Norman Solomon discusses the invisible wars the US has been waging for decades, their impact on society, and the role of the media in its perpetuation.
On this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with Norman Solomon, co-founder of RootsAction and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.
Solomon’s latest book, War Made Invisible, explores the United States’ perpetual state of war over the past two decades, much of which, he concludes, has remained off the radar for average Americans.
Solomon explains how compliant journalists contribute to the smokescreen by providing narrow coverage of military engagement and often repeating the military’s talking points.
He also details the impact of the increased use of high technology, air power, and remote drones — which has distanced soldiers from the realities of war and civilian casualties.
Solomon explains the transformation of warfare post-9/11. He also discusses the impact of this shift on American society, arguing that the normalization of surveillance and the militarization of law enforcement have corrosive effects on democracy.
In the context of the divisive and tribal nature of domestic politics, he also notes the irony of having more ways to tell the stories of war but less depth and substance in the stories being told.
Solomon lays out what he sees as the implications of the US’s ongoing warfare on its democracy and the potential dangers of normalizing violence as a means to achieve political ends.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Clausewitz defined war as a political act, a way of carrying out politics by other means. He talked about war as not just fighting, but as achieving political objectives, a kind of desperate means to an end to compel the enemy to do one’s will. Yet, while wars must be fought within the realities of politics, society, and economic limits — what Clausewitz called real war — nowhere did he talk about invisible war, war conducted on behalf of the state in secret, withholding both public awareness and support.
We talk of Russians being uninformed about the extent of Putin’s war in Ukraine, but is it really any different in America? In his new book, War Made Invisible, my guest, Norman Solomon exposes how the United States has been at perpetual war for the past two decades, with many of those forays remaining off the radar for the average American. In addition, he argues that compliant journalists add to the smokescreen by providing narrow coverage of military engagement and often by repeating the military’s talking points, all while the increased use of high technology, airpower, and remote drones has put distance between soldiers and those who die, including civilians.
All the while, this cloak of invisibility continues to mask massive Pentagon budgets that are one of the few things to receive bipartisan support. We’re going to talk about all of this today with my guest Norman Solomon. Norman Solomon is co-founder of rootsaction.org and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His books include War Made Easy; Made Love, Got War; and his latest, War Made Invisible. It is my pleasure to welcome Norman Solomon here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Norman thanks so much for joining us.
Norman Solomon: Thank you very much, Jeff.
Jeff: Well, it is a delight to have you here. You argue that things changed dramatically after 9/11, that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq really changed the way Americans looked at war, the way Americans dealt with war. Talk about that first.
Norman: Instead of being episodic, the warfare became routine. And over time, I think over years and then into a couple of decades, from a media standpoint and to a large degree politically, a sort of a dog-bites-human story, “Oh, it’s ongoing. It’s not newsworthy.” There would be occasional blips in higher coverage, but generally, it became part of the background noise, the kind of, you might say, white noise of media coverage in politics. So it became routine to the point that “Oh, that’s a natural way for the United States to function in the world.” And to some extent, war became not war, just part of human life in America and the world.
Jeff: How much of that was because the public became disenchanted, disengaged, or that in this era of 24/7 always-on news cycles and social media, that there was just so much other noise in the news arena that this just became one more small thing.
Norman: One aspect of my book, and one reason I called it War Made Invisible, is that disengagement was really to a large extent, the baseline. To some degree, of course — especially the US attacks Afghanistan in October 2001, the US invades in Iraq early 2003 — yes, there’s a lot of media coverage and people think about it, talk about it. But that’s not really engagement in a substantive way, particularly because the coverage — even within the limits of the technology and the capacity for media coverage to make you feel that the war is actually real in human terms — that dissipated as well.
And so even at a maximal level, there wasn’t much authentic engagement, and then that faded away over time. So ultimately, other aspects — as you allude to, I think, Jeff — would more and more crowd in and become primary, whether it’s thinking about Beyonce or the political horse races or any number of, in aggregate, thousands of news stories that fleet across people’s screens every year.
Jeff: It’s ironic in so many respects because the ability to tell the story of people at war from a technical point of view, from the point of view of being able to cover it in ways that the previous wars had never been covered, probably has never been greater, and yet the actual interest in that is less than it ever was.
Norman: It is ironic, and one way to look at it is that we have more and more ways to tell the stories and less and less depth and substance in the stories being told.
And it makes me think of something that Herbert Marcuse, the theorist, said many, many decades ago: that we can’t look at or should not look at technology in isolation. It hinges so much on who has control or dominance of it. And so in terms of digital tech realities, yes, there is a low barrier to entry. We’re talking through a digital avenue, through the Internet, and somebody with a few bucks can throw a website up — but who actually dominates and controls the use of the technology through political and economic power?
