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Tom Engelhardt, Alone and Delusional on Planet Earth

6:00 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

And Then There Was One 

Delusional Thinking in the Age of the Single Superpower
By Tom Engelhardt

Tattered American Flag

Tom Engelhardt on the madness of the world’s lone superpower.

In an increasingly phantasmagorical world, here’s my present fantasy of choice: someone from General Keith Alexander’s outfit, the National Security Agency, tracks down H.G. Wells’s time machine in the attic of an old house in London. Britain’s subservient Government Communications Headquarters, its version of the NSA, is paid off and the contraption is flown to Fort Meade, Maryland, where it’s put back in working order. Alexander then revs it up and heads not into the future like Wells to see how our world ends, but into the past to offer a warning to Americans about what’s to come.

He arrives in Washington on October 23, 1962, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a day after President Kennedy has addressed the American people on national television to tell them that this planet might not be theirs — or anyone else’s — for long. (“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced.”) Greeted with amazement by the Washington elite, Alexander, too, goes on television and informs the same public that, in 2013, the major enemy of the United States will no longer be the Soviet Union, but an outfit called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and that the headquarters of our country’s preeminent foe will be found somewhere in the rural backlands of… Yemen.

Yes, Yemen, a place most Americans, then and now, would be challenged to find on a world map. I guarantee you one thing: had such an announcement actually been made that day, most Americans would undoubtedly have dropped to their knees and thanked God for His blessings on the American nation. Though even then a nonbeliever, I would undoubtedly have been among them. After all, the 18-year-old Tom Engelhardt, on hearing Kennedy’s address, genuinely feared that he and the few pathetic dreams of a future he had been able to conjure up were toast.

Had Alexander added that, in the face of AQAP and similar minor jihadist enemies scattered in the backlands of parts of the planet, the U.S. had built up its military, intelligence, and surveillance powers beyond anything ever conceived of in the Cold War or possibly in the history of the planet, Americans of that time would undoubtedly have considered him delusional and committed him to an asylum.

Such, however, is our world more than two decades after Eastern Europe was liberated, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War definitively ended, and the Soviet Union disappeared.

Why Orwell Was Wrong

Now, let me mention another fantasy connected to the two-superpower Cold War era: George Orwell’s 1948 vision of the world of 1984 (or thereabouts, since the inhabitants of his novel of that title were unsure just what year they were living in). When the revelations of NSA contractor Edward Snowden began to hit the news and we suddenly found ourselves knee-deep in stories about Prism, XKeyscore, and other Big Brother-ish programs that make up the massive global surveillance network the National Security Agency has been building, I had a brilliant idea — reread 1984.

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Engelhardt, The Last Empire?

6:21 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

And Then There Was One 
Imperial Gigantism and the Decline of Planet Earth 
By Tom Engelhardt

A battleship flying a US flag

Tom Engelhardt on the rise of American empire and the decline of America and the world.

It stretched from the Caspian to the Baltic Sea, from the middle of Europe to the Kurile Islands in the Pacific, from Siberia to Central Asia.  Its nuclear arsenal held 45,000 warheads, and its military had five million troops under arms.  There had been nothing like it in Eurasia since the Mongols conquered China, took parts of Central Asia and the Iranian plateau, and rode into the Middle East, looting Baghdad.  Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, by far the poorer, weaker imperial power disappeared.

And then there was one.  There had never been such a moment: a single nation astride the globe without a competitor in sight.  There wasn’t even a name for such a state (or state of mind).  “Superpower” had already been used when there were two of them.  “Hyperpower” was tried briefly but didn’t stick.  “Sole superpower” stood in for a while but didn’t satisfy.  “Great Power,” once the zenith of appellations, was by then a lesser phrase, left over from the centuries when various European nations and Japan were expanding their empires.  Some started speaking about a “unipolar” world in which all roads led … well, to Washington.

To this day, we’ve never quite taken in that moment when Soviet imperial rot unexpectedly – above all, to Washington — became imperial crash-and-burn.  Left standing, the Cold War’s victor seemed, then, like an empire of everything under the sun.  It was as if humanity had always been traveling toward this spot.  It seemed like the end of the line.

The Last Empire?

After the rise and fall of the Assyrians and the Romans, the Persians, the Chinese, the Mongols, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the English, the Germans, and the Japanese, some process seemed over.  The United States was dominant in a previously unimaginable way — except in Hollywood films where villains cackled about their evil plans to dominate the world.

As a start, the U.S. was an empire of global capital.  With the fall of Soviet-style communism (and the transformation of a communist regime in China into a crew of authoritarian “capitalist roaders”), there was no other model for how to do anything, economically speaking.  There was Washington’s way — and that of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (both controlled by Washington) — or there was the highway, and the Soviet Union had already made it all too clear where that led: to obsolescence and ruin.

In addition, the U.S. had unprecedented military power.  By the time the Soviet Union began to totter, America’s leaders had for nearly a decade been consciously using “the arms race” to spend its opponent into an early grave.  And here was the curious thing after centuries of arms races: when there was no one left to race, the U.S. continued an arms race of one.

In the years that followed, it would outpace all other countries or combinations of countries in military spending by staggering amounts.  It housed the world’s most powerful weapons makers, was technologically light years ahead of any other state, and was continuing to develop future weaponry for 2020, 2040, 2060, even as it established a near monopoly on the global arms trade (and so, control over who would be well-armed and who wouldn’t).

It had an empire of bases abroad, more than 1,000 of them spanning the globe, also an unprecedented phenomenon.  And it was culturally dominant, again in a way that made comparisons with other moments ludicrous.  Like American weapons makers producing things that went boom in the night for an international audience, Hollywood’s action and fantasy films took the world by storm.  From those movies to the golden arches, the swoosh, and the personal computer, there was no other culture that could come close to claiming such a global cachet.

The key non-U.S. economic powerhouses of the moment — Europe and Japan — maintained militaries dependent on Washington, had U.S. bases littering their territories, and continued to nestle under Washington’s “nuclear umbrella.”  No wonder that, in the U.S., the post-Soviet moment was soon proclaimed “the end of history,” and the victory of “liberal democracy” or “freedom” was celebrated as if there really were no tomorrow, except more of what today had to offer.

No wonder that, in the new century, neocons and supporting pundits would begin to claim that the British and Roman empires had been second-raters by comparison.  No wonder that key figures in and around the George W. Bush administration dreamed of establishing a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East and possibly over the globe itself (as well as a Pax Republicana at home).  They imagined that they might actually prevent another competitor or bloc of competitors from arising to challenge American power. Ever.

No wonder they had remarkably few hesitations about launching their incomparably powerful military on wars of choice in the Greater Middle East.  What could possibly go wrong?  What could stand in the way of the greatest power history had ever seen?

Assessing the Imperial Moment, Twenty-First-Century-Style

Almost a quarter of a century after the Soviet Union disappeared, what’s remarkable is how much — and how little — has changed.

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David Vine: The True Costs of Empire

8:58 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Soldiers & helicopters in the field.

What is the true cost of American empire building?

Mars? Venus? Earth-like bodies elsewhere in the galaxy? Who knows? But here, at least, no great power, no superpower, no hyperpower, not the Romans, nor imperial China, nor the British, nor the Soviet Union has ever garrisoned the globe quite the way we have: Asia to Latin America, Europe to the Greater Middle East, and increasingly Africa as well.

Build we must.  If someday Washington took to the couch for therapy, the shrink would undoubtedly categorize what we’ve done as a compulsion, the base-building equivalent of a hoarding disorder.

And you know what else is unprecedented? Hundreds of thousands of Americans cycle annually through our various global garrisons, ranging from small American towns with all the attendant amenities, including fast-food joints, PXes, and Internet cafes to the most spartan of forward outposts, and yet our “Baseworld,” as the late Chalmers Johnson used to call it, is hardly noticed in this country and seldom considered worthy of attention.

We built, for example, 505 bases at the cost of billions of dollars in Iraq (without a single reporter uncovering anything close to that number until we abandoned all of them in 2011).  Over the years, millions of soldiers, private contractors, spies, civilian employees of the U.S. government, special ops types, and who knows who else spent time on them, as undoubtedly did hundreds of reporters, and yet news of those American ziggurats was rare to vanishing.  On the whole, reporters on bases so large that one had a 27-mile fortified perimeter, multiple bus lines, and its own electricity grid and water-bottling plant generally looked elsewhere for their “news.”

