America’s “Beautiful” Weapons

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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

W.J. Astore

President Trump is hawking weapons in the Middle East.  After concluding a deal with the Saudis for $110 billion in weaponry, he sought out the Emir of Qatar and said their discussions would focus on “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.”

Trump’s reference to American weapons as “beautiful” echoed the recent words of Brian Williams at MSNBC, who characterized images from the Tomahawk missile attack on Syria as “beautiful,” not once but three times.

We can vilify Trump and Williams for seeing beauty in weapons that kill, but we must also recognize Americans love their technology of death.  It’s one big reason why we have more than 300 million guns in America, enough to arm virtually every American, from cradle to grave.

Why do we place so much faith in weapons?  Why do we love them so?

In military affairs, America is especially prone to putting its faith in weapons.  The problem is that often weaponry is either less important than one thinks, or seductive in its promise.  Think of U.S. aerial drones, for example.  They’ve killed a lot of people without showing any decisiveness.

Technology is a rational and orderly endeavor, but war is irrational and chaotic.  Countries develop technology for war, thinking they are adding order and predictability, when they are usually adding just another element of unpredictability while expanding death.

U.S. air power is a great example — death everywhere, but no decisiveness.  Look at Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia).  The U.S. obliterated vast areas with high explosive and napalm and Agent Orange, killing millions without winning the war.  The technological image of America today is not stunning cars or clever consumer inventions but rather Predator and Reaper drones and giant bombs like MOAB.

Profligate expenditures on weapons and their export obviously feed America’s military-industrial complex.  Such weapons are sold by our politicians as job-creators, but they’re really widow-makers and life-takers.   Americans used to describe armament makers as “merchants of death,” until, that is, we became the number one producer and exporter of these armaments.  Now they’re “beautiful” to our president and to our media mouthpieces.

We have a strange love affair with weapons that borders on a fetish.  I’ve been to a few military re-enactments, in which well-intended re-enactors play at war.  The guys I’ve talked to are often experts on the nuts and bolts of the military weaponry they carry, but of course the guns aren’t loaded.  It’s all bloodless fun, a “war game,” if you will.

Nowadays real war is often much like a video game, at least to U.S. “pilots” sitting in trailers in Nevada.  It’s not a game to an Afghan or Yemeni getting blown to bits by a Hellfire missile fired by a drone.  For some reason, foreigners on the receiving end of U.S. weaponry don’t think of it as “beautiful.”  Nor do we, when our weapons are turned against us.

Enough with the “beautiful” weapons, America.  Let’s stick to the beauty of spacious skies and amber waves of grain.

American TV and Movies: Superheroes, Cops, and the Military

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A still from the new CBS Series, “SEAL Team”

W.J. Astore

Americans are being taught powerful lessons when they watch TV and go to the movies.  Place your faith in superheroes, (mostly) men of action, those who operate outside the boundaries of rules and laws, whether natural or human.  Defer to the police and their amazing investigative powers (witness all those CSI shows).  Trust the military and revel in their dedication and their clever technologies.  Mister, we could use a show like “All in the Family” again.

On HBO this week, Bill Maher had a compelling segment on the proliferation of superhero shows and movies, including a takedown of Donald Trump as “Orange Sphincter.”  The takedown was warranted in the sense that Trump often boasts he is the only man capable of doing something, like reforming health care or solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or bringing back great manufacturing jobs to America (apparently by selling $110 billion in weaponry to the Saudis).  Cop shows have been around forever, of course, but they’ve experienced a revival in these times of homegrown terrorism and Homeland Security, even as violent crime itself is mostly on the decline.

Finally, glitzy military shows are hitting their stride this season (no shows critical of the military, even comedies such as MASH, are allowed).  As the New York Times recently noted:

One of the most pressing questions for TV executives after President Trump’s election: How would the occupant of the White House affect what showed up on the air? One trend that has emerged is the rise of shows with military themes. NBC is betting big on a drama called “The Brave,” which is getting the coveted 10 p.m. time slot after “The Voice” on Mondays. The show will center on a group of undercover military specialists. The CW will introduce a drama this fall called “Valor,” about a group of highly trained helicopter pilots. They will go on missions and apparently get mixed up in messy intraunit romances.  CBS will debut a drama called “SEAL Team.” Executives at the network feel this show has the best chance of being a hit. It stars David Boreanaz, who had leading roles in “Angel” and “Bones.”

