[Note for TomDispatch Readers: We’re back from summer vacation and ready to roll with, of course, the usual pleas to you to support this website. I’ll keep it short this time. Just go to our donation page where, for $100 ($125 if you live outside the United States), you can get a variety of signed, personalized books from TomDispatch authors. As always, my thanks go out to you in advance! Tom]
Who Are the Real Invaders on Planet Earth?
By Tom Engelhardt
He crossed the border without permission or, as far as I could tell, documentation of any sort. I’m speaking about Donald Trump’s uninvited, unasked-for invasion of my personal space. He’s there daily, often hourly, whether I like it or not, and I don’t have a Department of Homeland Security to separate him from his children, throw them all in degrading versions of prison — without even basic toiletries or edible food or clean water — and then send him back to whatever shithole tower he came from in the first place. (For that, I have to depend on the American people in 2020 and what still passes, however dubiously, for a democracy.)
And yes, the president has been an invader par excellence in these years — not a word I’d use idly, unlike so many among us these days. Think of the spreading use of “invasion,” particularly on the political right, in this season of the most invasive president ever to occupy the Oval Office, as a version of America’s wars coming home. Think of it, linguistically, as the equivalent of those menacing cops on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, back in 2014, togged out to look like an occupying army with Pentagon surplus equipment, some of it directly off America’s distant battlefields.
Not that many are likely to think of what’s happening, invasion-wise, in such terms these days.
Admittedly, like so much else, the worst of what’s happening didn’t start with Donald Trump. “Invasion” and “invaders” first entered right-wing vocabularies as a description of immigration across our southern border in the late 1980s and 1990s. In his 1992 attempt to win the Republican presidential nomination, for instance, Patrick Buchanan used the phrase “illegal invasion” in relation to Hispanic immigrants. In the process, he highlighted them as a national threat in a fashion that would become familiar indeed in recent years.
Today, however, from White House tweets to the screed published by Patrick Crusius, the 21-year-old white nationalist who killed 22 people, including eight Mexican citizens, in an El Paso Walmart, the use of “invasion,” or in his case “the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” has become part of the American way of life (and death). Meanwhile, the language itself has, in some more general sense, has continued to be weaponized.
Of course, when you speak of invasions these days, as President Trump has done repeatedly — he used the word seven times in less than a minute at a recent rally and, by early August, his reelection campaign had posted more than 2,000 Facebook ads with invasion in them — you’re speaking of only one type of invasion. It’s a metaphorical-cum-political one in which they invade us (even though they may not know that they’re doing it). Hundreds of thousands of them have been crossing our southern border, mostly on their own individual initiative. In some cases, however, they have made it to the border in “caravans.” Just about every one of them, however, is arriving not with mayhem in mind, but in search of some version of safety and, if not well-being, at least better-being in this country.
That’s not the way the White House, most Republicans, or right-wing media figures are describing things, however. As the president put it at a White House Workforce advisory meeting in March:
“You see what’s going on at the border… We are doing an amazing job considering it’s really an onslaught very much. I call it ‘invasion.’ They always get upset when I say ‘an invasion.’ But it really is somewhat of an invasion.”
Or as Tucker Carlson said on Fox News, “We are so overwhelmed by this — it literally is an invasion of people crossing into Texas”; or as Jeanine Pirro plaintively asked on Fox & Friends, “Will anyone in power do anything to protect America this time, or will our leaders sit passively back while the invasion continues?” The examples of such statements are legion.
The True Invaders of Planet Earth
Here’s the strange thing, though: in this century, there has been only one true invader on planet Earth and it’s not those desperate Central Americans fleeing poverty, drugs, violence, and hunger (for significant aspects of which the U.S. is actually to blame).
