I came of age during America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union, witnessing its denouement while serving in the US military. In those days, the USSR led the world’s weapons trade, providing arms to the Warsaw Pact as well as to client states like Cuba, Egypt, and Syria.
The United States usually came in second in arms dealing, a dubious silver medal that could, at least, be rationalized as a justifiable response to Soviet aggression, part of the necessary price for a longstanding policy of “containment.” In 1983, President Ronald Reagan had dubbed the Soviet Union an “evil empire” in part because of its militarism and aggressive push to sell weaponry around the globe, often accompanied by Soviet troops, ostensibly as trainers and advisers.
After the USSR imploded in 1991, dominating the world’s arms trade somehow came to seem so much less evil. In fact, faced with large trade deficits, a powerful military-industrial complex looking for markets, and ever more global military commitments, Washington actively sought to promote and sell American-made weapons on a remarkable scale. And in that it succeeded admirably.
Today, when it comes to building and exporting murderous weaponry no other country, not even that evil-empire-substitute Vladimir Putin’s Russia, comes faintly close. The US doth bestride the world of arms production and dealing like a colossus. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, US arms contractors sold US$209.7 billion in weaponry in 2015, representing 56% of the world’s production. Of that, US$40 billion was exported to an array of countries, representing “half of all agreements in the worldwide arms bazaar,” as the New York Times put it.
France (US$15 billion) was a distant second, with Putin’s Russia (US$11 billion) earning a weak third. Judged by the sheer amount of weapons it produces for itself, as well as for others, the US, notes Forbes, is “still comfortably the world’s superpower — or warmonger, depending on how you look at it.” Indeed, under President Obama, in the five-year period beginning in 2010, American arms exports outpaced the figures for the previous Bush-Cheney years by 23%.
Not only has the US come to dominate the arms trade in an almost monopolistic fashion over the last two decades, but it has also become the top exporter of troops globally. Leaving aside the ongoing, seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US continues to garrison the globe with approximately 800 military bases, while deploying its Special Operations forces to a significant majority of the planet’s countries annually.
As TomDispatch’s Nick Turse reported recently, “From Albania to Uruguay, Algeria to Uzbekistan, America’s most elite forces — Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets among them — were deployed to 138 countries in 2016.” Think about that: last year, US Special Operations troops were sent to more than two-thirds of the approximately 190 countries on the planet. While some of these deployments were small, others were more impressive — and invasive — and, often enough, dovetailed with efforts to sell weaponry (which even has its own military acronym: FMS, or foreign military sales).
Recall those Red Army trainers and advisers who often accompanied Soviet weaponry into the field a generation ago. These days, travel the planet and the trainers and advisers you’ll see are overwhelmingly likely to be wearing US uniforms or at least to be contractors working for Pentagon-allied, US-based warrior-corporations. Testing, touting, and toting American-made arms in far-flung realms is the common mission of the US military these days, and business is booming.
If all of this were to be summed up under one rubric, it might be Weapons & Warriors ‘R’ Us, and it’s not just an international phenomenon. Consider the surge in the production and sale of guns in the good old US of A. It’s now estimated that there are more than 300 million weapons in American hands, nearly enough to arm every citizen, the tall and the small (even tots). That old chestnut associated with early advertising for Colt Manufacturing has truly come into its own: God created men; Sam Colt made them equal.
These days, arms are everywhere, even prospectively in public schools, which, as Betsy DeVos pointed out recently in her confirmation hearings for secretary of education, should certainly be armed against “lone wolf” grizzly bears (if not Islamic terrorists). Even liberals are now reportedly getting into the act, scarfing up guns in the aftermath of November’s election, apparently gripped by the rising fear of a coming Trumpocalypse. This national mania for guns (and for carrying them everywhere) is mirrored by an abundance of domestic prisons and security firms, offering jobs that, unlike those in steel mills and manufacturing plants, can’t easily be outsourced to foreign lands.
Since the end of the Cold War, America has been exporting a mirror image of its domestic self: not the classic combo of democracy and freedom, but guns, prisons, and security forces. Globally, the label “Made in the USA” has increasingly come to be associated with violence and war (as well, of course, as Hollywood action flicks sporting things that go boom in the night).
Such exports are now so commonplace that, in some cases, Washington has even ended up arming our enemies. Just consider the hundreds of thousands of small arms sent to Iraq and Afghanistan that were simply lost track of. (Many of them evidently ended up on sale at local black markets.) Or consider the weapons and equipment Washington provided to Iraq’s security forces, only to see them abandoned on the battlefield and captured by ISIS.
Look as well at prisons like Gitmo (which Donald Trump has no intention of ever closing), Abu Ghraib, and an unknown number of black sites that were in some of these years used for rendition, detention, and torture, and gave the US a reputation in the world that may prove indelible. And, of course, American-made weaponry like tear gas canisters and bombs (including cluster munitions) that regularly finds its way onto foreign soil in places like Yemen and, in the case of the tear gas, Egypt, proudly sporting those “Made in the USA” labels.
Strangely, most Americans remain either wilfully ignorant of, or indifferent to, what their country is becoming. That American-made weaponry is everywhere, that America’s warriors are all over the globe, that America’s domestic prisons are bursting with more than two million captives, is even taken by some as a point of pride.
