Even as Congress fights over a few billion dollars for the 9/11 first responders, there’s no shortage of money for warplanes. This week the Pentagon announced the largest military procurement deal in history: $34 billion for 478 F-35 warplanes. This decision comes despite the less-than-stellar performance of the F-35.
How can we forget the suffering of 9/11 first responders yet continue to buy overpriced jets at mind-boggling prices? Sometimes I think we worship weapons as a golden idol. People get so excited about them – almost as if they “own” their own personal F-35. What can these warplanes do for us except blow things up? Who’s going to attack the U.S. with a vast air fleet such that we need all these planes for “defense”?
The other day, I was reading old reporting from World War II (in the Library of America series). There was an article on war rationing and how Americans were fighting for more gasoline for their personal cars. And a war ration board member referenced the amount of gas a bomber needed just to warm up its engines as the reason why ordinary Americans had to ration gas.
Imagine if Americans today had to ration gas so that our F-35s and stealth bombers could fly. Imagine if you couldn’t go on your summer vacation because you couldn’t get the gas due to the war on terror or the gas-guzzling appetites of B-52s and Navy jets operating near Iran.
Americans might actually pay attention to our foreign wars! They might begin to question why they couldn’t get gas for their cars, trucks, boats, and campers because of Iran deployments or Afghan operations or what-have-you.
But unlike in World War II, today we are asked to make no sacrifices. None. Only our tax dollars — and our collective futures.
It’s amazing how often America’s politicians dismiss proposals that would benefit workers as “too expensive” (such as a higher minimum wage, or more affordable college education, or single-payer health care) versus how much they’re willing to approve for new weapons and wars. With little debate, this year’s “defense” budget will be roughly $750 billion, although the real number exceeds a trillion dollars, as Bill Hartung notes here for TomDispatch. Meanwhile, spending on education, infrastructure improvements, and so on withers.
It’s almost as if the impoverishment of America’s workers is deliberate (some would say it is). Four decades ago, I remember reading Crane Brinton’s “The Anatomy of Revolution” in AP Modern European History. Brinton noted how rising expectations among the lower orders can lead to revolutionary fervor. But if you keep people down, keep them busy working two or three jobs, keep them distracted with “circuses” like unending sports coverage and Trump’s every twitch and tweet, you can control them.
Thus the establishment sees a true populist politician like Bernie Sanders as the real enemy. Bernie raises hopes; he wants to help workers; but that’s not the point of the American system. So, Bernie must be dismissed as “crazy,” or marginalized as a dangerous socialist, even though he’s just an old-fashioned New Dealer who wants government to work for the people.
Related to keeping people under control (by keeping them divided, distracted, and downtrodden) is to keep them fearful. A foreign bogeyman is always helpful here, hence the demonization of Vladimir Putin. An old friend of mine sent me an article this past weekend about Putin’s strategy in reviving Russia. I confess I don’t follow Russia and Putin that closely. But it strikes me that Putin has played a weak hand well, whereas U.S. leaders have played a strong hand poorly.
In the article I noted the following quote by Putin:
[we] need to build our home and make it strong and well protected … The wolf knows how to eat … and is not about to listen to anyone … How quickly all the pathos of the need to fight for human rights and democracy is laid aside the moment the need to realize one’s own interests come to the fore.
Putin’s words are from a decade ago, when the U.S. still talked about fighting for “human rights and democracy.” Under Trump, “one’s own interests” are naked again in U.S. foreign policy under men like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. Is this progress?
Overall, Russia has learned (or been forced) to limit its foreign burdens, whereas the U.S. is continuing to expand its “global reach.” Russia learned from the Cold War and is spending far less on its military, whereas the U.S. continues to spend more and more. It’s ironic indeed if Russia is the country cashing in on its peace dividend, even as the U.S. still seems to believe that peace is impossible and that war pays.
