My Dad’s Silver Dollars

W.J. Astore

My dad left me two silver dollars.  They’re worth much in sentimental value (I’ll explain in a moment), but they also teach us something about how America has changed.

Here’s a photo of them.  Lady Liberty is on the front, an eagle is on the back.

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These were “peace” dollars issued in the aftermath of World War I.  (Note the word “peace” under the eagle.)  Imagine that: a coin issued by the USA dedicated to and celebrating peace!  It’s truly hard to imagine such a coin being issued today, and not only because our currency is now made only with base metal (a debased currency?).

In keeping with U.S. foreign policy today, an equivalent 2018 (faux silver) dollar would doubtless feature the god of war on the front with a menacing eagle clutching missiles, drones, and bombs on the back.

Anyway, I promised a story about my dad’s silver dollars, and I’m going to let him tell it:

“I have a silver dollar in my coin collection. Helen and I were courting at the time. At Nantasket beach [in Massachusetts] there was a glass container with prizes, candy, coins, etc. Also a crank on the unit which when turned controlled a flexible scoop. The idea was to work the scoop to pick up something of value. Well, I took a chance. It was like magic; the scoop just went down and picked up the silver dollar. I gave it to Ma as a remembrance. We’ve had it ever since.”

“The other silver dollar has a story also. A buddy in the service [Army] gave it to me for a birthday present [during World War II].”

After my dad died, these coins passed to me.  One is from 1922, the other from 1924.  I love the “peace” eagle they feature, though we know peace was not in the cards for long after the Great War.  And of course I love my dad’s stories of how he came to possess them.

When will America’s coinage next feature a tribute to the end of war and the promise of peace?

Technology Substitutes for Strategy in U.S. Military Operations

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Yet more weapons: The JASSM

W.J. Astore

Once again, the U.S. military has launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syria, as well as a new weapon called the JASSM-ER, described as “a stealthy long-range air-fired cruise missile.”  According to FP: Foreign Policy, the latter weapon is “likely being closely watched in Tokyo, where military officials are considering purchasing the missile to give the country’s military a long-range strike capability against North Korean targets, Japan Times reports.”  In short, the U.S. military demonstrated a new weapon for an ally and potential client while striking a country (Syria) that has no way of striking back directly at the U.S.

Here’s a report from Defense Industry Daily on the weapons used:

April 16/18: JASSM-ER makes its combat debut The USAF has fired Lockheed Martin’s AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range (JASSM-ER) missile in combat for the first time. 19 such missiles were launched from two B-1B Lancer bombers during last weekend’s sortie against Syrian chemical weapon research and storage facilities, and were joined by 57 Tomahawk missiles launched from US naval assets, as well as Storm Shadow and SCALP missiles from British and French warplanes. While Russian sources in Syria claim that Russian and Syrian air defenses managed to down 71 or the total 105 cruise missiles launched during the Friday night operation—claims Washington refutes—a report on the mission by the Aviationist reckon the newer missiles—in particular the JASSM-ER, SCALP and Storm Shadow—would have been highly effective against their targets. 

One thing is certain: business is booming yet again for Lockheed Martin.

Technology shapes thought even as it becomes a substitute for it.  It amazes me, for example, how the U.S. military threw technology at the “problem” of Vietnam in an attempt to “win” that war.  Everything short of nuclear weapons was unleashed on Southeast Asia, yet those brave people refused to surrender.  U.S. Presidents from Kennedy to Nixon were always sending messages through airpower and other forms of destructive technology, but the Vietnamese couldn’t have cared less about those “messages.”  They had one goal: expel the invader, unify the country, and they stuck to it despite all the high explosive, napalm, defoliants, electronic fences, and everything else inflicted upon them.

Americans tend to see technology as a panacea.  Even deadly technology.  So, for example, what’s the proposed solution to gun violence in the USA?  According to the NRA and our president, it’s more guns.  What’s the solution to violence in Syria?  According to the military and our president, it’s more bombs and missiles.  One clear winner emerges here: those who produce the guns, bombs, and missiles.

Tomahawks and drones and similar weapons are all about action at a distance. They incur no risk of harm to U.S. troops.  As a result, America’s leaders use them liberally to send “signals” and to add to the body count.  They strike because they can and because it’s relatively easy.  Action serves as a substitute for thought.  The only strategy is to keep blowing things up.

The U.S. strategy, such as it is, is defined and driven by Tomahawks and drones and related weaponry.  These weapons make possible “global reach, global power,” but they do not facilitate global thinking.  Promising decision or at least quick results, they lead only to more bodies and deeper quagmires.

