The Pentagon’s Wasteful Weapons

Now the “lemon” is up to $1.7 trillion. Even more lemonade?

W.J. Astore

Imagine you’re a soldier in combat. What’s the most important feature of any weapon system? That it works. That it’s reliable. Nobody wants a weapon that jams in a firefight. Reliability, simplicity, ruggedness are key features of weaponry.  Yet the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex seem to specialize in unreliable, complex, fragile ones. Ones that don’t work, or that don’t work very well, and at inflated prices as well. This is the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch, and here’s an excerpt from it:

Cancel culture is a common, almost viral, term in political and social discourse these days. Basically, somebody expresses views considered to be outrageous or vile or racist or otherwise insensitive and inappropriate. In response, that person is “canceled,” perhaps losing a job or otherwise sidelined and silenced. In being deplatformed by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, for instance, this country’s previous president has, it could be argued, been canceled — at least by polite society. More than a few might add, good riddance.

Cancel culture is all around us, with a single glaring exception: the U.S. military. No matter how poorly a major weapons system performs, no matter how much it goes over budget, no matter how long it takes to field, it almost never gets canceled. As a corollary to this, no matter how poorly a general performs in one of our twenty-first-century wars, no matter his lack of victories or failure to achieve mission objectives, he almost never gets cashiered, demoted, or even criticized. A similar thing could be said of America’s twenty-first-century wars themselves. They are disasters that simply never get canceled. They just go on and on and on.

Is it any surprise, then, that a system which seems to eternally reward failure consistently produces it as well? After all, if cancel culture should apply anywhere, it would be to faulty multibillion-dollar weapons systems and more than a few generals, who instead either get booted upstairs to staff positions or retire comfortably onto the boards of directors of major weapons companies.

Let’s take a closer look at several major weapons systems that are begging to be canceled — and a rare case of one that finally was.

* The F-35 stealth fighter: I’ve written extensively on the F-35 over the years. Produced by Lockheed Martin, the plane was at one point seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Nonetheless, the U.S. military persisted and it is now nearing full production at a projected total cost of $1.7 trillion by the year 2070. Even so, nagging problems persist, including engine difficulties and serious maintenance deficiencies. Even more troubling: the plane often can’t be cleared for flying if lightning is anywhere in the area, which is deeply ironic, given that it’s called the Lightning II. Let’s hope that there are no thunderstorms in the next war.

* The Boeing KC-46 tanker: A tanker is basically a flying gas station, air-to-air refueling being something the Air Force mastered half a century ago. Never underestimate the military’s ability to produce new problems while pursuing more advanced technology, however. Doing away with old-fashioned windows and an actual airman as a “boom operator” in the refueling loop (as in a legacy tanker like the KC-135), the KC-46 uses a largely automated refueling system via video. Attractive in theory, that system has yet to work reliably in practice. (Maybe, it will, however, by the year 2024, the Air Force now says.) And what good is a tanker that isn’t assured of actually transferring fuel in mid-air and turns out to be compromised as well by its own fuel leaks? The Air Force is now speaking of “repurposing” its new generation of tankers for missions other than refueling. That’s like me saying that I’m repurposing my boat as an anchor since it happened to spring a leak and sink to the bottom of the lake.

* And speaking of boats, perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that the Navy has had serious problems of its own with its most recent Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers. That service started building carriers in the 1920s, so one might imagine that, by now, the brass had gained some mastery of the process of updating them and building new ones. But never underestimate the allure of cramming unproven and expensive technologies for “next generation” success on board such vessels. Include among them, when it comes to the Ford-class carriers, elevators for raising munitions that notoriously don’t operate well and a catapult system for launching planes from the deck (known as the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System or EMALS) that’s constantly breaking down. As you might imagine, not much can happen on an aircraft carrier when you can’t load munitions or launch planes effectively. Each new Ford-class carrier costs in the neighborhood of $14 billion, yet despite all that money, it simply “isn’t very good at actually being a carrier,” as an article in Popular Mechanics magazine bluntly put it recently. Think of it as the KC-46 of the seas.

* And speaking of failing ships, let’s not forget the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), which have earned the nickname “little crappy ships.” A serious propulsion design flaw may end up turning them into “floating garbage piles,” defense journalist Jared Keller recently concluded. The Navy bought 10 of them for roughly half a billion dollars each, with future orders currently on hold. Lockheed Martin is the lead contractor, the same one responsible for the wildly profligate (and profitable) F-35.

* Grimly for the Navy, problems were so severe with its Zumwalt-class of stealth destroyers that the program was actually canceled after only three ships had been built. (The Navy initially planned to build 32 of them.) Critiqued as a vessel in search of a mission, the Zumwalt-class was also bedeviled by problems with its radar and main armament. In total, the Navy spent $22 billion on a failed “next generation” concept whose cancelation offers us that utter rarity of our moment: a weapon so visibly terrible that even the military-industrial complex couldn’t continue to justify it.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday has gone on record as rejecting the idea of integrating exotic, largely untried and untested technologies into new ship designs (known in the biz as “concurrent development”). Godspeed, admiral!

Much like the troubled F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship, the Zumwalt’s spiraling costs were due in part to the Pentagon’s fixation on integrating just such “leading-edge” technologies into designs that themselves were in flux. (Not for nothing do military wags refer to them as bleeding edge technologies.) Such wildly ambitious concurrent development, rather than saving time and money, tends to waste plenty of both, leading to ultra-expensive less-than-fully effective weapons like the Zumwalt, the original version of which had a particularly inglorious breakdown while passing through (or rather not passing through) the Panama Canal in November 2016.

