America recently marked the 18th anniversary of the Iraq War by basically ignoring it. The 20th anniversary of the Afghan War approaches, and it appears we’ll get there since President Biden is saying U.S. forces can’t leave until this November at the earliest. Apparently, our withdrawal of troops must be “responsible” and based on ever-changing benchmarks. Leaving aside the harrowing human cost, these calamitous wars have cost the American taxpayer at least $6 trillion, yet they go on and on.
One person who’s learned a lot from these wars is Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel who runs the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. In his latest article for TomDispatch.com, Bacevich had this to say about America’s seemingly unending pursuit of peace through war:
The longest war in U.S. history [the Afghan War] should by now have led Americans to reflect on the consequences that stem from succumbing to imperial temptations in a world where empire has long since become obsolete. Some might insist that present-day Americans have imbibed that lesson. In Washington, hawks appear chastened, with few calling for President Biden to dispatch U.S. troops to Yemen or Myanmar or even Venezuela, our oil-rich “neighbor,” to put things right. For now, the nation’s appetite for military intervention abroad appears to be sated.
But mark me down as skeptical. Only when Americans openly acknowledge their imperial transgressions will genuine repentance become possible. And only with repentance will avoiding further occasions to sin become a habit. In other words, only when Americans call imperialism by its name will vows of “never again” deserve to be taken seriously.
Bacevich is right to be skeptical. The prevailing narrative in the USA still rejects the notion of imperial wars. America’s wars are always sold as defensive. Put simply, we allegedly fight “them” over there so we won’t have to fight them over here. The Afghan War is still being sold as preventing terrorist attacks on America. The Iraq War was sold as preventing Saddam Hussein from using his non-existent weapons of mass destruction against us. In short, Americans are routinely sold a false bill of goods, and the price tag attached, $6 trillion and rising, again leaving aside the human cost, is truly prodigal to behold.
I urge you to read all of Bacevich’s article here. And I urge all Americans to think about our leaders’ imperial ambitions and their horrendous costs. Like the Romans, we are too fond of creating deserts with our weaponry and calling it “peace.” We can and must open our eyes and do better.
At his first presidential press conference yesterday, Joe Biden had this to say on China: “They have an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch.”
Sorry, Joe, it’s happening and it’s partly your fault.
Here’s a symbol for you. I have an American flag t-shirt. It’s made by a company called “True Grit” (John Wayne!) and the label says “Authentic California.” But was the shirt made in California? Ha ha! It was “Made in China.”
Why is China ascending while the USA descends? Here are five reasons:
America’s wasteful war on terror has cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 trillion with nothing to show for it.
Politicians like Obama/Biden prefer to bailout Wall Street and the banks rather than ordinary Americans. For example, the bailout of Wall Street in 2008 was a trillion-dollar mess, Matt Taibbi notes.
The Covid Bailout passed by the Trump administration in 2020 (the CARES Act) funneled $2.3 trillion mainly to the banks and corporate America, with a surge option of $4 trillion for big business, notes Matt Taibbi.
Bad trade deals like NAFTA, advanced by Democrats like Bill Clinton and Joe Biden, ensured that American jobs would go overseas to countries like China having much lower labor costs.
Tax cuts for the richest Americans under the Trump administration starve the government of funds, ensuring little investment in the homeland even as the rich get richer.
Now, imagine if this money had been invested in America. We’re talking $10-12 trillion for infrastructure, essentials like roads, bridges, dams, high-speed rail, renewable energy, better schools, and so on. Imagine how much more advanced and healthy America could be if our priorities changed.
Our government has been captured by the special interests, specifically corporations, banks, and the military-industrial complex. It’s socialism for the rich and dog-eat-dog capitalism for the poor. The plutocrats, kleptocrats, and militarists are cashing in even as America hollows out.
What we need is a true Marshall Plan — for America. A reinvestment in ourselves. What this means is an end to forever wars, major cuts in military spending, higher taxes on the plutocrats and corporations, and a focus on putting Americans back to work and with a living wage. A green new deal could and should be one aspect of this.
We need to show some “true grit” again, America; not grit that’s “Made in China.”
Why has the U.S. military failed so consistently since World War II? A popular thesis advanced most notably by Tom Ricks is that today’s military leaders simply aren’t called on the carpet and dismissed for poor performance as in the “greatest generation” era. But is it that simple? Should we simply stop coddling generals and cashier a few to encourage the others? Dan White begs to differ, turning to the writings of two generals, James Gavin and Robin Olds, for support. White persuasively argues that more firings and ostensibly tougher generals are not necessarily the answer, not when America’s wars are so poorly defined and essentially unwinnable to begin with. So why does the U.S. military both acquiesce to and persist in waging unwinnable wars for unattainable objectives? And what does that tell us about America’s approach to and understanding of war? Read on! W.J. Astore
A Flailing and Failing Military Has Forgotten the Fundamental Tenets of War
Daniel N. White
Tom Ricks, the Washington Post military affairs correspondent, argued in his book The Generals that US military failures in our ongoing and recently past wars are due to a reluctance to relieve commanders for cause. Ricks tells of how in World War II numerous mid-level and senior officers were relieved for cause—nonperformance of their units on the battlefield. Under-performing units turned around (every time, Mr. Ricks?) with new commanders and relieved commanders were given second chances that they often succeeded at. Ricks argues that despite the obvious military failure in our current military ventures, no general officer has yet to be relieved for cause. According to him, this sea-change in US military policy and practice is what now ails us.
