Okay, folks, it's time for a year-opening sermon.
And like any good sermon, this one will be based on illustrative texts, in this
case from 2006, and inspirational passages plucked from them. Its goal, as in
any such quest, will be to reveal a world normally hidden from us in our daily
Every day, it seems, essential choices are being made in our names by our top
officials, civilian and military, many of whom, as the year ended, only reaffirmed
that our country is headed down an imperial path in the Middle East and elsewhere,
a path based on dreams of domination and backed, above all else, by the principle
of force. No matter their disagreements over the administration's Iraq catastrophe,
on this, agreement has remained so widespread as to make all discussion of the
basics seem beside the point. Despite recent failures on the imperial path,
consideration of other paths remains almost inconceivable.
Naturally, the continual act of choosing the path we are on, and the hardly
noticed Pentagonization and Homeland
Securitization of our own society that goes with it, are never presented
to Americans as such. If no alternatives to what we are doing are ever suggested,
then logic is with the doers, no matter the staggering problems on the horizon.
In fact, what we do in the world – how, for instance, we choose to garrison
the planet – is seldom presented as a matter of choice at all. Either it's
been forced on us by "them" – the rogues, the jihadis, the madmen, the
evil ones – and so is the only path to our obvious safety (as defined by our
betters in Washington); or it's so obvious that nothing needs to be done but
reaffirm it. As in all Washington debates at this moment, what's truly important
is simply to decide how to make that imperial path less rocky and those dreams
of domination that pass for American "security" more achievable (or even, as
in Iraq, less noticeably catastrophic).
End of introduction to sermon. Now to the illustrative texts and examples.
Expand the Mission
For my first text, let me take an e-letter that
the college-age daughter of a friend received the other day from a Marine Corps
Officer Selection officer, inviting her to "an awesome summer training program
called the Platoon Leader's Course." Think of it as Marine Corps summer camp.
No uniforms ("This is not ROTC!"), but reasonable amounts of moolah. Here's
some of what was on offer to her, part of a desperate military's Iraq-era appeal
to citizenly duty:
"You will earn approximately $2,400 (six weeks) or $4,000 (ten weeks) plus
room and board during the training. How's that for a summer job? … You will
not incur any obligation to the Marine Corps even after completing the training.
(You can choose whether or not to continue with the program). … Tuition assistance
will be available to you after you complete training this summer. You could
potentially earn $8,000 to $25,000 for school, depending on graduation date."
Imagine! The Marine Corps is willing to pay young people to go to a
uniform-less summer camp to test their "leadership potential," with no
commitment to the Corps necessary. Consider that; then consider what was certainly
the president's only significant decision of the holiday season past – to permanently
expand the U.S. military by as many as 70,000
Now, as in some old math problem, the question is: How do you connect these
two points? (Hint: Not with a straight line.)
Faced with a public shot across the bow in testimony before Congress by Army
Chief of Staff Peter J. Schoomaker, who warned that the Army "will
break" under present war-zone rotation needs, President Bush responded on
Dec. 19. He brought up the "stressed" nature of the U.S. Armed Forces and, while
still officially hesitating about his "way forward" in Iraq, said, "I'm inclined
to believe that we do need to increase our troops – the Army, the Marines. And
I talked about this to Secretary [Robert A.] Gates, and he is going to spend
some time talking to the folks in the building [the Pentagon], come back with
a recommendation to me about how to proceed forward on this idea." All this
was, he added, "to meet the challenges of a long-term global struggle against
Ah… that makes things clearer.
