Fear of Defeat and the Vietnam War

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General William Westmoreland in 1968 (Stars and Stripes)

W.J. Astore

Fear of defeat drives military men to folly.  Early in 1968, General William Westmoreland, America’s commanding general in Vietnam, feared that communist forces might overrun U.S. military positions at Khe Sanh.  His response, according to recently declassified cables as reported in the New York Times today, was to seek authorization to move nuclear weapons into Vietnam.  He planned to use tactical nuclear weapons against concentrations of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops.  President Lyndon Johnson cancelled Westmoreland’s plans and ordered that discussions about using nuclear weapons be kept secret (i.e. hidden from the American people), which for the last fifty years they have been.

Westmoreland and the U.S. military/government had already been lying to the American people about progress in the war.  Khe Sanh as well as the Tet Offensive of 1968 were illustrations that there was no light in sight at the end of the tunnel — no victory loomed by force of arms.  Thus the call for nuclear weapons to be deployed to Vietnam, a call that President Johnson wisely refused to countenance.

Westmoreland’s recourse to nuclear weapons would have made a limited war (“limited” for U.S. forces, not for the Vietnamese on the receiving end of U.S. firepower) unlimited.  A nuclear attack in Vietnam likely would have been catastrophic to world order, perhaps leading to a much wider war in Asia that could have led to world-ending nuclear exchanges.  But Westmoreland seems to have had only Khe Sanh in his sights: only the staving off of defeat in a position that American forces quickly abandoned after they had “won” the battle.

War, as French leader Georges Clemenceau famously said, is too important to be left to generals.  Generals often see the battlefield in narrow terms, seeking victory at any price, if only to avoid the stain of defeat.

But what price victory if the world ends as a result?

A Trumped-Up Space Force

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Space exploration and exploitation isn’t what it used to be

W.J. Astore

Space, the “final frontier,” isn’t what it used to be.  In the 1960s and early 1970s I grew up a fan of NASA as well as Star Trek with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.  NASA was (and is) a civilian space agency, even though its corps of astronauts was originally drawn from the ranks of military test pilots.  Star Trek offered a vision of a “federation” of planets in the future, united by a vision “to explore strange new worlds,” venturing forth boldly in the cause of peace.  Within the US military, space itself was considered to be the new “high ground,” admittedly a great place for spy satellites (which helped to keep the peace) but a disastrous place for war.  (Of course, that didn’t prevent the military from proposing crazy ideas, like building a military base on the moon armed with nuclear-tipped missiles.)

Attracted to the space mission, my first assignment as a military officer was to Air Force Space Command.  I helped to support the Space Surveillance Center in Cheyenne Mountain Complex, which kept track of all objects in earth orbit, from satellites to space junk.  (You don’t want a lost hammer or other space junk colliding with your billion-dollar satellite at a speed of roughly 17,000 miles per hour.)  In the mid-1980s, when I was in AFSPACECOM, an offensive space force to “dominate” space was a vision shared by very few people.  I had a small role to play in supporting tests of an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile launched from F-15s, but those tests were curtailed and later cancelled as the Soviet Union, considered as America’s main rival for control of space, began to collapse in the late 1980s.

But that was then, and this is now, and the “now” of the moment is a new US military service, an offensive space force, proposed by the Trump administration as essential to US national security.  At TomDispatch.com, William Hartung provides the details of Trump’s new space force in this fine article.  As I read Hartung’s article, a thought flashed through my mind: We’re not the peaceful Federation of Star Trek.  We’re much more like the Klingon Empire.

In the original Star Trek, the Klingons were a highly aggressive and thoroughly militaristic species that was dedicated to dominating space.  They were proudly imperial and driven by conquest.  Trump, who with his bombast and barking and boasting would make a great Klingon, sees a “space force” that’s all military: that’s all about domination through aggressive action and better offensive weaponry.

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying: Everywhere we go, there we are.  Increasingly for America, that saying means: Everywhere we go, there our military and weapons are.  Even in space.

The “final frontier” of space, which in my youth was largely a realm of peaceful exploration, whether by NASA in the real-world or in the imaginary future of Star Trek, is now under Trump an increasingly militarized place.  This is so because our minds, perhaps humanity’s true “final frontier,” have also been thoroughly militarized.

A war-driven people will bring war with them wherever they go.  If the Vulcans (like Mr. Spock, who was half-Vulcan) are smart, they won’t reach out to humans if and when we find a “warp” drive that allows us to travel much faster than the speed of light.  Logical and peaceful beings that they are, perhaps they’ll quarantine earth and humanity instead.  Maybe with the Vulcan equivalent of a big, fat, beautiful wall?

