America’s Senior Generals Find No Exits From Endless War

B52SuperiorFirepower
This is supposed to be a funny and “wise” symbol, but only if you’re talking about the “peace” of the grave.  We must put an end to these forever wars.

W.J. Astore

In my latest for TomDispatch.com, I examine the price of America’s wars and why senior U.S. military men learn all the wrong lessons from them.  Here’s an extract from my article:

Veni, Vidi, Vici,” boasted Julius Caesar, one of history’s great military captains. “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed that famed saying when summing up the Obama administration’s military intervention in Libya in 2011 — with a small alteration. “We came, we saw, he died,” she said with a laugh about the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, that country’s autocratic leader. Note what she left out, though: the “vici” or victory part. And how right she was to do so, since Washington’s invasions, occupations, and interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere in this century have never produced anything faintly like a single decisive and lasting victory.

“Failure is not an option” was the stirring 1995 movie catchphrase for the dramatic 1970 rescue of the Apollo 13 moon mission and crew, but were such a movie to be made about America’s wars and their less-than-vici-esque results today, the phrase would have to be corrected in Clintonian fashion to read “We came, we saw, we failed.”

Wars are risky, destructive, unpredictable endeavors, so it would hardly be surprising if America’s military and civilian leaders failed occasionally in their endless martial endeavors, despite the overwhelming superiority in firepower of “the world’s greatest military.” Here’s the question, though: Why have all the American wars of this century gone down in flames and what in the world have those leaders learned from such repetitive failures?

The evidence before our eyes suggests that, when it comes to our senior military leaders at least, the answer would be: nothing at all.

Let’s begin with General David Petraeus, he of “the surge” fame in the Iraq War. Of course, he would briefly fall from grace in 2012, while director of the CIA, thanks to an affair with his biographer with whom he inappropriately shared highly classified information. When riding high in Iraq in 2007, however, “King David” (as he was then dubbed) was widely considered an example of America’s best and brightest. He was a soldier-scholar with a doctorate from Princeton, an “insurgent” general with the perfect way — a revival of Vietnam-era counterinsurgency techniques — to stabilize invaded and occupied Iraq. He was the man to snatch victory from the jaws of looming defeat. (Talk about a fable not worthy of Aesop!)

Though retired from the military since 2011, Petraeus somehow remains a bellwether for conventional thinking about America’s wars at the Pentagon, as well as inside the Washington Beltway. And despite the quagmire in Afghanistan (that he had a significant hand in deepening), despite the widespread destruction in Iraq (for which he would hold some responsibility), despite the failed-state chaos in Libya, he continues to relentlessly plug the idea of pursuing a “sustainable” forever war against global terrorism; in other words, yet more of the same.

Here’s how he typically put it in a recent interview:

“I would contend that the fight against Islamist extremists is not one that we’re going to see the end of in our lifetimes probably. I think this is a generational struggle, which requires you to have a sustained commitment. But of course you can only sustain it if it’s sustainable in terms of the expenditure of blood and treasure.”

His comment brings to mind a World War II quip about General George S. Patton, also known as “old blood and guts.” Some of his troops responded to that nickname this way: yes, his guts, but our blood. When men like Petraeus measure the supposed sustainability of their wars in terms of blood and treasure, the first question should be: Whose blood, whose treasure?

When it comes to Washington’s Afghan War, now in its 18th year and looking ever more like a demoralizing defeat, Petraeus admits that U.S. forces “never had an exit strategy.” What they did have, he claims, “was a strategy to allow us to continue to achieve our objectives… with the reduced expenditure in blood and treasure.”

Think of this formulation as an upside-down version of the notorious “body count” of the Vietnam War. Instead of attempting to maximize enemy dead, as General William Westmoreland sought to do from 1965 to 1968, Petraeus is suggesting that the U.S. seek to keep the American body count to a minimum (translating into minimal attention back home), while minimizing the “treasure” spent. By keeping American bucks and body bags down (Afghans be damned), the war, he insists, can be sustained not just for a few more years but generationally. (He cites 70-year troop commitments to NATO and South Korea as reasonable models.)

