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Mainstream Vol. XLVIII, No 17, April 17, 2010

The US War Machine—Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Monday 19 April 2010, by S G Vombatkere

The Tone of the Third Millennium

The reprehensible Al-Qaeda attack on New York (WTC) and Washington (Pentagon) in the USA on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, set the stage for the Third Millennium in its very first year. This audacious attack on the economic and military nerve-centres of the world’s greatest power shook the then US President G.W. Bush and his administration such that nobody paused to think what might be the true cause. As expected, the attacks drew retaliatory action, later named by US President G.W. Bush as the global war on terror (GWOT). This was mainly to retrieve American pride and prop up the USA’s international image, since the intelligence services of the military and security agencies of the most powerful nation on earth were effectively deceived by a terrorist outfit. US President G.W. Bush reckoned that civilisation was under threat and, typical of any mighty power, used USA’s military sledgehammer to swat the Al-Qaeda mosquito. The mosquito easily escaped even as the hammer descended, but Afghanistan was broken, and the destruction continues nine years later to this day, while all manner of costs all round keep mounting. The sledgehammer-mosquito analogy is offered to highlight the need for appropriate tools for the task in hand. A screw can be driven home with a hammer but it will not perform its function as a screw, while it may not at all be possible to hammer a nail with a screwdriver.

The Military’s Nexus with Commercial Interests

Any thinking person would wonder why the USA continues to use its military in Afghanistan when everybody knows that Osama bin Laden is not in Afghanistan and is suspected to be in Pakistan. The fact is that the USA cannot stop its own military juggernaut, because the GWOT brings huge, steady profits to industrial and business corporations that are engaged in profiteering from the bloody business of armed conflicts and wars. Known earlier as the military industrial complex, as coined by US President Dwight Eisenhower, it has since incorporated the media, with professional journalists being embedded with military units as in the US invasion of Iraq post-9/11, to bring news that is vetted or controlled by the military-political commanders in the field, to the TV screens of viewers across the globe. This is referred to as the military-industrial-media-information complex or MIMIC.

It is well understood that armed conflicts of various types and intensities the world over are supplied with arms, ammunition, weapon systems and equipment from the arms industries of various countries, and that corporate profit usually overrides national feeling because there is no God more demanding than Mammon. [Note 1] It is also well known that the USA is the world’s largest arms exporter and that arms export is vital for its economy. Right from the end of World War II, the stoking of existing armed conflicts, even their creation, with or without the direct involvement of the US military, has been and remains in the corporate interests of MIMIC.

General Dwight Eisenhower, the victorious soldier freshly home from World War II, had declared:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in a final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on an iron cross... I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.

However, as the US President later, he was powerless to stop the MIC juggernaut. An earlier, revealing account of the influence of commercial and banking corporations on the US Government to send US troops abroad to acquire, protect or consolidate corporate interests is contained in a book titled War is a Racket by Major General Smedley Butler of the US Marine Corps. [Note 2]

Technology for War by Remote Control

Famous World War II US General George Patton was credited with having advised his troops that a good soldier does not die for his country, but makes the enemy soldier die for his own country. Of course, he said it in much more colourful, unprintable language, but it is impeccable advice in a purely military-versus-military context. However in present times, the USA uses hi-tech weapons and weapon systems to save its troops on the ground at the cost of indiscriminately inflicting disproportionate, horrendous casualties upon the opponent’s civilians. In Afghanistan, targeting the Al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters most often results in killing large numbers of innocent civilians. The loss of a single US soldier to the Al-Qaeda or Taliban action draws immediate and harsh retribution on civilians on mere suspicion of harbouring the fighters.

