Creator of Bracing Views. Contributor to TomDispatch, Truthout, HNN, Alternet, Huffington Post, Antiwar, and other sites. Retired AF lieutenant colonel and professor of history. Senior fellow, Eisenhower Media Network
One day, a village of roughly 1200 people in South Vietnam ceased to exist. The U.S. Air Force destroyed it, and the report read “Target 100% destroyed, body-count 1200 KBA (killed by air) confirmed.”
It wasn’t an “enemy” village. It was a village that had failed to pay its taxes to a South Vietnamese provincial commander, a lieutenant colonel and ostensibly a U.S. ally. He wanted the village destroyed to set an example to other recalcitrant villages, and the U.S. Air Force did what it does: It put bombs and napalm on target.
At Seventh Air Force headquarters, the brass knew this village’s “crime.” As a brigadier general said to then-Lieutenant Colonel James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth, “Damn, Cotton, don’t you know what’s going on? That village didn’t pay their taxes. That [South Vietnamese] lieutenant colonel … is teaching them a lesson.”
It’s a “lesson” that made Cotton Hildreth, who later became a major general, “really sick” and “very bitter” about his role as a combat pilot in the Vietnam War. Later, in an oral interview, he admitted “I don’t talk about this [the war] very much.” One can understand why.
At the time, Hildreth brought his concerns to General William Momyer, the Seventh Air Force Commander, but Momyer offered only platitudes, saying that Hildreth was “doing some good, somewhere,” by dropping bombs and napalm and other ordnance on Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.
We know this story only because Cotton Hildreth was willing to share it after being retired from the Air Force for fifteen years. A few days before this village was obliterated, Hildreth and his wingman, flying A-1 Skyraiders, had been ordered to destroy the village with napalm. They refused to do so after making low and slow passes over the village, only to be greeted by children waving their arms in friendship. In “The Wingman and the Village,” Hugh Turley’s article about this in the Hyattsville Life & Times (July 2010), Hildreth admitted his wingman had dropped napalm away from the village first, and Hildreth then did the same. The wingman in question, old for a pilot at age 48 and a grandfather, had seen a woman running with two children from her hut. He’d made a snap decision to disobey orders.
As the wingman told Hildreth when they returned to base: “Sir, I have three small grandchildren at home, and I could never face them again if I had followed those orders.” The unnamed wingman was later reassigned to a non-combat role.
When Hildreth was asked later if he’d have destroyed the village if he’d been flying an F-105 “Thud,” which flew higher and much faster than the A-1 Skyraider, he admitted he likely would have, because “you don’t see the people.”
What can we learn from this story? This atrocity? That it’s very easy to kill when you never see the people being killed. That it’s easy to follow orders and much harder to disobey them. That the Air Force brass at headquarters knew they were complicit in mass murder but that it meant more to them to keep one South Vietnamese provincial commander happy than it meant to keep 1200 innocent people alive.
One day in a long and atrocious war, Cotton Hildreth and his wingman decided they’d put humanity first; that they wouldn’t destroy a defenseless village despite orders to do so. It didn’t matter. That village and those people were destroyed anyway a few days later. It was just another day in a war allegedly fought to contain communism but which instead led to uncontained barbarity by a so-called democratic alliance.
“We had to destroy the village to save it” is a catchphrase from that war that is of course a contradiction in terms. Destruction is destruction. Death is death. No one was saved. Small wonder that Hildreth was so sick, so bitter, and spoke so rarely of his experiences in Vietnam.
A Note on Sources:
Oral interview with retired U.S. Air Force Major General James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth on 9/19/96. Hildreth recounts his experience beginning at the 21-minute mark of the interview.
I first learned of Hildreth’s interview from David Martin, who wrote about it here in 2015, calling it the largest single known atrocity of the Vietnam War. Such atrocities were commonplace, given the wanton use of destructive power by the U.S. military in Vietnam. This is a theme developed by Nick Turse in his book, “Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.” (2013)
Hugh Turley, “The Wingman and the Village,” in “Hugh’s News,” Hyattsville Life & Times, July 2010.
Hildreth’s story is consistent with what Bernard Fall saw in Vietnam, which I wrote about here.
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I ask a simple question: What would real national defense look like? Here are some answers.
What would real national defense for this country look like? Rarely do any of us pose this question, no less examine what it might truly mean. Rarely do we think about all the changes we’d have to make as a nation and a people if we were to put defense first, second, and last, while leaving behind both our imperial wars and domestic militarism.
I know what it wouldn’t look like. It wouldn’t look like today’s grossly inflated military. A true Department of Defense wouldn’t need 800 foreign military bases, nor would the national security state need a budget that routinely exceeds a trillion dollars annually. We wouldn’t need a huge, mechanized army, a navy built around aircraft carriers, or an air force that boasts of its global reach and global power, all of it created not for defense but for offense — for destruction, anytime, anywhere.
As a country, we would need to imagine a new “people’s” military as a force that could truly defend the American republic. That would obviously mean one focused above all on supporting the Constitution and the rights we (at least theoretically) hold sacred like freedom of speech, the press, and assembly, the right to privacy and due process, and of course the right to justice for all, not just for the highest bidder or those with the deepest pockets.
