America’s disastrous 60-year war
by William Astore
Speaking of George Orwell, America’s 60-year war, which was a losing proposition for many, turned out to be a clear winner for a few, and that was no accident. In his book , Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell wrote about permanent war as a calculated way to consume the products of modern capitalism without creating a higher standard of living for workers.
America’s disastrous 60-year war
by William Astore
[This article published on Feb 20, 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://krass-und-konkret.de/politik-wirtschaft/amerikas-katastrophaler-60-jaehriger-krieg/,]
Three generations of conspicuous destruction by the military-industrial complex – and now the start of a new cold war against China and Russia
In the nearly 60 years I have been alive, America has fought five major wars, winning one definitively and then throwing that victory away, while losing the other four in catastrophic fashion. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Global War on Terrorism were the losses, of course; the Cold War is the only victory that must now be counted as a loss because its promise was so quickly discarded.
America’s war in Vietnam was fought during the Cold War in the context of the so-called domino theory and the idea of “containing” communism. Iraq and Afghanistan were part of the Global War on Terrorism, a post-Cold War event in which “radical Islamic terrorism” became a surrogate for communism. Yet these wars should be treated as a single strand of history, a 60-year war if you will, for one reason: the explanatory power of such a concept.
For me, this year is the obvious starting point for what retired Army colonel and historian Andrew Bacevich recently called America’s Very Long War (VLW) because of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation in January 1961. In that televised speech, Ike warned of the emergence of a military-industrial complex of immense strength that could one day threaten American democracy itself. I chose 2021 as the endpoint of the VLW because of the disastrously ended Afghan war, which itself has cost $45 billion a year in recent years, and the strange reality associated with it. After the failure of that 20-year war, the Pentagon budget skyrocketed with the support of nearly all members of Congress from both parties, while Washington’s armed attention turned to China and Russia.
At the end of two decades of globally disastrous warfare, this budget increase should show us how right Eisenhower was about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. Ignored all these years, democracy may indeed be about to meet its demise.
The prosperity of the war losers
Several things characterize America’s disastrous 60-year war. These include waste and cruelty in the use of weapons against peoples who could not respond in kind; enormous profiteering by the military-industrial complex; incessant lying by the U.S. government (the evidence in the Pentagon Papers for Vietnam, the missing weapons of mass destruction for the invasion of Iraq, and the recent papers for the Afghan war); Defeats without accountability, with prominent government or Pentagon officials essentially never held accountable; and the consistent application of militarized Keynesianism that provided jobs and prosperity to relatively few at the expense of a large majority. In sum, America’s 60-year war has led to conspicuous destruction around the world, even as war production in the U.S. has not improved the lives of the working and middle classes as a whole.
Let’s take a closer look. In military terms, the use of almost everything the U.S. military possessed (except nuclear weapons) against adversaries who possessed next to nothing should be seen as a characteristic feature of the VLW. During those six decades of warfare, the U.S. military raged with fierce fury against enemies who refused to submit to its increasingly powerful, technologically advanced, and destructive toys.
I have studied and written about the Vietnam War, and yet I am always amazed at the sheer range of weapons dropped on the people of Southeast Asia in those years – from conventional bombs and napalm to defoliants like Agent Orange, which are still inflicting casualties nearly half a century after our troops finally withdrew. In addition to all the ordnance left behind, Vietnam was also a testing ground for technologies of all kinds, including the infamous electronic barrier that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara wanted to erect to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
For my old service, the Air Force, Vietnam became a proving ground for the notion that air forces could win a war with megatons of bombs. Just about every aircraft in the inventory at the time was used against America’s perceived enemies, including bombers built for strategic nuclear strikes, such as the B-52 Stratofortress. The result was staggeringly large-scale devastation and loss of life, and significant costs to economic fairness and social justice in this country (not to mention our humanity). Yet the companies that made all those bombs, napalm, defoliants, sensors, aircraft, and other deadly products made good money during those years.
