Today, I saw another article on why America is losing its wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The gist of this and similar articles is that America’s wars are winnable. That is, if we bomb more, or send more troops, or change our strategy, or alter our ROE (rules of engagement), or give more latitude to the generals, or use all the weapons at our disposal (to include nukes?), and so on, these wars will prove tractable and even winnable. This jibes with President Trump’s promises about America winning again, everywhere, especially in wars.
Nonsense. The U.S. military hasn’t won these wars since the wars themselves are unwinnable by U.S. military action. Indeed, U.S. military action only makes them worse.
Consider Iraq. Our invasion in 2003 and our toppling of Saddam kicked off a regional, religious, ethnic, and otherwise complicated civil war that is simply unwinnable by American troops. Indeed, the presence of (and blunders made by) American troops in Iraq helped to produce ISIS, much-hyped as the current bane of American existence.
Consider Afghanistan. Our invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban, at least for a moment, but did not produce peace as various Afghan factions and tribes jostled for power. Over time, the U.S. and NATO presence in the country produced instability rather than stability even as the Taliban proved both resilient and resurgent. U.S. and NATO forces have simply become yet another faction in the Afghan power game, but unless we want to stay there permanently, we are not going to “win” by any reasonable definition of that word.
You could say the same of the U.S. military’s involvement in similar conflicts like Yemen or Syria (look at the mess we made of Libya). We can kill a lot of “terrorists” and drop a lot of bombs, spreading our share of chaos, but we aren’t going to win, not in the sense of these wars ending on terms that enhance U.S. national security.
This hard reality is one that the U.S. military explains away by using jargon. Military men talk of generational wars, of long wars, of fourth generation warfare, of gray zones, of military operations other than war (which has its own acronym, MOOTW), and so on. A friend of mine, an Air Force captain, once quipped: “You study long, you study wrong.” You can say something similar of war: “You wage war for long, you wage it wrong.” This is especially true for a democracy.
America’s wars today are unwinnable. They are unwinnable not only because they are not ours to win: they aren’t even ours. We refuse to take ownership of them. At the most fundamental level, we recognize they are not vital to us, since we don’t bother to unify as a country to declare war and to wage it. Most Americans ignore them because we can ignore them. The Afghans, the Iraqis, the Syrians, and so on don’t have the luxury of ignoring them.
Trump, with all his talk of winning, isn’t going to change this. The more he expands the U.S. military, the more he leans on “his” generals for advice, the more he’s going to fail. Our new commander-in-chief needs to learn one lesson: The only way to win America’s wars is to end them.
The NFL draft is back on TV this weekend with blanket coverage by ESPN. As I wrote this time a year ago, what if Americans paid as much attention to their wars as they did their NFL teams (including of the “fantasy” variety)? I’m always dazed and amazed by the sheer work that goes into the NFL draft: the thoroughness of it all, the expertise on display, the active and informed involvement of the fans. Imagine if ESPN (or any media outlet, for that matter) covered America’s wars with the same commitment to detail and facts as is displayed yearly for American football!
As I wrote last year: “To win the war on terror, let’s put ESPN in charge of intelligence gathering and coverage. Just imagine if your average red-blooded American devoted as much attention to foreign wars as they do to their favorite NFL team! Just imagine if America’s leaders were held accountable for poor results as NFL coaches and staffs are! America still might not win its wars, but at least we’d squarely face the fact that we’re continuing to lose at incredibly high cost.”
This weekend, I watched a few minutes of NFL draft coverage on ESPN. If you’re not familiar with NFL football or ESPN coverage of the same in the USA, you should be, because it says much about the American moment. The first round of the draft kicks off on Thursday night in prime time, followed by the second and third rounds on Friday night in prime time. The draft concludes on Saturday with rounds four through seven, roughly 250 total picks if you include “supplemental” picks.
Yet this quick summary vastly understates the coverage devoted to the draft. From the end of the Super Bowl early in February to the draft itself at the end of April, coverage of the draft on ESPN is virtually non-stop, with innumerable “mock” drafts for each team and a parade of “experts” speculating…
Seven years ago, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com on American kleptocracy. At the time, it seemed a bit of a stretch. Sure, America was (and is) plutocratic. But kleptocratic? Like a third-world dictatorship in which family members of the ruler enrich themselves while being appointed to government offices for which they’re eminently unqualified? Surely not! But here we are, in 2017, with Trump as president and his son-in-law Jared Kushner seemingly running everything and with daughter Ivanka the “First Daughter” and pseudo-First Lady. I didn’t see that one coming.
Anyway, here’s my original article, unedited, from 2010.
