Get the Widow on the Set: Trump’s State of the Union Address

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I felt like this, only worse

W.J. Astore

Last night’s State of the Union address was disturbing on many levels.  Republicans applauded when President Trump touted the elimination of the individual mandate for purchasing health care insurance — so it’s a good thing people have no health insurance?  Wait until they go to the emergency room for an appendectomy and leave with a bill for $20,000.  Republicans applauded as well when Trump touted the American prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.  So it’s a good thing our President is vowing to send more “terrorists” to an offshore U.S. military prison?

I could go on and on, but what was most disturbing to me was the use of people in the audience as props for Trump’s positions.  A brave soldier who won the Bronze Star for valor was celebrated to support America’s wars overseas.  Parents whose daughters were killed by illegal immigrants were used to support Trump’s policies on immigration.  A family whose son suffered grievous, ultimately deadly, wounds in North Korea was used to support Trump’s bellicose policies toward Kim Jong-un and his regime, as was a courageous North Korean defector.

It reminded me of the Don Henley song, “Dirty Laundry” and its lines: Can we film the operation?/Is the head dead yet?/You know the boys in the newsroom got a running bet/get the widow on the set/we need dirty laundry. 

The shameless exploitation of other people’s grief is something I can’t stand.  It’s sordid and cynical and dirty.  There are many other things I could say about Trump’s State of the Union address, but my overall feeling was one of exploitation.  After his speech, I felt dirty.

Two Notes on the U.S. Military

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Napalm Strike

W.J. Astore

One of the joys of blogging is hearing from insightful readers.  Today, I’d like to share two notes that highlight vitally important issues within the military — and that touch on larger problems within American society.

The first note comes from a senior non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy.  This NCO highlights the tendency for “green” (new) officers to want to prove themselves as “warfighters,” instead of doing the hard work of learning their jobs, which entails listening to their NCOs with a measure of humility while working together as a team.  It further highlights the arrogance of some officers who are full of themselves after graduating from military academies, where they are often told to “take charge” because they are “the very best.”

Here’s the note:

As a Chief Hull Technician, I ran the damage control and repair shop.  My shop was responsible for hull, piping, water, sewage repairs and damage control equipment on our ship.  The officer in charge of “R” Division is always a first assignment for new ensigns reporting to their first ship.  I was a senior enlisted with 16 years in the Navy,  working for a 22 year old (ensign) with either 4 years at the academy or nine weeks of OCS (officer commissioning school) and a year of SWO (surface warfare) school.  All the new officers want to be war fighters.  None want to know the nuts and bolts of actually running the ship. During my tour I had 3 (Naval) academy and one OCS ensign.  The ensigns from the (Naval) academy were horrible.  Not just bad officers, but lousy people.  I understand the cluelessness of a 22 year old, but the desire to achieve with no regard for the people who will make you great was appalling.  They did not realize their crew would make them great.  They thought they were so brilliant, they could do it on their own.  My job was to save them from themselves.  My Chief Engineer would get mad at me when they made asses of themselves.  My OCS ensign was a good officer. He wasn’t full of the Naval Academy education… Breaking traditions is hard in the military.  The fact we have presidents with no military leadership is contributing to letting the Generals run wild.  Instead of realizing the civilians control the military, not the other way.  I would have fired or (forced) early retirements of all flag officers who supported the Iraq war.  Who needs people around who give bad advice?

This senior NCO makes an excellent point at the end of his letter.  Why not fire or early retire generals and admirals who offer bad advice?  But rarely in the military is any senior officer held to account for offering bad advice.  As LTC Paul Yingling noted in 2007, a private who loses a rifle is punished far more severely than a general who loses a war.  Citing Yingling, military historian Thomas E. Ricks noted in an article at The Atlantic in 2012 that “In the wars of the past decade, hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness.”

Since 1945 decisive victories by the U.S. military have been few but everyone nevertheless gets a trophy.

The second note I received is as brief as it is powerful:

My father is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), he flew both Korea & Vietnam, had the time of his young hot shot fighter pilot life in Korea, but had grave misgivings in Vietnam, and in fact was passed over for a Wing & a promotion to General, because as he said to me on 1969 after his return; “There is something fundamentally wrong with dropping napalm on little old men in rice paddies, and going back to (the) Officers Club to drink it up, and do it all over again the next day.” 

