The Biden administration says it wants to remove U.S. combat troops from Iraq. Hooray! Mission finally accomplished, right? It may be 18 years after George W. Bush declared it to be so, but who’s counting the years?
Not so fast. For President Biden still wants to keep roughly 2000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq for training and advisory purposes. So much for mission accomplished.
Why can’t U.S. troops just leave — for good? If Iraq can’t defend itself after nearly two decades of U.S. “training” in the war on terror, maybe it’s finally time to admit our limits (or our folly) and simply leave.
It almost seems like America’s system of “defense” is an imperial project — an effort to enlarge American power at almost any cost (and the Iraq war has cost America in the trillions of dollars).
This is the telling argument of Tom Engelhardt’s latest post at TomDispatch.com. The U.S. is the empire that dare not speak its name, even as it begins to collapse due to perpetual war externally and perpetual rancor internally. And, believe me, as former President Trump would say, those two are related. He should know, given how he tapped that rancor and aggravated it for his own purposes.
Here’s an excerpt from Engelhardt’s latest, where he points out what might be termed the Pentagon Paradox: The more America’s generals fail, the more they succeed (more money, more promotions, more power):
Still, let’s face it, this isn’t the set of conflicts that, once upon a time, involved invasions, massive air strikes, occupations, the killing of staggering numbers of civilians, widespread drone attacks, the disruption of whole countries, the uprooting and displacement of more than 37 million people, the deployment at one point of 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan alone, and the spending of untold trillions of American taxpayer dollars, all in the name of fighting terror and spreading democracy. And think of it as mission (un)accomplished in the truest sense imaginable.
In fact, that idea of spreading of democracy didn’t really outlast the Bush years. Ever since, there’s been remarkably little discussion in official Washington about what this country was really doing as it warred across significant parts of the planet. Yes, those two decades of conflict, those “forever wars,” as they came to be called first by critics and then by anyone in sight, are at least winding, or perhaps spiraling, down — and yet, here’s the strange thing: Wouldn’t you think that, as they ended in visible failure, the Pentagon’s stock might also be falling? Oddly enough, though, in the wake of all those years of losing wars, it’s still rising. The Pentagon budget only heads ever more for the stratosphere as foreign policy “pivots” from the Greater Middle East to Asia (and Russia and the Arctic and, well, anywhere but those places where terror groups still roam).
In other words, when it comes to the U.S. military as it tries to leave its forever wars in someone else’s ditch, failure is the new success story.
And how! Maybe we need a new saying in America: Nothing succeeds like failure. It’s truly paradoxical until you realize that someone is always winning and profiting from this failure, even as the rest of America suffers.
Engelhardt’s book above has a well-judged title: “A Nation Unmade By War.” But perhaps we can improve it? How about “An Empire Unmade By War”?
It’s another very warm and very humid day here in the Bracing Views HQ. As the situation in Afghanistan continues to go poorly, at least from the perspective of the U.S. government, I thought I’d reflect on a comment I made with the theme of “Wherever we go, there we are.” In other words, wherever America makes war, we bring certain aspects of ourselves and our culture with us. What do I mean by this?
When America intervenes in (or invades) countries like Iraq and Afghanistan in the stated cause of “freedom” (recall these operations were unironically named Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, proving that the U.S. government can out-Orwell George Orwell), we bring anything but freedom. That’s because our “freedom” wars feature an almost total reliance on the military (no surprise there), and the military simply isn’t about freedom. That military is trained for kinetic ops, i.e., murderous violence; and that military features “force multipliers” (bombs and missiles and chemical agents of various sorts, otherwise known as weapons of mass destruction) to subdue various “enemies” while limiting American casualties.
At the same time as lots of foreigners are being killed, Americans generally maintain a stubborn ignorance of the foreign country in which we’re involved. Their history doesn’t matter; all that matters is putting bombs on target and killing the “right” people, the bad guys, whoever they are. Even as the war starts going poorly, predictably because we don’t really know who the “bad guys” are, nor are we sensible enough to recognize we’re the “foreigners” and often the real bad guys, the U.S. military proceeds to engage in a mindless pursuit of “victory,” however poorly defined, which in the end degenerates to a desire not to be labeled a “loser” in any war, no matter how stupid and unnecessary it is.
Related to this is the reality that once a war gets ginned up, there is an overwhelming desire by war profiteers in the U.S. military-industrial complex to keep the good times rolling. Look at how long the Vietnam war lasted, or the Afghan war for that matter. Decades of “good times” await war profiteers as long as American troops are kept in harm’s way, busily hammering away at “freedom,” because “our” troops must be “defended” at any cost.
Americans in general, ignoring obvious evidence to the contrary, have a strong bias that U.S. troops are always fighting on the side of the angels. Who really wants to believe otherwise? Such a bias makes it easier for us to wash our hands of the whole sordid affair. And whether you like it or not, the U.S. military always fights in your and my name.
