What’s So Special About Special Ops?

seal
Sexy? Yes.  But how effective over the long haul?

W.J. Astore

What’s so special about Special Ops?  It used to be that special operations troops were few in number.  You had Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, mixed units like the Delta Force, and a few others, but nowadays U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) consists of 70,000 troops, equivalent to five or six regular army divisions, a military within the military.

What’s truly elite about America’s special ops community, as Nick Turse shows in his latest article at TomDispatch.com, is their global reach and global power, to borrow an Air Force phrase.  Special ops forces have already been deployed to 137 countries in 2017, or 70% of the planet’s nations.  Talk about reach!  Yet enduring victories from past deployments, as Turse shows, have been surprisingly elusive.

Why is this?  Special ops forces are good at short-term kinetic actions (hit and run strikes, commando stuff), and they do their share of training and advising.  Yet their staying power, their persistence, their endurance, their ability to shift strategic winds in America’s favor, simply hasn’t been there.  Some would say that’s not their purpose, except that the U.S. military and government has been selling them as strategic game-changers, which they’re not.

As I’ve written before, I see America’s special ops forces as America’s global missionaries, our version of the Catholic Church’s Jesuit order during the Counter Reformation.  The Jesuits were soldiers of Christ, a militant order of highly trained missionaries, totally dedicated to upholding the one true faith (Catholicism, of course).  For many peoples around the world, Catholicism was the Jesuits.  And for many peoples around the world today (137 countries!), Americanism is a gun-toting special ops troop,

Coincidentally, I came across this report from FP: Foreign Policy this morning:

Pentagon taking lead in Africa makes some allies uneasy. At a recent summit meeting in Malawi attended by several U.S. generals and their African counterparts, some allies on the continent, while welcoming American attention, aren’t so sure they want it all from the Pentagon while the State Dept. is diminished.

“We have statements out of Washington about significant reductions in foreign aid,” Gen. Griffin Phiri, the commander of the Malawi Defense Forces, told the New York Times during the African Land Forces Summit, a conference between American Army officers and representatives from 40 African nations. “What I can tell you is that experience has shown us that diplomacy and security must come together.” He was unsure over the “mixed messages” coming out of Washington.

But is Washington’s message really mixed?  It seems clear.  Ever since 9/11, as Nick Turse has shown in several articles for TomDispatch.com, America has been downplaying diplomacy while ramping up “kinetic” strikes by special ops.  This trend has only accelerated under the leadership (if that’s the right word) of Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson at the State Department. When it comes to world affairs, Trump and Tillerson have often been AWOL, leaving the real action to Mattis and the Pentagon.

And nowadays the real action at the Pentagon is centered on SOCOM, the military within the military, America’s militant missionary order.

Even allies question America’s almost monomaniacal commitment to military action everywhere.  They’re right to do so.  For special ops aren’t so special when they’re deployed everywhere in dribs and drabs, parceled out on missions that lack achievable aims.

Finally, there’s this.  Say what you will of the Jesuits, they had faith.  A clear ideology.   Their faith, their devotion, was an inspiration to many. Even as their symbol was the cross, their skill-set was quite varied, e.g. they were often learned men, well ahead of their times in areas like science and mathematics.

Does Washington’s militant missionary order have a clear ideology?  A compelling symbol?  A varied skill-set?  Favorable and enduring results?  Evidence (so far) suggests otherwise.

Technology as Diversion from Social Inequality

tech fears

W.J. Astore

Today, access to technology and its services is often associated with equality of opportunity in society.  In education, for example, getting computers and Internet service to low-income students is considered a vitally important step to students’ maturation and their skill sets in a competitive global marketplace.  The “digital divide” must be bridged, else disadvantaged students will be stuck in the dark ages and left behind.  Focusing on technology as both “bridging” mechanism and source of enlightenment has the added benefit of being easily measurable and “correctable,” e.g. by increasing the number of computers per class, the number of connected classrooms, and so on.

