Thomas Paine on War and Empire

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It’s time again to listen to the common sense of Thomas Paine

W.J. Astore

This past weekend, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the JCS, said U.S. troops would remain in Syria for another few years, ostensibly to prevent an ISIS resurgence, and that troops would also continue to fight the Afghan War for several years to come.  This should have been been big news, but in an America now distracted by a public impeachment circus, endless wars are greeted with a collective shrug within the media.

Thomas Paine would not have been happy.  Famously outspoken for writing “Common Sense” at the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, Paine had some choice words about war and empire that Americans would do well to read and heed today.

“If there is a sin superior to every other,” Paine wrote, “it is that of willful and offensive war … he who is the author of a war, lets loose the whole contagion of Hell, and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.”

Paine then wrote that “We leave it to England and Indians [allied with England] to boast of these honors; we feel no thirst for such savage glory; a nobler flame, a purer spirit animates America.”

Imagine an America today that felt no thirst for the savage glory of war!

Paine supported only defensive wars, for Freedom and against Tyranny, as he put it.  Remind me how keeping troops in Syria to secure oil is a just war for freedom?  Remind me how prolonging the Afghan War (now in its 18th year) by several more years is necessary for America’s defense and in the cause of freedom?

Paine further had choice words for empires that were foolish enough to wage ruinous wars far from home.  Naturally, he had Britain most in mind:

“If ever a nation was mad and foolish, blind to its own interest and bent on its own destruction, it is Britain … Bless’d with all the commerce she could wish for, and furnished by a vast extension of dominion with the means of civilizing both the eastern and western world, she has made no other use of both than proudly to idolize her own ‘Thunder,’ and rip up the bowels of whole countries for what she could get; –like Alexander she has made war her sport, and inflicted misery for prodagality [sic] sake.”

Making war our sport while idolizing our “thunderous” military — isn’t that an apt description of much of U.S. foreign policy for the past few decades?

But Paine wasn’t finished.  He made a dire prediction:

“All countries have sooner or later been called to their reckoning; the proudest empires have sunk when the balance was struck; and Britain, like an individual penitent, must undergo her day of sorrow, and the sooner it happens to her the better.”

No empire lasts forever — certainly not one that engages in endless and largely pointless wars.  Paine warned Britain about the high costs of war with America and how British forces were fated to lose, and he was right.

In a country that supposedly respects and even worships its Founders, isn’t it time Americans listened to Thomas Paine on the horrors of war and the perils of empires blinded by power and greed?

End the wars, America.  Bring our troops home.  And restore freedom to our land.

(Quotations from Paine are from “The American Crisis” as published in Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, Library of America, pp. 108, 165-66, written originally in 1777 and 1778)

Democracy and War

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James Madison knew that endless war is the harshest enemy of liberty

W.J. Astore

Democracies should be slow to start wars and quick to end them.  James Madison taught us that.  Why is America today the very opposite of this?

I thought of this as I read Danny Sjursen’s fine article at TomDispatch.com.  Sjursen, a retired Army major, is a strong critic of America’s forever wars.  He served in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost soldiers under his command.  He knows the bitter cost of war and expresses it well in his article, which I encourage you to read.  Here’s an excerpt:

Recently, my mother asked me what I thought my former students [West Point cadets] were now doing or would be doing after graduation. I was taken aback and didn’t quite know how to answer.

Wasting their time and their lives was, I suppose, what I wanted to say. But a more serious analysis, based on a survey of U.S. Army missions in 2019 and bolstered by my communications with peers still in the service, leaves me with an even more disturbing answer. A new generation of West Point educated officers, graduating a decade and a half after me, faces potential tours of duty in… hmm, Afghanistan, Iraq, or other countries involved in the never-ending American war on terror, missions that will not make this country any safer or lead to “victory” of any sort, no matter how defined.

Repetition.  Endless repetition.  That is the theme of America’s wars today.