Of course, to get those new "volunteer" officers and men, who have generally
been none too eager to volunteer for the Army and the Marines in the midst of
a disastrous, faraway, increasingly incomprehensible set of double wars, you'll
have to pay even more kids more money to go to no-commitment summer camp; and,
while you're at it, you'll have to lower
standards for the military radically. You'll have to let
in even more volunteers without high-school diplomas but with "moral" and
medical "waivers" for criminal records and mental problems. You'll have to fast-track
even more new immigrants willing to join for the benefits of quick citizenship;
you'll have to ramp up already high cash bonuses of all sorts; you'll have to
top-notch ad agency recently hired on a five-year contract for a cool billion
dollars to rev up its new "Army Strong" recruitment drive even higher; you'll
certainly have to jack up the numbers of military recruiters radically, to the
tune of perhaps a couple of hundred million more dollars; and maybe just for
the heck of it, you better start planning for the possibility of recruiting
significant numbers of potential immigrants before
they even think to leave their own countries. After all, it's darn romantic
to imagine a future American all-volunteer force that will look more like the
old French Foreign Legion – or an army of mercenaries anyway. All in all, you'll
have to commit to the fact that your future soldier in your basic future war
will cost staggering sums of money to hire and even more staggering sums to
retain after he or she has had a taste of what "leadership potential" really
Put another way, as long as Iraq remains a classic quagmire for the Army and
Marines, any plan to expand the U.S. military in order to make it easier to
fight such wars in the future, threatens to become a classic financial quagmire
as well. In other words, Iraq and military expansion don't fit together well
at all. And yet, looking at the state of our military in Iraq in a certain light,
expansion seems so… well, logical.
After all, the American military, now at just over 500,000 troops, stood, at
the time of the First Gulf War, at 703,000. (Of course, no one now counts the
quite expensive hired mercenaries who envelop our military – the privatized,
Halliburton-style adjuncts, who cook the food, build the bases, do the cleaning,
deliver the mail and supplies, perform interrogation duties, and so on, and
whose increase has been striking as has the growth of rent-a-mercenary corporations
whose armed employees are, for instance, all
over Iraq.) In addition, it has long
been clear that the Armed Forces could not take the strain of failing wars
in Central Asia and the Middle East forever, not to speak of increased "commitments"
in the Persian Gulf and the normal massive global basing and policing that the
Pentagon regularly refers to as our "footprint" on the planet. Added to this,
the president seems to be leaning toward increasing the pressure on military
manpower needs by "surging" – the Vietnam era word would, of course, have been
"escalating" – up to 30,000 troops into Baghdad and al-Anbar province, while
naval and air forces (with an obvious eye to Iran) are simultaneously ramped
up in the Persian Gulf.
In light of Iraq, military manpower needs cry out to be dealt with. In light
of Iraq, dealing with them any time soon will be prohibitively expensive.
In Washington, this conundrum leads nowhere in particular. Instead, in the
spirit of imperial-mission logic (and with the urge to bash the Bush administration
for being late to such an obvious support-our-troops position), Democrats simply
leaped onto the expand-the-military bandwagon even faster than Republicans.
In fact, leading Democrats had long been calling for just this sort of expansion.
("I am glad [the president] has realized the need for increasing the size of
the armed forces … but this is where the Democrats have been for two years,"
commented Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the new House Democratic Caucus chairman.) The
Democratic leadership promptly pledged to make such an expansion one of its
top reform priorities in the New Year.
To get those numbers significantly higher will, it's estimated, take a decade
and unimaginable sums of money (as well as those lowered standards). And, if
the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan
worsen, as they almost certainly will, and American casualties rise with
no end in sight, you can start going through your multiplication tables. This
could be considered but a form of ongoing blowback from American imperial shock-and-awe
tactics in Iraq and presents some curious choices to our leaders. After all,
to take but one example, those most eager to expand the military, with their
eyes on the imperial future, should be eager to liquidate the Iraqi mission
as soon as possible.
But a far more basic choice lurks – one rarely
alluded to in the mainstream. If we voted on such things – and, in truth,
we vote on less and less that matters – the choice that actually lies behind
the Marine e-letter to my friend's daughter might be put this way: Expand the
military or shrink the mission?
