When he announced the end of America’s war in Afghanistan in August 2021, President Joe Biden promised that America would continue its “fight against terrorism” worldwide.
“We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it,” Biden added. “We have what’s called the over-the-horizon capabilities which means we can strike terrorists or targets without American boots on the ground—or very few, if needed.”
The speech offered a concise pitch for a new era of America’s overseas wars, according to Norman Solomon, a longtime media critic and Marin County resident. In his latest book, War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine, Solomon argues that skewed news coverage of the country’s distant wars, along with pliant politicians, make ever-increasing military budgets seem almost inevitable.
The United States has 750 military bases around the world and is conducting counterterror operations in 85 countries around the globe. In 2022, the country’s military bill accounted for 51% of its federal discretionary budget while many Americans’ standards of living continued to fall.
“What happens at the other end of American weaponry has remained almost entirely a mystery, with only occasional brief glimpses before the curtain falls back into its usual place. Meanwhile, the results at home fester in the shadows. Overall, America has been conditioned to accept ongoing wars without ever really knowing what they’re doing to people we’ll never see,” Solomon writes in the book’s introduction.
The author of 12 books since 1982, Solomon has taken on America’s war industry before. However, his last book, Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State, was published just over 15 years ago.
Asked why he revisited the topic now, Solomon said, “Our society has become numbed, desensitized and, in many ways, dehumanized to what’s being done in our names with our tax dollars. So, War Made Invisible is a book that flushes out into the open what’s hidden in plain sight.”
As referenced in Biden’s 2021 speech, technology is one factor at play. Over the past 15 years, drones and other tools of remote warfare have become more common, reducing one of the domestic political repercussions of past wars: dead American soldiers.
Another theme of War Made Invisible is the comparison between the media treatment of different victims of wars.
“[After 9/11] America’s dead and bereaved were vastly and appropriately important. In contrast, the deaths and bereavements of equally innocent people, due to U.S. military actions overseas, were devalued to such an extent that domestic politics perpetuated two tiers of grief: momentous and close to meaningless; ours and theirs,” Solomon writes.
During the first two decades of America’s “war on terror,” 7,050 U.S. soldiers and over 387,000 civilians were killed in direct violence by all parties involved in various conflicts, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project. Over the same period, an estimated 38 million people have been displaced by the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines.
Those civilian deaths are the unintended, but predictable, result of American policies, argues Solomon. He compares the problem to what would happen if an American city allowed its police force to shoot their guns into storefronts and homes while pursuing a suspect. Innocent bystanders would be killed even if they weren’t intentionally targeted.
Solomon also compares the coverage of the United States’ recent military actions and Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
“When American armed forces are inflicting the carnage, the chances of deeply sympathetic coverage of the killed, wounded and bereaved are greatly diminished—but when the killers are adversaries of the U.S. government, the media floodgates of compassion and human connection open wide. Such selective empathy was on display as Ukraine withstood the barbaric Russian assault,” Solomon writes.
“Setting aside the double standards of political coverage of the Ukraine invasion and refusal to really go into the history of NATO expansion militarily up to the Russian border, the U.S. media coverage of the Ukraine war on the ground, I think, has been very good,” Solomon said in an interview. “It has poignantly, often powerfully, brought forward the human suffering as a result of an invasion by one country against another. The flipside, though, is that that quality coverage was inconceivable from major U.S. media outlets during the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq by the U.S.”
Since the publication of his last book in 2007, Solomon has spent much of his time attempting to push the Democratic party left. In 2008, Solomon was a delegate for Barack Obama (a subject of critique in War Made Invisible), and later served as a delegate for Bernie Sanders during his two presidential runs.
In 2012, Solomon ran for a seat in Congress representing California’s second district, which stretches from Marin County all the way to the Oregon border. After 18 months of campaigning, Solomon won 14.9% of the vote in a primary election, narrowly losing second place to a Republican candidate.
Jared Huffman, then a state Assemblymember, won the Democratic party’s endorsement and, later, the election by a wide margin. He has held the seat ever since.
Last year, RootsAction.org, a progressive organization Solomon co-founded in 2011, launched the “Don’t Run Joe” campaign, an effort to discourage President Joe Biden from running for re-election due to his policies and low poll numbers, particularly among younger voters.
The “Don’t Run Joe” effort did not work—Biden announced his 2024 campaign this April—and the campaign was renamed “Step Aside Joe” in late June.
“As the 2024 election has neared, Biden has tacked increasingly to the right and toward corporate donors in pursuit of mythologized swing voters, while alienating the younger voters, people of color and working-class voters who defeated Donald Trump in 2020. Biden said he would be a steward of the environment, but he has repeatedly given the green light to fossil fuel drilling and pipeline construction, among several new projects in recent months. Biden said he would be a champion for working Americans, but has sided with corporations over workers in labor disputes,” the campaign said in a statement last week.
Now, with Trump also a declared candidate, the country is facing a bitter rehash of the 2020 presidential election.
Solomon is one of the many Americans left without a candidate they are passionate about. Despite participating in many of the contentious struggles between progressive and moderate elements of the Democratic party over the past decade plus, Solomon is opposed to third party runs and says he is not a fan of either of the Democratic candidates opposing Biden—Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Marianne Williamson.
San Francisco’s City Lights Books is hosting another virtual event on Monday, Aug. 14 at 6pm. More information is available at citylights.com/events/norman-solomon.