Ricks, however, fails to look at the overall history of relieving officers in the US military in wartime; thus his conclusions are suspect. America’s current military failures have little to do with a failure to relieve officers for cause during wartime. Ricks, like so much of this country’s population at large, its political and media elites in particular, looks no further back in our history than to World War II. The American obsession with the “good war” fought by the “greatest generation” is a blinding defect that will ultimately kill many more Americans unless we wise up soon.
Consider World War I, for example. The US Army in the First World War generally didn’t perform very well on the battlefield. Yet to my knowledge no studies have been done that affirm that relieving officers for cause improved US battlefield performance.
Consider the Korean War as well. The Army performed poorly in the opening stages of the war and was beaten again after the Inchon turnaround at Chosin Reservoir, after which General Matthew Ridgway turned things around and the US Army became a capable fighting force again. Anyone who wants to argue about how relieving officers for cause is the key to effective performance on the battlefield needs to look at the US Army and its relief of officers in World War I and Korea. Ricks doesn’t.
Now let’s consider the Vietnam War. The US Army officer corps was riddled with ticket-punching and widespread personal and professional dishonesty and a wide range of other vices during that war, yet it still managed to relieve officers in the field for cause. The 1st Infantry Division regularly relieved officers for cause, while other divisions rarely used the practice. Was there any real difference in the field performance between the two types of divisions? Ricks doesn’t say.
A better argument to be made against Ricks’ premise is from General James Gavin, in his war memoirs, On to Berlin (1978). Gavin and the elite 82nd Airborne Division were sent to the Battle of the Bulge (1944), where they fought alongside the 7th Armored and the 106th Infantry Divisions. The 7th was an experienced unit whose performance in fighting while badly outnumbered in the first days of the battle is now generally considered an outstanding example of defensive fighting against odds. The 106th was a green division whose performance Gavin considered as good as could be expected under the circumstances, and whose commanding general gets several favorable mentions from Gavin for his performance in those most difficult circumstances of a green unit being attacked by superior forces.
These two units led the US defense in the key defensive battle of St. Vith, a battle that didn’t get the press that its less important crossroads battle of Bastogne got, despite its larger importance. Bernard Montgomery said of these two units’ performance, as they withdrew from their defensive positions they had held for the first week of the battle to new ones further back: “They can come back with all honour. They come back to the more secure positions. They put up a wonderful show.” Gavin quotes the official Army history on Montgomery’s comments on two retreating US Army divisions: “Montgomery showed the ability to honor the fighting men which had endeared him to the hearts of the Desert Rats in North Africa.”
Gavin further tells of how the commanders of both of these divisions were relieved once they finished their withdrawal to their new positions. In the case of the CG of the 7th Armored, Gen. Robert Hasbrouck, the orders for his relief were sent at 6:25 on the morning of Dec. 22nd, while the countermanding orders, from the same Corps Commander, were sent to him restoring him to his command of the division the same evening, at 7:00 pm. The CG of the 106th Inf., Alan W. Jones, wasn’t so lucky and was relieved permanently from his command. Gavin has this to say about the matter here, and the US Army’s quickness to relieve officers for cause in WWII—which Ricks finds most admirable—here, on p. 258:
Once again I was struck by the manner in which the system treats senior officers in combat. I have a haunting memory that does not diminish with the passage of time of how unfairly and thoughtlessly we treated some of our senior officers. And I use the word ‘system’ because that is what it is. It is not a personal matter. It is something that one has come to expect of senior officers in our Army. In this case, one is particularly impressed by the manner in which Montgomery congratulated all those who fought at St. Vith for the fine job they did. We relieved the two senior commanders, although one was restored. In the situation at Arnhem, in our earlier battle in Holland, the British general lost three-quarters of his command and a battle. He returned home a hero and was personally decorated by the King.
There is no doubt that in our system he would have been summarily relieved and sent home in disgrace. In the case of General Jones and his 106th Division, higher command knew no more about the German plans than he did. Higher command also knew of his dispositions and approved them. His leading green regiments were overwhelmed before they could offer much resistance, and there is little that he—or anyone else, for that matter—could have done about it. Summarily relieving senior officers, it seems to me, makes others pusillanimous and indeed discourages other potential combat leaders from seeking high command. Again, it is not individuals acting against other individuals—it is not a personal matter–it is the way the system works and is expected to work. It must be changed. The shift from peacetime to a war footing and then to battle has a tremendous psychological impact on individuals. Summarily relieving those who do not appear to measure up in the first shock is not only a luxury that we cannot afford—it is very damaging to the Army as a whole. We have much to learn from the British about senior command relationships.
And it is worth bringing to the table peacetime relief of command for cause. The US military organization most famous for that practice was Strategic Air Command (SAC) in the US Air Force, in its halcyon days of General Curtis LeMay.* SAC was in its day notorious for a horrific pressure-cooker environment but is nowadays regarded by some as a model of a peacetime military organization at the top of its form—the most highly skilled personnel, running the most technologically advanced weaponry, all ready 24/7/365 at the drop of a hat.
