Spin It to Win It: The High Cost of Trump’s Military “Strategy”

W.J. Astore

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.

170130-nora-anwar-al-awlaki
Is this the face of “success” in Yemen?  A little girl dead?

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.”

8 thoughts on “Spin It to Win It: The High Cost of Trump’s Military “Strategy”

  1. Just a little complement to your point about the Tomahawk cruise missiles: Trump initially thought they were fired at Iraq during a TV interview, before getting corrected by the interviewer.
    Oh well, it was in that general neck of the woods. Reminds me of Reagan.

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  2. Gee whiz. I wrote about this in verse ten years ago. There ain’t no hope, fellow Crimestoppers. No one in the American government can learn one damn thing when they have determined in advance that they won’t because stupidity and incompetence pay better. Just ask Henry “Der Teutonic Bomber” Kissinger, always the best explainer of the execrable:

    “…remarkable, considering how long the war lasted and how intensely it was reported and commented upon, that there are really not very many lessons from our experience in Vietnam that can be usefully applied elsewhere …” — Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in a 1975 memo to President Gerald Ford (quoted by Andrew Bacevich in Washington Rules

    In other words:

    Let’s Already Do It Again

    Let’s already do it again
    Let’s write with no ink in the pen
    On the paper no trace of the egg on our face
    Let’s already do it again

    Let’s start on our very next loss
    With a coin and some dice and a toss
    Let’s forget this here game where we’ve come up so lame
    The next time around we’ll be boss

    Let’s hurry to do it again
    With the chorus still shouting “Amen!”
    Before we can think of the fact that we stink
    Let’s pour on the perfume and then…

    Let’s you and him get in a fight
    Then we’ll get involved for a night
    Helping out here and there, we’ll of course gladly share
    What was yours that we’ve “earned” with our might

    The brass needs a billet or two
    And some soldiers in order to screw
    A few jumbo jets and they’ve got no regrets
    Not with CNN asking their view

    They “can do,” you see, though they can’t
    Rhetorically venting their rant
    They talk a good show then the battle they slow
    Making “long time” the footprint they plant

    A “journey,” they say, not a “race”
    Attempting to save naked face
    In four years and more, they’ve produced a “long war”
    Of their “victory” — no sign or trace

    Let’s unlearn our history now
    And not ask about why or how
    While still sort of numb and sufficiently dumb
    Let’s not any learning allow

    We failed in Vietnam before
    Despite all the blood, guts, and gore
    Yet no fortune’s vast for our leadership caste
    To squander on warbucks galore

    A syndrome we need to construct
    To conceal the true fact that we’re fucked
    Our governing group has just stepped in the poop
    Now they’ve got to deny that they’ve sucked

    We need war to prop up the few
    Who really have nothing to do
    Their lack of a skill means that others must kill
    To produce all the “metrics” they skew

    The Worst and the Dullest, they paint
    Every failure with their smell and taint
    In a rut or a groove, they have set out to prove
    What Tweedledee said “isn’t” ain’t

    We’ve got the worst leadership team:
    A truly mad, nightmarish scream
    But screwing the pooch while a backside they smooch
    To them seems like just a wet dream

    Wherever they came from, who knows?
    Incompetence in them just grows
    They get us bombed stiff then they jump off a cliff
    Demonstrating what already shows

    We just hung a man in Iraq
    Once gone, though, we can’t get him back
    Now without any rope, down the slippery slope
    Our excuses get ever more slack

    They talk of a “spike” and a “surge”
    All to cover a fear and an urge
    They’ve shot our last wad, now they’ve left it to “GAWD”
    To figure out where next to splurge

    They’ve had all the time that they need
    To knock off the bullshit and screed
    With their flat learning curve, they’ve one hell of a nerve
    To demand more sick bodies to bleed

    This ain’t good and it’s got to stop
    Whatever they try at they flop
    If left at the helm they’ll just wreck the whole realm
    In planting their dragon’s teeth crop

    So let us dismiss these vile men
    Now mainly less rooster than hen
    Before they can blow what at sundown they crow:
    “Let’s already do it again!”

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2007

    Not only will Donald Trump do it all again, but he already has. Nothing now remains but the endless repetition.

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    1. Mike: I now know why my dad liked the saying, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” So true of U.S. war policy and practice.

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      1. I recently tuned in to the Scott Horton radio broadcast, 4/10/17 Matthew Hoh on the Afghanistan quagmire and the individual costs of war, for an interview with the former Marine and foreign service officer who resigned because of his disagreements with U.S. policy in Afghanistan. In particular Mr Hoh said something that reminded me very much of my own experiences in Vietnam so many decades ago. From my transcription as I listened:

        The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam, and A Bright Shining Lie, by Neil Sheehan, [are] two of the best books about the Vietnam War, two of the best books about American government and American history, that describes so well the lies about the Vietnam War, about the decision-making process by the American government based on those lies that got us into Vietnam and which prolonged the Vietnam war. Those were books which were on the Marine Corps required reading list for officers. This was stuff our generals were saying to us in the Marine Corps, that “We’re not going to make the same mistakes again. Don’t worry about it. We’re not going to make the same mistakes as Vietnam. You can trust us.” Let alone society saying “We’re not going to do the same things to you that we did to Vietnam vets. We’re going to take care of you guys.” And, absolutely, we walked right back into it. I have to take some of the blame for being naïve enough to believe that but we walked right back into these same wars that are still going on and we trusted these people. And we trusted that they were going to take care of us. And guys are putting guns in their mouths and blowing the back of their heads off because they can’t deal with what happened in those wars.”