I wonder if Russia (joined by China) spends just enough on its military to present a threat to the U.S. for those who are so eager to see and exaggerate it. For example, China builds an aircraft carrier, or Russia builds a nuclear cruise missile, not because they’re planning unprovoked attacks against the U.S., but as a stimulus to America’s military-industrial complex. Because America’s reaction is always eminently predictable. The national security state seizes on any move by China or Russia as dangerous, destabilizing, and as justification for yet more military spending. The result is a hollowing out of the U.S. (poorer education, fewer factories, weaker economy, collapsing infrastructure), even as China and Russia grow comparatively stronger by spending more money in non-military sectors.
There are complicated forces at work here. Of course, Ike’s military-industrial-Congressional complex is always involved. But there’s also a weird addiction to militarism and violence in the USA. War, gun violence, and other forms of killing have become the background noise to our lives, so much so that we barely perceive the latest mass killing, or the latest overseas bombing gone wrong. (I’d also add here the violence we’re doing to our environment, our earth, our true “homeland.”)
I mentioned violence to my old friend, and he sent me this note:
On violence and American cultural DNA one place to start is Richard Slotkin’s trilogy, Regeneration Through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation… The gist of what I have gotten about Slotkin’s thesis is that America’s frontier past trained settlers to think of violence (against natives and against each other) as forms of rebirth both for the individual and for the community.
My friend’s comment about violence and rebirth made me think of the film “Birth of a Nation” (1915) and the infamous scene of the KKK riding to the rescue. We in America have this notion that, in one form or another, a heavily armed cavalry will ride to the rescue and save us (from savage Indians, violent immigrants, etc.). In a strange way, Trump’s campaign tapped this notion of rebirth through violence. Think of his threats against immigrants – and his promises to build a wall to keep them out – and his threats to torture terrorists and even to kill their families.
Trump tapped a rich seam of redemption through violence in the USA, this yearning for some sort of violent apocalypse followed by a “second coming,” notably in conservative evangelical circles. For when you look at “end times” scenarios in evangelical settings, peaceful bliss is not the focus. Suffering of the unredeemed is what it’s all about. Christ is not bringing peace but a sword to smite all the evildoers.
For people who suffer toil and trouble daily, such apocalyptic visions are a powerful distraction and may serve as a potent reactionary tonic. Why fight for Bernie’s political revolution when Christ’s return is imminent?
That’s enough musing for one Monday morning. Readers, what say you?
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I tackle America’s cult of bombing overseas, most recently in the Middle East, Central Asia, and portions of Africa, and the darker facets of air power in general. Air power may not be “unthinkable” like nuclear war, but most Americans nevertheless choose not to think about it since the bombing, the destruction, the killing are happening elsewhere to people other than us. Indeed, occasionally America’s politicians talk about bombing as if it’s a joke (consider John McCain’s little ditty about bombing Iran, or Ted Cruz’s reference to carpet bombing ISIS and making the sand “glow”).
Treating air power and bombing so cavalierly is a big mistake. Much like mass shootings in the “homeland,” it’s become the background noise to our lives. But it’s a deadly reality to others — and since violence often begets more violence, it may very well prove a prescription for permanent war.
Ten Cautionary Tenets About Air Power
1. Just because U.S. warplanes and drones can strike almost anywhere on the globe with relative impunity doesn’t mean that they should. Given the history of air power since World War II, ease of access should never be mistaken for efficacious results.
2. Bombing alone will never be the key to victory. If that were true, the U.S. would have easily won in Korea and Vietnam, as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq. American air power pulverized both North Korea and Vietnam (not to speak of neighboring Laos and Cambodia), yet the Korean War ended in a stalemate and the Vietnam War in defeat. (It tells you the world about such thinking that air power enthusiasts, reconsidering the Vietnam debacle, tend to argue the U.S. should have bombed even more — lots more.) Despite total air supremacy, the recent Iraq War was a disaster even as the Afghan War staggers on into its 18th catastrophic year.
3. No matter how much it’s advertised as “precise,” “discriminate,” and “measured,” bombing (or using missiles like the Tomahawk) rarely is. The deaths of innocents are guaranteed. Air power and those deaths are joined at the hip, while such killings only generate anger and blowback, thereby prolonging the wars they are meant to end.