How Fears of Socialism and Fascism Hide Naked Theft
By William J. Astore
Kleptocracy — now, there’s a word I was taught to associate with corrupt and exploitative governments that steal ruthlessly and relentlessly from the people. It’s a word, in fact, that’s usually applied to flawed or failed governments in Africa, Latin America, or the nether regions of Asia. Such governments are typically led by autocratic strong men who shower themselves and their cronies with all the fruits of extracted wealth, whether stolen from the people or squeezed from their country’s natural resources. It’s not a word you’re likely to see associated with a mature republic like the United States led by disinterested public servants and regulated by more-or-less transparent principles and processes.
In fact, when Americans today wish to critique or condemn their government, the typical epithets used are “socialism” or “fascism.” When my conservative friends are upset, they send me emails with links to material about “ObamaCare” and the like. These generally warn of a future socialist takeover of the private realm by an intrusive, power-hungry government. When my progressive friends are upset, they send me emails with links pointing to an incipient fascist takeover of our public and private realms, led by that same intrusive, power-hungry government (and, I admit it, I’m hardly innocent when it comes to such “what if” scenarios).
What if, however, instead of looking at where our government might be headed, we took a closer look at where we are — at the power-brokers who run or influence our government, at those who are profiting and prospering from it? These are, after all, the “winners” in our American world in terms of the power they wield and the wealth they acquire. And shouldn’t we be looking as well at those Americans who are losing — their jobs, their money, their homes, their healthcare, their access to a better way of life — and asking why?
If we were to take an honest look at America’s blasted landscape of “losers” and the far shinier, spiffier world of “winners,” we’d have to admit that it wasn’t signs of onrushing socialism or fascism that stood out, but of staggeringly self-aggrandizing greed and theft right in the here and now. We’d notice our public coffers being emptied to benefit major corporations and financial institutions working in close alliance with, and passing on remarkable sums of money to, the representatives of “the people.” We’d see, in a word, kleptocracy on a scale to dazzle. We would suddenly see an almost magical disappearing act being performed, largely without comment, right before our eyes.
Of Red Herrings and Missing Pallets of Money
Think of socialism and fascism as the red herrings of this moment or, if you’re an old time movie fan, as Hitchcockian MacGuffins — in other words, riveting distractions. Conservatives and tea partiers fear invasive government regulation and excessive taxation, while railing against government takeovers — even as corporate lobbyists write our public healthcare bills to favor private interests. Similarly, progressives rail against an emergent proto-fascist corps of private guns-for-hire, warrantless wiretapping, and the potential government-approved assassination of U.S. citizens, all sanctioned by a perpetual, and apparently open-ended, state of war.
Yet, if this is socialism, why are private health insurers the government’s go-to guys for healthcare coverage? If this is fascism, why haven’t the secret police rounded up tea partiers and progressive critics as well and sent them to the lager or the gulag?
Consider this: America is not now, nor has it often been, a hotbed of political radicalism. We have no substantial socialist or workers’ party. (Unless you’re deluded, please don’t count the corporate-friendly “Democrat” party here.) We have no substantial fascist party. (Unless you’re deluded, please don’t count the cartoonish “tea partiers” here; these predominantly white, graying, and fairly affluent Americans seem most worried that the jackbooted thugs will be coming for them.)
What drives America today is, in fact, business — just as was true in the days of Calvin Coolidge. But it’s not the fair-minded “free enterprise” system touted in those freshly revised Texas guidelines for American history textbooks; rather, it’s a rigged system of crony capitalism that increasingly ends in what, if we were looking at some other country, we would recognize as an unabashed kleptocracy.
Recall, if you care to, those pallets stacked with hundreds of millions of dollars that the Bush administration sent to Iraq and which, Houdini-like, simply disappeared. Think of the ever-rising cost of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now in excess of a trillion dollars, and just whose pockets are full, thanks to them.
If you want to know the true state of our government and where it’s heading, follow the money (if you can) and remain vigilant: our kleptocratic Houdinis are hard at work, seeking to make yet more money vanish from your pockets — and reappear in theirs.
From Each According to His Gullibility — To Each According to His Greed
Never has the old adage my father used to repeat to me — “the rich get richer and the poor poorer” — seemed fresher or truer. If you want confirmation of just where we are today, for instance, consider this passage from a recent piece by Tony Judt:
In 2005, 21.2 percent of U.S. national income accrued to just 1 percent of earners. Contrast 1968, when the CEO of General Motors took home, in pay and benefits, about sixty-six times the amount paid to a typical GM worker. Today the CEO of Wal-Mart earns nine hundred times the wages of his average employee. Indeed, the wealth of the Wal-Mart founder’s family in 2005 was estimated at about the same ($90 billion) as that of the bottom 40 percent of the U.S. population: 120 million people.
Wealth concentration is only one aspect of our increasingly kleptocratic system. War profiteering by corporations (however well disguised as heartfelt support for our heroic warfighters) is another. Meanwhile, retired senior military officers typically line up to cash in on the kleptocratic equivalent of welfare, peddling their “expertise” in return for impressive corporate and Pentagon payouts that supplement their six-figure pensions. Even that putative champion of the Carhartt-wearing common folk, Sarah Palin, pocketed a cool $12 million last year without putting the slightest dent in her populist bona fides.
