Endless War and the Lack of a Progressive Critique of the Pentagon

The Pentagon has won the war that matters most

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I argue the Pentagon has won the war that matters: the struggle for the “hearts and minds” of America.  Pentagon budgets are soaring even as wars in places like Afghanistan continue to go poorly.  Despite poor results, criticism of the Pentagon is rare indeed, whether in the mainstream U.S. media or even among so-called liberals and progressives, a point hammered home to me when I contacted my senator.  Here’s an excerpt from TomDispatch; you can read my article in full here.

A Letter From My Senator

A few months back, I wrote a note to one of my senators to complain about America’s endless wars and received a signed reply via email. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that it was a canned response, but no less telling for that. My senator began by praising American troops as “tough, smart, and courageous, and they make huge sacrifices to keep our families safe. We owe them all a true debt of gratitude for their service.” OK, I got an instant warm and fuzzy feeling, but seeking applause wasn’t exactly the purpose of my note.

My senator then expressed support for counterterror operations, for, that is, “conducting limited, targeted operations designed to deter violent extremists that pose a credible threat to America’s national security, including al-Qaeda and its affiliates, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), localized extremist groups, and homegrown terrorists.” My senator then added a caveat, suggesting that the military should obey “the law of armed conflict” and that the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that Congress hastily approved in the aftermath of 9/11 should not be interpreted as an “open-ended mandate” for perpetual war.

Finally, my senator voiced support for diplomacy as well as military action, writing, “I believe that our foreign policy should be smart, tough, and pragmatic, using every tool in the toolbox — including defense, diplomacy, and development — to advance U.S. security and economic interests around the world.” The conclusion: “robust” diplomacy must be combined with a “strong” military.

Now, can you guess the name and party affiliation of that senator? Could it have been Lindsey Graham or Jeff Flake, Republicans who favor a beyond-strong military and endlessly aggressive counterterror operations? Of course, from that little critical comment on the AUMF, you’ve probably already figured out that my senator is a Democrat. But did you guess that my military-praising, counterterror-waging representative was Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts?

Full disclosure: I like Warren and have made small contributions to her campaign. And her letter did stipulate that she believed “military action should always be a last resort.” Still, nowhere in it was there any critique of, or even passingly critical commentary about, the U.S. military, or the still-spreading war on terror, or the never-ending Afghan War, or the wastefulness of Pentagon spending, or the devastation wrought in these years by the last superpower on this planet. Everything was anodyne and safe — and this from a senator who’s been pilloried by the right as a flaming liberal and caricatured as yet another socialist out to destroy America.

I know what you’re thinking: What choice does Warren have but to play it safe? She can’t go on record criticizing the military. (She’s already gotten in enough trouble in my home state for daring to criticize the police.) If she doesn’t support a “strong” U.S. military presence globally, how could she remain a viable presidential candidate in 2020?

And I would agree with you, but with this little addendum: Isn’t that proof that the Pentagon has won its most important war, the one that captured — to steal a phrase from another losing war — the “hearts and minds” of America? In this country in 2018, as in 2017, 2016, and so on, the U.S. military and its leaders dictate what is acceptable for us to say and do when it comes to our prodigal pursuit of weapons and wars.

So, while it’s true that the military establishment failed to win those “hearts and minds” in Vietnam or more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, they sure as hell didn’t fail to win them here. In Homeland, U.S.A., in fact, victory has been achieved and, judging by the latest Pentagon budgets, it couldn’t be more overwhelming.

If you ask — and few Americans do these days — why this country’s losing wars persist, the answer should be, at least in part: because there’s no accountability. The losers in those wars have seized control of our national narrative. They now define how the military is seen (as an investment, a boon, a good and great thing); they now shape how we view our wars abroad (as regrettable perhaps, but necessary and also a sign of national toughness); they now assign all serious criticism of the Pentagon to what they might term the defeatist fringe.

