Why, looky here, another article in the New York Times that examines the Republican “hawks” posturing for a presidential run in 2016. As the article blurb states, “Republicans are scrambling to outmuscle one another on national security issues.” It’s all about looking tough and calling for more boots on the ground in battles against ISIS and terror everywhere.
Here’s the money quote:
“There’s a lot of fear out there,” said Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, noting that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, had become a regular topic of discussion at his regular breakfast spot in Columbia, the Lizard’s Thicket. “The waitresses and managers and everybody there has a notion about ISIL. People understand who this group is now.”
I should think the waitresses at “Lizard’s Thicket” would be more fearful of paying their weekly and monthly bills, given the low wages earned by wait staff in America. Or that they and their customers would be more fearful of their sons and daughters in uniform being deployed to Iraq to showcase those “muscles” that Republican politicians are always trying to flex. (Don’t worry: No politicians, Republican or Democrat, are eager to send their own sons and daughters overseas to fight.)
Once again, Republican politicians are banging the drums of fear – and as my dad always said, the empty barrel makes the most noise. The music is as tragic as it is predictable: endless war in the name of looking tough and defeating terror. And anyone who dares to suggest the folly of this risks being tarred as an appeaser to ISIS and its ilk.
What burns my butt is that none of these blowhard politicians has any skin in the game. They risk nothing in bleating for war. It’s not their sons and daughters who are being deployed to the front lines.
The other day, I was talking to a young woman at my eye doctor’s office. Her brother is in the Army. She told me he’s an EOD, an explosive ordnance disposal specialist. A risky job, I said, to which she replied, “He volunteered for the extra money,” money that the Army has yet to pay him. He’s got a four-year commitment and is due to be deployed after his training is completed.
So, as they seek to “outmuscle” their political rivals, how many politicians’ sons are in the Army right now, training for EOD duty and risking their lives for the extra money that comes with this hazardous duty? My educated guess: none. Absolutely none.
It’s easy to flex (and to risk) the muscles of others, America. Stop listening to politicians and their fear-mongering. No foreign terrorist is coming to get you as you enjoy your coffee and hash browns at “Lizard’s Thicket.” No – the biggest risk is blowhard politicians who are so, so, eager to send your sons and daughters off to yet more wars in the cause of outmuscling their rivals for political office.
Like so many bloated Hollywood movies nowadays, America’s wars may bomb, but they always produce their own sequels.
Look at the latest news from Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars have persisted for more than a decade, with several re-releases to include “surges” and repeats. The latest from Iraq is preparations to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS, which promises a repeat of the level of destruction visited upon Fallujah in 2004. In this there are echoes of Vietnam: in Mosul, we may have to destroy the city to save it. Five Iraqi brigades, most likely supported by American airpower and some American troops on the ground (air controllers and Special Forces), are poised to strike as early as April. Doubtless they’ll prevail, at least for the moment, as the city and its civilians pay a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat. Mosul will be “liberated,” but just look what happened to Fallujah, which after the American “victory” in 2004 is now a devastated city retaken by elements of al-Qaeda in 2014.
(As an aside, it’s interesting that the New York Times uses the word “epic” to describe the Battle of Fallujah from 2004. Surely a better word is “catastrophic.” What is epic about a battle that destroys a city, a battle that is ultimately inconclusive? Check out Bing West’s book about Fallujah, whose title, “No True Glory,” captures the frustrations and contradictions of that battle, mainly from the American perspective.)
Moving to Afghanistan, the latest is that American troops may stay longer than expected (surprise!). Despite all the talk of “progress” in Afghanistan, the takeaway is the following section, from Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s recent visit to Afghanistan:
“Despite the aid of American air power, 2014 was the deadliest year for Afghan forces since the start of the war in 2001, and many Afghan and Western officials in Kabul believe that 2015 will likely be worse, particularly with less support from Western allies. That has begun to change the conversation about the possibility of slowing down in the [American] withdrawal.”
In other words, expect more micro-surges of American troops and assets in the coming years, as well as more reports of “progress,” however temporary or illusory (at least America’s best and brightest learned from Vietnam not to talk of seeing light at the end of tunnels).
America’s wars are much like the “Transformers” franchise of movies: thrilling and seemingly conclusive at first, with much talk of missions being accomplished, followed by sequel after sequel of repetitive battles, increasingly loud and destructive, signifying vapidity and intellectual bankruptcy even as a few profit greatly from them.
And no one (certainly none of the producers at the Pentagon) seems to be able to pull the plug on green-lighting ever more sequels to these wars. Even when they bomb.
(For a different perspective on how recent Hollywood movies support American warmaking through myth-making, see Peter Van Buren’s insightful article “War Porn” at TomDispatch.com.)
A strong trend in higher education today is to sell education as workforce development. I saw this at the college where I used to teach, which was unsurprising given that the college started as a technical institute in a conservative area. My college proudly advertised itself as valuing partnerships with business and industry, with a “learn to earn” emphasis, so students and parents knew what they were getting when they made their choice.
But the “education as workforce development” ethos is now spreading to universities and states like Wisconsin, driven by Republican governors and administrations keen to put those pointy-headed intellectuals, with their high-falutin’ ideas about education as a pursuit of truth, firmly in their place. Consider this article at Alternet, and the following passage about Governor Scott Walker’s ideological war on higher education in his state:
There may be some lip-smacking about “fiscal conservatism” going on with this, but Walker and his staff haven’t really taken many pains to hide that this is rooted in a deeper hostility to the very idea of knowledge itself. “A harbinger of what Walker might face came in an immediate uproar on social media this month after his staff proposed changing the university’s ethereal focus on the pursuit of truth, known as the ‘Wisconsin Idea,’ to a grittier focus on ‘workforce needs,’” reports theWashington Post. Walker backed off recasting higher education as nothing more than job training after his critics pointed out he is a college dropout, but the fact that this wording change was proposed at all shows that the hostility to education is ideological and has little to nothing to do with saving money.”
Higher education should be dedicated to something higher than the pursuit of a job that serves corporate America. Heck, even corporate America favors the liberal arts as being invaluable to their bottom line, e.g. in the sense of “soft” skills such as the ability to write and speak clearly, collaborating as a team, fostering creativity and curiosity, and the like. And this is supported by research, as in this report by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, which “is seriously questioning the drive to turn schools into institutions where the primary mission is offering career and vocational training,” according to a CBS News report:
The report, which was released today, concludes that employers “overwhelmingly” endorse broad learning as the best preparation for long-term career success. Employers who were surveyed for the study said that this broad learning should be an expected part of the course work for all students, regardless of their chosen major or field of study.
More than three out of four employers agreed that every college student should be exposed to the liberal arts and sciences, and employers were nearly unanimous (96 percent) in agreeing that all students should gain knowledge of our democratic institutions, which is done through liberal arts courses.”
So, if employers are in favor of liberal arts and the sciences, why are right-wing conservatives like Walker against these subjects? To ask the question is to answer it. The push for “workforce development” is all about silencing liberal dissent and squelching critical research. It’s anti-intellectualism, pure and simple, always a popular trope in America, as Richard Hofstadter noted in his classic book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.
Keep ’em dumb and obedient, Walker. Time-servers in the work trenches. That’s the way to serve Wisconsin as governor. Next stop: the presidency. We don’t need any smart people in that job. No more Jeffersons need apply. Right, America?
Privatization of war is making it far easier for America’s imperial state to wage endless war throughout the world. Consider the case of Afghanistan. The U.S. military is allegedly leaving that country, turning the fight over to the Afghan military, trained and equipped largely by America.
But the truth is different: the U.S. has simply privatized the Afghan War, turning it over to military contractors, secretive Special Forces, and the CIA, as reported in this article by Tim Shorrock, in which you’ll find the following quote:
“If you define combat mission as only having large numbers of US combat troops in the field, doing patrols, and engaging the Taliban, then, yes, it [the Afghan War] is coming to an end,” says David Isenberg, a Navy veteran and author who has been researching private security and military contractors since the early 1990s. “But if you define it as continuing to attack and degrade those you consider hostile, via drone or Special Forces or CIA paramilitaries, all of which are supported by contractors, then not so much.”
Not so much, indeed. The future is indeed bright for privatized military contractors. So much so that I have a slogan to offer the next Blackwater/Xe/Academi, the next DynCorp, the next Triple Canopy, the next global mercenary outfit:
My Slogan: Your Wish Is My Commando
Your imperial wish is also my profit, but we won’t mention that fact too loudly.
America was not supposed to go to war like this. Remember our Founders and their ideas on war? War was supposed to be a terrible decision, hotly contested among the people by their duly elected representatives in Congress. It wasn’t supposed to be an easy choice made by presidents, with no real input or debate by that Congress. It was supposed to involve citizen-soldiers motivated to defend the Constitution and sacred freedoms, not pay-for-hire mercenaries motivated by profit and spoils.
But our imperial state knows that it can’t fool all of the people all of the time on the need for endless wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, hence the recourse to wars fought largely in secret by hired guns and CIA/paramilitaries. The mainstream media, of course, is owned by some of the same corporations that profit from weapons sales overseas, so don’t expect push-back from them. No — the push-back will have to come from us. We will have to use all the tools at our disposal to fight for enduring peace.
One thing I know: Without our push-back, enduring (as in endless) war is a certainty for America’s future.
Bonus Lesson: Isn’t it nice to know that this is Ashton Carter’s first day on the job as Secretary of Defense? And that he’s open to sending more American troops to Afghanistan? Just the man we needed at the Pentagon. No wonder he was confirmed 93-5 by the Senate.
Christian G. Appy, professor of history at U-Mass Amherst, has written a new and telling book on the Vietnam War: American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (New York, Viking Press). Reading his book made me realize a key reason why the U.S. lost the war: for U.S. leaders it was never about Vietnam and the Vietnamese people. Rather, for these men the war was always about something else, a “something else” that constantly shifted and changed. Whereas for North Vietnam and its leaders, the goal was simple and unchanging: expel the foreign intruder, whether it was the Japanese or the French or the Americans, and unify Vietnam, no matter the cost.
Appy’s account is outstanding in showing the shifting goals of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Vietnam. In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. first supported the French in their attempts to reassert control over their former colony. When the French failed, the U.S. saw Vietnam through a thoroughly red-tinted lens. The “fall” of a newly created South Vietnam was seen as the first domino in a series of potential Communist victories in Asia. Vietnam itself meant little economically to American interests, but U.S. leaders were concerned about Malaysia and Indonesia and their resources. So to stop that first domino from falling, the U.S. intervened to prop up a “democratic” government in South Vietnam that was never democratic, a client state whose staying power rested entirely on U.S. “advisers” (troops) and weapons and aid.
Again, as Appy convincingly demonstrates, for U.S. leaders the war was never about Vietnam. Under Eisenhower, it was about stopping the first domino from falling; under Kennedy, it was a test case for U.S. military counterinsurgency tactics and Flexible Response; under Johnson, it was a test of American resolve and credibility and “balls”; and under Nixon, it was the pursuit of “peace with honor” (honor, that is, for the Nixon Administration). And this remained true even after South Vietnam collapsed in 1975. Then the Vietnam War, as Appy shows, was reinterpreted as a uniquely American tragedy. Rather than a full accounting of the war and America’s mistakes and crimes in it, the focus was on recovering American pride, to be accomplished in part by righting an alleged betrayal of America’s Vietnam veterans.
In the Reagan years, as Appy writes, American veterans, not the Vietnamese people, were:
portrayed as the primary victims of the Vietnam War. The long, complex history of the war was typically reduced to a set of stock images that highlighted the hardships faced by U.S. combat soldiers—snake-infested jungles, terrifying ambushes, elusive guerrillas, inscrutable civilians, invisible booby traps, hostile antiwar activists. Few reports informed readers that at least four of five American troops in Vietnam carried out noncombat duties on large bases far away from those snake-infested jungles. Nor did they focus sustained attention on the Vietnamese victims of U.S. warfare. By the 1980s, mainstream culture and politics promoted the idea that the deepest shame related to the Vietnam War was not the war itself, but America’s failure to embrace its military veterans.” (p. 241)
Again, the Vietnam War for U.S. leaders was never truly about Vietnam. It was about them. This is powerfully shown by LBJ’s crude comments and gestures about the war. Johnson acted to protect his Great Society initiatives; he didn’t want to suffer the political consequences of having been seen as having “lost” Vietnam to communism; but he also saw Vietnam as a straightforward test of his manhood. When asked by reporters why he continued to wage war in Vietnam, what it was really all about, LBJ unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis, and declared, “This is why!” (p. 82).
Withdrawal, of course, was never an option. As Appy insightfully notes,
LBJ and most of the other key Vietnam policymakers never imagined that withdrawal from Vietnam would be an act of courage. In one sense this moral blindness is baffling because these same men prided themselves on their pragmatic, hardheaded realism, their ability to cut through sentiment and softhearted idealism to face the most difficult realities of foreign affairs. They could see that the war was failing. But they could not pull out. A deeper set of values trumped their most coherent understandings of the war. They simply could not accept being viewed as losers. A ‘manly man’ must always keep fighting.” (p. 84)
A few pages later, Appy cites Nixon’s speech on the bombing of Cambodia, when Nixon insisted the U.S. must not stand by “like a pitiful, helpless giant,” as further evidence of this “primal” fear of presidential impotence and defeat.
Even when defeat stared American leaders in the face, they blinked, then closed their eyes and denied what they had seen. Beginning with Gerald Ford in 1975, America shifted the blame for defeat onto the South Vietnamese, with some responsibility being assigned to allegedly traitorous elements on the homefront, such as “Hanoi Jane” (Fonda). As Appy writes, “Instead of calling for a great national reckoning of U.S. responsibility in Vietnam, Ford called for a ‘great national reconciliation.’ It was really a call for a national forgetting, a willful amnesia.” (p. 224)
As a result of this “willful amnesia,” most Americans never fully faced the murderous legacies of the Vietnam War, especially the cost to the peoples of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Instead, our leaders and government encouraged us to focus on America’s suffering. They told us to look forward, not backward, while keeping faith in America as the exceptional nation.
Appy notes in his introduction that America needs “an honest accounting of our history” if we are “to reject—fully and finally—the stubborn insistence that our nation has been a unique and unrivaled force for good in the world.” (p. xix) American Reckoning provides such an honest accounting. But are Americans truly ready and willing to put aside national pride, nurtured by a willed amnesia and government propaganda, to confront the limits as well as the horrors of American power as it is exercised in foreign lands?
Evidence from recent wars and military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere still suggests that Americans prefer amnesia, or to see other peoples through a tightly restricted field of view. Far too often, that field of view is a thoroughly militarized one, most recently captured in the crosshairs of an American sniper’s scope. Appy challenges us to broaden that view while removing those crosshairs.
In America’s war on terror, the groundhog always sees its own shadow, meaning six (or more) years of additional war. War is indeed the new normal in America, as I argue in this article today for TomDispatch.com.
War Is the New Normal Seven Deadly Reasons Why America’s Wars Persist
By William J. Astore
It was launched immediately after the 9/11 attacks, when I was still in the military, and almost immediately became known as the Global War on Terror, or GWOT. Pentagon insiders called it “the long war,” an open-ended, perhaps unending, conflict against nations and terror networks mainly of a radical Islamist bent. It saw the revival of counterinsurgency doctrine, buried in the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam, and a reinterpretation of that disaster as well. Over the years, its chief characteristic became ever clearer: a “Groundhog Day” kind of repetition. Just when you thought it was over (Iraq, Afghanistan), just after victory (of a sort) was declared, it began again.
Now, as we find ourselves enmeshed in Iraq War 3.0, what better way to memorialize the post-9/11 American way of war than through repetition. Back in July 2010, I wrote an article for TomDispatch on the seven reasonswhy America can’t stop making war. More than four years later, with the war on terror still ongoing, with the mission eternally unaccomplished, here’s a fresh take on the top seven reasons why never-ending war is the new normal in America. In this sequel, I make only one promise: no declarations of victory (and mark it on your calendars, I’m planning to be back with seven new reasons in 2019).
1. The privatization of war: The U.S. military’s recourse to private contractors has strengthened the profit motive for war-making and prolonged wars as well. Unlike the citizen-soldiers of past eras, the mobilized warrior corporations of America’s new mercenary moment — the Halliburton/KBRs (nearly $40 billion in contracts for the Iraq War alone), the DynCorps ($4.1 billion to train 150,000 Iraqi police), and the Blackwater/Xe/Academis ($1.3 billion in Iraq, along with boatloads of controversy) — have no incentive to demobilize. Like most corporations, their business model is based on profit through growth, and growth is most rapid when wars and preparations for more of them are the favored options in Washington.
“Freedom isn’t free,” as a popular conservative bumper sticker puts it, and neither is war. My father liked the saying, “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” and today’s mercenary corporations have been calling for a lot of military marches piping in $138 billion in contracts for Iraq alone, according to the Financial Times. And if you think that the privatization of war must at least reduce government waste, think again: the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan estimated in 2011 that fraud, waste, and abuse accounted for up to $60 billion of the money spent in Iraq alone.
To corral American-style war, the mercenaries must be defanged or deflated. European rulers learned this the hard way during the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century. At that time, powerful mercenary captains like Albrecht von Wallenstein ran amok. Only Wallenstein’s assassination and the assertion of near absolutist powers by monarchs bent on curbing war before they went bankrupt finally brought the mercenaries to heel, a victory as hard won as it was essential to Europe’s survival and eventual expansion. (Europeans then exported their wars to foreign shores, but that’s another story.)
2. The embrace of the national security state by both major parties:Jimmy Carter was the last president to attempt to exercise any kind of control over the national security state. A former Navy nuclear engineer who had served under the demanding Admiral Hyman Rickover, Carter cancelled the B-1 bomber and fought for a U.S. foreign policy based on human rights. Widely pilloried for talking about nuclear war with his young daughter Amy, Carter was further attacked for being “weak” on defense. His defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980 inaugurated 12 years of dominance by Republican presidents that opened the financial floodgates for the Department of Defense. That taught Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council a lesson when it came to the wisdom of wrapping the national security state in a welcoming embrace, which they did, however uncomfortably. This expedient turn to the right by the Democrats in the Clinton years served as a temporary booster shot when it came to charges of being “soft” on defense — until Republicans upped the ante by going “all-in” on military crusades in the aftermath of 9/11.
Since his election in 2008, Barack Obama has done little to alter the course set by his predecessors. He, too, has chosen not to challenge Washington’s prevailing catechism of war. Republicans have responded, however, not by muting their criticism, but by upping the ante yet again. How else to explain House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in March? That address promises to be a pep talk for the Republicans, as well as a smack down of the Obama administration and its “appeasenik” policies toward Iran and Islamic radicalism.
Serious oversight, let alone opposition to the national security state by Congress or a mainstream political party, has been missing in action for years and must now, in the wake of the Senate Torture Report fiasco (from which the CIAemerged stronger, not weaker), be presumed dead. The recent midterm election triumph of Republican war hawks and the prospective lineup of candidates for president in 2016 does not bode well when it comes to reining in the national security state in any foreseeable future.
3. “Support Our Troops” as a substitute for thought. You’ve seen them everywhere: “Support Our Troops” stickers. In fact, the “support” in that slogan generally means acquiescence when it comes to American-style war. The truth is that we’ve turned the all-volunteer military into something like aforeign legion, deploying it again and again to our distant battle zones and driving it into the ground in wars that amount to strategic folly. Instead of admitting their mistakes, America’s leaders have worked to obscure them by endlessly overpraising our “warriors” as so many universal heroes. This may salve our collective national conscience, but it’s a form of cheap grace that saves no lives — and wins no wars.
Instead, this country needs to listen more carefully to its troops, especially the war critics who have risked their lives while fighting overseas. Organizations like Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace are good places to start.
