With the swearing in of John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff, a retired four-star Marine general now controls the White House. Another retired four-star Marine general, James Mattis, controls the Department of Defense (DoD) and much of the National Security State. Meanwhile, a serving three-star Army general, H.R. McMaster, controls the National Security Council.
Who needs a military coup? Remember when the U.S. was founded on civilian control of a citizen-soldier military? Those were the days. The point is not that Kelly-Mattis-McMaster constitute a military cabal; it’s that there’s no rival civilian authority at the upper regions of Trump’s government. Is Steve Bannon going to rein in the generals? He fancies himself a military strategist in his own right. Should we place our faith in Congress? How about Jared and Ivanka? Prospects for less bellicose policies are indeed looking grim.
Our clueless president, after all, professes love for “his” generals while acclaiming the WWII generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, two soldiers who were not known for their deference to civilian authority.
Again, who needs a military coup? As the real U.S. military budget soars above a trillion dollars a year and as the U.S. State Department is sidelined and gutted, the future of U.S. foreign policy seems clear: More and more “kinetic” operations, together with more and more brinksmanship with Iran, North Korea, and possibly Russia and China as well.
With generals in the White House and the DoD running the show, advised by another general on the National Security Council, enabling a president whose patience and knowledge base are as thin as his skin, the prospects for catastrophic miscalculation and war loom ever larger.
Update (8/2/17): Speaking of Congress, here’s Senator Lindsey Graham on the appointment of retired Marine General John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff: “The Marines can do almost anything,” Senator Graham said. “The Marines have landed at the White House. They have a beachhead.”
And that’s a good thing, Senator? In a military dictatorship, perhaps …
The term “collateral damage” is a terrifying euphemism. The U.S. military didn’t invent it, but it sure has embraced it. The dictionary definition is “unintended civilian casualties or damage in a war,” which is about as anodyne a description as one could imagine.
In common usage, “collateral” is something we put up to secure a loan, so it often has a positive meaning. (No worries: I have lots of collateral.) “Damage” is a neutral-sounding word: the book was damaged in shipping. Storm damage. And we also speak of “damages” when we sue someone. In sum, “collateral” and “damage” are impersonal and imprecise words.
Let’s think personally and precisely. What is “collateral damage” in the “war on terror”? Bodies blown to bits. Blood everywhere. Skin burnt and melted by Willy Peter (White Phosphorous). Eviscerated children. Rotting corpses.
The military has a colorful saying: “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” Maybe we need a new saying: “Don’t murder my child and tell me it’s collateral damage.”
In his latest mini-essay introduction at TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt notes how “collateral damage” has become a central and defining reality of America’s endless war on terror. The main article (Burning Raqqa) by Laura Gottesdiener details U.S.-led air strikes in Syria that go horribly wrong:
By the beginning of May, the Abdos’ neighborhood was under almost daily bombardment by the U.S.-led coalition forces. On May 3rd, coalition warplanes reportedly launched up to 30 airstrikes across Tabqa’s first, second, and third neighborhoods, striking homes and a fruit market and reportedly killing at least six civilians. The following night, another round of coalition airstrikes battered the first and third neighborhoods, reportedly killing at least seven civilians, including women and children. Separate airstrikes that same night near the city’s center reportedly killed another six to 12 civilians.
On May 7th, multiple bombs reportedly dropped by the U.S.-led coalition struck the building where Muhammed and Salam had taken shelter, killing them and their 12-year-old grandson. Three days later, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced that they had fully seized control of Tabqa and the dam. The militia and its U.S. advisers quickly set their sights east to the upcoming offensive in Raqqa.
But for the Abdo family, the tragedy continued. Muhammed and Salam’s bodies were buried beneath the collapsed apartment building. It took 15 days before Wassim’s brother Rashid could secure the heavy machinery required to extract them.
“Nobody could approach the corpses because of the disfigurement that had occurred and the smell emanating from them as a result of being left under the rubble for such a long period of time in the hot weather,” Wassim told me in a recent interview.
That same day their bodies were finally recovered. On May 23rd, his parents and nephew were buried in the Tabqa cemetery.
