Endless Enemies and the Permanent War Economy

F-16 over Afghanistan. Photo: USAF.

President Biden took a predictable hit on the Afghan crisis, but the war’s flawed beginnings and mis-guided execution were caused by many of his current critics who were pitchmen for deepening our involvement. This fiasco lasted twenty years because all presidents and power players were vested in this atrocity, willing to cover up its failure with deceptions and bureaucratic lies, insulating Americans from casualties in order to continue the war indefinitely.

Ross Douthat contends that this failure has been known for some time, its irredeemable nature especially evident during the early Obama years when a decent political settlement couldn’t be reached despite the troop surge; when our forces “blunted but did not reverse the Taliban’s recovery.” And subsequent efforts were devoted to merely managing stalemate versus pursuing victory (“Joe Biden’s Critics Lost Afghanistan,” NYTimes, 8/31/21).

The targeting of the Obama years is telling not only because of the surge. Mr. Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize as he entered office, giving him the defaulted moniker as the “Peace President.” His acceptance speech mimicked the reasons the committee gave for granting him the prize. It voted to affirm his desire to achieve peace, likely swayed by the impact of his pre-election speeches, masterful pieces of rhetoric against war (and against neoliberalism as well, though effectively nullified after the election). The speech itself then was an embarrassing justification for the potential of war to produce peace. If the committee had voted after his decision to boot up the Afghan War, he would probably have gotten the prize anyway since the war’s material subsidies indentured a host of players and interests and bolstered support for it. So, the rhetoric of the speech and the decision soon after to expand the war, mesh efficiently into a saleable message that nicely smooths over an embarrassing contradiction.

The power players know it’s a contradiction and their role, realized through their media influence, is too make the peace-though-war message seem uncontradictory, convince citizens who have little interest in foreign policy anyway (they typically defer to elites), to accept this as natural. Their endless repetition of this message through official venues converts falsity into “truth.” An effect of this overkill is the cultivation of support for a permanent war economy, not just the hot war of the moment. We’re told over and over that achieving peace is a long-term, tasking endeavor, requiring many sacrifices. And of course, it helps to say that our goal is to bring democracy to the targeted land, even rebuild its institutions. This sweetens the pot, driving home to citizens that our institutions are credible so they will overlook our democracy’s flaws and become more patriotic. Patriotism of a certain kind, one that commands conformity to scripts, securing the kind of deference and support that gives the power players a free hand.

George Orwell demonstrated how this works in 1984, published in 1948 (the title an inversion of this date), the very moment when the Cold War military buildup began in earnest. In its society three empires control the globe, each roughly corresponding to the post-WWII power blocs. They are perpetually at war. In fact, no one living in this society can remember when war began. Their lives have only known hostilities with another empire. The telescreens repeat ad nauseam the positive results of the current campaign, presenting little else (on domestic issues only lies about increased output and the expanded production of desirable goods), and emphasizing the light-at-the-end-of-the tunnel delusion. Suddenly, during the telescreen’s babble, announcements assault viewers with the news that the society is now at war with the other empire (through alleged transgressions on their part), and that they’ve conquered the previous one. To supplement this barrage, it requires attendance at the daily “five minutes of hate” performances where the fictitious reasons why the current enemy deserves to be labeled evil are belabored. And Orwell makes clear that one of the major purposes of this attention to war and focus on external issues is to deflect from the already quite starved domestic agenda (the lower Party members and workers live as virtual slaves).

This kind of conditioning doesn’t happen here—the sources for his allegory were the authoritarian systems of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Here we’re conditioned indirectly, subliminally (subliminal seduction, to borrow a concept from the advertising world), to hate the enemies of the moment, the rogue nations, “terrorists” we don’t negotiate with, the full axis of evil, and to make firm distinctions between us and them, the good guys and the bad guys. These messages circulate via a variety of discourses, some less than five minutes, in news blurbs justifying the conflict of the moment in defense of the freedom to protect the country; military ads that hype the warrior mystique; blips from “journalists” who casually label countries, like Russia and China, our enemies; “reports” from retired Generals who vigorously drive home the necessity for increased funding for the Pentagon because it’s a dangerous world out there with many enemies jealous of our success, etc.

There are also those longer than five minutes. Like action-adventure movies that sell the need for violence against perpetually threatening enemies from chaotic territories and failed states, giving authority for superheroes to invade their land and assassinate bad actors or rescue victims; displays of weaponry at public events, like flyovers at football games; the hosting of sports spectacles from war-torn sites; “support our troops” media segments, the message often transferred to target bodies through symbols (driving home the propagandistic choice of either/or).