Talk about lacking an exit strategy! And he also speaks of a persistent “industrial-strength” Afghan insurgency without noting that U.S. military actions, including drone strikes and an increasing relianceon air power, result in ever more dead civilians, which only feed that same insurgency. For him, Afghanistan is little more than a “platform” for regional counterterror operations and so anything must be done to prevent the greatest horror of all: withdrawing American troops too quickly.

In fact, he suggests that American-trained and supplied Iraqi forces collapsed in 2014, when attacked by relatively small groups of ISIS militants, exactly because U.S. troops had been withdrawn too quickly. The same, he has no doubt, will happen if President Trump repeats this “mistake” in Afghanistan. (Poor showings by U.S.-trained forces are never, of course, evidence of a bankrupt approach in Washington, but of the need to “stay the course.”)

Petraeus’s critique is, in fact, a subtle version of the stab-in-the-back myth. Its underlying premise: that the U.S. military is always on the generational cusp of success, whether in Vietnam in 1971, Iraq in 2011, or Afghanistan in 2019, if only the rug weren’t pulled out from under the U.S. military by irresolute commanders-in-chief.

Of course, this is all nonsense. Commanded by none other than General David Petraeus, the Afghan surge of 2009-2010 proved a dismal failure as, in the end, had his Iraq surge of 2007. U.S. efforts to train reliable indigenous forces (no matter where in the embattled Greater Middle East and Africa) have also consistently failed. Yet Petraeus’s answer is always more of the same: more U.S. troops and advisers, training, bombing, and killing, all to be repeated at “sustainable” levels for generations to come.

The alternative, he suggests, is too awful to contemplate:

“You have to do something about [Islamic extremism] because otherwise they’re going to spew violence, extremism, instability, and a tsunami of refugees not just into neighboring countries but… into our western European allies, undermining their domestic political situations.”

No mention here of how the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq spread destruction and, in the end, a “tsunami of refugees” throughout the region. No mention of how U.S. interventions and bombing in Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere help “spew” violence and generate a series of failed states.

And amazingly enough, despite his lack of “vici” moments, the American media still sees King David as the go-to guy for advice on how to fight and win the wars he’s had such a hand in losing. And just in case you want to start worrying a little, he’s now offering such advice on even more dangerous matters. He’s started to comment on the new “cold war” that now has Washington abuzz, a coming era — as he puts it — of “renewed great power rivalries” with China and Russia, an era, in fact, of “multi-domain warfare” that could prove far more challenging than “the asymmetric abilities of the terrorists and extremists and insurgents that we’ve countered in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan and a variety of other places, particularly since 9/11.”

For Petraeus, even if Islamic terrorism disappeared tomorrow and not generations from now, the U.S. military would still be engaged with the supercharged threat of China and Russia. I can already hear Pentagon cash registers going ka-ching!

And here, in the end, is what’s most striking about Petraeus’s war lessons: no concept of peace even exists in his version of the future. Instead, whether via Islamic terrorism or rival great powers, America faces intractable threats into a distant future. Give him credit for one thing: if adopted, his vision could keep the national security state funded in the staggering fashion it’s come to expect for generations, or at least until the money runs out and the U.S. empire collapses.

Please read the rest of my article here at TomDispatch.com.

11 thoughts on “America’s Senior Generals Find No Exits From Endless War

  1. Simple explanation:

    The Pentagon is a bureaucracy. All bureaucracies function like organisms – they seek a secure niche where they can hoover up resources and reproduce themselves. Members of the bureaucracy function as cells that sustain the larger organism – they survive if the organization survives.

    In a political context, a bureaucracy must find stuff to do or it loses the competition for budget (its food), because tax $ is always scarce.

    So my argument: *no matter the actual level of threat* the Pentagon will *always* have insufficient $ to meet emerging threats and unit readiness will *always* be too low. An organism always seeks to maintain its own metabolism in a changing environment.

    Petraeus’ career is this dynamic in microcosm.

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    1. How true. Thanks, AT. I was just thinking of my title: America’s senior generals find no exits.

      Why? Because they’re not looking for them. They’re setting the stage for more war. A new cold war. More nukes. To go along with an endless war on terror.

      And there’s always a regime or two that needs changing. Venezuela? Iran?

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  2. We have seen the enemy and they are us.