Specifics such as these are generally not reported by the U.S. military or in the U.S. media. Instead, we get headlines about militants or terrorists being killed, along with snippets about collateral damage, “regrettable” but framed as unavoidable.
Tell that to the families of the dead.
George Orwell famously noted the political uses of language and the insidiousness of euphemisms. As I wrote a year ago, words about war matter. Dishonest words contribute to dishonest wars. They lead to death, dismemberment, and devastation. That’s not “collateral” — that’s a defining and terrifying reality.
Why did Donald Trump win the presidency? A big reason is that he was willing to take unpopular stances. He criticized the Afghan and Iraq wars in the strongest terms. He attacked Wall Street. He called for closer relations with Russia. Of course, to cite one example, when he became president, Trump willingly embraced Wall Street — no surprise here. Trump is not about consistency. The larger point is that he appeared authentic, or at the very least not tied to traditional politics of the mealymouthed, which involves focus groups and think tanks and polls and triangulation before any policy position is taken.
The Democratic Party has learned nothing from Trump’s success, nor for that matter from Bernie Sanders’s rise. It’s rejecting the energy and popularity of Sanders’s progressive platform for the tired bromides of economic competitiveness, moderate tax increases on the rich, and infrastructure improvements (which Trump has also called for). It’s refusing to critique America’s enervating and endless overseas wars. It’s even refusing to focus on serious social issues (too divisive!), as reported here at Mic Network:
The new [Democratic] agenda will be released under the title, “A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages.”
According to the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, the plan “jettisoned social and foreign policy issues for this exercise, eschewing the identity politics and box-checking that has plagued Democratic campaigns in the past.”
Leaving social justice issues out of the platform is sure to anger many progressives in the party who have been pushing for issues like police brutality, systemic racism and transgender rights to be front-and-center on the Democratic agenda.
Likewise, the absence of any foreign policy agenda is likely to irk the left’s many critics of America’s never-ending wars.
What’s the point of voting for a Democratic Party that refuses to address such vitally important issues? And don’t you just love the unimaginative title of the plan?
A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages.
If you have to repeat the word “better” four times, I’m less than convinced that the deal is actually “better.” It sounds like a used car salesman trying to sell a lemon. I’ll give you a better deal on this beat-up Yugo! At a better price, with a better warranty, with better loan payments! Sure … right.
I think I can come up with five “better” titles for the Democrats just off the top of my head. I’ll give it a whirl:
No Guts, No Glory: A Bold New Plan for Our Country
America the Bountiful: Tapping Our Greatness — and Goodness
Better Angels: Reviving America’s Nobility
Comrade! March with Me to the Towers and Pitchfork the Rich!
OK. Maybe not number 5. I’m not saying my titles are great — just that they hold some promise of raising ourselves to a higher level. We should be thinking about making a better America, not for skills or jobs or the economy, but for our children. For our and their collective futures. A little idealism, please! The fierce urgency of now!
Where’s the emotional appeal in “better” skills or a “better” job? It’s funny: I don’t recall the Founders talking about skills and jobs. They talked about personal liberty, about freedom, about coming together and raising new hopes. And they didn’t just talk — they acted. Give me liberty or give me death. Now that took guts!
I see no inspiration — and no guts — in the current Democratic Party establishment. And until the party finds some, they will continue to lose.
Silencing War Criticism: The Iraq Invasion of 2003
Update (7/19/17): I posted this article at HuffPost, and the site added a video that shows the mainstream media gushing over Trump’s strike against Syria. The video is well worth watching. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/596df7a3e4b07f87578e6bd7 or follow this link.
Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota (1999-2003), was a hot media commodity as the Bush/Cheney administration was preparing for its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ventura, a U.S. Navy veteran who gained notoriety as a professional wrestler before he entered politics, was both popular and outspoken. MSNBC won the bidding war for his services in 2003, signing him to a lucrative three-year contract to create his own show – until, that is, the network learned he was against the Iraq war. Ventura’s show quickly went away, even as the network paid him for three years to do nothing.
I heard this revealing story from a new podcast, the TARFU Report, hosted by Matt Taibbi and Alex Pareene. By his own account, Jesse Ventura was bought off by the network, which back then was owned by General Electric, a major defense contractor that was due to make billions of dollars off the war.
