Three Generals Walk Into a Bar …

W.J. Astore (and Andrew Bacevich)

Back in May of 2019, I wrote an article here on General William Westmoreland and the Vietnam War. Westmoreland was conventional in every sense of the word; it was his misfortune to be put in charge of an unconventional war in Southeast Asia, a war he didn’t understand but also one that was unnecessary for U.S. security and incredibly wasteful to boot. Relieved of command by being booted upstairs, Westmoreland went to his grave convinced that the war was winnable. If only he’d received the reinforcements he needed …

Today at TomDispatch.com, Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and author, imagines Westmoreland grousing in a bar with two other generals: George S. Patton of World War II fame, and an imaginary general of today’s wars, Victor Constant. Let’s just say General Constant does not cover himself in glory, failing to live up to his victor(ious) first name as he loses himself in vapid catchphrases he’s gleaned from PowerPoint briefings on war and its meaning. Much like today’s generals, in fact.

So, with the blessing of TomDispatch.com, here is that barroom conversation, as imagined by Colonel (ret.) Bacevich:

Patton and Westy Meet in a Bar
A Play of Many Parts in One Act
By Andrew Bacevich

It’s only mid-afternoon and Army Lieutenant General Victor Constant has already had a bad day.1 Soon after he arrived at the office at 0700, the Chief2 had called. “Come see me. We need to talk.”

The call was not unexpected. Any day now, POTUS3 will announce the next four-star to command the war effort in Afghanistan — how many have there been? — and Constant felt certain that he’d be tapped for the job. He’d certainly earned it. Multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, worse still, at the Pentagon. If anyone deserved that fourth star, he did.

Unfortunately, the Chief sees things differently. “Time’s up, Vic. I need you to retire.” Thirty-three years of service and this is what you get: your walking papers, with maybe a medal thrown in.

Constant returns to his office, then abruptly tells his staff that he needs some personal time. A 10-minute drive and he’s at the O-Club, where the bar is just opening. “Barkeep,” he growls. “Bourbon. Double. Rocks.” On the job long enough to have seen more than a few senior officers get the axe, the bartender quietly complies.

Constant has some thinking to do. For the first time in his adult life, he’s about to become unemployed. His alimony payments and college tuition bills are already killing him. When he and Sally have to move out of quarters,4 she’s going to expect that fancy house in McLean or Potomac that he had hinted at when they were dating. But where’s the money going to come from?

He needs a plan. “Barkeep. Another.” Lost in thought, Constant doesn’t notice that he’s no longer alone. Two soldiers — one boisterous, the other melancholy — have arrived and are occupying adjacent bar stools.

The first of them smells of horses. To judge by his jodhpurs and riding crop, he’s just returned from playing polo. He has thinning gray hair, small uneven teeth, a high-pitched voice, and a grin that says: I know things you never will, you dumb sonofabitch. He exudes arrogance and charisma. He is George S. Patton. He orders whiskey with a beer chaser.

The second wears Vietnam-era jungle fatigues, starched. His jump boots glisten.5 On his ballcap, which he carefully sets aside, are four embroidered silver stars. He is impeccably groomed and manicured. The nametape over his breast pocket reads: WESTMORELAND. He exudes the resentment of someone who has been treated unfairly — or thinks he has.

“Westy! Damned if you still don’t look like TIME’s Man of the Year back in ’65! Ease up, man! Have a drink. What’ll it be?”

“Just water for me, General. It’s a bit early in the day.”

“Shit. Water? You think my guys beat the Nazis by filling their canteens with water?”

Westmoreland sniffs. “Alcohol consumption does not correlate with battlefield performance — although my troops did not suffer from a shortage of drink. They never suffered from shortages of anything.”

Patton guffaws. “But you lost! That’s the point, ain’t it? You lost!”

The bickering draws Victor Constant out of his reverie. “Gentlemen, please.”

“Who are you, bucko?” asks Patton.

“I am Lieutenant General Victor Constant, U.S. Army. To my friends, I’m VC.”

“VC!” Westy nearly falls off of his stool. “My army has generals named after the Vietcong?”

Patton intervenes. “Well, VC, tell us old timers what you’re famous for and why you’re here, drinking in uniform during duty hours.

