A World Made by War

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Tom Engelhardt is co-founder of the Nation Institute's America Empire Project. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

When you look at me, you can't mistake the fact that I'm of a certain age.  But just for a moment, think of me as nine years old.  You could even say that I celebrated my ninth birthday last week, without cake, candles, presents, or certainly joy.

I've had two mobilized moments in my life.  The first was in the Vietnam War years; the second, the one that leaves me as a nine-year-old, began on the morning of September 11, 2001.  I turned on the TV while doing my morning exercises, saw a smoking hole in a World Trade Center tower, and thought that, as in 1945 when a B-25 slammed into the Empire State Building, a terrible accident had happened. 

Later, after the drums of war had begun to beat, after the first headlines had screamed their World-War-II-style messages ("the Pearl Harbor of the 21st century"), I had another thought.  And for a reasonably politically sophisticated guy, my second response was not only as off-base as the first, but also remarkably dumb.  I thought that this horrific event taking place in my hometown might open Americans up to the pain of the world.  No such luck, of course.

If you had told me then that we would henceforth be in a state of eternal war as well as living in a permanent war state, that, to face a ragtag enemy of a few thousand stateless terrorists, the national security establishment in Washington would pump itself up to levels not faintly reached when facing the Soviet Union, a major power with thousands of nuclear weapons and an enormous military, that "homeland" -- a distinctly un-American word -- would land in our vocabulary never to leave, and that a second Defense Department dubbed the Department of Homeland Security would be set up not to be dismantled in my lifetime, that torture (excuse me, "enhanced interrogation techniques") would become as American as apple pie and that some of those "techniques" would actually be demonstrated to leading Bush administration officials inside the White House, that we would pour money into the Pentagon at ever escalating levels even after the economy crashed in 2008, that we would be fighting two potentially trillion-dollar-plus wars without end in two distant lands, that we would spend untold billions constructing hundreds of military bases in those same lands, that the CIA would be conducting the first drone air war in history over a country we were officially not at war with, that most of us would live in a remarkable state of detachment from all of this, and finally -- only, by the way, because I'm cutting this list arbitrarily short -- that I would spend my time writing incessantly about "the American way of war" and produce a book with that title, I would have thought you were nuts.

But every bit of that happened, even if unpredicted by me because, like human beings everywhere, I have no special knack for peering into the future.  If it were otherwise, I would undoubtedly now be zipping through fabulous spired cities with a jetpack on my back (as I was assured would happen in my distant youth).  But if prediction isn't our forte, then adaptability to changing circumstances may be -- and it certainly helps account for my being here today.

I'm here because, in response to the bizarre spectacle of this nation going to war while living at peace, even if in a spasmodic state of collective national fear, I did something I hardly understood at the time.  I launched a nameless listserv of collected articles and my own expanding commentary that ran against the common wisdom of that October moment when the bombing runs for our second Afghan war began.  A little more than a year later, thanks to the Nation Institute, it became a website with the name, and because our leaders swore we were "a nation at war," because we were indeed killing people in quantity in distant lands, because the power of the state at home was being strengthened in startling ways, while everything still open about our society seemed to be getting screwed shut, and the military was being pumped up to Schwarzeneggerian dimensions, I started writing about war.

At some level, I can't tell you how ridiculous that was.  After all, I'm the most civilian and peaceable of guys.  I've never even been in the military.  I was, however, upset with the Bush administration, the connect-no-dots media coverage of that moment, and the repeated 9/11 rites which proclaimed us the planet's greatest victim, survivor, and dominator, leaving only one role, greatest Evil Doer, open for the rest of the planet (and you know who auditioned for, and won, that part hands down)!

Things That Go Boom in the Night

I won't say, however, that I had no expertise whatsoever with a permanent state of war and a permanent war state, only that the expertise I had was available to anyone who had lived through the post-World War II era.  I was reminded of this on a recent glorious Sunday when, from the foot of Manhattan, I set out, for the first time in more than half a century, on a brief ferry ride that proved, for me, as effective a time machine as anything H.G. Wells had ever imagined.  That ferry was not, of course, taking me to a future civilization at the edge of time, but to Governor's Island, now a park and National Monument in the eddying waters of New York harbor and to the rubble of a gas station my father, a World War II vet, ran there in the early 1950s when that island was still a major U.S. Army base.

