The Best Don’t Have to Boast: The Dangerous Myth of American Military Omnipotence

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No matter the results, U.S. leaders praise the military as the very best in all of human history

W.J. Astore

[Note: I originally wrote this article for Truthout, where it appeared in August 2011.  Little has changed since then; indeed, the current president has surrounded himself with advisers who are both screaming hawks and true believers in U.S. military strength.  It’s a curious feature of American exceptionalism that our leaders parrot the notion that the U.S. military is “the finest fighting force” in history — and this boast comes despite disastrous results in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  As my dad used to say, the best don’t have to boast.]

A line at the tail end of Nicholas Schmidle’s article in The New Yorker (August 8, 2011) on SEAL Team Six’s takedown of Osama bin Laden captured the military zeitgeist of the moment. Upon meeting the SEAL team, President Obama gushed that the team was, “literally, the finest small-fighting force that has ever existed in the world.”

As a military historian, I was struck by the sweeping nature of that boast.

The “finest small-fighting force” ever in the history of the world? What about the Spartan 300 who gave their all at Thermopylae against the Persians, thereby saving Greek civilization for posterity? What about those Royal Air Force pilots in the Battle of Britain, about whom Winston Churchill said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”? Turning to an American example, what about the Rangers lionized by President Ronald Reagan for their sacrificial service at Pointe du Hoc to mark the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy during World War II?

Such caveats are not meant to diminish the bravery and toughness of the SEALs and other US Special Forces teams; the deadly risks they take are only too evident, as the helicopter crash in Afghanistan on August 6 [2011] reminds us. But immoderate boasts of how the US military is the “best ever” contributes to a myth of American omnipotence that has disturbing implications for the conduct of our wars and even for the future of our country.

The historian George Herring made an important point when he noted that a key reason the US lost in Vietnam was “the illusion of American omnipotence, the traditional American belief that the difficult we do tomorrow, the impossible may take a while.” Because of this illusion, we’re psychologically unprepared when events go south, therefore, we tend, as Herring notes, to “find scapegoats in our own midst: the poor judgment of our leaders, the media, or the anti-war movement.”

We’re so wrapped up in our own ethnocentric drama, Herring suggests, that we deny any agency or initiative to the enemy, as well as the vital importance of “the nature of the conflict itself, the weakness of our ally, the relative strength of our adversary.” We have no context, in other words, in which to process setbacks, to reconsider our commitment of troops overseas, to know when it’s both prudent and wise to walk away. How can we, when we’re always at pains to celebrate our troops as the finest warriors ever on planet Earth?

Our military is full of highly motivated professionals, but no matter how tempting it may be, we should take great care in elevating them to the pantheon of the warrior heroes of Valhalla. For only the dead gain access to its hall.

Nor should we mistake warrior prowess for true national security. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in his State of the Union address in 1957, “National security requires far more than military power. Economic and moral factors play indispensable roles.” Eschewing Ike’s wisdom, our government today equates national security with astronomical defense budgets and global military intervention, never mind the damage done to our economy or to our moral standing.

Better than anyone, perhaps, Ike came to recognize the perils of misplaced power and the folly of placing too much faith in military action. Afforded the luxury of space provided by two oceans, rich natural resources and the wisdom of the founders who forged a representative democracy (however imperfect) based on personal liberty, the United States had the option of preferring peace and prosperity to war and destitution.

Yet, partly because we’ve come to believe in our own military omnipotence, we seem today to be determined to choose the latter option of war and destitution. We persist in dissipating our economy and our energy in endless military action, a fate Ike perhaps had in mind when he said, “Only Americans can hurt America.”

We can do better. And one small step we can take is to stop boasting of how great we supposedly are at fielding the “finest” fighting forces ever.

Trumpspeak Is Newspeak

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W.J. Astore

Fans of George Orwell’s 1984 will recall Newspeak, the development of a new language that also involved the elimination of certain words and concepts.  The method is clearly defined by the character of Syme in Orwell’s book:

“You think … our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting language down to the bone … You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten … Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller… The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect…”

Trumpspeak is America’s version of Newspeak.  Whatever you choose to call it, the intent is clear: the control of thought through the elimination of certain words and concepts.  Today at TomDispatch.com, Karen Greenberg documents the destruction of certain words and concepts within the Trump administration.  These words and concepts include refugees, climate change, greenhouse gases, America as a nation of immigrants, and even the notion of science-based evidence.

