A Truthout Progressive Pick Interview with Tom Engelhardt
Mark Karlin: How much money has gone to the U.S. war on terror and what has been the impact of this expenditure?
Tom Engelhardt: The best figure I’ve seen on this comes from the Watson Institute’s Costs of War Project at Brown University and it’s a staggering $5.6 trillion, including certain future costs to care for this country’s war vets. President Trump himself, with his usual sense of accuracy, has inflated that number even more, regularly speaking of $7 trillion being lost somewhere in our never-ending wars in the Greater Middle East. One of these days, he’s going to turn out to be right.
As for the impact of such an expenditure in the regions where these wars continue to be fought, largely nonstop, since they were launched against a tiny group of jihadis just after September 11, 2001, it would certainly include: the spread of terror outfits across the Middle East, parts of Asia, and Africa; the creation — in a region previously autocratic but relatively calm — of a striking range of failed or failing states, of major cities that have been turned into absolute rubble (with no money in sight for serious reconstruction), of internally displaced people and waves of refugees at levels that now match the moment after World War II, when significant parts of the planet were in ruins; and that’s just to start down a list of the true costs of our wars.
At home, in a far quieter way, the impact has been similar. Just imagine, for instance, what our American world would have been like if any significant part of the funds that went into our fruitless, still spreading, now nameless conflicts had been spent on America’s crumbling infrastructure, instead of on the rise of the national security state as the unofficial fourth branch of government. (At TomDispatch, Pentagon expert William Hartung has estimated that approximately $1 trillion annually goes into that security state and, in the age of Trump, that figure is again on the rise.)
Part of the trouble assessing the “impact” here in the U.S. is that, in this era of public demobilization in terms of our wars, people are encouraged not to think about them at all and they’ve gotten remarkably little attention. So sorting out exactly how they’ve come home — other than completely obvious developments like the militarization of the police, the flying of surveillance drones in our airspace, and so on — is hard. Most people, for instance, don’t grasp something I’ve long written about at TomDispatch: that Donald Trump would have been inconceivable as president without those disastrous wars, those trillions squandered on them and on the military that’s fought them, and that certainly qualifies as “impact” enough.
What makes the U.S. pretension to empire different from previous empires?
As a start, it’s worth mentioning that Americans generally don’t even think of ourselves as an “empire.” Yes, since the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, our politicians and pundits have proudly called this country the “last” or “lone” superpower and the world’s most “exceptional” or “indispensable” nation, but an empire? No. You need to go someplace off the mainstream grid — Truthout or TomDispatch, for instance — to find anyone talking about us in those terms.