Remember the movie “Groundhog Day,” with Bill Murray?  Murray’s character repeats the same day, over and over again.  He’s stuck in an infinite loop from which he can’t escape.  Much like America’s wars today, with one exception: Murray’s character actually learns some humility from the repetition.  He shows a capacity for growth and change.  And that’s how he escapes his loop.  He changes.  He grows.  The U.S. military’s leadership?  Not so much.

But I don’t just blame the senior leaders of the U.S. military.  They’re not that dumb.  It’s the system of greed-war they and we inhabit.  Why change endless war when certain powerful forces are endlessly profiting from it?  War, after all, is a racket, as General Smedley Butler knew.  It’s a racket that’s contrary to democracy; one that buttresses authoritarianism and even kleptocracy, since you can justify all kinds of theft in the cause of “keeping us safe” and “supporting our troops.”

Danny Sjursen, a true citizen-soldier, remembers that war is supposed to be waged in accordance with the Constitution and only to protect our country against enemies.  But being a citizen-soldier has gone out of style in today’s military.  Everyone is supposed to identify as a warrior/warfighter, which has the added benefit of suppressing thought about why we fight.

Eager to fight, slow to think, might be the new motto of America’s military.  Such a motto,  consistent with forever war, is inconsistent with democracy.

Why America’s Wars Never End

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Really?

W.J. Astore

Inspired by three recent articles at TomDispatch.com, I’d like to suggest why America’s wars never end.

The first article marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is by James Carroll.  It brought me back to when I was a young Air Force captain on active duty.  All of us in the military were surprised when the wall came down.  Soon the Soviet Union would collapse as well.  I know because I got a certificate signed by President G.H.W. Bush congratulating us for winning the Cold War.

In the early 1990s there was much talk about a New World Order (largely undefined) and a Peace Dividend.  The “new” world order quickly became global military adventurism for the U.S. and the peace dividend withered as Desert Shield/Storm and other operations commenced.

I recall some personnel cuts, but no real cuts in weaponry.  And no change to strategy.  NATO remained even though the Warsaw Pact had dissolved.  Indeed, NATO would soon be expanded (in the cause of peace, naturally), even as U.S. imperial ambitions grew.  It was the “end of history” and the U.S. had triumphed, or so we thought.

But why had we triumphed?  Apparently the lesson our leaders took from it was that military strength was the key to our triumph, therefore more of the same would lead to new triumphs.  Pax Americana was not about democracy or freedom: it was about weapons and wars.  Peace through military strength (and destruction) was the driving philosophy.

Unbounded ambition and unbridled power – that was the new world order for America.  The wall came down in Berlin, but it didn’t come down in our minds.  Instead of an open society, Fortress America became the norm.

The second article is by Allegra Harpootlian and focuses on the “collateral damage” (murdered innocents) of America’s global bombing and drone campaigns.  It made me think of a conversation I had with a student; he’d been in the U.S. Army and fought in Afghanistan.  Basically, he described it as a dirt-poor country with a primitiveness that seemed Biblical to him.  He got me thinking about how we “see” people like the Iraqis and Afghans as less than us.  Different.  Inferior.  Primitive.  From another time, and from another place.

So, when Americans kill civilians in those places, it’s almost like it’s cinematic, not real, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”  We just move on.

Of course, Americans are not encouraged to be empathetic people.  The world is supposed to revolve around us.  “You can have it all.”  In a world of selfies, why care about others?  Look out for #1!

To put a bow on this, consider evangelical Christianity and the prosperity gospel.  (The idea God will reward you with material goods and money as a sign of righteousness.)  Remember when charity to others was valued?  Not anymore.

Another way of putting this: In America there’s a huge market for self-help books, videos, etc.  But where are the books and videos encouraging us to help others?

The third article is by Andrew Bacevich and specifically addresses the never-ending nature of America’s wars.  His piece made me think of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who as a presidential candidate has called for an end to regime-change wars (though not the war on terror).  For her pains, she’s been accused of being a Russian asset by Hillary Clinton & Company.

