I was in Waikiki, Hawaii, recently. But not for pleasure. I was there out of obligation, fulfilling my parental duty to visit my son and his husband, who live there. I’ll admit, though, that I was getting some pleasure, looking out from the balcony of the 19th floor studio apartment I had rented. Across the street there were none of the high-rise buildings that block the view from most Waikiki balconies. Instead, there was a large, lush park. Beyond it I could see Diamond Head and the endless blue of the Pacific.
Then curiosity took over. Why such a large open space where the real estate is so fabulously valuable? And why, in the middle of that park, a set of buildings that were only two stories high, while all around the buildings rose to 30, 40, 50 stories?
Google soon gave me the answers. The park is military property, protected from commercial developers. And those two-story buildings are military, too. They house something with the innocent-sounding name, “The Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.” It has a “non-warfighting mission,” according to its website: to “build capacities and communities of interest by educating, connecting, and empowering security practitioners to advance Asia-Pacific security.” Sounds pretty benign.
But then a little YouTube video tucked away in a corner of that website caught my eye, provocatively titled “The Struggle for Dominance without Fighting ” It gave me a presentation by Dr. Mohan Malik, Professor of Asian Security at the Center. He informed me in a matter-of-fact, academic manner that “the U.S.–led order is coming under challenge” in the Pacific. China wants to “subvert overwhelming U.S. military power.”
The professor did not use the word war. I suppose that word would be a bit awkward when talking about an adversary that holds over a trillion dollars worth of our bonds. But if it looks like a war, sounds like a war, and acts like a war, why not just call it a war?
This is not a war with weapons of the traditional kind, the ones that shoot bullets or explode, the professor explained. But it’s war nonetheless, being fought every day in many arenas, such as international financial institutions and economic organizations, foreign aid, telecommunications systems, ocean beds, outer space, cyberspace, as well as political maneuvering for control of the South China Sea, Tibet, and other lands on China’s rim.
We are at war with China. Who knew? Apparently, the Pentagon knew. So did all the “security practitioners” from friendly nations in the Asia-Pacific region who come to Waikiki to learn the arts of this new kind of war. The rest of us may not yet have gotten the memo.
Now every time I looked out at Diamond Head and the Pacific from my balcony I saw those two-story buildings reminding me that we are already at war with China. Thoreau once said, “The remembrance of my government spoils my walk.” I had to say, “The remembrance of my government spoils my view.”
Still, at least the war is not an old-fashioned bullets and bombs war—bombs that, in a U.S.-China war, might well be nuclear. So I felt a bit reassured that this war is what we used to call a cold war, though that term is also now avoided out of deference to all those bonds of ours that the Chinese hold, I suppose.
I felt more reassured recalling experts like Stephen Pinker, who say that the long-term trend of history is leading us away from old-fashioned war, where millions were killed by bullets and bombs. At least there was a bit of comfort there.
My limited sense of comfort did not last long, though. It ended when I read The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two. That’s a new book by John Dower, the preeminent historian of America’s last war against a dominant power in the Pacific, our World War II battle against Japan, which started just a few miles away from my troubled Waikiki vacation spot.
Now Dower has written a book tracing the aftermath of World War II, especially in the U.S., up to the present day. It’s a small book; you can read it in one evening. But don’t expect to sleep well that night. Because it’s densely packed with disturbing facts and figures that directly challenge those supposed experts who confidently tell us that murderous wars are becoming a relic of the past.
No, Dower says, the war and killing and suffering goes on, from 1946 to today, at a disturbingly steady pace. And he leaves little hope that it will end any time soon. His explicit aim is to refute the optimists who see lethal conflict on the wane.
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Woven through his thick collection of evidence are implicit arguments that cast a frightening shadow on our cold (so far) war with China.
Since World War II, the U.S. government’s commitment to overwhelming military might has not declined. On the contrary, it has steadily grown. It was only in the 1990s that the Pentagon declared its determination to have “full spectrum dominance” in every conflict, forever—a doctrine that is still in force. So the U.S. has been building an ever-expanding and modernizing military machine, preparing to unleash constantly higher levels of lethal violence.
And, as Dower shows, each use of that machine plants seeds of greater violence in the future. But it typically comes in unexpected ways. Victory over Japan, for example, unleashed both the cold war and the civil war in Vietnam. The combination of the two later brought the disaster of U.S. intervention in Vietnam.
It was our defeat in Vietnam, in turn, that triggered the bellicose Reaganite reaction. Reagan showed how tough we were by defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan, using U.S.-trained and armed Muslim mujahadeen, who later formed the core of Al Qaeda and now the Islamic State.
But the seeds of our violent conflicts, and how we planted them, go unseen by the general public at the time. The conflict is always blamed on “the enemy” who wants to do us some evil—like, for example, challenging the U.S.-led order and subverting overwhelming U.S. military power? That was often given as a reason to wage four decades of cold war against the communist bloc, including mainland China.
We cannot predict what particular justifications might some day be given for a hot war with China. But we can predict that those reasons will be based more in fantasy than empirical reality. That, too, is a pattern Dower traces, from our early nuclear buildup against a fantasied Soviet nuclear threat, to our support for dictators in Latin America against fantasied Soviet-controlled revolutionaries, to our war against Iraq for its fantasied nuclear arsenal and links to the 9/11 attack.
Most dangerous of all, Dower suggests, is the fantasy that we are safe now because the era of massive war is over. Not only does that fantasy keep us blind to the reality of growing threats of war. It also fuels the belief in “the wisdom, virtue, and firepower of U.S. ‘peacekeeping,’” meaning that, even if it comes to old-fashioned war, America is always trying merely to make the world a better place. Dower reminds us that we first fought Iraq in 1991 in the name of building a “new world order.”
Now, as then, we are barraged by true believers telling us that we have a right to control the world because our goals are somehow morally purer than our adversaries’, that we are always on the side of the angels, always the innocent victim of some evil enemy. “The mystique of exceptional virtue,” Dower concludes, “does not accommodate serious consideration of irresponsibility, provocation, intoxication with brute force, paranoia, hubris, reckless and criminal actions, or even criminal negligence” on the part of the United States, even though all of these are evident enough in the historical record since 1945.
The Pentagon’s professors (and no doubt its war planners) at least admit that it’s all about keeping U.S. dominance in far-flung regions of the world. They are so-called “realists,” assuming that nations will always want more power and that powerful nations will always vie with each other for control of the world—by any means necessary.
Combine that view with the Pentagon’s ever-growing means (Dower wrote his book before Donald Trump asked for another $54 billion for the Pentagon) and China’s own “realists,” calling for their nation to play its rightful role as a world power, and you have a recipe for a lot more sleepless nights.
I don’t mean to say that a hot war with China is inevitable. Not at all. John Dower does not mean to say that either. But he does want to remind us that hot wars of immense violence are still all too possible. At least one other prominent historian, Graham Allison, has publicly argued that a U.S. hot war with China is a very real and frightening possibility. Eternal vigilance is still the price not only of liberty but of peace.
Meanwhile, the next time I visit my son and his husband in Waikiki, I’ll be glad to have my balcony staring at 50 floors of balconies across the street.