On War, Trump Has Largely Been an Appeaser

W.J. Astore

For all his tough-guy posturing and his attempts to pose like Winston Churchill, President Trump has largely been an appeaser to the military-industrial complex and its insatiable appetite for wars and weapons sales.

Trump, frowning (he thinks) like Churchill

Yes, it’s good news that Trump is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, though roughly 2500 troops will remain in each country when Joe Biden takes office in January. In short, Trump isn’t ending these wars; he’s merely reducing the number of boots on the ground. His Acting Defense Secretary, Chris Miller, described it as a “repositioning of forces from those two countries.”

Repositioning! Perish the thought that the U.S. military might retreat or even withdraw. The answer is to “reposition” those deck chairs on the USS Titanic and its imperial wars, never mind the sinking feeling you may be experiencing.

Meanwhile, Trump recently announced more weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates, including F-35 fighter-bombers and Reaper drones, worth $23 billion to U.S. weapons manufacturers. When it comes to empowering merchants of death, the United States is indeed number one.

Throughout his four years of office, Trump courted the Pentagon and the Complex by throwing money at it. He hired Complex functionaries like General (retired) James Mattis and General H.R. McMaster and Raytheon lobbyist Mark Esper to run things for him. The result was predictable: more of the same, such that Trump never kept his campaign promise to end America’s wasteful wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Perhaps this was because Trump didn’t want to be blamed if things went south (as they probably will) if he’d ordered all U.S. troops out of these countries. Trump, like most Americans, hates to be labeled a loser. But what he needed to be reminded of was that these countries were never ours to win to begin with. The answer to “Who lost Afghanistan?” is not the president who finally “repositions” all U.S. troops from that country. The answer is Bush/Cheney, Obama/Biden, Trump/Pence, and, assuming they keep the war going in Afghanistan (and elsewhere), Biden/Harris.

Fighting needless and wasteful wars on the periphery of empire makes sense only to weapons makers and warmongers. Ditto making massive weapons sales, especially to unstable areas. The “Made in America” label used to be seen proudly on everything from clothing and shoes to engines and steel; now it’s affixed mainly to weapons and wars.

Before he took office, Trump promised a new approach, an America First approach, that would end the folly of perpetual wars that cost trillions of dollars. In this he failed. Because when it came to the Pentagon and to weapons makers, Trump chose appeasement rather than confrontation.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.

A Typical Democratic Official on the Pentagon and War

Jeh Johnson with Biden and Obama, 2013 (White House photo)

W.J. Astore

Jeh Johnson, formerly homeland security secretary under President Obama, showed how a typical Democratic official approaches the Pentagon and war as he spoke on ABC’s This Week on Sunday (11/15).  For Johnson, the Pentagon “is typically an island of stability” in the U.S. government, but President Trump was destabilizing that island because of recent changes to Pentagon personnel.  Trump’s changes could be driven by his desire to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, speculated Johnson, which was not a good thing:

“If he [Trump] wants troops out of Afghanistan, as I know most Americans do, we have to do it in a way that makes sense, in an orderly manner, and that comports with battlefield reality … in trying to strike a deal, you don’t unilaterally surrender your greatest point of leverage by unilaterally withdrawing troops before the Afghan government and the Taliban have stuck a deal. So this is very concerning and if I were in the Biden transition team right now, I’d be very focused … on restoring stability in our national security.”

We can’t surrender our “leverage,” those thousands of U.S. troops that remain in harm’s way in an unnecessary war that was won and then lost almost two decades ago, because it’s that “leverage” that will compel the Taliban, who have already won the war, to strike a deal with an Afghan government that exists mainly because the U.S. government props it up.  Makes sense to me.

By the way, only “most Americans” want our troops to come home?  Where are all the other Americans who want them to stay there indefinitely?  Within the Washington Beltway, I’d wager.

The Afghan war has always struck me as nonsensical.  Yes, some kind of response to the 9/11 attacks was needed, and initial U.S. military strikes in 2001-02 succeeded in toppling the Taliban, in the sense they saw no reason to stand and fight against withering fire.  At that moment, the U.S. military should have declared victory and left.  Instead, the Bush/Cheney administration decided on its own disastrous occupation, extended another eight years by Obama/Biden, even though we knew full well the extent of the Soviet disaster in Afghanistan in the 1980s. 

The Afghan war has lasted so long that I’ve been writing articles against it for more than a decade.  You’d think any sensible and sane Democrat would love to see U.S. troops withdrawn and the war finally come to an end.  Not so.  The war must continue in the name of “leverage” and “stability.”

I like Johnson’s truly absurdist reference to “battlefield reality,” which, if we’re being real for a moment, reflects a Taliban victory.  Unless the U.S. wants to occupy Afghanistan forever, with hundreds of thousands of troops, that victory is not about to be reversed.  And what kind of “victory” would that be? 

