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Washington’s Imperial Shock Troops

In this 2008 photo, Lt. Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas talks with men in the Sulaymaniya provincial government in the city of Sulaymanya, Iraq. (Photo by Sgt. John Crosby)

Meet the hottest new commander in the increasingly secretive world of American warfare, Lieutenant General Raymond “Tony” Thomas. A rare portrait in the Washington Post paints him as a “shadowy figure” -- an appropriate phrase for the general who has been leading the U.S. military’s “manhunters,” aka Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. They are considered the crème de la crème among America’s ever-larger crew of Special Operations forces, now at almost 70,000 and growing. Thomas is reportedly slated to take over Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, and so head up that now massive secret military cocooned inside the U.S. military. To put its ranks in perspective, think of the active duty militaries of Argentina (73,000), Australia (56,000), Canada (66,000), Chile (61,000), or South Africa (62,000).  In other words, our secret “warriors” now outnumber the military contingents of major nations.

As America’s leading counterterror general, Thomas has a reputation for bluntness.  In a rare public interview last April, he offered these striking comments about the country’s global war on terror: “[Y]ou can’t look at the array [of metrics] right now and not sense that we’re losing -- we’re losing right across the board from the North African littoral through to Afghanistan and Pakistan.  There are some good news stories... [but] across the board we’re not winning and I don’t think you need a lot of empirical data to tell you that.”  TomDispatch has long said the same thing, of course, but never better.

Still, if you’re trying to imagine what a man with such views sees in his crystal ball when it comes to America’s failing wars and conflicts, don’t for a second think that he’s in favor of cutting back.  In the same interview, he mentions how “disappointed” he’s been by the “tempered” nature of Washington’s response to “the long war” against terrorism and wonders why the U.S. isn’t ramping up its efforts, if not to a “World War II level,” then at least to a “Vietnam War level.”  (Remind me, General Thomas, how did that Vietnam ramping-up turn out?)


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His rise to the command of SOCOM should highlight something that, despite all the publicity given to America’s special ops troops, seldom comes through here.  On a startling, even monstrous scale, American war, like much else in American life, has headed to the dark side.  For our own “safety,” Americans are to know ever less about what those elite warriors are doing in our name as they operate in the shadows in at least 147 countries across the planet.

Today, in “Doubling Down on a Failed Strategy,” David Vine, author of Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, analyzes an allied topic, also seldom brought up in this country: that, to do what they do, those secret forces will make use of the historically unprecedented “empire of bases” Washington has been constructing across the Greater Middle East for decades and has more recently been building in Africa as well. Let him fill you in on those hundreds of military bases scattered around the planet that are the face our country presents so prominently to so many foreigners and that Americans almost never notice.

Let me just add one thing: it’s worth asking what those special ops forces of “ours,” relied on ever more heavily from one administration to the next, and settling into so many bases, actually represent.  It’s hard to argue that they are there for the defense of this country.  Like the bases themselves, they are, it seems, carrying out the increasingly messy business of empire in the far reaches of the planet.  They are, you might say, Washington’s imperial shock troops.

Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt

nation_unmade_by_war.jpgTom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's His sixth and latest book, just published, is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).Previous books include: Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (with an introduction by Glenn Greenwald). Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050 (co-authored with Nick Turse), The United States of Fear, The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's, The End of Victory Culture: a History of the Cold War and Beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from here.

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