This is not the “new world order” I envisioned in 1991, when the Soviet Union was collapsing. Back then, I was a young captain in the US Air Force, and my fellow Americans were talking boldly not of arms and war, but of a “peace dividend.” Hawks like Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who served as UN ambassador under Ronald Reagan, were waxing philosophical about the possibility of the US shedding its worldwide military commitments to become a normal country in normal times. There was even a fair amount of elevated discussion about whether we hadn’t reached the “end of history” and the inevitable, eternal triumph of liberal democracy. None of it, of course, was to be.
Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama: all of them embraced the myth of American exceptionalism … [funding] our much-lauded `warriors’ and the machinery of war that went with them. And with that, in the 21st century, came an ethos of never-ending conflict aggravated by a steady drip-drip-drip of fear.
America’s leaders made a fateful choice on a planet that seemed, after so many centuries of imperial rivalries, to have no foes worthy of the name. No longer contained by the Soviet threat, they embraced with awed enthusiasm their self-perceived destiny as the planet’s global hegemon.
It didn’t matter whether the president was Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama: all of them embraced the myth of American exceptionalism, which in this context meant the unique role the United States naturally was to play as the dominant power on an otherwise rudderless, waiting planet. That kind of exceptionalism and the resistance it engendered led such leaders to embrace and fund in staggering ways our much-lauded “warriors” and the machinery of war that went with them. And with that, in the 21st century, came an ethos of never-ending conflict aggravated by a steady drip-drip-drip of fear.
Year by year, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, a mind-killing blanket of fear only spread further and deeper in American society. Al-Qaeda, anthrax, shoe bombers, underwear bombers, ISIS, lone wolves, vehicles as weapons… they all fed public fear and lent support to the rise of the national security state, whose growing power was eternally justified in the name of keeping us safe from a single confounding phenomenon: “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Threat inflation was, in these years, the name of the game, as fear of the Other (particularly the Islamic Other) continued to rise precipitously, including, of course, fear of an allegedly un-American president. It’s no accident that US gun purchases surged after Obama’s election in 2008 and reelection in 2012. In this febrile and fetid climate of fear, is it any wonder that a “birther” bully like Donald Trump rose to prominence? Triumph of the Will, indeed.
It’s no secret that Donald J. Trump takes pleasure in bullying people he sees as weak and vulnerable. It’s all out in the open. He’s mocked the disabled. Boasted of grabbing pussy whenever he desires. Called for torture. Suggested that terrorists’ families should be murdered. All this, and much more, seems to have won him admiration in certain quarters in this country.
Why? Because increasingly Americans are submerged in a violent cesspool of our own making. As a man who knows how to stoke fear as well as exploit it, President Trump fits into such an atmosphere amazingly well. With a sense of how to belittle, insult, and threaten, he has a knack for inflaming and exploiting America’s collective dark side.
But think of Trump as more symptom than cause, the outward manifestation of an inner spiritual disease that continues to eat away at the country’s societal matrix. A sign of this unease is America’s most popular superhero of the moment. He even has a new Lego movie coming. Yes, it’s Batman, the vigilante alter-ego of Bruce Wayne, ultra-rich philanthropist and CEO of Wayne Enterprises.
The popularity of Batman, Gotham City’s Dark Knight, reflects America’s fractured ethos of anger, pain, and violence. Americans find common cause in his tortured psyche, his need for vengeance, his extreme version of justice. But at least billionaire Bruce Wayne had some regard for the vulnerable and unfortunate. America now has a darker knight than that in Donald J. Trump, a man who mocks and assaults those he sees as beneath him, a man whose utterances sound more like a Batman villain, a man who doesn’t believe in heroes — only in himself.
The Dark Knight may yet become, under Trump, a genuine dark night for America’s collective soul. Like Batman, Trump is a product of Gotham City. And if this country is increasingly Gotham City writ large, shining the Batman symbol worldwide and having billionaire Trump and his sidekick (General Michael Flynn?) answer the beacon is a prospect that should be more than a little unnerving.
It wasn’t that long ago that another superhero represented America: Superman. Chivalrous, noble, compassionate, he fought without irony for truth, justice, and the American way. And his alter ego, of course, was mild-mannered Clark Kent, a reporter no less.
(In Trump’s America, imagine the likelihood of reporters being celebrated as freedom fighters as they struggle to hold the powerful accountable.) Perhaps it’s more telling than its makers knew that in last year’s dreary slugfest of a movie, Batman v Superman, the bat rode high while the son of Krypton ended up six feet under.
Let me, in this context, return to that moment when the Cold War ended. Twenty-five years ago, I served as escort officer to General Robinson Risner as he spoke to cadets at the Air Force Academy. Risner’s long and resolute endurance as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War (captured in his memoir, The Passing of the Night) had made him something of a real-life superhero to us then. He talked to the cadets about public service, love of country, and faith in God — noble virtues, based on humility, grace, and inner strength.
As I look back to that night, as I remember how General Risner spoke with quiet dignity of the virtues of service and sacrifice, I ask myself how America today could have become such a land of weapons and warriors, guns and gun exports, prisons and fear, led by a boastful and boorish bullyboy.
How did America’s ideals become so twisted? And how do we regain our nobility of purpose? One thing is certain: the current path, the one of ever greater military spending, of border walls and extreme vetting, of vilification of the Other, justified in terms of toughness and “winning,” will lead only to further violence — and darker (k)nights.
This article first appeared on TomDispatch.com
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), has taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School, and now teaches history at the Pennsylvania College of Technology.