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June 23, 2011
A Vocabulary for the American State of War
by Tom Engelhardt
Now that Washington has at least six wars cooking (in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan,
Libya, Yemen, and more generally, the global war on terror), Americans find
themselves in a new world of war. If, however, you haven't joined the all-volunteer
military, any of our 17 intelligence outfits, the Pentagon, the weapons companies and
hire-a-gun corporations associated with it, or some other part of the National Security
Complex, America’s distant wars go on largely without you (at least until the bills come
War has a way of turning almost anything upside down, including language. But with
lost jobs, foreclosed homes, crumbling infrastructure, and weird weather, who even
notices? This undoubtedly means that you’re using a set of antediluvian war words or
definitions from your father’s day. It’s time to catch up.
So here’s the latest word in war words: what’s in, what’s out, what’s inside out. What
follows are nine common terms associated with our present wars that probably don’t
mean what you think they mean. Since you live in a twenty-first-century war state, you
might consider making them your own.
Victory: Like defeat, it’s a “loaded” word and rather than define it, Americans should
simply avoid it.
In his last press conference before retirement, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
was asked whether the U.S. was “winning in Afghanistan.” He replied, “I have learned
a few things in four and a half years, and one of them is to try and stay away from
loaded words like ‘winning’ and ‘losing.’ What I will say is that I believe we are being
successful in implementing the president's strategy, and I believe that our military
operations are being successful in denying the Taliban control of populated areas,
degrading their capabilities, and improving the capabilities of the Afghan national
In 2005, George W. Bush, whom Gates also served, used the word “victory” 15 times
in a single speech (“National Strategy for Victory in Iraq”). Keep in mind, though, that
our previous president learned about war in the movie theaters of his childhood where
the Marines always advanced and Americans actually won. Think of his victory
obsession as the equivalent of a mid-twentieth-century hangover.
In 2011, despite the complaints of a few leftover neocons dreaming of past glory, you
can search Washington high and low for “victory.” You won’t find it. It’s the verbal
equivalent of a Yeti. Being “successful in implementing the president’s strategy,” what
more could you ask? Keeping the enemy on his “back foot”: hey, at $10 billion a
month, if that isn’t “success,” tell me what is?
Admittedly, the assassination of Osama bin Laden was treated as if it were VJ Day
ending World War II, but actually win a war? Don’t make Secretary of Defense Gates
Maybe, if everything comes up roses, in some year soon we’ll be celebrating DE
(Degrade the Enemy) Day.
Enemy: Any super-evil pipsqueak on whose back you can raise at least $1.2 trillion a
year for the National Security Complex.
“I actually consider al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with Al-Awlaki as a leader within
that organization probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland.” So said
Michael Leiter, presidential adviser and the director of the National Counterterrorism
Center, last February, months before Osama bin Laden was killed (and Leiter himself
resigned). Since bin Laden’s death, Leiter’s assessment has been heartily seconded
in word and deed in Washington. For example, New York Times reporter Mark
Mazzetti recently wrote: “Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen is believed by the C.I.A. to pose
the greatest immediate threat to the United States, more so than even Qaeda’s senior
leadership believed to be hiding in Pakistan.”
Now, here’s the odd thing. Once upon a time, statements like these might have been
tantamount to announcements of victory: That’s all they’ve got left?
Of course, once upon a time, if you asked an American who was the most dangerous
man on the planet, you might have been told Adolf Hitler, or Joseph Stalin, or Mao
Zedong. These days, don’t think enemy at all; think comic-book-style arch-villain Lex
Luthor or Doctor Doom -- anyone, in fact, capable of standing in for globe-
Right now, post-bin-Laden, America’s super-villain of choice is Anwar al-Awlaki, an
enemy with seemingly near superhuman powers to disturb Washington, but no army,
no state, and no significant finances. The U.S.-born “radical cleric” lives as a semi-
fugitive in Yemen, a poverty-stricken land of which, until recently, few Americans had
heard. Al-Awlaki is considered at least partially responsible for two high-profile plots
against the U.S.: the underwear bomber and package bombs sent by plane to
Chicago synagogues. Both failed dismally, even though neither Superman nor the
Fantastic Four rushed to the rescue.
As an Evil One, al-Awlaki is a voodoo enemy, a YouTube warrior (“the bin Laden of
the Internet”) with little but his wits and whatever superpowers he can muster to help
him. He was reputedly responsible for helping to poison the mind of Army psychiatrist
Major Nidal Hasan before he blew away 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas. There’s no
question of one thing: he’s gotten inside Washington’s war-on-terror head in a big
way. As a result, the Obama administration is significantly intensifying its war against
him and the ragtag crew of tribesmen he hangs out with who go by the name of Al-
Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Covert War: It used to mean secret war, a war “in the shadows” and so beyond the
public’s gaze. Now, it means a conflict in the full glare of publicity that everybody
knows about, but no one can do anything about. Think: in the news, but off the books.
