America's Role in a World Transformed

During the summer of 2020, as I was writing this book, nervous Americans sensed the onset of a terrifying Apocalypse. Wildfires scorching vast areas of California, Oregon, and Washington and hurricanes pummeling the Gulf Coast reinforced those terrors. Fears that events were literally taking an apocalyptic turn became explicit and widespread. Editors inserted the term itself into headlines. THE APOCALYPSE FEELS NIGH.1 THE CLIMATE APOCALYPSE HAS ARRIVED.2 HOW THE APOCALYPSE BECAME THE NEW NORMAL.3 AN APOCALYPTIC AUGUST IN CALIFORNIA.4 APOCALYPSE IN CALIFORNIA—COMING TO YOU SOON.5 By implication, that you could be anyone anywhere.

Fires and floods were only the latest in a succession of punishments Americans were obliged to endure. First had come the toxic and divisive presidency of Donald Trump. Then in the spring of 2020, a deadly pandemic engulfed the nation, nearly bringing it to its knees. Trailing just steps behind came an economic collapse so severe as to elicit comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Before Americans had fully absorbed these disruptions, a mass movement demanding a reckoning with the nation’s legacy of racism erupted, unleashing, in turn, a white nationalist backlash.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

What Planet Will Our Children and Grandchildren Inherit?

Let me start with my friend and the boat. Admittedly, they might not seem to have anything to do with each other. The boat, a guided-missile destroyer named the USS Curtis Wilbur, reportedly passed through the Straits of Taiwan and into the South China Sea, skirting the Paracel Islands that China has claimed as its own. It represented yet another Biden-era challenge to the planet’s rising power from its falling one. My friend was thousands of miles away on the West Coast of the United States, well vaccinated and going nowhere in Covid-stricken but improving America.

As it happens, she’s slightly younger than me, but still getting up there, and we were chatting on the phone about our world, about the all-too-early first wildfire near Los Angeles, the intensifying mega-drought across the West and Southwest, the increasing nightmare of hurricane season in the Atlantic and so on. We were talking about the way in which we humans — and we Americans in particular (though you could toss in the Chinese without a blink) — have been wreaking fossil-fuelized havoc on this planet and what was to come.

Biden the Bold vs. Joe the Timid

Is President Biden afflicted with the political equivalent of a split personality?  His first several months in office suggest just that possibility.  On the home front, the president’s inclination is clearly to Go Big.  When it comes to America’s role in the world, however, Biden largely hews to pre-Trumpian precedent.  So far at least, the administration’s overarching foreign-policy theme is Take It Slow.

“Joe Biden Is Electrifying America Like F.D.R.”  So proclaimed the headline of a recent Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times.  Even allowing for a smidgen of hyperbole, the comparison is not without merit.  Much like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his famous First Hundred Days in office in the midst of the Great Depression, Biden has launched a flurry of impressively ambitious domestic initiatives in the midst of the Great Pandemic — an American Rescue Plan, an American Jobs Plan, an American Families Plan, and most recently an environmental restoration program marketed as America the Beautiful. 

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

The Imperial Presidency Comes Home to Roost

Joe Biden’s got a problem — and so do I. And so, in fact, do we.

At 76 years old, you’d think I’d experienced it all when it comes to this country and its presidencies. Or most of it, anyway. I’ve been around since Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. Born on July 20, 1944, I’m a little “young” to remember him, though I was a war baby in an era when Congress still sometimes declared war before America made it.

As a boy, in my liberal Democratic household in New York, I can certainly remember singing (to the tune of “Whistle While You Work”) our version of the election-year ditty of 1956 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower faced off against Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson. The pro-Republican kicker to it went this way: “Eisenhower has the power, Stevenson’s a jerk.” We, however, sang, “Eisenhower has no power, Stevenson will work!” As it happened, we never found out if that was faintly true, since the former Illinois governor got clobbered in that election (just as he had in 1952).

