Nearly 20 Years After September 11: America Hooked on All War, All the Time

Yves here. A critical part of America’s permanent war footing is that Americans are kept almost entirely ignorant of the extent of our engagements, let alone that their main end product is nation breaking.

By Rebecca Gordon, who teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new Dispatch book on the history of torture in the United States. Originally published at TomDispatch

It was the end of October 2001. Two friends, Max Elbaum and Bob Wing, had just dropped by. (Yes, children, believe it or not, people used to drop in on each other, maskless, once upon a time.) They had come to hang out with my partner Jan Adams and me. Among other things, Max wanted to get some instructions from fellow-runner Jan about taping his foot to ease the pain of plantar fasciitis. But it soon became clear that he and Bob had a bigger agenda for the evening. They were eager to recruit us for a new project.

And so began War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, a free, bilingual, antiwar tabloid that, at its height, distributed 100,000 copies every six weeks to more than 700 antiwar organizations around the country. It was already clear to the four of us that night — as it was to millions around the world — that the terrorist attacks of September 11th would provide the pretext for a major new projection of U.S. military power globally, opening the way to a new era of “all-war-all-the-time.” War Times was a project of its moment (although the name would still be apt today, given that those wars have never ended). It would be superseded in a few years by the explosive growth of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. Still, it represented an early effort to fill the space where a peace movement would eventually develop.

All-War-All-the-Time — For Some of Us

We were certainly right that the United States had entered a period of all-war-all-the-time. It’s probably hard for people born since 9/11 to imagine how much — and how little — things changed after September 2001. By the end of that month, this country had already launched a “war” on an enemy that then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told us was “not just in Afghanistan,” but in “50 or 60 countries, and it simply has to be liquidated.”

Five years and two never-ending wars later, he characterized what was then called the war on terror as “a generational conflict akin to the Cold War, the kind of struggle that might last decades as allies work to root out terrorists across the globe and battle extremists who want to rule the world.” A generation later, it looks like Rumsfeld was right, if not about the desires of the global enemy, then about the duration of the struggle.

Here in the United States, however, we quickly got used to being “at war.” In the first few months, interstate bus and train travelers often encountered (and, in airports, still encounter) a new and absurd kind of “security theater.” I’m referring to those long, snaking lines in which people first learned to remove their belts and coats, later their hats and shoes, as ever newer articles of clothing were recognized as potential hiding places for explosives. Fortunately, the arrest of the Underwear Bomber never led the Transportation Security Administration to the obvious conclusion about the clothing travelers should have to remove next. We got used to putting our three-ounce containers of liquids (No more!) into quart-sized baggies (No bigger! No smaller!).

It was all-war-all-the-time, but mainly in those airports. Once the shooting wars started dragging on, if you didn’t travel by airplane much or weren’t deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, it was hard to remember that we were still in war time at all. There were continuing clues for those who wanted to know, like the revelations of CIA torture practices at “black sites” around the world, the horrors of military prisons like the ones at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, and the still-functioning prison complex at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. And soon enough, of course, there were the hundreds and then thousands of veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars taking their places among the unhoused veterans of earlier wars in cities across the United States, almost unremarked upon, except by service organizations.

So, yes, the wars dragged on at great expense, but with little apparent effect in this country. They even gained new names like “the long war” (as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis put it in 2017) or the “forever wars,” a phrase now so common that it appears all over the place. But apart from devouring at least $6.4 trillion dollars through September 2020 that might otherwise have been invested domestically in healthcare, education, infrastructure, or addressing poverty and inequality, apart from creating increasingly militarized domestic police forces armed ever more lethally by the Pentagon, those forever wars had little obvious effect on the lives of most Americans.

Of course, if you happened to live in one of the places where this country has been fighting for the last 19 years, things are a little different. A conservative estimate by Iraq Body Count puts violent deaths among civilians in that country alone at 185,454 to 208,493 and Brown University’s Costs of War project points out that even the larger figure is bound to be a significant undercount:

“Several times as many Iraqi civilians may have died as an indirect result of the war, due to damage to the systems that provide food, health care, and clean drinking water, and as a result, illness, infectious diseases, and malnutrition that could otherwise have been avoided or treated.”

And that’s just Iraq. Again, according to the Costs of War Project, “At least 800,000 people have been killed by direct war violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan.”