SAC awaits a truly critical historian, but whoever it might be will be wise to heed the comments about SAC made by BGen. Robin Olds, an outstanding fighter pilot, a triple-ace, and wartime military leader and commander, in his posthumous memoirs, Fighter Pilot. Olds was thoroughly dissatisfied with what he saw of SAC in the late 1970s, and wrote in his memoirs, on p. 372, of SAC’s longstanding history of relieving officers from command slots at the drop of a hat:
Under their (SAC’s) rules, if a wing commander messed even a little bit he was canned and gone forever, so SAC fostered attitudes about how tough they were. What they really did was make a bunch of liars out of many wing commanders, DM’s, and DO’s. Guys at wing level were scared people. They would lie, cheat, steal, and deny—anything to make themselves look good.
The net result of this over time is described by Olds on p. 374:
When LeMay scared the hell out of his people, he made some-thing out of them that I don’t think was in their true nature. He made them cringe and hide the truth. He made them say,
’Yes Sir, Yes Sir,’ becoming chronic liars protecting their own skins…A man like that has to have someone working for him that he can dominate and he is invariably going to pick a lesser individual (for promotion) … a big group of guys were developed into people who were afraid to think for themselves. They damned near destroyed the air force in the process… (emphasis mine)**
Gavin and Olds versus Ricks on the merits of the US military’s past quickness to relieve commanders. The choice is yours. I’m with Gavin and Olds.
Ricks and his writings on war and the US military deserve more comment than I want to give them here. Fundamentally Ricks is a fan of the US military and of things military in general. A fan isn’t an impartial judge of whatever it is they are a fan of. That’s simply the nature of fandom. Perhaps Ricks sees himself as a friend of the US military, but fans aren’t true friends, either.
The worst sort of fans are accurately described by the athletes themselves as crotch sniffs, and that’s a telling turn of phrase. Ricks is fundamentally a crotch sniff for the US military. Journalists have mostly (and editors invariably) been a bunch of crotch sniffs for their own country’s militaries and Ricks is no exception.
There’s unfortunately nothing new about that situation; it has almost always been the case about military/war journalism ever since newspapers were invented. Anyone wanting to argue otherwise needs to reread Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty (1975), 3rd edition in 2004, still the best book on war reportage.
A complicating factor is that what most Americans know about war and warfare comes via Hollywood, whether they realize it or not—and most Americans lack the self-perception to realize how much Hollywood/ PR they’ve internalized. An additional compounding factor is that the military is one of those institutions, like the judiciary, that invariably gets a pass from editors from critical analysis, and from probably the same reasons. Most journalists simply know little of war or law, and when you combine technical ignorance with institutional sacred cowism you get uncritical coverage. Ricks to his credit isn’t ignorant; he’s knows a fair amount about the US military and military history. But Ricks’ strong belief in the goodness and efficacy of the US military dooms his writings to hackwork status, much like the rest of his militarily ignorant journalist colleagues’.***
Ricks deserves credit for trying to come to grips with why the institution he admires so much has failed so badly against weak opponents like the Iraqis and Afghans. His is an all too typical American attitude, particularly among conservatives, of harkening back to the glory days of World War II, when America seemed completely right and completely omnipotent. This belief in America’s goodness in those days is dumb and wrong, yet it’s a belief that’s endemic in this country, and one that shows no signs of ever soon diminishing.
The reasons for America’s recent military failures are more obvious than Ricks wants to acknowledge. America simply had (and has) no realistic objective for wars whether in Iraq or Afghanistan. Both wars had lies as their stated rationales, and nobody has yet explained how any sort of good is supposed to come from wars started by and waged on lies. What is worse, far, far worse than that, is that both wars lacked any coherent political or military objective, at any time before or during their commission, and if there is a worse crime or sin in the professions of politics or arms than fighting wars without objective I cannot name it. I defy anyone else to, either.
The US military has continued both wars in the face of obvious failures to achieve meaningful goals, despite however many times the political leadership here moved the goalposts. Persons who remember the Vietnam War, or who bothered to learn anything about it beyond the Rambo cartoons, should be noticing more similarities than dissimilarities in our failed efforts then and our failed efforts now.
Ricks fails to address how (as have likewise, for decades now, most all others in the media, political world, our moral leadership, and intelligentsia), once again, the US military has saluted smartly while participating in wars in distant lands that required more men in the field and a bigger war effort than they knew they were going to get from the home front. Once again, senior military leaders willingly involved themselves and their organizations in efforts that they knew from the beginning were almost certain to fail. They fought wars without realistic war objectives and without adequate resources (most especially, support at home). This is institutional failure at the highest level, a master class in moral cowardice and corruption.
Sadly, instead of covering this, most media sites post the usual puff pieces about our noble troops as they fight terrorists in the cause of freedom. Few people have asked the dreaded question of whether and why our military leaders are willingly participating in odious demi-wars staged largely for domestic political reasons. The sickness and corruption—moral and professional corruption of the worst sort possible—that this question raises is an issue that fans like Ricks simply cannot comprehend.