What might such a new military look like? First, it would be much smaller. America’s current military, including troops on active duty, reservists, and members of the National Guard, consists of roughly 2.4 million men and women. Those numbers should gradually be cut at least in half. Second, its budget should similarly be dramatically cut, the end goal being to have it 50% lower than next year’s proposed budget of $715 billion. Third, it wouldn’t be based and deployed around the world. As a republican force (note the lower-case “r”), it would instead serve democratic ends rather than imperial ones. It would certainly need far fewer generals and admirals. Its mission wouldn’t involve “global reach,” but would be defensive, focused on our borders and this hemisphere.
A friend of mine, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, speaks of a military that would consist of a Coast Guard, “militias” (that is, the National Guard) for each of the fifty states, and little else. Yes, in this America, that sounds beyond extreme, but he has a point. Consider our unique advantages in terms of geography. Our continent is protected by two vast oceans. We share a long and peaceful border with Canada. While the border with Mexico is certainly troubled, we’re talking about unarmed, desperate migrants, not a military invasion flooding into Texas to retake the Alamo.
Here, then, are just 10 ways America’s military could change under a vision that would put the defense of America first and free up some genuine funds for domestic needs as well:
No more new nuclear weapons. It’s time to stop “modernizing” that arsenal to the tune of possibly $1.7 trillion over the next three decades. Land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles like the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, expected to cost more than $264 billion during its lifetime, and “strategic” (nuclear) bombers like the Air Force’s proposed B-21 Raider should be eliminated. The Trident submarine force should also be made smaller, with limited modernization to improve its survivability.
All Army divisions should be reduced to cadres (smaller units capable of expansion in times of war), except the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the 10th Mountain Division.
The Navy should largely be redeployed to our hemisphere, while aircraft carriers and related major surface ships are significantly reduced in number.
The Air Force should be redesigned around the defense of America’s air space, rather than attacking others across the planet at any time. Meanwhile, costly offensive fighter-bombers like the F-35, itself a potential $1.7 trillion boondoggle, should simply be eliminated and the habit of committing drone assassinations across the planet ended. Similarly, the separate space force created by President Trump should be folded back into a much-reduced Air Force.
The training of foreign militaries and police forces in places like Iraq and Afghanistan should be stopped. The utter collapse of the U.S.-trained forces in Iraqin the face of the Islamic State in 2014 and the ongoing collapse of the U.S.-trained Afghan military today have made a mockery of this whole process.
Military missions launched by intelligence agencies like the CIA, including those drone assassination programs overseas, should be halted and the urge to intervene secretly in the political and military lives of so many other countries finally brought under some kind of control.
The “industrial” part of the military-industrial complex should also be brought under control, so that taxpayer dollars don’t go to fabulously expensive, largely useless weaponry. At the same time, the U.S. government should stop promoting the products of our major weapons makers around the planet.
Above all, in a democracy like ours, a future defensive military should only fight in a war when Congress, as the Constitution demands, formally declares one.
The military draft should be restored. With a far smaller force, such a draft should have a limited impact, but it would ensure that the working classes of America, which have historically shouldered a heavy burden in military service, will no longer do so alone. In the future America of my military dreams, a draft would take the eligible sons and daughters of our politicians first, followed by all eligible students enrolled in elite prep schools and private colleges and universities, beginning with the Ivy League. After all, America’s best and brightest will surely want to serve in a military devoted to defending their way of life.
Finally, there should be only one four-star general or admiral in each of the three services. Currently, believe it or not, there are an astonishing 44 four-star generals and admirals in America’s imperial forces. There are also hundreds of one-star, two-star, and three-star officers. This top-heavy structure inhibits reform even as the highest-ranking officers never take responsibility for America’s lost wars.
Pivoting to America
Perhaps you’ve heard of the “pivot to Asia” under the Obama administration — the idea of redeploying U.S. military forces from the Greater Middle East and elsewhere in response to perceived threats from China. As it happened, it took the new Biden administration to begin to pull off that particular pivot, but America’s imperial military regularly seems to be pivoting somewhere or other. It’s time to pivot to this country instead.
Echoing the words of George McGovern, a highly decorated World War II bomber pilot who unsuccessfully ran for president against Richard Nixon in 1972, “Come home, America.” Close all those foreign military bases. Redirect resources from wars and weapons to peace and prosperity. Focus on restoring the republic. That’s how Americans working together could truly defend ourselves, not only from our “enemies” overseas, almost always much exaggerated, but from ourselves, the military-industrial-congressional complex, and all our fears.
The Biden administration says it wants to remove U.S. combat troops from Iraq. Hooray! Mission finally accomplished, right? It may be 18 years after George W. Bush declared it to be so, but who’s counting the years?
Not so fast. For President Biden still wants to keep roughly 2000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq for training and advisory purposes. So much for mission accomplished.
