I was born on July 20, 1944, amid a vast global conflict already known as World War II. Though it ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 before I could say much more than "Mama" or "Dada," in some strange fashion, I grew up at war.
Living in New York City, I was near no conflict in those years or in any since. My dad, however, had volunteered for the Army Air Corps at age 35 on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He fought in Burma, was painfully silent about his wartime experiences, and died on Pearl Harbor Day in 1983. He was the operations officer for the 1st Air Commandos and his war, in some strange sense, came home with him.
Like so many vets, then and now, he was never willing to talk to his son about what he had experienced, though in my early years he still liked his friends to call him "Major," his rank on leaving the military. When his war did come up in our house, it was usually in the form of anger – because my mother had shopped at a nearby grocery store whose owners, he claimed, had been "war profiteers" while he was overseas, or because my first car, shared with a friend, was a used Volkswagen (German!), or my mom was curious to go – god save us! – to a Japanese restaurant!
The strange thing, though, was that, in those same years, for reasons we never discussed, he allowed me briefly to have a Japanese pen pal and, though my dad and I never talked about the letters that boy and I exchanged, we did soak the stamps off the envelopes he sent and paste them into our latest Scott stamp album.
As for evidence of my father’s wartime experience, I had two sources. In the guest room closet in our apartment, he had an old green duffle bag, which he’d go through now and then. It was filled to the brim with everything from Army Air Corps documents to his portable mess kit and even – though I didn’t know it then – his pistol and bullets from the war. (I would turn them over to the police upon his death a quarter-century later.)
Though he wouldn’t talk with me about his wartime experience, I lived it in a very specific way (or at least so it felt to me then). After all, he regularly took me to the movies where I saw seemingly endless versions of war, American-style, from the Indian wars through World War II. And when we watched movies of his own conflict (or, in my early years, replays of Victory at Sea on our TV at home) and he said nothing, that only seemed to confirm that I was seeing his experience in all its glory, as the Marines inevitably advanced at film’s end and the "Japs" died in a spectacle of slaughter without a comment from him.
From those Indian wars on, as I wrote long ago in my book The End of Victory Culture, war was always a tale of their savagery and our goodness, one in which, in the end, there would be an expectable "spectacle of slaughter" as we advanced and "they" went down. From the placement of the camera flowed the pleasure of watching the killing of tens or hundreds of nonwhites in a scene that normally preceded the positive resolution of relationships among the whites. It was a way of ordering a wilderness of human horrors into a celebratory tale of progress through devastation, a victory culture that, sooner or later, became more complicated to portray because World War II ended with the atomic devastation of those two Japanese cities and, in the 1950s and 1960s, the growing possibility of a future global Armageddon.
If war was hell, in my childhood at the movies, killing them wasn’t, whether it was the Indians of the American West or the Japanese in World War II.
So, yes, I grew up in a culture of victory, one I played out again and again on the floor of my room. In the 1950s, boys (and some girls) spent hours acting out tales of American battle triumph with generic fighting figures: a crew of cowboys to defeat the Indians and win the West, a bag or two of olive-green Marines to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima.
If ours was a sanguinary tale of warfare against savages in which pleasure came out of the barrel of a gun, on floors nationwide we kids were left alone, without apparent instruction, to reinvent American history. Who was good and who bad, who could be killed and under what conditions were an accepted part of a collective culture of childhood that drew strength from post-World War II Hollywood.
What Would My Dad Think?
Today, 60-odd years later, having never been to war but having focused on it and written about it for so long, here’s what I find eerily strange: since 1945, the country with the greatest military on the planet that, in budgetary terms, now leaves the next nine countries combined in the dust, has never – and let me repeat that: never! – won a war that mattered (despite engaging in all too many spectacles of slaughter). Stranger yet, in terms of lessons learned in the world of adult culture, every lost war has, in the end, only led this country to invest more taxpayer dollars in building up that very military. If you needed a long-term formula for disaster in a country threatening to come apart at the seams, it would be hard to imagine a more striking one. So long after his death, I must admit that sometimes I wonder what my dad would think of it all.
Here’s the thing: the American experience of war since 1945 should have offered an all-too-obvious lesson for us, as well as for the planet’s other great powers, when it comes to the value of giant military establishments and the conflicts that go with them.
Just think about it a moment, historically speaking. That global victory of 1945, ending all too ominously with the dropping of those two atomic bombs and the slaughter of possibly 200,000 people, would be followed in 1950 by the start of the Korean War. The statistics of death and destruction in that conflict were, to say the least, staggering. It was a spectacle of slaughter, involving the armies of North Korea and its ally the newly communist China versus South Korea and its ally, the United States. Now, consider the figures: out of a Korean population of 30 million, as many as three million may have died, along with an estimated 180,000 Chinese and about 36,000 Americans. The North’s cities, bombed and battered, were left in utter ruin, while the devastation on that peninsula was almost beyond imagining. It was all too literally a spectacle of slaughter and yet, despite ours being the best-armed, best-funded military on the planet, that war ended in an all-too-literal draw, a 1953 armistice that has never – not to this day! – turned into an actual peace settlement.