Given such expensive failures, you might be forgiven for wondering whether, in the twenty-first century, while fighting never-ending disastrous wars across significant parts of the planet, America’s military isn’t also actively working to disarm itself. Seriously, if we’re truly talking about weapons that are vital to national defense, failure shouldn’t be an option, but far too often it is.

With this dubious record, one might imagine the next class of Navy vessel could very well be named for Philip Francis Queeg, the disturbed and incompetent ship captain of novelist Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. It’s also quite possible that the Pentagon’s next advanced fighter jet will fulfill former Martin Marietta CEO Norman Augustine’s estimate from the 1980s that, by the year 2054, the entire Pentagon budget would be needed to buy one — and only one – combat aircraft. Perhaps a Death Star for America’s new Space Force?

Be sure to read the rest of the article here at TomDispatch.com.

Yet Another Wartime President

Enjoy America’s De-escalatory Bombs!

W.J. Astore

Who was the last U.S. president with a reputation for peace?

By bombing Syria this week, Joe Biden has become yet another “wartime” president. Apparently Iranian-backed militias from Iraq operating inside Syria were the intended target of the bombs. Perhaps as many as 22 “militants” were killed in these attacks. Using language that would make Big Brother blush, the Biden administration claimed the attacks aimed “to de-escalate the overall situation in both Eastern Syria and Iraq.”

I’ve heard of precision bombing, but this is the first time I’ve heard of de-escalatory bombing. Naturally, Congress wasn’t consulted.

Along with this provocative and needless act of aggression, the Biden administration is currently weighing its options in Afghanistan. Three options seem to be on the table: withdrawing all U.S. troops and ending the war; prolonging the war indefinitely; and continued “negotiations” with modest increases of those troops. The last option is considered the sober sensible one by Beltway sages. Complete withdrawal after twenty years of turmoil and death is predictably seen as too risky, whereas a wholehearted commitment to generational war in Afghanistan, a la General Petraeus, is seen as politically unpopular, even if the end result of the sober sensible option is exactly that: more war fought in the (false) name of (eventual) peace.

So, under Joe Biden, we have bombing for de-escalation and more war for peace. Again, Biden deserves praise when he promised that nothing would fundamentally change under his administration.

Ending America’s Wars

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, I went on Keeping Democracy Alive with Burt Cohen to discuss ways of ending America’s wars. Click on the link below for the podcast.

Can it Happen Now: Real National Security, an End to Endless Wars?

We discussed the Biden administration and its approach to foreign policy, the Afghan War, the legacy of the Vietnam War, the military-industrial-congressional complex, and similar subjects. That rare word, “peace,” and that rare politician, George McGovern, truly a man of vision and guts, also get a mention.

Ending war is all about getting the profit out of war. General Smedley Butler knew this — yet America’s generals today love their massive “defense” budgets, this year soaring to $740.5 billion.

Another point: Look at the ongoing crisis in Texas with its frozen and failing power grid, lack of potable water, and so on. Why is America building more nuclear weapons when it needs to be upgrading its power grids and related infrastructure?

I know: stop making sense!

Nothing will fundamentally change?

If Only Americans Followed Wars Like Sports

Score! Bobby Orr! One of my bedroom wall posters

W.J. Astore

I’m a big sports fan. I grew up in the Boston area and loved my local teams. When I was a kid, I had two big posters of Bobby Orr, the famed defenseman of the Boston Bruins, on my wall. I had a Boston Red Sox uniform. When I threw a baseball around, I imagined I was Luis Tiant, the mercurial and entertaining pitcher for the Red Sox, or Dwight Evans, the team’s rocket-armed right fielder. I collected baseball cards and studied the stats on the back for hours on end.

But I was also a kid who kept a scrapbook on the Yom Kippur War of 1973. I was ten years old yet I was attracted to war and its nitty-gritty details as much as I was to the sporting world. Who knows why. Temperament, I suppose. As I grew older, I built lots of military models and read more and more books about the military even as I kept an interest in sports (more as a fan than a participant, since my talent level was modest at best).

This was on my mind this AM as I read a detailed article on Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, whose stellar career was cut short by injuries. The article focused on whether Pedroia deserved election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.* Highly detailed, well written, and showing an estimable command of statistics, the article impressed me even as it got me to thinking. What if Americans examined wars like they studied sports? What if Afghanistan was covered with the same detail as the forthcoming NFL draft? What if there was a channel like ESPN devoted to wars 24/7 rather than to sports? And what if the reporting was objective and honest?

You can’t fool a sophisticated sports fan with a bunch of home-team boosterism that’s disconnected from the facts on the ground (or on the baseball diamond, the football field, the ice hockey rink, etc.). Why are so many people so easily fooled about the need to continue the Afghan War, which is now in its 20th year and where the U.S.-led coalition is losing more than ever?

If the Afghan War were a U.S. sports team, it would be a team that spent more money than any other team even as it lost more games, cycling through a new losing coach every year and an unmemorable cast of players that changed each season. Despite the hiring of much-hyped “coaches” like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, despite promises of pennant-winning “surges” by team presidents like Barack Obama, our imaginary Afghan War sports team was and remains a cellar dweller, forever mired in last place.