Of course, Ventura was hardly the only war critic to run afoul of GE/NBC. Phil Donahue, the famous talk show host, saw his highly rated show cancelled when he gave dissenters and anti-war voices a fair hearing. Ashleigh Banfield, a reporter who covered the Iraq war, gave a speech in late April 2003 that criticized the antiseptic coverage of the war (extracts to follow below). For her perceptiveness and her honesty, she was reassigned and marginalized, demoted and silenced.
So much for freedom of speech, as well as the press.
As Phil Donahue said, his show “wasn’t good for business.” NBC didn’t want to lose ratings by being associated with “unpatriotic” elements when the other networks were waving the flag in support of the Iraq war. In sidelining Ventura and Donahue, NBC acted to squelch any serious dissent from the push for war, and punished Ashleigh Banfield in the immediate aftermath of the war for her honesty in criticizing the coverage shown (and constructed) by the mainstream media, coverage that was facilitated by the U.S. military and rubber-stamped by corporate ownership.
Speaking of Banfield’s critique, here are some excerpts from her speech on Iraq war coverage in April 2003. Note that her critique remains telling for all U.S. media war coverage since then:
That said, what didn’t you see [in U.S. media coverage of the Iraq war]? You didn’t see where those bullets landed. You didn’t see what happened when the mortar landed. A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes, believe me. There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism or was this coverage? There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you’re getting the story, it just means you’re getting one more arm or leg of the story. And that’s what we got, and it was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news. But it wasn’t journalism, because I’m not so sure that we in America are hesitant to do this again, to fight another war, because it looked like a glorious and courageous and so successful terrific endeavor, and we got rid of a horrible leader: We got rid of a dictator, we got rid of a monster, but we didn’t see what it took to do that.
I can’t tell you how bad the civilian casualties were. I saw a couple of pictures. I saw French television pictures, I saw a few things here and there, but to truly understand what war is all about you’ve got to be on both sides.
Some of the soldiers, according to our embeds had never seen a dead body throughout the entire three-week campaign. It was like Game Boy. I think that’s amazing in two different ways. It makes you a far more successful warrior because you can just barrel right along but it takes away a lot of what war is all about, which is what I mentioned earlier. The TV technology took that away too. We couldn’t see where the bullets landed. Nobody could see the horrors of this so that we seriously revisit the concept of warfare the next time we have to deal with it.
I think there were a lot of dissenting voices before this war about the horrors of war, but I’m very concerned about this three-week TV show and how it may have changed people’s opinions. It was very sanitized. [emphasis added]
This TV show [Iraq invasion coverage] that we just gave you was extraordinarily entertaining, and I really hope that the legacy that it leaves behind is not one that shows war as glorious, because there’s nothing more dangerous than a democracy that thinks this is a glorious thing to do. [emphasis added]
War is ugly and it’s dangerous, and in this world the way we are discussed on the Arab street, it feeds and fuels their hatred and their desire to kill themselves to take out Americans. It’s a dangerous thing to propagate.
I’m hoping that I will have a future in news in cable, but not the way some cable news operators wrap themselves in the American flag and patriotism and go after a certain target demographic, which is very lucrative. You can already see the effects, you can already see the big hires on other networks, right wing hires to chase after this effect, and you can already see that flag waving in the corners of those cable news stations where they have exciting American music to go along with their war coverage.
Nothing has changed since Banfield’s powerful critique. Indeed, the networks have only hired more retired generals and admirals to give “unbiased” coverage of America’s military actions. And reporters and “journalists” like Brian Williams have learned too. Recall how Williams cheered the “beautiful” U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles as they were launched against Syria earlier this year.
It’s not just that U.S. media coverage actively suppresses dissent of America’s wars: it passively does so as well, which is arguably more insidious. Any young journalist with smarts recognizes the way to get ahead is to be a cheerleader for U.S. military action, a stenographer to the powerful. Being a critic leads to getting fired (like Donahue); demoted and exiled (like Banfield); and, in Ventura’s case, if you can’t be fired or demoted or otherwise punished, you can simply be denied air time.
When you consider that billions and billions of dollars are at stake, whether in weapons sales or in advertising revenue tied to ratings, none of this is that surprising. What’s surprising is that so few Americans know about how pro-authority and uncritical U.S. media coverage of war and its makers is. If anything, the narrative is often that the U.S. media is too critical of the military to the detriment of the generals. Talk about false narratives and alternative facts!