Of course, many more people than that have been injured or disabled. And America’s post-9/11 wars have driven an estimated 37 million people from their homes, creating the greatest human displacement since World War II. People in this country are rightly concerned about the negative effects of online schooling on American children amid the ongoing Covid-19 crisis (especially poor children and those in communities of color). Imagine, then, the effects on a child’s education of losing her home and her country, as well as one or both parents, and then growing up constantly on the move or in an overcrowded, under-resourced refugee camp. The war on terror has truly become a war of generations.

Every one of the 2,977 lives lost on 9/11 was unique and invaluable. But the U.S. response has been grotesquely disproportionate — and worse than we War Times founders could have imagined that October night so many years ago.

Those wars of ours have gone on for almost two decades now. Each new metastasis has been justified by George W. Bush’s and then Barack Obama’s use of the now ancient 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which Congress passed in the days after 9/11. Its language actually limited presidential military action to a direct response to the 9/11 attacks and the prevention of future attacks by the same actors. It stated that the president

“…is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Despite that AUMF’s limited scope, successive presidents have used it to justify military action in at least 18 countries. (To be fair, President Obama realized the absurdity of his situation when he sent U.S. troops to Syria and tried to wring a new authorization out of Congress, only to be stymied by a Republican majority that wouldn’t play along.)

In 2002, in the run-up to the Iraq War, Congress passed a second AUMF, which permitted the president to use the armed forces as “necessary and appropriate” to “defend U.S. national security against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” In January 2020, Donald Trump used that second authorization to justify the murder by drone of Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian general, along with nine other people.

Trump Steps In

In 2016, peace activists were preparing to confront a Hillary Clinton administration that we expected would continue Obama’s version of the forever wars — the “surge” in Afghanistan, the drone assassination campaigns, the special ops in Africa. But on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, something went “Trump” in the night and Donald J. Trump took over the presidency with a promise to end this country’s forever wars, which he had criticized relentlessly during his campaign. That, of course, didn’t mean we should have expected a peace dividend anytime soon. He was also committed to rebuilding a supposedly “depleted” U.S. military. As he said at a 2019 press conference,

“When I took over, it was a mess… One of our generals came in to see me and he said, ‘Sir, we don’t have ammunition.’ I said, ‘That’s a terrible thing you just said.’ He said, ‘We don’t have ammunition.’ Now we have more ammunition than we’ve ever had.”

It’s highly unlikely that the military couldn’t afford to buy enough bullets when Trump entered the Oval Office, given that publicly acknowledged defense funding was then running at $580 billion a year. He did, however, manage to push that figure to $713 billion by fiscal year 2020. That December, he threatened to veto an even larger appropriation for 2021 — $740 billion — but only because he wanted the military to continue to honor Confederate generals by keeping their names on military bases. Oh, and because he thought the bill should also change liability rules for social media companies, an issue you don’t normally expect to see addressed in a defense appropriations bill. And, in any case, Congress passed the bill with a veto-proof majority.

As Pentagon expert Michael Klare pointed out recently, while it might seem contradictory that Trump would both want to end the forever wars and to increase military spending, his actions actually made a certain sense. The president, suggested Klare, had been persuaded to support the part of the U.S. military command that has favored a sharp pivot away from reigning post-9/11 Pentagon practices. For 19 years, the military high command had hewed fairly closely to the strategy laid out by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld early in the Bush years: maintaining the capacity to fight ground wars against one or two regional powers (think of that “Axis of Evil” of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran), while deploying agile, technologically advanced forces in low-intensity (and a couple of higher-intensity) counterterrorism conflicts. Nineteen years later, whatever its objectives may have been — a more-stable Middle East? Fewer and weaker terrorist organizations? — it’s clear that the Rumsfeld-Bush strategy has failed spectacularly.

Klare points out that, after almost two decades without a victory, the Pentagon has largely decided to demote international terrorism from rampaging monster to annoying mosquito cloud. Instead, the U.S. must now prepare to confront the rise of China and Russia, even if China has only one overseas military base and Russia, economically speaking, is a rickety petro-state with imperial aspirations. In other words, the U.S. must prepare to fight short but devastating wars in multiple domains (including space and cyberspace), perhaps even involving the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the Eurasian continent. To this end, the country has indeed begun a major renovation of its nuclear arsenal and announced a new 30-year plan to beef up its naval capacity. And President Trump rarely misses a chance to tout “his” creation of a new Space Force.

Meanwhile, did he actually keep his promise and at least end those forever wars? Not really. He did promise to bring all U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by Christmas, but acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller only recently said that we’d be leaving about 2,500 troops there and a similar number in Iraq, with the hope that they’d all be out by May 2021. (In other words, he dumped those wars in the lap of the future Biden administration.)

