Headlines about Trump’s “Great Wall” along the Mexican-US border and the Trump administration’s decision to deport more Cambodians put me to mind of Scrooge this morning. The USA is increasingly the country of Scrooge before his awakening to compassion and charity. Indeed, the miserly Scrooge is a decent model for Trump, except with Scrooge you always knew he had a heart. But Trump is hardly solely to blame; he’s just a horrifying exemplar of a culture consumed with narcissism in pursuit of money and a few more “mean sticks of furniture.”
My wife and I always watch “A Christmas Carol” around this time, the classic version with Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. Before his redemption, Scrooge is the ultimate miser, a mean-spirited soul who refuses to give to charity since he’s already paying taxes to support prisons and workhouses. For his fellow man Scrooge has no concern, arguing that those who can’t support themselves had best die “to decrease the surplus population.”
By all accounts, including his own, Scrooge is a successful man of business, always keeping a positive balance on his ledger sheet, even if he has to pinch pennies to do so. Generous he is not; you might say he passes nickels around as if they were manhole covers.
His partner Jacob Marley, dead for seven years, restores Scrooge’s humanity with the help of three spirits. Perhaps Marley has the best line when…
Back in 1992, when I was thinking about what to write my dissertation on, I put together a statement of intent and a bibliography. My statement was titled, “Economic Mobilization and National Strategies in Great Britain and France during the Great War.” As it turns out, I decided not to pursue a military subject, turning instead to science and religion, an area I examined when I pursued my master’s degree. I was reminded of all this as I looked through old documents this weekend in pursuit of references for a friend.
Anyway, here’s my statement from 1992 about World War I as a killing machine:
The Great War was a struggle waged by modern industrial juggernauts. The Western Front witnessed organized destruction on a scale heretofore thought impossible. Staggered by the costs of modern war, all combatants mobilized their economies, with varying degrees of success.
All countries in 1914 expected a short war and lacked plans for economic mobilization. Confronted by a stalemate on the Western Front which owed everything to modern industrialism, Britain and France drastically modified their economies. In Britain, the “Shells Scandal” provoked a cabinet crisis and the establishment of a new ministry of munitions, headed by David Lloyd George. Riding roughshod over the army’s traditional procurement practices, Lloyd George worked production miracles. Fed by massive imports of coal and metal from England, France embarked on an industrial program characterized by massive improvisation. Together, Britain and France formed an industrial alliance that proved to be a war-winning “arsenal of democracy”.
My dissertation will examine the efforts of Britain and France to gear their economies for war. I will focus on cooperation between the two countries. Since the Great War was primarily an industrial war, events in the economic sphere largely determined national strategies. My dissertation will also examine how economic concerns drove military strategy and operations on the Western Front.
As a preliminary thesis, I hold that the “industrial miracle” of Britain and France led to an overvaluing of machines at the soldiers’ expense. For Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and others like him, the new artillery with its massive stockpile of shells was a deus ex machina, a winning god of war. In his hands, soldiers became little more than power units, trained automatons who at the Somme in 1916 only needed to walk across no-man’s land and occupy the enemy’s trenches.
Overwhelmed by the conditions of modern warfare, British and French commanders placed too much faith in machines. Far from underestimating the impact of technology on the battlefield, they saw it as a panacea. Triumphs of production were frittered away in battle due to inadequate training and insufficient attention to tactical performance. Worst of all, as commanders consumed vast quantities of munitions, they seemed to become hardened to an expenditure of lives on a similar, but infinitely more horrendous, scale.
Furthermore, as economic means were mobilized, sacrifices incurred by destructive industrialism drove nations to inflate strategic ends and incite national will. Total economic warfare led to heightened political demands, eliminating chances for compromise; an incited populace could only be calmed by total victory. War was not politics by other means; it was industrial production by any means. This was not at the bequest of a “merchants of death” cartel; it was the natural outcome of a crisis which turned nations into machines for war.