Why is this?  Because there’s just so much money – literally trillions of dollars – at stake here, and the military-industrial-congressional complex knows how to protect itself.

The Complex offers or supports hundreds of thousands of decent-paying jobs, building weapons, staffing think tanks, and so forth.  President Trump may have voiced some skepticism about America’s failed and failing wars, yet he keeps giving the Pentagon more money.  Hence the wars will continue, no matter what sounds come out of Trump’s mouth.

As Tom Engelhardt has noted, for the Pentagon, failure is success.  Naval accidents mean the Navy needs more money.  Failed wars mean the military needs more money to replace weaponry, “modernize,” and prepare for the next round.  Defeat is victory, as in more money.

To recap, America’s wars persist because a martial imperialism is our new world order; because we have limited empathy for others, especially darker-skinned “primitives”; and because war is simply a thriving business, the Washington way to rule.

Here’s a final, bonus, reason America’s wars persist: thoughtfulness is not valued by the U.S. military.  Another “t” word is: toughness.  The U.S. military would rather be strong and wrong than smart and right.

For all the “think” tanks we have inside the Washington beltway, what matters more than thought is toughness.  Action.  Making the other guy whimper and cry, to cite President Trump.  This is yet another reason why America loses.  We prefer to act first, then (grudgingly) think, then act some more.

Thinking implies prudence.  Caution.  Restraint.  Patience.  Un-American qualities!

Here I think of U.S. officer performance reports, which also stress action, results, even when the results are “fragile,” “reversible,” or even made up.  How many officers have been promoted on pacification campaigns that pacified no one?  On training efforts, e.g. for the Iraqi Army, that trained no one?  On battles or skirmishes “won” that had no staying power?  Remember that Petraeus Surge in Iraq?

In a nutshell, perhaps we wage war without end simply because we want to.  We’ll stop when we wake up from our madness – or when someone makes us stop.

Edward Snowden and Turnkey Tyranny

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Edward Snowden

W.J. Astore

Edward Snowden recently talked to Joe Rogan for nearly three hours.  Snowden has a book out (“Permanent Record“) about his life and his decision to become a whistleblower who exposed lies and crimes by the U.S. national security state.  As I watched Snowden’s interview, I jotted down notes and thoughts I had.  (The interview itself has more than seven million views on YouTube and rising, which is great to see.)  The term in my title, “turnkey tyranny,” is taken from the interview.

My intent here is not to summarize Snowden’s entire interview.  I want to focus on some points he made that I found especially revealing, pertinent, and insightful.

Without further ado, here are 12 points I took from this interview:

1.  People who reach the highest levels of government do so by being risk-averse.  Their goal is never to screw-up in a major way.  This mentality breeds cautiousness, mediocrity, and buck-passing.  (I saw the same in my 20 years in the U.S. military.)

2.  The American people are no longer partners of government.  We are subjects.  Our rights are routinely violated even as we become accustomed (or largely oblivious) to a form of turnkey tyranny.

3.  Intelligence agencies in the U.S. used 9/11 to enlarge their power.  They argued that 9/11 happened because there were “too many restrictions” on them.  This led to the PATRIOT Act and unconstitutional global mass surveillance, disguised as the price of being kept “safe” from terrorism.  Simultaneously, America’s 17 intelligence agencies wanted most of all not to be blamed for 9/11.  They wanted to ensure the buck stopped nowhere.  This was a goal they achieved.

4.  Every persuasive lie has a kernel of truth.  Terrorism does exist — that’s the kernel of truth.  Illegal mass surveillance, facilitated by nearly unlimited government power, in the cause of “keeping us safe” is the persuasive lie.

5.  The government uses classification (“Top Secret” and so on) primarily to hide things from the American people, who have no “need to know” in the view of government officials.  Secrecy becomes a cloak for illegality.  Government becomes unaccountable; the people don’t know, therefore we are powerless to rein in government excesses or to prosecute for abuses of power.

