were justified because they would reputedly reduce American deaths and, over time, battlefield deaths generally, including the "collateral damage" of civilian casualties. Obama used such drone strikes expansively, even targeting U.S. citizens abroad.

In his second term, Obama did try to put some limits and restrictions on lethal strikes by RPAs, establishing procedures and criteria for them and limiting the grounds for their use. President Trump promptly watered down those stricter guidelines, while expanding the number of drone strikes launched from Afghanistan to Somalia, soon dwarfing Obama's numbers. According to the British-based Bureau for Investigative Journalism, Obama carried out a total of 1,878 drone strikes in his eight years in office. In his first two years as president, Trump launched 2,243 drone strikes. When it came to civilian casualties, at first the Trump administration merely ignored a mandated policy from the Obama era whereby a yearly report on civilian drone strike casualties had to be produced and made public. Then, in March 2019, Trump simply cancelled the requirement, consigning the drone killing program to an even deeper kind of secrecy.

On the subject of drones, in the first weeks of the Biden administration, there have been some potentially encouraging signs. His appointees have signaled an intention to revamp and limit drone policy. On Inauguration Day 2021, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan issued an order announcing the administration's intention to review the use of RPAs for targeted-killing missions outside of war zones. While the review takes place, some of the Trump-era freedom of the CIA and the military to decide on drone targets on their own was suspended. According to reporting by Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times, "The military and the CIA must now obtain White House permission to attack terrorism suspects in poorly governed places where there are scant American ground troops, like Somalia and Yemen."

Second Six-Month Check-Back: The Biden administration minimally needs to revise its use of drones for targeted killings of any sort, anywhere, so that they become a rarity, not the commonplace they've been. The president must further insist on transparency in reporting on the uses of drone warfare and its casualties. He and his key officials must create a policy in accordance with both domestic and international law.

Guantánamo

Last (but very much not least) on my list, it's time to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. This past January was the 19th anniversary of its opening, the moment when the first prisoners from the war on terror were flown to Cuba, offshore from American justice and away from the eyes of the world. In 2008, while George W. Bush was still president, Gitmo received its last inmates. Twelve years ago, Barack Obama pledged to close it within a year.

When Obama left office in January 2017, he had at least made some headway towards its closure, though failing ultimately to shut it down. Gitmo's population had been reduced from 197 prisoners to 41, thanks to the efforts of the Office of the Special Envoy for the closure of Guantánamo, which Obama had set up in 2013, and to its head, Lee Wolosky. He aggressively pursued the mission of transferring detainees out of that facility during the final 18 months of Obama's presidency. One-third of the remaining prisoners were facing charges from, or had already been convicted by, the military commissions that Obama revived in 2009 and that made remarkably little headway towards trials, no less resolutions, during his two terms.

On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump infamously pontificated that he would "load [Gitmo] up with some bad dudes." In actuality, no new detainees would be transferred to the facility during his time in office. Meanwhile, military commission prosecutors proved unable even to mount what should have been the centerpiece case of the Guantánamo years — the trial of the five men, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, accused of being co-conspirators in the 9/11 attacks.

As with the AUMFs and the drone-strike policy, there are, in the early moments of the Biden years, some encouraging signs that closure could once again become a priority. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, for instance, expressed his thoughts on the subject in questions submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearings. "It is time," he wrote, "that the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay close its doors." Similarly, Dr. Colin Kahl, Biden's nominee for undersecretary for policy at the Pentagon, told Congress, "I believe that it is time to close the DoD detention facility at Guantánamo Bay responsibly." President Biden has also signaled his support for closure, claiming that he wants it shut by the end of his presidency. And there has already been an announcement that the National Security Council is looking into plans to do so.

Meanwhile, after years of delays, reversals, governmental misdeeds, and the dark shadow cast over cases in which torture has been an integral part of the evidentiary record, some movement does seem to be underway. The day after Biden's inauguration, for instance, the administration set the date for a trial that has been stalled for years — that of three Southeast Asian men accused of bombings in Indonesia in 2002 and 2003. All three have been in U.S. custody since 2003, first at CIA "black sites" and, from 2006 on, at Guantánamo. However, as of February 2nd, the date for that trial had already been postponed, due to Covid-19.

Third Six-Month Check-Back: It's imperative that the Biden administration shut down Guantánamo — and the sooner the better. The catastrophic cost of that detention facility is hard to overestimate. It continues to stain the American reputation for fairness and justice worldwide and is the ultimate reminder of the trade-off made between security and liberty in the war on terror. Until Guantánamo closes, the door to detention without due process and so to an alternative judicial system outside the law, as well as to unlawful secret interrogations and brutal treatment remains open. And after all these years, six months should be more than long enough to at least put in motion, if not complete, plans for that closure.

