BOOK REVIEW Infinite war The American Way of War by Tom Engelhardt
Reviewed by Pepe Escobar
Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to
- Bob Dylan, It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)
Tom Engelhardt is "a national treasure" - as University of Michigan professor
Juan Cole aptly puts it. A treasure of a man, author, crack book editor and
master of ceremonies of the
essential website TomDispatch.com - a project of the Nation Institute - his
latest book is composed of 29 essays originally published online from March
2004 to early 2010, and slightly revamped. What's in a title? In this case, all
of it, no holds barred: America as we know it, defined and explained according
to its ethos - war.
War, the Vietnam-era 1970 Motown mega-hit written by Whitfield-Strong and sung
by Edwin Starr, went like this:
War ... huh ... yeah
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing ... say it again y'all.
if we're talking about the US industrial-military complex, war means absolutely
everything. Like an extended Motown shuffle with some hard-hitting Stax breaks,
and never devoid of an all too human sense of humor and pathos, Tom's book
takes us for the ride. And though the landscape surveyed is all too familiar
for anyone who has followed George "Dubya's" wars, it ain't pretty; and it does
lead to a black hole in our collective soul.
Appropriately, this collection of essays is a tribute to Chalmers Johnson and
his relentless, ongoing analysis of the US global empire of bases, in books
ranging from Blowback to Nemesis. It's all here - the
"war-is-peace" American newspeak so cherished by assorted Project for a New
American Century neo-con, armchair warriors. But was it always like this? Not
really. Right at the start, crack media-shredder machine Tom takes us through
the pages of the New York Times a few days before 9/11. And - surprise! - none
of the usual suspects are in town.
"Saddam Hussein didn't make it into the paper that week. Kim Jong-il was
nowhere in sight. Osama bin Laden barely slipped into print - twice deep into
articles - as "the accused terrorist" being hosted by the strange Taliban
government. The "axis of evil", of course, did not exist, nor did the global
"war on terror", and the potential enemy of the week, pushed by former
secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld (himself on the defensive over the
military budget and arguments with his generals), was "the rising China
Iran was scarcely a blip on the news radar screen; Syria rated not a mention.
Also missing were just about any of the names we came to consider second nature
to the post-9/11 news. No "Scooter" Libby. No Valerie Plame. No Paul Wolfowitz,
John Bolton or Douglas Feith.
So just when a section of the power oligarchy was about to elect China as the
next Soviet Union in a 21st century Cold War remix, they stumbled upon a much
weaker, and more convenient, foe. In itself, and coming from the paper of
record, that's more than enough to debunk "Islamic terror" as fiction - invoked
to legitimize a fabricated war against choice Muslim nations, which is a cover
for the same old Cold War-era global, unilateral hegemonic agenda. As for 9/11,
Tom could be making too much of the testimony by al-Qaeda's master brain Khalid
Shaikh Mohammed - extracted by Central Intelligence Agency torture - but then
again very few writers in the early 2000s had enough inside information to
debunk the immensely flawed official version of 9/11.
The key merit of this book is its analysis of the language of empire - how
those who control power and weapons also control the Word. In the absence of a
Barthes, a Lacan or a Derrida - which could disperse the American newspeak oil
slick but at the price of thousands of pages, Tom lasers on the state of
contemporary, corporate American journalism. Suffice to quote his unspoken
calculus of the value of life and death in terms of newsworthiness in the US:
put, it would go something like: one kidnapped and murdered blond white child
in California equals 300 Egyptians drowned in a ferry accident, 3,000
Bangladeshis swept away in a monsoon flood, 300,000 Congolese killed in a
bloodletting civil war.
The language of empire is a relentless
desensitization covert op - with its cortege of "anti-Iraqi forces",
"dead-enders", "bitter enders", "Ba'athist remnants", "terrorists",
"insurgents" ("Guerrillas"? Don't even think about it), "aerial bombing",
"covert" operations and "collateral damage". Suffering is never related to the
(invisible) Other; after all, American reporters are always embedded with
American troops (and some later even profit from it all and conquer Hollywood,
as in the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker). No wonder Tom finds a wealth
of material to compile what he defines as the "Dictionary of American
War and terror. War on terror. War of terror. The marriage is for life.
Tom stresses how the George W Bush-Barack Obama continuum - which follows the
Bush senior-Bill Clinton continuum - is impregnated with the terror obsession.
"It is a Bush legacy that no president is likely to reverse soon, if at all."
No surprises here. As every student of American history knows, the
"indispensable nation" armchair neo-cons so much revere was in fact built on
vast territory and mineral wealth "liberated" - via terror - from Native
By dwelling on the language of empire, Tom had to make a few pit stops to
examine the hagiography of the warriors-functionaries of Empire. Such as
General Stanley McChrystal, a former protege of Rumsfeld who led the Pentagon's
mega-secret Joint Special Operations Command - an executive torture and death
squad in Iraq - and who always had wet dreams about AfPak, that is, an extended
war in South/Central Asia.
McChrystal symbolizes a crucial imperial link - "both a legacy figure from the
worst days of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era and the firstborn child of Obama-era
Washington's growing desperation and hysteria over the wars it inherited." An
army of imperial stenographers has hailed "warrior-scholar" McChrystal as a
sort of Jedi knight, much as the man who picked him, CentCom commander General
David Petraeus, has been deified in a Wagnerian Ring manner (with drones). Tom
is succinct enough on Petraeus: "His greatest skill ... has been in fostering
the career of David Petraeus." As for McChrystal, he is more like a cross
between Joseph Conrad's Kurtz in Heart of Darkness and Captain Willard
in Coppola's Apocalypse Now.
As for those who believed in Obama, may they dwell eternally in a valley of
tears. As if the destruction of the US Constitution by the Bush/Cheney war on
terror was not enough, the Obama administration has expanded the ultra-vague
definition of "terrorist" to include "domestic extremists" - that is, any
American dissenting from world hegemony-related US government policies.
Referring to Obama's AfPak war, Tom stresses how the Pentagon succeeded in
"boxing in a president who had already locked himself into a conflict he had
termed both ‘the right war' and a 'necessary' one." Thus, "President Obama
ended up essentially where General McChrystal began."
This triviality would be Monty Pythonish if it was not tragic - for Americans
and for all non-Americans who grew up cherishing the best that America has to
offer. Gore Vidal has been warning for decades how the industrial-military
complex has hijacked the Republic. Not only the complex - but also Big Pharma,
the insurance lobby, Wall Street and Big Oil; the current BP-provoked
destruction of the priceless ecological systems in the Gulf of Mexico is an
evil twin of the Wall Street-provoked 2008 (and ongoing) financial debacle.
Make no mistake; these oligarchic corporate powers will never be voted out of
the republic, will never be really held accountable.
Tom's book - which should be read in tandem with F William Engdahl's Full
Spectrum Dominance - is invaluable in showing how the empire walks the
walk and talks the talk. His conclusion is that "it's Pentagon time, and it's
we who fund that clock that ticks toward eternity". Yes, the road to the new
American dream - full spectrum dominance - goes on forever.
A reader may be allowed to draw a much more somber conclusion. Little do most
of those living in a perverse war-based society and war-based economy - without
even acknowledging it - know, the American republic, for all practical
purposes, is as good as dead.
The American Way of War: How Bush's wars became Obama's by Tom
Engelhardt. Haymarket Books (June 1, 2010). ISBN-10 1608460711. Price US$16.95,