Doing some housecleaning of the mind, so to speak:
I recently read a book that argued the U.S. military loses its wars due to poor strategy and lack of understanding of “limited” war. It was a sophisticated book that cited the usual suspects in classical military theory, like Clausewitz. And it got me to thinking. I don’t think the U.S. loses wars because of poor military theory or improper applications thereof. And I don’t think the U.S. can win wars by better/smarter theory. Rather, the wars the U.S. has been fighting since Korea should never have been started or joined to begin with. Whether it’s Vietnam in the 1960s or Afghanistan and Iraq today, these are and never were “winnable” wars. Why? Because they were unnecessary to U.S. national security. And the only way to “win” such wars is to end them.
Unnecessary wars persist for many reasons. A big one is profit, as in Ike’s military-industrial complex. Perhaps as well these wars are sustained by a belief the U.S. military could win them if only the generals hit on the right strategy. But there is no smarter way to win dumb wars. You win them when you end them.
War criminals. There’s been talk lately of President Trump wanting to pardon war criminals and how this would jeopardize order and discipline within the U.S. military. But let’s leave aside low-level offenders (your sergeants and captains) and talk about high-ranking war criminals. Indeed, what about the men who chose to go to war under false pretenses in the first place? If you choose not to prosecute men like Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld, why pursue and prosecute the little guys?
I once read that the guilt for war crimes is greater the further you are from the crimes you effectively ordered. Adolf Eichmann didn’t dirty his own hands; he was a deskbound murderer. And perhaps that’s the worst kind.
Historically, we recognize the moral and legal culpability of high-ranking murderers like Eichmann. Should America’s top leaders be held responsible for the murderous results of wars that they launched?
Lady Liberty Locked and Loaded. The U.S. routinely brags of having the best military ever while leading the world in weapons sales while professing to be an exceptional bastion of liberty. And most Americans see no contradiction here. Simultaneously, men like Trump continue to vilify brown-skinned immigrants as bringing violence to America. Lady Liberty, in short, no longer lights her torch for the huddled masses. If we (or the French?) were making her today, she’d carry a .44 magnum (or an assault rifle?) in place of a torch. Do you feel lucky, immigrant punks?
Coincidence: A friend just sent me the Global Peace Index for the world’s 163 countries. The USA ranks #128. (Iceland is #1, followed by New Zealand at #2.) USA! USA! USA!
A friend of mine sent along a campaign ad for a woman running for Congress in Texas. Kim Olson is her name, and she has some good ideas. But the ad itself is telling for different reasons. A retired Air Force colonel, Olson appears in her military-issue flight jacket, complete with her rank, wings, and command patch, as she talks about being a “warrior.”
I have nothing against Colonel (retired) Olson. She’s gutsy and committed to public service. But enough of the “warrior” talk and enough with the military uniforms! You didn’t see Ike campaigning for president while wearing a jacket with five stars on it.
Readers of this blog may know that I taught at the Air Force Academy for six years. Impressive? Not according to the Secretary of the Air Force. In her words: “We are now boarding and recommending people for instructor duty and you’re not going to be able to do it unless you’re the best of the best. Historically, we didn’t value instructor duty. If you taught at Lackland or at the Air Force Academy or ROTC…that was kind of because you couldn’t get a better position and it was kind of a dead end. So now we’ve flipped that.”
I’ve changed my call sign to William “Dead End” Astore. It has a nice ring to it.
In all seriousness, the military has always favored doers over thinkers. Nowadays, you’re supposed to be a warrior, constantly doing…well…something. So we’ve been doing something, usually the same thing, repeatedly, in Iraq and Afghanistan, regardless of results. And history? Who cares? America’s military members barely know their own history, let alone the history of foreign peoples and cultures.
Incredibly, the military’s push for better education (defined as “intellectual overmatch,” I kid you not) is couched in terms of out-thinking the Russians and Chinese. In other words, we’re doomed.
As I put it to a friend, “The services need to develop senior officers with depth and breadth of vision, but the system is designed to produce narrow-minded true believers. It’s a little like trying to reform the Catholic church and its hierarchy of conservative, insular, cardinals and bishops.”
Or, as one of my Air Force friends put it, waxing satirically: “But you know, the problem really is that we don’t award enough ribbons, haven’t changed the uniform in a few years, and are allowing transgendered to serve while violating the rights of commanders by not allowing them to share [with subordinates] their [conservative Christian] faith.”
That’s enough random thoughts for this Thursday. What say you, readers?