The suppression or elimination of words and phrases is one big step toward thought control; so too is the parroting of certain pet phrases and concepts, such as “support our troops” or “make America great again” or “homeland security.”  In an article about Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz that appeared in the Nation, Adam Kirsch writes of how Döblin recognized the “sinister” nature of “the colonization of the individual mind by parasitic discourses,” the way in which reality itself is “cloaked” by “predigested phrases.”  Döblin wrote of how “The words come rolling toward you, you need to watch yourself, see that they don’t run you over.”

And I think something like this is happening in America today.  We’re being run over by certain words and concepts, even as other words and concepts related to democracy and cherished freedoms are carefully elided or eliminated.

Of course, Orwell wrote about this as well.  “Predigested phrases” is captured by Orwell’s concept of duck-speak, in which proles just quack like ducks when they speak, echoing the sounds fed to them by party operatives.  Quacking like a duck requires no thought, which is precisely the intent.

Pay attention, America, to the words you’re losing before they’re gone forever; and also to the words you’re using before they run you over.

The U.S. Military Takes Us Through the Gates of Hell

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By Tom Engelhardt

[This essay is the introduction to Tom Engelhardt’s new book, A Nation Unmade by War, a Dispatch Book published by Haymarket Books.]

(Since 2007, I’ve had the distinct honor of writing for Tom Engelhardt and TomDispatch.com.  Tom is a patriot in the best sense of that word: he loves his country, and by that I mean the ideals and freedoms we cherish as Americans.  But his love is not blind; rather, his eyes are wide open, his mind is sharp, and his will is unflagging.  He calls America to account; he warns us, as Dwight D. Eisenhower did, about the many dangers of an all-powerful national security state; and, as Ike did sixty years ago, he reminds us that only Americans can truly hurt America.  I think Ike would have commended his latest book, “A Nation Unmade by War.”  Having read it myself, I highly recommend it to thinking patriots everywhere.  W.J. Astore.)

Tom Engelhardt, A Staggeringly Well-Funded Blowback Machine

As I was putting the finishing touches on my new book, the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute published an estimate of the taxpayer dollars that will have gone into America’s war on terror from September 12, 2001, through fiscal year 2018. That figure: a cool $5.6 trillion (including the future costs of caring for our war vets). On average, that’s at least $23,386 per taxpayer.

Keep in mind that such figures, however eye-popping, are only the dollar costs of our wars. They don’t, for instance, include the psychic costs to the Americans mangled in one way or another in those never-ending conflicts. They don’t include the costs to this country’s infrastructure, which has been crumbling while taxpayer dollars flow copiously and in a remarkably — in these years, almost uniquely — bipartisan fashion into what’s still laughably called “national security.” That’s not, of course, what would make most of us more secure, but what would make them — the denizens of the national security state — ever more secure in Washington and elsewhere. We’re talking about the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. nuclear complex, and the rest of that state-within-a-state, including its many intelligence agencies and the warrior corporations that have, by now, been fused into that vast and vastly profitable interlocking structure.

In reality, the costs of America’s wars, still spreading in the Trump era, are incalculable. Just look at photos of the cities of Ramadi or Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa or Aleppo in Syria, Sirte in Libya, or Marawi in the southern Philippines, all in ruins in the wake of the conflicts Washington set off in the post–9/11 years, and try to put a price on them. Those views of mile upon mile of rubble, often without a building still standing untouched, should take anyone’s breath away. Some of those cities may never be fully rebuilt.

And how could you even begin to put a dollars-and-cents value on the larger human costs of those wars: the hundreds of thousands of dead? The tens of millions of people displaced in their own countries or sent as refugees fleeing across any border in sight? How could you factor in the way those masses of uprooted peoples of the Greater Middle East and Africa are unsettling other parts of the planet? Their presence (or more accurately a growing fear of it) has, for instance, helped fuel an expanding set of right-wing “populist” movements that threaten to tear Europe apart. And who could forget the role that those refugees — or at least fantasy versions of them — played in Donald Trump’s full-throated, successful pitch for the presidency? What, in the end, might be the cost of that?

Opening the Gates of Hell

America’s never-ending twenty-first-century conflicts were triggered by the decision of George W. Bush and his top officials to instantly define their response to attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center by a tiny group of jihadis as a “war”; then to proclaim it nothing short of a “Global War on Terror”; and finally to invade and occupy first Afghanistan and then Iraq, with dreams of dominating the Greater Middle East — and ultimately the planet — as no other imperial power had ever done.

