Making War on Everything is the American Way

When you're at war, even your own youth become potential enemies.  A sign after the Kent State shootings
When you’re at war, even your own youth become potential enemies. A sign after the Kent State shootings (1970)

W.J. Astore

Here are a few excerpts from my latest article at TomDispatch.com.  I urge you to read the entire article here.  Thank you!

War on drugsWar on poverty. War in Afghanistan. War in Iraq. War on terror. The biggest mistake in American policy, foreign and domestic, is looking at everything as war. When a war mentality takes over, it chooses the weapons and tactics for you.  It limits the terms of debate before you even begin. It answers questions before they’re even asked.

When you define something as war, it dictates the use of the military (or militarized police forces, prisons, and other forms of coercion) as the primary instruments of policy.  Violence becomes the means of decision, total victory the goal.  Anyone who suggests otherwise is labeled a dreamer, an appeaser, or even a traitor.

War, in short, is the great simplifier — and it may even work when you’re fighting existential military threats (as in World War II).  But it doesn’t work when you define every problem as an existential one and then make war on complex societal problems (crime, poverty, drugs) or ideas and religious beliefs (radical Islam).

America’s Omnipresent War Ethos

Consider the Afghan War — not the one in the 1980s when Washington funneled money and arms to the fundamentalist Mujahideen to inflict on the Soviet Union a Vietnam-style quagmire, but the more recent phase that began soon after 9/11.  Keep in mind that what launched it were those attacks by 19 hijackers (15 of whom were Saudi nationals) representing a modest-sized organization lacking the slightest resemblance to a nation, state, or government.  There was as well, of course, the fundamentalist Taliban movement that then controlled much of Afghanistan.  It had emerged from the rubble of our previous war there and had provided support and sanctuary, though somewhat grudgingly, to Osama bin Laden.

With images of those collapsing towers in New York burned into America’s collective consciousness, the idea that the U.S. might respond with an international “policing” action aimed at taking criminals off the global streets was instantly banished from discussion.  What arose in the minds of the Bush administration’s top officials instead was vengeance via a full-scale, global, and generational “war on terror.”  Its thoroughly militarized goal was not just to eliminate al-Qaeda but any terror outfits anywhere on Earth, even as the U.S. embarked on a full-fledged experiment in violent nation building in Afghanistan.  More than 13 dismal years later, that Afghan War-cum-experiment is ongoing at staggering expense and with the most disappointing of results.

While the mindset of global war was gaining traction, the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq.  The most technologically advanced military on Earth, one that the president termed “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known,” was set loose to bring “democracy” and a Pax Americana to the Middle East.  Washington had, of course, been in conflict with Iraq since Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991, but what began as the equivalent of a military coup (aka a “decapitation” operation) by an outside power, an attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein and eliminate his armed forces and party, soon morphed into a prolonged occupation and another political and social experiment in violent nation-building.  As with Afghanistan, the Iraq experiment with war is still ongoing at enormous expense and with even more disastrous results …

It’s the mindset that matters.  In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, places that for most Americans exist only within a “war” matrix, the U.S. invades or attacks, gets stuck, throws resources at the problem indiscriminately, and “makes a desert and calls it ‘peace'” (to quote the Roman historian Tacitus).  After which our leaders act surprised as hell when the problem only grows.

Sadly, the song remains monotonously the same in America: more wars, made worse by impatience for results driven by each new election cycle.  It’s a formula in which the country is eternally fated to lose…

b. traven asked me about “First Causes” when it comes to America’s permanent war mentality. With respect to the Middle East, he mentioned the Saudis and Israelis and the extent to which the USA kowtows to each. Here is my quick response:

I’d say that our war mentality pre-dates our tango with the Saudis and Israelis.  We really didn’t come to support them in a big way until the early 1970s, and by that point Korea and Vietnam and the military-industrial complex had already created a permanent war mentality.

First Cause(s): It’s so hard to say.  The Cold War and anti-Communist hysteria played a powerful role.  So did our culture: the John Wayne mentality.  American exceptionalism and our own myths.  The misreading of history: We must always resist violently or we’re risking another Munich.  Capitalism and the pursuit of profit by any means, to include violence.  Violence itself as a means to profit.

Maybe that’s it: Naked greed feeds wanton aggression.

What say you, readers?  Why is America always at war with itself and the world?

