Military leaders famously protest that they love peace, not war. But the evidence suggests otherwise, as David Vine’s explosive book, The United States of War, makes abundantly clear. His book updates and sets in historical context the case laid out nearly twenty years ago in Blowback by former Cold Warrior Chalmers Johnson. That earlier book, and two that followed, popularized the CIA term that highlights the unintended consequences of US military operations abroad. And those consequences have been abundant—not just since World War II, as Johnson argued so persuasively, but since the earliest days of the republic. America’s permanent war, Vine maintains, has profoundly distorted our national priorities and threatens our country’s prospects for the future.
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Permanent war since the earliest days of settlement in America
“Some tend to think that [the recent] period of forever war is exceptional,” Vine writes at the outset. “To the contrary, this state of war is the norm in U.S history. According to the government’s own Congressional Research Service and other sources, the U.S. military has waged war, engaged in combat, or otherwise employed its forces aggressively in foreign lands in all but eleven years of its existence.” Only eleven years at peace out of two hundred forty-seven since the Declaration of Independence. “The total list of U.S. wars and other combat actions extends into the hundreds. A small fraction appears in most U.S. history textbooks.” And Vine, a social anthropologist who teaches at American University in Washington, DC, proves his case with specific, documented examples from our country’s history.
The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State by David Vine (2020) 371 pages ★★★★★
A long, shameful history of permanent war
If you’re puzzled by this portrayal of war as a permanent fixture in American history, as I was when I began reading this book, think about the innumerable wars undertaken by the US Army against the Native societies that inhabited the lands we now call home. They were, after all, foreign nations at the time. History textbooks typically gloss over the subject by aggregating them as “American Indian wars” or some similarly dismissive term. To gain a clear picture of just how numerous and long-lasting these conflicts were, I suggest you take a look at the Wikipedia entry that encompasses the years 1609 to 1924. You might also check out the long, long list of US invasions in Latin American and Caribbean countries.
The infrastructure that makes the wars possible
Why? Why does the United States engage so very frequently in armed action against other nations? Vine explains. “This book offers a new way to think about why the U.S. military seems to fight wars without end. The approach I take is simple but somewhat unusual. Rather than looking primarily at the wars themselves, this book looks at the infrastructure that made the wars possible. Rather than being a book about battles, this book uses military bases as windows to understand the patterns of endless U.S. wars.” And the author is on solid ground in doing so.
Unbeknownst to the pubic, the US military currently maintains thousands of military bases around the world. Some 450 to 500 of them are located within the United States, according to the Pentagon and other sources. And the author’s research reveals that the US has about 750 overseas military bases in more than 80 countries. But the Pentagon distinguishes between major “bases” and the several thousand other military facilities and installations that go by other names such as “lily pads.” And Vine convincingly demonstrates with concrete examples how the existence of so many bases has proven to offer the Pentagon an incentive to launch military action around the world.
“Research funded by none other than the U.S. Army indicates that since the 1950s a U.S. military presence abroad is correlated with U.S. forces initiating military conflicts,” Vine reports. “Bases frequently beget wars, which can beget more bases, which can beget more wars, and so on.” Put another way, “Bases abroad became a tempting policy solution to problems that generally had no military solutions.”
The United States has been an empire since our earliest days
Most history textbooks as well as accounts of popular history date the dawn of US imperialism to the Spanish-American War. Vine disagrees. “The 1898 U.S. war with Spain and the seizure of colonies outside the continent was no accident, nor was it the emergence of a new form of U.S. Empire. Rather, the war was the culmination of the first period of U.S. imperialism post independence, which saw the country expand across the continent with the help of U.S. Army forts and near-continuous war.”
In fact, as Daniel Immerwahr reveals in his earlier book, How to Hide an Empire, the United States had long since seized islands in both the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean to secure guano as fertilizer for American farms. As Wikipedia notes in an article about the Guano Islands Act of 1856, “Under the act the US gained control of around 94 islands. By 1903, 66 of these islands were recognized as territories of the US.”
The economic basis of permanent war
Why? Why does the United States maintain such a massive military presence around the world? Vine explains. “Bases would help safeguard alliances, profit-making opportunities for U.S. corporations, and access to natural resources, such as the petroleum supplies that were critical to the daily functioning of capitalism and the military itself.” In other words, though the pattern may be different from the colonial system maintained for so long by the British Empire, the United States is nonetheless an imperialist power despite protestations to the contrary. And, like the British, French, and other empires around the world, ours ultimately is grounded in economics.
“Bases have safeguarded U.S. political and economic dominance,” Vine asserts, “supported U.S. corporate interests, opened markets, helped maintain alliances, and kept as many countries as possible within a U.S. sphere of influence.”
Dig a little deeper into US history, and that reality will become inescapably clear. Vine ascribes it to the “Military Industrial Congressional Complex.” The additional word in Eisenhower’s formulation is telling. And it locates the ultimate responsibility for permanent war not on the generals and admirals who carry out orders but on the United States Congress, which so often showers even more money on the Pentagon than it asks for. Which helps make the system it funds self-perpetuating. “The establishment of overseas bases has created entire social worlds with corporations and thousands of people economically, socially, institutionally, and psychologically dependent on the continued operation of those worlds. Bases abroad are a perfect, if horrifying, microcosm of how the Military Industrial Congressional Complex can be like Frankenstein’s monster, taking on a life of its own thanks to the spending it commands.”
The tragic cost of permanent war
Vine laments the domestic consequences of such a single-minded reliance on US military power. We all should. “While other wealthy industrialized nations created welfare states after World War II with investments in universal health care, education, child care, housing, and other social benefits, U.S. leaders and elites created a warfare state built around the construction and maintenance of military bases, the world’s largest arms industry, a large standing military, and the wars that followed in their wake.” And this overindulgence in the military leaves an enormous amount of room to address the country’s massive domestic challenges.
As Vine notes, “Cutting half of the total $1.25 trillion annual military budget would still leave the United States with the largest military budget in the world—larger than the budgets of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea combined.” And with even less money shifted to meet domestic needs, we could end poverty and homelessness and ensure that every American gains access to free healthcare as a right.
About the author
According to his author website, David Vine is professor of political anthropology at American University in Washington, DC. He is a board member of the Costs of War Project and a co-founder of the Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition. The United States of War is the third in a trilogy of books about war and peace. He is also a contributor to TomDispatch.com and Foreign Policy in Focus. David holds PhD and MA degrees from the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.
For related reading
I’ve reviewed four other books that directly address the issues discussed in this book:
- How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr (2019)—A supremely entertaining history of American empire
- The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War by James Bradley (2009)—Teddy Roosevelt and the dark side of American foreign policy
- The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire by Stephen Kinzer—The racist origins of the American empire
- An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz—Revisionist US history from an indigenous perspective
You’ll find other books that address some of the same issues at 5 top nonfiction books about national security and 15 good recent books about American foreign policy.
And I strongly recommend the Blowback Trilogy the by late Chalmers Johnson, which I read several years before launching this site:
- Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (2004)
- The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (2004)
- Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (2007)
You might also care to check out:
- Top 20 popular books for understanding American history
- Gaining a global perspective on the world around us
- 10 top nonfiction books about World War II
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, on the Home Page.