Military action against civilian populations using state-of-the-art technology of the times was started by Britain and the USA during World War II against Germany and Japan. Even though these attacks have been justified by the winning side, the fact remains that indiscriminate and even deliberate targeting of civilians was ordered by the Allied Forces during World War II. The Examples are the firebombing of German cities by British and US air forces, and US firebomb attacks on Japanese cities culminating in nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But this continued even after World War II. The US military used napalm and Agent Orange (gas) in Vietnam, and carpet-bombed Cambodia with over 2.75 million tons of explosive to disrupt the North Vietnamese People’s Liberation Army’s logistics, killing around 150,000 Cambodian civilians (1969-1973). More recently, in 1991 the US military used depleted uranium artillery projectiles in Iraq, and in 2001 in Afghanistan, dropped “Daisy-cutter” bombs and BLU-82 bombs (explosive equivalent to tactical nuclear weapons) on civilians with devastating effect.

The use of hi-tech by the US military is making killing increasingly easy from remote, safe, comfortable locations, disconnecting soldiers from the harsh realities of death and destruction. The deployment of remotely-controlled unmanned aircraft (drones) in Afghanistan for surveillance and missile attack is enabling the USA to project power without vulnerability, killing without risk. Which is all very well, except that General George Patton may not approve were he still alive, because those being killed are civilians unconnected with the conflict. The young soldier remote-controlling a drone mission in Afghanistan may be sitting in a bunker half way across the globe in Nevada, USA, chewing gum as he punches a button on a joystick that launches a missile, much as he did in violent video games a few years earlier. He would go home to a hot dinner and a comfortable bed after having carried out a missile attack on a suspected safe haven that killed innocent civilians in a marriage party. [Ref 1]

The US military plans to have 50 drones operating at a time in 2011 against 38 in 2009, and is said to be currently training more drone pilots, than pilots for manned combat aircraft. [Ref 1, 2] This is aimed at minimising physical casualties to troops on the ground, by waging an electronic, troop-less war in Afghanistan. No nation would like its soldiers to die or be maimed. But such remote-controlled killing [which also includes remote-controlled or pre-programmed robotic infantry (Note 3)] raises moral, ethical and legal questions especially concerning command and control responsibility for civilian casualties and property destruction, and the need to redefine collateral damage and friendly fire. Besides, such attacks are increasingly turning civilian populations against the USA’s invading military. Whatever the intention of James Cameron’s award-winning movie Avatar, it was possibly inspired by presently available and on-the-drawing-board hi-tech weaponry, and shows the worms-eye view of the inhabitants of Pandora resisting occupation by a US corporate-owned military.

Need for a Military

From militias of frontiersmen used against native Americans and competing European powers like the French, to a regular Army and Navy to dominate Central and South America, the 20th Century saw US military presence on every continent. The USA did not own territory outside North America until 1898, but the US military as an extension of US diplomacy was deployed to secure the USA’s economic interests abroad. The current US military global presence on land, on and under the sea, in air and in space, is seen as a beneficial by some countries, as strong-arm politics by some others, as a threat or an enemy by yet others.

In the contemporary world, every country needs a defensive military to secure its territorial integrity, national sovereignty and economic interests. But even though the US military is administered by the USA’s Department of Defence, there are those who argue that it has more of an offensive role, while the USA justifies its global military presence as the obvious measure to protect its national interests which have spread across the globe. This is viewed as hubris in many quarters.

US President Truman had approved the formation of seven unified combatant commands (UCCs) way back in 1946 soon after the end of World War II, and created the Alaskan, Atlantic Fleet, Carribean, European, Far East, Northeast and Pacific Commands.

USA’s War Machine

The USA is widely acknowledged as the world’s premier democracy. In spite of its past of slavery and massacre of native Americans, and its short-comings of colour, racial and gender discrimination, and the power of wealth over voice, successive US Administrations since 1776 have been democratically elected. And the US military is under civilian control, as it should be in a democracy. Thus, successive US administrations have been responsible for the USA’s global military operations. Presently the USA has about 700 military bases, stations and installations (for combat or communications-surveillance-intelligence functions) in 63 countries around the globe, with about 250,000 military personnel deployed abroad out of a 1.4 million-strong military. The total land occupied by US military bases within and outside the USA is estimated at about 2.5 million hectares, making it one of the largest land owners in the world.