And in that sense, those who are the big players, the really big players especially, they have little or no interest in using the technologies to have deep journalism. And I know that when the deep journalism is threatening to their power or might sensitize people to the negative effects of their power, there’s the least incentive of all. And I know WhoWhatWhy has put a lot of resources and energy and talent into questions of journalism.
I think questions really loom very large for us because, as you refer to, the potential for being able to do broadcasting, do real live coverage, real-time coverage, is just mind-blowing — from virtually everywhere on the planet, I assume, including at the top of Mount Everest, we could be clued-in and in touch anywhere on the globe at any time.
We’re getting very little of that. And a lot of what I was thinking about for many years and then writing about in War Made Invisible is that the consequences are huge. They’re corrosive not only of journalism and of politics, but really our daily lives. And this is one of the, in some ways, almost ineffable realities that I think are hidden in plain sight.
A big motivator for me to write this book is what exists in our society vis-à-vis the wars of the United States government that are ongoing – war that we don’t talk about, is not quite up to the surface for even discourse, and yet is powerfully undermining our own humanity in terms of how the United States, in our names with our tax dollars, is waging war around the planet. And there’s so many individual collective social-ecological impacts that are destructive to human beings. And really through news media and politics of the US, we’re rendered virtually clueless.
Jeff: Certainly US imperialism has been long discussed and has been a subject of much debate for a very long time, even that precedes Iraq and Afghanistan. Talk about the coverage of war today and the coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how it was fundamentally different from the coverage of Vietnam or previous wars.
Norman: Well, the coverage quantitatively has really varied, if we for a moment set aside even the content. There was a study I cite in the book where US media coverage of the American War in or on, depending how you put it, Afghanistan really only peaked three times: when the US invaded; when President Obama around 2009, 2010 escalated with a surge of sending in tens of thousands more troops; and then a couple of years ago when the troops were withdrawn — because that’s the, you might say, jingo narcissism of US coverage, that it’s really about us.
And so US media are concerned when Americans are involved in some way, but the quality of it then has in the foreground Americans or those who were designated as important or allied or victims of the US enemies; and then there’s the other, who get very, very little coverage.
So that’s one aspect of it. It’s fascinating because I think that in some ways, the template has been pretty much consistent, whether coverage of Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan, in that the window on the wars and on the world are pretty much tinted red, white, and blue in the mainstream media coverage.
There are outliers — smaller outlets and so forth, progressive ones generally — that might take a different approach, but it’s about us. It’s about how American troops are affected and so forth. So there is a continuity there, and certainly the steady stream of rationalizations and explanations for why these wars are necessary and portraying the war as villainous only on one side — that is pretty consistent.
In the book, I compare a speech to the troops in Vietnam at Cam Ranh in 1966 by Lyndon Johnson, President Johnson then, with speeches that in two occasions, Barack Obama as president gave in Afghanistan. And I point out that, with a few words changed here, there, they could have been giving each other’s speeches interchangeably, even though Obama was five years old when Johnson gave his speech.
So there is a lot of continuity, but there are a lot of differences, and one is in terms of expectations from media and in the culture at large. And this is a result of the aggregate of the passage of years. Since 9/11, we have long since stopped wondering or asking aloud, “When will this war on terror end?”
And I use “war on terror” with quotes around it. We just don’t ask. We don’t wonder, because it’s not supposed to end. And the expectation that it might end has really dissipated, understandably, because the US is in search of enemies. President George W. Bush made that clear a few days after 9/11, he was saying that the US was just basically going to go around the world to destroy, to end the existence of terrorist groups. Well, that’s a big task. It’s an insurmountable one, even if it was to be enacted and pursued consistently and with a single standard of what terrorism is — and, of course, it was not pursued in that way.
So we’ve ended up in a very different environment where, increasingly over the years, US troops have become less and less involved and it more mirrors the very end of the Vietnam War where air power became the dominant use by President Nixon. And it also is a way in which the US media coverage and politics, in contrast to say during the Vietnam War, has reduced the ongoing warfare into kind of background noise.
And that has tracked with US media coverage or non-coverage as well. So if you were to ask most Americans, “Well, what do you think about the United States being at war?” Many of them would say in effect, “What do you mean at war?”
Some might remember that President Biden gave a speech at the UN in the fall of 2021, where — in the aftermath of the immediate withdrawal, that just had happened, of all US troops from Afghanistan — he proclaimed the United States had turned the page and was no longer at war. So that’s a big difference as well. Of course, it would surprise people in a number of countries that the US is not at war, since the US is still making war in those countries — with 1,000 troops in Syria with airstrikes there, airstrikes in Somalia, and special ops in many different places, the special ops budget much higher than it was years ago. These are big differences and, I would say, insidious ones.
