Originally published in TomDispatch.
It was the end of October 2001. Two friends, Max Elbaum and Bob Wing, had just dropped by.
Yes, children, believe it or not, people used to drop in on each other, maskless, once upon a time. They had come to hang out with my partner Jan Adams and me. Among other things, Max wanted to get some instructions from fellow-runner Jan about taping his foot to ease the pain of plantar fasciitis. But it soon became clear that he and Bob had a bigger agenda for the evening. They were eager to recruit us for a new project.
And so began War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, a free, bilingual, anti-war tabloid that, at its height, distributed 100,000 copies every six weeks to more than 700 anti-war organizations around the country. It was already clear to the four of us that night—as it was to millions around the world—that the terrorist attacks of September 11th would provide the pretext for a major new projection of U.S. military power globally, opening the way to a new era of “all-war-all-the-time.” War Times was a project of its moment (although the name would still be apt today, given that those wars have never ended).
It would be superseded in a few years by the explosive growth of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. Still, it represented an early effort to fill the space where a peace movement would eventually develop.
All-War-All-the-Time — For Some of Us
We were certainly right that the United States had entered a period of all-war-all-the-time. It’s probably hard for people born since 9/11 to imagine how much—and how little—things changed after September 2001. By the end of that month, this country had already launched a “war” on an enemy that then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told us was “not just in Afghanistan,” but in “50 or 60 countries, and it simply has to be liquidated.”
Five years and two never-ending wars later, he characterized what was then called the war on terror as “a generational conflict akin to the Cold War, the kind of struggle that might last decades as allies work to root out terrorists across the globe and battle extremists who want to rule the world.” A generation later, it looks like Rumsfeld was right, if not about the desires of the global enemy, then about the duration of the struggle.
Here in the United States, however, we quickly got used to being “at war.” In the first few months, interstate bus and train travelers often encountered (and, in airports, still encounter) a new and absurd kind of “security theater.” I’m referring to those long, snaking lines in which people first learned to remove their belts and coats, later their hats and shoes, as ever newer articles of clothing were recognized as potential hiding places for explosives. Fortunately, the arrest of the Underwear Bomber never led the Transportation Security Administration to the obvious conclusion about the clothing travelers should have to remove next. We got used to putting our three-ounce containers of liquids (No more!) into quart-sized baggies (No bigger! No smaller!).
It was all-war-all-the-time, but mainly in those airports. Once the shooting wars started dragging on, if you didn’t travel by airplane much or weren’t deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, it was hard to remember that we were still in war time at all. There were continuing clues for those who wanted to know, like the revelations of CIA torture practices at “black sites” around the world, the horrors of military prisons like the ones at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, and the still-functioning prison complex at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. And soon enough, of course, there were the hundreds and then thousands of veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars taking their places among the unhoused veterans of earlier wars in cities across the United States, almost unremarked upon, except by service organizations.
So, yes, the wars dragged on at great expense, but with little apparent effect in this country. They even gained new names like “the long war” (as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis put it in 2017) or the “forever wars,” a phrase now so common that it appears all over the place. But apart from devouring at least $6.4 trillion dollars through September 2020 that might otherwise have been invested domestically in healthcare, education, infrastructure, or addressing poverty and inequality, apart from creating increasingly militarized domestic police forces armed ever more lethally by the Pentagon, those forever wars had little obvious effect on the lives of most Americans.
Of course, if you happened to live in one of the places where this country has been fighting for the last 19 years, things are a little different. A conservative estimate by Iraq Body Count puts violent deaths among civilians in that country alone at 185,454 to 208,493 and Brown University’s Costs of War project points out that even the larger figure is bound to be a significant undercount:
“Several times as many Iraqi civilians may have died as an indirect result of the war, due to damage to the systems that provide food, health care, and clean drinking water, and as a result, illness, infectious diseases, and malnutrition that could otherwise have been avoided or treated.”
And that’s just Iraq. Again, according to the Costs of War Project, “At least 800,000 people have been killed by direct war violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan.”
Of course, many more people than that have been injured or disabled. And America’s post-9/11 wars have driven an estimated 37 million people from their homes, creating the greatest human displacement since World War II. People in this country are rightly concerned about the negative effects of online schooling on American children amid the ongoing Covid-19 crisis (especially poor children and those in communities of color). Imagine, then, the effects on a child’s education of losing her home and her country, as well as one or both parents, and then growing up constantly on the move or in an overcrowded, under-resourced refugee camp. The war on terror has truly become a war of generations.
Every one of the 2,977 lives lost on 9/11 was unique and invaluable. But the U.S. response has been grotesquely disproportionate—and worse than we War Times founders could have imagined that October night so many years ago.
Those wars of ours have gone on for almost two decades now. Each new metastasis has been justified by George W. Bush’s and then Barack Obama’s use of the now ancient 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which Congress passed in the days after 9/11. Its language actually limited presidential military action to a direct response to the 9/11 attacks and the prevention of future attacks by the same actors. It stated that the president “is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”
Despite that AUMF’s limited scope, successive presidents have used it to justify military action in at least 18 countries. (To be fair, President Obama realized the absurdity of his situation when he sent U.S. troops to Syria and tried to wring a new authorization out of Congress, only to be stymied by a Republican majority that wouldn’t play along.)
In 2002, in the run-up to the Iraq War, Congress passed a second AUMF, which permitted the president to use the armed forces as “necessary and appropriate” to “defend U.S. national security against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” In January 2020, Donald Trump used that second authorization to justify the murder by drone of Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian general, along with nine other people.
