Surveying the U.S.’s imminent defeat in Vietnam in his 1972 book, Roots of War, Richard Barnet observed, “ . . . at the very moment the number one nation has perfected the science of killing, it has become an impractical instrument of political domination.”
Since the 1980s, the U.S. has systematically violated the U.N. Charter’s prohibition against the threat or use of military force, carving out a regime of impunity for itself based on its Security Council veto, its non-recognition of international courts, and sophisticated “information warfare” to whitewash its crimes. But is it possible that our country’s decades-long campaign to politically legitimize “the science of killing” has been wasted on something that doesn’t work any more?
Nations wage war to achieve political and economic aims, by militarily defeating enemies and imposing their will on defeated countries and populations. There are, therefore, two ways that wars can fail: either by failing to defeat the enemy, like the U.S. wars in Korea and Vietnam; or by failing to impose the victor’s will on the enemy’s society—the classical definition of a hollow victory—as in Iraq and Libya. What if failure of one kind or the other is now a predictable certainty in almost every case? And what would that imply about our country’s investment of $23 trillion (adjusted for inflation) in the “science of killing” since Richard Barnet concluded that it had “become an impractical instrument of political domination” by 1972?
In the past, war was part of a system of world order in which powerful empires maintained hegemony over large areas or regions of the world. They conquered colonies, defeated rivals and integrated them into their own political and economic systems. Political control could be direct or indirect, and the extent of economic integration varied with the particular value of the conquered territory and its resources to its new overlords. Imperial officials used as much or as little military force as necessary to maintain their political and economic control. By contrast, record investments in the science of killing by the post-Cold War U.S. “Empire of Chaos” have failed to deliver political domination of any territory larger than Panama.
The United States waged war to conquer much of North America in the 19th century, destroying indigenous tribes and cultures and seizing the less populated northern half of Mexico, which became California, Texas and the other southwestern U.S. states. As the U.S. competed for economic resources with European empires, the U.S. Navy expanded its reach across the Pacific to China. The U.S. annexed Hawaii and conquered and colonized Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Once local independence movements had served their purpose as justifications for U.S. intervention, the U.S. turned its armies against its allies and colonized their countries. Successive U.S. wars to crush resistance movements in the Philippines cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
As U.S. firms launched industrial farming operations to grow bananas, sugar cane and other crops in Central America and the Caribbean, the U.S. militarily occupied Panama; Nicaragua (1912–1933); Cuba (1906–9 & 1917–22); Haiti (1915–34) and the Dominican Republic (1916–24), and intervened in Honduras at least 7 times. The U.S. also waged war against Mexico from 1910 to 1919. In his memoir, War Is a Racket, Major General Smedley Butler, who fought in Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico and Haiti, described himself as “a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers . . . a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”
Throughout this expansion of its commercial and political empire, the U.S. used war and military occupation to control national governments; to depose governments that resisted U.S. interests; to put down revolts against brutal or corrupt U.S.-backed rulers; to expel peasants from land coveted by U.S. firms; to suppress resistance to U.S. firms that enslaved or exploited local people; to enslave local people in chain gangs to build roads in Haiti; and to wage war against the armed resistance groups that inevitably emerged in response to U.S. interventions and occupations.
Despite its shocking brutality and inhumanity and the endless cycles of blowback it produced throughout the region, one could argue that the U.S. use of military force in its “Banana Wars” had a rational basis, that war was a practical instrument of political domination. It succeeded in the short- to medium-term in turning the Caribbean into “an American lake,” with new sources of cheap produce and a profitable “new frontier” for American businessmen, Wall Street banks and investors.
In the long term, though, the direct use of U.S. military force was counterproductive on its own terms, generating socialist movements and governments committed to independence from U.S. interests. The 20th century history of Latin America and the Caribbean reflected the anti-colonial pattern of developing nations everywhere. As Gabriel Kolko explained in his 1994 book, Century of War, although the working people of the world otherwise failed to rise up and throw off their chains as Karl Marx predicted, there was one factor that reliably turned that pattern on its head and led to revolution, in Russia, China and around the world. That factor was War.
Working people have tolerated appalling living and working conditions throughout history under feudalism, capitalism and other systems of exploitation, but war and occupation place people in intolerable life-or-death predicaments in which active resistance becomes a rational choice. As Albert Camus wrote in Combat, the French Resistance underground newspaper he edited during World War II, “ . . . you will be killed, deported or tortured as a sympathizer just as easily as if you were a militant. Act: your risk will be no greater, and you will at least share in the peace at heart that the best of us take with them into the prisons.”
Resistance to U.S. interventions and occupations in Latin America and the Caribbean gradually forced the U.S. to replace its direct use of military force with reliance on coups (from Guatemala in 1954 through Honduras in 2009), covert operations (Bay of Pigs, Operation Condor, the Contras) and proxies serving U.S. interests under the guise of military training (School of the Americas), drug wars (Plan Colombia) and other pretexts. The threat and use of force to advance U.S. interests has been driven further and further into the shadows, but coups, covert action and military support for repressive governments and death squads have continued to alienate people all over the region and to undermine U.S. claims to regional political and economic leadership.