The U.S. keeps getting bogged down in wars in part because of the faith the government places in technology.  So much is invested in military weaponry that it becomes a substitute for thought.

But there are no missions accomplished: there is only more destruction.

Why We’re Outraged by Poison Gas

I wrote this article back in 2013, when chemical weapons were used in Syria (a “red line” for Barack Obama, who was then the U.S. president). Five years later, chemical weapons have been used yet again, though it’s unknown whether it was on Bashar al-Assad’s orders. Any U.S. retaliatory strike should answer at least these four questions before going forward: 1) Who exactly was responsible for this chemical attack? 2) How will a U.S. military attack solve anything? 3) What vital U.S. interest is at stake here? 4) How will killing Syrian people with U.S. missiles or bombs serve any just cause?

Yet another U.S. military strike against a Middle Eastern country may make a few U.S. chickenhawks feel tough, but the risk of innocents being killed and yet more violence being spread in Syria and throughout the region outweigh the benefits. What are those “benefits,” exactly? Assuming Assad ordered the chemical attack, is he really going to be deterred by yet another U.S. missile strike?

Poison gas attacks are abhorrent, but so too is a rush to judgment. More U.S. bombs and missiles that only kill more people is not the answer here.

Bracing Views

Zyklon-B stockpile used by the Nazis in World War II (Image: USHMM) Zyklon-B stockpile used by the Nazis in World War II (Image: USHMM)

W.J. Astore

A good friend of mine wrote to me about chemical weapons/poison gas in World War I, and it got me to thinking about why we’re so outraged by the recent use of poison gas in Syria.

When you think about it (and who really wants to), there are so many bloody and awful ways to die in war.  Besides the usual bullets and bombs, the U.S. has used depleted uranium shells, white phosphorous, and cluster munitions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.  Why, then, the outrage over gas?  And why was it banned after World War I?

I think it was because chemical weapons/poison gas proved both indecisive and inglorious.  If chemical weapons had produced decision on the battlefield, they would have been retained, despite their inglorious and wretched effects.  But their military utility proved limited…

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On Mercy

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Gollum/Smeagol, at war with himself, consumed by desire for the Ring

W.J. Astore

Mercy has been on my mind since re-watching “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.  There’s a nasty little character known as Gollum.  Before he was seduced by Sauron’s ring (the one ring of power), Gollum was known as Smeagol.  Twisted and consumed by the Dark Lord’s ring, Smeagol becomes a shadow of himself, eventually forgetting his real name and becoming Gollum, a name related to the guttural coughs and sounds he makes.

Gollum loses the Ring to Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit of the Shire.  The Ring extends Bilbo’s life but also begins to twist him as well.  As Sauron returns to power in Mordor, he needs only to regain the Ring to defeat the combined might of the peoples of Middle Earth.  Bilbo passes the Ring to his much younger cousin, Frodo, who together with a Fellowship consisting of representatives drawn from men, elves, dwarfs, and hobbits as well as the wizard Gandalf, journeys to Mordor to destroy the Ring and vanquish Sauron.

Early in his journey to Mordor, Frodo says he wishes Bilbo had killed Gollum when he’d had the opportunity.  (Gollum, drawn by the Ring, is shadowing the Fellowship on its journey.)  Gandalf sagely advises Frodo that Gollum may yet play an important role, and that mercy is not a quality to disparage.  As the Fellowship is separated and Frodo has to journey to Mordor with only his faithful friend Sam beside him, Gollum soon becomes their indispensable guide, and Frodo begins to pity him.  Frodo, by showing Gollum mercy, reawakens the good within him, calling him Smeagol and preventing Sam from hurting him.

But the corrupting power of the Ring overtakes Smeagol again, and Gollum reemerges.  Even so, without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom.  On the brink of destroying the Ring, Frodo too becomes consumed by its power, choosing to use it instead of casting it into the fire.  Here again, Gollum emerges as an instrumental character.  He fights Frodo for the Ring, gains it, but loses his footing and falls into the fires of Mount Doom, destroying himself as well as the Ring and saving Middle Earth.

It was Bilbo and Frodo’s mercy that spared the life of Gollum, setting the stage for Gollum’s actions that ultimately save Frodo and the rest of Middle Earth from Sauron’s dominance.  Without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mount Doom; or, if by some miracle they had, Frodo in donning the Ring would have been ensnared by Sauron’s power and executed by him.  If Frodo is the hero of the tale, Gollum is the anti-hero, as indispensable to Middle Earth’s salvation as Frodo and the Fellowship.

