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Tomgram: William Astore, Taking War Off Its Pedestal

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The groundwork is already laid for America's next war(s) in the Middle East and, in the process, one of the last relatively undamaged areas of Syria (at least before the Turkish military began to pound it with air strikes and artillery, then moving in tanks) is about to be added to the rubble of the region. The damage that began with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 could now spread to yet another country, Turkey, already filled with Syrian refugees but relatively unscathed so far. At the moment, an autocratic Turkish president, angry over American backing for Kurdish forces in northern Syria and jockeying for popularity in his own country, is potentially repeating on a small scale the American blunder of 2003. He's blithely invading Kurdish-controlled parts of northern Syria, assuming that all will go splendidly, while President Trump's military finds itself, as it has so many times in these years, between a rock and a hard place.

The U.S. has approximately 2,000 troops in northern Syria and, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson only recently announced, they are slated to stay there not just until the last ISIS fighter is wiped off the face of the Earth, but possibly until the end of time (a decision for which the Trump administration naturally has no congressional sanction). Washington's latest stated goal: to support Kurdish fighters in the region and play a role in undermining both Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria and its Iranian backers. (Good luck with that!) Those troops now find themselves caught between NATO ally Turkey (which has let Washington use a key military base against ISIS) and American-trained and -armed leftist Syrian Kurds, who have done most of the hard fighting (and dying) against the Islamic State "caliphate." The Turks, who consider those Kurds "terrorists" (and backers of longtime Kurdish insurgents in Turkey), are angrily demanding that all U.S. troops immediately and unconditionally leave the Kurdish-controlled Syrian city of Manbij before they move in militarily (a demand already rejected by the head of U.S. Central Command). And oh, yes, the remnants of ISIS, driven back and no longer a "caliphate" or much of anything else, are still fighting.

So much for Donald Trump's "victory" in Syria. While no one can possibly know what will come of all this, as with so much else in American war-making over these last 17 years, it's reasonable to assume that it won't be good, or peaceable, or end particularly well, or possibly at all. Count on one thing: you won't soon read about an American military unchallenged and victorious in a Syria brought to order. Quite the opposite: if recent years are any indication, the damage will only spread, more civilians will die, more homes will be destroyed, more populations will be uprooted, and embittered locals, angry at the U.S. among other participants in this mayhem, will be primed to join yet newer terror groups.

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TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel William Astore looks at this now eerily familiar process of American war-making, twenty-first-century style, and suggests what kinds of damage it's already done, not just in distant lands, but here at home and what we, the people (formerly, "We, the People"), might consider doing about it. Tom

Our Enemy, Ourselves
Ten Commonsense Suggestions for Making Peace, Not War
By William J. Astore

Whether the rationale is the need to wage a war on terror involving 76 countries or renewed preparations for a struggle against peer competitors Russia and China (as Defense Secretary James Mattis suggested recently while introducing America's new National Defense Strategy), the U.S. military is engaged globally. A network of 800 military bases spread across 172 countries helps enable its wars and interventions. By the count of the Pentagon, at the end of the last fiscal year about 291,000 personnel (including reserves and Department of Defense civilians) were deployed in 183 countries worldwide, which is the functional definition of a military uncontained. Lady Liberty may temporarily close when the U.S. government grinds to a halt, but the country's foreign military commitments, especially its wars, just keep humming along.

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As a student of history, I was warned to avoid the notion of inevitability. Still, given such data points and others like them, is there anything more predictable in this country's future than incessant warfare without a true victory in sight? Indeed, the last clear-cut American victory, the last true "mission accomplished" moment in a war of any significance, came in 1945 with the end of World War II.

Yet the lack of clear victories since then seems to faze no one in Washington. In this century, presidents have regularly boasted that the U.S. military is the finest fighting force in human history, while no less regularly demanding that the most powerful military in today's world be "rebuilt" and funded at ever more staggering levels. Indeed, while on the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised he'd invest so much in the military that it would become "so big and so strong and so great, and it will be so powerful that I don't think we're ever going to have to use it."

As soon as he took office, however, he promptly appointed a set of generals to key positions in his government, stored the mothballs, and went back to war. Here, then, is a brief rundown of the first year of his presidency in war terms.

In 2017, Afghanistan saw a mini-surge of roughly 4,000 additional U.S. troops (with more to come), a major spike in air strikes, and an onslaught of munitions of all sorts, including MOAB (the mother of all bombs), the never-before-used largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal, as well as precision weapons fired by B-52s against suspected Taliban drug laboratories. By the Air Force's own count, 4,361 weapons were "released" in Afghanistan in 2017 compared to 1,337 in 2016. Despite this commitment of warriors and weapons, the Afghan war remains -- according to American commanders putting the best possible light on the situation -- "stalemated," with that country's capital Kabul currently under siege.

How about Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State? U.S.-led coalition forces have launched more than 10,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since Donald Trump became president, unleashing 39,577 weapons in 2017. (The figure for 2016 was 30,743.) The "caliphate" is now gone and ISIS deflated but not defeated, since you can't extinguish an ideology solely with bombs. Meanwhile, along the Syrian-Turkish border a new conflict seems to be heating up between American-backed Kurdish forces and NATO ally Turkey.

Yet another strife-riven country, Yemen, witnessed a sixfold increase in U.S. airstrikes against al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (from 21 in 2016 to more than 131 in 2017). In Somalia, which has also seen a rise in such strikes against al-Shabaab militants, U.S. forces on the ground have reached numbers not seen since the Black Hawk Down incident of 1993. In each of these countries, there are yet more ruins, yet more civilian casualties, and yet more displaced people.

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Finally, we come to North Korea. Though no real shots have yet been fired, rhetorical shots by two less-than-stable leaders, "Little Rocket Man" Kim Jong-un and "dotard" Donald Trump, raise the possibility of a regional bloodbath. Trump, seemingly favoring military solutions to North Korea's nuclear program even as his administration touts a new generation of more usable nuclear warheads, has been remarkably successful in moving the world's doomsday clock ever closer to midnight.

Clearly, his "great" and "powerful" military has hardly been standing idly on the sidelines looking "big" and "strong." More than ever, in fact, it seems to be lashing out across the Greater Middle East and Africa. Seventeen years after the 9/11 attacks began the Global War on Terror, all of this represents an eerily familiar attempt by the U.S. military to kill its way to victory, whether against the Taliban, ISIS, or other terrorist organizations.

This kinetic reality should surprise no one. Once you invest so much in your military -- not just financially but also culturally (by continually celebrating it in a fashion which has come to seem like a quasi-faith) -- it's natural to want to put it to use. This has been true of all recent administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, as reflected in the infamous question Madeleine Albright posed to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell in 1992: "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?"

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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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