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

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.

15 thoughts on “The Best Don’t Have to Boast: The Dangerous Myth of American Military Omnipotence

  1. As my mom used to say about religious proselytizers: “If you’ve got something good, you don’t have to sell it. Other people will steal it from you.”

    Mom meant, of course, that if we live according to the ethical and moral values that we claim to revere, then we have no need to loudly espouse them. Other people, witnessing our silent, shining example, would then just naturally seek to emulate our sterling conduct, seeing for themselves in our exemplary behavior, the benefits that they, too, might enjoy from living as we do. On the other hand, loudly and incessantly ponificating upon our own alleged “values” while behaving as unscrupulous swine seeking every underhanded advantage imaginable, pointedly reveals in us a shameless opportunism and hypocrisy which otherwise decent people would avoid like the plague.

    As a young teenager in junior high school, it didn’t take more than a few visits to the neighborhood Southern Baptist Church for me to appreciate what someone once said about organized religion: namely, that good people don’t need it and it only makes bad people worse.

    So, somewhere between my mom’s highly personal, individually tailored “Christianity” and the sadomasochistic lash of Fire-and-Brimstone Sunday Bible Study, I formulated my own secular views of what many American preachers like to call “Almighty GAWD,” what I like to call The Omnipotent Sparrow Theory: namely, that Not a god falls to earth but that The Sparrow either causes it to fall or, throught willful inaction, allows it to fall. Expressed as a simple forumula: Causes + Allows = Omnipotence.

    As for the silly supposition that the United States of America exemplifies some sort of “democracy,” one especially exportable by our Corporate/Mercenary Military at the point of a bullet or dropping of a bomb — for “Peace and Prosperity,” no less — I’ve seldom come across a more succinct reporting of the Awful Truth than this by an astronautical engineer concerned primarily with the exploration and utilization of Space:

    “We do not, in fact, have a democracy. We have a semi-oligarchy with democratic influences. Ordinary citizens have little control over the government, as their elected representatives mostly do as they please or as their Beltway consultants suggest and respond to the public only when massive pressure is evidenced. In addition, many government operations are secret, and the legal system is unfathomable. Of course, when the United States was founded, such indirect representation was the best approximation to democracy that was feasible. But today, with the availability of the Internet and other forms of instantaneous electronic communication, there is no fundamental technological reason why the general public could not directly engage in voting on legislation, taxation, expenditures, and other issues, up to and including those of war and peace. It might be argued that the general public is not qualified to do so. Personally, as one who has interacted with some of those calling the shots within the present system, I see no evidence for the public’s inferiority.” — Dr. Robert Zubrin, Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization (1999)

    In 1789, a group of British Colonial oligarchs — Southern slave-owning “aristocrats” and Northern mercantilist bankers — met in secret for a month in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where they designed a political system for the protection and perpetuation of their property: human, financial, and material. They called this self-serving plutocracy a “Republic,” and built into it every guarantee against popular democracy that the mind of man could devise. So, until we dispense with babbling mythological nonsense about “democracy” in the United States, and instead confront openly and forthrightly the Transnational Corporate Oligarchy that owns and operates the U.S. Government — and especially its “professional” military — like a subsidiary Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, we working-class Americans will ever-more-closely resemble feudal subjects and convict labor than citizens with any sort of control over their own lives.

    Case in point: Have you seen all the saturation Corporate Media coverage of yet another “royal” wedding in Airstrip One, I mean, Great Britain, the other day? “Royalty.” What a “democratic” concept.


    1. Much “pomp and glamour,” according to one headline I read here, Mike.

      Who wants to talk about endless wars and repetitive mass shootings in schools when we can focus on a minor American actress marrying into Britain’s repressed royal family? The big news is that she’s a hugger, though I’ve also read she digs Noam Chomsky, so here’s hoping she really shakes up England’s establishment.

