D-Day Thoughts on Strength versus Weakness

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Sergeant Alvin C. York, reluctant hero

W.J. Astore

On this 72nd anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion at Normandy in France during World War II, it’s high time we thought about what is truly weakness versus strength in U.S. foreign policy.

There’s no doubt that in World War II American leaders demonstrated strength.  Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had to be defeated, and the means had to be military.  Our leaders mobilized the nation and the deed was done by men and women of my parent’s generation.

What about today?  Is our nation truly mobilized for war?  Are threats like ISIS truly the equivalent of militarized nation-states like Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan?  Are we truly engaged in wars of necessity, in wars of self-defense, or are our wars those of choice?  The lack of any Congressional declarations of war, of any effort at national mobilization or shared sacrifice, suggests the latter.  Our leaders choose to wage them – a choice that showcases weakness rather than strength.

How so?  “Strength” is shown not by committing troops to quagmires; not by escalating wars; not by buying, sending or selling more weaponry; not by more and more bombing; not by drone assassinations.  Indeed, weakness is shown in embracing these steps as providing “solutions.”

How “tough” do you really have to be to commit other people’s sons and daughters to war?  How tough do you have to be to bomb foreigners without risk to yourself, to buy and sell weapons at healthy profits, to send in the B-52s or the drones or the privatized militaries?  For Washington today, these are the easy steps to take, the expected ones, the expedient ones, the predictable ones.  They are not evidence of “toughness” — rather the reverse.

So, what is really “tough” for today’s DC crowd?  Patient diplomacy, quiet resolve, a willingness to withdraw from unwinnable wars, the resolve to retrench and rethink militarized positions.  Being a peacemaker instead of a war-bringer – that is what is really tough in today’s hyper-violent America.  But in “exceptional” America, war means never having to say you’re sorry.

The corporate media also has its categories of “weakness” and “strength” exactly backwards, hence the praise of Hillary Clinton for her toughness.  Her embrace of Henry Kissinger is generally applauded, and if Henry wasn’t so old, one could imagine the media applauding her if she made him her VP.  Donald Trump, of course, is riding a wave of (trumped up) toughness.  He’s presented as a “Go ahead—make my day” kind of guy, as if attacking marginalized groups for political advantage is the height of manly courage.  In polarized America, how tough do you have to be to criticize Muslims, immigrants of color, and other victimized or vulnerable groups? Trump would be truly tough if he took on racism, if he fought for justice, if he adopted positions based on democratic principles rather than his own biases and resentments.

The ass backwards nature of “strength” versus “weakness” is mirrored in America’s movies and TV shows.  In my dad’s day (the 1930s and 1940s), America’s good guys didn’t obsess about weapons.  Generally, it was gangsters who relied on them.  Men of weak character played with guns.  Truly tough men duked it out with fists when they weren’t otherwise facing each other down.  Think Humphrey Bogart, unarmed, facing down the gangster Johnny Rocco and his gun-toting stiffs in “Key Largo” (1948).

Think too of Gary Cooper in “High Noon” (1952).  He’s not spoiling for a fight, but he’s ready to endure one if it’s unavoidable.  His main “weapon” is his decency, his nerve, his courage, his character.  Today’s “heroes” in movies and TV are all about kinetic action, amped-up violence, and big guns.  Violence and mayhem dominate, just as in America’s overseas wars of choice.  Art imitates life while reinforcing it.  As a result, Americans don’t even blink when they hear about the latest drone assassination in Where–is-it-stan.  It’s happening off-stage, so who cares?

Even our war movies aren’t what they used to be.  Think Gary Cooper (again) playing Sergeant Alvin C. York, the World War I hero who was a conscientious objector due to his religious views.  Nowadays, our war movies celebrate gung-ho “American snipers” for their kill totals.

What is truly weakness and what is truly strength?  And why are America’s leaders, leaders of the sole superpower with the self-avowed “best” military ever, so very, very afraid of being perceived as “weak”?

Mister, we could use a man like Alvin York again.

