19 years ago today, George W. Bush signed the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) into law. 19 years later, the United States military is still fighting an endless war in Afghanistan, as well as at least 7 other countries around the world.
Much has been made of the costs of these wars to the United States: $6.4 trillion and counting, a Defense Department beholden to a weapons industry whose weapons sales have made the US complicit in war crimes, and the preeminence of a militarized foreign policy mindset in Washington, which dictates that any threat to US military domination of the world is a threat that must be eradicated. These costs only scratch the surface of the costs wrought by those most impacted by the United States’ endless war strategy. Yet many Americans, nearly half in 2018, are unaware we’re still at war.
19 years later, it’s beyond time for the American public to reckon with how our militarized, xenophobic, and racist overreaction to the tragedy of September 11th has warped our own and global society. Any attempt to end these conflicts will be a failure if it does not include a public accounting of the harms, knock-on effects, and human impacts of these wars — not only abroad but also here at home. The United States needs a truth commission for the post-9/11 wars if we are ever to finally acknowledge and learn the lessons of our dismal strategic and moral failures of the past two decades.
These costs only scratch the surface of the costs wrought by those most impacted by the United States’ endless war strategy. Yet many Americans, nearly half in 2018, are unaware we’re still at war.
In Washington, transitional justice is a concept typically applied by US policymakers and practitioners to conflicts “over there,” not conflicts the United States has perpetrated. Erasure of the United States’ harmful actions, throughout its history, is a core aspect of maintaining American exceptionalism. The idea that such solutions to conflict are only appropriate in other countries is a core component of this exceptionalist myth. Instead, the extreme polarization of the country, gross impunity for corporate executives and killer cops, and the systematic dehumanization of and violence against Black and brown communities within and beyond our borders over the last twenty years reveal the United States may not be so exceptional after all.
A truth commission for the United States should focus on three core issues: 1) the impact of the post-9/11 wars on everyday people around the world and their ability to create positive change within their own countries; 2) the role and impact of the wars on the US government’s rush to further militarize our own society, as well as institute racist, Islamophobic, and xenophobic policies that have terrorized communities across the United States and trample on civil liberties in the name of national security; and 3) a public accounting of the US military, Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community, and these institutions’ foreign partners’ abuses since that fateful day.
We already have a glimpse of the tall tales the US government will tell to hide the horrific impacts of these wars from public view. From grossly undercounting civilians casualties and sanctioning International Criminal Court officials because they dare to investigate what are quite clearly war crimes, to criminalizing those forced to seek safety from the violence the US has fueled and quite literally lying to hide the truth that these endless wars have no clear strategy or endgame — it’s clear the US government will do everything possible to shield the truth from the public.
But the truth has a funny way of coming back to haunt us even if we try to keep our heads in the sand. The systematic targeting of Muslim communities across the country based on their religious beliefs or the color of their skin has come to serve as sadly just one harmful legacy of the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, and the resulting spread of Islamophobia and xenophobia has led to a rise in hate crimes and white supremacist violence. Moreover, the 2014 Snowden revelations that the US government created a mass surveillance dragnet and Chelsea Manning’s release of a video showing US soldiers committing war crimes didn’t push the Barack Obama administration to end the surveillance or seek accountability for these crimes. Instead, it normalized the criminalization of whistleblowers.
Unlike some revisionist pundits may claim, it was these policies, which actively dehumanized entire communities across the US and around the world, that gave Trump and his ilk the fuel to rise to power in 2016. In the face of 20 years of violence and tragedy for communities around the world and here at home, it is essential that we, as a society, begin to acknowledge the role militarism, white supremacy, and dehumanization has played in our disastrous endless war approach to security in the 21st century.
With the American public united in its disillusionment with endless war, the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan next year presents a key opportunity — particularly for a new Congress and potential new administration — to change course. If we do not, we will collectively not only fail to learn the lessons of the last twenty years, but also miss the opportunity to begin to repair our democracy by instituting broad systemic reforms we need to prevent a further descent into fascism.