      “An avid reader of Noam Chomsky, a totem of the Left and guru for anti-capitalist movements worldwide, Ms Markle urged her two million Instagram followers to read his polemic Who Rules the World, saying it ‘exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of America’s policies and actions’ was a ‘great read’ last year before adding ‘highly recommend’.”


  2. The Saker gave US military power a look-see recently, and it isn’t favorable as he explodes the myth of US military dominance..

    US military power is predicated on the following:
    1. The ability to deploy a carrier strike group anywhere on the planet.
    2. The ability to protect that carrier strike group from any major counter-attack.
    3. The ability to strike any country in the world with enough missile and airstrikes to break its will to continue to fight.
    4. The complete and total control of the skies (air supremacy). US forces simply never train for a combat scenario where they don’t control the skies or, even less so, when their enemy does.
    5. The very strong belief that no enemy would dare attack major overseas US bases.
    6. The very strong, quasi religious, belief that US military technology is superior.
    7. The absolute certitude that the US mainland would never be hit in a counter-attack.

    >None of the previous beliefs are based in reality anymore and, in fact, their opposite is true. This is why when dealing with a near-peer or peer enemy the US armed forces are more or less useless. The only very notable exception is the US nuclear triad and the US submarine fleet. The current situation in Syria (and by implication, Iran and Russia) is finally gradually bringing this new reality to the awareness of US decision-makers and military commanders.]
    >This is why Russia, albeit with only a tiny contingent, succeeded in turning the tide of the war in Syria and even now presents the AngloZionists with a frustrating challenge: a (comparatively) tiny contingent of Russian forces completely derailed the Empire’s plans for the entire Middle-East: not only is there a real change of peace breaking out in Syria, but the situation is far from having the Takfiris and Shia killing each other in Syria and Lebanon (a key part of the Israeli plan for the region). Hezbollah, Iran and the Syrians are now in a victorious coalition on the ground with the “Axis of Kindness” forces roundly defeated. . .here


  3. Eugene Debs had a few words of warning way back when.

    The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — especially their lives.

    They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.

    And here let me emphasize the fact — and it cannot be repeated too often — that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.

    Yours not to reason why;
    Yours but to do and die.
    That is their motto and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation.

    If war is right let it be declared by the people. You who have your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace.
    Debs as others after him provided illumination of the war machine and who controls it and who dies.

    Today we have the Imperial Presidents who send the Warriors off to distant lands to fight. The War Powers checks and balances in the Constitution are dismissed as old parchment, suitable for framing, but no longer applicable.

    If the Warriors encounter resistance drones and air strikes are utilized. Surgical strikes they are called. The shrapnel magically stops before it hits civilians. It is the War Machine who has the capabilities to report on “collateral damage”. They will not report their mistakes.


    1. Mosul, Iraq was destroyed by bombing. The locals complained, but who can argue with precision bombs on military targets as shown here


      1. And the Western media barely bothered to cover what was happening. As usual. Russia and Syria destroy Aleppo, and the outraged cries reach the stars. The US destroys Mosul, and deafening silence.

        So much for integrity in journalism. And people wonder why my generation doesn’t trust the official ‘news’ any more than the Daily Show. Since the big outlets pretty much all went the way of Pravda.


      2. It’s the same old story: We had to destroy Mosul to save it …

        The worst place to fight is cities. “Pacifying” a city almost always leads to widespread destruction, unless you can convince those who are hunkered down to surrender (the old “honors of war”). But fanatical fighters like those of ISIS aren’t going to surrender; meanwhile, Iraqi security forces require much bolstering with U.S. firepower; cities provide perfect cover for irregular forces. It all adds up to death and destruction on a massive scale in which innocents die in droves by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

        All of this is elided in U.S. media sources, which mostly boast of Mosul being liberated without any sense of the cost of this “liberation.”


  4. This little tidbit from Reuters tells the tale of the most-best-greatest military ever:

    A U.S. government watchdog report released on Monday said there had been few signs of significant progress by Afghan security forces between January and March, despite assertions by the U.S. military that Taliban militants were weakened.