It's one thing to have good intentions, and quite another to realize those intentions in policy. While I understand the concerns of the early critics of Biden's developing war-on-terror-related decisions, my own preference is for a modicum of patience — though nothing like an open-ended time frame. After all, it's way beyond time to consign those war on terror deviations from law and from anything like reasonable norms of action to the history books.

Copyright 2021 Karen J. Greenberg

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.

Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and the author of Rogue Justice: The Making of the National Security State, and the forthcoming Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump (Princeton, 2021). Julia Tedesco provided research for this article along with Jonathan Alegria and Matthew Ruane.

Here are the dark forces of the border-industrial complex fueling a never-ending 'crisis'

In late February, I drove to see the Trump wall in Sasabe, Arizona. As soon as I parked, a green-striped Border Patrol vehicle stationed a quarter of a mile away began to creep down the dirt road toward us. Just ahead, a dystopian "No Trespassing" sign was flapping in the wind. It was cold as I stepped out of the car with my five-year-old son, William. The wall ahead of us, 30-feet high with steel bollards, was indeed imposing as it quavered slightly in the wind. Through its bars we could see Mexico, a broken panorama of hills filled with mesquites backed by a blue sky.

The Homeland Security vehicle soon pulled up next to us. An agent rolled down his window and asked me, "What are you doing? Joyriding?"

After I laughed in response to a word I hadn't heard in years, the agent informed us that we were in a dangerous construction zone, even if this part of the wall had been built four months earlier. I glanced around. There were no bulldozers, excavators, or construction equipment of any sort. I wondered whether the lack of machinery reflected the campaign promise of the recently inaugurated Joe Biden that "not another foot" of Trump's wall would be built.

Indeed, that was why I was here — to see what the border looked like as the post-Trump era began. President Biden had started his term with strong promises to reverse the border policies of his predecessor: families torn apart would be reunited and asylum seekers previously forced to stay in Mexico allowed to enter the United States. Given the Trump years, the proposals of the new administration sounded almost revolutionary.

And yet something else bothered me as we drove away: everything looked the same as it had for years. I've been coming to this stretch of border since 2001. I've witnessed its incremental disfigurement during the most dramatic border fortification period in this country's history. In the early 2000s came an influx of Border Patrol agents, followed in 2007 by the construction of a 15-foot wall (that Senator Joe Biden voted for), followed by high-tech surveillance towers, courtesy of a multi-billion-dollar contract with the Boeing Corporation.

Believe me, the forces that shaped our southern border over the decades have been far more powerful than Donald Trump or any individual politician. During the 2020 election, it was commonly asserted that, by getting rid of Trump, the United States would create a more humane border and immigration system. And there was a certain truth to that, but a distinctly limited one. Underneath the theater of partisan politics, there remains a churning border-industrial complex, a conjunction of entrenched interests and relationships between the U.S. government — particularly the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — and private corporations that has received very little attention.

The small border town of Sasabe and its surrounding region is a microcosm of this.

The cumulative force of that complex will now carry on in Trump's wake. Indeed, during the 2020 election the border industry, created through decades of bipartisan fortification, actually donated more money to the Biden campaign and the Democrats than to Trump and the Republicans.

The Complex

In the 12 years from 2008 to 2020, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) dolled out 105,000 contracts, or a breathtaking average of 24 contracts a day, worth $55 billion to private contractors. That sum exceeded their $52 billion collective budgets for border and immigration enforcement for the 28 years from 1975 to 2003. While those contracts included ones for companies like Fisher Sand and Gravel that built the 30-foot wall my son and I saw in Sasabe, many of them — including the most expensive — went to companies creating high-tech border fortification, ranging from sophisticated camera systems to advanced biometric and data-processing technologies.

This might explain the border industry's interest in candidate Biden, who promised: "I'm going to make sure that we have border protection, but it's going to be based on making sure that we use high-tech capacity to deal with it."

Behind that bold, declarative sentence lay an all-too-familiar version of technological border protection sold as something so much more innocuous, harmless, and humane than what Trump was offering. As it happens, despite our former president's urge to create a literal wall across hundreds of miles of borderlands, high-technology has long been and even in the Trump years remained a large part of the border-industrial complex.

One pivotal moment for that complex came in 2005 when the deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Jackson (previously Lockheed Martin's chief operating officer), addressed a conference room of border-industry representatives about creating a virtual or technological wall. "This is an unusual invitation," he said then. "I want to make sure you have it clearly, that we're asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business. We're asking you. We're inviting you to tell us how to run our organization."

