Seven years after the Soviet Union collapsed in a heap of post-Afghan-War rubble and seven years after President George H.W. Bush fought the First Gulf War against Saddam Hussein's Iraq to what looked like typical all-American success, we were on a planet that seemed unimaginably all-American. That February of 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was interviewed by NBC's Matt Lauer on the Today show. She had just returned from a trip to the Middle East where she was once again dealing with a possible Iraqi war involving, of all people, Saddam Hussein. (This should, of course, sound eerily familiar to those of us who later lived through the 2003 invasion of that country by George H.W.'s son, George W.) As the interview ended, Lauer asked her: "Will you speak for me, Madame Secretary, to the parents of American men and women who may soon be asked to go into harm's way, and who get the feeling that many countries in the rest of the world are standing by silently while their children are once again being asked to clean up a mess for the rest of the world?"
And in the spirit of that all-American moment, Albright oh-so-classically replied:
"Let me say that we are doing everything possible so that American men and women in uniform do not have to go out there again" But if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us."
Yes, in 1998, there was nothing strange about claiming that Americans saw further into the future than any other nation and that the United States, the last superpower on the planet, was indeed its sole indispensable nation. In the years to come, American officials and politicians of every sort, presidents included, would speak about this country as the only truly "exceptional" one left on Earth and no bragging intended the U.S. military as "the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known" (George W. Bush) or "the finest fighting force that the world has ever known" (Barack Obama).
So I was struck when, in September 2007, a retired member of that greatest force ever wrote me pointing out how well the U.S. military, which by then was locked in hopeless wars with Afghanistan and Iraq, thought of itself. More specifically, he pointed out that its high command's chests were now beribboned and bemedaled in a fashion that he once would have associated not with U.S. generals but Soviet ones and the worse our wars went, the more medals and ribbons they seemed to get. That October, he wrote his first TomDispatch article on the indispensable military of that oh-so-indispensable nation. Now, 14 years and so many pieces later, William Astore considers what an American military might look like if its goal actually were to defend this country rather than be eternally and hopelessly indispensable on a global scale. Tom
Pivoting to America
Let's Reinvent the U.S. Military for Real National Defense
As a ROTC cadet and an Air Force officer, I was a tiny part of America's vast Department of Defense (DoD) for 24 years until I retired and returned to civilian life as a history professor. My time in the military ran from the election of Ronald Reagan to the reign of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. It was defined by the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, America's brief unipolar moment of dominance and the beginning of its end, as Washington embroiled itself in needless, disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 attacks. Throughout those years of service, I rarely thought about a question that seems ever more critical to me today: What would a real system of American national defense look like?
During the Cold War, I took it for granted that this country needed a sprawling network of military bases, hundreds of them globally. Back then, of course, the stated U.S. mission was to "contain" the communist pathogen. To accomplish that mission, it seemed all too logical to me then for our military to emphasize its worldwide presence. Yes, I knew that the Soviet threat was much exaggerated. Threat inflation has always been a feature of the DoD and at the time I'd read books like Andrew Cockburn's The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine. Still, the challenge was there and, as the leader of the "free world," it seemed obvious to me that the U.S. had to meet it.
And then the Soviet Union collapsed and nothing changed in the U.S. military's global posture.
Or, put differently, everything changed. For with the implosion of the USSR, what turned out to remain truly uncontained was our military, along with the dreams of neoconservatives who sought to remake the world in America's image. But which image? That of a republic empowering its citizens in a participatory democracy or of an expansionist capitalist empire, driven by the ambition and greed of a set of oligarchs?
A few people spoke then of a "peace dividend." They were, however, quickly drowned out by the military-industrial complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had warned this country about. That complex, to which today we might add not only Congress (as Ike had done in an earlier draft of his address) but America's sprawling intelligence apparatus of 18 agencies, eagerly moved into the void created by the Soviet collapse and that of the Warsaw Pact. It quickly came to dominate the world's trade in arms, for instance, even as Washington sought to expand NATO, an alliance created to contain a Soviet threat that no longer existed. Such an expansion made no sense, defensively speaking, but it did serve to facilitate further arms sales and bring U.S. imperial hegemony to the very borders of Russia.
And there was the rub for me at least. As an Air Force officer, I'd always thought of myself, however naively, as supporting and defending the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic (the words of my oath of office). After 1991, however, the main foreign enemy had disappeared and, though I didn't grasp it then, our new enemy would prove to be domestic, not foreign. It consisted of those who embraced as a positive good what I've come to think of as greed-war, while making no apologies for American leadership, no matter how violent, destructive, or self-centered it might prove to be.
In short, the arsenal of democracy of World War II fame had, by the 1960s, become the very complex of imperialism, militarism, and industrialism that Eisenhower warned Americans about first in his 1953 "Cross of Iron" speech and then in his more famous farewell address of 1961. Despite the efforts of a few brave Americans, that arsenal of democracy was largely allowed to morph into an arsenal of empire, a radical change that came shrouded in the myth of "national security." The complex would then only serve to facilitate the war crimes of Vietnam and of subsequent disasters like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, among so many others.
Yet those same misdeeds were so often dismissed by the mainstream media as the unavoidable costs of "national defense" or even supported as the unavoidable price of spreading freedom and democracy around the world. It was as if, in some twisted Orwellian fashion, war had come to be seen as conducive to liberty and righteousness. But as George Orwell had indeed warned us, war is not peace, nor should constant warfare at a global level be the product of any democratic government worthy of its name. War is what empires do and it's what America has become: a machine for war.
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