There are many other factors at work to explain the woeful nature of America’s wars, but the ones I mention above are important, I think, as we examine how dreadful America’s “freedom” wars turn out to be. And when these freedom wars end poorly, as they do, the very last organization to shoulder any blame is the U.S. government.
Perhaps that’s truly the lead feature of U.S. war-making today: Even when you lose, and lose badly, war means never having to say you’re sorry.
Threat inflation is always a lead feature at the Pentagon (how better to justify enormous budgets?), and just today I caught this story at FP: Foreign Policy.
At the Jiangyan shipyard near Shanghai, the Chinese navy is busy building up its next crown jewel. The Type 003 Carrier—boring name aside—showcases China’s growing naval ambitions and poses one of the greatest new challenges to U.S. naval supremacy in the Asia-Pacific.
China isn’t saying much about its new carrier, but satellite imageryanalyzed by experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this week shows it is making “considerable progress” on the carrier, with its flight deck, superstructure, and sponsons “nearly complete.”
The carrier, about 318 meters in length, will be the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) most technologically advanced and largest yet—and the largest non-U.S. carrier to be constructed in decades. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command estimates China could have four carriers by 2025, with potentially one more to come by 2030. It’s a sign China, already the world’s largest shipbuilder, wants to use that industrial might to supercharge its massive navy.
What the new carrier means. “The trend is that China is attempting to build a blue water navy, and that’s what this third carrier and plan beyond that represents,” said Eric Sayers, an expert with the American Enterprise Institute and former advisor to the commander of U.S. Pacific Command. “That’s not for its near seas. … That’s more for projecting power into the Indo-Pacific and beyond.”
China’s carrier upgrades and other investments in its navy have some experts worried Beijing could be getting more capable of showdowns with U.S. carrier strike groups in the region or launching a military assault on Taiwan, which top military officials have predicted could come within the next six years.
PLAN of attack. “I think they’re going to become more confrontational,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and former U.S. Defense Department official. “With their carriers, they may think that they’re going to be able to establish sea control for long enough that they can pull off an amphibious assault.”
Aha! The Chinese are just like us! “Confrontational.” They’re building a navy that’s all about “projecting power,” perhaps even beyond the Pacific. How dare they! I wonder what the U.S. should do in response? Perhaps build even more aircraft carriers and an even bigger “blue water” navy? I wonder…
The U.S. Air Force is getting into the threat inflation act as well. I saw a report that suggested China is building sites (possibly dummy ones) for nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Guess which service has its own plans to build new ICBMs? Yes, it’s the U.S. Air Force, and the Chinese “threat” is being used to justify the huge expense of new, stationary, nuclear missiles based on land. (Those ICBMs, if deployed, will probably end up costing at least $100 billion, and perhaps double that.)
I have a perfect strategy for China to win any struggle against the U.S. Make noises about something that you know will set off America’s military-industrial complex, such as aircraft carriers, ICBMs, even ambiguous plans about attacking Taiwan. Then watch as America’s military wets its pants before Congress, calling desperately for money and weaponry to meet the Chinese threat. A few billion spent here and there by China should goad America’s military enthusiasts into spending trillions to meet the threat that, to be frank, they very much want to see from China. It’s truly a win-win for China, and perhaps a win as well for America’s military-industrial complex, but it’s a huge loss for the American people.
Speaking of Taiwan, I’ve even heard talk of the U.S. Army getting into the act by basing “tripwire” forces there, much like our “tripwire” forces in South Korea, the idea being if Mainland China dares to attack Taiwan, they know it’ll be a cause for war as they’ll have to “trip” over, and presumably kill, U.S. troops. What a comforting thought.
Chinese hysteria is reaching its peak in America, notes Michael Klare at TomDispatch.com, so much so that strategic miscalculation is more possible than ever as both sides–but especially America–see hostility as the other side makes moves to counter perceived aggression.
I know the title of my article is “Beware of China,” but of course my real message is beware of America, specifically its military leaders and corporate profiteers who are always happy to exaggerate threats in the cause of securing more money and power.
“Only Americans can hurt America,” said Dwight D. Eisenhower. We had best keep that in mind as various men in uniform hyperventilate about China and the threat it poses over the next few years or decades. Indeed, as Andrea Mazzarino noted in a fine article at TomDispatch.com today, the cancer of never-ending war is killing our democracy. Forget about being afraid of China. It’s time to be afraid of our leaders and all their democracy-killing schemes.
In my CNN news feed for today, I came across a warning from Army General Austin Scott Miller about Taliban advances in Afghanistan as U.S. troop withdrawals proceed. Conditions are deteriorating (not for the Taliban, obviously) and CNN cautioned that the Biden administration has yet to put together a plan to pursue terrorists in Afghanistan after the troop pullout is completed.