In their hearts, America’s self-professed warriors know they’re right. But the wrongs they’ve committed, and continue to commit, in our name will not be truly righted until Americans begin to reject the madness of rampant militarism, bloated militaries, and endless wars.

21 thoughts on “Endless War and the Lack of a Progressive Critique of the Pentagon

  1. Inspired by your and Andrew Bacevich’s recent writing in this area, I wrote an ‘open letter’ to Senator Kamala Harris arguing, in a similar vein, that she has little to lose and a lot to gain by embracing innovative, post-partisan positions – particularly a veterans-first foreign policy that connects America’s unending wars to the costs imposed on veterans.


    Progressives unfortunately by and large lack any reasonable understanding of the military, how it works, and how it is organized. Too many white suburban liberals have decided that anything violent is too scary to understand or consider, so they leave it to the ‘professionals’ – the ones at the Pentagon, not enlisted types, unless of course you need a solid photo-op.

    It doesn’t surprise me that Warren avoids the issues – Sanders did too. He’s fought for the F35 to be based in Vermont, hasn’t made foreign policy nearly the issue it needs to be. Part of why I’m personally suspicious of Warren and Sanders both.

    Of course, I’m also the kind of person who just voted for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, despite her not running in my district. Rather put my vote in the write-in column rather than tick another box for blue-dog Democrat Kurt Schrader.


    1. It’s remarkable that a draft-dodger like Trump (heel spurs) is respected by so many tough-talking conservatives. He largely neutralized criticism of himself by throwing money at the Pentagon and hiring lots of generals. And he strives mightily to strike Churchillian poses in photographs. It’s all a con job, but he’s a great con.

      Liberals and progressives are scared of being accused as “weak” and “against our troops.” So we probably need a veteran with the courage of liberal/progressive convictions, someone like Tulsi Gabbard, who’s a major in the Army National Guard with service time in Iraq.

      I’d really like to see “heel spur” Trump call her out in a debate …

      Meanwhile, I see Hillary (dodge the sniper) Clinton is still making noises about a possible run in 2020. Please, please, say it ain’t so.


      1. I’ve seen some articles raising the prospect of Clinton 2020. I really, really hope the Dems aren’t THAT tone deaf. But then again, the Clintons truly seem to believe they deserve to be in the White House, and the DNC bigwigs appear to have adopted the view that 2016 was a simple accident, and all they have to do in 2020 is run the same campaign but, you know, actually visit Wisconsin and Michigan. Maybe they can do Clinton-Biden, since all in-the-know observers seem to agree that Biden can speak folksy midwestern, which is, I’m sure, all you need to rebuild the Blue Wall…

        I’d say good luck with that and wish them well, but at the moment there’s no other counter-force available to stop the Trumpists from launching World War 3, or 4, or whatever the neocons are on to now.

        On that note, I appreciated your mentioning the last apparent attempt to launch a war against Iran, in 2008. At the time I was very concerned the Cheney wing would win out, but thankfully it didn’t come. But here we are again, a decade after the last cycle of ‘stop Iran now or they get the bomb’ looking at the same damned war risk, only this time well after the point air strikes could actually hope to stop Iran’s nuclear program – at least without using ‘tactical’ nukes. Something that would have to prompt Russian nuclear escalation of some sort. I worry about an Able Archer ’83 (Hey Stanislav Petrov, you helped make sure I was born!) meets Cuban Missile Crisis sort of thing spiraling out of control.

        Why, I often wonder, has no group of billionaires got together yet and realized that they could put together an extremely popular 3rd-Party? One could quite probably kill one or both of the major parties, given that one has surrendered to Trump and the other fears its Progressive wing more than losing elections.

        When you look at how much it cost Trump (albeit with several $ billion in free ads, thanks media) to ‘win’, seems to me that Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos could each pony up $1 Billion without harming their own fortunes, and build a post-partisan, tech-savvy organization capable of putting a new agenda and some fresh faces in front of voters. The Electoral College is eminently hackable. If a 3rd party bid could keep either main party candidate from getting 270 Electoral Votes, throwing the election to Congress, that candidate would be in a powerful position to play her or himself off as a bipartisan solution.