“Well, sir, first of all, I’m a warrior. I commanded a company in combat, then a battalion, then a brigade, then a division. But I’m here now because the chief just told me that I need to retire. That came as a bit of a blow. I don’t know what Sally is going to say.” He stares at his drink.

Patton snorts. “Well, my young friend, sounds like you’ve seen plenty of action. All that fighting translates into how many wins?”

“Wins?” VC doesn’t quite grasp the question.

“Wins,” Patton says again. “You know, victories. The enemy surrenders. Their flag comes down and ours goes up. The troops go home to a heroes’ welcome. Polo resumes.”

Westy interjects. “Wins? Are you that out of touch, George? The answer is: none. These so-called warriors haven’t won anything.”

“With all due respect, sir, I don’t think that’s fair. Everyone agrees that, back in ’91, Operation Desert Storm was a historic victory. I know. I was there, fresh out of West Point.”

Patton smirks. “Then why did you have to go back and do it again in 2003? And why has your army been stuck in Iraq ever since? Not to mention Syria! And don’t get me started on Afghanistan or Somalia! The truth is your record isn’t any better than Westy’s.”

“Now, see here, George. You’re being unreasonable. We never lost a fight in Vietnam.” He pauses and corrects himself. “Well, maybe not never, but very rarely.”

“Rarely lost a fight!” Patton roars. “What does that have to do with anything? That’s like you and your thing with body counts! Dammit, Westy, don’t you know anything about war?”

VC ventures an opinion. “General Westmoreland, sir, I’m going to have to agree with General Patton on this one. You picked the wrong metric to measure progress. We don’t do body counts anymore.”

“Well, what’s your metric, sonny?”

VC squirms and falls silent.

His hackles up, Westy continues. “First of all, the whole body-count business was the fault of the politicians. We knew exactly how to defeat North Vietnam. Invade the country, destroy the NVA,6 occupy Hanoi. Just like World War II: Mission accomplished. Not complicated.”

He pauses to take a breath. “But LBJ and that arrogant fool McNamara7 wouldn’t let us. They imposed limits. They wouldn’t even mobilize the reserves. They set restrictions on where we could go, what we could attack. General Patton here had none of those problems in ’44-’45. And then the press turned on us. And the smartass college kids who should have been fighting communists started protesting. Nothing like it before or since — the home front collaborating with the enemy.”

Westy changes his mind about having a drink. “Give me a gin martini,” he barks. “Straight up. Twist of lemon. And give VC here” — his voice drips with contempt — “another of whatever he’s having.”

The bartender, who has been eavesdropping while pretending to polish glassware, grabs a bottle and pours.

“Hearts and minds, Westy, hearts and minds.” Patton taunts, obviously enjoying himself.

“Yes, hearts and minds. Don’t you think, George, that we understood the importance of winning over the South Vietnamese? But after Diem’s assassination,8 the Republic of Vietnam consisted of little more than a flag. After D-Day, you didn’t need to create France. You just needed to kick out the Germans and hand matters over to De Gaulle.”9

Westmoreland is becoming increasingly animated. “And you fought alongside the Brits. We were shackled to a Vietnamese army that was miserably led and not eager to fight either.”

“Monty was a horse’s ass,”10 Patton interjects, apropos of nothing.

“The point is,” Westmoreland continues, “liberating Europe was politically simple. Defending South Vietnam came with complications you could never havedreamed of. Did the New York Times pester you about killing civilians? All you had to do to keep the press on your side was not to get caught slapping your own soldiers.”

“That was an isolated incident and I apologized,” Patton replies, with a tight smile. “But the fact is, Westy, all your talk about ‘firepower and mobility’ didn’t work. ‘Search and destroy’? Hell, you damn near destroyed the whole U.S. Army. And the war ended with the North Vietnamese sitting in Saigon.”

“Ho Chi Minh City,” Victor Constant offers by way of correction.

“Oh, shut up,” Patton and Westmoreland respond simultaneously.

Patton leans menacingly toward Victor Constant and looks him right in the eye. “Have you seen my movie, son?”11

“Yes, of course, sir. Several times.”

