The Limits of Air Power

We can airlift people and also kill them by remote control missile. USA! USA! (Cartoon from The Guardian)

W.J. Astore

As U.S. airplanes evacuated so many desperate people from Afghanistan, I got to thinking about all those drone strikes, assassinations by Hellfire missiles, and bombing runs that the U.S. did in Afghanistan over the last two decades (in a quest for peace, naturally). Much like Vietnam in the 1960s, air power kept U.S. forces in a lost war for far longer than they should have been, yet air power made no difference to the ultimate, disastrous outcome.

So what will the U.S. do?  What “lesson” will we draw?  Build more drones and F-35 attack jets, of course!

You simply can’t occupy and control a country from the air.  What America’s dominance of the air emboldens it to do is to intervene on the cheap. Here “cheap” means fewer killed-in-action for America.  It’s not cheap to those people on the receiving end of American air power, nor is it cheap to the American taxpayer.

Remember all those assassinations by drone of HVTs (high-value targets), of “key” Taliban figures and fighters? All for nothing.  As in Vietnam, the U.S. military kept a body count that meant nothing.

A few statistics, courtesy of The Nation. There have been 14,000 confirmed drone strikes in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan since 2004. Roughly 90% of the more than 200 people killed in Afghanistan via drone strike during one five-month period of the Afghan War were not the intended targets. U.S. drone strikes have killed somewhere between 9000 and 17,000 people since 2004, with an estimated 2200 of these being children. And this is just “precision” drone strikes; the number of bombs dropped (including the MOAB, or mother of all bombs) has been staggering. All these bombs and missiles made war corporations richer, but they didn’t bring victory to America.

If America’s troops had lacked air support in Afghanistan (and this is also true of Vietnam), they probably would have left the war far sooner, which would have been a very good thing for all concerned.

But technology and firepower are seductive. U.S. troops in Afghanistan could call on A-10 and F-16 attack jets, drones like Predators and Reapers, “strategic” B-1 and B-52 bombers designed originally for nuclear war, and that’s just the Air Force side of the equation. Troops on the ground also had Apache and Kiowa helicopters, heavy artillery, mortars, indeed virtually every weapon in the U.S. arsenal short of nuclear weapons. (And President Trump once hinted we could use them, theoretically, but he didn’t want to kill all Afghans. What mercy!)

The Taliban, by comparison, had assault rifles, RPGs, IEDs, a few mortars, and a cause they believed in. Expel the invader. Their strategy was to outlast U.S. forces while profiting from America’s wild expenditure of money there. It was a good strategy and they won.

Will America finally learn that massive firepower, especially from the air, is not only a crime but a mistake?

Update: After I wrote that final line, I got this report in my email: “The largest Muslim civil rights organization in the United States has demanded that the Biden administration immediately put in place a “moratorium on drone warfare” after the U.S. killed at least 10 Afghan civilians—including half a dozen children—with an airstrike in Kabul over the weekend.” Call for Drone Moratorium After Latest Civilian Killings, article by Jake Johnson at Consortium News.

America Is a Sinking Warship on a Melting Iceberg

W.J. Astore

More sweltering heat, wildfires, and other extreme weather and weather-related events remind us that global warming and climate change are here to stay. When I taught about global warming a decade ago, most scientists were predicting harsh events in 2030 or 2040. Yet here it is, the year 2021, and we’re already seeing the implacable face of Mother Nature, shaking her head at our naughtiness and thoughtlessness vis-a-vis her planet. She won’t be appeased by our excuse-making or our lying or our attempts to pass the buck. As we bicker, she acts.

Mother Nature: Implacable (Josh Addessi at Blogspot.com)

Climate change is here to stay with a take no prisoners vibe, notes Tom Engelhardt in his latest post at TomDispatch.com. Tom’s message is clear: we’re reaping or about to reap what our “leaders” and corporate elites have sown for us, a much hotter, much less hospitable, planet. As Tom puts it, we’re about to witness, and indeed are already witnessing, a climate Armageddon in slow motion. Check out his article for all the grim details.

Here’s the thing. A half-century ago, America’s wonderful fossil-fuel companies knew all about this threat. More than 40 years ago, President Jimmy Carter tried to persuade America to conserve fuel and live thriftier, more meaningful, lives. But America rejected Carter’s hard facts for Reagan’s sunny optimism (or, put bluntly, his lies) and so here we are.