Ricks, who is again a reporter with considerable military knowledge, simply misses the target here. The US military isn’t flailing and failing because it hasn’t fired enough generals: It’s flailing and failing because it engages in wars that are lost causes to begin with, as well as being illegal and immoral to boot. Ricks is too much of a military fanboy to see this; so too are most Americans, who continue to salute the troops as heroes without ever questioning their actions in the field. It is all most discouraging.
Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to. He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about. He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now. He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb. He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.
*My favorite story about SAC and its willingness to relieve commanders comes from its earlier days when a B-36 Wing Commander was called on the mat by LeMay for a low level of operational readiness of his aircraft. The Wingco explained that his squadrons at the base had had a rash of bird strike accidents involving buzzards, and these accidents had caused damage to parts of the airframes that were beyond the capabilities of wing maintenance to repair, and that new airframe parts from Convair were necessary to restore safe airworthiness to the airplanes. The USAF didn’t have these airframe parts in its inventory, and Convair did not have them as spare parts yet, and Convair was unwilling to interrupt its production schedule for new B-36s by pulling the necessary parts off of its assembly lines and shipping them to his squadrons’ repair shops like he’d asked them to. LeMay listened and said: “I have neither the time nor inclination to distinguish between the unfortunate and the incompetent. You are relieved.”
**SAC was the preeminent branch of the US military during its Cold War salad days. It had more money than God courtesy of a complacent Congress that gave it everything it wanted and then some. There is of course nothing to show for all this expenditure; such is always the case for military expenditures. But this line of Olds is as good an epitaph for SAC as an institution as it is ever going to get. And SAC, as big and significant an American institution as it was in its day, really needs a good historian to look at it with a critical eye, before everyone involved in it is dead. Most already are.
***Anyone who thinks I’m being too hard on Ricks needs to go read his account of the Battle of Fallujah in his first book on the Iraq War, Fiasco. A truly revolting bit of crotch sniffery towards the jarheads.
When I was 18, I thought I’d be an aeronautical engineer in the Air Force. I went to an engineering school and majored in mechanical engineering, but I also did a big project on the military-industrial complex and minored in U.S. history. Turns out that I did do engineering in the Air Force, specifically software testing and project management, but I soon moved into history and got an MA and D.Phil. focusing on science and technology. Meanwhile, forty years later I still find myself writing about the military-industrial complex. My “broader” education helped me to move away from engineering into fields that over time interested me more.
College is (or should be) about a lot more than earning a specialized degree and then cashing in. In retrospect, half of my college experience was about living on my own and with roommates, growing up, and making friends. Maturing.
You rarely know what your career arc will be. What you want at 18 years of age may not be what you want at 22 or 32. A broader education can give you the tools to branch out and pursue exciting opportunities as they come along. All these things were on my mind as I read the following stimulating article by my longtime friend, M. Davout.W.J. Astore
An Education Worth Having
My son, who aspires to be a successful software developer and entrepreneur, applied to colleges this year and is finally getting word back from the universities to which he applied. The school he preferred, a prestigious state institution focused on technical fields, rejected him and the disappointment (particularly, and perhaps even more, for his parents) was great. As other rejections came in from universities that were, in retrospect, obvious longshots for my son, I felt the need to reach out to an older cousin who recently retired after a long and successful career working in technical support, sales, and then in upper management in a globally-dominant company that sells both computer hardware and software.
As a native-born kid in the suburbs, I always looked on my cousin with admiration for how, coming to the country at the age of ten without any English, he was able to navigate the tough immigrant neighborhood of Boston’s North End and managed, through determination and hard work, to get an education at a local technical college and, afterwards, a well-paying job at a computer hardware company. Over his long employment there, he rose in the corporate ranks, while continuing to advance his technical education during nights and weekends. But there was also, I should admit, some condescension—as a native-born speaker benefitting from the well-funded public schools of the suburbs, I was able eventually to get into an elite liberal arts university whose education I considered superior to the narrow technical one that my cousin presumably had.
When I reached out to my cousin for advice about my son I expected full-throated support for a path that was practical, realistic, and single-mindedly attentive to what the marketplace promised in the way of lucrative careers. In other words, as a smug liberal arts professor, I expected my cousin to conform to my preconceptions about the values and character of business people. What I got (as demonstrated in my cousin’s replies pasted in below) was something different, a demonstration that the values of broadmindedness can flourish in many different places including the business world and that a liberal arts college professor can be as narrow-minded as they come.
I conveyed to my cousin that my son loved to code, was very focused on privacy software development as a career, and had ambitions to make a lot of money, to which he answered: “Yes, youth always thinks that way. As you know he needs a base education so that he can do that. Focusing on security software is fine, but he needs general computer understanding, hardware and software, along with marketing and business.”
I mentioned that over the last year, my son had more than once questioned why he has to spend four years in college if he already knows what he wants to do and has developed coding skills. My cousin responded: “He thinks he might have, but I assure you he has not. If he has the skills, school should help bring them further out.”
Ordinarily, I would insist on my son going to college. However, a software development friend had mentioned that his nephew successfully attended a software coding academy, which teaches coding skills over a two to three month intensive (9-5 each weekday) schedule. Tuition is $12-14K but the graduates leave with excellent prospects to start in the field at $70+K. I thought this might be something for my son. My cousin, the computer business guy, expressed skepticism: “Which academies in particular do you have in mind? As you know he should have a rounded education, especially in computers, there are many facets, focusing on just one thing might get boring, and it limits his personality.”