The US military divides the world into six regions, each under a UCC with military command and control responsibility. Each of these six UCCs spans large swathes of global longitude and latitude: the Africa Command or AFRICOM (HQ in Germany); Central Command or USCENTCOM (HQ in Florida, USA); European Command or USEUCOM (HQ in Germany); Pacific Command or USPACOM (HQ in Honolulu, USA); Northern Command or USNORTHCOM (HQ in Colorado, USA); Southern Command or USSOUTHCOM (HQ in Florida, USA). Besides these six UCCs, there are four more UCCs with functional responsibilities, headquartered in USA: Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM); Special Operations Command (USSOCOM); Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) and; Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM).

Each UCC commander maintains contact with all national governments and their militaries in his region of responsibility, under orders of the US President to whom he is directly answerable, and his Secretary of Defense. For example, the area of responsibility of the USPACOM includes India and China, extending from around 40 degrees north latitude to include Australia and Antartica, while the USEUCOM includes not only all of Europe but extends to the eastern end of Russia at Vladivostok, spanning 180 degrees of longitude, and the AFRICOM covers the whole African continent. The USCENTCOM is possibly the most busy command right now since it includes the Middle East and parts of Central Asia and Africa, and includes Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, prosecuting USA’s much-vaunted global war on terror (GWOT). This integrated network of military bases, stations and installations covers not only the global landmass, oceans and air space but also outer space.

With such global responsibility to maintain liaison and project the USA’s unmatched military power to enforce its economic and political interests, the UCC’s Commanding General or Admiral is in effect a US political entity in addition to being a military commander responsible for operations, intelligence and logistics. All military operations do not necessarily include hostilities; the UCC commander is well placed to prosecute USA’s GWOT, which is as much a political war as it is military in character.

MIMIC holds economic, social and political control at a global level, and the extremely powerful and unmatched US military is its enforcer. Virtually every US President after World War II, has been under the influence or even control of MIMIC, and orders direct or indirect military interventions to further US interests, which are inextricably linked with MIMIC interests. Strategy may be largely based on periodic assessment of threat levels from people and organisations at various points on the globe that adversely affect US interests. Thus, even democratically elected political leaders in nations across the globe, who may have been thwarting US strategic plans, have been overthrown by the US military or CIA intervention; there are abundant examples in the open literature. The coup d’etat in Iran (1953) was to support the corporate interests of British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, demons-trating how corporate interests can be congruent with national strategic interests. The Plan for the New American Century (PNAC) formulated by a think-tank during US President Clinton’s tenure is possibly the global strategy which is now playing out.

The USA’s war machine has been growing in lethality since World War II (the war-to-end-all-wars, a pious aim that has been belied several times over), and is increasingly being deployed worldwide, at enormous financial and economic cost to the USA itself, and enormous human, social and economic cost to all other countries worldwide, especially those which are at the focus of the USA’s military attentions. The tangible and intangible, irreversible or irretrievable global ecological costs of warfare and armed conflict need to be addressed elsewhere.

USA’s Wars over the Centuries

The USA’s military history begins with its independence from the British crown, declared in July 1776. At that time, there was no regular military in North America apart from the British and French. The US military started in 1775 as a volunteer, non-professional body called the Continental Army under George Washington, fired by the idea of independence, taking to arms against the British. But soon enough, the USA created its own professional military paid for from taxes, to consolidate expansion into the lands of the Native American tribes and establish dominance within North America. The US military came under civilian control when the Continental Army was disbanded soon after the American revolution and its Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, resigned in deference to the wishes of elected officials.

In the late 19th Century, the US military was engaged in the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Philippines-American War (1899-1902), both for territory and economic control. It also joined an international force to suppress a movement among the Chinese people in mainland China (the so-called Boxer Rebellion) protesting commercial, religious and political interference by the Western trading nations in China. The US military had regular engagements of varying scale in Central America from the end of the 19th Century right upto the middle of the 20th Century. It entered World War I (1914-1918) in Europe in 1917 and played a decisive role starting December 1941, in World War II (1939-1945) in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific—around 16 million American soldiers (13 per cent of the US population at the time) served, with around 400,000 killed.

