A Thought Experiment for America’s Afghan War

Obama
President Obama with his chosen “surge” commander, General Stanley McChrystal

W.J. Astore

The Afghan War is back in the news, mainly because of allegations that Russian entities offered a bounty to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops.  Pulling no punches, Alternet used this headline: “The Pentagon leaks an explosive story of Trump’s dereliction of duty — widening the rift between the military and the White House.”

The U.S. military has been fighting the Taliban ever since 2001, so why the latter now needs bounties to motivate them is unclear.  Indeed, the original “bounty” story at the New York Times was thinly and anonymously sourced and has been denied by Russia and the Taliban.  Of course, in the past U.S. officials had their own bounties on various “terrorists,” and who can forget President George W. Bush’s appeal to Old West lore when he echoed those “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters in the search for Osama bin Laden?

President Trump has said he wants to end the Afghan War by November, but he is surprisingly weak in reining in the Pentagon.  At some level, Trump knows the Afghan War is unwinnable; it always has been.  It’s unjust as well, though Trump never uses that kind of language.  He sees it mainly as a business proposition that’s losing money bigtime.  Yet despite all his fawning words for the military, he can’t impose his will on the Pentagon.

Back in 2010, I tried to point out the folly of America’s war in the following article.  At the time, President Obama was implementing a “surge” of troops that proved both unsustainable and unwise.  So I put together this thought experiment, putting my gun-toting neighbors and friends in the rugged hills of rural Pennsylvania in the role of an American Taliban responding to an invasive force.  A decade ago, I had no doubt who would prevail, whether in reality or in my experiment.

As the Afghan War approaches two decades, how will we ever end our folly when even so-called liberal media sources are waving red shirts and inflaming passions with talk of Russian bounties? (6/28/2020)

A Thought Experiment for Our Afghan Surge

(Written in January 2010)

Consider the following thought experiment. Give the Afghan Taliban our technology and money, and have them journey thousands of miles to the densely forested hills and mountains of rural Pennsylvania, close to where I currently live. Who’s going to prevail? The Afghans fighting a high-tech counterinsurgency campaign, or the PA locals fighting a low-tech campaign to defend their homes and way of life?

My money would be on my “hillbilly” (a term I use affectionately) neighbors who love to hunt, who know the terrain, and who are committed to liberty. My students, male and female, are generally tough, resourceful, love the outdoors, make their own beef jerky, cut and split their own wood, have plenty of guns and ammo and bows and knives and, well, you get the idea. Even in my classes, they’re wearing camouflage pants, vests, and hats. They could go from college student to people’s warrior before you could say Mao Zedong. And I doubt they’d spare much love for foreign fighters on their turf.

Now, consider an Afghan intelligence officer trying to understand rural PA culture, to blend in with the locals, to win hearts and minds. What are the chances this intelligence operative would be successful? If he speaks English, it’s in a broken, heavily accented form, insensitive to local and regional variations. If he can’t bargain with words, he might be able to bribe a few locals into helping him, but their allegiance will wane as the money runs out.

As this imaginary Afghan force seeks to gain control over the countryside, its members find themselves being picked off like so many whitetail deer. Using their drones and Hellfire missiles, they strike back at the PA rebels, only to mistake a raucous yet innocent biker rally for a conglomeration of insurgents. Among the dead bodies and twisted Harleys, a new spirit of resistance is born.

Now, if you’ve followed me in this thought experiment, why don’t we get it? Why can’t we see that the odds are stacked against us in Afghanistan? Why are we surprised that, by our own assessment, our intelligence in Afghanistan is still “clueless” after eight years and “ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced … and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers”?

And why would we think that a surge of more “clueless” operatives would reverse the tide?

Would more Taliban forces deployed to the hills and valleys of PA win the hearts and minds of the locals?

I know the answer to that hypothetical: as the PA rebels might say, no friggin’ way.