Consider, for instance, the “decapitation” strikes launched against Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and his top officials in the opening moments of the Bush administration’s invasion of 2003. Despite the hype about that being the beginning of the most precise air campaign in all of history, 50 of those attacks, supposedly based on the best intelligence around, failed to take out Saddam or a single one of his targeted officials. They did, however, cause “dozens” of civilian deaths. Think of it as a monstrous repeat of the precision air attacks launched on Belgrade in 1999 against Slobodan Milosevic and his regime that hit the Chinese embassy instead, killing three journalists.
Here, then, is the question of the day: Why is it that, despite all the “precision” talk about it, air power so regularly proves at best a blunt instrument of destruction? As a start, intelligence is often faulty. Then bombs and missiles, even “smart” ones, do go astray. And even when U.S. forces actually kill high-value targets (HVTs), there are always more HVTs out there. A paradox emerges from almost 18 years of the war on terror: the imprecision of air power only leads to repetitious cycles of violence and, even when air strikes prove precise, there always turn out to be fresh targets, fresh terrorists, fresh insurgents to strike.
4. Using air power to send political messages about resolve or seriousness rarely works. If it did, the U.S. would have swept to victory in Vietnam. In Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, for instance, Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-1968), a graduated campaign of bombing, was meant to, but didn’t, convince the North Vietnamese to give up their goal of expelling the foreign invaders — us — from South Vietnam. Fast-forward to our era and consider recent signals sent to North Korea and Iran by the Trump administration via B-52 bomber deployments, among other military “messages.” There’s no evidence that either country modified its behavior significantly in the face of the menace of those baby-boomer-era airplanes.
5. Air power is enormously expensive. Spending on aircraft, helicopters, and their munitions accounted for roughly half the cost of the Vietnam War. Similarly, in the present moment, making operational and then maintaining Lockheed Martin’s boondoggle of a jet fighter, the F-35, is expected to cost at least $1.45 trillion over its lifetime. The new B-21 stealth bomber will cost more than $100 billion simply to buy. Naval air wings on aircraft carriers cost billions each year to maintain and operate. These days, when the sky’s the limit for the Pentagon budget, such costs may be (barely) tolerable. When the money finally begins to run out, however, the military will likely suffer a serious hangover from its wildly extravagant spending on air power.
6. Aerial surveillance (as with drones), while useful, can also be misleading. Command of the high ground is not synonymous with god-like “total situational awareness.” It can instead prove to be a kind of delusion, while war practiced in its spirit often becomes little more than an exercise in destruction. You simply can’t negotiate a truce or take prisoners or foster other options when you’re high above a potential battlefield and your main recourse is blowing up people and things.
7. Air power is inherently offensive. That means it’s more consistent with imperial power projection than with national defense. As such, it fuels imperial ventures, while fostering the kind of “global reach, global power” thinking that has in these years had Air Force generals in its grip.
8. Despite the fantasies of those sending out the planes, air power often lengthens wars rather than shortening them. Consider Vietnam again. In the early 1960s, the Air Force argued that it alone could resolve that conflict at the lowest cost (mainly in American bodies). With enough bombs, napalm, and defoliants, victory was a sure thing and U.S. ground troops a kind of afterthought. (Initially, they were sent in mainly to protect the airfields from which those planes took off.) But bombing solved nothing and then the Army and the Marines decided that, if the Air Force couldn’t win, they sure as hell could. The result was escalation and disaster that left in the dust the original vision of a war won quickly and on the cheap due to American air supremacy.
9. Air power, even of the shock-and-awe variety, loses its impact over time. The enemy, lacking it, nonetheless learns to adapt by developing countermeasures — both active (like missiles) and passive (like camouflage and dispersion), even as those being bombed become more resilient and resolute.
10. Pounding peasants from two miles up is not exactly an ideal way to occupy the moral high ground in war.
The Road to Perdition
If I had to reduce these tenets to a single maxim, it would be this: all the happy talk about the techno-wonders of modern air power obscures its darker facets, especially its ability to lock America into what are effectively one-way wars with dead-end results…
In reality, this country might do better to simply ground its many fighter planes, bombers, and drones. Paradoxically, instead of gaining the high ground, they are keeping us on a low road to perdition.