And I thought to myself: yet more evidence of the U.S. military covering its collective ass, for when the Taliban does take over, which it has been doing over the last decade, America’s generals can say, See, we told you so. We told you not to pullout too quickly. We told you this would happen, despite all those hard-fought gains we’d secured (always “fragile” and “reversible,” though, in the words of General David Petraeus). So when the “loss” does come (Afghanistan was never ours to “win” to begin with), it’ll be Biden’s fault, not ours.
In short, if we lose Afghanistan, we in the military are not to blame. You’re to blame.
Of course, this is patently ridiculous for so many reasons. I’ve written a lot about the Afghan war, and read more, so in a nutshell here’s why General Miller and Company are full of it:
The U.S. military had nearly 20 years and billions and billions in resources to train, equip, and field an Afghan military, yet all those efforts gained little.
The U.S. military had nearly 20 years and a trillion dollars in resources yet failed to defeat the Taliban.
Before Biden ordered the troop pullout, the Taliban had already secured most of the country. This was also true when Trump as president considered withdrawing but was talked out of it by his generals.
As the saying goes in Afghanistan, the Americans have the fancy watches but the Afghan people have the time. Afghanistan never was America’s to win. And with respect to terrorism, the presence of U.S. and allied troops there only served to exacerbate the conflict. More and more military hammer blows only shattered the country further, causing more devastation, more desperation, and more extremism. The U.S. military seemed to specialize in killing the second- or third-ranked “terrorist” leader, over and over again, only to see a generally younger, more extreme leader rise to take his place. It was a terrific tactic for perpetual war, but it was hardly one suited to producing victory, whatever that might look like.
So American troops are leaving places like Bagram like thieves in the night, leaving behind lots of junk and a legacy of violence and destruction. If one photo can serve to sum up our withdrawal, consider this one of an Afghan girl at work carrying scrap metal (Made in USA!) for money:
Well, that makes me proud to be an American.
Biden’s speech yesterday on Afghanistan was the usual claptrap. He claimed the U.S. didn’t go to Afghanistan to nation-build, even though the Afghan surge was all about defeating the Taliban while installing a “government in a box” for the Afghan people. All that effort by so many agencies to create an Afghan justice system, security forces, and so on so as to create the fundamentals of a government — all forgotten now because they failed. Meanwhile, the Afghan forces the U.S. military “trained” are folding quickly, flooding Afghanistan with even more weaponry.
I got this in my news feed from the New York Times:
In Forceful Defense of Afghan Withdrawal, Biden Says U.S. Achieved Its Objectives
By Michael D. Shear, David E. Sanger and Thomas Gibbons-Neff The president insisted that the United States had done more than enough to empower the Afghan police and military to secure the future of their people.
Look at the way this is structured. First the lie that we achieved our objectives. Then the idea that the way to “secure the future” is to create strong police and military forces. That is surely an idea that’s made in militarist America — that you secure the future through strong police and military forces. It’s the very opposite of what a democratic society would argue. But it is the approach of an authoritarian empire.
America doesn’t have a foreign policy, it has a business plan, and it’s business as usual in the Biden administration. Joe Biden promised his donors that nothing would fundamentally change in his administration. Kamala Harris said her agenda wasn’t about substantive change. So what we’re getting under the Biden/Harris team is eminently predictable:
More blank checks for Israel, and no recognition of any rights for Palestinians.
A revival of the old Cold War, with China as the leading “threat” but with Russia not forgotten.
Politics subordinated to the military, rather than the military in service of political aims. In brief, military dominance is America’s foreign policy.
Related to (1-3) is dominance of the world’s trade in weapons. The State Department has become a tiny branch of the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex. It’s all about closing arms deals, moving hardware, selling weaponry, making a buck.
Naturally, one of Biden’s first acts as president was to bomb a foreign country, in this case Syria. So presidential!
In Joe Biden, America has a fading and flailing man to lead a fading and flailing empire. In Kamala Harris, America has an example of old wine in new packaging. She’s a woman, she’s Black, she’s South Asian — and she thinks like Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger.
Remember when Joe Biden said he’d be all about diplomacy? That the power of America’s example would rule over the example of our power? Nice words, but that’s all they’ve been so far. Words.
Two examples where Biden has appeared to offer meaningful change are with Afghanistan and Yemen. With Afghanistan, Biden has promised a complete military withdrawal by 9/11/2021. But does this apply only to combat troops while excluding mercenaries, the CIA, special forces “trainers,” and the like? It’s not yet clear. Plus anything can happen between now and 9/11 for Biden to switch gears and keep some combat troops in place.
With Yemen, Biden made a point about excluding offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia while still allowing defensive ones. Almost any weapon can be labeled as defensive in nature, so it’s doubtful whether Saudi operations in Yemen will be impacted at all by Biden’s weasel-word policies.
The Biden/Harris foreign policy, such as it is, is retrograde. It’s a return to the Cold War, with an emphasis on new nuclear weapons and larger Pentagon budgets. It’s about global dominance while America at home burns. It’s foolish and stupid yet it will make a few people richer for a few more business cycles.