Yes, there is something wrong with dropping murderous weaponry on often innocent people, then returning the next day to do it again (and again), without experiencing any doubts or moral qualms. There is also something wrong with a military that promotes amoral true believers over those officers who possess a moral spine.

The issue of killing innocent civilians is yet again in the news as casualties rise during the Trump administration.  According to The Independent:

More than three-quarters of the civilians killed during the four-year war against Isis in Iraq and Syria occurred during Donald Trump’s presidency, new figures show. 

A total of 831 civilians have been “unintentionally killed” over the period, according to the US military’s own figures. 

And the official figures offered by the U.S. military significantly underestimate civilian deaths, notes a recent study by Anand Gopal and Azmat Khan.  Yet moral qualms about the deaths of innocents are rarely heard today.

I’d like to thank again readers who share their insights and experiences with me, whether by email or in comments at this site.  This is how we learn from each other — it is one small way we can work toward making the world a better, more just, place.

The Kennedy Administration: Camelot or Incompetence?

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They seemed perfect …

The Kennedy Administration: Camelot or Incompetence?

W.J. Astore

President John F. Kennedy is surrounded by myths, the most famous of which is Camelot. The Kennedys brought youth and glamour to the White House, a reprieve from the perceived stodginess of Ike and Mamie Eisenhower (as well as the “square” and indeed criminal Nixon White House to come).  They seemed the perfect couple, John and Jackie, and it seems churlish and graceless to note how much of this was image.  Kennedy was a notorious womanizer, a fact both known and suppressed by a fawning Washington Press Corps.  Jackie came across as a traditional wife: loyal, unobjectionable, limited by her times but also steely in her grace and fortitude after her husband was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963 (the latest movie that captures this awful event is Jackie, starring Natalie Portman).

Kennedy’s father, Joe Sr., taught his sons a sense of winning at all costs. A sense of recklessness. Kennedy’s older brother, Joe Jr. died leading a risky bombing mission in World War II, and John F. Kennedy nearly died when he lost his PT boat in action in the Pacific.  The loss of PT-109 was depicted as a heroic act, as the young JFK helped to save some of his crew, but one may question how he came to lose his boat in the first place. JFK’s perfect marriage, as already mentioned, was a sham, and despite his relative youth, he was not in the best of health, plagued by a bad back, Addison’s disease, and other health issues. His Pulitzer-prize winning book, “Profiles in Courage,” was largely ghost written.  JFK’s life was often more a triumph of image than a profile in courage.

As President, Kennedy made many unwise decisions.  He escalated American involvement in Laos and Vietnam, setting the stage for a major commitment of U.S. ground troops by President Lyndon Johnson early in 1965.  He oversaw the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which backfired badly on the inexperienced U.S. commander-in-chief.  As Lawrence Freedman put it in his book, Kennedy’s Wars (2000), “This was exactly the sort of move—gambling on the basis of insufficient strength and then abandoning the operation before it was complete—that made [Dean] Acheson despair.”  Freedman further cites Acheson as saying European leaders compared JFK’s bungling to “a gifted amateur practicing with a boomerang and suddenly knocking himself cold.  They were amazed that so inexperienced a person should play with so lethal a weapon.”

Greater lethality was to come the next year with the Cuban Missile Crisis.  This is often sold as JFK’s moment of steely toughness, when he made the Soviets blink and back down, but as a recent book by Daniel Ellsberg reveals, that crisis nearly resulted in nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  It was yet another instance of JFK’s tendency toward taking big risks as a way of proving himself.  Almost precipitating nuclear Armageddon, however, is terrifying way to prove one’s fitness for office.

Even before JFK became president, he fabricated what today might be called “alternative facts.”  He invented a missile gap vis-à-vis the Soviet Union that didn’t exist.  In fact, the true missile gap was the opposite of what JFK claimed, in that the U.S. had many more nuclear ICBMs than the Soviets did.  When he became president, JFK embarked on a strategic policy of “Flexible Response” (suggested by General Maxwell Taylor) that activated and empowered more conventional operations by the U.S. military.  In practice what this meant was that the U.S. became embroiled in conflicts that were secondary to national interests; worst of all, of course, was a major land war in Vietnam that was essentially a lost cause even before Kennedy chose to escalate it with more advisers and materiel aid.