America’s greed-wars persist for many reasons, but certainly a big one is the lack of critical voices in the mainstream media. Today’s journalists, thinking about their career prospects and their salaries (and who is ultimately their boss at corporate HQ), learn to censor themselves, assuming they have any radical thoughts to begin with. Some, like Brian Williams, even learn how to stop worrying and love the beautiful bombs.
It’s hard to think of a higher priority than the prevention of doomsday. Global catastrophe could strike in quick-time via nuclear war, or in slow-motion via global warming. Yet our leaders persist in rattling and sharpening the nuclear saber while denying the very reality of global warming (even as state-size chunks of ice break off from the polar ice caps).
Global catastrophe: What, me worry? It’s a MAD world indeed.
Today at TomDispatch.com, I return to my days working in Cheyenne Mountain, America’s nuclear command and control center, tunneled out of a massive granite mountain in Colorado. I argue that it’s time to overcome our lockdown, shelter-in-place, mentality, before that fear-filled mindset leads us all to catastrophe. You can read the entire article here. What follows is an excerpt:
Duck and Cover, America!
Remember those old American Express card commercials with the tag line “Don’t leave home without it”? If America’s Department of Homeland Security had its own card, its tag would be: “Don’t leave home.”
Consider the words of retired General John Kelly, the head of that department, who recently suggested that if Americans knew what he knew about the nasty terror threats facing this country, they’d “never leave the house.” General Kelly, a big bad Marine, is a man who — one would think — does not frighten easily. It’s unclear, however, whether he considers it best for us to “shelter in place” just for now (until he sends the all-clear signal) or for all eternity.
One thing is clear, however: Islamic terrorism, an exceedingly modest danger to Americans, has in these years become the excuse for the endless construction and funding of an increasingly powerful national security state (the Department of Homeland Security included), complete with a global surveillance system for the ages. And with that, of course, goes the urge to demobilize the American people and put them in an eternal lockdown mode, while the warrior pros go about the business of keeping them “safe” and “secure.”
I have a few questions for General Kelly: Is closing our personal blast doors the answer to keeping our enemies and especially our fears at bay? What does security really mean? With respect to nuclear Armageddon, should the rich among us indeed start building personal bomb shelters again, while our government continues to perfect our nuclear arsenal by endlessly updating and “modernizing” it? (Think: smart nukes and next generation delivery systems.) Or should we work toward locking down and in the end eliminating our doomsday weaponry? With respect to both terrorism and immigration, should we really hunker down in Homeland U.S.A., slamming shut our Trumpian blast door with Mexico (actually long under construction) and our immigration system, or should we be working to reduce the tensions of poverty and violence that generate both desperate immigrants and terrorist acts?
President Trump and “his” generals are plainly in favor of you and yours just hunkering down, even as they continue to lash out militarily around the globe. The result so far: the worst of both worlds — a fortress America mentality of fear and passivity domestically and a kinetic, manic urge to surge, weapons in hand, across significant parts of the planet.
Call it a passive-aggressive policy. We the people are told to remain passive, huddling in our respective home bunkers, sheltering in place, even as America’s finest aggressively strike out at those we fear most. The common denominator of such a project is fear — a fear that breeds compliance at home and passivity before uniformed, if often uninformed, experts, even as it generates repetitive, seemingly endless, violence abroad. In short, it’s the doomsday mentality applied every day in every way.
Returning to Cheyenne Mountain
Thirty years ago, as a young Air Force officer, Cheyenne Mountain played a memorable role in my life. In 1988 I left that mountain redoubt behind, though I carried with me a small slab of granite from it with a souvenir pen attached. Today, with greying hair and my very own time machine (my memories), I find myself returning regularly to Cheyenne Mountain, thinking over where we went wrong as a country in allowing a doomsday-lockdown mentality to get such a hold on us.