What red-blooded American sports fan would tolerate more of the same from such a loser team? What fan would keep cheering for such a team? What fan would say, “let’s stay the course,” even as more and more losses piled up?

Consider this article from yesterday’s New York Times:

*****

The Taliban Close In on Afghan Cities, Pushing the Country to the Brink

The Taliban have positioned themselves around several major population centers, including the capital of Kandahar Province, as the Biden administration weighs whether to withdraw or to stay.

*****

What should Team Biden do? “To stay” is to stay on the same losing course we’ve been on for 20 years. “To withdraw” is a new course that has the virtue of ending the bleeding (at least for the U.S.). Which action would you choose?

Any sports fan worth his or her salt would know the answer here. Call withdrawal a “rebuilding” year and most sports fans would accept it. It’s a far better choice than staying and losing with the same old tactics and cast of characters.

Just about every American sports fan has heard the saying: Winning isn’t everything–it’s the only thing. Well, we’re not winning in Afghanistan and we never will. So the only smart thing left to do is to leave.

*Pedroia gets my vote for the Hall of Fame. It’s not simply about stats. Pedey was a winner, a leader, a gutsy overachiever who played the game the right way. Rookie of the year, MVP, World Series winner, he gave it his all on every play. Sometimes, the so-called intangibles matter.

Brief Reflections on Trump, War, and Militarism

Trump’s motto: In generals I trust. It didn’t work out so well for him. Or the country.

W.J. Astore

As the Senate prepares to acquit Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial, I thought it would be a good time for a quick look at his legacy on war and militarism. Trump’s fans like to say he started no new wars. But he was hardly a man of peace, and his legacy on war and militarism is almost entirely negative. Here, in no particular order, are my quick thoughts on this subject:

  1. He boosted military spending and weapons sales. Trump basically bought off the military-industrial-congressional complex by throwing scores of billions of dollars its way while selling weapons around the world. It’s an old formula for U.S. presidents and it worked.
  2. He boosted a militant nationalism vis-a-vis rivals and even traditional allies. Trump was no friend to Russia and aggravated relations with China. Relations with NATO allies were also aggravated as he pressured them to spend more on weapons and wars.
  3. He boosted militarism at home and specifically with police forces. Trump supported and encouraged violent police crackdowns of BLM activists. He called for the deployment of active duty military in the streets of Washington, DC. He even called for a massive military parade (which never happened).
  4. He boosted overseas bombing and drone strikes. Recall the use of MOAB in Afghanistan, or Trump’s missile strike against Syria, and increased bombing in Afghanistan.
  5. He boosted tensions with Iran nearly to the breaking point. Trump’s drone strike against Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was an act of war; harsh economic sanctions and withdrawal from the Obama-era nuclear treaty with Iran also heightened tensions.
  6. He boosted the chances of nuclear war in the future. Trump was a fan of nuclear weapons; he seems to think of them simply as bigger, mightier bombs. His pursuit of “smaller” tactical nuclear warheads and their deployment on Trident-class nuclear submarines increase the possibility of nuclear war in the future.
  7. He boosted economic sanctions against Venezuela while pursuing a coup. Trump knows Venezuela has vast oil reserves. Why not overthrow their government and take their oil? That was Trump’s policy, more or less. (It doesn’t appear to have changed under Joe Biden.)
  8. Creation of a Space Force. Yet another military competitor for U.S. taxpayer dollars, even as space itself becomes another sphere for the U.S. military to “dominate.”
  9. Failure to end wars that he promised to end. Trump was talked out of ending the war in Afghanistan by generals like James Mattis and H.R. McMaster. Ending such wars was a promise Trump foolishly abandoned.
  10. Reliance on Generals as wise men. Trump, overall a weak and vainglorious man, surrounded himself with generals like Mattis, McMaster, John Kelly, and (briefly) Michael Flynn. Thus he got narrow-minded war-mongering advice.
  11. Seeing the world as a zero-sum game of winners and losers and debasing the art of diplomacy. Putting Mike Pompeo in charge of the State Department was a new low in the pursuit of peace through diplomacy.
  12. Aiding genocide in Yemen while kowtowing to Israel and Saudi Arabia: Trump was a willing participant to genocide in Yemen while pursuing a “peace” plan with Israel that was totally one-sided vis-a-vis the status and rights of Palestinians.

Off the top of my head, that’s my top twelve of Trump’s legacies in this arena. What do you think, readers? Can you think of others? And will any of this really change under Joe Biden?

Send in the Bombers!

W.J. Astore

A B-2, a B-1, and a B-52. And I’m proud to be an American …

It’s Super Bowl Sunday — time to gather together and party responsibly, i.e. don’t turn your party into a Covid super-spreader event.

You can always learn a lot about America by watching the Super Bowl — and I’m not talking about football. Pregame ceremonies are telling, as are the elaborate halftime shows. This year, I noted how the Air Force is selling the story of a female pilot, Captain Sarah Kociuba, who will pilot a B-2 stealth bomber to open the festivities. She’ll be joined by a B-1B Lancer and a B-52 Stratofortress. The message, of course, is “pride” in America.

And I thought only the quarterbacks would be throwing bombs.

Seriously, these bombers are all about mass destruction. Possibly even nuclear mass destruction. Why I should feel “pride” in weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is beyond me.