“Stability” is not preserved by fighting unwinnable wars on the imperial periphery, unless you’re talking about the stability of Pentagon finances and corporate profits.  Johnson’s wiki bio does mention he’s on the boards of Lockheed Martin Corporation and U.S. Steel, which certainly hints at a conflict of interest when it comes to offering advice on ending wars.

In the meantime, we probably shouldn’t tell our troops, whom we’re supposed to love and support, that we’re keeping them in Afghanistan for “leverage” until the “battlefield reality” is more in our favor.  That’s truly a recipe for endless war in a place that well deserves its reputation as the graveyard of empires.

Finally, a reminder to Democrats: your Pentagon is an island of stability, and your troops are creating the leverage that allows democracy to flourish everywhere.  If this makes sense to you, and if this is the guiding philosophy of Joe Biden’s national security team, we’re truly in deep trouble.

Bonus Lesson: The Pentagon is an “island” of government only if that island is roughly the size of Pangaea.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.

Veterans Day Is a Time to Reflect on the Purpose of Veterans

My dad (R) home on leave with his brother Gino, c. 1944

W.J. Astore

I come from a family of veterans.  My father and his two brothers served in the military during World War II.  My mother’s brother fought at Guadalcanal against the Japanese and was awarded the Bronze Star.  Later, my eldest brother enlisted in the Air Force at the tail end of the Vietnam War, which my brother-in-law had fought in as a radio operator attached to the artillery.  Their service helped to inspire my decision to become an officer in the U.S. Air Force.

Military service is honorable, not because of wars waged or lives taken, but because of its purpose: to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.  And this should be the purpose of Veterans Day: to take note of our veterans and their service in upholding the ideals of our Constitution, including freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of the press, a right to privacy, and most of all a government that is responsive to our needs and accountable to our oversight.

Yet since World War II America has fought wars without formal Congressional declarations.  The Korean War, the Vietnam War, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, have lacked the wholehearted support of the American people.  They were arguably unnecessary wars in the sense these countries and peoples posed no direct threat to America and our Constitution.  Indeed, prosecuting these wars often posed more of a threat to that very Constitution.

Naturally, America associates veterans with wars and combat, and we say the dead made “the ultimate sacrifice,” which indeed they did.  But for what purpose, and to what end?  We owe it to veterans to ask these questions: for what purposes are we risking their lives, and to what end are these wars being waged?  If we can’t answer these simple questions, in terms intimately associated with our Constitution and the true needs of national defense, we should end these wars immediately.

Unending wars are the worst enemy of freedom and liberty.  This isn’t just my sentiment.  As James Madison put it, “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded … No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”  America once knew this; we were once a nation that was slow to anger and with little taste for large military establishments.

A few years ago, I stumbled across old sheet music in a bookstore.  Catching my eye was the title of the song: “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier,” respectfully dedicated to “Every Mother – Everywhere.”  From 1915, this popular song captured American resistance to the calamitous “Great War” that we now call World War I.  Anti-war sentiment was strong that year in America, and indeed Woodrow Wilson would be reelected president in 1916 in large part because he had kept Americans out of the war.  The lyrics put it plainly: a mother who’d brought her son up “to be my pride and joy” didn’t want to see that same son having “to shoot some other mother’s darling boy.”

The contrast in these lyrics to recent U.S. military recruitment commercials couldn’t be starker.  In a new Department of Defense advertising campaign, featuring the catchphrase “Their success tomorrow begins with your support today,” mothers are shown incongruously in military settings asking their sons why they wanted to sign up.  Weapons are featured prominently in these ads, but no combat.  There’s much talk of teamwork and being part of something larger than yourself but no talk of the U.S. Constitution.  At the end of these spots, the young men depicted have convinced their mothers that it’s desirable indeed to have your boy become a soldier.

Recruitment ads, of course, have never been at pains to show the true costs of war.  When I was a teen, the Army’s motto was “Be all that you can be.”  For the Navy, service was about “adventure.”  For the Air Force, it was about “a great way of life.”  These ads, by ignoring or eliding war’s costs, have contributed to America’s tighter embrace of war on the world stage and its severe impact, not only on our veterans but on our democracy.  America’s strategy of “global reach, global power” has embroiled us in wars of choice that we increasingly choose not to end.  Surely, it’s time to chart a more pacific path.

Sometimes the best offense is a good defense.  On this Veterans Day, let’s remind ourselves that veterans exist to defend our Constitution and our country, but that endless warfare, and intensifying militarism, are in fact among the most pressing dangers to our democracy.    

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.