Why can’t U.S. troops just leave — for good? If Iraq can’t defend itself after nearly two decades of U.S. “training” in the war on terror, maybe it’s finally time to admit our limits (or our folly) and simply leave.
It almost seems like America’s system of “defense” is an imperial project — an effort to enlarge American power at almost any cost (and the Iraq war has cost America in the trillions of dollars).
This is the telling argument of Tom Engelhardt’s latest post at TomDispatch.com. The U.S. is the empire that dare not speak its name, even as it begins to collapse due to perpetual war externally and perpetual rancor internally. And, believe me, as former President Trump would say, those two are related. He should know, given how he tapped that rancor and aggravated it for his own purposes.
Here’s an excerpt from Engelhardt’s latest, where he points out what might be termed the Pentagon Paradox: The more America’s generals fail, the more they succeed (more money, more promotions, more power):
Still, let’s face it, this isn’t the set of conflicts that, once upon a time, involved invasions, massive air strikes, occupations, the killing of staggering numbers of civilians, widespread drone attacks, the disruption of whole countries, the uprooting and displacement of more than 37 million people, the deployment at one point of 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan alone, and the spending of untold trillions of American taxpayer dollars, all in the name of fighting terror and spreading democracy. And think of it as mission (un)accomplished in the truest sense imaginable.
In fact, that idea of spreading of democracy didn’t really outlast the Bush years. Ever since, there’s been remarkably little discussion in official Washington about what this country was really doing as it warred across significant parts of the planet. Yes, those two decades of conflict, those “forever wars,” as they came to be called first by critics and then by anyone in sight, are at least winding, or perhaps spiraling, down — and yet, here’s the strange thing: Wouldn’t you think that, as they ended in visible failure, the Pentagon’s stock might also be falling? Oddly enough, though, in the wake of all those years of losing wars, it’s still rising. The Pentagon budget only heads ever more for the stratosphere as foreign policy “pivots” from the Greater Middle East to Asia (and Russia and the Arctic and, well, anywhere but those places where terror groups still roam).
In other words, when it comes to the U.S. military as it tries to leave its forever wars in someone else’s ditch, failure is the new success story.
And how! Maybe we need a new saying in America: Nothing succeeds like failure. It’s truly paradoxical until you realize that someone is always winning and profiting from this failure, even as the rest of America suffers.
Engelhardt’s book above has a well-judged title: “A Nation Unmade By War.” But perhaps we can improve it? How about “An Empire Unmade By War”?
For a time, don’t ask, don’t tell, was the U.S. military’s policy about homosexuality within the ranks. In short, if you weren’t a heterosexual, you were supposed to keep quiet (don’t tell) about it. At the same time, the military wasn’t about to ask you whether you were “straight” or not. It was a compromise engineered by the Clinton administration that left more than a few people of all persuasions disgruntled.
There is another don’t ask, don’t tell, policy that I would argue is far worse than the Clinton compromise about sexual orientation. What do I mean?
U.S. military officials work very hard to discourage Americans from asking about America’s wars (don’t ask), and at the same time they work very hard not to tell us anything meaningful about those same wars (don’t tell).
It was my wife who quipped about this other “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as she read Daniel Hale’s letter posted at this site. You see, people like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Daniel Hale are trying to tell us about America’s wars, whether it’s illegal domestic surveillance and the war on terror or war crimes in Iraq or war crimes related to drone killings in Afghanistan. They are not supposed to tell. At the same time, we the people are not supposed to ask.
Other than serving as cheerleaders of “our” troops, Americans are expected to remain passive when it comes to war and the military. We can, if we wish, remain blissfully ignorant, which is exactly what the “experts” at the Pentagon want from us. Leave it to us, the experts say, and we won’t tell you anything that’ll disturb your peace. Whatever you do, don’t ask probing questions of us. Indeed, don’t ask anything at all, except perhaps “How do I sign up?” if you’re young and of military age.
Of course, this is the very opposite of how Democracy should work. We are supposed to ask our government what it’s doing in our name, and they are supposed to tell us even if we won’t like the answers.
But America is no longer a democracy.
As a retired military officer, I’m well aware that discipline is important, that secrecy can be vital, and that loyalty is everything. But loyalty to what? The U.S. Constitution, I hope, and the idea that leaders and their actions should be accountable to the people since they (in theory) wage war and kill people in our name. But when wars are no longer declared by Congress, and when the people are no longer rallied to a cause, we have the exercise of unlawful power, of less-than-legal war, which is why we need people to step forward with courage informed by their conscience.
Sadly, precisely because of their courage and their acts of conscience, they are always punished. They are punished because they are not supposed to tell us any uncomfortable truths, and we are not supposed to ask for any of the same.
Consider this the unofficial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that helps to drive America’s wars. It’s still very much in effect; it’s also yet another sign of the death of participatory democracy in America.
Serving in the U.S. Air Force, Daniel Hale witnessed America’s drone assassination program and decided to speak out against it. As he awaits sentencing under the Espionage Act for sharing secrets about that program so that the American people could gain insight into the murderous realities of this war from a distance, he penned this letter to the judge hearing his case.