    I think it a better course for our national survival if we repaired our roads and water supply, safeguarded our secrets and educated our children instead of dropping bombs on every little hamlet that didn’t have a MacDonald’s.

    I really believe that we should be waiting for “them” to come here. If we take care of the “here” better than we are doing now, I’m willing to bet a lot that “THEY” will not come here at all. (except maybe to work in a tomato field.).

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    1. I’ve been keeping en eye open for years for any study that estimates how much it would cost to have a military focused *only* on defending the US from direct attack.

      My suspicion is that missiles are now so cheap relative to tanks, jets, and ships – and the oceans so broad – that the Army and Air National Guard alone could do the job. And what do they cost?

      https://www.nationalguard.mil/Portals/31/Documents/PersonalStaff/LegislativeLiaison/FY19/NGB-LL%20FY19%20PB%20Summary.pdf

      About $20-25 Billion per year. Less than 20% of the total Pentagon budget. And as a bonus, the Guard does productive work in their home districts.

      I’m sure they are subsidized by the Active forces to some degree, so say you double that outlay to make sure they’re fully staffed and equipped. A defense budget of $50 Billion then.

      With annual expenditures over $600 billion + $150 billion or so in the “contingency” fund (The war fund), I’m seeing some stark savings potential. Even keep the Navy and Marines funded in full, and you could cut the Pentagon budget by 50% *easily*

      There’s a reason the US Founders didn’t fund a standing army.

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  3. Good article concerning Bush the Younger’s Gulf War 2. A telling phrase in the article is: >> In a 2002 column, Jonah Goldberg coined the “Ledeen Doctrine”, named after neoconservative historian Michael Ledeen. The “doctrine” states: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”<<
    https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/03/20/why-did-bush-go-war-iraq-answer-more-sinister-you-think

    It was about ten years after the Korean War that we "picked" on Vietnam in 1964. North Vietnam and the VC must have been seen as a perfect victim at the time. The North Vietnamese and VC had no ability to strike the American shores. Conventional military "thinking" could produce only one outcome since we had land, air and maritime supremacy and that is Victory.

    We found "crappy little countries" in Central America to throw against the wall in the 1980's and 1990's.

    Now we do not even wait ten years anymore to attack a "crappy little country". Venezuela is certainly at this point targeted as a "crappy little country".

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    1. Why Iraq? Because Afghanistan wasn’t enough (after 9/11). I recall reading that Kissinger said something like that.

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      1. Why Iraq? Because Secretary of War Donald Rumsfeld said that Afghanistan “didn’t have enough targets.”

        Actually, as my fellow Vietnam veteran, Daniel Ellsberg, put it: “The US invaded Iraq for three reasons: Oil, Israel, and domestic political advantage.”

        Somewhat more expansively: several interconnected thoughts on the subject from thirteen years ago:

        “Who killed Davey Moore?
        Why? And what’s the reason for?” — Bob Dylan

        Who Lost Iraq
        (after the Bob Dylan song, “Who killed Davey Moore?”)

        Who Lost Iraq?
        Where did it go, and how to get it back?

        “It wasn’t me,” said the President,
        With his hard head stuck in its hard cement.
        “I just start fires in the minds of men;
        Pour gas on the flames every now and then.
        I accomplished my mission when I robbed the store,
        Then to cover up the crime I went and started a war.
        In a few more years someone else will want the fun;
        I’ll give the mess to them; then I’ll say that I won!
        They’ll lose Iraq
        Who couldn’t see me handing them the sack.”

        Who lost Iraq?
        Where did it go and how to get it back?

        “It wasn’t us,” cried the military brass.
        “We just saluted Rumsfeld and kissed his senile ass.
        We long ago swore not to think too hard or much;
        Just do as we’re told and to use that as a crutch;
        So when the hopes go wrong and the shit hits the fan,
        We can always just say: ‘We took our orders from the man.’
        With our medals and our pensions and our private jumbo jets
        ’It’s the only war we’ve got’ and that’s as good as it gets.
        They lost Iraq:
        The suits who tied our hands behind our back.”

        Who lost Iraq?
        Where did it go and how to get it back?