        Huh, if I email the three of them, think they’d fund me to design the thing? All the billions that go into silly startups that fail in a year, you’d think someone would see the potential to ‘disrupt’ the political system the same way Facebook disrupted traditional media and Amazon disrupted retail.

        Nah – whatever happens in DC, their interests are covered.

        Well, at least unless/until the global economy does the synchronized recession thing economists are now worrying about. When/if that shoe drops, I’m not sure where this all goes.



  2. Another comment ‘not accepted’. Took out the ‘I’ word, still no dice.
    So in brief, this humongous military budget will not end well. Answering Andrew Tanner, Warren & Sanders are fake ‘socialists’ to me. Tasteless I’m sure. 50 years ago I was all glitz: GTO’s, Knoll furniture, etc., but I had a “heart”. I remember the screams of “Preppies” (I was one myself), complaining about high taxes, supporting the ‘n**ers’, but they never said a word about the costly war in Vietnam. (Which, by the way, we were all lucky to escape, via jobs & fake medical report$.) I know how the ‘system’ works!
    NYC at the time had a very ‘socialist’ government – also corrupt – but they had a good health dept., fair unemployment benefits, and housing subsidies. Warren & Sanders meet none of these criteria though I voted for Sanders in the Primary.
    I wonder where these guys are today – maybe Vietnam an (un)dressed rehearsal of what was to come. Are they reading their newspapers in retirement in Connecticut? Not seeing what I try to see? We’ve DESTROYED 5 countries! At great expense to US taxpayers!
    Look at the newsreels of these countries. Cities with no electricity, water, sewage. The horror is unimaginable to me.
    WE as humanists must do something good!



  3. At least in my Baby Boomer Lifetime and slightly before there was raging war of words concerning – Who Lost China?? (As if it was ours to lose). Truman took the heat, because we “lost” China on his watch. The ripple effect was felt during the Korean War – Chinese volunteers aiding the North Koreans and then Chinese assistance during the French-Indo-China War.

    The Democrats were blamed as being “soft” on Communism. This “softness” and later the accusation of being “Doves” labeled the party as less than patriotic. It seems that ever since Jimmy Carter the Democrats have had to prove they are every bit as tough as the Republicans.

    Seymour Hersch has a wonderful article concerning Journalism as whole, including back to Vietnam. He says: ” I hate to say this about the Democratic Party, but they’re sort of lost. And really lost right now. They don’t have any leadership, they sit around and second-guess Trump and they play tweet wars with Trump, who’s a master of the tweet. And I think they’re, we’re in great jeopardy of having no one to help us get through the next election without reelecting this man. It’s terrifying to me to see the party so completely devoid of integrity and leadership. And the press doesn’t help.”

    Hersch further comments: “We had such self-censorship going about that war.” Meaning the Vietnam War. https://www.truthdig.com/articles/seymour-hersh-still-afflicting-the-comfortable-after-a-lifetime-of-investigative-journalism/
    I have likewise heard the rumors of a Clinton-Biden ticket in 2020, or just Biden and some younger Corporate Democrat. The Corporate Democrats – DNC- are taking the General Burnside, The Battle of Fredericksburg approach keep sending the boys up the hill. Never learn from your mistakes, because to learn from a mistake, you have to admit you made one and the Corporate Democrats and DNC cannot admit they were and are in error.


    1. Exactly right, ML. The Dems need new leadership. Please, please, no Clinton/Biden/Kerry/Pelosi. The usual suspects will not derail Trump.


    2. I’m always glad to read something Seymour Hersh has written. Few journalists are willing to call BS on America’s power structure like he is. Hence, the decline of journalism, which like so many professions is filled with people who protect the illusions that maintain the institution because, well, it pays.