And thus it’s business as usual in Washington, which is exactly what Biden/Harris were hired for.
Remember in the 1930s how Americans referred to arms dealers, especially those who profited from war, as “merchants of death”? Yes, that was indeed a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. Nowadays, it’s weapons ‘r’ us, and America’s leading sounds of freedom are blam-blam-blam and ka-ching ka-ching ka-ching. Cash registers for weapons makers are truly ka-chinging wildly as America continues to dominate the global trade in war weapons, notes William Hartung at TomDispatch.com. Hartung’s title, “Selling Death,” puts it succinctly. Here’s an excerpt:
When it comes to trade in the tools of death and destruction, no one tops the United States of America.
In April of this year, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published its annual analysis of trends in global arms sales and the winner — as always — was the U.S. of A. Between 2016 and 2020, this country accounted for 37% of total international weapons deliveries, nearly twice the level of its closest rival, Russia, and more than six times that of Washington’s threat du jour, China.
Sadly, this was no surprise to arms-trade analysts. The U.S. has held that top spot for 28 of the past 30 years, posting massive sales numbers regardless of which party held power in the White House or Congress. This is, of course, the definition of good news for weapons contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, even if it’s bad news for so many of the rest of us, especially those who suffer from the use of those arms by militaries in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, the Philippines, and the United Arab Emirates. The recent bombing and leveling of Gaza by the U.S.-financed and supplied Israeli military is just the latest example of the devastating toll exacted by American weapons transfers in these years.
When it comes to weapons sales, America truly is Number One! Which, in that faraway galaxy ,was once nothing to celebrate. In fact, it was something to deplore and denounce.
Why is this? Christian Sorensen at Consortium News has some answers. In a five-part series, he’s tackling the military-industrial-congressional complex and detailing its reach and power across American society. In “A People’s Guide to the War Industry,” Sorensen has this to say about America’s “solutions”-based war industry:
War corporations market their goods and services as “solutions.” A Raytheon executive, John Harris, explained to the Defense & Aerospace Report in 2018 that engaging “with senior members of government” is just “providing solutions to our customers,” providing “integrated solutions to meet our customers’ needs,” and even “figuring out how we can solve our customers’ problems using a dispassionate system approach.”
The solutions trick works well when selling to the U.S. military. For example, Booz Allen Hamilton offers digital solutions, CACI offers information solutions, and Leidos offers innovative solutions. Through its inherently harmful, anti-democratic activities, the war industry helps create the miserable conditions for which it then offers “solutions,” of course without ever taking responsibility for the dismal state of affairs (i.e. nonstop war) that it helped create.
“Providing solutions” sounds prettier and more generous than “making money off death and destruction.” MIC officials also regularly couch Washington’s imperialism, weapon sales, and war-first foreign policy as giving the troops the “tools they need.” A similar phrase (“We’ve listened to the warfighter”) is utilized when selling goods and services, particularly upgrades and technological insertions.
I’d add that, not only do war corporations market “solutions” to the warfighter, but the Pentagon sells these to the American people as “investments” in peace.
And who can be against “solutions” and “investments”?
I had the pleasure to be at a Warren Zevon concert in the early 1980s when he sang one of his signature songs, “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” How right he was! Between a rock and a hard place, America knows how to send lawyers, guns, and money.
I urge you to read Hartung and Sorensen and then reflect on the words of MLK about a nation that spends so much on weaponry and exports so much violence as one that is as a result approaching spiritual death.
Ever since that fateful day of 9/11/2001, Americans have been trying to process what can only be termed a colossal defeat. Showing our usual capacity for denial, we’ve rebranded it as a day for patriotism. We built the Freedom Tower, exactly 1776 feet high, on the ruins of the Twin Towers. We “got” Osama bin Laden. Yet the first victims of our collective rage, the Taliban in Afghanistan, have somehow emerged triumphant in a long destructive war against U.S. and NATO forces.
With his usual powerful prose, careful research, and keen eye for telling details, Tom Engelhardt has written a compelling introduction to Rajan Menon’s latest article on the Afghan War. It’s reposted here with Tom’s permission.W.J. Astore
It started with three air strikes on September 11, 2001. The fourth plane, heading perhaps for the Capitol (a building that wouldn’t be targeted again until last January 6th), ended up in a field in Pennsylvania. Those three strikes led to an American invasion of Afghanistan, beginning this country’s second war there in the last half-century. Almost 20 years later, according to the New York Times, there have been more than 13,000 U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan. Call that payback after a fashion. There’s only one problem: the greatest military on the planet, with a budget larger than that of the next 10 countries combined, has visibly lost its war there and is now in full-scale retreat. It may not be withdrawing the last of its forces on May 1st, as the Trump administration had agreed to do, but despite the pressure of the American military high command, President Biden “overrode the brass” and announced that every last American soldier would be gone by the 20th anniversary of those first airstrikes against the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
At this late date, consider it grimly fascinating that the generals who all those years kept claiming that “corners” were being turned and “progress” made, that we were “on the road to winning” in Afghanistan, as the present Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley insisted back in 2013, simply can’t let go of one of their great failures and move on. Under the circumstances, don’t for a second assume that the American war in Afghanistan is truly over. For one thing, the Taliban have not yet agreed to the new withdrawal date, as they did to the May 1st one. Instead, some of its commanders are promising a “nightmare” for U.S. troops in the months to come. Were they, for instance, to attack an air base and kill some American soldiers, who knows what the reaction here might be?
