A World Made by War

Can our over-armed global mission be radically downsized before it downsizes us?

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

When you look at me, you can’t mistake the fact that I’m of a certain age. But just for a moment, think of me as nine years old. You could even say that I celebrated my ninth birthday last week, without cake, candles, presents, or certainly joy.

I’ve had two mobilized moments in my life. The first was in the Vietnam War years; the second, the one that leaves me as a nine-year-old, began on the morning of September 11, 2001. I turned on the TV while doing my morning exercises, saw a smoking hole in a World Trade Center tower, and thought that, as in 1945 when a B-25 slammed into the Empire State Building, a terrible accident had happened.

Later, after the drums of war had begun to beat, after the first headlines had screamed their World War II-style messages (“the Pearl Harbor of the 21st century”), I had another thought. And for a reasonably politically sophisticated guy, my second response was not only as off-base as the first, but also remarkably dumb. I thought that this horrific event taking place in my hometown might open Americans up to the pain of the world. No such luck, of course.

If you had told me then that we would henceforth be in a state of eternal war as well as living in a permanent war state, that, to face a ragtag enemy of a few thousand stateless terrorists, the national security establishment in Washington would pump itself up to levels not faintly reached when facing the Soviet Union, a major power with thousands of nuclear weapons and an enormous military; that “homeland”—a distinctly un-American word—would land in our vocabulary never to leave, and that a second Defense Department dubbed the Department of Homeland Security would be set up not to be dismantled in my lifetime; that torture (excuse me, “enhanced interrogation techniques”) would become as American as apple pie and that some of those “techniques” would actually be demonstrated to leading Bush administration officials inside the White House; that we would pour money into the Pentagon at ever escalating levels even after the economy crashed in 2008; that we would be fighting two potentially trillion-dollar-plus wars without end in two distant lands; that we would spend untold billions constructing hundreds of military bases in those same lands; that the CIA would be conducting the first drone air war in history over a country we were officially not at war with; that most of us would live in a remarkable state of detachment from all of this; and finally—only, by the way, because I’m cutting this list arbitrarily short—that I would spend my time writing incessantly about “the American way of war” and produce a book with that title, I would have thought you were nuts.

But every bit of that happened, even if unpredicted by me because, like human beings everywhere, I have no special knack for peering into the future. If it were otherwise, I would undoubtedly now be zipping through fabulous spired cities with a jetpack on my back (as I was assured would happen in my distant youth). But if prediction isn’t our forte, then adaptability to changing circumstances may be—and it certainly helps account for my being here today.

I’m here because, in response to the bizarre spectacle of this nation going to war while living at peace, even if in a spasmodic state of collective national fear, I did something I hardly understood at the time. I launched a nameless listserv of collected articles and my own expanding commentary that ran against the common wisdom of that October moment when the bombing runs for our second Afghan war began. A little more than a year later, thanks to the Nation Institute, it became a website with the name TomDispatch.com, and because our leaders swore we were “a nation at war,” because we were indeed killing people in quantity in distant lands, because the power of the state at home was being strengthened in startling ways, while everything still open about our society seemed to be getting screwed shut, and the military was being pumped up to Schwarzeneggerian dimensions, I started writing about war.

At some level, I can’t tell you how ridiculous that was. After all, I’m the most civilian and peaceable of guys. I’ve never even been in the military. I was, however, upset with the Bush administration, the connect-no-dots media coverage of that moment, and the repeated 9/11 rites which proclaimed us the planet’s greatest victim, survivor, and dominator, leaving only one role, greatest Evil Doer, open for the rest of the planet (and you know who auditioned for, and won, that part hands down)!