The real invader in this world of ours happens to be the United States of America. I’m speaking, of course, about the only nation in this century whose armed forces have, in the (once) normal sense of the term, invaded two other countries. In October 2001, the administration of President George W. Bush responded invasively to a nightmarish double act of terrorism here. An extremist Islamist outfit that called itself al-Qaeda and was led by a rich Saudi (whom Washington had, in the previous century, been allied with in a war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan) proved responsible. Instead of organizing an international policing operation to deal with bin Laden and crew, however, President Bush and his top officials launched what they quickly dubbed the Global War on Terror, or GWOT. While theoretically aimed at up to 60 countries across the planet, it began with the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and some of his crew were indeed there at the time, but the invasion’s aim was, above all, to overthrow another group of extreme Islamists, the Taliban, who controlled most of that land.
So, Washington began a war that has yet to end. Then, in the spring of 2003, the same set of officials did just what a number of them had been eager to do on September 12, 2001: they unleashed American forces in an invasion of Iraq meant to take down autocrat Saddam Hussein (a former U.S. ally who had nothing to do with 9/11 or al-Qaeda). In fact, we now know that, within hours of a hijacked jet crashing into the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was already thinking about just such an invasion. (“Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not,” he reportedly said that day, while urging his aides to come up with a plan to invade Iraq.)
So American troops took Kabul and Baghdad, the capitals of both countries, where the Bush administration set up governments of its choice. In neither would the ensuing occupations and wars or the tumultuous events that evolved from them ever truly end. In both regions, terrorism is significantly more widespread now than it was then. In the intervening years, millions of the inhabitants of those two lands and others swept up in that American war on terror were displaced from their homes and hundreds of thousands killed or wounded as chaos, terror, and war spread across the Greater Middle East (later compounded by the “Arab Spring”) and finally deep into Africa.
In addition, the U.S. military — equally unsuccessfully, equally long-lastingly, equally usefully when it came to the spread of terrorism and of failed or failing states — took action in Libya, Somalia, Yemen (largely but not only via the Saudis), and even Syria. While those might have been considered interventions, not invasions, they were each unbelievably more invasive than anything the domestic right-wing is now calling an invasion on our southern border. In 2016, in Syria, for instance, the U.S. Air Force and its allies dropped an estimated 20,000 bombs on the “capital” of the Islamic State, Raqqa, a modest-sized provincial city. In doing so, with the help of artillery and of ISIS suicide bombers, they turned it into rubble. In a similar fashion from Mosul to Fallujah, major Iraqi cities were rubblized. All in all, it’s been quite a record of invasion, intervention, and destruction.
Nor should we forget that, in those and other countries (including Pakistan), the U.S. dispatched Hellfire missile-armed drones to carry out “targeted” strikes that, once upon a time, would have been called “assassinations.” In addition, in 2017 alone, contingents of the still-growing elite Special Operations forces, now about 70,000 personnel, had been dispatched, in war and peace, to 149 countries, according to investigative journalist Nick Turse. Meanwhile, American military garrisons by the hundreds continued to dot the globe in a historically unprecedented fashion and have regularly been used in these years to facilitate those very invasions, interventions, and assassinations.
In addition, in this period the CIA set up “black sites” in a number of countries where prisoners, sometimes literally kidnapped off the streets of major cities (sometimes captured in the backlands of the planet), were for years subjected to unbearable cruelty and torture. U.S. Navy ships were similarly used as black sites. And all of this was just part of an offshore Bermuda Triangle of injustice set up by Washington, whose beating heart was a now notorious (and still open) prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Since 2001, the U.S. has succeeded in squandering staggering amounts of taxpayer dollars unsettling a vast swath of the planet, killing startling numbers of people who didn’t deserve to die, driving yet more of them from their homes, and so helping to set in motion the very crisis of migrants and refugees that has roiled both Europe and the United States ever since. The three top countries sending unwanted asylum seekers to Europe have been Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, all deeply embroiled in the cauldron of the American war on terror. (Meanwhile, of course, we live in a country whose president, having called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” during his election campaign in 2015, has done his best to follow through on just such a Muslim ban.)