This week a good friend sent me the image below from Mad Magazine.
Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Senator J.W. Fulbright’s book, “The Pentagon Propaganda Machine” (1970) and came across this footnote on page 57:
“Promotion of the display of the National Flag is one of the Navy’s service-wide public affairs projects. It is laudable enough if it remains unconnected with the current campaign of superpatriots that equates the display of flag decals on automobile windows with love of country and unlimited support for the war in Vietnam.”
And then I came across a photograph by Diane Arbus, “Boy with a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, NYC, 1967.”
It’s a fascinating photo. “Support Our Boys” is now rendered as “Support Our Troops.” Also, today’s flags are a lot bigger. The “Bomb Hanoi” pin speaks for itself.
All of this got me thinking about how “super” patriotism is linked to fanatical support for war, which draws from hatred of “the other,” whether that “other” is foreigners or various alleged enemies within (like those “liberals” and “pacifists” mentioned in the Mad Magazine cartoon).
As the Trump administration appears to promise more wars in the future (consider Mike Pence’s recent bellicose speech at West Point), perhaps in Venezuela or Iran, we need to be on guard against this idea that supporting wars is patriotic. Indeed, the opposite is usually true. “I’m already against the next war” is a good rule of thumb to live by.
How did “super” patriotism become synonymous with blanket support for destructive wars? One thing is certain: it’s nothing new in America.
A good friend of mine, a Kiwi, sent me an update on Jacinda Ardern’s priorities for action in New Zealand. It’s known there as a “Wellbeing Budget.”
* Creating opportunities for productive businesses, regions, iwi and others to transition to a sustainable and low-emissions economy.
* Supporting a thriving nation in the digital age through innovation, social and economic opportunities.
* Reducing child poverty and improving child wellbeing, including addressing family violence.
* Supporting mental wellbeing for all New Zealanders, with a special focus on under 24-year-olds.
* Lifting Māori and Pacific incomes, skills and opportunities.
I know: New Zealand is a small country on the other side of the world; a superpower like the United States has nothing to learn from Kiwis, right?
What struck me about these priorities is, well, that New Zealand has some. That they’re clear and concise and focused on well-being for children and teenagers and families. That they address poverty. And that climate change isn’t forgotten (“sustainable” and “low-emissions” economy).
What about America’s great leader, Donald Trump? What are his priorities for national well-being? Near as I can tell, these are Trump’s priorities:
1. Enriching himself and his family.
2. Avoiding impeachment, or exploiting it if he is impeached.
3. Getting reelected.
4. More golf.
5. Screwing anyone who resists him.
What about issues like “build the wall”? I don’t think Trump cares whether the wall is built; it’s merely a convenient issue to exploit as he rallies his base. What about ending access to abortion? Again, I don’t think Trump cares about this issue, except as it energizes a key component of his base. What about appointing lots of conservative justices and judges? Again, Trump cares only in the sense that such judges and justices will rule in a way that upholds his privileges.
My Kiwi friend’s list got me to reflect on the lack of consensus for action in the USA today among our “leaders”/politicians. (Well, there is bipartisan support for enormous military budgets, but that’s about it.) Put differently, most Americans express support for single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the richest Americans, climate-friendly policies, and so on, but our bought-and-paid-for politicians act against the people’s wishes.
Various power brokers may laugh at Trump’s vanities and object to his vulgarity and his selfishness and greed, but they also abet him because he serves to divide people while protecting elite privileges against reformers like Bernie Sanders.
I know one thing: the answer isn’t Joe Biden or any other DNC-approved candidate. The answer is a movement that unites behind a candidate that actually cares for people like us, someone like Bernie Sanders. Short of that, well-being will be in very short supply in America’s future.