        “It wasn’t me,” said the rapping Secretary
        Talking too dense and sounding real scary.
        “We know we don’t know what we don’t know we know
        But we do know how to stage a little dog-and-pony show.
        The Senators and Congressmen whose districts get the pork
        Think the meat’s well done, so they stick in a fork.
        The army’s not the one we want, but let me tell you what:
        We have to go to war with it or see our funding cut.
        They lost Iraq
        Who wouldn’t cut me some semantic slack.”

        Who lost Iraq?
        Where did it go and how to get it back?

        “Who the hell cares,” shrugs the televangelist
        Preaching at his pulpit and pounding with his fist
        “I tell folks: ‘vote Republican if you don’t want to die’
        (Watching cable television; lapping up the lie).
        I feed the rubes on fantasies of Armageddon Day,
        When Jesus in his spaceship comes to take them all away.
        I scare ‘em and they love it and they come back for more
        To vote for someone else’s kid to fight in their war.
        They lost Iraq
        Who wouldn’t stop me selling Crusade crack.”

        Who lost Iraq?
        Where did it go and how to get it back?

        “We had to hit someone,” said the jaded journalist
        Thumbing through his Rolodex and making up a list
        Of contacts in the government who leak the names of spies
        Whose husbands tell the truth sometimes, instead of packaged lies.
        “My name is Tom Friedman and ‘the world is flat;’
        That shit about a globe you heard just isn’t where it’s at.
        I cheered for Dubya’s war just like the chicken hawk I am
        And then when things went south I blamed a Lebanese imam.
        They lost Iraq:
        Who wouldn’t buy my books from off the rack.”

        Who lost Iraq?
        Where did it go and how to get it back?

        “I’ve explained it all,” said the White House mouthpiece man
        Mumbling in mantras with shameless élan.
        “Our zigzag course takes us straight through the plots
        If you just fit the curve to the scatter of dots.
        In the sovereign state of the occupied town
        We could “stand ’em all up” if they’d quit falling down.
        But no matter what the carnage or the number who grieve
        Just remember “Stay the Course” means we’ll never leave.”
        They lost Iraq
        Who hired as spokesman some tired FOX NEWS flack.

        Who Lost Iraq?
        Where did it go, and how to get it back?

        “It wasn’t us,” cried the frightened Democrats,
        As much an opposition as a dozen gnats.
        “We voted for King George’s war and never blushed.
        With just a hint of nastiness, he left us hushed.
        We bought into the syndrome of the sycophant
        Who’d gladly ditch the donkey for the elephant.
        But now that all our compromise has come to nought,
        We’re too ashamed to do the things we truly ought.
        We love Iraq
        And only wished to help Chalabi’s claque.”

        Who Lost Iraq?
        Where did it go, and how to get it back?

        “Don’t look at us,” moaned the undecided block.
        Reliable consumers of a total crock.
        We love it when the government makes up those lies
        And sells them to us like McDonald’s greasy fries.
        Just show us a commercial made by Thomas Hobbes
        About our nasty, brutish lives with few good jobs.
        Then scare us half to death with tales of married queers.
        We’ll swallow anything just like our lousy beers.
        What is Iraq?
        Is it a toothpaste that gets rid of plaque?”

        Who Lost Iraq?
        Where did it go, and how to get it back?

        “It wasn’t me,” said Saddam Hussein,
        Sitting in his court cage, shouting his refrain:
        “I ran things better and we had a state;
        Now we only have Maliki, an invertebrate
        Who does the step-and-fetch-it as his daily toil
        For Dubya and his crony friends who steal our oil.
        But Mad Dog and his Englishman have come undone,
        Parading ’round in circles in the noonday sun.
        Bush lost Iraq
        When he and Blair launched their unwise attack.”

        Who Lost Iraq?
        Where did it go, and how to get it back?

        “Who the hell do you think?” said Ehud Olmert.
        “You mean you didn’t know Israelis just don’t care?
        A busted, broken Arab land fits in quite nice
        With Zionist delusions of a Paradise
        Where Arab refugees profess to love the Jews
        And swear to every statement made by Karen Hughes.
        The goyim in America will foot the bill
        Providing all the weaponry we need to kill.
        Forget Iraq;
        And take your marching orders from AIPAC.”

        Who Lost Iraq?
        Where did it go, and how to get it back?

