Department of Offense
An alien visitor, or even a foreign observer, might find it peculiar that the United States military falls under the auspices of the Department of Defense. The army I was a part of never defended a damn thing. In hindsight, I fought for little that was tangible, except maybe deluded policymakers’ notions of American interests, or to ensure a steady flow of hydrocarbon resources or to distract an apathetic nation from the unrelenting assault on its civil liberties.
I mean, think about it: When was the last time our soldiers actually defended the homeland? The Civil War? The War of 1812? It’s hard to say, really. The populace at large, unlike our hypothetical extraterrestrial, fails to see this because offensive war, “away games” so to speak, is the new normal, and has been as long as most of us have been alive. Still, with American troops deployed to 70 percent of the world’s countries, and the U.S. bombing seven nations that we know of, now seems like the proper time to take stock of the role our military plays on this planet of ours.
And, for good measure, perhaps we should rename the agency responsible for that military: Department of Offense. Has a nice ring to it.
It is strange, our euphemistic naming convention. America used to be so much more direct and emphatic. At least until the passing of the National Security Act of 1947, we had a Department of War. “War.” A forceful word, precise language. What did our military exist to do? War. Still, one supposes we needed to jettison the term. It’d be so inaccurate today. Heck, the U.S. has not followed the Constitution and declared war since 1942. An American who last lived under an official, legal state of war is now 73 years old.
It’s not that state-sanctioned violence ended. Oh, not by a longshot. Some 100,000 American troopers and several million foreigners have been killed in an array of U.S. conflicts of choice since 1950. Nowadays we just don’t bother calling it war. It’s a semantics game. When the truck in front of mine blew up in Baghdad, it sure felt like a war. Same when a propelled grenade vaulted me over a low rock wall in Kandahar. Silly me, I was mistaken. Turns out that my units were actually engaged in “counterinsurgency” “stabilization operations” or—in my favorite bit of DOD speak—“military operations other than war.” It’s been the same charade ever since President Truman labeled the war in Korea a “police action.” See how the game works?
Well, at least since September 2001—and one could argue, since the Spanish American War of 1898—the U.S. military has been plenty busy doing “operations other than war.” Funny thing: Millions of civilians and tens of thousands of American servicemen and women still seem to die in the darn things.
Leaving the sarcasm aside for a moment, the Department of Defense hasn’t acted as an agency charged with “defense” in any logical sense, but as the department for obediently killing and dying for whenever an imperial president—and a complacent Congress—deems necessary and proper. That’s the army, and the armed forces, I’ve served since before I was 18 years old.
And, frighteningly, it is the army my first crop of West Point students (cadets who graduate this May) and potentially one of my own sons (all born after 2001) will soon join.
Consider just one sort of common practical exercise: the staff work completed by middling staff officers at various military colleges and schools. For now, I’ll speak only for myself. Let me begin with what I’ve never trained or practiced: the defense of New York harbor, or of the U.S. Virgin Islands or even of an American military base in Germany. What I have done is practice the heck out of various away-game scenarios. Sometimes it’s a vaguely Iranian invasion of distant Azerbaijan (how many Americans could find that on a map?), or a separatist, seemingly Sudanese attack on eastern Congo or a hazily Chinese strike on a breakaway sect in Myanmar. For appearances sake, the names of the enemy entities are always changed, even if the remarkably accurate geography does not.
These exercises matter, even if they are mostly completed via PowerPoint. In the army you’re taught to “train and you fight.” Well, the point is, the U.S. military nearly always trains (and fights) in someone else’s neighborhood, usually many thousands of miles away from our Atlantic or Pacific shores. The presumption, from the lowliest lieutenant to the presidential commander in chief, is that we, the United States, have vital national interests everywhere.
But let’s step back a moment and slip into the proverbial shoes of our foreigner or extraterrestrial again. Isn’t it remarkable, America’s military posture, that is? Always outward, always forward, always assuming it has interests and passage rights anywhere on the globe (or space, or the cyberworld, by the way). Our alien friend might be so bold as to point one other thing out: The United States is the sole country that thinks this way.
Consider that the United States is just about the only country with the messianic gall to divide the entire planet into geographical military commands, each headed by a four-star general or admiral. We’ve got a command for Europe, for the Pacific, South America, Europe, the Mideast and Africa. The military leader of each is essentially an American proconsul presiding over a world divided into imperial fiefdoms.
This is instructive, if rather disturbing. Imagine, for a moment, how the U.S. would respond were Washington to learn that Russia had established a North America command headquartered in Toronto, or that a Chinese admiral based in Mexico City presided over—and based troops in—Central America? Well, seen from our “adversaries” shoes, that’s the sort of world these powers live in every day. U.S. troops are based everywhere, commanded by senior generals often stationed close to the borders of China, Russia, Iran, and so on.
Far be it from me to naively propose that the U.S. military should solely focus on the continental United States, or deny that sometimes foreign contingency or humanitarian operations might be necessary. That’s not my position at all. Rather, the point of this thought experiment is to point out what is clear to a distant observer, even if it’s undetected by the casual American citizen: The U.S. military is an away-game-only force. Its operations outpace vital American national interests. It has become unmoored from sober strategy, along with our entire society.
Sometimes when you find yourself alone—in everyday life or in geopolitics—and with everyone else gathered on some other side, you might be the problem. Either everyone else is wrong, or you are.
Unfortunately, across a broad swath of the planet—from West Africa to South Asia—I’ve come to suspect something rather disturbing: America, and its military, is part of the problem.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.