Most citizens do not realize how prevalent militarism and warfare have been in the history of the United States.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the United States has used its military forces aggressively in foreign lands in all but 11 years of its 215 year history. Some scholars maintain the United States has never been at peace. The total number of U.S. wars is several hundred, but only a small fraction of these combats appear in standard history books. And most U.S. wars have been aggressive combats of choice.
A highly informative corrective to the usual sanitized account of U.S. militarism is the recent — ominously titled — book by David Vine, “The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, From Columbus to the Islamic State” (University of California Press, 2020). Vine points out that the United States has sent more than 2.7 million people to fight in the foreign wars that have raged continuously since October 2001. During that 20 year period, the U.S. military has fought in at least 22 different countries. The death toll for the American-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen is estimated at well over 4 million, with United States soldiers only a tiny fraction of these fatalities. Major U.S. military leaders no longer speak of transient conflicts, but of endless “infinite” warfare.
When explaining the American predilection for militarism and warfare, Vine emphasizes the imperialist empire building motivations that have permeated our history. He attributes particular importance to the foreign military bases that the United States has constructed, of which around 800 currently exist. Military bases have always provided the coercive infrastructure of empire. They facilitate or even catalyze warfare:
“For the United States, bases have been a crucial imperial tool for launching wars and other military actions to advance profit making and domestic political fortunes; for maintaining systems of alliances; for keeping other nations in subordinate economic, relationships; and … for upholding a global political, economic, military order to the perceived benefit of the United States and its elites” (page 47).
The Pentagon has become so powerful that it constitutes a virtual fourth branch of government and is largely exempt from presidential and congressional control. Barack Obama, one may sadly note, was elected in 2008 as an antiwar candidate and soon received a Nobel Peace Prize. Nevertheless, by the end of his eight years in office Obama had approved a 1 trillion dollar update of U.S. nuclear weapons and was dropping an average of 71 bombs per day over seven countries.
Despite the long history of United States militarism and warfare, this vicious pattern need not continue. There is mounting opposition to endless wars and to the constraints that enormous military budgets impose upon vital social programs. A first step in demilitarizing our country would be for Congress to recapture its war-making power from the president. A second step would be to dismantle our 800 foreign bases, a change most countries hosting these bases would welcome. Our rival China, by contrast, has only one foreign base and has not fought a war outside its own borders for over 40 years.
Dismantling foreign bases would go hand-in-hand with reducing our enormous military budget. This could be cut in half and still exceed the military budgets of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea combined. A next step in demilitarization would involve miniaturizing our military industrial complex. This Armageddon-generating establishment could be replaced by a green environmental complex that would strive to preserve Planet Earth rather than destroy it. The opportunities currently provided by military careers could be delivered by an “Environmental Corp” dedicated to sustaining the ecological conditions that make human life possible.
This demilitarization scenario, you may think, is sheer fantasy. But perhaps only dreamers can shield us from infinite warfare.