Yesterday, I caught President Trump’s speech before the CIA. As he stood before the wall of honor, surrounded by the stars on that wall that represent those who gave their lives for their country, Trump deviated from his prepared comments to boast about how many times he’d appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Here’s what he said: I HAVE BEEN ON THEIR COVER ABOUT 14 OR 15 TIMES. I THINK WE HAVE THE ALL-TIME RECORD IN THE HISTORY OF TIME MAGAZINE — IF TOM BRADY IS ON THE COVER, IT’S ONE TIME. I’VE BEEN ON 15 TIMES. I THINK THAT’S A RECORD THAT COULD NEVER BE BROKEN.
Really, President Trump? You’re giving a speech before members of the CIA, and what comes to mind is the number of times your own mug has appeared on a magazine cover? And you’re doing this in front of the CIA’s wall of honor, which, according to your own words, is “very special”?
Whatever one thinks of the CIA and its history, one thing is certain from this speech: America has elected an appallingly tone-deaf and callous narcissist as its 45th president.
Note to reader: In May of 2008, I wrote this draft article, which became the basis of a shorter piece published at Nieman Watchdog later that year under the title, “Networks should replace Pentagon cheerleaders with independent military analysts.” Media coverage of the U.S. military and America’s wars is often lamentable as well as one-sided; if anything, media coverage as well as access under Obama has worsened. I’ve decided not to edit what I wrote in 2008, partly because the underlying dynamic remains the same. Rare it is for the curtain to be lifted on the messy realities of war; and those who choose to lift it, like Chelsea Manning, pay a high price indeed for honesty.
Obama’s recent decision to commute Manning’s prison sentence was a rare case of mercy, in this case extended to a truth-teller who did far more than the silver-haired generals cited below to educate Americans about war and its awful realities. 1/18/2017
The first thing that came to mind as I read David Barstow’s exposé [April 2008] in the New York Times, “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand,” was the classic scene in Casablanca where Claude Rains expresses his shock to Humphrey Bogart at the gambling going on, even as he collects his own winnings. Surely, Americans knew that the retired generals and colonels being paraded before them on network news were, in spite of their mufti, anything but unbiased, independent, “civilian” critics?
OK, maybe I’m more skeptical than some. But I was genuinely surprised, even shocked, at the brazenness of the Pentagon’s PR campaign, the fact that so many retired military men eagerly joined in “to carry [the Pentagon’s] water,” even at how eagerly they traded on their military expertise. Some even continued to advise top defense contractors as they offered supposedly disinterested testimony on TV. At times, however, their testimony merely echoed talking points fed to them during invitation-only briefings at the Pentagon. These briefings were designed not to support troops in harm’s way (a laudable goal) but to defend [Secretary of Defense] Don Rumsfeld and the Bush Administration’s strategy. (Those few officers who refused to parrot the Pentagon’s line found their access curtailed or even denied, Barstow shows.)
Not surprisingly, the mainstream media has either ignored Barstow’s exposé or effectively dismissed it as old news or business as usual. Fortunately, Glenn Greenwald at Salon has tenaciously pursued the story, revealing ever more clearly how the Pentagon’s propaganda campaign tried “to put the best possible face” (one retired officer’s words) on failing efforts in Iraq.
Clearly, the Pentagon courted these retired military men, identifying reliable “go to guys” and rewarding them with access to the Pentagon and the Secretary of Defense (access being pure gold within the Washington beltway). Such access included the aforementioned, invitation-only, PowerPoint briefings, which included “talking points” that these officers could then robotically repeat on TV, passing them off as their own informed and unbiased opinions. Such collusion indicates a well-oiled, influence-peddling, Pentagonal machine serviced by sycophantic cheerleaders, and it assuredly warrants investigation by Congress.
Seven Reasons to Dismiss the Sycophants
That said, the very idea of relying on retired military men as expert critics was fundamentally flawed from the beginning. The obvious reason why networks relied on these men (and they were all men) as expert commentators was because they lacked their own in-house experts. That, and the fact that they wanted to purchase the authority of these colonels and generals while being seen by viewers at home as patriotic and supportive of the troops.
I’d like to suggest seven reasons why this reliance on retired military “talking heads” was so wrongheaded, some obvious, some perhaps less so:
Despite their civilian coat-and-tie camouflage, these officers are not ex-generals and ex-colonels: they are retired colonels and generals–a distinction with a difference. They still carry their rank; they still wear the uniform at military functions; the rank-and-file still deferentially call them “sir”; their cars still have military stickers with eagles (for full colonels) and stars (for generals); they’re still saluted smartly when they drive on- and off-post. These men enjoy constant reminders and privileges of their high military status, and I’d wager nearly all of them think of themselves as military men first, “civilians” second. In short, these men identify with the U.S. military–indeed, they are the military–hardly a recipe for disinterested or dispassionate analysis of our military’s performance in Iraq, or anywhere else for that matter.