Based on such stories, now legion, perhaps we should rewrite George Orwell’s famous tagline from Animal Farm as: All animals are equal, but a few are so much more equal than others.
And who are those “more equal” citizens? Certainly, major corporations, which now enjoy a kind of political citizenship and the largesse of a federal government eager to rescue them from their financial mistakes, especially when they’re judged “too big to fail.” In raiding the U.S. Treasury, big banks and investment firms, shamelessly ready to jack up executive pay and bonuses even after accepting billions in taxpayer-funded bailouts, arguably outgun militarized multinationals in the conquest of the public realm and the extraction of our wealth for their benefit.
Such kleptocratic outfits are, of course, abetted by thousands of lobbyists and by politicians who thrive off corporate campaign contributions. Indeed, many of our more prominent public servants have proved expert at spinning through the revolving door into the private sector. Even ex-politicians who prefer to be seen as sympathetic to the little guy like former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt eagerly cash in.
I’m Shocked, Shocked, to Find Profiteering Going on Here
An old Roman maxim enjoins us to “let justice be done, though the heavens fall.” Within our kleptocracy, the prevailing attitude is an insouciant “We’ll get ours, though the heavens fall.” This mindset marks the decline of our polity. A spirit of shared sacrifice, dismissed as hopelessly naïve, has been replaced by a form of tribalized privatization in which insiders find ways to profit no matter what.
Is it any surprise then that, in seeking to export our form of government to Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve produced not two model democracies, but two emerging kleptocracies, fueled respectively by oil and opium?
When we confront corruption in Iraq or Afghanistan, are we not like the police chief in the classic movie Casablanca who is shocked, shocked to find gambling going on at Rick’s Café, even as he accepts his winnings?
Why then do we bother to feign shock when Iraqi and Afghan elites, a tiny minority, seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the majority?
Shouldn’t we be flattered? Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery. Isn’t it?
Did you know the U.S. has built nearly 70,000 nuclear weapons since 1945? Did you know the U.S. Air Force lost a B-52 and two hydrogen bombs in an accident over North Carolina in 1961, and that one of those H-bombs was a single safety-switch away from exploding with a blast equivalent to three or four million tons of TNT (roughly 200 Hiroshima-type bombs)? Did you know a U.S. nuclear missile exploded in its silo in Arkansas in 1980, throwing its thermonuclear warhead into the countryside?
That last accident is the subject of a PBS American Experiencedocumentary that I watched last night, “Command and Control.” I highly recommend it to all Americans, not just for what it reveals about nuclear accidents and the lack of safety, but for what it reveals about the U.S. military.
Here are a few things I learned about U.S. nuclear weapons and the military from the documentary:
During the silo accident, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) general in charge of nuclear missiles was a pilot with no experience in missiles. His order to activate a venting fan during a fuel leak led to the explosion that destroyed the missile and killed an airman. (Experts from Martin Marietta, the military contractor that built the Titan II missile, advised against such action.)
Airmen who courageously tried against long odds to mitigate the accident, and who were wounded in the explosion, were subsequently punished by the Air Force.
The Air Force refused to provide timely and reliable knowledge to local law enforcement as well as to the Arkansas governor (then Bill Clinton) and senators. Even Vice President Walter Mondale was denied a full and honest accounting of the accident.
Nuclear safety experts concluded that “luck” played a role in the fact that the Titan’s warhead didn’t explode. It was ejected from the silo without its power source, but if that power source had accompanied the warhead as it flew out of the silo, an explosion equivalent to two or three megatons could conceivably have happened.
Finally, the number of accidents involving U.S. nuclear weapons is far greater than the military has previously reported. Indeed, even the nation’s foremost expert in nuclear weapons development was not privy to all the data from these accidents.
In short, the U.S. has been very fortunate not to have nuked itself with multiple hydrogen bombs over the last 70 years. Talk today of a threat from North Korea pales in comparison to the threat posed to the U.S. by its own nuclear weapons programs and their hair-raising record of serious accidents and safety violations.
Despite this record, President Obama and now President Trump have asked for nearly a trillion dollars over the next generation to modernize and improve U.S. nuclear forces. Talk about rewarding failure!
Threatening genocidal murder is what passes for “deterrence,” then and now. This madness will continue as long as people acquiesce to the idea the government knows best and can be trusted with nuclear weapons that can destroy vast areas of our own country, along with most of the world.
To end the insanity, we must commit to eliminating nuclear weapons. Ronald Reagan saw the wisdom of total nuclear disarmament. So should we all.