Spending (or, as they say, “investing”) money on classroom technology, moreover, is obviously favored by tech companies both for present and future profits (raise a child on Apple devices and perhaps as adults they’ll always favor Apple).  Parents like it too: perhaps Johnny and Susie mainly play games on their school-provided iPads, but at least they’re occupied while “learning” computer skills.

Of course, the digital divide does exist, and computer skills are valuable.  But hyping access to technology is often a distraction from much bigger issues of inequality, as George Orwell noted back in the early 1930s in “The Road to Wigan Pier.”

Back then, Orwell was concerned with electricity rather than computers and connectivity.  But what he says about electrification could be said about any technology presented as a panacea for social ills.

Here’s what Orwell wrote at the end of chapter 5 of his book:

And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes, but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore. Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.

Orwell was rightly skeptical of technological “miracles” like electricity that were sold as mitigating fundamental inequalities such as access to healthy food and warm and adequate housing.  Empty bellies and empty prospects are not filled by instant news, whether via the telegraph and wireless radio or via the Smart phone and wireless LANs.

The point is not to blame technology.  The point is to highlight technology as a choice, one that often doesn’t address fundamental inequities in society.

Turning Temporary Problems Into Permanent Ones: America’s Real Military “Strategy”

Tom Engelhardt.  Introduction by W.J. Astore.

Readers of Bracing Views are familiar with Michael Murry’s frequent contributions to our site.  One of Mike’s more penetrating comments originated from a discussion he had with the late Sri Lankan Ambassador Ananda W. P. Guruge.  As Mike recently recounted, Guruge “certainly had it right when he told me once why his government had refused America’s offer of military aid against the Tamil insurgency in that little island country: If the Americans come, they will just draw an arbitrary line through a temporary problem and make it permanent.”

Guruge
Dr. Ananda W. P. Guruge. From closertotruth.com

Not many people have noticed how America’s wars, which used to have clear ending dates, like VE and VJ days in 1945 at the end of World War II, presently never seem to end.  In his introduction to Bill Hartung’s new article at TomDispatch.com, “Destabilizing the Middle East (Yet More),” Tom Engelhardt reminds us of how U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere simply never end.  Instead, they fester, they surge and shrink, they metastasize, they become, as Dr. Guruge noted, permanent.

That reality of permanent war is arguably the most insidious problem facing American democracy today.  I didn’t say it; James Madison did:

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.  War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.  In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.  The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both.  No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …

Why do so many Americans fail to see this?  Because believing is seeing.  I heard that line on “American Gods” recently, a compelling reversal of “seeing is believing.”  It applies here because America’s leaders believe in war, and Americans in general believe in their military, and believing is seeing.  A belief in the efficacy of war and the trustworthiness of the military drives America’s “kinetic” actions around the world, and that belief, that faith, serves to make wars permanent.

Believing is seeing.  It explains why our wars, despite catastrophic results that are so plainly in sight, persist without end.  W.J. Astore

America’s Endless Wars

Tom Engelhardt

Not that anyone in a position of power seems to notice, but there’s a simple rule for American military involvement in the Greater Middle East: once the U.S. gets in, no matter the country, it never truly gets out again.  Let’s start with Afghanistan. The U.S. first entered the fray there in 1979 via a massive CIA-led proxy war against the Soviets that lasted until the Red Army limped home in 1989. Washington then took more than a decade off until some of the extremists it had once supported launched the 9/11 attacks, after which the U.S. military took on the role abandoned by the Red Army and we all know where that’s ended — or rather not ended almost 16 years later. In the “longest war” in American history, the Pentagon, recently given a free hand by President Trump, is reportedly planning a new mini-surge of nearly 4,000 U.S. military personnel into that country to “break the stalemate” there.  Ever more air strikes and money will be part of the package. All told, we’re talking about a quarter-century of American war in Afghanistan that shows no sign of letting up (or of success). It may not yet be a “hundred-years’ war,” but the years are certainly piling up.