      Comparing BBC, Al Jazeera, Deutsche Welle, even the Guardian to almost any US news outlet is illustrative, I think. The language used, the silent assumptions made – small wonder America’s elites are so out of touch. They refuse to accept that the New York Times just feeds them a load of newsertainment. Makes them feel ‘in the know’ without actually really knowing very much at all.


      1. Andrew, your mention of a comparison is apt. I avoid all U.S. mainstream media and will do so until I see proof that it is not beholden. What will be the proof? An open, continuing and close examination of what Israel does on a daily basis. Right now, for MSM, Israel effectively doesn’t exist, so untouchable is it. Politicians clothe Israel in the kind of boilerplate BS that WJA mentions above regarding the Pentagon. But all is not lost for those who want to be informed with our fabulous internet. I go to the source and subscribe to the excellent Israeli newspaper Haaretz, well worth the $120 a year not only for news of Israel that fearlessly looks at all subjects, but trenchant comment on U.S. news as well. Oh how I wish we had a newspaper in the states of similar quality.

        At one time I subscribed to the excellent Economist magazine from the UK but it overwhelmed me with the sheer volume of reading material. If only Time and Newsweek had so much good material that I wouldn’t be able to get through an issue in a week. I’ve heard good things about Der Speigel. And let me not end without praising Glenn Greenwald’s Intercept. The good stuff is out there and easy to reach. Go for it.


  4. As I understand it, Islam has been at war for 1,400 years or so.

    “ Now that’s what I call an endless war “. ( a close encounter )

    The question then becomes, who wins. Us or them .

    Next question, how. No one will honestly answer. But everyone fears what the answer is.


    1. OG: “Us or them” inevitably leads to war. And what does winning even mean?

      There are over one billion followers of Islam. The vast majority of them don’t want war, just like the vast majority of Christians don’t want war.

      Also, history teaches us that no religion has a monopoly on violence. Look at the history of my faith: Christianity. Look at the Crusades. Look at all the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics. Christianity has a murderous past that we shouldn’t forget.

      We need to find a better way, even as we stand up to those who are consumed by evil, by dark designs, no matter their religion or nationality.


      1. FWIW, it has been observed that islime is the ultimate warrior “ religion “. Although you and the west may be thought of as more advanced, intelligent and enlightened, if we are unable or unwilling to defend ourselves, those advantages will not keep us from extinction, let alone contemplating the definition of winning. It doesn’t look like a navel, so I remember being told, so long ago.

        It is not currently a desperate situation this side of the pond. But the situation can be reasonably described as frogs in an increasingly higher temperature pot of water. Did you see how the eurpean (sic) court of justize (sic) just outlawed freedom of speech in favor of sharia. But so far it is still legal to say the perfect man had sex with a nine year old. The temperature is rising.

        Let us all know when you find that better way, by the way.

        Although, people like me have been quite fed up with platitudes for quite some time. I don’t have perfect pitch, my knuckles drag, and I can never remember the words to Sweet Baby James’ , You’ve got a friend . He saw fire and rain, too ? Something about Susan and her plans.

        Ps i am not telling you anything you don’t already know, nor you, me.


        1. That’s OK. Let’s keep the conversation going.

          James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” is about a period of his life when he suffered from mental illness and depression. We all suffer in one way or another. We’re all wrestling with inner demons as much, if not more, than outer ones. Let’s not make them worse than they already are.

          “You’ve got a friend” was a Carole King song and JT’s biggest hit, I think. We can all draw reassurance from our friends, which is one reason why this song resonates. “In adversity, we know our friends” was a fortune cookie I once got. Bad times test the best of us. How will we respond?


  5. https://diversitymachtfrei.wordpress.com/2018/08/09/dutch-politician-commits-suicide-after-saying-she-was-gang-raped-by-muslims/

    Followers of the prophet, doing what they believed the perfect man wants them to do.