Kill Anything That Moves

The 20th Anniversary of the War on Terror Arrives

“This is a different kind of war, which we will wage aggressively and methodically to disrupt and destroy terrorist activity,” President George W. Bush announced a little more than two weeks after the 9/11 attacks. “Some victories will be won outside of public view, in tragedies avoided and threats eliminated. Other victories will be clear to all.”

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the war on terror, including America’s undeclared conflict in Afghanistan. After that war’s original moniker, Operation Infinite Justice, was nixed for offending Muslim sensibilities, the Pentagon rebranded it Operation Enduring Freedom. Despite neither a clear victory, nor the slightest evidence that enduring freedom had ever been imposed on that country, “U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan ended,” according to the Defense Department, in 2014. In reality, that combat simply continued under a new name, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, and grinds on to this very day.

Like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and Freedom’s Sentinel failed to live up to their names. Nor did any of the monikers slapped on America’s post-9/11 wars ever catch the public imagination; the battlefields spread from Afghanistan and Iraq to Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, Libya, Syria, Niger, Burkina Faso, and beyond — at a price tag north of $6.4 trillion and a human toll that includes at least 335,000 civilians killed and at least 37 million displaced from their homes. Meanwhile, those long promised clear victories never materialized even as the number of terrorist groups around the world proliferated.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Demining America After The Donald

2021 has indeed begun and god knows what it has in store for us. But unless, somehow, we’re surprised beyond imagining, The Donald is indeed going to leave the White House soon and, much as I hate to admit it, in some strange fashion we’re going to miss him. Of course, it will be beyond a great relief to see his… well, let’s just say him in the rearview mirror. While occupying the White House, he was, in a rather literal sense, hell on earth. Nonetheless, he was also a figure of remarkable fascination for anyone thinking about this country or that strangest of all species, humanity, and what we’re capable of doing to ourselves.

So, here’s my look back at our final Trumpian months (at least for a while). As I review the weeks just past, however, you may be surprised to learn that I’m not planning to start with the president’s former national security adviser (of 23 days — “you’re fired!”) cum-convictee-cum-pardonee urging The Donald to declare martial law; nor will I review the president’s endless tweets and fulminations about the “fraudulent” 2020 election or his increasing lame (duck!) assaults on all those he saw as deserting his visibly sinking Titanic, including Mitch McConnell (“the first one off the ship”); nor do I have the urge to focus on the conspiracy-mongress who captured the president’s heart (or whatever’s in that chest of his) with her claims about how “Venezuelan” votes did him in; nor even his doom-and-gloom “holiday” trip to Mar-a-Lago, including on Christmas Day his 309th presidential visit to a golf course; nor will I waste time on how the still-president of these increasingly dis-United States, while pardoning war criminals and pals (as well as random well-connected criminals), managed to ignore the rest of a country slipping into pandemic hell — cases rising, deaths spiraling, hospitals filling to the brim in a fashion unequaled on the planet — about which he visibly couldn’t have cared less; nor will I focus on how, as Christmas arrived, he landed squarely on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s position of giving $2,000 checks to the American people and so for a few days became an honorary “socialist”; nor will I even spend time on his unique phone call for 11,780 votes in Georgia.

The Lessons of Two Failed Wars

In choosing a title for his final, posthumously published book, the prominent public intellectual Tony Judt turned to a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village, published in 1770. Judt found his book’s title in the first words of this couplet:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay

A poignant sentiment but let me acknowledge that I’m not a big Goldsmith fan. My own preferences in verse run more toward Merle Haggard, whose country music hits include the following lyric from his 1982 song “Are the Good Times Really Over?”:

Is the best of the free life behind us now
And are the good times really over for good?

I wonder, though: Is it possible that the insights of an eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish novelist-poet and a twentieth-century American singer-songwriter, each reflecting on a common theme of decadence and each served up with a dollop of nostalgia, just might intersect?

