It’s 1990. I’m a young captain in the U.S. Air Force. I’ve just witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, something I never thought I’d see, short of a third world war. Right now I’m witnessing the slow death of the Soviet Union, without the accompanying nuclear Armageddon so many feared. Still, I’m slightly nervous as my military gears up for an unexpected new campaign, Operation Desert Shield/Storm, to expel Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s military from Kuwait. It’s a confusing moment. After all, the Soviet Union was forever (until it wasn’t) and Saddam had been a stalwart U.S. friend, his country a bulwark against the Iran of the Ayatollahs. (For anyone who doubts that history, just check out the now-infamous 1983 photo of Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy for President Reagan, all smiles and shaking hands with Saddam in Baghdad.) Still, whatever my anxieties, the Soviet Union collapsed without a whimper and the campaign against Saddam’s battle-tested forces proved to be a “cakewalk,” with ground combat over in a mere 100 hours.
Think of it as the trifecta moment: Vietnam syndrome vanquished forever, Saddam’s army destroyed, and the U.S. left standing as the planet’s “sole superpower.”
Post-Desert Storm, the military of which I was a part stood triumphant on a planet that was visibly ours and ours alone. Washington had won the Cold War. It had won everything, in fact. End of story. Saddam admittedly was still in power in Baghdad, but he had been soundly spanked. Not a single peer enemy loomed on the horizon. It seemed as if, in the words of former U.N. ambassador and uber-conservative Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. could return to being a normal country in normal times.
What Kirkpatrick meant was that, with the triumph of freedom movements in Central and Eastern Europe and the rollback of communism, the U.S. military could return to its historical roots, demobilizing after its victory in the Cold War even as a “new world order” was emerging. But it didn’t happen. Not by a long shot. Despite all the happy talk back then about a “new world order,” the U.S. military never gave a serious thought to becoming a “normal” military for normal times. Instead, for our leaders, both military and civilian, the thought process took quite a different turn. You might sum up their thinking this way, retrospectively: Why should we demobilize or even downsize significantly or rein in our global ambitions at a moment when we can finally give them full expression? Why would we want a “peace dividend” when we could leverage our military assets and become a global power the likes of which the world has never seen, one that would put the Romans and the British in the historical shade? Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer caught the spirit of the moment in February 2001 when he wrote, "America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will."
What I didn’t realize back then was: America’s famed “containment policy” vis-à-vis the Soviet Union didn’t just contain that superpower -- it contained us, too. With the Soviet Union gone, the U.S. military was freed from containment. There was nowhere it couldn’t go and nothing it couldn’t do -- or so the top officials of the Bush administration came into power thinking, even before 9/11. Consider our legacy military bases from the Cold War era that already spanned the globe in an historically unprecedented way. Built largely to contain the Soviets, they could be repurposed as launching pads for interventions of every sort. Consider all those weapon systems meant to deter Soviet aggression. They could be used to project power on a planet seemingly without rivals.
Now was the time to go for broke. Now was the time to go “all in,” to borrow the title of Paula Broadwell’s fawning biography of her mentor and lover, General David Petraeus. Under the circumstances, peace dividends were for wimps. In 1993, Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under Bill Clinton, caught the coming post-Cold War mood of twenty-first-century America perfectly when she challenged Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell angrily over what she considered a too-cautious U.S. approach to the former Yugoslavia. "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about,” she asked, “if we can't use it?"
Yet even as civilian leaders hankered to flex America’s military muscle in unpromising places like Bosnia and Somalia in the 1990s, and Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen in this century, the military itself has remained remarkably mired in Cold War thinking. If I could transport the 1990 version of me to 2015, here’s one thing that would stun him a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union: the force structure of the U.S. military has changed remarkably little. Its nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, submarine-launched SLBMs, and nuclear-capable bombers remains thoroughly intact. Indeed, it’s being updated and enhanced at mind-boggling expense (perhaps as high as a trillion dollars over the next three decades). The U.S. Navy? Still built around large, super-expensive, and vulnerableaircraft carrier task forces. The U.S. Air Force? Still pursuing new, ultra-high-tech strategic bombers and new, wildly expensive fighters and attack aircraft -- first the F-22, now the F-35, both supremely disappointing. The U.S. Army? Still configured to fight large-scale, conventional battles, a surplus of M-1 Abrams tanks sitting in mothballs just in case they’re needed to plug the Fulda Gap in Germany against a raging Red Army. Except it’s 2015, not 1990, and no mass of Soviet T-72 tanks remains poised to surge through that gap.
Much of our military today remains structured to meet and defeat a Soviet threat that long ago ceased to exist. (Occasional sparring matches with Vladimir Putin’s Russia in and around Ukraine do not add up to the heated “rumbles in the jungle” we fought with the Soviet leaders of yesteryear.) And it’s not just a matter of weaponry. Our military hierarchy remains wildly and unsustainably top-heavy, with a Cold War-style cupboard of generals and admirals, as if we were still stockpiling brass in case of another world war and a further expansion of what is already uncontestably the largest military on the planet. If you had asked me in 1990 what the U.S. military would look like in 2015, the one thing I wouldn’t have guessed was that, in its force structure, it would look basically the same.
This persistence of such Cold War structures and the thinking that goes with them is a vivid illustration of military inertia, the plodding last-war conservatism that is a common enough phenomenon in military history. It’s also a reminder that the military-industrial-congressional-complex that President Dwight Eisenhower first warned us about in 1961 remains in expansion mode more than half a century later, with its taste for business as usual (meaning, among other things, wildly expensive weapons systems). Above all, though, it’s an illustration of something far more disturbing: the failure of democratic America to seize the possibility of a less militarized world.
