Thomas Paine on War and Empire

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It’s time again to listen to the common sense of Thomas Paine

W.J. Astore

This past weekend, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the JCS, said U.S. troops would remain in Syria for another few years, ostensibly to prevent an ISIS resurgence, and that troops would also continue to fight the Afghan War for several years to come.  This should have been been big news, but in an America now distracted by a public impeachment circus, endless wars are greeted with a collective shrug within the media.

Thomas Paine would not have been happy.  Famously outspoken for writing “Common Sense” at the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, Paine had some choice words about war and empire that Americans would do well to read and heed today.

“If there is a sin superior to every other,” Paine wrote, “it is that of willful and offensive war … he who is the author of a war, lets loose the whole contagion of Hell, and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.”

Paine then wrote that “We leave it to England and Indians [allied with England] to boast of these honors; we feel no thirst for such savage glory; a nobler flame, a purer spirit animates America.”

Imagine an America today that felt no thirst for the savage glory of war!

Paine supported only defensive wars, for Freedom and against Tyranny, as he put it.  Remind me how keeping troops in Syria to secure oil is a just war for freedom?  Remind me how prolonging the Afghan War (now in its 18th year) by several more years is necessary for America’s defense and in the cause of freedom?

Paine further had choice words for empires that were foolish enough to wage ruinous wars far from home.  Naturally, he had Britain most in mind:

“If ever a nation was mad and foolish, blind to its own interest and bent on its own destruction, it is Britain … Bless’d with all the commerce she could wish for, and furnished by a vast extension of dominion with the means of civilizing both the eastern and western world, she has made no other use of both than proudly to idolize her own ‘Thunder,’ and rip up the bowels of whole countries for what she could get; –like Alexander she has made war her sport, and inflicted misery for prodagality [sic] sake.”

Making war our sport while idolizing our “thunderous” military — isn’t that an apt description of much of U.S. foreign policy for the past few decades?

But Paine wasn’t finished.  He made a dire prediction:

“All countries have sooner or later been called to their reckoning; the proudest empires have sunk when the balance was struck; and Britain, like an individual penitent, must undergo her day of sorrow, and the sooner it happens to her the better.”

No empire lasts forever — certainly not one that engages in endless and largely pointless wars.  Paine warned Britain about the high costs of war with America and how British forces were fated to lose, and he was right.

In a country that supposedly respects and even worships its Founders, isn’t it time Americans listened to Thomas Paine on the horrors of war and the perils of empires blinded by power and greed?

End the wars, America.  Bring our troops home.  And restore freedom to our land.

(Quotations from Paine are from “The American Crisis” as published in Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, Library of America, pp. 108, 165-66, written originally in 1777 and 1778)

My Dad’s Silver Dollars

Tomorrow is Veterans Day, which used to be known as Armistice Day. It was a day to celebrate peace — 11/11/1918 marked the end of World War I. But of course it’s become a day to celebrate veterans, but we already have Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, etc. There’s even a “National Day of the Deployed,” as in troops deployed overseas, which occurred this year on Oct. 26th.

11/11 should be a day to celebrate the end of war. A day to mark the promise of peace. That’s what my dad’s silver dollars were all about in the 1920s.

It’s high time “peace” became a thing again.

Bracing Views

W.J. Astore

My dad left me two silver dollars.  They’re worth much in sentimental value (I’ll explain in a moment), but they also teach us something about how America has changed.

Here’s a photo of them.  Lady Liberty is on the front, an eagle is on the back.

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These were “peace” dollars issued in the aftermath of World War I.  (Note the word “peace” under the eagle.)  Imagine that: a coin issued by the USA dedicated to and celebrating peace!  It’s truly hard to imagine such a coin being issued today, and not only because our currency is now made only with base metal (a debased currency?).

In keeping with U.S. foreign policy today, an equivalent 2018 (faux silver) dollar would doubtless feature the god of war on the front with a menacing eagle clutching missiles, drones, and bombs on the back.

Anyway, I promised a story about my dad’s…

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Democracy and War

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James Madison knew that endless war is the harshest enemy of liberty

W.J. Astore

Democracies should be slow to start wars and quick to end them.  James Madison taught us that.  Why is America today the very opposite of this?