In a sense, modern war became equivalent to modern industrialism, and vice-versa. Lewis Mumford suggests that “The army is in fact the ideal form toward which a purely mechanical system of industry must tend.” The individual soldier was reduced to a power unit and trained to be an automaton. Mass production and mass conscription had much in common, Mumford notes. “Quantity production must rely for its success upon quantity consumption; and nothing ensures replacement like organized destruction.”
The Great War witnessed a crisis of morale, and at the root of this crisis was the realization that military power had grown uncontrollable, and this was directly attributable to weapons technology. What disturbed so many was the futility of their efforts: the decidedly unheroic deaths awaiting them. As historian Paul Kennedy observed, victory went to the side whose combination of both military-naval and financial-industrial-technological resources was the greatest.
Extreme military effort drove countries to pursue extreme political gains. Nations became machines for war and little else.
Looking back, I can see why I didn’t pursue this. I wasn’t interested in economic mobilization; what really interested me was how warfare had changed, how nations became war machines, how it altered the politics of nations and the mindset of peoples. In a way, fascism in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere in the 1920s and 1930s was the logical outcome of near-total war mobilization in World War I.
Consider the United States today. The U.S. dominates the world’s trade in weaponry. The U.S. spends enormous sums of money on its military. The U.S. is devoted to the machinery of warfare, celebrating its weapons of mass destruction at various sporting events. The U.S. is even planning on revamping its world-destroying nuclear arsenal at a cost of $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years. All of this is considered “normal” in what Americans still consider as the world’s leading democracy.
Yet, how can a machine for war be consistent with democracy? How did we come to see more and more weapons — even WMD — as the guarantor of peace and freedom? How did the machinery of war become synonymous with the health of the state? What does it say about us as a nation?
In testimony last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “longtime diplomat Eric Edelman and retired Admiral Gary Roughead said a $733-billion defense budget was ‘a baseline’ or a ‘floor’ – not the ideal goal – to maintain readiness and modernize conventional and nuclear forces,” reported USNI News.
Which leads to a question: How much money will satisfy America’s military-industrial complex? If $733 billion is a “floor,” or a bare minimum for national defense spending each year, how high is the ceiling?
Part of this huge sum of money is driven by plans to “modernize” America’s nuclear triad at an estimated cost of $1.6 trillion over 30 years. America’s defense experts seek to modernize the triad when we should be working to get rid of it. Perhaps they think that in the future nuclear winter will cancel out global warming?
Also last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a foreign policy speech that addressed military spending in critical terms. Here’s an excerpt:
The United States will spend more than $700 billion on defense this year alone. That is more than President Ronald Reagan spent during the Cold War. It’s more than the federal government spends on education, medical research, border security, housing, the FBI, disaster relief, the State Department, foreign aid-everything else in the discretionary budget put together. This is unsustainable. If more money for the Pentagon could solve our security challenges, we would have solved them by now.
How do we responsibly cut back? We can start by ending the stranglehold of defense contractors on our military policy. It’s clear that the Pentagon is captured by the so-called “Big Five” defense contractors-and taxpayers are picking up the bill.
If you’re skeptical that this a problem, consider this: the President of the United States has refused to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia in part because he is more interested in appeasing U.S. defense contractors than holding the Saudis accountable for the murder of a Washington Post journalist or for the thousands of Yemeni civilians killed by those weapons.
The defense industry will inevitably have a seat at the table-but they shouldn’t get to own the table.
These are sensible words from the senator, yet her speech was short on specifics when it came to cutting the Pentagon’s bloated budget. It’s likely the senator’s cuts would be minor ones, since she embraces the conventional view that China and Russia are “peer” threats that must be deterred and contained by massive military force.
Which brings me to this week and the plaudits being awarded to President George H.W. Bush before his funeral and burial. I respect Bush’s service in the Navy in World War II, during which he was shot down and nearly killed, and as president his rhetoric was more inclusive and less inflammatory than that used by President Trump.
But let’s remember a crucial point about President Bush’s foreign and defense policies: With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bush could have charted a far more pacific course forward for America. Under Bush, there could have been a true “peace dividend,” a truly “new world order.” Instead, Bush oversaw Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-91 and boasted America had kicked its “Vietnam Syndrome” once and for all (meaning the U.S. military could be unleashed yet again for more global military “interventions”).
