Our Nameless Wars

Cross-posted from TomDispatch.com

Even though the article was buried at the bottom of page eight of the September 28th New York Times, it caught my attention.  Its headline: “Russia Destroys Chemical Weapons and Faults U.S. for Not Doing So.” In a televised ceremony, wrote reporter Andrew Higgins, Russian President Vladimir Putin “presided over the destruction of his country’s last declared chemical weapons on Wednesday.”  The U.S. and Russia had, it seems, long ago agreed to do so by 2007, before pushing the date back to 2012, and then 2020.  The Russians have now beaten that deadline by three years while, according to an unnamed State Department official quoted by Higgins, the U.S. “remains committed” to doing the same by... “the end of 2023.” 

But I digress. One line ― actually one word ― in his story struck me oddly.  The “carefully choreographed” Russian event, Higgins commented, “seemed designed to offset the reputation [Putin] has acquired for belligerence and the flouting of international norms amid Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine in 2014 and in Syria.”  Yes, it was the most tepid word in that passage which caught my eye: interventions.  Such a mild way to describe what the Russians did in Ukraine, but when it came to Syria, something else entirely occurred to me: like Russia, the U.S. is deeply involved in Syria; like Russia, it has troops in rising numbers there; like Russia, it has loosed its air force on that country, dropping staggering numbers of bombs regularly.

In any normal week of news, however, you can generally search in vain for a discussion here of Washington’s “intervention” in Syria.  Officially, the U.S. military is conducting “overseas contingency operations” there and they are meant (unlike Russian efforts, of course) to stabilize that country.  But in these years you could search, largely without success, for any labels, however tepid, being applied to what the U.S. is actually doing across the Greater Middle East and Africa. Take the recent decision to send thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.  Is that part of America’s “Afghan intervention”?  Evidently not.  Yes, we “invaded” in 2001, but what exactly are we doing now?  The upping of the ante in Somalia in the Trump era ― does that qualify as part of an ongoing “Somali intervention”?  If so, you won’t find out about it from your local news reports.  The recent bombing of an ISIS training camp in Libya, not even officially considered “an area of active hostilities,” was the first such attack of the Trump era (but hardly the first of recent years).  Is that part of Washington’s ongoing “Libyan intervention”?  I doubt it.  The nine-month air campaign against Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, that left much of that historic area a pile of rubble ― is that part of our “Iraqi intervention” 14 years after the invasion of that country?  Not as far as I can tell.  Were the increasing numbers of bombs dropped on Yemen and the heightened special operations raids there in the early months of the Trump administration part of our ongoing “Yemeni intervention”?  It’s not a description I’ve seen anywhere.

Sixteen years after the 9/11 attacks, our never-ending wars and conflicts continue under the rubric of “the war on terror” (no caps), as terror groups spread and destabilization creeps from one of our war zones to the next.  But have you noticed just how nameless, how without descriptors of any sort, such ongoing events are? Andrew Bacevich, author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East, certainly has and today in “Autopilot Wars” he explores why those never-ending whatevers have had so little impact in this country. After all, if anyone were paying much attention, how could the generals of our losing overseas contingency operations have gained such power and prestige in Donald Trump’s Washington?