The lies we tell ourselves about America's forever wars

Enough with this conspiracy of silence

It's become commonplace for many Americans to remark on the frequency and flagrancy of President Trump's lies. But that's nothing compared to the lies Americans tell ourselves on a daily basis about our nation's actions around the world.

Dishonesty and prevarication have become hallmarks of the forever war we've been waging since 9/11. We all tend to engage in this, though as usual, the Trump examples are particularly egregious. On Monday, the day the White House released its budget proposal for 2019, the president tweeted, "This will be a big week for Infrastructure. After so stupidly spending $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is now time to start investing in OUR Country!”

If only!

The truth is that Trump's budget (which won't be adopted by Congress in anything like its current form) actually proposes spending just $200 billion on infrastructure, while also drastically cutting discretionary and entitlement spending and increasing military expenditures by 2 percent on top of the major increase contained in the two-year budget approved last week. All told, Trump's 2019 budget would set military spending 13 percent higher (at a grand total of $716 billion) than what President Obama proposed in his 2017 budget.

Trump can ridicule the cost of our wars in the Greater Middle East all he wants, but the spending is bound to continue on his watch, and at an even faster rate than it did under his predecessor.

It would be one thing if we had even the slightest indication that the American electorate was fully aware and approved of the fact that the country is waging war in more than half a dozen countries simultaneously, or that the U.S. maintains roughly 800 military bases in no fewer than 70 countries scattered across the globe. But alas, there is no sign at all of this awareness. We lie to ourselves about our forever wars. Ignorance is bliss.

Some of these bases, and the biggest (in Europe and Japan), are holdovers from the Cold War. Many others are a product of the forward-leaning posture of the post-9/11 world, serving as staging grounds or support stations for various overt interventions and covert operations — less euphemistically: acts of war — around the world.

This expansion of America's global military footprint began under George W. Bush, but it continued under Barack Obama. By the time the latter left office, the U.S. was waging wars or deeply implicated in them in at least seven countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia) — all of them supposedly authorized by the open-ended non-declaration of war passed by Congress 15 years previously. And that doesn't even count all of the … subtler military incursions in other countries.

Those include raids and training of indigenous forces in Chad, Cameroon, Uganda, Mali, and Niger — the last of which briefly flashed into the news last fall when U.S. troops were killed in an ambush there. But just as quickly it was gone. None of these actions were debated in Congress or widely covered (or even noted) in the press, either during the Bush or Obama administrations (when they began), nor have they been seriously discussed or debated under President Trump. They just happen, and keep happening, with effectively no public oversight or evaluation at all.

No one has done more to shine a light on or spark deep thinking about this alarming drift toward endless, unacknowledged war than military historian Andrew Bacevich. In a column last fall, Bacevich suggested a number of explanations for why the overwhelming majority of Americans, from elected officials on down to ordinary voters, display such indifference about our frenzied military actions abroad. They include: because casualty rates on our side are low; because, despite President Trump's rhetoric, no one really keeps track of and demands public accountability for just how much money is being spent, and wasted, around the world; because the wars are fought by an all-volunteer force in which a tiny percentage of the population serves, allowing most Americans to go about their lives without ever being touched by the human consequences; and because the threat of terrorism is hyped, and most people just want to feel safe.

Add in the fear of defeat at the hands of insurgent groups that can never be entirely routed (after 16 years, the Taliban and other groups remain a very potent force in Afghanistan), and we're left with a pervasive conspiracy of silence and invisibility. Voters want to be protected, and politicians want to avoid the blame either for a successful attack on the homeland or a humiliating defeat abroad. The result is that no war ever comes to a decisive end, the total number of wars increases over time, and we never speak of any of them.

The high-stakes standoff between the U.S. and North Korea is different, and we should be grateful for the serious coverage it's received. But this rather old-fashioned clash between nation-states isn't the only issue involving the military that's worthy of our attention.

The honest and alarming truth that we seem all-too-eager to evade is that America is already at war around the world. Someone desperately needs to pay attention, demand accountability, and keep tabs on the steep monetary, human, and geopolitical costs.

That someone is us.


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