The American Military Uncontained

Ike had it right: Beware the military-industrial complex

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for, I detail how the U.S. military is out everywhere but winning nowhere.  What I mean by not winning is the military’s failure to end wars on terms remotely favorable to national security and the interests of democracy.  I hesitate to be a cynic, but perpetual war does mean perpetual high “defense” budgets and prolonged and prodigious power for generals (and retired generals). Peace would mean smaller defense budgets and far less influence for these men.

What chance of peace with President Trump in charge surrounded by the generals of all these losing wars?  Indeed, generals continue to speak of generational wars, so much so that I’m tempted to make a play on words: generational wars generated by generals.  It’s not entirely fair, nor is it entirely unfair.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt from my article.  You can read it in its entirety at

When it comes to the “world’s greatest military,” the news has been shocking. Two fast US Navy ships colliding with slow-moving commercial vessels with tragic loss of life. An Air Force that has been in the air continuously for years and yet doesn’t have enough pilots to fly its combat jets. Ground troops who find themselves fighting “rebels” in Syria previously armed and trained by the CIA. Already overstretched Special Operations forces facing growing demands as their rates of mental distress and suicide rise. Proxy armies in Iraq and Afghanistan that are unreliable, often delivering American-provided weaponry to black markets and into the hands of various enemies. All of this and more coming at a time when defense spending is once again soaring and the national security state is awash in funds to the tune of nearly a trillion dollars a year.

What gives? Why are highly maneuverable and sophisticated naval ships colliding with lumbering cargo vessels? Why is an Air Force that exists to fly and fight short 1,200 pilots? Why are US Special Operations forces deployed everywhere and winning nowhere? Why, in short, is the US military fighting itself — and losing?

It’s the Ops Tempo, Stupid

After 16 years of a never-ending, ever-spreading global war on terror, alarms are going off in Asia from the Koreas and Afghanistan to the Philippines, while across the Greater Middle East and Africa the globe’s “last superpower” is in a never-ending set of conflicts with a range of minor enemies few can even keep straight. As a result, America’s can-do military, committed piecemeal to a bewildering array of missions, has increasingly become a can’t-do one.

Too few ships are being deployed for too long. Too few pilots are being worn out by incessant patrols and mushrooming drone and bombing missions. Special Operations forces (the “commandos of everywhere,” as Nick Turse calls them) are being deployed to far too many countries — more than two-thirds of the nations on the planet already this year — and are involved in conflicts that hold little promise of ending on terms favorable to Washington. Meanwhile, insiders like retired Gen. David Petraeus speak calmly about “generational struggles” that will essentially never end. To paraphrase an old slogan from ABC’s Wide World of Sports, as the US military spans the globe, it’s regularly experiencing the agony of defeat rather than the thrill of victory.

To President Donald Trump (and so many other politicians in Washington), this unsavory reality suggests an obvious solution: boost military fundingbuild more navy ships; train more pilots and give them more incentive pay to stay in the military; rely more on drones and other technological “force multipliers” to compensate for tired troops; cajole allies like the Germans and Japanese to spend more on their militaries; and pressure proxy armies like the Iraqi and Afghan security forces to cut corruption and improve combat performance.

One option — the most logical — is never seriously considered in Washington: to make deep cuts in the military’s operational tempo by decreasing defense spending and downsizing the global mission, by bringing troops home and keeping them there. This is not an isolationist plea. The United States certainly faces challenges, notably from Russia (still a major nuclear power) and China (a global economic power bolstering its regional militarily strength). North Korea is, as ever, posturing with missile and nuclear tests in provocative ways. Terrorist organizations strive to destabilize American allies and cause trouble even in “the homeland.”

Such challenges require vigilance. What they don’t require is more ships in the sea lanes, pilots in the air and boots on the ground. Indeed, 16 years after the 9/11 attacks it should be obvious that more of the same is likely to produce yet more of what we’ve grown all too accustomed to: increasing instability across significant swaths of the planet, as well as the rise of new terror groups or new iterations of older ones, which means yet more opportunities for failed US military interventions …

The Greatest Self-Defeating Force in History?