I thought of this as I read Danny Sjursen’s fine article at TomDispatch.com.  Sjursen, a retired Army major, is a strong critic of America’s forever wars.  He served in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost soldiers under his command.  He knows the bitter cost of war and expresses it well in his article, which I encourage you to read.  Here’s an excerpt:

Recently, my mother asked me what I thought my former students [West Point cadets] were now doing or would be doing after graduation. I was taken aback and didn’t quite know how to answer.

Wasting their time and their lives was, I suppose, what I wanted to say. But a more serious analysis, based on a survey of U.S. Army missions in 2019 and bolstered by my communications with peers still in the service, leaves me with an even more disturbing answer. A new generation of West Point educated officers, graduating a decade and a half after me, faces potential tours of duty in… hmm, Afghanistan, Iraq, or other countries involved in the never-ending American war on terror, missions that will not make this country any safer or lead to “victory” of any sort, no matter how defined.

Repetition.  Endless repetition.  That is the theme of America’s wars today.

Remember the movie “Groundhog Day,” with Bill Murray?  Murray’s character repeats the same day, over and over again.  He’s stuck in an infinite loop from which he can’t escape.  Much like America’s wars today, with one exception: Murray’s character actually learns some humility from the repetition.  He shows a capacity for growth and change.  And that’s how he escapes his loop.  He changes.  He grows.  The U.S. military’s leadership?  Not so much.

But I don’t just blame the senior leaders of the U.S. military.  They’re not that dumb.  It’s the system of greed-war they and we inhabit.  Why change endless war when certain powerful forces are endlessly profiting from it?  War, after all, is a racket, as General Smedley Butler knew.  It’s a racket that’s contrary to democracy; one that buttresses authoritarianism and even kleptocracy, since you can justify all kinds of theft in the cause of “keeping us safe” and “supporting our troops.”

Danny Sjursen, a true citizen-soldier, remembers that war is supposed to be waged in accordance with the Constitution and only to protect our country against enemies.  But being a citizen-soldier has gone out of style in today’s military.  Everyone is supposed to identify as a warrior/warfighter, which has the added benefit of suppressing thought about why we fight.

Eager to fight, slow to think, might be the new motto of America’s military.  Such a motto,  consistent with forever war, is inconsistent with democracy.

Why America’s Wars Never End

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Really?

W.J. Astore

Inspired by three recent articles at TomDispatch.com, I’d like to suggest why America’s wars never end.

The first article marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is by James Carroll.  It brought me back to when I was a young Air Force captain on active duty.  All of us in the military were surprised when the wall came down.  Soon the Soviet Union would collapse as well.  I know because I got a certificate signed by President G.H.W. Bush congratulating us for winning the Cold War.

In the early 1990s there was much talk about a New World Order (largely undefined) and a Peace Dividend.  The “new” world order quickly became global military adventurism for the U.S. and the peace dividend withered as Desert Shield/Storm and other operations commenced.

I recall some personnel cuts, but no real cuts in weaponry.  And no change to strategy.  NATO remained even though the Warsaw Pact had dissolved.  Indeed, NATO would soon be expanded (in the cause of peace, naturally), even as U.S. imperial ambitions grew.  It was the “end of history” and the U.S. had triumphed, or so we thought.

But why had we triumphed?  Apparently the lesson our leaders took from it was that military strength was the key to our triumph, therefore more of the same would lead to new triumphs.  Pax Americana was not about democracy or freedom: it was about weapons and wars.  Peace through military strength (and destruction) was the driving philosophy.

Unbounded ambition and unbridled power – that was the new world order for America.  The wall came down in Berlin, but it didn’t come down in our minds.  Instead of an open society, Fortress America became the norm.

The second article is by Allegra Harpootlian and focuses on the “collateral damage” (murdered innocents) of America’s global bombing and drone campaigns.  It made me think of a conversation I had with a student; he’d been in the U.S. Army and fought in Afghanistan.  Basically, he described it as a dirt-poor country with a primitiveness that seemed Biblical to him.  He got me thinking about how we “see” people like the Iraqis and Afghans as less than us.  Different.  Inferior.  Primitive.  From another time, and from another place.

So, when Americans kill civilians in those places, it’s almost like it’s cinematic, not real, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”  We just move on.

Of course, Americans are not encouraged to be empathetic people.  The world is supposed to revolve around us.  “You can have it all.”  In a world of selfies, why care about others?  Look out for #1!

