An Old-Time Liberal Offers a Clear-Sighted View of America’s Endless WarsMorris van de Camp
War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine
New York: The New Press, 2023
Norman Solomon is one of those rare, honest, old-time liberals who genuinely questions the narratives of the mainstream media and the foreign policy establishment. He was a delegate for Bernie Sanders in 2016. He also has a long string of published works, and his most recent book is War Made Invisible, showing how the American military-industrial complex and the foreign policy elite carry out policies which involve continuous combat operations abroad. This leads to large-scale destruction and is polarizing American domestic politics.
The problem starts with the phrase “defense spending.” That phrase is a lie. There is hardly anything in the American defense budget that is actually related to defending the American homeland, and this fact is never mentioned in the mainstream. The fact that the American military has some 750 bases around the world is kept out of the national conversation. American military expenditures are ten times that of their nearest rival — and the next ten big military spenders are all American allies. The costs are enormous, while the benefit to the American Majority is zero.
The American establishment, aided by the mainstream media, doesn’t question its key assumptions, such as the idea that America is an “indispensable” nation whose military operations are acts of humanitarian virtue. Also unmentioned is the impact of the American military on civilian populations. During the Obama regime, American drone operators routinely killed dozens of random civilians while pursuing terrorists. When the terrorist who was the actual target happened to be killed as well, it was usually someone unknown outside of the intelligence community — and who was unlikely to ever present a threat to the United States. It is entirely possible that many of these “terrorists” were merely people who happened to be in a personal dispute with someone who had access to the American intelligence services.
The shift in the 1990s
Solomon points out that mainstream media coverage of the Vietnam War at the start of the conflict was not defeatist or partisan. In the late 1950s and throughout much of the 1960s, the story of the war was carefully censored by the media bosses. As the war dragged on, however, media coverage shifted to become ambiguous enough that those who were either for or against United States involvement in Southeast Asia could find evidence in the news media to support their views.
The shift in the media’s coverage back towards supporting America’s military adventures took place in the 1990s, beginning with the Persian Gulf War. When Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm, reporters began using adjectives about the weeks-long bombing campaign such as “marvelous,” “picture-perfect,” and “wonderful.” When the Iraq War began in 2003, journalists called the initial bombing of Baghdad “a tremendous light show” and “a breathtaking display of firepower.”
This “breathtaking display of firepower” was the “shock and awe” campaign carried out in the early stages of the Iraq War. The concept of “shock and awe” had first been put forth in a 1996 National Defense University book entitled Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance. The book’s primary author was US Navy Lieutenant Commander Harlan Ullman, who argued that swift and overwhelming firepower applied at a decisive place — such as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — could bring a swift end to a war. The “shock and awe” idea is not in fact immoral, as the best strategy is always to create a decisive event that will quickly bring an end to the conflict.
The phrase “shock and awe” became an American pop-culture phenomenon in 2003, being applied to bug spray, barbeque sauce, and a country music album. When the Russians attempted to carry out a swift victory in Ukraine in 2022 using the same methods, the media instead focused on civilian casualties and Russian malfeasance and made no mention of the similarities to America’s “shock and awe” tactics in Iraq.
The shift in the 1990s was also notable for its acceptance of casual cruelty by the US Congress. Madeleine Albright, the racially Jewish US Ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton, said in an interview that the death of a half-million Iraqi children due to the sanctions had been “worth it.” Strangely, she did not dispute the assertion that a half-million were killed. Albright was later confirmed by the US Senate to become Bill Clinton’s second Secretary of State by a vote of 99 to zero. America’s representatives had ratified her evil.
Albright’s embrace of cruelty was mirrored more generally across the mainstream media. New York Times commentator Thomas Freidman, who is also Jewish, repeatedly called for the US to bomb Iraq during 1998 due to the country’s alleged development of “weapons of mass destruction” — which was finally done in December of that year. Then, in 1999, he called for the bombing of civilian infrastructure in Serbia during the Kosovo War. In 2002, Freidman won the Pulitzer Prize.
The bombardment of Serbia included the use of cluster bombs. These are bombs which contain a number of smaller bombs, and can be either dropped by an aircraft or fired by artillery. When a cluster bomb hits its target, the outer case opens and the bomblets within are dispersed and then explode across a large area. The injuries inflicted by these weapons are appalling, often leading to amputations and permanent disfigurement. Although the United States has long made use of cluster bombs, chickenhawks such as US Senator Lindsey Graham decried Russia’s use of such weapons in Ukraine in 2022 before supporting sending such munitions to the Ukrainians in 2023, given that America’s stockpiles of conventional ammunition had already been used up by then.
For his part, Solomon believes that supplying the Ukrainian army with cluster bombs is akin to the frightening Cold War-era military doctrine which held that tactical nuclear weapons should be used should a conventional defeat appear imminent. I disagree, however. Cluster bombs are not in fact a wonder weapon. They demand more care than standard munitions and make use of complex timers in order to properly work. Some of the bomblets also sometimes fail to explode on impact, creating a hazard for advancing infantry.
The use of cluster bombs today is a symptom of American deindustrialization. They were first manufactured in the 1980s, before the neoliberal free trade agreements that gutted America’s manufacturing industry. There simply isn’t enough manufacturing capacity left in the US to produce better ordnance for Ukraine.