“Then you should understand what war is all about. You ‘hold onto him by the nose’ and you ‘kick him in the ass.’ That’s what I said in the movie. Why is that so hard to understand? How is it that my soldiers could defeat those Hun bastards and you and your crew can’t manage to take care of a few thousand ‘militants’ who don’t have tanks or an air force or even decent uniforms, for God’s sake?”

“Hearts and minds, George, hearts and minds.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, Westy?”

“Your kick-them-in-the-ass approach isn’t good enough these days. You studied Clausewitz — war is politics with guns. Now, I’ll give you this much: in Vietnam, we never got the politics right. We couldn’t solve the puzzle of making war work politically. Maybe there wasn’t a solution. Maybe the war was already lost the day I showed up. So we just killed to no purpose. That’s a failure I took to my grave.”

A bead of perspiration is forming on Westmoreland’s lip. “But these guys” — he nods toward Constant — “now, we’ve got a generation of generals who think they’ve seen a lot of war but don’t know squat about politics — and don’t even want to know. And we’ve got a generation of politicians who don’t know squat about war, but keep doling out the money. There’s no dialogue, no strategy, no connecting war and politics.”

Victor Constant is mystified. Dialogue? He rouses himself to defend his service. “Gentlemen, let me remind you that the United States Army today is far and away the world’s finest military force. No one else comes close.”

Westy just presses on. “So what has your experience in war taught you? What have you learned?”

Patton repeats the question. “What have you learned, Mr. Warrior? Tell us.”

Learned? After several drinks, Victor Constant is not at his best. “Well, I’ve learned a lot. The whole army has.”

He struggles to recall recent PowerPoint briefings that he’s dozed through. Random phrases come to mind. “Leap-ahead technology. Dominant maneuver in an ever-enlarging battlespace. Simultaneous and sequential operations. Artificial Intelligence. Quantum computing. Remote sensing. Machine learning. Big data analytics. 5G technology. High-fidelity, multi-domain training.”

However dimly, VC realizes he’s babbling. He pauses to catch his breath. “It’s all coming, if they’ll just give us the money.”

Patton stares at him silently. Victor Constant senses that it’s time to go home.

“Can I call you a taxi?” Westmoreland asks.

“No, sir, thank you.” With as much dignity as he can muster, Victor Constant straightens his tie, finds his headgear, and walks unsteadily toward the door.

What have I learned? What did they even mean? He was a general officer in the best army in the world. Maybe the best army ever. Wasn’t that enough? He needed to ask Sally.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

Copyright 2020 Andrew Bacevich


1 Victor Constant is the name of the ski slope at the United States Military Academy, called such in memory of a cadet ski instructor killed in an accident during World War II. To my knowledge, there is no officer bearing that name in the U.S. Army. Return to story.

2 The chief of staff, U.S. Army. Return to story.

3 The president of the United States. Return to story.

4 Many of the army’s most senior officers are housed at government-owned quarters at Fort Myers, Virginia, and Fort McNair in Washington. Return to story.

5 Beginning in World War II, U.S. Army paratroopers sported a distinctive style of black leather boot, more fashionable than standard army issue. After the war, Westmoreland attended jump school and commanded the 101st Airborne Division. Return to story.

6 Shorthand for the North Vietnamese army. Return to story.

7 Lyndon Johnson served as U.S. president from November 1963 to January 1969. Robert Strange McNamara filled the post of defense secretary from 1961 to 1968. Return to story.

8 The November 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem destroyed whatever slight political legitimacy the Republic of Vietnam had possessed. Return to story.

9 Charles De Gaulle was the leader of the Free French during World War II. Return to story.

10 Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, the senior British commander in the European Theater of Operations in World War II, had a low opinion of American officers from U.S. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower on down. Return to story.

11 “Patton” (1970), starring George C. Scott. Return to story.

25 thoughts on “Three Generals Walk Into a Bar …

  1. I suppose next you’ll be telling me Stormin’ Norman Schwartzkopf was little more than camera ready, media friendly blowhard who merely implemented the tactics dreamed up by Guderian and perfected by Rommel …

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    1. … Xenophon’s Immortals would’ve trashed the “elite” Republican Guard.
      You don’t have to have studied Clausewitz or watched “Patton” to know today’s general’s couldn’t win a hotly contested game of “Stratego” let alone a shooting war (20 years in Afghanistan!?!?). McNamara changed the military command structure into General Motors.