This is the essential question that goes largely unmentioned – and largely
unthought as well. In the meantime, money will continue to pour into military
recruitment ad campaigns, bonuses, and summer camps. In the meantime, those
Marine e-letters will continue to go out. In the meantime, money will continue
to pour into the Pentagon and the national security world generally. In the
meantime, we will continue to build our near billion-dollar
embassy, the largest on the planet, in the heart of Baghdad's Green Zone.
In the meantime, the imperial and military paths will continue to fuse, and
the Pentagon will continue to take on new roles, even outside "declared war
zones," in intelligence, diplomacy, "information operations," and other "self-assigned
missions"; so that, as Mark
Mazzetti of the New York Times recently described it, even our embassies
will increasingly be militarized outposts in the global war on terror.
Shrinking the mission – choosing some path other than the imperial one (in
part by redefining what exactly our national interests are) – would, of course,
address many problems. It would make paying young people thousands of dollars
to test their leadership potential or thinking about scouring Central America
for a future Foreign Legion far less necessary. But no one in Washington –
not in the Bush administration, not in James A. Baker's Iraq Study Group, which
recently captured the Inside-the-Beltway "middle
ground" on Iraq policy, not in the Democratic leadership – is faintly interested
in shrinking the American global mission. No one in Washington, where a kind
of communal voting does go on, is about to vote "no" to that mission, or cast
a ballot for democracy rather than empire.
Expanding the military may seem like a no-brainer in response to the Iraq
crisis. As it happens, it's anything but. Unfortunately, few ever discuss (as,
for instance, Chalmers Johnson did in his book, The
Sorrows of Empire) the 700-plus military and intelligence bases we retain
around the world or ask why exactly we're garrisoning the planet. No one, in
these last years, has seriously challenged the ever expanding Pentagon budget;
nor the mushrooming supplemental requests for Iraq and Afghanistan, including
latest for almost $100 billion; nor, generally, the fact that paying for actual
war-fighting is no longer considered an appropriate part of the Pentagon's normal
No one challenged it when, in 2002, the United States gained a new North American
Command (Northcom), making U.S. citizens
but another coequal part of the Pentagon's division of its imperial world, along
with those who live in regions covered by Centcom, Paccom, and the just authorized
Africa Command (Africom). No one challenged the vast expansion
of Pentagon intelligence activities. No one offered a challenge as the military
took on ever more civilian domestic duties, including planning for the potential
arrival of a pandemic disease
on our shores or for future Katrinas. No one seriously challenges the plans
the Pentagon has on the drawing boards for exotic, futuristic hardware meant
to come on line decades from now that, along with futuristic military tactics
already being worked out, will help predetermine the wars most Americans don't
even know we are going to fight – from the vast mega-slum-cities of the Third
World to the borderlands
No one considers what the Pentagonization of our world and the Homeland Securitization
of our country is doing to us, because militarism here has never taken
on the expectable forms – few vast military parades or displays (despite the
almost full-scale militarization of presidential funerals); few troops in the
streets; no uniforms in the high councils of government. In fact, it's one of
the ironies of our particular form of militarization that when our military
– no longer really a citizen army – goes to war and troops begin to die, less
Americans are touched by this than perhaps at any time in our recent history.
Shrink the mission or expand the military? Your choice?
An Expeditionary Mentality
Like all crucial questions, the one never asked
nonetheless remains deeply embedded in our most essential texts as in our lives
and our world. All you have to do is keep an eye out and you can catch endless
examples of the choices that have already been made for us – and are being regularly
ratified in our names, but largely without our knowledge or the slightest consultation
by the men (and they are largely men) who define what an American world is supposed
to mean and simply can't imagine it any other way.
Let me just offer a few illustrative and largely overlooked gems from 2006
(with modest commentary):
Last May, in the opening
statement at his confirmation hearings before the Senate Intelligence Committee
for the post of director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gen. Michael Hayden,
former head of the National Security Agency, offered the following promise to
"If confirmed as director, I would reaffirm CIA's proud culture
of risk-taking and excellence, particularly through the increased use of non-traditional
operational platforms, a greater focus on the development of language skills,
and the inculcation of what I would call an expeditionary mentality."