To put a bow on this, consider evangelical Christianity and the prosperity gospel.  (The idea God will reward you with material goods and money as a sign of righteousness.)  Remember when charity to others was valued?  Not anymore.

Another way of putting this: In America there’s a huge market for self-help books, videos, etc.  But where are the books and videos encouraging us to help others?

The third article is by Andrew Bacevich and specifically addresses the never-ending nature of America’s wars.  His piece made me think of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who as a presidential candidate has called for an end to regime-change wars (though not the war on terror).  For her pains, she’s been accused of being a Russian asset by Hillary Clinton & Company.

Why is this?  Because there’s just so much money – literally trillions of dollars – at stake here, and the military-industrial-congressional complex knows how to protect itself.

The Complex offers or supports hundreds of thousands of decent-paying jobs, building weapons, staffing think tanks, and so forth.  President Trump may have voiced some skepticism about America’s failed and failing wars, yet he keeps giving the Pentagon more money.  Hence the wars will continue, no matter what sounds come out of Trump’s mouth.

As Tom Engelhardt has noted, for the Pentagon, failure is success.  Naval accidents mean the Navy needs more money.  Failed wars mean the military needs more money to replace weaponry, “modernize,” and prepare for the next round.  Defeat is victory, as in more money.

To recap, America’s wars persist because a martial imperialism is our new world order; because we have limited empathy for others, especially darker-skinned “primitives”; and because war is simply a thriving business, the Washington way to rule.

Here’s a final, bonus, reason America’s wars persist: thoughtfulness is not valued by the U.S. military.  Another “t” word is: toughness.  The U.S. military would rather be strong and wrong than smart and right.

For all the “think” tanks we have inside the Washington beltway, what matters more than thought is toughness.  Action.  Making the other guy whimper and cry, to cite President Trump.  This is yet another reason why America loses.  We prefer to act first, then (grudgingly) think, then act some more.

Thinking implies prudence.  Caution.  Restraint.  Patience.  Un-American qualities!

Here I think of U.S. officer performance reports, which also stress action, results, even when the results are “fragile,” “reversible,” or even made up.  How many officers have been promoted on pacification campaigns that pacified no one?  On training efforts, e.g. for the Iraqi Army, that trained no one?  On battles or skirmishes “won” that had no staying power?  Remember that Petraeus Surge in Iraq?

In a nutshell, perhaps we wage war without end simply because we want to.  We’ll stop when we wake up from our madness – or when someone makes us stop.

The Militarization of Everything

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What’s wrong with this image?  For too many Americans, nothing is wrong with it.

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I talk about militarism in the USA, a subject that’s been on my mind ever since President George W. Bush hid behind the bemedaled chest of General David Petraeus in 2007.  Here’s an excerpt from my article:

Besides TV shows, movies, and commercials, there are many signs of the increasing embrace of militarized values and attitudes in this country. The result: the acceptance of a military in places where it shouldn’t be, one that’s over-celebrated, over-hyped, and given far too much money and cultural authority, while becoming virtually immune to serious criticism.

Let me offer just nine signs of this that would have been so much less conceivable when I was a young boy watching reruns of Dragnet:

1. Roughly two-thirds of the federal government’s discretionary budget for 2020 will, unbelievably enough, be devoted to the Pentagon and related military functions, with each year’s “defense” budget coming ever closer to a trillion dollars. Such colossal sums are rarely debated in Congress; indeed, they enjoy wide bipartisan support.

2. The U.S. military remains the most trusted institution in our society, so say 74% of Americans surveyed in a Gallup poll. No other institution even comes close, certainly not the presidency (37%) or Congress (which recently rose to a monumental 25% on an impeachment high). Yet that same military has produced disasters or quagmires in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere. Various “surges” have repeatedly failed. The Pentagon itself can’t even pass an audit. Why so much trust?

3. A state of permanent war is considered America’s new normal. Wars are now automatically treated as multi-generational with little concern for how permawar might degrade our democracy. Anti-war protesters are rare enough to be lone voices crying in the wilderness.

4. America’s generals continue to be treated, without the slightest irony, as “the adults in the room.” Sages like former Secretary of Defense James Mattis (cited glowingly in the recent debate among 12 Democratic presidential hopefuls) will save America from unskilled and tempestuous politicians like one Donald J. Trump. In the 2016 presidential race, it seemed that neither candidate could run without being endorsed by a screaming general (Michael Flynn for Trump; John Allen for Clinton).