What America’s National Security State Got Wrong in Its Wars of Choice and How to Deconstruct the War State
I’m a Washington outsider/non-careerist who worked seven years as a civilian advisor in our country’s Wars of Choice in Iraq and Afghanistan. Earlier in my life, I served in and worked for the military-industrial complex. I have lived, worked and traveled throughout Europe and the Greater Middle East. Given this background, I’ve written a book (Will We Ever Learn?) recounting from personal knowledge how our nation’s interventionist foreign policy and military adventurism has transformed the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about in 1961 into today’s unimaginable $1.25 trillion/year national security establishment. This enterprise operates as a de facto shadow government apart from our representative democracy. It perpetuates a bipartisan war culture driven by defense industry lobbyists and special interests. Our burgeoning multi-agency “War State” is the primary reason for Congress’ $1-trillion-plus/year budget deficits and our country’s $22 trillion in national debt.
As I document in my book, $7.5 trillion of the $12 trillion increase in our national debt since 9/11 is attributable to increases in defense spending mainly related to the War on Terror. I can attest that the trillions spent on these idiotic wars was a waste of taxpayers’ money. Much worse, they created over 6,000 Gold Star parents and tens of thousands of maimed and PTSD-stricken brave patriots. Yet, overspending on our military goes on – even as War on Terror proponents admit Americans are less safe today. Most political leaders responsible for our recent wars and their funding – and the pundits who advocated for them – are still around as esteemed figures in Washington. No four-star generals – company men one and all — were held accountable for the DoD’s egregious mistakes in warfighting strategy and tactics that I document in my book.
The swamp creatures who rule over Washington’s war culture know they must maintain our War State as an expanding $1.25 trillion/year enterprise (including what I estimate to be $250 billion/year for nuclear-war deterrence) to stay in power – regardless of how much national debt they run up and how many Gold Star parents, maimed soldiers, and PTSD cases result from their military adventurism. Congressional leadership supports the War State because both parties receive massive campaign funding to maintain the status quo from corporate lobbyists and big donors. This insiders’ money game is not the America my Uncle Norb – who I never knew because he was killed storming the beach at Eniwetok Atoll as a 19-year-old Marine in 1944 – died fighting to preserve as member of our nation’s greatest generation.
In my book (and this essay), I identify specific changes in foreign and military policy and $500 billion/year in defense spending cuts which, if made, would make America and the world safer. These sensible and practical actions recognize the instability and trepidation that Washington’s bullying and war culture are causing around the world.
My remedies include restricting the development and proliferation of conventional weapons and eliminating all nuclear weapons from the world under a United Nations Treaty ratified in 2017 by 123 countries. This U.N. initiative followed a 2007 Wall Street Journalcommentary titled “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” by Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn — hardly naïve isolationists. President Obama also persuasively advocated for a no-nuke world in a speech he gave in Prague in 2009. Under my plan to scale-back U.S. militarism, our country would still spend twice as much on national security as our two presumed military adversaries combined: Russia with its crumbling economy and China with its growing dissident problems. If our national security state officials can’t keep America safe with a 2:1 spending advantage over these two troubled countries, they all should be fired.
What’s a solution to this predicament that engenders our idiotic wars and is driving our country off a fiscal cliff? Simple: Empower — and require – all members of Congress, as our directly elected representatives, to make up-or-down floor votes on specific spending “tradeoffs” as a follow-on step to the current Congressional appropriations process. For example, the Democratic caucus in the House could require a tradeoff vote on cancelling funding in the DoD’s approved appropriations bill for the $1.5-trillion life-time-costs F-35 fighter program (the late Senator John McCain – hardly an anti-military pacifist — called the F-35 program “a scandal and a tragedy” at a 2016 Senate hearing ); or spending the same amount over the same timeframe for better health care, free college tuition, student debt forgiveness, and similar programs.
If a specific tradeoff challenge vote passes both Houses of Congress, it would go the President to accept or reject. A challenge could fail. But each member of Congress who voted “no” in this example would have to explain at reelection time why he or she thinks our military needs over 2,000 F-35s when Russia has zero Su-57s in service; and why he or she believes the money spent on unneeded F-35’s could not be better used to reduce the federal budget deficit (also an option in my plan) — or make college affordable for all our citizens as the tradeoff vote in this example.
These changes can all happen if voters bring up these reform initiatives at candidate forums and obtain pledges from candidates for federal office to commit to fixing Congress so it serves the interests of individual citizens — not corporate lobbyists and special interests. Getting these changes adopted may yet prevent our democracy from going down the low road to perdition.
