When I tuned in to US president Barack Obama’s televised speech on his plans for war against the so-called “Islamic State,” I expected exactly what we got — a bland sundae of pseudo-patriotic drivel topped off with some whipped cream of big bucks for the military-industrial complex and the cherry of regime change in Syria. What I didn’t expect was a bon mot homage to a previous era:
“[W]e are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” — US president Lyndon Johnson, October 21, 1964
“[W]e cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves …” US president Barack Obama, September 10, 2014
A curious inversion: LBJ’s remark came near the end of the “advisor” era in Vietnam and prior to the massive, direct US military intervention there. Obama’s reprise comes after nearly a quarter century of massive, direct US military interventions in Iraq and proposes to make history run backward into an “advisor” scenario. Curious, but clearly not accidental.
We all remember how Vietnam ended. After two lost ground wars in Asia in the last 12 years, after recourse to the history book accounts of the post-WWII era, you might expect Obama to have learned a lesson by now. And you’d be right.
Unfortunately the lesson he’s learned isn’t the obvious one (mind your own business, America!). Rather it’s that modern American wars aren’t meant to be “won.” The measure of success since 1945 is not military victory over a defined enemy, but dollars fed into the maw of “defense” contractors — the more and the longer the better.
Obama’s perverse hat tip to LBJ might have been better framed as an invocation of Harry Hopkins, US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s closest political confidant. Hopkins summed up the past history and future goals of all states in 1938 thusly: “[S]pend and spend and spend, and tax and tax and tax, and elect and elect and elect.” World War II put the military-industrial complex at the center of the “spend, tax” web. It has remained there ever since and has every intention of remaining there until the end of time.
Nearly 65 years after the first shots of the Korean war, the US still maintains a force of nearly 30,000 troops along the 38th Parallel. Nearly 75 years after VE and VJ Days, the US still maintains huge garrisons and naval presences in Europe (nearly 70,000 troops) and the Pacific (80,000).
The purpose of these gigantic perpetual deployments? To justify expenditures of hundreds of billions of dollars per year on weapons, gear, ships, planes, barracks and so forth, all provided by our politicians’ friends in the “defense” industry. The killing isn’t the point, except to the extent that the weapons wear out, the ammunition gets consumed, etc. so that more stuff can be bought.
Vietnam was a long and lucrative war but pretty much a one-off affair. When it was over it was over.
The aim of successive US administrations in the Middle East seems to be a return to the Vietnam model, with some helpful modifications. The mythology of ISIS as a substantial (even, in the overheated words of certain Capitol Hill crazies, “existential”) threat to the US, combined with its actual status as an amorphous, ill-defined bogeyman that can never really be “defeated,” lends itself well to the further extension of 24 years of war.
And the aim of the current administration in Ukraine? To extend NATO’s 70-year career, on its own model and on that of Korea, instead of letting a long since militarily pointless “alliance” shuffle off to the retirement home.
The usual leading and fixed question set on matters of war is: “Can the state afford to have this war?” Quickly countered with “can the state afford to NOT have this war?”
The real question we should be asking ourselves is “can we afford the state and its perpetual wars?”