Things That Go Boom in the Night

I won’t say, however, that I had no expertise whatsoever with a permanent state of war and a permanent war state, only that the expertise I had was available to anyone who had lived through the post-World War II era. I was reminded of this on a recent glorious Sunday when, from the foot of Manhattan, I set out, for the first time in more than half a century, on a brief ferry ride that proved, for me, as effective a time machine as anything H.G. Wells had ever imagined. That ferry was not, of course, taking me to a future civilization at the edge of time, but to Governor’s Island, now a park and National Monument in the eddying waters of New York harbor and to the rubble of a gas station my father, a World War II vet, ran there in the early 1950s when that island was still a major US Army base.

On many mornings in those years, I accompanied him on that short ride across the East River and found myself amid buzzing jeeps and drilling soldiers in a world of Army kids with, among other wonders, access to giant swimming pools and kiddy-matinee Westerns. As a dyed-in-the-wool city boy, it was my only real exposure to the burbs and it proved an edenic one that also caught something of the exotically militarized mood of that Korean War moment.

As on that island, so for most Americans then, the worlds of the warrior and of abundance were no more antithetical than they were to the corporate executives, university research scientists, and military officers who were using a rising military budget and the fear of communism to create a new national security economy. An alliance between big industry, big science, and the military had been forged during World War II that blurred the boundaries between the military and the civilian by fusing together a double set of desires: for technological breakthroughs leading to ever more efficient weapons of destruction and to ever easier living. The arms race—the race, that is, for future good wars—and the race for the good life were then, as on that island, being put on the same “war” footing.

In the 1950s, a military Keynesianism was already driving the US economy toward a consumerism in which desire for the ever larger car and missile, electric range and tank, television console and submarine was wedded in single corporate entities. The companies—General Electric, General Motors, and Westinghouse, among others—producing the large objects for the American home were also major contractors developing the big ticket weapons systems ushering the Pentagon into its own age of abundance.

More than half a century later, the Pentagon is still living a life of abundance—despite one less-than-victorious, less-then-good war after another—while we, increasingly, are not. In the years in-between, the developing national security state of my childhood just kept growing, and in the process the country militarized in the strangest of ways.

Only once in that period did a sense of actual war seem to hover over the nation. That was, of course, in the Vietnam years of the 1960s and early 1970s, when the draft brought a dirty war up close and personal, driving it into American homes and out into the streets, when a kind of intermittent warfare seemed to break out in this country’s cities and ghettos, and when impending defeat drove the military itself to the edge of revolt and collapse.

From the 1970s until 2001, as that military rebuilt itself as an all-volunteer force and finally went back to war in distant lands, the military itself seemed to disappear from everyday life. There were no soldiers in sight, nothing we would consider commonplace today—from uniforms and guns in train stations to military flyovers at football games, or the repeated rites of praise for American troops that are now everyday fare in our world where, otherwise, we largely ignore American wars.

In 1989, for instance, I wrote in the Progressive magazine about a country that seemed to me to be undergoing further militarization, even if in a particularly strange way. Ours was, I said, an “America that conforms to no notions we hold of militarism… Militarization is, of course, commonly associated with uniformed, usually exalted troops in evidence and a dictatorship, possibly military, in power. The United States, by such standards, still has the look of a civilian society. Our military is, if anything, less visible in our lives than it was a decade ago: No uniforms in the streets, seldom even for our traditional parades; a civilian elected government; weaponry out of sight… the draft and the idea of a civilian army a thing of the past.

“In the Reagan-Bush era, the military has gone undercover in the world that we see, though not in the world that sees us. For if it is absent from our everyday culture, its influence is omnipresent in corporate America, that world beyond our politics and out of our control—the world which, nonetheless, plans our high-tech future of work and consumption. There, the militarization of the economy and the corporatization of the military is a process so far gone that it seems reasonable to ask whether the United States can even be said to have a civilian economy.”

Of course, that was then, this is now. Little did I know. Today, it seems, our country is triumphant in producing only things that go boom in the night: we have a near monopoly on the global weapons market and on the global movie market, where in the dark we’re experts in explosions of every sort. When I wrote in 1989 that the process was “so far gone,” I had no idea how far we still had to go. I had no idea, for instance, how far a single administration could push us when it came to war. Still, one thing that does remain reasonably constant about America’s now perpetual state of war is how little we—the 99% of us who don’t belong to the military or fight—actually see of it, even though it is, in a sense, all around us.


