A Look Back from Mid-Century

From our present vantage point, it seems clear that, by 2019, the United States had passed a point of no return. In retrospect, this was the moment when indications of things gone fundamentally awry should have become unmistakable. Although at the time much remained hidden in shadows, the historic pivot now commonly referred to as the Great Reckoning had commenced.

Even today, it remains difficult to understand why, given mounting evidence of a grave crisis, passivity persisted for so long across most sectors of society. An epidemic of anomie affected a large swath of the population. Faced with a blizzard of troubling developments, large and small, Americans found it difficult to put things into anything approximating useful perspective. Few even bothered to try. Fewer succeeded. As with predictions of cataclysmic earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, a not-in-my-lifetime mood generally prevailed.

During what was then misleadingly known as the Age of Trump, the political classes dithered. While the antics of President Donald Trump provoked intense interest — the word “intense” hardly covers the attention paid to him — they also provided a convenient excuse for letting partisan bickering take precedence over actual governance or problem solving of any sort. Meanwhile, “thought leaders” (a term then commonly used to describe pontificating windbags) indulged themselves with various pet projects.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Turning 75 in the Age of Trump

As I turn 75, there’s no simpler way to put it than this: I’m an old man on a new planet — and, in case it isn’t instantly obvious, that’s not good news on either score.

I still have a memory of being a camp counselor in upstate New York more than half a century ago. I was perhaps 20 years old and in charge of a cabin of — if I remember rightly — nine-year-old campers. In other words, young as they were, they were barely less than half my age. And here’s what I remember most vividly: when asked how old they thought I was, they guessed anything from 30 to 60 or beyond. I found it amusing largely because, I suspect, I couldn’t faintly imagine being 60 years old myself. (My grandmother was then in her late sixties.) My present age would have been off the charts not just for those nine year olds, but for me, too. At that point, I doubt I even knew anyone as old as I am now.

Yet here I am, so many decades later, with grandchildren of my own. And I find myself looking at a world that, had you described it to me in the worst moments of the Vietnam War years when I was regularly in the streets protesting, I would never have believed possible. I probably would have thought you stark raving mad. Here I am in an America not just with all the weirdness of Donald Trump, but with a media that feeds on his every bizarre word, tweet, and act as if nothing else were happening on the face of the Earth. If only.

Oil’s Enduring Sway in U.S. Policy in the Middle East

It’s always the oil. While President Trump was hobnobbing with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G-20 summit in Japan, brushing off a recent U.N. report about the prince’s role in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Asia and the Middle East, pleading with foreign leaders to support “Sentinel.” The aim of that administration plan: to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. Both Trump and Pompeo insisted that their efforts were driven by concern over Iranian misbehavior in the region and the need to ensure the safety of maritime commerce. Neither, however, mentioned one inconvenient three-letter word — O-I-L — that lay behind their Iranian maneuvering (as it has impelled every other American incursion in the Middle East since World War II).

Now, it’s true that the United States no longer relies on imported petroleum for a large share of its energy needs. Thanks to the fracking revolution, the country now gets the bulk of its oil — approximately 75% — from domestic sources. (In 2008, that share had been closer to 35%.)  Key allies in NATO and rivals like China, however, continue to depend on Middle Eastern oil for a significant proportion of their energy needs. As it happens, the world economy — of which the U.S. is the leading beneficiary (despite President Trump’s self-destructive trade wars) — relies on an uninterrupted flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to keep energy prices low. By continuing to serve as the principal overseer of that flow, Washington enjoys striking geopolitical advantages that its foreign policy elites would no more abandon than they would their country’s nuclear supremacy.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Why Is American Aggression Missing in Action?

Headlined “U.S. Seeks Other Ways to Stop Iran Shy of War,” the article was tucked away on page A9 of a recent New York Times. Still, it caught my attention. Here’s the first paragraph:

“American intelligence and military officers are working on additional clandestine plans to counter Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf, pushed by the White House to develop new options that could help deter Tehran without escalating tensions into a full-out conventional war, according to current and former officials.”