Even as Congress fights over a few billion dollars for the 9/11 first responders, there’s no shortage of money for warplanes. This week the Pentagon announced the largest military procurement deal in history: $34 billion for 478 F-35 warplanes. This decision comes despite the less-than-stellar performance of the F-35.
How can we forget the suffering of 9/11 first responders yet continue to buy overpriced jets at mind-boggling prices? Sometimes I think we worship weapons as a golden idol. People get so excited about them – almost as if they “own” their own personal F-35. What can these warplanes do for us except blow things up? Who’s going to attack the U.S. with a vast air fleet such that we need all these planes for “defense”?
The other day, I was reading old reporting from World War II (in the Library of America series). There was an article on war rationing and how Americans were fighting for more gasoline for their personal cars. And a war ration board member referenced the amount of gas a bomber needed just to warm up its engines as the reason why ordinary Americans had to ration gas.
Imagine if Americans today had to ration gas so that our F-35s and stealth bombers could fly. Imagine if you couldn’t go on your summer vacation because you couldn’t get the gas due to the war on terror or the gas-guzzling appetites of B-52s and Navy jets operating near Iran.
Americans might actually pay attention to our foreign wars! They might begin to question why they couldn’t get gas for their cars, trucks, boats, and campers because of Iran deployments or Afghan operations or what-have-you.
But unlike in World War II, today we are asked to make no sacrifices. None. Only our tax dollars — and our collective futures.
It’s amazing how often America’s politicians dismiss proposals that would benefit workers as “too expensive” (such as a higher minimum wage, or more affordable college education, or single-payer health care) versus how much they’re willing to approve for new weapons and wars. With little debate, this year’s “defense” budget will be roughly $750 billion, although the real number exceeds a trillion dollars, as Bill Hartung notes here for TomDispatch. Meanwhile, spending on education, infrastructure improvements, and so on withers.
It’s almost as if the impoverishment of America’s workers is deliberate (some would say it is). Four decades ago, I remember reading Crane Brinton’s “The Anatomy of Revolution” in AP Modern European History. Brinton noted how rising expectations among the lower orders can lead to revolutionary fervor. But if you keep people down, keep them busy working two or three jobs, keep them distracted with “circuses” like unending sports coverage and Trump’s every twitch and tweet, you can control them.
Thus the establishment sees a true populist politician like Bernie Sanders as the real enemy. Bernie raises hopes; he wants to help workers; but that’s not the point of the American system. So, Bernie must be dismissed as “crazy,” or marginalized as a dangerous socialist, even though he’s just an old-fashioned New Dealer who wants government to work for the people.
Related to keeping people under control (by keeping them divided, distracted, and downtrodden) is to keep them fearful. A foreign bogeyman is always helpful here, hence the demonization of Vladimir Putin. An old friend of mine sent me an article this past weekend about Putin’s strategy in reviving Russia. I confess I don’t follow Russia and Putin that closely. But it strikes me that Putin has played a weak hand well, whereas U.S. leaders have played a strong hand poorly.
In the article I noted the following quote by Putin:
[we] need to build our home and make it strong and well protected … The wolf knows how to eat … and is not about to listen to anyone … How quickly all the pathos of the need to fight for human rights and democracy is laid aside the moment the need to realize one’s own interests come to the fore.
Putin’s words are from a decade ago, when the U.S. still talked about fighting for “human rights and democracy.” Under Trump, “one’s own interests” are naked again in U.S. foreign policy under men like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. Is this progress?
Overall, Russia has learned (or been forced) to limit its foreign burdens, whereas the U.S. is continuing to expand its “global reach.” Russia learned from the Cold War and is spending far less on its military, whereas the U.S. continues to spend more and more. It’s ironic indeed if Russia is the country cashing in on its peace dividend, even as the U.S. still seems to believe that peace is impossible and that war pays.
I wonder if Russia (joined by China) spends just enough on its military to present a threat to the U.S. for those who are so eager to see and exaggerate it. For example, China builds an aircraft carrier, or Russia builds a nuclear cruise missile, not because they’re planning unprovoked attacks against the U.S., but as a stimulus to America’s military-industrial complex. Because America’s reaction is always eminently predictable. The national security state seizes on any move by China or Russia as dangerous, destabilizing, and as justification for yet more military spending. The result is a hollowing out of the U.S. (poorer education, fewer factories, weaker economy, collapsing infrastructure), even as China and Russia grow comparatively stronger by spending more money in non-military sectors.