When I mentioned that my software friend had said that one can make a good salary without a college degree (though management jobs did usually require a BS or BA) and that half of the developers working at his companies don’t have college degrees, my cousin responded: “Yes, but the game is long term, Tino might think this is what he wants now, but only with a broader experience can he then be sure. At the end of the day, he should have the biggest say, if he is excited about coding academy, maybe he should try it. But remind him that being rounded is better than just one super skill. He might like coding now, but who knows in the future.”
In his long and successful career in business, my cousin had acquired a respect for broader education that was based, unlike my own, on the experience of working with diverse people in complex and evolving organizations, operating in-country and overseas, responding to the varying demands of customers and bosses, staying abreast of technological developments and political changes, all the while pursuing lifelong learning. I realize now that I sold him short and am grateful for his teaching me how I can better convey to my son that a broader education will serve him well not only in business but in life.
Today, I’d like to revive an article I wrote in July of 2010 about America’s folly in continuing its war in Afghanistan. Here we are, a decade later, and the Biden administration is contemplating continuing that war. Stupidity is obviously unbounded.
Anyway, as Julian Assange rots in prison for the crime of doing journalism, it behooves us to recall that WikiLeaks provided convincing evidence of America’s Afghan folly. Obviously, Assange the messenger must be shot, or at least punished severely for daring to air America’s dirty laundry.
Here’s my post from 2010. Does it make any sense in any universe to keep this going?
What WikiLeaks Reveals: We’re Playing the Fool in Afghanistan
Perhaps the most predictable, as well as the most maddening, headline to emerge from the latest WikiLeaks controversy is this one from the Washington Post: “WikiLeaks Disclosures Unlikely to Change Course of Afghanistan War.”
Doubtless this “stay the course” approach will be spun as a sign of American resolve and tenacity. Of course, it was Albert Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Naturally, there’ll be some who’ll say that Obama and General Petraeus have new cards up their sleeves, so perhaps they’re not “insane.” But they (and we) sure are looking more and more like fools.
Partly this is because President Obama and his advisors are still looking at Afghanistan as a problem to be solved, a war to be won, a situation to be handled. Or they see it as a high-stakes poker match, a deadly game of raises and bluffs, of gambling at long odds, but a match we can ultimately win as long as we keep playing and pumping in more chips.
But what if Afghanistan is none of these? What if we’re playing the fool?
Recall how proud we were, in the 1980s, at providing arms and aid to the Afghan “freedom fighters” who were then fighting the Soviets. It was the Soviet Union’s own Vietnam, we said, the final nail in the coffin of Soviet communism, and we congratulated ourselves on our own cleverness.
Fast forward two decades, and now we’re the ones bogged down in Afghanistan, yet we still think we can “surge” or escalate or otherwise rescue a faltering and untenable war effort.
Faltering? Untenable? Few people will dispute the following facts, many of which are now further supported by the WikiLeaks documents:
1. We’ve already spent $300 billion on our war in Afghanistan with very little to show for it.
3. We’ve almost completely eliminated Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the immediate cause of our intervention in 2001, yet we continue to send more troops and more money there.
4. We’ve allied ourselves with a corrupt government and leaders who are enriching themselves at our expense.
5. We pay bribes to protect our convoys, and some of this money ends up in the hands of the Taliban.
6. We’re working with a regional ally, Pakistan, whose interests are often contrary to our own, and yet whose allegiance we attempt to buy with more military aid.
7. In trying to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans, we’ve largely looked the other way with respect to the opium and heroin trade. The result? A drug-based Afghan economy.
8. In fighting an American-style war, we’ve relied on massive firepower, often from the air, that inevitably results in civilian casualties that undermine our counterinsurgency efforts.
9. At a time when we’re still trying to create jobs and pull ourselves out of a Great Recession, we continue to dedicate tens of billions of dollars to a seemingly endless war, with Congress currently preparing to approve yet another $33.5 billion for Afghanistan.
10. While largely ignoring civilian casualties in Afghanistan, we also downplay the cost of constant warfare to our troops, not just those who are killed or wounded in action (horrible as that price is), but to those who are brutalized by war, those whose families are destroyed or damaged by constant deployments, by domestic violence, and by suicides. Yet we reassure ourselves this price is bearable since our troops are “all volunteers.”
These are hard facts, and the WikiLeaks evidence has only made them harder. Only a fool refuses to face facts, and hardheaded Americans are not fools.
When I taught the core course in military history at the U.S. Air Force Academy, it focused on “major” wars. A review of my syllabus from 20 years ago confirms that we spent most of our time teaching military cadets about the American Revolutionary War, the U.S. Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea and the Cold War, and Vietnam. There were special lessons that focused on airpower history and strategic thinkers like Clausewitz and Jomini, but the main focus was on “conventional” wars. I was OK with this, since mastering the course material was my main challenge, not challenging subjects within the course.
