Are we witnessing a crisis of the U.S. military? Since World War II, the American government has proclaimed the grand mission and capabilities of the U.S. military to guarantee the stability of the world. Has it lived up to its reputed superpower status or has it become a bloated global enforcer?
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates total U.S. military spending for 2013 at $641 billion. This is spending for what Pres. Eisenhower famously warned in 1960 as an ever-expanding military-industrial complex. This is for a military that last won a historically decisive victory 75 years ago following the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan.
Today’s vast, military cash-cow is a revolving door between a bureaucratic officer corps and military-contractor boardrooms, with appropriate cash and other “contributions” offered to accommodating politicians. Working closely, if often competitively, with the intelligence/security apparatus (mostly notably NSA and CIA covert operations), the old U.S. military of weaponry and personnel has devolved from a global superpower reflecting American economic and social hegemony into the cop-on-the-beat enforcer for a globalizing corporatist and financial order.
The U.S.’s bloated and inept military-intelligence fortress failed to predict – let alone foil – 9/11. Since then, under both Republican and Democratic regimes, Eisenhower’s 21st century complex has squandered trillions of dollars and the lives of thousands of U.S. military personnel — to say nothing of the lives of innocent civilians in war zones — in a series of questionable campaigns in the Middle East, Central Asian and Africa, including the Gulf War of August 1990 to January ‘91.
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The transformation of the U.S. military from superpower to enforcer is revealed in six campaigns that took place since World War II.
Korean War Ends in Stalemate
WW-II was fought on two fronts, in Europe and Asia. The Soviet Union was Germany’s principle combatant, losing some 20 million people. The war in Europe ended in May 1945 when the Red Army’s captured Berlin, setting the stage for the subsequent half-century’s Cold War.
Asia was the war’s second front, especially the Korean Peninsula. Japan had claimed it as its territory in 1876 and formally ruled it between 1910 and 1945. Following Japan’s surrender in September ’45, the peninsula was divided into U.S. and SU occupation zones. In 1948, two states were formally established; the American-backed Republic of Korea (South), a right-wing dictatorship, and the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North), a Moscow-puppet dictatorship.
Regional tensions escalated until October 1, 1949, when Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China. This formally ended the quarter-century long Chinese civil war, from 1927-1949, during which the U.S. backed the dictatorial Kuomintang regime. This changed the Asian political landscape.
On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded the South, leading to a growing conflict between the U.S. and China. In July 1953 an armistice was signed that ended formal hostilities but not the war. In this UN-sanctioned conflict, 54,000 Americans were killed.
The U.S. currently maintains an occupying force of 28,500 troops in Korea and commands South Korea’s 640,000 military.
Vietnam War Ends in Defeat
Throughout Asia at the end of WW-II, a host of early Cold War proxy wars broke out between Soviet- and American-backed combatants. One on the most pivotal was the drawn out war in the Philippines from 1948 to 1954. The U.S. had occupied the country since 1899 as a result of the Spanish-American War, but it secured ostensibly independence in ‘46. With the end of WW-II, a contentious war broke out between nationalists, led by the “Huks” (the Hukbalahap, Hukbong Bayan Laban sa mga Hapon or the Nation’s Army Against the Japanese), and the CIA-backed rightwing dictatorship of Ramon Magsaysay, directed by Lt. Col. Edward G. Lansdale, a U.S. Air Force officer. The CIA was victorious.
U.S. involvement in Vietnam was part of an effort to take over France’s colonial interest following its failed campaign against Viet Minh, a mix of communist and nationalists. France’s efforts dragged on from 1946 to 1954 and ended with defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
Vietnam was initially perceived as yet another skirmish like the Philippines, but ended up being not only the up-‘til-then longest war in U.S. history and its greatest military defeat. It dragged on for two decades, from 1955 to 1975, although the U.S. dropped out in ’73 following Henry Kissinger’s “secret” Paris peace deal.
The U.S. military misadventure in Vietnam involved the deployment of 540,000 soldiers leading to the death of 58,200 personnel and the wounding of 300,000 U.S. men and women. As of 2011, an estimated 150,000 Vietnam vets had committed suicide. The number of killed and wounded Vietnamese – along with Cambodians, Laotians and others – is incalculable.
Cuba Invasion Fails
While the Cold War was playing out in Asia and Europe (e.g., Greek 1947 civil war), a nationalist insurgence took root in Latin America and was perceived as a direct threat to the U.S. In 1823, Pres. James Monroe proclaimed what become known as the “Monroe Doctrine.” He warned European nations that any effort to colonize territory in the Americas would be seen as direct an act of aggression against the U.S. These territories, especially in Central and South America, were seen as off-limit to all but the U.S. for colonization and plunder.
Between the early-50s and the collapse of the SU in 1991, Latin America was littered with the corpses of victims of U.S. military and CIA clandestine interventions. They included: CIA’s overthrowing of Guatemala’s elected government (1954); the U.S.-backed dictatorships of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier in Haiti (1957-1986); U.S. orchestrated military coup in Brazil (1964); U.S. military occupation of Dominican Republic (1965-1966); U.S. orchestrated military coup of socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile (1973); U.S. backed Contra army in Nicaragua to suppress the Sandinistas (1974-1979); U.S. backed military, including death squads, in El Salvador civil war (1979–1992); U.S. military invasion of Grenada (1983); and U.S. occupation of Panama (1989-1990).