        Before deploying to Vietnam in the summer of 1970, I had also read some books on the officers’ required reading list. Although not an officer myself, I could read and understand English passably well, especially the following from Street Without Joy: the French Debacle in Indochina, by Bernard B. Fall:

        “The point needs to be made, and made clearly before a new mythology becomes accredited which blames the military setbacks of 1963-64 not upon the military and civilian bunglers who are responsible for them, but on the Buddhist monks or the American press corps in Saigon.
        The hard and brutal fact is that, for a variety of reasons which can be as coldly analyzed as the French defeats described earlier in this book, the strictly military aspect of the Vietnamese insurgency was being as rapidly lost in 1961-62 as its socio-political aspects were.”

        After reading that, I thought: “Do you mean to tell me that we already lost this damn war eight years ago, just like the French did for fifteen years before that, and yet you still expect to send me (an enlisted Navy electrician) there? To do what, for cryin’ out loud?”

        I didn’t read The Best and the Brightest until I got out of the military in early February of 1972 after completing eighteen months in South Vietnam. By then, I knew much of the material from personal experience. I read Neil Sheehan’s book about John Paul Vann several years later. In the interim, I had to write a term paper for a class in Sino-American Relations while a foreign exchange student in Taiwan. My professor wanted me to compare the U.S. military intervention in the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949) with the U.S. military intervention in the Vietnamese Civil War (1954-1972). I used three primary sources: Fire in the Lake, by Frances FitzGerald, The Best and the Brightest, and Stilwell and the American Experience in China, by Barbara Tuchman. Professor Tuchman’s summation of her book pretty much could have concluded the other two books as well: “In the end, China went her own way as if the Americans had never come.”

        Ms FitzGerald’s book had the subtitle: “The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam.” I always thought that Mr Halberstam’s book should have had a similar subtitle: “The Americans and Vietnam in America.” Whether President Trump’s current coterie of general officers — all of them tainted by failure in Iraq and Afghanistan — could grasp the import of these subtitles, I seriously doubt. “Going abroad in search of monsters to destroy” has only destroyed the monster-seekers and created more monsters than ever existed before. In the end, we will still have the monsters, both at home and abroad, and precisely because the Americans came in the first place.

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      2. Mike: I was watching a documentary last night that featured Daniel Ellsberg and John Kenneth Galbraith. They both made the point that in our government in the 1960s, nobody talked about whether the Vietnam war was moral or even legal. It was all about hard practicalities: concerns about power and winning. Galbraith added that anyone who raised moral or legal questions was dismissed as unserious (at best), with the taint perhaps of commie sympathies.

        Not much has changed today. Morality and legality are ignored or are papered over (remember the torture memos of John Yoo?). The “hard” men are in charge, today’s versions of the brightest and the best, but even dimmer and dumber than yesteryear’s Vietnam versions.

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      3. Mike: In the same documentary, Ellsberg makes another point from the Pentagon Papers: the way in which U.S. officials went out of their way NOT TO KNOW about the crimes being committed in Vietnam. They actively avoided knowledge; they were not passively incurious, but actively so. They just didn’t want to know, apparently so they’d never have to take responsibility. They slept easier at night by “compartmentalizing” information, or in this case shutting it out almost completely.

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  3. Mike and WJ, with your experience in the military, what do you think it is that keeps those in the military from realizing what is going on, or maybe better put, putting up resistance to what they know is bad policy? As you mention, there are many excellent books, several of those you’ve read I have also read, and people in the military are no dumber than anyone else. You as vets are not alone in your views, many vets share it. How can the armed forces be repeatedly dispatched on counterproductive errands that having nothing to do with defending the country? Is it that those who realize the problem, realize it only after they are already in and must obey without question?

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    1. By coincidence, I’ve been reading today about Army LTC Anthony Herbert, who reported war crimes in Vietnam. In his case, he was relieved of command, given an “unsatisfactory” OER, and assigned to a backwater job as punishment. He recently died:
      https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/anthony-b-herbert-key-figure-in-vietnam-war-crimes-controversy-dies/2015/02/26/3e6ab864-bd05-11e4-bdfa-b8e8f594e6ee_story.html

      It’s very difficult to criticize the military when you’re in it. Many reasons, of course. Peer pressure. Command pressures (intimidation). The reality that you see only a small part of the picture, so you assume those above you see a bigger picture, and that the “higher ups” have legitimate reasons for their actions and orders. In sum, it’s just difficult to break ranks; far easier “to go along to get along.”

      I talked about this issue in a couple of my podcasts, like this one: https://archive.org/details/TomcastForOctober312010AnOfficerAndAJournalist

      Finally, loyalty is everything in the military, even though integrity to the U.S. Constitution is supposed to be the highest value. That integrity is often abstract, but loyalty to one’s “band of brothers” is concrete and often trumps all, especially in combat.

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