An astute student of U.S. military history would quickly note what’s missing. Genocidal wars against Native Americans were rarely mentioned. There were no specific lessons devoted to the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the Filipino Insurrection, or any of America’s frequent regime-change wars in Latin America. American imperialism wasn’t specifically addressed. Critiques of American imperialism by critics like Mark Twain and General Smedley Butler were rarely (if ever) heard.
What that means is this: America’s young officers go out into the world with little knowledge of America’s military interventions beyond the victories (more or less) in World Wars I and II, stalemate in Korea, and a misbegotten war in Vietnam that America could (and perhaps should) have won with better tactics and/or less civilian interference, or so they are often taught. Small wonder that disasters like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and others occur and persist, though I wouldn’t put the blame for these simply on a lack of critical teaching about America’s various for-profit cock-ups and screw-ups.
This was on my mind as I read Kevin Tillman’s recent article at TomDispatch.com. As Tillman notes, America’s regime-change wars and propensity for foreign coups came home to our own country on January 6th with the storming of the Capitol. That such an action so deeply shocked Americans is a sign of our collective amnesia when it comes to remembering the totality of our military history.
Here’s an except from his article, which I encourage you to read in its entirety at TomDispatch:
Kevin Tillman, Capitol Blowback
Just about everyone was shocked by what happened at the Capitol building on January 6th. But as a former soldier in America’s forever wars, horrifying as the scenes were, I also found what happened strangely familiar, almost inevitable. I thought that, if only we had taken our country’s imperial history seriously, none of us would have found that day either shocking or unprecedented.
Honestly, it could only seem that way if you imagined our domestic politics as completely separate from our foreign policy. But if we’re to learn anything from that maladroit attempt at a government-toppling coup, it should be that they are anything but separate. The question isn’t whether then-President Donald Trump incited the assault on the Capitol — of course he did. It is rather: Since when have we cared if an American president lies to incite an illegal insurrection? In all honesty, our commanders-in-chief have been doing so abroad for generations with complete impunity. It was only a matter of time before the moral rot finally made its way home.
Back in 2007, I actually met Nancy Pelosi whom those insurrectionists were going after — “Tell Pelosi we’re coming for that b**ch. Tell f***ing Pelosi we’re coming for her!” — in that very Capitol building. That day, my family was testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform concerning the U.S. government’s disinformation campaign about how, three years earlier, my brother Pat Tillman had died in Afghanistan (as a result of “friendly,” not enemy, fire). We would testify alongside former soldier Jessica Lynch who had suffered a similar disinformation fate in the wake of a tragic ambush of her convoy in Nasiriyah, Iraq, where soldiers died and she was taken prisoner. After the hearing, we discussed the case with Pelosi, who then took us on a brief personal tour of the halls of the building. Given the circumstances, it was a thoughtful gesture and a humbling experience.
So, it was personally quite unsettling to watch that rabid mob of insurrectionists storm our Capitol, some actively seeking to kill the woman who had walked our family through those same halls, wearing her signature green business suit. To see people desecrating that building over grievances rooted in demonstrable and absurd untruths manufactured by President Trump was both grotesque and shameful.
And yet, however surreal, disappointing, disqualifying, even treasonous that assault and the 57-43 Senate acquittal of the president would be, what took place should, in another sense, not have been a shock to anyone. The idea that January 6th was something new for this country and so a unique affront to the American idea of democracy, not to speak of common decency, was simply wrong. After all, ever since 1945, this country has regularly intervened in elections all over the globe and done far worse as well. What’s disorienting, I suppose, is that this time we did it to ourselves.
Around the Globe, Generation after Generation
My own limited experience with American interventionism involves the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. After the September 11th attacks, I enlisted in the U.S. Army with Pat. We would be assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment and our unit would in March 2003 be sent into Iraq, one of so many tools in the Bush administration’s war of aggression there. We would help remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein by force. It was hardly the mission I had in mind when I signed up, but I was naive when it came to foreign policy. Being part of illegal invasions, however, leaves lasting impressions.
That particular intervention in Iraq began with a barrage of administration lies about Saddam’s supposed supply of weapons of mass destruction, his reputed links to al-Qaeda, and the idea that we were liberating the Iraqi people. Some of us actually were assigned to run around Baghdad, “east, west, south, and north somewhat,” looking for those nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The whole invasion would prove catastrophic, of course, resulting in the destruction of Iraqi society, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers, even as that country’s leadership was removed and its military disbanded (mission accomplished!). Of course, neither President George W. Bush, nor the rest of the top officials of his administration were held responsible for what happened.
So, when I watched the January 6th insurrection unfold, my mind was immediately drawn to the period leading up to the Iraq war — except this time, the drumbeat of lies had to do with massive voter fraud, voting irregularities, “dead voters,” rigged software, and other fabrications. Obviously, the two events were drastically different in scale, complexity, and destructiveness. Still, they seemed to share common fundamental threads.
Examples of American interference in the governance of foreign countries via coups, regime change, and other ploys are commonplaces of our modern history. Among the best known would be the replacing of a number of democratically elected leaders like Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh with the Shah (1953), Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz with Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas (1954), Chilean President Salvador Allende with General Augusto Pinochet (1973), or Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in a U.S.-backed coup (2009). In other words, we’re not talking about a few one-off mistakes or a couple of dumb wars.