Few direct lectures needed, though hawkish think tanks thrive on badgering us.

The effects from this assault compound over time, get lodged in our subconscious, ready to erupt from a random trigger and present a simple option to support military ventures (like being driven inexplicably to buy a car you never thought you wanted). As a result, we don’t see how the enemy-matrix is fabricated, the extent to which we also create the dangerous world with our imperial overreach. Chalmers Johnson dredges up the consequences of this fabrication and overreach in his book Blowback, published before 9/11 but sagely predicting it. Our greater presence in more and more foreign lands spawns the enemies we must then confront since these ventures are mere momentary forays to maintain the empire—perpetuate the permanent war economy—that recklessly disturb their cultural traditions, fracturing the occupations. The havoc from these interventions establishes the need for shifting loyalties among the players, requiring often that we join forces with our enemies. And it often converts our friends into enemies.

One of the major effects of our mammoth investment in foreign affairs that has produced the permanent war economy is, like in Orwell’s fiction, the screening of attention away from the domestic issues that matter to many citizens, preventing the investments that can preserve and strengthen the middle class and make progress in eradicating the underclass. These deficits accrue from the moment the Cold War intensifies through the next several decades to current times, though the truly damaging years are those after the rise of neoliberalism in the early 1970s. Its mandate to leave the fate of the mass of ordinary citizens to market mechanisms, its cultural blindness to the immoral effects this new material regime produced, compounded the detrimental trade-off between foreign and domestic spending. How and why was all that money passed to the military and private contractors when so many citizens had yet to be absorbed into society; yet to achieve the American Dream? Especially in the immediate post-WWII years when we were struggling to recover from the war’s deficits. Even the highly productive 1960s felt the squeeze from the massive outlays for Vietnam. The neoliberal era ushers in a system that expands the numbers of excluded, constructing inequality as a normal facet of society that increases down through the years to current times.

And when the war drums sound, most Americans unwittingly—and even willingly—sacrifice for the cause, defer to the experts on foreign affairs and the Pentagon that hype the current conflict to secure support.

Since inheriting the role of imperial cop from the UK after WWII, all our wars have been offensive ones, about maintaining and expanding our inheritance. As the inheritor, ever protective of property rights, we’ve exercised our prerogative to intervene when and where necessary to justify them. We’ve justified this behavior with the idea that we’re exceptional. The rules and regulations that bind others don’t apply to us. We’re a special nation driven by God’s directives. We don’t start wars, we finish them. And we use violence only as a last resort. The exports of our professed ideals were packaged with power trips to keep the empire viable, and this provoked resistance and even vengeance as we became more deeply involved in the affairs of other countries, requiring ever more intervention. The Soviets became our enemy immediately after WWII, their territorial grab and acquisition of nuclear weapons threats too difficult to ignore. But the Cold War brought a polarized world and the imperative to defeat them at any cost. This often involved the toppling of democratic regimes and their replacement with those to help build a support network. The resulting string of wars were proxies, and unwinnable since we couldn’t confront the Soviets directly for fear of nuclear annihilation.

The Soviets were a definite threat, vowing to bury us economically and militarily. And early on we didn’t see that their economic challenge to capitalism was very weak when stacked against their framers’ goals and the people’s expectations. But our anti-communism had a pathological side which blinded us from fully understanding their system. SDS’s “Port Huron Statement,” written in 1961, pointed to this overreaction on the part of their parent’s generation, proffering the more realistic and potentially more workable perspective of “anti-anti-communism” to free up debate. What unhinged us was their nominal intent to structure equality through state-directed measures and improve their citizens’ life chances from outside of the market mechanism. We didn’t know then that this led to unfair leveling and restrictions on freedom, bolstering the elites at the expense of the masses, and hastening the country’s decline. We couldn’t see either that however flawed this was, at least their experiment tackled the structural problems that have plagued capitalism.

We sympathize with the plight of ordinary citizens but defer to individuals to make it happen with assistance from the invisible hand. They’re encouraged to move on and beyond themselves and achieve more equality than their neighbors. But our blindness to the social structuring accomplished through our state-supported performance of the market secured the problems that have plagued capitalism.