Bush’s “new world order” was simply an expansion of the American empire to replace the Soviet one. He threw away a unique opportunity to redefine American foreign policy as less bellicose, less expansionist, less interventionist, choosing instead to empower America’s military-industrial complex. Once again, military action became America’s go-to methodology for reshaping the world, a method his son George W. Bush would disastrously embrace in Afghanistan and Iraq, two wars that proved a “Vietnam syndrome” remained very much alive.
In sum, defense experts now argue with straight faces that Trump’s major increases in defense spending constitute a new minimum, Democrats like Elizabeth Warren are content with tinkering around the edges of these massive budgets, and the mainstream media embraces George H.W. Bush as a visionary for peace who brought the Cold War to a soft landing. And so it goes.
Note: for truly innovatory ideas to change America’s “defense” policies, consider these words of Daniel Ellsberg. As he puts it:
“neither [political] party has promised any departure from our reliance on the military-industrial complex. Since [George] McGovern [in 1972], in effect. And he was the only one, I think, who—and his defeat taught many Democratic politicians they could not run for office with that kind of burden of dispossessing, even temporarily, the workers of Grumman, Northrup and General Dynamics and Lockheed, and the shipbuilders in Connecticut, and so forth.”
Somewhere, I don’t remember where, I came across a humorous variant of Newton’s three laws of motion, proposing a fourth law, as follows:
“Newton’s Fourth Law: Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.”
Imagine if the U.S. government/military had followed this “4th law.” No Vietnam war. No Afghan war. No Iraq war. No Libya. No Syria. And so forth. Trillions of dollars saved, along with millions of lives.
There’s an unbounded and restless quality to U.S. ambitions that reminds me of Germany’s Second Reich under the Kaiser. Before World War I, Germany was known as the “restless Reich,” contesting for its imperial place in the sun. A relative latecomer to European imperialism, Germany wanted to enlarge its global span of control — it wanted to be a “world power” like Great Britain and France. Those global ambitions got Germany two world wars and utter devastation.
Meet the new “restless Reich”: the United States. Indeed, for the Pentagon and America’s national security state, being a world power isn’t enough. Not only must the land, sea, and air be dominated, but space and cyberspace as well. America’s leaders act as if any backsliding in any region of the world is a sign of weakness, tantamount to appeasement vis-à-vis Russia, China, terrorists, and so on.
The result is that it’s very easy for rivals to pluck the U.S. eagle and make it screech. Russia and China can spend relatively little on missiles or jets or ships, and America’s military-industrial complex is guaranteed to scream in response. China has two aircraft carriers! Russia has new missiles! American supremacy is not compromised by such weapons, but that has never stopped threat inflation in America (recall the fictional “bomber” and “missile” gaps during the Cold War).
Threat inflation is now global, meaning scaremongering is global. Even at America’s border with Mexico, a caravan of a few thousand impoverished and desperate people requires the deployment of more than 5800 combat-ready troops to stop this “invasion,” or so the Trump administration argues.
The United States is bankrupting itself in the name of global strength and full-spectrum dominance. Dwight D. Eisenhower was right when he said that only Americans can truly hurt America. That’s what our leaders are doing with this global scaremongering.
As Army Major Danny Sjursen noted recently at TomDispatch.com, the United States has transformed the entire planet into a militarized zone, slicing and dicing it into various military commands overseen by generals planning for the next war(s). Sjursen notes a sobering reality:
With Pentagon budgets reaching record levels — some $717 billion for 2019 — Washington has stayed the course, while beginning to plan for more expansive future conflicts across the globe. Today, not a single square inch of this ever-warming planet of ours escapes the reach of U.S. militarization.
Think of these developments as establishing a potential formula for perpetual conflict that just might lead the United States into a truly cataclysmic war it neither needs nor can meaningfully win.
To avert such a cataclysmic war, we’d do well to channel Newton’s (fictitious) Fourth Law: Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.
