Podcast by George invited me on last week to talk about politics and war. I hope you enjoy this interview and find it stimulating.
Making Sense of a Vexing and Perplexing World
Podcast by George invited me on last week to talk about politics and war. I hope you enjoy this interview and find it stimulating.
I don’t get bogged down in the operational and tactical details of the Russia-Ukraine War. I don’t know which side is winning or allegedly winning, or which side is best prepared to launch a spring offensive, or which weapons will allegedly turn the tide (likely answer: none). In my view, both sides are losing, especially Ukraine since the war is being fought on their turf. Each side has suffered well over 100,000 killed. Russia has captured territory; whether they can keep it remains to be seen.
My focus is on larger questions and points. Here they are, in no special order:
1. Does Ukraine truly seek to retake Crimea from Russia? If so, how much are the U.S. and NATO prepared to assist in this? Assuming Ukraine can launch such an offensive, how might Russia respond? Is the nuclear option on the table for Putin if Crimea is invaded? Could war in Crimea escalate to World War III?
2. If the U.S. doesn’t like China’s peace plan to end the war, where is the U.S. peace plan? Does the U.S. even have one?
3. If peace talks can’t proceed until Russia withdraws all its forces from Ukraine, doesn’t that mean they’ll be no peace talks without a total military victory by Ukraine? Aren’t we talking about a prolonged and even more murderous war for both sides?
4. Why is it that the West sees peace talks as weakness? Ukraine has done better than expected in battle; can’t Ukrainians negotiate from a position of strength?
5. Diplomats like to say that no one wants war, but that simply isn’t true. Plenty of people make lots of money from war. The longer the war lasts, the more money they’ll make.
6. The U.S. has benefited geopolitically from the weakening of Russia. Economically too with the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines. That doesn’t delegitimize efforts to aid Ukraine in this war, but it does make you seriously question U.S. motives and intent.
7. Observers have noted inept tactics by Russian forces; at the same time, they call for higher U.S. and NATO spending due to Russia’s dangerous military. Doesn’t Russia’s mediocre performance suggest deliberate threat inflation here? Couldn’t U.S. and NATO military spending be sinking instead of surging?
8. Observers suggest Ukraine is an “aspiring” democracy. Restrictions to free press, high rates of corruption, and similar issues suggest Ukraine’s democratic aspirations are already victims of this war. Since war is the enemy of democracy, it’s unlikely Ukraine’s “aspirations” will survive if this war continues without end.
9. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was illegal, immoral, and wrong. But that doesn’t mean it was “unprovoked.”
10. Are wars best ended by sending expensive and advanced weaponry to the battlefront?
11. To the claim that reducing U.S. and NATO weapons shipments while promoting negotiation would “embolden” Putin and Russia: If it did and does, just resume the shipments while denouncing Putin for reneging on peace talks.
12. Putin doesn’t want peace; he’s “worse than Hitler.” That claim is more than misleading. If the war is going poorly for Russia, Putin may calculate that a negotiated peace would be better for him in the long run than more killing, especially if the Ukraine boosters are correct about the formidable nature of Ukraine’s planned spring offensive.
13. A U.S. policy decision to work for a negotiated truce and peace could conceivably lead to an end to fighting. That truce/peace could be couched in terms of avoiding a wider war that could escalate to nuclear weapons, while still upholding Ukraine’s right to exist and to pursue its own form of government. Of course, the devil would be in the details with respect to the terms of the truce/treaty. Why isn’t the U.S. working to advance this?
14. Strictly for Americans: What vital national interest does the U.S. have in providing more than $110 billion in aid, and counting, to Ukraine? How are we supporting and defending the U.S. Constitution in Ukraine? Ukraine is not a NATO member. The U.S. has no formal alliance with Ukraine. Ukrainian democracy is (at best) imperfect. Continued support of Ukraine runs the risk of a wider, more calamitous, war. Certainly, Americans can legitimately ask why Ukraine has received $110 billion in one year while U.S. states continue to be starved of funds for the homeless, the mentally ill, education, and other worthy social causes within the U.S. itself.
15. Strictly for Americans: In 2023, is the U.S. to send another $110 billion to Ukraine? How about in 2024? Until Ukraine “wins”? What if the war lasts for five years? Ten years?
In raising these questions and making these points, I seek to promote an approach that lessens the danger of a wider war while saving lives on both sides. Sadly, challenging official U.S. policy often leads to accusations of spouting Kremlin talking points. Which makes me wonder: Is democracy even more tenuous and illusory in the U.S. than it is in Ukraine and Russia? We know Russia is a corrupt dictatorship controlled by Putin. Are we willing to see clearly how corrupt the U.S. government is and how little say the American people have in matters of state?
