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.

Trump Treason?

Here we go again. Trump is being impeached over his dealings with Ukraine, even as he accuses Democrats like Adam Schiff of treason. This sordid spectacle will doubtless dominate the news for the next few months, and probably longer. Impeachment, as they say, is a political process, and thus partisanship will reign supreme, fueled by Trump’s temper tantrums and his rhetoric of coups and civil wars.

Trump is, simply put, constitutionally unsuited to be president. Not just because he doesn’t know the U.S. Constitution: he doesn’t have a public service bone in his body. It makes perfect sense to him to use his position and its powers for his own personal gain. He’s been doing that his entire life, so why stop now? Trump also sees himself as a victim — the biggest victim in all of history. He reminds me of the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, whose shtick was about how he got no respect.

It’s all so sad and depressing, and it’s only just begun.

Bracing Views

soccer Trump gets a soccer ball from Putin.  A win-win?

W.J. Astore

America’s MAGA President, Donald Trump, has generated enormous criticism for his news conference with Vladimir Putin.  Typical of this is James Fallows at The Atlantic, who wrote that “Never before have I seen an American president consistently, repeatedly, publicly, and shockingly advance the interests of another country over those of his own government and people.”  A “national nightmare,” opined The Washington Post.  A “train wreck,” said NBC News, that made Russians “gleeful.”

Is Trump advancing the interests of Russia?  Is this an example of high crimes and misdemeanors, perhaps even rising to treason?

Methinks not.  Trump, if he is advancing Russian interests, is doing so indirectly.  Because only one thing matters to Trump: his own interests.  With Trump, it really is all about him.

Consider the accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016…

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Of Premature Withdrawals, Forever Wars, and the U.S. Military

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Remember these generals?  The “adults in the room” for Trump?  How well did that work out?

W.J. Astore

As the Trump administration prepares to deploy more U.S. troops to serve the needs of Saudi Arabia, I got to thinking about America’s forever wars in the Middle East and Central Asia.  Back on August 17th, I clipped an article from the New York Times entitled “Debate Flares Over Afghanistan as Trump Considers Troop Withdrawal.”  I noted the usual “arguments” presented by U.S. military leaders and chickenhawks of both parties.  That withdrawals would constitute a “retreat” that would be “premature” and “reckless.”  That U.S. troops had to remain to counter “an enduring terrorist threat.”  That the Taliban enemy had perfected “weasel language” that would allow them to win any peace treaty.  Making his usual appearance was General (retired) David Petraeus, who warned ominously that a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan “would be even more ill-advised and risky than the Obama administration’s disengagement from Iraq.”  Petraeus, of course, has argued for a generational commitment to Afghanistan that could last as long as seventy years.

A few points to make here:

1.  A U.S. withdrawal wouldn’t be “premature.”  Rather, it’s at least seventeen years overdue.

2.  Terrorist threats are nothing new (I was reading about them on active duty in 1985).  Moreover, they are often fed by the presence of U.S. troops and bases as well as by “kinetic” actions, i.e. killing people, especially innocent civilians.

3.  It’s funny that the Taliban can’t be trusted for its “weasel” language, whereas Americans always negotiate in good faith.

4.  Why is Petraeus, a man who disgraced himself by illegally sharing classified information with his mistress, always the go-to guy for advice on any military situation?

Speaking of “premature withdrawals,” Tom Engelhardt noted how these same “arguments” were used to support the Iraq War in 2010.  The war song always remains the same: any military withdrawal is “premature” without total U.S. victory (whatever that may mean).

I swear if the U.S. military had had its way, U.S. forces would still be in Vietnam, and generals would still be arguing that withdrawal from Southeast Asia is “premature.”

In 2016, then-Candidate Trump deplored America’s dumb and costly wars, yet as President he now embraces the same tired tactics of the generals and their neo-con enablers.  All these men have a great fear of premature withdrawal — are they confusing it with premature ejaculation?

Even as America’s leaders boast about having the world’s greatest and most powerful military, their actions betray fears of defeat, of a lack of potency, and a concern they’re being played (i.e. those “weasel” words).  And indeed they are losing, they are showcasing their own impotence, they are being played, as long as these disastrous wars persist.

Global Strikes, Global Warming, Global Change

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And a teenager shall lead them: Greta Thunberg

W.J. Astore

Today, Friday September 20th, is a global strike day to address global warming/climate change.