Our latest base-building mania: Washington’s expanding “empire of bases” for its secret CIA and Special Forces drone wars in the Greater Middle East goes almost unnoticed (except at sites like this).  We now, for instance, have a drone base in the Seychelles, an archipelago that evidently needs an infusion of money.  Unless you had the dough for a high-end wedding in the middle of the Indian Ocean or a vacation in “paradise,” you’ve probably never heard of the place.

No matter.  You’re still paying for the deployment of 82 people to those islands to fly and land crash-prone drones in our now endless “covert” robotic air wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa.  With the so-called fiscal cliff now eternally on the media horizon, there’s been reporting recently on how your tax dollars are being spent, but do you have the faintest idea what it actually costs you to garrison the globe? No? Then you’re in good company, and the Pentagon certainly isn’t interested in telling you either.

Fortunately, basing expert and TomDispatch regular David Vine decided to make sense of what garrisoning the planet means to our pocketbooks. Read this piece and you’ll know what it costs all of us to build and support that Baseworld and more generally the American global military presence. Think about it: at the cost of possibly $2 trillion since 9/11, it should be one of the stories of the century. If it were, maybe by now we would be starting to pull back from the “military cliff.” Tom

Picking Up a $170 Billion Tab
How U.S. Taxpayers Are Paying the Pentagon to Occupy the Planet
By David Vine

“Are you monitoring the construction?” asked the middle-aged man on a bike accompanied by his dog.

ldquo;Ah, sì,” I replied in my barely passable Italian.

Bene,” he answered. Good.

In front of us, a backhoe’s guttural engine whined into action and empty dump trucks rattled along a dirt track. The shouts of men vied for attention with the metallic whirring of drills and saws ringing in the distance. Nineteen immense cranes spread across the landscape, with the foothills of Italy’s Southern Alps in the background. More than 100 pieces of earthmoving equipment, 250 workers, and grids of scaffolding wrapped around what soon would be 34 new buildings.

We were standing in front of a massive 145-acre construction site for a “little America” rising in Vicenza, an architecturally renowned Italian city and UNESCO world heritage site near Venice. This was Dal Molin, the new military base the U.S. Army has been readying for the relocation of as many as 2,000 soldiers from Germany in 2013.

Since 1955, Vicenza has also been home to another major U.S. base, Camp Ederle. They’re among the more than 1,000 bases the United States uses to ring the globe (with about 4,000 more in the 50 states and Washington, D.C.). This complex of military installations, unprecedented in history, has been a major, if little noticed, aspect of U.S. power since World War II.

During the Cold War, such bases became the foundation for a “forward strategy” meant to surround the Soviet Union and push U.S. military power as close to its borders as possible. These days, despite the absence of a superpower rival, the Pentagon has been intent on dotting the globe with scores of relatively small “lily pad” bases, while continuing to build and maintain some large bases like Dal Molin.

Americans rarely think about these bases, let alone how much of their tax money — and debt — is going to build and maintain them. For Dal Molin and related construction nearby, including a brigade headquarters, two sets of barracks, a natural-gas-powered energy plant, a hospital, two schools, a fitness center, dining facilities, and a mini-mall, taxpayers are likely to shell out at least half a billion dollars. (All the while, a majority of locals passionately and vocally oppose the new base.)

How much does the United States spend each year occupying the planet with its bases and troops? How much does it spend on its global presence?  Forced by Congress to account for its spending overseas, the Pentagon has put that figure at $22.1 billion a year. It turns out that even a conservative estimate of the true costs of garrisoning the globe comes to an annual total of about $170 billion. In fact, it may be considerably higher. Since the onset of “the Global War on Terror” in 2001, the total cost for our garrisoning policies, for our presence abroad, has probably reached $1.8 trillion to $2.1 trillion.

How Much Do We Spend?

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Engelhardt: An Obit for the General

8:24 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The Fall of the American Empire (Writ Small) 
History, Farce, and David Petraeus 
By Tom Engelhardt

Official Portrait of Petraeus

David Petraeus

History, it is said, arrives first as tragedy, then as farce.  First as Karl Marx, then as the Marx Brothers.  In the case of twenty-first century America, history arrived first as George W. Bush (and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith and the Project for a New America — a shadow government masquerading as a think tank — and an assorted crew of ambitious neocons and neo-pundits); only later did David Petraeus make it onto the scene.

It couldn’t be clearer now that, from the shirtless FBI agent to the “embedded biographer and the “other other woman,” the “fall” of David Petraeus is playing out as farce of the first order.  What’s less obvious is that Petraeus, America’s military golden boy and Caesar of celebrity, was always smoke and mirrors, always the farce, even if the denizens of Washington didn’t know it.

Until recently, here was the open secret of Petraeus’s life: he may not have understood Iraqis or Afghans, but no military man in generations more intuitively grasped how to flatter and charm American reporters, pundits, and politicians into praising him.  This was, after all, the general who got his first Newsweek cover (“Can This Man Save Iraq?”) in 2004 while he was making a mess of a training program for Iraqi security forces, and two more before that magazine, too, took the fall.  In 2007, he was a runner-up to Vladimir Putin for TIME’s “Person of the Year.”  And long before Paula Broadwell’s aptly named biography, All In, was published to hosannas from the usual elite crew, that was par for the course.

You didn’t need special insider’s access to know that Broadwell wasn’t the only one with whom the general did calisthenics.  The FBI didn’t need to investigate.  Even before she came on the scene, scads of columnists, pundits, reporters, and politicians were in bed with him.  And weirdly enough, many of them still are.  (Typical was NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams mournfully discussing the “painful” resignation of “Dave” — “the most prominent and best known general of the modern era.”)  Adoring media people treated him like the next military Messiah, a combination of Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Ulysses S. Grant rolled into one fabulous piñata.  It’s a safe bet that no general of our era, perhaps of any American era, has had so many glowing adjectives attached to his name.

Perhaps Petraeus’s single most insightful moment, capturing both the tragedy and the farce to come, occurred during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  He was commanding the 101st Airborne on its drive to Baghdad, and even then was inviting reporters to spend time with him.  At some point, he said to journalist Rick Atkinson, “Tell me how this ends.”  Now, of course, we know: in farce and not well.

For weeks, the news has been filled with his ever-expanding story, including private rivalries, pirate-themed parties, conspiracy theories run wild, and investigations inside investigations inside investigations.  It’s lacked nothing an all-American twenty-first-century media needs to glue eyeballs.  Jill Kelley, the Tampa socialite whose online life started the ball rolling and ended up embroiling two American four-star generals in Internet hell, evidently wrote enough emails a day to stagger the imagination.  But she was a piker compared to the millions of words that followed from reporters, pundits, observers, retired military figures, everyone and anyone who had ever had an encounter with or a thought about Petraeus, his biographer-cum-lover Paula Broadwell, Afghan War Commander General John Allen, and the rest of an ever-expanding cast of characters.  Think of it as the Fall of the House of Gusher.

Here was the odd thing: none of David Petraeus’s “achievements” outlasted his presence on the scene.  Still, give him credit.  He was a prodigious campaigner and a thoroughly modern general.  From Baghdad to Kabul, no one was better at rolling out a media blitzkrieg back in the U.S. in which he himself would guide Americans through the fine points of his own war-making.

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Tom Engelhardt: Disaster on Autpilot

6:56 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Army Security at a Meeting in Afghanistan

(Photo: The US Army / Flickr)


Overwrought Empire
The Discrediting of U.S. Military Power
By Tom Engelhardt

Americans lived in a “victory culture” for much of the twentieth century.  You could say that we experienced an almost 75-year stretch of triumphalism — think of it as the real “American Century” — from World War I to the end of the Cold War, with time off for a destructive stalemate in Korea and a defeat in Vietnam too shocking to absorb or shake off.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, it all seemed so obvious.  Fate had clearly dealt Washington a royal flush.  It was victory with a capital V.  The United States was, after all, the last standing superpower, after centuries of unceasing great power rivalries on the planet.  It had a military beyond compare and no enemy, hardly a “rogue state,” on the horizon.  It was almost unnerving, such clear sailing into a dominant future, but a moment for the ages nonetheless.  Within a decade, pundits in Washington were hailing us as “the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome.”

