My Dad’s Silver Dollars

W.J. Astore

My dad left me two silver dollars.  They’re worth much in sentimental value (I’ll explain in a moment), but they also teach us something about how America has changed.

Here’s a photo of them.  Lady Liberty is on the front, an eagle is on the back.

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These were “peace” dollars issued in the aftermath of World War I.  (Note the word “peace” under the eagle.)  Imagine that: a coin issued by the USA dedicated to and celebrating peace!  It’s truly hard to imagine such a coin being issued today, and not only because our currency is now made only with base metal (a debased currency?).

In keeping with U.S. foreign policy today, an equivalent 2018 (faux silver) dollar would doubtless feature the god of war on the front with a menacing eagle clutching missiles, drones, and bombs on the back.

Anyway, I promised a story about my dad’s silver dollars, and I’m going to let him tell it:

“I have a silver dollar in my coin collection. Helen and I were courting at the time. At Nantasket beach [in Massachusetts] there was a glass container with prizes, candy, coins, etc. Also a crank on the unit which when turned controlled a flexible scoop. The idea was to work the scoop to pick up something of value. Well, I took a chance. It was like magic; the scoop just went down and picked up the silver dollar. I gave it to Ma as a remembrance. We’ve had it ever since.”

“The other silver dollar has a story also. A buddy in the service [Army] gave it to me for a birthday present [during World War II].”

After my dad died, these coins passed to me.  One is from 1922, the other from 1924.  I love the “peace” eagle they feature, though we know peace was not in the cards for long after the Great War.  And of course I love my dad’s stories of how he came to possess them.

When will America’s coinage next feature a tribute to the end of war and the promise of peace?

Technology Substitutes for Strategy in U.S. Military Operations

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Yet more weapons: The JASSM

W.J. Astore

Once again, the U.S. military has launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syria, as well as a new weapon called the JASSM-ER, described as “a stealthy long-range air-fired cruise missile.”  According to FP: Foreign Policy, the latter weapon is “likely being closely watched in Tokyo, where military officials are considering purchasing the missile to give the country’s military a long-range strike capability against North Korean targets, Japan Times reports.”  In short, the U.S. military demonstrated a new weapon for an ally and potential client while striking a country (Syria) that has no way of striking back directly at the U.S.

Here’s a report from Defense Industry Daily on the weapons used:

April 16/18: JASSM-ER makes its combat debut The USAF has fired Lockheed Martin’s AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range (JASSM-ER) missile in combat for the first time. 19 such missiles were launched from two B-1B Lancer bombers during last weekend’s sortie against Syrian chemical weapon research and storage facilities, and were joined by 57 Tomahawk missiles launched from US naval assets, as well as Storm Shadow and SCALP missiles from British and French warplanes. While Russian sources in Syria claim that Russian and Syrian air defenses managed to down 71 or the total 105 cruise missiles launched during the Friday night operation—claims Washington refutes—a report on the mission by the Aviationist reckon the newer missiles—in particular the JASSM-ER, SCALP and Storm Shadow—would have been highly effective against their targets. 

One thing is certain: business is booming yet again for Lockheed Martin.

Technology shapes thought even as it becomes a substitute for it.  It amazes me, for example, how the U.S. military threw technology at the “problem” of Vietnam in an attempt to “win” that war.  Everything short of nuclear weapons was unleashed on Southeast Asia, yet those brave people refused to surrender.  U.S. Presidents from Kennedy to Nixon were always sending messages through airpower and other forms of destructive technology, but the Vietnamese couldn’t have cared less about those “messages.”  They had one goal: expel the invader, unify the country, and they stuck to it despite all the high explosive, napalm, defoliants, electronic fences, and everything else inflicted upon them.

Americans tend to see technology as a panacea.  Even deadly technology.  So, for example, what’s the proposed solution to gun violence in the USA?  According to the NRA and our president, it’s more guns.  What’s the solution to violence in Syria?  According to the military and our president, it’s more bombs and missiles.  One clear winner emerges here: those who produce the guns, bombs, and missiles.

Tomahawks and drones and similar weapons are all about action at a distance. They incur no risk of harm to U.S. troops.  As a result, America’s leaders use them liberally to send “signals” and to add to the body count.  They strike because they can and because it’s relatively easy.  Action serves as a substitute for thought.  The only strategy is to keep blowing things up.

The U.S. strategy, such as it is, is defined and driven by Tomahawks and drones and related weaponry.  These weapons make possible “global reach, global power,” but they do not facilitate global thinking.  Promising decision or at least quick results, they lead only to more bodies and deeper quagmires.

The U.S. keeps getting bogged down in wars in part because of the faith the government places in technology.  So much is invested in military weaponry that it becomes a substitute for thought.

But there are no missions accomplished: there is only more destruction.

Refighting the Cold War

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I thought the USA already won?

W.J. Astore

Within the U.S. “defense” establishment there’s an eagerness to refight the Cold War with Russia and China, notes Michael Klare at TomDispatch.com.  The “long war” on terror, although still festering, is not enough to justify enormous defense budgets and traditional weapon systems like aircraft carriers, bomber and fighter jets, and tanks and artillery.  But hyping the Russian and Chinese threats, as Defense Secretary James Mattis is doing, is a proven method of ensuring future military growth along well-trodden avenues.

Hence an article at Fox News that I saw this morning.  Its title: “Here’s why Russia would lose a second Cold War — and would be unwise to start one.”  The article happily predicts the demise of Russia if that country dares to challenge the U.S. in a Cold War-like binge of military spending.  Bring it on, Russia and China, our defense hawks are effectively saying.  But recall what happened when George W. Bush said “Bring it on” in the context of the Iraq insurgency.

Our military leaders envision Russian and Chinese threats that directly challenge America’s conventional and nuclear supremacy.  They then hype these alleged threats in the toughest war of all: budgetary battles at the Pentagon and in Congress.  The Navy wants more ships, the Air Force wants more planes, the Army wants more soldiers and more weapons — and all of these are more easily justified when you face “peer” enemies instead of guerrillas and terrorists whose heaviest weapons are usually RPGs and IEDs.

Yet Russia and China aren’t stupid.  Why should they challenge the U.S. in hyper-expensive areas like aircraft-carrier-building or ultra-modern “stealth” bombers when they can easily assert influence in unconventional and asymmetric ways?  The Russians, for example, have proven adept at exploiting social media to exacerbate political divisions within the U.S., and the Chinese too are quite skilled at cyberwar.  More than anything, however, the Chinese can exploit their financial and economic clout, their growing dominance of manufacturing and trade, as the U.S. continues to hollow itself out financially in a race for conventional and nuclear dominance in which its main rival is its own distorted reflection.

In essence, then, America’s “new” National Defense Strategy under Trump is a return to the Reagan era, circa 1980, with its much-hyped military buildup.   Yet again the U.S. is investing in military hardware, but China and Russia are investing more in software, so to speak.  It makes me think of the days of IBM versus Bill Gates. Bill Gates’ genius was recognizing the future was in the software, the operating systems, not in the hardware as IBM believed.

But the U.S. is being led by hardware guys.  A hardware guy all the way, Donald Trump is all about bigger missiles and massive bombs. Indeed, later this year he wants a parade of military hardware down Pennsylvania Avenue.  It’s as if we’re living in 1975 — time to review the troops, comrade general.

Who knew the triumphant “new world order” of 1991 would become a quarter-century later a sad and tragic quest by the USA to refight the very Cold War we claimed back then to have won?  Isn’t it easy to envision Trump boasting like an old-style Soviet leader of how, under his “very stable genius” leadership, “America is turning out missiles like sausages”?

Reinforcing Failure in Afghanistan

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The Tough Terrain of Afghanistan (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

Back in 2009, as the Obama administration was ramping up its ill-fated surge in Afghanistan, I wrote the following article on the contradictions of U.S. military strategy in that country.  Like the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th century, both defeated by the Afghan people as well as the harsh environment, the Americans in the 21st century are a foreign and invasive presence in Afghanistan that will ultimately be fought off and ejected.  (Interestingly, the U.S. military has it exactly backwards, seeing itself as antibodies to a foreign terrorist threat in Afghanistan.)  Despite the weight of history and the lack of U.S. progress in Afghanistan over the last two decades, the U.S. government in 2018 refuses to withdraw, wasting an additional $45 billion a year on a trillion-dollar campaign that’s gone nowhere.

Little did I know in 2009 that, nearly a decade later, the U.S. military would still be mired in that country, yet still be talking about some kind of victory in a war that retired General David Petraeus says will last for “generations.”  The British and Soviets learned their lesson and withdrew; when will the U.S. learn the lesson of Afghanistan and withdraw?

Why is the U.S. military still there?  If it’s to suppress terrorism or the Taliban, the exact opposite has happened: terrorism has spread and the Taliban has grown stronger.  The heroin trade has also accelerated.  Is it about gas pipelines?  Strategic minerals?  Bases from which Iran can be attacked?  Maintaining American “credibility”?  All of the above?  I would guess most Americans have no clue why the U.S. military is still in Afghanistan, other than some vague notion of fighting a war on terror.  And in war vague notions are a poor substitute for sound strategy and communal will.

Here’s my article from 2009:

In the U.S. debate on Afghanistan, virtually all experts agree that it’s not within the power of the American military alone to win the war. For that, Afghanistan needs its own military and police force, one that is truly representative of the people, and one that is not hopelessly corrupted by drug money and the selfish concerns of the Karzai government [now gone] in Kabul.

The conundrum is that any Afghan military created by outsiders — and America, despite our image of ourselves, is naturally seen by most Afghans as a self-interested outsider — is apt to be viewed as compromised and illegitimate.

Committing more American troops and advisors only exacerbates this problem. The more U.S. troops we send, the more we’re “in the face” of the Afghan people, jabbering at them in a language they don’t understand. The more troops we send, moreover, the more likely it is that our troops will take the war’s burdens on themselves. If history is any guide, we’ll tend to push aside the “incompetent” and “unreliable” Afghan military that we’re so at pains to create and celebrate.

We have a classic Catch-22. As we send more troops to stiffen Afghan government forces and to stabilize the state, their high-profile presence will serve to demoralize Afghan troops and ultimately to destabilize the state. The more the U.S. military takes the fight to the enemy, the less likely it is that our Afghan army-in-perpetual-reequipping-and-training will do so.

How to escape this Catch-22? The only answer that offers hope is that America must not be seen as an imperial master in Afghanistan. If we wish to prevail, we must downsize our commitment of troops; we must minimize our presence.

But if we insist on pulling the strings, we’ll likely as not perform our own dance of death in this “graveyard of empires.”

A little history. Some two centuries ago, and much like us, the globe-spanning British Empire attempted to extend its mastery over Afghanistan. It did not go well. The British diplomat in charge, Montstuart Elphinstone, noted in his book on “Caubool” the warning of an Afghan tribal elder he encountered: “We are content with discord, we are content with alarms, we are content with blood; but we will never be content with a master.”

As imperial masters, British attitudes toward Afghans were perhaps best summed up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ninth Edition (1875). The Afghans, according to the Britannica, “are familiar with death, and are audacious in attack, but easily discouraged by failure; excessively turbulent and unsubmissive to law or discipline; apparently frank and affable in manner, especially when they hope to gain some object, but capable of the grossest brutality when that hope ceases. They are unscrupulous in perjury, treacherous, vain, and insatiable in vindictiveness, which they will satisfy at the cost of their own lives and in the most cruel manner …. the higher classes are too often stained with deep and degrading debauchery.”

One wonders what the Afghans had to say about the British.

The accuracy of this British depiction is not important; indeed, it says more about imperial British attitudes than it does Afghan culture. What it highlights is a tendency toward sneering superiority exercised by the occupier, whether that occupier is a British officer in the 1840s or an American advisor today. In the British case, greater familiarity only bred greater contempt, as the words of one British noteworthy, Sir Herbert Edwardes, illustrate. Rejecting Elphinstone’s somewhat favorable estimate of their character, Edwardes dismissively noted that with Afghans, “Nothing is finer than their physique, or worse than their morale.”

We should ponder this statement, for it could have come yesterday from an American advisor. If the words of British “masters” from 150 years ago teach us anything, it’s that Afghanistan will never be ours to win. Nor is an Afghan army ours to create. Like the British, we might fine-tune Afghan physiques, but we won’t be able to instill high morale and staying power.

And if we can’t create an Afghan army that’s willing to fight and die for Karzai or some other government we consider worthy of our support, we must face facts: There’s no chance of winning at any remotely sustainable or sensible cost to the United States.

Nevertheless, we seem eager to persist in our very own Catch-22. We may yet overcome it, but only by courting a singularly dangerous paradox. In Vietnam, our military spoke of destroying villages in order to save them. Will we have to destroy the American military in order to save Afghanistan?

For that may be the ultimate price of “victory” in Afghanistan.