Humanity wins when wars end. I’m for humanity. I sincerely hope Russians and Ukrainians stop killing each other, and I believe my country should be doing everything in its power to put a stop to this war. That doesn’t mean freezing it so that Putin can allegedly “win.” It means helping to broker a settlement amenable to both sides.
Or should I prefer yet more killing with yet greater chances of dangerous escalation?
It began in August 1914, a war in Europe that was supposed to be over by Christmas of that year. But it exploded out of control, becoming the “Great War” or “The World War” or even “The War to End All Wars.” And when it finally ended on 11/11 in 1918, something like ten million troops were dead.
We know it as World War I or the First World War because we know what came after it: yet another calamitous world war, a sequel, one that was far worse than the original. And after that war finally ended in 1945, something like 75-80 million people were dead around the world, including 25 million in the Soviet Union, six million Jews in the Holocaust, and 250,000 at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Of course, World War II also wasn’t the end of the killing. The so-called Iron Curtain descended in Europe, leading to the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that almost ended with Armageddon in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That Cold War came to an end in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The U.S. celebrated its apparent victory, even calling briefly for “peace dividends” in the 1990s. It was not to be.
Thirty years after the (First) Cold War, we now hear of a “new Cold War.” We hear again that China and Russia are America’s enemies, a new “Axis of Evil,” notes Caitlin Johnstone. America is already engaged in a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine. Now America’s leaders are posturing over Taiwan and threatening war with China if the Chinese military makes aggressive moves against that country. (Of course, the Chinese consider Taiwan to be China, a “One China” policy the U.S. used to support.)
It does seem as if “my” Cold War, when I served in the U.S. military, may be remembered to history as the First Cold War, and that America has already begun a Second Cold War. And, just as World War II was far worse than World War I in casualties and destruction, Cold War II could conceivably be a LOT worse than Cold War I if we choose to continue to wage it.
Sequels, as a general rule, are usually worse, sometimes far worse, than the originals. We had better stop this nonsense of a new Cold War before we relearn this in the hardest way possible.
Ever think about names of U.S. weapons of war? Rarely are those names honest. I do applaud the relative honesty of Predator and Reaper drones, because those names capture the often predatory nature of U.S. foreign policy and the grim reaperish means that are often employed in its execution. Most names are not so suggestive. For example, U.S. fighter planes carry noble names like Eagle, Fighting Falcon, or Raptor. Nuclear bombers are an interesting case since they can carry thermonuclear bombs and missiles to kill hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people. So we have the B-52 Stratofortress (a great 1950s-era name), the B-1 Lancer, the B-2 Spirit, and the new B-21 Raider (the name has historical echoes to the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942).
Shouldn’t these bombers carry names like Megadeath or Mass Murder?
Think too of nuclear missiles. The Air Force’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) have had names like Titan, Minuteman, Peacekeeper, and now the new Sentinel. But since these missiles carry warheads that could easily kill millions, wouldn’t a more honest name be The Holocaust ICBM? For that’s what these missiles promise: a nuclear holocaust.
Consider too the Navy’s Ohio-class nuclear missile-firing submarines (SSBN) with their Trident missiles. (Trident—gotta hand it to the Navy.) Just one submarine can carry 20 Trident II missiles, each with up to eight warheads, each warhead being roughly equivalent to six Hiroshima bombs. Again, roughly speaking, each of these submarines carries an arsenal equivalent to one thousand Hiroshima bombs. And the U.S. has fourteen of these submarines.
Instead of the Ohio-class of submarines, shouldn’t they be called the Armageddon-class? Or the Apocalypse-class? The Genocide-class?
With a bit more honesty, perhaps it wouldn’t be so easy to sell these horrific weapons to Congress and the American people. Then again, when the bottom line is higher budgets for the Pentagon and more jobs for Congressional districts, I guess America will buy most anything. Even Holocaust missiles and Armageddon submarines. And for upwards of $2 trillion over the next 30 years as well.
If they don’t bust the budget, perhaps they’ll destroy the world.
If Dwight Eisenhower could somehow give his 1953 “Cross of Iron” address and his 1961 warning about the military-industrial complex to the American people today, I truly believe he’d be dismissed by the mainstream media (MSM) as a Putin puppet and as repeating Kremlin talking points. Why? Because Ike advocated for negotiation and peace instead of war; he documented how spending on weapons was intrinsically wasteful and a bane to democratic society; and he challenged citizens to be alert and knowledgeable, ready to take action against the growing power of a corporate-military nexus supported and strengthened by Congress.
To mark Ike’s integrity and wisdom, and also to update his cost calculations from 1953 for the present day, I wrote this article, my latest for TomDispatch.com. Again, the words of Ike, focusing on peace, the preciousness and burdens of democracy, and the dangers of militarism, are rarely if ever heard in our government and in the MSM today. And that suggests we are in a dark place indeed in this country of ours.
In April 1953, newly elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a retired five-star Army general who had led the landings on D-Day in France in June 1944, gave his most powerful speech. It would become known as his “Cross of Iron” address. In it, Ike warned of the cost humanity would pay if Cold War competition led to a world dominated by wars and weaponry that couldn’t be reined in. In the immediate aftermath of the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Ike extended an olive branch to the new leaders of that empire. He sought, he said, to put America and the world on a “highway to peace.” It was, of course, never to be, as this country’s emergent military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC) chose instead to build a militarized (and highly profitable) highway to hell.
Eight years later, in his famous farewell address, a frustrated and alarmed president called out “the military-industrial complex,” prophetically warning of its anti-democratic nature and the disastrous rise of misplaced power that it represented. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry, fully engaged in corralling, containing, and constraining it, he concluded, could save democracy and bolster peaceful methods and goals.
The MICC’s response was, of course, to ignore his warning, while waging a savage war on communism in the name of containing it. In the process, atrocious conflicts would be launched in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as the contagion of war spread. Threatened with the possibility of peace in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the MICC bided its time with operations in Iraq (Desert Storm), Bosnia, and elsewhere, along with the expansion of NATO, until it could launch an unconstrained Global War on Terror in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Those “good times” (filled with lost wars) lasted until 2021 and the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Not to be deterred by the fizzling of the nightmarish war on terror, the MICC seized on a “new cold war” with China and Russia, which only surged when, in 2022, Vladimir Putin so disastrously invaded Ukraine (as the U.S. had once invaded Afghanistan and Iraq). Yet again, Americans were told that they faced implacable foes that could only be met with overwhelming military power and, of course, the funding that went with it — again in the name of deterrence and containment.
In a way, in 1953 and later in 1961, Ike, too, had been urging Americans to launch a war of containment, only against an internal foe: what he then labeled for the first time “the military-industrial complex.” For various reasons, we failed to heed his warnings. As a result, over the last 70 years, it has grown to dominate the federal government as well as American culture in a myriad of ways. Leaving aside fundingwhere it’s beyond dominant, try movies, TV shows, video games, education, sports, you name it. Today, the MICC is remarkably uncontained. Ike’s words weren’t enough and, sadly, his actions too often conflicted with his vision (as in the CIA’s involvement in a coup in Iran in 1953). So, his worst nightmare did indeed come to pass. In 2023, along with much of the world, America does indeed hang from a cross of iron, hovering closer to the brink of nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Updating Ike’s Cross of Iron Speech for Today
Perhaps the most quoted passage in that 1953 speech addressed the true cost of militarism, with Ike putting it in homespun, easily grasped, terms. He started by saying, “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.” (An aside: Can you imagine Donald Trump, Joe Biden, or any other recent president challenging Pentagon spending and militarism so brazenly?)
Ike then added:
“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. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.”
He concluded with a harrowing image: “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.”
Ike’s cost breakdown of guns versus butter, weapons versus civilian goods, got me thinking recently: What would it look like if he could give that speech today? Are we getting more bang for the military megabucks we spend, or less? How much are Americans sacrificing to their wasteful and wanton god of war?
Let’s take a closer look. A conservative cost estimate for one of the Air Force’s new “heavy” strategic nuclear bombers, the B-21 Raider, is $750 million. A conservative estimate for a single new fighter plane, in this case the F-35 Lightning II, is $100 million. A single Navy destroyer, a Zumwalt-class ship, will be anywhere from $4 to $8 billion, but let’s just stick with the lower figure. Using those weapons, and some quick Internet sleuthing, here’s how Ike’s passage might read if he stood before us now:
“The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick-veneer and reinforced concrete school in 75 cities. It is five electric power plants, each serving a town with 60,000 inhabitants. It is five fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 150 miles of pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with more than 12 million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 64,000 people.”
(Quick and dirty figures for the calculations above: $10 million per elementary school; $150 million per power plant [$5,000/kilowatt for 30,000 homes]; $150 million per hospital; $5 million per new mile of road; $8 per bushel of wheat; $250,000 per home for four people.)
Grim stats indeed! Admittedly, those are just ballpark figures, but taken together they show that the tradeoff between guns and butter — bombers and jet fighters on the one hand, schools and hospitals on the other — is considerably worse now than in Ike’s day. Yet Congress doesn’t seem to care, as Pentagon budgets continue to soar irrespective of huge cost overruns and failed audits (five in a row!), not to speak of failed wars.
Without irony, today’s MICC speaks of “investing” in weapons, yet, unlike Ike in 1953, today’s generals, the CEOs of the major weapons-making corporations, and members of Congress never bring up the lost opportunity costs of such “investments.” Imagine the better schools and hospitals this country could have today, the improved public transportation, more affordable housing, even bushels of wheat, for the cost of those prodigal weapons and the complex that goes with them. And perish the thought of acknowledging in any significant way how so many of those “investments” have failed spectacularly, including the Zumwalt-class destroyers and the Navy’s Freedom-class littoral combat ships that came to be known in the Pentagon as “little crappy ships.”
Speaking of wasteful warships, Ike was hardly the first person to notice how much they cost or what can be sacrificed in building them. In his prescient book The War in the Air, first published in 1907, H.G. Wells, the famed author who had envisioned an alien invasion of Earth in The War of the Worlds, denounced his own epoch’s obsession with ironclad battleships in a passage that eerily anticipated Ike’s powerful critique:
The cost of those battleships, Wells wrote, must be measured by:
“The lives of countless men… spent in their service, the splendid genius and patience of thousands of engineers and inventors, wealth and material beyond estimating; to their account we must put stunted and starved lives on land, millions of children sent to toil unduly, innumerable opportunities of fine living undeveloped and lost. Money had to be found for them at any cost—that was the law of a nation’s existence during that strange time. Surely they were the weirdest, most destructive and wasteful megatheria in the whole history of mechanical invention.”
Little could he imagine our own era’s “wasteful megatheria.” These days, substitute nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, aircraft carriers, and similar “modern” weapons for the ironclads of his era and the sentiment rings at least as true as it did then. (Interestingly, all those highly touted ironclads did nothing to avert the disaster of World War I and had little impact on its murderous course or ponderous duration.)
Returning to 1953, Eisenhower didn’t mince words about what the world faced if the iron cross mentality won out: at worst, nuclear war; at best, “a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system, or the Soviet system, or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.”
Ike’s worst-case scenario grows ever more likely today. Recently, Russia suspended the START treaty, the final nuclear deal still in operation, that oversaw reductions in strategic nuclear weapons. Instead of reductions, Russia, China, and the United States are now pursuing staggering “modernization” programs for their nuclear arsenals, an effort that may cost the American taxpayer nearly $2 trillion over the coming decades (though even such a huge sum matters little if most of us are dead from nuclear war).
In any case, the United States in 2023 clearly reflects Ike’s “cross of iron” scenario. It’s a country that’s become thoroughly militarized and so is slowly wasting away, marked increasingly by fear, deprivation, and unhappiness.
It’s Never Too Late to Change Course
Only Americans, Ike once said, can truly hurt America. Meaning, to put the matter in a more positive context, only we can truly help save America. A vital first step is to put the word “peace” back in our national vocabulary.
“The peace we seek,” Ike explained 70 years ago, “founded upon a decent trust and cooperative effort among nations, can be fortified, not by weapons of war but by wheat and by cotton, by milk and by wool, by meat and timber and rice. These are words that translate into every language on earth. These are the needs that challenge this world in arms.”
The real needs of humanity haven’t changed since Ike’s time. Whether in 1953 or 2023, more guns won’t serve the cause of peace. They won’t provide succor. They’ll only stunt and starve us, to echo the words of H.G. Wells, while imperiling the lives and futures of our children.
This is no way of life at all, as Ike certainly would have noted, were he alive today.
Which is why the federal budget proposal released by President Biden for 2024 was both so painfully predictable and so immensely disappointing. Calamitously so. Biden’s proposal once again boosts spending on weaponry and war in a Pentagon budget now pegged at $886 billion. It will include yet more spending on nuclear weapons and envisions only further perpetual tensions with “near-peer” rivals China and Russia.
This past year, Congress added $45 billion more to that budget than even the president and the Pentagon requested, putting this country’s 2023 Pentagon budget at $858 billion. Clearly, a trillion-dollar Pentagon budget is in our collective future, perhaps as early as 2027. Perish the thought of how high it could soar, should the U.S. find itself in a shooting war with China or Russia (as the recent Russian downing of a U.S. drone in the Black Sea brought to mind). And if that war were to go nuclear…
The Pentagon’s soaring war budget broadcast a clear and shocking message to the world. In America’s creed, blessed are the warmakers and those martyrs crucified on its cross of iron.
This was hardly the message Ike sought to convey to the world 70 years ago this April. Yet it’s the message the MICC conveys with its grossly inflated military budgets and endless saber-rattling.
Yet one thing remains true today: it’s never too late to change course, to order an “about-face.” Sadly, lacking the wisdom of Dwight D. Eisenhower, such an order won’t come from Joe Biden or Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis or any other major candidate for president in 2024. It would have to come from us, collectively. It’s time to wise up, America. Together, it’s time to find an exit ramp from the highway to hell that we’ve been on since 1953 and look for the on-ramp to Ike’s highway to peace.
And once we’re on it, let’s push the pedal to the metal and never look back.
Amazingly, the presidential election of 2024 isn’t that far away, and already the Democratic Party is doing its best to remove democracy from the process. Once again, the DNC is uniting behind Joe Biden who, if reelected, would be 86 if he finished his second term of office. Already South Carolina has been awarded the first primary in place of New Hampshire, since Biden performed much better in SC than in NH in 2020. Already the DNC has announced it wants no primary debates even though Biden faces at least one challenger of substance, Marianne Williamson. Already Democrats are being told you shouldn’t want a younger, more dynamic, more progressive candidate, that more candidates and more choice is bad, that no possible mainstream candidate is better than Biden, and anyway Democrats can’t be distracted by choice when the Republican candidate is likely to be Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis.
At the same time, Kamala Harris remains Biden’s heir-apparent, even though Harris is both politically unpopular and ham-fisted. As Krystal Ball, who can’t be accused of being anti-women, explained, Harris lacks political talent, full stop. Like most VPs, she has accomplished little, but when she has taken center stage, she hasn’t inspired confidence. Nevertheless, she’s important to the image of the party and its alleged commitment to diversity. Old white guy Joe needs to be balanced by a younger woman of color irrespective of her lack of political acumen and her lackluster record in office.
Sadly, we’re at a place where to critique Joe Biden is to be accused of ageism; to critique Kamala Harris is to be accused of both racism and misogyny. To ask for more candidates, more competition, more democracy is to be accused of being an operative for Trump. So it’s likely Biden/Harris again for 2024, like it or lump it.
The last true liberal/progressive Democratic nominee who tried to bring real hope and change to America was George McGovern in 1972. Nixon trounced him, of course, and Democrats at the top abandoned “leftist” notions for a pro-business, pro-banking, pro-military, and pro-money agenda, as implemented by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Both were two-term presidents, both were good at posing as champions of regular folk while implementing agendas that were old-school Republican. Meanwhile, the real Republicans drifted ever further to the right.
America today is stuck with two rightist parties, a uniparty of sorts, where the agenda favors the richest few versus the poorest many, the powerful versus the powerless. Sure, the Democrats profess they are more “woke” and are willing to talk about systemic racism, sexism, LGBTQ issues, and so on, while the Republicans, incredibly, are both more populist and more willing to question massive spending on weapons and war. Yet both parties remain bought and paid for, serving the interests of the big-money owners and donors. In short, 2024 promises a rigged deal, not a new one, no matter which major party candidate wins.
And that’s a shame, because America needs a New Deal for the poor, the powerless, the workers, the regular folk, but they’re not even allowed to have a candidate, let alone a choice. At this moment, the most likely “choice” is between Biden/Harris and Trump/DeSantis, and if you think either ticket will support meaningful change…
Establishment America is bereft of new ideas and new possibilities; thus, the dynamism of our nation is dying, smothered by greed and cynicism. It’s “no change” Biden versus “very unstable grifter” Trump, or possibly “younger grifter” DeSantis. What a choice!
So, who would I vote for if the election were held today? Marianne Williamson. She’s not perfect (there is no perfect candidate), but she’s articulate, empathetic, and open-minded. Better yet, she’s not bought and paid for. If I were a Democrat (I’m not), I’d vote for her just because the establishment dismisses her as an unserious crystal/aura lady. Imagine: she dares talk about love and compassion and pursuing peace. We can’t have that in America!
I hope Williamson gains traction within the party, enough so that the DNC can’t suppress debates, because real debates would reveal what many have already noted: that Biden has slipped too much to be entrusted with the presidency for another four years. Yet, unless he collapses on stage, or even if he does, the DNC will continue to prop him up as vigorous and able to serve.
That ongoing sham reveals a harsh reality: who is president doesn’t really matter in America when the candidates and their staff are pre-selected by the real power centers like Wall Street and the National Security State.