From the Forever Wars to the Cataclysmic Wars

In the military realm, Donald Trump will most likely be remembered for his insistence on ending America’s involvement in its twenty-first-century “forever wars” — the fruitless, relentless, mind-crushing military campaigns undertaken by Presidents Bush and Obama in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia. After all, as a candidate, Trump pledged to bring U.S. troops home from those dreaded war zones and, in his last days in office, he’s been promising to get at least most of the way to that objective. The president’s fixation on this issue (and the opposition of his own generals and other officials on the subject) has generated a fair amount of media coverage and endeared him to his isolationist supporters. Yet, however newsworthy it may be, this focus on Trump’s belated troop withdrawals obscures a far more significant aspect of his military legacy: the conversion of the U.S. military from a global counterterror force into one designed to fight an all-out, cataclysmic, potentially nuclear war with China and/or Russia.

People seldom notice that Trump’s approach to military policy has always been two-faced. Even as he repeatedly denounced the failure of his predecessors to abandon those endless counterinsurgency wars, he bemoaned their alleged neglect of America’s regular armed forces and promised to spend whatever it took to “restore” their fighting strength. “In a Trump administration,” he declared in a September 2016 campaign speech on national security, America’s military priorities would be reversed, with a withdrawal from the “endless wars we are caught in now” and the restoration of “our unquestioned military strength.”

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Or What It Means to Fall on a Failing Planet

We’re now living in an age of opacity, as Rudy Giuliani pointed out in a courtroom recently. Here was the exchange:

“‘In the plaintiffs’ counties, they were denied the opportunity to have an unobstructed observation and ensure opacity,’ Giuliani said. ‘I’m not quite sure I know what opacity means. It probably means you can see, right?’

“‘It means you can’t,’ said U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann.

“‘Big words, your honor,’ Giuliani said.”

Big words indeed! And he couldn’t have been more on the mark, whether he knew it or not. Thanks in part to him and to the president he’s represented so avidly, even as hair dye or mascara dripped down his face, we find ourselves in an era in which, to steal a biblical phrase from Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, all of us see as if “through a glass darkly.”

The Specter of Isolationism

The so-called Age of Trump is also an age of instantly forgotten bestselling books, especially ones purporting to provide the inside scoop on what goes on within Donald Trump’s haphazard and continuously shifting orbit. With metronomic regularity, such gossipy volumes appear, make a splash, and almost as quickly vanish, leaving a mark no more lasting than a trout breaking the surface in a pond.

Remember when Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House was all the rage? It’s now available in hardcover for $0.99 from online used booksellers. James Comey’s Higher Loyalty also sells for a penny less than a buck.

An additional forty-six cents will get you Omarosa Manigault Newman’s “insider’s account” of her short-lived tenure in that very White House. For the same price, you can acquire Sean Spicer’s memoir as Trump’s press secretary, Anthony Scaramucci’s rendering of his tumultuous 11-day stint as White House communications director, and Corey Lewandowski’s “inside story” of the 2016 presidential campaign.

The Nuclearization of American Diplomacy

The MQ-9 Reaper, a drone armed with Hellfire missiles, has been a workhorse in Washington’s forever wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa, but its days could be numbered. According to Air Force Magazine, that service “has grown skeptical that the Reaper could hold its own against advanced nations like Russia and China, which could shoot the non-stealthy aircraft down or jam its transmissions.” While more advanced drones may be coming, however, the Reaper’s still where it’s at. Not so surprisingly, then, that plane is now being repurposed to use not just against Afghans or Iranians or Iraqis or Somalis, but the Chinese.

That fits with the Pentagon’s urge to leave those forever wars behind (as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change, has been writing at this site for a surprisingly long time). Its top strategists would prefer instead to focus on recreating a nostalgia-filled twenty-first-century version of the Cold War. One sign of this: in recent naval exercises off the California coast in which three Reapers “performed airstrikes during [a] simulated amphibious assault on San Clemente Island,” the military unit responsible for those planes sported a dramatic new shoulder patch. It displayed a Reaper over a silhouetted all-red map of… well, yes, I guess it must still be “Red China.”