Putting the Hype in Hypersonic Weapons

As a teenager, I loved this magazine and read it at my local library

W.J. Astore

Supersonic just isn’t fast enough anymore. Now we need hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic generally refers to something that travels at Mach 5 or above, or five times the speed of sound. (Most supersonic jets max out at Mach 2 or thereabouts.) Missiles that are hypersonic would be very difficult to intercept and could be deadly against large, slow-moving targets, e.g. aircraft carriers. So occasionally you hear about China or Russia or both developing hypersonic weapons, followed by a Chicken Little, sky-is-falling, warning about how the U.S. is failing to keep up.

This is all on my mind because I got an email invitation to a hypersonic weapons conference. As a retired Air Force officer and former engineer, this could have been my life: working for a defense contractor, hyping hypersonic weaponry. Where did I go wrong?

“In light of the Department of Defense’s recent & successful hypersonic glide body test marking a major milestone for the DOD’s fielding of hypersonic capabilities, IDGA is bringing back the Hypersonic Weapons Summit this October 28-30, in order to comprehensively analyze and enable the fielding of hypersonic warfighting capabilities.”

“This summit will highlight critical areas to include:

• Enabling Hypersonic Capabilities Utilization for Warfighters across Multiple Domains
• S&T Roadmaps & Investment Areas to Achieve Hypersonic Utilization
• Guiding Hypersonic Testing to Understand Technological Needs
• Workforce Initiatives
• US Academia/University Collaboration”

This invitation makes me nostalgic for my military days: all those acronyms, all that jargon, all those references to “warfighting” and “warfighters,” all those vague references, e.g. multiple domains, workforce, investment, and so on.

Again, this is just a random invite, the kind that industry people see daily, but it does reveal the military-industrial-university complex in all its hyperventilating glory.

Advertised speakers at this conference include civilians from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the commanding general of Air Force Global Strike Command, the Army Hypersonic Project Office, a senior representative from U.S. Strategic Command, and a professor of the Hypersonic Systems Initiative, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, University of Notre Dame.

What a lineup! These people make very good money developing faster and faster missiles to blow things up or to intercept other missiles that blow things up. And I do appreciate the rare honesty of the name “Air Force Global Strike Command.” Global strike is far more accurate than national defense.

As a teenager, I used to read “Aviation Week & Space Technology” at my local library. I loved keeping track of the latest cool weapons, which back then meant fighter jets like the F-14 and F-15 or bombers like the B-1. I hate to admit it, but I didn’t give much thought to what these and similar weapons were all about: blowing things up and killing people. They just seemed exciting and a little bit sexy, and I bought the hype.

Sad to say to my teenage self but this will be a conference I’ll have to miss.

Three Generals Walk Into a Bar …

W.J. Astore (and Andrew Bacevich)

Back in May of 2019, I wrote an article here on General William Westmoreland and the Vietnam War. Westmoreland was conventional in every sense of the word; it was his misfortune to be put in charge of an unconventional war in Southeast Asia, a war he didn’t understand but also one that was unnecessary for U.S. security and incredibly wasteful to boot. Relieved of command by being booted upstairs, Westmoreland went to his grave convinced that the war was winnable. If only he’d received the reinforcements he needed …

Today at TomDispatch.com, Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and author, imagines Westmoreland grousing in a bar with two other generals: George S. Patton of World War II fame, and an imaginary general of today’s wars, Victor Constant. Let’s just say General Constant does not cover himself in glory, failing to live up to his victor(ious) first name as he loses himself in vapid catchphrases he’s gleaned from PowerPoint briefings on war and its meaning. Much like today’s generals, in fact.

So, with the blessing of TomDispatch.com, here is that barroom conversation, as imagined by Colonel (ret.) Bacevich:

Patton and Westy Meet in a Bar
A Play of Many Parts in One Act
By Andrew Bacevich

It’s only mid-afternoon and Army Lieutenant General Victor Constant has already had a bad day.1 Soon after he arrived at the office at 0700, the Chief2 had called. “Come see me. We need to talk.”

The call was not unexpected. Any day now, POTUS3 will announce the next four-star to command the war effort in Afghanistan — how many have there been? — and Constant felt certain that he’d be tapped for the job. He’d certainly earned it. Multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, worse still, at the Pentagon. If anyone deserved that fourth star, he did.

Unfortunately, the Chief sees things differently. “Time’s up, Vic. I need you to retire.” Thirty-three years of service and this is what you get: your walking papers, with maybe a medal thrown in.

Constant returns to his office, then abruptly tells his staff that he needs some personal time. A 10-minute drive and he’s at the O-Club, where the bar is just opening. “Barkeep,” he growls. “Bourbon. Double. Rocks.” On the job long enough to have seen more than a few senior officers get the axe, the bartender quietly complies.

Constant has some thinking to do. For the first time in his adult life, he’s about to become unemployed. His alimony payments and college tuition bills are already killing him. When he and Sally have to move out of quarters,4 she’s going to expect that fancy house in McLean or Potomac that he had hinted at when they were dating. But where’s the money going to come from?

He needs a plan. “Barkeep. Another.” Lost in thought, Constant doesn’t notice that he’s no longer alone. Two soldiers — one boisterous, the other melancholy — have arrived and are occupying adjacent bar stools.

The first of them smells of horses. To judge by his jodhpurs and riding crop, he’s just returned from playing polo. He has thinning gray hair, small uneven teeth, a high-pitched voice, and a grin that says: I know things you never will, you dumb sonofabitch. He exudes arrogance and charisma. He is George S. Patton. He orders whiskey with a beer chaser.

The second wears Vietnam-era jungle fatigues, starched. His jump boots glisten.5 On his ballcap, which he carefully sets aside, are four embroidered silver stars. He is impeccably groomed and manicured. The nametape over his breast pocket reads: WESTMORELAND. He exudes the resentment of someone who has been treated unfairly — or thinks he has.

“Westy! Damned if you still don’t look like TIME’s Man of the Year back in ’65! Ease up, man! Have a drink. What’ll it be?”

“Just water for me, General. It’s a bit early in the day.”

“Shit. Water? You think my guys beat the Nazis by filling their canteens with water?”

Westmoreland sniffs. “Alcohol consumption does not correlate with battlefield performance — although my troops did not suffer from a shortage of drink. They never suffered from shortages of anything.”

Patton guffaws. “But you lost! That’s the point, ain’t it? You lost!”

The bickering draws Victor Constant out of his reverie. “Gentlemen, please.”

“Who are you, bucko?” asks Patton.

“I am Lieutenant General Victor Constant, U.S. Army. To my friends, I’m VC.”

“VC!” Westy nearly falls off of his stool. “My army has generals named after the Vietcong?”

Patton intervenes. “Well, VC, tell us old timers what you’re famous for and why you’re here, drinking in uniform during duty hours.

“Well, sir, first of all, I’m a warrior. I commanded a company in combat, then a battalion, then a brigade, then a division. But I’m here now because the chief just told me that I need to retire. That came as a bit of a blow. I don’t know what Sally is going to say.” He stares at his drink.

Patton snorts. “Well, my young friend, sounds like you’ve seen plenty of action. All that fighting translates into how many wins?”

“Wins?” VC doesn’t quite grasp the question.

“Wins,” Patton says again. “You know, victories. The enemy surrenders. Their flag comes down and ours goes up. The troops go home to a heroes’ welcome. Polo resumes.”

Westy interjects. “Wins? Are you that out of touch, George? The answer is: none. These so-called warriors haven’t won anything.”

“With all due respect, sir, I don’t think that’s fair. Everyone agrees that, back in ’91, Operation Desert Storm was a historic victory. I know. I was there, fresh out of West Point.”

Patton smirks. “Then why did you have to go back and do it again in 2003? And why has your army been stuck in Iraq ever since? Not to mention Syria! And don’t get me started on Afghanistan or Somalia! The truth is your record isn’t any better than Westy’s.”

“Now, see here, George. You’re being unreasonable. We never lost a fight in Vietnam.” He pauses and corrects himself. “Well, maybe not never, but very rarely.”

“Rarely lost a fight!” Patton roars. “What does that have to do with anything? That’s like you and your thing with body counts! Dammit, Westy, don’t you know anything about war?”

VC ventures an opinion. “General Westmoreland, sir, I’m going to have to agree with General Patton on this one. You picked the wrong metric to measure progress. We don’t do body counts anymore.”

“Well, what’s your metric, sonny?”

VC squirms and falls silent.

His hackles up, Westy continues. “First of all, the whole body-count business was the fault of the politicians. We knew exactly how to defeat North Vietnam. Invade the country, destroy the NVA,6 occupy Hanoi. Just like World War II: Mission accomplished. Not complicated.”

He pauses to take a breath. “But LBJ and that arrogant fool McNamara7 wouldn’t let us. They imposed limits. They wouldn’t even mobilize the reserves. They set restrictions on where we could go, what we could attack. General Patton here had none of those problems in ’44-’45. And then the press turned on us. And the smartass college kids who should have been fighting communists started protesting. Nothing like it before or since — the home front collaborating with the enemy.”

Westy changes his mind about having a drink. “Give me a gin martini,” he barks. “Straight up. Twist of lemon. And give VC here” — his voice drips with contempt — “another of whatever he’s having.”

The bartender, who has been eavesdropping while pretending to polish glassware, grabs a bottle and pours.

“Hearts and minds, Westy, hearts and minds.” Patton taunts, obviously enjoying himself.

“Yes, hearts and minds. Don’t you think, George, that we understood the importance of winning over the South Vietnamese? But after Diem’s assassination,8 the Republic of Vietnam consisted of little more than a flag. After D-Day, you didn’t need to create France. You just needed to kick out the Germans and hand matters over to De Gaulle.”9

Westmoreland is becoming increasingly animated. “And you fought alongside the Brits. We were shackled to a Vietnamese army that was miserably led and not eager to fight either.”

“Monty was a horse’s ass,”10 Patton interjects, apropos of nothing.

“The point is,” Westmoreland continues, “liberating Europe was politically simple. Defending South Vietnam came with complications you could never havedreamed of. Did the New York Times pester you about killing civilians? All you had to do to keep the press on your side was not to get caught slapping your own soldiers.”

“That was an isolated incident and I apologized,” Patton replies, with a tight smile. “But the fact is, Westy, all your talk about ‘firepower and mobility’ didn’t work. ‘Search and destroy’? Hell, you damn near destroyed the whole U.S. Army. And the war ended with the North Vietnamese sitting in Saigon.”

“Ho Chi Minh City,” Victor Constant offers by way of correction.

“Oh, shut up,” Patton and Westmoreland respond simultaneously.

Patton leans menacingly toward Victor Constant and looks him right in the eye. “Have you seen my movie, son?”11

“Yes, of course, sir. Several times.”

“Then you should understand what war is all about. You ‘hold onto him by the nose’ and you ‘kick him in the ass.’ That’s what I said in the movie. Why is that so hard to understand? How is it that my soldiers could defeat those Hun bastards and you and your crew can’t manage to take care of a few thousand ‘militants’ who don’t have tanks or an air force or even decent uniforms, for God’s sake?”

“Hearts and minds, George, hearts and minds.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, Westy?”

“Your kick-them-in-the-ass approach isn’t good enough these days. You studied Clausewitz — war is politics with guns. Now, I’ll give you this much: in Vietnam, we never got the politics right. We couldn’t solve the puzzle of making war work politically. Maybe there wasn’t a solution. Maybe the war was already lost the day I showed up. So we just killed to no purpose. That’s a failure I took to my grave.”

A bead of perspiration is forming on Westmoreland’s lip. “But these guys” — he nods toward Constant — “now, we’ve got a generation of generals who think they’ve seen a lot of war but don’t know squat about politics — and don’t even want to know. And we’ve got a generation of politicians who don’t know squat about war, but keep doling out the money. There’s no dialogue, no strategy, no connecting war and politics.”

Victor Constant is mystified. Dialogue? He rouses himself to defend his service. “Gentlemen, let me remind you that the United States Army today is far and away the world’s finest military force. No one else comes close.”

Westy just presses on. “So what has your experience in war taught you? What have you learned?”

Patton repeats the question. “What have you learned, Mr. Warrior? Tell us.”

Learned? After several drinks, Victor Constant is not at his best. “Well, I’ve learned a lot. The whole army has.”

He struggles to recall recent PowerPoint briefings that he’s dozed through. Random phrases come to mind. “Leap-ahead technology. Dominant maneuver in an ever-enlarging battlespace. Simultaneous and sequential operations. Artificial Intelligence. Quantum computing. Remote sensing. Machine learning. Big data analytics. 5G technology. High-fidelity, multi-domain training.”

However dimly, VC realizes he’s babbling. He pauses to catch his breath. “It’s all coming, if they’ll just give us the money.”

Patton stares at him silently. Victor Constant senses that it’s time to go home.

“Can I call you a taxi?” Westmoreland asks.

“No, sir, thank you.” With as much dignity as he can muster, Victor Constant straightens his tie, finds his headgear, and walks unsteadily toward the door.

What have I learned? What did they even mean? He was a general officer in the best army in the world. Maybe the best army ever. Wasn’t that enough? He needed to ask Sally.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

Copyright 2020 Andrew Bacevich


1 Victor Constant is the name of the ski slope at the United States Military Academy, called such in memory of a cadet ski instructor killed in an accident during World War II. To my knowledge, there is no officer bearing that name in the U.S. Army. Return to story.

2 The chief of staff, U.S. Army. Return to story.

3 The president of the United States. Return to story.

4 Many of the army’s most senior officers are housed at government-owned quarters at Fort Myers, Virginia, and Fort McNair in Washington. Return to story.

5 Beginning in World War II, U.S. Army paratroopers sported a distinctive style of black leather boot, more fashionable than standard army issue. After the war, Westmoreland attended jump school and commanded the 101st Airborne Division. Return to story.

6 Shorthand for the North Vietnamese army. Return to story.

7 Lyndon Johnson served as U.S. president from November 1963 to January 1969. Robert Strange McNamara filled the post of defense secretary from 1961 to 1968. Return to story.