Amazingly, Barack Obama, the president who made high-minded pleas to put an end to nuclear weapons (and won a Nobel Prize for them), pleas supported by hard-headed realists like former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, gave his approval to a trillion-dollar renovation of America’s nuclear triad before leaving office. That military-industrial boondoggle will now be carried forward by the Trump administration. Though revealing complete ignorance about America’s nuclear triad during the 2016 election campaign, President Trump has nevertheless boasted that the U.S. will always be “at the top of the pack” when it comes to doomsday weaponry. And whether with Iran or North Korea, he foolishly favors policies that rattle the nuclear saber.
In addition, recent reports indicate that America’s nuclear arsenal may be less than secure. In fact, as of this March, inspection results for nuclear weapons safety and security, which had been shared freely with the American public, are now classified in what the Associated Press calls a “lockdown of information.” Naturally, the Pentagon claims greater secrecy is needed to protect us against terrorism, but it serves another purpose: shielding incompetence and failing grades. Given the U.S. military’s nightmarish history of major accidents with nuclear weapons, more secrecy and less accountability doesn’t exactly inspire greater confidence.
Today, the Cheyenne complex sits deactivated, buried inside its mountain, awaiting fresh purpose. And I have one. Let’s bring our collective fears there, America. Let’s bury them under all that granite. Let’s close the blast doors behind us as we walk out of that dark tunnel toward the light. For sheltering in place shouldn’t be the American way. Nor should we lock ourselves down for life. It would be so much better to lockdown instead what should be truly unthinkable: doomsday itself, the mass murder of ourselves and the destruction of our planet.
Consider this article a work of speculation; a jumble of ideas thrown at a blank canvas.
A lot of art depicts war scenes, and why not? War is incredibly exciting, dynamic, destructive, and otherwise captivating, if often in a horrific way. But I want to consider war and art in a different manner, in an impressionistic one. War, by its nature, is often spectacle; it is also often chaotic; complex; beyond comprehension. Perhaps art theory, and art styles, have something to teach us about war. Ways of representing it and capturing its meaning as well as its horrors. But also ways of misrepresenting it; of fracturing its meaning. Of manipulating it.
For example, America’s overseas wars today are both abstractions and distractions. They’re also somewhat surreal to most Americans, living as we do in comparative safety and material luxury (when compared to most other peoples of the world). Abstraction and surrealism: two art styles that may say something vital about America’s wars.
If some aspects of America’s wars are surreal and others abstract, if reports of those wars are often impressionistic and often blurred beyond recognition, this points to, I think, the highly stylized representations of war that are submitted for our consideration. What we don’t get very often is realism. Recall how the Bush/Cheney administration forbade photos of flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Think of all the war reporting you’ve seen on U.S. TV and Cable networks, and ask how many times you saw severed American limbs and dead bodies on a battlefield. (On occasion, dead bodies of the enemy are shown, usually briefly and abstractly, with no human backstory.)
Of course, there’s no “real” way to showcase the brutal reality of war, short of bringing a person to the front and having them face fire in combat — a level of “participatory” art that sane people would likely seek to avoid. What we get, as spectators (which is what we’re told to remain in America), is an impression of combat. Here and there, a surreal report. An abstract news clip. Blown up buildings become exercises in neo-Cubism; melted buildings and weapons become Daliesque displays. Severed limbs (of the enemy) are exercises in the grotesque. For the vast majority of Americans, what’s lacking is raw immediacy and gut-wrenching reality.
Again, we are spectators, not participants. And our responses are often as stylized and limited as the representations are. As Rebecca Gordon put it from a different angle at TomDispatch.com, when it comes to America’s wars, are we participating in reality or merely watching reality TV? And why are so many so prone to confuse or conflate the two?
Art, of course, isn’t the only lens through which we can see and interpret America’s wars. Advertising, especially hyperbole, is also quite revealing. Thus the U.S. military has been sold, whether by George W. Bush or Barack Obama, as “the world’s finest military in history” or WFMH, an acronym I just made up, and which should perhaps come with a copyright or trademark symbol after it. It’s classic advertising hyperbole. It’s salesmanship in place of reality.
So, when other peoples beat our WFMH, we should do what Americans do best: sue them for copyright infringement. Our legions of lawyers will most certainly beat their cadres of counsels. After all, under Bush/Cheney, our lawyers tortured logic and the law to support torture itself. Talk about surrealism!