Go figure: today, our “covert” wars are front-page news. The top-secret operation to
assassinate Osama bin Laden garnered an unprecedented 69% of the U.S. media
“newshole” the week after it happened, and 90% of cable TV coverage. And America’
s most secretive covert warriors, elite SEAL Team 6, caused “SEAL-mania” to break
Moreover, no minor drone strike in the “covert” CIA-run air war in the Pakistani tribal
borderlands goes unreported. In fact, as with Yemen today, future plans for the
launching or intensification of Pakistani-style covert wars are now openly discussed,
debated, and praised in Washington, as well as widely reported on. At one point, CIA
Director Leon Panetta even bragged that, when it came to al-Qaeda, the Agency’s
covert air war in Pakistan was “the only game in town.”
Think of covert war today as the equivalent of a heat-seeking missile aimed directly at
that mainstream media newshole. The “shadows” that once covered whole operations
now only cover accountability for them.
Permanent bases: In the American way of war, military bases built on foreign soil are
the equivalent of heroin. The Pentagon can’t help building them and can’t live without
them, but “permanent bases” don’t exist, not for Americans. Never.
That’s simple enough, but let me be absolutely clear anyway: Americans may have at
least 865 bases around the world (not including those in war zones), but we have no
desire to occupy other countries. And wherever we garrison (and where aren’t we
garrisoning?), we don’t want to stay, not permanently anyway.
In the grand scheme of things, for a planet more than four billion years old, our 90
bases in Japan, a mere 60-odd years in existence, or our 227 bases in Germany,
some also around for 60-odd years, or those in Korea, 50-odd years, count as little.
Moreover, we have it on good word that permanent bases are un-American.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said as much in 2003 when the first of the
Pentagon's planned Iraqi mega-bases were already on the drawing boards. Hillary
Clinton said so again just the other day, about Afghanistan, and an anonymous
American official added for clarification: "There are U.S. troops in various countries for
some considerable lengths of time which are not there permanently." Korea anyone?
So get it straight, Americans don’t want permanent bases. Period.
And that’s amazing when you think about it, since globally Americans are constantly
building and upgrading military bases. The Pentagon is hooked. In Afghanistan, it’s
gone totally wild -- more than 400 of them and still building! Not only that, Washington
is now deep into negotiations with the Afghan government to transform some of them
into “joint bases” and stay on them if not until hell freezes over, then at least until
Afghan soldiers can be whipped into an American-style army. Latest best
guesstimate for that? 2017 without even getting close.
Fortunately, we plan to turn those many bases we built to the tune of billions of
dollars, including the gigantic establishments at Bagram and Kandahar, over to the
Afghans and just hang around, possibly “for decades,” as -- and the word couldn’t be
more delicate or thoughtful -- “tenants.”
And by the way, accompanying the recent reports that the CIA is preparing to lend the
U.S. military a major covert hand, drone-style, in its Yemen campaign, was news that
the Agency is building a base of its own on a rushed schedule in an unnamed Persian
Gulf country. Just one base. But don’t expect that to be the end of it. After all, that’s
like eating one potato chip.
Withdrawal: We’re going, we’re going... Just not quite yet and stop pushing!
If our bases are shots of heroin, then for the U.S. military leaving anyplace represents
a form of “withdrawal,” which means the shakes. Like drugs, it’s just so darn easy to
go in that Washington keeps doing it again and again. Getting out’s the bear. Who
can blame them, if they don’t want to leave?
In Iraq, for instance, Washington has been in the grips of withdrawal fever since 2008
when the Bush administration agreed that all U.S. troops would leave by the end of
this year. You can still hear those combat boots dragging in the sand. At this point,
top administration and military officials are almost begging the Iraqis to let us remain
on a few of our monster bases, like the ill-named Camp Victory or Balad Air Base,
which in its heyday had air traffic that reputedly rivaled Chicago’s O’Hare International
Airport. But here’s the thing: even if the U.S. military officially departs, lock, stock, and
(gun) barrel, Washington’s still not really planning on leaving.
In recent years, the U.S. has built near-billion-dollar “embassies” that are actually
citadels-cum-regional-command-posts in the Greater Middle East. Just last week, four
former U.S. ambassadors to Iraq made a plea to Congress to pony up the $5.2 billion
requested by the Obama administration so that that the State Department can turn its
Baghdad embassy into a massive militarized mission with 5,100 hire-a-guns and a
small mercenary air force.
In sum, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” is not a song that Washington likes to
Drone War (see also Covert War): A permanent air campaign using missile-armed
pilotless planes that banishes both withdrawal and victory to the slagheap of history.
Is it even a “war” if only one side ever appears in person and only one side ever
suffers damage? America’s drones are often flown from thousands of miles away by
“pilots” who, on leaving their U.S. bases after a work shift “in” a war zone, see signs
warning them to drive carefully because this may be “the most dangerous part of your
day.” This is something new in the history of warfare.
Drones are the covert weaponry of choice in our covert wars, which means, of course,
that the military just can’t wait to usher chosen reporters into its secret labs and
experimental testing grounds to reveal dazzling visions of future destruction.