8 The November 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem destroyed whatever slight political legitimacy the Republic of Vietnam had possessed. Return to story.

9 Charles De Gaulle was the leader of the Free French during World War II. Return to story.

10 Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, the senior British commander in the European Theater of Operations in World War II, had a low opinion of American officers from U.S. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower on down. Return to story.

11 “Patton” (1970), starring George C. Scott. Return to story.

On War Dead, Politics, and Trump

Glory_(1989_film)_poster

M. Davout

I was recently re-watching Glory (1989), starring Matthew Broderick and Morgan Freeman, with my high school senior son (for whom this was a first viewing). I’ve regularly shown sequences from this dramatization of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first “Colored” combat units to enter the fight against the Confederacy, to students in my “Film and Politics” course. Toward the end of the film, as the action swung to the 54th’s frontal assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863, I let slip, to my son’s chagrin, that the attack would fail and result in the regiment’s near destruction. He rhetorically asked why they would make a film about this regiment if the attack failed and all the main characters died.

My son is a tech geek with libertarian leanings and, as a result, he tends to analyze interactions through a transactional lens. In assessing whether a deal or agreement or commitment makes sense, he asks himself what each party materially stands to gain. From his point of view, the conclusion of the dramatic arc of Glory was problematic because it depicted men who failed and died rather than lived and won. And it left viewers with an emotional deficit rather than a surplus.

My son’s response to Glory put me to mind of the uproar over President Trump’s reportedly disdainful remarks about US war dead, which continues to reverberate in the mainstream media. The sources for the Atlantic Monthly story remain anonymous to date but Trump’s documented pattern of openly contemptuous remarks about John McCain’s harrowing imprisonment by North Vietnamese captors gives credence to reports that Trump considered fallen US soldiers to have been “suckers” and “losers.” He openly wondered during a visit with his then chief-of-staff John Kelly to the grave of Kelly’s soldier son why his son had put his life at risk for his country.

Trump’s reported comments and the attitude toward military sacrifice they purportedly exemplify have provoked attacks from Democratic politicians and a deafening silence from Republican politicians. It remains to be seen what lasting damage, if any, this controversy will do to Trump’s electoral prospects.

Sometime an outrageous comment can illuminate an issue worth thinking about that would otherwise be obscured in the dust of political combat. While Trump could be faulted for lacking decorum in pressing Kelly about the rationale for his son’s death, it isn’t an unserious question to wonder why someone would volunteer to be a soldier in a country at war. After all, countries or nation-states are mostly abstractions. People experience them mainly as aggregations of bureaucratic practices and routines which determine where borders are, where certain customs hold or one language or currency is in use rather than another.

It is intuitively graspable why one would be prepared to sacrifice one’s life for one’s child or one’s family or one’s close friend or even a flesh-and-blood stranger in a car accident whose distress provokes an immediate empathetic response. (Maybe not for Trump—he does not seem capable of empathizing with anyone enough to put his interests or life at risk for them.) But to be prepared to die for one set of bureaucratic routines and practices in a conflict with others fighting for a different set of bureaucratic routines and practices? How does that make sense?

Recognizing the challenge of getting citizens to feel a self-sacrificing love of country, the functionaries of emerging nation-states have come universally to institute all sorts of cultural practices designed to foster an emotional connection to one’s nation: pledges of allegiance, national anthems, patriotic rhetoric and ceremonies (e.g., France’s Bastille Day Parade), even the instrumentalization of war dead as a way of tugging on citizen heartstrings (e.g., Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address).

However, the fact that the inhabitants of a bureaucratically-inscribed geographic region come to love their country and feel ready to sacrifice their lives for its good does not, in and of itself, guarantee the reasonableness of their sacrifice or the moral worthiness of the policies that led to that sacrifice. People do end up dying for stupid or bad or even evil national causes and a government’s instrumentalization of the war dead has sometimes had a role in rallying people to do wrong or even terrible things. (See for example the Totenehrung at the 1934 Nazi Nuremberg Rally.) As numerous columns at Bracingviews.com have argued, notions of patriotic service to country can be enlisted in a program of militarization that mainly benefits corporate profits and bureaucratic growth.

So fault Trump for a narcissism so pathological that he cannot control his disdain and contempt whenever he is faced with the spectacle of people who have sacrificed in the service of others. Fault him for colossal presidential laziness and mammoth personal vanity in not wanting to pay respects at a second US military cemetery in France because the rainy weather would force him to take a long drive and get his hair wet. Fault him for his lack of sensitivity in needlessly rubbing raw the sorrow of a father at the grave of his fallen son. But do not let the anger (whether righteous or hypocritical) being expended on him in this heated moment of political controversy obscure the duty citizens have to judge the right and wrong of war policy and the reasonableness of dying for country.