Hillary Clinton’s Flat and Misleading Foreign Policy Speech

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Wrapping herself in the flag: Hillary talks foreign policy in San Diego, Calif. (AP Photo/John Locher)

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton gave a foreign policy speech in San Diego that was notably flat and misleading.  It’s been getting decent reviews in the mainstream media for the zingers she tossed at Donald Trump.  But when you listen to the speech (you can watch it here) and think about it, you realize how insipid and unoriginal it really was.

Here are my thoughts on Clinton’s speech:

1. The speech featured the usual American exceptionalism, the usual fear that if America withdraws from the world stage, chaos will result.  There was no sense that America’s wars of choice in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc. have greatly contributed to that chaos.  Oh, there was also the usual boast that America has the greatest military.  That’s what Imperial and Nazi Germany used to boast — until the Germans lost two world wars and smartened up.

2.  Hillary mentioned we’re electing “our” next commander-in-chief.  No, we’re not.  The president is a public servant, not “our” commander-in-chief.  The president serves as the civilian commander-in-chief of the military, and the military alone.

3.  Hillary mentioned the US has a “moral obligation” to defend Israel.  Why is this?  Sure, Israel is an American ally, but why is Israel the one country we’re “morally” obligated to defend? There’s only one country we’re morally obligated to defend, and that’s the USA, assuming our government is actually honoring the US Constitution.

4.  The speech had no new ideas.  It was a laundry list of neo-conservative principles about making America stronger, safer, and so on.  As a friend of mine put it, “Nothing that I heard her say deviated in any way from her hawkish record of recommending bombing at every opportunity.”

5.  Hillary seems to have two speech-giving styles: a somewhat bored monotone and a somewhat agitated yell.  A line like, “this isn’t reality TV, it’s reality,” should have been a big applause line, but her delivery was flat and her timing was off.  In this case, style and substance met as one.

Hillary Clinton reminds me of the grey leaders in the USSR before Gorbachev.  She’s like a Brezhnev or an Andropov. A cookie-cutter product of the system with no fresh ideas.

For many people who are leery of a Trump presidency, Hillary’s hawkish and colorless conformity to the Washington system is more than enough to qualify her.  If she wins the presidency, she will be much like Brezhnev and Andropov, senior apparatchiks of an empire in denial of its own precipitous decline.

A Few Comments on Jeremy Scahill’s Article on the Attack Near Gardez

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W.J. Astore

In a notorious night raid near Gardez in Afghanistan in February 2010, a US Special Ops team apparently hit the wrong suspect’s house, resulting in the deaths of innocents to include pregnant women.  It was further alleged that US troops dug bullets out of the bodies of these women.  Jeremy Scahill’s recent article at The Intercept reviews the US military’s investigation into these allegations, an investigation that cleared the troops involved of any wrongdoing.  Scahill’s article is here and warrants careful reading.

I want to focus on a piece of evidence that Scahill obtained: the U.S. military’s evaluation of the Afghan province and its after-action report about the failure of its IO (information operations) “battle.”  Here is the document in question:

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First, I want to focus on the BLUF at the bottom right.  In the Army, it stands for bottom line up front.  Most senior commanders will read this first; in some cases, the BLUF will be all they read (and remember).  What does the BLUF conclude?

It says the US military “lost the IO battle in our silence,” and that it’s only getting worse as the military remains silent.  It sounds vaguely reassuring: at least the military realizes it bungled the “information operations” job.  But it’s a bureaucratic message in bureaucratic language.  It reduces the objective to winning the “information” war, which the military says it’s not winning because of poor coordination with Afghan and other forces, lack of responsiveness, and so on.

How about some honesty?  Here’s my BLUF:  The US military is losing because it often misidentifies the enemy and misunderstands the culture, leading to the deaths of innocents and the estrangement of even those Afghans who are initially open to American influence.  And no matter how hard you try to spin those facts, you can’t hide that cold truth from the Afghan people.  (You can hide it from the American people, but that’s another story.)

