Book Review: Tom Engelhardt, The American Way of War

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Folks this book by Tom Engelhardt just came out — it’s got good antiwar writing in it, and a good perspective can bring out its especially good points.  But, hey, that’s what reviewers are for!

(crossposted at Orange)

Tom Engelhardt has achieved internet importance as the site founder and editor of TomDispatch, and in this regard he provides a service to all as regards critical coverage of the war in Afghanistan.  This book’s subtitle tells a lot: “How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s.”  “The American Way of War,” then, like his previous book, is a book about the continuities of the warfare state.  Engelhardt depicts the history of war as the history of an ever-expanding regime of imperialism reliant upon ever-more-complex warfare technologies, with no meaningful concept of “peace” in sight.  

More specifically, Engelhardt has discovered the operational philosophy of convenience for Obama’s surge in Afghanistan: “COIN,” or counterinsurgency doctrine.  This is discussed in detail in the book, but I’d like to quote a really succinct passage from Engelhardt’s blog to summarize it.  To articulate this discovery over at TomDispatch, Engelhardt brings in another independent journalist, Robert Dreyfuss.  Here’s how Dreyfuss describes it:

Petraeus’s COIN policy logically demands a decade-long war, involving labor-intensive (and military-centric) nation-building, waged village by village and valley by valley, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and countless U.S., NATO, and Afghan casualties, including civilians. That idea doesn’t in the least square with the idea that significant numbers of troops will start leaving Afghanistan next summer.

And here’s Dreyfuss’s analysis:

Afghanistan is the place where theories of warfare go to die, and if the COIN theory isn’t dead yet, it’s utterly failed so far to prove itself. The vaunted February offensive into the dusty hamlet of Marja in Helmand province has unraveled. The offensive into Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban and a seething tangle of tribal and religious factions, once touted as the potential turning point of the entire war, has been postponed indefinitely. After nine years, the Pentagon has little to show for its efforts, except ever-rising casualties and money spent.

Nevertheless COIN survives, and expands.  There’s even a TomDispatch diary on this reality up today.  Moreover, there was a great question-and-answer session with Tom Engelhardt over at Firedoglake recently.

The important thing about all this, for me as a thinker, is in its purpose as an example of a philosophy of convenience.  So what’s a philosophy of convenience?  A philosophy of convenience is what you say when you want to appear to have a purpose when you are speaking in polite company, when the reality of it all is that you don’t really have any purpose at all (or maybe that the purpose has you!), and you are making it up.

With the term “philosophy of convenience” I hope to make a critical distinction between real philosophies and mere philosophies of convenience.  Believers in real philosophies actually believe what they say they believe, and do what they say they’re going to do.  If, for instance, you are a Buddhist, you actually live the Eightfold Path, it’s not just a line you spout.  Philosophies of convenience, on the other hand, are lived through cynicism or naivete — if you use one, you are either pulling one over on your audience, or you are saying it because you are someone else’s fool.

The neoliberal “Washington Consensus,” for instance, is a philosophy of convenience.  Its main protagonists merely want profit; the belief in the “free market” was merely a pretext for structural adjustment programs and other mechanisms for transferring public wealth into private hands while opening markets to transnational corporate actors.  Thus in the sphere of capitalist business a philosophy of convenience arose in order to express the need for profit while at the same time making the profitmongers look like global saviors.  If you want to see how this particular philosophy of convenience is performed, any of Thomas Friedman’s books expresses it well.  The free market is your savior because, um, because it is.

Engelhardt, for his part, touches upon philosophies of convenience in regards to warmaking; his book reveals their emptiness as regards the present day philosophical cul-de-sac in which American warmaking finds itself.  The presentation is desultory at times; however, in each case the machineries of war are described in detail and the conclusion is reached inexorably.  Engelhardt’s presentation is focused firmly upon what the US does in the context of the histories of imperialism, warfare, bombing, and so on.  All of which ultimately is to say this: the war in Afghanistan is ultimately absurd, it pivots upon the momentum of the accelerating war machine without reference to any greater meaning, and since there is no real political opposition in the US to its continuation, it will go on until it reaches some sort of physical limit to its being.

