As an ROTC cadet and an Air Force officer, I was a tiny part of America’s vast Department of Defense (DoD) for 24 years until I retired and returned to civilian life as a history professor. My time in the military ran from the election of Ronald Reagan to the reign of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
It was defined by the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, America’s brief unipolar moment of dominance and the beginning of its end, as Washington embroiled itself in needless, disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 attacks. Throughout those years of service, I rarely thought about a question that seems ever more critical to me today: What would a real system of American national defense look like?
During the Cold War, I took it for granted that this country needed a sprawling network of military bases, hundreds of them globally. Back then, of course, the stated U.S. mission was to “contain” the communist pathogen. To accomplish that mission, it seemed all too logical to me then for our military to emphasize its worldwide presence.
Yes, I knew that the Soviet threat was much exaggerated. Threat inflation has always been a feature of the DoD and at the time I’d read books like Andrew Cockburn’s The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine. Still, the challenge was there and, as the leader of the “free world,” it seemed obvious to me that the U.S. had to meet it.
And then the Soviet Union collapsed — and nothing changed in the U.S. military’s global posture.
Or, put differently, everything changed. For with the implosion of the U.S.S.R., what turned out to remain truly uncontained was our military, along with the dreams of neoconservatives who sought to remake the world in America’s image.
But which image? That of a republic empowering its citizens in a participatory democracy or of an expansionist capitalist empire, driven by the ambition and greed of a set of oligarchs?
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