America’s Forever Wars Have Come Home

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch.com

Here’s a little portrait of the United States in June 2020, a passage from a New York Times report on the National Guard’s treatment of a recent protest march of people chanting “We can’t breathe!” in Washington, D.C.:

“A Black Hawk helicopter, followed by a smaller medical evacuation helicopter, dropped to rooftop level with its searchlights aimed at the crowd. Tree limbs snapped, nearly hitting several people. Signs were torn from the sides of buildings. Some protesters looked up, while others ran into doorways. The downward force of air from the rotors was deafening. The helicopters were performing a ‘show of force’ — a standard tactic used by military aircraft in combat zones to scatter insurgents.”

Talk about America’s wars coming home! George Floyd’s recent killing is both a long way, and yet not far at all, from the police shooting of the unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Many Americans felt shocked then on seeing that city’s police force respond to the ensuing protests togged out in Pentagon-supplied gear of every sort, including sniper rifles and Humvees, often directly off the battlefields of this country’s ongoing wars. As Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver put it then, referring to an Iraqi city largely destroyed by the U.S. military in 2004, “Ferguson resembles Fallujah.”

The question is: What does the U.S. resemble six years later? You know, I’m talking about the place that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently referred to as a “battle space” (as in “dominate the battle space”) in a contentious discussion he and President Trump had with the nation’s governors. I’m talking about the country where that same president has been threatening to call out the troops as police forces. (When retired military brass screamed bloody murder, Esper began backing down.) I’m talking about the land into which Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton has the urge to send the 101st Airborne Division, or Screaming Eagles, whose assault troops have previously seen action in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. (“If local politicians will not do their most basic job to protect our citizens, let’s see how these anarchists respond when the 101st Airborne is on the other side of the street.”)

Could you ever doubt that America’s wars would sooner or later come home in a big way? I suspect retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and historian William Astore didn’t. After all, he’s been writing for years at TomDispatch about how our former citizens’ military has, in those very wars, become the equivalent of a foreign legion. Fully militarizing the police and bringing the legionnaires home, a subject he explores today, seems like just the next obvious step in this country’s precipitous decline. Tom

“Light ‘Em Up”
Warrior-Cops Are the Law — and Above the Law — as Violence Grips America
By William J. Astore

From their front porches, regular citizens watched a cordon of cops sweep down their peaceful street in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Rankled at being filmed, the cops exceeded their authority and demanded that people go inside their houses. When some of them didn’t obey quickly enough, the order — one heard so many times in the streets of Iraqi cities and in the villages of Afghanistan — was issued: “Light ’em up.” And so “disobedient” Americans found themselves on the receiving end of non-lethal rounds for the “crime” of watching the police from those porches.

It’s taken years from Ferguson to this moment, but America’s cops have now officially joined the military as “professional” warriors. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder on May 25th, those warrior-cops have taken to the streets across the country wearing combat gear and with attitudes to match. They see protesters, as well as the reporters covering them, as the enemy and themselves as the “thin blue line” of law and order.

The police take to bashing heads and thrashing bodies, using weaponry so generously funded by the American taxpayer: rubber bullets, pepper spray (as Congresswoman Joyce Beatty of Ohio experienced at a protest), tear gas (as Episcopal clergy experienced at a demonstration in Washington, D.C.), paint canisters, and similar “non-lethal” munitions, together with flash-bang grenades, standard-issue batons, and Tasers, even as they drive military-surplus equipment like Humvees and MRAPs. (Note that such munitions blinded an eye of one photo-journalist.) A Predator drone even hovered over at least one protest.

Who needs a military parade, President Trump? Americans are witnessing militarized “parades” across the U.S.A. Their theme: violent force. The result: plenty of wounded and otherwise damaged Americans left in their wake. The detritus of America’s foreign wars has finally well and truly found its place on Main Street, U.S.A.