Just what we need: More military shows featuring SEALs and helicopter pilots and covert operatives, killing various bad guys in the name of democracy and righteousness.

Popular culture holds a mirror up to society, reflecting how we see ourselves.  But it’s more than that: It also shapes how we think.  It suggests what is possible and what isn’t.   By showcasing superheroes and cops and troops, it drives home the idea that these are the people and constructs with agency in our society.  The little people, ordinary Americans like you and me, are demoted in such constructs as bystanders, as supernumeraries.  Our main role is to acquiesce, to cheer the “heroes” as they go about their business.

I know that TV and movie executives typically play it safe.  They’d say they’re giving the people what they want in the name of making money.  They’d say it’s not their job to challenge the powerful in the name of the powerless.  The people want superheroes and heroic cops and heroic troops, so that’s what we’ll give them.  And because that’s what we can easily sell to corporations as advertising time.

But, again, it’s more complicated than that.  The networks themselves are owned by corporations, some of which also own military contractors.  Movies about superheroes and the military often lean heavily on the Pentagon for hardware and advice.  Again, it’s not that TV and movies are distorted reflections of society (though they are that).  They also establish boundaries.  To use fancy academic talk, they are hegemonic.  They empower one reality while diminishing or denying the possibility of other realities.

Any chance we’ll be seeing lots of blockbuster movies and high-budget TV series about peacemakers, whistle blowers, dissidents, activists, and other crusaders for justice and equity?  How about a movie featuring “Disarmament Man” as a hero: he eliminates weapons of mass destruction!  Starting in the USA!  Or a TV show featuring a bad-ass Mother Nature: she administers stern discipline to corporate polluters and frackers, while teaching her children the perils of global warming.  Or a “justice league” of pissed-off Native Americans, who band together to evict all the illegal immigrants to their lands over the last 500 years.

Readers, what movie or TV series would you most like to see?  Have some fun in the comments section, and thanks.

Base World: The Pentagon’s Profligate and Prodigious Presence

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USAF personnel train at Ramstein AFB in Germany.  Because we won World War II.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Elizabeth Baker)

W.J. Astore

As President Trump heads off on an overseas trip, trailing Washington scandals in his wake, it’s worth reminding ourselves of America’s prodigious global presence and the profligate expense at which it comes.  As David Vine notes in his latest article for TomDispatch.com, the USA has something like 800 military bases overseas, which must be garrisoned and maintained at a cost of roughly $150 billion each and every year.  What exactly are we getting for this colossal global footprint?

Come to think of it, why do we need 800 overseas bases?  Our aircraft carriers are basically mobile American bases, and much of our weaponry (Tomahawk cruise missiles, long-range bombers, and Reaper drones, for example) obviates the need for physical bases in foreign lands.

Of course, there are many reasons why these bases persist.  One is the influence they give us (or that we think they give us) in places like Turkey and South Korea, for example.  Second is the fear American officials have of losing their leading roles on the world stage, i.e. the concern that, if we abandon “our” bases, other countries will take them over, and we will be shunted aside, losing our starring role in world affairs.

Indeed, you could say Americans are the divos and divas of the world stage, elbowing our way into operatic tragedy after operatic tragedy.

Third (always a consideration) is money.  There’s so much money to be made from these bases, and so many U.S. contractors involved in making it.  And fourth is intelligence.  Americans think these bases are essential to gathering intelligence, even as our “intelligence” routinely proves wrong or incomplete.

I spent three years in Britain at U.S. bases there (“Little Americas”), and could have been assigned to U.S. bases in Iceland and Turkey, but the latter never materialized.  It’s funny: When you’re in the military, you never give much thought to why we have bases in faraway places.  You just take it for granted; it’s the status quo for us.

(As an aside, think of the irony here of Trump’s border wall with Mexico.  Even as Americans are everywhere in the world, thrusting our way into foreign countries with our militarized bases, we boast of building walls to keep other peoples out of “Fortress USA.”  Only “exceptional” U.S. officials could see no contradiction here.)