And here’s the odd thing: in a sense, little has changed since then and yet everything seems different.  Think of it as the American imperial paradox: everywhere there are now “threats” against our well-being which seem to demand action and yet nowhere are there commensurate enemies to go with them.  Everywhere the U.S. military still reigns supreme by almost any measure you might care to apply; and yet — in case the paradox has escaped you — nowhere can it achieve its goals, however modest.

At one level, the American situation should simply take your breath away.  Never before in modern history had there been an arms race of only one or a great power confrontation of only one.  And at least in military terms, just as the neoconservatives imagined in those early years of the twenty-first century, the United States remains the “sole superpower” or even “hyperpower” of planet Earth.

The Planet’s Top Gun

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Tomgram: Robert Lipsyte, The Empire Bowl is Super!

8:42 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com

My father took me to Ebbets Field for my first football game — in the snow — in perhaps 1950.  The Brooklyn Brooks of the old American Football League were playing some team I no longer remember.  In fact, I have only the haziest memory of that moment.  Still, I was hooked.  The Brooks weren’t long for this planet, but football’s New York Giants and baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers pretty much sum up my childhood fantasy world.  (My Dad came from Brooklyn, I lived in Manhattan, and in the 1950s, sports still had a neighborhood quality to it, which is undoubtedly why, to this day, events like the Super Bowl have no meaning to me once New York teams are no longer involved.)

Of course, between the 1950s and today, between the Brooklyn Brooks and the New York Jets, an awful lot has changed, especially the nature of spectatorship itself and the “menu” available.  Sunday afternoon football, Sunday night football, Monday night football, Thursday night football in a preseason, season, and post-season that stretches from the dog days of summer to deepest winter, from one year to the next.  That’s the juggernaut of professional football today — and that, of course, is just the beginning of modern spectatorship.

It’s hardly news that we’ve become a spectator society.  At home, on the street, in a restaurant, in a meeting — no matter where, in fact — we can hardly bear to stop looking at one screen or another.  Never has the idea of “bread and circuses” (or perhaps “ads and circuses”) been so all-encompassing.  After all, what were the ten days of the Tucson massacre and its aftermath but a spectator event on a gargantuan scale, something that came perilously close to entertainment while masquerading piously as “national grieving”?  It’s hard even to grasp what spectatorship means when it can command our attention, our lives, 24/7 and still be called “the news.”  Consider it less than an irony that media outfits, discovering an event that will glue us to the screen for days, pour resources into it and refer to that act using the football term “flooding the zone.” 

Why, then, should we be surprised that the latest, sexiest American wonder weapon is a plane that can be “piloted” from thousands of miles away, turning even war-fighters into spectators with video screens and joy sticks?  Consider, then, the nature of that ultimate American spectacle, the Super Bowl, as seen through the eyes of TomDispatch Jock Culture correspondent Robert Lipsyte, whose memoir An Accidental Sportswriter will be heading our way in May.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast video interview in which Lipsyte discusses what makes football all-American, click here, or download it to your iPod here.)  Tom 

*****

You Must Watch the Empire Bowl 
It’s Our Last Super Thing
 
By Robert Lipsyte

If you are still passionately following football or, worse, allowing your kid to play, you may just be an old-fashioned imperialist running dog. Not that all football fans are bloodthirsty hounds feeding off the crippled hindquarters of the dying animal of empire. Some are in a vain search for a crucible of manhood that no longer exists. Others are in pursuit of a ticket out of a dead-end life.

Whatever your reason, this is the Super Bowl to watch, even if you are among those who have made an effort to disregard the game since high school jocks shouldered you in the halls.

This is the Big One. Maybe the Last Big One. Never before have so many loose strands of an unraveling empire come together in a single event accessible to those who mourn or cheer America.

Let’s start with the conceit that this game is the only super thing we have left. Super power, super economy, super you-name-it… gone. You can beat the Bushes for that, but we’re all out of super — except for the Super Bowl.  That celebration of an all-American $9 billion industry (estimated because the National Football League has never opened its books), not to mention millions more in subsidiary and dependent businesses, offers us a national holiday that has arguably superseded Thanksgiving (thanks for what?) and Christmas (electronic excess and obsolescence).

Even little Everytrader has a shot here.  Without insider connections, you undoubtedly have a far better shot at winning a football wager than gambling in the stock market.

The Big Four

Here are the four biggest reasons to watch this Super Bowl.

1. It’s Not Soccer

American exceptionalism is alive and thriving on Super Bowl Sunday. National Football League franchises are overwhelmingly owned, managed, and manned by American citizens.  Neither immigration nor foreign capital has made a perceptible dent in the game. And you and I have proudly subsidized all this. American taxpayers have built many NFL stadiums. Most American universities, with their government grants, have sports schools attached; those multi-million-dollar athletic departments (despite claims, they are rarely profitable) train the players and one of academia’s latest revenue-producing innovations — sports management departments — train the front-office personnel.

American football is barely played outside the country.  Call it a failure of colonialism (as baseball and basketball might), but it’s really a tribute to good old-fashioned protectionism. Those other major sports, even ice hockey, are increasingly being taken over by Latin American, Asian, or Eastern European guest workers. Pro football remains a native game.

The “futbol” that most of the rest of the world plays is a game that American male athletes and sports fans have never found compelling. Why? What’s not to like? The so-called “beautiful game” is exactly that, and the past several generations of American school-age girls and boys were lucky to have recreational soccer programs. But there was no room on the sports “shelf” for a game so poorly suited to commercial TV interruption and American domination.

(It’s not as if soccer is in any way effete. Its fans are famously thuggish. In fact, currently, the nationalistic Russian mobs who roam cities beating up people who do not look Slavic have taken to calling themselves “Soccer fans.”)

2. No Dogs Were Harmed in the Making of It

The controversy over allowing Michael Vick back into the select company of other NFL felons — reportedly about one-fifth of the playing population — faded after the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback showed contrition, spoke to schoolchildren, proved to be one of the most electrifying performers in the game, and then lost early in the play-offs, avoiding the embarrassment of PETA demonstrating at the Super Bowl.

At 30, Vick was clearly better than he had been before his 21-month imprisonment. He had added a previously missing work ethic and level of concentration. One wonders if the sharpening of Vick’s focus had to do with losing what might have been his primary outlet for sadism and violence: the brutal world of training fighting dogs and then killing the losers in often unspeakably cruel ways.

There is no question that violence stirs fan blood. Football players know this; they have been remarkably hostile to attempts to soften the mayhem, especially those ringing helmet-to-helmet shots, an offspring of the modern technique learned in PeeWee leagues of “putting a hat on him” (which means tackling headfirst rather than the more traditional style of wrapping one’s arms around the ball carrier’s legs and dragging him down).

Most pro football players seem to be on the side of the hats. A more careful game won’t be football anymore, they say. It won’t be the American game — even for some of the doctors watching who treat the “epidemic of concussions blazing through schoolboy football.”

3. But No Chicks

The title of Mariah Burton Nelson’s 1994 book, The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football, seems ever more prescient. The so-called feminization of America (really the slow movement toward equality) is reflected in most sports, many boardrooms, and the military. Resistance is stiff, from human resources violations to rape. Conservatives keen over the suffering of the average male. It’s tough when you suddenly have to compete against an expanding talent pool that includes women who are better than you. Mr. Average Mediocre can no longer count on his members-only credential to keep him in the game. Unless, of course, the game is football.

Football is the last estrogen-free zone. No wonder high school and college teams have such bloated rosters. (College teams routinely “dress” 85 men, compared to a pro team’s 53.) This gives more boys the chance to imagine themselves in the testosterone club, even if many of them hardly ever get into a game. Later, as jock alums, they will donate to alma mater and speak reverently of how old coach taught them to be men — or at least not women.

Yes, there are girls playing in some youth and high school games, even in college, mostly as kickers. But the freakishness of it is still the story. The NFL is so relentlessly misogynistic that off-field incidents like those involving Brett Favre when he was a Jet and Super Bowl-bound Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tend to be dismissed as boys-will-be-boys antics. Unfortunately, there’s a certain logic to this: since they began playing the game, they’ve been told they can be real men, not girls, not sissies — if they submit to Coach, play hard, and play in pain. In return, their perks and entitlements will be those of conquering warriors.