It’s hard to believe we need a teenager from another country, Greta Thunberg, to remind Congress and the American people to listen to scientists on the subject of climate change, but that’s the sad reality in the Land of Greedica.  We all know the world is getting hotter, storms are getting more intense, birds and insects are dying in large numbers, coral reefs are dying off due to bleaching — the list goes on.  And we also know human actions are contributing to global warming.

But we also know there are trillions of dollars of fossil fuels still in the ground, or under our oceans, or in rapidly melting arctic regions, and that fossil fuel companies want the profits from the extraction, production, and sale of the same.  And those companies buy as many politicians as they can, they control as much of the media as they can, they even buy scientists to present “contrary” evidence about global warming, all in the cause of greed and power.

They get away with it in part because we’ve been trained to think in the short term.  We keep daily and even hourly calendars.  The business cycle is quarterly and yearly.  Even those long Communist plans of the past dealt with five-year cycles.  We humans simply aren’t used to thinking in terms of generations, nor are we encouraged to.

The process of global warming has been occurring slowly, gradually, over the last few generations, but it’s beginning to pick up speed, with major changes occurring faster than many scientists predicted.

Speaking of generational changes, it’s interesting that the Pentagon and its generals easily think in generational terms when it comes to America’s wars, and encourage Americans to do the same, but we’re not encouraged at all to work persistently and patiently to win the “war” on climate change.  (As an aside, the fossil-fuel-driven U.S. military is obviously not helping the cause of ameliorating the impact of global warming, though the Pentagon is planning for global disruptions to be caused by climate change.  With military budgets approaching a trillion a year, I’d say they’re winning, even as the planet loses.)

As Tom Engelhardt noted this week at TomDispatch.com, we humans need to stop empowering the pyromaniacs who’d prefer to see the earth burn as long as they’re making money off of it.  We need to act globally to protect our planet from irreversible harm, or we’re pretty much screwed as a species.

Trillions for Warplanes: The Case of the F-35

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F-35 Costs: Up, Up, and Away!

W.J. Astore

My latest article for TomDispatch.com focuses on the F-35 stealth fighter, which is estimated to cost $1.5 trillion over the life of the program.  I hope you can read all of the article here; what follows is an extended excerpt on the history of the program.  Did you ever notice how Congress never asks where the money is coming from for these incredibly expensive weapons?  But ask for money for education, environmental protection, infrastructure, and especially for poor people and Congress starts screaming about the deficit, which is booming under Trump.  But there’s always money for weapons!  We need to remember that “government” money is our money, and we need to start spending it on priorities that matter to us, not to defense contractors and generals.

A Brief History of the F-35 Program

I first heard of what would become the F-35 in 1995. I was then a captain in the Air Force, working on flight-planning software. I was told that a new Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF, was being developed.  The “joint” meant that the Air Force, Navy, and Marines would all use it. Its big selling point at the time was the striking level of anticipated savings expected due to the commonality of the design, of spare parts, and of everything else. (Those in the know then, however, remembered the Pentagon’s previous shot at “jointness,” the TFX program in the 1960s; the resulting plane, the F-111, would be rejected by the Navy and unloved by the Air Force.)

The new JSF was advertised as offering the highest-tech possible at the lowest price imaginable, a fighter that would replace legacy aircraft like the Air Force’s F-16s and A-10s and the Navy’s F-18s. Winning the competition to develop the plane was weapons giant Lockheed Martin and a prototype F-35 Lightning II first took to the skies in 2006, by which time I was already retired from the Air Force. In the 13 years since then, the F-35 has gone through a mind-boggling series of major program delays and setbacks, burning money all the way.

In 2014, the plane’s woeful record finally caught the eye of CBS’s 60 Minutes, which documented how the program was seven years behind schedule and already $163 billion over budget. The Pentagon, however, simply plunged ahead. Its current plan: to buy more than 2,600 F-35s by 2037, with the assumption that their service lives will possibly extend to 2070. In Pentagon terms, think of it as a multi-generational warplane for America’s multi-generational wars.