Cops are to blame for much of this mayhem. Video clips show them wildly out of control, inciting violence and inflicting it, instead of defusing and preventing it. Far too often, “to serve and protect” has become “to shoot and smack down.” It suggests the character of Eric Cartman from the cartoon South Park, a boy inflamed by a badge and a chance to inflict physical violence without accountability. “Respect my authoritah!” cries Cartman as he beats an innocent man for no reason.

So, let’s point cameras — and fingers — at these bully-boy cops, let’s document their crimes, but let’s also state a fact with courage: it’s not just their fault.

Who else is to blame? Well, so many of us. How stupid have we been to celebrate cops as heroes, just as we’ve been foolishly doing for so long with the U.S. military? Few people are heroes and fewer still deserve “hero” status while wearing uniforms and shooting bullets, rubber or otherwise, at citizens.

Answer me this: Who granted cops a specially-modified U.S. flag to celebrate “blue lives matter,” and when exactly did that happen, and why the hell do so many people fly these as substitute U.S. flags? Has everyone forgotten American history and the use of police (as well as National Guard units) to suppress organized labor, keep blacks and other minorities in their place, intimidate ordinary citizens protesting for a cleaner environment, or whack hippies and anti-war liberals during the Vietnam War protests?

Or think of what’s happening this way: America’s violent overseas wars, thriving for almost two decades despite their emptiness, their lack of meaning, have finally and truly come home. An impoverished empire, in which violence and disease are endemic, is collapsing before our eyes. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” America’s self-styled wartime president promised, channeling a racist Miami police chief from 1967. It was a declaration meant to turn any American who happened to be near a protest into a potential victim.

As such demonstrations proliferate, Americans now face a grim prospect: the chance to be wounded or killed, then dismissed as “collateral damage.” In these years, that tried-and-false military euphemism has been applied so thoughtlessly to innumerable innocents who have suffered grievously from our unending foreign wars and now it’s coming home.

How does it feel, America?

The End of Citizen-Soldiers, the End of Citizen-Cops

I joined the military in 1981, signing up in college for the Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC. I went on active duty in 1985 and served for 20 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. I come from a family of firefighters and cops. My dad and older brother were firefighters, together with my brother-in-law and nephew. My niece and her husband are cops and my sister worked for her local police department for years. My oldest friend, a great guy I’ve known for half a century, recently retired as a deputy sheriff. I know these people because they’re my people.

Many cops — I’d say most — are decent people. But dress almost any cop in combat gear, cover him or her in armor like a stormtrooper out of Star Wars, then set all of them loose on the streets with a mandate to restore “LAW & ORDER,” as our president tweeted, and you’re going to get stormtrooper-like behavior.

Sure, I’d wager that more than a few cops enjoy it, or at least it seems that way in the videos captured by so many. But let’s remind ourselves that the cops, like the rest of America’s systems of authority, are a product of a sociopolitical structure that’s inherently violent, openly racist, deeply flawed, and thoroughly corrupted by money, power, greed, and privilege. In such a system, why should we expect them to be paragons of virtue and restraint? We don’t recruit them that way. We don’t train them that way. Indeed, we salute them as “warriors” when they respond to risky situations in aggressive ways.

Here’s my point: When I put on a military uniform in 1985, I underwent a subtle but meaningful change from a citizen to a citizen-airman. (Note how “citizen” still came first then.) Soon after, however, the U.S. military began telling me I was something more than that: I was a warrior. And that was a distinct and new identity for me, evidently a tougher, more worthy one than simply being a citizen-airman. That new “warrior” image and the mystique that grew up around it was integral to, and illustrative of, the beginning of a wider militarization of American culture and society, which exploded after the 9/11 attacks amid the “big-boy pants” braggadocio of the administration of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as they set out to remake the world as an American possession.

Why all the “warrior” BS? Why “Generation Kill” (one of those memorable phrases of the post-9/11 era)? Was it to give us a bit more spine or something to rally around after the calamity of those attacks on iconic American targets, or perhaps something to take pride in after so many disastrous wars over the last 75 years? It took me a while to answer such questions. Indeed, it took me a while to grasp that such questions were almost beside the point. Because all this warrior talk, whether applied to the military or the cops, is truly meant to separate us from the American people, to link us instead to wider systems of impersonal authority, such as the military-industrial-congressional complex.

