Remarkably Little If You're a "Great" Power on Planet Earth in the Twenty-First
By Tom Engelhardt
April 25, 2023:
Clearing House -- "
Tom Dispatch" -- I was born on
July 20, 1944, amid a vast global conflict already known as World War II.
Though it ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August
1945 before I could say much more than “Mama” or “Dada,” in some strange
fashion, I grew up at war.
Living in New York City, I was near no conflict in those years or in any
since. My dad, however, had volunteered for the Army Air Corps at age 35 on
December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He fought
in Burma, was painfully silent about his wartime experiences, and died on Pearl
Harbor Day in 1983. He was the operations officer for the 1st Air Commandos and
his war, in some strange sense, came home with him.
Like so many vets, then and now, he was never willing to talk to
his son about what he had experienced, though in my early years he still liked
his friends to call him “Major,” his rank on leaving the military. When his war
did come up in our house, it was usually in the form of anger — because my
mother had shopped at a nearby grocery store whose owners, he claimed, had been
“war profiteers” while he was overseas, or because my first car, shared with a
friend, was a used Volkswagen (German!), or my mom was curious to go — god save
us! — to a Japanese restaurant!
The strange thing, though, was that, in those same years, for reasons we
never discussed, he allowed me briefly to have
a Japanese pen pal and, though my dad and I never talked about the letters
that boy and I exchanged, we did soak the stamps off the envelopes he sent and
paste them into our latest Scott stamp album.
As for evidence of my father’s wartime experience, I had two sources. In the
guest room closet in our apartment, he had an old green duffle bag, which he’d
go through now and then. It was filled to the brim with everything from Army Air
Corps documents to his portable mess kit and even — though I didn’t know it then
— his pistol and bullets from the war. (I would turn them over to the police
upon his death a quarter-century later.)
Though he wouldn’t talk with me about his wartime experience, I lived it in a
very specific way (or at least so it felt to me then). After all, he regularly
took me to the movies where I saw seemingly endless versions of war,
American-style, from the Indian wars through World War II. And when we watched
movies of his own conflict (or, in my early years, replays of
Victory at Sea on our TV at home) and he said nothing, that only
seemed to confirm that I was seeing his experience in all its glory, as the
Marines inevitably advanced at film’s end and the “Japs” died in a spectacle of
slaughter without a comment from him.
From those Indian wars on, as I wrote long ago in my book
The End of Victory Culture, war was always a tale of their savagery
and our goodness, one in which, in the end, there would be an expectable
“spectacle of slaughter” as we advanced and “they” went down. From the
placement of the camera flowed the pleasure of watching the killing of tens or
hundreds of nonwhites in a scene that normally preceded the positive resolution
of relationships among the whites. It was a way of ordering a wilderness of
human horrors into a celebratory tale of progress through devastation, a victory
culture that, sooner or later, became more complicated to portray because World
War II ended with the atomic devastation of those two Japanese cities and, in
the 1950s and 1960s, the
growing possibility of a future global Armageddon.
If war was hell, in my childhood at the movies, killing them wasn’t,
whether it was the Indians of the American West or the Japanese in World War II.
So, yes, I grew up in a culture of victory, one I
played out again and again on the floor of my room. In the 1950s, boys (and
some girls) spent hours
acting out tales of American battle triumph with generic fighting figures: a
crew of cowboys to defeat the Indians and win the West, a bag or two of
olive-green Marines to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima.
If ours was a sanguinary tale of warfare against savages in which pleasure
came out of the barrel of a gun, on floors nationwide we kids were left alone,
without apparent instruction, to reinvent American history. Who was good and who
bad, who could be killed and under what conditions were an accepted part of a
collective culture of childhood that drew strength from post-World War II
What Would My Dad Think?
Today, 60-odd years later, having never been to war but having focused on it
and written about it for so long, here’s what I find eerily strange: since 1945,
the country with the greatest military on the planet that, in budgetary terms,
now leaves the
next nine countries combined in the dust, has never — and let me repeat
that: never! — won a war that mattered (despite engaging in all too
many spectacles of slaughter). Stranger yet, in terms of lessons learned in the
world of adult culture, every lost war has, in the end, only led this country to
invest more taxpayer dollars in building up that very military. If you
needed a long-term formula for disaster in a country threatening to come apart
at the seams, it would be hard to imagine a more striking one. So long after his
death, I must admit that sometimes I wonder what my dad would think of it all.
Here’s the thing: the American experience of war since 1945 should have
offered an all-too-obvious lesson for us, as well as for the planet’s other
great powers, when it comes to the value of giant military establishments and
the conflicts that go with them.
Just think about it a moment, historically speaking. That global victory of
1945, ending all too ominously with the dropping of those two atomic bombs and
the slaughter of possibly
200,000 people, would be followed in 1950 by the start of the Korean War.
The statistics of death and destruction in that conflict were, to say the least,
staggering. It was a spectacle of slaughter, involving the armies of North
Korea and its ally the newly communist China versus South Korea and its ally,
the United States. Now, consider the figures: out of a Korean population of 30
million, as many as
three million may have died, along with an estimated
180,000 Chinese and about
36,000 Americans. The North’s cities, bombed and battered, were left in
utter ruin, while the devastation on that peninsula was almost beyond imagining.
It was all too literally a spectacle of slaughter and yet, despite ours being
the best-armed, best-funded military on the planet, that war ended in an
all-too-literal draw, a 1953 armistice that has never — not to this day! —
turned into an actual peace settlement.