Jeff: In many ways, though, it is something people are aware of, for better or for worse, every time they get on an airplane, every time they go through TSA security, every time they walk into a high-rise office building and have to go through security: the war on terror, the perpetual nature of it, is something that is so much a part of our daily life. It becomes routine.
Norman: Well, we have heard at times, not nearly as much through mass media, about Eisenhower’s farewell address coining the term military-industrial complex. Now we could call it a military-industrial-media-surveillance complex. That normalization of surveillance really has kicked in, to a gradual and then much higher extent after 9/11. So that’s certainly a factor.
In terms of consciousness, on the one hand, as you say, it’s become more and more ubiquitous. The surveillance, the securitization, if that’s a word, of how we encounter forms of authority in our daily lives. And yet the pretense has become especially powerful in the last couple of years.
I mentioned in the book that Reuters News Service did a story after the United States left Afghanistan, and it said that the US budget from the federal government was the largest in, quote, “peacetime.” This was just a flat-out reportorial statement from this really large news service. So in “peacetime” with our record military budget, and the US is bombing in various countries with numerous military operations, including kill missions and so forth, but we’re told we’re not at war.
Jeff: Doesn’t it stand to reason on a certain level today, given the divisive and tribal nature of our domestic discourse, the tribal and domestic nature of our politics, that we would carry that same tribal attitude to the way we look at the world, and that that feeds into so much of what you’re talking about.
Norman: There’s such a split on the one hand between domestic politics and foreign policy certainly manifested on Capitol Hill. Democrats and Republicans have a huge difference in outlook on domestic policies, very little difference in foreign policy. The aphorism “Oh partisanship stops at the water’s edge” is now true almost with a vengeance. Set aside issues like climate change, where Republicans pretend it doesn’t exist, but basically US militarism, it is a bipartisan enterprise. So in that sense, there is a split domestically that fuels a lot of political sniping, but on the other hand, in foreign policy, that is not the case.
Except for exploitation manifestations of the domestic political split. For instance, in his usual demagogue way, Donald Trump can say even in the same speech that Democrats are wimps who are unwilling to use US military power, and Democrats are warmongers. So there is a sort of spillover.
In terms of overall tribalism, one thing I get at in the book is that we had President Biden before he was elected in the 2020 campaign, routinely we heard him say that the United States could not stand, US democracy could not stand, another four years of Donald Trump as president.
But never, and I avoid using the word never unless I’m pretty sure about it, never did Biden or mainstream pundits generally raise a question, “Well, how well can US democracy withstand endless war?” That question needs to be asked and is not asked.
Jeff, when you get back to this question of the tribalism and the extreme divisions that do exist now even more than ever in the US or at least in my lifetime, politically, it does raise the question then if there is that fierce hostility between different camps.
And it has been happening at a time with the US not only engaged in endless war, but we’ve had millions of young people in the last 20 years go through the training, and many of them sent actively into war, or maybe they’re in a role of being behind a computer console, pressing buttons, whether sending missiles or whatever to kill people. What are the effects of that transformation, that intense training over a very long period of time for so many people, where they have been trained and told, they’ve been trained in their approach to their daily work inside the military, and they’ve been told by media and politics in a very protracted way that their job is to use violence to get Uncle Sam’s way?
And so, that’s the messaging, sometimes very intensive personal messaging, in terms of you’ve got to learn how to kill — and then the pretense is you can take that militarism out of the individuals when they’re no longer in the military. You can take the individuals out of the military, but can you really take the military out of those individuals? In many cases, you can’t. And one series of stats that I put in the book is that when you look at those who have been indicted, charged, prosecuted for the January 6th assault on the Capitol, a very disproportionately high number of them are in the military.
And we had a mentality exploited by the Republicans, by the right wing to an extreme extent, that if you don’t get your way through the nonviolent, procedural normal ways, it’s okay to resort to violence. Well, that is exactly what happened on January 6th, and that’s exactly what US foreign policy has been for more than 20 years, 24/7, 365.
Jeff: How is it different from the context that you and I grew up in with a perpetual Cold War going on?
Norman: There’s a constancy to the reality and at least a vague impression, a normalized way that the US is engaged in ferreting out bad people as the second President Bush said, “evildoers” and so forth. And so that’s a constant, whether we’re conscious of it or not.