Along with identifying closely with the military, many of these media generals and colonels serve as advisors to defense contractors, who potentially stand to profit from continued fighting. This remarkable state of affairs persists despite the fact that, throughout their career, military officers are taught to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest, precisely because the potential for impropriety taints the integrity of the officer as well as the entire military-contractor process. It’s not enough to say, “I’m a man of integrity and I’d never compromise it for self-interest or personal gain.” You must strive to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest–a maxim that is so drilled into military training that it should be reflexive to these men, like coming to attention and saluting the flag as the National Anthem is played. Yet several of these men apparently saw no conflict in advising defense contractors while marching before the TV cameras to present “critical” and “independent” military analysis.
Within the military, there’s a strong bias against Monday-morning quarterbacks. There’s a natural tendency to defer to the commander-in-the-field, and to allow him or her to get on with the job without being micro-managed or second-guessed. As newly minted “civilian” advisors to the networks, these men don’t want to become what they themselves probably despised while they still wore the uniform–those cold, timid, milquetoast critics who’ll never know the triumphs and tribulations of Teddy Roosevelt’s mythical man in the arena.
Along with a strong bias against second-guessing, many military men see criticism as disloyal and destructive, not loyal and constructive. As a concept, loyalty within the military is simple to define but incredibly complex in its manifestations. Officers swear an oath to the Constitution of the United States, of course, and to that they must remain loyal. But there also exist strong personal and institutional loyalties; sometimes, these loyalties are so strong that they come to obscure the somewhat more abstract, if higher, loyalty to the Constitution. Sadly, some military men put loyalty to their service branch first, even before loyalty to the Constitution. Or they conflate the two: What’s good for the Army is ipso facto good for the country.
This is not to say these military men are somehow “bad”–only that they’re human. To understand this better, let’s look at a typical general’s background. In a very powerful way, this man probably lives for and loves the military. Military service may be in his family tree for generations. Perhaps he followed his father from post to post as a child (a military “brat,” it’s called, with affection). He then attends a service academy like Annapolis or West Point, where he’s told incessantly that he’s the best, and where he also learns that loyalty to one’s peers and service is paramount. As a commissioned officer, he then serves for thirty or more years in uniform, achieving flag rank and all the privileges as well as burdens that come with that rank. After this man retires, would we expect him to become a dynamic and even outspoken critic of an institution that defined his life? An institution that he loves?
It’s unlikely that senior military men will provide trenchant criticism, not only because they identify closely and personally with the military, but because they don’t want to run the risk of possibly undermining troop morale in the field. Related to this is the belief that “negative” and “biased” media criticism led to America’s defeat in Vietnam, the old “stab-in-the-back” myth that I’ve addressed elsewhere, and that Barstow’s exposé proves is still alive and well in today’s military.
Thus the testimony of these military men is not simply self-interested. They genuinely believe their boosterism is helping to redress the balance of otherwise negatively-biased, “liberal,” anti-military media coverage. Lending credence to this reading is a recent article in the Naval Institute’s Proceedings (January 2008). In “Stop Blaming the Press,” journalist David Danelo recalls a comment made by the current Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Conway, back in September 2006. Lauding Marine reporters, Conway barked to rousing applause, “Maybe if we could get the rest of the media to do the job like you folks, we might have a chance of winning the war [in Iraq].”
In defending the evenhandedness of most media coverage, Danelo’s piece drew two strong dissents in the February issue of Proceedings. One Navy officer wrote to complain that Danelo failed “to level criticism at reporters for not doing their part to ensure victory.” Today’s press, this officer implied, neither supported the American soldier nor wanted to see America succeed in the war. Another officer, a retired Marine, wrote that “just one negative story” from an American journalist “bolsters our enemies’ confidence and resolve while equally destroying support from the public at home, thus eroding our servicemen’s and women’s resolve on the battlefield.” Refusing to suffer such journalistic “fools,” whose “stories could not have been more harmful than if al Qaeda had written them,” this officer demanded immediate military censorship of media working in-theater. Those journalists who refused to cooperate “would operate at their own risk and without military protection,” he concluded ominously.
Such opinions remain a commonplace in today’s military, especially among men of a certain age who began their service at the tail end or soon after the end of the Vietnam War. Indeed, evidence strongly suggests Senator John McCain shares this opinion.
