The War Machine, Pt. 3: 9/11, The Iraq War, and the Trump Years
It’s become a joke at this point to remark that 9/11 changed everything. But if the Trump era had any one lasting impact, it’s that the one term of insanity from the orange man did wonders to memory-hole the post-9/11 Bush years and give us all collective amnesia over just how much everyone in the country absolutely lost their minds. As we discussed in the last part of this series, by the late 90s support for the American war project was probably at its lowest point in decades, not because of a rising death toll from a Vietnam-level conflict, but because there just simply wasn’t much interest in it anymore. America already ruled the world.
The Clinton years had unleashed a disastrous gutting of the American social safety net and an almost military-scale assault on the inner cities, but these stayed out of view for most middle-class Americans as they reveled in a decade of free market prosperity. Even the vicious 2000 GOP primary between Texas Governor George W. Bush and the notoriously hawkish Arizona Senator John McCain barely touched on foreign policy issues; instead the two candidates mostly traded hostile barbs over whether John McCain had or had not fathered an African love child. But that would all change on September 11th, 2001.
As a disclaimer, we're not going to get too deep into any “Bush did 9/11” conspiracies. As much as I’d love to spend an entire article on a discussion of which senators shorted airplane stock on September 10th, the massive insurance policy taken out a week earlier by Larry Silverstein who had only bought the Trade Center complex earlier that year, and the ties to the Saudi Arabian government and intelligence assets by the hijackers, we have a narrative to stick to here. But even if the American military industrial complex had absolutely zero connections to the planning and orchestrating of the attacks (beyond years earlier providing the funding and training to the groups that would later become Al Qaeda, a fact no one disputes), they sure as hell benefitted from it.
All the sudden, an American populace who for a decade plus had been ambivalent about the war project, was now clamoring for armed conflict on a massive scale. It didn’t matter against who, someone just needed to pay for this. The military budget, which hadn’t experienced a sharp reduction on the scale of the Peace Dividend proposed by Bush Sr. but had still been lying relatively level for years, would now need to be expanded. Drastically. Executive authority on the level of a monarch would need to be handed over to Bush and Cheney, lest the response to this terror be bogged down with the red tape of government bureaucracy and congressional oversight. The motion to grant Bush unchecked power to wage war on Afghanistan was rushed through the House only three days after 9/11, passing almost unanimously with only California Representative Barbara Lee voting against. The approval ratings of Bush, Cheney, and then-NYC mayor Giuliani reached historic highs. America was hungry for blood. And the dormant behemoth that was the US military apparatus, helmed by Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and others, were gonna give it to them.
Keeping public support for the war machine high required a two-pronged approach: identifying the new enemies and then convincing the American populace that said enemies were an immediate threat. Into this void leapt the various hawks that made up the Bush administration. Eager to dip into Iraq’s plentiful oil reserves and still bitter over the fact that they hadn’t finished off Saddam once and for all in the ’91 Gulf War, Rumsfeld and Cheney saw an opportunity. What happened next is now history: with the aid of the press and almost unanimous bipartisan support, blatant lies were passed off as official intel that Saddam both possessed weapons of mass destruction and had some sort of ties to the 9/11 hijackers, with The New York Times’s Judith Miller leading the charge.
While there were some high-profile Senators and Representatives who voiced their opposition, notably Bernie Sanders, Russ Feingold, Ted Kennedy, and now-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, other facets of Democrat leadership supported the Bush admin in lockstep, notably now-President Joe Biden, now-Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, former presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Ed Markey, Dianne Feinstein, and many others. Colin Powell’s disgraceful UN speech wasn’t enough to rally as large a coalition as the 1991 Gulf War, but it provided justification enough and the American army was off to the races.