In addition, the Pentagon high command and this country’s intelligence agencies are still planning for possibly making war on Afghanistan from a distance in order to “prevent the country from again becoming a terrorist base.” As Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper of the New York Timesreported recently, “Planners at the military’s Central Command in Tampa, Fla., and Joint Staff in Washington have been developing options to offset the loss of American combat boots on the ground.”
In other words, the American war in Afghanistan may be ending but, as with so much else about that endless experience, even the finale is still up for grabs. In that context, consider the thoughts of TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon on what has, without any doubt, been the American war from hell of this century. Tom
1. Recently I came across a reference to the U.S. military complaining that it never fights with a “home field” advantage. That the fight is always “away,” in sports speak, on the other guy’s field. And the gist of the comment was that the U.S. military must always be prepared to fight at a disadvantage. It seemingly never occurs to the decisionmakers that maybe, just maybe, the U.S. doesn’t have to fight on the other guy’s field. Maybe, just maybe, Vietnam was a bad idea. Iraq was a bad idea. Afghanistan was and remains a bad idea. China in the future would be a very, very, bad idea. And so on.
Or maybe, just maybe, the Pentagon and America’s generals are just too vainglorious in identifying the entire world as their home court?
2. Surprise! Joe Biden’s Pentagon budget is basically the same as Trump’s with a few extra billion thrown in for good measure. So much for reforming “defense” spending in any meaningful way.
3. The U.S.. military continues to define exertion (and merit) mainly in physical terms. Consider this chart sent along by a friend:
As my friend amusingly put it, “If I read this chart correctly, humans reach their full potential only at the moment of death.”
I wrote back to him: Why is exertion in the military always physical? Maybe we should be thinking harder too? It’s fascinating this devotion to physical strength and fitness when modern weaponry is truly the great equalizer. If I can sit in an air-conditioned trailer in Nevada and smite evil-doers in Afghanistan via a drone strike, should I be kicked out if I fail to do 50 pushups or run the obstacle course?
Mental fitness is rarely considered in the U.S. military except in the sense of weeding out the mentally ill or those who can’t conform to military discipline.
Even military promotion seems driven more by brawn than brains. If I run a sub-3 hour marathon, I bet the OPR (officer proficiency report) bullet would be far more favorable than if I wrote an article for Armed Forces Journal.
As another friend of mine, the distinguished military historian Dennis Showalter, said to me: Some flab around the waistline is preferable to flabby thought processes. Just think here of David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, both celebrated in the U.S. media as running and exercise enthusiasts.
5. To come back to the subject of “home field” advantage, it’s precisely because we never have that that U.S. troops have to wear heavy body armor and carry all kinds of gear with them. Whereas the “enemy,” whether in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, is at “home” and can wear street/farm clothes and carry a much lighter load, e.g. a rifle, some ammo, some rations.
The result is that U.S. troops often look like the imperial stormtroopers of “Star Wars” who are always bungling and losing to the lighter-armed rebel alliance.
You do need to be in decent physical shape to carry so much armor and so much weaponry and gear into hostile and foreign lands. But, maybe instead of turning every soldier into Rambo, we should find smart ways to advance our policies without having to fight at all?
It certainly is smarter than a bunch of Army Rangers driving themselves to the brink of death in the cause of maximizing their “human potential.”
America recently marked the 18th anniversary of the Iraq War by basically ignoring it. The 20th anniversary of the Afghan War approaches, and it appears we’ll get there since President Biden is saying U.S. forces can’t leave until this November at the earliest. Apparently, our withdrawal of troops must be “responsible” and based on ever-changing benchmarks. Leaving aside the harrowing human cost, these calamitous wars have cost the American taxpayer at least $6 trillion, yet they go on and on.
One person who’s learned a lot from these wars is Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel who runs the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. In his latest article for TomDispatch.com, Bacevich had this to say about America’s seemingly unending pursuit of peace through war:
The longest war in U.S. history [the Afghan War] should by now have led Americans to reflect on the consequences that stem from succumbing to imperial temptations in a world where empire has long since become obsolete. Some might insist that present-day Americans have imbibed that lesson. In Washington, hawks appear chastened, with few calling for President Biden to dispatch U.S. troops to Yemen or Myanmar or even Venezuela, our oil-rich “neighbor,” to put things right. For now, the nation’s appetite for military intervention abroad appears to be sated.