Today, it’s hard to recapture the heady optimism of 1990, the idea that this country, as after any war, might at least begin to take steps to demobilize, however modestly, to become a more peaceable land. That’s why 1990 should be considered the high-water mark of the U.S. military. At that moment, we were poised on the brink of a new normalcy -- and then it all began to go wrong. To understand how, it’s important to see not just what remained the same, but also what began to change and just how we ended up with today’s mutant military.
Paramilitaries Without, Militaries Within, Civilian Torturers, and Assassins Withal
Put me back again in my slimmer, uniformed 1990 body and catapult me for a second time to 2015. What do I see in this military moment that surprises me? Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, for sure. Networked computers everywhere and the reality of a military preparing for “cyberwar.” Incessant talk of terrorism as America’s chief threat. A revival, however haltingly, of counterinsurgency operations, or COIN, a phenomenon abandoned in Vietnam with a stake through its heart (or so I thought then). Uncontrolled and largely unaccountable mass surveillance of civilian society that in the Cold War era would have been a hallmark of the “Evil Empire.”
More than anything, however, what would truly have shocked the 1990 version of me is the almost unimaginable way the military has “privatized” in the twenty-first century. The presence of paramilitary forces (mercenary companies like DynCorp, the former Blackwater, and Triple Canopy) and private corporations like KBR doing typical military tasks like cooking and cleaning (what happened to privates doing KP?), delivering the mail, and mounting guard duty on military bases abroad; an American intelligence system that’s filled to the brim with tens of thousands of private contractors; a new Department of Defense called the Department of Homeland Security (“homeland” being a word I would once have associated, to be blunt, with Nazi Germany) that has also embraced paramilitaries and privatizers of every sort; the rapid rise of a special operations community, by the tens of thousands, that has come to constitute a vast, privileged, highly secretivemilitary caste within the larger armed forces; and, most shocking of all, the public embrace of torture and assassination by America’s civilian leaders -- the very kinds of tactics and techniques I associated in 1990 with the evils of communism.
Walking about in such a world in 2015, the 1990-me would truly find himself a stranger in a strange land. This time-traveling Bill Astore’s befuddlement could, I suspect, be summed up in an impolite sentiment expressed in three letters: WTF?
Think about it. In 2015, so many of America's "trigger-pullers" overseas are no longer, strictly speaking, professional military. They’re mercenaries, guns for hire, or CIA drone pilots (some on loan from the Air Force), or warrior corporations and intelligence contractors looking to get in on a piece of the action in a war on terror where progress is defined -- official denials to the contrary -- by body count, by the number of "enemy combatants" killed in drone or other strikes.
Indeed, the very persistence of traditional Cold War structures and postures within the “big” military has helped hide the full-scale emergence of a new and dangerous mutant version of our armed forces. A bewildering mish-mash of special ops, civilian contractors (both armed and unarmed), and CIA and other intelligence operatives, all plunged into a penumbra of secrecy, all largely hidden from view (even as they’re openly celebrated in various Hollywood action movies), this mutant military is forever clamoring for a greater piece of the action.
While the old-fashioned, uniformed military guards its Cold War turf, preserved like some set of monstrous museum exhibits, the mutant military strives with great success to expand its power across the globe. Since 9/11, it's the mutant military that has gotten the lion’s share of the action and much of the adulation -- here’s looking at you, SEAL Team 6 -- along with its ultimate enabler, the civilian commander-in-chief, now acting in essence as America’s assassin-in-chief.
Think of it this way: a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military is completely uncontained. Washington’s foreign policies are strikingly military-first ones, and nothing seems to be out of bounds. Its two major parts, the Cold War-era “big” military, still very much alive and kicking, and the new-era military of special ops, contractors, and paramilitaries seek to dominate everything. Nuclear, conventional, unconventional, land, sea, air, space, cyber, you name it: all realms must be mastered.
Except it can’t master the one realm that matters most: itself. And it can’t find the one thing that such an uncontained military was supposed to guarantee: victory (not in a single place anywhere on Earth).
Loaded with loot and praised to the rafters, America’s uncontained military has no discipline and no direction. It never has to make truly tough choices, like getting rid of ICBMs or shedding its obscenely bloated top ranks of officers or cancelling redundant weapon systems like the F-35. It just aims to do it all, just about everywhere. As Nick Turse reported recently, U.S. special ops touched down in 150 countries between 2011 and 2014. And the results of all this activity have been remarkably repetitive and should by now be tragically predictable: lots of chaos spread, lots of casualties inflicted, and in every case, mission unaccomplished.
The Future Isn't What It Used to Be
Say what you will of the Cold War, at least it had an end. The overriding danger of the current American military moment is that it may lack one.
Once upon a time, the U.S. military was more or less tied to continental defense and limited by strong rivals in its hegemonic designs. No longer. Today, it has uncontained ambitions across the globe and even as it continually stumbles in achieving them, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, or elsewhere, its growth is assured, as our leaders trip over one another in continuing to shower it with staggering sums of money and unconditional love.
No military should ever be trusted and no military should ever be left uncontained. Our nation’s founders knew this lesson. Five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower took pains in his farewell address in 1961 to remind us of it again. How did we as a people come to forget it? WTF, America?
What I do know is this: Take an uncontained, mutating military, sprinkle it with unconditional love and plenty of dough, and you have a recipe for disaster. So excuse me for being more than a little nervous about what we’ll all find when America flips the calendar by another quarter-century to the year 2040.