Then, of course, there’s Iraq where you could start counting the years as early as 1982, when President Ronald Reagan’s administration began giving autocrat Saddam Hussein’s military support in his war against Iran.  You could also start with the first Gulf War of 1990-1991 when, on the orders of President George H.W. Bush, the U.S. military triumphantly drove Saddam’s army out of Kuwait.  Years of desultory air strikes, sanctions, and other war-like acts ended in George W. Bush’s sweeping invasion and occupation of Iraq in the spring of 2003, a disaster of the first order.  It punched a hole in the oil heartlands of the Middle East and started us down the path to, among other things, ISIS and so to Iraq War 3.0 (or perhaps 4.0), which began as an air campaign in August 2014 and has yet to end.  In the process, Syria was pulled into the mix and U.S. efforts there are still ratcheting up almost two years later.  In the case of Iraq, we’re minimally talking about almost three decades of intermittent warfare, still ongoing.

And then, of course, there’s Somalia. You remember the Blackhawk Down incident in 1993, don’t you? That was a lesson for the ages, right? Well, in 2017, the Trump administration is sending more advisers and trainers to that land (and the U.S. military has recently suffered its first combat death there since 1993). U.S. military activities, including drone strikes, are visibly revving up at the moment. And don’t forget Libya, where the Obama administration (along with NATO) intervened in 2011 to overthrow autocrat Muammar Gaddafi and where the U.S. military is still involved more than six years later.

Last but hardly least is Yemen.  The first U.S. special ops and CIA personnel moved into a “counter-terrorism camp” there in late 2001, part of a $400 million deal with the government of then-strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the CIA conducted its very first drone assassination in that country in November 2002. Almost 16 years later, as TomDispatch regular Bill Hartung reports, the U.S. is supporting a grim Saudi air and ground war of terror there, while its own drone strikes have risen to new highs.

It’s a remarkable record and one to keep in mind as you consider Hartung’s account of President Trump’s fervent decision to back the Saudis in a big league way not just in their disastrous Yemeni war, but in their increasingly bitter campaign against regional rival Iran.  After so many decades of nearly unending conflict leading only to more of the same and greater chaos, you might wonder whether an alarm bell will ever go off in Washington when it comes to the U.S. military and war in the Greater Middle East — or is Iran nextTom

To continue reading Bill Hartung’s article at TomDispatch.com, click here.

National Insecurity

threat
What are the real threats that Americans face daily?

Tom EngelhardtTomDispatch.com.

If you want to know just what kind of mental space Washington’s still-growing cult of “national security” would like to take us into, consider a recent comment by retired general and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. In late May on Fox and Friends, he claimed that “the American public would ‘never leave the house’ if they knew what he knew about terrorist threats.”

That seems like a reasonable summary of the national security state’s goal in the post-9/11 era: keep Americans in a fear-filled psychic-lockdown mode when it comes to supposed threats to our safety.  Or put another way, the U.S. is a country in which the growing power of that shadow state and its staggering funding over the last decade and a half has been based largely on the promotion of the dangers of a single relatively small peril to Americans: “terrorism.”  And as commonly used, that term doesn’t even encompass all the acts of political harm, hatred, and intimidation on the landscape, just those caused by a disparate group of Islamic extremists, who employ the tactics by which such terrorism is now defined.  Let’s start with the irony that, despite the trillions of dollars that have poured into the country’s 17 intelligence agencies, its post-9/11 Department of Homeland Security, and the Pentagon in these years, the damage such terrorists have been able to inflict from Boston to San Bernardino to Orlando, while modest in a cumulative sense, has obviously by no means been stopped.  That, in turn, makes the never-ending flow of American taxpayer dollars into what we like to call “national security” seem a poor investment indeed.