As General Stanley McChrystal himself said about Afghanistan in 2010:  “We have shot an amazing number of [Afghan] people [often at checkpoints], but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.”

Tell me again how you win “information operations” by shooting “an amazing number” of innocent people?

I want to focus on a second aspect of the US military’s document from Scahill’s article: the illusion of data substituting for real knowledge.  Here’s the document again:

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Look at the left column.  It has “atmospherics” for the province, to include percentages for literacy, support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda (as if those are fixed in place), access to radio and telephone, and so on.  Is this knowledge?  Or a masquerade for it?

Interestingly, a quarter of the people are viewed as hostile to the USA.  One assumes this percentage went up significantly after the raid in question.

My point is these maps and charts and slides give an illusion of data-driven competence, but when you read Scahill’s article, you realize American forces were totally ignorant of basic Afghan customs, such as rituals to prepare bodies for burial.  That ignorance seems to have driven the initial confused and inaccurate account of honor killings of females, an account that was repeated widely (and wrongly) in the Western media.

Another minor yet telling point: An unnamed Ph.D. describes some of the Afghan peoples of the region as “great robbers” and “utter savages.”  Think about how that description would color the attitudes of US troops assigned to the region.  “Here we go, men.  Time to kill us some robbers and savages.”

Scahill’s article and the document he provides is a microcosm of the wider failure of US operations in Afghanistan.  The war, already in its 15th year, promises to be never-ending unless and until the US finally withdraws.  In a profile not of courage but of pusillanimity, Obama has punted the decision to the next president, which doubtless means another 2-4 years of war, mistakes and misunderstandings and more deaths of innocents included.

When will the madness end?

 

 

One Word Defines U.S. Foreign Policy: Hubris

Andrew Bacevich has a new article at TomDispatch.com in which he highlights the bankruptcy of US strategy in the Greater Middle East. Here’s an excerpt: “We have it on highest authority: the recent killing of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan marks ‘an important milestone.’ So the president of the United States has declared, with that claim duly echoed and implicitly endorsed by media commentary — the New York Times reporting, for example, that Mansour’s death leaves the Taliban leadership ‘shocked’ and ‘shaken.’

“But a question remains: A milestone toward what exactly?

“Toward victory? Peace? Reconciliation? At the very least, toward the prospect of the violence abating? Merely posing the question is to imply that U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Islamic world serve some larger purpose.

“Yet for years now that has not been the case. The assassination of Mansour instead joins a long list of previous milestones, turning points, and landmarks briefly heralded as significant achievements only to prove much less than advertised.”

He concludes this way: “Try this thought experiment. Imagine the opposing candidates in a presidential campaign each refusing to accept war as the new normal. Imagine them actually taking stock of the broader fight that’s been ongoing for decades now. Imagine them offering alternatives to armed conflicts that just drag on and on. Now that would be a milestone.”

But we won’t be seeing that milestone. Why? One word: hubris. Like a bunch of bad actors, US leaders will continue to hog the world stage, hamming it up even as they bomb (pun intended). No matter what, they can’t vacate the stage until they’re thrown off of it. They are as delusional as Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard,” but without her style.

Here’s the link to Bacevich’s article: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176147/

Bracing Views

Like Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard," Our Hubristic Leaders Are Always Ready for their Close-up Like Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard,” Our Hubristic Leaders Are Always Ready for their Close-up

W.J. Astore

When Hannah Arendt, the famous German-American political philosopher, criticized American involvement in the Vietnam War, she said that our foreign policy “experts” fell prey to using excessive means to achieve minor aims in a region of marginal interest to the United States.  You could say the same of most of America’s foreign interventions since 1945.  We are a superpower with a boundless propensity for meddling in world affairs.  We waste enormous amounts of money and resources intervening in areas that are of marginal importance to our national security.

There are many reasons for these wasteful interventions, of course.  The military-industrial-Congressional complex plays its role. Presidents love to intervene as a sign of “strength.” Natural resources, especially oil, are usually in play.  The usual motives, in short: profit, power, greed.

But perhaps the root…

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