Of course, by then, the border and immigration enforcement system had already been on a growth spurt. During President Bill Clinton's administration (1993-2001), for example, its annual budgets had nearly tripled from $1.5 billion to $4.3 billion. Clinton, in fact, initiated the immigration deterrence system still in place today in which Washington deployed armed agents, barriers, and walls, as well as high-tech systems to block the traditional urban places where immigrants had once crossed. They were funneled instead into dangerous and deadly spots like the remote and brutal Arizona desert around Sasabe. As Clinton put it in his 1995 State of the Union address:

"[O]ur administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens."

Sound familiar?

The Clinton years, however, already seemed like ancient times when Jackson made that 2005 plea. He was speaking in the midst of a burgeoning Homeland Security era. After all, DHS was only created in 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In fact, during George W. Bush's years in office, border and immigration enforcement budgets grew from $4.2 billion in 2000 to $15.2 billion in 2008 — more, that is, than during any other presidency including Donald Trump's. Under Bush, that border became another front in the war on terror (even if no terrorists crossed it), opening the money faucets. And that was what Jackson was underscoring — the advent of a new reality that would produce tens of thousands of contracts for private companies.

In addition, as U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq began to wane, many security and defense companies pivoted toward the new border market. As one vendor pointed out to me at a Border Security Expo in Phoenix in 2012, "We are bringing the battlefield to the border." That vendor, who had been a soldier in Afghanistan a few years earlier, smiled confidently, the banners of large weapons-makers like Raytheon hanging above him. At the time (as now), an "unprecedented boom period" was forecast for the border market. As the company VisionGain explained then, a "virtuous circle… would continue to drive spending in the long term based on three interlocking developments: 'illegal immigration and terrorist infiltration,' more money for border policing in 'developing countries,' and the 'maturation' of new technologies."

Since 9/11, border-security corporate giants became big campaign contributors not only to presidential candidates, but also to key members of the Appropriations Committees and the Homeland Security Committees (both House and Senate) — all crucial when it came to border policies, contracts, and budgets. Between 2006 and 2018, top border contractors like General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon contributed a total of $27.6 million to members of the House Appropriations Committee and $6.5 million to members of the House Homeland Security Committee. And from 2002 to 2019, there were nearly 20,000 reported lobbying "visits" to congressional offices related to homeland security. The 2,841 visits reported for 2018 alone included ones from top CBP and ICE contractors Accenture, CoreCivic, GeoGroup, L3Harris, and Leidos.

By the time Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017, the border-industrial complex was truly humming. That year, he would oversee a $20-billion border and immigration budget and have at his disposal nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents (up from 4,000 in 1994), 650 miles of already built walls and barriers, billions of dollars in border technology then in place, and more than 200 immigration-detention centers across the United States.

He claimed he was going to build his very own "big, fat, beautiful wall," most of which, as it turned out, already existed. He claimed that he was going to clamp down on a border that was already remarkably clamped down upon. And in his own fashion, he took it to new levels.

That's what we saw in Sasabe, where a 15-foot wall had recently been replaced with a 30-foot wall. As it happened, much of the 450 miles of wall the Trump administration did, in the end, build really involved interchanging already existing smaller barriers with monstrous ones that left remarkable environmental and cultural destruction in their wake.

Trump administration policies forced people seeking asylum to wait in Mexico, infants to appear in immigration court, and separated family members into a sprawling incarceration apparatus whose companies had been making up to $126 per person per day for years. He could have done little of this without the constantly growing border-industrial complex that preceded him and, in important ways, made him.

Nonetheless, in the 2020 election campaign, the border industry pivoted toward Biden and the Democrats. That pivot ensured one thing: that its influence would be strong, if not preeminent, on such issues when the new administration took over.

The Biden Years Begin at the Border

In early January 2021, Biden's nominee to run DHS, Alejandro Mayorkas disclosed that, over the previous three years, he had earned $3.3 million from corporate clients with the WilmerHale law firm. Two of those clients were Northrop Grumman and Leidos, companies that Nick Buxton and I identified as top border contractors in Biden's Border: The Industry, the Democrats and the 2020 Election, a report we co-authored for the Transnational Institute.

When we started to look at the 2020 campaign contributions of 13 top border contractors for CBP and ICE, we had no idea what to expect. It was, after all, a corporate group that included producers of surveillance infrastructure for the high-tech "virtual wall" along the border like L3Harris, General Dynamics, and the Israeli company Elbit Systems; others like Palantir and IBM produced border data-processing software; and there were also detention companies like CoreCivic and GeoGroup.

To our surprise, these companies had given significantly more to the Biden campaign ($5,364,994) than to Trump ($1,730,435). In general, they had shifted to the Democrats who garnered 55% of their $40 million in campaign contributions, including donations to key members of the House and Senate Appropriations and Homeland Security committees.