An Addendum: In my Air Force career, I knew many missileers who worked in silos. They were dedicated professionals. But accidents happen, and complex weapons systems fail often in complex and unpredictable ways. Again, it’s nuclear experts themselves who say that luck has played a significant role in the fact that America hasn’t yet nuked itself. (Of course, we performed a lot of above-ground nuclear testing in places like Nevada, making them “no-go” places to this day due to radiation.)
Update (4/27/17): I’d heard of Air Force plans to base nuclear weapons on the moon, but today I learned that a nuclear test was contemplated on or near the moon as a way of showcasing American might during the Cold War. As the New York Timesreported, “Dr. [Leonard] Reiffel revealed that the Air Force had been interested in staging a surprise lunar explosion, and that its goal was propaganda. ‘The foremost intent was to impress the world with the prowess of the United States.’ It was a P.R. device, without question, in the minds of the people from the Air Force.” Dr. Reiffel further noted that, “The cost to science of destroying the pristine lunar environment did not seem of concern to our sponsors [the U.S. military] — but it certainly was to us, as I made clear at the time.”
The U.S. military wasn’t just content to pollute the earth with nuclear radiation: they wanted to pollute space and the moon as well. All in the name of “deterrence.”
Two pictures of above-ground nuclear testing in Nevada in 1955
As the end of Trump’s first 100 days in office approaches, we can already see the novice commander-in-chief’s approach to military action. The approach is to empower “his” generals. And the results? A triumph of image over substance. “Spin it to win it” is the byword for Trump’s military “strategy.”
A few examples:
The disastrous raid on Yemen that led to the death of a Navy SEAL as well as many civilians, including children, was spun by the Trump administration as a great success. At the same time, Trump pinned the death of the SEAL on his generals, saying “they” lost him.
The launch of 59 expensive cruise missiles against a Syrian airfield did little to change the actions of the Assad government. Nor did it knockout the airfield. Yet it was spun by Trump as a remarkable victory. In his words, “We’ve just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away, all of which hit, amazing. It’s so incredible. It’s brilliant. It’s genius. Our technology, our equipment, is better than anybody by a factor of five. I mean look, we have, in terms of technology, nobody can even come close to competing.”
The use of the “mother of all bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan was seized upon by Trump as an example of his toughness and decisiveness vis-à-vis the Obama administration’s use of force. Yet Trump didn’t even know about the bomb until after it was used. Nevertheless, he boasted “If you look at what’s happened over the last eight weeks [of my administration] and compare that really to what’s happened over the past eight years, you’ll see there’s a tremendous difference, tremendous difference.” Dropping MOAB, Trump claimed on scant evidence, “was another very, very successful mission.”
The Trump administration lost track of an aircraft carrier battle group, saying it was on its way as a show of force against North Korea even as it was headed in the opposite direction. This blunder was chalked up to a miscommunication between the White House and Pentagon, even as allies such as South Korea and Japan expressed concern about the credibility of U.S. support at a time of rising tensions.
As Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest must-read piece at TomDispatch.com:
President Trump did one thing decisively. He empowered a set of generals or retired generals — James “Mad Dog” Mattis as secretary of defense, H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, and John Kelly as secretary of homeland security — men already deeply implicated in America’s failing wars across the Greater Middle East. Not being a details guy himself, he’s then left them to do their damnedest. “What I do is I authorize my military,” he told reporters recently. “We have given them total authorization and that’s what they’re doing and, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.”
Have the generals really been “so successful lately,” President Trump? The facts suggest otherwise. Meanwhile, Trump has not yet learned that generals always want more – they believe they can win if they just get more troops, more money, more weaponry. They’ll support Trump as long as he keeps funneling more of everything their way – and as long as he keeps spinning their blunders and missteps as victories.
For the moment, Trump’s generals may love him for his “spin it to win it” boosterism and his blank checks of support. But beware, men wearing stars. Trump has already shown he prefers to delegate responsibility as well as authority when things go bad (recall the failed raid on Yemen and the dead SEAL).
Trump may not be a micro-manager, but that’s because he doesn’t know anything. He just wants to spin military action as a win – for Trump. If the generals keep losing, Trump will turn on them. The question is, will they turn on him?
More disturbing still: When failed military actions are spun as alt-fact “victories,” the violence isn’t done simply to facts: it’s done to innocent people around the world. It’s no game when innocent children die in the false name of “winning.”
What if World War II in the Pacific had not ended with the atomic bombs and Soviet entry into the war in August of 1945? If the Manhattan Project to build atomic weaponry had failed, and if that failure had necessitated an American invasion of Japan’s Home Islands in 1946, what level of destruction would have been visited upon Japan, and at what cost to the invading Americans?
Alternative histories can be an intriguing way to highlight the contingencies of world events in a way that captivates readers. Peter Van Buren’sHooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, both intrigues and captivates. Hooper’s War imagines a world in which Americans did have to launch an amphibious invasion of Japan in 1946, and that invasion is as bloody and as awful as students of history might expect.