How far we’ve come as a country. Consider the following proclamation by President Dwight D. Eisenhower for Memorial Day in 1955:
“Whereas Memorial Day each year serves as a solemn reminder of the scourge of war and its bitter aftermath of sorrow; and Whereas this day has traditionally been devoted to paying homage to loved ones who lie in hallowed graves throughout the land… I, Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim Memorial Day, Monday, the thirtieth of May, 1955, as a day of Nation-wide prayer for permanent peace.”
Permanent peace? What was that hippie peacenik president smoking?
I find it remarkable that talk of peace in America has almost completely disappeared from our public discourse. Permanent war is instead seen as inevitable, the price of confronting evildoers around the world.
Yes, I know Ike’s record as president wasn’t perfect. But compared to today’s presidents, whether Barack “Kill List” Obama or Donald “Make Genocidal Threats” Trump, Ike was positively pacific.
Memorial Day, as Ike said, is a time for us all to remember the sacrifices of those who fought and died for this country. But it’s also a time, as Ike said, to work to eliminate the scourge of war. For the best way to honor our war dead is to work to ensure their ranks aren’t expanded.
Sadly, as Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich notes at TomDispatch.com, those ranks do keep expanding. The names of our latest war dead are memorialized on a little-known wall in Marseilles, Illinois (including the name of Bacevich’s son, who died serving in Iraq). Like Ike, Bacevich knows the costs of war, and like Ike he’s not taken in by patriotic talk about noble sacrifices for “freedom.” As he puts it:
Those whose names are engraved on the wall in Marseilles died in service to their country. Of that there is no doubt. Whether they died to advance the cause of freedom or even the wellbeing of the United States is another matter entirely. Terms that might more accurately convey why these wars began and why they have persisted for so long include oil, dominion, hubris, a continuing and stubborn refusal among policymakers to own up to their own stupendous folly, and the collective negligence of citizens who have become oblivious to where American troops happen to be fighting at any given moment and why. Some might add to the above list an inability to distinguish between our own interests and those of putative allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Those are strong words that all Americans should consider this Memorial Day weekend. As we consider them, let’s also recall Ike’s 1955 prayer for peace. And, even better, let’s act on it.
Read the rest of Andrew Bacevich’s article here at TomDispatch.
William Westmoreland (“Westy”) looked like a general should, and that was part of the problem. Tall, handsome, square-jawed, he carried himself rigidly; there was no slouching for Westy. A go-getter, a hard-charger, he did everything necessary to get promoted. He was a product of the Army, a product of a system that began at West Point during World War II and ended with four stars and command in Vietnam during the most critical years of that war (1965-68). His unimaginative and mediocre performance in a losing effort said (and says) much about that system.
I had these thoughts as I read Lewis Sorley’s devastating biography of Westy, recommended to me by a good friend. (Thanks, Paul!) Before tackling the big stuff about Westy, the Army, and Vietnam, I’d like to focus on little things that stayed with me as I read the book.
Visiting West Point as the Army’s Chief of Staff, Westy met the new First Captain, the highest-ranking cadet. Westy thought this cadet wasn’t quite tall enough to be First Captain. It made me wonder whether Napoleon might have won Waterloo if he’d been as tall as Westy.
Westy loved uniforms and awards. Sporting an impressive array of ribbons, badges, devices, and the like, his busy uniform was consistent with his concern for outward show, for image and action over substance and meaning.
Westy tended to focus on the trivial. He’d visit lower commands and ask junior officers whether the troops were getting their mail (vital for morale, he thought). He’d ask narrow technical questions about mortars versus artillery performance. He was a details man in a position that required a much broader sweep of mind.
Westy liked to doodle, including drawing the rank of a five-star general. He arguably saw himself as destined to this rank, following in the hallowed steps of Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley.
Westy never attended professional military education (PME), such as the Army War College, and he showed little interest in books. He was incurious and rather proud of it.
Interestingly, Sorley cites another general who argued Westy’s career should have ended as a regimental colonel. Others believed he served adequately as a major general in command of a division. Above this rank, Westy was, some of his fellow officers agreed, out his depth.