4. The Faux Volunteer Army

If football really is the bread and circuses of this dying empire, the injuries suffered by the gladiators (disproportionately African-American) make the game more real, more urgent. And their willingness to take the risks absolves us from blame. After all, they volunteered. They really want to play this game, the media reminds us. These aggressive, competitive men have an intrinsic need to prove themselves to themselves, each other, and us. And where else, the media asks us, would they make so much money and find so much acclaim?

At Goldman Sachs? The Mayo Clinic? Skadden, Arps? No, no, these sturdy lads are often from the underclass and they have leveraged their skill and dedication into some college studies and a job in football. That many of these gladiators, clearly smart enough to absorb complicated game plans, feel that football is their only shot seems to be an indictment of American opportunity. What about all those high school and college football players who put all their chips in their hat and still didn’t make it to the pros?

Maybe some of them joined the National Guard.

It’s here, of course, that the entire metaphor may go offsides for you. Or at least become uncomfortable. Football — Army?  Gladiators — mercenaries? What about all the strong young men and, increasingly, women who feel that their only shot at getting an education and a meaningful life is joining the military during wartime?

The author and journalist Richard Reeves made the connection neatly when he wrote: “We have a volunteer army, the National Football League with guns, and we are the spectators.”

As spectators we rarely see the young people die in either volunteer legion. Restrictions during the Bush years on journalists filming combat deaths or even showing returning caskets kept the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at a comfortable remove until they became distant and routine. Old news. Maybe even a little boring for people without loved ones on active duty.

On NFL broadcasts, players with broken bones and torn tissues are quickly carted off lest their teammates lose heart. For those of us watching on TV, the collisions seem almost like cartoon hits. How can those players just pop back up? Is it the pride, the adrenaline, that allows them to pretend they are made of steel? Of course, the real damage, the dementia brought on by head trauma, is years, even decades, away.

It’s hard to believe how recently the concussion discussion began in earnest, as if players hadn’t been hit in the head for more than a century. It was launched several years ago by the revelation that former pro football players were being diagnosed with dementia, and even dying from suspected long-term brain trauma, at disproportionate rates for their age.  It was helped along by a number of workers’ compensation cases and the superb reporting of Alan Schwarz of the New York Times.

The concussion discussion has replaced steroids as the NFL health topic, although the issues are joined: larger players seem to be at greater risk for early death, and bulking up via steroids probably contributes to harder hits. The discussion has also raised the question of whether parents should allow their children to play the game — years of small, unreported traumas to the head can’t be good for developing brains. It even occasioned a rare but telling ESPN column on abolition.

Lest you consider this enough piling on the all-American game, labor troubles loom with a lock-out possible in March. Because the main issue is money — the teams want to share less revenue (currently 60%) with the players — the media tends to characterize the conflict as “billionaires versus millionaires.”  Actually, most owners are rich from other businesses and would not have been allowed into the NFL unless they were financially secure, while few players survive more than about three years in the league. The owners also want to increase production (adding two games to the regular season) without taking more responsibility for health-care costs.

If any of this sounds depressingly like real life, how could you not watch what might be the last Super Bowl, the endgame of empire, the two-minute warning before America finally beats itself?

Robert Lipsyte, the Jock Culture correspondent for Tomdispatch.com, is author of a forthcoming memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter (May, Ecco-HarperCollins).  To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast video interview in which Lipsyte discusses what makes football all-American, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Robert Lipsyte

Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, How Washington Rules

4:18 pm in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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[Note for TomDispatch Readers:  Today, to end this site’s summer, we offer a stirring excerpt from Andrew Bacevich’s new book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (Metropolitan Books).  What follows below is the introduction to the book which stands on its own as a riveting political essay about a personal odyssey into recent history and the realities of our moment, but also offers a powerful sense of the book itself, which is simply a must-read (and also on the New York Times extended bestseller list). To catch Bacevich discussing his book in one of Timothy MacBain’s TomCast audio interviews, click here or, to download to an iPod, here.

With this post, TD hangs out the old “gone fishing” sign until September 7th, when we’ll return with renewed energy and new posts.  In the meantime, my thanks to the amazing crew of TomDispatch readers who recently contributed $150 (or more) to this site in return for a personally autographed copy of Chalmers Johnson’s new book, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope.  Your dollars make TD’s life a far better one, believe me.  In addition, for anyone who meant to, but didn’t take up the offer, it remains open until we return in September.  You can click here to check out the original offer or here to make your $150 contribution and receive your signed book. 

A further thanks to all of you who, in the last month, used one of the TomDispatch book (or book cover) links to travel to Amazon.com and buy a book (or anything else).  As we get a cut of any purchase you make at Amazon once you’ve arrived via TD, you continue to provide us with a small but growing stream of revenue (at no cost to you).  Your purchases of the Bacevich book, the Johnson book, and my new book, The American Way of War:  How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s, have been prodigious -- and appreciated.  While my own book won’t make any bestseller lists, it is in its second printing thanks, in part, to you.  Those of you who haven’t bought the three books can do so in a single cut-rate package deal at the Amazon page for my book. 

Finally, my thanks and a deep bow of appreciation to the whole TomDispatch crew -- Joe Duax, Nick Turse, Andy Kroll, Christopher Holmes, and Timothy MacBain -- whose hard work makes it all possible. Have a good end of August.  See you after Labor Day.  Tom]

The Unmaking of a Company Man 
An Education Begun in the Shadow of the Brandenburg Gate 

By Andrew Bacevich

Worldly ambition inhibits true learning. Ask me. I know. A young man in a hurry is nearly uneducable: He knows what he wants and where he’s headed; when it comes to looking back or entertaining heretical thoughts, he has neither the time nor the inclination. All that counts is that he is going somewhere. Only as ambition wanes does education become a possibility.

My own education did not commence until I had reached middle age. I can fix its start date with precision: for me, education began in Berlin, on a winter’s evening, at the Brandenburg Gate, not long after the Berlin Wall had fallen.

As an officer in the U.S. Army I had spent considerable time in Germany. Until that moment, however, my family and I had never had occasion to visit this most famous of German cities, still littered with artifacts of a deeply repellent history. At the end of a long day of exploration, we found ourselves in what had, until just months before, been the communist East. It was late and we were hungry, but I insisted on walking the length of the Unter den Linden, from the River Spree to the gate itself. A cold rain was falling and the pavement glistened. The buildings lining the avenue, dating from the era of Prussian kings, were dark, dirty, and pitted. Few people were about. It was hardly a night for sightseeing.

For as long as I could remember, the Brandenburg Gate had been the preeminent symbol of the age and Berlin the epicenter of contemporary history. Yet by the time I made it to the once and future German capital, history was already moving on. The Cold War had abruptly ended. A divided city and a divided nation had reunited.

For Americans who had known Berlin only from a distance, the city existed primarily as a metaphor. Pick a date — 1933, 1942, 1945, 1948, 1961, 1989 — and Berlin becomes an instructive symbol of power, depravity, tragedy, defiance, endurance, or vindication. For those inclined to view the past as a chronicle of parables, the modern history of Berlin offered an abundance of material. The greatest of those parables emerged from the events of 1933 to 1945, an epic tale of evil ascendant, belatedly confronted, then heroically overthrown. A second narrative, woven from events during the intense period immediately following World War II, saw hopes for peace dashed, yielding bitter antagonism but also great resolve. The ensuing stand-off — the “long twilight struggle,” in John Kennedy’s memorable phrase — formed the centerpiece of the third parable, its central theme stubborn courage in the face of looming peril. Finally came the exhilarating events of 1989, with freedom ultimately prevailing, not only in Berlin, but throughout Eastern Europe.

What exactly was I looking for at the Brandenburg Gate? Perhaps confirmation that those parables, which I had absorbed and accepted as true, were just that. Whatever I expected, what I actually found was a cluster of shabby-looking young men, not German, hawking badges, medallions, hats, bits of uniforms, and other artifacts of the mighty Red Army. It was all junk, cheaply made and shoddy. For a handful of deutsche marks, I bought a wristwatch emblazoned with the symbol of the Soviet armored corps. Within days, it ceased to work.