The source of this pathology was the 1917 Soviet revolution, an event so unsettling to the elite that they proceeded to reorganize domestic society. This “Red Scare” permeated social and everyday life. It was as if the elite needed to extinguish any symptoms of liberalism, however weak, as a bulwark against a potential invasion of alien ideas, especially collectivist ones. They seemed to feel our citizens would be seduced by this new ideology and proceeded to clean house, bust the unions, persecute random liberals for being communists, and instill a culture of fear into the populace so few would dare to speak out. The chilling effect on free speech did much damage to our democratic institutions as John Dos Passos recorded in his USA trilogy, demonstrating how an overreaction to communism can seed strains of fascism.

The Soviet conversion to enemy status after WWII led to the repetition of these tendencies after the social-democratic hiatus of the 1930s, and this “Red Scare” redux led to greater outlays for the military and greater damage to the home front. We crusaded forward and compounded our stockpile of weapons, vesting our future in a destructive trajectory despite President Eisenhower’s late 1950s warning about the “military industrial complex,” which was hardly heeded. The colossal amount of interest alone on the war debts have made his speech seem like an “investment strategy for Wall Street and American corporations” (Jeffrey St. Clair, “Taxing Representations,” CounterPunch, 9/17/21).

Senator Joe McCarthy’s hunt for commie witches successfully buffeted this dangerous course earlier in the decade, selling the idea that we must get them before their aggressions begin to topple the “free,” capitalist nations like falling dominoes. But once the outlays for the military spike further in the early-to-mid 1960s due to the Vietnam War, this ascendant narrative gets modified. LBJ’s obsession to expand that war along with spending for his domestic program—the “Great Society”—contributed to a stag-flationary economy.

But it wasn’t just the spending on the military to the detriment of the domestic agenda that so negatively impacted the society during this stretch of time. The colossal disruption and polarization of the 1960s were spawned by the antiwar movement and its extension into the gamut of social justice issues, and the human costs were immeasurable. And despite the decades’ many progressive gains, its dystopian underbelly provoked a reactionary backlash in the 1970s that helped firm up support for militarist solutions.

Norman Mailer zeroed in on the core of this anti-communism pathology in Armies of the Night, his memoir of the March on the Pentagon in October 1967. Waffling on the issue of whether to support the protestors, whom he mostly characterized as weekend liberals, and whether the war was even justified, his almost accidental participation in the event finally brought some clarity. He concluded that we should stop the war because it was unwinnable; the expended resources would likely bankrupt us; communism may be the best solution for certain types of societies, and the best option was to let them work out the kinks themselves (his words were directed to the larger issue of communism’s viability as well, not just Vietnam). He believed that the existing communist systems might evolve into some hybrid that we were incapable of imagining at that moment, and it might very well be superior.

The Vietnam War would not have existed without the anti-communism fervor. It was a proxy war against the Soviet Union and China, as was the earlier Korean War. And like with the Soviet Union, Vietnam’s ally status flipped quickly to that of dreaded enemy. Ho Chi Minh helped us defeat Japan in WWII, but he proved dispensable once the war ended. We took the weapons in the possession of the Japanese and transferred them to the French, giving them the means to re-colonize Vietnam (the Japanese and the French had traded off ownership of the country for years before WWII). When its neighbor, China, went Communist in 1949 we saw more dominoes falling and falsely assumed Ho was their natural ally, along with the Soviets. But it turned out that he was primarily a nationalist, resisting links to the international network. So, when he defeated the French in 1954 and we replaced them, he fought viciously.

Any moral imperative we possessed when entering Vietnam vaporized from our extended occupation that ended in defeat. It effectively turned many patriots into skeptics. The atrocities, the masses of civilians killed to prop up an undemocratic regime, the racism towards the Vietnamese, the negative impact on the home front from the mammoth transfer of resources away from needed programs (the effective start of the fraying of the safety net), and from the war-debt spiral that helped tank the economy and inaugurate the long march against the middle class, all of this trashed a generation’s hopes in search of the American Dream.

If in the hiatus after our exit from Vietnam we had some sense of shame, that soon changed. The movie mythology soon kicked in. Rambos were everywhere, refusing to surrender and selling patriotism like snake oil. It was supported by the real-life ascendance of the new right that catalyzed Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, the weapons industries securing their interests through lobbyists, and pressure from Fundamentalists vowing to usurp the high moral ground against all heathens.

In the 1979 Iran hostage crisis we encountered the enemies of the future. Iran’s youth wouldn’t forget 1953 when we toppled their democratically elected president, replacing their Islamic State with a puppet regime that endorsed the Western values of consumerism and “democracy.” These activists succeeded in reviving the Islamic State and deepening the resistance to foreign occupation. Ironically this success came at a price. The extended hostage crisis helped sink Carter’s re-election bid, paving the way for Reagan who cleverly forged a backroom deal to negotiate the end of the crisis after he was elected.

