“The Supreme Lord said: I am death, the mighty destroyer of the world, out to destroy.”
Chapter 11, Verse 32
According to the great Hindu text, Shiva, in the guise of Vishnu, delivered that speech to Prince Arjuna before a great battle almost eight millennia ago. Physicist Robert Oppenheimer paraphrased it in 1945 to describe the creation of the atomic bomb. Its current reincarnation might be what an Israeli commander told Meron Rapport of the newspaper Ha’aretz about last summer’s war with Lebanon: “What we did was insane and monstrous, we covered entire towns in cluster bombs.”
The commander was decrying the way Israel, the United States and Great Britain wage war these days, which has increasingly become an exercise in mass destruction.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) fired some four million cluster munitions at southern Lebanon during the recent 34-day war, at least one million of which are still waiting in ambush for unwary farmers and children. According to UN Relief Coordinator David Shearer, “nearly all of these munitions were fired in the last three or four days of the war.”
According to the United Nations, the IDF destroyed airports, harbors, water and sewage plants, electrical generators, 80 bridges, 94 roads, over 900 businesses, and 30,000 homes. Retreating Israeli soldiers, reports the New York Times, systematically destroyed village infrastructures and deliberately polluted water tanks and wells. Some 1,183 Lebanese were killed, 4,054 wounded, and one quarter of Lebanon’s population—900,000 in all—were turned into refugees. Lebanon is hardly unique.
Since 1991, according to Handicap International, the United States and Britain have dropped over 13 million cluster munitions on Iraq and strewn the countryside with more than 500 tons of toxic depleted uranium ammunition. A John Hopkins University study found that anywhere from 426,369 to 793,663 Iraqis have been killed since the March 2003 invasion. The war has also driven 1.8 million Iraqis out of their country and created 1.6 million internal refugees.
Since last January, almost 4,000 people have died in Afghanistan, over 1,000 of them civilians. The United States has dropped more than three times the number of bombs in that country over the past six months than it did in its first three-year campaign against the Taliban. B-1 bombers are routinely unloading 19,000 pounds of explosives during bombing runs, while AC-130 Spectre gunships spitting 155 mm howitzer shells and tens of thousands of 40 mm cannon shells, prowl the skies. In September, an AC-130 killed 31 shepherds.
Three of the most powerful armies in the world attacked countries that militarily are only marginally in the same century as Israel, the United States and Britain. Yet in spite of overwhelming firepower, Israel was fought to a standstill in Lebanon, the Americans in Iraq are in increasingly desperate straits, and British forces in Afghanistan, according its former chief of staff, Field Marshall Peter Inge, face the possibility of outright defeat.
How is this possible?
There was a time when a thin red line of British regulars ruled the Indian subcontinent, when a few brigades of U.S. Marines could keep Central American safe for the United Fruit Company, and when the IDF smashed far larger armies in a week of fighting.
But the thin red line faced mostly tribal warriors, and the Marines were up against unarmed peasants. The Arab armies were big, but poorly led and technologically inferior.
All empires—whether they are based on colonies or economic domination—are built on uneven development. There was a time when industrial capitalism was all-powerful, and when the people it conquered often did not even think of themselves as “nations.”
When the people in those conquered countries did think of themselves as a nation, the road to empire could be a rocky affair. Tiny Ireland tied down more British regulars in the 19th century than did India.
Eventually the development of nationalism made it impossible for the colonial powers to retain direct sovereignty over Asia, Africa and the Middle East, though many of those former colonies are still economic and political vassals. The thin red line withdrew because it suddenly faced hundreds of millions of people who were united in wanting it out, and push came to shove, would fight to make it so.
The great powers retreated, but they always believed that their superior military power gave them a final vote in matters concerning their interests. For many, that illusion of superiority held even when reality demonstrated the opposite. Hence, Vietnam was lost not because the United States could not hope to defeat an entire nation, but because — as Vice-President Dick Cheney currently argues — because the U.S. political and military leadership lacked resolve.
Unfortunately, the hallucination that war is still a relevant strategy is not confined to the neo-conservatives and a few right-wing Republicans. Many Democrats share it as well, even if they happen to disagree with the current White House about the tactics for employing military power.
The Democrats have voted overwhelmingly to support the almost $600 billion yearly military budget, including the unneeded $65 billion F-22 program, and $256.6 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a plane no one seems to want. Ike Skelton (D-Mo), the new chair of the House Armed Services Committee—a recipient of numerous campaign donations by leading arms manufacturers Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon—has lobbied for years to expand the military.
Lockheed Martin makes both the F-22 and the F-35.
Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, recently endorsed President George W. Bush’s proposal to enlarge the military. “I have been calling for such an expansion for several years,” he told the press.
In a recent editorial, the New York Times called such an expansion essential for the kind of “extended clashes” the United States will face in the future from “ground-based insurgents.” But “extended clashes” are exactly the kinds of wars that make military superiority irrelevant. The Bush administration’s “surge” of troops into Iraq will make not an iota of difference, any more than the Vietnam escalations did a generation ago.
The cost of all this, however, is extraordinary. The Department of Defense will spend $2.3 trillion over the next five years—actually more if you count nuclear weapons, veterans’ benefits, and the cost of the wars themselves. The price tag for Iraq alone is $450 billion and climbing.
What all this massive (and expensive) firepower does do, however, is inflict damage of almost Biblical proportions. The Israelis bombed Lebanon back to the stone age, and Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians are still being blown up by three-decade old cluster weapons. Iraq may find it harder to recover from its “liberation” than it did from the Mongol invasions.
We cannot “win,” but like the Romans of old, we can sow the earth with salt. What we reap will not be acquiescence or compliance, however.
Commenting on the recent Lebanon War, Augustus Richard Norton, a former army officer who served in Southern Lebanon and currently teaches at Boston University, pointed out that previous Israeli invasions and occupations “created the conditions for the recent war. Hezbollah had 20 years to hone their skills and hatred against Israel. That hatred was created by Israel; it wasn’t there in the beginning.”
Substitute the United States, Britain, and Russia for Israel; and shift the locale to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Chechnya, and that is where the strategy of destruction takes you in the end.