I remember well when the Berlin Wall fell. It was November of 1989. I watched it on television in Ft. Lewis, Washington, where I had been pulling duty the previous two and half years as an Army helicopter maintenance test pilot. I remember going home for Christmas leave wondering what might await me on my return to Ft. Lewis. At dinner one night while on leave I told my parents that watching those people do exactly as Reagan had requested of Gorbachev—to tear down that wall—was something that was indelibly etched in my memory. Score one for the good guys. We won—we actually won the Cold War– and without having to destroy civilization in the process. I felt thankful and proud, confident that I’d in some small way helped make the world a better, safer place.
I figured that it was finally time for the US to stand down from the wartime military footing that it had been on for roughly a half-century by then. It was time to draw down the forces, reduce the military budget, and bring most of the far-flung legions home—to beat our swords into plowshares.
In my schoolboy history lessons, the US never wanted an empire, it only expanded coast-to-coast to fulfill its Manifest Destiny. It never fought wars of choice, only wars of necessity, and only in defense of its high-minded ideals of freedom, justice and equality, the bounty of goodness from which its exceptionalism arose. I had to willfully ignore the facts of history for the dogma I was being taught to make sense, but the capacity to see only what the heart wants to see, and to ignore the rest, is hard-wired into the human soul. And I believed in the United States as the greatest country the world had ever seen, perhaps also because of hard-wired clannishness that seemed innate to my Celtic soul. I accepted without question all that I was taught. I thought that Vietnam was an anomaly, a smudge upon an otherwise pristine history of doing well by doing good the world over, and that we would never commit a mistake like Vietnam again.
No organization, be it the collection of several trillion cells known as a human body, or the collection of several million human beings that comprise vast bureaucracies like the Military-Industrial Complex (hereafter, “MIC”) in the US, likes to see its power and reach diminished involuntarily. But presented with an array of forces presenting no other choice, in either case, it does what it must to adapt and survive changed circumstances.
When I got back to the base after Christmas leave, there was a flurry of activity as the leadership of the post scurried about, trying to fathom what all this might mean. The post commander mandated attendance of all officers at briefings held to explain what the contours of the post-Cold War military might look like. They were just speculating of course, as Ft. Lewis was just a tiny bit of the huge machine that had been constructed for fighting WWII and the subsequent Cold War, but wanted to assuage the fears of the lifers that they wouldn’t be summarily dismissed. I was not a lifer. I was overjoyed that the Cold War was over, that I had done my duty faithfully and well to ensure our victory in it, and could now return to civilian life confident that the US could peacefully abide for many years without worrying of the existential threat a nuclear-armed and ambitious-for-world-domination Soviet Union presented.
I even offered to cut short my term of enlistment, which had at that time about a year and half to run (I was four and half years into a six-year initial commitment). What did they need with me? My assignments office at the Pentagon summarily refused. Instead, they sent me back to Ft. Rucker for the Officer’s Advanced Course, a waste of my time and their money, as I had no intention of making a career of the military now that the only purpose for its expansive existence, the Cold War, had ended.
Then Iraq, a country the US had been supporting militarily since the Shah’s demise in Iran, did what any nascent empire does and looked around for areas close by into which it could expand. The carnage of the Iraq-Iran War had not dissuaded Saddam Hussein from relying on military conquest to unify the country and solidify his hold upon it. In fact, the Iran War’s stalemate ending might have instead prompted it. Iraq asked its benefactor and supporter, the United States, what it would think if it invaded and conquered Kuwait. The United States, through its State Department, essentially said ‘go ahead’, responding that it would consider an invasion a matter of internal Arabian affairs. So, in early August of 1990, a few short months after the Berlin Wall fell, Iraqi troops braved the searing desert summer heat to invade and quickly conquer Kuwait. Washington pretended surprise. And almost immediately realized that this presented a perfect opportunity to prevent the demobilization of the military that so many peace-loving Americans had assumed would be forthcoming now the Soviet Union had been relegated to the trash bin of history.
The MIC rationale for war with Iraq built with each passing week. A war to liberate Kuwait would show the world who was boss in this New World Order. It would allow the MIC to put all those fancy weapons systems that had been developed in the Reagan-era, post-Vietnam buildup to the test, essentially using the Arabian desert as a live-fire weapons range. It would show the American public what its military, reformed and updated after the debacle in Vietnam, could do, and perhaps even turn their hearts from an apparently instinctive loathing for war that had afflicted it since Vietnam.