To deal with so many of the other perils in American life, it would occur to no one to build a massive and secretive government machinery of prevention. I’m thinking, for instance, of tots who pick up guns left lying around and kill others or themselves, or of men who pick up guns or other weapons and kill their wives or girlfriends. Both those phenomena have been deadlier to citizens of the United States in these years than the danger against which the national security state supposedly defends us. And I’m not even mentioning here the neo-Nazi and other white terrorists who seem to have been given a kind of green light in the Trump era (or even the disturbed Bernie Sanders supporter who just went after congressional Republicans on a ball field in Virginia).  Despite their rising acts of mayhem, there is no suggestion that you need to shelter in place from them. And I’m certainly not going to dwell on the obvious: if you really wanted to protect yourself from one of the most devastating killers this society faces, you might leave your house with alacrity, but you’d never get into your car or any other vehicle. (In 2015, 38,300 people died on American roads and yet constant fear about cars is not a characteristic of this country.)

It’s true that when Islamic terrorists strike, as in two grim incidents in England recently, the media and the security state ramp up our fears to remarkable heights, making Americans increasingly anxious about something that’s unlikely to harm them. Looked at from a different angle, the version of national security on which that shadow state funds itself has some of the obvious hallmarks of both an elaborate sham and scam and yet it is seldom challenged here. It’s become so much a part of the landscape that few even think to question it.

In his latest post, Ira Chernus, TomDispatch regular and professor of religious studies, reminds us that it hasn’t always been so, that there was a moment just a half-century ago when the very idea of American national security was confronted at such a basic level that, ironically, the challenge wasn’t even understood as such. In this particular lockdown moment, however, perhaps it’s worth staying in your house and following Chernus, who’s visited the 1960s before for this website, on a long, strange trip back to 1967 and the famed Summer of Love. Tom

Be sure to read the entire post, “A Psychedelic Spin on National Security,” by Ira Chernus, at TomDispatch.com.  Ah, to have a “summer of love” again!

Trump and the Afghan War

Afghanistan
A slice of life in Afghanistan (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

A concept that you learn quickly in the military is that you can delegate authority but not responsibility.  The buck stops with the guy or gal in charge, and when it’s policy at the national level, that guy is the commander-in-chief, currently Donald Trump.  Yet when it comes to the Afghan war, it appears Trump may be seeking to evade responsibility even as he delegates the specifics of strategy and troop levels to his “civilian” Secretary of Defense, retired General James Mattis.

That’s the news out of Washington: that Trump has delegated to Mattis the decision as to how many additional U.S. troops should be sent to Afghanistan, and what strategy they should employ in a war that Mattis admits the U.S. military is “not winning.”

Think about that. After nearly 16 years and a trillion dollars spent, the U.S. is “not winning” in Afghanistan, which is, to put it honestly, an admission of defeat.  “Not winning” means we’re losing, yet how likely is it that the U.S. military, effectively under the command of retired General Mattis, is going to shift gears completely and withdraw?

Mattis testified to Congress that the Taliban “had a good year last year” and that “winning,” which we’re currently not doing, is a scenario in which U.S. forces, working with Afghan forces, are able to provide local security after several years of “frequent skirmishing” with the Taliban and other insurgent forces.

Yes — that’s the definition of “winning.”  A long-term U.S. commitment of more troops and more money with continued internecine warfare in Afghanistan.

In the near-term, Mattis will likely send more troops (“trainers” and “advisers”) and more money, promising that this time American training and methods will work, that this time corruption will be curtailed, that this time the Taliban will be neutralized (I doubt Mattis is foolish enough to promise “victory”).  Trump will rubber-stamp Mattis’s decision, which gives him the ability to blame his generals if and when the Afghan war takes yet another turn that is contrary to U.S. imperatives.  (Recall how Trump blamed his generals for losing the Navy SEAL in the bungled raid on Yemen.)

As a candidate, Trump deplored the waste of America’s wars and suggested he would try to end them.  As president, Trump is kowtowing to the Pentagon, ensuring these wars will continue.  Worst of all, even as he delegates authority, he is evading responsibility.

It’s a recipe for incessant warfare, yet more suffering, and the continued erosion of democracy in America.

An Afterthought: Let’s suppose for a moment that Trump actually wanted to end the Afghan war.  It would require considerable political capital to take on the national security state — capital that Trump currently doesn’t have, embroiled as he is in controversy (lawsuits!) and ongoing investigations.  This is hardly ever remarked upon in the media: the fact that Trump, who ran on a platform that was often quite critical of conventional wisdom and wasteful wars, has little latitude to act on this platform (assuming he’d want to) when he’s constantly under attack in the media as a Putin stooge, or worse.  Some would say he has only himself to blame here, but it goes deeper than that, I think.