After that, another decade-plus passed before this country’s true disaster of
the twentieth century, the war in Vietnam — the first American war I opposed —
in which, once again, the U.S. Air Force and our military more generally proved
destructive almost beyond imagining, while at least a
couple of million Vietnamese civilians and more than a million fighters
died, along with 58,000 Americans.
And yet, in 1975, with U.S. troops withdrawn, the southern regime we had
supported collapsed and the North Vietnamese military and its rebel allies in
the South took over the country. There was no tie as there had been in Korea,
just utter defeat for the greatest military power on the planet.
The Rise of the Pentagon on a Fallen Planet
Meanwhile, that other superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, had —
and this should sound familiar to any American in 2023 —
sent its massive military, the Red Army, into… yes, Afghanistan in 1979.
There, for almost a decade, it battled Afghan guerrilla forces
backed and significantly financed by the CIA and Saudi Arabia (as well as by
a specific Saudi named
Osama bin Laden and the tiny group he set up late in the war called — yes,
again! — al-Qaeda). In 1989, the Red Army limped out of that country, leaving
perhaps two million dead Afghans and
15,000 of its own dead. Not so long after, the Soviet Union itself imploded
and the U.S. became the only “great power” on planet Earth.
Washington’s response would be anything but a promised “peace dividend.”
Pentagon funding barely dipped in those years. The U.S. military did manage to
invade and occupy the tiny island of
Grenada in the Caribbean in 1983 and, in 1991, in a highly publicized but
relatively low-level and one-sided encounter, drove Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein’s
Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in what would later come to be known as the First
Gulf War. It would be but a preview of a hell on Earth to come in this
Meanwhile, of course, the U.S. became a singular military power on this
planet, having established
at least 750 military bases on every continent but Antarctica. Then, in the
new century, in the immediate wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, President George
W. Bush and his top officials, incapable of imagining a comparison between the
long-gone Soviet Union and the United States, sent the American military into —
right! — Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government there. A disastrous
occupation and war followed, a prolonged
spectacle of slaughter that would only end after 20 years of blood, gore,
and massive expense, when President Biden pulled the last U.S. forces out amid
chaotic destruction and disorder, leaving — yes, the Taliban! — to run that
In 2003, with the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq (on the
false grounds that Saddam Hussein was developing or had weapons of mass
destruction and was somehow linked to Osama bin Laden), the Second Gulf War
began. It would, of course, be a disaster, leaving
several hundred thousand dead Iraqis in its wake and (as in Afghanistan)
thousands of dead Americans as well. Another spectacle of slaughter, it would
last for endless years and, once again, Americans would draw
remarkably few lessons from it.
Oh, and then there’s the war on terror more generally, which essentially
helped spread terror around significant parts of the planet. Nick Turse recently
caught this reality with a single statistic: in the years since the U.S. first
began its counter-terror efforts in West Africa early in this century, terror
incidents there have soared
And the response to this? You know it all too well. Year after year, the
Pentagon’s budget has only grown and is now heading for the
trillion-dollar mark. In the end, the U.S. military may have achieved just
one success of any significance since 1945 by becoming the most valued and
best-funded institution in this country. Unfortunately, in those same years, in
a genuinely strange fashion, America’s wars came home (as they had in the Soviet
Union once upon a time), thanks in part to the spread of military-style assault
rifles, now owned by
one in 20 Americans, and
other weaponry (and the barrage of
mass killings that went with them). And there remains the distinctly
unsettling possibility of some version of a new civil war with all its Trumpian
implications developing in this country.
I doubt, in fact, that Donald Trump would ever have become president without
the disastrous American wars of this century. Think of him, in his own
terrorizing fashion, as “fallout” from the war on terror.
There may never, in fact, have been a more striking story of a great power,
seemingly uncontested on Planet Earth, bringing itself down in quite such a
Today, in Ukraine, we see but the latest grim example of how a vaunted
military, strikingly funded in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union —
and I’m talking, of course, about Russia’s army — has once again been sent into
battle against lesser forces with remarkably disastrous results. Mind you,
Vladimir Putin and crew, like their American counterparts, should have learned a
lesson from the Red Army’s disastrous experience in Afghanistan in the previous
century. But no such luck.
There should, of course, be a larger lesson here — not just that there’s no
glory in war in the twenty-first century but that, unlike in some past eras,
great powers are no longer likely to experience success, no matter what happens
on the battlefield.
Let’s hope that the rising power on this planet, China, takes note, even as
it regularly organizes
threatening military exercises around the island of Taiwan, while the Biden
administration continues to ominously
heighten the U.S. military presence in the region. If China’s leaders truly
want to be successful in this century, they should avoid either the American or
Russian versions of war-making of our recent past. (And it would be nice if the
Cold Warriors in Washington did the same before we end up in a conflict from
hell between two nuclear powers.)
It’s decades too late for me to ask my father what his war truly meant to
him, but at least when it comes to “great” powers and war these days, one lesson
seems clear enough: there simply is nothing great about them, except their power
to destroy not just the enemy, but themselves as well.
I can’t help wondering what my dad might think if he could look at this
increasingly disturbed world of ours. I wonder if he wouldn’t finally have
something to say to me about war.
Copyright 2023 Tom Engelhardt
Anti-war protest and march by
Fibonacci Blue is licensed under
CC BY 2.0 / Flickr
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Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the
final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every
Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A
Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In
the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power,
John Dower’s The
Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, and Ann
They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars: The Untold Story.