Five years after that 60 Minutes exposé and 13 years after its first flight, the F-35 unsurprisingly remains mired in controversyHarper’s Andrew Cockburn recently used it to illustrate what he termed “the Pentagon Syndrome,” the practice of expending enormous sums on weapons of marginal utility.  The F-35, he noted, “first saw combat [in 2018], seventeen years after the program began. The Marines sent just six of them on their first deployment to the Middle East, and over several months only managed to fly, on average, one combat sortie per plane every three days. According to the Pentagon’s former chief testing official, had there been opposition, these ‘fighters’ could not have survived without protection from other planes.” 

So far, in other words, the F-35 has had an abysmally low rate of availability. Technically speaking, it remains in “initial operational testing and evaluation,” during which, as defense journalist Dan Grazier has noted, it achieved a “fully mission capable rate” of just 11% in its combat testing phase. (The desired goal before going into full production is 80%, which is, in a sense, all you need to know about the “success” of that aircraft so many years later.) Compounding those dreadful percentages is another grim reality: the F-35’s design isn’t stable and its maintenance software has been a buggy nightmare, meaning the testers are, in a sense, trying to evaluate a moving and messy target.

These and similar problems led President Trump and former acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to push possible alternatives to the F-35 as a way of pressuring Lockheed Martin to improve its performance.  In December 2016, before he even entered the Oval Office, for example, Trump tweeted about building F-18 Super Hornets in place of the F-35. Later, Shanahan advocated for an updated version of the venerable F-15 Eagle, made by Boeing, a company for which he had only recently been a senior executive. But the president’s tweets have moved on, as has Shanahan, and Lockheed Martin continues to hold all the cards. For the Pentagon, it’s still the F-35 or bust.

Unsurprisingly, the president has changed his tune, enthusing that the F-35 is invisible (“You literally can’t see it”) rather than merely difficult to detect on radar. (He has also referred to Marillyn Hewson, the CEO of Lockheed Martin, as Marillyn Lockheed.)  The main selling point of the F-35 is indeed its stealth technology, marking it as a “fifth generation” fighter when compared to the older F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, and A-10s, which are decidedly unstealthy and radar detectable. Primarily because of such technology, the Pentagon argues that the F-35 will prove far more “survivable” than previous warplanes in any future conflict with Russia, China, or some other country equipped with sophisticated radars and surface-to-air missiles.

Yet such stealthiness comes at a real cost and not just in monetary terms. To maintain its stealthy profile, the F-35 must carry its weaponry internally, limiting its load and destructive power compared to “fourth generation” planes like the A-10 and F-15. It must also rely on an internal fuel system, which will limit its range in battle, while its agility in air-to-air combat seems poor compared to older fighters like the F-16. (The Pentagon counters, unconvincingly, that the F-35 wasn’t designed for such dogfighting.)

As a former Air Force project engineer and historian of technology and warfare, here’s my take on the F-35 program today: in trying to build an aircraft to meet the diverse requirements of three services, Lockheed Martin has produced a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none albatross. Each military service piled requirements onto the F-35, as ever more esoteric features were added, including that stealth capability; special software featuring eight million lines of code; unique (and wildly expensive) helmets for its pilots; and vertical landing/short takeoff capacity for the Marines, which led to an airframe design that made it ever less maneuverable for the Air Force and Navy. The result: perhaps the classic example of a plane that is far less than the sum of its staggeringly expensive parts.

To get more specific, consider the mission of close air support, or CAS, which means supporting troops in or near combat. The best and most survivable plane for such a role remains the one specifically designed for it: the unglamorous A-10 Warthog, which ground troops love but Air Force officialdom hates (because it was designed in response to Army, not Air Force, needs). By comparison, the F-35, which is supposed to fill the A-10’s role, simply isn’t designed for such a mission.  It’s too fast, meaning its loiter time over targets is severely limited; its weapons load is inadequate; it has only one engine, making it more vulnerable to ground fire; and its (malfunctioning) gun lacks punch. (It also costs twice as much to fly.) Despite all this, the Air Force continues to advocate for the F-35 in a CAS role, even as it grudgingly re-wings A-10s to extend their lives.

And keep in mind as well that, if you want an attack platform that can loiter for hours, while removing all risk to pilots, why not just use already existing drones like the military’s Reapers?  Who even needs an expensive F-35 stealth fighter?  To these and similar criticisms the Pentagon responds that it’s fifth generation! It’s new! It’s stealthy! It’s a game-changer! It scares the Russians and Chinese! And if those answers don’t work, there’s always that old standby: tell me why you hate our troops!

