As President Trump heads off on an overseas trip, trailing Washington scandals in his wake, it’s worth reminding ourselves of America’s prodigious global presence and the profligate expense at which it comes. As David Vine notes in his latest article for TomDispatch.com, the USA has something like 800 military bases overseas, which must be garrisoned and maintained at a cost of roughly $150 billion each and every year. What exactly are we getting for this colossal global footprint?
Come to think of it, why do we need 800 overseas bases? Our aircraft carriers are basically mobile American bases, and much of our weaponry (Tomahawk cruise missiles, long-range bombers, and Reaper drones, for example) obviates the need for physical bases in foreign lands.
U.S. media outlets have been consumed by the story today that President Trump improperly or unwisely shared classified material on ISIS with the Russians, material that apparently came from Israel. For its part, the Trump administration denies the charge that information was improperly or unwisely shared.
A couple of comments. First, the president has broad powers of declassification and the discretion to share sensitive secrets with others. Sharing classified information with the Russians, an ally of a sort in the struggle against ISIS, is not necessarily a bad idea. Trump seems to have decided it was a way to strengthen relations and build trust at high levels with the Russian government, a defensible position, in my view.
At this moment, it’s hard to think of a better symbol of American militarism than a giant bomb with a U.S. flag on it. President Donald Trump touted the use of the “mother of all bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan as a “very, very successful mission” even though evidence of that success is scant. He further cited MOAB as evidence of the “tremendous difference, tremendous difference” between his administration’s willingness to use force and Obama’s. In short, Trump loved MOAB precisely because Obama didn’t use it. To Trump, MOAB was a sort of penis extender and a big middle finger all-in-one. Virility and vulgarity.
MOAB is an icon of US militarism, as are other weapons in the American arsenal. Weapons like our warplanes, aircraft carriers, Predator and Reaper drones, and Tomahawk and Hellfire missiles. US foreign policy often hinges on or pivots about the deployment of these icons of power, whether it’s aircraft carriers and antimissile systems being sent to Korea or more bombs and missiles being used in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, among other countries.
Weapons sales further define US foreign policy. Witness the recent announcement of $100 billion in arms for the Saudis, soon to be confirmed by Trump in his forthcoming trip to Saudi Arabia. This sale sets up even more military aid for Israel, in that Washington insists Israel must always maintain a qualitative edge in weaponry over its Arab rivals.
Memories of war are powerful and fragmentary. At a national level, we do best at remembering our own war dead while scarcely recognizing the damage to others. This is one cost of nationalism. Nationalism is violent, bigoted, and discriminatory. It elevates a few at the expense of the many. It fails fully to recognize common human experience, even one as shattering as war.
One example. I’ve visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. In seeing all those names of American dead on the wall, I was moved to tears. It’s a remarkable memorial, but what it fails to capture is any sense of the magnitude of death from that war visited upon Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. As I wrote for Alternet, to visualize the extent of death from America’s war in Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese would need a wall that would be roughly 20 to 50 times as long as ours.
Today, I saw another article on why America is losing its wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The gist of this and similar articles is that America’s wars are winnable. That is, if we bomb more, or send more troops, or change our strategy, or alter our ROE (rules of engagement), or give more latitude to the generals, or use all the weapons at our disposal (to include nukes?), and so on, these wars will prove tractable and even winnable. This jibes with President Trump’s promises about America winning again, everywhere, especially in wars.
Nonsense. The U.S. military hasn’t won these wars since the wars themselves are unwinnable by US military action. Indeed, US military action only makes them worse.
Did you know the U.S. has built nearly 70,000 nuclear weapons since 1945? Did you know the U.S. Air Force lost a B-52 and two hydrogen bombs in an accident over North Carolina in 1961, and that one of those H-bombs was a single safety-switch away from exploding with a blast equivalent to three or four million tons of TNT (roughly 200 Hiroshima-type bombs)? Did you know a U.S. nuclear missile exploded in its silo in Arkansas in 1980, throwing its thermonuclear warhead into the countryside?
That last accident is the subject of a PBS American Experience documentary that I watched last night, “Command and Control.” I highly recommend it to all Americans, not just for what it reveals about nuclear accidents and the lack of safety, but for what it reveals about the U.S. military.