From a remarkable array of possibilities, here are just a few warscapes—think of them as like landscapes, only deadlier—that might help make more visible an American world of, and way of, war that we normally spend little time discussing, questioning, debating, or doing anything about.

As a start, let me try to conjure up a map of what “defense,” as imagined by the Pentagon and the US military, actually looks like. You can find such a map at Wikipedia, but for a second just imagine a world map laid flat before you. Now divide it, the whole globe, like so many ill-shaped pieces of cobbler, into six servings—you can be as messy as you want, it’s not an exact science—and label them the US European Command or EUCOM (for Europe and Russia), the US Pacific Command or PACOM (Asia), CENTCOM (the Greater Middle East and a touch of North Africa), NORTHCOM (North America), SOUTHCOM (South America and most of the Caribbean), and AFRICOM (almost all of Africa). Those are the “areas of responsibility” of six US military commands.

In case you hadn’t noticed, on our map that takes care of just about every inch of the planet, but—I hasten to add—not every bit of imaginable space. For that, if you were a clever cartographer, you would somehow need to include STRATCOM, the US Strategic Command charged with, among other things, ensuring that we dominate the heavens, and the newest of all the “geographic” commands, CYBERCOM, expected to be fully operational later this fall with “1,000 elite military hackers and spies under one four-star general” prepared to engage in preemptive war in cyberspace.

Some of these commands have crept up on us over the years. CENTCOM, which now oversees our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, was formed in 1983, a result of the Carter Doctrine—that is, of President Jimmy Carter’s decision to make the protection of Persian Gulf oil a military necessity, while both NORTHCOM (2002) and AFRICOM (2007) were creations of the Global War on Terror.

From a mapping perspective, however, the salient point is simple enough: At the moment, there is no imaginable space on or off the planet that is not an “area of responsibility” for the US military. That, not the protection of our shores and borders, is what is now meant by that word “defense” in the Department of Defense. And if you were to stare at that map for a while, I can’t help but think it would come to strike you as abidingly strange. No place at all of no military interest to us? What does that say about our country—and ourselves?

In case you’re imagining that the map I’ve just described is simply a case of cartographic hyperbole, consider this: We now have what is, in essence, a secret military inside the US military. I’m talking about our Special Operations forces. These elite and largely covert forces were rapidly expanded in the Bush years as part of the Global War on Terror, but also thanks to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s urge to bring covert activities that were once the province of the CIA under the Pentagon’s wing. By the end of George W. Bush’s second term in office—think of that map again—Special Operations forces were fighting in, training in, or stationed in approximately 60 countries under the aegis of the Global War on Terror. Less than two years later, according to the Washington Post, 13,000 Special Operations troops are deployed abroad in approximately 75 countries as part of an expanding Global War on Terror (even if the Obama administration has ditched that name); in other words, Special Ops troops alone are now operating in close to 40 percent of the 192 countries that make up the United Nations!

And talking about what the Pentagon has taken under its wing, I’m reminded of a low-budget sci-fi film of my childhood, The Blob. In it, a gelatinous alien grows ever more humongous by eating every living thing in its path, with the exception of Steve McQueen in his debut screen role. By analogy, take what’s officially called the “IC” or US Intelligence Community, that Rumsfeld was so eager to militarize. It’s made up of 17 major agencies and outfits, including the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Created in 2004 in response to the intelligence dysfunction of 9/11, ODNI is already its own small bureaucracy with 1,500 employees and next to no power to do the only thing it was really ever meant to do, coordinate the generally dysfunctional labyrinth of the IC itself.

You might wonder what kind of “intelligence” a country could possibly get from 17 competing, bickering outfits—and that’s not even the half of it. According to a Washington Post series, Top Secret America, by Dana Priest and William Arkin:

“In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11… Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States… In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 US Capitol buildings—about 17 million square feet of space.”