U.S. military interventions in Latin America occurred against a background of the CIA failed efforts to topple the Cuban Revolution. Fidel Castro marched into Havana on January 7, 1959, a week after U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista fled to the Dominican Republic. In April ’61, the CIA orchestrated an invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs; 1,000 CIA foot soldiers, Cuban exiles, were taken prisoner. A year later, in October ’62, the world held its breath over the Cuban Missile Crisis, a showdown between the U.S. and SU.
The U.S. officially broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961. Now, a half-century later, under Pres. Obama those relations are being reestablished.
For two years, from November 1979 to January 1981, the U.S. was traumatized by the Iranian hostage crisis. Iranian radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in ’70, a quarter century after the CIA and the British agents orchestrated, on June 1, 1953, the overthrow of Iran’s first elected government headed by Mohammad Mosaddeq; he was replaced by a puppet regime headed by the Shah.
Pres. Carter approved Operation Eagle Claw (aka Operation Evening Light and Operation Rice Bowl), the military’s disastrous effort to free the Embassy hostages. In the following four decades, the U.S. military and CIA have engaged in dozens and dozens of military “operations” across the globe. They range from Operation Desert Storm (under Pres. G. H. W. Bush, 1990) to Operation Iraqi Freedom (Pres. G. W. Bush, 2003-2011) to the current Operation Inherent Resolve against Islamic State (Pres. Obama). This era also saw innumerable covert CIA operations to destabilize and/or overthrow countries deemed threats to U.S. hegemony.
Parallel to these military efforts, the U.S. engaged in numerous quasi-military humanitarian operations to contain local crises. Among such actions are Operation Deliberate Force (Bosnia, 1994-1995) and Operation Allied Force (Kosovo War, 1998-1999). Nick Turse documented U.S. operations in 49 of 54 nations in Africa. Sadly, Pres. Clinton failed to intervene in the Rwanda genocide in which up to 1 million Tutsi people were murdered.
These operations have, for the most part, ended in stalemates that have only come back to wreck still greater military and social destabilization. The last “great” victory of the U.S. – along with 35 coalition partners – was Operation Desert Shield – aka Gulf War – under Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Cold War’s Pyrrhic victory
The SU collapsed in 1991, leaving the U.S. the sole global superpower. The Cold War was over; the enemy defeated; the military-industrial complex’s rationale for existence over. Many Americans demanded a peace dividend and sought to shrink the bloated military budget.
Over the last quarter-century, the U.S. has been the economic, military and cultural engine driving worldwide development. These efforts helped fashion a new world order that is reshaping postmodern life. The U.S. faces increased challenges from China, Germany/ Europe, Brazil/South America and South Africa/Africa. A new world order is being constituted.
Since 1991, total military spending is estimated to be about $7.7 trillion, excluding expenditures for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is an enormous drain on U.S. resources, monies that could be better spent on other aspects of social life such as education, infrastructure and health care.
War on Terror & Destabilization
The “war on terror” was ostensibly initiated in retaliation for acts of war conducted by al Qaeda operatives on September 11, 2001. Pres. Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001 and Pres. Obama formally ended hostilities in Afghanistan as of yearend 2014; 10,000 or so U.S. troops remain in an ostensible support capacity. Over this decade-plus of hostilities, the U.S. lost 2,228 servicemen and women at a price estimated at over $1 trillion. For what?
In May 2003, Pres. Bush delivered a victory speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, standing defiantly before a banner proclaiming, “Mission Accomplished.” Two months earlier he had declared war on Iraq based on claims that it harbored weapons of mass destruction and provided training to al Qaeda. Over time, the claims were shown to be false; none in the Bush administration have been prosecuted for false war crimes. In August 2010, Pres. Obama declared an end to hostilities and the U.S. formally withdrew all combat troops from Iraq in December 2011. During the 8-1/2-year war, nearly 5,000 U.S. personnel were killed and over 32,000 wounded; total costs for the war are estimated at $1.7 trillion. What for?
One of the consequences of these military initiatives is the untold number of casualties – and their families and communities/tribes – left behind. Memory lives on for a very long time while vengeance can endure forever. It’s hard to know how long the misnamed “war on terror” will drag on. However, the unasked question remains what will replace the Cold War/U.S.-despot?
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The war on terror is destabilizing the political restructuring now remaking the greater Middle East. Pakistan and Egypt suggest one tendency, military dictatorships; Saudi Arabia and Iran suggest another, religious states. Starting with the Gulf War (1990-1991), destabilization has come with the bloody skirmishes at the periphery of the empire, including (Somali, 1992-1993), Yemen (2002), Libya (2011) and Nigeria (Boko Haram, 2009-present).
An unanticipated consequence of this destabilization is the future of the nation state. A century ago, the British and French carved up the Middle East into the countries — with recognizable boarders – that are under siege today. In the eras that preceded the age of colonialism, boarders – dating back to the days of Jesus and the Romans — were as fluid as the sand. They are again in play.
The Islamic State represents a radical reactionary challenge to traditional, US-UK Middle East’s geopolitics. Putting aside its puritanical (im)morality and blood-thirsty methods, IS seeks to redraw the map of the Middle East. By invoking the caliphate, it wants to reclaim a lost world, one before the arrival of European boarders and secularism. In a 21st century, postmodern world, IS represents a form of resistance, the invocation of anti-modern feudalism. How far the U.S. will go militarily to enforce the new world order remains to be seen.