In my lifetime of nearly 60 years, America has waged five major wars, winning one decisively, then throwing that victory away, while losing the other four disastrously. Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as the Global War on Terror, were the losses, of course; the Cold War being the solitary win that must now be counted as a loss because its promise was so quickly discarded.
America’s war in Vietnam was waged during the Cold War in the context of what was then known as the domino theory and the idea of “containing” communism. Iraq and Afghanistan were part of the Global War on Terror, a post-Cold War event in which “radical Islamic terrorism” became the substitute for communism. Even so, those wars should be treated as a single strand of history, a 60-year war, if you will, for one reason alone: the explanatory power of such a concept.
For me, because of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation in January 1961, that year is the obvious starting point for what retired Army colonel and historian Andrew Bacevich recently termed America’s Very Long War (VLW). In that televised speech, Ike warned of the emergence of a military-industrial complex of immense strength that could someday threaten American democracy itself. I’ve chosen 2021 as the VLW’s terminus point because of the disastrous end of this country’s Afghan War, which even in its last years cost $45 billion annually to prosecute, and because of one curious reality that goes with it. In the wake of the crashing and burning of that 20-year war effort, the Pentagon budget leaped even higher with the support of almost every congressional representative of both parties as Washington’s armed attention turned to China and Russia.
At the end of two decades of globally disastrous war-making, that funding increase should tell us just how right Eisenhower was about the perils of the military-industrial complex. By failing to heed him all these years, democracy may indeed be in the process of meeting its demise.
The Prosperity of Losing Wars
Several things define America’s disastrous 60-year war. These would include profligacy and ferocity in the use of weaponry 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 WMD for the invasion of Iraq, and the recent Afghan War papers); accountability-free defeats, with prominent government or military officials essentially never held responsible; and the consistent practice of a militarized Keynesianism that provided jobs and wealth to a relative few at the expense of a great many. In sum, America’s 60-year war has featured conspicuous destruction globally, even as wartime production in the U.S. failed to better the lives of the working and middle classes as a whole.
Let’s take a closer look. Militarily speaking, throwing almost everything the U.S. military had (nuclear arms excepted) at opponents who had next to nothing should be considered the defining feature of the VLW. During those six decades of war-making, the U.S. military raged with white hot anger against enemies who refused to submit to its ever more powerful, technologically advanced, and destructive toys.
I’ve studied and written about the Vietnam War and yet I continue to be astounded by the sheer range of weaponry dropped on the peoples of Southeast Asia in those years — from conventional bombs and napalm to defoliants like Agent Orange that still cause deaths almost half a century after our troops finally bugged out of there. Along with all that ordnance left behind, Vietnam was a testing ground for technologies of every sort, including the infamous electronic barrier that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sought to establish to interdict the Ho Chi Minh trail.
When it came to my old service, the Air Force, Vietnam became a proving ground for the notion that airpower, using megatons of bombs, could win a war. Just about every aircraft in the inventory then was thrown at America’s alleged enemies, including bombers built for strategic nuclear attacks like the B-52 Stratofortress. The result, of course, was staggeringly widespread devastation and loss of life at considerable cost to economic fairness and social equity in this country (not to mention our humanity). Still, the companies producing all the bombs, napalm, defoliants, sensors, airplanes, and other killer products did well indeed in those years.
In terms of sheer bomb tonnage and the like, America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were more restrained, mainly thanks to the post-Vietnam development of so-called smart weapons. Nonetheless, the sort of destruction that rained down on Southeast Asia was largely repeated in the war on terror, similarly targeting lightly armed guerrilla groups and helpless civilian populations. And once again, expensive strategic bombers like the B-1, developed at a staggering cost to penetrate sophisticated Soviet air defenses in a nuclear war, were dispatched against bands of guerrillas operating in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Depleted uranium shells, white phosphorus, cluster munitions, as well as other toxic munitions, were used repeatedly. Again, short of nuclear weapons, just about every weapon that could be thrown at Iraqi soldiers, al-Qaeda or ISIS insurgents, or Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, would be used, including those venerable B-52s and, in one case, what was known as the MOAB, or mother of all bombs. And again, despite all the death and destruction, the U.S. military would lose both wars (one functionally in Iraq and the other all too publicly in Afghanistan), even as so many in and out of that military would profit and prosper from the effort.
What kind of prosperity are we talking about? The Vietnam War cycled through an estimated $1 trillion in American wealth, the Afghan and Iraq Wars possibly more than $8 trillion (when all the bills come due from the War on Terror). Yet, despite such costly defeats, or perhaps because of them, Pentagon spending is expected to exceed $7.3 trillion over the next decade. Never in the field of human conflict has so much money been gobbled up by so few at the expense of so many.
Throughout those 60 years of the VLW, the military-industrial complex has conspicuously consumed trillions of taxpayer dollars, while the U.S. military has rained destruction around the globe. Worse yet, those wars were generally waged with strong bipartisan support in Congress and at least not actively resisted by a significant “silent majority” of Americans. In the process, they have given rise to new forms of authoritarianism and militarism, the very opposite of representative democracy.
Paradoxically, even as “the world’s greatest military” lost those wars, its influence continued to grow in this country, except for a brief dip in the aftermath of Vietnam. It’s as if a gambler had gone on a 60-year losing binge, only to find himself applauded as a winner.