There are complicated forces at work here. Of course, Ike’s military-industrial-Congressional complex is always involved. But there’s also a weird addiction to militarism and violence in the USA. War, gun violence, and other forms of killing have become the background noise to our lives, so much so that we barely perceive the latest mass killing, or the latest overseas bombing gone wrong. (I’d also add here the violence we’re doing to our environment, our earth, our true “homeland.”)
I mentioned violence to my old friend, and he sent me this note:
On violence and American cultural DNA one place to start is Richard Slotkin’s trilogy, Regeneration Through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation… The gist of what I have gotten about Slotkin’s thesis is that America’s frontier past trained settlers to think of violence (against natives and against each other) as forms of rebirth both for the individual and for the community.
My friend’s comment about violence and rebirth made me think of the film “Birth of a Nation” (1915) and the infamous scene of the KKK riding to the rescue. We in America have this notion that, in one form or another, a heavily armed cavalry will ride to the rescue and save us (from savage Indians, violent immigrants, etc.). In a strange way, Trump’s campaign tapped this notion of rebirth through violence. Think of his threats against immigrants – and his promises to build a wall to keep them out – and his threats to torture terrorists and even to kill their families.
Trump tapped a rich seam of redemption through violence in the USA, this yearning for some sort of violent apocalypse followed by a “second coming,” notably in conservative evangelical circles. For when you look at “end times” scenarios in evangelical settings, peaceful bliss is not the focus. Suffering of the unredeemed is what it’s all about. Christ is not bringing peace but a sword to smite all the evildoers.
For people who suffer toil and trouble daily, such apocalyptic visions are a powerful distraction and may serve as a potent reactionary tonic. Why fight for Bernie’s political revolution when Christ’s return is imminent?
That’s enough musing for one Monday morning. Readers, what say you?
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I tackle America’s cult of bombing overseas, most recently in the Middle East, Central Asia, and portions of Africa, and the darker facets of air power in general. Air power may not be “unthinkable” like nuclear war, but most Americans nevertheless choose not to think about it since the bombing, the destruction, the killing are happening elsewhere to people other than us. Indeed, occasionally America’s politicians talk about bombing as if it’s a joke (consider John McCain’s little ditty about bombing Iran, or Ted Cruz’s reference to carpet bombing ISIS and making the sand “glow”).
Treating air power and bombing so cavalierly is a big mistake. Much like mass shootings in the “homeland,” it’s become the background noise to our lives. But it’s a deadly reality to others — and since violence often begets more violence, it may very well prove a prescription for permanent war.
Ten Cautionary Tenets About Air Power
1. Just because U.S. warplanes and drones can strike almost anywhere on the globe with relative impunity doesn’t mean that they should. Given the history of air power since World War II, ease of access should never be mistaken for efficacious results.
2. Bombing alone will never be the key to victory. If that were true, the U.S. would have easily won in Korea and Vietnam, as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq. American air power pulverized both North Korea and Vietnam (not to speak of neighboring Laos and Cambodia), yet the Korean War ended in a stalemate and the Vietnam War in defeat. (It tells you the world about such thinking that air power enthusiasts, reconsidering the Vietnam debacle, tend to argue the U.S. should have bombed even more — lots more.) Despite total air supremacy, the recent Iraq War was a disaster even as the Afghan War staggers on into its 18th catastrophic year.
3. No matter how much it’s advertised as “precise,” “discriminate,” and “measured,” bombing (or using missiles like the Tomahawk) rarely is. The deaths of innocents are guaranteed. Air power and those deaths are joined at the hip, while such killings only generate anger and blowback, thereby prolonging the wars they are meant to end.
Consider, for instance, the “decapitation” strikes launched against Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and his top officials in the opening moments of the Bush administration’s invasion of 2003. Despite the hype about that being the beginning of the most precise air campaign in all of history, 50 of those attacks, supposedly based on the best intelligence around, failed to take out Saddam or a single one of his targeted officials. They did, however, cause “dozens” of civilian deaths. Think of it as a monstrous repeat of the precision air attacks launched on Belgrade in 1999 against Slobodan Milosevic and his regime that hit the Chinese embassy instead, killing three journalists.
Here, then, is the question of the day: Why is it that, despite all the “precision” talk about it, air power so regularly proves at best a blunt instrument of destruction? As a start, intelligence is often faulty. Then bombs and missiles, even “smart” ones, do go astray. And even when U.S. forces actually kill high-value targets (HVTs), there are always more HVTs out there. A paradox emerges from almost 18 years of the war on terror: the imprecision of air power only leads to repetitious cycles of violence and, even when air strikes prove precise, there always turn out to be fresh targets, fresh terrorists, fresh insurgents to strike.