Paradoxically, the fact that the war in Iraq has not gone well may be a reason why some of these military men believe we can’t afford criticism, especially if you believe this war can and must be won, as most of them do. Call this the “You can’t handle the truth” argument, combined with the “wars are always messy” argument. These arguments lead military men to suppress their own doubts, fearing that, if they air them fully, they’ll not only fatally wound an already faltering war effort, but that their peers may even see them as having given aid and comfort to the enemy.
The last, and perhaps most powerful, reason why networks should not lean heavily on retired military men as commentators is that it’s extremely difficult for anyone, let alone a diehard military man, to criticize our military because such criticism is taken so personally by so many Americans. When you criticize the military, people don’t necessarily recognize the patriotic subtlety of your exposé of the military-industrial complex. They hear you attacking Johnny and Suzy—the efforts of their son and daughter, or the boy and girl next door, who selflessly joined the military to defend America and make a positive difference in the world. Who really wants to hear that Johnny and Suzy may possibly be fighting (and dying) for a mistake? (Another way of putting this might be, “Why doesn’t that Cindy Sheehan shut up already?”) And, assuming he believed it, what retired military man wants to pass along that message to an audience of millions on TV?
What Is to be Done?
Relying on senior military officers, recently retired, to serve as disinterested critics is a bit like inviting Paul von Hindenburg, ex-Field Marshal of the German Army, to testify in 1919 on why his army lost World War I. You may get some interesting testimony–just don’t expect it to be critical or for that matter even true.
What the mainstream media must do now is act. Specifically, they must develop their own, independent, military experts, ones not beholden to the military-industrial complex, ones who don’t own stock in the defense industry, ones who don’t serve as advisors to defense contractors.
The mainstream media must also be willing to risk the ire of the American people by criticizing the military in stronger terms. The fact that major media outlets have come to rely on military talking heads for “critical” analysis reveals the inherent timidity of today’s media in taking on the Pentagon and the Bush Administration. Media outlets must get over their fear of being perceived as unpatriotic. They must air tough-minded criticism, even if some viewers tune out, turn off, and drop in to “patriotic” outlets like Fox News.
Obviously, it will take time for the media to develop its own, truly independent, military experts. In the meantime, they should consider using junior officers and NCOs, with recent combat experience, who have separated from the service. Why does an “expert” have to be a retired, white-haired colonel or general?
For that matter, why does an “expert” need to have worn an American military uniform? Some of the most creative analysis may come from “civilian” military historians or even from foreign military officers who are not emotionally connected to the U.S. military, and who thus don’t have to worry about having their patriotism questioned each time they hazard a criticism of U.S. strategy or tactics.
Until the mainstream media takes these steps, it will continue to be in thrall to the military, as is Congress itself, which also largely refuses to challenge the military before or during a war, in part because members of Congress fear being accused of defeatism and thus of losing elections.
The truth is that there’s a creeping militarism in our country–an excessive deference to military men, whether retired or still on active duty. Just look at the acclaim awarded to General Petraeus each time he comes to testify before Congress. Indeed, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, is already deferring to Petraeus, stating he would not make any decision regarding diverting troops to Afghanistan to search for Osama bin Laden without first receiving the blessing of the presumptive commanding general of CENTCOM.
If that’s where we’re headed, why don’t we just declare Petraeus to be our Caesar and appoint our “civilian” mainstream media military experts to command his Praetorian Guard? It sure would make matters clearer to the American people.
In honor of Martin Luther King Day, a reminder of what he stood for: equality for all, and violence toward none. When not fighting racism, he fought against unjust wars, including America’s war against Vietnam in the 1960s. This made him unpopular, which didn’t bother MLK in the least. A man of great moral courage, he deserves to be celebrated in all his complexity and strength.
On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a powerful speech (“Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence”) that condemned America’s war in Vietnam. Exactly one year later, he was assassinated in Memphis.
What follows are excerpts from MLK’s speech. I urge you to read it in its entirety, but I’d like to highlight this line:
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
MLK called for a revolution of values in America. In his address, he noted that:
There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.
MLK didn’t just have a dream of racial equality. He had a dream for justice around the world, a dream of a…
I watched last night’s Republican debate so you wouldn’t have to. Leaving aside the usual mugging by Donald Trump, the usual jousting over side issues like whether Ted Cruz is a natural born citizen, I thought I’d take an impressionistic approach to the debate. You can read the debate transcript here (if you dare), but here is my admittedly personal take on the main messages of the debate.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are coming to take your guns. So you need to elect a Republican who will allow you to keep your guns and to buy many, many more guns while carrying them openly in public.
