With World War III looming on the horizon as a very real possibility, now is a more critical time than ever to understand the history and motives of the United States, the world’s greatest hegemon. David Vine’s United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State is a comprehensive exposé of the rise and expansion of the American Empire. Focusing on the key role of concrete infrastructure in asserting and maintaining American economic and political hegemony, particularly U.S. military bases abroad, Vine takes a deep dive into ‘why the U.S. military seems to fight wars without end’ (2).
Though he does not frame it in these terms, the author’s approach is largely historical materialist and dialectical. Beginning with the concrete, material base of U.S. military infrastructure, Vine peels away the social, economic and political relations behind planning and executing America’s ‘forward strategy’ to project power ‘most anywhere on the planet’ (191-192). For the author, the sheer materiality of American bases serves both as a critical entry point and analytical unit to investigate the messy, dynamic and terrifying history of what he conceptualizes as the ‘Military Industrial Congressional Complex’. In so doing, he investigates the long history of how physical spaces are transformed into logistical nodal points to facilitate militarism and the interests of political and economic power. By looking closely at key relationships and processes structuring the vast networks of practices and policies tying bases together, Vine’s findings provide critical insight into the incessant making of physical infrastructures that are literally entrenching American power.
Explaining that the author’s central tenet is that the U.S. building and maintaining of military bases abroad (there are currently around 800) makes aggressive wars more likely to occur (7). Therefore, Vine argues, bases are a tool of empire entangled with and undergirding other political and economic tools. According to the author, this thesis reiterates and goes beyond findings of studies by the U.S. Army indicating that, at least as far back as the 1950s, bases have led to more wars. Vine’s exploration of the colossal historical record dating all the way back to the colonization of the Americas shows how the hundreds of offensive wars and combat operations by the U.S. were preceded by and reliant upon extensive military logistical infrastructure, further substantiating the correlation between the presence of bases and the occurrence of aggressive military actions. As Vine puts it, ‘if we build them, wars will come’ (11).
By following military bases, Vine spatializes the calculus of war, identifying patterns as well as pivotal moments over the long, bloody history of the formation of America’s empire. The book’s seventeen chapters are divided into five parts, periodized according to five eras of global history. Despite the immense undertaking of laying out a global history since the initial conquest of the Americas until the end of 2019, Vine skillfully pans in and out of different parts of the globe as he escorts the reader through the timeline, making critical observations of how key moments and events connect to later moments in history, as well as to underlying processes. He supplements the book with thirty maps and figures, providing visual depictions of the stark global transformations and vast scale of European, and later American, bases and expansion, giving the reader a visual bird’s eye view of simultaneous assertions of power and control across space, and the material and social relations connecting them.
Parts I and II locate the roots of the American Empire in fort construction beginning in the fifteenth century, and spanning the mass dispossession and genocidal battles for conquest of the Americas over the ensuing several hundred years. Vine begins with the legacy of Guantanamo Bay, a racialized American base in Cuba that functions as a surreal American suburban town and houses the still-operational Guantanamo Bay torture prison. He illustrates the nature of American bases around the world and goes on to historicize the moment marked as the ‘European discovery’ of the Americas with Cristobal Colon’s arrival in Guantanamo Bay in 1492. He explains that the first European base constructed in the Americas appears to have been by Colon’s men two years earlier in what is today know as Haiti, which fueled the genocide of the Tainos people, annihilating a population of over a million, with only a few hundred surviving less than 60 years later (29). When examining such recurrent gut-wrenching stories, one of the many strengths of the book is the rigorous use of historical and statistical data to account for the sheer scale of these processes, often coupled with human stories, as well as references to narratives of the state, media, soldiers and victims.
Illustrating how westward imperial domination unfolded, and how early notions of manifest destiny were used to justify mass genocide, theft and dispossession and colonial settlerism, Vine stresses the function of racializing colonized people, as well as the deployment of patriarchal tropes in an effort to justify the large-scale attack and control of peoples, their land and resources.
