The U.S. Military’s Ethos: Of Busy-work, Sweaty Suffering, White Wall Haircuts, Beribboned Uniforms, and Warrior Talk

W.J. Astore

Why does the U.S. military invest so much pride in working to the point of tedium, if not exhaustion?  A friend of mine, an Army major, worked at the Pentagon.  He worked hard during his normal shift, after which he did what sensible people do – he went home.  His co-workers, noses to the grindstone, would hassle him about leaving “early.”  He’d reply, I can leave on-time because I don’t waste hours at the coffee maker or in the gym.

A caffeinated emphasis on work and fitness, another friend suggested, may be a post-Vietnam War reaction to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s “managerial culture” of the 1960s.  As he put it, “One easy way of showing one has the ‘right stuff’ [in the U.S. military] is to be an exercise nut, and the penumbras of that mind-set have really distorted the allocation of effort in our military.”

Two recent examples of work- and fitness-mania are Army Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal.  The U.S. media extolled them as ascetic-warriors, yet both flamed out due to serious errors in judgment (Petraeus for an affair with his biographer, with whom he illegally shared highly classified information, and McChrystal for tolerating a climate that undermined his civilian chain of command).  Asceticism and sweaty fitness routines, after all, are no substitute for sound judgment and a disciplined mind.

Busy-work within the military is related to Parkinson’s Law, the idea that work expands to fill the time allotted to it.  In this case, with America’s wars on terror being open-ended, or “multi-generational” as the U.S. military puts it, the “work” on these wars will continue to expand to fill this time, with the added benefit of “validating” the extra money ($54 billion in 2017 alone) being shoveled to the Pentagon by President Trump.

Along with busy-work are the virtues of suffering, as related by a societal celebration of Navy SEALs and similar special forces (“100 men will test today/but only three win the Green Beret”).  I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read articles and seen films featuring these “supermen” and their arduous training.  The meme of “sweet–and public–suffering” is related to the whole “warrior” ideal (more on this later) within the U.S. military.  There’s a self-righteous shininess here, a triumph of image over substance, or image as substance.  (Being physically tough is of course an asset in close quarters combat, but it’s no guarantor of strategic sense or even of common sense.)

In the past, some of America’s finest military leaders had no shame in appearing common, most famously the “shabby” Ulysses S. Grant during the U.S. Civil War.

Grant at Cold Harbor, 1864

Civil War officers – true citizen-soldiers, most of them – often had unruly hair and unkempt beards, but they sure as hell fought hard and got the job done.  Nowadays, as another reader put it, “there appears to be a whole lot of Army officers who think a white sidewall haircut proves you’re a great officer. It actually is a homage to the Prussian Army that shaved its soldiers’ heads to prevent lice.”

Speaking again of image, let’s take a close look at the beribboned uniforms of today’s military officers.  General Joseph Votel, presently U.S. Centcom commander, is only the most recent example of an excess of ribbons, badges, and other devices:

Contrast Votel’s image to that of General George C. Marshall, who defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II.

Marshall in 1946

How did Marshall manage such military feats with so few ribbons?  Nowadays, U.S. generals sport more bling than the Kardashians.

But let’s return to the notion of U.S. troops as “warriors” and “warfighters.”  I’ve written extensively on this subject.  I see today’s “warrior” conceit as a way of eliminating our democratic citizen-soldier ideal, making the U.S. military a thoroughly professional force, subservient to the government and divorced from the people.

However, there’s another aspect to this “warrior” mythology, a powerful psychological one: the duping of the “warriors” themselves, distracting them from a bitter reality they may be little more than cannon fodder for greed-war.*  The U.S. military today is awash with warrior creeds that to me are antithetical to the citizen-soldier ideal of America.

To sum up the U.S. military’s current ethos, then: We have a lot of guys who take great pride in constant busy-work and excessive physical exertion, sporting high and tight haircuts, their uniforms festooned with bewildering displays of ribbons and medals and badges, extolling a warrior code in the service of a government that tells them that multi-generational wars are unavoidable.

And so it shall prove, if these shadows remain unaltered.