6.  Fear is the mind-killer (my expression here, quoting Frank Herbert’s Dune).  Snowden spoke much about the use of fear by the government, using expressions like “they’ll be blood on your hands” and “think of the children.”  Fear is the way to cloud people’s minds.  As Snowden put it, you lose the ability to act because you are afraid.

7.  What is true patriotism?  For Snowden, it’s about a constant effort to do good for the people.  It’s not loyalty to government.  Loyalty, Snowden notes, is only good in the service of something good.

8.  National security and public safety are not synonymous.  In fact, in the name of national security, our rights are being violated.  We are “sweeping up the broken glass of our lost rights” in today’s world of global mass surveillance, Snowden noted.

9.    We live naked before power.  Companies like Facebook and Google, together with the U.S. government, know everything about us; we know little about them.  It’s supposed to be the reverse (at least in a democracy).

10.  “The system is built on lies.”  James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, lies under oath before Congress.  And there are no consequences.  He goes unpunished.

11.  We own less and less of our own data.  Data increasingly belongs to corporations and the government.  It’s become a commodity.  Which means we are the commodity.  We are being exploited and manipulated, we are being sold, and it’s all legal, because the powerful make the policies and the laws, and they are unaccountable to the people.

12.  Don’t wait for a hero to save you.  What matters is heroic decisions.  You are never more than one decision away from making the world a better place.

In 2013, Edward Snowden made a heroic decision to reveal illegal mass surveillance by the U.S. government, among other governmental crimes.  He has made the world a better place, but as he himself knows, the fight has only just begun against turnkey tyranny.

The Militarization of Everything

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What’s wrong with this image?  For too many Americans, nothing is wrong with it.

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I talk about militarism in the USA, a subject that’s been on my mind ever since President George W. Bush hid behind the bemedaled chest of General David Petraeus in 2007.  Here’s an excerpt from my article:

Besides TV shows, movies, and commercials, there are many signs of the increasing embrace of militarized values and attitudes in this country. The result: the acceptance of a military in places where it shouldn’t be, one that’s over-celebrated, over-hyped, and given far too much money and cultural authority, while becoming virtually immune to serious criticism.

Let me offer just nine signs of this that would have been so much less conceivable when I was a young boy watching reruns of Dragnet:

1. Roughly two-thirds of the federal government’s discretionary budget for 2020 will, unbelievably enough, be devoted to the Pentagon and related military functions, with each year’s “defense” budget coming ever closer to a trillion dollars. Such colossal sums are rarely debated in Congress; indeed, they enjoy wide bipartisan support.

2. The U.S. military remains the most trusted institution in our society, so say 74% of Americans surveyed in a Gallup poll. No other institution even comes close, certainly not the presidency (37%) or Congress (which recently rose to a monumental 25% on an impeachment high). Yet that same military has produced disasters or quagmires in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere. Various “surges” have repeatedly failed. The Pentagon itself can’t even pass an audit. Why so much trust?

3. A state of permanent war is considered America’s new normal. Wars are now automatically treated as multi-generational with little concern for how permawar might degrade our democracy. Anti-war protesters are rare enough to be lone voices crying in the wilderness.

4. America’s generals continue to be treated, without the slightest irony, as “the adults in the room.” Sages like former Secretary of Defense James Mattis (cited glowingly in the recent debate among 12 Democratic presidential hopefuls) will save America from unskilled and tempestuous politicians like one Donald J. Trump. In the 2016 presidential race, it seemed that neither candidate could run without being endorsed by a screaming general (Michael Flynn for Trump; John Allen for Clinton).

5. The media routinely embraces retired U.S. military officers and uses them as talking heads to explain and promote military action to the American people. Simultaneously, when the military goes to war, civilian journalists are “embedded” within those forces and so are dependent on them in every way. The result tends to be a cheerleading media that supports the military in the name of patriotism — as well as higher ratings and corporate profits.

