This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
I remember Chalmers Johnson once describing to me his surprise on discovering that, after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union imploded, the whole global military structure that Washington had set up -- which he later came to call "America's empire of bases" or our "globe-girdling Baseworld" -- chugged right on. It didn't matter that there was no real enemy left on Planet Earth. It was, I believe, what finally convinced Johnson that this country was indeed an empire. And here's the strange thing, though it goes remarkably unnoticed in our world: that vast global structure of military garrisons, unprecedented in history, ranging from some the size of American towns to small outposts, has remained in place to this very second. Though little attention has been paid in recent years -- despite the fact that it couldn't be a more prominent feature on this planet, geo-militarily speaking -- there remain something like 800 American garrisons worldwide (not counting, of course, the more than 420 military bases located in the continental U.S., Guam, and Puerto Rico), as David Vine reported in his path-breaking 2015 book, Base Nation.
There's never been anything quite like it, not for the Roman Empire, the British Empire, or the Soviet one either. And as TomDispatch regular and U.S. Army Major Danny Sjursen reports today, with our military now in the process of transforming the whole planet into an even more militarized place, those bases will be all the more relevant. So here's a small suggestion for all the media outlets covering President Trump in such a 24/7 fashion: Why not spare just one reporter to cover that empire of bases on a planet on which, as Sjursen reports, the U.S. military is increasingly focused on future wars of every imaginable sort (right up to the sort that could leave this planet in shreds)? Tom
Planet of War
Still Trapped in a Greater Middle Eastern Quagmire, the U.S. Military Prepares for Global Combat
By Danny Sjursen- Advertisement -
American militarism has gone off the rails -- and this middling career officer should have seen it coming. Earlier in this century, the U.S. military not surprisingly focused on counterinsurgency as it faced various indecisive and seemingly unending wars across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa. Back in 2008, when I was still a captain newly returned from Iraq and studying at Fort Knox, Kentucky, our training scenarios generally focused on urban combat and what were called security and stabilization missions. We'd plan to assault some notional city center, destroy the enemy fighters there, and then transition to pacification and "humanitarian" operations.
Of course, no one then asked about the dubious efficacy of "regime change" and "nation building," the two activities in which our country had been so regularly engaged. That would have been frowned upon. Still, however bloody and wasteful those wars were, they now look like relics from a remarkably simpler time. The U.S. Army knew its mission then (even if it couldn't accomplish it) and could predict what each of us young officers was about to take another crack at: counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Fast forward eight years -- during which this author fruitlessly toiled away in Afghanistan and taught at West Point -- and the U.S. military ground presence has significantly decreased in the Greater Middle East, even if its wars there remain "infinite." The U.S. was still bombing, raiding, and "advising" away in several of those old haunts as I entered the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Nonetheless, when I first became involved in the primary staff officer training course for mid-level careerists there in 2016, it soon became apparent to me that something was indeed changing.- Advertisement -
Our training scenarios were no longer limited to counterinsurgency operations. Now, we were planning for possible deployments to -- and high-intensity conventional warfare in -- the Caucasus, the Baltic Sea region, and the South China Sea (think: Russia and China). We were also planning for conflicts against an Iranian-style "rogue" regime (think: well, Iran). The missions became all about projecting U.S. Army divisions into distant regions to fight major wars to "liberate" territories and bolster allies.
One thing soon became clear to me in my new digs: much had changed. The U.S. military had, in fact, gone global in a big way. Frustrated by its inability to close the deal on any of the indecisive counterterror wars of this century, Washington had decided it was time to prepare for "real" war with a host of imagined enemies. This process had, in fact, been developing right under our noses for quite a while. You remember in 2013 when President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began talking about a "pivot" to Asia -- an obvious attempt to contain China. Obama also sanctioned Moscow and further militarized Europe in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Crimea. President Trump, whose "instincts," on the campaign trail, were to pull out of America's Middle Eastern quagmires, turned out to be ready to escalate tensions with China, Russia, Iran, and even (for a while) North Korea.
With Pentagon budgets reaching record levels -- some $717 billion for 2019 -- Washington has stayed the course, while beginning to plan for more expansive future conflicts across the globe. Today, not a single square inch of this ever-warming planet of ours escapes the reach of U.S. militarization.
Think of these developments as establishing a potential formula for perpetual conflict that just might lead the United States into a truly cataclysmic war it neither needs nor can meaningfully win. With that in mind, here's a little tour of Planet Earth as the U.S. military now imagines it.
Our Old Stomping Grounds: Forever War in the Middle East and Africa
Never apt to quit, even after 17 years of failure, Washington's bipartisan military machine still churns along in the Greater Middle East. Some 14,500 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan (along with much U.S. air power) though that war is failing by just about any measurable metric you care to choose -- and Americans are still dying there, even if in diminished numbers.- Advertisement -
In Syria, U.S. forces remain trapped between hostile powers, one mistake away from a possible outbreak of hostilities with Russia, Iran, Syrian President Assad, or even NATO ally Turkey. While American troops (and air power) in Iraq helped destroy ISIS's physical "caliphate," they remain entangled there in a low-level guerrilla struggle in a country seemingly incapable of forming a stable political consensus. In other words, as yet there's no end in sight for that now 15-year-old war. Add in the drone strikes, conventional air attacks, and special forces raids that Washington regularly unleashes in Somalia, Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan, and it's clear that the U.S. military's hands remain more than full in the region.
If anything, the tensions -- and potential for escalation -- in the Greater Middle East and North Africa are only worsening. President Trump ditched President Obama's Iran nuclear deal and, despite the recent drama over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has gleefully backed the Saudi royals in their arms race and cold war with Iran. While the other major players in that nuclear pact remained on board, President Trump has appointed unreformed Iranophobe neocons like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo to key foreign policy positions and his administration still threatens regime change in Tehran.
In Africa, despite talk about downsizing the U.S. presence there, the military advisory mission has only increased its various commitments, backing questionably legitimate governments against local opposition forces and destabilizing further an already unstable continent. You might think that waging war for two decades on two continents would at least keep the Pentagon busy and temper Washington's desire for further confrontations. As it happens, the opposite is proving to be the case.