Part of the reason for the rise in American militarism is that it is profitable. As Solomon writes:
During the first two decades of this century, five megafirms — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman — divided $2.1 trillion in US military contacts. For the fiscal year 2020 alone, the Pentagon provided them with prime contracts totaling upwards of $166 billion. (p. 44)
The military-industrial complex is America’s biggest jobs program. It pulls in ambitious people and offers them a good wage. But it also chains these people to working in a system where they are made to try to actualize nonsensical concepts such as “humanitarian bombing.” Social problems in the Middle East and elsewhere are not solved by new military doctrines. The US has tried a plethora of military approaches to Iraq since 1991, and there is still no end in sight to the mess there — or in Syria.
Solomon points out that the American mainstream media doesn’t report on those conflicts where the US military makes use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or similar types of remotely-controlled weapons unless there are American soldiers on the ground. Thus, ordinary Americans are often unaware of what their country is really doing around the world. This criticism is justified, but using every advantage to limit friendly casualties is always the right strategy.
Solomon writes that
[n]ot unlike squadrons of military jets, the US media’s war coverage flies information in formation. Notable departures from the pattern are few and far between; in general, the bigger the media outlet, the less likely the departure. (p. 53)
Ashleigh Banfield made a minor departure from this pattern in a speech she gave in Manhattan, Kansas on April 24, 2003. She pointed out that the impact of mortar shells was more than just “puffs of smoke.” By doing so, she was pointing out the fact that reporters had gone to war in Iraq by being “embedded” in a particular US military unit, which meant that they only ever saw things from one side — and thus couldn’t see the actual effects that the war was having on Iraq.
Banfield was immediately “cancelled” before the term “cancelled” was in use. NBC’s news chief, Neal Shapiro — also Jewish — was so offended by Banfield’s speech that they stopped allowing her to do any reporting. Shapiro was able to do this because Banfield was under contract, and NBC would not allow her contract to end so that she could move to another network. The lesson was not lost on other reporters. Even after it was obvious that the Iraq War was a disaster, those reporters who had initially pushed for the conflict were never punished for their misjudgment.
Throughout the Trump presidency, reporters focused on the supposed Russian “hacking” of the 2016 election while ignoring the fact that tensions between Moscow and the American Deep State were rising to the point that a war in Ukraine was becoming unavoidable. Furthermore, the media refused to report on the genuine tragedy that was ongoing in the Middle East: the Saudi Arabian war against Yemen, which was making life impossible for thousands of Yemenis.
Much of the book’s criticism is focused on presidents other than Donald Trump. When Solomon mentions Trump at all, he points out that Trump won narrow victories in Rust Belt states that had a higher-than-average participation rate in the “Global War on Terror.”
An old-time liberal
Solomon is an old-time liberal. He is a nice, yet naïve “have you no decency, sir!” type from those gentle years before the darkness of the 1964 Civil Rights Act enveloped America. Such white liberals are wonderful people, but they miss the mark in many ways.
The problem of American militarism is greater than just the rent seeking of the military-industrial complex. American foreign policy is almost wholly determined by foreign pressure groups. The Israel Lobby is but one star in a constellation of such influencers. Azerbaijan, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and others all lobby for American weapons and American support to back their aims. These nations are wealthy — or at least wealthy enough to bribe malleable American politicians such as Crooked H, who famously “never met a war she didn’t want other Americans to fight.” It is also possible that American defense firms bribe foreign politicians to create military “problems” which can then be profitably “solved” by American firms in the military-industrial complex. American foreign policy needs to be reoriented to represent the interests of old–stock Americans again.
A way to do this is to enact policies which unwind the American Empire of Nothing. This means withdrawing troops from wealthy nations that only use American military support to subsidize their own economies and remain clear of foreign entanglements. A new national narrative also needs to be created that rejects the “Aggression at Munich” and the “Justice at Nuremburg” views of the Second World War and points to the broad array of mistakes made by several nations that brought about the catastrophe. America also needs to reindustrialize and move its economy away from the production of military weaponry while consumer goods are imported from other locations.
Solomon points out the absurdity of the mainstream media’s alleged concern for Afghan women without recognizing those women’s genuine concerns. In some areas of Afghanistan, they have suffered the deaths of relatives at the hands of the American military over the course of 20 years. None of those slain Afghans had anything to do with al-Qaeda or 9/11. In others, Afghans’ only experience of America is in being bombed by its aircraft. This contradiction is part of the problem with “civil rights.” All believers in “civil rights” misread data. A reporter who claims that a sub-Saharan thug killed by police was in fact a valedictorian scholar and merely minding his own business despite the evidence of security cameras and his criminal history is misreading data and reporting lies as fact.
The US military itself is a dishonest institution. It has covered over sub-Saharan and other non-white social pathologies since its integration in the late 1940s. The military’s “woke” problem is in fact decades old, and those who cover these problems up get promoted for it. Eventually, the top brass is made up entirely of mediocrities such as Colin Powell or “Mad Dog” Mattis. Any senior leader who concealed non-white crime while claiming he defeated “the Klan” is not going to be reliable for assessing the effects of a bombing campaign on civilians.
Despite these criticisms, Solomon’s book is an outstanding demonstration of the problems that American militarism has brought to American society. It could easily have been written by someone on the Right of America’s political spectrum. It calls for Americans to break free of watching the shadows on the mainstream media’s cave wall and return to a clear-sighted view of the whole picture of America’s engagement with the rest of the world — and itself.
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