Why do empires fall? Sometimes, it’s easy to identify a cause. Whether led by the Kaiser or by Hitler, Germany’s Second and Third Empires were destroyed by world wars. Germany’s ambition was simply too great, its militarism too dominant, its policies too harsh to win long-term converts, its leaders too blinded by the pursuit of power, its enemies too many to conquer or otherwise neutralize.
Other imperial falls are more complex. What caused Rome’s fall? (Leaving aside the eastern part of the empire, which persisted far longer as the Byzantine Empire.) Barbarians and their invasions, say some. The enervating message and spirit of Christianity, said the historian Edward Gibbon. Rome’s own corruption and tyranny, say others. Even lead in Roman water pipes has been suggested as a contributing cause to Rome’s decline and fall. Taking a longer view, some point to the rise of Islam in the 7th century and its rapid expansion into previously Roman territories as the event that administered the final coup de grâce to a dying empire.
A new movie, “12 Strong,” is opening on January 19th. I’ve been seeing a lot of trailers for it while watching the NFL playoffs. It’s being advertised as America’s first victory in the “war on terror.” Based on a popular book, “Horse Soldiers,” it features American special operations troops charging into battle on horseback. The synopsis of the movie (at Fandango) describes it as follows:
“12 Strong” is set in the harrowing days following 9/11 when a U.S. Special Forces team, led by their new Captain, Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth), is chosen to be the first US troops sent into Afghanistan for an extremely dangerous mission. There, in the rugged mountains, they must convince Northern Alliance General Dostum (Negahban) to join forces with them to fight their common adversary: the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. In addition to overcoming mutual distrust and a vast cultural divide, the Americans – accustomed to state-of-the-art warfare – must adopt the rudimentary tactics of the Afghani (sic) horse soldiers. But despite their uneasy bond, the new allies face overwhelming odds: outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy that does not take prisoners.
I don’t think it will surprise anyone that, despite those “overwhelming odds” and being “outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy,” US troops prevail.
When the U.S. military boasts of “global reach, global power,” it’s not kidding. As Nick Turse notes in his latest article at TomDispatch.com, that military deployed in one way or another to 149 countries in 2017, roughly 75% of countries on the globe. Talk about reach! Meanwhile, America’s Special Ops forces have more than doubled since 2001, sitting at 70,000 effectives today, the equivalent to five divisions. (Consider it a military within the military.) All of this has come at tremendous cost, with this year’s defense budget sitting at $700 billion–and rising for the foreseeable future.
For all the bucks, what about the bang–what about results? Let’s just say that Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Niger, and other U.S. military interventions haven’t gone well.
Yet there is one country where the U.S. military truly rules; one country which the U.S. military has truly conquered. Where and which? The USA, of course. No matter its losses and frustrations overseas, the U.S. military keeps winning more money and influence here at home. Congress loves it, presidents love it, our culture (mostly) loves it, or at least is urged to “support” it irrespective of results.
If there’s one area of bipartisan agreement today, it’s politicians’ professed love of the U.S. military. Consider George W. Bush. He said the US military is the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known. Consider Barack Obama. He said that same military is the finest fighting force the world has ever known. Strong praise, indeed.
Today’s politicians are not to be outdone. This past weekend at Camp David, Paul Ryan praised the military for keeping America safe. Mike Pence noted the military remains “the strongest in the world,” yet paradoxically he said it needs rebuilding. He promised even more “investment” in the military so that it would become “even stronger still.”
Apparently, no matter how strong and superior the US military is, it must be made yet stronger and yet more superior. All in an effort to “keep us safe,” to cite Paul Ryan’s words. Small wonder that the Pentagon’s budget is soaring above $700 billion.
At TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt has a revealing article on the truly global nature of America’s war on terror, accompanied by a unique map put together by the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. The map reveals that America’s war on terror has spread to 76 countries, as shown below:
This metastasizing of “counterterror” efforts is truly paradoxical: the more the U.S. military works to stop terror, the more terror spreads. “Progress” is measured only by the growth of efforts to stem terror networks in more and more countries. But the notion of “progress” is absurd: That 76 countries are involved in some way in this war on terror is a sign of regress, not progress. After 16 years and a few trillion dollars, you’d think terror networks and efforts to eradicate them would be decreasing, not increasing. But the war on terror has become its own cancer, or, in social-media-speak, it’s gone viral, infecting more and more regions.
General Robert Neller, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, is in the news since he told Marines to get ready for a big fight. This doesn’t really alarm me. A military exists to be ready to fight, and the Marines place a premium on combat readiness. No – what bothers me is the nine rows of ribbons General Neller is sporting on his uniform.
And compared to the other services (Army, Navy, and Air Force), the Marines are usually the most reluctant to hand out ribbons freely.
I wrote about this back in 2007: why medals and metrics in the U.S. military mislead. A big offender back then was General David Petraeus, whose uniform was festooned with ribbons and badges of all kinds, most of them of the “been there” rather than “done that” variety.