Another story about the role of mercy came in one of my favorite “Star Trek” episodes, “Arena.”  In this episode, Captain Kirk has to fight a duel with an enemy captain of a lizard-like species known as the Gorn.  It’s supposed to be a fight to the death, overseen by a much superior species known as the Metrons.  When Kirk succeeds in besting the Gorn captain, however, he refuses to kill the Gorn, saying that perhaps the Gorn had a legitimate reason for attacking a Federation outpost.  A Metron spokesperson appears and is impressed by Kirk, saying that he has demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy, something the Metrons hardly suspected “savage” humans were capable of showing.

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Capt Kirk fights the Gorn captain in “Arena”

Perhaps war between the Federation and the Gorn is not inevitable, this episode suggests.  Diplomacy may yet resolve a territorial dispute without more blood being shed, all because Kirk had the courage to show mercy to his opponent: an opponent who wouldn’t have shown mercy to him if their fates had been reversed.

Mercy, nowadays, is not in vogue in the USA.  America’s enemies must always be smited, preferably killed, in the name of righteous vengeance.  Only weak people show mercy, or so our national narrative appears to suggest.  But recall the saying that in insisting on an eye for an eye, soon we’ll all be blind.

The desire for murderous vengeance is making us blind.  The cycle of violence continues with no end in sight.  Savagery begets more savagery.  It’s as if we’ve put on Sauron’s ring and become consumed by it.

Do we have the courage of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and even of that man of action, Captain Kirk?  Can our toughness be informed by and infused with mercy?

The Power of Hate and Fear

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W.J. Astore

Who are we supposed to hate today?  The Russians for allegedly throwing the presidential election?  The Chinese for allegedly stealing our jobs?  The North Koreans for allegedly planning our nuclear destruction?  The Iranians for allegedly working to acquire nuclear weapons?  The “axis of evil” for being, well, evil?

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously told Americans that the only thing they had to fear is fear itself.  However, recent American presidents have encouraged us to fear everything.  Let’s not forget the stoking of fear by people like Condoleezza Rice and her image of a smoking gun morphing into a nuclear mushroom cloud.  That image helped to propel America into a disastrous war in Iraq in 2003 that festers still.

One of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen in any movie came in the adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984.  The film version begins with the “two minutes of hate” directed against various (imagined) enemies.  Check it out.  Doubleplusgood!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KeX5OZr0A4

Especially disturbing is the rant against Goldstein, the enemy within.  Here I think of Donald Trump claiming that the Democrats are anti-military for not rubberstamping his budget, a dishonest as well as ridiculous charge, since both parties support high military spending.  Indeed, high Pentagon spending is the one bipartisan area of agreement in Congress.

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The top tweet is typical of Trump: Accusing Democrats of not caring about “our” troops

This is among the biggest problems in America today: the stoking of hate against the enemy within, e.g. “illegal” immigrants (rapists, gang members, killers, according to our president), Democrats who allegedly don’t support our military, rival politicians who should be “locked up,” protesters who should be punched and kicked and otherwise silenced, high school students who are dismissed as phonies and professional actors, and on and on.

Irrational fear is nothing new to America, of course.  Consider the fear of communism that produced red scares after World Wars I and II.  Consider how fears of the spread of communism led to criminal intervention in Southeast Asia and the death of millions of people there.  Massive bombing, free-fire artillery zones, the profligate use of defoliants like Agent Orange, the prolongation of war without any regard for the suffering of peoples in SE Asia: that behavior constituted a crime of murderous intensity that was in part driven by hatred and fear.

And when hatred and fear are linked to tribalism and a xenophobic form of patriotism, murderous war becomes almost a certainty.  When the zealots of hate are screaming for blood, it’s very hard to hear appeals for peace based on compassion and reason.

Anger, fear, aggression: that way leads to the dark side, as Yoda, that Jedi master, warned us.  Hate too, Yoda says, must be resisted, lest one be consumed by it.  Sure, he’s just an imaginary character in the “Star Wars” universe, but that doesn’t negate the truth of his message.

God is love, the Christian religion says.  Why then are we so open to hate and fear?

Refighting the Cold War

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I thought the USA already won?

W.J. Astore

Within the U.S. “defense” establishment there’s an eagerness to refight the Cold War with Russia and China, notes Michael Klare at TomDispatch.com.  The “long war” on terror, although still festering, is not enough to justify enormous defense budgets and traditional weapon systems like aircraft carriers, bomber and fighter jets, and tanks and artillery.  But hyping the Russian and Chinese threats, as Defense Secretary James Mattis is doing, is a proven method of ensuring future military growth along well-trodden avenues.