Military invasions don’t produce democracies—who knew? Whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, somehow the U.S. government worked to convince itself and the American people that democracy could be exported at rifle point. Not surprisingly, military invasions spread what they usually do: death, destruction and chaos while sowing seeds for further violence and conflict. Such is one of the many lessons of Bush/Cheney’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq 20 years ago this weekend.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in March of 2003, I was still on active duty in the military. I was a lieutenant colonel assigned to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California, or DLI for short. I can tell you this: the U.S. government expected a short and utterly victorious war, since there was no direction to us to expand foreign language training in Arabic. Only after Bush’s premature “Mission Accomplished” speech and the war’s subsequent degeneration into occupation, torture, battles of frustration like Fallujah, and subsequent quagmire did DLI finally get direction and more resources to expand training in Arabic.
That led to my first and only interview as a military officer in May 2005, when a reporter for the CS Monitor asked me about the importance of language training for U.S. troops. Here was my glib reply:
“We are trying to win the peace, and it is very important for us to be able to communicate even at a basic level,” says Lt. Col. William Astore, dean of students at the DLI. “I would much rather have soldiers communicate using words rather than using a rifle butt.”
OK as far as it went, but by the middle of 2005 we had already lost the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan. For one thing, we simply had too few troops with language skills, and it took 16 months to train them to a decent level of competence in Arabic. So we resorted to those rifle butts—and worse.
Another minor controversy at the time was the loss of skilled linguists to the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. As soon as a soldier said he was gay, he was basically gone, regardless of his language proficiency. A few troops gamed the system, finishing the bulk of their language training then self-reporting they were gay. That was enough to get them discharged.
Along with that mess, I recall a friend of mine, an Army major, being sent to Iraq in 2004 and working for the CPA, the Coalition Provisional Authority. He said he and his colleagues at the CPA knew Iraq wasn’t ready for the transfer of power overseen by the hapless L. Paul Bremer, but it went ahead anyway for political reasons.
He also told me how the military filled billets at the CPA and in the Green Zone of Baghdad. Basically, Big Army tasked unit commanders for bodies. The DLI Commandant sent one of his best officers, an experienced and skilled FAO (foreign area officer). But many other commanders took advantage of this “draft” by sending their worst officers to Iraq, the under-performers. At the same time, the Bush/Cheney administration was recruiting inexperienced civilians for Iraq and vetting them based on their views on abortion, capital punishment, and similar hot-button issues within the Republican Party. Combine less-than-competent officers with unprepared and largely clueless civilians and it’s not surprising the CPA performed poorly.
My experience with the chaos of Iraq was indirect and limited, but I well recall an urgent tasking to DLI to help with the translation of a Peter, Paul & Mary song to promote tolerance within Iraqi schools. No, I’m not kidding. Some American in Iraq decided a smart way of defusing ethnic and religious tensions in Iraq was to translate a song for kids. So we gathered some of our best Arabic instructors and quickly learned the song was more than problematic. It was about American kids making fun of other kids with braces and glasses, but any Iraqi kid with braces or glasses would be fortunate indeed. Other lines of the song mentioned gays, lesbians, and a teenage mother trying to overcome her past — not a place we wanted to go.
The song just didn’t translate, just like much of the American effort “to win the peace” and build a stable democratic Iraq didn’t translate (if you accept for the moment that that was the true mission). Too many Americans were prisoners of their own illusions in Iraq, or trying to make a fast buck, while troops at the front were simply fighting to survive a ghastly war, a war that was obviously far worse for the Iraqi people.
In the first few weeks of the Iraq invasion in 2003, the U.S. military did its job fairly well, and by that I mean the narrow mission of destroying Iraqi forces and overthrowing Saddam Hussein. After that, it was one disaster after another, one lie after another, because once Saddam was removed from power and the Iraqi military was disbanded, all hell broke loose. Civil war was the result, and, as I wrote in 2007, you can’t win someone else’s civil war. What we got in place of a “win” were the lies of Bush/Cheney and of General David Petraeus about “progress” in the Surge. But as the weasel Petraeus always said, his “gains” were fragile and reversible, and so they proved.
Of course, the Iraq War was based on alarmist lies (those WMD that weren’t there, those mushroom clouds in American skies). It was then preserved by lies until the lies could no longer be countenanced (or until they proved no longer profitable). Yet the liars were promoted (whether in the military or outside of it) and those who warned of the folly of war 20 years ago or those who tried to reveal the truth about war crimes or profiteering during the war were punished.
Though Donald Rumsfeld lost his job as Defense Secretary, few in the hierarchy were ever called to account for their crimes and blunders, so little was learned and much was forgotten.
