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Tomgram: Engelhardt, Living on a Quagmire Planet

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

Is Donald Trump an Asteroid? Honestly, This Could Get a Lot Uglier

Sixty-six million years ago, so the scientists tell us, an asteroid slammed into this planet. Landing on what's now Mexico's Yucata'n Peninsula, it gouged out a crater 150 kilometers wide and put so much soot and sulfur into the atmosphere that it created what was essentially a prolonged "nuclear winter." During that time, among so many other species, large and small, the dinosaurs went down for the count. (Don't, however, tell that to your local chicken, the closest living relative -- it's now believed -- of Tyrannosaurus Rex.)

It took approximately 66 million years for humanity to evolve from lowly surviving mammals and, over the course of a recent century or two, teach itself how to replicate the remarkable destructive power of that long-gone asteroid in two different ways: via nuclear power and the burning of fossil fuels. And if that isn't an accomplishment for the species that likes to bill itself as the most intelligent ever to inhabit this planet, what is?

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Talking about accomplishments: as humanity has armed itself ever more lethally, it has also transformed itself into the local equivalent of so many asteroids. Think, for instance, of that moment in the spring of 2003 when George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and crew launched the invasion of Iraq with dreams of setting up a Pax Americana across the Greater Middle East and beyond. By the time U.S. troops entered Baghdad, the burning and looting of the Iraqi capital had already begun, leaving the National Museum of Iraq trashed (gone were the tablets on which Hammurabi first had a code of laws inscribed) and the National Library of Baghdad, with its tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts, in flames. (No such "asteroid" had hit that city since 1258, when Mongol warriors sacked it, destroying its many libraries and reputedly leaving the Tigris River running "black with ink" and red with blood.)

In truth, since 2003 the Greater Middle East has never stopped burning, as other militaries -- Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, Israeli, Russian, Saudi, Syrian, Turkish -- entered the fray, insurgent groups rose, terror movements spread, and the U.S. military never left. By now, the asteroidal nature of American acts in the region should be beyond question. Consider, for example, the sainted retired general and former secretary of defense, Jim "Mad Dog" Mattis, the man who classically said of an Iraqi wedding party (including musicians) that his troops took out in 2004, "How many people go to the middle of the desert... to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?" Or consider that, in the very same year, Mattis and the 1st Marine Division he commanded had just such an impact on the Iraqi city of Fallujah, leaving more than 75% of it in rubble.

Or focus for a moment on the destruction caused by some combination of U.S. air power, ISIS suicide bombers, artillery, and mortars that, in seven months of fighting in 2017, uprooted more than a million people from the still largely un-reconstructed Iraqi city of Mosul (where 10 million tons of rubble are estimated to remain). Or try to bring to mind the rubblized city of Ramadi. Or consider the destruction of the Syrian city of Raqqa, the former "capital" of ISIS's caliphate, left more than 80% "uninhabitable" after the U.S. (and allied) air forces dropped 20,000 bombs on it. All are versions of the same phenomenon.

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And yet when it comes to asteroids and the human future, one thing should be obvious. Such examples still represent relatively small-scale local impacts, given what's to come.

The Wars From Hell

If you happened to be an Afghan, Iraqi, Libyan, Syrian, Somali, or Yemeni in the twenty-first century, can there be any question that life would have seemed asteroidal to you? What Osama bin Laden began with just 19 fanatic followers and four hijacked commercial airliners the U.S. military continued across the Greater Middle East and North Africa as if it were the force from outer space (which, in a sense, it was). It doesn't matter whether you're talking about cities turned to rubble, civilians slaughtered, wedding parties obliterated, populations uprooted and sent into various forms of exile, the transformation of former nations (however autocratic) into failed states, or the spread of terrorism. It's been quite a story. More than 17 years and at least $5.6 trillion after the Bush administration launched its Global War on Terror, can there be any question that the wildest dreams of Osama bin Laden have been more than fulfilled? And it's not faintly over yet.

More remarkable still, just about all of this has largely been ignored in the country that functionally made it so. If you asked most Americans, they would certainly know that almost 3,000 civilians were slaughtered in the terror attacks of 9/11, but how many (if any) would be aware of the several hundred civilians -- brides, grooms, revelers, you name it -- similarly slaughtered in what were, in essence, U.S. terror attacks against multiple wedding parties in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen? And that's just to begin to mention the kinds of destruction that have gone on largely unnoticed here.

In the first 18 years of this century, tens of millions of people have been uprooted and displaced -- more than 13 million in Syria alone -- from what had been their homes, lives, and worlds. Many of them were sent fleeing into countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Sooner or later, more than one million Syrians made it to Europe and 21,000 even made it to the United States. In the process, Washington's wars (and the conflicts that unfolded from them) unsettled ever more of the planet in much the way those particulates in the atmosphere did the world of 66 million years ago. So consider it an irony that, here in the U.S., so few connections have been made between such events and an unceasing series of American conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa -- or that the thought of even the mildest sorts of retreats from any of those battlegrounds instantly leaves political and national security elites in Washington (and the media that cover them) in an uproar of horror.

Consider this a tale of imperial power gone awry that -- were anyone here truly paying attention -- could hardly have been uglier. And no matter what happens from here on, it's hard to imagine how things won't, in fact, get uglier still. I'm not just thinking about Donald Trump's Washington in 2019, where such ugliness is par for the course. I'm thinking about all of those lands affected by America's unending post-9/11 wars (and the catastrophic American-backed Saudi one in Yemen that goes with them) -- about, that is, the region and the conflicts from which Donald Trump sorta, maybe, in the most limited of ways was threatening to begin pulling back as last year ended and about which official Washington promptly went nuts.

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We're talking, of course, about the conflicts from hell that have long been labeled "the war on terror" but -- given the spread of terror groups and the rise of the anti-immigrant right in Europe and the United States -- should probably have been called "the war for terror" or the "war from hell." And it's this that official Washington and much of the mainstream media can't imagine getting rid of or out of.

Naturally, doing so will be ugly. In functionally admitting to a kind of defeat (even if the president insists on calling it victory), Washington will be tossing aside allies -- Kurds, Afghans, and others -- and leaving those who don't deserve such a fate in so many ditches (just as it did in Vietnam long ago). Worse yet, it will be leaving behind a part of the world that, on its watch, became not just a series of failed or semi-failed states, but a failed region. It will be leaving behind populations armed to the teeth, bereft of normal lives, or often of any sort of life at all, and of hope. It will be leaving behind a generation of children robbed of their futures and undoubtedly mad as hell. It will be leaving behind those cities in rubble and a universe of refugees and insurgents galore. Even if ISIS doesn't rebound, don't imagine that other horrors can't arise in such circumstances and amid such wreckage. Ugly will be the word for it.

And for some of that ugliness, you can indeed thank Donald Trump, whether he withdraws American troops from Syria, as promised, or not. After all, here's the strange thing: though no one in Washington or elsewhere in this country had paid more than passing attention to it, the recent Syrian "withdrawal" decision wasn't The Donald's first. Last March, he "froze" $200 million that had been promised for Syrian aid and reconstruction, money that assumedly might have gone to derubblizing parts of that country -- and rather than being up in arms about it, rather than offering a crescendo of criticism (as with his recent decision to withdraw troops), rather than resignations and protests, official Washington and the media that covers it just shrugged their collective shoulders. It couldn't have been uglier, but Washington was unfazed.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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