The Hidden Costs of War

Agent Orange victims Nguyen and Hung Vuong Pham, ages 14 and 15, as captured by Brian Driscoll, photographer, in 2008.(Huffington Post, 2013, see link in article)
Agent Orange victims Nguyen and Hung Vuong Pham, ages 14 and 15, as captured by Brian Driscoll, photographer, in 2008.(Huffington Post, 2013, see link in article)

W.J. Astore

If you’re in the U.S. military or you’re a veteran, you probably know casualty figures, especially deaths, from America’s wars.  To cite one example, America lost more than 58,000 men in the Vietnam War.  Their names are inscribed on the “The Wall” in DC.  I’ve been there.  Seeing all those names is a devastating experience.

But “The Wall” undercounts the number of American dead from that war.  Just the other day, I was talking to a veteran, a graduate of West Point, about Vietnam.  He told me he had two classmates who became pilots and who worked with Agent Orange, a toxic chemical defoliant, in Vietnam.  They both died later of brain tumors from their exposure to the chemical. Their names are not on The Wall.

I shared this story with a colleague, and he wrote back that his father’s best friend flew Agent Orange around in the Pacific, relocating it after the war.  After being exposed to it day after day, he died of cancer in his early thirties.  His name is also not on The Wall.

Wars are not over for our veterans after the U.S. government says they are.  Consider the surge in veteran suicides, especially for those in their fifties and sixties.  Estimates vary as to how many Vietnam veterans have taken their own lives, but the number may be as high as 100,000.  PTSD, chronic pain, depression, alcohol and drug addiction, and many other conditions linked to war ultimately become an unbearable load for many of our veterans.

(And as I’ve written about elsewhere, the cost of war was much much higher for the Vietnamese people, to include the continuing costs of exposure to Agent Orange, as shown in this article at Huffington Post)

My point is this: As a country, we just don’t recognize fully the true costs of our wars.  It’s not enough to add up the billions spent or the number of combat deaths.  We need to reckon with the aftermath of our wars, the way that veterans keep suffering and dying from wounds they suffered, many of them hidden from view, but no less real for that reason.  And we need to reckon with the destruction we inflict on other peoples and countries, for the “American way of war” is profligate with firepower, from high explosive and napalm and cluster munitions to Willy Peter (white phosphorous) and depleted uranium.

And maybe, just maybe, if we ever truly reckon with the cost of war to ourselves and others, we’ll strive harder to avoid war in the future.

A coda: Can we ban forever the term “surgical strike”?  Can we ban forever the term “collateral damage”?  Can we ban these and similar weasel words that diminish the horrifying and murderous nature of war?

A Little Honesty on the Confederate Flag

Want to fly a flag?  How about this one?
Want to fly a flag? How about this one?

W.J. Astore

Many people associate the Confederate flag (the “stars and bars”) with the South and the U.S. Civil War (Whoops — I mean “The War of Northern Aggression”).  For some people, it’s been a more or less vague expression of Southern heritage, or a symbol of rebellion, a sort of redneck “good ol’ boy” badge of pride.  Like any symbol, it is capable of holding multiple meanings.  To use academic fancy talk, its semiotics is negotiated and interrogated contextually within contingent cultural settings in which radical interpretive flexibility is possible.

Did you follow that last sentence?  If you didn’t, pat yourself on the back, because it’s all BS.  The “stars and bars” may have been a Confederate battle flag 150 years ago, but after the Civil War it morphed into a symbol of White supremacy, becoming a symbol of race hatred and violent resistance to integration during the Civil Rights movement.

A little honesty: The Confederate flag is hardly restricted to the South, and therefore it’s not primarily about Southern heritage. In rural Central Pennsylvania, where I recently taught for nine years, the Confederate flag was astonishingly common.  It was on license plates; it flew every day at a local gas station; I saw neighbors flying it openly on their flag poles.  Why, you might ask?

My wife was very good friends with a Black woman in a local town; the (White) neighbor immediately behind her openly flew a Confederate flag from his flag pole. Remember, this was Pennsylvania, Union country, not the heart of the Confederacy. There was no mistaking this man’s message — his unhappiness that a Black family lived near him, and his decision to make them uncomfortable, to make them squirm, by flying “his” flag.

Think I’m reaching here?  My wife’s friend has a son who went to the prom.  He complimented a (White) classmate on her prom dress, saying it looked “hot” on her.  He got a visit from an off-duty State Trooper who explained to him that Black boys don’t talk to White girls like that.  Not around here, son.  No, this wasn’t 1963.  It was 2013.  A half-century after the Civil Rights movement.

