The Pentagon Is Engaging in Total War


The U.S. recently confirmed that drones were flying missions from Ethiopia, and – after the drone-led assassination of dissident cleric Anwar al-Awlaki – that the U.S. did indeed have a “hit list” of civilians who they want assassinated.

Since 9/11, innocent civilians are viewed differently by Western governments. By directly implicating us in their wars – rewarding certain civilians and condemning others to death in unique military circumstances – Western military-industrial complexes are accepted as a normal reality of society, their actions legitimized. 

I realized this touring the Pentagon last week, where on 9/11, hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 crash-landed, killing all 64 civilians on board and 125 Pentagon staff on the ground. 

Now, a chapel houses a memorial there to all those who lost their lives. All were awarded the Purple Heart and Defense of Freedom medal for dying that day (awards normally reserved for exceptional military duty in the armed services and its staff). One of those awarded the medal was barely 3 years old. 

Is it a little strange to give toddlers military decorations? Is it just the mass exorcism of 9/11 grief, or something more sinister? 

These men, women and children were victims of terrorism. But valorized as real-life “American heroes,” neutral victims become heroes in death, all for a cause as defined by the Pentagon. This is another development of the 20th-century idea of “total war”. 

Populations around the world have long been a component part of war – and all too often, at the hands of Western governments. 

In 1965, the Americans sought to win the Vietnam War by demoralizing and destroying North Vietnamese civilians through the most prolific bombing campaign in human history. Today, 90% of war deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are civilians. Insurgents “embedded” within civilian populations justify the use of remote-controlled Predator drones, like those that killed Awlaki. 

This militarism used to be kept at safe distance. But now, as civilians become war-dead and children become decorated veterans, governments can justify civilian killings, incursions into our private lives, pre-crime arrests, and more. After all, to support total war abroad, you must create total war at home. 

This was apparent in the way Pentagon tourism is conducted, and the fact it even exists. The Pentagon becomes yet another stop on the Washington D.C. tourism trail – Jefferson, Smithsonian, and the 9/11 civilian war dead of the Pentagon. Everyone is encouraged to come along. 

Our tour lasted 45 minutes. In that time we learned some fun facts – did you know the Pentagon consumes 30,000 cups of coffee every day? – and were shown round the impressive range of amenities on offer. DVD rental, a candy store, a canteen with all the food you could ever think of. Is this Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory in the imaginations of patriotic American children? While the civilian dead become hardened heroes, the living are coaxed and softened into thinking the Pentagon is just one big mall. 

And indeed, the worst thing was that after that time everything did start to feel normal. The corridors lost their eeriness. Our guides were very keen to stress that “the Pentagon really isn’t what people expect.” Like the 9/11 victims, we were being normalized. Why would any American citizen criticize a government building that has DVD rental, a candy store, and all the food he or she could ever think of? 

I understand that the armed services is a job. Military communities are some of the tightest-knit, something I learned growing up near one of the largest army garrisons in Britain. 

But one of the Pentagon’s own, perhaps more insidious, jobs is to engage the population with the war effort to such an extent, that ultimately, civilian and hero-warrior are indistinguishable. It is a dangerous precedent precisely because the dead have no say in it, and we are unwittingly duped into it through domestication and normalization. 

Photo credit: US Army