My point (and I think I have one) is that America’s wars are in some sense elaborate productions and representations, at least in the ways in which the government constructs and sells them to the American people. To understand these representations — the ways in which they are both more than real war and less than it — art theory, as well as advertising, may have a lot to teach us.
As I said, this is me throwing ideas at the canvas of my computer screen. Do they make any sense to you? Feel free to pick up your own brush and compose away in the comments section.
P.S. Danger, Will Robinson. I’ve never taken an art theory class or studied advertising closely.
Give the hobgoblin with the bad comb-over his due: He knows how to divide and distract, to divert attention by casting aspersions on others.
The latest Trump tweet that showcased this tactic came today at the G-20 Summit when Trump tweeted the following:
“Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA. Disgraceful!”
The Washington Post analyzes why this tweet is so wrongheaded and misleading, but a factual analysis won’t matter to Trump’s legion of followers.
There’s a method to Trump’s madness. By continuing to vilify Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and smaller fish like John Podesta, he’s distracting Americans from his own problems with the FBI. He’s saying the real crooks, the true inept leaders, are Democrats. Somehow, he thinks this “look over there!” misdirection ploy will work. And he may well be right. Trump learned a lot from “reality” TV and wrestling shows, including how to entertain people even as he exploits them.
When I think about Trump, I come back to one of my father’s favorite sayings: the empty barrel makes the most noise. Trump always makes a lot of noise, but there’s nothing there. There’s no substance. The noise, because it’s so loud and annoying, briefly grabs your attention, then it’s gone.
Yet the damage it does isn’t gone. Even as we become accustomed to the thunder of Trump’s tweet storms, we’re slowly losing our hearing. By hearing, I mean our ability to discern truth, or at least to block out the thunderous distraction of big lies.
When the president is a walking (or golf cart-riding), tweeting, fabricating, drum-beating clown, democracy can’t help but suffer.
More and more under Trump, discourse in America is being degraded. But the bigger problem may be that so few Americans seem to care.
The news out of Washington, D.C. is that another 4000 or so U.S. troops will be sent to help stabilize and reverse the “stalemate” in Afghanistan. The commitment, relatively small in the number of troops, is open-ended in duration, and of course the numbers could (and likely will) rise.
Back in 2009, I wrote the following article for TomDispatch.com, urging then-President Obama not to give in to the “urge to surge.” Of course, America did surge in Afghanistan in 2009-10, but that surge, roughly ten times larger than the mini-surge of this moment, failed to alter the fundamentals on the ground. Indeed, the Taliban and related insurgent forces in Afghanistan have only grown stronger in the aftermath of the failed Obama surge.
Perhaps the new motto of the U.S. military should be: If at first you don’t succeed, surge, surge again.
Mary McCarthy in Vietnam, Barack Obama in Afghanistan
Seven Lessons and Many Questions for the President
By William Astore (written in 2009)
In 1967, outraged by the course of the Vietnam War, as well as her country’s role in prolonging and worsening it, Mary McCarthy, novelist, memoirist, and author of the bestseller The Group, went to Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, to judge the situation for herself. The next year, she went to the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. She wrote accounts of both journeys, published originally in pamphlet format as Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968), and later gathered with her other writings on Vietnam as a book, The Seventeenth Degree (1974). As pamphlets, McCarthy’s accounts sold poorly and passed into obscurity; deservedly so, some would say.
Those who’d say this, however, would be wrong. McCarthy brought a novelist’s keen eye to America’s activities and its rhetoric in Vietnam. By no means a military expert, not even an expert on Vietnam — she only made a conscious decision to study the war in Vietnam after she returned from her trip to Saigon — her impressionistic writings were nevertheless insightful precisely because she had long been a critical thinker beholden to no authority.
Her insights into our approach to war-fighting and to foreign cultures are as telling today as they were 40 years ago, so much so that President Obama and his advisors might do well to add her unconventional lessons to their all-too-conventional thinking on our spreading war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
What were those lessons? Here are seven of them, each followed by questions that, four decades later, someone at President Obama’s next press conference should consider asking him:
1. McCarthy’s most fundamental objection was to the way, in Vietnam, the U.S. government decided to apply “technology and a superior power to a political situation that will not yield to this.” At the very least, the United States was guilty of folly, but McCarthy went further. She condemned our technocentric and hegemonic form of warfare as “wicked” because of its “absolute indifference to the cost in human lives” to the Vietnamese people.