It’s good to see that the Confederate flag is finally being taken down from State Capitol buildings; that merchandise featuring it is being pulled from store shelves; that politicians are finally speaking out against it, even Republican candidates for president, who equivocated in such a cowardly manner until even they could no longer resist the pull of public outrage stemming from the latest racial hate crime in Charleston.

The question is: What the hell took them (and us) so long?

Divided, Distracted, Downtrodden: The Social and Political Reality in America Today

Consumerism1

W.J. Astore

The American people are being kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden.  Divisions are usually based on race and class. Racial tensions and discrimination exist, of course, but they are also exploited to divide people.  Just look at the current debate on the Confederate flag flying in Charleston, South Carolina, with Republican presidential candidates refusing to take a stand against it as a way of appeasing their (White) radical activist base.  Class divisions are constantly exploited to turn the middle class, or those who fancy themselves to be in the middle class, against the working poor.  The intent is to blame the “greedy” poor (especially those on welfare or food stamps), rather than the greedy rich, for America’s problems.  That American CEOs of top companies earn 300 times more than ordinary workers scarcely draws comment, since the rich supposedly “deserve” their money.  Indeed, in the prosperity Gospel favored by some Christians, lots of money is seen as a sign of God’s favor.

As people are kept divided by race, class, and other “hot button” issues (abortion and guns, for example), they are kept distracted by insatiable consumerism and incessant entertainment.  People are told they can have it all, that they “deserve it” (a new car, a bigger home, and so on), that they should indulge their wants.  On HGTV and similar channels, people go shopping for new homes, carrying a long list of “must haves” with them.  I “must have” a three-car garage, a pool, a media room, surround sound, and so on.  Just tell me what mortgage I can afford, even if it puts me deeply in debt.  As consumerism runs rampant, people are kept further distracted by a mainstream media that provides info-tainment rather than news. Ultimately, the media exists to sell product; indeed, it is product itself.  No news is aired that will disturb the financial bottom line, that will threaten the corporations that run the media networks, that will undermine the privileged and the powerful.

The people, kept divided and distracted, are further rendered powerless by being kept downtrodden.  Education is often of poor quality and focused on reciting rote answers to standardized tests.  Various forms of debt (student loan debt, credit card debt, debt from health care and prescription drugs costs, and so on) work to keep the people downtrodden.  Even workers with good jobs and decent benefits are worried.  Worried that if they lose their jobs, they lose their health care. So much of personal status and identity, as well as your ability to navigate American society, is based on your position.  For many it’s lose your job, lose your life, as you’re consumed by debt you can’t repay.

Divided, distracted, and downtrodden: It’s a recipe for the end of democracy in America.  But it also serves as a roadmap to recovery.  To reinvigorate our democracy, we must fight against divisiveness, we must put distractions behind us, and we must organize to fight for the rights of the people, rights like a better education for all, less debt (a college education that’s largely free, better health care for everyone, and far less emphasis on consumerism as a sign of personal and societal health and wealth), and improved benefits for the workers of America, who form the backbone of our nation.

We can’t wait for the politicians.  Most of them are already co-opted by the moneyed interests.  Meaningful change will have to come from us.  That is, after all, the way democracy is supposed to work.

Betraying the military (and democracy) by loving indifference

A grim reality of military service that we often prefer not to see
A grim reality of military service that we often prefer not to see

W.J. Astore

Since the end of the Vietnam War, when it eliminated the draft, the United States has relied on an “all-volunteer military,” or AVM.  But that military, as one would expect, has not drawn equally from all segments of American society.  Its recruits have been more rural than urban, more Southern and Midwestern than from coastal regions, more conservative and evangelical than liberal and non-denominational, and certainly more working and middle class than from the affluent upper classes.

Is there a problem here?  Some would answer “no,” but today’s AVM is not the citizen-military of World War II, which drew in a fairly equitable way from all sectors of American society.  Today’s AVM defines itself as a breed apart, as separate from and superior to the masses who choose not to serve.  And in some sense it is a breed apart, because we have allowed it to become so.

This band of self-styled warriors is augmented increasingly by privatized military corporations, or mercenaries in plain speak.  (Indeed, some service members, when they leave the AVM, choose to join privatized military corporations, often doubling or tripling their salaries in the process.)  National Guard and Reserves complete the picture, units of which have been deployed to war zones far more frequently than anticipated since 9/11.