By “elevating” us as warriors, the elites conspired to reduce us as citizens, detaching us from a citizen’s code of civics and moral behavior. By accepting the conceit of such an identity, we warriors and former warriors became, in a sense, foreign to democracy and ever more divorced from the citizenry. We came to form foreign legions, readily exploitable in America’s endless imperial-corporate wars, whether overseas or now here.

(Notice, by the way, how, in the preceding paragraphs, I use “we” and “us,” continuing to identify with the military, though I’ve been retired for 15 years. On rereading it, I thought about revising that passage, until I realized that was precisely the point: a career military officer is, in some way, always in the military. The ethos is that strong. The same is true of cops.)

In 2009, I first asked if the U.S. military had become an imperial police force. In 2020, we need to ask if our police are now just another branch of that military, with our “homeland” serving as the empire to be conquered and exploited. That said, let’s turn to America’s cops. They’re now likely to identify as warriors, too, and indeed many of them have served in America’s violent and endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. These days, they’re ever more likely to identify as well with authority, as defined and exercised by the elites for whom they serve as hired guns.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the warrior-mercenary mindset of the police has been fully exposed. For what was Floyd’s great “crime”? At worst, if true, an attempt at petty theft through forgery. He’d lost his job due to the Covid-19 crisis and, like most of us, was lucky if he saw a one-time check for $1,200, even as the rich and powerful enjoyed trillions of dollars in relief.

Rarely are the police sent to prosecute scofflaws in high places. I haven’t seen any bankers being choked to death on the street under an officer’s knee.  Nor have I seen any corporate “citizens” being choked to death by cops. It’s so much easier to hassle and arrest the little people for whom, if they’re black or otherwise vulnerable, arrest may even end in death.

By standing apart from us, militarized, a thin blue line, the police no longer stand with us.

A friend of mine, an Air Force retired colonel, nailed it in a recent email to me: “I used to — maybe not enjoy but — not mind talking to the police. It was the whole ‘community partners’ thing. Growing up and through college, you just waved at cops on patrol (they’d wave back!). Over the last five years, all I get is cops staring back in what I imagine they think is an intimidating grimace. They say nothing when you say hello. They are all in full ‘battle rattle’ even when directing traffic.”

When military “battle rattle” becomes the standard gear for street cops, should we be that surprised to hear the death rattle of black men like George Floyd?

Speaking Truth to Power Isn’t Nearly Enough

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying “speaking truth to power.” It’s meant as a form of praise. But a rejoinder I once read captures its inherent limitations: power already knows the truth — and I’d add that the powerful are all too happy with their monopoly on their version of the truth, thank you very much.

It’s not enough to say that the police are too violent, or racist, or detached from society. Powerful people already know this perfectly well. Indeed, they’re counting on it. They’re counting on cops being violent to protect elite interests; nor is racism the worst thing in the world, they believe, as long as it’s not hurting their financial bottom lines. If it divides people, making them all the more exploitable, so much the better. And who cares if cops are detached from the interests of the working and lower middle classes from which they’ve come? Again, all the better, since that means they can be sicked on protesters and, if things get out of hand, those very protesters can then be blamed. If push comes to shove, a few cops might have to be fired, or prosecuted, or otherwise sacrificed, but that hardly matters as long as the powerful get off scot-free.

President Trump knows this. He talks about “dominating” the protesters. He insists that they must be arrested and jailed for long periods of time. After all, they are the “other,” the enemy. He’s willing to have them tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets just so he can pose in front of a church holding a Bible. Amazingly, the one amendment he mentioned defending in his “law and order” speech just before he walked to that church was the Second Amendment.