Even in 1967, the widespread, at times indiscriminate, nature of American killing was well known. For example, U.S. planes dropped roughly 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia during the war, nearly five times the tonnage used against Germany during World War II. The U.S. even waged war on the Vietnamese jungle and forest, which so effectively hid Vietnamese guerrilla forces, spraying roughly 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides (including the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange) on it.
In her outrage, McCarthy dared to compare the seeming indifference of many of her fellow citizens toward the blunt-edged sword of technological destruction we had loosed on Vietnam to the moral obtuseness of ordinary Germans under Adolf Hitler.
Questions for President Obama: Aren’t we once again relying on the destructive power of technology to “solve” complex political and religious struggles? Aren’t we yet again showing indifference to the human costs of war, especially when borne by non-Americans? Even though we’re using far fewer bombs in the Af-Pak highlands than we did in Vietnam, aren’t we still morally culpable when these “precision-guided munitions” miss their targets and instead claim innocents, or hit suspected “terrorists” who suddenly morph into wedding parties? In those cases, do we not seek false comfort in the phrase, C’est la guerre, or at least that modern equivalent: unavoidable collateral damage?
2. As Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 by calling for “peace with honor” in Vietnam, McCarthy offered her own warning about the dangers that arose when the office of the presidency collided with an American desire never to be labeled a loser: “The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.”
Questions for President Obama: Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?
3. Though critical of the U.S. military in Vietnam, McCarthy was even more critical of American civilian officials there. “On the whole,” she wrote, they “behaved like a team of promoters with a dubious ‘growth’ stock they were brokering.” At least military men were often more forthright than the civilians, if not necessarily more self-aware, McCarthy noted, because they were part of the war — the product, so to speak — not its salesmen.
Questions for President Obama: In promising to send a new “surge” of State Department personnel and other civilians into Afghanistan, are you prepared as well to parse their words? Are you braced in case they sell you a false bill of goods, even if the sellers themselves, in their eagerness to speak fairy tales to power, continually ignore the Fantasyland nature of their tale?
4. Well before Bush administration officials boasted about creating their own reality and new “facts on the ground” in Iraq, Mary McCarthy recognized the danger of another type of “fact”: “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”
Questions for President Obama: If your surge in Afghanistan fails, will you be able to de-escalate as quickly as you escalated? Or will the fact that you’ve put more troops in harm’s way (with all their equipment and all the money that will go into new base and airfield and road construction), and committed more of your prestige to prevailing, make it even harder to consider leaving?
5. A cursory reading of The Pentagon Papers, the famously secret government documents on Vietnam leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, reveals how skeptical America’s top officials were, early on, in pursuing a military solution to the situation in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, knowing better, the “best and brightest,” as journalist David Halberstam termed them in his famous, ironic book title, still talked themselves into it; and they did so, as McCarthy noted, because they set seemingly meaningful goals (“metrics” or “benchmarks,” we’d say today), which they then convinced themselves they were actually achieving. When you trick yourself into believing that you’re meeting your goals, as Halberstam noted, there’s no reason to reexamine your course of action.
Questions for President Obama: Much has been written about an internal struggle within your administration over the wisdom of surging in Afghanistan. Now, you, too, have called for the setting of “benchmarks”for your new strategy’s success. Are you wise enough to set them to capture the complexities of political realities on the ground rather than playing to American strengths? Are you capable of re-examining them, even when your advisors assure you that they are being achieved?
6. In her day, Mary McCarthy recognized the inequities of burden-sharing at home when it came to the war in Vietnam: “Casualty figures, still low [in 1967], seldom strike home outside rural and low-income groups — the silent part of society. The absence of sacrifices [among the privileged classes] has had its effect on the opposition [to the war], which feels no need, on the whole, to turn away from its habitual standards and practices — what for? We have not withdrawn our sympathy from American power and from the way of life that is tied to it — a connection that is more evident to a low-grade G.I. in Vietnam than to most American intellectuals.”