World War II was a turning point for the US military, which had proved itself as second to none in the dangerous and difficult situations of pitched battles. But it was not just the performance of the US military, but the USA’s industrial might that supplied the US military and the militaries of its allies, the precursor of the military-industrial complex, which made the USA an undisputed military power. The USA’s material supply for the war effort was made on condition of gold bullion payment by its European allies and, with nearly 80 per cent of the world’s gold possessed by USA, it also became an undisputed economic power. The USA’s superpower status was the combination of undisputed economic and military power.

This superpower status saw the US military getting involved in engagements principally to contain the spread of communism emanating from the USSR and China, but also to secure US resource bases (mainly oil, but also mineral and other raw materials) and its market interests. The strategy was one of military and economic encirclement of the USSR and China. A lot of science and technology research, much of it by funding universities, and enormous military expenditures were justified to the people of the USA by quoting the communist threat. But after the collapse of the USSR in 1989, instead of reducing its military, the military actually expanded to press home the USA’s economic and political agendas on a global scale.

Two major engagements of the US military in the Cold War period (1945-1991) were the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The Korean War, starting in 1950, was fought to a stalemate in 1953, and US troops are even today stationed in South Korea. The Vietnam War (1957-1975) saw major US military involvement starting 1964 in South Vietnam, but went on to include adjoining Cambodia and Laos. Other engagements in the same period in which the US military has taken part with few troops but with huge political effect because of political pressure and intelligence, are Lebanon (1958), Dominican Republic (1975), Teheran hostage rescue (1980), Grenada (1983), Beirut (1983) and Panama (1989).

In the post-Cold War period (1991-2001), the US military was committed in Iraq for what is known as the Gulf War starting January 1991. The actual fighting was over in just 100 days, but the US military has remained on the ground and at sea and in the air around Iraq. There was also US military presence in Somalia (1992) and Yugoslavia (1999).

The year 2001 was a military watershed for the whole world because of the 9/11 attack, and the period 2001 to date concerns the on-going global war on terror or GWOT. The US military invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban government in retaliation for the 9/11 attack, and continues as an occupation force even today. In Iraq (1994), the USA fielded 250,000 troops on the ground. The USA sent 2000 troops to the Philippines (2002) to assist in quelling the Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, and made a show of power in Liberia (2003), deploying the US Navy off-shore. The internet yields a staggering list of dozens of US military engagements on every continent over the decades starting 1898. [Ref 3]

The late Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong) of the Long March fame had said, among many other quotable quotes, that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun and war is the continuation of politics by other means. These may be interpreted to mean that politics is war without bloodshed and war is politics with bloodshed. Had Mao been alive today, he would be gratified to learn that the USA has wholeheartedly adopted his dictum.

Costs of USA’s Global Military Operations

The prosecution of war needs huge financial support. The USA’s annual expenditure on its military now nears $1 trillion (about four per cent of its GDP), up from $ 360 billion in 1998. That works out to around $ 2.5 billion per day. This is about 50 per cent of the entire world’s military expenditure and 2.5 per cent of world GDP. Needless to say, this expenditure benefits the manufacturers of weapons and armaments; corporations that supply materials, real-time intelligence and logistics to US forces at home and in the field, and corporations that conduct research to produce, test, advertise and deliver ever more destructive weapons and weapon systems—in short, the USA’s MIMIC.

The costs are internally borne by the US soldiery and their families through death and permanent physical and psychological disabilities, and by the people of the USA by taxes and reduced welfare and social expenditure. The USA’s mounting debt burden due to military spending cannot but fall on the shoulders of its future generations. It is interesting that US legislators staunchly oppose cuts in defence spending that affect their constituencies. Of the costs in the countries where war is waged, the less said the better, because it exceeds the USA’s internal costs by orders of magnitude in every conceivable manner.