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  2. File this under: Business as usual at the Pentagon

    Under the title “Will Trump’s Troop Drawdown Plans Destabilize Iraq and Afghanistan (Again)?”, FP: Foreign Policy had the following summary [note how sending U.S. troops brings “stability,” but bringing them home causes instability]:

    “U.S. President Donald Trump is finally coming closer to fulfilling his campaign pledge to end U.S. troop commitments overseas, just weeks before he faces an uphill fight for re-election. On Wednesday, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, said the Pentagon would bring home nearly half the remaining troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The planned withdrawals would see U.S. forces in Afghanistan fall to 4,500 and to just 3,000 in Iraq.

    The move–long sought by Trump–may also prove politically popular overseas, especially in especially in Iraq, where parliament urged the expulsion of U.S. forces after an American drone strike killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani in Baghdad in January. A former U.S. official said in an interview that the U.S. drawdown would give new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi more maneuvering room with political opponents. That could allow him to make the case for Iran to pull out some of its own militia forces in exchange for the American withdrawal.

    Yet both Afghanistan and Iraq have struggled to build up internal security forces strong enough to ward off insurgent groups like the Islamic State and the Taliban. Mick Mulroy, the Pentagon’s former top Middle East policy official in the Trump administration and now an ABC News national security analyst, said the move “shows that we have confidence in Iraq’s security forces and their ability to operate more independently than in the past.” But he added that the United States “should be continuously assessing the situation to see if we have to slow down the withdrawal or even send troops back.”
    END QUOTE

    So: there’s always plenty of wiggle room to “send troops back” after the election. Because, you know, they provide stability. Or something.

    How did Iraq and Afghanistan have any stability before being invaded by U.S. troops?

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    1. The US could never admit General Soleimani, with his boots on the ground, did more to stop ISIS than Americans did bombing from the air.

      ISIS was only a rag tag gang of marauders when they came out of the Iraqi Desert. The Iraqi Military the US trained and equipped at great expense to the US taxpayer, just ran, and abandoned all that US military hardware with he keys still in the ignition, and ISIS moved from Iraq into Syria. How convenient!
      That gave the US the rationalization, with the delusional belief in it’s own indispensable exceptionalism it could under

      It totally fit in with the US/CIA WAR PLAN brought out within weeks of 9/11, to change the regimes of Iraq, Libya, Syria, Lebanon and at the END, Iran!
      That WAR PLAN is still unfolding in this world these 19 yeas later.

      Trump’s Assassination of such a High Figure in the Iranian Government in the person of General Soleimani on January 3rd, set the tone and tenor of 2020 to Date.
      Trump elevated the Economic War designed to destroy the Iranian Economy supporting it’s 83 MILLION People, to the level of Military Hostility.

      For those who don’t know, Armageddon starts in that area of the World, according to the record in the Book, and my copy of the Book was printed in 1855.

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      1. So sorry I got distracted and pressed post before finishing this,

        That gave the US the rationalization, with the delusional belief in it’s own indispensable exceptionalism, it could undermine the Global Order and International Law, bombing in Syria with bombs that were so smart, they missed ISIS on the Path to achieving the goal in the 2001 US WAR PLANS to remake the Middle East to conform to Israeli-US interests.

        It wasn’t until the Russians entered the Syrian WORLD WAR only in 2015, and really started bombing ISIS, and with General Soleimani’s forces on the ground, defeated ISIS, and ended the 2001 US WAR PLAN for regime change in Syria.
        Lebanon is finished and only Iran is left.

        Here is US General Wesley Clark blowing the whistle on those 2001 US WAR PLANS in 2007.

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        1. Yes, an important point! The US plan for regime change in Syria failed utterly, but succeeded of course in making conditions on the ground there more dangerous and miserable for the inhabitants. And Mr. Assad? Gone from the headlines, at least in this country, for quite a while now.

          Liked by 1 person

    2. Wondering what “bringing them home” means? To a country where the only thing more scarce than a job is a vaccine for Covid-19? Maybe they will be used to “police” the streets and return law & order to those nasty, predominantly Democrat-controlled cities until the forces of chaos and anarchy threaten These United States and Our Way of Life & Our Liberty in some place like Bongo Congo once more.