In terms of sheer bomb tonnage and the like, the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were more restrained, thanks largely to the development of so-called smart weapons after Vietnam. Nonetheless, the kind of destruction dropped in Southeast Asia was largely repeated in the war on terror, which also targeted lightly armed guerrilla groups and helpless civilian populations. And once again, expensive strategic bombers such as the B-1, developed at staggering cost to overcome sophisticated Soviet air defenses in a nuclear war, were used against guerrilla groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Repeatedly, depleted uranium shells, white phosphorus, cluster munitions, and other toxic munitions were used.
Again, aside from nuclear weapons, pretty much any weapon that could be aimed at Iraqi soldiers, al-Qaeda or ISIS insurgents, or Taliban fighters in Afghanistan was used, including the venerable B-52 and, in one case, the so-called MOAB, the mother of all bombs. And again, despite all the death and destruction, the U.S. military was to lose both wars (one in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan), even though so many inside and outside the military benefited and prospered from the effort.
What kind of prosperity are we talking about here? The Vietnam War gobbled up an estimated $1 trillion in American wealth, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars possibly more than $8 trillion (if all the bills for the war on terror come due). Despite these costly defeats – or perhaps because of them – Pentagon spending is expected to exceed $7.3 trillion over the next decade. Never before has so much money been gobbled up by so few at the expense of so many in the field of human conflict.
In these 60 years of the VLW, the military-industrial complex has gobbled up incalculable trillions of taxpayer dollars while the U.S. military wreaked destruction around the globe. Worse, these wars have generally been fought with strong bipartisan support in Congress and not actively opposed by at least a significant “silent majority” of Americans. As a result, they gave rise to new forms of authoritarianism and militarism that are the very antithesis of representative democracy.
Paradoxically, the influence of the “world’s greatest military” continued to grow in this country even as it lost these wars, with the exception of a brief dip after Vietnam. It is as if a gambler lost for 60 years, only to be hailed as a winner.
Constant warfare and militarized Keynesianism have created certain kinds of well-paying jobs (though not nearly as many as would have been created by peaceful economic ventures). The wars and the constant preparations for them also drove up deficit spending because few in Congress were willing to finance them through tax increases. Thus, all those years of bombs and missiles going down, wealth flowed to ever more gigantic corporations like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, all too willing to hire retired generals for their boards.
And there is another reality: very little of this wealth has actually trickled down to workers, unless they happened to be employed by these weapons manufacturers who have become – to steal the names of two of this country’s Hellfire missile-armed drones – the predators and cutters of this society. If a pithy slogan were needed, these years could be called “Build Back Better by Bombing,” which of course puts us squarely in Orwellian territory.
Learning from Orwell and Ike
Speaking of George Orwell, America’s 60-year war, which was a losing proposition for many, turned out to be a clear winner for a few, and that was no accident either. In his book within a book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell wrote all too aptly about permanent war as a calculated way to consume the products of modern capitalism without creating a higher standard of living for its workers. That, of course, is the definition of a win-win situation for the owners. In his words:
“The essential act of war is the destruction, not necessarily of human life, but of the products of human labor. War is a means of smashing or pouring into the stratosphere or sinking into the depths of the sea materials that could otherwise be used to make the masses comfortable and thus, in the long run, intelligent. Even if weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their production is still a convenient way of consuming labor power without producing anything that can be consumed [by workers].”
For Orwell, war was a means of generating vast sums of money for a few at the expense of the many, who are left in a state where they cannot fight back or take power. Never. Think of this kind of war production and warfare as a legalized form of theft, as Ike recognized in his 1953 Iron Cross speech against militarism. Arms production, he declared eight years before the naming of the “military-industrial complex,” constituted theft from those seeking better education, affordable health care, safer streets, or, for that matter, the fruits of a healthy democracy attuned to the needs of its workers. The problem Orwell recognized was that smarter, healthier workers with greater freedom of choice would be less inclined to endure such oppression and exploitation.