Vine further covers the ideological work undergirding imperialism and capitalism, or the craft of how to make money while people are dying, in the third section of the book, which examines the period from 1892 until the beginning of WWII. Stressing the economic toolkit of coercion honed at a time of less formal expansion of the American empire, Vine gives careful attention to the process of profit-seeking and dominating trade routes as a fundamental aspect propelling colonization of the entire hemisphere and far beyond. He shows how the ‘Open Door’ policies initiated in China, as well as the military occupations in Latin America and the Caribbean, were designed to fuel an expanding and extractive global economy. Drawing on the rich account of Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, as well as other former military and intelligence personnel, Vine shows how military officers have recognized their role as functioning as ‘a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism’ who ‘operated on three continents’ (132).
Part IV provides a detailed overview of the expansion of the foreign base network as a mechanism for foreign control beginning with WWII. Controlling islands and geostrategic locations around the world allowed the U.S. to project power, keep other countries and colonies in check, and made it possible for American elites to reap the financial benefits of neocolonial extractivism, cheap labor and access to new markets. With the era of decolonization under way, the post-WWII Pentagon oversaw the waning of formal colonialism through occupation of foreign territories writ-large, rapidly replacing colonies with U.S. bases on island ‘territories,’ as well as in the margins of airports and other more concealed spaces. Vine explains how the global base infrastructure undergirds the ability of the U.S. to remain in a perpetual state of war for its entire history, emphasizing that ‘across the 19th century and into the 21st, the invasions and wars of aggression generally grew lengthier, deadlier, and larger in scope’ (xv).
The final section of the book looks at the Global War on Terror, which Vine deems a period of hyperimperialism, with unprecedented levels of military spending, extreme power and influence of the ‘military industrial congressional complex’, and hitherto unknown global reach, with bases and troops in 85 countries at the time of publication, and a mass scaling-up of digital surveillance. Stressing that roughly a million people on all sides were killed, tens of million displaced and over 6 trillion dollars were spent on the War on Terror, the book warns of far more lethal consequences if the ‘New Cold War’ with Russia and China continues to escalate.
While highlighting the correlation between military infrastructure and the assertion of military and economic control through aggressive means, Vine is not deterministic but rather emphasizes the contingency of history and the future. The book both highlights the role of individual agency of key representatives, military authorities and elites, as well as the role of structural processes and systems of oppression, from white supremacy and capitalism to patriarchy and colonialism. Examining how these systems are used at the expense of people around the world as well as of the values of democracy and justice that America espouses, The United States of War is a thorough indictment of the American war machine in a jargon-free manner.
A critical aspect of the story of America’s endless wars that would offer more depth is the perspectives of resistance movements, particularly those that view the repeated assertions of American coercion as forms of counterrevolutionary violence. Moreover, given the reality of the climate crisis, the book could have looked more closely at the nexus between the world’s largest institutional consumer of hydrocarbons, the United States military, the ecological breakdown under way and the imperative to construct a new infrastructure that can facilitate a just transition of the economy towards well-being, longevity and sustainability of all. However, such efforts would have likely called for a doubling of the size of the already 330 page book. Vine makes up for this gap by sprinkling ample references throughout on the function of U.S. bases, military activities and war-making in the destruction of life and life-affirming processes globally.
The United States of War is for anyone who wants to find a single source for an encompassing yet relatively concise overview of the ceaseless intervention and aggression by the United States, from its racist, colonial roots, to its extractive, deadly activities from bases around the world today. Vine presents a direct indictment on the expansive and inherently undemocratic nature of the ‘Military Industrial Congressional Complex’, as well as a call to action for dismantling the mechanisms for endless wars. Crucially, the book concludes with a manifesto of sorts on the need to redirect social wealth away from militarism and imperialism and towards constructing pathways to global peace. Nothing less than the fate of humanity depends upon this difficult, but necessary task.
Tabitha Spence is a PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology at American University, where she is studying the intersections of militarism and the climate crisis, particularly in the context of the War on Terror and (New) Cold War.