The waste and fraud of the “war on terror”

TWENTY-FIVE US citizens died from terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11. This figure includes the software engineer who flew his plane into the Austin, Texas, IRS building, killing himself and an office manager, in 2010. Over the same period, 30,000 people died from food-borne illnesses such as E-coli. On average, domestic terrorism ranks just above shark attacks in the number of lives it claims each year. Yet, the US taxpayer is stuck with a $1.2 trillion annual security budget—which equals the military budgets of the next nine countries combined.

In United States of Fear, the follow-up to his hugely successful American Way of War, Tom Engelhardt charts the growth of US imperialism since 9/11, and explains the role fear plays in keeping the American war machine fed. “In only one area of life,” he writes, “are Americans officially considered 100 percent scared, and so 100 percent in need of protection: terrorism.”

Engelhardt argues that every failed underwear or shoe bomber provides a new excuse to grope travelers at the airport, detain prisoners without trial, inflict torture, increase already bloated “homeland” security contracts, and scapegoat brown-skinned people. With these types of responses, even failures are victories for those who wish to target the United States with terror plots. 

It is this carefully manipulated culture of fear, sponsored by corporations and implemented by state bureaucrats and political pundits, that has enabled the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have taken the lives of hundreds of thousands and padded the pockets of millionaires, to drag on indefinitely. The insanity of it all can be grasped in many of Engelhardt’s statistics. One of the most striking is that US Special Forces have invaded seventy-five, or 40 percent, of the world’s countries, since the Twin Tower attacks in 2001. None of those invasions have received any outcry, let alone coverage, from the mainstream press.

The United States ruling class has enjoyed lone superpower status since the collapse for the Soviet Union in 1991, although it has done everything possible to ensure it replicates the mistakes that ran the Soviets into the ground. According to Engelhardt:

The most distinctive feature of the last years of the Soviet Union may have been the way it continued to pour money into its military—and its military adventure in Afghanistan—when it was already going bankrupt and the society it had built was beginning to collapse around it…. Washington insists fighting in distant lands doesn’t have anything to do with the near collapse of the American economy, job devastation at home, or any of the other disasters of our age.

Comparing the last days of the Soviet Empire to the present-day United States may be a bit of stretch on Englehardt’s part. The United States still has the largest economy in the world, with a gargantuan military machine even compared to its nearest rivals. Nevertheless, with the rise of China and India as economic powers and the domestic economic turmoil resulting from the stock market collapse of 2008, it is clear the United States is headed into more difficult times. 

The most obvious evidence for the waning influence of the United States is the current economic crisis. The collapse of the housing market should not be seen as the sole culprit for American downturn. It is estimated that by the time a gallon of gas is used in a military vehicle in Afghanistan, it costs $400. This is just one in a range of expenses that have been redirected from infrastructure, energy, health care, and education here at home. 

How many jobs are not created because US taxpayers have been responsible for ten years of $400-a-gallon gas in Afghanistan? It is estimated that it costs $20 billion a year to keep the troops air-conditioned overseas, a staggering sum that amounts to one-third of the entire federal budget for the Department of Education. 

The numbers are overwhelming and tragic, but underreported. This is why Engelhardt’s book is important. It provides an aerial perspective of the last ten years that maps the psychological, economic, and corporeal costs of the US imperial crusade. As Engelhardt points out, the United States, like the Soviet Union before it, “has mistaken military power for actual power.”

Engelhardt addresses his critics, who ask, “How can [he] write about war without ever being in a war zone?” He argues that “embedded reporters” are rendered objectively useless due to their relationship with the military, and have done little to relate the full absurdities and horrors of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

[Following] the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the military has added the practice of putting reporters through pre-war weeklong “boot camps” and then “embedding” them with troops (a Stockholm Syndrome-type experience that many American reporters grew to love).…The military could address the public more or less directly both through embedded reporters and over the shoulders of that assembled gaggle of media types.

It is clear that one need not be stationed overseas to report on the larger implication of trillion-dollar military budgets and the psychological toll the “Global War on Terrorism” has had on the United States and the rest of the planet. Besides, in this war the battlefield can be anywhere. At least according to Colonel Eric Matheson—the ranking drone officer for the Air Force. He wants to redefine valor and decorate drone operators who sit behind computer screens in Las Vegas—and occasionally drop bombs on wedding parties—with combat commendations. “Valor is not risking your life, it is doing what is right,” insists Mattheson. 

“You must have a friend,” writes Engelhardt, “who’s extremely critical of everyone else but utterly opaque when it comes to himself.” Engelhardt asks. With regards to the rest of the world, the United States is that guy. The United States of Fear is a clear mirror that reflects the grotesque and misguided priorities of the 1% who benefit from imperial conquests.