In the meantime in these years of “ending” those wars, the Trump administration actually loosened the rules of engagement for air strikes in Afghanistan, leading to a “massive increase in civilian casualties,” according to a new report from the Costs of War Project. “From the last year of the Obama administration to the last full year of recorded data during the Trump administration,” writes its author, Neta Crawford, “the number of civilians killed by U.S.-led airstrikes in Afghanistan increased by 330 percent.”

In spite of his isolationist “America First” rhetoric, in other words, President Trump has presided over an enormous buildup of an institution, the military-industrial complex, that was hardly in need of major new investment. And in spite of his anti-NATO rhetoric, his reduction by almost a third of U.S. troop strength Germany, and all the rest, he never really violated the post-World War II foreign policy pact between the Republican and Democratic parties. Regardless of how they might disagree about dividing the wealth domestically, they remain united in their commitment to using diplomacy when possible, but military force when necessary, to maintain and expand the imperial power that they believed to be the guarantor of that wealth.

And Now Comes Joe

On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will become the president of a country that spends as much on its armed forces, by some counts, as the next 10 countries combined. He’ll inherit responsibility for a nation with a military presence in 150 countries and special-operations deployments in 22 African nations alone. He’ll be left to oversee the still-unfinished, deeply unsuccessful, never-ending war on terror in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia and, as publicly reported by the Department of Defense, 187,000 troops stationed outside the United States.

Nothing in Joe Biden’s history suggests that he or any of the people he’s already appointed to his national security team have the slightest inclination to destabilize that Democratic-Republican imperial pact. But empires are not sustained by inclination alone. They don’t last forever. They overextend themselves. They rot from within.

If you’re old enough, you may remember stories about the long lines for food in the crumbling Soviet Union, that other superpower of the Cold War. You can see the same thing in the United States today. Once a week, my partner delivers food boxes to hungry people in our city, those who have lost their jobs and homes, because the pandemic has only exacerbated this country’s already brutal version of economic inequality. Another friend routinely sees a food line stretching over a mile, as people wait hours for a single free bag of groceries.

Perhaps the horrors of 2020 — the fires and hurricanes, Trump’s vicious attacks on democracy, the death, sickness, and economic dislocation caused by Covid-19 — can force a real conversation about national security in 2021. Maybe this time we can finally ask whether trying to prop up a dying empire actually makes us — or indeed the world — any safer. This is the best chance in a generation to start that conversation. The alternative is to keep trudging mindlessly toward disaster.

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  1. John A

    “Russia, economically speaking, is a rickety petro-state with imperial aspirations.”

    This is such poor analysis. Firstly, Russia is decreasingly dependent on oil and gas sales, Putin said in his press conference yesterday “Seventy percent of the Russian budget is already formed not based on oil and gas reserves. This means that we are not fully there yet, but still we are starting to get off the so-called oil and gas needle”.
    Secondly, Putin has also remarked that Russia is the largest country in the world, why would it want to become any bigger?. Crimea was very much a special case for security purposes and the local population is overwhelmingly Russian in any case. Russia just does not want a repeat of Napoleon and Hitler in the 21st Century and acts accordingly.

    1. timbers

      “Russia, economically speaking, is a rickety petro-state with imperial aspirations.”

      Self projection? More plausible might be:

      “United States, economically speaking, is a rickety petro-state with imperial aspirations.”

      Plus US has a crappy healthcare system.

      1. a different chris

        Yes, and this:

        as allies work to root out terrorists across the globe and battle extremists who want to rule the world

        I could see a historian 300 years from now unknowingly writing that same sentence, but the US being the “root out” target:

        Terrorists: drones, long range missiles, supposedly sophisticated electronic intelligence
        Across the globe: 800+ military bases
        Extremists: the Religious Right and the MIC
        Want to rule the world: the whole “exceptional nation” BS

        1. tegnost

          don’t forget spying on all the citizens ala the gestapo, oops… I mean the “intelligence community” (it takes a village?)

  2. timbers

    Nation Breaking:

    A US foreign policy designed to flood the United States and Europe with cheap immigrant labor for the purpose of driving down wages for the benefit of elite billionaires who employ labor, and who control the US government. Other benefits for these elite billionaires are also part of Nation Breaking.

    1. anon y'mouse

      let’s also add: diluting the young male population at home because it has no meaningful work for them, having shipped said work to other countries for profit. can’t have them at home with time on their hands. they might figure out who is screwing them over and do something about it.

      so, our version of the Crusades.