6. America’s foreign aid is increasingly military aid. Consider, for instance, the current controversy over the aid to Ukraine that President Trump blocked before his infamous phone call, which was, of course, partially about weaponry. This should serve to remind us that the United States has become the world’s foremost merchant of death, selling far more weapons globally than any other country. Again, there is no real debate here about the morality of profiting from such massive sales, whether abroad ($55.4 billion in arms sales for this fiscal year alone, says the Defense Security Cooperation Agency) or at home (a staggering 150 million new guns produced in the USA since 1986, the vast majority remaining in American hands).

7. In that context, consider the militarization of the weaponry in those very hands, from .50 caliber sniper rifles to various military-style assault rifles. Roughly 15 million AR-15s are currently owned by ordinary Americans. We’re talking about a gun designed for battlefield-style rapid shooting and maximum damage against humans. In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, the hunters in my family had bolt-action rifles for deer hunting, shotguns for birds, and pistols for home defense and plinking. No one had a military-style assault rifle because no one needed one or even wanted one. Now, worried suburbanites buy them, thinking they’re getting their “man card” back by toting such a weapon of mass destruction.

8. Paradoxically, even as Americans slaughter each other and themselves in large numbers via mass shootings and suicides (nearly 40,000 gun deaths in 2017 alone), they largely ignore Washington’s overseas wars and the continued bombing of numerous countries. But ignorance is not bliss. By tacitly giving the military a blank check, issued in the name of securing the homeland, Americans embrace that military, however loosely, and its misuse of violence across significant parts of the planet. Should it be any surprise that a country that kills so wantonly overseas over such a prolonged period would also experience mass shootings and other forms of violence at home?

9. Even as Americans “support our troops” and celebrate them as “heroes,” the military itself has taken on a new “warrior ethos” that would once — in the age of a draft army — have been contrary to this country’s citizen-soldier tradition, especially as articulated and exhibited by the “greatest generation” during World War II.

What these nine items add up to is a paradigm shift as well as a change in the zeitgeist. The U.S. military is no longer a tool that a democracy funds and uses reluctantly.  It’s become an alleged force for good, a virtuous entity, a band of brothers (and sisters), America’s foremost missionaries overseas and most lovable and admired heroes at home. This embrace of the military is precisely what I would call soft militarism. Jackbooted troops may not be marching in our streets, but they increasingly seem to be marching unopposed through — and occupying — our minds.

Please read the entire article here at TomDispatch.com.

Update (10/25/19): Speaking of militarization, let’s not forget the popularity of video games (or “shooter” games) such as Call of Duty.  And with Halloween coming, who can resist costumes such as this (photo taken by a military friend):

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You thus have war reduced to a game and a costume party.  Welcome to Amerika!

The Democratic Debate That Wasn’t

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W.J. Astore

Last night witnessed another scrum among the top twelve Democratic challengers.  It wasn’t really a debate since each candidate only had a minute or two to respond to questions.  I’ve seen headlines describing the debate as “the moderates versus the progressives,” with the usual scorecards about which candidates “won” and “lost,” but I don’t think any candidate “won.”  And it was the American people who clearly lost.

First, what was missing.  There was no serious discussion of U.S. foreign policy, of America’s military-industrial complex and colossal “defense” budgets, or of climate change.  The situation in Syria was discussed in the context of President Trump’s alleged betrayal of the Kurds, but that was all.  There was no discussion about nuclear weapons and their proliferation (and America’s decision to “modernize” our arsenal at a cost of at least a trillion dollars).  There was no discussion of America’s overseas empire of 800 military bases.  There was no serious discussion about ending the Afghan War, or the enormous cost of America’s wars since 9/11.

So, what was discussed?  Trump’s impeachment, of course.  Medicare for all versus “choice.”  A woman’s right to control her own body (obviously a very important subject).  How and whether to change the Supreme Court.  Taxes.  Guns.  Tech monopolies.  Opioid abuse and holding drug companies responsible for the same.  Even Ellen’s friendship with George W. Bush.