So, it’s on to the next war, this time with China or Russia or Iran or whomever, but not to worry, the experts that brought you Iraq and Afghanistan and all the rest will get it right. Just look at their track record and how much they’ve learned!
Bank failures are never encouraging, and the recent failure of Silicon Valley Bank points to the instability of our American moment. President Biden made a short speech to affirm depositors would get their money back, only to exit the stage without taking any questions from reporters. As Biden slowly walked away from the podium, closing carefully the door behind him, I couldn’t help but see the whole act as symbolic of a tired America that has lost its way.
Yes, Biden acted to reassure markets and to rescue affluent depositors, yet he hardly reacted at all to the recent train wreck that poisoned East Palestine, Ohio. If only the train wreck had struck a major bank …
Tallying up Biden’s broken campaign promises, another one, an especially egregious one, was announced with the plan to allow oil drilling in pristine wilderness in northern Alaska. Biden had promised no more drilling on federal lands. Period. And then he approved the massive Willow drilling project on federal land in Alaska, an act of climate terrorism, notes Rebecca Solnit.
Meanwhile, Biden released his proposed Pentagon budget for 2024. You won’t be surprised to learn it’s soared to $886 billion, an almost inconceivable sum, or that the Biden budget focuses most of its discretionary spending on weaponry, wars, security, police, and prisons. Here’s a handy diagram:
I suppose the government will need all those warriors and guards with guns to maintain order while banks fail and the environment is poisoned, whether from oil drilling or train wrecks.
Perhaps you’ve seen the Daniel Day-Lewis movie about oil drilling’s early days. Its title is suggestive to what is to come: “There will be blood.”
Yesterday, journalists Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger testified before the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. Their testimony, and the risible reactions of Democrats on the subcommittee, are well worth watching; I watched the entire hearing, which lasted 140 minutes. Kim Iverson has an excellent summary here which lasts about 23 minutes. As Iverson notes, the Democrats on the subcommittee demonized the journalists while supporting censorship of ordinary Americans for political advantage, a clear violation of freedom of speech and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Clearly, the Twitter Files have revealed government-directed censorship of lawful speech. The reactions and strategy of the Democrats on the subcommittee were as follows:
Not one Democrat on the subcommittee expressed concern about the peril of state-sponsored censorship and suppression of free expression. Indeed, the Democrats took pains to portray the journalists in front of them as the real peril, along with Russia, Elon Musk, Republican book-banners, and other bad actors.
It was all rather amazing, a “shit storm” to quote Kim Iverson.
So many important points made by Taibbi and Shellenberger could easily get lost in this political shit storm, which I suppose was the Democrats’ strategy. Here’s a short list of those points:
Democrats on the subcommittee had no interest in any of this. Their strategy was to dismiss the hearing as politically motivated and the journalists involved as greedy opportunists handpicked by Elon Musk (whom, you might recall, was associated with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and perhaps Hitler, Stalin, and Darth Vader).
Interestingly, I learned a new word in the hearings: “pre-bunking.” Apparently, the Democrats in 2020 knew the Republicans had Hunter Biden’s laptop, so they engaged in an exercise to “pre-bunk” the release of embarrassing details from that computer. To wit, mainstream media “journalists” were encouraged not to follow the “Pentagon Papers” model of publishing leaked and legitimate material quickly. Rather, they were primed not to cover such a story, or to cover it as a case of Russian disinformation.
And that’s exactly what the mainstream media did in October 2020: as a group, they wrongly dismissed the Hunter Biden laptop revelations as Russian disinformation as the government worked hand-in-glove with Twitter, Facebook, and others to suppress the story as malicious and false. As we now know (and as was known then), the Hunter Biden laptop story was well-sourced and accurate. There was no Russian connection whatsoever. (Kudos to the Democrats for their dirty tricks here; even Richard Nixon couldn’t have done it better.)
Again, Democrats on the subcommittee showed no interest in or concern about an emerging censorship-industrial complex and its suppression of free speech rights. They painted the journalists before them as bad or sketchy actors and the FBI and other government agencies like DHS and the CIA as the good guys, working selflessly and without bias to protect us all from the “dangerous” ideas of our fellow citizens.
Welcome to the era of state-sponsored thought police, brought to you by your Democratic friends in Congress.
Addendum (3/11): All those Democrats so eager to pillory Taibbi and Shellenberger: they all took an oath to support and uphold the Constitution.
I’m not sure there’s any more fundamental right to that oath than freedom of speech.
If you take your oath seriously as a Member of Congress, your focus at the hearing should — must — have been on upholding that fundamental right against government-directed interference and censorship.
