America’s permanent war complex: a comment on Porter’s argument

Nov 28, 2018

A recent article by US commentator Gareth Porter raises many issues that should be of concern to Australians.  That they will in all probability be ignored points to some wider changes needed in our society.

On 15 November 2018 the American Conservative published an article by investigator reporter Dr Gareth Porter. It was reprinted in Pearls and Irritations on 21 November 2018.  The arguments Porter presents deserve wider circulation and discussion.

The fact that it appeared  first on a “conservative” website is in itself interesting.  The American Conservative began in 2002 and has acquired a reputation for publishing authors with a respected pedigree in thoughtful analysis. Porter is a regular contributor, as are other respected analysts such as John Mearsheimer (co-author of the seminal The Israeli Lobby, 2007), Samuel Huntington (now deceased) (The Clash of Civilisations, 1996) and Rod Dreher (How Dante Can Save your Life, 2015).

The American Conservative’s general orientation is a suspicion of unchecked power, either government or private, and to promote realism and restraint in foreign affairs. It is a sharp critic of what passes for mainstream conservatism, which in reality is more infamous for reactionary obscurantism than it is for insightful compassion.

Porter has written several books on South East Asia and the Middle East. His work appears regularly in the Nation, Counterpunch, Salon and Truthout as well as the American Conservative. The fact that he is both widely published and republished is a tribute to the quality of his intellectual contribution. His well- researched skepticism about official narratives, as for example on the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, means that he does not enjoy much coverage in the mainstream media.

That he has been proven overwhelmingly to be correct means that his articles and books deserve to be widely read.

His focus on the issue of the ever increasing power of what Eisenhower called (and warned against) the ‘military industrial complex’ in his farewell address in January 1961 has implications beyond the United States experience that is Porter’s primary focus.

The heavy casualties suffered by United States forces in Vietnam (1965-1975) and the public opposition to that war led to several changes in United States military strategy.

One of those changes was an increasing use of air power, usually against countries with little or nothing in the way of air defences. Another was the huge expansion of private “contractors” or, more accurately, mercenaries to do the actual fighting. This minimized American military casualties and allowed  the government of the day to announce “drawdowns” of US military personnel while not actually changing the policy on the ground.

This policy accelerated under the second Bush presidency and remains the case today, irrespective of the rhetoric from Bush’s successors in the White House, Obama and Trump. A parallel development that Porter traces is the use of drone warfare, which has a high kill rate with an almost zero risk of American casualties.

The Obama administration carried out nearly 5000 drone strikes, mostly in Afghanistan. The Trump administration has expanded both the volume of drone strikes and the location of their targets, with a 100% increase in Yemen in 2017 and a 30% increase in Somalia compared with the last year of the Obama administration.

There were two major consequences of this expanded form of warfare. The first is that the proportion of casualties that were civilians increased exponentially, accounting for the vast majority of total casualties. This has undoubtedly created a high level of resentment in the population’s affected. One consequence has been an upsurge of young men willing to join terrorist organisations.

The upsurge in terrorist activity as a consequence of the largely indiscriminate nature of drone warfare in turn provides the rhetorical justification for US politicians (and others closer to home) to expand their ‘war on terror’.  The policy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A further consequence of this endless ‘war on terror’ that Porter does not discuss but is also of considerable significance, is that governments demand more and more powers to combat the problems created by the policies they have pursued, that are corrosive of individual rights and freedoms, all justified in terms of ‘National Security.’

The relationship between the policies pursued, the inevitable reactions those policies create, and of the expansion of arbitrary political power to combat those reactions is something that has barely been discussed in Australia.

Since September 2001 Australia has passed an astonishing number of national security acts or amendments, mostly with bipartisan support. George Williams of UNSW is one of the few voices to consistently point to the dangers this trend poses to our increasingly debilitated democracy.

The other issue to which Porter draws attention, which is worthy of closer examination in Australia, is the degree of influence wielded by the corporations for whom perpetual war is a synonym for perpetual profit.

A recent academic study in the United States showed an almost zero correlation between what the general population considered important and actual government policies, but a very high correlation between the wishes of wealthy individuals and pressure groups and government policy.

Porter notes as a further example the interchangeability between high-ranking military officers, senior executives in companies who receive multi billion dollar contracts to develop and provide armaments, and government officials appointed at Secretary and Deputy Secretary level.

Conflict of interest is apparently little-known  as a concept at the upper levels of the military-industrial-intelligence complex, perhaps because the single underlying concept is one of profit.

The system is further perpetuated by substantial ‘donations’ to key legislative figures, and the judicious spread of military bases throughout the 50 States, as well as the location of key manufacturing plants.

That the United States has not actually won a war against a serious foe since 1945 (and that was largely attributable to other nations) seems not to feature large. That the weapons produced by this endless cost-plus gravy train are markedly inferior to their Russian and Chinese counterparts, as even the Pentagon now acknowledges, is also largely irrelevant.

The latter fact of weapon technology inferiority has been used as justifying an ever-larger ‘defence’ budget, inevitably at the expense of expenditure on health, education, social welfare and infrastructure, all of which are rapidly declining in both absolute and relative terms.

Porter does not see any escape from this conundrum. He raises vital issues that needed to be addressed, not least in Australia, which also seems intent on clinging to an outdated concept of what really does constitute the national interest.

James O’Neill is a Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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