Ensconced in office, Reagan’s revisionist attitude toward the Vietnam War reigned supreme. He blamed the media and a tepid bureaucracy for “losing” the war and proposed a stiffened approach to enemies new and old. This attitude invested subsequent events. He got big increases for the military in a final push to bring the Soviet empire to its knees while radically reducing taxes on the rich, which sent the country into an austerity tailspin. This succeeded—the Soviet Union was dismantled in 1991—though as we learned later it was already nearly broken, unable to afford both guns and butter.

This aggressive posture also led to involvement in the Soviet’s war against the Afghans in the 1980s, by proxy, where we supported Osama Bid Laden’s “freedom fighters.” Once the Afghans succeeded, we spurned our ally and he felt betrayed. He made use of the material and knowledge we left there to strengthen Al Qaeda and planted the seeds for a strain of radical Islam—a new kind of terrorism—to thrive during the post-Cold War era when the bombings of Western sites began (many of them on our soil).

George Bush Senior’s Iraq War 1 brazenly operationalized his predecessor’s posture. It was a brief but not fully resolved conflict which placed many Americans on Islamic soil, a violation that compounded the ire of Al Qaeda, and contributed to the violence throughout the decade, not to mention the expanding pool of “terrorists.” The real tragedy of this war was that it was essentially about oil. It was executed to build an alliance that would best secure the area’s oil reserves and succeed in reversing Iraq’s nationalization of the oil industry in the early 1970s.

Bill Clinton, elected just after Iraq War 1, took the baton from his predecessor and continued the permanent war economy. This was also tragic since he inherited a great opportunity for change with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. We were suddenly free from having to methodically produce piles of unnecessary weapons at such great expense to the public welfare. But we’d demonstrated, in Francis Fukuyama’s infamous verbiage from the era (“The End of History and the Last Man”—1992), that our mix of capitalism and democracy was superior, and we were ready to remap societies in our image. So, the military budget barely changed. Clinton said we needed a strong military to maintain security around the bases where our companies were doing business.

Inheriting massive budget deficits from Reagan and Bush, he became a deficit hawk, responding to their effects and not the causes. The new enemies were such a big threat to our freedom that we had to redefine “welfare” to help balance the budget. AFDC, the welfare program consecrated in the New Deal, was trashed mid-decade for TANF, a new law that eliminated entitlement and the years benefits could be collected, basically redefining the concept of welfare as a punitive one, blaming individuals for their plight. Yet there was no attention to corporate welfare, or the dismantling of the progressive tax system in the Reagan years that freed up millions to the rich and shifted the relative tax burden onto the lower and middle classes, monies that when combined with the gargantuan outlays for weapons to beat the Soviets required considerable sacrifices on the domestic front.

Meanwhile, pumped up by Fukuyama’s imperative to remap societies in our image, Clinton’s actions become wildly irresponsible. He gave the order to bomb a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, claiming to mistake the site for a chemical weapons factory. This was adorned with an apology not unlike what we made recently when our drone strike in Afghanistan targeted the wrong people. Not exactly actions deterring Al Qaeda recruitment.

The wrath of our new enemies was already raging, if not immediately obvious, when George Bush II enters office, his arrogance toward foreign countries and hostility toward the Islamic nations aggravating this condition and likely a catalyst for 9/11. The ruins from this event were still smoldering when the Treasury transferred monies to corporations, many of which were not even directly impacted economically; when legislators—mostly Republicans—demanded tax cuts to counter the coming downturn. Bush did get his tax cuts, one in 2003 and another in 2006, during the very stretch when more monies were needed to fund the two wars, a shortfall covered with raids on the Social Security fund.

Obama entered office when the financial crisis hit, and he also inherited a massive deficit from Bush. But he mostly repeated Bush’s script, bolstering the military, bailing out banks and corporations—many again that weren’t directly impacted—while being frugal when it came to addressing the plight of real victims, like those suffering from the foreclosure crisis (his administration failed to prosecute the real perpetrators of the crisis). He reneged on his promise to restore progressivity to the tax code and reverse the Bush tax cuts, an amount of savings that would’ve wiped out the deficit.

The “Peace President” continued the War at Home and pumped up the permanent war economy…

John O’Kane teaches writing at Chapman University. His recent book is Toward Election 2020: Cancel Culture, Censorship and Class