But mark me down as skeptical. Only when Americans openly acknowledge their imperial transgressions will genuine repentance become possible. And only with repentance will avoiding further occasions to sin become a habit. In other words, only when Americans call imperialism by its name will vows of “never again” deserve to be taken seriously.
Bacevich is right to be skeptical. The prevailing narrative in the USA still rejects the notion of imperial wars. America’s wars are always sold as defensive. Put simply, we allegedly fight “them” over there so we won’t have to fight them over here. The Afghan War is still being sold as preventing terrorist attacks on America. The Iraq War was sold as preventing Saddam Hussein from using his non-existent weapons of mass destruction against us. In short, Americans are routinely sold a false bill of goods, and the price tag attached, $6 trillion and rising, again leaving aside the human cost, is truly prodigal to behold.
I urge you to read all of Bacevich’s article here. And I urge all Americans to think about our leaders’ imperial ambitions and their horrendous costs. Like the Romans, we are too fond of creating deserts with our weaponry and calling it “peace.” We can and must open our eyes and do better.
Why has the U.S. military failed so consistently since World War II? A popular thesis advanced most notably by Tom Ricks is that today’s military leaders simply aren’t called on the carpet and dismissed for poor performance as in the “greatest generation” era. But is it that simple? Should we simply stop coddling generals and cashier a few to encourage the others? Dan White begs to differ, turning to the writings of two generals, James Gavin and Robin Olds, for support. White persuasively argues that more firings and ostensibly tougher generals are not necessarily the answer, not when America’s wars are so poorly defined and essentially unwinnable to begin with. So why does the U.S. military both acquiesce to and persist in waging unwinnable wars for unattainable objectives? And what does that tell us about America’s approach to and understanding of war? Read on! W.J. Astore
A Flailing and Failing Military Has Forgotten the Fundamental Tenets of War
Daniel N. White
Tom Ricks, the Washington Post military affairs correspondent, argued in his book The Generals that US military failures in our ongoing and recently past wars are due to a reluctance to relieve commanders for cause. Ricks tells of how in World War II numerous mid-level and senior officers were relieved for cause—nonperformance of their units on the battlefield. Under-performing units turned around (every time, Mr. Ricks?) with new commanders and relieved commanders were given second chances that they often succeeded at. Ricks argues that despite the obvious military failure in our current military ventures, no general officer has yet to be relieved for cause. According to him, this sea-change in US military policy and practice is what now ails us.
Ricks, however, fails to look at the overall history of relieving officers in the US military in wartime; thus his conclusions are suspect. America’s current military failures have little to do with a failure to relieve officers for cause during wartime. Ricks, like so much of this country’s population at large, its political and media elites in particular, looks no further back in our history than to World War II. The American obsession with the “good war” fought by the “greatest generation” is a blinding defect that will ultimately kill many more Americans unless we wise up soon.
Consider World War I, for example. The US Army in the First World War generally didn’t perform very well on the battlefield. Yet to my knowledge no studies have been done that affirm that relieving officers for cause improved US battlefield performance.
Consider the Korean War as well. The Army performed poorly in the opening stages of the war and was beaten again after the Inchon turnaround at Chosin Reservoir, after which General Matthew Ridgway turned things around and the US Army became a capable fighting force again. Anyone who wants to argue about how relieving officers for cause is the key to effective performance on the battlefield needs to look at the US Army and its relief of officers in World War I and Korea. Ricks doesn’t.
Now let’s consider the Vietnam War. The US Army officer corps was riddled with ticket-punching and widespread personal and professional dishonesty and a wide range of other vices during that war, yet it still managed to relieve officers in the field for cause. The 1st Infantry Division regularly relieved officers for cause, while other divisions rarely used the practice. Was there any real difference in the field performance between the two types of divisions? Ricks doesn’t say.
A better argument to be made against Ricks’ premise is from General James Gavin, in his war memoirs, On to Berlin (1978). Gavin and the elite 82nd Airborne Division were sent to the Battle of the Bulge (1944), where they fought alongside the 7th Armored and the 106th Infantry Divisions. The 7th was an experienced unit whose performance in fighting while badly outnumbered in the first days of the battle is now generally considered an outstanding example of defensive fighting against odds. The 106th was a green division whose performance Gavin considered as good as could be expected under the circumstances, and whose commanding general gets several favorable mentions from Gavin for his performance in those most difficult circumstances of a green unit being attacked by superior forces.