Sorley depicts Westy as an unoriginal and conventional thinker for a war that was unconventional and complex. Bewildered by Vietnam, Westy fell back to what he (and the Army) knew best: massive firepower, search and destroy tactics, and made-up metrics like “body count” as measures of “success.” He tried to win a revolutionary war using a strategy of attrition, paying little attention to political dimensions. For example, he shunted the South Vietnamese military (ARVN) to the side while giving them inferior weaponry to boot.
Another personal weakness: Westy didn’t respond well to criticism. When General Douglas Kinnard published his classic study of the Vietnam War, “The War Managers,” which surveyed senior officers who’d served in Vietnam, Westy wanted him to tattle on those officers who’d objected to his pursuit of body count. (Kinnard refused.)
Sorley identifies Westmoreland as the general who lost Vietnam, and there’s truth in that. Deeply flawed, Westy’s strategy was fated to fail. Yet even the most skilled American general may have lost in Vietnam. Consider here the words of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the middle of 1964. He told McGeorge Bundy “It looks to me like we’re getting’ into another Korea…I don’t think it’s worth fightin’ for and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest damn mess…What the hell is Vietnam worth to me?…What is it worth to this country?” [Quoted in Robert Dallek, “Three New Revelations About LBJ,” The Atlantic, April 1998]
McGeorge Bundy himself, LBJ’s National Security Adviser, said to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that committing large numbers of U.S. troops to Vietnam was “rash to the point of folly.” In October 1964 his brother William Bundy, then the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, said in a confidential memorandum that Vietnam was “A bad colonial heritage of long standing…a nationalist movement taken over by Communism ruling in the other half of an ethnically and historically united country, the Communist side inheriting much the better military force and far more than its share of the talent—these are the facts that dog us today.”
Not worth fighting for, rash to the point of folly: Why did the U.S. go to war in Vietnam when the cause was arguably lost before the troops were committed? Traditional answers include the containment of communism, the domino theory, American overconfidence, and so forth, but perhaps there was a larger purpose to the “folly.”
What was that larger purpose? I recall a “letter to the editor” that I clipped from a newspaper years ago. Echoing a critique made by Noam Chomsky,** this letter argued America’s true strategic aim in Vietnam was to prevent Vietnam’s independent social and economic development; to subjugate and/or subordinate Vietnam and its resources to the whims of Western corporations and investors. Winning on the battlefield was less important than winning in the global marketplace. Vietnam would send a loud signal to other countries that, if you tried to chart your own course independent of American interests, you’d end up like Vietnam, a battlefield, a wasteland.
For sure, Westy lost on the battlefield. But did U.S. economic interests triumph globally due to his punishment of Vietnam and the intimidation it established? How compelling, how coercive, were such interests? Think of Venezuela today as it attempts to chart an independent course. Think of U.S. interest in subordinating Venezuela and its reserves of oil to the agendas of Western investors and corporations. There are trillions of dollars to be made here, not just from oil, but by preserving the strength of the petrodollar. (The U.S. dollar’s value is propped up by global oil sales done in dollars, as vouchsafed by leading oil producers like Saudi Arabia. Venezuela has acted against the petrodollar standard.)
Westy was the wrong man for Vietnam, but he was also a fall guy for a doomed war. He and the U.S. military did succeed, however, in visiting a level of destruction on that country that sent a message to those who contemplated resisting Western economic demands. Westy may have been a lousy general, but perhaps he was the perfect message boy for economic interests that prospered more by destruction and intimidation than by traditional victory of arms.
**For Chomsky, America didn’t accidentally or inadvertently or ham-fistedly destroy the Vietnamese village to save it; the village was destroyed precisely to destroy it, thereby strengthening capitalism and U.S. economic hegemony throughout the developing world. As General Smedley Butler said, sometimes generals are economic hit men, even when they don’t know it.
As a general rule, it’s a lot easier in U.S. politics to sell a war as containing or defeating communist aggression (or radical Islamic terrorism in the case of Iran, or ruthless dictators in the cases of Iraq and Libya) than it is for economic interests and the profits of powerful multinational corporations. For the average grunt, “Remember Exxon-Mobil!” isn’t much of a battle-cry.