For an in-depth look at how deeply horrific the atrocities that took place during the Iraq War were, I’d suggest listening to season one of the excellent podcast Blowback, as it bears rehashing just how insane the post-9/11 years were. Gung-ho militaristic patriotism soared to levels not seen since we were fighting the Nazis. Liberal journalists and politicians, who had made their careers exposing the lies of Vietnam, now saw an opportunity to fall in line and prove that just like conservatives they could do war as well when it was justified, as it so obviously was in this case. A massive anti-war movement, mostly centered in Europe but still nonetheless prevalent in America wasn’t enough to slow down the American machine.
Of course, we now know years later (and to anyone paying attention it was painfully apparently even at the time) that all the intel used to justify such an evil war was a complete fabrication. Saddam Hussein had absolutely no significant ties to the 9/11 hijackers and possessed nothing even resembling WMDs. But the “War On Terror” as it became known proved devastatingly effective at keeping support high for the first few years. The average American may not have been able to identify the exact reasons why we were at war with Iraq or Afghanistan, but it didn’t matter. “Terrorists” as a vague amalgamation were responsible for 9/11, so of course it was necessary to fight terror wherever it appeared. Just as how in the Cold War even the slightest efforts at social reforms were labeled an example of the ever-expanding Soviet threat, now any country vaguely Muslim or Middle Eastern became shorthand for the enemy. And the war machine chugged along.
It bears repeating just how much of a crime the entire Iraq War was. To this day, no one knows the exact number casualties from the conflict as official statistics remain a closely guarded state secret, but conservative estimates by outside authorities put the civilian death tole somewhere around 200,000, with many believing it to be much higher. And that was just from direct military actions alone, as countless more died from disease, starvation, malnutrition, lack of drinking water, lack of healthcare, etc, caused by the war actions of our country reducing Iraq to a failed state. Almost all of Iraq’s infrastructure was leveled in the conflict, meaning Iraqis now no longer have access to clean water, electricity, adequate food, and any of the basic necessities that make up a functioning society.
In short, Iraq was reduced to rubble. If the stated goal of the Iraq War was about freeing the Iraqi people from the brutal rule of a despotic tyrant, then despite the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein, we objectively failed. Saddam was a ruthless strongman who tortured dissidents and committed numerous human rights atrocities under his rule; he still made the country run somewhat normally. What did all the freedom that we gifted to the Iraqi people bring them? A country now lying in ruin and an estimated 800k-1.3 million casualties. The Iraqi people no doubt suffered under Saddam, but they suffered even more under the American occupation and what would transpire in the years following. Chaos is always a breeding ground for extremism, and in the wake of the failure to rebuild the country, the terrorist group known as ISIS would rise to power.
And that’s not even mentioning all the numerous atrocities committed by our army during the conflict. Cheney and Rumsfeld, with the help of then-Deputy AG and now UC Berkley professor John Yoo, issued the “Torture Memo”, using flimsy constitutional interpretations to justify the torture of prisoners, an act specifically banned by the Geneva Convention. When in 2004, photos of the Abu Ghraib prison leaked to the public, the world saw firsthand the horrifically evil practices in play, as American soldiers were documented in numerous instances performing physical and sexual abuse, rape, sodomy, and other forms of physical and mental torture. Rumsfeld and the Bush administration assured the public that these were isolated instances and that the perpetrators would be thoroughly disciplined, but numerous human rights orgs like Amnesty International and the Red Cross noted that there was evidence this was part of a widespread, officially sanctioned pattern.
Rumsfeld ignored calls to step down and the chaos of war intensified. Operations like the invasion of Fallujah reduced entire cities literally to dirt, and several documented instances of the US military using white phosphorous, despite its recognition as a war crime, became known. No one is claiming Saddam Hussein was a good person or just ruler. But if you want to call him a terrorist, what does that make George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, who for the rest of their years will be responsible for countless more deaths than the Iraqi strongman ever was?