    I see a lot of good men doing very little, or as in Rotherham … go ask Tommy, he’s not 10 feet tall.

    Again, I tell you nothing you don’t already know. And you don’t have a clue what the answer is either.

    I have a plane to catch.


      1. As a happy heretic presently enjoying getting in touch with my ancestors’ belief system via a close reading of the Eddas, Beowulf, so forth, I get irritated when I see people picking on Islam.

        To me, one monotheist faith is the much the same as any other. Same benefits (common social values and ethics), same dangers (assuming omnipotent, omniscient God risks identification of the Self with God, a fatal error).

        I’ve lived and worked alongside Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, heretics and pagans of all stripes. People are mostly the same everywhere, regardless of faith or creed. It’s the ideologues that foster perception of there being essential differences between people that cause most problems, not the faith or typical adherent.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah! AT Another response cancelled -but it might be my fault. Not computer savy? Anyway I think you’re 100% right. “They’re all the same”….
          Getting old, I always wanted to visit India, and did this winter. Took a cheap tour via bus 1800 km, and WOW! introduced me to religions I didn’t even know about. The tour guide excellent, I asked as I noted all these different religions seem to meet in the same cafés. He said what I believe: “Religion is a personal thing. They talk politics, economy, etc.” My belief 100%.
          I read many years ago that atheists worldwide have the LOWEST level of crime than any religion. Perhaps they feel responsible if they commit a crime on Planet Earth, vs blaming it all on a “religion”.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Odd that WordPress is doing that to you – usually I have issues if anyone does. Maybe try a different login method?

            I’ve had the good fortune to work closely with faculty born in India, and have learned a lot about how pluralistic democracy can work – and can be run into the ground by people like Narendra Modi, who uses the same sort of rhetoric as Trump against Muslims. The Hindutva movement there is so similar in some ways to the militant Evangelical movement in the US that I can’t help but think they learn from one another. They also go after Muslims and claim India to be a Hindu state – which is essentially impossible, given that there are more Muslims in India than most of the countries in the Middle East put together.


  6. Thanks AT. As I said, could be me, re logging in. We’ll see with this one!
    Your comments on India are far more knowledgeable than mine. Narendra Modi is quite a personal embarrassment to me: no sooner arrived and people said I look like him! That nonsense aside, I certainly don’t THINK like him. I don’t know about the Hindutva movement, but you’re sure right many Muslims live in India. (I thought that split to Pakistan was supposed to “solve” the problem. Obviously it didn’t!).
    For my ‘straight’ life, I’ve always had a fascination with ‘rebels’ like Gandhi & Eva Peron. They’re much the same: country 1st, screw the Western Establishment. Peron had a medical system that buries “Obamacare”, destroyed (literally & physically) by the dictatorship that followed. Gandhi was a lowly bureaucrat, but successfully threw out the Brits in months.
    Hard to believe, but it’s history. Argentina under the Perons was one of the richest countries in the world; smart enough to stay out of WW2. Today one of the poorest. Gandhi brought a prosperity to India – they had BEFORE the Brits invaded.
    Pro West people like Modi are ruining it…..


    1. Arundhati Roy is one of my favorite writers focusing on India, both her fiction and essays are sharp and insightful. She comments quite a bit on the militarization in India, and how it connects back to the US, and the nationalism of politicians like Modi. Worth a read, if interested in present-day India – which, as the world’s largest democracy and former British colony, I think holds more than a few lessons for the US.


      1. Thanks AT. I’ve seen her in a few videos & she certainly has that multi faceted Indian approach to thinking. I’ll get some books.
        A few years ago, I buckled on my space helmet & bought Gregory David Roberts ‘Shantaram’ & ‘The Shadow Mountain’. An easy sale as NYT critics dubs him: “A kind of gangsters Shakespeare”. An Aussie ex-con, my age, I’d sometimes fantasise, especially after his mercenary exploits in Afghanistan: “I should have never listened to Mom & Dad”…..


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