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Andrew Bacevich: The Eternal War?

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

 

Twelve and a half years after Congress didn't declare war on an organization of hundreds or, at most, thousands of jihadis scattered mainly across the backlands of the planet, and instead let President George W. Bush and his cohort loose to do whatever they wanted; twelve and a half years after the president, his top officials, his neocon supporters, assembled pundits, and others swore we were nonetheless "at war" and the country in "wartime," after our media beat the drums for "war" and assured us that "war" was our fate, after followers of the president insisted we were entering a monumental, multigenerational struggle, or even World War IV; twelve and a half years after the war that hadn't been declared was launched and the bombing of Afghanistan began, after the CIA and Washington targeted up to 80 countries in a "worldwide attack matrix" -- later given the leave-no-location-out name the Global War on Terror -- and after top Washington officials swore we would soon "drain the [global] swamp," another president has now assured us that someday, in a distant future, in a way that we might not even notice ("Our victory against terrorism won't be measured in a surrender ceremony at a battleship..."), we might possibly find ourselves approaching the sort-of-end of what will have been a 20- or 30-year conflict.

At the National Defense University (NDU) last Thursday, President Obama, so media reports and editorials assured us, gave a speech in which he promised to dial back the war on terror as a "global" operation, curtail U.S. drone operations abroad, and launch another effort to whittle down, if not close, Guantanamo.  But a careful look at the text of his speech indicates that he still accepts the most basic premises of the previous administration: that we are "at war"; that the country, despite visible evidence to the contrary, is in "wartime"; and that, when a president decides it's necessary, this planet will remain a global free-fire zone for drones, special operations forces, or whatever else he choses to throw at it.  He may even, reports Jonathan Landay of McClatchy News, have quietly expanded the categories of human beings that U.S. drones can attack. 

In those twelve and a half years between 9/11 and the recent speech, it's been a bumpy ride through a minefield of unexpected IEDs.  Two invasions of the Eurasian mainland have led to two defeats that passed for better here and are bringing U.S. combat troops home with, as this president said, their "heads held high," but also with massive numbers of PTSD casessuicides, and other debilitating issues.  In the meantime, America's global warring has resulted in a significant destabilization of the Greater Middle East.  (The present Syrian disaster would have been unimaginable without the U.S. invasion of Iraq.)  It's also resulted in the growth of an ever larger secret military cocooned inside the U.S. military, the special operations forces -- 10,000 of whom are now in Afghanistan alone -- and the launching of a series of drone wars and assassination campaigns across a significant swath of the planet.  These, from a White House that has taken on ever more power to do as it pleases in foreign and military policy, the president now claims to be curtailing and bringing under his version of the rule of law, largely because they haven't been working out so terribly well.  Finally, there's the spread of the al-Qaeda franchise into areas Washington has helped unsettle, which, as the president indicated, ensures that our "war" cannot end any time soon.  Think of it as a Mobius strip of self-justifying conflict.

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And yet, the ability of the U.S. to "project force" everywhere from the 

Mali-Niger border to the Philippines remains impressive.  Even its capacity to engage in a series of disasters over such an expanse of the planet for twelve and a half years and still be talking about "pivoting" militarily to Asia, while maintaining a massive build-up of U.S. forces around Iran, should give anyone pause.  It's a reminder that the now-seldom-heard term "sole superpower" continues to mean something.

But what? Somehow, like our empire of bases (and the private contractors that go with it), it's been hard to absorb the continual use of such power projection and the vast web of military-to-military relationships and weapons sales that go with it, or the increasing ability of the White House alone to determine what makes sense and what doesn't abroad, even as both the Greater Middle East and what's left of American democracy and liberties are further destabilized.

Much of this has not yet been taken in here in a meaningful way, though you can feel it lurking, half-expressed, half-grasped, in the president's NDU speech.  To begin to understand what's actually been going on, it would help to define the "war" that we've been fighting all these years from North Africa to China's Central Asian border.  TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, whose latest book Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country will be published in September, suggests that a good place to begin is by naming that now nameless "war." (In fact, if, having checked out his piece, TomDispatch readers want to send in their own naming suggestions, along with their explanations for them, we might highlight a few of them above a future post.) Tom 

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Naming Our Nameless War 
How Many Years Will It Be? 
By Andrew J. Bacevich

For well over a decade now the United States has been "a nation at war." Does that war have a name?

It did at the outset.  After 9/11, George W. Bush's administration wasted no time in announcing that the U.S. was engaged in a Global War on Terrorism, or GWOT.  With few dissenters, the media quickly embraced the term. The GWOT promised to be a gargantuan, transformative enterprise. The conflict begun on 9/11 would define the age. In neoconservative circles, it was known as World War IV.

Upon succeeding to the presidency in 2009, however, Barack Obama without fanfare junked Bush's formulation (as he did again in a speech at the National Defense University last week).  Yet if the appellation went away, the conflict itself, shorn of identifying marks, continued.

Does it matter that ours has become and remains a nameless war? Very much so.

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Names bestow meaning.  When it comes to war, a name attached to a date can shape our understanding of what the conflict was all about.  To specify when a war began and when it ended is to privilege certain explanations of its significance while discrediting others. Let me provide a few illustrations.

With rare exceptions, Americans today characterize the horrendous fraternal bloodletting of 1861-1865 as the Civil War.  Yet not many decades ago, diehard supporters of the Lost Cause insisted on referring to that conflict as the War Between the States or the War for Southern Independence (or even the War of Northern Aggression).  The South may have gone down in defeat, but the purposes for which Southerners had fought -- preserving a distinctive way of life and the principle of states' rights -- had been worthy, even noble.  So at least they professed to believe, with their preferred names for the war reflecting that belief.

Schoolbooks tell us that the Spanish-American War began in April 1898 and ended in August of that same year.  The name and dates fit nicely with a widespread inclination from President William McKinley's day to our own to frame U.S. intervention in Cuba as an altruistic effort to liberate that island from Spanish oppression.

Yet the Cubans were not exactly bystanders in that drama.  By 1898, they had been fighting for years to oust their colonial overlords.  And although hostilities in Cuba itself ended on August 12th, they dragged on in the Philippines, another Spanish colony that the United States had seized for reasons only remotely related to liberating Cubans.  Notably, U.S. troops occupying the Philippines waged a brutal war not against Spaniards but against Filipino nationalists no more inclined to accept colonial rule by Washington than by Madrid.  So widen the aperture to include this Cuban prelude and the Filipino postlude and you end up with something like this:  The Spanish-American-Cuban-Philippines War of 1895-1902.  Too clunky?  How about the War for the American Empire?  This much is for sure: rather than illuminating, the commonplace textbook descriptor serves chiefly to conceal.

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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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