And war, he knew, was also a means of stimulating the economy without raising hopes and dreams, a means of creating prosperity for a few while destroying it for the many. Domestically, the Vietnam War scuttled Lyndon Johnson’s plans for the Great Society. The high cost of the failed War on Terror and the Pentagon budgets that continue to rise to this day regardless of the results are now used as arguments against Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan. President Franklin D. Roosevelt would probably never have been funded had the vast military-industrial complex of today, or even that of Ike’s day in the 1930s, existed.
As political theorist Crane Brinton noted in The Anatomy of Revolution, a healthy and growing middle class that is equal parts optimistic and opportunistic is likely to be open to progressive, even revolutionary, ideas. A stagnant, shrinking, or slipping middle class, on the other hand, is likely to prove politically reactionary, as pessimism replaces optimism and protectionism replaces opportunity. In this sense, the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House was anything but a mystery and equally the possibility of an autocratic future.
All the trillions of dollars spent in wasteful wars have helped foster a creeping pessimism in Americans. One sign of this is the almost total absence of the idea of peace as a common possibility for our country. Most Americans simply take it for granted that war or threats of war, which have defined our immediate past, will define our future. As a result, rising military budgets are not seen as an aberration or even a burden, but as inevitable, even desirable – a sign of national seriousness and global bellicose superiority.
In the end, it will be tough
It is hard to believe that despite the wealth created (and often destroyed) by the United States and the impressive gains in worker productivity, workers’ living standards have not risen significantly since the early 1970s. One thing is certain: this has not happened by accident.
For those who benefit most, America’s 60-year war has indeed been a resounding success, albeit a colossal failure, when it comes to worker prosperity or democracy. This should not really surprise us. As former President James Madison warned Americans long ago, no nation can protect its freedoms in a permanent war. Democracies do not die in obscurity; they die in and of war.
In case you haven’t noticed (and I know you have), the evidence of the approaching death of American democracy is everywhere. That is why so many of us are deeply troubled. After all, we live in a strange new world that is worse than that of our parents and grandparents, a world whose horizons are shrinking as hope shrinks with it.
I was amazed to find that my father had predicted this before his death in 2003. He was born in 1917, survived the Great Depression by joining Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, and worked nights in factories for meager pay before being drafted into the Army during World War II. After the war, he lived a modest middle-class life as a firefighter, a unionized job with decent pay and benefits. My father put it this way: He had it hard at the beginning of his life but easy at the end, while I had it easy at the beginning but will have it hard at the end.
I think he sensed that the American dream was being betrayed, not by workers like him, but by corporate elites increasingly obsessed with an increasingly destructive form of greed. Events have proven that he was exactly right, as America has come to be defined by a war of greed for which no truce, much less an end, is in sight. In twenty-first century America, the war and the endless preparations for war just go on and on. It is beyond ironic that the economic, political and military champions of this country claim they are waging war to spread democracy while it withers at home.
And that is what worries me most: America’s long war of extermination against relatively weak countries and peoples may be over, or at least reduced to a strange moment of hostility, but America’s leaders, of whatever party, now seem to favor a new cold war against China and now Russia. Incredibly, the old cold war produced a victory so sweet yet so fleeting that it seems to require a massive new beginning.
Promoting war may have worked well for the military-industrial complex when the enemy was thousands of miles away and had no way to hit “the homeland,” but China and Russia do. If there is a war with China or Russia (or both), it will not last long. And count on one thing: America’s leaders – corporate, military and political – will not be able to dismiss the losses by looking at positive balance sheets and profit margins at weapons factories.
William Astore’s article appeared in the original English on TomDispatch.com. Thank you Tom Engelhardt for allowing us to translate and adopt it.
William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a regular guest on TomDispatch and a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical military veterans and national security experts. His personal blog is Bracing Views.