American-Style War 'til the End of Time?
A Lifetime "at War"
Here's the strange thing in an ever-stranger world: I was born in July 1944 in the midst of a devastating world war. That war ended in August 1945 with the atomic obliteration of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by the most devastating bombs in history up to that moment, given the sweet code names "Little Boy" and "Fat Man."
I was the littlest of boys at the time. More than three-quarters of a century has passed since, on September 2, 1945, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and General Yoshijiro Umezu signed the Instrument of Surrender on the battleship U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, officially ending World War II. That was V-J (for Victory over Japan) Day, but in a sense for me, my whole generation, and this country, war never really ended.
The United States has been at war, or at least in armed conflicts of various sorts, often in distant lands, for more or less my entire life. Yes, for some of those years, that war was "cold" (which often meant that such carnage, regularly sponsored by the CIA, happened largely off-screen and out of sight), but war as a way of life never really ended, not to this very moment.
In fact, as the decades went by, it would become the "infrastructure" in which Americans increasingly invested their tax dollars via aircraft carriers, trillion-dollar jet fighters, drones armed with Hellfire missiles, and the creation and maintenance of hundreds of military garrisons around the globe, rather than roads, bridges, or rail lines (no less the high-speed version of the same) here at home. During those same years, the Pentagon budget would grab an ever-larger percentage of federal discretionary spending and the full-scale annual investment in what has come to be known as the national security state would rise to a staggering $1.2 trillion or more.
In a sense, future V-J Days became inconceivable. There were no longer moments, even as wars ended, when some version of peace might descend and America's vast military contingents could, as at the end of World War II, be significantly demobilized. The closest equivalent was undoubtedly the moment when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the Cold War officially ended, and the Washington establishment declared itself globally triumphant. But of course, the promised "peace dividend" would never be paid out as the first Gulf War with Iraq occurred that very year and the serious downsizing of the U.S. military (and the CIA) never happened.
Consider it typical that, when President Biden recently announced the official ending of the nearly 20-year-old American conflict in Afghanistan with the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from that country by 9/11/21, it would functionally be paired with the news that the Pentagon budget was about to rise yet again from its record heights in the Trump years. "Only in America," as retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and historian William Astore wrote recently, "do wars end and war budgets go up."
Of course, even the ending of that never-ending Afghan War may prove exaggerated. In fact, let's consider Afghanistan apart from the rest of this country's war-making history for a moment. After all, if I had told you in 1978 that, of the 42 years to follow, the U.S. would be involved in war in a single country for 30 of them and asked you to identify it, I can guarantee that Afghanistan wouldn't have been your pick. And yet so it's been. From 1979 to 1989, there was the CIA-backed Islamist extremist war against the Soviet army there (to the tune of billions and billions of dollars). And yet the obvious lesson the Russians learned from that adventure, as their military limped home in defeat and the Soviet Union imploded not long after that Afghanistan is indeed the "graveyard of empires" clearly had no impact in Washington.
Or how do you explain the 19-plus years of warfare there that followed the 9/11 attacks, themselves committed by a small Islamist outfit, al-Qaeda, born as an American ally in that first Afghan War? Only recently, the invaluable Costs of War Project estimated that America's second Afghan War has cost this country almost $2.3 trillion (not including the price of lifetime care for its vets) and has left at least 241,000 people dead, including 2,442 American service members. In 1978, after the disaster of the Vietnam War, had I assured you that such a never-ending failure of a conflict was in our future, you would undoubtedly have laughed in my face.
And yet, three decades later, the U.S. military high command still seems not faintly to have grasped the lesson that we "taught" the Russians and then experienced ourselves. As a result, according to recent reports, they have uniformly opposed President Biden's decision to withdraw all American troops from that country by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In fact, it's not even clear that, by September 11, 2021, if the president's proposal goes according to plan, that war will have truly ended. After all, the same military commanders and intelligence chiefs seem intent on organizing long-distance versions of that conflict or, as the New York Times put it, are determined to "fight from afar" there. They are evidently even considering establishing new bases in neighboring lands to do so.
America's "forever wars" once known as the Global War on Terror and, when the administration of George W. Bush launched it, proudly aimed at 60 countries do seem to be slowly winding down. Unfortunately, other kinds of potential wars, especially new cold wars with China and Russia (involving new kinds of high-tech weaponry) only seem to be gearing up.
War in Our Time
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