Their overwrought geopolitical fantasies and their sense that the U.S. military was a force capable of accomplishing anything they willed it to do launched a process that would cost this world of ours in ways that no one will ever be able to calculate. Who, for instance, could begin to put a price on the futures of the children whose lives, in the aftermath of those decisions, would be twisted and shrunk in ways frightening even to imagine? Who could tote up what it means for so many millions of this planet’s young to be deprived of homes, parents, educations — of anything, in fact, approximating the sort of stability that might lead to a future worth imagining?

Though few may remember it, I’ve never forgotten the 2002 warning issued by Amr Moussa, then head of the Arab League. An invasion of Iraq would, he predicted that September, “open the gates of hell.” Two years later, in the wake of the actual invasion and the U.S. occupation of that country, he altered his comment slightly. “The gates of hell,” he said, “are open in Iraq.”

His assessment has proven unbearably prescient — and one not only applicable to Iraq. Fourteen years after that invasion, we should all now be in some kind of mourning for a world that won’t ever be. It wasn’t just the US military that, in the spring of 2003, passed through those gates to hell. In our own way, we all did. Otherwise, Donald Trump wouldn’t have become president.

I don’t claim to be an expert on hell. I have no idea exactly what circle of it we’re now in, but I do know one thing: we are there…

Read the rest of Tom’s article here at TomDispatch.com.

America’s Wars as a Bad Novel

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America’s bad novel has a one-word title: War (with apologies to Tolstoy)

W.J. Astore

A curious feature of America’s wars is their lack of thematic coherence.  Lacking a clear beginning (other than the 9/11 attacks), they also lack a clear end point.  It’s all middle – repetition without meaning, action without progress, like a bad novel that introduces lots of characters but that never goes anywhere.  Look at the rolling cast of characters in charge of America’s wars in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.  Other than generals who disgraced themselves in ways unrelated to combat performance (David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal), their names are unmemorable.

The American people have largely cast aside the “bad novel” of America’s wars.  They find it boring, repetitive, inconsequential (at least to them).  But that doesn’t mean people aren’t paying for it, each and every day.

In the absence of Congressional declarations, America’s wars today are not being waged in the name of the people.  Cowed by the Executive branch and coerced by money, a spineless Congress willingly sidelines itself. In turn the Executive branch keeps the American people isolated from war even as it misleads them with lies and half-truths.

And thus the American people refuse to take ownership of these wars.  And who can blame them, since these wars aren’t being fought in their name or for their interests.  America’s wars are the preserve of the commander-in-chief and his various “experts” in and out of uniform, men like retired general and current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, John Bolton, the new National Security Advisor, and Mike Pompeo, the CIA chief who now leads the State Department.  Unconcerned with the will and concerns of the people, these men favor aggressive stances and support U.S. military interventions around the globe.

What’s the solution to America’s “bad novel”?  Ignoring or disowning it only empowers its authors and their predilection for waging war, however falsely, in our name.  Instead, we have to overcome America’s ethos of violence and its climate of fear.  Campaign finance reform is vital if we want to suppress the influence of war profiteers.  Cutting the Pentagon budget by at least 20% is essential as well.  Finally, we need to educate ourselves about war, and to insist that wars are fought only when authorized by Congress, and only as a last resort instead of the first.

If we don’t take these steps, America will be forever stuck reading a bad novel with a one-word title: War.

Gina Haspel: A Torturer at the CIA

During her Congressional testimony today, Gina Haspel refused to say that torture is immoral. She also suggested President Trump would never order waterboarding, even though Trump is on the record as supporting it (and far harsher methods of torture). Something tells me she’ll gain Congressional approval despite all this. After all, there are plenty of people already in government who lack both a moral compass and the spine to refuse unlawful and immoral orders. (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/may/09/gina-haspels-lack-of-clear-answers-on-torture-frustrate-senate-democrats)

Bracing Views

Gina-Haspel-1024-850x672 Gina Haspel: Just following orders?

W.J. Astore

President Trump has nominated Gina Haspel to be the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Haspel had an important role in the torture regimen approved by the Bush/Cheney administration, and she worked to destroy videotaped evidence of the same.  What does it say about the United States that Haspel is now being rewarded both for enabling torture and for covering it up?

As Peter Van Buren writes at We Meant Well, “Unless our Congress awakens to confront the nightmare and deny Gina Haspel’s nomination as Director of the CIA, torture has already transformed us and so will consume us. Gina Haspel is a torturer. We are torturers. It is as if Nuremberg never happened.”