On many mornings in those years, I accompanied him on that short ride across the East River and found myself amid buzzing jeeps and drilling soldiers in a world of Army kids with, among other wonders, access to giant swimming pools and kiddy-matinee Westerns. As a dyed-in-the-wool city boy, it was my only real exposure to the burbs and it proved an edenic one that also caught something of the exotically militarized mood of that Korean War moment.

As on that island, so for most Americans then, the worlds of the warrior and of abundance were no more antithetical than they were to the corporate executives, university research scientists, and military officers who were using a rising military budget and the fear of communism to create a new national security economy.  An alliance between big industry, big science, and the military had been forged during World War II that blurred the boundaries between the military and the civilian by fusing together a double set of desires: for technological breakthroughs leading to ever more efficient weapons of destruction and to ever easier living.  The arms race -- the race, that is, for future good wars -- and the race for the good life were then, as on that island, being put on the same "war" footing.

In the 1950s, a military Keynesianism was already driving the U.S. economy toward a consumerism in which desire for the ever larger car and missile, electric range and tank, television console and submarine was wedded in single corporate entities.  The companies -- General Electric, General Motors, and Westinghouse, among others -- producing the large objects for the American home were also major contractors developing the big ticket weapons systems ushering the Pentagon into its own age of abundance.

More than half a century later, the Pentagon is still living a life of abundance -- despite one less-than-victorious, less-then-good war after another -- while we, increasingly, are not.  In the years in-between, the developing national security state of my childhood just kept growing, and in the process the country militarized in the strangest of ways.

Only once in that period did a sense of actual war seem to hover over the nation.  That was, of course, in the Vietnam years of the 1960s and early 1970s, when the draft brought a dirty war up close and personal, driving it into American homes and out into the streets, when a kind of intermittent warfare seemed to break out in this country's cities and ghettos, and when impending defeat drove the military itself to the edge of revolt and collapse.

From the 1970s until 2001, as that military rebuilt itself as an all-volunteer force and finally went back to war in distant lands, the military itself seemed to disappear from everyday life.  There were no soldiers in sight, nothing we would consider commonplace today -- from uniforms and guns in train stations to military flyovers at football games, or the repeated rites of praise for American troops that are now everyday fare in our world where, otherwise, we largely ignore American wars.

In 1989, for instance, I wrote in the Progressive magazine about a country that seemed to me to be undergoing further militarization, even if in a particularly strange way.  Ours was, I said, an "America that conforms to no notions we hold of militarism… Militarization is, of course, commonly associated with uniformed, usually exalted troops in evidence and a dictatorship, possibly military, in power.  The United States, by such standards, still has the look of a civilian society.  Our military is, if anything, less visible in our lives than it was a decade ago: No uniforms in the streets, seldom even for our traditional parades; a civilian elected government; weaponry out of sight… the draft and the idea of a civilian army a thing of the past.

"In the Reagan-Bush era, the military has gone undercover in the world that we see, though not in the world that sees us.  For if it is absent from our everyday culture, its influence is omnipresent in corporate America, that world beyond our politics and out of our control -- the world which, nonetheless, plans our high-tech future of work and consumption.  There, the militarization of the economy and the corporatization of the military is a process so far gone that it seems reasonable to ask whether the United States can even be said to have a civilian economy."

Of course, that was then, this is now.  Little did I know.  Today, it seems, our country is triumphant in producing only things that go boom in the night: we have a near monopoly on the global weapons market and on the global movie market, where in the dark we're experts in explosions of every sort.  When I wrote in 1989 that the process was "so far gone," I had no idea how far we still had to go.  I had no idea, for instance, how far a single administration could push us when it came to war.  Still, one thing that does remain reasonably constant about America's now perpetual state of war is how little we -- the 99% of us who don't belong to the military or fight -- actually see of it, even though it is, in a sense, all around us.