A few items I’ve been saving up for quick comments:
Remember when civilians were supposed to control the military? Not in Trump’s White House. Besides putting retired generals in charge (e.g. Defense Secretary James Mattis), Trump is throwing money at the Pentagon while empowering “his” generals to do what they wish. As FP:Foreign Policy put it today:
Frustrated by lack of influence and disheartened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, Department of Defense civilians are heading for the door, leaving key positions unfilled in a Pentagon increasingly run by active-duty or retired military officers, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman writes.
Described in interviews with a dozen former and current DOD officials, the exodus has insiders and observers worried that civilian control of the military is being undercut.
“The Joint Staff and the [combatant commanders] are having a field day,” said one Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They don’t answer any requests, they feel emboldened, and Policy is really struggling.”
As commander-in-chief, Trump has largely been AWOL. When things go bad (like the Yemen raid early in 2017), he blames his generals. Instead of “The buck stops here,” the motto of Harry S Truman, who knew how to serve as commander-in-chief, Trump’s motto is “The buck never stops here — unless it’s a literal buck I can add to the Trump empire’s balance sheet.”
The U.S. military’s commander-in-chief has deserted his post, but the Pentagon doesn’t seem to mind.
Meanwhile, even with roughly $700 billion in yearly budgetary authority, with more billions on the way, the Pentagon is warning it may not be able to win a war against China or Russia unless it gets even more money! Here’s a quick report from CNN:
Could the US lose a war against China or Russia? It might, according to a new report from a bipartisan panel of military experts. The report warns that the Trump administration’s new National Defense Strategy doesn’t have enough resources, which puts the country at greater risk of losing a military conflict with the Chinese or the Russians.
I’m shocked, shocked, the U.S. might lose a war against China or Russia! When the U.S. can’t even win a war against the lowly Taliban in Afghanistan after 17+ years.
The “solution” is always more money and resources for the Pentagon. How about this instead: Don’t fight a war against China or Russia … period. Or for that matter against any other country that doesn’t pose a real and pressing threat to the United States.
You have to hand it to the Pentagon: the generals know how to launch preemptive attacks. Not against foreign armies, mind you, but against what is perceived as “the enemy within.” The military-industrial complex knows the Pentagon budget could conceivably shrink in 2020, so they’re already claiming “the world’s finest military” is in danger of slipping a notch … unless it gets more money.
The only “war” the Pentagon is clearly winning is the war for money and influence in the American “Homeland.”
Finally, there’s the grim news the Trump administration is pulling out of the INF Treaty with Russia that eliminated intermediate range nuclear weapons in 1987. That treaty was a remarkable achievement by the Reagan administration: it got rid of nuclear weapons such as the SS-20 on the Soviet side and the Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) on the American side, weapons which were considered “first-strike” and therefore destabilizing to nuclear deterrence. The Trump administration wants to “invest” in more nukes, including intermediate-range ones, supposedly to deter the Russians, who can already be destroyed dozens of times over by America’s current crop of nuclear weapons.
Cost of nuclear modernization to the U.S.? At least $1.2 trillion (yes–trillion) over the next thirty years. Weapons that, if they’re used, will only make the radioactive rubble bounce a little bit higher. More MADness indeed.
An unchecked Pentagon promises ill not just for America but for the world. Ike knew this. So did many other U.S. presidents. Trump is too busy tweeting and making a buck to care.
A few months ago, I was talking to a researcher about the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, and America’s fourth (and most powerful?) branch of government: the national security state. After talking about the enormous sweep and power of these entities, she said to me, it’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? More than that, I replied: It’s the rampaging herd of elephants in the room. Even so, we prefer to ignore the herd, even as it dominates and destroys.
This thought came back to me as I read Danny Sjursen’s recent article at Antiwar.com. His main point was that enormous Pentagon spending and endless wars went undebated during this election cycle. President Trump preferred to talk of “invasions” by caravans of “criminals,” when not denigrating Democrats as a mutinous mob; the Democrats preferred to talk of health care and coverage for preexisting conditions, when not attacking Trump as hateful and reckless. No one wanted to talk about never-ending and expanding wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa, and no one in the mainstream dared to call for significant reductions in military spending.