After Carter, the Democrats swiftly moved to the right and embraced those same fossil-fuel companies. Democrats may have made fun of Sarah Palin and her “drill, baby, drill” message, but that is exactly what Presidents Obama and Biden decided to do: drill, baby, drill. A recent article puts it well from The Guardian: Joe Biden has approved two thousand (!) drilling and fracking permits. Not exactly a green new deal, is it?

President Obama was even worse, notes David Sirota at The Guardian. He loved to boast of how he made America the world’s number one oil producer. He even asked Americans to thank him for it! Remind me again how the Democrats are so much different on this issue than the big bad Republicans?

Here’s the kicker. Even as America’s leaders acted to accelerate fossil fuel production, despite all the warnings about climate change, they squandered $6 trillion on the Iraq and Afghan wars, money that would have made a dramatic difference in preparing America for climate change while also facilitating alternative energy sources, which also would have created millions of “green” jobs in America.

I think a key inflection point for America came in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago. If America had invested its peace dividend into creating a cleaner, safer, better world, perhaps by leading the way, as Carter had suggested, in solar energy and in efforts at conservation, we truly could have been a shining city on a hill, a beacon of sanity. But we chose more weapons and more war. We chose more fossil fuel consumption. Indeed, we chose more consumption (and more guns) in general.

And thus we are where we are today, caught on a sinking warship on a rapidly melting iceberg. OK, perhaps it’s not the most clever metaphor, but you try coming up with a better one when you’re typing in a room at 87 degrees with 73% humidity. Must keep that image of an iceberg in my head …

Must keep cool …

Daniel Hale’s Heartfelt Letter Against Drone Warfare

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.

Daniel Hale (Photo by Bob Hayes via AP)

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.

Respectfully, 

Daniel Hale

Nuclear Firecrackers for the Fourth of July

W.J. Astore

Did you know the U.S. is developing a new land-based ICBM? That’s intercontinental ballistic missile, and back in the 1980s we pretty much considered them obsolete in the Air Force. That’s because they’re the least survivable “leg” of the nuclear triad, which consists of ICBMs, nuclear bombers like the B-2 stealth, and submarines like the current Ohio-class ones armed with Trident missiles.

But never mind all that. When I visited Los Alamos National Laboratory (home of the Manhattan Project) as an Air Force captain in the spring of 1992, the mood there was glum. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Los Alamos was facing major cuts in funding, since back then we naively believed there was going to be a “peace dividend” and the U.S. would return to being a normal country in normal times. We wouldn’t have to “invest,” as our military likes to say, in more nukes. We had plenty already; indeed, more than enough to end life on earth.

But that was then and this is now and the Biden administration, joining the previous Trump and Obama administrations, is “investing” up to $1.7 trillion over the next thirty years in more nuclear weapons to destroy the earth. It’s a job-creator, don’t you know. And rural areas with nuclear missile bases, like Wyoming and North Dakota, don’t want to lose jobs or the billions in federal dollars that flow to their states in the stated cause of nuclear deterrence. Deterring who or what is uncertain.

Americans love things that blow up while lighting up the sky and causing the heavens to glow. We witness it every year at this time. Let’s just hope the nuclear firecrackers stay stashed away. Some firecrackers are too dangerous to contemplate.

I remember back in 1992 walking around the desert at Alamogordo, New Mexico, site of the first atomic blast that preceded Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There’s not much left of the tower where the bomb sat: just the concrete base and some twisted metal. Walking around the area, you can still find sand that’s been fused into glass by the heat of the atomic blast. I didn’t take any home with me as it’s still radioactive. People were walking around with masks before masks became a thing with Covid. It was an eerie experience.

We don’t spend much time, if any, on July 4th thinking about all our weapons that are designed with great care and ingenuity to blow up and kill, whether it’s one person or millions (or perhaps even the planet itself). But I urge you to set aside a few minutes to read Tom Engelhardt’s latest article at TomDispatch.com. He writes about his own eerie and disturbing experience visiting Japan and Hiroshima and thinking about the unthinkable.

Here’s the link: https://tomdispatch.com/an-all-american-horror-story/

Isn’t it high time we finally ended our distinctly American nuclear horror story?