President Obama’s diplomacy with Cuba is turning yet another page in this process as the U.S. relies more than ever on the “soft power” of financial and economic pressure, propaganda and public relations to undermine independent governments, reassert U.S. regional influence and neutralize Cuba’s role as a leader of independent regional initiatives and alliances.
The U.S. experience in its own hemisphere might have led U.S. leaders to question whether the threat and use of military force were effective tools to advance U.S. interests in other parts of the world. To some extent, it did. President Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy committed the U.S. to non-intervention in Latin America, and his vision of the United Nations was designed to frame America’s rising power within a “permanent structure of peace” and prevent a third world war.
But the U.S. role in World War II created irresistible opportunities for global economic and military expansion and new mythologies of U.S. military power. The U.S’s geographic isolation from the violence and mass destruction of the world wars and its late entry into both of them left it as an island of stability and prosperity amid the ruins of a war-ravaged world. Its possession of nuclear weapons and other advanced weapons technology offered U.S. leaders a seductive mirage of ultimate military power that survives in today’s political rhetoric and record military budgets despite 70 years of ever more dangerous and destabilizing results.
The politically unmentionable truth of modern U.S. warfare is that the only wars the U.S. has won since 1945 have been its limited wars to restore friendly regimes in Grenada, Panama and Kuwait.
Hillary Clinton derided those invasions as “splendid little wars” in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in 2000, arguing that the U.S. should be more ambitious in its war-making. Once elected to the Senate, she soon got her chance to vote for invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, with predictably catastrophic results. In hindsight we can see that the U.S. invasions of Grenada, Panama and Kuwait achieved their goals because they were within the realistic limits of U.S. military and political capabilities. But amid U.S. triumphalism at the end of the Cold War, they were absurdly misinterpreted by hawks like Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and the neocons as mere prequels to a new age of U.S. global military dominance: Superpower.
Time and again since 1945, warmongers have convinced Americans that the only obstacle to “full-spectrum dominance” or unchallenged U.S. power is a lack of political will to invest more heavily in the science of killing and to use it more aggressively. The extraordinary and unprecedented imbalance in global military spending by which the U.S. outspends the next 10 largest militaries in the world is the Steinbrenner approach to baseball applied to war and militarism. If we disproportionately outspend the rest of the world, we can threaten or defeat any enemy and win the world championship of global power.
But this doesn’t even work very well in baseball, let alone in the more complex world of international politics. In reality, since World War II, the wars in which the U.S. has made its greatest commitments of blood and treasure (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq) have been our worst military disasters. Massive escalations of technological firepower have left millions of people dead, cities in ruins and widespread devastation and chaos, but they have failed to salvage U.S. political or economic war aims.
Norwegian Major General Robert Mood headed the U.N.’s military observer team in Syria in 2012. As calls for direct Western military intervention grew in 2013, Mood told the BBC, “It is fairly easy to use the military tool, because, when you launch the military tool in classical interventions, something will happen and there will be results. The problem is that the results are almost all the time different than the political results you were aiming for when you decided to launch it.”
That underlying political and military reality has withstood all the money and weapons technology our leaders have thrown at it. Even the most expensive weapons are only tools of death and destruction, not political magic wands. But since Barnet called the science of killing an impractical instrument of political domination in 1972, a parade of U.S. leaders, Republican and Democrat, have been seduced by the false promise of new generations of weapons technology, from “Star Wars” missile defense and “smart bombs” to drones and special operations forces who kill people based on their cell-phone records.
After President Bush II spent more on weapons and war than any president since World War II, President Obama has achieved the seemingly impossible task of outspending even Bush, making good on the confidence placed in him by former General Dynamics CEO Lester Crown, whose patronage has been critical to his remarkable political career.
Terrorism has been a powerful force to panic the public into supporting record military budgets and new wars. But aggressive U.S. militarism is part of the problem, not the solution to terrorism. Fourteen years after the U.S. began kidnapping hundreds of innocent people and illegally imprisoning them in a concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, senior Pentagon and State Department officials recently told the House Foreign Relations Committee that the most important step the U.S. can take to fight terrorism is to close Guantanamo.
The Obama administration’s decision to stop kidnapping suspected enemies in favor of killing them with drones and special ops death squads, a policy of cold-blooded murder, made it easier to obscure the innocence of most of the victims. But survivors tell tales that the dead cannot, and ending Obama’s drone wars may be even more vital than closing Guantanamo.
Wiser Americans warned against embarking on a “war on terrorism” in the first place. Former Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz argued for criminal justice cooperation to bring the planners of September 11th to justice and warned against launching wars that would kill innocent people who had nothing to do with the crimes committed. After wars justified in the name of fighting terrorism have killed about 2 million people and spread terrorism to dozens more countries, we can see that our leaders made a horrific mistake and have committed even deadlier crimes than the ones they were trying to stop.
Al Qaeda’s explicit purpose on September 11th was to rally Muslims to jihad by provoking the U.S. into waging wars on Muslim countries and violating human rights, and our deluded leaders took the bait, hook, line and sinker. Now, even if some kind of military operation could defeat Islamic State, it would only perpetuate this cycle of violence and be a catalyst for the next mutation of Wahhabi jihadism.