Huddling among the scarred columns, those peddlers — almost certainly off-duty Russian soldiers awaiting redeployment home — constituted a subversive presence. They were loose ends of a story that was supposed to have ended neatly when the Berlin Wall came down. As we hurried off to find warmth and a meal, this disconcerting encounter stuck with me, and I began to entertain this possibility: that the truths I had accumulated over the previous twenty years as a professional soldier — especially truths about the Cold War and U.S. foreign policy — might not be entirely true.

By temperament and upbringing, I had always taken comfort in orthodoxy. In a life spent subject to authority, deference had become a deeply ingrained habit. I found assurance in conventional wisdom. Now, I started, however hesitantly, to suspect that orthodoxy might be a sham. I began to appreciate that authentic truth is never simple and that any version of truth handed down from on high — whether by presidents, prime ministers, or archbishops — is inherently suspect. The powerful, I came to see, reveal truth only to the extent that it suits them. Even then, the truths to which they testify come wrapped in a nearly invisible filament of dissembling, deception, and duplicity. The exercise of power necessarily involves manipulation and is antithetical to candor.

I came to these obvious points embarrassingly late in life. “Nothing is so astonishing in education,” the historian Henry Adams once wrote, “as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.” Until that moment I had too often confused education with accumulating and cataloging facts. In Berlin, at the foot of the Brandenburg Gate, I began to realize that I had been a naïf. And so, at age 41, I set out, in a halting and haphazard fashion, to acquire a genuine education.

Twenty years later I’ve made only modest progress. What follows is an accounting of what I have learned thus far.

Visiting a Third-World Version of Germany

In October 1990, I’d gotten a preliminary hint that something might be amiss in my prior education. On October 3rd, communist East Germany — formally the German Democratic Republic (GDR) — ceased to exist and German reunification was officially secured. That very week I accompanied a group of American military officers to the city of Jena in what had been the GDR. Our purpose was self-consciously educational — to study the famous battle of Jena-Auerstädt in which Napoleon Bonaparte and his marshals had inflicted an epic defeat on Prussian forces commanded by the Duke of Brunswick. (The outcome of that 1806 battle inspired the philosopher Hegel, then residing in Jena, to declare that the “end of history” was at hand. The conclusion of the Cold War had only recently elicited a similarly exuberant judgment from the American scholar Francis Fukuyama.)

On this trip we did learn a lot about the conduct of that battle, although mainly inert facts possessing little real educational value. Inadvertently, we also gained insight into the reality of life on the far side of what Americans had habitually called the Iron Curtain, known in U.S. military vernacular as “the trace.” In this regard, the trip proved nothing less than revelatory. The educational content of this excursion would — for me — be difficult to exaggerate.

As soon as our bus crossed the old Inner German Border, we entered a time warp. For U.S. troops garrisoned throughout Bavaria and Hesse, West Germany had for decades served as a sort of theme park — a giant Epcot filled with quaint villages, stunning scenery, and superb highways, along with ample supplies of quite decent food, excellent beer, and accommodating women. Now, we found ourselves face-to-face with an altogether different Germany. Although commonly depicted as the most advanced and successful component of the Soviet Empire, East Germany more closely resembled part of the undeveloped world.

The roads — even the main highways — were narrow and visibly crumbling. Traffic posed little problem. Apart from a few sluggish Trabants and Wartburgs — East German automobiles that tended to a retro primitivism — and an occasional exhaust-spewing truck, the way was clear. The villages through which we passed were forlorn and the small farms down at the heels. For lunch we stopped at a roadside stand. The proprietor happily accepted our D-marks, offering us inedible sausages in exchange. Although the signs assured us that we remained in a land of German speakers, it was a country that had not yet recovered from World War II.

Upon arrival in Jena, we checked into the Hotel Schwarzer Bär, identified by our advance party as the best hostelry in town. It turned out to be a rundown fleabag. As the senior officer present, I was privileged to have a room in which the plumbing functioned. Others were not so lucky.

Jena itself was a midsized university city, with its main academic complex immediately opposite our hotel. A very large bust of Karl Marx, mounted on a granite pedestal and badly in need of cleaning, stood on the edge of the campus. Briquettes of soft coal used for home heating made the air all but unbreathable and coated everything with soot. In the German cities we knew, pastels predominated — houses and apartment blocks painted pale green, muted salmon, and soft yellow. Here everything was brown and gray.

That evening we set out in search of dinner. The restaurants within walking distance were few and unattractive. We chose badly, a drab establishment in which fresh vegetables were unavailable and the wurst inferior. The adequacy of the local beer provided the sole consolation.

The following morning, on the way to the battlefield, we noted a significant Soviet military presence, mostly in the form of trucks passing by — to judge by their appearance, designs that dated from the 1950s. To our surprise, we discovered that the Soviets had established a small training area adjacent to where Napoleon had vanquished the Prussians. Although we had orders to avoid contact with any Russians, the presence of their armored troops going through their paces riveted us. Here was something of far greater immediacy than Bonaparte and the Duke of Brunswick: “the other,” about which we had for so long heard so much but knew so little. Through binoculars, we watched a column of Russian armored vehicles — BMPs, in NATO parlance — traversing what appeared to be a drivers’ training course. Suddenly, one of them began spewing smoke. Soon thereafter, it burst into flames.

Here was education, although at the time I had only the vaguest sense of its significance.

An Ambitious Team Player Assailed by Doubts

These visits to Jena and Berlin offered glimpses of a reality radically at odds with my most fundamental assumptions. Uninvited and unexpected, subversive forces had begun to infiltrate my consciousness. Bit by bit, my worldview started to crumble.

That worldview had derived from this conviction: that American power manifested a commitment to global leadership, and that both together expressed and affirmed the nation’s enduring devotion to its founding ideals. That American power, policies, and purpose were bound together in a neat, internally consistent package, each element drawing strength from and reinforcing the others, was something I took as a given. That, during my adult life, a penchant for interventionism had become a signature of U.S. policy did not — to me, at least — in any way contradict America’s aspirations for peace. Instead, a willingness to expend lives and treasure in distant places testified to the seriousness of those aspirations. That, during this same period, the United States had amassed an arsenal of over 31,000 nuclear weapons, some small number of them assigned to units in which I had served, was not at odds with our belief in the inalienable right to life and liberty; rather, threats to life and liberty had compelled the United States to acquire such an arsenal and maintain it in readiness for instant use.

I was not so naïve as to believe that the American record had been without flaws. Yet I assured myself that any errors or misjudgments had been committed in good faith. Furthermore, circumstances permitted little real choice. In Southeast Asia as in Western Europe, in the Persian Gulf as in the Western Hemisphere, the United States had simply done what needed doing. Viable alternatives did not exist. To consent to any dilution of American power would be to forfeit global leadership, thereby putting at risk safety, prosperity, and freedom, not only our own but also that of our friends and allies.

The choices seemed clear enough. On one side was the status quo: the commitments, customs, and habits that defined American globalism, implemented by the national security apparatus within which I functioned as a small cog. On the other side was the prospect of appeasement, isolationism, and catastrophe. The only responsible course was the one to which every president since Harry Truman had adhered.

For me, the Cold War had played a crucial role in sustaining that worldview. Given my age, upbringing, and professional background, it could hardly have been otherwise. Although the great rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union had contained moments of considerable anxiety — I remember my father, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, stocking our basement with water and canned goods — it served primarily to clarify, not to frighten. The Cold War provided a framework that organized and made sense of contemporary history. It offered a lineup and a scorecard. That there existed bad Germans and good Germans, their Germans and our Germans, totalitarian Germans and Germans who, like Americans, passionately loved freedom was, for example, a proposition I accepted as dogma. Seeing the Cold War as a struggle between good and evil answered many questions, consigned others to the periphery, and rendered still others irrelevant. 

Back in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, more than a few members of my generation had rejected the conception of the Cold War as a Manichean struggle. Here too, I was admittedly a slow learner. Yet having kept the faith long after others had lost theirs, the doubts that eventually assailed me were all the more disorienting. 

Granted, occasional suspicions had appeared long before Jena and Berlin. My own Vietnam experience had generated its share, which I had done my best to suppress. I was, after all, a serving soldier. Except in the narrowest of terms, the military profession, in those days at least, did not look kindly on nonconformity. Climbing the ladder of career success required curbing maverick tendencies. To get ahead, you needed to be a team player. Later, when studying the history of U.S. foreign relations in graduate school, I was pelted with challenges to orthodoxy, which I vigorously deflected. When it came to education, graduate school proved a complete waste of time — a period of intense study devoted to the further accumulation of facts, while I exerted myself to ensuring that they remained inert.