Recall here the all-too-real bloodbaths on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. Recall as well the devastating firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay against Tokyo and numerous other cities that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese. Now imagine if these had persisted into 1946, taking Kyoto, a most sacred place to the Japanese, with them.
The historian John Dower wrote convincingly of how the U.S. war against Japan was different in kind from its war against Nazi Germany. For Dower, the U.S./Japan war was a “war without mercy,” a war where each side demonized the other as culturally and racially inferior. Such attitudes produced the most vicious fighting and bred atrocities on both sides. Japanese warrior fanaticism, moreover, led to suicidal attacks, the Kamikazes, that sunk or damaged so many American ships.
Nothing good can come from prolonging such a war, and in Van Buren’s retelling, atrocities and tragedies occur with a frequency one would expect of a war driven by racial hatreds and profound cultural misunderstandings. Nevertheless, in the darkness he provides a ray of hope as Lieutenant Nate Hooper, the main character, becomes separated from his unit and has to deal on an intimately human level with a Japanese sergeant. I don’t think I give away much by stating their relationship doesn’t end well for all — such is the reality of a war driven by hatred. The horror of war goes deep, Van Buren shows us, but so too does the potential for mitigating and ultimately for overcoming it.
Some readers of Bracing Views will recall that Van Buren formerly worked for the U.S. State Department. His first book, “We Meant Well,” is that rare thing: an honest retelling of the failures of America’s reconstruction efforts in Iraq to which he was both witness and participant. He brings his experiences of war and diplomacy to bear in this, his latest book, enriched by the years he spent working in Japan with the State Department.
Hooper’s War is for anyone interested in World War II in the Pacific, for anyone with a yen for imaginative “what-if” histories, or indeed for anyone who enjoys a good story well-told.
Full disclosure: Peter Van Buren sent me an advanced copy of Hooper’s War, to which I contributed a well-deserved commendatory blurb.
A good friend sent me Miya Tokumitsu’s recent article, “The United States of Work: Employers exercise vast control over our lives, even when we’re not on the job. How did our bosses gain power that the government itself doesn’t hold?” One answer: Americans have been sold on the idea of work as fulfilling and even ennobling, and indeed the more work the better. Yet if work is so wonderful, why do we pay some people only $7.25 an hour (the minimum wage)? That’s less than $15K a year if you work 40 hours a week for 50 weeks. Try living on that. Work is so “great” in America that some people work two or even three jobs to make ends meet, leaving little time for leisure or for family.
I remember when the “future” (which is now) was sold as a time when mechanization and robots and efficiency would grant us much more leisure time. The idea was that new machinery and methods would curtail work. That most people would work 25-30 hours a week at better jobs involving less drudgery, leaving them lots of time to raise families and otherwise to enjoy life away from the tedium and regimentation of the workplace.
But the future isn’t what it used to be. There are many reasons for this. Americans often consume too much, i.e. they keep working to keep up with the Joneses. Companies want higher and higher profits, driving them to squeeze more and more out of fewer and fewer workers. And work in the USA isn’t just about work. It’s often directly connected to health care, life insurance, and other benefits. If you choose (or are told) to work part-time, you may lose your employer-provided health insurance. If you’re fired, you lose your health benefits along with your salary and perhaps as well your sense of worth.
So much of our lives, especially in the USA, is tied to work. After “What’s your name,” the next question most commonly asked of new acquaintances is, “What do you do? Where do you work?” People’s sense of identity, their sense of worth, is often tied to their job, another big reason why losing one’s job is among the most stressful events in a person’s life.
And now work in America is often 24/7/365 since nearly everyone has electronic leashes, the Smart phones and so on, meaning the boss can always contact you. And if you choose to unplug, maybe the boss will find someone else to take your place. France recently passed a law to protect employees who choose to “unplug” after work and on weekends. No such law in the USA, of course.
From my days in the military, I recall how so many officers put on a great show of looking busy. “I have 276 emails to answer.” “I’m wrestling alligators.” “So busy — need to come up for air.” When did being swamped by work become a sign of success? In my view, the more efficient you are, the less grinding work you should need to do. (Of course, many jobs are all about grinding work: as my dad used to say, the more physically grueling the job, the less he usually got paid.)
Work mania has many pitfalls. Exhaustion leads to mistakes. Broken health, either physical or mental. Estrangement from family and the natural world. I wonder, for example, whether people are dismissive of global warming and other environmental issues simply because they spend no time outdoors. They’re always working, or going to and from work.
I used to commute 60+ miles to and from work. I’d get up about 5:30AM, leave about 6:15AM, get to work by 7:30AM, work until about 4:30PM, then get home about 5:30PM (on a good day). After that, I was tired. And I didn’t come home to screaming kids with school and sporting events and so on. Are we so busy and distracted that we hardly recognize that we live in an ecosystem of great fragility? In fact, all our commuting, all our busyness, all our consumption, only broadens our carbon footprint.