Defenders of JFK suggest he grew in office and would have seen the folly of continuing in Vietnam, but there’s little evidence to support this narrative.  The recent Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War cites Kennedy as saying the U.S. couldn’t win in Vietnam, but that he couldn’t order a withdrawal because to do so would cost him his reelection in 1964.  JFK, moreover, fancied the notion of Flexible Response, his New Look military and its emphasis on special ops forces such as the Green Berets, and he saw Vietnam as a test bed for a “counterinsurgency” approach to defeating communism. What LBJ did in 1965 in escalating that conflict by committing U.S. ground troops is probably what JFK would have done if he had lived.  (In his book, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, Fredrik Logevall suggests JFK may have had the political will to resist escalation in 1965, effectively allowing South Vietnam to fall to communism, an intriguing if unprovable scenario.)

In sum, JFK set the stage for America’s disastrous war in Southeast Asia while provoking the Soviet Union into an escalatory nuclear arms race that threatened the world with extinction.  Profiles in courage these are not.

It’s worth briefly comparing JFK’s record to that of Richard Nixon, who has no Camelot myths attached to him.  Nixon, of course, was and is vilified as “Tricky Dick” and dismissed as one of America’s worst presidents.  He deserves opprobrium for his mendacious, meretricious, and murderous policies vis-à-vis Southeast Asia, especially his well-nigh treasonous meddling in peace negotiations in 1968, before he was elected president.  Nixon and Henry Kissinger saw themselves as the world’s powerbrokers, working to overthrow governments they disliked, as in Chile with the coup against Allende.  But Nixon and Kissinger deserve a measure of credit for opening negotiations with communist China as well as starting a process of détente with the Soviet Union.  Nixon showed a capacity for growth in office even as he permitted his own ego and paranoia to undermine his administration’s accomplishments in foreign policy.

The point here is not to praise Nixon, a man of considerable gifts but also of crippling flaws.  Rather, the point is to highlight an overly fawning approach to the presidency of John F. Kennedy.  His administration, rather than serving as a shining moment, a Camelot, ultimately was an exercise in imagery and incompetence.

The Fall of the American Empire

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Uncle Sam: No stranger to imperialism (from the Spanish-American War of 1898)

W.J. Astore

Why do empires fall?  Sometimes, it’s easy to identify a cause.  Whether led by the Kaiser or by Hitler, Germany’s Second and Third Empires were destroyed by world wars.  Germany’s ambition was simply too great, its militarism too dominant, its policies too harsh to win long-term converts, its leaders too blinded by the pursuit of power, its enemies too many to conquer or otherwise neutralize.

Other imperial falls are more complex.  What caused Rome’s fall?  (Leaving aside the eastern part of the empire, which persisted far longer as the Byzantine Empire.)  Barbarians and their invasions, say some.  The enervating message and spirit of Christianity, said the historian Edward Gibbon.  Rome’s own corruption and tyranny, say others.  Even lead in Roman water pipes has been suggested as a contributing cause to Rome’s decline and fall.  Taking a longer view, some point to the rise of Islam in the 7th century and its rapid expansion into previously Roman territories as the event that administered the final coup de grâce to a dying empire.

America’s empire, it is clear, is now in decline, and a key reason is imperial overstretch as manifested by endless wars and overspending on the military (with literally trillions of dollars being thrown away on fruitless wars).  An especially fine summary is Alfred McCoy’s article this week at TomDispatch.com.  As McCoy notes:

In effect, the president and his team, distracted by visions of shimmering ships and shiny planes (with their predictable staggering future cost overruns), are ready to ditch the basics of global dominion: the relentless scientific research that has long been the cutting edge of U.S. military supremacy.  And by expanding the Pentagon while slashing the State Department, Trump is also destabilizing that delicate duality of U.S. power by skewing foreign policy ever more toward costly military solutions (that have proved anything but actual solutions) …

In just one extraordinary year, Trump has destabilized the delicate duality that has long been the foundation for U.S. foreign policy: favoring war over diplomacy, the Pentagon over the State Department, and narrow national interest over international leadership. But in a globalizing world interconnected by trade, the Internet, and the rapid proliferation of nuclear-armed missiles, walls won’t work. There can be no Fortress America.

In this passage, McCoy stresses the damage being done by the Trump administration.  But Trump is just the culmination of certain trends, e.g. favoring the Pentagon over the State Department is nothing new, as I wrote about here in 2010.  And America has been in love with shimmering ships and shiny planes for generations, with several administrations supporting the F-35 jet fighter, a program that may end up costing as much as $1.4 trillion.  Plenty of money for weapons that kill; not so much for medicines that cure: that’s imperial America in a nutshell.