        “Who talks of loss at all?” ask the Mullahs in Iran.
        As far as we’re concerned George Bush is just The Man.
        He stumbles and he bumbles then he gives away
        For nothing everything for which we’d gladly pay.
        Dick Cheney writes the crap for him to catapult
        Who never met a thought that he could not insult
        The Shiites in Iraq will get our help, indeed,
        To end the occupation that they do not need.
        We won Iraq
        Who let Bush do the work while we sat back.”

        Who lost Iraq?
        Where did it go and how to get it back?

        “Who said you ever owned us?” cried the people of Iraq.
        “Who asked you for your bloody war and unprovoked attack?
        You seemed to think that killing us and wrecking all we had
        Could win elections for George Bush and make him look less bad.
        Our oil we’ll sell to whom we please. Why don’t you find your own?
        And get yourselves a president at least a little grown.
        In case you haven’t noticed, he’s the one that you should fear
        Whose words smell like the noisome gas escaping from his rear.
        Please leave Iraq
        Then see if you can win your own souls back.”

        Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006

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  4. As Jimmy Dore said recently of the United States: “We’re a corporation with an army.” The Transnational Corporate Oligarchy, for its part, simply thinks of America [like other former “nations”] as a “marketing territory” and “population containment zone.” So, instead of the insipid, vacuous euphemism “war,” I suggest we more truthfully speak of the real business and careerist profiteers behind it all, namely:

    Ordnance Expenditure Expeditions

    Ordnance Expenditure Expeditions,
    Use up and then order more munitions.
    Make sure to run down the inventory.
    Start wars for profits: the same old story.

    “Give us the money or we’ll huff and puff.
    Buy from us all of these weapons and stuff.
    No-bid, cost-plus guarantees we demand.
    And if we don’t get them, no jobs for this land.”

    How? First a false flag: a made-up “good reason”
    Summer, Spring, Winter, or Fall: any season.
    “Gas” attacks “on his own people” will do it.
    “Brutal dictator must go.” Then see to it.

    Second: “advisers” deploy for a tour,
    Helping make countries with little more poor,
    Calling in airstrikes to wipe out the towns
    Whenever local folks fight back with frowns.

    Third: the “straight-legs” force us all to include them.
    Regular Army. No way to exclude them.
    They’ve got their generals, too; they demand it:
    Their chance to play the Big Cheese (meaning, bandit).

    Fourth: then the Air Force and Navy want in,
    Bringing Marines as their “infantry” kin.
    Some to pin medals and stars on their shirts.
    Others catch bullets and shrapnel, which hurts.

    Generals, admirals, colonels, commanders:
    Aimless amphibians, swamp salamanders,
    Punching their tickets while lost in a land which
    Doesn’t need them fucking up a soup sandwich.

    Still, screwing pooches can make a career.
    Just learn to lie with a lisp and a leer.
    No one will know, if your jargon’s opaque,
    How to distinguish the real from the fake.

    Just babble bullshit and throw in some numbers,
    Then keep it up until everyone slumbers.
    You’ll have succeeded when their eyes start crossing.
    Soon they won’t know a toothbrush from a flossing.

    Fifth: let the dogs-of-war piss on the fire:
    “Contractors” who’ll kill their mothers for hire,
    Shooting at anything moving on roads.
    Selling some “Safety” to rich loathsome toads.

    Last: the camp-following big corporations
    Feeding the troops on their overpriced rations.
    Petrol at four-hundred bucks to a gallon.
    Taxpayers sliced with a razor-sharp talon.

    No thought to budgets that balance the books.
    Just like Dick Nixon, these people are crooks:
    Buying Republicans who’ll chant “God bless!”
    Renting the Democrats who’ll lose for less.

    Dining at Davos in Switzerland’s mountains,
    Oligarchs drink to wealth spurting in fountains.
    Then with The Donald they swap salutations,
    Making our country a plague among nations.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2018

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    1. Mike: Isn’t it amazing how the USA attacks other countries for having WMD, when it’s the biggest manufacturer and dealer of WMD? Once again, the USA leads the global arms trade, and here that’s taken as a positive! Because we’re creating jobs!

      This sad news is unrelated, but in some way it is related, because violence begets violence, even when in this case it’s self-inflicted: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/survivor-parkland-school-shooting-sydney-aiello-kills-herself-n986266

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