*Thanks to Michael Murry for bringing my attention to how the semiotics of “warrior” are dramatically changed if we substitute “gladiator” for “warrior,” followed by less grandiose terms such as “those about to die,” i.e. as scapegoats to the king’s ambition, an insight he gleaned from reading Umberto Eco.

Trump, Time Magazine’s Narcissist of the Millennium

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W.J. Astore

Yesterday, I caught President Trump’s speech before the CIA.  As he stood before the wall of honor, surrounded by the stars on that wall that represent those who gave their lives for their country, Trump deviated from his prepared comments to boast about how many times he’d appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Here’s what he said: I HAVE BEEN ON THEIR COVER ABOUT 14 OR 15 TIMES. I THINK WE HAVE THE ALL-TIME RECORD IN THE HISTORY OF TIME MAGAZINE — IF TOM BRADY IS ON THE COVER, IT’S ONE TIME. I’VE BEEN ON 15 TIMES. I THINK THAT’S A RECORD THAT COULD NEVER BE BROKEN.

Really, President Trump?  You’re giving a speech before members of the CIA, and what comes to mind is the number of times your own mug has appeared on a magazine cover? And you’re doing this in front of the CIA’s wall of honor, which, according to your own words, is “very special”?

Whatever one thinks of the CIA and its history, one thing is certain from this speech: America has elected an appallingly tone-deaf and callous narcissist as its 45th president.

 

Democracy is Impossible in Post-Truth America

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Post-truth is Anti-democracy (Getty Images at The Week)

W.J. Astore

“Post-truth” was the big word for 2016, according to Oxford Dictionaries. And why not? Donald Trump won the presidency with lies and half-truths and spin, so the word does indeed resonate.

But America has been edging toward post-truth for a long time — even at its founding, skeptics might say.  The “City on a Hill,” forged on an image of Christian rectitude, witnessed the genocide of Native Americans (“savages”) and the embrace of slavery based on specious theories of racial inferiority, even as the Bible taught the love of neighbor and the equality of all before God.

More recently, America has witnessed the triumph of post-truth in the aftermath of 9/11. Recall how the attacks on 9/11 were falsely connected to Iraq, which was then connected to false claims of Iraq having active programs of WMD development, including “yellowcake” uranium as well as chemical and biological agents spread by aerial drones.  All proven false, but all used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Indeed, many Americans continue to believe that Saddam Hussein planned the 9/11 attacks (in league with Osama Bin Laden). Recall here the rare honesty of Britain’s Downing Street Memo of 2002, which asserted that the “facts” being offered by the Bush/Cheney administration were being manufactured (“fixed”) around a pre-determined policy of invasion.  The result?  Iraq was yet another un-democratic war, based in part on lies. Indeed, it’s no accident that Congress hasn’t issued a formal declaration of war since 1941.  (Another war based on lies: the Vietnam War, e.g. recall the false reports of attacks at Tonkin Gulf.)

Another example of post-truth was the Surge of 2007, advertised as a “win” for America even as General David Petraeus warned that progress in Iraq was both “fragile” and “reversible.”  So it has proved, for here we are, a decade later, trying to recapture territory (such as Mosul) that had allegedly been pacified under Petraeus.

America’s post-truth crew has now been captured by a shameless con man, the Tweeter-in-chief, Donald Trump.  Recall a saying often attributed to P.T. Barnum that “a sucker is born every minute.” Trump knows this — and will exploit it to the hilt, if the American people let him.

As January 20th approaches, Americans need to prepare themselves for a post-truth presidency.  As my dad used to say to me: “Don’t believe anything that you read and only half of what you see.”  Wise words for the days and years to come, but they come with a major problem.  Some sense of truth, of consensus based on acknowledged facts and a rigorous and fair-minded process of reasoning, is needed for a democracy to function.

Without integrity, which is based on facts and honesty and a willingness to reason together in good will and with honorable intentions, democracy simply cannot function. Put simply, a post-truth America is an anti-democratic America.  For without truth, without some consensus based on facts, all you have is lies, misinformation, and spin: a foundation of sand upon which nothing of worth can be built.