Select foreign bases have some value, but the U.S. has far too many at far too high a cost.  We’d do well to stop investing in them and to start closing them.  American bases in Turkey, South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere are not the key to our security.  Our security begins right here at home.

Remember that saying, “Yankee go home”?  Why don’t we?

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Yankee go home.  Why not?

Trump Consumes All the Oxygen in Washington

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Comey and Trump: Back in the news

W.J. Astore

Another day, another Trump scandal, this one stemming from a memo written by the former FBI director, James Comey, in the aftermath of a private conversation he had with the President.  According to the Comey memo, the president urged him to drop the FBI’s investigation into Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, using these words: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.  He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Obstruction of justice?  Impeachable offense?  That’s debatable.  But the alleged conversation obviously takes on heightened meaning after Trump fired Comey, in part because of frustration with the FBI’s investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the election.

It’s unclear if any crimes were committed here.  What is clear is that Trump is a poor manager of himself as well as his staff.  Flynn, with his dodgy record, should never have been hired.  Furthermore, the president should not have gone out on a limb to defend him, cajoling the FBI director, in so many words, to go easy on my guy.

Perhaps Trump’s biggest flaw is his combination of boastfulness, lack of judgment, and his ego-driven need to take charge.  He reminds me of an Air Force saying: “He’s all Mach and no compass heading.”  He’ll break the sound barrier while moving in the opposite direction to sound governance.

I wrote back in March of 2016 that candidate Trump had disqualified himself from the presidency by boasting about how America’s generals would follow his orders irrespective of their legality.  My main point was that Trump had no understanding of his Constitutional responsibilities, nor did he seem to care much about learning them.  If Comey’s memo is accurate, I think it’s another instance of Trump either not knowing or not caring about propriety, about the rule of law.

Trump’s experience in life is as a CEO of a family business.  Everyone has always worked for him; in essence, he’s been King Trump.  Even though he’s now president, he still acts like a king, making up his own rules as he goes along, not knowing a rule book already exists.

Will Trump survive his first term?  As Yoda might say, Difficult to see — always in motion the future.  One thing is certain: Trump continues to consume all the oxygen in Washington, extinguishing any hope of real progress or effective governance at the federal level.

Trump Shares Classified Material with Russia — Duck and Cover!

W.J. Astore

U.S. media outlets have been consumed by the story today that President Trump improperly or unwisely shared classified material on ISIS with the Russians, material that apparently came from Israel.  For its part, the Trump administration denies the charge that information was improperly or unwisely shared.

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Today, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster defends Trump’s decision to share classified information with the Russians

A couple of comments.  First, the president has broad powers of declassification and the discretion to share sensitive secrets with others.  Sharing classified information with the Russians, an ally of a sort in the struggle against ISIS, is not necessarily a bad idea. Trump seems to have decided it was a way to strengthen relations and build trust at high levels with the Russian government, a defensible position, in my view.

Second, I’ll repeat here what I said about classification and the Hillary Clinton email scandal: Far too much information is classified by the U.S. government.  Classification is vastly overused by our government to conceal many sins, blunders, nefarious designs, and who knows what else.  There’s nothing sacred about secrecy; indeed, a democracy should prefer transparency, rather than stamping everything “secret” or “top secret” and thereby keeping nearly all Americans in the dark.

Obviously, I’m not privy to the exact nature of the intelligence shared, the sensitivity and vulnerability of the source(s) and collection methods, and so on.  I’m not an intelligence trade-craft expert.  So far, Israeli operatives seem unconcerned, but whether their blase attitude is feigned or not is unknown.

Americans elected Trump because he promised to do things differently.  He campaigned on the idea of being unorthodox; indeed, he is unorthodox.  Surely no one should be surprised when he decides to speak in the clear to Russian government officials on matters concerning ISIS and terrorism.

Repeat after me, America: Secrecy is not sacred.  Transparency is desirable.  So too is building trust with rivals as well as friends.  Trump has his faults, major ones I believe, but this current controversy is a tempest in a teapot.

Icons of American Militarism

W.J. Astore

At this moment, it’s hard to think of a better symbol of American militarism than a giant bomb with a U.S. flag on it.  President Donald Trump touted the use of the “mother of all bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan as a “very, very successful mission” even though evidence of that success is scant.  He further cited MOAB as evidence of the “tremendous difference, tremendous difference” between his administration’s willingness to use force and Obama’s.  In short, Trump loved MOAB precisely because Obama didn’t use it.  To Trump, MOAB was a sort of penis extender and a big middle finger all-in-one.  Virility and vulgarity.