It’s become popular amongst those seeking to explain their defense of the Iraq War years later that they at the time both believed the fake WMD intel and had no knowledge of the numerous atrocities being sanctioned by our government. But this is utter nonsense, as there was plenty of independent journalism chronicling all the inconsistencies in the stories being peddled by the Judith Millers of the world in such esteemed mainstream outlets like the New York Times. And the vicious war crimes being utilized by the Bush admin weren’t even swept under the rug, but rather written off as a necessary step if we were to confront this terrorist threat head on. The public was well aware of the horrors taking place in the illegal Guantanamo Bay prison, but during the early 2000s a majority of Americans would probably be proud to tell you it was worth it. Even media pieces that weren’t explicitly pro-military propaganda like the Oscar-winning 2012 movie Zero Dark Thirty still portrayed the brutality of torture getting results and aiding in the capture of Bin Laden, despite there being much evidence to suggest that all the horrific acts committed by our military rarely led to much of anything. Torture is an abhorrent crime and one that’s not even particularly productive.
The CIA and FBI continued to stoke the flames of anti-Muslim furor, carrying out countless entrapment operations that mostly boiled down to tricking intellectually disabled Muslim-Americans into saying they were terrorists, and then whisking them off to secret prisons sans trial. Then-NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg unleashed the stop-and-frisk policy onto the city, allowing his ultramiliterized NYPD force to harass black and brown New Yorkers at will without any consequences. The media, ever chasing for a sensational story, was happy to play along with hyping up any perceived threats to keep the idea that terrorists were always a second away from another attack at the minds of Americans.
Perhaps what has led to such a deep fracture in the fabric of American society is the fact that no one involved with these atrocities was ever made to reckon with their failures or face responsibility for their crimes. Barack Obama managed to ride a growing opposition to the Iraq conflict to a 2008 presidential victory, slamming rival Hillary Clinton for her past support during her time as a senator from New York. But upon election he instead elevated the war to previously unthinkable levels, instituting the “Troop Surge” policy and unleashing a wave of drone strikes that allowed the US to now wrack death and destruction on the world with the click of a button.
And all of the main Iraq War architects remain free men to this day. George Bush’s reputation was sanitized in the wake of the Trump presidency, as the former war criminal now spends his time canoodling with Ellen DeGeneres and Michelle Obama instead of facing his crimes at the Hague. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld more or less retired from the public view, but calls to prosecute their numerous crimes fell on deaf ears. Colin Powell up until his death retained a bizarre level of bipartisan respect as some emblem of the good conservative and dutifully honorable soldier. Others like John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz stayed active in Republican policy circles, several getting recycled back into roles during the Trump admin. Support for the war on terror eventually ran dry, but the country simply moved on without closure.
Much has been made about where exactly our 45th president Donald J. Trump stands in all of this. Despite more or less spending his four years in office rubber-stamping anything the Federalist Society shoved in his face, it is true that Trump ran an oddly semi-anti-war primary campaign, blasting the more traditional conservatives who had been serving in government for years for the disaster that was the Iraq war. Now obviously Trump never held any rigid ideologies on much of anything (or really ideologies at all) and this line of attack had more to do with him being a contrarian and finding an easy weak point than holding any strong beliefs, but it was as consistent a position as Trump ever managed to take on anything.
And despite the bone-headed and inexcusable moves first to withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal and later to execute Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani bringing us closer than ever to a possible war with the Middle Eastern country, Trump did somehow manage to make it his entire term without starting a new war or significantly elevating an existing one. This has led to some labeling him as one of the more peaceful, anti-interventionist presidents of the last few decades, maybe not in a tree-hugging hippie way, but perhaps in the mold of a Pat Buchanan-style of nationalist, America-first traditional conservative.
But make no mistake, there was nothing peaceful or anti-interventionist about Trump’s tenure in office. The mechanisms of the military industrial project were just greased to such an effective degree that they’re now able to operate almost completely out of view from the American public. With Trump providing a steady stream of gaffes, quotes, and other controversies, the war machine was able to continue with business as usual behind this effective smokescreen. Take for example the minor scandal (one of countless) that ensued when in 2017 Trump’s callousness was on full view in his condolence call to the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson who died in combat in Niger. While the uproar focused on Trump offering little sympathy to the widow, saying that the soldier “knew what he signed up for”, the controversy was quickly swept under the rug when a small sect of the population began to ask, “hey wait, why were we doing military operations in Niger again?”