Quick Thoughts on Hillary and Trump before the Debate

julius-caesar3
Hail Caesar!

W.J. Astore

Sorry, I have no special insight into tonight’s debate.  I’m guessing Hillary will win based on points, but that Trump will also win by being present on the same stage.  More celebrity than politician, more showman than man of substance, Trump knows how to control his own image. Hillary will command the facts; Trump will command the audience’s attention.  It’s a win-win for them but a lose-lose for America.

I had a strange dream last night.  I dreamed that Trump arrived at the debate, riding a chariot and posing as Caesar.  And the audience applauded.  I was desperate to ask a question (yes, I was in the audience, don’t ask me how), and got the chance.  I said something like this: “I was in the military for 20 years, serving my country, yet you, Donald Trump, dodged the draft during the Vietnam War.  You claim to be on the side of veterans, but you arrive here dressed as Caesar, as a conquering hero, even though you yourself never served.  Have you no sense of decency, sir?  Have you no shame?”

I swear: I rarely remember my dreams, and those that I do remember have nothing whatsoever to do with presidential politics.  In my waking hours, I don’t think of Trump as Caesar.  He’s more of a Nero, a deeply flawed narcissist who will fiddle while America burns.

Hillary raises different issues.  I keep seeing, both in print and on TV, the argument that Hillary is imperfect, secretive, compromised by special interests, a person of questionable judgment, but that we must vote for her simply because SHE’S NOT TRUMP.  Trump is so bad, such a hazard to democracy, the argument goes, that we must swallow the jagged big pill that is Hillary, no matter how painful that pill may prove, simply because the alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

It’s sad indeed that some people’s best (only?) argument for Hillary is that SHE’S NOT TRUMP. For me, I can’t get past the Democratic Party’s efforts to rig the primary process in her favor against a true populist with integrity, Bernie Sanders.  It’s Bernie, not Hillary, who should be running against Trump, but the Democratic Party establishment determined from the beginning that Hillary, not Bernie, would be its nominee.

Of course, both parties, Republican and Democrat, want to keep alternatives from us.  The shameful part of tonight’s debate is that Gary Johnson (Libertarian) and Jill Stein (Green) are excluded.  In short, there will be no “debate” tonight in any meaningful sense of that word. Instead, we will get a narrow discussion of establishment views with considerable jousting and posturing (and perhaps some mugging from Trump), generating some heat but precious little light.

Yes, I will watch the debate.  I just hope some version of my dream of Caesar’s rapturous appearance doesn’t come to pass.

Which Hypocritical Billionaire Should Rule America?

Clinton_Paskova_0191471569795
She might meet with you — if the price is right

W.J. Astore

News about the Clinton Foundation and its finances shows the truth of that old adage, “You get what you pay for.”  In this case, giving money to the Clinton Foundation often bought access to Hillary Clinton (or her closest aides), the odds-on favorite to be America’s next president, and sometimes it helped with favors as well.  These revelations illustrate perfectly the “pay to play” nature of the American political scene: the usual influence peddling, the usual FOBH, Friends of Bill and Hillary, coming together to pull the strings while being paid handsomely for the performance.

Here’s what the Washington Post had to say about it:

A sports executive who was a major donor to the Clinton Foundation and whose firm paid Bill Clinton millions of dollars in consulting fees wanted help getting a visa for a British soccer player with a criminal past.

The crown prince of Bahrain, whose government gave more than $50,000 to the Clintons’ charity and who participated in its glitzy annual conference, wanted a last-minute meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

U2 rocker and philanthropist Bono, also a regular at foundation events, wanted high-level help broadcasting a live link to the International Space Station during concerts.

In each case, according to emails released Monday from Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state, the requests were directed to Clinton’s deputy chief of staff and confidante, Huma Abedin, who engaged with other top aides and sometimes Clinton herself about how to respond.

The emails show that, in these and similar cases, the donors did not always get what they wanted, particularly when they sought anything more than a meeting.

But the exchanges, among 725 pages of correspondence from Abedin disclosed as part of a lawsuit by the conservative group Judicial Watch, illustrate the way the Clintons’ international network of friends and donors was able to get access to Hillary Clinton and her inner circle during her tenure running the State Department.

