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”

13 thoughts on “The Cold War, Rebooted and Rebranded

  1. I for one miss the original, real deal, true Cold War of my youth. You knew exactly where you stood at all times, there was a clear line of demarcation between Us and Them. Most importantly – and continually overlooked in this day and age – is back then the people calling the shots knew what was at stake (MAD), which is why we never went “toe to toe with the Rooskies,” (to quote Major Kong). There was a bit of saber rattling, yes, and the Russian UN contingent banging their shoes on their desk tops was great theater, but the bottom line was maintaining stability and an open line of communication between Washington and the Kremlin. There were plenty of allies (US term) and comrades (Commie talk) to do the actual fighting, but those days are gone. There’s no buffer of “client nations” to export democracy to or to become another tumbling domino in the face of Communist aggression.
    What once may have been an ideological conflict is now little more than a pissing contest, largely brought about by the US’s inability to accept that someone else might actually be, yes, Number 1. And with the Pentagon filled with pretenders and wannabes who seem to get a new campaign ribbon for every meeting they attend and a Congress filled with people who learned statecraft from Tom Clancy novels … it doesn’t bode well for the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Militarism, …., has been by far the commonest cause of the breakdown of civilizations during the last four or five millennia,…” From: A Study of History, Arnold Toynbee.

    It seems that any civilization that embarks of empire demoralizes itself. The very act of warring for profit or conquest is demoralizing because it is an act of evilness. The soldiers who engage in killing a foreign people who are not an existential threat, realize their acts are evil, and this is demoralizing. This demoralization is the infection which these soldiers bring home with them.

    Violence against spouses, children, fellow citizens, and themselves in the form of alcoholism and drug abuse is the result of this demoralization. The reason for this is that at some level they know they have done evil and can not live with themselves. Some may realize that they have been used by the system and forgive themselves. Most will see their demoralization as a personal failure which results in self hatred and the above violence.

    There is no good war and there are very few necessary wars. I offer a prayer for the enlightenment of the American people everyday that they may wake up.

    Liked by 2 people

        1. And how could they not? I knew two Vietnam vets who essentially drank themselves to dwath, one of whom was involved with “forward recon,” AKA, “search and destroy.” He had flashbacks so horrible, he’d have the bartender line up 8 shots, then pound them all, and have someone take him home so he could pass out. I once drove him, and he clung to me like a life preserver. I sat by his bed all night, afraid he’d kill himself if he woke up. Eventually, he succeeded; it just took almost 20 years.

          Other vets I knew seemed stable and relatively well adjusted, but they frankly weren’t as sensitive, introspective, and acutely intelligent as those who couldn’t escape their war experiences. Or they were better at hiding the trauma.

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  3. Funny.. “would prefer to be fighting”. I guess beware what you wish for? Let’s see what happens when Putin blitzes again in the Ukraine with the Biden admin promising to stand by the (western) Ukrainians. There will be no fighting on the part of the US because if there’s a chance of a conflict with anybody even close to a near-peer, we’ll back off like a schoolyard bully. The US military would be badly outmatched in any “conventional” conflict exactly like it is in any “unconventional” conflict. Which means more money must be spent on “defense”, either way!

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  4. Bill Joy wrote a famous essay, Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us, and I think the military must be wondering about its own future as the near-peer war you mention is impossible. Can there ever again be an opponent worthy of the high tech weaponry and deep study of armies moving in formation that I presume must still be studied in military schools? The number one military force in the world is wildly over equipped to face the threats it actually takes on these days. Truth to tell, those aren’t real threats to the United States, so our forces are only biding their time pummeling this or that pest of the day whose only real threat is a disruption of business expansion in distant lands by Wall Street, insatiable as it is for new business.

    Can we intervene in Ukraine? No more than we could in Hungary in 1956, no more than could the USSR in the Cuban missile crisis. This isn’t a new phenomenon.

    The whole world is on the capitalist road not just as running dogs but leading the way. Even our favorite object to bash, Iran, is eager for development. The Saudis, as conservative on social issues as can be (though moderating) are all in on making a bundle. Those who genuinely hate us are drinking Coke and eating at McDonald’s.

    If ever there were a time to relax as humanity rushes to embrace what the US has been promoting almost since its inception, it is now. Western culture is so appealing we only hurt ourselves when we pound desert militias that the locals are in no rush to follow.

    I’d go so far as to say, drop all the services except the Coast Guard, like GM dropped Oldsmobile and Pontiac, and if the absurd war on drugs is ended, even the Coasties would find little to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All this talk of near-peer war: the fear-mongering can create a climate in which a minor disagreement can flare into something major. Something uncontrollable. That’s what we should worry about.

      The other part of it is the untold billions wasted on trying to meet and master every “threat.” Of course, the biggest threat comes from within and is succored by our greed and fear.

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  5. Here is an example of the Pentagon making plans for a hot war with China. It flopped. Can you imagine the outrage if China attempted a similar deal with Mexico or Guyana or some Caribbean nation? If something can’t be allowed to happen, don’t continue pretending it can. Accidents are more likely to happen if the stage is set for them to happen.

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  6. In your complete TomDispatch article, Professor Astore, you mention “fears” of China’s gaining primacy over the U.S. You also talk about “fantasy” near-peer engagements.

    What you’re saying, in so many words, is that it’s ALL a game. Just in recent history, GWB ginned up a bogus Global War on Terror, pretty much at Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s instigation, to satisfy their insane end-of-days scenario (see: PNAC), in addition to other reasons. They knew, as did those of us out here who were paying attention, that no Mideast country was a threat to the U.S. So after 20 years, GWOT has gone nowhere, quite predictably, but HAS made trillions for the profiteers.

    Now, there’s a new gameboard, featuring China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The names and tactics have changed, but the game remains the same: escalate fear among the U.S. populace to provide a fig leaf for the ever-growing military budget. It’s life as produced by Madison Avenue, pure snake oil. An unforgivably bloated military, with continual new toys, sold as the only way to keep us “safe.” I have to wonder how far down the chain of command the cynicism and the perpetual con game go. Do people right below the Joint Chiefs still buy into the con? How far down does the deception go? I know that quite a few former enlisted men became wise, but surely most of them believe the BS they’re sold?

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    1. Yes, fear is the mind-killer. Endless repetition of “Russia-Russia-Russia” and “China-China-China” serves to scare enough of the people so that the Pentagon gets all the money it can spend. Even then, the military wants more.

      Junior officers and enlisted are kept busy; those who start to think, and especially to dissent, largely decide to leave the military. Or they convince themselves they can change the system from within. But the system is so powerful and entrenched that it defeats even the highest-ranking reformers. Even Ike as president was frustrated, hence his warning in 1961.

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  7. Given the U.S. military establishment’s refusal to demobilize after WWII — and its institutional policy of assiduously undermining every serious possibility of world peace up until the present moment — I suggest another Star Trek movie as operative cinematic metaphor worthy of consideration. From Wikipedia:

    Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a 1991 American science fiction film directed by Nicholas Meyer. It is the sixth feature film based on Star Trek, and a sequel to the 1966–1969 Star Trek television series. Taking place after the events of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, it is the final film featuring the entire cast of the original series. The destruction of the Klingon moon Praxis leads the Klingon Empire to pursue peace with their longtime adversary the Federation; the crew of the USS Enterprise must race against unseen conspirators with a militaristic agenda.

    The sixth film in the series was initially planned as a prequel to the original series, with younger actors portraying the crew of the Enterprise while attending Starfleet Academy, but the idea was discarded because of negative reaction from the original cast and the fans. Faced with producing a new film in time for Star Trek’s 25th anniversary, Meyer, who previously directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), and Denny Martin Flinn wrote a script based on a suggestion from Leonard Nimoy about what would happen if “the Wall came down in space?” touching on the contemporary events of the Cold War.[emphasis added]

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