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.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Or American Carnage From a Pandemic President

The year was 1991 and the United States was suddenly the globe’s lone superpower, its ultimate hyperpower, the last and greatest of its kind, the soon-to-be-indispensable nation. The only one left — alone, utterly alone and triumphant atop the world.

Who could have asked for more? Or better? It had been a Cold War fantasy of the first order — until that other superpower, the Soviet Union, imploded. In fact, even that doesn’t catch the true shock of the moment, since Washington’s leaders simply hadn’t imagined a world in which the Cold War could ever truly end.

Now, go ahead, blame me. In this pandemic moment that should perhaps be considered a sign of a burning, sickening future to come, I’m stoking your nostalgia for better times. Admittedly, even that past was, in truth, a fantasy of the first (or perhaps last) order. After all, in retrospect, that mighty, resplendent, lone superpower, victorious beyond the wildest dreams of its political elite, was already about to embark on its own path of decline. Enwreathed in triumph, it, too, would be heading for the exits, even if so much more slowly than the Soviet Union.

Will They Make Better Decisions Than Humans -- Or Worse?

With Covid-19 incapacitating startling numbers of U.S. service members and modern weapons proving increasingly lethal, the American military is relying ever more frequently on intelligent robots to conduct hazardous combat operations. Such devices, known in the military as “autonomous weapons systems,” include robotic sentries, battlefield-surveillance drones, and autonomous submarines. So far, in other words, robotic devices are merely replacing standard weaponry on conventional battlefields. Now, however, in a giant leap of faith, the Pentagon is seeking to take this process to an entirely new level — by replacing not just ordinary soldiers and their weapons, but potentially admirals and generals with robotic systems.

Admittedly, those systems are still in the development stage, but the Pentagon is now rushing their future deployment as a matter of national urgency. Every component of a modern general staff — including battle planning, intelligence-gathering, logistics, communications, and decision-making — is, according to the Pentagon’s latest plans, to be turned over to complex arrangements of sensors, computers, and software. All these will then be integrated into a “system of systems,” now dubbed the Joint All-Domain Command-and-Control, or JADC2 (since acronyms remain the essence of military life). Eventually, that amalgam of systems may indeed assume most of the functions currently performed by American generals and their senior staff officers.

The notion of using machines to make command-level decisions is not, of course, an entirely new one. It has, in truth, been a long time coming. During the Cold War, following the introduction of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with extremely short flight times, both military strategists and science-fiction writers began to imagine mechanical systems that would control such nuclear weaponry in the event of human incapacity.

Then What?

Assume Joe Biden wins the presidency. Assume as well that he genuinely intends to repair the damage our country has sustained since we declared ourselves history’s “Indispensable Nation,” compounded by the traumatic events of 2020 that demolished whatever remnants of that claim survived. Assume, that is, that this aging career politician and creature of the Washington establishment really intends to salvage something of value from all that has been lost.

If he seriously intends to be more than a relic of pre-Trump liberal centrism, how exactly should President Biden go about making his mark?

Here, free of charge, Joe, is an action plan that will get you from Election Night through your first two weeks in office. Follow this plan and by your 100th day in the White House observers will be comparing you to at least one President Roosevelt, if not both.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

My World and (Unfortunately) Welcome to It

Let me be blunt. This wasn’t the world I imagined for my denouement. Not faintly. Of course, I can’t claim I ever really imagined such a place. Who, in their youth, considers their death and the world that might accompany it, the one you might leave behind for younger generations? I’m 76 now. True, if I were lucky (or perhaps unlucky), I could live another 20 years and see yet a newer world born. But for the moment at least, it seems logical enough to consider this pandemic nightmare of a place as the country of my old age, the one that I and my generation (including a guy named Donald J. Trump) will pass on to our children and grandchildren. 

Back in 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, I knew it was going to be bad. I felt it deep in my gut almost immediately and, because of that, stumbled into creating TomDispatch.com, the website I still run. But did I ever think it would be this bad? Not a chance.

I focused back then on what already looked to me like a nightmarish American imperial adventure to come, the response to the 9/11 attacks that the administration of President George W. Bush quickly launched under the rubric of “the Global War on Terror.” And that name (though the word “global” would soon be dropped for the more anodyne “war on terror”) would prove anything but inaccurate. After all, in those first post-9/11 moments, the top officials of that administration were thinking as globally as possible when it came to war. At the damaged Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld almost immediately turned to an aide and told him, “Go massive — sweep it all up, things related and not.” From then on, the emphasis would always be on the more the merrier.

Or How to Make War, American-Style, Possible Again

On March 26th, the coronavirus accomplished what no foreign adversary has been able to do since the end of World War II: it forced an American aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, to suspend patrol operations and shelter in port. By the time that ship reached dock in Guam, hundreds of sailors had been infected with the disease and nearly the entire crew had to be evacuated. As news of the crisis aboard the TR (as the vessel is known) became public, word came out that at least 40 other U.S. warships, including the carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd, were suffering from Covid-19 outbreaks. None of these approached the scale of the TR and, by June, the Navy was again able to deploy most of those ships on delayed schedules and/or with reduced crews. By then, however, it had become abundantly clear that the long-established U.S. strategy of relying on large, heavily armed warships to project power and defeat foreign adversaries was no longer fully sustainable in a pandemic-stricken world.