After that, another decade-plus passed before this country’s true disaster of the twentieth century, the war in Vietnam – the first American war I opposed – in which, once again, the U.S. Air Force and our military more generally proved destructive almost beyond imagining, while at least a couple of million Vietnamese civilians and more than a million fighters died, along with 58,000 Americans.
And yet, in 1975, with U.S. troops withdrawn, the southern regime we had supported collapsed and the North Vietnamese military and its rebel allies in the South took over the country. There was no tie as there had been in Korea, just utter defeat for the greatest military power on the planet.
The Rise of the Pentagon on a Fallen Planet
Meanwhile, that other superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, had – and this should sound familiar to any American in 2023 – sent its massive military, the Red Army, into… yes, Afghanistan in 1979. There, for almost a decade, it battled Afghan guerrilla forces backed and significantly financed by the CIA and Saudi Arabia (as well as by a specific Saudi named Osama bin Laden and the tiny group he set up late in the war called – yes, again! – al-Qaeda). In 1989, the Red Army limped out of that country, leaving behind perhaps two million dead Afghans and 15,000 of its own dead. Not so long after, the Soviet Union itself imploded and the U.S. became the only "great power" on planet Earth.
Washington’s response would be anything but a promised "peace dividend." Pentagon funding barely dipped in those years. The U.S. military did manage to invade and occupy the tiny island of Grenada in the Caribbean in 1983 and, in 1991, in a highly publicized but relatively low-level and one-sided encounter, drove Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in what would later come to be known as the First Gulf War. It would be but a preview of a hell on Earth to come in this century.
Meanwhile, of course, the U.S. became a singular military power on this planet, having established at least 750 military bases on every continent but Antarctica. Then, in the new century, in the immediate wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, President George W. Bush and his top officials, incapable of imagining a comparison between the long-gone Soviet Union and the United States, sent the American military into – right! – Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government there. A disastrous occupation and war followed, a prolonged spectacle of slaughter that would only end after 20 years of blood, gore, and massive expense, when President Biden pulled the last U.S. forces out amid chaotic destruction and disorder, leaving – yes, the Taliban! – to run that devastated country.
In 2003, with the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq (on the false grounds that Saddam Hussein was developing or had weapons of mass destruction and was somehow linked to Osama bin Laden), the Second Gulf War began. It would, of course, be a disaster, leaving several hundred thousand dead Iraqis in its wake and (as in Afghanistan) thousands of dead Americans as well. Another spectacle of slaughter, it would last for endless years and, once again, Americans would draw remarkably few lessons from it.
Oh, and then there’s the war on terror more generally, which essentially helped spread terror around significant parts of the planet. Nick Turse recently caught this reality with a single statistic: in the years since the U.S. first began its counter-terror efforts in West Africa early in this century, terror incidents there have soared by 30,000%.
And the response to this? You know it all too well. Year after year, the Pentagon’s budget has only grown and is now heading for the trillion-dollar mark. In the end, the U.S. military may have achieved just one success of any significance since 1945 by becoming the most valued and best-funded institution in this country. Unfortunately, in those same years, in a genuinely strange fashion, America’s wars came home.
I doubt, in fact, that Donald Trump would ever have become president without the disastrous American wars of this century. Think of him, in his own terrorizing fashion, as "fallout" from the war on terror.
There may never, in fact, have been a more striking story of a great power, seemingly uncontested on Planet Earth, bringing itself down in quite such a fashion.
Today, in Ukraine, we see but the latest grim example of how a vaunted military, strikingly funded in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union – and I’m talking, of course, about Russia’s army – has once again been sent into battle against lesser forces with remarkably disastrous results. Mind you, Vladimir Putin and crew, like their American counterparts, should have learned a lesson from the Red Army’s disastrous experience in Afghanistan in the previous century. But no such luck.
There should, of course, be a larger lesson here – not just that there’s no glory in war in the twenty-first century but that, unlike in some past eras, great powers are no longer likely to experience success, no matter what happens on the battlefield.
Let’s hope that the rising power on this planet, China, takes note, even as it regularly organizes threatening military exercises around the island of Taiwan, while the Biden administration continues to ominously heighten the U.S. military presence in the region. If China’s leaders truly want to be successful in this century, they should avoid either the American or Russian versions of war-making of our recent past. (And it would be nice if the Cold Warriors in Washington did the same before we end up in a conflict from hell between two nuclear powers.)
It’s decades too late for me to ask my father what his war truly meant to him, but at least when it comes to "great" powers and war these days, one lesson seems clear enough: there simply is nothing great about them, except their power to destroy not just the enemy, but themselves as well.
I can’t help wondering what my dad might think if he could look at this increasingly disturbed world of ours. I wonder if he wouldn’t finally have something to say to me about war.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, and Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars: The Untold Story.
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He was also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth book is A Nation Unmade by War.
Copyright 2023 Tom Engelhardt