"An expeditionary mentality" – in order to "keep America safe." The phrase,
so Kiplingesque, so British Empire, did not so much as draw a comment from the
assembled senators or a peep from the press. While much in Hayden's testimony
was highlighted, this essential promise passed essentially unnoticed. And why
should that surprise anyone? After the tenure of the previous two directors,
Dunk" Tenet and the ham-handed Republican Party hack Porter Goss, it was,
in the Washington context, a simple promise of performance enhancement. On the
imperial path, after all, an expeditionary mentality is a perfectly reasonable
thing to have.
Let's Do It Again!
Or consider the following comment
from Col. Conrad
Crane, director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute and a key figure
in overseeing the production and recent release of a 279-page joint Army/Marine
Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
"If we've created a manual that is just good for Iraq and Afghanistan,
we've failed. … This thing has got to be focused on the future and the next
time we do this."
The next time we do this. Okay, call that realism along the imperial
path. After all, if somehow, post-Vietnam, the U.S. military was in denial about
waging future counterinsurgency wars, it's perfectly logical to assume that
it shouldn't be again; not if these are to be "our" wars of the future. Or as
another of the key drafters of the guidebook, Lt. Col. John
A. Nagl put it, "We are codifying the best practices of previous counterinsurgency
campaigns and the lessons we have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan to help
our forces succeed in the current fight and prepare for the future."
And yet, like so much else, that counterinsurgency how-to-do-it is also a functional
vote for an imperial mission few of us have ever had the chance to really consider,
no less opt for. And why is it that when I read Crane's comment, I think to
myself – as if I were a parent dealing with thoughtless children – no, no,
the lesson of our moment isn't: Do it right the next time. It's: Don't do
"We're Going to Be Here a Long Time"
But you can hardly blame Colonels Conrad and Nagl,
not when just about all strands of official thought in and around Washington
point toward those future wars. On the one hand, we have the latest neoconservative
proposal, direct from the American Enterprise Institute, promoted personally
to the president by former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army Gen. Jack Keane
and AEI star Frederick Kagan, and heavily lobbied for by presidential candidate
Sen. John McCain. It calls for Bush to order a "surge" of 30,000 or more American
troops (long term) into what former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke now
calls the "Iraqi sinkhole."
These are the people who, as Inter Press Service analyst Jim Lobe commented
recently, are intent on making "one final effort … to persuade the president
that, by 'doubling down' on his gamble on Iraq, he can still leave the table
a winner and 'transform' the entire Middle East."
If taken, this will be but the latest in a long line of gambler's choices
on the neocon imperial path to remaking the Middle East. And while others in
Washington or Iraq, including top U.S. commanders, may not back such an obviously
wobbly policy decision, doubling down on the imperial path itself is another
matter entirely. News reports in late December indicated that the U.S. and Britain
were already deploying a new set of warships
to the Persian Gulf, possibly including a second American aircraft-carrier task
force, which would join the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower already on station
there. No one had any doubt that these moves were aimed at Iran.
In the meantime, our new Secretary of Defense Robert A. Gates, until recently
a member of the "realist" Iraq Study Group, sent in from Papa Bush's world to
clean up the mess in Baghdad, made his first official trip to the Iraqi capital
to meet with American commanders. While those ships headed Gulf-ward, he had
a few choice things to say on the subject of the American imperial mission in
the Middle East. In a breakfast
meeting with American soldiers, he offered the following:
"[W]e need to make damn sure that the neighbors understand we're
going to be here a long time, 'here' meaning the Persian Gulf area, not necessarily
here in Iraq."
That this was no passing spontaneous outburst he made clear with this
comment in a press briefing:
"I think the message that we are sending to everyone, not just Iran, is
that the United States is an enduring presence in this part of the world. We
have been here for a long time. We will be here for a long time and everybody
needs to remember that – both our friends and those who might consider themselves
When the "realist" secretary of defense talks in this fashion about our enduring
regional "footprint," he's voting for the imperial path in the name of all Americans.