An Addendum (2018): This year, the Trump administration’s Afghan “strategy” seems to be to pressure the Pakistanis by withholding foreign aid, to bomb and drone and kill as many “terrorists” as possible without committing large numbers of American troops, and to “brown the bodies,” i.e. to fight to the last Afghan government soldier.  That’s apparently what the U.S. military learned from its failed Afghan surge of 2009-10: minimize U.S. casualties while continuing the fight, irrespective of the costs (especially to Afghanistan) and lack of progress.  So I was wrong in 2009: Unlike the Vietnam War, in which the U.S. military came close to destroying itself in a vain pursuit of victory, the Afghan War has been tamped down to a manageable level of effort, or so Washington and the Pentagon seem to think.

What Washington experts will never seriously consider, apparently, is withdrawal from a war that they already lost more than a decade ago.  Thus they commit an especially egregious error in military strategy: they persist in reinforcing failure.

Update (4/2/18): Just after I wrote this, I saw this update at FP: Foreign Policy:

“This is not another year of the same thing we’ve been doing [in Afghanistan] for 17 years,” Gen. Joseph Dunford , chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Washington Post. “This is a fundamentally different approach.”

That notes of optimism comes as the Taliban have made significant territorial gains, with the group now openly active in 70 percent Afghanistan’s territory. Afghan military forces, meanwhile, are taking casualties at a record level. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani continues to drum up support for a peace initiative that would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, but so far a a breakthrough appears far off.

It’s a Free Country, and the Future of War

Marschflugkörper V1 vor Start
German V-1 “Buzz Bomb,” an early, unguided cruise missile

W.J. Astore

Two more anecdotes from my dad’s war letters involve the nature of military life and the future of war.  In June 1945 my dad wrote about female nurses assigned to his post at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.  He noted that:

“The nurses on the Post have been going out with enlisted men.  They [the authorities] are trying to stop it by breaking an enlisted man that has a rating & the nurses get fined $75.00.  Nurses are commissioned officers & they [the authorities] don’t like officers going with enlisted men.  [The] United States is supposed to be a free country so you can see how the Army is.  I don’t think the nurses would break the regulation if there were more male officers on the post.”

$75.00 was a lot of money in 1945 (two weeks’ pay, roughly, for the nurses).  And busting an enlisted man was a serious punishment as well.  Even with the war won in Europe and demobilization already starting, the Army was not about to look the other way when its nurses engaged in almost trivial fraternization.

The second anecdote involves my dad’s speculation about the future of war.  In March 1945 he watched a short movie on the German V-1 “buzz bomb,” an unguided cruise missile.  My dad wrote that:

“In a movie short they showed the German V-1 robot, jet-propelled bomb.  It’s really uncanny how the darn thing goes through the sky.  Also showed the damage they caused, which is really terrific.  If they have another war, after this one is finished, the United States won’t have to worry about sending troops overseas.  With the progress that they could make in 20 years all we’ll have to do, also the attacking country is to send the flying bombs over the oceans and on to the targets.  As long as the Allied nations stick together there shouldn’t be any more wars.”

Of course, the Allied countries didn’t stick together, and we’ve had plenty of wars since 1945.  But my dad was partly right about war’s future.  Think about how the U.S. has launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against various enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.  The Tomahawk is essentially a much more sophisticated and guided version of the unguided V-1 cruise missiles pioneered by the Nazis in World War II.

A final comment: I like the way my dad assumed the U.S. would be the defending country in future wars.  Note how he writes “also the attacking country” would use flying bombs.  Sadly, the U.S. nowadays is usually the aggressor, even as the government couches its acts in terms of defense.

Today, America’s wars are endless, the troops are still overseas, but at least we live in a free country, right?  And now America has the best flying robot bombs as well.  The Nazis called these “vengeance” weapons; isn’t it wonderful today that the U.S. leads the world in making such weapons?

Naming America’s Wars Is A Scary Enterprise

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FDR’s Four Freedoms brought meaning to World War II

W.J. Astore

At TomDispatch.com, Andrew Bacevich asks a pregnant question: What should we call America’s no-name wars?  (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and so on.)  It used to be the GWOT (global war on terror), sometimes shortened to War on Terror and favored by the Bush/Cheney administration.  The Obama administration punted, preferring the anodyne label of “overseas contingency operations.”  Other names and concepts have been floated, such as “generational war” and “long war,” and the U.S. military itself, which is quite expert at creating acronyms, has used terms like MOOTW (military operations other than war).  Indeed, the fact that America’s wars lack a commonly accepted name points to the lack of a common theme or strategy.  Put differently, when you can’t name something accurately, how can you understand it, let alone fight it smartly and win it?

