Why Is the War Budget Increasing?

W.J. Astore

President Biden has announced that all U.S. combat troops will be out of Afghanistan by 9/11 of this year. So why is the Pentagon budget increasing? Only in America do wars end and war budgets go up.

Arguing against Biden’s pullout plan, more than a few commentators have expressed concern about the status and safety of Afghan women under Taliban rule. As if America went to war to secure the rights of women in Afghanistan. So, I’d like to ask these commentators, what about the status and safety of women in America? What about equal pay? What about protecting women from domestic violence and other forms of assault? What about reproductive rights for women? Before you pontificate about securing rights for Afghan women, you should work to secure them for American women.

Speaking of which: Are these commentators in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment for women?

Speaking of which: Are these commentators in favor of a $15 federal minimum wage? Because a boost in the federal minimum wage will help women and minorities, who are more likely than white men to be stuck in low-paying jobs

It’s unlikely that the Afghan War will end on 9/11. It’s just being turned over to the mercs, spooks, and drones. In other words, private military contractors (mercenaries), the CIA (spooks), and bombing via remotely-piloted aerial vehicles (drones).

A friend of mine has a theory. As long as Americans have plenty of cheap 70-inch TV screens available to them, as well as plenty of tawdry and violent entertainment, they couldn’t care less about the Afghan War and similar issues. I think he’s right. All these gigantic screens remind me of “Fahrenheit 451.” Except in our future, the “firemen” won’t have to burn the books since no one will want to read them.

America’s “defense” experts always tout various “gaps” that we must fill with more weapons to counter our imagined enemies. We’ve had bomber and missile gaps in our past, and the movie “Dr Strangelove” famously imagined a “mine shaft gap.” Today we hear about cyberwar, hypersonic missiles, and the like, yet the biggest and most dangerous gap that America has is empathy. It’s shown quite well by this profane cartoon, sent along by a friend:

Empathy gap? What empathy gap?

Back in 2019, here’s what I wrote about America’s empathy gap: Despite our size, we are a remarkably insular nation and suffer from a serious empathy gap when it comes to understanding foreign cultures and peoples or what we’re actually doing to them. Even our globetrotting troops, when not fighting and killing foreigners in battle, often stay on vast bases, referred to in the military as “Little Americas,” complete with familiar stores, fast food, you name it. Wherever we go, there we are, eating our big burgers, driving our big trucks, wielding our big guns, and dropping our very big bombs. But what those bombs do, whom they hurt or kill, whom they displace from their homes and lives, these are things that Americans turn out to care remarkably little about.

Perhaps that’s because we’re too enthralled with our new 80-inch super-high-def TV. Want to play a (war) game?

Cancel the F-35, Fund Infrastructure Instead

W.J. Astore

Imagine you’re President Joe Biden. You’re looking for nearly $2 trillion to fund vital repairs and improvements to America’s infrastructure. You learn of a warplane, the F-35 Lightning II, that may cost as much as $1.7 trillion to buy, field and maintain through the next half century. Also, you learn it’s roughly $200 billion over budget and more than a decade behind schedule. You learn it was supposed to be a low-cost, high-availability jet but that through time, it’s become a high-cost, low-availability one. Your senior Air Force general compares it to a Ferrari sports car and says we’ll “drive” it only on Sundays. What do you do?

Your first thought would probably be to cancel it, save more than a trillion dollars, and fund America’s infrastructure needs. Yet instead, the U.S. military is turning on the afterburners and going into full production. What gives?

When 60 Minutes reported on the F-35 in 2014, the plane was already seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Since then, it has weathered a series of setbacks and complications: Engines that are unreliable and in short supply. An ultra-expensive software system to maintain and repair the plane that doesn’t work. Higher operating costs — as much as 300% higher — compared to previous planes like the F-16 or the A-10. An overly loud engine that creates a noise nuisance to nearby population centers. The list goes on, yet so, too, does the F-35 program.