He's also reminding us that, with every passing moment, that path and the military
one are becoming a single way into the future. He's ensuring that when our counterinsurgency
warriors, armed with their latest weaponry and manuals, hit the sands of wherever,
they won't sound that different from the soldier at that breakfast in Iraq who
described what it's like to "advise" the Iraqi military: "The more they work
with us, the more they're slowly picking up on our traits. I mean, you see them
sort of starting trying to act like us and stuff, and it's good; you know, little
brother trying to act like a big brother…"
This is offered in the same patronizing imperial spirit in which President
Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and others once talked about teaching the Iraqi child
how to ride
the "bike" of democracy and debated when to take off the "training wheels."
It helps explain why our imperial path and that giant "footprint," all of which
seem so natural to us as hardly to be an imposition on others, appeal so little
elsewhere in the world. It helps explain why no counterinsurgency guide, no
deployment of aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf, no upping of the Pentagon
budget, or sending of "intelligence" agents, military
or CIA, into the universe with an "expeditionary mentality," will ever make
this planet a comfortable, conquerable, garrison-able place. It helps explain
just why the imperial path is ever more costly.
Flies and Sledgehammers
Recently, the deputy director for the war on terrorism
within the Strategic Plans Office of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, Gen. Mark O.
Schissler, told the
"We're in a generational war. You can try and fight the enemy where they
are and where they're attacking you, or prevent them and defend your own homeland.
… [Islamist extremists are] absolutely committed to the 50-, 100-year plan."
It was a typical comment of our moment in which "they" invariably leave helpless
us no other option but to prepare for their 100-year or multigenerational struggle.
So, with us headed down what various administration officials have long thought
of as a century-long path of war, let me conclude this little sermon by returning
to the Marine recruitment e-letter my friend's daughter received. It ends with
an encouraging challenge: "This is an unparalleled opportunity to see if you
have what it takes to be a leader in one of the most elite organizations in
the world without committing yourself to service." Then, after the recruiting
officer's sign-off, comes what clearly is meant to be an inspirational quote
for the prospective military leader of America's future:
"Sometimes killing a fly with a sledgehammer is entirely appropriate.
It doesn't make the fly any more dead, but the rest of the flies sure sit up
and take notice. – Major I. L. Holdridge, USMC"
Marine Major Holdridge, it turns out, is the creator of a video game, TacOps,
used by military trainers and available in commercial form. His comment reminded
me of something Boston Globe columnist James Carroll said in a TomDispatch
interview back in September 2005. Carroll was pointing out that George Bush's
response to the 9/11 attacks was partly a result of his particular character
(and faith) and partly of what was available to him in our "arsenal" of responses,
so to speak – because the process of Pentagonization, of militarization, had
already been underway in this country for so long.
"The meshing of Bush's temperament and a long-prepared American
institutional response was unfortunate, but there it was. As somebody said,
when he turned to his tool bag to respond to the mosquito of Osama bin Laden,
the only tool he had in it was a hammer, so he brought it down on Afghanistan
and destroyed it; then he brought it down on Iraq and destroyed it, missing
the mosquito, of course."
Rest assured, as the year 2007 begins, our imperialists and militarists are
deep into preparations for Gen. Schissler's 100 Year War. They are already producing
the next set of sledgehammers, the next set of military responses, for our next
set of crises. At this point, it would be shocking (not to say awesome) if these
weren't sooner or later applied.
Expand the military or shrink the mission?
Americans may never vote on this question, symbolic as it is of the critical
choices being made in our name; but make no mistake, the rest of the world is
– some literally on ballots, as in Latin America; some by arms (and polls),
as in the Middle East; some via old-style great
power politics, as in Central Asia. Americans may not know it, but the mission
is shrinking, even as the weaponry grows ever more dangerous and the
imperial path gets ever bumpier, more potholed, better mined. Expanding the
military will only increase the costs in every sense of the word.
Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt