America’s Mutant Military

An Ohio-Class Submarine, armed with Trident nuclear missiles
An Ohio-Class Submarine, armed with Trident nuclear missiles

W.J. Astore

I’ve been writing for TomDispatch.com and the amazing Tom Engelhardt since 2007.  When I wrote my first article, “Saving the Military from Itself: Why Medals and Metrics Mislead,” I never imagined I would come to write 37 more for Tom and his site over the next eight years.  TomDispatch has given me an opportunity to write about topics like the elimination of nuclear weapons, the rise of American militarism, the perils of calling all troops in the military “heroes,” the over-hyping of American military prowess by our leaders, and many others.  In all my articles, I hope I’ve offered a contrary perspective on the U.S. military as well as American culture, among other subjects.

My latest article, America’s mutant military, is a personal odyssey of sorts.  I reflect on how the military has changed since I entered it in 1985.  Today’s post-Cold War U.S. military is, to put it bluntly, not as I envisioned it would be as the Berlin Wall was falling and the Soviet Union was collapsing.  Today’s military still has its Cold War weaponry and mindset largely intact, even as a new “mutant” military has emerged, based on special ops and connected to corporations and intelligence agencies, a military hybrid that is often shrouded in secrecy even as it’s celebrated openly in Hollywood action films.

My essay runs 2300 words, so I encourage you to read all of it at TomDispatch.  What follows are a few excerpts from it:

It’s 1990. I’m a young captain in the U.S. Air Force.  I’ve just witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, something I never thought I’d see, short of a third world war.  Right now I’m witnessing the slow death of the Soviet Union, without the accompanying nuclear Armageddon so many feared.  Still, I’m slightly nervous as my military gears up for an unexpected new campaign, Operation Desert Shield/Storm, to expel Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s military from Kuwait.  It’s a confusing moment.  After all, the Soviet Union was forever (until it wasn’t) and Saddam had been a stalwart U.S. friend, his country a bulwark against the Iran of the Ayatollahs.  (For anyone who doubts that history, just check out the now-infamous 1983 photo of Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy for President Reagan, all smiles and shaking hands with Saddam in Baghdad.)  Still, whatever my anxieties, the Soviet Union collapsed without a whimper and the campaign against Saddam’s battle-tested forces proved to be a “cakewalk,” with ground combat over in a mere 100 hours.

Think of it as the trifecta moment: Vietnam syndrome vanquished forever, Saddam’s army destroyed, and the U.S. left standing as the planet’s “sole superpower.”

Post-Desert Storm, the military of which I was a part stood triumphant on a planet that was visibly ours and ours alone.  Washington had won the Cold War.  It had won everything, in fact.  End of story.  Saddam admittedly was still in power in Baghdad, but he had been soundly spanked.  Not a single peer enemy loomed on the horizon.  It seemed as if, in the words of former U.N. ambassador and uber-conservative Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. could return to being a normal country in normal times.

[But it didn’t happen.  With the Soviets gone, the U.S. military itself was now uncontained, and many hankered to use its power to achieve America’s goal of global power.]

Yet even as civilian leaders hankered to flex America’s military muscle in unpromising places like Bosnia and Somalia in the 1990s, and Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen in this century, the military itself has remained remarkably mired in Cold War thinking.  If I could transport the 1990 version of me to 2015, here’s one thing that would stun him a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union: the force structure of the U.S. military has changed remarkably little.  Its nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, submarine-launched SLBMs, and nuclear-capable bombers remains thoroughly intact.  Indeed, it’s being updated and enhanced at mind-boggling expense (perhaps as high as a trillion dollars over the next three decades).  The U.S. Navy?  Still built around large, super-expensive, and vulnerableaircraft carrier task forces.  The U.S. Air Force?  Still pursuing new, ultra-high-tech strategic bombers and new, wildly expensive fighters and attack aircraft — first the F-22, now the F-35, both supremely disappointing.  The U.S. Army?  Still configured to fight large-scale, conventional battles, a surplus of M-1 Abrams tanks sitting in mothballs just in case they’re needed to plug the Fulda Gap in Germany against a raging Red Army.  Except it’s 2015, not 1990, and no mass of Soviet T-72 tanks remains poised to surge through that gap.

[Along with the persistence of America’s “Cold War” military, a new military emerged, especially in the aftermath of 9-11.]

In 2015, so many of America’s “trigger-pullers” overseas are no longer, strictly speaking, professional military.  They’re mercenaries, guns for hire, or CIA drone pilots (some on loan from the Air Force), or warrior corporations and intelligence contractors looking to get in on a piece of the action in a war on terror where progress is defined — official denials to the contrary — by body count, by the number of “enemy combatants” killed in drone or other strikes.

Indeed, the very persistence of traditional Cold War structures and postures within the “big” military has helped hide the full-scale emergence of a new and dangerous mutant version of our armed forces.  A bewildering mish-mash of special ops, civilian contractors (both armed and unarmed), and CIA and other intelligence operatives, all plunged into a penumbra of secrecy, all largely hidden from view (even as they’re openly celebrated in various Hollywood action movies), this mutant military is forever clamoring for a greater piece of the action.

While the old-fashioned, uniformed military guards its Cold War turf, preserved like some set of monstrous museum exhibits, the mutant military strives with great success to expand its power across the globe.  Since 9/11, it’s the mutant military that has gotten the lion’s share of the action and much of the adulation — here’s looking at you, SEAL Team 6 — along with its ultimate enabler, the civilian commander-in-chief, now acting in essence as America’s assassin-in-chief.

Think of it this way: a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military is completely uncontained.

[And an uncontained military, in a country that celebrates its troops as heroes, that boasts of itself as having the best military in all of recorded history, does not bode well for America’s democratic future.]

Go to TomDispatch.com to read the entire article.  Thank you!

9 thoughts on “America’s Mutant Military

  1. Speaking of the Air Force and other self-aggrandizing components of the America’s Maniacal Mutant Military, consider the following comments made by Gareth Porter, a historian and investigative reporter, in response to a question by Peter Lavelle, moderator of Russia Today‘s discussion program, Crosstalk, in an episode entitled “The Yemen Proxy?”:

    Peter Lavelle: “If one looks at the Middle East in this century, you can go to chaos theory – the more chaos you create the more ability you think you have to change and form outcomes. This is a theory, and a lot of people in Washington like it because they want to be these gods in the universe controlling things. But it never, ever works the way you expect it [to do]. Why do they keep doing this?”

    Gareth Porter: “I think that if you look at the United States as the single largest force for instability/destabilization in the Middle East over the past twenty years, the answer is that they don’t learn from their mistakes because they don’t have any incentive to learn from their mistakes. Because those are not really mistakes from the point of view of the bureaucracies that have the primary interest in carrying out these wars [emphasis added]. The CIA and the Pentagon, the armed services, particularly the Air Force. If you’re talking about Iraq, this was an Air Force war. They gained, particularly in relation to their rivals within the Pentagon, the Army and the Navy, because of that war. That was the reason for the war in the first place, if one really looks deeply into it. So I think you have to understand that the instability that the United States has visited on the Middle East, particularly through Iraq, but of course not limited to that, is primarily a function of the interests of these national security bureaucracies [emphasis added] who have so much power that they have been able to manipulate the system in ways that have been terribly damaging to not only the people of the Middle East, but the interests of the American people as well.”

    Or, as Upton Sinclair summarized the phenomenon: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” So simple. Just arrange things so that the corporate/careerist U.S. militarized bureaucracies — which include the entire, wholly owned U.S. political establishment — make more money and wield more power the more stupidly they act. They will then hardly conceive of their ever increasing profit and promotion prospects as anything less than brilliant, no matter how much losing an endless series of chaotic “wars” against virtual nobodies may look like idiocy and disaster to those who do not profit from them. Bureaucratic inertia harnessed to venal pecuniary opportunism will ensure that Warfare Welfare and Make-work Militarism continue to triumph in the United States of America — a.k.a., the Lunatic Leviathan — as it blunders into a bankrupt future shouting its interchangeable Orwellian slogans: Defeat is Victory! and Failure is Success!.

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    1. I was thinking something similar to this today, Mike. In the military, I knew an officer whose career suffered because he was associated with a cancelled weapon system (a rare thing, that — a cancelled weapon). In theory, he did a good job on the program, and saved the American taxpayer some money. In practice, saving money is not the metric of success — spending money is. There’s no incentive to save; you are rewarded for spending, and especially for enlarging your service’s piece of the fiscal pie.

      Military officers become infected by careerism. They want to get promoted. They learn quickly that the way to get promoted is not to raise questions, and certainly not to challenge those in authority. No. The way to get ahead is to put your service branch first. To conform. To make those above you happy. Because expansion is always the goal. More money, more resources, more authority: that’s how “success” is measured.

      This explains, in part, the enormous inertia within the system against reform. Reform threatens the system. So too does any admission of mistakes in places like the Middle East. The answer is always, “We almost had it right; let us go in again, and this time we’ll get it right.” Again, no incentive to admit mistakes or review one’s limitations.

      But as Clint Eastwood said in “Magnum Force,” a good man always knows his limitations.

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      1. William.

        Years ago, before 9/11 rained billions on the military, and while I was pleading for funds to accomplish my 28th Aviation Brigade training mission, I received an unforgettable rebuff from a sage old cold warrior: “We’re out of money, now we have to think.”

        Words to govern by.

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      2. Back in 1983, I had the opportunity to attend a week-long soccer coaching clinic at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Santa Barbara, California. After each day’s work out on the soccer fields, we erstwhile coaches — and future trainers of other coaches — would gather in the base auditorium to watch films and conduct analyses of game strategy and tactics. The Air Force representative told us civilians that Air Force officers used this auditorium for their own educational and training programs. I’ll never forget that auditorium. Along one wall stood a row of monstrous, menacing, olive-green mock-ups of Soviet missiles, each with a huge, red hammer-and-sickle plastered on it. Along the opposite wall stood another row of missile mock-ups: pathetic, skinny, little white American missiles with the unimposing letters “U.S.A.” painted in red-white-and-blue on the side. The whole setup reminded me if the phony, non-existent “missile gap” that John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon had argued over during their campaign for the presidency in 1960 — twenty-three years earlier. I remember wondering whether Air Force officers could really be so dumb as to fall for such heavy-handed — not to mention long-since discredited — propaganda.

        As to where the money went: one day we got a special tour of the base facilities which featured a little side trip along a winding road over the little coastal hills and down onto a narrow strip of land near the water. There stood a single Titan launch tower, a cement bunker for launch operations, and a “Vehicle Assembly Building” — on wheels! — which supposedly would bring a fully configured space shuttle over to the tower for launches on polar trajectories. The whole setup looked like a Rube Goldberg wet dream. The Air Force representative told us that the facility had already gone through 400 million dollars before someone pulled the plug on the crazy scheme. “If the taxpayers ever get wind of this boondoggle,” he told us, “they’ll shut us down in no time flat.” Of course, today, a lousy 400 million down the drain for nothing wouldn’t cause the Air Force brass to bat a manicured eyelash. They probably blow that much teaching cadets all about Jesus at their academy.

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      3. Here’s the thing, Mike: Soviet missiles were bigger because they had to be. They were cruder and less accurate than ours, so their warheads had to be bigger. Our missiles were smaller because they were more accurate. The use of solid fuel also helped.

        Of course, those facts didn’t get in the way of graphics that showed the “puny” US missiles being dwarfed by the Soviet ones. It was a clear case of threat inflation as well as, in a strange way, “missile envy” analogous to penis envy. (“Missile Envy” is Helen Caldicott’s phrase.)

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      4. Well, you were doing pretty well until you held Clint Eastwood up as a good example of anything (or John Wayne, that great enabler of the Hollywood-Military-Industrial-Complex, either.

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      5. Clint Eastwood wasn’t always talking to empty chairs. And his movies weren’t always tributes to snipers. For example, “Magnum Force” is a cautionary tale of an assassination squad within the SF police force, and where that would lead us. Let’s not forget “Unforgiven” as well. And one of my favorites, “Pale Rider,” along with “High Plains Drifter,” both of which target themes like naked greed and conformity bred by cowardice.

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  2. Reality:
    Who put , not a monkey, but the first human into space? Size doesn’t always matter.
    From an old song ” It ain’t what you got it’s the way that you use it”.
    Does accuracy really mean anything when a single nuclear missile can destroy a whole town.? Hiroshima, Nagasaki.

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    1. Good points about the assumed accuracy — or lack thereof — when it comes to ballistic missiles that can obliterate an entire city, no matter whether they land on the right or the left-hand side of town. That aside, I think that Professor Astore got the main point about the propaganda value of penile missile envy if directed at those already disposed to believe in the dire necessity of ever more taxpayer largesse directed at their own particular armed service bureaucracy. I mean, you had to actually see these things in order to believe that you had seen them. The phrase “over the top” simply doesn’t do them justice.

      And then, too, as you point out, the Soviets put a man — and a woman — into space some time before the Americans could get around to doing that; and even today the Russians reliably give U.S. astronauts a ride up to the International Space Station and back to Earth, since the United States no longer has that capability and won’t for several more years. The Russians have a good educational system and they produce good scientists and engineers — the equal of just about anyone. They just use kerosene/liquid-oxygen rocket engines instead of the liquid-hydrogen/liquid-oxygen engines that the U.S. uses. Sure, the Russian engines have a little less specific impulse (ISP), meaning a somewhat lower thrust, but they cost less to operate and they have a greater margin for safety. Russian engineers have had to make certain trade-offs due to economic constraints that American engineers, with their more lavish budgets, have not had to consider. But they get the job done and haven’t lost anywhere near the number of astronauts that America has. So one has to give credit where due. I just hope that President Obama gets over his little prick wounded ego and returns to co-operating with the Russians instead of gratuitously insulting them every chance he gets. America needs them a whole lot more than they need America.

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