Hence an article at Fox News that I saw this morning.  Its title: “Here’s why Russia would lose a second Cold War — and would be unwise to start one.”  The article happily predicts the demise of Russia if that country dares to challenge the U.S. in a Cold War-like binge of military spending.  Bring it on, Russia and China, our defense hawks are effectively saying.  But recall what happened when George W. Bush said “Bring it on” in the context of the Iraq insurgency.

Our military leaders envision Russian and Chinese threats that directly challenge America’s conventional and nuclear supremacy.  They then hype these alleged threats in the toughest war of all: budgetary battles at the Pentagon and in Congress.  The Navy wants more ships, the Air Force wants more planes, the Army wants more soldiers and more weapons — and all of these are more easily justified when you face “peer” enemies instead of guerrillas and terrorists whose heaviest weapons are usually RPGs and IEDs.

Yet Russia and China aren’t stupid.  Why should they challenge the U.S. in hyper-expensive areas like aircraft-carrier-building or ultra-modern “stealth” bombers when they can easily assert influence in unconventional and asymmetric ways?  The Russians, for example, have proven adept at exploiting social media to exacerbate political divisions within the U.S., and the Chinese too are quite skilled at cyberwar.  More than anything, however, the Chinese can exploit their financial and economic clout, their growing dominance of manufacturing and trade, as the U.S. continues to hollow itself out financially in a race for conventional and nuclear dominance in which its main rival is its own distorted reflection.

In essence, then, America’s “new” National Defense Strategy under Trump is a return to the Reagan era, circa 1980, with its much-hyped military buildup.   Yet again the U.S. is investing in military hardware, but China and Russia are investing more in software, so to speak.  It makes me think of the days of IBM versus Bill Gates. Bill Gates’ genius was recognizing the future was in the software, the operating systems, not in the hardware as IBM believed.

But the U.S. is being led by hardware guys.  A hardware guy all the way, Donald Trump is all about bigger missiles and massive bombs. Indeed, later this year he wants a parade of military hardware down Pennsylvania Avenue.  It’s as if we’re living in 1975 — time to review the troops, comrade general.

Who knew the triumphant “new world order” of 1991 would become a quarter-century later a sad and tragic quest by the USA to refight the very Cold War we claimed back then to have won?  Isn’t it easy to envision Trump boasting like an old-style Soviet leader of how, under his “very stable genius” leadership, “America is turning out missiles like sausages”?

Reinforcing Failure in Afghanistan

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The Tough Terrain of Afghanistan (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

Back in 2009, as the Obama administration was ramping up its ill-fated surge in Afghanistan, I wrote the following article on the contradictions of U.S. military strategy in that country.  Like the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th century, both defeated by the Afghan people as well as the harsh environment, the Americans in the 21st century are a foreign and invasive presence in Afghanistan that will ultimately be fought off and ejected.  (Interestingly, the U.S. military has it exactly backwards, seeing itself as antibodies to a foreign terrorist threat in Afghanistan.)  Despite the weight of history and the lack of U.S. progress in Afghanistan over the last two decades, the U.S. government in 2018 refuses to withdraw, wasting an additional $45 billion a year on a trillion-dollar campaign that’s gone nowhere.

Little did I know in 2009 that, nearly a decade later, the U.S. military would still be mired in that country, yet still be talking about some kind of victory in a war that retired General David Petraeus says will last for “generations.”  The British and Soviets learned their lesson and withdrew; when will the U.S. learn the lesson of Afghanistan and withdraw?

Why is the U.S. military still there?  If it’s to suppress terrorism or the Taliban, the exact opposite has happened: terrorism has spread and the Taliban has grown stronger.  The heroin trade has also accelerated.  Is it about gas pipelines?  Strategic minerals?  Bases from which Iran can be attacked?  Maintaining American “credibility”?  All of the above?  I would guess most Americans have no clue why the U.S. military is still in Afghanistan, other than some vague notion of fighting a war on terror.  And in war vague notions are a poor substitute for sound strategy and communal will.

Here’s my article from 2009:

In the U.S. debate on Afghanistan, virtually all experts agree that it’s not within the power of the American military alone to win the war. For that, Afghanistan needs its own military and police force, one that is truly representative of the people, and one that is not hopelessly corrupted by drug money and the selfish concerns of the Karzai government [now gone] in Kabul.

The conundrum is that any Afghan military created by outsiders — and America, despite our image of ourselves, is naturally seen by most Afghans as a self-interested outsider — is apt to be viewed as compromised and illegitimate.