Why? Because of the power of the military-industrial-congressional complex. The F-35’s lead contractor, Lockheed Martin, used a tried-and-true formula to insulate the plane from political pressure, spreading jobs across 45 states and 307 congressional districts. In essence, the F-35 program has become “too big to fail.” At the Pentagon level, the plane is supposed to fulfill the needs of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps for a “fifth generation” stealthy fighter. There is no alternative, or so you’re told.

Yet, as America’s commander-in-chief, you must always remember there are alternatives. Think about it. Why buy a deeply troubled weapon system at inflated prices? Why reward a military contractor for woeful failures to deliver on time and within budget?

Congress rarely asks such questions because of the corrosive power of corporate lobbyists, the military’s insatiable demands for tech-heavy wonder weapons, and thinly-veiled threats that program cuts will cost jobs — meaning members of Congress might face electoral defeat if they fail to safeguard the F-35 pork apportioned to their districts.

But you’re the president — you should be above all that. You take a wider view like the one President Dwight D. Eisenhower took in 1953 in his “cross of iron” speech. Here Ike, a former five-star Army general, challenged Americans to prioritize instruments of peace over tools of war. Schools and hospitals, Ike wrote, were more vital to a democracy than destroyers and fighter jets. Ike was right then — and even more right today. He famously invested in an interstate highway system that served as an accelerant to the U.S. economy. He knew that warplanes, especially overly pricey and operationally dicey ones, were much less vital to the common good.

The Pentagon tells you it’s the F-35 or bust. But for you as president, it’s the F-35 and bust. You begin to realize that so many of the experts advising you to stay the course on the F-35 stand to profit if you do so.

And then you realize as America’s commander-in-chief that no weapon system should be too big to fail. You take heart from Sen. John McCain. In 2016, that ex-naval aviator declared the F-35 program was “both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule and performance.”

Why continue that scandal? Why not end that tragedy? You can decide to send the strongest and clearest message to the military-industrial-congressional complex by cancelling the F-35. You can vow to reform the flawed system that produced it. And you can fund your vital infrastructure programs with the savings.

William J. Astore is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and history professor. He is currently a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network.

Up, up, and away, especially the costs

More Afghan War Lies

Like much of Biden’s face, America’s Afghan War is kept hidden behind a dark mask (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

W.J. Astore

President Biden has announced that all U.S. military combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 9/11/2021. That date was chosen deliberately and cynically. Recall that 15 of the 19 terrorist hijackers of 9/11 were Saudi. Recall that Osama bin Laden was Saudi. Recall that it was Al Qaeda, not the Taliban in Afghanistan, that was behind the 9/11 attacks on America. Yet America’s Afghan War has always been falsely advertised as both preemptive and preventative, i.e. America went to war to preempt another 9/11-style attack and has continued that war to prevent similar attacks coming from Afghanistan. It’s a false narrative that has largely worked to sustain the Afghan War for twenty years, and Biden is reinforcing it.

Another critical issue: What does it really mean when Biden says those combat troops will be withdrawn? What it doesn’t mean is that the war will end. Doubtless the CIA and similar intelligence operatives will remain behind, shrouded in secrecy. Doubtless some special forces units will stay. Doubtless private contractors, many of them ex-military, will stay. Doubtless America will reserve the “right” to continue to bomb Afghanistan and to conduct drone strikes from halfway across the world, ostensibly in support of the Afghan “national” government in Kabul. So is the war really ending?

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is getting what it wants: a boosted budget (even above what Trump requested) and a future defined by plans for war with China and Russia (and perhaps Iran as well). I’ve seen plenty of articles screaming that China is building a powerful navy, that China is building dangerous missiles, that China is building advanced fighter jets, and so on, which is exactly what the Pentagon wants: a “near-peer” rival to justify even more military spending, especially for big-ticket items like aircraft carriers, fighters, bombers, missile defense systems, and so on.