Please — no nuclear firecrackers

Time Again for a Nuclear Freeze, Followed by Reduction and Elimination

W.J. Astore

The bomb in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” Not our Alpha, but it could very well be our Omega

Coming of age in the 1970s, I had a real fear of nuclear Armageddon. Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, guaranteed both the USA and USSR would be destroyed in the case of a “general” nuclear war (as opposed to a “limited” one). When Ronald Reagan was elected and started denouncing the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire” while stationing Pershing II and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles in Europe in the early 1980s, a powerful movement calling for a “nuclear freeze” (no new nuclear weapons) helped to provide a measure of sanity. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, it seemed the world had stepped back from the brink of nuclear annihilation. Indeed, Barack Obama campaigned on eliminating nuclear weapons, supported by conservative voices like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz.

But you can’t keep a bad bomb down, apparently. Amazingly, nuclear weapons are back and in a big way. So-called nuclear modernization of America’s strategic triad may cost as much as $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years, notes Andrew Bacevich in his latest article for TomDispatch.com. Here’s an excerpt:

President Biden has left essentially untouched the core assumptions that justify the vast (and vastly well funded) national security apparatus created in the wake of World War II.  Central to those assumptions is the conviction that global power projection, rather than national defense per se, defines the U.S. military establishment’s core mission.  Washington’s insistence on asserting global primacy (typically expressed using euphemisms like “global leadership”) finds concrete expression in a determination to remain militarily dominant everywhere.   

So far at least, Biden shows no inclination to renounce, or even reassess, the practices that have evolved to pursue such global military dominion.  These include Pentagon expenditures easily exceeding those of any adversary or even plausible combination of adversaries; an arms industry that corrupts American politics and openly subverts democracy; a massive, essentially unusable nuclear strike force presently undergoing a comprehensive $1.7 trillion “modernization”; a network of hundreds of bases hosting U.S. troop contingents in dozens of countries around the world; and, of course, an inclination to use force unmatched by any nation with the possible exception of Israel.

Of course, “global military dominion” makes little sense if the world is a burnt out radioactive husk after a general nuclear strike. So why is America’s military pursuing a new generation of land-based ICBMs, new nuclear stealth bombers, and submarines (the most secure and survivable “leg” of the triad)? Money and jobs, I suppose, are always key factors. But there’s something deeper at work here, a sort of bizarre religion in which America’s death-dealers actually worship the bomb, as in the movie “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” Here’s a relevant scene from that movie:

Worshiping at the altar of global destruction is about as black of a mass as I can imagine. The only course of action that makes any sense for the future of humanity is a nuclear freeze (no new nuclear weapons, warheads, and delivery systems) followed by reductions and culminating in elimination.

Meanwhile, let’s assume we save $1.7 trillion by not “modernizing” the triad. How about investing that money in America’s crumbling infrastructure? Why not build bridges and roads and high-speed rail and dams instead of planning on blowing them up and all of humanity with them?

To read all of Andrew Bacevich’s article, go to TomDispatch.com.

Cancel the F-35, Fund Infrastructure Instead

W.J. Astore

Imagine you’re President Joe Biden. You’re looking for nearly $2 trillion to fund vital repairs and improvements to America’s infrastructure. You learn of a warplane, the F-35 Lightning II, that may cost as much as $1.7 trillion to buy, field and maintain through the next half century. Also, you learn it’s roughly $200 billion over budget and more than a decade behind schedule. You learn it was supposed to be a low-cost, high-availability jet but that through time, it’s become a high-cost, low-availability one. Your senior Air Force general compares it to a Ferrari sports car and says we’ll “drive” it only on Sundays. What do you do?

Your first thought would probably be to cancel it, save more than a trillion dollars, and fund America’s infrastructure needs. Yet instead, the U.S. military is turning on the afterburners and going into full production. What gives?

When 60 Minutes reported on the F-35 in 2014, the plane was already seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Since then, it has weathered a series of setbacks and complications: Engines that are unreliable and in short supply. An ultra-expensive software system to maintain and repair the plane that doesn’t work. Higher operating costs — as much as 300% higher — compared to previous planes like the F-16 or the A-10. An overly loud engine that creates a noise nuisance to nearby population centers. The list goes on, yet so, too, does the F-35 program.

Why? Because of the power of the military-industrial-congressional complex. The F-35’s lead contractor, Lockheed Martin, used a tried-and-true formula to insulate the plane from political pressure, spreading jobs across 45 states and 307 congressional districts. In essence, the F-35 program has become “too big to fail.” At the Pentagon level, the plane is supposed to fulfill the needs of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps for a “fifth generation” stealthy fighter. There is no alternative, or so you’re told.

Yet, as America’s commander-in-chief, you must always remember there are alternatives. Think about it. Why buy a deeply troubled weapon system at inflated prices? Why reward a military contractor for woeful failures to deliver on time and within budget?

Congress rarely asks such questions because of the corrosive power of corporate lobbyists, the military’s insatiable demands for tech-heavy wonder weapons, and thinly-veiled threats that program cuts will cost jobs — meaning members of Congress might face electoral defeat if they fail to safeguard the F-35 pork apportioned to their districts.

But you’re the president — you should be above all that. You take a wider view like the one President Dwight D. Eisenhower took in 1953 in his “cross of iron” speech. Here Ike, a former five-star Army general, challenged Americans to prioritize instruments of peace over tools of war. Schools and hospitals, Ike wrote, were more vital to a democracy than destroyers and fighter jets. Ike was right then — and even more right today. He famously invested in an interstate highway system that served as an accelerant to the U.S. economy. He knew that warplanes, especially overly pricey and operationally dicey ones, were much less vital to the common good.

The Pentagon tells you it’s the F-35 or bust. But for you as president, it’s the F-35 and bust. You begin to realize that so many of the experts advising you to stay the course on the F-35 stand to profit if you do so.

And then you realize as America’s commander-in-chief that no weapon system should be too big to fail. You take heart from Sen. John McCain. In 2016, that ex-naval aviator declared the F-35 program was “both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule and performance.”

Why continue that scandal? Why not end that tragedy? You can decide to send the strongest and clearest message to the military-industrial-congressional complex by cancelling the F-35. You can vow to reform the flawed system that produced it. And you can fund your vital infrastructure programs with the savings.

William J. Astore is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and history professor. He is currently a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network.

Up, up, and away, especially the costs

America, Land of Guns and Nukes

What could be more American?

W.J. Astore

Today, I was reading some stats about guns in America in The Nation. Did you know gun sales went up 40% in 2020 when compared to 2019? Did you know 3.9 million guns were sold in America in a single month (June 2020), at the height of the BLM protests? Did you know that, according to the trade association for the U.S. firearms industry, Americans own roughly 434 million guns, including 20 million AR-15s and its variants? Did you know that roughly 43% of U.S. households have one or more guns, and that the U.S. has “the most heavily armed civilian population in the world”?

An old joke says that lots of guns make for a polite society, but I haven’t seen much politeness lately. I’ve seen plenty of guns, though.

Even as America dominates the world in gun ownership, we continue to have the world’s largest and potentially cataclysmic array of nuclear weapons. Nuclear deterrence allegedly requires more than five thousand (5000!) nuclear warheads in the U.S. military’s inventory. (It’s quite possible that a mere fifty nuclear explosions could be enough to trigger a global nuclear winter.)

America is indeed exceptional: exceptional in its pursuit of overkill.

I know some might ask: What do guns have to do with nuclear warheads? I’d say that the gun has become the nuclear option in the home. Dead men tell no tales, whether shot or nuked.

Why do Americans feel so safe with so many guns? Why do they feel so safe with so many nuclear warheads? Why do we continue to buy more and more?

It’s a uniquely American form of madness. Or MADness, as in mutually assured destruction.

Look, before the 2nd Amendment crowd comes, packing heat, I’ve owned guns myself and have no objection to anyone who’s a hunter, or anyone who truly needs a gun and gets properly trained in its use. But what we’ve witnessed with the proliferation of guns in America over the last two decades is inexplicable in terms of sport hunting or any real need.

It’s been said we can’t allow the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud. What if there is, in essence, no difference? Dead is dead, whether shot or nuked, and 434 million guns have a “throw weight” and a “fallout” of their own.

Isn’t it time that Americans found a way to destroy their own weapons of mass destruction? At least we won’t have far to look for them.

Nature Cannot Be Fooled — Nor Conned

W.J. Astore

News that President Trump has COVID-19 and must be hospitalized highlights Richard Feynman’s famous observation that, whether you’re dealing with technology or science or medicine, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. Many Republicans have been proud to act carelessly, refusing to wear masks or even claiming the virus is a hoax. Trump, for example, enjoyed making fun of Joe Biden and his propensity for mask-wearing; he further claimed the virus would simply disappear.

Trump’s illness is a sobering reminder — and we shouldn’t have needed one — to take medical warnings seriously.

Here’s what I wrote back in March:

The Coronavirus Is Immune to Lies

richard-feynman-1
Richard Feynman

W.J. Astore

Investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, physicist Richard Feynman reached a famous conclusion: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

The COVID-19 virus is not going to be fooled with lies.  It’s not going to be fooled by a denial of medical science.  You can’t “spin” the virus away with false information and happy talk.  And this is precisely why President Trump (and indeed many other politicians) is uniquely unqualified to handle this crisis.

Trump is the man who sold us a fake university.  Trump is the man who’s lied roughly 13 times a day since becoming president.  Trump is a fantasist, a fabulist, a con man, a used car salesman, a huckster, an entertainer, take your pick.  And he’s good at it.  It’s a skill that got him to the White House.  But it’s not a skill that works against the coronavirus.

The other day, I was listening to an interview with Noam Chomsky, and he made the point that Trump is a master propagandist.  His skill is his shamelessness and sheer extent of his lying.  Trump floods the market with lies, so much so that many people, and especially those sympathetic to him, lose the ability to tell truth from lies, fact from fiction.  Politically, this helps Trump; but in meeting this medical crisis, it’s a skill that may cost America tens of thousands of lives, and, in worst-case scenarios, perhaps a million or more.

Living by the light of lies is a surefire way to get burned.  Last night, I was reading Norman Mailer and came across this invaluable insight:

“Fascism is not a way of life but a murderous mode of deadening reality by smothering it with lies.”

The more lies we tell, the more we open ourselves to fascism.  Mailer uses the word meretricious, which combines vulgarity with falseness and insincerity, and he proceeds to denounce our culture, our art, as sickening us because of its ugly dishonesty.  (And Mailer was saying this in the early 1960s!)

Again, lies will not defeat COVID-19; they will only speed its spread through America.  Lies will only kill us while smothering democracy.

Feynman was right: “Nature cannot be fooled.”  So too was Mailer: As a leader, if you think you can deaden the reality of a pandemic with lies, you’re not thinking at all.  You’re acting murderously instead.

Update (3/25): Our Dear Leader has decreed America will be open for business again by Easter. Don’t worry: the final decision will be based “on facts.”

They really felt they needed to add that coda: based on facts. And they did, because most of the Trump presidency has been based on lies.

Maybe my title should have been “The Coronavirus Feeds on Lies.” And we are giving it plenty to feed on.

Putting the Hype in Hypersonic Weapons

As a teenager, I loved this magazine and read it at my local library

W.J. Astore

Supersonic just isn’t fast enough anymore. Now we need hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic generally refers to something that travels at Mach 5 or above, or five times the speed of sound. (Most supersonic jets max out at Mach 2 or thereabouts.) Missiles that are hypersonic would be very difficult to intercept and could be deadly against large, slow-moving targets, e.g. aircraft carriers. So occasionally you hear about China or Russia or both developing hypersonic weapons, followed by a Chicken Little, sky-is-falling, warning about how the U.S. is failing to keep up.

This is all on my mind because I got an email invitation to a hypersonic weapons conference. As a retired Air Force officer and former engineer, this could have been my life: working for a defense contractor, hyping hypersonic weaponry. Where did I go wrong?

“In light of the Department of Defense’s recent & successful hypersonic glide body test marking a major milestone for the DOD’s fielding of hypersonic capabilities, IDGA is bringing back the Hypersonic Weapons Summit this October 28-30, in order to comprehensively analyze and enable the fielding of hypersonic warfighting capabilities.”

“This summit will highlight critical areas to include:

• Enabling Hypersonic Capabilities Utilization for Warfighters across Multiple Domains
• S&T Roadmaps & Investment Areas to Achieve Hypersonic Utilization
• Guiding Hypersonic Testing to Understand Technological Needs
• Workforce Initiatives
• US Academia/University Collaboration”

This invitation makes me nostalgic for my military days: all those acronyms, all that jargon, all those references to “warfighting” and “warfighters,” all those vague references, e.g. multiple domains, workforce, investment, and so on.

Again, this is just a random invite, the kind that industry people see daily, but it does reveal the military-industrial-university complex in all its hyperventilating glory.