M. Davout, a political science professor who teaches in the Deep South, is an occasional contributor to Bracing Views.

In the year 2049 …

Marching ahead to 2049?

W.J. Astore

Who says Americans can’t plan ahead? According to the Pentagon, China may exceed the U.S. military in reach and power in the year 2049. As debatable as that prediction is, you can be sure it’s fodder for officials to clamor for high “defense” budgets, if only to stay ahead of the allegedly surging Chinese.

Speaking of the defense budget, it would be an amazing thing if that budget was truly based on the defensive needs of the USA. But we Americans love NFL football and that sport teaches us “the best defense is a good offense,” which makes some sense in the NFL but not so much in war.

Defense, to my mind, is best provided by citizen-soldiers. But that old concept has been replaced by the warrior ideal in the USA. Today’s military is increasingly detached from the people even as it’s celebrated as a band of noble heroes. “Support our troops!” read the bumper stickers. But are they really “ours” if they self-identify as warriors who see themselves as something better and apart from the rest of us?

Even as Americans tend to glorify the military (as in sports, movies, and TV, among other venues), we speak with our tax dollars, giving the Pentagon vast sums of money in the name of “defense.” It’s really militarism in disguise. “Our” military is not defensive — it’s offensive and configured that way. Indeed, it’s potentially world-destroying even as its vision is world-dominating.

If that isn’t militarism I don’t know what is. It’s also the honest definition of American exceptionalism. Consider again the Pentagon’s worry that in 2049, China might — just might — have a military that’s roughly equal to the U.S. military. Parity cannot be tolerated! The U.S. military must be the world’s strongest, the most dominant, the one best able to project massive power. Why? Because we’re exceptional. And we’re exceptional because of that same military.

Something tells me that in the year 2049, China’s military will be the least of America’s problems.

Bernie and Biden: The Debate

In a recent speech in Pennsylvania, Joe Biden said he wouldn’t ban fracking. For some people in PA, fracking has been a major money maker. For others, it’s brought noise, nuisance, and environmental disaster. Biden took a firm stance: he’s for it!

Yet, just a few months ago, in his debate with Bernie Sanders, Biden took a firm stance against fracking. As I wrote back then, Biden was likely faking left so he could run right. And indeed that’s what he’s doing now: running to the right, dodging progressives, or stiff-arming them, searching for elusive centrist supporters who will escort him over the goal line to the presidency.

Why should we support you, Joe, when all you do is spout BS?

Bracing Views

again Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden in 2019

W.J. Astore

In last night’s debate, Joe Biden ran away from his own record.  Suddenly, Biden is against fracking.  He’s for Elizabeth Warren’s education plan.  He’s against subsidies for fossil fuels.  He’s for a $15 minimum wage.  He’s against Super PACs and for public funding of elections.  He’s never tried to cut social security.  Just about the only progressive policy he remains against is Medicare for All, which he says is simply too expensive to countenance.

Biden also wanted to drive the narrative by saying he was picking a woman as vice president and a black female as the next justice to the Supreme Court (Anita Hill, perhaps?).  I’m not sure why Biden thought a female VP-candidate was such a big deal; Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and of course Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2016.  Months ago, I foresaw…

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Yes, Trump is a Racist

Consider this your yearly reminder that Trump is a racist. Most recently, he’s refused to condemn Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenager who killed innocents in Kenosha.

Trump uses racism without guilt even as he claims to be the least racist person you’ll ever meet. As long as people keep applauding Trump, he’ll keep lying and playing to their baser instincts, consequences be damned.

If America reelects him, it’ll be the clearest sign yet of our profound moral decline as a nation.

Bracing Views

Donald Trump Makes Announcement At Trump Tower Trump on the down escalator toward American carnage, 2015

W.J. Astore

Yes, Donald Trump is a racist.  His attacks on four Democratic Congresswomen of color are only the most recent illustration of this.  Trump, of course, is also an opportunist.  A conniver.  An exploiter.  Unless it backfires, he’ll keep using racism.  It fires up his “base” and distracts from the looting his family and administration are actively engaged in.

Trump intuitively grasped a painful reality that Norman Mailer wrote about in 1968.  Inspired by Richard Nixon’s campaign, Mailer wrote that “political power of the most frightening sort was obviously waiting for the first demagogue who would smash the obsession and free the white man of his guilt [of slavery and racism and their legacies].  Torrents of energy would be loosed, yes, those same torrents which Hitler had freed in the Germans when he exploded their ten-year obsession with whether they…

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My Vote for President in 2020

tulsi-gabbard-gty-aa-191228_hpMain_16x9_992

W.J. Astore

I’ve given a lot of thought to my vote for the presidency in 2020.  Neither Trump nor Biden is attractive to me.  These men haven’t earned my vote.  Who has?

