Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

The essential, undistractable Engelhardt

COMMENTARY | July 22, 2010

The editor of TomDispatch.com is out with a new book that offers a lucid unifying theory of what went wrong in post-9/11 America. In short, the country became addicted to war.

By Dan Froomkin

The mainstream media have always been easily distracted and beguiled – but never more than now, when the next diversion is always just one click away.

This makes us particularly fortunate to have a few relentless souls like Tom Engelhardt around, using the Internet not to chase the latest chatter but to tenaciously chronicle, explore and illuminate the unspoken realities that shape our political discourse.
Foremost among those realities is the extraordinary militarization of this nation in the post-9/11 era, and the skewing of public debate such that options that don’t involve massive uses of force are essentially disregarded – actually dismissed as dangerous, when in fact it is war that is dangerous. This goes a long way to explaining so many of the poor decisions made by our leaders that individually, but only briefly, get the attention of the mass media.
Engelhardt, a longtime book editor, is the creator and editor of the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute. He is the finder and cultivator of important progressive voices, and contributors to his site include Bill McKibben, Mike Davis, Karen Greenberg, Chalmers Johnson, Michael Klare, Adam Hochschild and Elizabeth de la Vega.
But at the heart of Tomdispatch.com is Englehardt’s own work and his relentless thesis that America is a modern empire that has become addicted to the wars that are hastening its decline.
His new book, a seamlessly edited collection of his writings for the website, is entitled The American Way of War; How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s, and establishes him as one of the grand chroniclers of the post-9/11 era.
The conclusion I reached after reading Engelhardt’s book is that, as much as I hate to admit it, the supposedly discredited neocons have actually prevailed. These cold-blooded warmongers who think the exertion of American power is the answer to every problem have won -- not by winning any wars, mind you, but  by setting the terms of the debate.
Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan could possibly be mistaken for successes, and yet the neocons have succeeded in creating a political climate in which, as Engelhardt explains, war and security are somehow seen as being synonymous. As a result, any alternative to war has become tantamount to diminishing our security -- and is therefore politically untenable. Alternatives to war get no serious hearing in modern Washington. And while the mainstream media apparently doesn’t find this the least bit strange, Engelhardt does.
He asks good questions about it. “What does it mean,” he writes, “when the most military-obsessed administration in our history, which, year after year, submitted ever more bloated Pentagon budgets to Congress, is succeeded by one headed by a president who ran, at least partially, on an antiwar platform, and who then submitted an even larger Pentagon budget?”
Indeed, it would appear that unless things change dramatically, we are condemned to enduring war, in the form of a Global War on Terror (GWOT) that never ends. At least now you know why.
Engelhardt devotes some time to chronicling the nation’s massive, insatiable war machine – and our country’s role as arms supplier to the world. (When’s the last time you saw anything in the news about that?)
He exposes what he calls the “garrisoning of the planet” by literally countless U.S. military bases around the globe – bases that drain our treasury while angering our allies and energizing our enemies.
“Basing is generally considered here either a topic not worth writing about or an arcane policy matter best left to the inside pages for the policy wonks and news junkies," Engelhardt writes. "This is in part because we Americans -- and by extension our journalists -- don't imagine us as garrisoning or occupying the world; and certainly not as having anything faintly approaching a military empire."
He chronicles the extraordinary barbarity of the air war and the “collateral damage” it wreaks; an enterprise now made even more soulless as death is unleashed from drones operated by pilots hundreds or thousands of miles away.
Rather than look away as most of us do, Engelhardt faces right up to the greatest, most horrible irony of the post 9/11 period: that we did to ourselves “what al-Qaeda's crew never could have done. Blinding ourselves via the GWOT, we released American hubris and fear upon the world, in the process making almost every situation we touched progressively worse for this country.”
And he expresses the appropriate amount of awe at the extraordinary gall of leaders who are keener on bringing good government to Afghanistan than they are to Washington.
He asks: “Why does the military of a country convinced it's becoming ungovernable think itself so capable of making another ungovernable country governable?  What’s the military’s skill set here?  What lore, what body of political knowledge, are they drawing on?  Who do they think they represent, the Philadelphia of 1776 or the Washington of 2010, and if the latter, why should Americans be considered the globe’s leading experts in good government anymore?  And while we’re at it, fill me in on one other thing: Just what has convinced American officials in Afghanistan and the nation’s capital that they have the special ability to teach, prod, wheedle, bribe, or force Afghans to embark on good governance in their country if we can’t do it in Washington or Sacramento?"
As the subtitle of Engelhardt’s book indicates, the wars continue under Obama, barely even under new management.  And the “Age of Terror” continues as well, with the combination of fear and political cowardice as potent a brew as ever. Consider, for instance, Obama’s response to the failed underwear bombing attempt on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day.
“It’s remarkable that the sharpest president we’ve had in a while didn’t dare get up in front of the American people after Flight 253 landed and tell everyone to calm down," Engelhardt writes. "He didn’t, in fact, have a single intelligent thing to say about the event.  He certainly didn’t remind Americans that, whatever happened to Flight 253, they stood in far more danger heading out of their driveways behind the wheel or pulling into a bar on the way home for a beer or two.  Instead, the Obama administration essentially abjectly apologized, insisted it would focus yet more effort and money on making America safe from air terrorism, widened a new front in the Global War on Terror in Yemen (speeding extra money and U.S. advisors that way), and when the din from its critics didn’t end, 'pushed back,' as Peter Baker of the New York Times wrote, by claiming 'that they were handling terror suspects much as the previous administration did.'  It’s striking when a Democratic administration finds safety in the claim that it’s acting like a Republican one, that it’s following the path to the imperial presidency already cleared by George W. Bush.  Fear does that to you, and the fear of terror has been institutionalized at the top as well as the bottom of society.”
How is possible that this extraordinary militarization of our politics and our country has taken place, but we haven’t read about it in the newspapers? Engelhardt explains this, too.
“Sometimes,” he writes in an afterword, “it takes a complete outsider to see that what’s in front of us all is a forest, not a random grouping of trees, or, in the case of this book, an identifiable American way of war rather than a set of disparate political and military acts full of sound and fury but signifying little.”