It's still too early to assess just what will happen to this country's vast border-and-immigration apparatus under the Biden administration, which has made promises about reversing Trumpian border policies. Still, it will be no less caught in the web of the border-industrial complex than the preceding administration.

Perhaps a glimpse of the future border under Biden was offered when, on January 19th, Homeland Security secretary nominee Mayorkas appeared for his Senate confirmation hearings and was asked about the 8,000 people from Honduras heading for the U.S. in a "caravan" at that very moment. The day before, U.S.-trained troops and police in Guatemala had thwarted and then deported vast numbers of them as they tried to cross into that country. Many in the caravan reported that they were heading north thanks to back-to-back catastrophic category 4 hurricanes that had devastated the Honduran and Nicaraguan coasts in November 2020.

Mayorkas responded rather generically that if people were found to qualify "under the law to remain in the United States, then we will apply the law accordingly, if they do not qualify to remain in the United States, then they won't." Given that there is no climate-refugee status available to anyone crossing the border that meant most of those who finally made it (if they ever did) wouldn't qualify to stay.

It's possible that, by the time I went to see that wall with my son in late February, some people from that caravan had already made it to the border, despite endless obstacles in their path. As we drove down Highway 286, also known as the Sasabe Road, there were reports of undocumented people from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico all traveling through the rugged Baboquivari mountain range to the west of us and the grim canyons to the east of us in attempts to avoid the Border Patrol and its surveillance equipment.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans against what he dubbed "the military-industrial complex" in 1961, he spoke of its "total influence — economic, political, even spiritual… felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the Federal government." Sixty years later, something similar could be said of the ever-expanding border-industrial complex. It needs just such climate disasters and just such caravans (or, as we're seeing right now, just such "crises" of unaccompanied minors) to continue its never-ending growth, whether the president is touting a big, fat, beautiful wall or opting for high-tech border technology.

For my son and me, the enforcement apparatus first became noticeable at a checkpoint 25 miles north of the international boundary. Not only were green-uniformed agents interrogating passengers in any vehicle heading northwards, but a host of cameras focused on the vehicles passing by.

Whether they were license-plate readers or facial-recognition cameras I had no way of knowing. What I did know was that Northrop Grumman (which contributed $649,748 to Joe Biden and $323,014 to Donald Trump in the 2020 election campaign) had received a valuable contract to ensure that CBP's biometric system included "modalities" of all sorts — face and voice data, iris recognition, scars and tattoos, possibly even DNA sample collection, and information about "relationship patterns" and "encounters" with the public. And who could tell if the Predator B drones that General Atomics produces — oh, by the way, that company gave $82,974 to Biden and $51,665 to Trump in 2020 — were above us (as they regularly are in the border regions) using Northrup Grumman's VADER "man-hunting" radar system first deployed in Afghanistan?

As we traveled through that gauntlet, Border Patrol vehicles were everywhere, reinforcing the surveillance apparatus that extends 100 miles into the U.S. interior. We soon passed a surveillance tower at the side of the road first erected by the Boeing Corporation and renovated by Elbit Systems ($5,553 to Biden, $5,649 to Trump), one of dozens in the area. On the other side of that highway was a gravel clearing where a G4S ($49,233 to Biden, $33,019 to Trump) van usually idles. It's a mobile prison the Border Patrol uses to transport its prisoners to short-term detention centers in Tucson. And keep in mind that there was so much we couldn't see like the thousands of implanted motion sensors manufactured by a host of other companies.

Traveling through this border area, it's hard not to feel like you're in a profitable version of a classic panopticon, a prison system in which, wherever you might be, you're being watched. Even five-year-old William was startled by such a world and, genuinely puzzled, asked me, "Why do the green men," as he calls the Border Patrol, "want to stop the workers?"

By the time we got to that shard of Trump's "big, fat, beautiful" wall, it seemed like just a modest part of a much larger system that left partisan politics in the dust. At its heart was never The Donald but a powerful cluster of companies with an active interest in working on that border until the end of time.

Just after the agent told us that we were in a construction zone and needed to leave, I noticed a pile of bollards near the dirt road that ran parallel to the wall. They were from the previous wall, the one Biden had voted for in 2006. As William and I drove back to Tucson through that gauntlet of inspection, I wondered what the border-industrial world would look like when he was my age and living in what could be an even more extreme world filled with ever more terrified people fleeing disaster.

And I kept thinking of that discarded pile of bollards, a reminder of just how easy it would be to tear that wall and the world that goes with it down.

Copyright 2021 Todd Miller

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.

Todd Miller, a TomDispatch regular, has written on border and immigration issues for the New York Times, Al Jazeera America, and the NACLA Report on the Americas. His latest book is Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders. You can follow him on Twitter @memomiller and view more of his work at toddmillerwriter.com.

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