This is not a rant against work, or a cry to get ourselves back to the garden. But surely there’s a better way of striking a balance between work and everything else. I recall watching Michael Moore’s documentary, “Where to Invade Next.” The segments on Italy and Germany are telling here. In Italy, workers get much more vacation time than their U.S. counterparts, roughly five weeks plus 12 national holidays (watch this segment). U.S. workers by comparison are lucky to get two weeks’ paid vacation. In Germany, Moore asks a bunch of German workers if they have second jobs. They look at him like he’s crazy. One job is enough, they say, at which they work about 36-38 hours a week. What do you do with all the “extra” time, Moore asks. Hang out at a café, read, and otherwise decompress, they answer.
I recall that Italian workers often get a long break so they can go home and prepare lunch for the family. U.S. workers may be lucky to get 30 minutes (often unpaid), or even 15 minutes, for lunch, during which they’re fortunate to be able to bolt down some (probably unhealthy) fast food.
Some things in life shouldn’t be “fast,” like food. And some things shouldn’t dominate our lives, like work. Sure, some people work long hours at jobs they love, and if that’s the case, go for it. But America’s work mania has its costs, including an estrangement from ourselves as well as the living world around us.
I’ve written a lot about America’s warrior ethos and how it represents a departure from a citizen-soldier ideal as embodied by men like George Washington and Major Dick Winters (of “Band of Brothers” fame). This warrior ethos grew in the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam and the ending of the draft. It gained impetus during the Reagan years and was symbolized in part by the development of fictional rogue symbols of warrior-toughness such as John Rambo. Today’s U.S. military has various warrior codes and songs and so on, further reinforcing ideals of Spartan toughness.
My writings against this warrior hype have, on occasion, drawn fire from those who identify as warriors. I’d like to share two examples.
Here is the first:
The day that we encourage our soldiers to be anything but warriors is the day that we start losing battles and wars. If we are controlled by citizens who are our ultimate leaders then it is up to them to handle the niceties of diplomacy and nation building. But most of them don’t have the balls to get into the thick of things and try and convert the citizens of the place we are fighting to play at being nice children in the sand pile. We had to dominate Japan to the nth degree to get them to surrender and so the same for Germany. You academics never to cease to amaze me with your naïveté.
This reader cites World War II and America’s victory over Japan and Germany without mentioning the Greatest Generation’s embodiment of the citizen-soldier ideal and their rejection of Japanese and Nazi militarism. Back then, America’s victory was interpreted as a triumph of democracy over authoritarian states like Japan and Germany. While it’s true the Soviet Union played the crucial role in defeating Nazi Germany, the Soviets ultimately lost the Cold War, another “victory” by a U.S. military that didn’t self-identify as warriors. Despite this history, this reader suggests that America’s recent military defeats are attributable to weak civilian leadership and a lack of warrior dominance. He fails to notice how America’s new ethos of the warrior, inculcated over the last 30 years, has produced nothing close to victory in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
My second example comes from a U.S. Marine:
I watched the transition we made from life takers and widow makers to peace keepers and other terms that did us no good whatsoever. Then, in 1987, along came a new Commandant, General Al Grey, who resurrected the warrior ethos in our Corps.
We were told, and accepted the fact, that the best way to win a war or battle was to kill the enemy in numbers that could not be sustained. We did just that during Desert Storm. I flew 67 combat missions in an F/A-18 and took great pride and satisfaction in killing as many Iraqis as I could so that when our infantry and other ground units pushed through the berms and other obstacles, they had a clear path to their objectives.
We need more emphasis on killing the enemy and maintaining a warrior ethos and less drivel from folks like you who think it’s some type of a debating match rather than combat we undertake when our nation goes to war.
Basically, this Marine argues that war is killing. Kill enough of the enemy and you win. Of course, winning by attrition and body count failed during the Vietnam War, but I’m guessing this Marine would argue that the U.S. military simply didn’t kill enough of the enemy there.
This Marine further sets up a straw man argument. Nowhere did I write or even suggest that war is “some type of debating match.” Nowhere did I write or even suggest that war doesn’t involve combat and killing. But criticism of the warrior ideal is often caricatured in this way, making it easier to dismiss it as “naïve” or “drivel.”
The warrior ethos is surging in America today, and not just within the military. Witness the U.S. media’s positive reaction to President Trump’s missile strikes on Syria or the use of “the mother of all bombs” against ISIS in Afghanistan. Gushing media praise comes to presidents who let slip the “beautiful” missiles and “massive” bombs of war.
Two centuries ago, the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, did so over an American fortress that was under attack on our soil. They gave proof through the night that America’s citizen-soldiers were defending our country (our flag was still there). Nowadays, our rocket’s red glare appears in Syrian skies, our bombs bursting do so in remote regions of Afghanistan, giving proof through the night that America’s warrior ethos is anywhere and everywhere, killing lots of foreign peoples in the name of “winning.”