    [General John “Mick”] Nicholson, who leads U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, said in November the country had “turned the corner.”

    More than 2,400 U.S. forces have died in the war.

    Yes, indeed. After seventeen years and counting, the U.S. military must surely rank as the most-best-greatest military force ever to turn corners until they wind up chasing their own tails around in endless circles.

    No doubt about it: Parkinson’s Law meets The Peter Principle on steroids.


    1. The generals (Petraeus comes to mind) used to say that there is no military solution in Afghanistan. I believe that time has borne that out, after sixteen years, but that’s not where the money is. Now it’s time to turn another corner (#112).
      TIME: Trump’s Pick to Oversee Afghanistan Could Signal a New Approach
      A new approach to failure! . . .Oh goody.


      1. Speaking of General David “Perception Management” Petraeus, I remember reading not long ago about a suggestion of his that the U.S. military team up with Al Qaeda (or ISIS) against ISIS (or Al Qaeda) in pursuit of some U.S. government policy that no one has ever bothered to clearly and truthfully explain to the American public. This particular piece of asinine “advice” from a former Army General and (briefly) CIA Director put me in mind of Orwell’s Oceania continually switching allies and enemies between Eurasia and East Asia with the switch in official policy sometimes occurring in the middle of a sentence without the government spokesperson missing a beat. Defrocked bureaucratic minions like General Dave have lied so much and for so long with such impunity that they simply don’t care any longer what they say, since no one but the Concentrated Corporate Media (CCM) — repeaters and not reporters — pays the least attention to them.

        Then I caught this comment on Consortium News in response to an article about National Security Advisor John Bolton “Trying to Convince Trump to Topple Iran.” I won’t post a link to the article here, since only the common sense questions by one reader interests me. Consider:

        May 24, 2018 at 3:16 am

        Why hasn’t anyone pointed out that many people in the Obama administration, John McCain and many other members of the military have been and still are working with the terrorists groups that have been named our enemies?

        If I remember my history correctly, they should be charged with treason for aiding and abetting our enemies. Off shoot groups of Al Qaida were armed, funded and trained by our military to help our country and our allies to overthrow Assad [President of the Syrian Arab Republic]. This was after we used them to overthrow Gaddafi [Leader of the former state of Libya].

        Wikileaks has posted copies of emails and orders that prove these facts as well as emails to and from Hillary Clinton’s state department ordering the transfer of Gaddafi’s weapons including sarin gas from the Benghazi embassy to the so called “moderate Syrian rebels.”
        McCain has been photographed meeting with members of Al Qaida, its offshoot group Al Nusra and leaders of ISIS! The Obama military let countless convoys of hundreds of trucks belonging to ISIS travel to Turkey to sell oil that they then used the money from to purchase weapons to fight our troops.

        There are records of our troops saying that they don’t feel comfortable training terrorist organizations because if there is another attack on this country they would feel responsible for it.

        So I’m asking again. Why is this not called treason? People in government, including those in the intelligence agencies said the military have all sworn an oath to defend this country from enemies foreign and domestic!

        I can understand the confusion felt by this “Abby” person, since the U.S. Congress passed this “AUMF” (Another Undeclared Military Farce) thing back in 2002 as a cover for U.S. presidents to pretty much attack and destroy any country that they feel like obliterating should its leaders attempt to pursue an independent foreign policy, especially one that utilizes foreign currencies instead of the U.S. dollar to settle business accounts. And the provisions of the AUMF most assuredly would have landed General David Petraeus and Senator John McCain (not to mention presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump) in jail awaiting execution for treason if anyone in official government took their “oaths” the least bit seriously.

        So, although I can understand and sympathize with the comments by “Abby,” I think that she misses the central Orwellian truth now in operation globally: “All that matters is that a state of war should exist.” Ostensible, ex-post-facto “reasons” or “rationales” — i.e., “excuses” — for the perpetual warfare will come along in time, as required or convenient, enunciated by “experts” like General David Petraeus or other high-ranking military retirees, but their particular wording or metaphorical expression will not matter as long as the tipping points continue turning the corner while connecting the dots on the ink-stained flypaper dominoes in the Tunnel at the End of the Light.


