Fair Warning

Fair Warning

In Our Orbit: Tom Engelhardt’s The American Way of War.


The embarrassing percentage of Americans who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim Manchurian candidate sent to impose Sharia—or is it socialism?—from sea to shining sea should take a look at the Pentagon’s books. Earlier this year Obama, formerly the partial antiwar candidate, sent Congress the largest defense budget since World War II: $708 billion for the fiscal year 2011, a sum that surpassed the 2010 defense budget of $626 billion, which grew this spring by $33 billion—the initial outlay for an additional 30,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. Nearly $160 billion of the 2011 budget (up from $128 billion in 2010) covers "Overseas Contingency Operations," the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These bloated numbers, plus the less-reported budgets and contingencies that reveal themselves in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, are not just "part of Pentagon blank-check-ism in Washington," in Tom Engelhardt’s terms. They are also proof that "war is now the American way," as he writes, "even if peace is what most Americans experience while their proxies fight in distant lands." At the outset of his damning new book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket; $16.95), Engelhardt, a Nation Institute fellow, writes, "And peace itself? Simply put, there’s no money in it."

The collection is a culling of essays published on Engelhardt’s TomDispatch website since 2004, and the same note is struck in piece after piece after piece: America is an empire, its actions imperial. The signs are not just Iraq and Afghanistan but the increased drone attacks in Pakistan and the Pentagon’s expansion of "lily pad" bases—relatively small posts from Central Asia to Southeastern Europe and the Horn of Africa that are "meant to encircle and nail down control of this vast set of interlocking regions." The massive fortified embassies under construction in Baghdad and Islamabad, home to more soldiers, spies and cost overruns than diplomats, "will, assumedly, anchor the U.S. presence in the Greater Middle East."

Engelhardt does not trace American militarism solely to the "war on terror." With quick pace, he tells a history of fear and triumph that followed Pearl Harbor and the atomic bombings of Japan, which not only exposed the world to the reality of nuclear war but also showed Americans, with Hollywood’s help, the image of a catastrophic attack on the "homeland." The term that was forged on 9/11 "once was an un-American word, more easily associated with Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany." Yet it has "replaced ‘country,’ ‘land,’ and ‘nation’ in the language of the terror-mongers. ‘The homeland’ is the place that terrorism, and nothing but terrorism, can violate."

History and polemic mix in punchy chapters about the rise of aerial warfare, the acceptance of civilian deaths as "collateral damage" and the language of war. Engelhardt laments the lack of journalistic coverage of the air wars over America’s distant battlefields, whether by manned jets and helicopters or, increasingly, remote-controlled drones. Media reports rarely cite "any cumulative figures on air strikes in Iraq or Afghanistan per day, week or month." Why are no reporters taking to the skies above Iraq to survey the destruction of its cities? Along with the permanent American bases in Iraq, in Engelhardt’s view, "the expansion of U.S. airpower is the great missing story of the post-9/11 era."

Also missing is the willingness of the political class to imagine a foreign policy not in thrall to a war machine. Since war and security are now synonymous, and victory is meaningless, Washington is a war capital, and the United States a militarized country, even if it doesn’t look like it at home. "We live in a world of American Newspeak," he writes, "in which alternatives to a state of war are not only ever more unacceptable, but even harder to imagine." America has been without a decisive military victory since World War II—Grenada, Panama and the 1991 Gulf War aside—but that is irrelevant. The reality, created in the cold war and exploited after 9/11, is an "ongoing war system [that] can’t absorb victory," because victory is the end of military spending and rhetoric. War, Engelhardt argues, "is increasingly a state of being, not a process with a beginning, an end, and an actual geography." National security and the "war on terror" feed a perpetual state of insecurity that sustains and justifies the national security state. At least four times since the invasion of Iraq, the United States has declared Iraq sovereign. After every announcement, garrisons of American troops have remained, with billions in Congress-approved budgets supporting them, whether they are designated for combat or not.

Engelhardt excels at extracting lurid details from the annals of America’s ongoing state of war. He has an editor’s eye for the most revealing line buried at the bottom of a war correspondent’s dispatch or an intelligence report filed in Washington. One of his best details is of the pilots who operate the unmanned drones that drop missiles on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some work at computer screens on the outskirts of Las Vegas. When a day’s work is over and the pilots leave Creech Air Force Base, a sign warns them to "drive carefully"—this is "the most dangerous part of your day." A fair warning; the threats are made at home.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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