Take the strange and still mostly unexplained death of William Lavigne II, the Delta Force operative who was mysteriously found dead next to army vet Timothy Dumas outside the Fort Bragg army base in North Carolina. Delta Force is the elite of the elite, an exclusive unit comprised of less than 500 soldiers that carry out only the most complex and dangerous covert missions, the real-life 2009 Maersk Alabama rescue portrayed in the movie “Captain Phillips” being a high-profile example. The mysterious circumstances that led to the death of such a highly regarded military operative continue to prompt questions to this day, but one fact of his biography that was painfully clear was the horrific level of combat he had obviously seen over multiple tours of duty, some in familiar warzones like Iraq and Afghanistan, others less so, in places like Tajikistan, Somalia, Djibouti, etc. Places that you, the reader, would correctly gauge that we, the United States of America, are not technically at war with.
As Seth Harp put it in his expose for Rolling Stone on the Fort Bragg murders, “Those missions often take place in failed states or amid frozen conflicts where the United States has no acknowledged presence, and American soldiers operate in a ‘grey zone’ where morality and ethics are in the eye of the beholder, and everything goes so long as the mission is accomplished and your tactics aren’t known to the public or explicitly to the higher-ups.”
So that’s the state of the American military presence in 2021: out of sight, and out of mind. In the end, Donald Rumsfeld got his wish: the military was trimmed down and made sleeker, more efficient. No longer do we conduct war by making grand declarations via presidential address, seek and receive congressional approval, and send scores of American legions overseas. Now, war is conducted clandestinely, via JSOC units operating semi-legally in countries we don’t even have acknowledged bases in, or AFRICOM command meddling in the affairs of local warlords, or a drone strike wiping out an entire village. It’s even in many cases become outsourced, as private mercenary contractors like Blackwater often act in place of the officially sanctioned American military, organizations that are even more clandestine and less beholden to oversight and public opinion than the military itself. The American imperial project has become much easier for the average American to ignore but just as vicious and deadly for all involved.
At the end of the day the military industrial complex and the policymakers that steer it internalized a depressingly true fact: the American public doesn’t really care all that much about what goes on in other countries. Hell, it barely cares about its own country. As inequality reaches historic levels, a never-ending pandemic rips through a broken healthcare system, and police and mass shooters alike continue to kill civilian after civilian without respite, the main political battlegrounds between the two dominant parties and their supporters are focused on frivolous culture war nonsense like critical race theory, mask mandates, and banning politicians from Twitter. Neither party seems particularly interested in even addressing much less fixing the multitude of problems facing American society, and so because of this the majority of the American population has become disengaged with politics, believing that since nothing ever changes, what’s the point? And if people can barely muster up outrage over not being able to afford decent medical care or affordable housing, they sure as hell don’t have any outrage left for the people of far-flung countries suffering under the rule of US-backed paramilitary groups or strongmen.
This isn’t even to blame the average American voter all that much: when your own government is resigned to watch almost a million of its own citizens die from a plague without offering any support, how much emotional energy is there even left to express outrage over the US’s role in the Saudi atrocities? When you’re without health insurance and can barely afford rent due to stagnating wages amongst skyrocketing housing costs, can the funding of Israeli missiles to kill innocent Palestinian children really be expected to be at the front of your mind? This isn’t to say these aren’t atrocities and that the US government shouldn’t be made to reckon with their enabling of them. They are, and they should be. But when a populace can barely pressure their government to provide a pittance of economic help during a deadly pandemic, it’s a hopeless proposition to think that public opinion would be able to influence anything the US military does in a country the average American barely understands.
