By Michael True
In public addresses, President Obama assures us that the U.S. military command is greater than any other in the world. One wonders if he is aware that the U.S. has not won a war since 1945, as historian Andrew Bacivich suggests.
Since the Vietnam War, U.S. policy makers and military commands responsible for U.S. interventions have not quite lived up to the president’s billing.
The cost has been enormous, in dead and injured Americans and wasted resources. The results, including the ignominious defeat in Vietnam, have left the U.S. and the world in worse shape than before.
Following the War in Iraq, arguably the worst military disaster in American history, U.S. interventions continued up to and including the one in Afghanistan. Wounded veterans from each conflict returned home, many ending up homeless or suicidal.
In spite of these disasters, as James Atlas points out in a recent issue of The Atlantic, the American public still regards the U.S. armed forces more favorably than other essential government services such as Medicare and Social Security. A central question posed by Atlas is one that has not been fully addressed either during or since the Vietnam War: “Who is held responsible for these interventions – some of them further destabilizing regions where the U.S. was involved?”
And yet, Congress and the Pentagon lobby keep insisting on more and more military expenditures, even though the U.S. military budget is larger than either China’s or Russia’s, and almost equals military expenditures of all nations in the world combined.
As a line in a Denise Levertov poem says, “The same war continues.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. infrastructure deteriorates, and Congress cuts Food Stamps allotments, while a fourth of our nation’s children under five years old live below the poverty line.
Many factors have contributed to this sad state of affairs, in domestic as well as foreign policy, in a culture of violence since Vietnam.
And do we ever learn from our mistakes?
Although it has been 50 years since the Vietnam War began in the early 1960s and 40 years since it ended, full knowledge of its consequences escapes us, in spite of numerous novels and poems, debates and histories, memoirs and films and debates and films and debates about the films.
Initially, several of the so-called “best and brightest who lied and plunged us into that disaster,” including the late U.S. Secretary of State Robert McNamara, acknowledged that it should never have happened. As with other accounts, his admission was helpful. Nonetheless, a fuller accounting and deeper understanding of the war awaits us, if we are to understand how it resulted in the massacre of more than 2 million Vietnamese, 58,000 Americans, and numerous allies on either side.
Among recent accounts that I am familiar with, Nick Turse’s Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, 2013, occupies a special place, particularly on the basis of new information focusing on the war’s impact on the native population and the suffering they endured.
For the Vietnamese, the war was “an endless gauntlet of potential calamities,” according to Turse, with innocents ”killed for the sake of a bounty or shot in a garbage dump, forced into prostitution or gang-raped…run down for sport on a roadway or locked away in jail to be tortured without the benefit of trial.” These crimes, the various essence of war, Terse adds, “went on all the time all over South Vietnam for years.”
Following its failed war in the jungles of Vietnam, the U.S. briefly soft-pedaled its imperial pretensions. After 9/11, however, the Bush administration seemed to feel that the U.S. had to bomb somebody.
Pressured by Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and other militarists in the Bush cabinet and cheered on by the shameless media, the U.S. invaded Iraq, even though there were no nuclear weapons and no Iraqis were 9/11 terrorists. That intervention, costing taxpayers more than $3 trillion, turned out to be perhaps the worst foreign policy disaster in American history.
Forty years from now, perhaps, we may get a more complete acccount of a war that was fundamentally wrong and immoral, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, thousands of Americans, and further destabilizing the Middle East.
After that, President Obama repeated policies initiated by President Bush, including torture and strikes by MQ-l Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones, terrorizing innocent civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. One report stated that the ratio of deaths from the strikes over a three-year period was 50 civilians for every militant – a hit rate of 2 percent.”
U.S. military expenditures in Afghanistan exceed $100 billion, in the fifth poorest and second most corrupt nation in the world. Sixty-eight percent of people there live on less than $1 a day, and only 23% of the population has access to sanitary drinking water.
Although Americans are aware of major wars that the U.S. has been involved in, we often fail to realize that violence and militarism characterize our foreign policy throughout history.
General knowledge about various incidents are missing in standard history of the U.S. since about 1890. Recent accounts, such as The Untold History of the United States, 2012, occasionally provide further details on policies and events on the basis of new revelations.
Even when one disagrees with documentation and commentary, such as Stone’s and Kuznick’s, they foster lively debate that enhances public discussion in the long run and add detailed information seldom available through conventional histories and popular media. Acknowledging America’s affirmation of freedom and liberty, they also reflect on how those values have been buried “in the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the jungles of Southeast Asia, and the sands of the Middle East.”
In the recent past, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives have continued to fail us, particularly on issues of foreign policy. So we learn – after the fact – about their approving our country’s global surveillance, something which alienates our friends abroad and undermines civil liberties at home.
Is there any hope of altering the priorities of the U.S. in our foreign policy?
Probably not, as long as the American public remains ignorant of their consequences and the elected officials who supported them remain in office. As a nation, we appear not to have learned what General Smedley Butler taught 70 years ago: ”War is a racket.”
At the moment, neither political party effectively challenges or addresses these serious issues. Democrats remain divided on many of them, while Republicans oppose almost any foreign policy proposal from the White House, primarily to make President Obama look bad.
The same is true, unfortunately, regarding domestic, as well as foreign policy. During the recession, for example, Republicans opposed the president’s efforts to revive the American economy. Ignoring them, Obama succeeded in improving the situation while lowering the national debt at the same time. Since then, Republicans have pressed for austerity measures similar to those responsible for serious economic consequences in Europe and Japan. It does so in spite of the fact that Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman indicated repeatedly in his New York Times column, that such austerity measures would only weaken our economy.
None of this will change until an aroused public challenges lockstep Republicans and cautious Democrats to redirect policies that perpetuate chaos at home and abroad. Altering the situation requires persistent legislative and nonviolent action by a significant number of Americans. Similarly, improving the state of the union means responding to and affirming the interests not of the wealthy and powerful few, but of the overwhelming majority.
Michael True was an English professor at Worcester’s Assumption College for many years. He’s one of Worcester’s most eloquent peace activists.