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MOAB is an icon of U.S. militarism, as are other weapons in the American arsenal.  Weapons like our warplanes, aircraft carriers, Predator and Reaper drones, and Tomahawk and Hellfire missiles.  U.S. foreign policy often hinges on or pivots about the deployment of these icons of power, whether it’s aircraft carriers and anti-missile systems being sent to Korea or more bombs and missiles being used in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, among other countries.

Weapons sales further define U.S. foreign policy.  Witness the recent announcement of $100 billion in arms for the Saudis, soon to be confirmed by Trump in his forthcoming trip to Saudi Arabia.  This sale sets up even more military aid for Israel, in that Washington insists Israel must always maintain a qualitative edge in weaponry over its Arab rivals.

Unlike, say, Wilhelmine Germany, which elevated Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg to iconic status during and after World War I, America today is lacking in winning generals.  Sure, there have been a few pretenders.  William Westmoreland in Vietnam, H. Norman Schwarzkopf in Desert Storm, Tommy Franks in Iraqi Freedom, and David Petraeus of “Surge” fame come to mind, but their “victories” were either illusory or lacking in staying power.  Since we can’t idolize our generals, we celebrate our weapons instead.

These weapons are indeed iconic symbols.  They capture an ideology of destruction.  A predilection for spreading misery worldwide, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest must-read article at TomDispatch.com.  As Engelhardt notes in his “send-out” message to his piece:

The first part of my latest post focuses on the now seven month-long U.S.-backed Iraqi military offensive against the city of Mosul, which shows little sign of ending and has reduced that city, like so many other places in the region, to ruins, if not rubble.  Mosul, in other words, has been on my mind, but perhaps not completely for the reason you might expect.  Its destruction (and the generation of yet more uprooted people and refugees) has led me to wonder what ever happened to the globalizers who for so many years told us about the wonders of tying the planet ever more tightly together and leveling all playing fields.  It seems obvious to me that war, American-style, these last 15 years, has played a distinctly globalizing role on this ever smaller planet of ours — just globalizing misery, not happy news.  In this piece I use the destruction of Mosul to lay out my thoughts on just what globalization really means in 2017, why the Trump presidency is linked to such grim events, and just why the globalizers have stopped talking about the phenomenon.

When I read Tom’s note above about the “leveling” of “playing fields,” my first thought was that America is indeed working to level the world — just not in the figurative sense of promoting economic equality, but in the literal sense of leveling areas with bombs, cities like Mosul, for example, or alleged training areas for terrorists in Afghanistan.  As Engelhardt himself notes in his article, U.S. military action isn’t making the world flatter in the sense of equitable globalization; it’s simply flattening areas with overwhelming explosive force.

Most Americans simply don’t know or care much about foreign cities being leveled/flattened by America’s icons of power.  You might say it’s not on our radar screens.  The media and our leaders do a very good job of keeping us divided, distracted, and downtrodden.  What American has time to worry about Mosul or some obscure region of Afghanistan?  Unless or until the leveling and flattening come our way, to our cities and valleys, but by that point it will be far too late to act.

With all our talk of MOAB and aircraft carriers and missiles and their “beauty” and “tremendous success,” are we that far away from the lost souls in the movie “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” who elevated the atomic bomb as their false idol, their version of the Biblical golden calf?

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Friday Morning Thoughts

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Johnny Rocco (with gun) wants more

W.J. Astore

A few thoughts on this Friday morning:

1. Andrew Bacevich at TomDispatch.com describes 24 stories/questions that are being ignored or neglected by the mainstream media as they obsess about Donald Trump. I’d like to add #25 to his list, as follows: Why is everything in America classified? The constant appeal to classification, to secrecy, prevents the discussion of vitally important military and security matters in public.  Is the real target of all this secrecy our rivals and enemies, or is it the American people?

Related to my #25, of course, is the persecution of “whistleblowers” for allegedly violating secrecy.  Under the Obama administration, people were accused of sedition and treason when their real “crime” was trying to keep the American people informed about what their government is really doing.