These two units led the US defense in the key defensive battle of St. Vith, a battle that didn’t get the press that its less important crossroads battle of Bastogne got, despite its larger importance. Bernard Montgomery said of these two units’ performance, as they withdrew from their defensive positions they had held for the first week of the battle to new ones further back: “They can come back with all honour. They come back to the more secure positions. They put up a wonderful show.” Gavin quotes the official Army history on Montgomery’s comments on two retreating US Army divisions: “Montgomery showed the ability to honor the fighting men which had endeared him to the hearts of the Desert Rats in North Africa.”
Gavin further tells of how the commanders of both of these divisions were relieved once they finished their withdrawal to their new positions. In the case of the CG of the 7th Armored, Gen. Robert Hasbrouck, the orders for his relief were sent at 6:25 on the morning of Dec. 22nd, while the countermanding orders, from the same Corps Commander, were sent to him restoring him to his command of the division the same evening, at 7:00 pm. The CG of the 106th Inf., Alan W. Jones, wasn’t so lucky and was relieved permanently from his command. Gavin has this to say about the matter here, and the US Army’s quickness to relieve officers for cause in WWII—which Ricks finds most admirable—here, on p. 258:
Once again I was struck by the manner in which the system treats senior officers in combat. I have a haunting memory that does not diminish with the passage of time of how unfairly and thoughtlessly we treated some of our senior officers. And I use the word ‘system’ because that is what it is. It is not a personal matter. It is something that one has come to expect of senior officers in our Army. In this case, one is particularly impressed by the manner in which Montgomery congratulated all those who fought at St. Vith for the fine job they did. We relieved the two senior commanders, although one was restored. In the situation at Arnhem, in our earlier battle in Holland, the British general lost three-quarters of his command and a battle. He returned home a hero and was personally decorated by the King.
There is no doubt that in our system he would have been summarily relieved and sent home in disgrace. In the case of General Jones and his 106th Division, higher command knew no more about the German plans than he did. Higher command also knew of his dispositions and approved them. His leading green regiments were overwhelmed before they could offer much resistance, and there is little that he—or anyone else, for that matter—could have done about it. Summarily relieving senior officers, it seems to me, makes others pusillanimous and indeed discourages other potential combat leaders from seeking high command. Again, it is not individuals acting against other individuals—it is not a personal matter–it is the way the system works and is expected to work. It must be changed. The shift from peacetime to a war footing and then to battle has a tremendous psychological impact on individuals. Summarily relieving those who do not appear to measure up in the first shock is not only a luxury that we cannot afford—it is very damaging to the Army as a whole. We have much to learn from the British about senior command relationships.
And it is worth bringing to the table peacetime relief of command for cause. The US military organization most famous for that practice was Strategic Air Command (SAC) in the US Air Force, in its halcyon days of General Curtis LeMay.* SAC was in its day notorious for a horrific pressure-cooker environment but is nowadays regarded by some as a model of a peacetime military organization at the top of its form—the most highly skilled personnel, running the most technologically advanced weaponry, all ready 24/7/365 at the drop of a hat.
SAC awaits a truly critical historian, but whoever it might be will be wise to heed the comments about SAC made by BGen. Robin Olds, an outstanding fighter pilot, a triple-ace, and wartime military leader and commander, in his posthumous memoirs, Fighter Pilot. Olds was thoroughly dissatisfied with what he saw of SAC in the late 1970s, and wrote in his memoirs, on p. 372, of SAC’s longstanding history of relieving officers from command slots at the drop of a hat:
Under their (SAC’s) rules, if a wing commander messed even a little bit he was canned and gone forever, so SAC fostered attitudes about how tough they were. What they really did was make a bunch of liars out of many wing commanders, DM’s, and DO’s. Guys at wing level were scared people. They would lie, cheat, steal, and deny—anything to make themselves look good.
The net result of this over time is described by Olds on p. 374:
When LeMay scared the hell out of his people, he made some-thing out of them that I don’t think was in their true nature. He made them cringe and hide the truth. He made them say,
’Yes Sir, Yes Sir,’ becoming chronic liars protecting their own skins…A man like that has to have someone working for him that he can dominate and he is invariably going to pick a lesser individual (for promotion) … a big group of guys were developed into people who were afraid to think for themselves. They damned near destroyed the air force in the process… (emphasis mine)**
Gavin and Olds versus Ricks on the merits of the US military’s past quickness to relieve commanders. The choice is yours. I’m with Gavin and Olds.
Ricks and his writings on war and the US military deserve more comment than I want to give them here. Fundamentally Ricks is a fan of the US military and of things military in general. A fan isn’t an impartial judge of whatever it is they are a fan of. That’s simply the nature of fandom. Perhaps Ricks sees himself as a friend of the US military, but fans aren’t true friends, either.
The worst sort of fans are accurately described by the athletes themselves as crotch sniffs, and that’s a telling turn of phrase. Ricks is fundamentally a crotch sniff for the US military. Journalists have mostly (and editors invariably) been a bunch of crotch sniffs for their own country’s militaries and Ricks is no exception.