Our government framed the crimes of September 11th as an unprovoked attack but, rightly or wrongly, the perpetrators believed they were striking a blow against U.S. corruption of Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries—just as some Americans believed, rightly or wrongly, that the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq would be an effective response. U.S. officials claim that our fear justifies attacking and killing people in other countries to prevent them from attacking us in the future, echoing a German legal argument that was roundly rejected by American judges at Nuremberg. On the other side, jihadis claim that terrorism and asymmetric warfare are legitimate responses to our violence and militarism.
We are all trapped in the war psychosis that another wise man, military historian Michael Howard, predicted and warned against in the immediate aftermath of September 11th. The only real solution is to deescalate this cycle of violence and heal the war psychosis that sustains it on both sides. History tells us that that may not be as difficult as the current climate of hostility would suggest. Most of us are only alive at all because our ancestors succeeded in burying the passions and psychoses of past wars along with their countless dead and making peace with former enemies. After all our bluster and bloodshed, we will do the same.
So I believe that Richard Barnet’s conclusion still holds. U.S. war and occupation led to widespread chaos, humanitarian catastrophe and increasingly effective resistance in Latin America and Vietnam, and it is having the same result in the Middle East, as Barnet would surely have predicted. The misplaced U.S. reliance on the science of killing has proved to be an equally impractical instrument of political domination in the Middle East as in Latin America and Southeast Asia.
The common factor in these regional crises is not an irrational, unprovoked urge for self-destruction in an array of other societies but our own country’s blind commitment to militarism. If we acknowledge that, maybe we can avoid having to learn the same lesson all over again in relation to Sub-Saharan Africa, the seas around China, the Arctic or wherever our leaders want to intervene next. If we had only learned this lesson after the U.S. War in Vietnam, we could have saved most of the $23 trillion we have invested in the science of killing since 1972.
In their 2006 book, The Foreign Policy Disconnect: What Americans Want From Our Leaders but Don’t Get, Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that most of the crises in post-World War II U.S. foreign policy could have been avoided if our leaders had paid more attention to the views of the public. They refuted the notion that foreign policy is best left to a high priesthood of insiders in Washington, among whom hawkish, pro-war views are 20% more prevalent than among the general public. The scale of this disconnect has been consistent over time, through many crises and across a wide range of foreign policy issues.
This difference is more consequential than might appear at first glance. For instance, if the public is evenly divided on a question of war and peace, 70% of Washington insiders will generally support war, marginalizing what should otherwise be a substantive and consequential public debate. By the same token, when only 30% of the public wants war, insiders are likely to be evenly divided, making war quite probable but requiring manipulation of the public through propaganda, fabrications and lies to ensure public support, as David Swanson documents so well in the new edition of his book, War Is a Lie.
The great majority (75%) of ordinary Americans favor constructive engagement with the rest of the world over either isolation on the one hand or dominant U.S. ”leadership” on the other. If the American public can exert more influence over foreign policy, there is a clear way forward to a more peaceful world, through gradual disarmament, international diplomacy and genuine, good-faith cooperation with all our neighbors.
The end of the Cold War provides a good example of how diplomacy and disarmament can begin to reverse global militarism and militarization. Between 1985 and 1998, the U.S. cut its military budget by a third (adjusted for inflation) and Russia did even better, reducing its military spending by over 90%. A month after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, former senior Pentagon officials Robert McNamara and Lawrence Korb recommended even larger U.S. cuts to the Senate Budget Committee, calling for a gradual 50% reduction between 1990 and 2000. The major cuts of the next four years roughly followed their plan, but then the reductions slowed and spending began to rise again after 1998.
As documented in the SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, global military spending has tracked the ups and downs of the U.S. military budget, falling by the same amount (33%) as U.S. military spending in the late 80s and 90s, but rising again by 65% through 2011 after U.S. military spending nearly doubled in the years after September 11th.
The initiative for global demilitarization and disarmament therefore rests disproportionately with us, the people of the United States. We must clearly signal to the rest of the world that we are ready to turn over a new page in our history. We must stop attacking other countries, including with air strikes, drone strikes and covert operations, and start scaling back what has, without public debate, become a global U.S. military occupation. We should, as quickly as feasible, reduce our military spending to the peacetime levels recommended at the end of the Cold War, about $275 billion per year (in 2016 dollars), 60% less than we are spending today.
Instead of largely restricting U.S. diplomacy to building hostile alliances to isolate and threaten our enemies, we must insist that the U.S. State Department engage with all our neighbors to solve our common problems and resolve disputes peacefully, as the UN Charter requires. It is vital that we start living by the same rules of international law and accountability that we demand of others, including the UN Charter’s prohibition on the threat and use of force and the compulsory jurisdiction of international courts. The destructive and destabilizing role our country has played in the world gives us a special responsibility, but also a unique opportunity, to play an equally disproportionate role in restoring peace as we have in plunging the world into war and chaos.
Nicolas J S Davies is the author of “Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq” and of the chapter on “Obama At War” in “Grading the 44th President: A Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.”