Advertised speakers at this conference include civilians from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the commanding general of Air Force Global Strike Command, the Army Hypersonic Project Office, a senior representative from U.S. Strategic Command, and a professor of the Hypersonic Systems Initiative, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, University of Notre Dame.

What a lineup! These people make very good money developing faster and faster missiles to blow things up or to intercept other missiles that blow things up. And I do appreciate the rare honesty of the name “Air Force Global Strike Command.” Global strike is far more accurate than national defense.

As a teenager, I used to read “Aviation Week & Space Technology” at my local library. I loved keeping track of the latest cool weapons, which back then meant fighter jets like the F-14 and F-15 or bombers like the B-1. I hate to admit it, but I didn’t give much thought to what these and similar weapons were all about: blowing things up and killing people. They just seemed exciting and a little bit sexy, and I bought the hype.

Sad to say to my teenage self but this will be a conference I’ll have to miss.

It Should Never Be Done Again: Hiroshima, 75 Years Later

Hiroshima after the bomb
Hiroshima after the bomb

W.J. Astore

Note: I wrote this article in 2015 on the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima.  Nuclear weapons should be eliminated from the planet.

August 6, 1945.  Hiroshima.  A Japanese city roughly the size of Houston.  Incinerated by the first atomic bomb.  Three days later, Nagasaki.  Japanese surrender followed.  It seemed the bombs had been worth it, saving countless American (and Japanese) lives, seeing that a major invasion of the Japanese home islands was no longer needed.  But was the A-bomb truly decisive in convincing the Japanese to surrender?

President Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs against Japan is perhaps the most analyzed, and, in the United States, most controversial decision made during World War II.  The controversy usually creates more heat than light, with hardliners posed on mutually opposed sides.  The traditional interpretation is that Truman used the A-bombs to convince a recalcitrant Japanese Emperor that the war was truly lost.  A quick Japanese surrender appeared to justify Truman’s choice.  It also saved tens of thousands of Allied lives in the Pacific (while killing approximately 250K Japanese).  This thesis is best summed up in Paul Fussell’s famous essay, “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb.”

Even before Hiroshima, however, a small number of scientists argued that the A-bomb should not be used against Japan without a prior demonstration in a remote and uninhabited location.  Later, as the horrible nature of radiation casualties became clearer to the American people, and as the Soviet Union developed its own arsenal of atomic weapons, threatening the United States with nuclear Armageddon, Americans began to reexamine Truman’s decision in the context of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race.  Gar Alperovitz’s revisionist view that Truman was practicing “atomic diplomacy” won its share of advocates in the 1960s. (Alperovitz expanded upon this thesis in the 1990s.)  Other historians suggested that racism and motives of revenge played a significant role in shaping the U.S. decision.  This debate reached its boiling point in the early 1990s, as the Smithsonian’s attempt to create a “revisionist” display to mark the bomb’s 50th anniversary became a lightning rod in the “culture wars” between a Democratic administration and a resurgent Republican Congress.

Were the atomic bombs necessary to get the Japanese to surrender?  Would other, more humane, options have worked, such as a demonstration to the Japanese of the bomb’s power?  We’ll never know with certainty the answer to such questions.  Perhaps if the U.S. had been more explicit in their negotiations with Japan that “unconditional surrender” did not mean the end of Japan’s Emperor, the Japanese may have surrendered earlier, before the A-bomb was fully ready.  Then again, U.S. flexibility could have been interpreted by Japanese hardliners as a sign of American weakness or war fatigue.

Unwilling to risk appearing weak or weary, U.S. leaders dropped the A-bomb to shock the Japanese into surrendering. Together with Stalin’s entry into the war against Japan, these shocks were sufficient to convince the Japanese emperor “to bear the unbearable,” in this case total capitulation, a national disgrace.

A longer war in the Pacific — if only a matter of weeks — would indeed have meant higher casualties among the Allies, since the Japanese were prepared to mount large-scale Kamikaze attacks.  Certainly, the Allies were unwilling to risk losing men when they had a bomb available that promised results.  The mentality seems to have been: We developed it.  We have it.  Let’s use it.  Anything to get this war over with as quickly as possible.

That mentality was not humane, but it was human.  Truman had a weapon that promised decisiveness, so he used it.  The attack on Hiroshima  was basically business as usual, especially when you consider the earlier firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay.  Indeed, such “conventional” firebombing raids continued after Hiroshima and Nagasaki until the Japanese finally sent a clear signal of surrender.

