North Korea’s cities were bombed and battered and left in utter ruin by Americans in the 1970s, 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 US 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And yet, in 1975, with troops withdrawn, the southern regime we had supported collapsed and the North Vietnamese military and its rebel allies in the South took over the country.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.
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 behind perhaps two million dead Afghans and 15,000 of its own dead. Not so long after, the Soviet Union itself imploded and the US 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 military did manage to invade and occupy the tiny island of Grenada in the Caribbean in 1983 and, in 1991, in a highly publicised 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 century.
Meanwhile, of course, the US 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 forces out amid chaotic destruction and disorder, leaving – yes, the Taliban! – to run that devastated country.
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 US first began its counter-terror efforts in West Africa early in this century, terror incidents there have soared by 30,000 per cent.
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 US 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 terrorising 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 fashion.
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 organises threatening military exercises around the island of Taiwan, while the Biden administration continues to ominously heighten the US 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.
- A TomDispatch report / Tom Engelhardt