In truth, there has been an endless supply of such U.S. interventions around the globe: invasions, military coups, soft coups, economic sanctions, secretly funding candidates of Washington’s choice, the fueling of existing conflicts, you name it and it’s probably happened.
Take for example our neighbors in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. I honestly don’t know if there is a single nation in Latin America that hasn’t fallen victim to a U.S. intervention of some sort: Argentina (1976), Bolivia (1971), Brazil (1964), Cuba (1961), El Salvador (the 1980s), Grenada (1983), Haiti (2004), Honduras (1980 and 2009), Panama (1989), Paraguay (1962), Peru (1968), Suriname (the 1980s), Uruguay (1973), Venezuela (the present moment). Maybe Costa Rica was spared?
What is your best guess at when the following passage was written?
Under a leadership of charlatans and bullies this great Republic clumped about among the nations like a lout, feared by most, respected by none. Nor were things much better at home where a thinly disguised racism was in the saddle, the people’s worst instincts were appealed to, and the noble sentiments of patriotism were reduced to the cliche of the bigot’s bumper sticker.
A sensible guess would be roughly 2018, focusing on the Trump administration. But it was published in 1973 by Richard Dougherty in “Goodbye, Mr. Christian: A Personal Account of McGovern’s Rise and Fall.” Dougherty, of course, was writing about the Nixon administration and its infamous Southern strategy.
Well, as my wife immediately noticed, things are worse today, since many Republicans have abandoned any pretense to thin disguises when it comes to racism. Two stories caught my eye this weekend. The first was Stacey Abrams’ angry and accurate denunciation of Republican voter suppression efforts as “Jim Crow in a suit.” As a friend put it, “the vote suppressors in Georgia are at work even now trying to block their [Black churches] ‘souls to the polls’ tradition.” The second was Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson’s statement that he wasn’t afraid of largely white pro-Trump rioters in the U.S. Capitol in January since they “love this country,” but he would, he confessed, had feared them if they had been BLM (Black Lives Matter) protesters. Johnson bizarrely added that the pro-Trump protesters “truly respect law enforcement” and “would never do anything to break a law.” Assuming Johnson isn’t completely mad, he’s obviously pandering to the Trumpian base as he’s up for reelection in 2022. Or perhaps he’s a mad panderer.
Again, America is allegedly a democracy. We should be doing everything we can to increase the number of people who vote. We shouldn’t be passing laws to make it more difficult for people to vote, specifically minority voters. Such laws are not only sordid and cowardly, they’re un-American.
About Senator Johnson: Strangely, I find his brazen bigotry to be useful. Useful in reminding us that America has far to go before we put racism behind us. Politicians used to use dog whistles, so to speak, to make racist appeals to like-minded haters. Now they simply say the quiet part out loud, not caring who hears it, because they figure they can get away with it. They think it’s a winning tactic. We have to prove them wrong. Racism, whether blatantly obvious or thinly disguised, must be rejected by all Americans.
To return to the quotation from Dougherty: How many nations around the world respect America for its ideals and actions, and how many pretend to respect us because they fear our bullying and loutish actions? Honest answers to this question should disturb us. Division at home and fear abroad is a recipe for neither domestic tranquility nor international comity.
We often hear the USA is the richest, most powerful, most advanced, nation in the world. We also hear much talk about freedom and democracy in America, and how exceptional our country is. Given all these riches, all this power, and all this freedom, shouldn’t we have high expectations about what our government is able to accomplish for us?
Yet I’ve run across the opposite of this. I’ve come to think of it as the tyranny of low expectations. I see it most often when I criticize Joe Biden and the Democrats. I’m told that I expect too much, that Joe is doing his best but that his power is limited as president, and that I should wait patiently for party insiders to move the Biden administration ever so slightly toward the left. And if I keep criticizing Joe and Company, I’m dismissed as an unreasonable leftist who’s helping Trump and his followers, so the effect of my criticism is bizarrely equated to far-right Trumpism.
Here are a few items that I believe the richest, most powerful, most advanced nation in the world should do for its citizens in the cause of greater freedom and democracy:
A living wage of at least $15 an hour for workers.
Affordable single-payer health care for all.
A firm commitment to ending child poverty.
A firm commitment to affordable housing for all.
A firm commitment to affordable education and major reductions in student debt.
A Covid aid package dedicated to helping workers and small businesses.
A government that is transparent to the people and accountable to them rather than one cloaked in secrecy and open for business only to the rich.
These items seem reasonable to me. They don’t seem “left” or “right.” They’re not too much to expect from the richest, most powerful, nation, the one that boasts of its exceptional freedom and its strong commitment to democracy.
The money is there. A trillion dollars a year is spent in the name of national defense. Trillions have been spent to bailout Wall Street and to wage wasteful wars overseas. Why is the money always there for Wall Street and wars and weapons but it’s rarely if ever there for workers and students and children?
Why do we persist in setting our expectations so low for “our” government, whether the POTUS of the moment is Trump or Biden or someone allegedly more competent and focused on “ordinary folk,” like Obama?
Warning to ideological warriors: This is not about Trump, or Biden, or your particular party allegiance. This is about creating a government that actually listens and responds to the needs of everyone, but especially to the weakest among us, those needing the most help in their pursuit of happiness.