War is a Racket

I was watching the Bill Maher Show this past weekend on HBO. Generally considered a liberal and a free-thinker, Maher argued that U.S. military forces had to stay in Afghanistan to prevent a resurgence of terrorism. He and his guests seem to have forgotten U.S. military testimony that roughly 20 terrorist groups are currently present in Afghanistan; indeed, that the presence of American troops has attracted more terrorist activity, even as the Taliban has increased its control and the drug trade has vastly expanded. How is long-term failure over 17 years an argument for an even longer “enduring presence” by U.S. troops? How long should those troops stay — forever?

General Smedley Butler knew the score. Five years ago, I wrote this post citing his confession about how war is a racket, driven by the profit motive, exploited by the powerful, even as the grunts and the native people of foreign lands pay the price.

As Butler said, if we want to end war, we must get the profit motive out of it. Also, as he implied here, if the rich and privileged want to control foreign lands, it’s they who should be thrusting the bayonet into the enemy (and risking having it thrust in to them).

Bracing Views

The business of wars and weapons sales is booming, with the United States leading the pack as the world’s foremost “merchant of death,” as Michael Klare notes in this article on the global arms trade for TomDispatch.com.

But why should we be surprised?  War has always been a racket.  And if you don’t believe me that forever war is forever profitable – for some, I recommend that you read War Is A Racket (1935), a classic polemic written by U.S. Marine Corps General Smedley D. Butler.  Twice awarded the Medal of Honor, Major General Butler turned against military adventurism in the 1930s as he saw how his efforts and those of his men were exploited by elites to expand corporate wealth and power, even as they exempted themselves from the hardships and dangers of combat.

Plaque in Philly in Honor of Smedley Butler.  Photo by author. Plaque in Philly in Honor of Smedley Butler. Photo by author.

As Butler put…

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Dueling Bumper Stickers

A little more than five years ago, I wrote this article on dueling bumper stickers. These stickers showcased the divide within America — and also the way we seek to advertise our views (and antagonize others?) by plastering such stickers on our vehicles and in other public spaces. Recently, I’ve seen a sticker that announces “God, Guns, & Guts Made America Great,” which I suppose is an “in your face” message meant to irritate liberals. Readers, what stickers have you seen recently, and what do they tell us about America? Is it too late to “coexist”?

Bracing Views

Coexist_by_Chima1B52SuperiorFirepower

I occasionally travel from north central Pennsylvania, a mostly rural, generally conservative, area to Amherst, Massachusetts, home of generally liberal colleges like Amherst and Smith.  It’s an adventure in dueling bumper stickers.

In Amherst, I’m told to “coexist” with my neighbors, to “enlighten up,” to seek “peace.”  I’m told to go organic and to support my local farmers.  Perhaps my favorite Amherst bumper sticker was the one that told me, “I’m already against the next war.”

Just today in Pennsylvania, I was taught different lessons by different stickers.  I was told to seek “peace thru superior firepower.”  I was encouraged to join the NRA (National Rifle Association, of course) and to “stand and fight.”  I was reminded that “All gave some — some gave all,” with the image of a soldier kneeling next to the grave of a comrade in arms.  “Don’t tread on me,” the slogan of tea partiers…

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Monday Military Musings

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Pentagon spending keeps rolling along …

W.J. Astore

I get “Air & Space Power Journal” electronically.  You might call it a professional journal for Air Force personnel.  The latest articles had these titles:

Character into Action: How Officers Demonstrate Strengths with Transformational Leadership

Multidomain Observing and Orienting: ISR to Meet the Emerging Battlespace

Preparing for Multidomain Warfare: Lessons from Space/Cyber Operations

An Ethical Decision-Making Tool for Offensive Cyberspace Operation

There’s something about military writing that loves pretentious jargon.  Not just leadership, but “transformational” leadership.  Combat or war must be “multidomain.”  Battle or battlefield isn’t enough: we must now talk of “battlespace.”  My automatic spell-check is having conniptions over these three words.

Instead of resorting to pretentious jargon in titles, why not go for the simple and direct?  Here are my suggested titles for the articles above:

* How to Lead.

*Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance in Battle.

*Lessons from Space/Cyber Warfare.

*Applying Ethics to Cyber Warfare.

(Here I think “warfare” is more honest than “operations.”)

One tiny reason the U.S. military continues to struggle in its various “overseas contingency operations,” i.e. wars, is the pretentiousness of its writing.

