Sometime late next year, possibly as early as September, news crews will gather in Afghanistan for a unique event: To interview an American serviceman or woman who was not born when the war they are fighting began. He or she will not remember 9/11, and will have grown up with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as background noise. No doubt also a senior commander will be on hand to pronounce that the war against the Taliban is making progress, the same pronouncements the young recruit will have seen on TV all his or her life.
It will be a stark reminder that America has been at war for 225 of the 242 years of its existence: A handful of those conflicts — the defeat of Hitler and Japan, for example — go down as “good wars.” But most go down as operations that cost dearly in blood and treasure for little appreciable result.
In 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the only American to make it to the highest offices in both politics and the military, warned, on leaving the presidency more than half a century ago, of the power of the “military industrial complex”, and how war can become an end in itself.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military/industrial complex,” he warned. ”The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
America’s future political leadership clearly didn’t listen. Eisenhower’s immediate successor John F. Kennedy reluctantly got the country embroiled in the Cuban debacle that was the Bay of Pigs and also the Vietnam war, with its eventual offshoots, after his death, in Cambodia and Laos. More misadventures followed: Lebanon, Grenada, Kosovo, Somalia and Libya spring to mind, before the disastrous Iraq and Afghanistan wars that remain with us courtesy of Bush and Blair.
Along with them have come several dozen proxy wars, among them Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, East Timor, Guatemala, Indonesia, Former Yugoslavia, Pakistan, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Syria, and Sudan. Millions have died, trillions of dollars have been spent, for little or no appreciable result.
Some interventions are cynical, but even the well-meaning ones often end in disaster. Novelist Graham Greene offered a devastating portrait of a well-meaning, but clumsily disasterous, foreign service official in The Quiet American. You might think these repeated failures would wean the Pentagon off foreign adventures, and you would be totally wrong.
The US military budget is higher than the next seven big spenders in the world put together. Since 9/11, these wars have cost America $6 trillion. Just occasionally a dissident voice breaks through: A small but poignant example was Jon Voight’s film “Transformers’.” There is a scene where US troops are attacked by a robot, and the line “bring ’em home” was inserted by the the Pentagon’s Hollywood liaison officer for nearly 30 years Phil Strub.
Bring ’em home to what?
This lavish spending is in contrast to the lack of care veterans get when they return home. The Pentagon has spent $250m a day since shortly after 9/11, yet support for those coming home is abysmal. Veterans make up ten percent of America’s homeless population, with 250,000 men and women who were once proud to wear the uniform now sleeping rough on the streets. Suicides rates amongst Vets are soaring.
The hard truth is that most of America’s military adventures are just that — adventures. The last existential threat the United States faced was the Soviet Union in a Cold War that ended in 1991. Terrorists have exacted a grievous toll in attacks on America and Americans, but they do not threaten the continuance of the union.
Yet a bloated navy patrols seas against a non-existant invasion threat.
The good news is that the penny has dropped with some of the Trump administration: The president has been asking, in his caustic style, just why the US has men and women in harm’s way in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, places that pose no direct threat to the United States.
And Trump is asking also why America is expected to defend not just itself, but Europe also, where most of its NATO partners refuse to spend even two percent of their GDP on defence, despite pledging to do so years ago.
Trump’s critics accuse him of isolationism, but reluctance to embark on military adventures abroad is not limited to the Republican president. Many Americans are wondering why America is in a constant state of war.
They could start with an assessment of what perils America really faces.
Battling terrorists requires special forces and intelligence, not warships and tanks. Russia presents zero immediate threat.
The two rival nuclear powers, both China and Russia, have been careful, amid all the noise about election interference and tariffs, to offer no direct threat to the United States or international commerce, America’s lifeblood.
Some of this has already filtered through not just to Trump but the remaining few sober heads on both sides of Congress, the likes of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Senator Rand Paul, as they fight their way within Congress to a less interventionist military and an end to the philosophy of regime change.
Let’s hope such politicians succeed. Don’t hold your breath though!