Related to (1), ISIS is coming to these shores. In fact, they’re already here. That’s one big reason why everyone needs guns – to protect ourselves from ISIS and other terrorists out to kill Americans on Main…
Will Donald Trump keep his campaign promise to end America’s wasteful wars overseas? Since he’s stated he knows more than America’s generals, will he rein them in? Will he bring major reforms to the military-industrial complex, or will he be nothing but talk and tweets?
At Trump’s first news conference today as president-elect, he had little to say about the military, except once again to complain about the high cost of the F-35 jet fighter program. The questions asked of him dealt mainly with Russia, hacking, potential conflicts of interest, and Obamacare. These are important issues, but how Trump will handle the Pentagon and his responsibilities as commander-in-chief are arguably of even greater import.
Ironically, the last president who had some measure of control over the military-industrial complex was the retired general who coined the term: Dwight D. Eisenhower. Another president – Jimmy Carter – attempted to exercise some control, e.g. he cancelled the B-1 bomber, a pet project of the U.S. Air Force, only to see it revived under Ronald Reagan.
Excepting Carter, U.S. presidents since Ike have issued blank checks to the military, the Pentagon, and its bewildering array of contractors. Whether Democrats (JFK, LBJ, Clinton, Obama) or Republicans (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, the Bushes), rubber-stamping Pentagon priorities has been a common course of presidential action, aided by a willing Congress that supports military spending to “prime the economic pump” and create jobs.
Ike, of course, was hardly perfect, but he had the cred to command the military, to rein it in, perhaps as much as any one man could in the climate of fear generated by McCarthyism and the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s. Hardly a pacifist, Ike nevertheless came to hate war. Can we imagine any president nowadays writing these words?
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Ike’s wisdom stemmed from his experience with the bloody awfulness of war. Recent presidents, by comparison, have been unstinting in their praise of the U.S. military. Ronald Reagan, who had a cozy job in Hollywood during World War II, was a snappy saluter who oversaw a major military expansion. More recently, Barack Obama, with no military experience, went out of his way to praise the U.S. military in hyperbolic terms as the “greatest” in human history.
Recent presidents have idolized the military, perhaps because they either never served in it or never really experienced its foibles and faults, its flaws and failings. Perhaps as well they’ve celebrated the military because they saw it as a popular and easy form of patriotism. But the Pentagon needs a commander-in-chief, not a cheerleader-in-chief. It needs to be challenged, it needs a boot up its collective ass, if it’s ever going to reform its prodigal ways.
Trump has been critical of the military, an encouraging sign. But his appointment of retired generals to key positions of power suggests conformity and business as usual. Trump himself is a military poseur, a man impatient with facts, a man who didn’t know what the nuclear triad was even as he talked of (false) nuclear gaps vis-à-vis Russia.
Even as he talked of wasteful wars and clueless generals, Trump promised to use the U.S. military as a battering ram to smash America’s enemies. He promised as well to rebuild the military, increasing the Pentagon budget while taking the fight to ISIS, words that suggest President Trump won’t often say “no” to the national security state. Ike, however, could and did say “no.” He had the toughness to weather the predictable Pentagon, Congressional, and military/corporate storms. Will Trump?
Again, the last president to lead a novel initiative in national security was Jimmy Carter, with his focus on human rights. Dismissed as naïve and pusillanimous, he became a one-term president. Trump has promised to end wasteful wars, to re-prioritize federal spending to focus on internal “security” measures such as national infrastructure, and to make NATO and other U.S. allies pay their fair share of defense costs.
If he carries through on these promises, he’ll be the first president since Ike to make a measurable and significant course correction to America’s warship of state. But first he needs to be held to account, most certainly at press conferences but elsewhere as well. Endless war is a threat to democracy; so too are politicians who posture but do nothing to rein in militarism, imperialism, and authoritarianism.
If Trump combines the two, if he doubles down on incessant war and a cult of authority, American democracy may suffer a mortal blow.
But America has been edging toward post-truth for a long time — even at its founding, skeptics might say. The “City on a Hill,” forged on an image of Christian rectitude, witnessed the genocide of Native Americans (“savages”) and the embrace of slavery based on specious theories of racial inferiority, even as the Bible taught the love of neighbor and the equality of all before God.