Just as the Navy was learning that its preference for big ships with large crews — typically packed into small spaces for extended periods of time — was quite literally proving a dead-end strategy (one of the infected sailors on the TR died of complications from Covid-19), the Army and Marine Corps were making a comparable discovery. Their favored strategy of partnering with local forces in far-flung parts of the world like Iraq, Japan, Kuwait, and South Korea, where local safeguards against infectious disease couldn’t always be relied on (or, as in Okinawa recently, Washington’s allies couldn’t count on the virus-free status of American forces), was similarly flawed. With U.S. and allied troops increasingly forced to remain in isolation from each other, it is proving difficult to conduct the usual joint training-and-combat exercises and operations.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Osama bin Laden Won (Twice)

It’s July 2020 and I’m about to turn 76, which, as far as I’m concerned, officially makes me an old man. So put up with my aging, wandering brain here, since (I swear) I wasn’t going to start this piece with Donald J. Trump, no matter his latest wild claims or bizarre statements, increasingly white nationalist and pro-Confederate positions (right down to the saving of the rebel stars and bars), not to speak of the Covid-19 slaughter of Americans he’s helped facilitate. But then I read about his demand for a “National Garden of American Heroes,” described as “a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live” and, honestly, though this piece is officially about something else, I just can’t help myself. I had to start there.

Yes, everyone undoubtedly understands why General George Patton (a Trump obsession) is to be in that garden, not to speak — given the president’s reelection politics — of evangelist Billy Graham, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and former president Ronald Reagan. Still, my guess is that most of you won’t have the faintest idea why Davy Crockett is included. I’m talking about the frontiersman and Indian killer who died at the Alamo. Given my age, though, I get Donald Trump on this one and it gave me a rare laugh in a distinctly grim moment. That’s why I can’t resist explaining it, even though I guarantee you that the real subject of this piece is Osama bin Laden’s revenge.

What Was Populism?

Populism was the first of America’s great economic uprisings, a roar of outrage from people in the lower half of the country’s social order. It was a quintessential mass movement, in which rank-and-file Americans came to think of the country’s inequitable system as a thing they might change by common effort. It was a glimpse of how citizens of a democracy, born with a faith in equality, can sometimes react when the brutal hierarchy of conventional arrangements is no longer tolerable to them.

Populism was also our country’s final serious third-party effort, the last one to stand a decent chance of breaking the duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats. In the 1890s the two main parties were still basically regional organizations, relics of the Civil War; Populism transcended that system by making an appeal based on class solidarity, aiming to bring together farmers in the South and the West with factory workers in northern cities. “The interests of rural and civic labor are the same,” proclaimed the famous 1892 Omaha Platform of the People’s Party, and “their enemies are identical.” By which the Pops meant those who prospered while producing nothing: bankers, railroad barons, and commodity traders, along with their hirelings—corrupt politicians who served wealth instead of “the people.”

This was, of course, a time of unregulated corporate monopolies, of in-your-face corruption, and of crushing currency deflation—and it was also a time when everyone agreed that government’s role was to provide a framework conducive to business and otherwise to get out of the way. That was the formal ideal; the execution was slightly uglier, a matter of smoke and exploitation, bankruptcy and foreclosure, of cabinet seats for sale and entire state legislatures bought with free-ride railroad passes.

Racism, Yes, But What About Militarism and Materialism?

In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, Americans are finally — or is it once again? — confronting the racism that afflicts this country and extends into just about every corner of our national life. Something fundamental just might be happening.

Yet to state the obvious, we’ve been here before. Mass protests in response to racial inequality and discrimination, including police brutality, have been anything but unknown in the United States. Much the same can be said of riots targeting black Americans, fomented and exploited by white racists, often actively or passively abetted by local law enforcement officials. If Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, formerly known as H. Rap Brown, was correct in calling violence “as American as cherry pie,” then race-related urban unrest is the apple-filled equivalent. 

The optimists among us believe that “this time is different.” I hope events will prove them right. Yet recalling expectations that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 signaled the dawn of a “post-racial America,” I see no reason to expect it to be so. A yawning gap, I fear, separates hope from reality.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Or How the American Century Ends

Let me rant for a moment. I don’t do it often, maybe ever. I’m not Donald Trump. Though I’m only two years older than him, I don’t even know how to tweet and that tells you everything you really need to know about Tom Engelhardt in a world clearly passing me by. Still, after years in which America’s streets were essentially empty, they’ve suddenly filled, day after day, with youthful protesters, bringing back a version of a moment I remember from my youth and that’s a hopeful (if also, given Covid-19, a scary) thing, even if I’m an old man in isolation in this never-ending pandemic moment of ours.

In such isolation, no wonder I have the urge to rant. Our present American world, after all, was both deeply unimaginable — before 2016, no one could have conjured up President Donald Trump as anything but a joke — and yet in some sense, all too imaginable. Think of it this way: the president who launched his candidacy by descending a Trump Tower escalator to denounce Mexican “rapists” and hype the “great, great wall” he would build, the man who, in his election campaign, promised to put a “big, fat, beautiful wall” across our southern border to keep out immigrants (“invaders!”) — my grandpa, by the way, was just such an invader — has, after nearly three and a half years, succeeded only in getting a grotesquely small wall built around the White House; in other words, he’s turned the “people’s house” into a micro-Green Zone in a Washington that, as it filled with National Guard troops and unidentified but militarized police types, was transformed into a Trumpian version of occupied Baghdad. Then he locked himself inside (except for that one block walk to a church through streets forcibly emptied of protesters). All in all, a single redolent phrase from our recent past comes to mind: mission accomplished!