Note that “Iranian aggression.” The rest of the piece, fairly typical of the tone of American media coverage of the ongoing Iran crisis, included sentences like this: “The C.I.A. has longstanding secret plans for responding to Iranian provocations.” I’m sure I’ve read such things hundreds of times without ever really stopping to think much about them, but this time I did. And what struck me was this: rare is the moment in such mainstream news reports when Americans are the “provocative” ones (though the Iranians immediately accused the U.S. military of just that, a provocation, when it came to the U.S. drone its Revolutionary Guard recently shot down either over Iranian air space or the Strait of Hormuz). When it comes to Washington’s never-ending war on terror, I think I can say with reasonable confidence that, in the past, the present, and the future, the one phrase you’re not likely to find in such media coverage will be “American aggression.”

Kill Anything That Moves

Combat Viewed from the Rooftops and Beyond

TRIPOLI, Libya — Sometimes war sounds like the harsh crack of gunfire and sometimes like the whisper of the wind. This early morning — in al-Yarmouk on the southern edge of Libya’s capital, Tripoli — it was a mix of both.

All around, shops were shuttered and homes emptied, except for those in the hands of the militiamen who make up the army of the Government of National Accord (GNA), the U.N.-backed, internationally recognized government of Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. The war had slept in this morning and all was quiet until the rattle of a machine gun suddenly broke the calm.

A day earlier, I had spent hours on the roof of my hotel, listening to the basso profundo echo of artillery as dark torrents of smoke rose from explosions in this and several other outlying neighborhoods.  The GNA was doing battle with the self-styled Libyan National Army of warlord Khalifa Haftar, a U.S. citizen, former CIA asset, and longtime resident of Virginia, who was lauded by President Donald Trump in an April phone call. Watching the war from this perch brought me back to another time in my life when I wrote about war from a far greater distance — of both time and space — a war I covered decades after the fact, the one that Americans still call “Vietnam” but the Vietnamese know as “the American War.”

Knowing Whom to Remember and How to Forget

How best to describe the recently completed allied commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of France? Two words come immediately to mind: heartfelt and poignant. The aged D-Day veterans gathering for what was probably the last time richly deserved every bit of praise bestowed on them. Yet one particular refrain that has become commonplace in this age of Donald Trump was absent from the proceedings. I’m referring to “fake news.” In a curious collaboration, Trump and the media, their normal relationship one of mutual loathing, combined forces to falsify the history of World War II. Allow me to explain.

In a stirring presentation, Donald Trump — amazingly — rose to the occasion and captured the spirit of the moment, one of gratitude, respect, even awe. Ever so briefly, the president sounded presidential. In place of his usual taunts and insults, he managed a fair imitation of Ronald Reagan’s legendary “Boys of Pointe Du Hoc” speech of 1984. “We are gathered here on Freedom’s Altar,” Trump began — not exactly his standard introductory gambit.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Then What’s the Disease?

Don’t try to deny it! The political temperature of this country is rising fast. Call it Trump change or Trump warming, if you want, but grasp one thing: increasingly, you’re in a different land and, whatever happens to Donald Trump, the results down the line are likely to be ever less pretty. Trump change isn’t just an American phenomenon, it’s distinctly global. After all, from Australia to India, the Philippines to Hungary, Donald Trumps and their supporters keep getting elected or reelected and, according to a recent CNN poll, a majority of Americans think Trump himself will win again in 2020 (though, at the moment, battleground-state polls look grim for him).

Still, whether or not he gets a second term in the White House, he only seems like the problem, partially because no president, no politician, no one in history has ever gotten such 24/7 media coverage of every twitch, tweet, bizarre statement, falsehood, or fantasy he expresses (or even the clothes he wears). Think of it this way: we’re in a moment in which the only thing the media can’t imagine saying about Donald Trump is: “You’re fired!” And believe me, that’s just one sign of a media — and a country — with a temperature that’s anything but 98.6.

The Race for What's Left

The Pentagon’s Spoiling for a Fight -- But With China, Not Iran

The recent White House decision to speed the deployment of an aircraft carrier battle group and other military assets to the Persian Gulf has led many in Washington and elsewhere to assume that the U.S. is gearing up for war with Iran. As in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. officials have cited suspect intelligence data to justify elaborate war preparations. On May 13th, acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan even presented top White House officials with plans to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East for possible future combat with Iran and its proxies. Later reports indicated that the Pentagon might be making plans to send even more soldiers than that. Hawks in the White House, led by National Security Advisor John Bolton, see a war aimed at eliminating Iran’s clerical leadership as a potentially big win for Washington. Many top officials in […]

America's War for the Greater Middle East by Andrew Bacevich

Visiting mar-SAYLZ

Earlier this month, I spent a day visiting Marseilles to videotape a documentary about recent American military history, specifically the ongoing wars that most of us prefer not to think about.