Back in December of 2008, I wrote about torture for Nieman Watchdog.  The title of my article was “Cheney says he approved waterboarding. Is that…

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Ending Wars, Not “Winning” Them, Should Be America’s Goal

 

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Beware the tunnels you choose to go down (Wikimedia)

W.J. Astore

You can’t win wars that should never have been fought.  The U.S. should never have fought the Iraq and Afghan wars, nor should we have fought the Vietnam War.

It’s not that we need to know and master the foreign enemy.  We need to know and master the enemy within.  The domestic enemy.  For the U.S. is defeating only itself in fighting these wars.  Yet “experts” in the military and government focus on how to prosecute war more effectively; rarely do they think seriously about ending or, even better, avoiding wars.

Part of this is cultural.  Americans are obsessed with the idea of winning, defined in terms of dominance, specifically military/physical dominance, taking the fight to the enemy and never backing down.  The best defense is a good offense, as they say in the NFL.  Winning is the only thing, as Vince Lombardi said.  While those maxims may apply to football, they don’t apply to wars that should never have been fought.

Turning from football to tunnels, how about that image made popular during the Vietnam War that “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel”?  Victory, in other words, is in sight and can be reached if we “stay the course” until the tunnel’s end.  Few ask why we’re in the tunnel to begin with.  Why not just avoid the tunnel (of Vietnam, of Iraq, of Afghanistan) and bask in the light of liberty here in the USA?  Indeed, why not brighten liberty’s torch so that others can see and enjoy it?  But instead U.S. military forces are forever plunging into foreign tunnels, groping in the dark for the elusive light of victory, a light that ultimately is illusory.

Another point is that the Pentagon is often not about winning wars without; it’s about winning wars within, specifically budgetary wars.  Here the Pentagon has been amazingly successful, especially in the aftermath of the Cold War, which should have generated a major reduction in U.S. military spending (and overseas military deployments).  The other “war” the Pentagon has won is the struggle for cultural authority/hegemony in the USA.  Here again, the Pentagon has won this war, as represented by presidents from Bush to Obama to Trump boasting of the 4F military (the finest fighting force since forever), and as represented by the fact that the military remains the most trusted governmental institution in America.  Indeed, most Americans don’t even think of “our” military as being part of the federal government.  They think of it as something special, even as they profess to distrust Congress and hate “big government.”  Yet nothing screams “big” like our steroidal federal military, and few entities are more wasteful.

My point is that many military commentators and critics frame the problem wrongly.  It’s not about reforming the U.S. military so that it can win wars.  Americans must reform our culture and our government so that we can avoid wars, even as we end the ones we’re in.  For constant warfare is the enemy of democracy and the scourge of freedom.

A final point about winning that’s rarely acknowledged: America’s wars overseas are not all about us.  Winning (whatever that might mean) should be unconscionable when it comes at the price of hundreds of thousands of dead, millions of refugees, and regions blasted and destabilized.

In sum, ending wars is winning them.

Why Is It Bad News When Military Spending Declines?

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Ike knew the real cost of military spending

W.J. Astore

Scanning my email updates, I saw two articles dealing with allegedly declining militaries.  The Weekly Standard complained that the British military is “damn, busted.”  The article cites Britain’s lack of main battle tanks (only 227) compared to Russia’s 20,000, concluding that Britannia’s leaders have a “narrow-minded, cost-driven vision [that] has left Britain unprepared for great-power conflict.”  And here I thought the Cold War ended in c.1991 and that an island nation historically and sensibly is far more concerned with its navy and air forces than its army.

As Britain’s military withers, so too, apparently, does Germany’s.  Hence the following brief from FP: Foreign Policy:

Germany’s defense minister pushes for expanded military budget. German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has requested an additional $14.6 billion for the country’s military budget, saying the current budget of $45 billion is vastly inadequate for the military modernization Germany needs. Germany is currently still below the 2% GDP military budget that NATO asks of members.

The sober, sane, thing to do, according to military experts, is always to expand military spending.  The unwise, perhaps insane, thing to do is to attempt to set sensible goals that focus on national defense, and to spend no more than what’s necessary for a sound deterrent.

Put slightly differently, when we (the United States) announce plans to spend $1.2 trillion on modernizing an already world-smashing and life-ending nuclear force, it’s considered sensible by the president (whether Obama or Trump), Congress, and of course the military-industrial complex.  But when other countries develop a relatively puny force (North Korea) or have the potential to develop a puny force (Iran), these countries are denounced as monstrous dangers to world peace.

And of course U.S. rearmament is always for peace!

Every now and then, it’s worth reading Dwight D. Eisenhower’s message on what we forfeit when we spend money on weapons:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Just so, Ike.  Higher military spending is not something to celebrate.  Lower military spending is.