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      1. I’m not sure there’s even been a claim that these troops are “coming home.” The tactic in recent years has been to simply relocate units temporarily, to await the next “surge” back into the shit!

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      2. The troops “coming home” can demobilize and just get to work building homes worth living in — courtesy of a new WPA, or Works Progress Administration — tearing down and replacing decrepit, rotting infrastructure like housing, libraries, schools, hospitals, airports as well as developing efficient high-speed rail and metropolitan transit systems like we have here in Taiwan. No shortage of work that needs doing. I asked my mother, sometime before her death in 2002, if she would write up a sort of autobiography that I could pass on to future family generations. She didn’t get very far, but she started out like this:

        I was born on April 22, 1929, in an apartment over a store building in Indianapolis, Indiana. About this same time, there was the stock market crash in America. There were a lot of people who suffered for the ten years following that day. My parents were affected. They didn’t have very much to begin with, so for a lot of years they were afflicted with poverty. My mother had very poor health. My father worked whenever he could, but they were jobs that paid very little money. Sometimes he rode the boxcars on trains or went wherever he had heard about work. There was soon a new president elected. His name was Franklin Roosevelt. Needless to say, I have been a Democrat ever since.

        My dad was able to work more because there were jobs working on the W.P.A. Most of these jobs were working on public buildings, but my parents were very grateful. Sometimes my dad was able to go fishing or hunt rabbits or squirrels. If he caught anything, we were able to have something better to eat than beans or biscuits. The places that we lived in never had electricity or plumbing. So we had to use outside toilets, take a bath with heated water poured into a galvanized tub. I heard a song one time and it said, “If there was not bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all.”

        My Mom never let her rotten luck defeat her. She worked and built a life for my brother and myself after my Dad died in a car crash in 1952. Two years before she died — in 2000 — she voted for the last time. She could barely walk up the to the polling booth. She had only one question: “Who’s the Democrat?”

        The War Party’s junior right-wing faction now trying so hard to replace the senior right-wing faction still calls itself “Democrat” but my mother, had she lived until today, would not recognize it. I can think of nothing that enrages me more than to see these pious pretenders boastfully betray my mother’s and grandparents’ memory. They really ought to think of another name for themselves, one that doesn’t further besmirch what little remains of FDR’s (and even LBJ’s) domestic legacy. “Junior Varsity Republicans” ought to do just fine.

        So, yes, bring the troops home and put them to work alongside other unemployed Americans building — and learning again how to build — something for America instead of wantonly wrecking so many millions of lives worldwide. As for the first public building in need of tearing down and replacing — with something useful and functional — I nominate that five-sided black hole on the banks of the Potomac River. You know: The Pentagram.

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        1. Truth. The Dems of today are not the Dems of George McGovern or even of JImmy Carter. We got the JV Republicans of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama instead. In fact, Obama said his policies were those of a moderate Republican: perhaps the most honest words he uttered. Forget about “change.”

          So, when faced with a choice of uncharismatic and dishonest JV Republicans (Hillary, Biden) versus a Varsity Republican (Trump) who knows how to fire people up, it’s not a surprise that so many opt for the showman/conman, no matter how dishonest and self-serving he is.

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          1. In final days of his second term, Obama pulled himself lower still in my estimation by declaring the proudest aspect of his presidency was to have been C-in-C of the US Military!! Anybody up for an internet research project? (Sorry, I’m kinda busy with another project currently, so I have to pass.) When was the last time a Dem. POTUS candidate could say TRUTHFULLY that he or she had walked a picket line with striking workers?? * Once upon a time political candidates would engage in this activity–as a photo-op! They didn’t stick around very long at all! **

            * George Meany, a President of the AFL/CIO, once boasted that HE had NEVER walked a picket line in his life! Any surprise that the American labor union movement is in tatters?
            ** It’s actually possible that Biden would have done this when he first ran for Congress! But don’t quote me on that.

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          2. Interesting! April of 2019, eh? A former VP “out to pasture” made a show of support for organized labor. Did he already know he would be DNC’s POTUS choice the following year? I smell a conspiracy theory in the making…but don’t have time or inclination to launch it myself.