Biden’s linking of the failed Afghan War to 9/11 and its forthcoming 20th anniversary is yet another exercise in pernicious lying by America’s vast national security state. Once again, we’re reminded that the first casualty in war is truth. And perhaps the last casualty of the Afghan War (whenever it really ends, at least for America) will also be truth.

Monday Military Musings

W.J. Astore

1. Recently I came across a reference to the U.S. military complaining that it never fights with a “home field” advantage. That the fight is always “away,” in sports speak, on the other guy’s field. And the gist of the comment was that the U.S. military must always be prepared to fight at a disadvantage. It seemingly never occurs to the decisionmakers that maybe, just maybe, the U.S. doesn’t have to fight on the other guy’s field. Maybe, just maybe, Vietnam was a bad idea. Iraq was a bad idea. Afghanistan was and remains a bad idea. China in the future would be a very, very, bad idea. And so on.

Or maybe, just maybe, the Pentagon and America’s generals are just too vainglorious in identifying the entire world as their home court?

2. Surprise! Joe Biden’s Pentagon budget is basically the same as Trump’s with a few extra billion thrown in for good measure. So much for reforming “defense” spending in any meaningful way.

3. The U.S.. military continues to define exertion (and merit) mainly in physical terms. Consider this chart sent along by a friend:

As my friend amusingly put it, “If I read this chart correctly, humans reach their full potential only at the moment of death.”

I wrote back to him: Why is exertion in the military always physical? Maybe we should be thinking harder too? It’s fascinating this devotion to physical strength and fitness when modern weaponry is truly the great equalizer.  If I can sit in an air-conditioned trailer in Nevada and smite evil-doers in Afghanistan via a drone strike, should I be kicked out if I fail to do 50 pushups or run the obstacle course?

Mental fitness is rarely considered in the U.S. military except in the sense of weeding out the mentally ill or those who can’t conform to military discipline.

Even military promotion seems driven more by brawn than brains.  If I run a sub-3 hour marathon, I bet the OPR (officer proficiency report) bullet would be far more favorable than if I wrote an article for Armed Forces Journal.

As another friend of mine, the distinguished military historian Dennis Showalter, said to me: Some flab around the waistline is preferable to flabby thought processes. Just think here of David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, both celebrated in the U.S. media as running and exercise enthusiasts.

5. To come back to the subject of “home field” advantage, it’s precisely because we never have that that U.S. troops have to wear heavy body armor and carry all kinds of gear with them. Whereas the “enemy,” whether in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, is at “home” and can wear street/farm clothes and carry a much lighter load, e.g. a rifle, some ammo, some rations.

The result is that U.S. troops often look like the imperial stormtroopers of “Star Wars” who are always bungling and losing to the lighter-armed rebel alliance.

You do need to be in decent physical shape to carry so much armor and so much weaponry and gear into hostile and foreign lands. But, maybe instead of turning every soldier into Rambo, we should find smart ways to advance our policies without having to fight at all?

It certainly is smarter than a bunch of Army Rangers driving themselves to the brink of death in the cause of maximizing their “human potential.”

The Cold War, Rebooted and Rebranded

In my latest for TomDispatch.com, I tackle the Pentagon’s latest proclivity for “near-peer” conflicts, the near-peers being China and Russia, which conveniently serves to justify huge war budgets in perpetuity. It’s the Cold War, rebooted and rebranded, with a new generation of nuclear weapons thrown into the mix to make things even more interesting. As they say, what could possibly go wrong?

What follows is an excerpt that focuses on a “Star Trek” episode that has much to teach us:

In the 1970s, in fact, I avidly watched reruns of the original Star Trek. Lately, one episode, “A Taste of Armageddon,” has been on my mind. It featured two planets, Eminiar VII and Vendikar, at war with each other for 500 years. Here was the catch: those planets no longer used real weapons. Instead, they fought bloodlessly with computer-simulated attacks, even as citizens marked as “dead” had to report to disintegration chambers in a bizarre ritual meant to keep the peace through a computer-driven holocaust. The peoples of these two planets had become so accustomed to endless war that they couldn’t imagine an alternative, especially one that ended in a negotiated peace.