It is a heartfelt and harrowing letter that should be read by all Americans. The Biden administration is seeking a 9-year prison sentence and would prefer an even tougher punishment. This is exactly what is wrong about the United States today: the innocent are punished severely while the guilty are celebrated and promoted.
What follows are the words of Daniel Hale.
Dear Judge O’Grady,
It is not a secret that I struggle to live with depression and post traumatic stress disorder. Both stem from my childhood experience growing up in a rural mountain community and were compounded by exposure to combat during military service. Depression is a constant. Though stress, particularly stress caused by war, can manifest itself at different times and in different ways. The tell-tale signs of a person afflicted by PTSD and depression can often be outwardly observed and are practically universally recognizable. Hard lines about the face and jaw. Eyes, once bright and wide, now deepset and fearful. And an inexplicably sudden loss of interest in things that used to spark joy. These are the noticeable changes in my demeanor marked by those who knew me before and after military service. To say that the period of my life spent serving in the United States Air Force had an impression on me would be an understatement. It is more accurate to say that it irreversibly transformed my identity as an American. Having forever altered the thread of my life’s story, weaved into the fabric of our nation’s history. To better appreciate the significance of how this came to pass, I would like to explain my experience deployed to Afghanistan as it was in 2012 and how it is I came to violate the Espionage Act, as a result.
In my capacity as a signals intelligence analyst stationed at Bagram Airbase, I was made to track down the geographic location of handset cellphone devices believed to be in the possession of so-called enemy combatants. To accomplish this mission required access to a complex chain of globe-spanning satellites capable of maintaining an unbroken connection with remotely piloted aircraft, commonly referred to as drones. Once a steady connection is made and a targeted cell phone device is acquired, an imagery analyst in the U.S., in coordination with a drone pilot and camera operator, would take over using information I provided to surveil everything that occurred within the drone’s field of vision. This was done, most often, to document the day-to-day lives of suspected militants. Sometimes, under the right conditions, an attempt at capture would be made. Other times, a decision to strike and kill them where they stood would be weighed.
The first time that I witnessed a drone strike came within days of my arrival to Afghanistan. Early that morning, before dawn, a group of men had gathered together in the mountain ranges of Patika provence around a campfire carrying weapons and brewing tea. That they carried weapons with them would not have been considered out of the ordinary in the place I grew up, muchless within the virtually lawless tribal territories outside the control of the Afghan authorities. Except that among them was a suspected member of the Taliban, given away by the targeted cell phone device in his pocket. As for the remaining individuals, to be armed, of military age, and sitting in the presence of an alleged enemy combatant was enough evidence to place them under suspicion as well. Despite having peacefully assembled, posing no threat, the fate of the now tea drinking men had all but been fulfilled. I could only look on as I sat by and watched through a computer monitor when a sudden, terrifying flurry of hellfire missiles came crashing down, splattering purple-colored crystal guts on the side of the morning mountain.
Since that time and to this day, I continue to recall several such scenes of graphic violence carried out from the cold comfort of a computer chair. Not a day goes by that I don’t question the justification for my actions. By the rules of engagement, it may have been permissible for me to have helped to kill those men—whose language I did not speak, customs I did not understand, and crimes I could not identify—in the gruesome manner that I did. Watch them die. But how could it be considered honorable of me to continuously have laid in wait for the next opportunity to kill unsuspecting persons, who, more often than not, are posing no danger to me or any other person at the time. Nevermind honorable, how could it be that any thinking person continued to believe that it was necessary for the protection of the United States of America to be in Afghanistan and killing people, not one of whom present was responsible for the September 11th attacks on our nation. Notwithstanding, in 2012, a full year after the demise of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, I was a part of killing misguided young men who were but mere children on the day of 9/11.
Nevertheless, in spite of my better instincts, I continued to follow orders and obey my command for fear of repercussion. Yet, all the while, becoming increasingly aware that the war had very little to do with preventing terror from coming into the United States and a lot more to do with protecting the profits of weapons manufacturers and so-called defense contractors. The evidence of this fact was laid bare all around me. In the longest or most technologically advanced war in American history, contract mercenaries outnumbered uniform wearing soldiers 2 to 1 and earned as much as 10 times their salary. Meanwhile, it did not matter whether it was, as I had seen, an Afghan farmer blown in half, yet miraculously conscious and pointlessly trying to scoop his insides off the ground, or whether it was an American flag-draped coffin lowered into Arlington National Cemetery to the sound of a 21-gun salute. Bang, bang, bang. Both served to justify the easy flow of capital at the cost of blood—theirs and ours. When I think about this I am grief-stricken and ashamed of myself for the things I’ve done to support it.
The most harrowing day of my life came months into my deployment to Afghanistan when a routine surveillance mission turned into disaster. For weeks we had been tracking the movements of a ring of car bomb manufacturers living around Jalalabad. Car bombs directed at US bases had become an increasingly frequent and deadly problem that summer, so much effort was put into stopping them. It was a windy and clouded afternoon when one of the suspects had been discovered headed eastbound, driving at a high rate of speed. This alarmed my superiors who believe he might be attempting to escape across the border into Pakistan.
A drone strike was our only chance and already it began lining up to take the shot. But the less advanced predator drone found it difficult to see through clouds and compete against strong headwinds. The single payload MQ-1 failed to connect with its target, instead missing by a few meters. The vehicle, damaged, but still driveable, continued on ahead after narrowly avoiding destruction. Eventually, once the concern of another incoming missile subsided, the driver stopped, got out of the car, and checked himself as though he could not believe he was still alive. Out of the passenger side came a woman wearing an unmistakable burka. As astounding as it was to have just learned there had been a woman, possibly his wife, there with the man we intended to kill moments ago, I did not have the chance to see what happened next before the drone diverted its camera when she began frantically to pull out something from the back of the car.
A couple of days passed before I finally learned from a briefing by my commanding officer about what took place. There indeed had been the suspect’s wife with him in the car. And in the back were their two young daughters, ages 5 and 3 years old. A cadre of Afghan soldiers were sent to investigate where the car had stopped the following day. It was there they found them placed in the dumpster nearby. The eldest was found dead due to unspecified wounds caused by shrapnel that pierced her body. Her younger sister was alive but severely dehydrated. As my commanding officer relayed this information to us she seemed to express disgust, not for the fact that we had errantly fired on a man and his family, having killed one of his daughters; but for the suspected bomb maker having ordered his wife to dump the bodies of their daughters in the trash, so that the two of them could more quickly escape across the border. Now, whenever I encounter an individual who thinks that drone warfare is justified and reliably keeps America safe, I remember that time and ask myself how could I possibly continue to believe that I am a good person, deserving of my life and the right to pursue happiness.
One year later, at a farewell gathering for those of us who would soon be leaving military service, I sat alone, transfixed by the television, while others reminisced together. On television was breaking news of the president giving his first public remarks about the policy surrounding the use of drone technology in warfare. His remarks were made to reassure the public of reports scrutinizing the death of civilians in drone strikes and the targeting of American citizens. The president said that a high standard of “near certainty” needed to be met in order to ensure that no civilians were present. But from what I knew, of the instances where civilians plausibly could have been present, those killed were nearly always designated enemies killed in action unless proven otherwise. Nonetheless, I continued to heed his words as the president went on to explain how a drone could be used to eliminate someone who posed an “imminent threat” to the United States. Using the analogy of taking out a sniper, with his sights set on an unassuming crowd of people, the president likened the use of drones to prevent a would-be terrorist from carrying out his evil plot. But, as I understood it to be, the unassuming crowd had been those who lived in fear and the terror of drones in their skies and the sniper in this scenario had been me. I came to believe that the policy of drone assasiniation was being used to mislead the public that it keeps us safe, and when I finally left the military, still processing what I’d been a part of, I began to speak out, believing my participation in the drone program to have been deeply wrong.
I dedicated myself to anti-war activism, and was asked to partake in a peace conference in Washington, DC late November, 2013. People had come together from around the world to share experiences about what it is like living in the age of drones. Fazil bin Ali Jaber had journeyed from Yemen to tell us of what happened to his brother Salem bin Ali Jaber and their cousin Waleed. Waleed had been a policeman and Salem was a well-respected firebrand Imam, known for giving sermons to young men about the path towards destruction should they choose to take up violent jihad.
One day in August 2012, local members of Al Qaeda traveling through Fazil’s village in a car spotted Salem in the shade, pulled up towards him, and beckoned him to come over and speak to them. Not one to miss an opportunity to evangelize to the youth, Salem proceeded cautiously with Waleed by his side. Fazil and other villagers began looking on from afar. Farther still was an ever present reaper drone looking too.
As Fazil recounted what happened next, I felt myself transported back in time to where I had been on that day, 2012. Unbeknownst to Fazil and those of his village at the time was that they had not been the only watching Salem approach the jihadist in the car. From Afghanistan, I and everyone on duty paused their work to witness the carnage that was about to unfold. At the press of a button from thousands of miles away, two hellfire missiles screeched out of the sky, followed by two more. Showing no signs of remorse, I, and those around me, clapped and cheered triumphantly. In front of a speechless auditorium, Fazil wept.
About a week after the peace conference I received a lucrative job offer if I were to come back to work as a government contractor. I felt uneasy about the idea. Up to that point, my only plan post military separation had been to enroll in college to complete my degree. But the money I could make was by far more than I had ever made before; in fact, it was more than any of my college-educated friends were making. So, after giving it careful consideration, I delayed going to school for a semester and took the job.
For a long time I was uncomfortable with myself over the thought of taking advantage of my military background to land a cushy desk job. During that time I was still processing what I had been through and I was starting to wonder if I was contributing again to the problem of money and war by accepting to return as a defense contractor. Worse was my growing apprehension that everyone around me was also taking part in a collective delusion and denial that was used to justify our exorbitant salaries, for comparatively easy labor. The thing I feared most at the time was the temptation not to question it.