The first chapter, “Shock and Awe,” starts with the events of 9/11/01.  What is at issue for Engelhardt is not the horror of the moment at which the airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center buildings; the tragedy is what it is.  The point is that this singular event became political capital for a “war on the world” which continues to this day, and that this is the case because the US is “hooked on war.”  Engelhardt compares the American reaction to other historical tragedies in order to point out that the post-9/11 war on the world was an over-reaction of historical proportions.  Here he lists a great deal of the incredibly nasty things the US government did under Bush while its apologists pointed to 9/11 as an excuse.

The second chapter suggests that the Seven Wonders of the World have been rendered trivial by the current Wonder of the Imperial World: the global network of US bases and, in particular, the vast US base in the middle of Baghdad.  

The third chapter argues that our definitions of barbarity as something primitive are inappropriate, and that “ancient times have gotten a bad rap” (66) for their brutality in light of the vastly outsized brutality of modern bombing campaigns.  Engelhardt’s descriptions are numerous and detailed in this regard.

Chapter 4 concentrates upon the descriptions of war that we use.  Here Engelhardt gives a couple of examples of other historical wars, and then dives right into a critique of counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan.  The sumptuousness of this proclamation is that they plan to remake Afghanistan in America’s image.  He asks:

So explain something to me: Why does the military of a country convinced it’s becoming ungovernable think itself so capable of making another ungovernable country governable.  What’s the military’s skill set here?  (114)

Chapter 5 is about “The Bush Legacy; What They Did Wrong.”  Bush’s over-reaction to “terrorism” as such is the primary motif of this chapter, and his invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. make easy targets for Englehardt’s simple criticisms.

Chapter 6 is about Obama’s wars.  As this book was written earlier in the Obama administration, nothing could be said as of date of publication about McChrystal’s firing.  Nevertheless there is a critique of McChrystal as a master of collateral damage here (140), and Afghanistan is described in detail as “a war that no longer needs a justification.”  Also the Obama effort in Iraq is critiqued: don’t expect any real withdrawal from Iraq, Engelhardt argues, because for a number of reasons it’s safe to say that Iraq will not be ready for a complete US withdrawal by 2011, having been cast so thoroughly into ruin under Bush.  We will be there because we were there.

Chapter 7 is about the whole warfare shooting match, and, specifically, “why military dreams fail — and why it doesn’t matter.”  America endlessly tries and re-tries to do with sophisticated hardware and gadgetry what has to be achieved politically.

There is an epilogue here, which criticizes the standard excuse the politicians give for not withdrawing America’s troops and war resources from the numerous countries in which they are involved.  “Security,” then, is an excuse to be insecure:

Few remember anymore, but we went through a version of this forty years ago in Vietnam.  There, too, Americans were repeatedly told that the United States couldn’t withdraw because, if we left, the enemy would launch a “bloodbath” in South Vietnam.  This future bloodbath of the imagination appeared in innumerable official speeches and accounts.  It became so real that sometimes it seemed to put the actual, ongoing bloodbath in Vietnam in the shade, and for years it provided a winning explanation for why any departure would have to be interminably and indefinitely delayed.  The only problem was, when the last American took that last helicopter out, the bloodbath didn’t happen.  (209)


I started this book review by saying I wanted to focus on “philosophies of convenience” as they were depicted in this book.  In an offhand moment, Engelhardt asks:

And how do we explain this ever-rising pile of civilian dad to ourselves?  It’s being done, so we’ve been told, for our safety and security here in the United States. (138)

Never mind the dozens of other threats to American lives which are more significant than “terrorism,” or the ineffectiveness of the war on the world as a war on “terror.”  This is the excuse they can build upon.


    • Xanthe on July 2, 2010 at 17:39

    any American  (lefty or not) concerned with the downward trajectory of the U.S. and our continuous wars – against its own people and people unfortunate enough to be living on lands containing oil/minerals, etc. that rightfully belong to the elite class of the USA.  This is the dream of what globalism has become – a larger portion of the world to enslave (including us).  This ruling class is not American per se – and their loyalties are not to this country (such as it is) yet they send our children out to kill others and take our paltry fortunes for their own use.

    But Tom does not write in sound bites – a reader has to spend time analyzing his papers so – well, you know – it takes away from Dancing with the Stars time.  He should be better known than he is.    

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