And this highlights Trump’s skill as a wall-builder. No, I don’t mean that “big, fat, beautiful wall” along the U.S. border with Mexico. He’s proven himself a master at building walls to divide people within America — to separate Republicans from Democrats, blacks and other peoples of color from whites, Christians from non-Christians, fervid gun owners from gun-control advocates, and cops from the little people. Divide and conquer, the oldest trick in the authoritarian handbook, and Donald Trump is good at it.

But he’s also a dangerous fool in a moment when we need bridges, not walls to unite these divided states of ours. And that starts with the cops. We need to change the way many of them think. No more “thin blue line” BS. No more cops as warriors. No more special flags for how much their lives matter. We need but a single flag for how much all our lives matter, black or white, rich or poor, the powerless as well as the powerful.

How about that old-fashioned American flag I served under as a military officer for 20 years? How about the stars and stripes that draped my father’s casket after his more than 30 years of fighting fires, whether in the forests of Oregon or the urban tenements of Massachusetts? It was good enough for him and me (and untold millions of others). It should still be good enough for everyone.

But let me be clear: my dad knew how to put out fires, but once a house was “fully involved,” he used to tell me, there’s little you can do but stand back and watch it burn while keeping the fire from spreading.

America’s forever wars in distant lands have now come home big time. Our house is lit up and on fire. Alarms are being sounded over and over again. If we fail to come together to fight the fire until our house is fully involved, we will find ourselves — and what’s left of our democracy — burning with it.

A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, William Astore is a TomDispatch regular. He is proud to count many “first responders” in his immediate family. His personal blog is Bracing Views.

Copyright 2020 William J. Astore

 

VE Day, 75 Years Later

W.J. Astore

It’s worth pausing this month to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, marked by Adolf Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s unconditional surrender.  The Allied victory was a triumph of coalition warfare, the “Big Three” represented by the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain, joined by so many other countries and peoples.

The Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, Dwight D. Eisenhower, sent a disarmingly simple message to mark Germany’s total defeat and surrender:

“The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7th, 1945.”

It was a true “mission accomplished” moment — perhaps the last clear one America has had in any major war or conflict since then.

Eisenhower was a complex man who presented himself as a simple one.  One thing he knew was how to lead, to bring people together, to keep hotheads like Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and General George Patton under control while maximizing their gifts.  It’s difficult to imagine a better coalition commander than Ike.

I love this image of Ike from May 7, 1945 (Ike is seen here with his deputy commander, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder of the Royal Air Force):

Ike

Note the simplicity of Ike’s uniform (just three rows of ribbons, and no badges, devices, or other military gewgaws).  The same can be said of Tedder’s uniform (a few ribbons, his wings, and that’s about it).  Compare their uniforms to America’s current Chairman of the JCS, Mark Milley:

mark-milley

With all this self-congratulation and self-glorification, is it any wonder America’s generals found stalemate in Korea and defeat in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan?

VE Day represented enormous sacrifices by peoples around the world to defeat a murderous fascistic regime in Germany.  Well should we remember it and learn from it.

Is the Coronavirus Emasculating?

 

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James Mattis, modeling combat-inspired leather jackets for “real” men

W.J. Astore

Is the coronavirus emasculating?  It’s a serious question.  Judging by photos, most of the people protesting shutdown and social isolation orders are men, with a few sporting totems of manhood like assault rifles.  Many men (and women too, obviously) have lost their jobs, with some “reduced” to new roles as Mr. Moms.  Are we already seeing a hypermasculine reaction to Covid-19, an emphasis on toughness and grit, a live and let die mentality, or perhaps live free and die?  If so, it will only imperil public health and safety further, while possibly aiding Donald Trump in his reelection efforts.

There’s an article circulating that persuasively argues the countries that have best handled the coronavirus crisis are led by women, like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Germany’s Angela Merkel.  Is it because women are better listeners, a bit more willing to submit to expert advice, and more patient?  Or is it that women just have to be better than your average bloke to get ahead in this man’s world?

