Sometime late next year, possibly as early as September, news crews will gather in Afghanistan for a unique event: to interview an American serviceman or woman who was not born when the war they are fighting began. He or she will not remember 9/11, and will have grown up with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as background noise.
No doubt also a senior commander will be on hand to pronounce that the war against the Taliban is making progress, the same pronouncements the young recruits will have seen on TV all their life.
It will be a stark reminder that the US has been at war for 225 of the 242 years of its existence. A handful of those conflicts, the defeat of Hitler and Japan, go down as ‘good wars’. But most go down as operations that cost dearly in blood and treasure for little appreciable result.
In 1961, Dwight Eisenhower, the only American to make it to the highest offices in both politics and the military, warned on leaving the presidency of the power of the “military industrial complex”, and how war can become an end in itself.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military/industrial complex,” he warned. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
America’s future political leadership clearly didn’t listen. Eisenhower’s immediate successor John F. Kennedy reluctantly got the country embroiled in the Cuban debacle that was the Bay of Pigs and also the Vietnam War, with its eventual offshoots, after his death, in Cambodia and Laos.
More misadventures followed: Lebanon, Grenada, Kosovo, Somalia and Libya spring to mind, before the disastrous Iraq and Afghanistan wars that remain with us courtesy of George Bush and Tony Blair.
Along with them have come several dozen proxy wars, among them Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, East Timor, Guatemala, Indonesia, the former Yugoslavia, Pakistan, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Syria and Sudan. Tens of millions have died, trillions of dollars have been spent, for little or no appreciable result.
Some interventions are cynical, but even the well-meaning ones often end in disaster. Novelist Graham Greene offered a devastating portrait of a well-meaning, but clumsily disastrous, foreign service official in The Quiet American. You might think these repeated failures would wean the Pentagon off foreign adventures, and you would be totally wrong.
The US military budget is higher than the next seven big spenders in the world put together. Since 9/11, these wars have so far cost the US over $6 trillion. Just occasionally a dissident voice breaks through particularly voicing the plight of veterans: a small but poignant example was Jon Voight’s film Transformers . There is a scene where US troops are attacked by a robot, and the line “bring ’em home” was inserted by the Pentagon’s Hollywood liaison officer.
Many Americans are wondering why the US is in a constant state of war
Bring ’em home to what?
This lavish spending is in contrast to the lack of care veterans get when they return home. The Pentagon has spent $250m a day since shortly after 9/11, yet support for those coming home is abysmal. Veterans make up 10 per cent of America’s homeless population, with 250,000 men and women who were once proud to wear the uniform now sleeping rough on the streets. Suicide rates among Vets are soaring.
The hard truth is that most of the US military adventures are just that – adventures. The last existential threat the US faced was the Soviet Union in a Cold War that ended in 1991. Terrorists have exacted a grievous toll in attacks on the US and Americans, but they do not threaten the continuance of the union.
Yet a bloated navy patrols seas against a non-existent invasion threat.
The good news is that the penny has dropped with some of the Trump administration. The President has been asking, in his caustic style, just why the US has men and women in harm’s way in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, places that pose no direct threat to the US.
And Trump is asking also why the US is expected to defend not just itself, but Europe also, where most of its Nato partners refuse to spend even two per cent of their GDP on defence, despite pledging to do so years ago.
Trump’s critics accuse him of isolationism, but reluctance to embark on military adventures abroad is not limited to the Republican President. Many Americans are wondering why the US is in a constant state of war.
They could start with an assessment of what perils the US really faces.
Battling terrorists requires special forces and intelligence, not warships and tanks.
Russia presents zero immediate threat.
The two rival nuclear powers, China and Russia, have been careful, amid all the noise about election interference and tariffs, to offer no direct threat to the US or international commerce, America’s lifeblood.
Some of this has already filtered through not just to Trump but the remaining few sober heads on both sides of Congress, the likes of congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and senator Rand Paul, as they fight their way within Congress to a less interventionist military and an end to the philosophy of regime change.
Let’s hope such politicians succeed. Don’t hold your breath though.
Richard Galustian is a political and security advisor based in MENA countries for nearly 40 years.
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