Trump Steps In
In 2016, peace activists were preparing to confront a Hillary Clinton administration that we expected would continue Obama’s version of the forever wars—the “surge” in Afghanistan, the drone assassination campaigns, the special ops in Africa. But on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, something went “Trump” in the night and Donald J. Trump took over the presidency with a promise to end this country’s forever wars, which he had criticized relentlessly during his campaign. That, of course, didn’t mean we should have expected a peace dividend anytime soon. He was also committed to rebuilding a supposedly “depleted” U.S. military. As he said at a 2019 press conference,
When I took over, it was a mess.… One of our generals came in to see me and he said, “Sir, we don’t have ammunition.” I said, “That’s a terrible thing you just said.” He said, “We don’t have ammunition.” Now we have more ammunition than we’ve ever had.
It’s highly unlikely that the military couldn’t afford to buy enough bullets when Trump entered the Oval Office, given that publicly acknowledged defense funding was then running at $580 billion a year. He did, however, manage to push that figure to $713 billion by fiscal year 2020. That December, he threatened to veto an even larger appropriation for 2021—$740 billion—but only because he wanted the military to continue to honor Confederate generals by keeping their names on military bases. Oh, and because he thought the bill should also change liability rules for social media companies, an issue you don’t normally expect to see addressed in a defense appropriations bill. And, in any case, Congress passed the bill with a veto-proof majority.
As Pentagon expert Michael Klare pointed out recently, while it might seem contradictory that Trump would both want to end the forever wars and to increase military spending, his actions actually made a certain sense. The president, suggested Klare, had been persuaded to support the part of the U.S. military command that has favored a sharp pivot away from reigning post-9/11 Pentagon practices.
For 19 years, the military high command had hewed fairly closely to the strategy laid out by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld early in the Bush years: maintaining the capacity to fight ground wars against one or two regional powers (think of that “Axis of Evil” of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran), while deploying agile, technologically advanced forces in low-intensity (and a couple of higher-intensity) counterterrorism conflicts. Nineteen years later, whatever its objectives may have been—a more stable Middle East? Fewer and weaker terrorist organizations?—it’s clear that the Rumsfeld-Bush strategy has failed spectacularly.
Klare points out that the Pentagon, after almost two decades without a victory, has largely decided to demote international terrorism from rampaging monster to annoying mosquito cloud. Instead, the United States must now prepare to confront the rise of China and Russia, even if China has only one overseas military base and Russia, economically speaking, is a rickety petro-state with imperial aspirations. In other words, the United States. must prepare to fight short but devastating wars in multiple domains (including space and cyberspace), perhaps even involving the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the Eurasian continent. To this end, the country has indeed begun a major renovation of its nuclear arsenal and announced a new 30-year plan to beef up its naval capacity. And President Trump rarely misses a chance to tout “his” creation of a new Space Force.
Meanwhile, did he actually keep his promise and at least end those forever wars? Not really. He did promise to bring all U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by Christmas, but acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller only recently said that we’d be leaving about 2,500 troops there and a similar number in Iraq, with the hope that they’d all be out by May 2021. (In other words, he dumped those wars in the lap of the future Biden administration.)
In the meantime in these years of “ending” those wars, the Trump administration actually loosened the rules of engagement for air strikes in Afghanistan, leading to a “massive increase in civilian casualties,” according to a new report from the Costs of War Project. “From the last year of the Obama administration to the last full year of recorded data during the Trump administration,” writes its author, Neta Crawford, “the number of civilians killed by U.S.-led airstrikes in Afghanistan increased by 330 percent.”
In spite of his isolationist “America First” rhetoric, in other words, President Trump has presided over an enormous buildup of an institution, the military-industrial complex, that was hardly in need of major new investment. And in spite of his anti-NATO rhetoric, his reduction by almost a third of U.S. troop strength Germany, and all the rest, he never really violated the post–World War II foreign policy pact between the Republican and Democratic parties. Regardless of how they might disagree about dividing the wealth domestically, they remain united in their commitment to using diplomacy when possible, but military force when necessary, to maintain and expand the imperial power that they believed to be the guarantor of that wealth.
And Now Comes Joe
On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will become the president of a country that spends as much on its armed forces, by some counts, as the next 10 countries combined. He’ll inherit responsibility for a nation with a military presence in 150 countries and special-operations deployments in 22 African nations alone. He’ll be left to oversee the still-unfinished, deeply unsuccessful, never-ending War on Terror in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia and, as publicly reported by the Department of Defense, 187,000 troops stationed outside the United States.
Nothing in Biden’s history suggests that he or any of the people he’s already appointed to his national security team have the slightest inclination to destabilize that Democratic-Republican imperial pact. But empires are not sustained by inclination alone. They don’t last forever. They overextend themselves. They rot from within.
If you’re old enough, you may remember stories about the long lines for food in the crumbling Soviet Union, that other superpower of the Cold War. You can see the same thing in the United States today. Once a week, my partner delivers food boxes to hungry people in our city, those who have lost their jobs and homes, because the pandemic has only exacerbated this country’s already brutal version of economic inequality. Another friend routinely sees a food line stretching over a mile, as people wait hours for a single free bag of groceries.
Perhaps the horrors of 2020—the fires and hurricanes, Trump’s vicious attacks on democracy, the death, sickness, and economic dislocation caused by Covid-19—can force a real conversation about national security in 2021. Maybe this time we can finally ask whether trying to prop up a dying empire actually makes us—or indeed the world—any safer. This is the best chance in a generation to start that conversation. The alternative is to keep trudging mindlessly toward disaster.