Incessant warfare represents the end of democracy. I didn’t say that, James Madison did.

I firmly believe, though, in words borrowed from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, that “only Americans can hurt America.” So how can we lessen the hurt? By beginning to rein in the military. A standing military exists — or rather should exist — to support and defend the Constitution and our country against immediate threats to our survival. Endless attacks against inchoate foes in the backlands of the planet hardly promote that mission. Indeed, the more such attacks wear on the military, the more they imperil national security.

A friend of mine, a captain in the Air Force, once quipped to me: you study long, you study wrong. It’s a sentiment that’s especially cutting when applied to war: you wage war long, you wage it wrong. Yet as debilitating as they may be to militaries, long wars are even more devastating to democracies. The longer our military wages war, the more our country is militarized, shedding its democratic values and ideals.

Back in the Cold War era, the regions in which the US military is now slogging it out were once largely considered “the shadows” where John le Carré-style secret agents from the two superpowers matched wits in a set of shadowy conflicts. Post-9/11, “taking the gloves off” and seeking knockout blows, the US military entered those same shadows in a big way and there, not surprisingly, it often couldn’t sort friend from foe.

A new strategy for America should involve getting out of those shadowy regions of no-win war. Instead, an expanding US military establishment continues to compound the strategic mistakes of the last 16 years. Seeking to dominate everywhere but winning decisively nowhere, it may yet go down as the greatest self-defeating force in history.

16 thoughts on “The American Military Uncontained

  1. Warfare Welfare and Make-work Militarism.

    Manufactured Mendacity and Managed Mystification.

    Inverted — if not perverted — Totalitarianism.

    The Fourth Slogan of the Party: “Defeat is Victory”

    One more thing, just as a stray thought somehow related to the above and how it all came to pass: Shouldn’t the title of You-Know-Her’s new book end with a question mark?


  2. The book I am currently reading Militarism by Col. James A. Donovan, USMC (Ret) makes a point that during the 1950’s the doctrine of MAD was predominant. In a science fiction sense nuclear weapons were like an alien force imposing peace between the Soviet Union and the West.

    Donovan mentions in his book beginning in 1961 two additional doctrines evolved “flexible response” and “gradualism”. Both doctrines supported the notion of “limited war” i.e., non-nuclear war. Per Donovan the US Army was revived in stature and importance with the idea of limited war. The Air Force would provide the mobility, for quick strategic movement. Counter-insurgency would be introduced. Now that we had the doctrines and new conventional equipment all we needed was a place to demonstrate it.

    I wonder in a way if these doctrines were a result of the colonies in Africa and Asia being given “supervised freedom”. By supervised freedom I mean the colonies became independent; the new rulers would guarantee the multi-national corporations would not be molested by leftist ideology. A coup would do if the natives got restless, but in pinch some saber rattling with the ability to project force would be the back-up plan.

    Donovan lists a rogues gallery including LBJ, Rusk, the Bundy Bros., Maxwell Taylor, Walter Rostow, McNamara, and the Joint Chiefs among others. They all went on in life once their services were no longer required. This rogues gallery has been replaced over the past two decades. The idea of, We have It, Let’s use It, may not be a political-military doctrine as such but is a guiding light for the NEO-CONs and their fellow travelers.


    1. Thanks, ML. John Feffer puts it well here:

      “That’s the likely end game for the Trump team: to destroy politics as we know it, to destroy democracy as we know it, to bankrupt the state as we know it, but to hold on to a massive military and a large nuclear arsenal.

      When Hurricane Donald gets through with the United States, we’ll be left with a Dear Leader, a bunch of nukes, and a garrison state, with no one but China to keep us afloat. Welcome to Pyongyang on the Potomac.”