In terms of affordability to the USA, Chalmers Johnson, Professor Emeritus of the University of California at San Diego, went so far as to say in 2008, still using US President Eisenhower’s term of MIC:

... Congress has been corrupted by the military-industrial complex into believing that, by voting for more defense spending, they are supplying jobs for the economy. In fact they are only diverting scarce resources from the desperately needed rebuilding of the Americam infrastructure and other crucial spending necessities into utterly wasteful munitions. If we cannot cut back our longstanding, ever increasing military spending in a major way, then the bankruptcy of the United States is inevitable. As the current Wall Street meltdown has demonstrated, that is no longer an abstract possibility but a growing likelihood.


The USA is a society that needs enormous resources to keep it going at its present very high levels of consumption. (It is estimated that the USA’s has about six per cent of the global population, but consumes around 40 per cent of global resources). Securing these resources is vital for the USA, and because resources are spread all over the globe, USA has global interests, and has designed its military accordingly, to literally keep an eye on all social, economic and political activities around the globe. Any real or perceived threat or attack on US interests will be spotted immediately and economic, political or military action taken to eliminate the threat or destroy the attacker—US President G.W. Bush’s pre-emptive war. Of course, whether this policy succeeds or not, MIMIC laughs all the way to the bank. And the world has seen how Osama bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders continue plotting against USA.

With depleting oil reserves and peak oil production already past, and an anticipated shortage of water, food, and biological resources especially with on-going global warming and climate change, competition for resources will only intensify. In that scenario, the more powerful will snatch and grab resources by economic or military force. The USA is militarily well poised for such a situation, but whether it (and indeed the international community, which lends money to the USA, the world’s biggest debtor nation) can sustain such an expensive military in view of its declining economic status, and if so for how long, is debatable.

Without a doubt, USA has the most powerful military ever, which cannot be defeated by any other military of the world today; a veritable Goliath, straddling the globe like a colossus. [Note 4] But all man-made institutions, like living beings, are created, grow, mature, decline and fall, according to the remorseless law of entropy—the US military cannot be an exception. It is only a matter of when and how the mighty fall and what will fall with it. Will this Goliath fall under the weight of domestic economic burden or serious mistakes committed due to arrogance? Or will some David fell it with a stone from a slingshot? And what else may be hurt by the fall?


1. David Zucchino, “Drone Pilots Have a Front-Row Seat on War, from Half a World Away”, Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2010.

2. Marc W. Herold, Technology spectacles mask weaknesses,

3. United_States and


Note 1. For example, the USA’s IBM Corporation did business with Hitler’s Germany during World War II while US and German troops were locked in combat, to prepare hardware and software to categorise Jewish prisoners in extermination camps like Dachau and Buchenwald.

Note 2. Maj Gen Smedley Butler of the US Marine Corps was a war hero, twice awarded the USA’s Congressional Medal of Honour for gallantry in 1914 and again in 1917, and for Distinguished Service in 1919. A battle-experienced soldier, two of the most quoted passages of his book are: War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.” In another often cited quote from the book, Butler says: “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”


Note 3. According to a news item on BBC Radio on July 29, 2007 at 1200 hrs GMT, the US Army proposes to replace one-third of its humans in the battlefield by robot soldiers.

Note 4. Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus; and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs, and peep about / To find ourselves dishonourable graves. / Men at some time are masters of their fates; / The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings. [W. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar-I. ii. 134]

Major General S.G.Vombatkere retired as the Additional Director General Discipline and Vigilance in Army HQ, New Delhi, in 1996 after 35 years in the Indian Army with combat, staff and technical experience. He holds a PhD degree in Structural Dynamics from IIT, Madras, and the President of India awarded him Visishta Seva Medal in 1993 for distinguished service rendered in Ladakh. Since retirement, he is engaged in voluntary work with Mysore Grahakara Parishat, and is a member of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). He coordinates and lectures a Course on Science, Technology and Sustainable Development for undergraduate students of University of Iowa, USA, and two universities of Canada, who spend a semester at Mysore as part of their Studies Abroad in South India. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA.

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