      1. Massinissa

        To be fair, the difference is that the Crusades sent a bunch of knights (Known today as ‘rich people’) over there to fruitlessly fight and die, whereas most of those who enlist in the military in the US are from economically disadvantaged parts of the population.

  3. John Merryman.

    Keep in mind the financial markets couldn’t function, without the government siphoning up trillions in surplus investment money. The wars make it go away, so more can be borrowed.

  4. David

    “It’s highly unlikely that the military couldn’t afford to buy enough bullets when Trump entered the Oval Office, given that publicly acknowledged defense funding was then running at $580 billion a year.”

    OK, anyone who thinks, or even smirks, that ammunition = just bullets, or doesn’t know that in even the best-funded military there are often shortages of ordnance (missiles especially) because all the money has gone on platforms, really should be writing about something else. And if you think back to the dim, distant past, all of perhaps 25 years ago, you find a US defence establishment that was fervently opposed to overseas military adventures: only just emerging from the post-Vietnam War nervous breakdown, the military had to be dragged screaming into Bosnia and Kosovo, and spent all their time scheming to get out and refusing to do anything challenging.

    Right, what’s left? Well, this is a good example of Reverse Beltway Syndrome, which is to take the concepts and vocabulary of the inside-the-Beltway defence establishment, and turn them upside down so that good is bad and black is white. It’s just as misguided though, and, like its progenitor it ignores the fact that the rest of the world has an independent existence and independent objectives, and is not just a shooting gallery for Americans. The reality is that the US was just collateral damage in a bigger game. The September 2001 attacks were designed to force the US out of the Middle East, to thereby remove the principal support for the House of Al-Saud, and so to bring closer the establishment of the Caliphate. And in turn that is part of a wider scheme to establish bits of the Caliphate in promising areas of the world, which is so far going very well.

    This isn’t a new phenomenon either: political Islam goes back a century to the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Its ethos – that the Koran is both a religious book and a complete legal code, and that it takes precedence over all other laws and systems of government – was pursued (reasonably) peacefully for a while, but as early as the 1990s the GIA in Algeria showed what its logical consequences are. It’s turned into an apocalyptic death cult with branches in most parts of the world, notably in Africa, where you may have seen Boko Haram in Nigeria up to its usual amiable trick of attacking schools and killing teachers and pupils. And the latest outbreak is in, of all places the north of Mozambique, a country which, with its laid-back Lusophone culture, is just about the last place you’d expect to find political Islam running rampant. Since the apocalyptic mindset appeals to a generation of bored young men and women looking for adventure, since the leadership tends to be educated and determined, since these organisations are by definition not interested in negotiating and since the countries in which they operate are generally corrupt and poorly governed and have nothing to offer their citizens, well, it’s not exactly clear where we go from here. And yes, the invasion of Iraq was a mindlessly stupid way of giving these movements a hand. All this is well known. But typical US narcissism resulted in a complete and dangerous inability to understand the wider picture of what was going on, and encouraged military adventurism rather than sensible analysis.

    I suspect that all we’re seeing here is a generational change of the type that often happens in militaries and in defence establishments. After a generation of failure, as senior officers retire and others take their place, it’s time to try something new.

    1. jefemt

      From what I perceive here in bumphuc fly-over, the ‘christians’ are doing quite well and organizing and taking over power positions in local, state and national political and administrative gubmint positions.

      They say America is becoming more secular. Not what I am seeing (or hearing on the car radio on mind numbing long drives) in the rural west.
      If radio broadcasting is any indicator, its either the vitriolic poison of El Rushbo, Sean Inanity, Glen Beck! or fundamentalist bible study. No neolib NPR to be found. Does anyone even listen to broadcast radio besides me anymore, or is it choose your silo via Sirius… including No News= good news…..

      I’m quite confident that ‘we’ will give those pesky organized Muzzies a run for their money.

      I would argue that the lack of depth of education, experience, and historical context that the American Evangelical movement holds – an evident lack of native curiosity and rigor to study beyond one book—compared to the millenia of global experience and memory will put ‘us’ at a tremendous disadvantage.
      But when one has God on her side, Katie bar the door.

      Not a fan of organized religions or faiths- I support the notion of a state free of ‘church’.

      1. Massinissa

        “an evident lack of native curiosity and rigor to study beyond one book”

        A lot of Christians, including Evangelicals, don’t even bother to read the Bible, the book the religion they practice is based on. Or if they read it at all they only read certain specific parts. It’s mildly baffling.