And by the way, those original invasions and interventions were all surrounded by glorious explanations about the bringing of “democracy” to and the “liberation” of various societies, explanations no less bogus than those offered by the El Paso killer to explain his slaughter.
Still in the Land of the Metaphorically Invaded
Invaders, intruders, disrupters? You’ve got to be kidding, at least if you’re talking about undocumented immigrants from south of our border (even with the bogus claims that there were “terrorists” among them). When it comes to invasions, we should be chanting “USA! USA!” Perhaps, in fact, you could think of this country, its leadership, its military, and its war on terror as a version of the El Paso killer raised to a global scale. In this century at least, we have been the true invaders and disrupters on planet Earth (with the Russians in Crimea and the Ukraine coming in a distant second).
And how have Americans dealt with the real invaders of this world? It’s a reasonable question, even if seldom asked in a country where “invasion” is now a matter of almost obsessional discussion and debate. True, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, a striking number of Americans had the urge not to go to war. The streets of major cities and small towns filled with protesters demanding that the Bush administration not do what it was obviously going to do anyway. When the invasion and occupation happened, it should have quickly been clear that it would be a destructive disaster. The initial shock-and-awe air campaign to “decapitate” Saddam Hussein’s regime, for example, managed not to touch a single key Iraqi official but, according to Human Rights Watch, killed “dozens of civilians.” In this way, the stage was set for so much of what would follow.
When the bad news (Mission Unaccomplished!) started coming in, however, those antiwar protestors disappeared from the streets of our country, never to return. In the years that followed, Americans generally ignored the harm the U.S. was doing across significant parts of the globe and went on with their lives. It did, however, become a tic of the times to “thank” the troops who had done the invading for their “service.”
In the meantime, much of what had transpired globally in that war on terror was simply forgotten (or never noted in the first place). That’s why when, in mid-August, an ISIS suicide bomber blew himself up at a wedding party in Kabul killing at least 63 people, the New York Times could report that “weddings, the celebration of union, had largely remained the exception” to an Afghan sense of risk-taking in public. And that would be a statement few Americans would blink at — as if no weddings had ever been destroyed in that country. Few here would remember the six weddings U.S. air power had obliterated in Afghanistan (as well as at least one each in Iraq and Yemen). The first of them, in December 2001, would kill about 100 revelers in a village in Eastern Afghanistan and that would just be the beginning of the nightmare to come. This was something I documented at TomDispatch years ago, but it’s generally not even in the memory bank here.
In 2016, of course, Americans elected a man who had riled up what soon be called his “base” by launching a presidential campaign on the fear of Mexican “rapists” coming to this country and the necessity of building a “big, fat, beautiful wall” to turn them away. From scratch, in other words, his focus was on stopping an “invasion” of this land. By August 2015, he was already using that term in his tweets.
So, under Donald Trump, as that word and the fears that went with it spread, we became the invaded and they the invaders. In other words, the world as it was (and largely remains) was somehow turned on its head. As a result, we all now live in the land of the metaphorically invaded and of El Paso killers who, in these years, have headed, armed with military-style weaponry, for places ranging from synagogues to garlic festivals to stop various “invaders” in their tracks. Meanwhile, the president and a bipartisan crew of politicians in Washington continued to pour ever more money into the U.S. military (and into little else, except the pockets of the 1%).
As for me, in all those years before Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign, I had never watched his reality TV shows. Though I lived in New York City, I had never walked into Trump Tower. I had never, in other words, invaded his space, no matter how metaphorically. So, with invasions in the air, I continue to wonder why, every day in every way, he invades mine. And speaking of invasions, he and his crew in Washington are now getting ready to invade the space not just of people like me, but of endangered species of every sort.
Of course, the president who feeds off those “invaders” from the south doesn’t recognize me as a species of anything. For him, the only endangered species on this planet may be oil, coal, and natural gas companies.
Believe me, you’re in his world, not mine, and welcome to it!
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch.com and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Copyright 2019 Tom Engelhardt