5. The media routinely embraces retired U.S. military officers and uses them as talking heads to explain and promote military action to the American people. Simultaneously, when the military goes to war, civilian journalists are “embedded” within those forces and so are dependent on them in every way. The result tends to be a cheerleading media that supports the military in the name of patriotism — as well as higher ratings and corporate profits.

6. America’s foreign aid is increasingly military aid. Consider, for instance, the current controversy over the aid to Ukraine that President Trump blocked before his infamous phone call, which was, of course, partially about weaponry. This should serve to remind us that the United States has become the world’s foremost merchant of death, selling far more weapons globally than any other country. Again, there is no real debate here about the morality of profiting from such massive sales, whether abroad ($55.4 billion in arms sales for this fiscal year alone, says the Defense Security Cooperation Agency) or at home (a staggering 150 million new guns produced in the USA since 1986, the vast majority remaining in American hands).

7. In that context, consider the militarization of the weaponry in those very hands, from .50 caliber sniper rifles to various military-style assault rifles. Roughly 15 million AR-15s are currently owned by ordinary Americans. We’re talking about a gun designed for battlefield-style rapid shooting and maximum damage against humans. In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, the hunters in my family had bolt-action rifles for deer hunting, shotguns for birds, and pistols for home defense and plinking. No one had a military-style assault rifle because no one needed one or even wanted one. Now, worried suburbanites buy them, thinking they’re getting their “man card” back by toting such a weapon of mass destruction.

8. Paradoxically, even as Americans slaughter each other and themselves in large numbers via mass shootings and suicides (nearly 40,000 gun deaths in 2017 alone), they largely ignore Washington’s overseas wars and the continued bombing of numerous countries. But ignorance is not bliss. By tacitly giving the military a blank check, issued in the name of securing the homeland, Americans embrace that military, however loosely, and its misuse of violence across significant parts of the planet. Should it be any surprise that a country that kills so wantonly overseas over such a prolonged period would also experience mass shootings and other forms of violence at home?

9. Even as Americans “support our troops” and celebrate them as “heroes,” the military itself has taken on a new “warrior ethos” that would once — in the age of a draft army — have been contrary to this country’s citizen-soldier tradition, especially as articulated and exhibited by the “greatest generation” during World War II.

What these nine items add up to is a paradigm shift as well as a change in the zeitgeist. The U.S. military is no longer a tool that a democracy funds and uses reluctantly.  It’s become an alleged force for good, a virtuous entity, a band of brothers (and sisters), America’s foremost missionaries overseas and most lovable and admired heroes at home. This embrace of the military is precisely what I would call soft militarism. Jackbooted troops may not be marching in our streets, but they increasingly seem to be marching unopposed through — and occupying — our minds.

Please read the entire article here at TomDispatch.com.

Update (10/25/19): Speaking of militarization, let’s not forget the popularity of video games (or “shooter” games) such as Call of Duty.  And with Halloween coming, who can resist costumes such as this (photo taken by a military friend):

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You thus have war reduced to a game and a costume party.  Welcome to Amerika!

Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight

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Tulsi Gabbard’s promotion to major

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump attended a high school military academy.  But when the Vietnam War came calling, he developed heel spurs that kept him out of the military.  In the case of Joe Biden, it was asthma that kept him on the sidelines of that war.  Dick Cheney had multiple student deferments and “higher priorities” than serving, as he put it.  George W. Bush got a safe spot in the Texas Air National Guard.  John Kerry, ironically, did serve in the military during Vietnam but famously turned against that war.  His service was “Swift-boated” into infamy even as Bush/Cheney were being applauded by some for their alleged toughness.

When it comes to service in the military, U.S. politicians typically vote with their feet, meaning they double-time away from joining the ranks.  This is nothing new, of course.  During the U.S. Civil War, the rich could pay for substitutes if they were drafted.  When it comes to war, it’s very often a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.

Interestingly, there are two Democratic candidates who are veterans of America’s most recent wars: Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.  According to his website, Mayor Pete “served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve and took an unpaid seven-month leave during his mayoral term to deploy to Afghanistan. For his counterterrorism work, he earned the Joint Service Commendation Medal.”  Sounds impressive, yet a “joint service commendation medal” is a standard-issue medal for any company-grade officer who completes such an assignment without screwing up in a major way.  It’s a little like a participation trophy in a Little League tournament.