I would stress that America’s strength overseas was (and is) always based on its strength at home in areas such as science, education, infrastructure, medicine, manufacturing, and exports.  But what we’ve witnessed over the last 40 years is an immense and wasteful “investment” in wars and weapons even as our country itself has hollowed out. Science is now marked by the denial of facts (such as global warming). Education is all about students as consumers, with an overall decline in standards and performance. Infrastructure is crumbling. Medicine is too expensive and America’s overall health and life expectancy are both in decline. Manufacturing and exports have withered (except for the production and export of weapons, naturally).

As a result of all this, America is running a national debt of roughly 20 trillion dollars.  The future is being sacrificed for the present, a tragic reality reflected in the latest Republican tax cut, which benefits the richest Americans the most, along with big corporations, and which will likely add another trillion to the national debt.

In short, America’s foreign decline is mirrored (and driven) by its domestic decline as reflected by its choices.  Looking at the USA today, you get the sense it’s the best of times for the richest few, and the worst of times for so many Americans struggling with health care debt, student loan debt, and the uncertainty of low-wage jobs that could be outsourced at any moment.  At the same time, the American political scene is driven by fear: of immigrants, of a nuclear war with North Korea, of Russian meddling (real or imagined), of growing Chinese power, and of the perpetually-hyped threat of terrorist attacks on “the Homeland.”

Empires can fall very quickly, as the “thousand-year” Third Reich did, or they can fall ever so slowly, as the Roman Empire did.  But fall they do.  What is in the cards for the United States?  Readers, fire away in the comments section.

Update (1/20/18):  Secretary of Defense James Mattis now claims that China and Russia represent bigger threats than terrorism, along with Congress itself since it can’t pass an extended budget for the Pentagon.  He also claimed the U.S. military’s “competitive edge” is eroding in “every domain of warfare,” despite a defense budget of $700 billion.

None of this is a surprise.  Indeed, this is exactly what happens when you put a retired general and known war hawk in charge of the defense department.  Generals will always want more: more troops, more money, more resources, more authority.  And to support their demands, they will always find more enemies as well.

Winning the Afghan War — In Hollywood

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W.J. Astore

A new movie, “!2 Strong,” is opening on January 19th.  I’ve been seeing a lot of trailers for it while watching the NFL playoffs.  It’s being advertised as America’s first victory in the “war on terror.”  Based on a popular book, “Horse Soldiers,” it features American special operations troops charging into battle on horseback.  The synopsis of the movie (at Fandango) describes it as follows:

“12 Strong” is set in the harrowing days following 9/11 when a U.S. Special Forces team, led by their new Captain, Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth), is chosen to be the first U.S. troops sent into Afghanistan for an extremely dangerous mission. There, in the rugged mountains, they must convince Northern Alliance General Dostum (Negahban) to join forces with them to fight their common adversary: the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. In addition to overcoming mutual distrust and a vast cultural divide, the Americans—accustomed to state-of-the-art warfare—must adopt the rudimentary tactics of the Afghani (sic) horse soldiers. But despite their uneasy bond, the new allies face overwhelming odds: outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy that does not take prisoners.

I don’t think it will surprise anyone that, despite those “overwhelming odds” and being “outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy,” U.S. troops prevail.

Watching the trailers on TV is a surreal experience.  You get the impression the U.S. cavalry sounded the charge and won the Afghan war in 2001.  You’d never know U.S. forces are still fighting in Afghanistan in 2018, facing a “stalemate” and a resurgent Taliban that controls vast swaths of territory, and that U.S. forces face a “generational” slog to an endpoint where victory is indeed ill-defined.

Even though America is treading water in the Afghan war, Hollywood has cherry-picked an episode from the early days of that war, in the tradition of a John Wayne movie (like “The Horse Soldiers“).

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The Wild West has been reset to Afghanistan with U.S. troops as the new sheriff in town, with the Taliban serving as the “savages” in the old Western tradition.

It’s the U.S. cavalry to the rescue, in the wild Afghan mountains.  Yet highlighting this one episode in America’s quagmire war in Afghanistan is more than misleading.  It’s as if the Japanese made a film about World War II that began and ended with Pearl Harbor.