So many years later, I can’t help thinking that our country’s military establishment has something in common with the leaders of Eminiar VII and Vendikar. There’s so much repetition when it comes to America’s wars — with little hope of negotiated settlements, little talk of radically different approaches, and a remarkably blasé attitude toward death — especially when it’s largely the death of others; when foreign peoples, as if on another planet, are just “disintegrated,” whether by monster bombs like MOAB or more discrete Hellfire missile strikes via remotely piloted drones.

What gives? Right now, America’s military leaders are clearly turning back to the war they’d prefer to be fighting, the one they think they can win (or at least eternally not lose). A conventional warlike state vis-à-vis those near-peers seems to play to their skills. It’s also a form of “war” that makes loads of money for the military-industrial complex, driving lucrative acquisition decisions about weaponry in a remarkably predictable fashion.

Near-peer “war” remains largely a fantasy set of operations (though with all-too-real dangers of possible conflagrations to come, right up to nuclear disaster). In contrast, real war, as in this century’s terror wars, is a realm of chaos. So much the better to keep things as predictable as possible. Fresh and original ideas about war (and peace) are unlikely to prove profitable for the military-industrial complex. Worse yet, at an individual level, they could damage one’s chances for promotion or, on retirement, for future posts within the industrial part of that complex. It’s a lot healthier to salute smartly, keep planning for a near-peer future, and conform rather than fall on one’s sword for a dissenting idea (especially one related to peace and so to less money for the Pentagon).

Please read the article in its entirety here at TomDispatch.

On Eminiar VII, “casualties” of computer war willingly enter disintegration chambers to die as a way of keeping “peace”

The Depressing Reality of America’s Political Scene

W.J. Astore

America’s Democratic Party, as it stands today, is essentially a pro-business and pro-war party. On the political spectrum, it’s a center-right party, roughly equivalent to the Republican Party of the 1970s but probably more conservative. Joe Biden, for example, is against Medicare for All, and he’s abandoned all talk of a single-payer option. He’s refused to fight for a $15 federal minimum wage. He’s most likely extending the war in Afghanistan well past the troop pullout date of May 1st as negotiated by the Trump administration. He’s keeping military spending high and is pursuing a hardline foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia and China.

America’s Republican Party has become the party of Trump. It’s unapologetically far-right, evangelical, anti-immigrant, and openly contemptuous of Democratic calls for “diversity.” Like the Democratic Party, it’s militaristic, pro-business, and pro-war, but is even more in favor of blank checks for Wall Street and the major banks and corporations. Its strategy for future victories focuses on suppression of minority voters through various laws and restrictions (voter ID laws, closing polling places, restricting mail-in and early voting, and so on). The Republican Party’s version of “cancel culture” is canceling as much of the vote by minorities as it can.

You’ll notice what’s missing: any major political party that’s center-left or left; any party that has any allegiance to workers, i.e. most of America. There are new parties being created, like the People’s Party, that promise to fill a gaping hole on the left, but it may take decades before a new party can seriously challenge America’s two main parties.

What’s truly depressing is that the mainstream media, along with the Republicans, sell and support a narrative that the Democrats are radical leftists. That such a laughably false narrative is embraced by America’s talking heads on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and the other major networks highlights their complicity in ensuring the triumph of business and war imperatives in America.