To make sense of drones, we probably have to stop thinking about “war” and start
envisaging other models -- for example, that of the executioner who carries out a
death sentence on another human being at no danger to himself. If a pilotless drone
is actually an executioner’s weapon, a modern airborne version of the guillotine, the
hangman’s noose, or the electric chair, the death sentence it carries with it is not
decreed by a judge and certainly not by a jury of peers.
It’s assembled by intelligence agents based on fragmentary (and often self-interested)
evidence, organized by targeteers, and given the thumbs-up sign by military or CIA
lawyers. All of them are scores, hundreds, thousands of miles away from their victims,
people they don’t know, and may not faintly understand or share a culture with. In
addition, the capital offenses are often not established, still to be carried out, never to
be carried out, or nonexistent. The fact that drones, despite their “precision”
weaponry, regularly take out innocent civilians as well as prospective or actual
terrorists reminds us that, if this is our model, Washington is a drunken executioner.
In a sense, Bush’s global war on terror called drones up from the depths of its
unconscious to fulfill its most basic urges: to be endless and to reach anywhere on
Earth with an Old Testament-style sense of vengeance. The drone makes mincemeat
of victory (which involves an endpoint), withdrawal (for which you have to be there in
the first place), and national sovereignty (see below).
Corruption: Something inherent in the nature of war-torn Iraqis and Afghans from
which only Americans, in and out of uniform, can save them.
Don’t be distracted by the $6.6 billion that, in the form of shrink-wrapped $100 bills,
the Bush administration loaded onto C-130 transport planes, flew to liberated Iraq in
2003 for “reconstruction” purposes, and somehow mislaid. The U.S. special inspector
general for Iraq reconstruction did recently suggest that it might prove to be "the
largest theft of funds in national history"; on the other hand, maybe it was just
Iraq’s parliamentary speaker now claims that up to $18.7 billion in Iraqi oil funds have
gone missing-in-action, but Iraqis, as you know, are corrupt and unreliable. So pay
no attention. Anyway, not to worry, it wasn’t our money. All those crisp Benjamins
came from Iraqi oil revenues that just happened to be held in U.S. banks. And in war
zones, what can you do? Sometimes bad things happen to good $100 bills!
In any case, corruption is endemic to the societies of the Greater Middle East, which
lack the institutional foundations of democratic societies. Not surprisingly then, in
impoverished, narcotized Afghanistan, it’s run wild. Fortunately, Washington has
fought nobly against its ravages for years. Time and again, top American officials
have cajoled, threatened, even browbeat Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his
compatriots to get them to crack down on corrupt practices and hold honest elections
to build support for the American-backed government in Kabul.
Here’s the funny thing though: a report on Afghan reconstruction recently released by
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Democratic majority staff suggests that the
military and foreign “developmental” funds that have poured into the country, and
which account for 97% of its gross domestic product, have played a major role in
encouraging corruption. To find a peacetime equivalent, imagine firemen rushing to a
blaze only to pour gasoline on it and then lash out at the building’s dwellers as
National Sovereignty: 1. Something Americans cherish and wouldn’t let any other
country violate; 2. Something foreigners irrationally cling to, a sign of unreliability or
Here’s the twenty-first-century credo of the American war state. Please memorize it:
The world is our oyster. We shall not weep. We may missile [bomb, assassinate,
night raid, invade] whom we please, when we please, where we please. This is to be
called “American safety.”
Those elsewhere, with a misplaced reverence for their own safety or security, or an
overblown sense of pride and self-worth, who put themselves in harm’s way -- watch
out. After all, in a phrase: Sovereignty ‘R’ Us.
Note: As we still live on a one-way imperial planet, don’t try reversing any of the
above, not even as a thought experiment. Don’t imagine Iranian drones hunting
terrorists over Southern California or Pakistani special operations forces launching
night raids on small midwestern towns. Not if you know what’s good for you.
War: A totally malleable concept that is purely in the eye of the beholder.
Which is undoubtedly why the Obama administration recently decided not to return to
Congress for approval of its Libyan intervention as required by the War Powers
Resolution of 1973. The administration instead issued a report essentially declaring
Libya not to be a “war” at all, and so not to fall under the provisions of that resolution.
As that report explained: "U.S. operations [in Libya] do not involve  sustained
fighting or  active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve  the
presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties, or a serious threat thereof, or  any
significant chance of escalation into a conflict characterized by those factors."
This, of course, opens up the possibility of quite a new and sunny American future on
planet Earth, one in which it will no longer be wildly utopian to imagine war becoming
extinct. After all, the Obama administration is already moving to intensify and expand
its [fill in the blank] in Yemen, which will meet all of the above criteria, as its [fill in the
blank] in the Pakistani tribal borderlands already does. Someday, Washington could
be making America safe all over the globe in what would, miraculously, be a
thoroughly war-less world.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The
End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book is
The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books).