Lest there be any confusion, let me be more specific. I am not referring to Marseilles (mar-SAY), France, that nation’s largest port and second largest city with a population approaching 900,000. No, my destination was Marseilles (mar-SAYLZ), Illinois, a small prairie town with a population hovering around 5,000.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Living in a Nation of Political Narcissists

In this country, reactions to the Mueller report have been all-American beyond belief. Let’s face it, when it comes to election meddling, it’s been me, me, me, 24/7 here. Yes, in some fashion some set of Russians meddled in the last election campaign, whether it was, as Jared Kushner improbably claimed, “a couple of Facebook ads” or, as the Mueller report described it, “the Russian government interfer[ing]… in sweeping and systematic fashion.”

What is democracy? Since this deceptively simple question first came into my mind, I haven’t been able to shake it. We think we understand the word, but what are we really referring to when we talk about a system in which the people rule themselves?

The word democracy is all around us, invoked in almost every conceivable context: government, business, technology, education, and media. At the same time, its meaning, taken as self-evident, is rarely given much serious consideration. Though the headlines tell us democracy is in “crisis,” we don’t have a clear conception of what it is that is at risk. The significance of the democratic ideal, as well as its practical substance, is surprisingly elusive.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

As the Flames Began to Rise, the Arsonists Appeared

As Notre Dame burned, as the flames leapt from its roof of ancient timbers, many of us watched in grim horror. Hour after hour, on screen after screen, channel after channel, you could see that 850-year-old cathedral, a visiting spot for 13 million people annually, being gutted, its roof timbers flaring into the evening sky, its steeple collapsing in a ball of fire. It was dramatic and deeply disturbing — and, of course, unwilling to be left out of any headline-making event, President Trump promptly tweeted his advice to the French authorities: “Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!” No matter that water from such planes would probably have taken the cathedral’s towers down and endangered lives as well — “the equivalent,” according to a French fire chief, “of dropping three tons of concrete at 250 kilometers per hour [on] the ancient monument.” […]

American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power

In January 2015, I spent the longest, queasiest week of my life on a cruise ship filled with conspiracy theorists. As our boat rattled toward Mexico and back, I heard about every wild plot, secret plan, and dark cover-up imaginable. It was mostly fascinating, occasionally exasperating, and the cause of a headache that took months to fade. To my pleasant surprise, given that I was a reporter traveling among a group of deeply suspicious people, I was accused only once of working for the CIA.

The unshakable certainty that many of the conspiracy theorists possessed sometimes made me want to tear my hair out, how tightly they clung to the strangest and most far-fetched ideas. I was pretty sure they had lost their hold on reality as a result of being permanently and immovably on the fringes of American life. I felt bad for them and, to be honest, a little superior.

Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

If you viewed Earth from far above (and for better or worse, this book will often take a high, wide perspective), roofs would probably be the first feature of human civilization you’d notice. A descending alien would see many shapes, often corresponding to the local weather: A-frames for shedding snow, for instance. There are gambrel roofs, mansards, hipped and gabled roofs. Pagodas and other Asian temples often sport conical tops; Russian churches come with onion domes; Western churches sit beneath spires.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

How the U.S. Military Feeds at the Terror Trough

Here’s a statement it might be hard to disagree with: American war is off the charts. Still, I’d like to explain — but I’m nervous about doing so. I know perfectly well that the next word I plan to write will send most of you tumbling elsewhere in a universe in which “news” is the latest grotesque mass shooting; the craziest tweet from you-know-who; celebrities marching into court over college-admissions scandals; or even a boy, missing for years, who suddenly turns up only to morph into a 23-year-old impostor with a criminal record. How can America’s wars in distant lands compete with that? Which is why I just can’t bring myself to write the next word. So promise me that, after you read it, you’ll hang in there for just a minute and give me a chance to explain. Okay, here goes: Somalia. A country in the horn of Africa, […]