Despite Mayor Pete’s fairly limited military experience, his web site boasts that if he’s elected president, he’ll take office with the most military experience since George H.W. Bush, who served in the U.S. Navy in combat during World War II.

Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s military record is far more extensive than Mayor Pete’s.  She joined the Army National Guard soon after 9/11 and deployed to Iraq during some of the most bitter fighting in that country.  She’s currently a major in the Guard and has spoken extensively about how her military service informs her positions against wasteful, regime-change, wars.  According to her web site, “Having experienced first-hand the true cost of war, Tulsi made a personal vow to find a way to ensure that our country doesn’t continue repeating the mistakes of the past, sending our troops into war without a clear mission, strategy, or purpose.”

Tonight, there’s yet another Democratic debate featuring Mayor Pete as well as Congresswoman Gabbard.  It will be interesting to see if they’re called on specifically for their views on military issues, such as Trump’s recent decision to pull U.S. troops from northern Syria.

In fact, I’d like to hear the views of all twelve Democrats on that stage tonight on the question of America’s forever wars, and why these wars have illustrated that old story of war being in the service of the rich even as the poor pay the ultimate price.  Given America’s supine Congress, our presidents have enormous power over life and death in making war across the globe.  When are we going to rein that power in?  When are we going to stop fighting foolish and destructive wars that have nothing to do with safeguarding America?

Until we honestly — even ruthlessly — address these questions, America will continue to witness generational wars for the rich fought by the poor.

Trump and the Generals

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W.J. Astore

There’s a new article at The Atlantic by Mark Bowden that cites America’s generals to condemn Donald Trump’s leadership of the military.  Here’s how the article begins:

For most of the past two decades, American troops have been deployed all over the world—to about 150 countries. During that time, hundreds of thousands of young men and women have experienced combat, and a generation of officers have come of age dealing with the practical realities of war. They possess a deep well of knowledge and experience. For the past three years, these highly trained professionals have been commanded by Donald Trump.

That’s quite the opening.  A few comments:

  1. It’s not a good thing that American troops have been deployed to nearly 150 countries over the last 20 years.  Indeed, it points to the scattershot nature of U.S. strategy, such as it is, in the “global war on terror.”
  2. Hundreds of thousands of troops have “experienced combat” — and this is a good thing?  What wars have they won?  What about the dead and wounded?  What about the enormous monetary cost of these wars?
  3. Dealing with “the practical realities of war” — Please tell me, again, how Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc., have played out?
  4. “Highly trained professionals” with “a deep well of knowledge and experience.”  Again, tell me which wars America has clearly won.

The gist of Bowden’s article is that Trump is capricious, vain, contrary, and ignorant.  But his biggest sin is that he doesn’t listen to the experts in the military and the intelligence community, whereas George W. Bush and Barack Obama did.

Aha!  Tell me again how things worked out for Bush and Obama.  Bush led the USA disastrously into Afghanistan and Iraq; Obama “surged” in Afghanistan (a failure), created a disaster in Libya, and oversaw an expansion of Bush’s wars against terror.  And these men did all this while listening to the experts, those “highly trained professionals” with those allegedly “deep” wells of knowledge and experience.

Given this record, can one blame Trump for claiming he’s smarter than the generals?  Can one fault him for trying to end needless wars?  He was elected, after all, on a platform of ending costly and foolish wars.  Is he not trying, however inconsistently or confusingly, to fulfill that platform?

The point here is not to praise Donald Trump, who as commander-in-chief is indeed capricious and ignorant and too convinced of his own brilliance.  The point is to question Bowden’s implied faith in the generals and their supposed “deep well” of expertise.  For if you judge them by their works, and not by their words, this expertise has failed to produce anything approaching victory at a sustainable cost.

Bowden’s article concludes with this warning: In the most crucial areas, the generals said, the military’s experienced leaders have steered Trump away from disaster. So far.

“The hard part,” one general said, “is that he may be president for another five years.”

The generals “have steered Trump away from disaster.”  Really.  Tell me who’s going to steer the generals away from their disasters — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, the list goes on.

Bowden, it must be said, makes valid points about Trump’s weaknesses and blind spots.  But in embracing and even celebrating the generals, Bowden reveals a major blind spot of his own.