Look! Up in the sky! It’s American-made WMD. Led by a highly-qualified female pilot. Diversity! America!

Enjoy the game.

Ten Ways to Work Toward Peace

W.J. Astore

I came across this quotation yesterday: “I am worried about the state of the readiness of the nuclear triad,” Deputy SecDef nominee Kath Hicks tells the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, “and, if confirmed, that is an area I would want to get my team in place and start to look at right away.”

The U.S. military plans to spend well over a trillion dollars over the next thirty years to “modernize” the nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, nuclear-capable bombers, and sub-launched ballistic missiles. Long ago, I remember reading (from December 1982) that Charles Bennet, a Democratic Congressman, had said “The triad is not the Trinity.” But the Pentagon treats it as if it is a (un)Holy Trinity, shoveling money to build even more nuclear weapons to devastate and destroy humanity. I don’t use the concept of evil lightly, but I can’t think of policies much more evil than developing yet more genocidal weaponry at enormous cost.

We desperately need new thinking in America, which is why I wrote the following article for TomDispatch. Maybe some of these are pipe dreams; then again, maybe we should all be smoking peace pipes more often.

The Power of America’s Example

When it comes to war, if personnel is policy, America is yet again in deep trouble.

As retired Army Major Danny Sjursen recently pointed out at TomDispatch, when it comes to foreign policy, President Joe Biden’s new cabinet and advisers are well stocked with retired generalsreconstituted neoconsunapologetic hawks, and similar war enthusiasts. Biden himself has taken to asking God to protect the troops whenever he makes a major speech. (How about protecting them by bringing them home from our pointless wars?) “Defense” spending, as war spending is generally known in this country, remains at record levels at $740.5 billion for fiscal year 2021. Talk of a new cold war with Russia or China (or both) paradoxically warms Pentagon offices and corridors with yet more funds. The only visible dove of peace at Biden’s inaugural was the giant golden brooch worn by Lady Gaga. So what exactly is to be done?

Peace-driven progressive policies will not emerge easily from the rainbow kettle of hawks Biden has so far assembled, but his inaugural speech did mention leading and inspiring others globally “not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.” It would have been an apt rhetorical flourish indeed, if not for this country’s “forever wars” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. America’s harsh war-fighting reality suggests that “the example of our power” still remains standard operating procedure inside the Washington Beltway. How could this possibly be changed?

I have a few ideas for Biden — a 10-point plan, in fact, for turning his softball rhetoric into hardball reality. Consider, Mr. President, the following powerful examples you could set as America’s latest commander-in-chief:

1. Stop the U.S. from building new generations of nuclear weapons and downsize the vast existing American arsenal, while launching global negotiations to work toward the elimination of all such arsenals. The U.S. military is set to spend well over a trillion dollars in the coming decades to “modernize” its nuclear triad of bombers and land-based and submarine-launched missiles. Such a staggering “investment” can only move the world closer to nuclear Armageddon. If America is to lead by example when it comes to the ultimate power on this planet, why not begin by cancelling this trillion-dollar-nightmare as part of a new global anti-nuclear initiative? Why not commit us, long term, to the elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere, while moving to adopt a “no-first-use” policy?

2. When it comes to President Biden’s commitment to slow climate change and clean up the environment, why not do something in military terms? America’s armed forces have an enormous appetite for fossil fuels. The Pentagon also has a sordid record when it comes to the poisoning of the environment. (Consider the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam, or the military’s burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the birth defects and severe health problems that were linked to the munitions its forces used in assaulting the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004.) If the president wants to set an example when it comes to demilitarizing this over-armed, over-polluted planet of ours, reducing both the military’s fossil-fuel emissions and its poisonous munitions would be a powerful way to start.

3. End this century’s forever wars and radically downsize this country’s unprecedented global network of military bases. Driving the colossal size of today’s military is what my old service, the Air Force, likes to call its “global reach, global power” mission. At least in theory, that mission, in turn, helps justify the sprawling network of 800 or so overseas bases, a network that costs more than $100 billion a year to maintain. Such bases not only consume resources needed here in the U.S. and help stoke those forever wars, but they present high-value targets to opponents and incite ill-feeling and resistance from “host” countries. So, downsizing that global base structure would be an act of peace — and fiscal sanity.

4. Make major cuts in the country’s war budget. Fewer bases and fewer or no wars should translate into a far lower defense budget. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 billion annually to defend this country and cover its real “national security” interests seems reasonable for the self-styled lone superpower. The money saved (roughly $340 billion based on this year’s budget) could then perhaps be partly rebated directly to American families in need in this pandemic. Perhaps every American family earning less than $50,000 a year could see a rebate on their taxes directly attributable to downsizing that budget and America’s imperial footprint overseas. Taking a page from Donald Trump, President Biden, as America’s thrifty and giving commander-in-chief, could even have his name put on those rebate checks. Call it a long-delayed peace dividend. Regular Americans, after all, need such “dividends” far more than giant defense contractors like Boeing or Raytheon. And don’t get me started on the need to invest in rebuilding this nation’s infrastructure at a moment when the extremities associated with climate change threaten to devastate parts of the country.

5. Create a Department of Peace (here’s looking at you, Dennis Kucinich) with influence at least approaching that of the so-called Department of Defense. Currently, the U.S. military is all about power projection, domination of the global battlespace, and similar buzzwords that add up to exporting violence abroad, special op by special op, drone by drone. You are what you do and the U.S. military does permanent war with plenty of “collateral damage.” (Picture mutilated black and brown bodies and flattened and poisoned cities and towns.) If the U.S. government can create a Space Force just to fulfill the fantasies of Donald Trump, then why not a peace force, too? (America’s current, humble Peace Corps asked for $401 million for Fiscal Year 2021, roughly the cost of four underperforming F-35 jet fighters.) Peace, much like war, doesn’t just happen. You have to work at it — and that would be precisely the mission of the Department of Peace.

6. Pay attention, for once, to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address and exert rigorous oversight and zealous control over the military-industrial complex. That means ending the 2001 AUMF, the authorization for use of military force that Congress passed in a climate of panic and revenge in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (though it was only to be against those associated in some fashion with those terror attacks), and the second one Congress authorized in 2002 in preparation for the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. They have been misused and abused by presidents ever since. Furthermore, end any conflict that hasn’t been authorized by a direct Congressional declaration of war. That means withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. America’s security is not, in fact, directly threatened by those countries. As a self-declared democracy, the United States should set an example by not fighting wars disconnected from the people’s will and the true needs of national defense.

7. And speaking of President Eisenhower, America needs to embrace his lesson that military spending represents a theft from Americans who are hungry, sick, and need help. For its “national security,” this country needs more hospitals, better education, safer food, a cleaner environment, and, most of all, clean water and fresh air. Eisenhower knew that warships and warplanes were simply not the answer to the American people’s real and pressing needs.

8. Reject threat inflation, including the heightening talk of a “new cold war” with Russia or China or of an ongoing “generational” war on terror. Eliminate talk of a new Red Menace, of likely wars with Iran or North Korea, or of America’s backwardness in cyberwarfare research and development. Terrorism is nothing new and will always be with us in one form or another (including, vis-a-vis the Capitol on January 6th, domestic terrorism). Indeed, since war is terror, a war on terror should truly be considered an oxymoron. Terrorist acts are mostly the recourse of the weak when taking on the strong. The United States isn’t going to stop them by getting stronger yet. Nor are China and Russia about to invade this country. (This isn’t Red Dawn.) Iran is not coming to impose Sharia law and North Korea is not about to launch nukes against us. As for cyber-attacks, don’t worry: no matter what you’ve heard, no country does cyberwarfare better than the U.S.A.

9. End the practice of foreign aid taking the form of military aid. When taxpayers give aid to foreign countries, it should be in the form of food, medicine, and other essentials, not cluster bombs, F-16s, and Hellfire missiles.

10. Learn from Abraham Lincoln. In President Biden’s recent Inaugural Address, as a call to national unity, he made reference to Lincoln’s initial inaugural appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” But he should have focused on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, the finest speech ever given by any president. As Lincoln put it then, when it came to ending the American Civil War:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Lincoln was unafraid of speaking of and seeking a just and lasting peace. In this century, until at least the Trump years, Americans often heard their leaders speak of this nation’s “exceptional” nature. What could be more exceptional, more laudable, than seeking a lasting global peace?

Biden, like me, is Roman Catholic. My Catholic bible (Matthew 5:9) tells me that Christ said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Instead of beseeching God to protect the troops that American presidents have continually sent into harm’s way, Joe Biden might ask for blessings for America’s peace activists. To echo Lincoln again, that would indeed be a case of right making might, instead of the might-making-right vision that a militaristic America has grown far too comfortable with.

An Alert and Knowledgeable Citizenry

So long ago, President Eisenhower spoke of the importance of having an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry.” Isn’t it time for mainstream media outlets to foster real, critical, investigative journalism that would truly inform those very citizens about America’s wanton military spending and endless wars, while providing educators with crucial material to teach their students about the horrific costs of militarism? This country needs to free its collective mind from the prevailing forever-war narrative. To paraphrase Crosby, Stills, and Nash, if we teach the children well, perhaps they won’t repeat their father’s hell.

In his song “Imagine,” John Lennon asked us all to imagine a different world and said that it’s easy if you try. Lennon got the first and most important part right, but the second part sadly doesn’t apply, at least to this country in this century. Nowadays, Americans are so immersed in a culture driven by war, profit, and exploitation that it’s no longer easy to imagine anything but war. If Americans truly paid attention to war, up close and as personal as they could get, they’d begin to grasp the folly and wickedness of it and so perhaps relinquish what I’ve come to think of as their prisoner-of-war mentality in relation to it. They might actually begin breaking down mental barriers to peace.

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Don’t count on Congress doing it, though. Congress is incestuously part of what should be renamed the military-industrial-congressional complex. Don’t count on the military doing it either. Its most senior men and women have been carefully selected, groomed, and promoted because they believe in the system, which includes incessant lobbying for more weaponry and exaggerating the threats to this country to get it. They exist to wage war; the rest of us should be willing to fight for peace.

Change, if and when it comes, will have to be driven by people like us.

It won’t be easy, but it is necessary for America’s survival. And it’s unlikely to come without campaign finance reform and the public funding of elections. In a “pay-to-play” oligarchy disguised as a democracy, the giant weapons-making corporations simply pay much more than you do and so speak through megaphones, leaving you with a dead mic. Unless the corporate dominance of our politics is curtailed, ordinary Americans will continue to be outshouted and overwhelmed by the bellicose and the greedy, leaving the country forever at war.

It won’t be easy to work for peace, but it sure is worth the try. It sure as hell beats the alternative of guns, bombs, and missiles being produced like so many sausages in a militaristic country that ever more resembles George Orwell’s nightmarish image of the future as “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”

America’s new president has called for us to lead with the power of our example rather than just the example of our power. I can’t think of anything more exemplary and powerful than a strong commitment to making war no more.

Copyright 2021 William J. Astore

War and Meaninglessness in America

W.J. Astore

Joe Biden is America’s new president, but nothing has changed on the war front. In Iraq, a U.S. airstrike has killed the top leader of the Islamic State, notes today’s New York Times. The paper notes that “the United States has about 2,500 troops left on three Iraqi military bases. While Iraqi capability in fighting the Islamic State group has improved, the country still relies on intelligence, surveillance assets and air support from the US-led coalition.”

Remember when U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011? Of course, despite all the military training and equipment the U.S. showered on a new Iraqi military, that military totally collapsed in 2014 under pressure from the Islamic State. Naturally, the U.S. military took no blame, even as the collapse opened a door for more U.S. military intervention. And so the fighting persists, but at a low-enough level that it stays off of most American radar screens.

Revealingly, this is how the Iraqi parliament responded to the latest U.S. “victory” on terror: “After the drone strike, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution demanding the government expel US forces from Iraq, a move that has not been implemented.”

Do you think President Biden will listen to the Iraqi parliament and withdraw U.S. troops once and for all?

War has been made much too easy in America. Imagine if Joe Biden, or Donald Trump, or Barack Obama, or George W. Bush, actually had to lead troops from the front, exposing themselves to potential harm as they waged America’s wars overseas. It’s easy to sit in the Oval Office and push paper that translates into killing people. I’m not getting nostalgic for the age of Napoleon or the time of kings and queens, but there’s something to be said for physical and moral courage and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for what one believes.

This put me to mind of a passage from Tana French’s novel, “The Likeness,” from 2008. French writes the following “rant” for one of her characters:

“Look at the old wars, centuries ago: the king led his men into battle.  Always.  That was what the ruler was: both on a practical level and on a mystical one, he was the one who stepped forwards to lead his tribe, put his life at stake for them, become the sacrifice for their safety.  If he had refused to do that most crucial thing at that most crucial moment, they would have ripped him apart—and rightly so: he would have shown himself to be an impostor, with no right to the throne.  The king was the country; how could he possibly expect it to go into battle without him?  But now…Can you see any modern president or prime minister on the front line, leading his men into the war he’s started?  And once that physical and mystical link is broken, once the ruler is no longer willing to be the sacrifice for his people, he becomes not a leader but a leech, forcing others to take his risks while he sits in safety and battens on their losses.  War becomes a hideous abstraction, a game for bureaucrats to play on paper; soldiers and civilians become mere pawns, to be sacrificed by the thousands for reasons that have no roots in any reality.  As soon as rulers mean nothing, war means nothing; human life means nothing.  We’re ruled by venal little usurpers, all of us, and they make meaninglessness everywhere they go.” (pages 320-21, emphasis added)

Tana French

It’s a powerful passage that has much to say about America’s seemingly eternal wars against someone somewhere.

For America’s rulers, war has largely become “kinetic action” at an entirely safe distance, so far away as to become almost an imaginary construct, except for the vast profits earned from it. To most Americans, as French suggests, it has become an exercise in meaninglessness. And whatever else war is or should be, it should have meaning, otherwise it’s just killing for nothing.

A Very American Coup

W.J. Astore

All this talk of coups, and U.S. military veterans’ involvement in the same, reminds me of an article I wrote for TomDispatch.com exactly eleven years ago in 2010. In the article, I suggested the possibility of “a very American coup” in 2016, and I wrote that “A military that’s being used to fight unwinnable wars is a military prone to return home disaffected and with scores to settle.” Recent events at the U.S. Capitol suggest that many Americans do have scores to settle, and some of them are disaffected veterans.

Of course, my vintage 2010 crystal ball wasn’t completely clear, but I think I got a few things more or less right, especially my prescriptions for preventing coups, which still apply today, I’d argue. What do you think, readers?

A Very American Coup
Coming Soon to a Hometown Near You
By William J. Astore

(Originally posted on January 19, 2010)

The wars in distant lands were always going to come home, but not this way.

It’s September 2016, year 15 of America’s “Long War” against terror.  As weary troops return to the homeland, a bitter reality assails them: despite their sacrifices, America is losing.

Iraq is increasingly hostile to remaining occupation forces.  Afghanistan is a riddle that remains unsolved: its army and police forces are untrustworthy, its government corrupt, and its tribal leaders unsympathetic to the vagaries of U.S. intervention.  Since the Obama surge of 2010, a trillion more dollars have been devoted to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and other countries in the vast shatter zone that is central Asia, without measurable returns; nothing, that is, except the prolongation of America’s Great Recession, now entering its tenth year without a sustained recovery in sight.

Disillusioned veterans are unable to find decent jobs in a crumbling economy.  Scarred by the physical and psychological violence of war, fed up with the happy talk of duplicitous politicians who only speak of shared sacrifices, they begin to organize.  Their motto: take America back.

