Early 2009 will be remembered as a turning point in America’s relations with the rest of the world. Not because Team Obama took over Washington’s diplomatic effort, welcome though that has been. What tells us more about the underlying dynamics of global conflict is that the US switched, at some point following the inauguration back in January, from being a country usually at peace to one that is usually at war.
The modern era of American warfighting started with what President Roosevelt called the “date of infamy”: Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which brought the GIs into World War II. From that point to this, 811 months have passed, and the US has now spent 406 of those at war.
That doesn’t count the innumerable logistical efforts, starting with the Berlin airlift, clandestine operations and proxy wars - even the odd peacekeeping mission - over that period.
The figure is derived from adding the 46 months it took to get Japan to surrender in the Pacific to 37 months of the next episode of all-out combat, in Korea. Identifying the starting point in Vietnam is more tricky, but the first American military hardware, a fleet of helicopters, arrived at docks in South Vietnam, along with 400 US personnel to fly them, on December 11, 1961.
The formal ceasefire, 134 months later, hastened Washington’s allies to defeat, and for a while, the idea of sending Americans to fight in other countries fell into disrepute. It was rehabilitated through small-scale deployments like “Operation Urgent Fury” on the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada, in 1983, and the invasion of Panama in 1989: two months each.
Then came Desert Storm, which put the Pentagon back in business as the enforcement arm of the international community. Three months have been counted for the campaign to eject the forces of Saddam Hussein from the kingdom of Kuwait, “liberated”, according to the elder President Bush, on April 6, 1991.
There followed the ill-starred attempt to extend the “New World Order” to Somalia, in 1992-3 (ten months) and the bombing of Yugoslavia in the Kosovo conflict of 1999 (another three). The US has been at war in Afghanistan, now morphing into “Af-Pak”, since October 2001, and again in Iraq from March, 2003.
American troops are now withdrawing from Iraqi cities, perhaps marking an end-point there, after 76 months, though the country seethes with latent conflicts. Afghanistan now stands at 93 and counting. Total: 406 out of 811, more than half.
I’ve counted each month in the overlap twice, to reflect the uniqueness of two major wars happening at once. Another way of looking at it might be to ask whether the US actually ever stopped being at war with Iraq, given the constant air patrols over the “no-fly zones”, the ever-tightening sanctions regime and the occasional intensification of air strikes such as “Operation Desert Fox” in 1998.
It marks a change in the phenomenology of America’s wars. For the US to be at war should not be surprising, but seen, instead, as normal: not “man-bites-dog” but “dog-bites-man”. In every case, our attention has been directed to particular, external causes, or threats, from South-East Asian nations “falling like dominoes” to communism, to Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”. Instead, we should be looking for general, internal causes. What is it about America that keeps it at war, and what is now intensifying the pressures to war?
A colossal arms industry needs periodic advertising campaigns, or slogans like “shock and awe”, more now because the era of “shareholder value” means ever greater returns are required, to meet market expectations. Obama’s first defence budget in early April kept up the previous level of spending. The share price of all the major weapons suppliers turned sharply upwards just beforehand, and they’ve been outperforming the stock market ever since. Recently, the industry managed to inveigle Congress into an appropriation the military itself doesn’t want, the redundant F22 fighter.
Then there’s the media. As Secretary of State Colin Powell took centre stage as America’s chief spokesman for invading Iraq, TV companies waved the flag. At the time, they were hoping Michael Powell would waive the rules. Colin’s son was then Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and planning deregulation that would make big media lots of money.
One of the three major TV networks, NBC, is actually majority-owned by one of the big four arms dealers, General Electric, also a major backer of the Bush campaigns for the White House and the beneficiary of reconstruction contracts in Iraq worth a cool $600 million. The dots are joined by the proliferation of on-air experts and commentators from corporate-funded think tanks, pushing military stratagems. The idea for the “troop surge” in Iraq was launched, not by government but by the American Enterprise Institute, with a column in the Washington Post.
Where does that leave us? Australian troops are about to take part in Operation Talisman Sabre, in central Queensland, the biennial joint training exercise geared towards maintaining “interoperability” with their US counterparts. We are rehearsing for the next war, and we should think long and hard about whether we really want to.
Obama has spoken about the need for America to regain its leadership as an innovator of civilian technological applications, a reference to the massive misdirection of resources under Bush. He may re-regulate media to dilute control by a handful of multi-purpose corporate players. He may cut the Pentagon’s procurement budgets and he may promote inclusive dialogue and negotiation in Afghanistan. He may prove a peacemaker: but the underlying momentum, in large sections of the US economy, is pulling in the opposite direction.