“Victory” Is the Verbal Equivalent of a Yeti

obama with generals

President Barack Obama, joined by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, Special Assistant to the President for Afghanistan and Pakistan, right, holds a secure video teleconference call with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, in the Situation Room of the White House, April 6, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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 percent of the U.S. media “newshole” the week after it happened, and 90 percent of cable TV coverage.  And America’s most secretive covert warriors, elite SEAL Team 6, caused “SEAL-mania” to break out nationwide.

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, our90 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? 2017without 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 sing.

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 outinnocent 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 misplaced…  forever.

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 percent 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 arsonists.

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 mental instability.

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 tom engelhardtborderlands 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

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author ofThe 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).

Reprinted with the kind permission of TomDispatch.



  1. says

    WOW! WOW! That was SUCH a pleasure to read! It is one of the most satisfying things I’ve read in ages and ages! I think we share the same… cynicism and humor. 😉

    One note: I like how you apparently already realize that Anwar al-Awlaki is not at all the scary monster they make him out to be. He isn’t.

    Thanks for this! I’ve emailed it, posted it, and will also share it! Keep up the great work!

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