So, the U.S. military today is a curious amalgam.  An AVM or “professional” military, supported by privatized corporations/mercenaries and “weekend warriors,” deployed to foreign locations, acting to guard and sometimes to extend an imperial frontier, often celebrated by gushing politicians and a fawning media as “heroes” and as “the finest fighting force ever,” even as that military is connected less and less tangibly to the American citizenry.

And it’s that very decline in tangible connections that accounts for much of the military boosterism in America.  Most Americans lack any clear sense of what the military does; they certainly care less than they should; but what they are willing to do is to “salute” the troops by buying a beer in a red-white-and-blue can or putting a magnetic ribbon on their SUV as an expression of “support.”

A military that is not drawn equitably and broadly from the people is a military that is potentially corrosive to democracy.  Perhaps not surprisingly, today’s military is also one that is rarely sent on the people’s business in anything but name.  Instead, it is sent on the government’s business, a government riddled by special interests, a deeply compromised government.

Having served myself in the AVM for twenty years, I confess to respect aspects of it while increasingly being uneasy at its current composition and direction.  Why?  Because its composition is less than democratic, and its missions are even less so.  These hard facts are nothing new in history, even in America’s history, even when we had a draft.  Just read General Smedley Butler’s War Is A Racket. What’s new is our acquiescence as a people in the transformation of our military as warriors and mercenaries to well-heeled special interests.

Our nation has betrayed its troops in a strange way — by loving indifference.  Even as the military kills in our name, we choose to look away, sometimes in horror at the face of war, most often in lack of interest.  Even when we show interest, it’s the interest of cheerleaders jumping in celebration, or of fans enthusiastically or politely applauding from the sidelines.  The vast majority of Americans choose to have no real skin in the game.

What our military needs is not gushing cheerleaders or applauding fans but determined critics.  It needs to be challenged.  It needs a good ass-chewing, especially of its decision-makers at the top, the brass.  We sure as hell can’t wait for our “leaders” to do this.

Recent presidents have become cheerleaders-in-chief rather than commanders, nearly all of our Members of Congress have joined the pep squad, and the few critics who exist have been marginalized or attacked as being unpatriotic.

Even as our military becomes less democratic, less a representative sample of the people, we the people refuse to know our military.  We especially don’t want to know what it does in our name (especially the bad stuff, which is largely kept secret from us anyway).  So we end up worshiping a fantasy military, a manic pixie dream military, a figment of our imagination, an amalgam of films like Saving Private Ryan (WWII idealism), Top Gun (technological wargasm), and Act of Valor (Rambo/cowboy histrionics).

We refuse to know our military and what it does.  And if the people don’t know the military, and if the military is not drawn fairly from the people, you have a ripple, a rent, maybe even a fatal fault line, in the political and social life of the Republic.

We don’t know what kind of military we have, we don’t know what it does, but we worship it anyway.  That’s not democracy; that’s militarism as a national religion.

America’s Military Strategy? Persistent Overreach

A Roman Cavalry Mask found at the presumed site of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest
A Roman Cavalry Mask found at the presumed site of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest

W.J. Astore

Reports that President Obama is considering even more troops and bases to fight ISIS in Iraq put me to mind of Roman general Publius Quinctilius Varus.  Two millennia ago, Varus committed three Roman legions to the Teutoburg Forest in Germania in terrain that neutralized Roman advantages in firepower and maneuverability.  Ambushed and caught in a vise, his legions were destroyed in detail as Varus took his own life.  To Rome the shock and disgrace of defeat were so great that Emperor Augustus cried, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my Legions!”

Ever since 9/11, American presidents and their military advisors have repeatedly committed U.S. troops and prestige to inhospitable regions in terrain that largely neutralizes U.S. advantages in firepower and maneuverability.  Whether it’s the urban jungles of Baghdad or Fallujah or Mosul or the harshly primitive and mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, American troops have been committed to campaigns that they can’t win (in any enduring sense), under conditions that facilitate ambushes by an elusive enemy with superior knowledge of the local terrain.  The number of U.S. soldiers killed or seriously wounded in these campaigns is roughly equivalent to those lost by Varus, though unlike Varus no U.S. general has yet to fall on his sword.

Unlike Rome, which did learn from Varus’s catastrophe the perils of imperial overreach, the U.S. persists in learning nothing.  Perhaps that’s because America’s defeat is collective and gradual, rather than singular and quick.  America may lack a Varus or a calamity like Teutoburg Forest, yet the overall result since 9/11 has been no less debilitating to American foreign policy.