Update (6/16/17): Surprise!  News out of the Pentagon today suggests that another 4000 or so U.S. troops will be sent as a mini-surge to help train and advise Afghan forces.  And so the “stalemate” in Afghanistan will continue.

As I wrote back in February for TomDispatch.com:

That a few thousand troops could somehow reverse the present situation and ensure progress toward victory is obviously a fantasy of the first order, one that barely papers over the reality of these last years: that Washington has been losing the war in Afghanistan and will continue to do so, no matter how it fiddles with troop levels.

Update 2 (6/16/17): Editorial title at the New York TimesAfghanistan Is Trump’s War Now.  It reflects a major flaw and a fatal conceit — that Afghanistan is a war and not a country or a people, that it only matters as a war (at least to Americans), and that somehow Trump now owns it.  Recall that before Americans wage war, it’s supposed to require a Congressional declaration.  Wars are not supposed to be owned by presidents and waged at their whim.  WTF, America?

Update 3 (6/17/17): Watching retired General David Petraeus last night on PBS was a grim experience.  He spoke of a generational war  in Afghanistan and a U.S. commitment that might come to rival our time in South Korea, i.e. 60+ years.  Most revealing of all was the language he used.  He spoke of achieving “a sustainable, sustained commitment” to Afghanistan.  4000 additional troops are part of that “sustainable, sustained commitment.”

There was the usual talk of regional stability, of maintaining a base against terrorism, and so on.  But what the Petraeus interview revealed was the total bankruptcy of American strategy and thinking, encapsulated so well by the concept of a “generational war” modulated by a “sustainable, sustained commitment.”

Update 4 (6/17/17):  Good god.  At Fox News, retired General Jack Keane is calling for an additional 10,000 to 20,000 troops to change the momentum in the Afghan war.  These troops will somehow change the “absolute disgrace” of the war (he mainly blamed President Obama for refusing to make the necessary commitment to win the war).

These generals never ask the question: Why are our “enemies” doing just fine without U.S. troops and billions of dollars in heavy equipment and air power?  Whether in Vietnam or Afghanistan or elsewhere, the answer for these generals is always more: more U.S. troops, more firepower, more aid to our “allies.”

If these generals were investors, they’d keep funneling money to Bernie Madoff even after his fund had been revealed as a Ponzi scheme.  After all, the initial returns were promising, and if we keep sending more money, this time, maybe this time, it won’t all be stolen …

Donald Trump and America’s Decline

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump, as Tom Engelhardt reminds us today at TomDispatch.com, was a declinist candidate for the presidency.  He saw America in decline, in peril, and said so.  He deplored America’s trade policies, its immigration policies, its position in the world.  He was a unique blend of pessimism, realism, and optimism — but, as recent events have shown, it has all ended in opportunism for Trump. And that opportunism — combined with his ego-driven need for adulation — is only exacerbating the very real decline of America.

As a candidate, Trump was rightly pessimistic about America and its wars, outspokenly realistic about our “third-world” infrastructure, and cagily optimistic that America could be great “again.” But if his first five months as president have shown anything, it’s that his approach to governance is in the service of his own brand and interests.  His motto: What’s good for Trump is good for America.  And that motto defines as well as restricts his vision.

As a candidate, Trump had valid insights into some of the aspects of American decline.  If only he would act on these insights!  If only he’d get us out of debilitating forever wars; if only he’d invest a trillion dollars in U.S. infrastructure; if only he’d commit truly to helping the working classes with better jobs (support for higher wages and health care for all would be a start).  Yet Trump, who talked of draining the swamp of Washington, has only become the latest and scariest creature of that swamp.