Certainly, it’s illustrative of something that Donald Trump claims he’s a “wartime” leader in a “war” against the virus.  Trump almost desperately wants to pose as a wartime leader, much like Winston Churchill, facing down a foe with fierce and manly determination.  But a contagious virus isn’t exactly the Nazis, and a “never mind the odds” mentality of risk-taking is almost guaranteed to lead to further contagion and death.

If nurses, grocery clerks, and the like are America’s new heroes, does that lead more than a few wannabe men of action to question where they stand in the heroes olympiad?

What put me on this line of thought is an advertising campaign for a jacket marketed by a company headed by a combat veteran that features retired Marine Corps General and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis as a model.  The boilerplate for the company says their jacket is designed “for men who refuse to hide what they truly are. It’s mean, streamlined and fast.”  And expensive too at roughly $1330, but it does come with its own tracking device.  Eat your heart out, James Bond.

Hey, it’s just marketing, but even marketing tells us something about society.  Conservatives talk about the feminization of society, often deploring the rise of metrosexuals and mixed gender roles.  “Take charge” men are seemingly the antidote. Trump is aware of this phenomenon.  Indeed, as a friend of mine noted, Trump most resembles the stereotype of loudmouthed fathers of the 1950s and 1960s, the ones who insisted on being obeyed no matter what.  The “do as I say, not as I do” dads, the ones who got their way by bluster and bullying.  (No Ward Cleavers need apply.)

Wartime toughness, “mean — streamlined — fast,” may be just the thing in combat.  But it isn’t what the doctor ordered in the struggle against Covid-19.  The virus, after all, can’t be shot, or punched, or bullied into submission.  It’s oblivious to bluster; indeed, you might say it feeds on it.  What works instead is a community spirit of containment through cooperation.  A quieter form of heroism.  Nothing masculine or feminine about this.

A sensible and patient approach, grounded in sound science and proven medicine, is what’s working.  No hard men in combat-inspired leather jackets are required.

Losing “Wartime” President Trump Wants Absolute Authority with No Responsibility

As-Trump-Rips-Deep-State-Fauci-Goes-Facepalm-Knowing-Why
This photo never gets old

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump, the self-anointed “wartime” president, the one who believes he deserves the Congressional Medal of Honor, is losing his version of the Vietnam War.  No, not to STDs (sexually translated diseases), which Trump once said was his version of that war.  Trump’s Vietnam is his woefully mismanaged efforts against the coronavirus; even his efforts at propaganda are transparently missing the mark, much like the Five O’Clock Follies (the official government briefings) did during the Vietnam War.

Indeed, Trump even echoes the language of that war, speaking of seeing “lights” at the end of “tunnels” in the “war” on the coronavirus, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest article at TomDispatch.com.  Here is how Tom put it:

And yet few who lived through the Vietnam War would be likely to forget that phrase. It was first used, as far as we know, in 1967 when the war’s military commander, General William Westmoreland, returned to Washington to declare that the conflict the U.S. was fighting in a wildly destructive manner was successfully coming to an end, the proof being that “light” he spotted “at the end of the tunnel.” (He later denied using the phrase.) That memorably ill-chosen metaphor would become a grim punch line for the growing antiwar movement of the era.

So let’s say that there’s a certain grisly charm in hearing it from the president who skipped that war, thanks to fake bone spurs, and has talked about his own “Vietnam” as having been his skill in avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, in various home-front sleep-arounds. He once even claimed to radio personality Howard Stern that he should have gotten “the Congressional Medal of Honor” for doing so. (“It’s Vietnam. It is very dangerous. So I’m very, very careful,” he told Stern, speaking of those STDs.)