Despite setback after setback, American presidents and generals persist in trying to control hostile territory at the end of insecure logistical lines while mounting punitive raids designed to deny Al Qaeda or ISIS or the Taliban “safe havens.”  We should have learned the impossibility of doing this from Vietnam, but it seems America’s presidents and generals keep trying to get Vietnam right, even if they have to move the fight to the deserts of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan.

Yet seeking to control territory in inhospitable regions like the Middle East or Afghanistan, whether you use American troops or proxy armies, is an exercise in strategic futility.   It’s also old-fashioned thinking: the idea that, to exert influence and control, you need large numbers of military boots on the ground.  But the world has already moved past such thinking into “borderless” hegemony as demonstrated by the Internet, by global business and finance, and by America’s own practice of drone strikes and cyber-war.

By repeatedly deploying American troops – whether in the tens of hundreds or tens of thousands – to so many equivalents of the Teutoburg Forest, our leaders continue a strategy of overreach that was already proven bankrupt in Vietnam.  Meanwhile, despite our own early revolutionary history, our leaders seem to have forgotten that no country likes to be occupied or interfered with by foreigners, no matter how “generous” and “benevolent” they claim to be.  Let’s also not forget that boots on the ground in faraway foreign lands cost an enormous amount of money, a cost that cannot be sustained indefinitely (just ask the British in 1781).

America simply cannot afford more troop deployments (and commitments of prestige) that set the stage for more military disasters.  When you persist in committing your legions to torturous terrain against an enemy that is well prepared to exact a high price for your personal hubris and strategic stubbornness, you get the fate you deserve.

After Varus’s calamity, the Romans stopped campaigning east of the Rhine.  When will America’s leaders learn that persistence in strategic overreach is nothing but folly?

Update (6/21/15): A friend writing from Germany reports that “new archaeological finds near the Elbe apparently show at least one major battle between Roman and Germanic forces in the second century AD. The documentary film’s claim was that the archaeological finds, combined with a few classical source references, show that the Roman armies did engage in major punitive expeditions deep into the territory across the Rhine in the time after Varus, including the one newly discovered which apparently showed a major Roman victory.”

Difficult to see.  Always in motion the future, Yoda once said.  He might have added that the past too “is always in motion.” Did a punitive raid such as this strengthen the Roman Empire or weaken it?  If the Romans won a victory, was it of the Pyrrhic variety?  Did the Romans attempt to sustain a presence across the Rhine only to abandon the attempt?  It will be interesting to see what new evidence is uncovered by archaeologists working in the area.

What the President Should Say to the Troops

vietnam

W.J. Astore

For George W. Bush, American troops were the greatest force for human freedom in the world.  For Barack Obama, the troops represented the world’s finest fighting force, not just in this moment, but in all of human history.  What is the reason for such hyperbolic, I’d even say unhinged, praise for our troops?  Well, presidents obviously think it is both politically popular with the heartland and personally expedient in making them seem thankful for the troops’ service.

But here’s the problem: We don’t need hyperbolic statements that our military is the “finest fighting force” ever or that our troops are the world’s liberators and bringers of freedom.  Such words are immoderate and boastful.  They’re also false, or at least unprovable.  They’re intended to win favor both with the troops and with the people back home, i.e. they’re politically calculated.  And in that sense they’re ill-advised and even dishonest; they’re basically nothing more than flattery.

If I were president, I’d say something like this: “I commend our troops for their dedication, their service, their commitment, their sacrifice.  They represent many of the best attributes of our country.  I’m proud to be their commander in chief.”

Our troops and most everyone else would be more than satisfied with that statement.  Our troops don’t need to hear they’re the best warriors in all of history.  At the same time, they don’t need to hear they’re the bringers of freedom (“a global force for good,” to use the U.S. Navy’s slogan, recently dropped as demotivating to sailors and Marines).  Let’s pause for a moment and compare those two statements.  The toughest warriors and the finest liberators?  Life-takers and widow-makers as well as freedom-bringers and world liberators?  You think there just might be some tension in that equation?

We need honesty, not immodesty, from America’s presidents.  Give me a president who is able to thank the troops without gushing over them.  Even more, give me a president who thanks the troops by not wasting their efforts in lost causes such as Afghanistan and Iraq.  Give me a president who thanks the troops by downsizing our empire while fully funding benefits and health care for wounded veterans.

That’s the kind of thanks our troops really need – not empty flattery.