4. Using air power to send political messages about resolve or seriousness rarely works. If it did, the U.S. would have swept to victory in Vietnam. In Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, for instance, Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-1968), a graduated campaign of bombing, was meant to, but didn’t, convince the North Vietnamese to give up their goal of expelling the foreign invaders — us — from South Vietnam. Fast-forward to our era and consider recent signals sent to North Korea and Iran by the Trump administration via B-52 bomber deployments, among other military “messages.” There’s no evidence that either country modified its behavior significantly in the face of the menace of those baby-boomer-era airplanes.
5. Air power is enormously expensive. Spending on aircraft, helicopters, and their munitions accounted for roughly half the cost of the Vietnam War. Similarly, in the present moment, making operational and then maintaining Lockheed Martin’s boondoggle of a jet fighter, the F-35, is expected to cost at least $1.45 trillion over its lifetime. The new B-21 stealth bomber will cost more than $100 billion simply to buy. Naval air wings on aircraft carriers cost billions each year to maintain and operate. These days, when the sky’s the limit for the Pentagon budget, such costs may be (barely) tolerable. When the money finally begins to run out, however, the military will likely suffer a serious hangover from its wildly extravagant spending on air power.
6. Aerial surveillance (as with drones), while useful, can also be misleading. Command of the high ground is not synonymous with god-like “total situational awareness.” It can instead prove to be a kind of delusion, while war practiced in its spirit often becomes little more than an exercise in destruction. You simply can’t negotiate a truce or take prisoners or foster other options when you’re high above a potential battlefield and your main recourse is blowing up people and things.
7. Air power is inherently offensive. That means it’s more consistent with imperial power projection than with national defense. As such, it fuels imperial ventures, while fostering the kind of “global reach, global power” thinking that has in these years had Air Force generals in its grip.
8. Despite the fantasies of those sending out the planes, air power often lengthens wars rather than shortening them. Consider Vietnam again. In the early 1960s, the Air Force argued that it alone could resolve that conflict at the lowest cost (mainly in American bodies). With enough bombs, napalm, and defoliants, victory was a sure thing and U.S. ground troops a kind of afterthought. (Initially, they were sent in mainly to protect the airfields from which those planes took off.) But bombing solved nothing and then the Army and the Marines decided that, if the Air Force couldn’t win, they sure as hell could. The result was escalation and disaster that left in the dust the original vision of a war won quickly and on the cheap due to American air supremacy.
9. Air power, even of the shock-and-awe variety, loses its impact over time. The enemy, lacking it, nonetheless learns to adapt by developing countermeasures — both active (like missiles) and passive (like camouflage and dispersion), even as those being bombed become more resilient and resolute.
10. Pounding peasants from two miles up is not exactly an ideal way to occupy the moral high ground in war.
The Road to Perdition
If I had to reduce these tenets to a single maxim, it would be this: all the happy talk about the techno-wonders of modern air power obscures its darker facets, especially its ability to lock America into what are effectively one-way wars with dead-end results…
In reality, this country might do better to simply ground its many fighter planes, bombers, and drones. Paradoxically, instead of gaining the high ground, they are keeping us on a low road to perdition.
This week a good friend sent me the image below from Mad Magazine.
Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Senator J.W. Fulbright’s book, “The Pentagon Propaganda Machine” (1970) and came across this footnote on page 57:
“Promotion of the display of the National Flag is one of the Navy’s service-wide public affairs projects. It is laudable enough if it remains unconnected with the current campaign of superpatriots that equates the display of flag decals on automobile windows with love of country and unlimited support for the war in Vietnam.”
And then I came across a photograph by Diane Arbus, “Boy with a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, NYC, 1967.”
It’s a fascinating photo. “Support Our Boys” is now rendered as “Support Our Troops.” Also, today’s flags are a lot bigger. The “Bomb Hanoi” pin speaks for itself.
All of this got me thinking about how “super” patriotism is linked to fanatical support for war, which draws from hatred of “the other,” whether that “other” is foreigners or various alleged enemies within (like those “liberals” and “pacifists” mentioned in the Mad Magazine cartoon).
As the Trump administration appears to promise more wars in the future (consider Mike Pence’s recent bellicose speech at West Point), perhaps in Venezuela or Iran, we need to be on guard against this idea that supporting wars is patriotic. Indeed, the opposite is usually true. “I’m already against the next war” is a good rule of thumb to live by.
How did “super” patriotism become synonymous with blanket support for destructive wars? One thing is certain: it’s nothing new in America.