Oh, and keep in mind that more than two-thirds of the IC’s intelligence programs are controlled by the Pentagon, which also means control over a major chunk of the combined intelligence budget, announced at $75 billion (“2 1/2 times the size it was on Sept. 10, 2001,” according to Priest and Arkin), but undoubtedly far larger.

And when it comes to the Pentagon, that’s just a start. Massive expansion in all directions has been its m.o. since 9/11. Its soaring budget hit about $700 billion for fiscal year 2010 (when you include a war-fighting supplemental bill of $33 billion)—an increase of only 4.7 percent in otherwise budget-slashing times—and is now projected to hit $726 billion in fiscal year 2011. Some experts claim, however, that the real figure may come closer to the trillion-dollar mark when all aspects of national security are factored in. Not surprisingly, it has taken over a spectrum of State Department-controlled civilian activities, ranging from humanitarian relief and development (a.k.a. “nationbuilding”) to actual diplomacy. And don’t forget its growing roles as a domestic-disaster manager and a global arms dealer, or even as a Green Revolution energy innovator. You could certainly think of the Pentagon as the Blob on the American horizon, and yet, looking around, you might hardly be aware of the ways your country continues to be militarized.

With that in mind, let’s consider another warscape, one particularly appropriate to a moment when numerous commentators are pointing out that the US seems to be morphing from a can-do into a can’t-do nation, when the headlines are filled with exploding gas lines and grim reports on the country’s aging infrastructure, when a major commuter tunnel from New Jersey to Manhattan, the sort of project that once would have been tattoo-ably American, has just been canceled by New Jersey’s governor.

Still, don’t imagine that the old can-do American spirit I remember from my childhood is dead. Quite the contrary, we still have our great building projects, our pyramid- and ziggurat-equivalents. It’s just that these days they tend to get built nearer to the ruins of actual ziggurats and pyramids. I’m talking about our military bases, especially those being constructed in our war zones.

I mean, no sooner had US troops taken Baghdad in April 2003 than the Pentagon and the crony corporations it now can’t go to war without began to pour billions of taxpayer dollars into the construction of well fortified American towns in Iraq that included multiple bus routes, PXs, fast-food joints, massage parlors, Internet cafés, power plants, water-treatment plants, sewage plants, fire stations, you name it. Hundreds of military bases, micro to mega, were built in Iraq alone, including the ill-named but ginormous Victory Base Complex at the edge of Baghdad International Airport, with at least nine significant sub-bases nestled inside it, and Balad Air Base, which—sooner than you could say “Saddam Hussein’s in captivity”—was handling air traffic on the scale of O’Hare International in Chicago, and bedding down 40,000 inhabitants including hire-a-gun African cops, civilian defense employees, Special Ops forces, the employees of private contractors, and of course tons of troops.

And all of this was nothing compared to the feat the Pentagon accomplished in Afghanistan where the US military now claims to have built something like 400 bases of every sort from the smallest combat outposts to monster installations like Bagram Air Base in a country without normal resources, fuel, building materials, or much of anything else. Just about all construction materials for those bases and the fuel to go with them had to be delivered over treacherous supply lines thousands of miles long, so treacherous and difficult in fact that, by the time a gallon of fuel reaches Afghanistan to keep those Humvees and MRAPs rolling along, it’s estimated to cost $400.

At some level, of course, all of this represents a remarkable can-do achievement and tells you a great deal about American priorities today, about where our national treasure and can-do efforts are focused.

Ziggurats or Tunnels?

And I could go on. The Pentagon and the military make going on easy. After all, the list is unending, the militarization of our American world ongoing, and it’s all happening in your time, on your watch. This is the world you are going to walk out into. I may be nine years old in TomDispatch terms, but I’ve been around for 66 years and this won’t be my world for so long.