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          3. Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson of Washington State was known to us anti-war types as “The Senator from Boeing.” So was Joe Biden “The Senator from Credit Card HQ”? Oh dear, you other commenters here have caused me to fall into the Beat Up on Biden trap! We know he leaves ever so much to be desired as a candidate, but the indisputable fact remains: he’s not Donald J. Trump! And that’s what will decide the election, IF it can be held “fairly and squarely.” Some of those up for grabs states must fall in Biden’s direction or the Electoral College will give us four more years of this hell. Help prevent Kim Jong Un from sending Trump any more “beautiful letters” addressing him as “Your Excellency”!! Good god, “Your Excellency”!!!

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          4. I have to think the North Koreans are chuckling when they craft those letters. It’s so easy to flatter and manipulate The Donald.

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  3. I read the entire article by (Colonel, was it?) Bacevich. Some amusing lines of dialogue. But to get at truth–you know, that thing that eluded Mr. Ken Burns despite a decade of work and expenditure of $30 million on his TV documentary on Vietnam–we have to roll back the calendar to the point where Washington’s Cold Warriors decided to take over the attempted conquest of the Vietnamese from the defeated French. Domino Theory, anyone? Any quibbling over what the US military might have “done better” in search of victory is superfluous. The bottom line is that the US effort was unjustified and grossly immoral (criminal, really) FROM DAY ONE. Oh, and I got a kick out of the graphic calling Westy the guy “who lost Vietnam.” Just as “the West” “lost” China to Mao’s revolutionary forces! How do you “lose” something you never rightfully possessed??

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  4. In my opinion, Andrew Bacevich and William Astore know of what they speak (when it comes to military myths and realities) (…but of other things too) and as a survivor of my year in Vietnam I almost always relate to whatever these 2 have to say… Especially this time, because Mr. Bacevich’s “Play of Many Parts in One Act,” is so cool, I hope it “goes viral” and rattles enough cages around the world to warrant widespread attention everywhere it crops up! (With an honorable mention to Tom Engelhardt, who knows a thing or two about this one act play also.) Sincere thanks to all 3 of them.

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  5. To the memory of my high school classmate Kenny Buys whom General William Westmoreland, in 1968, sent to his death in Vietnam.

    Near Misses

    I’ve heard the angry bumble bee buzz by
    My ear, to leave me thinking with a sigh,
    That just a little further to one side
    And I’d have lost an ear, an eye, or died.

    Someone whom I had never tried to hurt
    Had nearly left me lying in the dirt,
    A victim of a patriotic plot
    Designed to keep me tethered to my lot.

    A stranger in the tree line taking aim
    Had barely missed collecting me as claim
    To all I might have seen and done; but then,
    I lived because he missed, so I might pen

    Some verse expressing puzzlement and rage
    At why I served, like others of my age,
    As dupe and tool of erstwhile statesmen dumb
    Who beat the truth about the head till numb,

    While spouting endless lies, both crass and lewd,
    “Explaining” why those pooches they have screwed
    Have turned to bite the bare and bogus butts
    Of “strategists” forever stuck in ruts.

    The game of saving face continues on
    Because the ones who’ve left us all in pawn
    To death and debt accruing each new day
    Cannot envision any other way

    To sell themselves as masters of our fate:
    A missing meal served on an empty plate
    Together with the bill, a perfect fit
    For us, the only target they can hit.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2009

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  6. Even more than the imagined bar room conversation, I thought Professor Bacevich’s intoduction succinctly hit most of the truly relevant issues of the day.

    [begin quote]

    Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, What Have They (and We) Learned?
    Posted by Andrew Bacevich at 8:00am, September 10, 2020.

    I’ve written a fair number of pieces for TomDispatch, but this one is a bit different — some might even say strange — so Tom asked me to introduce it myself.
    By almost any measure, we Americans are living through trying times. As a nation, we are long accustomed to being history’s spoiled child. Now, it seems our luck may be running out.

    What’s the preeminent symbol of this extraordinary moment? A pandemic that has killed more than 190,000 of our fellow citizens? High unemployment and massive economic uncertainty? Wildfires and hurricanes that displace hundreds of thousands? Schools struggling just to open their doors? A long overdue reckoning with American racism? A white nationalist backlash? A political system corrupted by money and mired in dysfunction?

