Can we be a superpower morally and ethically?

IMG_1555
With Scott Carrier (left) at Woods Hole

W.J. Astore

I recently did an interview with Scott Carrier that I greatly enjoyed.  Scott’s site is “Home of the Brave” at http://www.homebrave.com.

My interview, just under 20 minutes, is available at http://homebrave.com/home-of-the-brave//lets-talk-about-not-going-to-war

In the interview, Scott and I talk about war, military service, America’s intoxication with violence and power, and how we can chart a new way forward.

Thanks so much for giving it a listen.  And check out Scott’s other podcasts.  He’s done amazing work.

 

Random Thoughts, Mostly Military

liberty
Lady Liberty?

W.J. Astore

Doing some housecleaning of the mind, so to speak:

  1. 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.

  1. 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?

  1. 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!

  1. 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.

  1. 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?

William Westmoreland and the Vietnam War

sorley

W.J. Astore

William Westmoreland (“Westy”) looked like a general should, and that was part of the problem.  Tall, handsome, square-jawed, he carried himself rigidly; there was no slouching for Westy.  A go-getter, a hard-charger, he did everything necessary to get promoted.  He was a product of the Army, a product of a system that began at West Point during World War II and ended with four stars and command in Vietnam during the most critical years of that war (1965-68).  His unimaginative and mediocre performance in a losing effort said (and says) much about that system.

I had these thoughts as I read Lewis Sorley’s devastating biography of Westy, recommended to me by a good friend.  (Thanks, Paul!)  Before tackling the big stuff about Westy, the Army, and Vietnam, I’d like to focus on little things that stayed with me as I read the book.

  1. Visiting West Point as the Army’s Chief of Staff, Westy met the new First Captain, the highest-ranking cadet. Westy thought this cadet wasn’t quite tall enough to be First Captain. It made me wonder whether Napoleon might have won Waterloo if he’d been as tall as Westy.
  2. Westy loved uniforms and awards. Sporting an impressive array of ribbons, badges, devices, and the like, his busy uniform was consistent with his concern for outward show, for image and action over substance and meaning.
  3. Westy tended to focus on the trivial. He’d visit lower commands and ask junior officers whether the troops were getting their mail (vital for morale, he thought).  He’d ask narrow technical questions about mortars versus artillery performance.  He was a details man in a position that required a much broader sweep of mind.
  4. Westy liked to doodle, including drawing the rank of a five-star general. He arguably saw himself as destined to this rank, following in the hallowed steps of Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley.
  5. Westy never attended professional military education (PME), such as the Army War College, and he showed little interest in books. He was incurious and rather proud of it.

Interestingly, Sorley cites another general who argued Westy’s career should have ended as a regimental colonel.  Others believed he served adequately as a major general in command of a division.  Above this rank, Westy was, some of his fellow officers agreed, out his depth.

image

Sorley depicts Westy as an unoriginal and conventional thinker for a war that was unconventional and complex.  Bewildered by Vietnam, Westy fell back to what he (and the Army) knew best: massive firepower, search and destroy tactics, and made-up metrics like “body count” as measures of “success.”  He tried to win a revolutionary war using a strategy of attrition, paying little attention to political dimensions.  For example, he shunted the South Vietnamese military (ARVN) to the side while giving them inferior weaponry to boot.

Another personal weakness: Westy didn’t respond well to criticism.  When General Douglas Kinnard published his classic study of the Vietnam War, “The War Managers,” which surveyed senior officers who’d served in Vietnam, Westy wanted him to tattle on those officers who’d objected to his pursuit of body count.  (Kinnard refused.)

Sorley identifies Westmoreland as the general who lost Vietnam, and there’s truth in that.  Deeply flawed, Westy’s strategy was fated to fail.  Yet even the most skilled American general may have lost in Vietnam.  Consider here the words of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the middle of 1964.  He told McGeorge Bundy “It looks to me like we’re getting’ into another Korea…I don’t think it’s worth fightin’ for and I don’t think we can get out.  It’s just the biggest damn mess…What the hell is Vietnam worth to me?…What is it worth to this country?” [Quoted in Robert Dallek, “Three New Revelations About LBJ,” The Atlantic, April 1998]

McGeorge Bundy himself, LBJ’s National Security Adviser, said to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that committing large numbers of U.S. troops to Vietnam was “rash to the point of folly.”  In October 1964 his brother William Bundy, then the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, said in a confidential memorandum that Vietnam was “A bad colonial heritage of long standing…a nationalist movement taken over by Communism ruling in the other half of an ethnically and historically united country, the Communist side inheriting much the better military force and far more than its share of the talent—these are the facts that dog us today.”

Not worth fighting for, rash to the point of folly: Why did the U.S. go to war in Vietnam when the cause was arguably lost before the troops were committed?  Traditional answers include the containment of communism, the domino theory, American overconfidence, and so forth, but perhaps there was a larger purpose to the “folly.”

What was that larger purpose?  I recall a “letter to the editor” that I clipped from a newspaper years ago.  Echoing a critique made by Noam Chomsky,** this letter argued America’s true strategic aim in Vietnam was to prevent Vietnam’s independent social and economic development; to subjugate and/or subordinate Vietnam and its resources to the whims of Western corporations and investors.  Winning on the battlefield was less important than winning in the global marketplace.  Vietnam would send a loud signal to other countries that, if you tried to chart your own course independent of American interests, you’d end up like Vietnam, a battlefield, a wasteland.

For sure, Westy lost on the battlefield.  But did U.S. economic interests triumph globally due to his punishment of Vietnam and the intimidation it established?  How compelling, how coercive, were such interests?  Think of Venezuela today as it attempts to chart an independent course.  Think of U.S. interest in subordinating Venezuela and its reserves of oil to the agendas of Western investors and corporations.  There are trillions of dollars to be made here, not just from oil, but by preserving the strength of the petrodollar.  (The U.S. dollar’s value is propped up by global oil sales done in dollars, as vouchsafed by leading oil producers like Saudi Arabia.  Venezuela has acted against the petrodollar standard.)

Westy was the wrong man for Vietnam, but he was also a fall guy for a doomed war.  He and the U.S. military did succeed, however, in visiting a level of destruction on that country that sent a message to those who contemplated resisting Western economic demands.  Westy may have been a lousy general, but perhaps he was the perfect message boy for economic interests that prospered more by destruction and intimidation than by traditional victory of arms.

**For Chomsky, America didn’t accidentally or inadvertently or ham-fistedly destroy the Vietnamese village to save it; the village was destroyed precisely to destroy it, thereby strengthening capitalism and U.S. economic hegemony throughout the developing world.  As General Smedley Butler said, sometimes generals are economic hit men, even when they don’t know it.

As a general rule, it’s a lot easier in U.S. politics to sell a war as containing or defeating communist aggression (or radical Islamic terrorism in the case of Iran, or ruthless dictators in the cases of Iraq and Libya) than it is for economic interests and the profits of powerful multinational corporations.  For the average grunt, “Remember Exxon-Mobil!” isn’t much of a battle-cry.

Wikileaks and America’s Boorish, In Your Face, Diplomacy

download

With the recent arrest of Julian Assange in London with the goal of extraditing him to the U.S. to face charges, I thought I’d revive this article that I wrote back in 2010.  Assange and Chelsea Manning helped to reveal war crimes by the U.S. as well as a pattern of boorish, imperious, “in your face” behavior by its officials and diplomats.

George W. Bush claimed that the terrorists hated us for our freedoms — but maybe they simply hate us for our behavior?  If we ride roughshod over the “little people,” they might just remember — and bite back.

Anyway, the main sin of Assange and Manning was embarrassing the powerful while shedding light on their behavior.  And the powerful know how to hang on to a grudge…

Written in 2010:

Boorish, “in your face” behavior is everywhere. Most of the time, I’m able to avoid it, or walk away from it.  Nevertheless, afoot in America is an astonishing sense of imperious entitlement. People are told they can have it all – heck, that they deserve it all – and to hell with anyone who raises an objection. Rugged individualism is not enough; roughshod individualism is the new American ethos.

Now, what has this to say about WikiLeaks? Take a close look at many of the State Department cables and tell me how you would feel to be on the receiving end of roughshod American imperiousness. So what if we kidnap the wrong German citizen and torture him? Not only do we have no need to apologize: We’ll even bully the German government into silence. And we can bully Spain too, if need be, to inhibit Spanish attempts to prosecute Americans for torture or murder. Need more information about the United Nations and its diplomats? Let’s not only spy on them in traditional ways, but let’s steal their passwords, their biometric data: Heck, let’s even take DNA samples from them. If they complain, too bad: They shouldn’t have taken a drink from the cup we offered them. And the list goes on: We’ll even strike secret deals with Britain to hide our cluster bombs.

In these memos, it never seems to be America’s fault. Being a loud and boorish and imperious American means never having contritely to say you’re sorry.

Are we oblivious? Do we just don’t care? Neither question will matter if the resentments we breed overseas find their way to America’s homeland.

Professor Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com.

America’s Senior Generals Find No Exits From Endless War

B52SuperiorFirepower
This is supposed to be a funny and “wise” symbol, but only if you’re talking about the “peace” of the grave.  We must put an end to these forever wars.

W.J. Astore

In my latest for TomDispatch.com, I examine the price of America’s wars and why senior U.S. military men learn all the wrong lessons from them.  Here’s an extract from my article:

Veni, Vidi, Vici,” boasted Julius Caesar, one of history’s great military captains. “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed that famed saying when summing up the Obama administration’s military intervention in Libya in 2011 — with a small alteration. “We came, we saw, he died,” she said with a laugh about the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, that country’s autocratic leader. Note what she left out, though: the “vici” or victory part. And how right she was to do so, since Washington’s invasions, occupations, and interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere in this century have never produced anything faintly like a single decisive and lasting victory.

“Failure is not an option” was the stirring 1995 movie catchphrase for the dramatic 1970 rescue of the Apollo 13 moon mission and crew, but were such a movie to be made about America’s wars and their less-than-vici-esque results today, the phrase would have to be corrected in Clintonian fashion to read “We came, we saw, we failed.”

Wars are risky, destructive, unpredictable endeavors, so it would hardly be surprising if America’s military and civilian leaders failed occasionally in their endless martial endeavors, despite the overwhelming superiority in firepower of “the world’s greatest military.” Here’s the question, though: Why have all the American wars of this century gone down in flames and what in the world have those leaders learned from such repetitive failures?

The evidence before our eyes suggests that, when it comes to our senior military leaders at least, the answer would be: nothing at all.

Let’s begin with General David Petraeus, he of “the surge” fame in the Iraq War. Of course, he would briefly fall from grace in 2012, while director of the CIA, thanks to an affair with his biographer with whom he inappropriately shared highly classified information. When riding high in Iraq in 2007, however, “King David” (as he was then dubbed) was widely considered an example of America’s best and brightest. He was a soldier-scholar with a doctorate from Princeton, an “insurgent” general with the perfect way — a revival of Vietnam-era counterinsurgency techniques — to stabilize invaded and occupied Iraq. He was the man to snatch victory from the jaws of looming defeat. (Talk about a fable not worthy of Aesop!)

Though retired from the military since 2011, Petraeus somehow remains a bellwether for conventional thinking about America’s wars at the Pentagon, as well as inside the Washington Beltway. And despite the quagmire in Afghanistan (that he had a significant hand in deepening), despite the widespread destruction in Iraq (for which he would hold some responsibility), despite the failed-state chaos in Libya, he continues to relentlessly plug the idea of pursuing a “sustainable” forever war against global terrorism; in other words, yet more of the same.

Here’s how he typically put it in a recent interview:

“I would contend that the fight against Islamist extremists is not one that we’re going to see the end of in our lifetimes probably. I think this is a generational struggle, which requires you to have a sustained commitment. But of course you can only sustain it if it’s sustainable in terms of the expenditure of blood and treasure.”

His comment brings to mind a World War II quip about General George S. Patton, also known as “old blood and guts.” Some of his troops responded to that nickname this way: yes, his guts, but our blood. When men like Petraeus measure the supposed sustainability of their wars in terms of blood and treasure, the first question should be: Whose blood, whose treasure?

When it comes to Washington’s Afghan War, now in its 18th year and looking ever more like a demoralizing defeat, Petraeus admits that U.S. forces “never had an exit strategy.” What they did have, he claims, “was a strategy to allow us to continue to achieve our objectives… with the reduced expenditure in blood and treasure.”

Think of this formulation as an upside-down version of the notorious “body count” of the Vietnam War. Instead of attempting to maximize enemy dead, as General William Westmoreland sought to do from 1965 to 1968, Petraeus is suggesting that the U.S. seek to keep the American body count to a minimum (translating into minimal attention back home), while minimizing the “treasure” spent. By keeping American bucks and body bags down (Afghans be damned), the war, he insists, can be sustained not just for a few more years but generationally. (He cites 70-year troop commitments to NATO and South Korea as reasonable models.)

Talk about lacking an exit strategy! And he also speaks of a persistent “industrial-strength” Afghan insurgency without noting that U.S. military actions, including drone strikes and an increasing relianceon air power, result in ever more dead civilians, which only feed that same insurgency. For him, Afghanistan is little more than a “platform” for regional counterterror operations and so anything must be done to prevent the greatest horror of all: withdrawing American troops too quickly.

In fact, he suggests that American-trained and supplied Iraqi forces collapsed in 2014, when attacked by relatively small groups of ISIS militants, exactly because U.S. troops had been withdrawn too quickly. The same, he has no doubt, will happen if President Trump repeats this “mistake” in Afghanistan. (Poor showings by U.S.-trained forces are never, of course, evidence of a bankrupt approach in Washington, but of the need to “stay the course.”)

Petraeus’s critique is, in fact, a subtle version of the stab-in-the-back myth. Its underlying premise: that the U.S. military is always on the generational cusp of success, whether in Vietnam in 1971, Iraq in 2011, or Afghanistan in 2019, if only the rug weren’t pulled out from under the U.S. military by irresolute commanders-in-chief.

Of course, this is all nonsense. Commanded by none other than General David Petraeus, the Afghan surge of 2009-2010 proved a dismal failure as, in the end, had his Iraq surge of 2007. U.S. efforts to train reliable indigenous forces (no matter where in the embattled Greater Middle East and Africa) have also consistently failed. Yet Petraeus’s answer is always more of the same: more U.S. troops and advisers, training, bombing, and killing, all to be repeated at “sustainable” levels for generations to come.

The alternative, he suggests, is too awful to contemplate:

“You have to do something about [Islamic extremism] because otherwise they’re going to spew violence, extremism, instability, and a tsunami of refugees not just into neighboring countries but… into our western European allies, undermining their domestic political situations.”

No mention here of how the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq spread destruction and, in the end, a “tsunami of refugees” throughout the region. No mention of how U.S. interventions and bombing in Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere help “spew” violence and generate a series of failed states.

And amazingly enough, despite his lack of “vici” moments, the American media still sees King David as the go-to guy for advice on how to fight and win the wars he’s had such a hand in losing. And just in case you want to start worrying a little, he’s now offering such advice on even more dangerous matters. He’s started to comment on the new “cold war” that now has Washington abuzz, a coming era — as he puts it — of “renewed great power rivalries” with China and Russia, an era, in fact, of “multi-domain warfare” that could prove far more challenging than “the asymmetric abilities of the terrorists and extremists and insurgents that we’ve countered in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan and a variety of other places, particularly since 9/11.”

For Petraeus, even if Islamic terrorism disappeared tomorrow and not generations from now, the U.S. military would still be engaged with the supercharged threat of China and Russia. I can already hear Pentagon cash registers going ka-ching!

And here, in the end, is what’s most striking about Petraeus’s war lessons: no concept of peace even exists in his version of the future. Instead, whether via Islamic terrorism or rival great powers, America faces intractable threats into a distant future. Give him credit for one thing: if adopted, his vision could keep the national security state funded in the staggering fashion it’s come to expect for generations, or at least until the money runs out and the U.S. empire collapses.