So let me ask you: Are you sure that you want the US military to be concerned with every inch of the planet? Are you sure that you want your tax dollars to go, above all, into building pyramid-equivalents in Iraq or Afghanistan instead of tunnels at home, or into fighting a multigenerational war on terror planet-wide, instead of into putting the unemployed to work here? If you can’t imagine reducing the American military mission and “footprint” on this planet significantly, then, of course, it’s probably best to ignore this talk. But rest assured: You won’t save our country that way, you’ll destroy it.

A decade ago, when I was born as TomDispatch.com, many of you were only 10 or 11 years old, as were many of our soldiers now in Afghanistan and Iraq. A decade from now, if the war in Afghanistan (and increasingly Pakistan) is still being fought, most of you will be entering your fourth decade on this planet and you may even have a 10-year-old of your own. A decade from then, if—as some top Washington officials insist—the global war on terror is “multigenerational,” that child may be fighting in Pakistan or Yemen or Somalia or some other military “area of responsibility” somewhere on the planet. A decade from then…

Of course, whatever skills we may lack when it comes to predicting the future, all things must end, including the American war state and our strange state of war. The question is: Can our over-armed global mission be radically downsized before it downsizes us? It will happen anyway and it won’t take forever either, not the way things are going, but it will happen in an easier and less harmful way, if you’re involved, in whatever fashion you choose, in making it so. Had I had a birthday cake with candles on it for that ninth birthday of mine and blown them out, that, I think, would have been my wish.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books), has recently been published. You can catch him discussing war American-style and his book in a Timothy MacBain TomCast video by clicking here. This was originally a talk given to students attending Hofstra University’s lecture series, The International Scene.

[Note: If Marty and Margaret Melkonian hadn’t offered me a double invitation to speak at Hofstra College and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, this talk would never have seen the light of day. A bow of appreciation to both of them! If it weren’t for Juan Cole’s Informed Comment website, Antiwar.com, and Paul Woodward’s The War in Context, which jostle fiercely in my mind each morning as I try to decide where to stop first in my online travels, I would be so much poorer in good information and analysis. So let me add a bow to them as well! In a world made by war, Noah Shachtman’s Danger Zone blog also shouldn’t be missed. It contains all things warlike. And Katherine Tiedemann’s “AfPak Daily Brief” is the best ongoing summary of mainstream coverage of our Afghan (and increasingly Pakistan) War. For any of you interested in learning more about my childhood in Cold War America—from G.I. Joe to Star Wars and beyond—check out the updated edition of my book, The End of Victory Culture.]


Our team has been on fire lately—publishing sweeping, one-of-a-kind investigations, ambitious, groundbreaking projects, and even releasing “the holy shit documentary of the year.” And that’s on top of protecting free and fair elections and standing up to bullies and BS when others in the media don’t.

Yet, we just came up pretty short on our first big fundraising campaign since Mother Jones and the Center for Investigative Reporting joined forces.

So, two things:

1) If you value the journalism we do but haven’t pitched in over the last few months, please consider doing so now—we urgently need a lot of help to make up for lost ground.

2) If you’re not ready to donate but you’re interested enough in our work to be reading this, please consider signing up for our free Mother Jones Daily newsletter to get to know us and our reporting better. Maybe once you do, you’ll see it’s something worth supporting.

payment methods


Our team has been on fire lately—publishing sweeping, one-of-a-kind investigations, ambitious, groundbreaking projects, and even releasing “the holy shit documentary of the year.” And that’s on top of protecting free and fair elections and standing up to bullies and BS when others in the media don’t.

Yet, we just came up pretty short on our first big fundraising campaign since Mother Jones and the Center for Investigative Reporting joined forces.

So, two things:

1) If you value the journalism we do but haven’t pitched in over the last few months, please consider doing so now—we urgently need a lot of help to make up for lost ground.

2) If you’re not ready to donate but you’re interested enough in our work to be reading this, please consider signing up for our free Mother Jones Daily newsletter to get to know us and our reporting better. Maybe once you do, you’ll see it’s something worth supporting.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.