Remember when Candidate Trump boasted that, when he became president, Americans would win so much, we’d get bored with winning?  “Believe me,” he said.

Maybe this is believable … at the movies.

The Most Important Country the U.S. Military Has Conquered

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Yes, the U.S. military is involved throughout the world.  But even smart maps like this one neglect the one country truly conquered by that military: the USA

W.J. Astore

When the U.S. military boasts of “global reach, global power,” it’s not kidding.  As Nick Turse notes in his latest article at TomDispatch.com, that military’s Special Operations forces deployed in one way or another to 149 countries in 2017, roughly 75% of countries on the globe.  Talk about reach!  Meanwhile, those forces have more than doubled since 2001, sitting at 70,000 effectives today, the equivalent to five divisions.  (Consider it a military within the military.)  All of this has come at tremendous cost, with this year’s defense budget sitting at $700 billion–and rising for the foreseeable future.

For all the bucks, what about the bang–what about results?  Let’s just say that Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Niger, and other U.S. military interventions haven’t gone well.

Yet there is one country where the U.S. military truly rules; one country which the U.S. military has truly conquered.  Where and which?  The USA, of course.  No matter its losses and frustrations overseas, the U.S. military keeps winning more money and influence here at home.  Congress loves it, presidents love it, our culture (mostly) loves it, or at least is urged to “support” it irrespective of results.

It’s not just the trillions of dollars it’s consumed since 9/11 or the extent to which retired generals rule the roost in Washington.  Think about popular culture: our sports, our toys, our TV and movies.  Kids dress up as soldiers on Halloween.  Toys are of the “Call of Duty” variety.  In TV shows like “SEAL Team,” Special Forces are all the rage.  Hollywood has embraced them too, in movies like “Act of Valor” and the upcoming “12 Strong,” about a small team of American “horse soldiers” in Afghanistan soon after 9/11, riding to the rescue like so many John Waynes.

And one more item, a vitally important one, to consider: there is no talk of peace, anytime, anywhere, in the mainstream media, hence no talk of declining military budgets.

The military has conquered us.  Indeed, global military action is a rare area of bipartisan accord in Washington, whether the commander-in-chief is Bush or Obama or Trump.

So, while it’s true the U.S. military is in an astonishing 149 countries, the one that really matters is the USA.  It may lose in Afghanistan or Somalia, but it has won here — and that’s all that really matters to the further growth and vitality of America’s national security state.

U.S. Politicians and their Love of the Military

W.J. Astore

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James Madison.  We need his wisdom more than ever.

If there’s one area of bipartisan agreement today, it’s politicians’ professed love of the U.S. military.  Consider George W. Bush.  He said the U.S. military is the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.  Consider Barack Obama.  He said that same military is the finest fighting force the world has ever known.  Strong praise, indeed.

Today’s politicians are not to be outdone.  This past weekend at Camp David, Paul Ryan praised the military for keeping America safe.  Mike Pence noted the military remains “the strongest in the world,” yet paradoxically he said it needs rebuilding.  He promised even more “investment” in the military so that it would become “even stronger still.”

Apparently, no matter how strong and superior the U.S. military is, it must be made yet stronger and yet more superior.  All in an effort to “keep us safe,” to cite Paul Ryan’s words.  Small wonder that the Pentagon’s budget is soaring above $700 billion.

It didn’t use to be this way.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower, formerly a five-star general and a man who knew the military intimately, warned us in 1961 of the anti-democratic nature of the military-industrial complex.  James Madison, one of America’s founders, warned us in the 18th century of the perils of endless war and how armies drive authoritarian tendencies and contribute to financial debt and national ruin.

Ike knew that national safety shouldn’t be equated with military prowess; quite the reverse, as he warned us against the unchecked power of a burgeoning military-industrial-Congressional complex.  Madison knew that armies weren’t “investments”; rather, they were, in historical terms, positive dangers to liberty.

But for America’s politicians today, the idea of national safety has become weaponized as well as militarized.  In their minds personal liberty and national democracy, paradoxically, are best represented by an authoritarian and hierarchical military, one possessing vast power, whether measured by its resources across the globe or its reach within American society.

Our politicians find it easy to be uncritical cheerleaders of the U.S. military.  They may even think they’re doing a service by issuing blank checks of support.  But Ike and Madison would disagree, and so too would anyone with knowledge of the perils of military adulation.