Saturday, 21 August 2010

America is a warrior nation

None of the following is my work. It is here because it is behind a barricade. I object and have chosen to draw attention to something of merit this way. If this analysis is correct, we should be alarmed.

US troops are out of Iraq but there will be more wars to come. A hyper-resourced military machine depends on it

In all of Britishness there is nothing quite like the electricity that passes between Americans of a certain patriotic stripe as they stand together with their hands over their hearts and their soldiers on parade for the playing of their national anthem. For outsiders it can be an uncomfortable charge, but it surely sharpens the senses.

I felt it on Tuesday evening on a hill in Arlington overlooking the Potomac. Several hundred young Marines stood motionless in three lines between their officers and the Iwo Jima memorial for one of the last Sunset Parades of the summer. The band played. We stood to attention and then we relaxed, but not much, for the main event.

At these parades a hand-picked platoon of 24 Marines performs with great pride and spellbinding precision the "silent drill". The official website says that this consists of "bayoneted rifles flying from Marine to Marine, the line-up of crisp dress blue uniforms, the rhythmic slap of rifles caught by leather-gloved hands". The website does not lie.

Don't take your children to a Sunset Parade if you don't want them to emigrate and enlist. When it was over and a salute to the fallen had been fired, the Marines were allowed to mingle. One strode towards my two oldest sons — not quite fighting age at 8 and 9, but close — with a still-warm bullet casing for each of them. They grinned as if embraced by Professor Dumbledore himself.

Many of those around us had wept quietly as they watched, and buses were on hand to take them to Arlington National Cemetery less than a mile away. As the buses rolled, so did the eight-wheeled armoured leviathans of 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, grinding towards the Iraq-Kuwaiti border seven time zones to the east, and towards the pre-dawn photo op chosen by the Pentagon and most American networks to symbolise the end of US combat operations in Iraq.

It has been seven years since the invasion; nine since 9/11. In that time more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died for a facsimile of democracy that may or may not blossom into the real thing. In the US the effects of a decade of war are more easily measured. The defence budget has doubled. The average earnings of military personnel have more than doubled to $122,263 per person, including benefits and hazardous duty pay. And a funny thing has happened to the map of military America. It is no longer an archipelago of blue-collar strivers in uniform but of relative affluence in an ocean of economic uncertainty.

A study by USA Today this week found that 16 of the 20 fastest-rising metropolitan areas in the country's income rankings have local economies based around military bases. Jacksonville, North Carolina, near the giant Camp Lejeune Marine base, was last year the richest place in the state. In 2000 it was second from bottom. In Texas, the unlovely town of Killeen is more prosperous than achingly hip Austin because it serves the world's largest army base at Fort Hood.

Robert Gates, President Obama's teddy-bearish and widely praised Defence Secretary, has made his name by cutting waste but not spending. The rapier-like but useless F22 fighter has been axed, but the even more expensive F35 is thundering skyward in pursuit of enemies real and imagined, from San Diego to Djibouti. A redundant bureaucracy in suburban Virginia called the Joint Forces Command is to be wound down to save $10 billion a year, but the Army and Marine Corps are being steadily retooled at mind-bending cost for the far-flung, often covert and always asymmetric military contests of the early 21st century.

In the age of suicide bombers and sandal-wearing Taleban, a team of Harvard MBAs could not have come up with a more devastatingly effective rationale for trillion-dollar Pentagon budgets than that one word, asymmetric. It justifies the fleets of drones piloted to their Pakistani targets from air-conditioned bunkers in Nevada, neutralises arguments for soft power over hard and muzzles any serious discussion about the insanity of spending more on "defence" than the rest of the world combined, two decades after the end of the Cold War.

The troops returning from Iraq this week deserve a long rest with their families, but the US military machine, compared with any other in history, is hyper-resourced and raring to go.

For now, its energies will be focused on Afghanistan. But President Obama's July 2011 deadline for starting to pull out is non-negotiable, he says, and although many units will remain behind, the bulk of the US Army and almost all the Navy and Air Force may look in vain for front lines on which to demonstrate their usefulness. The sensible answer to the question of what they will do in the absence of new and urgent threats to US national security is that they will clip the grass on their bases and conduct joint exercises with their allies to help to preserve a glorious new Pax Americana.

The crazy, conspiratorial answer is that new and urgent threats will have to be found because America as at present constructed cannot endure a long peace. It has too many soldiers, too many foreign policy fantasies that depend on them, too many interests that exist by serving them and altogether too much kit. The film-maker Michael Moore is crazy like this. So was the wisest president of the postwar era, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Since Ike warned Americans in a farewell speech 50 years ago of the reality-distorting power of the US military-industrial complex, that complex has thrived beyond its wildest dreams. Yet if Mr Obama so much as used the phrase now, it would sink him. Instead he will continue to pay extravagant tribute to the courage and sacrifice of the soldiers he commands, and to aver, as to the optimistic Norwegians who awarded him the Nobel Prize for Peace last year, that "war is sometimes necessary" because "evil does exist in the world".

America's next war is being fought in Yemen, albeit undeclared and by "advisers" in shades. After that it could be Somalia, or Georgia or almost any of the former Soviet "stans", and when it comes, a surprisingly bipartisan array of think-tank jockeys will explain it as a muscular defence of freedoms the price and value of which Europeans simply don't understand.

Another thing Europeans may not understand if their experience of America extends only to Orlando and Manhattan is that this is, deep in its bones, a warrior nation. Fighting to the death is one of its default modes.

As Major General Smedley Butler of the US Marines wrote six years before Pearl Harbor: "Our exploits against the American Indian, the Filipinos, the Mexicans and against Spain are on a par with the campaigns of Genghis Khan." Seventy-five years on, the Army's mission statement — "to fight and win the nation's wars" — presupposes their existence while saying nothing at all about defence. Those wars are listed in gold round the giant base of the Iwo Jima Memorial, which stands in the shadow of a cluster of arms manufacturers' office towers.

Clutching his bullet casing, my middle son took me round the memorial. "Hey dad," said this thoughtful soul, filled until then with dreams of being an inventor. "I want to be a soldier when I grow up."

Giles Whittell is Washington correspondent

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