Now, however, my personal circumstances were changing. Shortly after the passing of the Cold War, my military career ended. Education thereby became not only a possibility, but also a necessity.

In measured doses, mortification cleanses the soul. It’s the perfect antidote for excessive self-regard. After 23 years spent inside the U.S. Army seemingly going somewhere, I now found myself on the outside going nowhere in particular. In the self-contained and cloistered universe of regimental life, I had briefly risen to the status of minor spear carrier. The instant I took off my uniform, that status vanished. I soon came to a proper appreciation of my own insignificance, a salutary lesson that I ought to have absorbed many years earlier.

As I set out on what eventually became a crablike journey toward a new calling as a teacher and writer — a pilgrimage of sorts — ambition in the commonly accepted meaning of the term ebbed. This did not happen all at once. Yet gradually, trying to grab one of life’s shiny brass rings ceased being a major preoccupation. Wealth, power, and celebrity became not aspirations but subjects for critical analysis. History — especially the familiar narrative of the Cold War — no longer offered answers; instead, it posed perplexing riddles. Easily the most nagging was this one: How could I have so profoundly misjudged the reality of what lay on the far side of the Iron Curtain?

Had I been insufficiently attentive? Or was it possible that I had been snookered all along? Contemplating such questions, while simultaneously witnessing the unfolding of the “long 1990s” — the period bookended by two wars with Iraq when American vainglory reached impressive new heights — prompted the realization that I had grossly misinterpreted the threat posed by America’s adversaries. Yet that was the lesser half of the problem. Far worse than misperceiving “them” was the fact that I had misperceived “us.” What I thought I knew best I actually understood least. Here, the need for education appeared especially acute. 

George W. Bush’s decision to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 pushed me fully into opposition. Claims that once seemed elementary — above all, claims relating to the essentially benign purposes of American power — now appeared preposterous. The contradictions that found an ostensibly peace-loving nation committing itself to a doctrine of preventive war became too great to ignore. The folly and hubris of the policy makers who heedlessly thrust the nation into an ill-defined and open-ended “global war on terror” without the foggiest notion of what victory would look like, how it would be won, and what it might cost approached standards hitherto achieved only by slightly mad German warlords. During the era of containment, the United States had at least maintained the pretense of a principled strategy; now, the last vestiges of principle gave way to fantasy and opportunism. With that, the worldview to which I had adhered as a young adult and carried into middle age dissolved completely.

Credo and Trinity

What should stand in the place of such discarded convictions? Simply inverting the conventional wisdom, substituting a new Manichean paradigm for the old discredited version — the United States taking the place of the Soviet Union as the source of the world’s evil — would not suffice. Yet arriving at even an approximation of truth would entail subjecting conventional wisdom, both present and past, to sustained and searching scrutiny. Cautiously at first but with growing confidence, this I vowed to do.

Doing so meant shedding habits of conformity acquired over decades. All of my adult life I had been a company man, only dimly aware of the extent to which institutional loyalties induce myopia. Asserting independence required first recognizing the extent to which I had been socialized to accept certain things as unimpeachable. Here then were the preliminary steps essential to making education accessible. Over a period of years, a considerable store of debris had piled up. Now, it all had to go. Belatedly, I learned that more often than not what passes for conventional wisdom is simply wrong. Adopting fashionable attitudes to demonstrate one’s trustworthiness — the world of politics is flush with such people hoping thereby to qualify for inclusion in some inner circle — is akin to engaging in prostitution in exchange for promissory notes. It’s not only demeaning but downright foolhardy.

Washington Rules aims to take stock of conventional wisdom in its most influential and enduring form, namely the package of assumptions, habits, and precepts that have defined the tradition of statecraft to which the United States has adhered since the end of World War II — the era of global dominance now drawing to a close. This postwar tradition combines two components, each one so deeply embedded in the American collective consciousness as to have all but disappeared from view.

The first component specifies norms according to which the international order ought to work and charges the United States with responsibility for enforcing those norms. Call this the American credo. In the simplest terms, the credo summons the United States — and the United States alone — to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world. In a celebrated manifesto issued at the dawn of what he termed “The American Century,” Henry R. Luce made the case for this spacious conception of global leadership. Writing in Life magazine in early 1941, the influential publisher exhorted his fellow citizens to “accept wholeheartedly our duty to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” Luce thereby captured what remains even today the credo’s essence.

Luce’s concept of an American Century, an age of unquestioned American global primacy, resonated, especially in Washington. His evocative phrase found a permanent place in the lexicon of national politics. (Recall that the neoconservatives who, in the 1990s, lobbied for more militant U.S. policies named their enterprise the Project for a New American Century.) So, too, did Luce’s expansive claim of prerogatives to be exercised by the United States. Even today, whenever public figures allude to America’s responsibility to lead, they signal their fidelity to this creed. Along with respectful allusions to God and “the troops,” adherence to Luce’s credo has become a de facto prerequisite for high office. Question its claims and your prospects of being heard in the hubbub of national politics become nil.

Note, however, that the duty Luce ascribed to Americans has two components. It is not only up to Americans, he wrote, to choose the purposes for which they would bring their influence to bear, but to choose the means as well. Here we confront the second component of the postwar tradition of American statecraft.

With regard to means, that tradition has emphasized activism over example, hard power over soft, and coercion (often styled “negotiating from a position of strength”) over suasion. Above all, the exercise of global leadership as prescribed by the credo obliges the United States to maintain military capabilities staggeringly in excess of those required for self-defense. Prior to World War II, Americans by and large viewed military power and institutions with skepticism, if not outright hostility. In the wake of World War II, that changed. An affinity for military might emerged as central to the American identity.

By the midpoint of the twentieth century, “the Pentagon” had ceased to be merely a gigantic five-sided building. Like “Wall Street” at the end of the nineteenth century, it had become Leviathan, its actions veiled in secrecy, its reach extending around the world. Yet while the concentration of power in Wall Street had once evoked deep fear and suspicion, Americans by and large saw the concentration of power in the Pentagon as benign. Most found it reassuring.

A people who had long seen standing armies as a threat to liberty now came to believe that the preservation of liberty required them to lavish resources on the armed forces. During the Cold War, Americans worried ceaselessly about falling behind the Russians, even though the Pentagon consistently maintained a position of overall primacy. Once the Soviet threat disappeared, mere primacy no longer sufficed. With barely a whisper of national debate, unambiguous and perpetual global military supremacy emerged as an essential predicate to global leadership.

Every great military power has its distinctive signature. For Napoleonic France, it was the levée en masse — the people in arms animated by the ideals of the Revolution. For Great Britain in the heyday of empire, it was command of the seas, sustained by a dominant fleet and a network of far-flung outposts from Gibraltar and the Cape of Good Hope to Singapore and Hong Kong. Germany from the 1860s to the 1940s (and Israel from 1948 to 1973) took another approach, relying on a potent blend of tactical flexibility and operational audacity to achieve battlefield superiority.

The abiding signature of American military power since World War II has been of a different order altogether. The United States has not specialized in any particular type of war. It has not adhered to a fixed tactical style. No single service or weapon has enjoyed consistent favor. At times, the armed forces have relied on citizen-soldiers to fill their ranks; at other times, long-service professionals. Yet an examination of the past 60 years of U.S. military policy and practice does reveal important elements of continuity. Call them the sacred trinity: an abiding conviction that the minimum essentials of international peace and order require the United States to maintain a global military presence, to configure its forces for global power projection, and to counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism.

Together, credo and trinity — the one defining purpose, the other practice — constitute the essence of the way that Washington has attempted to govern and police the American Century. The relationship between the two is symbiotic. The trinity lends plausibility to the credo’s vast claims. For its part, the credo justifies the trinity’s vast requirements and exertions. Together they provide the basis for an enduring consensus that imparts a consistency to U.S. policy regardless of which political party may hold the upper hand or who may be occupying the White House. From the era of Harry Truman to the age of Barack Obama, that consensus has remained intact. It defines the rules to which Washington adheres; it determines the precepts by which Washington rules.