More recently, America has witnessed the triumph of post-truth in the aftermath of 9/11. Recall how the attacks on 9/11 were falsely connected to Iraq, which was then connected to false claims of Iraq having active programs of WMD development, including “yellowcake” uranium as well as chemical and biological agents spread by aerial drones. All proven false, but all used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Indeed, many Americans continue to believe that Saddam Hussein planned the 9/11 attacks (in league with Osama Bin Laden). Recall here the rare honesty of Britain’s Downing Street Memo of 2002, which asserted that the “facts” being offered by the Bush/Cheney administration were being manufactured (“fixed”) around a pre-determined policy of invasion. The result? Iraq was yet another un-democratic war, based in part on lies. Indeed, it’s no accident that Congress hasn’t issued a formal declaration of war since 1941. (Another war based on lies: the Vietnam War, e.g. recall the false reports of attacks at Tonkin Gulf.)
Another example of post-truth was the Surge of 2007, advertised as a “win” for America even as General David Petraeus warned that progress in Iraq was both “fragile” and “reversible.” So it has proved, for here we are, a decade later, trying to recapture territory (such as Mosul) that had allegedly been pacified under Petraeus.
America’s post-truth crew has now been captured by a shameless con man, the Tweeter-in-chief, Donald Trump. Recall a saying often attributed to P.T. Barnum that “a sucker is born every minute.” Trump knows this — and will exploit it to the hilt, if the American people let him.
As January 20th approaches, Americans need to prepare themselves for a post-truth presidency. As my dad used to say to me: “Don’t believe anything that you read and only half of what you see.” Wise words for the days and years to come, but they come with a major problem. Some sense of truth, of consensus based on acknowledged facts and a rigorous and fair-minded process of reasoning, is needed for a democracy to function.
Without integrity, which is based on facts and honesty and a willingness to reason together in good will and with honorable intentions, democracy simply cannot function. Put simply, a post-truth America is an anti-democratic America. For without truth, without some consensus based on facts, all you have is lies, misinformation, and spin: a foundation of sand upon which nothing of worth can be built.
In a longer article for TomDispatch.com, I recently wrote about Donald Trump’s team of generals for national defense and homeland security. Trump wants four senior retired generals, two from the Army and two from the Marine Corps, to serve as his senior civilian advisers in matters of defense and security.
Here’s the point: You simply can’t have civilian control of the military when you appoint senior generals to these positions.
I’m astonished more Americans aren’t outraged at this. It’s a sign of how much militarism has gripped our nation and government, as well as the sweep and scope of the national security state.
I was reading Samuel Hynes’ excellent book, The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War, and came across two passages that resonated with me. In talking about war as a culture, Hynes notes that “Military traditions, values, and patterns of behavior penetrate every aspect of army [and Marine Corps] life and make the most ordinary acts and feelings different.”
The generals Trump is hiring are all military careerists, men whose “traditions, values, and patterns of behavior” are steeped in the ways of the Army and Marine Corps, affecting even “the most ordinary acts and feelings.” Their behavior, their commitments, their loyalties, their world views, are the antithesis to civilian culture and to the ethos of democracy. (For example, General James Mattis, Trump’s selection as Secretary of Defense, is most often described as a “warrior-monk,” a man with a Spartan-like dedication to war. But would Athens have anointed a Spartan, even as its minister of war?)
Again, the point is not to attack the military. It’s that the U.S. government already has plenty of generals in charge, wielding enormous authority. Trump’s decision to add yet another layer of military authority to his government makes it less of a democracy and more of a junta.
A second point from Hynes. He notes how most citizen-soldiers in America’s military past were not war-lovers, but that a few were, notably General George S. Patton. In the same breath, Hynes notes that dictators like Hitler and Mussolini “loved war.”
Which American general does Trump profess to admire the most? George S. Patton. And who among his generals most resembles Patton as a “real” warrior? According to Trump, it’s General Mattis.
Again, the point is not to attack the military, but rather to note the U.S. national security state already has plenty of warriors and warfighters in charge. Putting an alleged Patton-clone in charge of the Pentagon represents an abrogation of two centuries of American tradition that insisted on civilian supremacy over the military.
Given his inflammatory tweets about nuclear arms races with their “bring it on” mentality, Trump has all the makings of tinpot provocateur, an unstable military poseur who likes to speak loudly while swinging a nuclear-tipped stick. Will Trump’s generals, his Pattons and MacArthurs, serve as a check to his provocations and his posturings? It doesn’t seem likely.
Congress should reject Trump’s choices for Secretary of Defense (Mattis) and Homeland Security (Kelly). Not because these retired generals are bad men, but because they are the wrong kind of people. If you want civilian control of the military (and don’t we still want that?), you need to hire true civilians. Men and women whose identities haven’t been forged in armories. Independent thinkers and patriots with some history of dissent.
How about someone like Daniel Ellsberg for Secretary of Defense? And, since global warming is a huge threat to the U.S., how about Bill McKibben for Homeland Security?
After all, whether they’re in or out of uniform, the U.S. government already has plenty of generals.