Yet none of them mentioned this or their oath — their sworn duty — to the Constitution.
This is worse than mendacity; they are derelict in their duties as representatives and public servants.
Yoda, the Jedi Master, once told Luke Skywalker that the future is difficult to see because it’s always in motion.
So too is the past. Always in motion it is. Its meaning. We can’t and don’t remember everything even as we construct narratives of meaning out of those things we can or choose to remember.
William Faulkner famously said the past isn’t dead — it’s not even past. That’s most certainly true of the now-infamous Capitol riot in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s defeat in November 2020.
America is yet again fighting for control over the past with respect to the January 6th riot in 2021. This week at Fox News, Tucker Carlson suggested the rioters were mostly peaceful respectful sightseers. They revered the Capitol! They took cheerful selfies! They even queued in neat little lines!
Even Republicans like Mitch McConnell have gone on record to denounce Carlson’s cherrypicking of the video evidence. Here’s what McConnell had to say: “It was a mistake, in my view, for Fox News to depict this in a way that’s completely at variance with what our chief law enforcement official here at the Capitol thinks.” McConnell cited a letter by the US Capitol Police that described Carlson’s program as being “filled with offensive and misleading conclusions about the January 6th attack.”
To state the obvious: On controversial and politicized issues like this, the past doesn’t speak with one voice. Opportunists seek to polarize the past. To exploit it for their own purposes. This is true of Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump. It’s also true of many Democrats.
The January 6th riots were not an insurrection. They were not a coup. They were akin to mob violence. They most definitely were a collective temper tantrum incited by Trump that led to considerable chaos and violence. The person most responsible for them should be punished. That person, Donald Trump, walked away scot-free.
My immediate reaction to the Capitol riots (written on January 7th) still holds true, I think:
Once again, America will likely take the wrong lessons from these riots. The Capitol police will likely call for more money, more resources, more officers, more guns, more security cameras, more barricades, etc. There are already calls for more Internet censorship. Homeland Security funding will surely get a boost. And certain people will dismiss too easily the alienation and indignation of Trump supporters.
What I mean is this: Americans are upset. Angry. Alienated. Confused. And rightly so. And until our government serves the people instead of corporate, financial, and similar lobbyists and special interests, the potential for future mobs will remain. Donald Trump is a total buffoon, a shell of a man, a narcissist with ambitions centered always on himself and his self-image. But imagine a more skilled manipulator, one less narrowly focused on himself, one with a stronger work ethic, one with boundless ambition for power. Such a person could truly lead an insurrection or coup, and yesterday’s scenes suggest such a takeover would be easier than we think.
Predictably, in the aftermath of the riots, the Capitol police did indeed get more money and resources, with House Democrats approving $1.9 billion for added security. Democrats under Joe Biden now sell themselves as the party of law and order, of expanded police forces (along with exploding Pentagon budgets and unanimous support of war-related aid to Ukraine in excess of $100 billion). They paint Republicans as dangerous, as undemocratic, even as an enemy within. Trump, most recently at CPAC, gleefully returns the favor, using similar inflammatory rhetoric.
Meanwhile, as Trump angles and preens for another presidential run, supporters of his who bought the big lie of a stolen election and protested at the Capitol on January 6th are being hounded by prosecutors. Yes, some of the rioters were violent, broke laws, and merit prosecution and punishment. But in many cases the federal pursuit and prosecution of these “deplorables” has been over-the-top, notes Chris Hedges. Their punishment has been grossly disproportionate to their crimes.
This may help the Democrats politically, but it is unhealthy for our democracy, notes Hedges:
The cheerleading, or at best indifference, by Democratic Party supporters and much of the left to these show trials will come back to haunt them. We are exacerbating the growing tribalism and political antagonisms that will increasingly express themselves through violence. We are complicit, once again, of using the courts to carry out vendettas. We are corroding democratic institutions. We are hardening the ideology and rage of the far-right. We are turning those being hounded to prison into political prisoners and martyrs. We are moving ever closer towards tyranny.
Hedges is right here. The Democrats and Republicans have been twisting, manipulating, and polarizing the past for their own purposes. Two diametrically opposed versions of the January 6th riots have been presented to the American people, and they are both self-serving and dishonest.
Clearly, Trump was the inciter-in-chief of mob violence from which he casually walked away. The Congress impeached him but otherwise refused to act. The Capitol police profited from its ineptitude even as the “deplorables,” Trump’s foot-soldiers, paid the price for his lies and tantrums. And so the past is warped and twisted, bludgeoned and misused, to serve the needs of the already powerful.
Against the Dark Side of American politics and “justice,” even Yoda might lose hope.