What this means for elections in 2022 and 2024 was brought home to me by Richard Dougherty’s book, “Goodbye, Mr. Christian: A Personal Account of McGovern’s Rise and Fall” published in 1973.  Dougherty nailed it back then when he talked about the baneful influence of the Republican Party as led by Richard Nixon and its reaction to attempts at real reform by George McGovern.  Here’s an excerpt:

“McGovern saw something new emerging in American politics and saw that it was ugly and frightening not only because of its burglars and saboteurs, its insensitivity to the delicate mechanisms of freedom, but for its profound deceptions of a troubled people which, if successful, would reduce and debase them as a people.  Nixon offered no improvement in the life of the people but only empty and ersatz satisfactions to their angers and bewilderments.  It cost the rich Nixonian oligarchs nothing, yet it gratified the lumpenbourgeoisie to tell the poor to go out and get jobs, the black children to stay off the buses, the young draft evaders to stay out of the country, to make noises about permissive judges rather than hire more policeman.

Let ‘em eat revenge.

That was the gimmick.  Was not this sleaziness, this moral midgetry, this menace to the American character, proper stuff for a presidential candidate [like McGovern] to raise as an issue?” (246-7)

If only …

I thought this passage captured what we’re likely to see in the next four years: more sleaziness, more deceptions, more divisiveness, even as the plight of ordinary Americans worsens.

But it’s worse now than in 1973 because the oligarchs now own both parties, the Democratic as well as the Republican.

The challenge for us all is to look past the sleaze, the deceptions, the divisiveness and to focus on bettering the plight of ordinary Americans.  To free ourselves from the oligarchs and the narrative control they exercise via the major media networks.  To recapture the reformist spirit of the 1960s and early 1970s as embodied by a leader like George McGovern.

Much hinges on whether America can do this.

Loving the Military Because It’s More Diverse

Women and war: the Roman goddess of war, Bellona

W.J. Astore

At the Guardian today, I saw the following headline: US Navy: for first time in history four women of color command war ships; Kimberly Jones, LaDonna Simpson, Kristel O’Cañas and Kathryn Wijnaldum break new ground in white and male-dominated field.

Are we supposed to love the military because more women of color are reaching positions of command?

Don’t get me wrong: this is a good thing. My boss at my last job in the Air Force was a Black female colonel. Serving in the U.S. military, I saw and befriended plenty of “diverse” people during my career. (In today’s military-media context, I guess “diverse” means anything but your standard white male.) Few people seemed to care about gender, race, sex, color, ethnicity, and so on as long as the person was competent. Good bosses come in all shapes, shades, and sizes — and so do bad ones.

So, I don’t want to join Tucker Carlson in a misinformed and ridiculous rant against an alleged feminization of the U.S. military. For a military and a country that is supposedly too feminine or too soft or whatever, we still spend more on war than the next ten countries combined (and most of those countries are America’s allies); we continue to have a global network of 800 or so military bases; we still dominate the world’s trade in deadly weaponry; we still throw our weight around like bullies and fancy ourselves the world’s lone superpower. Are any of these facts changed or softened because more women or more people of color are reaching high rank within that military?

That the Secretary of Defense is a Black male doesn’t seem to have affected policy decisions in any meaningful way. Why should it, when he spent his life in the U.S. military and then joined Raytheon and profited greatly after retiring?

Again, it’s a good thing that people of color aren’t as hamstrung as they used to be in reaching positions of command in the U.S. military. But does it change anything if the Hellfire missiles that kill civilians in Afghanistan are launched from a Reaper drone by a Black female pilot rather than a white guy?

I remember during this year’s Super Bowl festivities that the lead B-2 bomber pilot was a woman. Good for her! But if she pilots a B-2 into a nuclear war, will anyone be pleased that a city gets nuked by a woman rather than a man?

The only “diversity” the Pentagon seemingly rejects is anyone who wants to pursue a new, more peaceful, course, in which the military is not the primary tool of U.S. foreign policy. How about some “diverse” people who will put an end to the war in Afghanistan? Who will argue for less spending on wars and weapons?

Women can be warriors too. We get it. The Greeks had Athena. The Romans had Bellona. This is not new. As others have said, it’s not enough to put Black faces in high places. Or for women to shatter glass ceilings. Not if the policies and power arrangements stay the same.