Meanwhile, a lame duck presidency, choking on foreign policy failures, finds itself attacked even for its putative successes.  Health-care reform is now seen to have combined the inefficiency and inconsistency of government with the naked greed and exploitative talents of corporations.  Medical rationing is a fact of life confronting anyone on the high side of 50.  Presidential rhetoric that offered hope and change has lost all resonance.  Mainstream media outlets are discredited and disintegrating, resulting in new levels of information anarchy.

Protest, whether electronic or in the streets, has become more common — and the protestors in those streets increasingly carry guns, though as yet armed violence is minimal.  A panicked administration responds with overlapping executive orders and legislation that is widely perceived as an attack on basic freedoms.

Tapping the frustration of protesters — including a renascent and mainstreamed “tea bag” movement — the former captains and sergeants, the ex-CIA operatives and out-of-work private mercenaries of the War on Terror take action.  Conflict and confrontation they seek; laws and orders they increasingly ignore.  As riot police are deployed in the streets, they face a grim choice: where to point their guns?  Not at veterans, they decide, not at America’s erstwhile heroes.

A dwindling middle-class, still waving the flag and determined to keep its sliver-sized portion of the American dream, throws its support to the agitators.  Wages shrinking, savings exhausted, bills rising, the sober middle can no longer hold.  It vents its fear and rage by calling for a decisive leader and the overthrow of a can’t-do Congress.

Savvy members of traditional Washington elites are only too happy to oblige.  They too crave order and can-do decisiveness — on their terms.  Where better to find that than in the ranks of America’s most respected institution: the military?

A retired senior officer who led America’s heroes in central Asia is anointed.  His creed: end public disorder, fight the War on Terror to a victorious finish, put America back on top.  The United States, he says, is the land of winners, and winners accept no substitute for victory.  Nominated on September 11, 2016, Patriot Day, he marches to an overwhelming victory that November, embraced in the streets by an American version of the post-World War I German Freikorps and the police who refuse to suppress them.  A concerned minority is left to wonder (and tremble) at the de facto military coup that occurred so quickly, and yet so silently, in their midst.

It Can Happen Here, Unless We Act

Yes, it can happen here.  In some ways, it’s already happening.  But the key question is: at this late date, how can it be stopped?  Here are some vectors for a change in course, and in mindset as well, if we are to avoid our own stealth coup:

1. Somehow, we need to begin to reverse the ongoing militarization of this country, especially our ever-rising “defense” budgets.  The most recent of these, we’ve just learned, is a staggering $708 billion for fiscal year 2011 — and that doesn’t even include the $33 billion President Obama has requested for his latest surge in Afghanistan.  We also need to get rid of the idea that anyone who suggests even minor cuts in defense spending is either hopelessly naïve or a terrorist sympathizer.  It’s time as well to call a halt to the privatization of military activity and so halt the rise of security contractors like Xe (formerly Blackwater), thereby weakening the corporate profit motive that supports and underpins the American version of perpetual war.  It’s time to begin feeling chastened, not proud, that we’re by far the number one country in the world in arms manufacturing and the global arms trade.

2. Let’s downsize our global mission rather than endlessly expanding our military footprint.  It’s time to have a military capable of defending this country, not fighting endless wars in distant lands while garrisoning the globe

3. Let’s stop paying attention to major TV and cable networks that rely on retired senior military officers, most of whom have ties both to the Pentagon and military contractors, for “unbiased” commentary on our wars.  If we insist on fighting our perpetual “frontier” wars, let’s start insisting as well that they be covered in all their bitter reality: the death, the mayhem, the waste, the prisons, and the torture.  Why is our war coverage invariably sanitized to “PG” or even “G,” when we can go to the movies anytime and see “R” rated, pornographically violent films?  And by the way, it’s time to be more critical of the government’s and the media’s use of language and propaganda.  Mindlessly parroting the Patriot Act doesn’t make you patriotic.

4. It’s time to elect a president who doesn’t surround himself with senior “civilian” advisors and ambassadors who are actually retired military generals and admirals, one who won’t accept a Nobel Peace Prize by defending war in theory and escalating it in practice.

5. Let’s toughen up.  Let’s stop deferring to authority figures who promise to “protect” us while abridging our rights.  Let’s stop bowing down before men and women in uniform, before they start thinking that it’s their right to be worshipped and act accordingly.

6. Let’s act now to relieve the sort of desperation bred by joblessness and hopelessness that could lead many — notably male workers suffering from the “He-Cession” — to see a militarized solution in “the homeland” as a credible last resort.  It’s the economy, stupid, but with Main Street’s health, not Wall Street’s, in our focus.

7. Let’s take Sarah Palin and her followers seriously.  They’re tapping into anger that’s real and spreading.  Don’t let them become the voices of the angry working (and increasingly unemployed) classes.

8. Recognize that we face real enemies in our world, the most powerful of which aren’t in distant Afghanistan or Yemen but here at home.  The essence of our struggle to sustain our faltering democracy should not be against “terrorists,” with their shoe and crotch bombs, but against various powerful, perfectly legal groups here whose interests lie in a Pentagon that only grows ever stronger.

9. Stop thinking the U.S. is uniquely privileged.  Don’t take it on faith that God is on our side.  Forget about God blessing America.  If you believe in God, get out there and start trying to earn His blessing through deeds.

10. And, most important of all, remember that fear is the mind-killer that makes militarism possible.  Ramping up “terror” is an amazingly effective way of shredding our Constitution.  Putting our “safety” above all else is asking for trouble.  The only way we’ll be completely safe from the big bad terrorists, after all, is when we’re all living in a maximum security state.  Think of walking down the street while always being subject to a “full-body scan.”    