Forgive me for being flippant, but I can think of a few less than reverent names that serve to highlight the folly of America’s nameless wars.  How about these?

  1. “Perpetual Preemptive War”: Preemptive war was the great idea of the Bush/Cheney administration. Remember how we couldn’t allow the smoking gun of Iraqi WMD to become a mushroom cloud? We had to preempt the non-existent WMD, hence the disastrous Iraq war(s).
  2. “Generational War for Generals”: General David Petraeus has spoken of a generational war against terror in countries like Afghanistan, comparing it to America’s 60+ year commitment to South Korea. Waging that war should keep a lot of U.S. generals busy over the next few decades.
  3. “Bankrupt Strategy to Bankrupt America”: America’s total national debt just reached $21 trillion (you read that right), with perhaps $6 trillion of that due to America’s wars since 9/11. If we keep up this pace of spending, we will soon conquer ourselves to bankruptcy. Mission accomplished!
  4. “The Wars to End All Peace”: Woodrow Wilson had “the war to end all wars” with World War I. Bush/Obama/Trump can say that they have the wars to end all peace, since there simply is no prospect of these wars ever ending in the foreseeable future.
  5. “Endless War to End Democracy”: FDR had the Four Freedoms and a real war to end Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan as threats to world peace. We now have endless war to end democracy in America.  As James Madison wrote,

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.  War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.  In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.  The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both.  No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …

In short, instead of fighting for Four Freedoms, we’re now waging a permanent war that will end freedom.

Small wonder we avoid naming our wars – their theme and meaning are too frightening to nail down with precision.

Ending America’s Cult of the Warrior-Hero

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A letter to my dad from 1945

W.J. Astore

Every now and again I look over my dad’s letters from World War II.  He was attached to an armored headquarters company that didn’t go overseas, but he had friends who did serve in Europe during and after the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944.  Also, he had two brothers, one who served in Europe attached to a quartermaster (logistics) company in the Army, the other who served in the Pacific as a Marine.

Reading my dad’s letters and those from his friends and brothers, you get a sense of the costs of war.  They mention friends who’ve been killed or wounded in action; for example, a soldier who lost both his legs when his tank ran over a mine.  (His fellow soldiers took up a collection for him.)  They talk about strange things they’ve seen overseas, e.g. German buzz bombs or V-1 rockets, a crude version of today’s cruise missiles.  They look forward to furloughs and trips to cities such as Paris.  They talk about bad weather: cold, snow, mud.  They talk about women (my dad’s brother, Gino, met a Belgian girl that he wanted to marry, but it was not to be).  But perhaps most of all, they look forward to the war’s end and express a universal desire to ditch the military for civilian life.

All of my dad’s friends wanted to get out of the military and restart their civilian lives.  They didn’t want a military career — not surprising for draftees who thought of themselves as citizen-soldiers (emphasis on the citizen).  In their letters, they never refer to themselves as “warriors” or “warfighters” or “heroes,” as our society is wont to do today when talking about the troops.  War sucked, and they wanted no part of it.  One guy was happy, as he put it, that the Germans were getting the shit kicked out of them, and another guy was proud his armored unit had a “take no prisoners” approach to war, but this animus against the enemy was motivated by a desire to end the war as quickly as possible.

Reading these letters written by citizen-soldiers of the “greatest generation” reminds me of how much we’ve lost since the end of the Vietnam War and the rise of the “all volunteer” military.  Since the 9/11 attacks in particular, we’ve witnessed the rise of a warrior/warfighter ideal in the U.S. military, together with an ethos that celebrates all troops as “heroes” merely for the act of enlisting and putting on a uniform.  My dad and his friends would have scoffed at this ethos — this idolization of “warriors” and “heroes” — as being foreign to a citizen-soldier military.  Back then, the country that boasted most of warriors and heroes was not the USA: it was Nazi Germany.

Discarding the citizen-soldier ideal for a warrior ethos has been and remains a major flaw of America’s post-Vietnam military.  It has exacerbated America’s transition from a republic to an empire, even as America’s very own wannabe Roman emperor, Donald Trump, tweets while America burns.

Men (and women) of the greatest generation served proudly if reluctantly during World War II.  They fought to end the war as quickly as possible, and they succeeded.  America’s endless wars today and our nation’s rampant militarization dishonor them and their sacrifices.  If we wish to honor their service and sacrifice, we should bring our troops home, downsize our empire and our military budget, and end our wars.