The emperors have no flight suits...
Posted by Ormond Otvos
07/26/2010, 03:32 PM

Perhaps Tom could devote a little more time to solutions, rather than paradoxes, especially about Obama's freedom to act?

Nothing new about ingrained behavior
Posted by Don Greenwood
07/27/2010, 10:48 AM

The security driven military operations put in place since 9/11 merely indicate a mindset that has existed in this country since we fought the Barbary Coast pirates in the early 19th century. It is "Manifest Destiny" and Cold War containment policy dressed in a different outfit.

Americans held this arrogant sense of "can-do" exceptionality long before the World Trade Center tragedy. Neoconservatism in my opinion is merely the same ideological attitude looking for a new windmill to tilt at.

What other country would have the hubris to compose and lustily sing a song like "Good Bless America", the ultimate nationalistic pat on the back?

I haven't read any of Mr. Englehardt's commentaries, but I sense he needs to dig back into pre-9/11 US history to get an even fuller sense of what he's describing on his website and in his new book.

Re: The emperors have no flight suits...
Posted by Anon
07/31/2010, 02:19 AM

>>Perhaps Tom could devote a little more time to solutions, rather than paradoxes, especially about Obama's freedom to act?<<

Why would Tom do that? His piece is valid. Maybe he doesn't have solutions. You don't need one to bring attention to a problem. Opponents usually say this as a cheap trick to discredit.

To further elucidate what I am saying, here is an example. Saying "OMFG THERE THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE!!!" is a valid thing to say, even if they did not say to "GTFO out of the house!" as a solution because it brings attention to a problem.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.