By the November start of the holiday season in America, war was all but inevitable. Bush had cobbled together a coalition of allies which even included a few Arabian countries. The UN had passed a resolution demanding Iraq quit Kuwait by a date certain. I got a call from my assignments officer in the Pentagon, who had previously tried to send me to Korea for the last year of my service term, but couldn’t, because regulations didn’t permit it. With glee in his voice at having the last laugh, he explained that he was sending me orders for Southwest Asia (i.e., the Persian Gulf). I was to arrive December 20, on temporary duty there indefinitely, until the war was over. By the end of the year, the US and its allies had some 700,000 troops in the region, more than half of which were ground troops prepared to do the work of sweeping the Iraqi’s out of Kuwait. Due to logistics snafus, I arrived a little later, about the start of the air war in mid-January.
I finally made it to the unit that I was to be attached to about a week later. They were camped just south of the no-man’s land where the borders of the three countries—Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia—come together. It was a bleak, barren desert, featureless except for the dirt tracks used for roads and the make-shift military encampments set apart by sand berms the Army’s engineer corps had helpfully dug with its bulldozer’s.
Every morning, about thirty minutes before dawn, the whole camp would file out of the tents to go take a position on the berm to protect against the possibility of enemy attack. The NVA and Viet Cong had always attacked at first light, and the Army is always fighting the last war. In this instance, it was a character-building, or perhaps, revealing, exercise and nothing more. About the only thing the Arabian desert had in common with the Vietnamese jungle was that American infantry had invaded both.
We could watch, as we lay there on the berm, B-52’s making their bombing runs on Iraqi positions ten clicks or so away. The planes were only barely visible in the night sky—a streak of winking stars at their passing was all that revealed their presence. But the flashes of their bombs, carpeting the Iraqi lines, were plainly visible. One morning on the berm watching the B-52’s doing their nasty business, I finally realized that everything I’d been told and believed about the nature of the United States of America was an utter lie. It was not our Manifest Destiny (a phrase whose connotations feel absurd to me today) to be blowing people to smithereens in the Arabian desert. We were doing it because we wanted to do it. We chose this war. This war did not choose us. We weren’t about doing well by doing good. We were about spreading death and destruction just because we could.
Years of study and reflection have only served to fortify the epiphany I experienced on that berm in the early morning cold of the Arabian desert. There is nothing at all exceptional about the United States. It is a rapacious, avaricious empire, like all the rest in history. The needs of its military, and of its capitalists, and particularly of its military capitalists, determine its alliances and actions abroad. It talks a good game of freedom and democracy and equality and justice, and then kills anyone and destroys anything that gets in the way of satiating its appetite for profit and power, including its own.
Nearly thirty years (!) later, we’re still in Iraq, mired in the muck worse than ever. It’s Vietnam all over again, but much worse. Every untoward event that’s arisen from the Middle East since the Iraq war—the two bombings of the World Trade Center, most notably—flows directly from that first engagement. But that initial, short-lived liberation operation proved quite useful in priming the public’s acceptance of the need for continuously-enormous defense budgets. We made an enemy where we had none just for the purpose of having an enemy to replace the one we lost with the Soviet Union. It succeeded in preserving the power and reach of the MIC. Nobody even fancies the notion anymore that the MIC’s swords might one day be pounded into plowshares.
And so now, the new President asks for a roughly 10% increase in a military budget that stands at almost $600 billion—more than the next seven biggest defense budgets combined. And for what? What existential threat to the Constitution, except perhaps internally with our warmongering ways, is there? What foe needs be driven to its knees by our exorbitant military spending like the Soviet Union was? Quite clearly, there isn’t one. We face no existential threats, and the niggling threats we do face (e.g., terrorism, an ascendant China, etc.) do not require vast new expenditures to engage. We could be enjoying a peace dividend. We could have been enjoying a peace dividend since at least the end of the Cold War, or more truthfully, as the Cold War was as much due to our own belligerence as the Soviet Union’s, since the end of World War Two. With all the money we’ve wasted chasing demons of our own devise to feed the beast that the MIC has become we could have been uplifting our own people, giving our poor and oppressed hope for a better future. We could have made the ghettos bloom. Instead, we militarized the ghettos like we’ve done in much of the rest of the world.
I realize now that we won’t ever lay down our arms. We will never enjoy peace, neither at home nor abroad. War defines us. It is who we are. We live by the sword. And we die by it every last day.
With Trump’s request for a 10% increase in military spending and the nation facing no existential threats whatsoever, he has officially become an Establishment President. Establishment Republicans and Democrats still won’t like him (or will like him even less), believing him to have usurped their right to pretend to govern. But the true powers behind the throne—the generals and the military capitalists and the ordinary capitalists who feed off them–can breathe a sigh relief. He’s one of them. He’ll keep the war machine purring right along. New boss, same as the old boss.