Call me naïve, say I write drivel, but I don’t see this as a victory for our democracy, for our country, or even for our “warriors.”
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I investigate what an “America first” foreign policy actually means in practice. What follows is an extract from the article in which I consider whether the U.S. military has morphed from a deterrent force (at least in its own eyes) to a doomsday machine. This idea is inspired in part by an article that Dennis Showalter, a fine historian and an even better friend, wrote back in 2000 about the German military prior to World War I. Excerpt follows:
Deterring Our Way to Doomsday
Who put America’s oil under all those Middle Eastern deserts? That was the question antiwar demonstrators asked with a certain grim humor before the invasion of Iraq. In Trump’s oft-stated opinion, the U.S. should indeed have just taken Iraq’s oil after the 2003 invasion. If nothing else, he said plainly what many Americans believed, and what various multinational oil companies were essentially seeking to do.
Consider here the plight of President Jimmy Carter.Nearly 40 years ago, Carter urged Americans to scale back their appetites, start conserving energy, and free themselves from a crippling dependency on foreign oil and the unbridled consumption of material goods. After critics termed it his “malaise” speech, Carter did an about-face, boosting military spending and establishing the Carter Doctrine to protect Persian Gulf oil as a vital U.S. national interest. The American people responded by electing Ronald Reagan anyway. As Americans continue to enjoy a consumption-driven lifestyle that gobbles up roughly 25% of the world’s production of fossil fuels (while representing only 3% of the world’s population), the smart money in the White House is working feverishly to open ever more fuel taps globally. Trillions of dollars are at stake.
Small wonder that, on becoming president, Trump acted quickly to speed the building of new pipelines delayed or nixed by President Obama while ripping up environmental protections related to fossil fuel production. Accelerated domestic production, along with cooperation from the Saudis — Trump’s recent Muslim bans carefully skipped targeting the one country that provided 15 of the 19 terrorists in the 9/11 attacks — should keep fuel flowing, profits growing, and world sea levels rising.
One data point here: The U.S. military alone guzzles more fossil fuel than the entire country of Sweden. When it comes to energy consumption, our armed forces are truly second to none.
With its massive oil reserves, the Middle East remains a hotbed in the world’s ongoing resource wars, as well as its religious and ethnic conflicts, exacerbated by terrorism and the destabilizing attacks of the U.S. military. Under the circumstances, when it comes to future global disaster, it’s not that hard to imagine that today’s Middle East could serve as the equivalent of the Balkans of World War I infamy.
If Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian “Black Hand” terrorist operating in a war-torn and much-disputed region, could set the world aflame in 1914, why not an ISIS terrorist just over a century later? Consider the many fault lines today in that region and the forces involved, including Russia, Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, all ostensibly working together to combat terrorism even as they position themselves to maximize their own advantage and take down one another. Under such circumstances, a political temblor followed by a geo-political earthquake seems unbearably possible. And if not an ISIS temblor followed by major quake in the Middle East, there’s no shortage of other possible global fault lines in an increasingly edgy world — from saber-rattling contests with North Korea to jousting over Chinese-built artificial islands in the South China Sea.
As an historian, I’ve spent much time studying the twentieth-century German military. In the years leading up to World War I, Germany was emerging as the superpower of its day, yet paradoxically it imagined itself as increasingly hemmed in by enemies, a nation surrounded and oppressed. Its leaders especially feared a surging Russia. This fear drove them to launch a preemptive war against that country. (Admittedly, they attacked France first in 1914, but that’s another story.) That incredibly risky and costly war, sparked in the Balkans, failed disastrously and yet it would only be repeated on an even more horrific level 25 years later. The result: tens of millions of dead across the planet and a total defeat that finally put an end to German designs for global dominance. The German military, praised as the “world’s best” by its leaders and sold to its people as a deterrent force, morphed during those two world wars into a doomsday machine that bled the country white, while ensuring the destruction of significant swaths of the planet.
Today, the U.S. military similarly praises itself as the “world’s best,” even as it imagines itself surrounded by powerful threats (China, Russia, a nuclear North Korea, and global terrorism, to start a list). Sold to the American people during the Cold War as a deterrent force, a pillar of stability against communist domino-tippers, that military has by now morphed into a potential tipping force all its own.
Recall here that the Trump administration has reaffirmed America’s quest for overwhelming nuclear supremacy. It has called for a “new approach” to North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. (Whatever that may mean, it’s not a reference to diplomacy.) Even as nuclear buildups and brinksmanship loom, Washington continues to spread weaponry — it’s the greatest arms merchant of the twenty-first century by a wide mark — and chaos around the planet, spinning its efforts as a “war on terror” and selling them as the only way to “win.”
