Here is my six-category rundown of what I would call American extremity on a global scale: There is US violence at home and abroad.
Garrisoning the globe: The U.S. has an estimated 800 or so military bases or garrisons, ranging from the size of American small towns to tiny outposts, across the planet. They exist almost everywhere — Europe, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America — except in countries that are considered American foes (and given the infamous Guantánamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba, there’s even an exception to that). At the moment, Great Britain and France still have small numbers of bases, largely left over from their imperial pasts; that rising great power rival China officially has one global garrison, a naval base in Djibouti in the horn of Africa (near an American base there, one of its growing collection of outposts on that continent), which much worries American war planners, and a naval base, in the process of being built, in Gwadar, Pakistan; that other great power rival, Russia, still has several bases in countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, and a single naval base in Syria (which similarly disturbs American military planners). The United States, as I said, has at least 800 of them, a number that puts in the shade the global garrisons of any other great power in history, and to go with them, more than 450,000 military personnel stationed outside its borders. It shouldn’t be surprising then that, like no other power in history, it has divided the world — every bit of it — as if slicing a pie, into six military commands; that’s six commands for every inch of the globe (and another two for space and cyberspace). Might all of this not be considered just a tad extreme?
Funding the military: The U.S. puts approximately a trillion dollars annually in taxpayer funds into its military, its 17 intelligence agencies, and what’s now called “homeland security.” Its national security budget is larger than those of the next eight countries combined and still rising yearly, though most politicians agree and many regularly insist that the U.S. military has been badly underfunded in these years, left in a state of disrepair, and needs to be “rebuilt.” Now, honestly, don’t you think that qualifies as both exceptional in the most literal sense and kind of extreme?
Fighting wars: The United States has been fighting wars nonstop since its military invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. That’s almost 17 years of invasions, occupations, air campaigns, drone strikes, special operations raids, naval air and missile attacks, and so much else, from the Philippines to Pakistan, Afghanistan to Syria, Libya to Niger. And in none of those places is such war making truly over. It goes without saying that there’s no other country on the planet making war in such a fashion or over anything like such a period of time. Americans were, for instance, deeply disturbed and ready to condemn Russia for sending its troops into neighboring Ukraine and occupying Crimea. That was considered an extreme act worthy of denunciations of the strongest sort. In this country, though, American-style war, despite invasions of countries thousands of miles away and the presidentially directed targeting of individuals across the globe for assassination by drone with next to no regard for national sovereignty is not considered extreme. Most of the time, in fact, it’s seldom thought about at all or even seriously debated. And yet, isn’t fighting unending wars across thousands of miles of the planet for almost 17 years without end, while making the president into a global assassin, just a tad extreme?
Destroying cities: Can there be any question that, in the American mind, the most extreme act of this century was the destruction of those towers in New York City and part of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, with the deaths of almost 3,000 unsuspecting, innocent civilians? That became the definition of an extreme act by a set of extremists. Consider, however, the American response. Across significant parts of the Middle East in the years since, the U.S. has had a major hand in destroying not just tower after tower, but city after city — Fallujah, Ramadi, and Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa in Syria, Sirte in Libya. One after another, parts or all of them were turned into literal rubble. A reported 20,000 munitionswere dropped on Raqqa, the “capital” of the brief Islamic State, by U.S. and allied air power, leaving at least 1,400 civilians dead, and barely a building untouched or even standing (with the Trump administration intent on not providing funds for any kind of reconstruction). In these years, in response to the destruction in whole or part of a handful of buildings, the U.S. has destroyed (often with a helping hand from the Islamic State) whole cities, while filling the equivalent of tower after tower with dead and wounded civilians. Is there nothing extreme about that?
Displacing people: In the course of its wars, the U.S. has helped displace a record number of human beings since the last days of World War II. In Iraq alone, from the years of conflict that Washington set off with its invasion and occupation of 2003, vast numbers of people have been displaced, including in the ISIS era, 1.3 million children. In response to that reality, in “the homeland,” the man who became president in 2017 and the officials he appointed went to work to transform the very refugees we had such a hand in creating into terrifying bogeymen, potentially the most dangerous and extreme people on the planet, and then turned to the task of ensuring that none of them would ever arrive in this country. Doesn’t that seem like an extreme set of acts and responses?
Arming the planet (and its own citizens as well): In these years, as with defense spending, so with the selling of weaponry of almost every imaginable sort to other countries. U.S. weapons makers, aided and abetted by the government, have outpaced all possible competitors in global arms sales. In 2016, for instance, the U.S. took 58% of those sales, while between 2002-2016, Washington transferred weaponry to 167 countries, or more than 85% of the nations on the planet. Many of those arms, including cluster bombs, missiles, advanced jet planes, tanks, and munitions of almost every sort, went into planetary hot spots, especially the Middle East. At the same time, the citizens of the U.S. themselves have more arms per capita (often of a particularly lethal military sort) than the citizens of any other country on Earth. And appropriately enough under the circumstances, they commit more mass killings. When it comes to weaponry, then, wouldn’t you call that extreme on both a global and a domestic scale?
And that’s only to begin to plunge into the topic of American extremity. After all, we now have a president whose administration considers it perfectly normal, in fact a form of “deterrence policy,” to separate parents from even tiny children crossing our southern border or to cut food aid and raise the rent on poor Americans. We’re talking about a president with a cult-like following whose government is ideologically committed to wiping outenvironmental protections of every sort and pushing the further fossil fuelization of the country and the planet, even if it means the long-term destruction of the very environment that has nurtured humanity these last thousands of years.
Think of this perhaps as a new kind of death cult, which means that Donald Trump might be considered the superpower version of an Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. As with all such things, this particular cult did not come from nowhere, but from a land of growing extremity, a country that now, it seems, may be willing to preside over not just cities in ruin but a planet in ruin, too. Doesn’t that seem just a little extreme to you?
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World. His next book, A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books), will be published later this month.
This article first appeared on TomDispatch.com
Copyright 2018 Tom Engelhardt