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 Forcehas 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.”
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.
This column was distributed by TomDispatch.