      1. Feffer, makes a good observations. Years ago after the Soviet Union imploded I read an article on line. The core of the article was the Republicans taking credit because of the toughness of Reagan-Bush. The author wrote, Democrats were not to be out done, in taking credit for the now dead body of the Soviet Union, responded with Carter’s decision to support the Afghan “Freedom Fighters” (they were still freedom fighters at that time), to drain the Soviet Union. Even LBJ was given some credit for drawing the line in S.E. Asia. The sole credit for the Soviet Unions collapse was America’s Political-Military toughness per the ideologues.

        The author went on to point out the Soviet Union died of self-inflicted wounds namely: massive corruption, and a far larger military machine that was needed to defend themselves, which stagnated the entire economy.


    2. Max Taylor changed everything with his “The Uncertain Trumpet” in 1960. The Kennedys loved him, made him counselor to the president, the special forces would obsolete the bomb, etc.


  3. The objective is not to win wars, most wars can’t be won, as the US has proven. The goal is to profit from the war, because as Smedley Butler taught us, war is a racket, and tremendous profits are being made by these wars. That includes the generals who continuously claim that victory is just around the corner in the xxx war. They retire at $250K ++. So the wars have been a success, in that regard. The profiteers say: Thank you for your subservience. Peace? That’s a dirty word, un-American actually, when there so many threats, so many terrorists. I get called a Russian regularly. Not here, I presume.


    1. For you, Don. I just saw an article on Sputnik News, There Goes the Neighborhood: Pentagon Widens U.S. Occupation in Kabul which reports in its lead paragraph:

      “In an attempt to counter deadly ongoing terror attacks in Kabul, the US plans to expand its so-called Green Zone, a restricted area in the middle of the ancient city, which will now include most Western embassies and a number of military facilities.”

      Oh, great. Another Baghdad (or Saigon) Green Zone where the U.S. installed puppet regime can hide from its own people who hate it and wish it would die. This report reminded me of something I wrote a decade ago after hearing about how the U.S. military planned to set up all these little outpost bases in Iraq, with the American GIs “living among the people” and “winning their hearts and minds.” Having tried a bit of that myself in Southeast Asia decades previously, I had my doubts as to its chances for success. So, here we go again with:

      Mini Green Zone Outpost Diaspora

      Far from the Green Zone Castle
      In mini-Green-Zone forts
      Our scattered forces “mingle”
      With RPG retorts

      Then when the ambush happens
      The cavalry replies
      And rides off to the rescue
      With any handy guys

      It takes perhaps an hour
      Once timely news arrives
      Of dead and captured soldiers
      And lost Iraqi lives

      Somewhere we’ve got a mission
      That no one can explain
      It promises to triumph
      With just a bit more pain

      For sure, we hear, our “leaders”
      In uniform and not
      With yet more blood and billions
      Could plan an “ink stain” spot

      They work in bits and pieces
      A little here and there
      And see some hints of “progress”
      Just never any where

      They travel to the future
      And tell us what they’ve seen:
      That things, absent their fuck-ups,
      Would soon get really mean

      We need them to continue,
      They say of what they’ve done,
      Because if we stop losing
      The “bad guys” will have “won”

      The country’s off its rocker
      When talk like this persists
      While troop retention withers
      And no one new enlists

      Yet if they wreck the Army
      Perhaps some good will come
      For with no foreign legion
      They might not act so dumb

      It hurts to lose our soldiers
      But many profit, too
      So why give up the gravy
      Slurped by the greedy few?

      The country’s lost its marbles
      That such a thing should be
      As suits and brass commanding
      Naught but their perfidy

      We’ve learned of those “belief tanks”
      Where no one thinks of doubt
      And “scholars” scream for “going in”
      But not for getting out

      We’ve got the dumbest “leaders”
      Who ever walked the earth:
      Those lowered expectations
      Of less than zero worth

      So tell us of the “new” plan
      We cannot wait to hear
      The brilliant scheme you’ve cooked up:
      What next we have to fear

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2007


      1. Tip-top Michael, with memories of Petraeus and the Surge, which he was to repeat in Afghanistan (along with that young lady). That was also when (in Iraq, 2007) the Iraq PM said that his forces could control the country, and Cindy Sheehan left the peace movement, and more money flowed to the war profiteers.
        It hurts to lose our soldiers
        But many profit, too
        So why give up the gravy
        Slurped by the greedy few?
        >”WAR is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” — General Smedley Butler, USMC, double recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.