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin’s profits are soaring as that company and the Pentagon sell the F-35 to allies around the world. Despite its delays, cost overruns, and performance issues, it’s still being promoted as America’s latest and greatest.  Foreign military sales have the added benefit of driving down per-unit costs for the Pentagon, even as politicians tout the F-35 as a huge job creator. In short, with no alternative in sight, Lockheed Martin remains top gun in the Pentagon’s cockpit (Eat your heart out, Tom Cruise!), with virtually guaranteed profits for the next half-century.

Read the rest of the article here.

James Mattis, the General Who Couldn’t

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W.J. Astore

James Mattis is making the talk show rounds, promoting his new book, “Call Sign Chaos.”  Interestingly, while openly critical of President George W. Bush for being unprepared for the Iraq War, and President Barack Obama for lacking a strategy and being too soft toward enemies like Iran, Mattis is remarkably circumspect about his service as Secretary of Defense under President Donald Trump.  Perhaps Trump’s non-disclosure agreements really do pack a punch?

I’ve written about Mattis before.  Trump may have picked him in part because he looks a little like George S. Patton of World War II fame.  While serving under Trump, Mattis was deferential but not as big of an ass-kisser as most of Trump’s subordinates.  Mattis was a disappointment nonetheless, bought off by all the money Trump and the Republicans (and Democrats as well) shoveled to the Pentagon.

Mattis, among several generals Trump called “his” own, did nothing to end America’s disastrous overseas wars and the profligate spending on them.  He also did nothing to curb the U.S. military’s desire to spend $1.7 trillion on genocidal nuclear weapons.  He had no vision for a U.S. military that would be less imperial, less wasteful, and, in two words, less stupid.

Mattis was more interested in better relations with allies than was Trump, especially NATO, but that was about the only notable difference.  That and the fact that Mattis seemed even more dedicated to using the U.S. military in debacles like Afghanistan and Syria, whereas Trump, displaying his usual fickleness and ignorance, waxed between total destruction and total withdrawal.

Strategic chaos has been the result of Mattis’s service under Trump, so the book’s title is unintentionally accurate.  If only retired generals would do what they used to do way back when, such as fishing and golfing, enjoying a sinecure or two but otherwise doing no harm.  But, sadly, that’s no longer the American way.  Too many generals, retired or otherwise, are spoiling the Democracy, and Mattis is one of them.

Among noteworthy American generals who could, men like Patton and Ike and Grant and Sherman, Mattis is yet another pretender like David Petraeus, a man who couldn’t.  He couldn’t win a major, enduring, victory, and he didn’t define a new course forward that would truly safeguard America’s national security.  Call sign chaos, indeed.

Putting Labor back in Labor Day Weekend

Labor Day Weekend is upon us again. My dad told me that the harder he worked physically, the less he got paid. He worked in factories before he took the civil service exam and became a firefighter in the early 1950s. Over time, his pay and benefits increased due to the power of the firefighters’ union. So make that two lessons from my dad. The first is that workers doing “grunt” work deserve better pay and more respect; the second is that unions should be celebrated for helping workers to get higher pay and better benefits. Yet sadly Labor Day Weekend in America is typically sold as yet another opportunity to spend money at various “sales.” It’s not celebrated as a day to mark the contributions of the humble worker across America. Indeed, if it’s truly “labor” day, shouldn’t nearly everyone have the day off?

Workers had to fight bitter, sometimes deadly, battles for nickles and dimes. And they still do. We need to remember those battles and work to improve the plight of workers everywhere.

Bracing Views

WPR: Marches & PicketsW.J. Astore

Labor Day weekend is a reminder there’s no labor party in U.S. politics.  Instead, we have two pro-business parties: the Republicans and the Republicans-lite, otherwise known as the Democrats.  Both are coerced if not controlled by corporations through campaign finance “contributions” (bribes) and lobbyists (plus the promise of high-paying jobs should your local member of Congress lose an election or wish to transition to a much higher paying job as a lobbyist/influence peddler).  With money now defined as speech, thanks to the Supreme Court, there’s a lot of “speech” happening in Congress that has nothing to do with the concerns of workers.

Nevertheless, a myth exists within the mainstream media that “socialist” progressive politicians are coming this fall to take your money and to give it to the undeserving poor (and especially to “illegal” immigrants, who aren’t even citizens!).  First of all, the so-called Democratic Socialists are not…

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