Of course, an event as momentous, as horrific, as Hiroshima took on extra meaning after the war, given the nuclear arms race, the Cold War and a climate represented by the telling acronym of MAD (mutually assured destruction). U.S. decisionmakers like Truman were portrayed as callous, as racist, as war criminals.  Yet in the context of 1945, it’s difficult to see any other U.S. president making a different decision, especially given Japan’s apparent reluctance to surrender and their proven fanaticism at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and elsewhere.

As Andrew Rotter notes in Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb (2008), World War II witnessed the weakening, if not erasure, of distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, notably during LeMay’s firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 but in many other raids as well (Rotterdam and Coventry and Hamburg and Dresden, among so many others). In his book, Rotter supports the American belief that Japan would fight even more fanatically for their home islands than they did at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two horrendous battles in 1945 that preceded the bomb. But he argues that Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson engaged in “self-deception” when they envisioned that the effects of the atomic bomb could be limited to “a purely military” target.

A quarter of a million Japanese died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the years and decades following.  They died horrible deaths.  And their deaths serve as a warning to us all of the awful nature of war and the terrible destructiveness of nuclear weapons.

Hans Bethe worked on the bomb during the Manhattan Project.  A decent, humane, and thoughtful man, he nevertheless worked hard to create a weapon of mass destruction. His words of reflection have always stayed with me.  They come in Jon Else’s powerful documentary, “The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb.”

Here is what Bethe said (edited slightly):

The first reaction we [scientists] had [after Hiroshima] was one of fulfillment.  Now it has been done.  The second reaction was one of shock and awe: What have we done?  What have we done.  The third reaction was it should never be done again.

It should never be done again: Just typing those words here from memory sends chills up my spine.

Let us hope it is never done again.  Let us hope a nuclear weapon is never used again. For that way madness lies.

Here are two comments I made in response to previous comments on this article:

1.

I think the comments once again show that no consensus is possible on whether the atomic bombs were decisive in ending the war sooner. Even well-informed people at the time disagreed.

Again, I return to the context of August 1945. A war-weary America, facing the prospect of a delayed Japanese surrender, was using every weapon at its disposal to drive the Japanese into the ground. That included blockade, firebombing, and invasions (Iwo Jima and Okinawa). A longer blockade and more Japanese would have starved. More firebombing, more dead Japanese. More invasions, more dead Japanese, and of course Allied troops as well. The Japanese were well indoctrinated to fall in battle like cherry blossoms in the service of the emperor, whom they viewed as a god.

How to get a Japanese leadership and people to surrender when they saw the very act as dishonorable to the warrior code of Bushido? How to persuade a military that was already committing suicide on a massive scale in Kamikaze attacks against Allied ships to capitulate and live on with the shame of defeat?

It’s clear from the evidence that Truman believed the atomic bomb would shock the “beast” of Japan (“beast” was Truman’s word, a description that Allied soldiers and other Asian peoples who suffered at the hands of Japan, e.g. the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Koreans, would have agreed with). It surely did shock them. Profoundly. Was it sufficient? Was it necessary?

Again, there is no alternate reality in which the atomic bomb wasn’t dropped, and thus no way of knowing whether in that other reality, the Japanese would have agreed to surrender on August 15th.

2.

My reading of the evidence is that impressing the Soviets was a factor, but not THE factor, in the decision to use the bomb. Ending the war as quickly as possible was the driving factor. If the bomb had been ready in December 1944, it would have been used against Nazi Germany as the Battle of the Bulge raged. But the bomb wasn’t ready until July 1945, when the Germans had already surrendered.

Iwo Jima and Okinawa were fresh in the minds of everyone. Though the Japanese had extended peace-feelers, others in Japan were hardline and didn’t wish to surrender on any terms. Faced with a war that could last weeks or months longer, perhaps into 1946 if an invasion of the Japanese home islands had been necessary, the US leadership decided the bomb could be the shock that would force the Japanese to capitulate. And so it seemed, after the fact.

It’s a very complicated question that I’ve read a lot about, and written about as well. Many people at the time simply saw the bomb as a “bigger” bomb, not as something world-changing. Only a few people truly grasped the horror of atomic weapons.

I know this probably isn’t convincing, but again this is my reading of the evidence. Certainly, Nagasaki was completely unnecessary — it came far too quickly for the Japanese to process what had happened at Hiroshima.