Learning from the past if valuable, as it helps give us a perspective on our time. Another source of insight is to speculate about future history — how will future generations see our time? Few do this better than Tom Engelhardt, as in this brief excerpt from his TomDispatch of 7 April 2009: “Terminator Planet – Launching the Drone Wars”
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Excerpt: An Arms Race of One
Bear with me while I offer you a little potted history of the modern arms race.
Think of it as starting in the early years of the twentieth century when Imperial Britain, industrial juggernaut and colonial upstart Germany, and Imperial Japan all began to plan and build new generations of massive battleships or dreadnoughts (followed by “super-dreadnoughts”) and so joined in a fierce naval arms race. That race took a leap onto land and into the skies in World War I when scientists and war planners began churning out techno-marvels of death and destruction meant to break the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western front.
Each year, starting in 1915, new or improved weaponry — poison gas, upgrades of the airplane, the tank and then the improved tank — appeared on or above the battlefield. Even as those marvels arrived, the next generation of weapons was already on the drawing boards. (In a sense, American auto makers took up the same battle plan in peacetime, unveiling new, ramped up car models each year.) As a result, when World War I ended in 1918, the war machinery of 1919 and 1920 was already being mapped out and developed. The next war, that is, and the weapons that would go with it were already in the mind’s eye of war planners.
From the first years of the twentieth century on, an obvious prerequisite for what would prove a never-ending arms race was two to four great powers in potential collision, each of which had the ability to mobilize scientists, engineers, universities, and manufacturing power on a massive scale. World War II was, in these terms, a bonanza for invention as well as destruction. It ended, of course, with the Manhattan Project, that ne plus ultra of industrial-sized invention for destruction, which produced the first atomic bomb, and so the Cold War nuclear arms race that followed.
In that 45-year-long brush with extinction, the United States and the Soviet Union each mobilized a military-industrial complex to build ever newer generations of ever more devastating nuclear weaponry and delivery systems for a MAD (mutually assured destruction) world. At the peak of that two-superpower arms race, the resulting arsenals had the mad capacity to destroy eight or ten planets our size.
In 1991, after 73 years, the Soviet Union, that Evil Empire, simply evaporated, leaving but a single superpower without rivals astride planet Earth. And then came the unexpected thing: the arms race, which had been almost a century in the making, did not end. Instead, the unimaginable occurred and it simply morphed into a “race” of one with a finish line so distant — the bomber of 2018, Earth-spanning weapons systems, a vast anti-ballistic missile system, and weaponry for the heavens of perhaps 2050 — as to imply eternity.
The Pentagon and the military-industrial complex surrounding it — including mega-arms manufacturers, advanced weapons labs, university science centers, and the official or semi-official think tanks that churned out strategies for future military domination — went right on. After a brief, post-Cold War blip of time in which “peace dividends” were discussed but not implemented, the “race” actually began to amp up again, and after September 11, 2001, went into overdrive against “Islamo-fascism” (aka the Global War on Terror, or the Long War).
In those years, our Evil Empire of the moment, except in the minds of a clutch of influential neocons, was a ragtag terrorist outfit made up of perhaps a few thousand adherents and scattered global wannabes, capable of mounting spectacular-looking but infrequent and surprisingly low-tech attacks on symbolic American (and other) targets. Against this enemy, the Pentagon budget became, for a while, an excuse for anything.
This brings us to our present unbalanced world of military might in which the U.S. accounts for nearly half of all global military spending and the total Pentagon budget is almost six times that of the next contender, China. Recently, the Chinese have announced relatively modest plans to build up their military and create a genuinely offshore navy. Similarly, the Russians have moved to downsize and refinance their tattered armed forces and the industrial complex that goes with them, while upgrading their weapons systems. This could potentially make the country more competitive when it comes to global arms dealing, a market more than half of which has been cornered by the U.S. They are also threatening to upgrade their “strategic nuclear forces,”even as Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama have agreed to push forward a new round of negotiations for nuclear reductions.
Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has just announced cutbacks in some of the more outré and futuristic military R&D programs inherited from the Cold War era. The Navy’s staggering 11 aircraft-carrier battle groups will over time also be reduced by one. Minor as that may seem, it does signal an imperial downsizing, given that the Navy refers to each of those carriers, essentially floating military bases, as “four and a half acres of sovereign U.S. territory.” Nonetheless, the Pentagon budget will grow modestly and the U.S. will remain in a futuristic arms race of one, a significant part of which involves reserving the skies as well as the heavens for American power.
About the author
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years. To catch an audio interview in which he discusses our airborne assassins, click here.
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- About America – how can we reform it?
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Posts about Reforming our defense strategy and machinery
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- Secretary Gates would be a hero – if speeches could reform DoD, 6 May 2008
- I was wrong about SecDef Gates – here is a more accurate view of him, 7 May 2008
- “The Pentagon Takes Over”, 30 May 2008 — DoD’s very size militarizes our foreign affairs.
- Militia – the ultimate defense against 4GW, 31 May 2008
- Lawrence Korb of CAP and CDI advocates a militia, 4 June 2008
- Thoughts on fixing America’s national security apparatus, 11 August 2008
- How can America adapt to a new world? A conference about national security lights the way., 18 October 2008
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- Does Secretary of Defense Gates have cojones grande?, 8 April 2009