    Take your pick. I suggest though that there’s at least one more item to add to that list: a national security establishment that has lost its way and is no longer able to distinguish between myth and reality.

    According to myth: We’re Number 1! Planet Earth’s unquestioned maximum leader. The reality is somewhat different. Despite exorbitant sums spent by the Pentagon year after year, the American brand of global leadership looks increasingly tarnished, if not ready for the junk heap.

    The other day, I stumbled across a striking claim by General James McConville, the chief of staff of the United States Army. You’ll find his here’s-what-we-stand-for statement prominently displayed on the Army’s website: “Winning Matters. We win with our People doing the right things the right way. When we send the U.S. Army somewhere, we don’t go to participate, we don’t go to try hard, we go to win. There is no second place or honorable mention in combat.”

    Now, I understand the need for leaders to make a positive case for their organization. In Garry Trudeau’s comic strip Doonesbury, the president of Walden College can be counted on to put a positive spin on an institution that ranks at the very bottom of the academic universe. He does know, however, that Walden is not Princeton. It serves no purpose to pretend otherwise.

    So “win”? Please. The present-day United States Army rarely wins and it serves no purpose to pretend otherwise.

    No doubt soldiers “try hard.” They are always out there bravely fighting someone, somewhere, and getting ready to fight somewhere else. The problem isn’t want of effort, it’s outcomes. And for that, senior military leaders like General McConville must bear at least some responsibility.

    Now, it may be that when the general meets privately with his fellow four-stars to discuss how things are going, they ruminate over the lack of meaningful success in places like Afghanistan and Iraq despite endless years of effort. Maybe they even feel some sense of remorse. But if they do, they keep such critical thoughts under wraps. My guess is that they choose to ignore the recent past in favor of conjuring up future wars more to their liking — imaginary wars rather than real ones. And that qualifies as professional malpractice.

    And as a long-ago soldier of no particular distinction, I’m haunted by this pattern of malpractice and the breezily dishonest posturing that sustains it. To illustrate the scope of this dishonesty and its implications, I’ve conjured up a conversation between three senior army officers — World War II’s hard-driving George Patton (a Trump favorite), Vietnam War commander (and “light at the end of the tunnel” guy) William Westmoreland, and a present-day general of my own invention. Listen in as they engage one another on the imperative of, and difficulty of, learning what war has to teach us all. — Andrew

    [end quote]

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  7. The tone of Gen. McConville’s remarks takes me all the way back to my freshman year of high school (1968). There was a message board in the football locker room filled with such stuff, which the coaches spewed out during practice everyday to spur us on to victory and glory. About the only thing he left out – which I may write in as a suggestion for a recruitment slogan – is “The Only Difference Between Champ and Chump Is U.”
    Talk about inspirational leadership …. sheesh ….

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    1. The late NFL coach Vince Lombardi was famed for declaring “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!” Yep, there’s the ol’ Amerikan Credo for ya! Donald Trump, c. 2016: “You’re [the American people] gonna win so much [under my presidency] you may get sick of winning!” Oh, yeah. A lot of us are pretty damned sick of this, alright. Not quite what Donald had in mind. Trump is now available on audio tape admitting to his intentional “coverup” of the real dangers of the pandemic. Will this bother his base one little bit? I bet it won’t. This election is a freaking toss-up, folks!!

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      1. “Winning” isn’t the point of the game. No more flags captured. “Winning” is now just prolonging — business as usual, with “business” the operative word. Even Trump knows this — mentioning, as he did, the military-industrial complex. As someone else noted, can you imagine those words coming from Biden’s mouth? That fact symbolizes much that is wrong with mainstream Democrats today.

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        1. But the “winning” Trump “promised” his followers was minimally, if at all, related to overseas military adventures. He was “promising” to carry out his announced agenda, such as finally burying “Obamacare” six feet under, building that Big Beautiful Wall, tax breaks galore, etc. That “Obamacare” thing didn’t work out so well, eh? And we know who got the big tax breaks. It wasn’t the “little people” who adore him and are stupid enuf to STILL believe he’s “on their side.” A significant chunk of our fellow citizens are dangerously divorced from reality, I am forced to conclude.

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