America's endless, invisible wars
Our nation's military engagements are vast and amorphous, yet most Americans remain blissfully ignorant and indifferent
I wonder how many Americans could accurately answer the question of how many wars the United States is currently waging.
Leave aside the pesky details — you know, like an accurate list of the countries where American forces are engaged, the strategic case for our military actions in specific theaters of battle, and the overall cost of these wars in terms of blood and treasure. I'd be content to know that a solid majority of Americans were aware that we're currently at war in (at least) seven countries across the Greater Middle East: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan.
I've added a parenthetical "at least" because our military engagements and commitments are so vast and amorphously defined that any list will almost certainly fall short of comprehensiveness. If we include covert operations, for example, we're almost certainly engaged in acts of war in several additional countries beyond those seven. And then there's the tendency among the members of our political class, including many journalists who cover it, to avoid using the term "war" for military actions that fall short of the deployment of ground troops — even when they include such acts of war as the firing of missiles at sovereign nations and the imposition or enforcement of naval blockades against them.
So it's hard to know precisely how many wars the nation is currently waging. But let's say it's seven. How widely known is this? How many Americans are aware that 71 civilians were killed in Yemen over the weekend by a U.S-backed bombing campaign by Saudi Arabia? Or that our support for Saudi interference in the Yemeni civil war was begun, with barely any public explanation or justification, by the Obama administration? Or that Congress, empowered by the Constitution to declare and fund wars, has proven itself eager to shirk its responsibilities, allowing the White House and the Pentagon to prosecute endless, invisible wars across the globe with barely any democratic oversight?
Critics of President Trump like to point out the significant threat that he and his administration pose to the health of America's liberal democratic norms and institutions. In most cases, these warnings are well-founded. But no account of the decay of American democracy will be complete without an effort to embed Trump and everything he represents within a much broader story of political decline that cuts across both parties. And war-making may be where the decline is most obvious and egregious.
Consider the Pentagon's low-key announcement earlier this month that the U.S. military will continue operations in Syria "as long as we need to." This declaration of an open-ended commitment to the deployment of American forces was barely noted in the news or in the halls of Congress. The latter is especially revealing, since Congress never authorized the deployment of forces to Syria in the first place. Yet our forces are there nonetheless, and we have now been flatly informed that they will remain with no end in sight.
Perhaps we should be grateful that we were informed at all.
It would be shockingly easy for the White House and Department of Defense to do whatever they wanted with no meaningful democratic oversight at all. Our wars are fought thousands of miles from American shores with an all-volunteer force drawn from a tiny percentage of the population. Meanwhile, the country has spent the astonishing sum of $250 million a day on war-making for each of the nearly 6,000 days since the 9/11 attacks 16 years ago. Instead of raising taxes to pay for it, Congress has cut taxes, insulating the American people entirely from the cost and handing the bill to future generations of Americans in the form of debt.
Other people fight, other people suffer, other people pay — it's a recipe for political ignorance and indifference. All the American people know is that there hasn't been another 9/11. And that one must always, no matter what, "support the troops." Together these sentiments translate into: "We dare not say anything critical about whatever the military is doing." That holds for members of Congress no less than for average Americans. Rather than raise questions or concerns, we're expected to defer. And for the most part we're all too happy to comply with this debased and degraded form of civic duty.
That's how the U.S. ended up waging seven interminable wars without so much as a congressional debate.
President Trump is a serious threat to American democracy. But this threat didn't arise out of thin air. It emerged from the exhaustion and corruption of American democracy itself. And nowhere is this exhaustion and corruption more obvious than in the country's unwillingness to exercise responsible self-governance in matters of war and peace.