As used here, Washington is less a geographic expression than a set of interlocking institutions headed by people who, whether acting officially or unofficially, are able to put a thumb on the helm of state. Washington, in this sense, includes the upper echelons of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government. It encompasses the principal components of the national security state — the departments of Defense, State, and, more recently, Homeland Security, along with various agencies comprising the intelligence and federal law enforcement communities. Its ranks extend to select think tanks and interest groups. Lawyers, lobbyists, fixers, former officials, and retired military officers who still enjoy access are members in good standing. Yet Washington also reaches beyond the Beltway to include big banks and other financial institutions, defense contractors and major corporations, television networks and elite publications like the New York Times, even quasi-academic entities like the Council on Foreign Relations and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. With rare exceptions, acceptance of the Washington rules forms a prerequisite for entry into this world.

My purpose in writing Washiington Rules is fivefold: first, to trace the origins and evolution of the Washington rules — both the credo that inspires consensus and the trinity in which it finds expression; second, to subject the resulting consensus to critical inspection, showing who wins and who loses and also who foots the bill; third, to explain how the Washington rules are perpetuated, with certain views privileged while others are declared disreputable; fourth, to demonstrate that the rules themselves have lost what ever utility they may once have possessed, with their implications increasingly pernicious and their costs increasingly unaffordable; and finally, to argue for readmitting disreputable (or “radical”) views to our national security debate, in effect legitimating alternatives to the status quo. In effect, my aim is to invite readers to share in the process of education on which I embarked two decades ago in Berlin.

The Washington rules were forged at a moment when American influence and power were approaching their acme. That moment has now passed. The United States has drawn down the stores of authority and goodwill it had acquired by 1945. Words uttered in Washington command less respect than once was the case. Americans can ill afford to indulge any longer in dreams of saving the world, much less remaking it in our own image. The curtain is now falling on the American Century.

Similarly, the United States no longer possesses sufficient wherewithal to sustain a national security strategy that relies on global military presence and global power projection to underwrite a policy of global interventionism. Touted as essential to peace, adherence to that strategy has propelled the United States into a condition approximating perpetual war, as the military misadventures of the past decade have demonstrated.

To anyone with eyes to see, the shortcomings inherent in the Washington rules have become plainly evident. Although those most deeply invested in perpetuating its conventions will insist otherwise, the tradition to which Washington remains devoted has begun to unravel. Attempting to prolong its existence might serve Washington’s interests, but it will not serve the interests of the American people.

Devising an alternative to the reigning national security paradigm will pose a daunting challenge — especially if Americans look to “Washington” for fresh thinking. Yet doing so has become essential.

In one sense, the national security policies to which Washington so insistently adheres express what has long been the preferred American approach to engaging the world beyond our borders. That approach plays to America’s presumed strong suit — since World War II, and especially since the end of the Cold War, thought to be military power. In another sense, this reliance on military might creates excuses for the United States to avoid serious engagement: confidence in American arms has made it unnecessary to attend to what others might think or to consider how their aspirations might differ from our own. In this way, the Washington rules reinforce American provincialism — a national trait for which the United States continues to pay dearly.

The persistence of these rules has also provided an excuse to avoid serious self-engagement. From this perspective, confidence that the credo and the trinity will oblige others to accommodate themselves to America’s needs or desires — whether for cheap oil, cheap credit, or cheap consumer goods — has allowed Washington to postpone or ignore problems demanding attention here at home. Fixing Iraq or Afghanistan ends up taking precedence over fixing Cleveland and Detroit. Purporting to support the troops in their crusade to free the world obviates any obligation to assess the implications of how Americans themselves choose to exercise freedom.

When Americans demonstrate a willingness to engage seriously with others, combined with the courage to engage seriously with themselves, then real education just might begin.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.  His new book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (Metropolitan Books)has just been published. This essay is its introduction.  Listen to a TomCast audio interview in which he discusses the book by clicking here, or to download to an iPod, here.

Excerpted from Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, published this month by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2010 by Andrew Bacevich. All rights reserved.

Tomgram: Chalmers Johnson, Portrait of a Sagging Empire

7:26 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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[Note for TomDispatch readers: I have a special offer to make today.  Chalmers Johnson has regularly written for this site since 2003.  He’s been a stalwart here.  His remarkable new book, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope, is due out today.  As a signal of his support for TomDispatch, he’s agreed to sign a book for any TD reader or enthusiast willing to contribute $150 to this site. (All contributions to TomDispatch.com are tax-deductible to the extent provided by law. For more information, click here.) 

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In September 1998, I was handed a submission for a proposed book by Chalmers Johnson.  I was then (as I am now) consulting editor at Metropolitan Books.  9/11 was three years away, the Bush administration still an unimaginable nightmare, and though the prospective book’s prospective title had “American Empire” in it, the American Empire Project I now co-run with my friend and TomDispatch regular Steve Fraser was still almost four years from crossing either of our minds.

I remembered Johnson, however.  As a young man, I had read his book on peasant nationalism in north China where, during the 1930s, Japanese invaders were conducting “kill-all, burn-all, loot-all” operations.  Its vision of how a revolution could gain strength from a foreign occupation stayed with me.  I had undoubtedly also read some of Johnson’s well-respected work on contemporary Japan and I knew, even then, that in the Vietnam War era he had been a fierce opponent of the antiwar movement I took part in.  If I didn’t already know it, the proposal made no bones about the fact that he had also, in that era, consulted for the CIA. 

I certainly turned to his submission — a prologue, a single chapter, and an outline of the rest of a book — with a dubious eye, but was promptly blasted away by a passage in the prologue in which he referred to himself as having been a “spear-carrier for empire” and, some pages in, by this passage as well:

“I was sufficiently aware of Mao Zedong’s attempts to export ‘people’s war’ to believe that the United States could not afford to lose in Vietnam.  In that, too, I was distinctly a man of my times.  It proved to be a disastrously wrong position.  The problem was that I knew too much about the international Communist movement and not enough about the United States government and its Department of Defense.  I was also in those years irritated by campus antiwar protesters, who seemed to me self-indulgent as well as sanctimonious and who had so clearly not done their homework [on the history of communism in East Asia]… As it turned out, however, they understood far better than I did the impulses of a Robert McNamara, a McGeorge Bundy, or a Walt Rostow.  They grasped something essential about the nature of America’s imperial role in the world that I had failed to perceive.  In retrospect, I wish I had stood with the antiwar protest movement.  For all its naïveté and unruliness, it was right and American policy wrong.”

I was little short of thunderstruck.  I knew then — and I think it still holds today — that no one of prominence with Johnson’s position on the war and in his age range had ever written such a set of sentences.  At that moment, knowing nothing else, I made the decision to publish his book.  It was possibly the single most impulsive, even irrational, and thoroughly satisfying decision I’ve made in my 30-odd years as an editor in, or at the fringes of, mainstream publishing.

Though I didn’t have expectations for the book then, the rest is, quite literally, history.  After all, its title would be Blowback, a term of CIA tradecraft that neither I nor just about any other American had ever heard of, and which, thanks to Johnson, has now become part of our language (along with the accompanying catch phrase “unintended consequences”).  On its publication in 2000, the book was widely ignored.  In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, however, it seemed nothing short of prophetic, and so, in paperback, stormed those 9/11 tables at the front of bookstores, and soared to bestsellerdom. 

That I ever edited Blowback or Johnson’s subsequent books was little short of a fluke, one of the luckiest of my life.  It led as well to a relationship with a man of remarkable empathy and insight, who was then on a no less remarkable journey (on which I could tag along).  Now, a new book of his, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hopehas arrivedfocused on the many subjects — from our empire of bases to the way the Pentagon budget, the weapons industries, and military Keynesianism may one day help send us into great power bankruptcy — that have obsessed him in recent years.  It’s not to be missed.  (Be sure to catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Johnson discusses that empire of bases and his new book by clicking here or, to download it to your iPod, here.)  Tom

The Guns of August 
Lowering the Flag on the American Century
By Chalmers Johnson

In 1962, the historian Barbara Tuchman published a book about the start of World War I and called it The Guns of August. It went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.  She was, of course, looking back at events that had occurred almost 50 years earlier and had at her disposal documents and information not available to participants. They were acting, as Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara put it, in the fog of war.