Then it came to be that one day after work I stuck around to socialize with a pair of co-workers whose talented work I had come to greatly admire. They made me feel welcomed, and I was happy to have earned their approval. But then, to my dismay, our brand-new friendship took an unexpectedly dark turn. They elected that we should take a moment and view together some archived footage of past drone strikes. Such bonding ceremonies around a computer to watch so-called “war porn” had not been new to me. I partook in them all the time while deployed to Afghanistan. But on that day, years after the fact, my new friends gaped and sneered, just as my old one’s had, at the sight of faceless men in the final moments of their lives. I sat by watching too; said nothing and felt my heart breaking into pieces.
Your Honor, the truest truism that I’ve come to understand about the nature of war is that war is trauma. I believe that any person either called-upon or coerced to participate in war against their fellow man is promised to be exposed to some form of trauma. In that way, no soldier blessed to have returned home from war does so uninjured. The crux of PTSD is that it is a moral conundrum that afflicts invisible wounds on the psyche of a person made to burden the weight of experience after surviving a traumatic event. How PTSD manifests depends on the circumstances of the event. So how is the drone operator to process this? The victorious rifleman, unquestioningly remorseful, at least keeps his honor intact by having faced off against his enemy on the battlefield. The determined fighter pilot has the luxury of not having to witness the gruesome aftermath. But what possibly could I have done to cope with the undeniable cruelties that I perpetuated?
My conscience, once held at bay, came roaring back to life. At first, I tried to ignore it. Wishing instead that someone, better placed than I, should come along to take this cup from me. But this too was folly. Left to decide whether to act, I only could do that which I ought to do before God and my own conscience. The answer came to me, that to stop the cycle of violence, I ought to sacrifice my own life and not that of another person.
So, I contacted an investigative reporter, with whom I had had an established prior relationship, and told him that I had something the American people needed to know.
May I make a suggestion to all my fellow Americans? Even if you’ve read it, even if you’ve listened to it before, listen again to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation in 1961. It’s the speech in which he warned against America’s military-industrial complex, to which Ike wanted rightly to add Congress as well but decided against it.
You’ll hear some words in Ike’s address that you rarely hear in political discourse today. Words like liberty, charity, dignity, integrity, love, mutual respect, and that rarest word of all, peace. You’ll hear him speak of Americans as citizens, not just as consumers, and at the end you’ll hear him rejoice in becoming a private citizen as he prepared to leave the White House to his successor, John F. Kennedy.
You’ll also hear Ike deplore war as one who’d seen its horrors. Ike referred to 20th-century wars as “holocausts,” which they were, and of the need to avoid future wars as they could utterly destroy civilization if nuclear weapons were used in them. Ike called for disarmament in the cause of world peace, and when was the last time an American president made such a call?
Ike further urged Americans, despite this country’s military strength, to avoid arrogance. The strong must not dominate, Ike said, for the weak also deserve a say and a seat at the negotiating table. Ike talked about exercising power for the cause of world peace and human betterment, and that moral intellect and decent purpose should rule, not fear and hate.
Of course, this speech is best known for Ike’s warning about the military-industrial complex, the immense U.S. military establishment “of vast proportions” as well as corporate weapons makers and the “disastrous rise” of their “misplaced power.” It’s vitally important we recognize how Ike framed his warning. His meaning is plain. He says the military-industrial complex, if allowed to grow unchecked, will endanger our liberties and our democratic processes. He says its immense power poses grave implications for the structure of our society. He calls on Americans, as alert and knowledgable citizens, to keep the Complex in check, and indeed to do their best to lessen its power.
Ike gave this address 60 years ago, and we have largely failed to heed his warning. We have allowed the military-industrial-Congressional complex to grow unchecked, so much so that the so-called national security state has become a fourth branch of government that gobbles up more than a trillion dollars a year while pursuing endless war around the globe.
As citizens (are we still citizens?), we are witnessing the slow death of our democracy, even as American militarism and repetitive undeclared wars have made the world a meaner, nastier place.
Our course of action is plain, as it was to Ike in 1961. Until we reject the holocaust of war and reduce as much as humanly possible the power of the military-industrial complex, America will remain on a catastrophic path that threatens the very existence of humanity.
Ike implored us to seek balance; to come together; to look toward the future; to cherish and protect our democratic institutions. He confessed he was disappointed in his own performance as president in ensuring disarmament and pursuing fair-minded diplomacy, but he enjoined us all to seek peace and to advance freedom around the world.
Why not do that?
Ike’s Warning (1961)
The conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
It’s another very warm and very humid day here in the Bracing Views HQ. As the situation in Afghanistan continues to go poorly, at least from the perspective of the U.S. government, I thought I’d reflect on a comment I made with the theme of “Wherever we go, there we are.” In other words, wherever America makes war, we bring certain aspects of ourselves and our culture with us. What do I mean by this?
When America intervenes in (or invades) countries like Iraq and Afghanistan in the stated cause of “freedom” (recall these operations were unironically named Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, proving that the U.S. government can out-Orwell George Orwell), we bring anything but freedom. That’s because our “freedom” wars feature an almost total reliance on the military (no surprise there), and the military simply isn’t about freedom. That military is trained for kinetic ops, i.e., murderous violence; and that military features “force multipliers” (bombs and missiles and chemical agents of various sorts, otherwise known as weapons of mass destruction) to subdue various “enemies” while limiting American casualties.
At the same time as lots of foreigners are being killed, Americans generally maintain a stubborn ignorance of the foreign country in which we’re involved. Their history doesn’t matter; all that matters is putting bombs on target and killing the “right” people, the bad guys, whoever they are. Even as the war starts going poorly, predictably because we don’t really know who the “bad guys” are, nor are we sensible enough to recognize we’re the “foreigners” and often the real bad guys, the U.S. military proceeds to engage in a mindless pursuit of “victory,” however poorly defined, which in the end degenerates to a desire not to be labeled a “loser” in any war, no matter how stupid and unnecessary it is.
Related to this is the reality that once a war gets ginned up, there is an overwhelming desire by war profiteers in the U.S. military-industrial complex to keep the good times rolling. Look at how long the Vietnam war lasted, or the Afghan war for that matter. Decades of “good times” await war profiteers as long as American troops are kept in harm’s way, busily hammering away at “freedom,” because “our” troops must be “defended” at any cost.
Americans in general, ignoring obvious evidence to the contrary, have a strong bias that U.S. troops are always fighting on the side of the angels. Who really wants to believe otherwise? Such a bias makes it easier for us to wash our hands of the whole sordid affair. And whether you like it or not, the U.S. military always fights in your and my name.
There are many other factors at work to explain the woeful nature of America’s wars, but the ones I mention above are important, I think, as we examine how dreadful America’s “freedom” wars turn out to be. And when these freedom wars end poorly, as they do, the very last organization to shoulder any blame is the U.S. government.
Perhaps that’s truly the lead feature of U.S. war-making today: Even when you lose, and lose badly, war means never having to say you’re sorry.
Threat inflation is always a lead feature at the Pentagon (how better to justify enormous budgets?), and just today I caught this story at FP: Foreign Policy.
At the Jiangyan shipyard near Shanghai, the Chinese navy is busy building up its next crown jewel. The Type 003 Carrier—boring name aside—showcases China’s growing naval ambitions and poses one of the greatest new challenges to U.S. naval supremacy in the Asia-Pacific.
China isn’t saying much about its new carrier, but satellite imageryanalyzed by experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this week shows it is making “considerable progress” on the carrier, with its flight deck, superstructure, and sponsons “nearly complete.”
The carrier, about 318 meters in length, will be the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) most technologically advanced and largest yet—and the largest non-U.S. carrier to be constructed in decades. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command estimates China could have four carriers by 2025, with potentially one more to come by 2030. It’s a sign China, already the world’s largest shipbuilder, wants to use that industrial might to supercharge its massive navy.
What the new carrier means. “The trend is that China is attempting to build a blue water navy, and that’s what this third carrier and plan beyond that represents,” said Eric Sayers, an expert with the American Enterprise Institute and former advisor to the commander of U.S. Pacific Command. “That’s not for its near seas. … That’s more for projecting power into the Indo-Pacific and beyond.”
China’s carrier upgrades and other investments in its navy have some experts worried Beijing could be getting more capable of showdowns with U.S. carrier strike groups in the region or launching a military assault on Taiwan, which top military officials have predicted could come within the next six years.
PLAN of attack. “I think they’re going to become more confrontational,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and former U.S. Defense Department official. “With their carriers, they may think that they’re going to be able to establish sea control for long enough that they can pull off an amphibious assault.”
Aha! The Chinese are just like us! “Confrontational.” They’re building a navy that’s all about “projecting power,” perhaps even beyond the Pacific. How dare they! I wonder what the U.S. should do in response? Perhaps build even more aircraft carriers and an even bigger “blue water” navy? I wonder…
The U.S. Air Force is getting into the threat inflation act as well. I saw a report that suggested China is building sites (possibly dummy ones) for nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Guess which service has its own plans to build new ICBMs? Yes, it’s the U.S. Air Force, and the Chinese “threat” is being used to justify the huge expense of new, stationary, nuclear missiles based on land. (Those ICBMs, if deployed, will probably end up costing at least $100 billion, and perhaps double that.)
I have a perfect strategy for China to win any struggle against the U.S. Make noises about something that you know will set off America’s military-industrial complex, such as aircraft carriers, ICBMs, even ambiguous plans about attacking Taiwan. Then watch as America’s military wets its pants before Congress, calling desperately for money and weaponry to meet the Chinese threat. A few billion spent here and there by China should goad America’s military enthusiasts into spending trillions to meet the threat that, to be frank, they very much want to see from China. It’s truly a win-win for China, and perhaps a win as well for America’s military-industrial complex, but it’s a huge loss for the American people.
Speaking of Taiwan, I’ve even heard talk of the U.S. Army getting into the act by basing “tripwire” forces there, much like our “tripwire” forces in South Korea, the idea being if Mainland China dares to attack Taiwan, they know it’ll be a cause for war as they’ll have to “trip” over, and presumably kill, U.S. troops. What a comforting thought.