Support for full-on wars will always inevitably dry up, that much has been proven true by history. No matter how gung-ho a population is at the start of a conflict, years’ worth of a rising American body count will eventually sour the public and make them apathetic over any further bloodshed. Take the fiasco over Biden finally pulling out of Afghanistan more than 20 years after our initial invasion. Despite nonstop bipartisan media hysteria to drum up opposition to the move, reminiscent of all the water carrying the media did for the Bush admin during the Iraq war, by a few weeks after the last helicopter left Kabul, the American people had more or less forgotten the whole ordeal. No one knew why we were in Afghanistan to begin with, and 20 years after 9/11 no one particularly cared when we left.
So where does that all leave us? In 2022 save for the omnipresent attempts by war hawks to drag us into a conflict with Iran or China, we have no major war project currently ongoing. But the defense budget remains historically high and ever-growing. Congress passed a new Pentagon budget even higher than the one President Biden proposed with bipartisan consensus, and despite a growing voice of dissent from the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, defense spending has been more or less just accepted as a natural part of our country. Defenders of such massive spending often point to how many jobs the war machine creates, as well as how many scientific and technological advances stem from military expenditures. Both of these are true, as defense is one of the last industries to remain mostly centered in America itself, avoiding the offshoring that drained almost every other industry of American jobs. But there's no reason such a massive, job-creating effort by our government needs to be centered around building missiles, tanks, and other objects of war. The scores of men and women who work for defense contractors could just as easily be employed building affordable housing, high-speed rail, green energy infrastructure, and the like, endeavors that would create similarly widespread jobs and technological investment. Our government just chooses instead to spend all that money and manpower churning out endless armored cars that quite literally end up rusting in parking lots.
In a recent speech, President Biden proudly boasted that for the first time in years, America is not at war. But a country at peace isn’t usually one that has a military footprint in every corner of the globe, from Germany to Kenya to Jordan to Niger. A country at peace isn’t one that’s currently strengthening its presence in Australia, adding bombers and aircraft carriers to flex its muscle against China, or doing the same in Germany in regards to Russia. A country at peace isn’t one whose media makes nonstop attempts to stoke outrage over perceived humanitarian violations in countries like Cuba or China to justify a military invasion to “liberate” the people, despite these supposed violations being more or less identical to what takes place in countless cities across America. A country at peace isn’t one that pulls out of a nuclear deal with Iran and imposes horrifically harsh economic sanctions akin to starving out a population. That’s because America isn’t a country at peace. We’re more militarized than at any point in history, it’s just become far easier to ignore.
So what exactly is the driving force behind all of this? Is everyone involved in this bloated, grotesque apparatus just a profiteer, able to put aside human misery if it means record profits? Or do those in charge really believe the American Exceptionalism/world police propaganda that they peddle to the masses? It differs from person to person I’d say, but for most involved it’s probably a little of both. At the end of The Jakarta Method in present-day New York, Vincent Bevins catches up with the son of Frank Wisner, the CIA operative who was one of the main orchestrators of the Indonesian coupe and subsequent genocide. While not explicitly answering for the crimes of his long-deceased father, Wisner Jr. did want to impart that his father was a true believer in the cause he was fighting for, not just a profiteer or water carrier for American business interests. Bevins writes, “Despite what the outcome might have been, his father truly thought that he was fighting communism. He didn’t think he was doing it to help his business buddies back in New York; he thought it was about the cause. For what it is worth, I believe that he believed that.”
If the history of the last 100 years of America has taught us anything, it’s that the motives don’t really matter. The war machine by now isn't driven by one person or group, it’s an unstoppable juggernaut that can’t be slowed down by public opinion or the actions of a lone president. And in the modern day and age, it’s been greased so effectively that it can remain chugging along out of sight and out of mind, all the while enriching everyone involved. Maybe some of those involved really do believe that the American war project is an honorable and just undertaking, or maybe they’re all just heartless ghouls who care only about profit. Either way, the end result is the same. As Wisner Jr. concludes his conversation with Vincent Bevins, “There’s a long and honorable record of American indifference to the world around us.”