And if you don’t consider that ominous, then check out Klare’s piece today on the nuclearization — such a term should exist, if it doesn’t already — of American “diplomacy.” Tom

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

America’s Maestro of Death and Destruction

Yes, when he was running for president, he did indeed say: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”

Then he won — and this November 3rd (or thereafter), whether he wins or loses, we’re likely to find out that, when it comes to his base, he was right. He may not have lost a vote. Yes, Donald Trump is indeed a murderer, but here’s where his prediction fell desperately short: as president, he’s proven to be anything but a smalltime killer. It wasn’t as if he went out one day, on New York City’s Fifth Avenue or even in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and shot a couple of people.

Nothing so minimalist for The Donald! Nor is it as if, say, he had ploughed “the Beast” (as his presidential Cadillac is known) into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters, as so many other drivers have done this year. Let’s face it: that’s for his apprentices, not the showman himself. After all, Donald J. Trump has proven to be America’s twenty-first-century maestro of death and destruction, the P.T. Barnum of, as he put it predictively enough in his Inaugural Address, “American carnage.” In fact, he’s been a master of carnage in a way no one could then have imagined.

Kill Anything That Moves

John Hersey, Hiroshima, and the End of World

It was the end of the world, but if you didn’t live in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, you didn’t know it. Not in 1945 anyway. One man, John Hersey, brought that reality to Americans in an unforgettable fashion in a classic 1946 report in the New Yorker magazine on what happened under that first wartime mushroom cloud. When I read it in book form as a young man — and I did so for a personal reason — it stunned me. Hersey was the master of my college at Yale when I was an undergraduate and he was remarkably kind to me. That report of his from Hiroshima would haunt me for the rest of my life.

In 1982, I actually visited that city. I was then an editor at the publishing house Pantheon Books. I had grown up in a 1950s world in which schoolchildren “ducked and covered” (diving under our desks) in drills to learn how to protect ourselves — I know it sounds ridiculous today — should Russian nuclear weapons hit New York, the city I lived in. Yellow signs indicating air-raid shelters were then commonplace on the streets. In those years, people not in cities were building their own personal fallout shelters, stocked with food, and some even threatened to shoot anyone who tried to join them there as the missiles descended. (A friend of mine remembers just such a threat, delivered by one of his schoolmates about his father’s shelter.)

We were, in other words, in a Cold War world that always seemed to be teetering at the edge of the apocalyptic. And yet here was the strange thing: with the obvious exception of Hersey’s book, there were still, in those years, remarkably few ways to see under those mushroom clouds that had destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

2020 Version

It was August 2017 and Donald Trump had not yet warmed up to Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s portly dictator. In fact, in typical Trumpian fashion, he was pissed at the Korean leader and, no less typically, he lashed out verbally, threatening that country with a literal hell on Earth. As he put it, “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” And then, just to make his point more personally, he complained about Kim himself, “He has been very threatening beyond a normal state.”

Only a year and a half later, our asteroidal president would, of course, say of that same man, “We fell in love.” Still, that threat by an American leader to — it was obvious — launch a nuclear strike for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nearly obliterated in August 1945 was memorable. The phrase would, in fact, become the title of a 2018 bestselling book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by journalist Michael Wolff. Two years later, amid so many other threatening phrases from this president, “fire and fury” has, however, been left in history’s dustbin, largely forgotten by the world.

A Play of Many Parts in One Act

It’s only mid-afternoon and Army Lieutenant General Victor Constant has already had a bad day.1 Soon after he arrived at the office at 0700, the Chief2 had called. “Come see me. We need to talk.”

The call was not unexpected. Any day now, POTUS3 will announce the next four-star to command the war effort in Afghanistan — how many have there been? — and Constant felt certain that he’d be tapped for the job. He’d certainly earned it. Multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, worse still, at the Pentagon. If anyone deserved that fourth star, he did.

Unfortunately, the Chief sees things differently. “Time’s up, Vic. I need you to retire.” Thirty-three years of service and this is what you get: your walking papers, with maybe a medal thrown in.