I like Tulsi Gabbard, and I’m planning on voting for her in November 2020.

I know: she’s pulled out of the race.  She even endorsed Joe Biden.  But I can’t vote for the Biden/Harris ticket.  To me, they’re corporate cronies who endorse U.S. militarism and empire.

Trump, the Republican alternative, is a disaster.  Totally self-absorbed and lazy to boot, Trump cares nothing about our country and will sacrifice anything and everything to his own definition of success.

Now, I live in a state that is safely blue; in the big picture, my vote is meaningless.  But it’s not meaningless to me.  I want to vote for something I believe in, and I believe in Tulsi’s stand against war.

Here’s a recent statement from Tulsi Gabbard that convinced me she’s still in the vanguard of reform.  If only Biden/Harris would say something like this, but of course they won’t.

STATEMENT FROM TULSI GABBARD

When I first ran for Congress in 2012, I knew that we needed to bring our troops home from Afghanistan and made that a central focus of my campaign. After two decades of fighting in a war that has no clear objective, cost thousands of lives, and continues to cost taxpayers at least $4 billion a month, most Democrats and Republicans want to continue this war. This is why I voted against this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – a $740.1 Billion defense bill that disproportionately benefits the military industrial complex, continues to escalate the new Cold War, and needlessly continues our decades-long war in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, this bill passed the House with bipartisan support.

Nevertheless, as a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, I fought hard to get many provisions added to the bill, including:

  • improving the quality of life for servicemembers and military families,
  • addressing sexual assault in the military,
  • providing transparency of the devastating humanitarian impact of U.S. sanctions,
  • allowing servicemembers to use over-the-counter hemp products,
  • and helping to mitigate and reduce the environmental threats that impact our troops.
READ MORE

We have much work ahead of us. I will continue to do all I can to bring our troops home from Afghanistan, work to end the new Cold War and nuclear arms proliferation, and ensure the safety, prosperity, and well-being of the American people and our planet.

Now, it’s time for Congress and this Administration to do the same.

Mahalo and be well,
Tulsi

Update (8/16/20): I believe politicians have to earn our votes.  We should never feel obligated to vote for them.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Trump wins. People will predictably argue that it’s people like me who are to blame, since I didn’t vote for Biden. (Nor will I vote for Trump.)

No. It won’t be my fault. If you wish to blame someone, blame the Trump voters. And blame the DNC for nominating a candidate (Biden) who didn’t earn the vote of people like me.

The same applies to Hillary’s loss in 2016. She lost to a con man and a reality TV celebrity because she ran a poor campaign, and because her hypocrisy and elitism were so obvious. Remember her “basket of deplorables” comment? Remember all the money she took from Goldman Sachs and the like? $675K for three speeches, even as she opposed Bernie’s call for $15 minimum wage.

With a $15 minimum wage, it would take a “deplorable” more than 22 years of hard work to earn what Hillary got in roughly three hours of speechifying.

And I’m supposed to admire Hillary and vote for her because the DNC said so?

And I’m supposed to vote for Biden because once again the DNC, joined by Obama and Hillary, gave the shaft to Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard?

If I vote for Joe, I’m rewarding the DNC for its blatant corruption.  So I choose to vote for someone who’s offering something more than the status quo of endless war and bottomless corruption.

Update (8/18/20):

I’m surprised that David Sirota, who worked for Bernie Sanders, had this to say about Democrats’ alleged “choice”:

“If the Sanders-Biden battle was perceived as a choice between Sanders’s daunting promise of an exhausting revolutionary struggle and Biden’s promise of a glide path back to normal, then it’s no mystery why Biden ultimately prevailed. Easy street was an understandably alluring vision for an electorate already tired out by Trump’s never-ending conflicts and controversies.

In reality, though, this was not a choice between two possibilities — it was a choice between honesty and fantasy, and Democratic voters picked the latter.”

https://sirota.substack.com/p/did-americans-want-a-political-revolution

I disagree with him because Democratic voters chose nothing. They had no choice. The DNC, the establishment, and especially Obama intervened to torpedo and sink Bernie just as he was riding high. Saint Obama even convinced Amy K. and Mayor Pete to drop out; we’ll see their rewards/price if Biden wins.

Democratic voters, when polled, broadly support Bernie’s agenda. But DNC operatives don’t give a f*ck about what voters want; they care about what the owners and donors want.

This is why I refuse to watch this convention. It’s a rigged, dishonest, show.

I know what happened to the two candidates I favored: Bernie and Tulsi. And I refuse to reward the DNC with my vote based on everything that we witnessed in this corrupt primary season.