      2. Re Sputnik News. Several years ago Afghan president Karzai suggested an excellent idea: to build an ’embassy park’ somewhere out of town. All embassies (and hopefully also foreign military bases) would have to move there and thus the city would be safer for civilians. It never materialised, why, is not hard to imagine. To contain all embassies in a widened ‘green zone’ is not possible as several ones are located in distant neighbourhoods. But such an expansion would certainly include part or all of residential Wazir Akbar Khan, across – one of the main access roads to the city – from the present ‘green zone’ border. It contains not only several consulates, but also fortified guesthouses and assorted restaurants popular among foreign mercenaries and excessively wealthy Afghans.
        Along that busy road, however, there is not only a US military base – which jams mobile phones in that area – but also several hospitals, including the military one which was attacked last year but also a major civilian one – built by Czechoslovakia in the 1970s – and the Indira Ghandi children hospital. It will cut off from the centre the countless inhabitants of the much appreciated soviet era Macro- and Micro Rayon housing projects. And the airport will not be accessible anymore from the city centre without a considerable detour via the ringroad. But who cares, as long as this additional colonisation of what is not theirs to manage, will allow US & assorted NATO embassies & military to have easier access to each other? May this be Fake News …
        If the military checkpoints at the access points into the green zone would be located some 100 m inside the narrow access lanes between concrete blast walls instead of at their entrance, the ‘collateral damage’ of the truck blast would have been incomparably smaller, as only the Afghan soldiers protecting the foreign occupiers would have been killed – which is awful enough – rather than over a hundred innocent passers by.


    2. Speaking of that famous gratitude that Americans claim to feel for the Sacred Symbol Soldier’s silent subservience, I actually wrote a new poem this year on that very subject.

      Thank You for Your Servility

      The Sacred Symbol Soldier serves to shield
      The fans from what transpires upon the field
      Of battle, far away in distant lands,
      While “patriots” swill beer up in the stands,
      And cheer the gladiators down below
      Who (for a dollar) put on quite a show

      To market war as just another game
      Makes money for the ones who have no shame.
      To move the mob, they wave the bloody shirt
      Concealing blood and bowels in the dirt.
      Their crimes they seek to hide behind the troops:
      Those tools of conquerors and statesmen’s dupes.

      The Taboo Troop shows up at sports events
      To bask in brief applause; no malcontents:
      Disgusted, wounded, angry, are allowed
      To give the middle finger to the crowd
      And so the wars, somewhere, go on and on
      Sold by the slave; promoted by the pawn

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortuneteller,” copyright 2017


      1. You’re missing the fun, Michael.
        I’m a fan of Bluegrass Festivals here in the states, and not infrequently the veterans are asked to stand. Sometimes it’s by service. And the adulations pour forth, thank you for your service keeping us free as the non-standers are asked to (or voluntarily) stand and applaud.
        It’s MM poetry grist for sure, and you (knowingly) touched on it.

        The Taboo Troop shows up at sports events
        To bask in brief applause; no malcontents:
        Disgusted, wounded, angry, are allowed
        To give the middle finger to the crowd
        And so the wars, somewhere, go on and on
        Sold by the slave; promoted by the pawn


  4. Ike was there as the military, industrial,and usually forgotten congressional complex was thoroughly institutionalized. He alone was the only man who could have altered put pressure on and but he did nothing but offer this tepid warning, after the deal was done.

    Do not give Ike credit for this. He among all politicians in the post WWII era could have fought this, and he didnt.


    1. My take is different. I think Ike did resist this, especially threat inflation vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. The sad part is that even Ike, a retired five-star general, could resist but not contain the growing power of the Complex. And ever since JFK, that Complex has only grown more powerful.


    2. And now the MIC has infiltrated the highest levels with McMaster, Mattis and Kelly.
      Eisenhower’s farewell comments:

      Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations.

      Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.

      In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.


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