That’s my top 10 things we need to do.  It’s a daunting list and I’m sure you have a few ideas of your own.  But have faith.  Ultimately, it all boils down to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words to a nation suffering through the Great Depression: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  These words came to mind recently as I read the following missive from a friend and World War II veteran who’s seen tough times: 

“It’s very hard for me to accept how soft the American people have become. In 1941, with the western world under assault by powerful and deadly forces, and a large armada of ships and planes attacking us directly, I never heard a word of fear as we faced three powerful nations as enemies. Sixteen million of us went into the military with the very real possibility of death and I never once heard of fear, except from those exposed to danger. Now, our people let [their leaders] terrify them into accepting the destruction of our economy, our image in the world, and our democracy… All this over a small group of religious fanatics [mostly] from Saudi Arabia whom we kowtow to so we can drive 8-cylinder SUV’s.  Pathetic!”

“How many times have I stood in ‘security lines’ at airports and when I complained of the indignity of taking off shoes and not having water and the manhandling of passengers, have well educated people smugly said to me, ‘Well, they’re just keeping us safe.’ I look at the airport bullshit as a training ground to turn Americans into docile sheep in a totalitarian state.”

A public conditioned to act like sheep, to “support our troops” no matter what, to cower before the idea of terrorism, is a public ready to be herded.  A military that’s being used to fight unwinnable wars is a military prone to return home disaffected and with scores to settle.

Angry and desperate veterans and mercenaries already conditioned to violence, merging with “tea baggers” and other alienated groups, could one day form our own Freikorps units, rioting for violent solutions to national decline.  Recall that the Nazi movement ultimately succeeded in the early 1930s because so many middle-class Germans were scared as they saw their wealth, standard of living, and status all threatened by the Great Depression.

If our Great Recession continues, if decent jobs remain scarce, if the mainstream media continue to foster fear and hatred, if returning troops are disaffected and their leaders blame politicians for “not being tough enough,” if one or two more terrorist attacks succeed on U.S. soil, wouldn’t this country be well primed for a coup by any other name?

Don’t expect a “Seven Days in May” scenario.  No American Caesar will return to Washington with his legions to decapitate governmental authority.  Why not?  Because he won’t have to. 

As long as we continue to live in perpetual fear in an increasingly militarized state, we establish the preconditions under which Americans will be nailed to, and crucified on, a cross of iron.

William J. Astore teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology (wastore@pct.edu).  A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), he has also taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School.  A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism.

Copyright 2010 William J. Astore

Monday Musings

An increasingly common sight. This image is from the BLM protests in June. Note the POW/MIA flag below the American flag.

W.J. Astore

Remember when Trump said he wanted a military parade on the streets of Washington, D.C.? Looks like his dream’s come true, as the streets of Washington are filled with troops in preparation for Biden’s inauguration.

Biden’s message is supposed to stress “unity.” But unity for what? For single-payer universal health care? For an end to wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere? For much higher wages for workers? For a Green New Deal? “Unity” for “normalcy” is empty rhetoric of the worst kind. We need unity for policies that help the most vulnerable among us.

Republicans play to and favor their base. Democrats demobilize and betray their base.

Those rioters who stormed the Capitol — are they all lost causes? What would have happened if Obama had actually been a Progressive in 2008? What would have happened if Sanders had run against Trump in 2016? What I mean is this: Trump is offering a vision (even though it’s a lie) to his followers that mobilizes them. They want to “take back America,” but for the wrong reasons. What if Obama or Sanders (or someone like them) had offered a Progressive vision to “take back America”? But of course any meaningful economic reforms are blocked by the owners and donors of both parties, hence protest and its energy can be seized and directed in dark channels by charlatans like Trump.

Remember the old days when rulers — at risk of being killed or captured — led their troops into combat? And, if they refused to lead, were dismissed as cowards? We’re not living in those days.

Trump is the kind of schoolyard bully who instigates a fight but then stands on the sidelines, cheering and sneering until the teacher comes, after which he smirks and says, “It wasn’t me.”

I know 74 million Americans voted for Trump. But not all of them voted for all of the Trump circus. Many Republicans and Democrats are tribal voters — they’ll vote for their candidate no matter who he is and what he’s done. And I don’t blame all Trump voters for sticking with him when I consider the alternative choice of Joe Biden, a career pol who failed so miserably when he ran for president back in 1988 that he became a laughingstock in his own party.

I can only hope that Biden has learned something since 1988, when he stole speeches from Neil Kinnock and Bobby Kennedy and bragged he graduated near the top of his class on a full scholarship while winning a political science award. Fact is, he graduated near the bottom of his class on a half scholarship and won no such award. He also boasted about his IQ. He further falsely claimed to have participated in civil rights demonstrations and activism in the 1960s. (Bernie Sanders, by contrast, was arrested for his civil rights activism in the 1960s.)

More recently, Biden falsely claimed he’d been arrested while trying to see Nelson Mandela. In short, “alternative facts” won’t die when Trump leaves office.

All this is to say that Joe Biden is a typical politician, only more so. As Jimmy Dore says, politicians are not your friends; they are supposed to be public servants. It’s up to us to hold them to account, not to cheer for them. And if the Democratic party refuses to serve the people — as it likely will — a third party may be the only alternative.