Chinese hysteria is reaching its peak in America, notes Michael Klare at TomDispatch.com, so much so that strategic miscalculation is more possible than ever as both sides–but especially America–see hostility as the other side makes moves to counter perceived aggression.
I know the title of my article is “Beware of China,” but of course my real message is beware of America, specifically its military leaders and corporate profiteers who are always happy to exaggerate threats in the cause of securing more money and power.
“Only Americans can hurt America,” said Dwight D. Eisenhower. We had best keep that in mind as various men in uniform hyperventilate about China and the threat it poses over the next few years or decades. Indeed, as Andrea Mazzarino noted in a fine article at TomDispatch.com today, the cancer of never-ending war is killing our democracy. Forget about being afraid of China. It’s time to be afraid of our leaders and all their democracy-killing schemes.
The soon-to-be “fall” of Afghanistan, at least from a U.S. perspective, put me to mind of Vietnam and its fall in 1975. As we examine why U.S. military interventions (or invasions) keep ending so badly, we might consider how there are always winners to these losing wars in America. After all, the Afghan War has cost the U.S. more than a trillion dollars in twenty years, and quite a few people have prospered from it.
In the end, Vietnam and Afghanistan were never America’s to win, and our presence there, and our use of massive firepower, left behind a legacy of violence and destruction that should be a national shame.
“It’s their [South Vietnam’s] war to win. We can help them … but in the final analysis, it’s their people and their government who have to win or lose this struggle.” President Kennedy in September 1963
“We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles from home [to fight in Vietnam] to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” President Johnson in 1964
In my CNN news feed for today, I came across a warning from Army General Austin Scott Miller about Taliban advances in Afghanistan as U.S. troop withdrawals proceed. Conditions are deteriorating (not for the Taliban, obviously) and CNN cautioned that the Biden administration has yet to put together a plan to pursue terrorists in Afghanistan after the troop pullout is completed.
And I thought to myself: yet more evidence of the U.S. military covering its collective ass, for when the Taliban does take over, which it has been doing over the last decade, America’s generals can say, See, we told you so. We told you not to pullout too quickly. We told you this would happen, despite all those hard-fought gains we’d secured (always “fragile” and “reversible,” though, in the words of General David Petraeus). So when the “loss” does come (Afghanistan was never ours to “win” to begin with), it’ll be Biden’s fault, not ours.
In short, if we lose Afghanistan, we in the military are not to blame. You’re to blame.
Of course, this is patently ridiculous for so many reasons. I’ve written a lot about the Afghan war, and read more, so in a nutshell here’s why General Miller and Company are full of it:
The U.S. military had nearly 20 years and billions and billions in resources to train, equip, and field an Afghan military, yet all those efforts gained little.
The U.S. military had nearly 20 years and a trillion dollars in resources yet failed to defeat the Taliban.
Before Biden ordered the troop pullout, the Taliban had already secured most of the country. This was also true when Trump as president considered withdrawing but was talked out of it by his generals.
As the saying goes in Afghanistan, the Americans have the fancy watches but the Afghan people have the time. Afghanistan never was America’s to win. And with respect to terrorism, the presence of U.S. and allied troops there only served to exacerbate the conflict. More and more military hammer blows only shattered the country further, causing more devastation, more desperation, and more extremism. The U.S. military seemed to specialize in killing the second- or third-ranked “terrorist” leader, over and over again, only to see a generally younger, more extreme leader rise to take his place. It was a terrific tactic for perpetual war, but it was hardly one suited to producing victory, whatever that might look like.
So American troops are leaving places like Bagram like thieves in the night, leaving behind lots of junk and a legacy of violence and destruction. If one photo can serve to sum up our withdrawal, consider this one of an Afghan girl at work carrying scrap metal (Made in USA!) for money:
Well, that makes me proud to be an American.
Biden’s speech yesterday on Afghanistan was the usual claptrap. He claimed the U.S. didn’t go to Afghanistan to nation-build, even though the Afghan surge was all about defeating the Taliban while installing a “government in a box” for the Afghan people. All that effort by so many agencies to create an Afghan justice system, security forces, and so on so as to create the fundamentals of a government — all forgotten now because they failed. Meanwhile, the Afghan forces the U.S. military “trained” are folding quickly, flooding Afghanistan with even more weaponry.
I got this in my news feed from the New York Times:
In Forceful Defense of Afghan Withdrawal, Biden Says U.S. Achieved Its Objectives
By Michael D. Shear, David E. Sanger and Thomas Gibbons-Neff The president insisted that the United States had done more than enough to empower the Afghan police and military to secure the future of their people.
Look at the way this is structured. First the lie that we achieved our objectives. Then the idea that the way to “secure the future” is to create strong police and military forces. That is surely an idea that’s made in militarist America — that you secure the future through strong police and military forces. It’s the very opposite of what a democratic society would argue. But it is the approach of an authoritarian empire.