As the military drowns in words, it’s also drowning in money, though it’s already thinking about what will happen when the cash is curtailed.  A good friend of mine sent me an article with the title, “Pentagon, Defense Industry Brace for Expected Dip in Future Funding.”  Here’s an excerpt:

Without congressional action, the decrease in defense funding would be dramatic. The base Department of Defense budget would drop to $549 billion in FY 2020 and $564 billion in FY 2021, according to a July 2018 report by the Congressional Research Service. The FY 2019 defense budget, recently signed into law, set spending at $717 billion.

The defense industry knows what a looming congressional budget fight could do to the Pentagon’s current high levels of spending. Executives are preparing Wall Street analysts for what likely lays ahead: Congress reducing the cash flow to the Pentagon and what that will mean to corporate bottom lines.

Yes — we must defend those “corporate bottom lines”!

Defense contractors have to be prudent and prepare for the future.  That said, a decline in defense spending should be good news to the American taxpayer.  Old-school Republicans, who used to fight for smaller government and lower deficits, should also be pleased at the prospect of lower spending.

Except it doesn’t work that way anymore. Few if any Members of Congress of either party want to see a decline in spending.  And of course defense contractors want to keep the money flowing — as President Eisenhower famously warned us about in his military-industrial-Congressional complex speech of 1961.

The rest of the world could declare “peace forever” tomorrow and Ike’s complex would still roll along.  The U.S. economy is now linked (forever?) to inflated spending on weapons and war.

Inflated war/weapons spending and inflated prose about “transformational multidomain battlespace” what-have-yous.  All that’s missing in our military are the victories.

“Civilian Casualty Incidents”

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Just another civilian casualty incident?  Original caption: Mourners carry the coffin of a child at the funeral procession for those killed in an airstrike on a bus in Yemen. Photograph: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

W.J. Astore

Last night, as I was watching the PBS News Hour, I snapped to attention as I heard a new euphemism for murdered innocents from bombing: “civilian casualty incidents.”

A PBS reporter used it, unthinkingly I believe, repeating bureaucratic jargon about all the innocents in Yemen smashed to bits or shredded by “dumb” bombs, cluster munitions, and even “smart” bombs that are really only as smart as the pilots launching them (and the often imperfect “actionable intelligence” gathered to sanction them).

The overall tone of the PBS report was reassuring.  General Mattis appeared to comfort Americans that the Saudis are doing better with bombing accuracy, and that America’s role in helping the Saudis is limited to aerial refueling and intelligence gathering about what not to hit.  Of course, the Saudis can’t bomb without fuel, so the U.S. could easily stop aerial massacres if we wanted to, but the Saudis are our allies and they buy weapons in massive quantities from us, so forget about any real criticism here.

I’ve written about Orwellian euphemisms for murderous death before: “collateral damage” is often the go-to term for aerial attacks gone murderously wrong.  To repeat myself: George Orwell famously noted the political uses of language and the insidiousness of euphemisms.  Words about war matter.  Dishonest words contribute to dishonest wars.  They lead to death, dismemberment, and devastation. That’s not “collateral” — nor is it merely a “civilian casualty incident” — that’s a defining and terrifying reality.

What if innocent Americans were being killed?  Would they be classified and covered as regrettable if inevitable “civilian casualty incidents”?

John McCain the “Warrior”

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John McCain as a POW during the Vietnam war

W.J. Astore

I’ve been seeing a lot of headlines, and reading quite a few tributes, about John McCain.  A common word used to describe him is “warrior,” as in this op-ed at Al Jazeera of all places.  If you do a quick Google search with “John McCain” and “warrior” you’ll see what I mean.

I’m a firm believer in the citizen-soldier tradition.  Warrior-speak, I believe, is inappropriate to this tradition and to the ideals of a democracy.  “Warrior” should not be used loosely as a substitute for “fighter,” nor should it replace citizen-sailor, which is what John McCain was (or should have been).

Yes, John McCain came from a family of admirals.  He attended the U.S. Naval Academy.  He became a naval aviator.  He was shot down and became a prisoner of war.  He showed toughness and fortitude and endurance as a POW under torture.  But all this doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make him a “warrior.”  Rather, he was a U.S. Navy officer, a product of a citizen-sailor tradition.

It’s corrosive to our democracy as well as to our military when we use “warrior” as a term of high praise.  Many Americans apparently think “warrior” sounds cool and tough and manly, but there’s a thin line between “warrior” and “warmonger,” and both terms are corrosive to a country that claims it prefers peace to war.

In sum, it says something disturbing about our country and our culture when “warrior” has become the go-to term of ultimate praise.  By anointing McCain as a “warrior,” we’re not praising him: we’re wounding our country.