So where are we this August of 2010, with guns blazing in one war in Afghanistan even as we try to extricate ourselves from another in Iraq?  Where are we, as we impose sanctions on Iran and North Korea (and threaten worse), while sending our latest wonder weapons, pilotless drones armed with bombs and missiles, into Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, Yemen, and who knows where else, tasked with endless "targeted killings" which, in blunter times, used to be called assassinations?  Where exactly are we, as we continue to garrison much of the globe even as our country finds itself incapable of paying for basic services?

I wish I had a crystal ball to peer into and see what historians will make of our own guns of August in 2060. The fog of war, after all, is just a stand-in for what might be called "the fog of the future," the inability of humans to peer with any accuracy far into the world to come.  Let me nonetheless try to offer a few glimpses of what that foggy landscape some years ahead might reveal, and even hazard a few predictions about what possibilities await still-imperial America.

Let me begin by asking: What harm would befall the United States if we actually decided, against all odds, to close those hundreds and hundreds of bases, large and small, that we garrison around the world?  What if we actually dismantled our empire, and came home? Would Genghis Khan-like hordes descend on us?  Not likely.  Neither a land nor a sea invasion of the U.S. is even conceivable.

Would 9/11-type attacks accelerate?  It seems far likelier to me that, as our overseas profile shrank, the possibility of such attacks would shrink with it.

Would various countries we’ve invaded, sometimes occupied, and tried to set on the path of righteousness and democracy decline into "failed states?" Probably some would, and preventing or controlling this should be the function of the United Nations or of neighboring states. (It is well to remember that the murderous Cambodian regime of Pol Pot was finally brought to an end not by us, but by neighboring Vietnam.)

Sagging Empire

In other words, the main fears you might hear in Washington — if anyone even bothered to wonder what would happen, should we begin to dismantle our empire — would prove but chimeras.  They would, in fact, be remarkably similar to Washington’s dire predictions in the 1970s about states all over Asia, then Africa, and beyond falling, like so many dominoes, to communist domination if we did not win the war in Vietnam.

What, then, would the world be like if the U.S. lost control globally — Washington’s greatest fear and deepest reflection of its own overblown sense of self-worth — as is in fact happening now despite our best efforts?  What would that world be like if the U.S. just gave it all up? What would happen to us if we were no longer the "sole superpower" or the world’s self-appointed policeman?

In fact, we would still be a large and powerful nation-state with a host of internal and external problems. An immigration and drug crisis on our southern border, soaring health-care costs, a weakening education system, an aging population, an aging infrastructure, an unending recession — none of these are likely to go away soon, nor are any of them likely to be tackled in a serious or successful way as long as we continue to spend our wealth on armies, weapons, wars, global garrisons, and bribes for petty dictators.

Even without our interference, the Middle East would continue to export oil, and if China has been buying up an ever larger share of what remains underground in those lands, perhaps that should spur us into conserving more and moving more rapidly into the field of alternative energies.

Rising Power

Meanwhile, whether we dismantle our empire or not, China will become (if it isn’t already) the world’s next superpower. It, too, faces a host of internal problems, including many of the same ones we have. However, it has a booming economy, a favorable balance of payments vis-à-vis much of the rest of the world (particularly the U.S., which is currently running an annual trade deficit with China of $227 billion), and a government and population determined to develop the country into a powerful, economically dominant nation-state.

Fifty years ago, when I began my academic career as a scholar of China and Japan, I was fascinated by the modern history of both countries. My first book dealt with the way the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s spurred Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party he headed on a trajectory to power, thanks to its nationalist resistance to that foreign invader. Incidentally, it is not difficult to find many examples of this process in which a domestic political group gains power because it champions resistance to foreign troops.  In the immediate post-WWII period, it occurred in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia; with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, all over Eastern Europe; and today, it is surely occurring in Afghanistan and probably in Iraq as well.

Once the Cultural Revolution began in China in 1966, I temporarily lost interest in studying the country. I thought I knew where that disastrous internal upheaval was taking China and so turned back to Japan, which by then was well launched on its amazing recovery from World War II, thanks to state-guided, but not state-owned, economic growth.

This pattern of economic development, sometimes called the "developmental state," differed fundamentally from both Soviet-type control of the economy and the laissez-faire approach of the U.S.  Despite Japan’s success, by the 1990s its increasingly sclerotic bureaucracy had led the country into a prolonged period of deflation and stagnation.  Meanwhile, post-U.S.S.R. Russia, briefly in thrall to U.S. economic advice, fell captive to rapacious oligarchs who dismantled the command economy only to enrich themselves. 

In China, Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping and his successors were able to watch developments in Japan and Russia, learning from them both.  They have clearly adopted effective aspects of both systems for their economy and society. With a modicum of luck, economic and otherwise, and a continuation of its present well-informed, rational leadership, China should continue to prosper without either threatening its neighbors or the United States.

To imagine that China might want to start a war with the U.S. — even over an issue as deeply emotional as the ultimate political status of Taiwan — would mean projecting a very different path for that country than the one it is currently embarked on.

Lowering the Flag on the American Century

Thirty-five years from now, America’s official century of being top dog (1945-2045) will have come to an end; its time may, in fact, be running out right now. We are likely to begin to look ever more like a giant version of England at the end of its imperial run, as we come face-to-face with, if not necessarily to terms with, our aging infrastructure, declining international clout, and sagging economy. It may, for all we know, still be Hollywood’s century decades from now, and so we may still make waves on the cultural scene, just as Britain did in the 1960s with the Beatles and Twiggy. Tourists will undoubtedly still visit some of our natural wonders and perhaps a few of our less scruffy cities, partly because the dollar-exchange rate is likely to be in their favor.

If, however, we were to dismantle our empire of military bases and redirect our economy toward productive, instead of destructive, industries; if we maintained our volunteer armed forces primarily to defend our own shores (and perhaps to be used at the behest of the United Nations); if we began to invest in our infrastructure, education, health care, and savings, then we might have a chance to reinvent ourselves as a productive, normal nation. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening. Peering into that foggy future, I simply can’t imagine the U.S. dismantling its empire voluntarily, which doesn’t mean that, like all sets of imperial garrisons, our bases won’t go someday.

Instead, I foresee the U.S. drifting along, much as the Obama administration seems to be drifting along in the war in Afghanistan. The common talk among economists today is that high unemployment may linger for another decade.  Add in low investment and depressed spending (except perhaps by the government) and I fear T.S. Eliot had it right when he wrote: "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper." 

I have always been a political analyst rather than an activist. That is one reason why I briefly became a consultant to the CIA’s top analytical branch, and why I now favor disbanding the Agency. Not only has the CIA lost its raison d’être by allowing its intelligence gathering to become politically tainted, but its clandestine operations have created a climate of impunity in which the U.S. can assassinate, torture, and imprison people at will worldwide.

Just as I lost interest in China when that country’s leadership headed so blindly down the wrong path during the Cultural Revolution, so I’m afraid I’m losing interest in continuing to analyze and dissect the prospects for the U.S. over the next few years. I applaud the efforts of young journalists to tell it like it is, and of scholars to assemble the data that will one day enable historians to describe where and when we went astray.  I especially admire insights from the inside, such as those of ex-military men like Andrew Bacevich and Chuck Spinney. And I am filled with awe by men and women who are willing to risk their careers, incomes, freedom, and even lives to protest — such as the priests and nuns of SOA Watch, who regularly picket the School of the Americas and call attention to the presence of American military bases and misbehavior in South America.

I’m impressed as well with Pfc. Bradley Manning, if he is indeed the person responsible for potentially making public 92,000 secret documents about the war in Afghanistan. Daniel Ellsberg has long been calling for someone to do what he himself did when he released the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. He must be surprised that his call has now been answered — and in such an unlikely way. 

My own role these past 20 years has been that of Cassandra, whom the gods gave the gift of foreseeing the future, but also cursed because no one believed her. I wish I could be more optimistic about what’s in store for the U.S.  Instead, there isn’t a day that our own guns of August don’t continue to haunt me.

Chalmers Johnson is the author of Blowback (2000), The Sorrows of Empire (2004), and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (2006), among other works.  His newest book, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope (Metropolitan Books), has just been published.  To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Johnson discusses America’s empire of bases and his new book, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

Copyright 2010 Chalmers Johnson