This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
At 36% to 37% in the latest polls, Donald Trump's approval rating is in a ditch in what should still be the "honeymoon" period of his presidency. And yet, compared to Congress (25%), he's a maestro of popularity. In fact, there's just one institution in American society that gets uniformly staggeringly positive votes of "confidence" from Americans in polls and that's the U.S. military (83%). And this should be the greatest mystery of them all.
That military, keep in mind, hasn't won a significant conflict since World War II. (In retrospect, the First Gulf War, which once seemed like a triumph beyond compare for the globe's highest-tech force, turned out to be just the first step into the never-ending quagmire of Iraq.) In this century, the U.S. military has, in fact, stumbled from one "successful" invasion to another, one terror-spreading conflict to the next, without ever coming up for air. Meanwhile, the American taxpayer has poured money into the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state in amounts that should boggle the mind. And yet, the U.S. hasn't been able to truly extricate itself from a single country it's gotten involved in across the Greater Middle East for decades. In the wake of its ministrations, nations have crumbled, allies have been crippled, and tens of millions of people across a vast region of the planet have been uprooted from their homes and swept into the maelstrom. In other words, Washington's version of imperial war fighting should be seen as the record from hell for a force regularly hailed here as the "finest" in history. The question is: finest at what?
All of this is on the record. All of this should be reasonably apparent to anyone half-paying attention and yet the American public's confidence in the force fighting what Rebecca Gordon has termed "forever wars" is almost off the charts. For that, you can undoubtedly blame, in part, the urge of the military high command never again to experience a citizen's army roiled by antiwar protests and in near revolt as in the Vietnam era. As a result, in 1973, the draft was ended and in the decades that followed the public was successfully demobilized when it came to American war. George W. Bush's classic post-9/11 suggestion that Americans respond to the horror of those falling towers by visiting Disney World and enjoying "life the way we want it to be enjoyed" caught that mood exactly. But the explanation undoubtedly goes deeper yet, as TomDispatch regular Gordon, author of American Nuremberg, suggests today. Tom
America at War Since 9/11
Reality or Reality TV?
By Rebecca Gordon
The headlines arrive in my inbox day after day: "U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria killed hundreds of civilians, U.N. panel says." "Pentagon wants to declare more parts of world as temporary battlefields." "The U.S. was supposed to leave Afghanistan by 2017. Now it might take decades." There are so many wars and rumors of war involving our country these days that it starts to feel a little unreal, even for the most devoted of news watchers. And for many Americans, it's long been that way. For them, the meaning of war is closer to reality TV than it is to reality.
On a June day, you could, for instance, open the New York Times and read that "airstrikes by the American-led coalition against Islamic State targets have killed hundreds of civilians around Raqqa, the militant group's last Syrian stronghold, and left 160,000 people displaced." Or you could come across statistics two orders of magnitude larger in learning from a variety of sources that famine is stalking 17 million people in Yemen. That is the predictable result of a Saudi Arabian proxy war against Iran, a campaign supported by the U.S. with weaponry and logistical assistance, in which, according to Human Rights Watch, the U.S. may well be complicit in torture. You could contemplate the fact that in Iraq, a country the United States destabilized with its 2003 invasion and occupation, there are still at least three million internally displaced people, according to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees; or that more than 411,000 Iraqis remain displaced from their homes in Mosul alone since the Iraqi army launched a U.S.-backed offensive to drive ISIS out of that city last October.
Yes, it's possible to click on those links or to catch so many other Internet or TV news reports about how such American or American-backed wars are damaging infrastructure, destroying entire health care systems, uprooting millions, and putting at risk the education of whole generations thousands of miles away. But none of it is real for most of us in this country.
How could it be real? Most of us no longer have any idea what war is like for the people who live through it. No major war has been fought on U.S. territory since the Civil War ended in 1865, and the last people who remembered that terrible time died decades before the turn of this century. There is no one around to give us a taste of that reality -- except of course for the refugees that the Trump administration is now doing its best to keep out.
In addition, Americans who once were mobilized to support their country's wars in distant lands (remember Victory Gardens or war bond drives?) are simply told to carry on with their lives as if it were peacetime. And the possibility of going to war in an army of citizen draftees has long been put to rest by America's "all-volunteer" military.
As the U.S. battlefield expands, the need becomes ever greater for people in this country to understand the reality of war, especially now that we have a president from the world of "reality" TV. During the second half of the twentieth century, Congress repeatedly ceded its constitutional power to declare war to successive executive administrations. At the moment, however, we have in Donald Trump a president who appears to be bored with those purloined powers (and with the very idea of civilian control over the military). In fact, our feckless commander-in-chief seems to be handing over directly to that military all power to decide when and where this country sends its troops or launches its missiles from drones.
Now that our democratic connection to the wars fought in our name has receded yet one more step from our real lives and any civilian role in war (except praising and thanking "the warriors") is fading into the history books, isn't it about time to ask some questions about the very nature of reality and of those wars?
War From the Civilian Point of View
We think of wars, reasonably enough, as primarily affecting the soldiers engaged in them. The young men and women who fight -- some as volunteers and some who choose military service over unemployment and poverty -- do sometimes die in "our" wars. And even if they survive, as we now know, their bodies and psyches often bear the lifelong scars of the experience.
Indeed, I've met some of these former soldiers in the college philosophy classes I teach. There was the erstwhile Army sniper who sat in the very back of the classroom, his left leg constantly bouncing up and down. The explosion of a roadside bomb had broken his back and left him in constant pain, but the greatest source of his suffering, as he told me, was the constant anxiety that forced him on many days to walk out halfway through the class. Then there was the young man who'd served in Baghdad and assured me, "If anyone fought in Afghanistan or Iraq, and they say they came back whole, they're either lying or they just haven't realized yet what happened to them."
And there were the young women who told the class that, in fear, they'd had to move out of their homes because their boyfriends came back from the wars as dangerous young men they no longer recognized. If we in this country know anything real about war, it's from people like these -- from members of the military or those close to them.