Questions for President Obama: Are you willing to listen to the common G.I. as well as to the generals who have your ear? Are you willing to insist on greater equity in burden-sharing, since once again most of the burden of Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen on “the silent part of society”? Are you able to recognize that the “best and brightest” in the corridors of power may not be the wisest exactly because they have so little to lose (and perhaps much to gain) from our “overseas contingency operations”?
7. McCarthy was remarkably perceptive when it came to the seductiveness of American technological prowess. Our technological superiority, she wrote, was a large part of “our willingness to get into Vietnam and stay there… The technological gap between us and the North Vietnamese constituted, we thought, an advantage which obliged us not to quit.”
Questions for President Obama: Rather than providing us with a war-winning edge, might our robot drones, satellite imagery, and all our other gadgetry of war seduce us into believing that we can “prevail” at a reasonable and sustainable cost? Indeed, do we think we should prevail precisely because our high-tech military brags of “full spectrum dominance”?
One bonus lesson from Mary McCarthy before we take our leave of her: Even now, we speak too often of “Bush’s war” or, more recently, “Obama’s war.” Before we start chattering mindlessly about Iraq and Afghanistan as American tragedies, we would do well to recall what McCarthy had to say about the war in Vietnam: “There is something distasteful,” she wrote, “in the very notion of approaching [Vietnam] as an American tragedy, whose protagonist is a great suffering Texan [President Lyndon Baines Johnson].”
Yes, there is something distasteful about a media that blithely refers to Bush’s or Obama’s war as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans suffer. For American troops, after all, are not the only ones paying the ultimate price when the U.S. fights foreign wars for ill-considered reasons and misguided goals.
I live in a fairly posh area of America. A place where people have vacation “cottages” with pools, a “destination” place for some, especially in July and August. July 4th is hopping in these parts, with parties and parades and fireworks and trips to the beach and barbecues. It’s summer, it’s warm and sunny, it’s time to relax with family and friends and enjoy life.
And then I read headlines like this today (from FP: Foreign Policy): “U.S. Troops in the Thick of it in Mosul and Raqqa.” And this story about U.S. Marines deploying yet again to Helmand Province in Afghanistan:
Helmand. The commander of 300 Marines newly deployed to Helmand province recently told FP’s Paul McLeary he already has the full authority to get his troops out and about with Afghan troops in the fight. “So far we really haven’t seen much of a need to do it,” said U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Roger Turner, “but if there’s a need to be somewhere we have the authority and capability and capacity to be where we need to be.”
He also advocated for a larger American footprint, in keeping with reported Pentagon plans to add 3,000 to 5,000 more troops in the coming months. “With a little bit larger force over here we would be in a position to have more flexibility” to do some of the advising he believes would help the Afghan forces push back against two years of Taliban offensives.
And I think of that “Groundhog Day” movie with Bill Murray in which he repeats the same day, again and again, with only minor changes. If you’ve seen the movie, Murray finally breaks out of what appears to be an infinite loop only when he changes his ways, his approach to life, his mentality. He becomes a better person and even gets the girl.
When is the USA going to break out of its infinite loop of war? Only when we change our culture, our mentality.
A “war on terror” is a forever war, an infinite loop, in which the same place names and similar actions crop up again and again. Names like Mosul and Helmand province. Actions like reprisals and war crimes and the deaths of innocents, because that is the face of war.
Speaking of war crimes, another report today from FP: Foreign Policy:
[A] new Human Rights Watch report signals trouble ahead: witnesses in Mosul say that “Iraqi forces beat unarmed men and boys fleeing the fighting within the last seven days, and said they also obtained information about Iraqi forces executing unarmed men during this time period.”
When will it end? Freedom includes freedom from forever war. Yet Americans continue to be told that the price of freedom is having U.S. troops deployed everywhere — the projection of power in 100+ countries. And some consider it patriotic to support those commitments without question, since to question it is seen as not supporting the troops. Which is nonsense, since our troops fight, at least in theory, to support and defend the U.S. Constitution, which, among other rights, enshrines freedom of speech and the right to dissent.
Can we contemplate a future Fourth of July in which American troops are no longer stuck in an infinite loop, fighting yet again in the blasted streets of Mosul or on the dusty plains of Helmand province? A day of independence from war?
That would truly be a day to celebrate with parades, parties, and fireworks.