Too simplistic? Too idealistic? I don’t think so. Not once we overthrow the tyranny of low expectations.
Somewhere I’ve read about a government of the people, by the people, for the people. We had better find it or reinvigorate it before it perishes from the earth.
There’s a bill before the Rhode Island State Legislature (House Bill 6026) that aims to divest state pension funds from military contractors. I wrote a short letter in favor of this bill and submitted it, as follows:
I served in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2005. There are many of us within the military who recognize the wisdom of General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Medal of Honor. Butler wrote that the best way to end war is to take the profit out of it. Butler wrote in the 1930s, when our country believed that weapons makers were “merchants of death.” They were called that because of the vast killing fields of World War I, a war that killed more than 100,000 Americans, together with millions of other troops from Britain, France, Germany, and elsewhere.
Joining Smedley Butler was another great American, General (later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower. In his famous “Cross of Iron” speech in 1953, Ike wrote that unnecessary spending on weaponry would lead to humanity being crucified on a cross of iron. Here are his words:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
In 1961, President Eisenhower warned all Americans against the dangers of the military-industrial complex. Sixty years later, in 2021, America dominates the world in selling weapons across the globe. We have become the “merchants of death” that Generals Butler and Eisenhower warned us about.
Weapons kill. Weapons make wars more likely. And as Eisenhower said in 1946, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
It’s time for us to hate war again. It’s time for us to beat our swords into ploughshares, as the Bible tells us. It’s time for us to pursue more peaceful activities.
Rhode Island can set a strong example – a shining example – in the pursuit of peace and sanity. I urge you to vote “for” House Bill 6026.
The “Divestment Fact Sheet” for the bill explains its purpose, as follows:
Allows us to redirect our investment dollars toward socially productive corporations addressing important social assets like climate resilience, health, and education, which aid economic growth;
Seeks to move money away from corporations whose output foments violence, death, destruction, and social chaos.
Educates the general public about the role of weapons manufacturers in the cycle of tax breaks, lobbying largesse, increasing military budgets and weapon sales.
Reduces the flow of scarce economic resources to military weapons manufacturers by reducing public investment;
Sends a message to the US Congress that we need to sharply reduce investment in military weapons where the costs are increasingly public (ever increasing health bills for traumatized and injured vets of the endless wars, reconstruction bills in foreign lands, ever increasing maintenance bills and graft on weapons systems) and the benefits are private (lobbying firm profits, huge weapons manufacturer bonuses and excessive CEO pay packages).
In America, money talks. As Smedley Butler said, ending the madness of war will most likely come when we can take the profit out of it. Here’s hoping Rhode Island’s effort succeeds — and sets an example for others across our nation.
Joe Biden is keeping one campaign promise: that nothing would fundamentally change in his administration. So, for example, Americans are not getting single-payer (and much more affordable) health care for all. (Biden, one must admit, promised nothing more than Obamacare with perhaps more funding for those struggling to afford it.) American workers are not getting a $15 minimum wage, despite Biden’s (broken) promise of supporting the same. And Biden is not cutting defense spending — at all. Instead, the Pentagon budget is to be “flatlined” at the near-record high levels reached under the Trump administration. So much for forcing the military to cut wonky wasteful weapons. It’s business as usual at the Pentagon, with an emphasis on business and profit at the expense of the American taxpayer.
What is to be done? Many Democrats argue that Joe Biden has to be the sensible centrist, constrained as he allegedly is by conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin. But of course Joe Biden himself is a conservative pro-business president who sees Manchin as a sympathetic senator and supporter. Meanwhile, Republicans, still in thrall to Trump, refuse to play along with bipartisan malarkey, except when it comes to maintaining massive military budgets. Again, under these conditions, nothing will fundamentally change.
The American people want affordable health care and support a single-payer system run by the federal government. They also support a $15 minimum wage for full-time workers. They’re getting neither. And this is by design. Not to rehash the 2020 Democratic primaries, but Joe Biden didn’t win by appealing to voters; he won because party heavyweights like Obama threw their support to him. Biden didn’t win the nomination; it was handed to him. Because the owners and donors know Joe, and they know Joe hasn’t a liberal bone in his body, let alone a progressive one. The same is true of Kamala Harris, his vice president, a thoroughly conventional and predictable conservative.
As my Uncle Gino would have said, Biden and Harris are spineless jellyfish. (No offense to jellyfish.) They float around in the swamp of DC assuming any shape and form they need to take to conform to the pressures and interests around them. And their lack of spine leaves open the possibility of Trump or some other wannabe demagogue emerging in 2024. Because more than a few people prefer an incompetent ass like Trump to insincere hacks like Biden and Harris, if only because Trump shows some spine, even if his policies are often even worse for America than those of the spineless Democrats.
Democracy, real democracy, isn’t about a “choice” between two parties, each of which refuses to listen to workers or to serve the interests of sanity and peace. Americans need real choice, including a party that would truly fight for health care for all, truly fight for a $15 minimum wage, and truly fight for peace and against colossal military spending. Only then will America have a semblance of real democracy. Right now, we have a sham democracy, a sham that is well on its way to leaving most of America in shambles.