As Sjursen put it:
So long as there is no conscription of Americans’ sons and daughters, and so long as taxes don’t rise (we simply put our wars on the national credit card), the people are quite content to allow less than 1% of the population [to] fight the nation’s failing wars – with no questions asked. Both mainstream wings of the Republicans and Democrats like it that way. They practice the politics of distraction and go on tacitly supporting one indecisive intervention after another, all the while basking in the embarrassment of riches bestowed upon them by the corporate military industrial complex. Everyone wins, except, that is, the soldiers doing multiple tours of combat duty, and – dare I say – the people of the Greater Middle East, who live in an utterly destabilized nightmare of a region.
Why should we be surprised? The de facto “leaders” of both parties – the Chuck Schumers, Joe Bidens, Hillary Clintons and Mitch McConnells of the world – all voted for the 2002 Iraq War resolution, one of the worst foreign policy adventures in American History. Sure, on domestic issues – taxes, healthcare, immigration – there may be some distinction between Republican and Democratic policies; but on the profound issues of war and peace, there is precious little daylight between the two parties. That, right there, is a formula for perpetual war.
As we refuse to debate our wars while effectively handing blank checks to the Pentagon, we take pains to celebrate the military in various “salutes to service.” These are justified as Veterans Day celebrations, but originally November 11th celebrated the end of war in 1918, not the glorification of it. Consider these camouflage NFL hats and uniforms modeled on military clothing (courtesy of a good friend):
When I lived in England in the early 1990s, the way people marked Veterans or Armistice Day was with a simple poppy. I recall buying one from a veteran who went door-to-door to raise funds to support indigent vets. Students of military history will know that many young men died in World War I in fields of poppies. Thus the poppy has become a simple yet powerful symbol of sacrifice, loss, and gratitude for those who went before us to defend freedom.
No poppies for us. Instead, Americans are encouraged to buy expensive NFL clothing that is modeled on military uniforms. Once again, we turn war into sport, perhaps even into a fashion statement.
When I was young, I kept a pamphlet in my room: “How to Respect and Display Our Flag.” It was from the U.S. Marine Corps, dated March 1968. I still have that pamphlet; here’s a photo of it:
Some of its guidance is now (it saddens me to say) obsolete. Consider the following: “Do not use the flag as a portion of a costume or athletic uniform. Do not embroider it upon cushions or handkerchiefs nor print it on paper napkins or boxes.”
Nowadays, flags are everywhere. They are on football helmets and baseball caps. They are on bathing suits (!) and shirts, jackets and tops. I once bought an ice cream cone at a baseball game in a paper wrapper decorated by the American flag.
Fifty years ago, there was a sense our flag was special, meaning you didn’t put one everywhere and on everything. All these representations of the flag that you see today, especially those flag lapel pins most often seen on sportscasters and politicians, strike me as opportunistic and self-celebratory rather than respectable tributes to Old Glory.
My flag handbook also says, “When carried, the flag should always be aloft and free–never flat or horizontal.” I suppose they couldn’t imagine in 1968 flags so gigantic that they could only be carried flat or horizontal.
A book of more recent vintage (2001), “United We Stand,” celebrates efforts during World War II to bring the nation together by marking the Fourth of July in 1942 with images of the flag on magazines. One of my favorites from that time showcased Veronica Lake:
From this book, I was reminded of the original “Pledge of Allegiance”:
I pledge allegiance to my Flag
and the Republic for which it stands,
one nation indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all.
The phrase “under God” was only added in 1954 at the height of McCarthyism.
I favor the original pledge. If it was good enough for the “Greatest Generation” who fought and won World War II, it should be good enough for these times.
I was also reminded of a song that I rarely hear nowadays: “You’re a Grand Old Flag” by George M. Cohan (played, of course, by Jimmy Cagney in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” as mentioned on the cover above). Remember the opening stanza of that song?
You’re a grand old flag.
You’re a high-flying flag
and forever in Peace may you wave.
“Forever in peace may you wave” — how come we don’t hear that sentiment today?