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Book review: ‘The Spoils of War’

A chilling account of how corruption has become institutionalised at the heart of America’s war machine – with consequences for us all

Mary Kaldor
3 October 2021, 12.00am
Andrew Cockburn’s book offers a guide to understanding the irrationalities of the US war machine
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Al Drago/Pool via CNP/AdMedia/Newscom/Alamy Live News

Andrew Cockburn, ‘The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine’(Verso)

Why is Joe Biden claiming that America’s ‘forever wars’, have ended? He withdrew 2,500 troops from Afghanistan and allowed the Taliban to take over the country, but the US continues to send drones to kill alleged terrorists in Afghanistan and in large parts of Africa and the Middle East.

Why does Biden claim to have made America safer when extremist Islamist groups increasingly occupy large parts of the world? Is not the ‘war on terror’, the largely hidden-from-view, long-distance campaign of assassinations conducted by the US for many years, the ultimate forever war? And why are Biden and Boris Johnson hailing a new defence pact to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia as a security triumph, when its main consequence is to provoke China and alienate European allies?

Andrew Cockburn’s book offers a guide to understanding these irrationalities. His central argument is that American foreign and defence policy decisions are neither based on what is happening in the world, nor on a measured view of the national interest. Rather, they are based on what Alexander Hamilton called private passions, which is to say money or domestic political advantage.

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The book is a collection of articles originally published in Harper’s Magazine. Together they comprise a devastatingly convincing account of the runaway nature of a powerful grouping of interests – the defence, intelligence and financial sectors in the US. Since 2001, what used to be called the military-industrial complex has evolved to include thousands of private contractors, vast intelligence networks, and an inexorable drone campaign. Now, in Cockburn’s words, it is better described as a “malignant virus”.

The book uses two themes to illustrate the argument. One is the air force lobby’s claim that air power can be used autonomously to police the world, without risk to the lives of (Western) soldiers on the ground. The claim dates back to the theories propounded by the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet in the period between the two world wars. In the US, what was then called the Army Air Corps developed a victory plan to win the Second World War by means of air power. The Corps, incidentally, was lobbying at the time to be an independent service.

Air power is immensely destructive but it cannot do what American strategist Thomas Schelling calls “compellence”: making the enemy submit to your will. This was demonstrated in the Second World War, which was won by armies; and in Korea, where every town and village in the north was incinerated; and in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Yemen. Yet these lessons have never been learned and the narrative of autonomous airpower is revived over and over again.

US foreign and defence policy decisions are not based on what is happening in the world

Cockburn shows how the narrative has justified the purchase of hugely expensive, complex and cumbersome bombers like the B-1, F-15, F-16 or F-35, instead of cheaper close support aircraft or helicopters that can actually see what is happening on the ground. The consequence is numerous mistakes and so-called collateral damage. The bombing campaign against ISIS, says Cockburn, is roughly the eighth time the airpower lobby “has promised to crush a foe without setting a boot or a foot on the ground”. In the end, ISIS did lose control of territory in Iraq and Syria but only because Shia and Kurdish militias fought it on the ground. And the defeat came at huge cost in civilian lives and homes, with towns such as Raqqa and Mosul razed. Now, ISIS is reappearing in the liberated areas.

Cockburn describes the establishment of a new unit in Afghanistan in 2016 called FUOPs, or Future Operations. FUOPs claimed to be able to attack “elements in an enemy system that when identified and destroyed will cause the system to collapse”. This resulted in a range of attacks on supposed narcotics production facilities, which do not seem to have affected the opium trade. One large explosion in Musa Qala in Helmand province killed a family of eight and is still remembered bitterly, as recently reported in ‘The Guardian’.

The second theme is the expansion of NATO. When the Cold War ended, many of us hoped that both NATO and the Warsaw Pact would be dissolved and replaced by a security organisation based on pan-European human rights, which would include Russia. Instead, Cockburn tells the story of how NATO, based on a military conception of security, expanded largely on account of arms manufacturers’ interests as well as President Bill Clinton’s need to mobilise the US domestic Polish vote.

As Cockburn points out, the expansion of NATO became a “mutually profitable partnership” with Russia. In 2019, for example, Vladimir Putin announced a new missile called Avangard, which “flies to its target like a meteorite, like a ball of fire”. Avangard had actually been in development since 1987, but huge sums were allocated by the US to counter this new threat, even though neither the missile nor the defences it is supposed to counter have been shown to work.

How is it that European countries meekly go along with American decisions?

Other examples covered by Cockburn include the link between Al Qaeda and Saudi Arabia; America’s tacit support for the bombing of Yemen; the unnecessary, hugely risky and expensive modernisation of nuclear weapons; the alliance with deeply corrupt Afghan warlords, which has cost the US taxpayer billions of dollars; the terrifying US dominance of the financial system that enables the US to ensure the effectiveness of sanctions, however arbitrary.

It would be fascinating to add some non-American stories l in order to find out how far the ‘virus’ affects other countries as well. How is it that European countries meekly go along with American decisions even if they are against their interests, as with the recent Afghan withdrawal, or the way France and Britain have been drawn into the “war on terror”? Has the American defence industry become internationalised? How are other countries tied into American decision-making? Or, in the cases of Israel and Saudi Arabia, for example, how deeply is America enmeshed with other countries’ defence sectors?

What is so alarming is the increasing autism of American politicians and public in relation to what happens elsewhere. “Most fundamentally,” writes Cockburn, “we’re talking about a drive to eliminate a direct connection with reality – the sort of connection that prevents children from being mistakenly bombed as Taliban fighters.” When two large bombs exploded at Kabul airport at the end of August, the supposedly kind and empathetic Biden bemoaned the death of 13 American servicemen but said nothing about the Afghans, more than 60 of whom were also killed, not to mention the 140 others who were wounded. Biden also claimed to have killed the perpetrator of the suicide bomb blasts with a subsequent drone strike, but all we know is that an aid worker, who worked for a US company, and his family lost their lives.

What is happening is a sort of naturalisation of both corruption and the ‘war on terror’. This forever war is largely invisible and so are its victims: schools, hospitals, children, as well as people who may be terrorists but have not been judged as such in a court of law. Obama called them “legal extra-judicial killings”. Those of us who live in Europe and America will not remain immune from the consequences either. And it will not be possible to tackle all the other global ills – climate change, Covid, inequality – unless we start thinking about how to unravel this horrible conundrum.

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