In May 1945, when the curtain fell on Germany’s last gasp for global dominance, the world was fortunately still innocent of nuclear weapons. It’s different now. Today’s planet is, if anything, over-endowed with potential doomsday machines — from those nukes to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
That’s why it’s vitally important to recognize that President Trump’s “America-first” policies are anything but isolationist in the old twentieth century meaning of the term; that his talk of finally winning again is a recipe for prolonging wars guaranteed to create more chaos and more failed states in the Greater Middle East and possibly beyond; and that an already dangerous Cold War policy of “deterrence,” whether against conventional or nuclear attacks, may now have become a machine for perpetual war that could, given Trump’s bellicosity, explode into some version of doomsday.
Or, to put the matter another way, consider this question: Is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un the only unstable leader with unhinged nuclear ambitions currently at work on the world stage?
Why does the U.S. military invest so much pride in working to the point of tedium, if not exhaustion? A friend of mine, an Army major, worked at the Pentagon. He worked hard during his normal shift, after which he did what sensible people do – he went home. His co-workers, noses to the grindstone, would hassle him about leaving “early.” He’d reply, I can leave on-time because I don’t waste hours at the coffee maker or in the gym.
A caffeinated emphasis on work and fitness, another friend suggested, may be a post-Vietnam War reaction to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s “managerial culture” of the 1960s. As he put it, “One easy way of showing one has the ‘right stuff’ [in the U.S. military] is to be an exercise nut, and the penumbras of that mind-set have really distorted the allocation of effort in our military.”
Two recent examples of work- and fitness-mania are Army Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. The U.S. media extolled them as ascetic-warriors, yet both flamed out due to serious errors in judgment (Petraeus for an affair with his biographer, with whom he illegally shared highly classified information, and McChrystal for tolerating a climate that undermined his civilian chain of command). Asceticism and sweaty fitness routines, after all, are no substitute for sound judgment and a disciplined mind.
Busy-work within the military is related to Parkinson’s Law, the idea that work expands to fill the time allotted to it. In this case, with America’s wars on terror being open-ended, or “multi-generational” as the U.S. military puts it, the “work” on these wars will continue to expand to fill this time, with the added benefit of “validating” the extra money ($54 billion in 2017 alone) being shoveled to the Pentagon by President Trump.
Along with busy-work are the virtues of suffering, as related by a societal celebration of Navy SEALs and similar special forces (“100 men will test today/but only three win the Green Beret”). I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read articles and seen films featuring these “supermen” and their arduous training. The meme of “sweet–and public–suffering” is related to the whole “warrior” ideal (more on this later) within the U.S. military. There’s a self-righteous shininess here, a triumph of image over substance, or image as substance. (Being physically tough is of course an asset in close quarters combat, but it’s no guarantor of strategic sense or even of common sense.)
In the past, some of America’s finest military leaders had no shame in appearing common, most famously the “shabby” Ulysses S. Grant during the U.S. Civil War.
Civil War officers – true citizen-soldiers, most of them – often had unruly hair and unkempt beards, but they sure as hell fought hard and got the job done. Nowadays, as another reader put it, “there appears to be a whole lot of Army officers who think a white sidewall haircut proves you’re a great officer. It actually is a homage to the Prussian Army that shaved its soldiers’ heads to prevent lice.”
Speaking again of image, let’s take a close look at the beribboned uniforms of today’s military officers. General Joseph Votel, presently U.S. Centcom commander, is only the most recent example of an excess of ribbons, badges, and other devices:
Contrast Votel’s image to that of General George C. Marshall, who defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II.
How did Marshall manage such military feats with so few ribbons? Nowadays, U.S. generals sport more bling than the Kardashians.
But let’s return to the notion of U.S. troops as “warriors” and “warfighters.” I’ve written extensively on this subject. I see today’s “warrior” conceit as a way of eliminating our democratic citizen-soldier ideal, making the U.S. military a thoroughly professional force, subservient to the government and divorced from the people.
However, there’s another aspect to this “warrior” mythology, a powerful psychological one: the duping of the “warriors” themselves, distracting them from a bitter reality they may be little more than cannon fodder for greed-war.* The U.S. military today is awash with warrior creeds that to me are antithetical to the citizen-soldier ideal of America.
To sum up the U.S. military’s current ethos, then: We have a lot of guys who take great pride in constant busy-work and excessive physical exertion, sporting high and tight haircuts, their uniforms festooned with bewildering displays of ribbons and medals and badges, extolling a warrior code in the service of a government that tells them that multi-generational wars are unavoidable.
And so it shall prove, if these shadows remain unaltered.
*Thanks to Michael Murry for bringing my attention to how the semiotics of “warrior” are dramatically changed if we substitute “gladiator” for “warrior,” followed by less grandiose terms such as “those about to die,” i.e. as scapegoats to the king’s ambition, an insight he gleaned from reading Umberto Eco.