4. Fighting a redacted war. War, like the recent Senate torture report, is redacted in America. Its horrors and mistakes are suppressed, its patriotic whistleblowers punished, even as the American people are kept in a demobilized state. The act of going to war no longer represents the will of the people, as represented by formal Congressional declarations of war as the U.S. Constitution demands. Instead, in these years, Americans were told togo to Disney World (as George W. Bush suggested in the wake of 9/11) and keep shopping. They’re encouraged not to pay too much attention to war’s casualties and costs, especially when those costs involve foreigners with funny-sounding names (after all, they are, as American sniper Chris Kyle so indelicately put it in his book, just “savages”).
Redacted war hides the true cost of a permanent state of killing from the American people, if not from foreign observers. Ignorance and apathy reign, even as a national security state that is essentially a shadow governmentequates its growth with your safety.
5. Threat inflation: There’s nothing new about threat inflation. We saw plenty of it during the Cold War (nonexistent missile and bomber gaps, for example). Fear sells and we’ve had quite a dose of it in the twenty-first century, from ISIS to Ebola. But a more important truth is that fear is a mind-killer, a debate-stifler.
Back in September, for example, Senator Lindsey Graham warned that ISIS and its radical Islamic army was coming to America to kill us all. ISIS, of course, is a regional power with no ability to mount significant operations against the United States. But fear is so commonplace, so effectively stoked in this country that Americans routinely and wildly exaggerate the threat posed by al-Qaeda or ISIS or the bogeyman du jour.
Decades ago, as a young lieutenant in the Air Force, I was hunkered down inCheyenne Mountain during the Cold War. It was the ultimate citadel-cum-bomb-shelter, and those in it were believed to have a 70% likelihood of surviving a five-megaton nuclear blast. There, not surprisingly, I found myself contemplating the very real possibility of a thermonuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, a war that would have annihilated life as we knew it, indeed much of life on our planet thanks to the phenomenon of nuclear winter. You’ll excuse me for not shaking in my boots at the threat of ISIS coming to get me. Or of Sharia Law coming to my local town hall. With respect to such fears, America needs, as Hillary Clinton said in an admittedly different context, to “grow a pair.”
6. Defining the world as a global battlefield: In fortress America, all realms have by now become battle spheres. Not only much of the planet, the seas, air, and space, as well as the country’s borders and its increasingly up-armored police forces, but the world of thought, the insides of our minds. Think of the 17 intertwined intelligence outfits in “the U.S. Intelligence Community” and their ongoing “surge” for information dominance across every mode of human communication, as well as the surveillance of everything. And don’t forget the national security state’s leading role in making cyberwar a reality. (Indeed, Washington launched the first cyberwar in history by deploying the Stuxnet computer worm against Iran.)
Think of all this as a global matrix that rests on war, empowering disaster capitalism and the corporate complexes that have formed around the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and that intelligence community. A militarized matrix doesn’t blink at $1.45 trillion dollars devoted to the F-35, a single under-performing jet fighter, nor at projections of $355 billion over the next decade for “modernizing” the U.S. nuclear arsenal, weapons that Barack Obama vowed to abolish in 2009.
7. The new “normal” in America is war: The 9/11 attacks happened more than 13 years ago, which means that no teenagers in America can truly remember a time when the country was at peace. “War time” is their normal; peace, a fairy tale.
What’s truly “exceptional” in twenty-first-century America is any articulated vision of what a land at peace with itself and other nations might be like. Instead, war, backed by a diet of fear, is the backdrop against which the young have grown to adulthood. It’s the background noise of their world, so much a part of their lives that they hardly recognize it for what it is. And that’s the most insidious danger of them all.
How do we inoculate our children against such a permanent state of war and the war state itself? I have one simple suggestion: just stop it. All of it. Stop making war a never-ending part of our lives and stop celebrating it, too. War should be the realm of the extreme, of the abnormal. It should be the death of normalcy, not the dreary norm.
It’s never too soon, America, to enlist in that good fight!
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a TomDispatch regular. His D.Phil. is in Modern History from the University of Oxford. He’s just plain tired of war and would like to see the next politician braying for it be deployed with a rifle to the front lines of battle. He edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.