Committing more American troops and advisors only exacerbates this problem. The more U.S. troops we send, the more we’re “in the face” of the Afghan people, jabbering at them in a language they don’t understand. The more troops we send, moreover, the more likely it is that our troops will take the war’s burdens on themselves. If history is any guide, we’ll tend to push aside the “incompetent” and “unreliable” Afghan military that we’re so at pains to create and celebrate.

We have a classic Catch-22. As we send more troops to stiffen Afghan government forces and to stabilize the state, their high-profile presence will serve to demoralize Afghan troops and ultimately to destabilize the state. The more the U.S. military takes the fight to the enemy, the less likely it is that our Afghan army-in-perpetual-reequipping-and-training will do so.

How to escape this Catch-22? The only answer that offers hope is that America must not be seen as an imperial master in Afghanistan. If we wish to prevail, we must downsize our commitment of troops; we must minimize our presence.

But if we insist on pulling the strings, we’ll likely as not perform our own dance of death in this “graveyard of empires.”

A little history. Some two centuries ago, and much like us, the globe-spanning British Empire attempted to extend its mastery over Afghanistan. It did not go well. The British diplomat in charge, Montstuart Elphinstone, noted in his book on “Caubool” the warning of an Afghan tribal elder he encountered: “We are content with discord, we are content with alarms, we are content with blood; but we will never be content with a master.”

As imperial masters, British attitudes toward Afghans were perhaps best summed up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ninth Edition (1875). The Afghans, according to the Britannica, “are familiar with death, and are audacious in attack, but easily discouraged by failure; excessively turbulent and unsubmissive to law or discipline; apparently frank and affable in manner, especially when they hope to gain some object, but capable of the grossest brutality when that hope ceases. They are unscrupulous in perjury, treacherous, vain, and insatiable in vindictiveness, which they will satisfy at the cost of their own lives and in the most cruel manner …. the higher classes are too often stained with deep and degrading debauchery.”

One wonders what the Afghans had to say about the British.

The accuracy of this British depiction is not important; indeed, it says more about imperial British attitudes than it does Afghan culture. What it highlights is a tendency toward sneering superiority exercised by the occupier, whether that occupier is a British officer in the 1840s or an American advisor today. In the British case, greater familiarity only bred greater contempt, as the words of one British noteworthy, Sir Herbert Edwardes, illustrate. Rejecting Elphinstone’s somewhat favorable estimate of their character, Edwardes dismissively noted that with Afghans, “Nothing is finer than their physique, or worse than their morale.”

We should ponder this statement, for it could have come yesterday from an American advisor. If the words of British “masters” from 150 years ago teach us anything, it’s that Afghanistan will never be ours to win. Nor is an Afghan army ours to create. Like the British, we might fine-tune Afghan physiques, but we won’t be able to instill high morale and staying power.

And if we can’t create an Afghan army that’s willing to fight and die for Karzai or some other government we consider worthy of our support, we must face facts: There’s no chance of winning at any remotely sustainable or sensible cost to the United States.

Nevertheless, we seem eager to persist in our very own Catch-22. We may yet overcome it, but only by courting a singularly dangerous paradox. In Vietnam, our military spoke of destroying villages in order to save them. Will we have to destroy the American military in order to save Afghanistan?

For that may be the ultimate price of “victory” in Afghanistan.

An Addendum (2018): This year, the Trump administration’s Afghan “strategy” seems to be to pressure the Pakistanis by withholding foreign aid, to bomb and drone and kill as many “terrorists” as possible without committing large numbers of American troops, and to “brown the bodies,” i.e. to fight to the last Afghan government soldier.  That’s apparently what the U.S. military learned from its failed Afghan surge of 2009-10: minimize U.S. casualties while continuing the fight, irrespective of the costs (especially to Afghanistan) and lack of progress.  So I was wrong in 2009: Unlike the Vietnam War, in which the U.S. military came close to destroying itself in a vain pursuit of victory, the Afghan War has been tamped down to a manageable level of effort, or so Washington and the Pentagon seem to think.

What Washington experts will never seriously consider, apparently, is withdrawal from a war that they already lost more than a decade ago.  Thus they commit an especially egregious error in military strategy: they persist in reinforcing failure.

Update (4/2/18): Just after I wrote this, I saw this update at FP: Foreign Policy:

“This is not another year of the same thing we’ve been doing [in Afghanistan] for 17 years,” Gen. Joseph Dunford , chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Washington Post. “This is a fundamentally different approach.”

That notes of optimism comes as the Taliban have made significant territorial gains, with the group now openly active in 70 percent Afghanistan’s territory. Afghan military forces, meanwhile, are taking casualties at a record level. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani continues to drum up support for a peace initiative that would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, but so far a a breakthrough appears far off.