Despite all his failings, Trump has managed to secure a base of support that is resilient (so far).  Why is this?  As undisciplined as Trump can be and often is (all those damaging tweets!), there’s a reality to him. He may be boorish, bullying, boastful, and belligerent, but he’s real in the sense that he’s not trying to hide his flaws (because he sees them as strengths).

Contrast Trump with the Democratic establishment.  Yes, Bernie Sanders is real; he resonated (and resonates still) with America.  But the Democratic Party?  It’s still caught in the past, re-fighting the election of 2016, re-fighting the Cold War with Russia, re-fighting its old dispute between its “activists” and its “pragmatists.”  It appears the pragmatists are still winning, despite the fact that its posing pragmatist of progressivism (yes, it’s an oxymoron), Hillary Clinton, crashed and burned so spectacularly last November.

download
“It says so on his hat.”

But to return to Tom Engelhardt’s article.  The grim irony of Trump is that the man who campaigned on the slogan “MAGA: Make America Great Again,” is doing his best as president to lead America deeper into a ditch.

In a different context, the Gospel speaks of a day when the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.  Trump, posing as an American Firster, may well lead Americans to a new and shocking position as Lasters.

The Disco Ball of Trump-Comey

RTS15WVA-1024x653
Not them again.

W.J. Astore

An astute Bracing Views reader described the Trump-Comey-Russia hearings as “the audio version of a glittering disco ball,” which captures the moment.  Sure, there’s lots of flash there, but the real problems of the USA are being very much ignored.  Put differently, it’s hard to hear any real news when the thump-thump-thump of Trump-Comey-Russia drowns out all other voices.

I’ve already said my piece (at TomDispatch.com) about some of the big problems that face our country, so indulge me for a moment as I consider the disco inferno of Trump-Comey.

My take: Trump wanted loyalty, Comey didn’t promise that, nor should he have. Trump, it seems, also felt upstaged by Comey (not only because the former FBI Director is taller than Trump and more vigorous). Comey, in short, was uncooperative, not one of Trump’s guys, so he fired him.  As president, Trump has that power.

Was it a smart move?  No.  Does it look bad?  Yes, especially the timing. Is it obstruction of justice?  Apparently not, since the various Russia-Trump investigations are progressing.  (To my knowledge, there are at least three of them ongoing.)

More than anything, Comey’s testimony makes Trump look like a dick (to use a technical term). But we already knew that.  Trump’s been posing (it didn’t require acting) as a dick for years on TV, taking great relish in saying, “You’re fired!” to a range of has-been celebrities. Should we really be surprised that Trump is acting like a dick as president? Even his followers knew he was a dick; they just thought he was their dick.

Did Trump collude with Russia?  Of course he did!  He admitted it himself. Remember when Trump called for the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton — to find her “thirty thousand” missing emails, ha ha!  That may not be the legal definition of collusion, but if you heard that and refused to consider that Candidate Trump’s encouragement of hacking by a foreign power in an election for his benefit was wrongful, well, so be it. Those Americans who voted for Trump were apparently untroubled by it.

I’m not defending Trump.  The man is a menace to the world, with his denial of global warming/climate change, his embrace of nuclear weapons, his cocksureness fed by his ignorance, the list goes on.  But, based on the evidence that’s been presented so far, he’s done nothing that reaches an impeachable offense.  Major league dick status, yes. Impeachment?  Not yet.  Or Nyet.

The biggest problem with Trump is not that he’s a Russian stooge. It’s that he’s not presidential.  He doesn’t understand public service.  It’s utterly foreign to him, not just because he has no experience of it but because it’s contrary to his egocentric personality.

Look at his priorities as president.  (They are the same as they were when he was a real estate developer.) #1 for Trump is Trump. #2 for Trump is his immediate family, joined by a few trusted lackeys, toadies, and sycophants. #3 for Trump is his money, his position in society, and his reputation among his peers and fellow billionaires, those “masters of the universe,” to use Tom Wolfe’s phrase.

Make America great again?  That’s never been Trump’s priority.  Make Trump greater and greater?  That’s more like it.

Trump is fulfilling his version of the American dream.  Too bad it’s a nightmare for America.