      2. Swamp Yankee

        Oh, I listen to broadcast radio for sure, here on the other end of the Continent. We have various NPR affiliates, schlocky Top 40 hits, and yes, El Rushbo and even, yes, Evangelicals. Catholic radio is also big in New England, and, from my experience, in the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes. I’m lucky to get some good independent radio in my neck of the woods, esp. Provincetown, Mass.’s WOMR, Outermost Radio — Legs Up and Dancing With Lady Di, the nom de plume of a gentleman who works in the Provincetown Town Clerk’s Office, is particularly good, and word is that fishermen far out in the Atlantic love to listen her; she plays great 50s, 60s, and ’70s oldies, and has the wonderful eccentricity of singing along with them — lots of fun.

        I would think it would be harder for the Evangelicals in the interior to project force through naval power, but then I remember San Diego, the base in coastal Georgia, etc. All I’m saying is that if New England ever becomes an independent country, the first thing we ought to do is seize the North Atlantic nuclear sub fleet at Groton.

    2. Swamp Yankee

      This is very well put, David — Reverse Beltway Syndrome, one of the reasons I find dealing with certain sections of the Peace Movement very frustrating. Insular and wooly-eyed about the rest of the world and how power works. Prof. Gordon reminds me of many of my colleagues in grad school who were fine historians and had (yes, bien pensant) progressive political views, but absolutely refused to see any value in military history, because it was allegedly only for antiquated white men.

      But like Trotsky said — you may not care about the dialectic, but the dialectic cares about you.

      Not to mention the excellent social histories of war that have been produced since the 1960s and ’70s (cf. Dennis Winter, DEATH’S MEN, on the average Tommy’s experience of The Great War).

    3. David in Santa Cruz

      “Political Islam” goes back for far more than a century — Islam is political, period. There can be no separation of church and state for a Muslim.

      The Prophet Muhammad engaged in politics, diplomacy, and war in order to spread the faith of submission to the one true deity. The Holy Qur’an and the Shari’ah are a complete and comprehensive legal system, constitution, and government for the Ummah — the community of the faithful.

      This is why American nation-building in the Muslim world was doomed from the outset.

      1. David

        That’s true in the absolute sense of course, but in general Muslims lived under different political and even religious systems happily enough in practice. Islam seen as a political project in a modern state is new though.

  5. LowellHighlander

    I fear that as long as the vast majority of Americans continue to believe that they must, come each November of every fourth year, keep their vote for President within the duopoly, nothing will change with regard to the country’s imperial policy. However, as Professor Gordon points out, the empire will continue to rot from within, especially in the forms of growing wealth inequality and, I would add, environmental degradation.

    And I very much doubt that I am the only one who sees this.

  6. tegnost

    I see Rumsfelds “…extremists who want to rule the world.”

    and compare it to…

    “On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will become the president of a country that spends as much on its armed forces, by some counts, as the next 10 countries combined. He’ll inherit responsibility for a nation with a military presence in 150 countries and special-operations deployments in 22 African nations alone. He’ll be left to oversee the still-unfinished, deeply unsuccessful, never-ending war on terror in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia and, as publicly reported by the Department of Defense, 187,000 troops stationed outside the United States.”
    everybody wants to rule the world…

  7. Camelotkidd

    Orwell had something to say about US foreign policy. Forever war is not a bug but a feature.
    “War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking into the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.”

    1. Massinissa

      I don’t know. Capitalism exploits incredible amounts of Earth’s resources in order to make a baffling amount of consumer products which are supposed to make the masses comfortable, partially to stop them from revolting, and it doesn’t seem to have made the masses any more intelligent than they were before.

  8. shinola

    Vietnam era (apocryphal) quote: “We had to destroy the village to save it.”
    For the current version, just substitute ‘country’ for ‘village’.

    War, Holy or otherwise, is highly profitable for a certain industry that a former WWII general & U.S. president (Republican no less) warned us about.

    It appears the drums are now beating for war with Russia.

    Go USA! (Is this a great country or what…)

  9. Susan the other

    Joe Biden is going to be a disaster. Unless we-the-people start to debate how best to use the military for the future. That debate will be all about addressing climate change and diminished resources and overpopulation and massive environmental pollution and destruction. Religious nonsense does not have a place at this table. Science does. Those nasty billionaires are aware of this mess. So is the military itself. For some reason the people who are the biggest, dumbest stumbling blocks all reside in some legislature somewhere. State or federal. The US Congress is the worst. And Joe Biden is the second worst. He has already put military aggression back on the table. One thing we should be thinking about, racking our brains over, is how do we transition from our war economy faster. If we do not do something that functions to replace war as the engine of our “republic” we are screwed. We’ll all be living on a dead planet.

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