Constant war-making and a militarized Keynesianism created certain kinds of high-paying jobs (though not faintly as many as peaceful economic endeavors would have). Wars and constant preparations for the same also drove deficit spending since few in Congress wanted to pay for them via tax hikes. As a result, in all those years, as bombs and missiles rained down, wealth continued to flow up to ever more gigantic corporations like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, places all too ready to hire retired generals to fill their boards.
And here’s another reality: very little of that wealth ever actually trickled down to workers unless they happened to be employed by those weapons makers, which — to steal the names of two of this country’s Hellfire missile-armed drones — have become this society’s predators and reapers. If a pithy slogan were needed here, you might call these the Build Back Better by Bombing years, which, of course, moves us squarely into Orwellian territory.
Learning from Orwell and Ike
Speaking of George Orwell, America’s 60-Year War, a losing proposition for the many, proved a distinctly winning one for the few and that wasn’t an accident either. In his book within a book in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell wrote all-too-accurately of permanent war as a calculated way of consuming the products of modern capitalism without generating 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 destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labor. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent. Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labor power without producing anything that can be consumed [by the workers].”
War, as Orwell saw it, was a way of making huge sums of money for a few at the expense of the many, who would be left in a state where they simply couldn’t fight back or take power. Ever. Think of such war production and war-making as a legalized form of theft, as Ike recognized in 1953 in his “cross of iron” speech against militarism. The production of weaponry, he declared eight years before he named “the military-industrial complex,” constituted theft from those seeking a better education, affordable health care, safer roads, or indeed any of the fruits of a healthy democracy attuned to the needs of its workers. The problem, as Orwell recognized, was that smarter, healthier workers with greater freedom of choice would be less likely to endure such oppression and exploitation.
And war, as he knew, was also a way to stimulate the economy without stimulating hopes and dreams, a way to create wealth for the few while destroying it for the many. Domestically, the Vietnam War crippled Lyndon Johnson’s plans for the Great Society. The high cost of the failed war on terror and of Pentagon budgets that continue to rise today regardless of results are now cited as arguments against Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal arguably would have never been funded if today’s vast military-industrial complex, or even the one in Ike’s day, had existed in the 1930s.
As political theorist Crane Brinton noted in The Anatomy of Revolution, a healthy and growing middle class, equal parts optimistic and opportunistic, is likely to be open to progressive, even revolutionary ideas. But a stagnant, shrinking, or slipping middle class 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 the possibility of an autocratic future no less so.
All those trillions of dollars consumed in wasteful wars have helped foster a creeping pessimism in Americans. A sign of it is the near-total absence of the very idea of peace as a shared possibility for our country. Most Americans simply take it for granted that war or threats of war, having defined our immediate past, will define our future as well. As a result, soaring military budgets are seen not as aberrations, nor even as burdensome, but as unavoidable, even desirable — a sign of national seriousness and global martial superiority.
You’re Going to Have It Tough at the End
It should be mind-blowing that, despite the wealth being created (and often destroyed) by the United States and impressive gains in worker productivity, the standard of living for workers hasn’t increased significantly since the early 1970s. One thing is certain: it hasn’t happened by accident.
For those who profit most from it, America’s 60-Year War has indeed been a resounding success, even if also a colossal failure when it comes to worker prosperity or democracy. This really shouldn’t surprise us. As former President James Madison warned Americans so long ago, no nation can protect its freedoms amid constant warfare. Democracies don’t die in darkness; they die in and from war. In case you hadn’t noticed (and I know you have), evidence of the approaching death of American democracy is all around us. It’s why so many of us are profoundly uneasy. We are, after all, living in a strange new world, worse than that of our parents and grandparents, one whose horizons continue to contract while hope contracts with them.
I’m amazed when I realize that, before his death in 2003, my father predicted this. He was born in 1917, survived the Great Depression by joining Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, and worked in factories at night for low pay before being drafted into the Army in World War II. After the war, he would live a modest middle-class life as a firefighter, a union job with decent pay and benefits. Here was the way my dad put it to me: he’d had it tough at the beginning of his life, but easy at the end, while I’d had it easy at the beginning, but I’d have it tough at the end.
He sensed, I think, that the American dream was being betrayed, not by workers like himself, but by corporate elites increasingly consumed by an ever more destructive form of greed. Events have proven him all too on target, as America has come to be defined by a greed-war for which no armistice, let alone an end, is promised. In twenty-first-century America, war and the endless preparations for it simply go on and on. Consider it beyond irony that, as this country’s corporate, political, and military champions claim they wage war to spread democracy, it withers at home.
And here’s what worries me most of all: America’s very long war of destruction against relatively weak countries and peoples may be over, or at least reduced to the odd moment of hostilities, but America’s leaders, no matter the party, now seem to favor a new cold war against China and now Russia. Incredibly, the old Cold War produced a win that was so sweet, yet so fleeting, that it seems to require a massive do-over.
Promoting war may have worked well for the military-industrial complex when the enemy was thousands of miles away with no capacity for hitting “the homeland,” but China and Russia do have that capacity. If a war with China or Russia (or both) comes to pass, it won’t be a long one. And count on one thing: America’s leaders, corporate, military, and political, won’t be able to shrug off the losses by looking at positive balance sheets and profit margins at weapons factories.
This column is distributed by TomDispatch.