      2. Mike: Orwell’s statement is key. A state of war justifies the actions of these people. They basically tell us “We’re at war!” and otherwise to shut up. Protest isn’t allowed. Look at the new NFL policy that fines teams for any player who takes a knee during the National Anthem. We are all supposed to “shut up and dribble,” or, if we’re not LeBron James, to go shopping and to visit Disney, just like W. Bush told us to do after 9/11.


  5. For some insight regarding the lack of American Military Omnipotence, with the US failure to win any recent wars, take a look at some juvenile quotes from the Marine general who is the current US Defense Secretary here. James Mattis is in charge of our defense! . . .That’s not a pleasant thought.


    1. Pardon me, kids. Juveniles don’t talk that disgusting way. “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear” . . .Richard Rodgers.


    2. It bears remembering that General James Mattis levelled the Iraqi city of Falluja (and it took him two tries to do it) to avenge the deaths of four — count ’em: 4 — dogs-of-war mercenaries from Blackwater, Inc., who so enraged the local Iraqi population that the goons wound up dead with their charred corpses hanging from a bridge. Bad optics for the American “liberators.” So Marine General Mattis sent in his troops to to teach those Iraqi ingrates not to fuck with America’s tag-along, privatized, for-profit “warriors.”

      Before long, though, Marine pfcs making $29,000 per year discovered that these Blackwater cowboys got paid six-figure salaries for speeding around town in their SUVs, running Iraqi motorists off the road, and cutting into the front of days-long lines for petrol at overwhelmed Iraqi gas stations. So the Marine pfcs started shooting at the overpaid Blackwater goons and arresting them for any conceivable reason. I don’t seem to recall what General “mad dog” Mattis had to say about these developments or whether he had punched his career ticket and moved onward and upward by then.

      The inhabitants of Falluja, though, still suffer the effects of white phosphorus and depleted uranium bombardments ordered by General James “mad dog” Mattis bent on avenging the — no doubt deserved — deaths of less-than-a-single-handful of not-even-military profiteers employed by a company that has to keep changing its name and country of incorporation in order to keep getting those no-bid countracts from the U.S. military for “helping out” when the underpaid and overstressed regular enlisted grunts can’t do the job themselves. Obviously, all of this bloody blundering for nothing but money has nothing to do with “defense” of the United States, and Secretary James Mattis ought to stop pretending that it does. I wonder how he can suppose that anyone with half a memory could possibly listen to anything he says. Bloody butcher.


      1. Michael, that “Mad Dog” (or “Chaos”) Mattis history which you state correctly about significant war crimes in Fallujah has been revised. . .
        . . .from an article on the Haditha massacre–

        .. . But many observers believe the incident was set in motion long before the men of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines set foot in Iraq — on the day nearly 20 months before, when four Blackwater contractors were ambushed by an angry mob in Fallujah. Their bodies were dismembered, burned, and paraded through the city’s streets while jubilant onlookers chanted anti-American slogans. Two were strung from a bridge over the Euphrates. Footage of the grim spectacle was broadcast around the world.
        The Marines spearheaded two attempts to take Fallujah. Then-Lt. Gen. Jim Mattis reluctantly commanded the first. It was the Bush Administration’s idea to launch a retaliatory mission against the city — to “take the fight to the enemy,” as one military official put it. Mattis, a champion of the “hearts and minds” strategy embraced by the U.S.-led coalition several years later, adamantly opposed the operation. According to the official Marine Corps version of events, the man known as Chaos “protested the order, arguing that a large-scale operation would send the wrong message, unnecessarily endanger civilians, and ultimately fail to achieve the primary objective.”. . here

        What they did was to kill anything that moved on land or swimming away in the river, didn’t matter.
        “I don’t worry about stress. I create it.” – James Mattis


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