Yes, money sure does matter.  If asked why they took more the fifty grand from the prince of Bahrain, among other donors with deep pockets, I suppose Hillary and Bill might just say, “Because that’s what they offered.”  Money is the universal solvent of politics, and Hillary and Bill know this better than most.

Of course, Hillary is trying to position herself as the champion of ordinary people, even as she and her husband have amassed a foundation and position worth roughly $2 billion. Who knows?  Given the nebulous and chaotic nature of Trump’s finances, the Clintons may be richer than him.

Which brings me to this question: Which hypocritical billionaire do you want to rule America?

Update (8/24/16): The Washington Post has another story on how Hillary Clinton is raising big money through various fundraisers.  All you need is $25K or $50K and some good connections and you too might be able to meet Hillary in a semi-private setting.  You might even net a bonus like seeing Cher (in Provincetown) or hearing Aretha Franklin sing (in Birmingham, Michigan).

Remember how Bernie Sanders energized a movement, raising millions by relying on individual donations that averaged (and this is an amount he made famous) $27 per donation?

Those days are gone.  Establishment Hillary is back, and she’s raising buckets of money from the deep pockets of heavy-hitters.

But never fear!  She’s all about helping “everyday people” — a phrase her campaign used until someone noticed it was slightly condescending.

If we’re “everyday people,” who are the Clintons?  Well, I can tell you how they think of themselves by how they act: They are the higher life forms, to borrow a phrase from a friend, a retired Army major who remembers M-48 tanks because he served in one.

That’s one place we won’t see Hillary: in an Army tank.  But if we ever did, I think she’d pull it off better than Michael Dukakis did.

***Photographer
Beware of posing with tanks

 

Hillary’s Clinching of the Nomination

Yet another selfie
Yet another selfie

W.J. Astore

Well, she’s won.  Hillary Clinton’s victories in last night’s presidential primaries have clearly put her over the top, clinching the Democratic nomination. Facing the loudmouthed bigotry and ignorant blustering of Donald Trump this fall, Hillary has an excellent chance of being elected as America’s first female president.

I’ve already written a lot of articles at this site on why I find both Hillary and The Donald to be poor choices as president. I won’t repeat those arguments here.  But I do want to talk about Hillary’s campaign, and what it says about her candidacy.

I remember the first commercial Hillary made, the announcement of her candidacy.  A tedious spot, it focused on her grandmotherly qualities.  It had no vision, no bite, and little hope.  It was about trying to make us feel comfortable with Hillary.  Hey, she’s a mom and a grandma!  Other women like her!  She’s just like us!

It went downhill from there.  Hillary’s campaign has been carefully scripted and modulated, the opposite of impassioned.  Vapidness replaced vision.  That’s why a democratic socialist Jew from Vermont via Brooklyn gave her a run for her money, because she had no passion or vision and he did (and does).

For me, the defining moment of their debates came when Bernie argued strongly for a $15.00 minimum wage for workers and Hillary was content with offering workers a $12.00 wage. (More than enough, peasants!)  Combine that moment with her infamous statement about the gobs of money she made in three speeches to Goldman Sachs (“Well, that’s what they offered”) and you get a clear sense of who she is and what she’s about.

A quick note: A nursing aide making Hillary’s generous $12.00 hourly wage at 40 hours a week would take 28 years to earn the $675,000 that Clinton “earned” in a few short hours giving those speeches.

Her campaign claims she’s “fighting for us.”  But I see Hillary as fighting for herself — and her circle of privileged cronies.  There’s nothing new about this in American politics, of course.  It’s just terribly disappointing for America that two narcissists, two voices of the privileged, will be vying for the presidency this fall.

One thing I would like to see (and it won’t happen): I’d like to see Trump and Hillary debate with Green and Libertarian candidates.  I’d like to hear some real alternative views and how the “major” candidates respond to them.  But even though the media found room for up to seventeen Republican primary candidates on the stage, you can bet the house that Trump and Hillary will share a stage alone together.