The Cold War had these intermittent invasions, some of them quick like invasion of Grenada, invasion of Panama during the Reagan and first Bush eras, and then the very long warfare in Southeast Asia before that. And in the ’90s, 1999 anyway, by also a lot of bombing of Iraq earlier in the decade. There was the bipartisan support for President Clinton cheering on and ordering bombing of Kosovo and then, of course, Iraq and Afghanistan.
So those became intermittent. Vietnam was, of course, the quintessential Cold War war and arguably the invasion of Grenada as well was Cold War. The commies were there we were told and so forth. So, I would say overall that there’s been a change in tone; but in the longer term, the Pentagon, and the huge profiteering from military contracts, they need a big enemy. It’s really hard to justify over a period of time, with a sufficient budget for aerospace contracting and so forth, fighting people with box cutters and bombs in their car trunks.
And so, I think where your question can lead us is, yes, there’ve been a lot of differences in the last two decades, say after the fall of Berlin Wall where yes, some of the psychology was different. Instead of it being the Kremlin, it was a web of terrorists and so forth. So that was the enemy, and there was a lot of money made over invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and deployments of troops and weapons around fighting terrorists, but that played out politically, having so many troops engaged in wars that weren’t won.
And the same goes for body bags coming home that didn’t wear well in terms of media and politics and so forth. So in a way, we’re back to the future in terms of the Cold War. We’re back in a Cold War. And the vilification of Russia to such an extreme extent for many years now has brought us back, you might say, to Cold War II. And the mentality has, in some respects, come almost full circle.
Jeff: And we’re starting to see the same vis-à-vis attitudes towards China.
Norman: Yes, that’s true. And there is some delusion among some, even perhaps on the left that, well, the Republicans are less Cold War-oriented. But if you really listen closely to what so many Republicans are saying on Capitol Hill, if they criticize the Biden Administration for shipping too many arms to Ukraine, for being too antagonistic to Russia, a lot of those Republicans are saying, “The problem is we’re diverting attention from the real enemy, which is China.”
And so, there’s a bipartisan unity that China needs to be confronted and that is simply another way of saying that the United States has got to police the world and not acknowledging just how incredibly lucrative that is. And it’s another form of we run the world, or we should try to run the world, the best we can. I often think about the bumper sticker that was popular among some hawkish car and truck drivers. It was red, white, and blue, and the words were, “These colors don’t run.” And I once saw a counter bumper sticker that also was red, white, and blue that said, “These colors don’t run the world.”
Well, that’s always been a really tough message to sell on Capitol Hill, in the White House, in US mass media — and that is, with all the variations, one non-change. We still have sent to us by so many different means and methods and degrees of subtlety, the concept that the United States should try to work its way in the world as best it can within the limitations of economics, politics, and military prowess.
Jeff: And to that point, what do we learn when we look at the interregnum between the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11? When we look at a world that was more of a unipolar world at that point and what good and bad things happened as a result?
Norman: There’s a lot to learn from it. I think it’s very complex. One is unfortunately the strength of the military-industrial complex, because there was talk after the fall of the Berlin Wall about a peace dividend, which never really materialized. And under Clinton, yes, there were some budget cuts and so forth for the military, but when you take a longer view, they didn’t last very long. And so I don’t want to be too pessimistic, but in a way, we shouldn’t be fatalistic, but we should be realistic that the militarism that is so embedded in the political economy of the United States has seemed to be and has been so far intractable.
There can be some variations just as there are variations in how many troops on the ground should be sent off to invade or combat somewhere, the variations on some of the emphasis, and so forth. But in the longer run, there is the militarism that has continued to come to the fore, just the Pentagon budget nosing up to 900 billion, that doesn’t include nuclear weapons spending, which is over the long-term really significant, let alone pushing the envelope towards omnicide.
I think we can learn some of that and also just how flexible the political economy of militarism is because of its shape-shifting — that there’s a tremendous versatility. And I don’t mean that we should be passive or defeatist about it, but I think we should recognize that, with all the positives that have been achieved in the last decades on a lot of fronts, including sometimes on foreign policy, that these are really uphill climbs. And the victories have been unfortunately very small.
In terms of positive, this is one of the few foreign policy things I would credit Obama for. He did push through the Iran nuclear deal, which was later destroyed by the Trump administration, and then further destroyed by the Biden administration, which refused to come back and resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal. Just as the Biden administration has refused to resuscitate the INF Treaty that Trump abrogated — the Intermediate-Range Missile Treaty that had been in effect since the Reagan era, between the US and Russia. Just tragic.
So, that again, is an instance where there’s just been too much power coming out of those who have wanted to block the roll back of the warfare state.
Jeff: Norman Solomon, his new book is War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine. Norman, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Norman: Thank you, Jeff.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you’ll join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it, by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do, by going to www.whowhatwhy.org/donate.