In short, when did the USA become the former Soviet Union, with its own NKVD/KGB and a state-controlled media that essentially promulgates and enforces the dictates of the powerful?

2. Afghanistan is a mess. According to this morning’s SITREP at FP: Foreign Policy, “Defense and intelligence officials are warning that the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan is likely to get worse before it ever gets better, despite the presence of thousands of U.S. troops and tens of billions invested in building and funding the faltering Afghan security forces.”

“’The intelligence community assesses that the political and security situation in Afghanistan will almost certainly deteriorate through 2018, even with a modest increase in military assistance by the United States and its partners,’ Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a Senate hearing Thursday. The Pentagon is looking to add another 3,000 troops to the effort there in the coming months, pushing American advisors closer to the front lines to work directly with Afghan forces in the fight.”

After sixteen years of American/Coalition efforts, the Taliban is resurgent, yet the only strategy U.S. generals can offer is more troops and more money to train Afghan security forces that are mostly unreliable and often non-existent.  Why can’t the U.S. military admit defeat and leave?

Consider a sports analogy.  Last week, the Yankees-Cubs played an 18-inning game, eventually won by the Yankees.  Game over.  Imagine if the Cubs had said, “OK — We lost.  But we want to keep playing.  Maybe another 18 innings.  Maybe forever.  We just want to keep playing until we can claim, falsely even, that we’ve won.”  We’d label the Cubs as crazy.  As poor sports.  As deluded.

But this is what America is in Afghanistan.  We’ve lost in extra innings but we still want to keep playing — forever, it seems.

Daniel Ellsberg nailed it back in 2009.  The U.S. is a foreign power in Afghanistan engaged in a bloody stalemate that cannot be won.  Yet America persists, in part because U.S. presidents kowtow to military “judgment” and the idea that to withdraw from Afghanistan is to appear weak and unmanly.

3. Speaking of issues of manliness, Donald Trump (among others) likes to use the phrase “taking the gloves off” to refer to hyper-aggressive military actions. When did bare-knuckle brawling become a smart way to fight? Actually, it’s a great way to break your hand.  Boxing is dangerous enough while wearing gloves, yet our Washington “fighters” are ready to get down and dirty by doffing their gloves.  As I’ve written before, far too many Americans (and people in general) have died in the name of big-boy pants and similar machismo nonsense.

4. At TomDispatch.com, Army Major Danny Sjursen succinctly summarizes the U.S. military’s strategy in one word: More. As Sjursen puts it in his article:

Predictions are always a dicey matter, but recent history suggests that we can expect military escalation, which already seems to be underway in at least three of those countries.  More, after all, remains the option of choice for America’s generals almost 70 years after MacArthur went head to head with his president over Korea.

What then is to be expected when it comes to the conflict with ISIS in Iraq, the complex, multi-faceted Syrian civil war, and America’s longest war of all, in Afghanistan?  All signs point to more of the same. Open up a newspaper or check out a relevant website and you’ll find, for example, that U.S. Afghan commander General John Nicholson wants a new mini-surge of American troops dispatched into that country, while the U.S. commander in the fight against ISIS, General Stephen Townsend, may require yet more ground troops to “win” in Iraq and Syria.

More is the mantra of America’s generals.  It’s how they measure their influence as well as their success.  In this, they remind me of the gangster Johnny Rocco in the movie “Key Largo.”  When Humphrey Bogart asks Rocco what he wants, Rocco pauses, after which Bogart has the answer that Rocco seizes upon: More.  Will he ever get enough?  Rocco answers: Well, I never have.  No, I guess I won’t.

Even though Trump has promised a major hike in military spending for 2018, the Pentagon is already clamoring for more.  Like Johnny Rocco, America’s generals and admirals can never get enough.

5. Finally, a dire lesson from history. When strong men seek to take over a government, they first seek to seize or neutralize the military and police forces of their country. It’s a time-tested formula.  Consider Trump’s early actions.  From his hiring of generals and his promises of scores of billions more for the Pentagon as well as to his hiring of good buddy Jeff Sessions as Attorney General and his firing of James Comey at the FBI, Trump is well on his way to winning over and controlling the agencies of violence and enforcement in the U.S.

Does America await its very own Reichstag moment?