Please read the rest of my article here at TomDispatch.com.

The Syrian Troop Withdrawal That Wasn’t

hqdefault
Stability operations?

W.J. Astore

After calling for all U.S. troops to be pulled out of Syria, President Trump is now in favor of keeping a “small…stabilizing force” there.  What a shame.  Trump is the ultimate flip-flopper, bowing to the neo-cons and the Washington establishment whenever it’s expedient for him to do so.

What, exactly, is America’s national security interest in Syria?  Trump says these U.S. troops will help to prevent a resurgence of ISIS, but surely Syria, Turkey, Russia, and other countries in the region have more incentive — and far more capability — to keep the Islamic State down and out.  But let’s say the Islamic State did make a comeback in Syria after all U.S. troops left.  In that case, couldn’t U.S. troops just redeploy there?  Why are “boots on the ground” needed in perpetuity in Syria to monitor the dead carcass of ISIS?

Once the U.S. commits troops to a region or country, they seem to linger — and linger.  In rare cases when troops finally are withdrawn and something bad happens, you instantly hear how it’s the fault of those who called for troop withdrawals, as if U.S. troops bring stability wherever they go.

It’s a strange belief.  The U.S. celebrates its troops as warriors, trains them in kinetic operations, outfits them with the most destructive technologies, and then deploys them to bring stability and peace to regions those troops barely understand.  For a different vision of the “stability” American troops bring, one might ask the peoples of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, to name only three recent examples.

It’s high time, America, that we bring the troops home.  Our national defense is not advanced by worldwide troop deployments in the name of “stability.”  Trump once seemed to recognize this, however fleetingly, as a candidate.  As president, however, he’s become yet another pawn of U.S. military interventionists and neo-cons.  As Trump would say, sad.

Trump and North Korea

download
All aboard the “peace train”?

W.J. Astore

This week Trump is off to Vietnam to meet with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea.  Revealingly, the bar is already being set very low for what may be accomplished at this meeting.  Trump’s original goal was denuclearization, meaning that North Korea would have to give up its nuclear weapons program and remove whatever atomic bombs or warheads it has.  But North Korea isn’t stupid.  They know what happened to Qaddafi when he got rid of his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Libya.  For North Korea, nuclear WMD is a sort of insurance policy — a rational arsenal to deter the U.S. from launching a regime-change war.

Coming out of the last summit in Singapore between these men, Trump essentially declared “peace in our time,” even though North Korea has yet to make any significant changes in its nuclear weapons program.  Again, why should North Korea surrender its weapons?

If Ronald Reagan’s motto was “trust — but verify” with the Soviet Union, Trump’s motto with North Korea is simply “trust.”  It’s encouraging that Trump is no longer threatening to bring nuclear fire and fury to the North Koreans, and that Kim Jong-un is no longer approving launches of missiles in the general direction of Hawaii.  But is there any treaty being negotiated with substantive details of verification?  Do the North Koreans truly have any intent to give up their nuclear weapons?  I’d say the answer to both questions is no.

Interestingly, at the request of the Trump administration, the Japanese government has nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize for his attempted rapprochement with North Korea.  Perhaps Trump’s peculiar brand of diplomacy may ease tensions with North Korea.  Detente may be followed by a negotiated settlement and an end to the rancor produced by the Korean War.  Such an ending would indeed be prize-worthy.

Trump’s quixotic efforts seem more vanity project than a well-considered project for peace.  Yet perhaps a vain wannabe dictator like Trump has an edge in understanding a vain and very real dictator like Kim Jong-un.  Trump, after all, did speak of a special bond he has with Kim, one that’s akin to falling in love.  And doesn’t love conquer all?

Trump, sadly, is probably being played by North Korea.  But who cares if lives are saved?  Facing possible famine, the North Korean people could surely use food and other aid.  Let’s hope the U.S. is able to give them some in exchange for promises, however vague, of denuclearization, however defined.

At this point, I’m tired of thinking of countries and national egos.  I’d rather think of saving lives.  Why not start in North Korea?