Alone together — get ready for gratuitous insults and sound bites, America. One thing is certain: neither candidate is fighting for us, and both are not about making America great again.

D-Day Thoughts on Strength versus Weakness

330px-York
Sergeant Alvin C. York, reluctant hero

W.J. Astore

On this 72nd anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion at Normandy in France during World War II, it’s high time we thought about what is truly weakness versus strength in U.S. foreign policy.

There’s no doubt that in World War II American leaders demonstrated strength.  Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had to be defeated, and the means had to be military.  Our leaders mobilized the nation and the deed was done by men and women of my parent’s generation.

What about today?  Is our nation truly mobilized for war?  Are threats like ISIS truly the equivalent of militarized nation-states like Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan?  Are we truly engaged in wars of necessity, in wars of self-defense, or are our wars those of choice?  The lack of any Congressional declarations of war, of any effort at national mobilization or shared sacrifice, suggests the latter.  Our leaders choose to wage them – a choice that showcases weakness rather than strength.

How so?  “Strength” is shown not by committing troops to quagmires; not by escalating wars; not by buying, sending or selling more weaponry; not by more and more bombing; not by drone assassinations.  Indeed, weakness is shown in embracing these steps as providing “solutions.”

How “tough” do you really have to be to commit other people’s sons and daughters to war?  How tough do you have to be to bomb foreigners without risk to yourself, to buy and sell weapons at healthy profits, to send in the B-52s or the drones or the privatized militaries?  For Washington today, these are the easy steps to take, the expected ones, the expedient ones, the predictable ones.  They are not evidence of “toughness” — rather the reverse.

So, what is really “tough” for today’s DC crowd?  Patient diplomacy, quiet resolve, a willingness to withdraw from unwinnable wars, the resolve to retrench and rethink militarized positions.  Being a peacemaker instead of a war-bringer – that is what is really tough in today’s hyper-violent America.  But in “exceptional” America, war means never having to say you’re sorry.

The corporate media also has its categories of “weakness” and “strength” exactly backwards, hence the praise of Hillary Clinton for her toughness.  Her embrace of Henry Kissinger is generally applauded, and if Henry wasn’t so old, one could imagine the media applauding her if she made him her VP.  Donald Trump, of course, is riding a wave of (trumped up) toughness.  He’s presented as a “Go ahead—make my day” kind of guy, as if attacking marginalized groups for political advantage is the height of manly courage.  In polarized America, how tough do you have to be to criticize Muslims, immigrants of color, and other victimized or vulnerable groups? Trump would be truly tough if he took on racism, if he fought for justice, if he adopted positions based on democratic principles rather than his own biases and resentments.

The ass backwards nature of “strength” versus “weakness” is mirrored in America’s movies and TV shows.  In my dad’s day (the 1930s and 1940s), America’s good guys didn’t obsess about weapons.  Generally, it was gangsters who relied on them.  Men of weak character played with guns.  Truly tough men duked it out with fists when they weren’t otherwise facing each other down.  Think Humphrey Bogart, unarmed, facing down the gangster Johnny Rocco and his gun-toting stiffs in “Key Largo” (1948).

Think too of Gary Cooper in “High Noon” (1952).  He’s not spoiling for a fight, but he’s ready to endure one if it’s unavoidable.  His main “weapon” is his decency, his nerve, his courage, his character.  Today’s “heroes” in movies and TV are all about kinetic action, amped-up violence, and big guns.  Violence and mayhem dominate, just as in America’s overseas wars of choice.  Art imitates life while reinforcing it.  As a result, Americans don’t even blink when they hear about the latest drone assassination in Where–is-it-stan.  It’s happening off-stage, so who cares?

Even our war movies aren’t what they used to be.  Think Gary Cooper (again) playing Sergeant Alvin C. York, the World War I hero who was a conscientious objector due to his religious views.  Nowadays, our war movies celebrate gung-ho “American snipers” for their kill totals.

What is truly weakness and what is truly strength?  And why are America’s leaders, leaders of the sole superpower with the self-avowed “best” military ever, so very, very afraid of being perceived as “weak”?

Mister, we could use a man like Alvin York again.