There’s unfortunately nothing new about that situation; it has almost always been the case about military/war journalism ever since newspapers were invented. Anyone wanting to argue otherwise needs to reread Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty (1975), 3rd edition in 2004, still the best book on war reportage.
A complicating factor is that what most Americans know about war and warfare comes via Hollywood, whether they realize it or not—and most Americans lack the self-perception to realize how much Hollywood/ PR they’ve internalized. An additional compounding factor is that the military is one of those institutions, like the judiciary, that invariably gets a pass from editors from critical analysis, and from probably the same reasons. Most journalists simply know little of war or law, and when you combine technical ignorance with institutional sacred cowism you get uncritical coverage. Ricks to his credit isn’t ignorant; he’s knows a fair amount about the US military and military history. But Ricks’ strong belief in the goodness and efficacy of the US military dooms his writings to hackwork status, much like the rest of his militarily ignorant journalist colleagues’.***
Ricks deserves credit for trying to come to grips with why the institution he admires so much has failed so badly against weak opponents like the Iraqis and Afghans. His is an all too typical American attitude, particularly among conservatives, of harkening back to the glory days of World War II, when America seemed completely right and completely omnipotent. This belief in America’s goodness in those days is dumb and wrong, yet it’s a belief that’s endemic in this country, and one that shows no signs of ever soon diminishing.
The reasons for America’s recent military failures are more obvious than Ricks wants to acknowledge. America simply had (and has) no realistic objective for wars whether in Iraq or Afghanistan. Both wars had lies as their stated rationales, and nobody has yet explained how any sort of good is supposed to come from wars started by and waged on lies. What is worse, far, far worse than that, is that both wars lacked any coherent political or military objective, at any time before or during their commission, and if there is a worse crime or sin in the professions of politics or arms than fighting wars without objective I cannot name it. I defy anyone else to, either.
The US military has continued both wars in the face of obvious failures to achieve meaningful goals, despite however many times the political leadership here moved the goalposts. Persons who remember the Vietnam War, or who bothered to learn anything about it beyond the Rambo cartoons, should be noticing more similarities than dissimilarities in our failed efforts then and our failed efforts now.
Ricks fails to address how (as have likewise, for decades now, most all others in the media, political world, our moral leadership, and intelligentsia), once again, the US military has saluted smartly while participating in wars in distant lands that required more men in the field and a bigger war effort than they knew they were going to get from the home front. Once again, senior military leaders willingly involved themselves and their organizations in efforts that they knew from the beginning were almost certain to fail. They fought wars without realistic war objectives and without adequate resources (most especially, support at home). This is institutional failure at the highest level, a master class in moral cowardice and corruption.
Sadly, instead of covering this, most media sites post the usual puff pieces about our noble troops as they fight terrorists in the cause of freedom. Few people have asked the dreaded question of whether and why our military leaders are willingly participating in odious demi-wars staged largely for domestic political reasons. The sickness and corruption—moral and professional corruption of the worst sort possible—that this question raises is an issue that fans like Ricks simply cannot comprehend.
Ricks, who is again a reporter with considerable military knowledge, simply misses the target here. The US military isn’t flailing and failing because it hasn’t fired enough generals: It’s flailing and failing because it engages in wars that are lost causes to begin with, as well as being illegal and immoral to boot. Ricks is too much of a military fanboy to see this; so too are most Americans, who continue to salute the troops as heroes without ever questioning their actions in the field. It is all most discouraging.
Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to. He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about. He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now. He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb. He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.
*My favorite story about SAC and its willingness to relieve commanders comes from its earlier days when a B-36 Wing Commander was called on the mat by LeMay for a low level of operational readiness of his aircraft. The Wingco explained that his squadrons at the base had had a rash of bird strike accidents involving buzzards, and these accidents had caused damage to parts of the airframes that were beyond the capabilities of wing maintenance to repair, and that new airframe parts from Convair were necessary to restore safe airworthiness to the airplanes. The USAF didn’t have these airframe parts in its inventory, and Convair did not have them as spare parts yet, and Convair was unwilling to interrupt its production schedule for new B-36s by pulling the necessary parts off of its assembly lines and shipping them to his squadrons’ repair shops like he’d asked them to. LeMay listened and said: “I have neither the time nor inclination to distinguish between the unfortunate and the incompetent. You are relieved.”
**SAC was the preeminent branch of the US military during its Cold War salad days. It had more money than God courtesy of a complacent Congress that gave it everything it wanted and then some. There is of course nothing to show for all this expenditure; such is always the case for military expenditures. But this line of Olds is as good an epitaph for SAC as an institution as it is ever going to get. And SAC, as big and significant an American institution as it was in its day, really needs a good historian to look at it with a critical eye, before everyone involved in it is dead. Most already are.
***Anyone who thinks I’m being too hard on Ricks needs to go read his account of the Battle of Fallujah in his first book on the Iraq War, Fiasco. A truly revolting bit of crotch sniffery towards the jarheads.