Fifteen years ago, on October 19, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld addressed B-2 bomber crews at Whiteman AFB in Missouri, as they prepared to fly halfway across the world to wreak misdirected vengeance on the people of Afghanistan and begin the longest war in U.S. history. Rumsfeld told the bomber crews, “We have two choices. Either we change the way we live, or we must change the way they live. We choose the latter. And you are the ones who will help achieve that goal.”
Fifteen years later, our wars have changed the way millions of people live and killed about 2 million people who had nothing to do with the crimes of September 11th. The most basic principle of justice, that only the guilty should be punished for a crime, was quickly lost and buried in America’s rush to war. September 11th became the pretext, some would say a cynical pretext, for a massive expansion of U.S. militarism.
President Bush’s military spending set a post-WWII record, an average of $635 billion per year in 2016 dollars, compared with an average of $470 billion per year throughout the Cold War. Now President Obama has done what would have seemed impossible in 2008, outspending Bush by an average of $20 billion per year. Bush’s unilateral military build-up and its continuation by Obama are unprecedented, and have paradoxically shattered the pattern of U.S. military spending established during 50 years of the Cold War, when it was justified, rightly or wrongly, by a serious military competition with the U.S.S.R.
When we compare our military spending to that of other countries, we are outspending the sum of the next 9 military powers in the world (most of which are U.S. allies in any case), and we are single-handedly spending more than 180 less militarized countries combined.
So we have to ask: what purpose or interests does this serve, and what dangers does it represent? Clearly it has not enabled the U.S. to win any wars. The only wars we have won since WWII were over the tiny neocolonial outposts of Grenada, Panama, Kuwait and Kosovo. Hillary Clinton derided those operations as “splendid little wars” in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in 2000, as she urged its members to support more ambitious uses of U.S. military force. Clinton got what she asked for, but she seems to have learned nothing from the catastrophic results.
Justifying mass murder
The danger of investing so much of our country’s wealth in military forces and weapons of war is that it gives our leaders the illusion that they can use war to advance our national interests or solve international problems. As an American general once observed, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.”
Instead of making good on the “peace dividend” Americans hoped for at the end of the Cold War, U.S. leaders were seduced by the mirage of a “unipolar” world in which the threat and use of U.S. military force would be the final arbiter of international affairs. The late Senator Edward Kennedy was ignored when he condemned these ambitions as “a call for 21st century American imperialism that no other country can or should accept.”
In pursuit of this mirage, we have used force in violation of the UN Charter against Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and now Syria. Our military and civilian leaders have systematically violated the laws of war, ordering U.S. troops to kill civilians, torture prisoners, “dead-check” or kill wounded enemy combatants, and to misidentify murdered civilians as combatants killed in action, deliberately undermining the distinction between combatants and civilians that is the basis of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
President Obama’s doctrine of covert and proxy war has expanded U.S. Special Forces operations from 60 countries when he took office to 150 countries today: training allied forces to torture and kill their own people in countries like Saudi Arabia and Colombia; conducting joint operations with local forces from Iraq to the Philippines; and operating in secret under CIA command across Africa, and supporting forces linked to Al-Qaeda in Libya and Syria.
Meanwhile the CIA, the National Endowment for Democracy and other U.S. agencies have supported shadowy forces working to destabilize and overthrow foreign governments in Honduras, Ukraine, Venezuela and now even nuclear-armed Russia, where the results of an attempt at U.S.-backed regime change would be supremely uncontrollable and dangerous.
Under President Obama, U.S. special forces night raids in Afghanistan exploded from 20 raids per month when he took office to over 1,000 a month two years later, a Phoenix Program on steroids with an ever-expanding target list based only on drone surveillance and phone numbers harvested from captured cell-phones. Real human intelligence on the identities of victims is explicitly excluded from U.S. special forces’ vaunted “network analysis.” Senior officers have admitted to the Washington Post that at least half these raids target the wrong person or house, killing thousands of innocent people.
Meanwhile, President Obama’s expansion of special forces operations has not led to any reduction in U.S. air strikes. He is responsible for over 80,000 bomb and missile strikes on 7 countries, compared with about 70,000 against 5 countries by President Bush.
The future—war or peace
The world faces huge problems that must be addressed and resolved in the next few decades. We have depleted many of the natural resources that our present way of life has been built on, and now climate change is turning our use of fossil fuels into a slow form of mass suicide. The question facing us is this: will the allocation of increasingly scarce resources and the necessary transformations of the 21st century be directed by international cooperation for the benefit of all and the survival of human civilization? Or will our world be torn apart by a desperate scramble for dwindling supplies of precious resources as the most powerful countries use military force to try and grab what they can at the expense of everybody else?
Our country’s current war policy offers only one answer to that question. We must find a different one—and an effective political strategy to impose it on our deluded leaders while there is still time.
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.”