CNN and the New York Times sponsored the debate, hence they controlled the questions.  The initial goal seemed to be to get Elizabeth Warren to admit she’d have to raise taxes to pay for her Medicare plan.  She largely ducked the issue, insisting the rich and corporations would pay for it.  Another question raised the specter of Bernie Sanders’s health after his recent heart attack, and also of Joe Biden’s age, i.e. that if he’s elected, he’ll turn 80 while he’s in office.  It was that kind of “debate.”

Speaking of Joe Biden, he didn’t perform well in this debate.  He often misspoke and his answers drifted off course.  I can see why the smart money is gravitating toward Elizabeth Warren.

Another person who suffered from the debate format was Tulsi Gabbard.  Few questions were directed her way, and she was often ignored or cut off as she tried to speak.  Her attempt to challenge Elizabeth Warren on her qualifications to be commander-in-chief went unanswered as CNN cut to commercials.  Nice try, Tulsi, but CNN was having none of that.

With respect to Trump and Syria, only Tulsi Gabbard attempted to explain the long history of U.S. involvement in the area, which was, in essence, a regime-change war directed against Bashar al-Assad.  (Recall that President Obama in 2015 said that Assad had to go.)  But again CNN was having none of that, and Tulsi’s point was left hanging as other candidates babbled about not serving the agenda of Vladimir Putin.

And there you have it: yet another debate from which the American empire and the military-industrial complex emerged as the clear victors.

Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight

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Tulsi Gabbard’s promotion to major

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump attended a high school military academy.  But when the Vietnam War came calling, he developed heel spurs that kept him out of the military.  In the case of Joe Biden, it was asthma that kept him on the sidelines of that war.  Dick Cheney had multiple student deferments and “higher priorities” than serving, as he put it.  George W. Bush got a safe spot in the Texas Air National Guard.  John Kerry, ironically, did serve in the military during Vietnam but famously turned against that war.  His service was “Swift-boated” into infamy even as Bush/Cheney were being applauded by some for their alleged toughness.

When it comes to service in the military, U.S. politicians typically vote with their feet, meaning they double-time away from joining the ranks.  This is nothing new, of course.  During the U.S. Civil War, the rich could pay for substitutes if they were drafted.  When it comes to war, it’s very often a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.

Interestingly, there are two Democratic candidates who are veterans of America’s most recent wars: Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.  According to his website, Mayor Pete “served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve and took an unpaid seven-month leave during his mayoral term to deploy to Afghanistan. For his counterterrorism work, he earned the Joint Service Commendation Medal.”  Sounds impressive, yet a “joint service commendation medal” is a standard-issue medal for any company-grade officer who completes such an assignment without screwing up in a major way.  It’s a little like a participation trophy in a Little League tournament.

Despite Mayor Pete’s fairly limited military experience, his web site boasts that if he’s elected president, he’ll take office with the most military experience since George H.W. Bush, who served in the U.S. Navy in combat during World War II.

Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s military record is far more extensive than Mayor Pete’s.  She joined the Army National Guard soon after 9/11 and deployed to Iraq during some of the most bitter fighting in that country.  She’s currently a major in the Guard and has spoken extensively about how her military service informs her positions against wasteful, regime-change, wars.  According to her web site, “Having experienced first-hand the true cost of war, Tulsi made a personal vow to find a way to ensure that our country doesn’t continue repeating the mistakes of the past, sending our troops into war without a clear mission, strategy, or purpose.”

Tonight, there’s yet another Democratic debate featuring Mayor Pete as well as Congresswoman Gabbard.  It will be interesting to see if they’re called on specifically for their views on military issues, such as Trump’s recent decision to pull U.S. troops from northern Syria.

In fact, I’d like to hear the views of all twelve Democrats on that stage tonight on the question of America’s forever wars, and why these wars have illustrated that old story of war being in the service of the rich even as the poor pay the ultimate price.  Given America’s supine Congress, our presidents have enormous power over life and death in making war across the globe.  When are we going to rein that power in?  When are we going to stop fighting foolish and destructive wars that have nothing to do with safeguarding America?

Until we honestly — even ruthlessly — address these questions, America will continue to witness generational wars for the rich fought by the poor.