In any case, to have picked up that metaphorical definition of failure from the Vietnam era seems strangely appropriate for a president who first claimed the coronavirus was nothing, then a “new hoax” of the Democrats, then easy to handle, before declaring himself a “wartime president” (without the necessary tests, masks, or ventilators on hand). In some sense, President Trump has been exhibiting the sort of detachment from reality that American presidents and other officials did less openly in the Vietnam years.  And for this president, Covid-19 could indeed prove to be the disease version of a Vietnam War…

Give Donald Trump credit. He seems to be leading the richest, most powerful country on the planet in an ill-equipped, ill-organized, ill-planned battle (though not in any normal sense a war) against the pandemic from hell. Whether or not it ends in a Vietnam-style helicopter evacuation from that hell (or even from the White House) remains to be seen, but at least the imagery chosen so far has been unnervingly apt, though next to no one in our increasingly bunkable world even noticed.

By any metric, but especially by the daily body count for COVID-19, Trump is overseeing a defeat of monumental proportions, a flailing response and a failing “war” that may end up killing as many Americans as the Korean and Vietnam wars combined.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.  But Trump seems more concerned about getting his name added to COVID-19 stimulus checks than he is about saving lives.  What next?  Coinage that reads, “In Trump We Trust”?

Here’s the thing about Trump: He claims he’s got “absolute” and “total” authority over America, as if he’s a king, yet he takes no responsibility for his actions (or inactions).  All military members know that authority and responsibility are inseparable.  You can’t — or, you shouldn’t — have authority if you’re unwilling to take responsibility.  Authority without responsibility is the very mark of a tyrant or a sociopath.  Yet Trump is already on the record for wanting total control even as he utterly denies any responsibility in his self-declared “war” on the coronavirus.

But this deadly virus doesn’t care about Trump’s vast ego, his empty posturing, and his endless lying.  Sorry, Mister President, you’ve already lost your self-declared “war.”

Update: Three years ago, I compared Trump to the child/petty tyrant in the original “Twilight Zone” episode, “It’s a good life.”  I said “Trump is sending us all to the cornfield.”  Nothing has changed, except now we face a pandemic that can kill in days or weeks rather than the slower calamity of climate change.  Here’s the link: https://bracingviews.com/2017/06/02/trump-is-sending-us-all-to-the-cornfield/

The U.S. Military, the Founders, and Original Intent

war weary
It’s too easy to speak of war in the abstract … the Founders knew better

W.J. Astore

In America, you sometimes hear talk of “original intent” (or strict constructionism) from conservatives, usually applied to the courts and especially to the Supreme Court.  The idea is to neuter “activist” judges by pressuring them to stick to the letter of the U.S. Constitution as written in the 1780s (as if that document has never required amendment), thereby upholding the original intent of the Founders (as if those men were gods who never got anything wrong).

Why is it, though, that original intent is never applied to America’s vast military establishment?  Because when you read the Founders, you learn they were strongly against large standing armies and vehemently criticized the anti-democratic nature and sheer wastefulness of wars.

James Madison was especially eloquent speaking against war.  In 1793, he wrote that: “In no part of the constitution is more wisdom found than in the clause which confines the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.”

Madison knew presidents could readily enlarge their powers by waging constant wars, just as Britain’s kings had.  So he and his fellow Founders did their best to subjugate the army to Congress through various laws, such as funding it for only two years while also having each member of the House stand for reelection every two years.  An unpopular and wasteful war, Madison figured, wouldn’t be funded after two years, forcing a president to put an end to it.  Voters, meanwhile, would act to get rid of Members of Congress who foolishly or selfishly supported such a war.

Madison, of course, lived in a time when America’s vast and powerful military-industrial complex didn’t exist.  That Complex is now a fourth branch of government that the Founders didn’t anticipate.  But what if the Complex either didn’t exist or could be reined in, and what if “original intent” could be applied to America’s Department of Defense?  We’d see a few things change:

1. No large standing army, thereby reducing American foolhardiness in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
2. Only defensive wars.  An end to the Iraq and Afghan wars would be a start.
3. Gun ownership would be contingent on the willingness and ability to serve in the militia (National Guard or Reserves).
4. No wars, no “overseas contingency operations,” without a formal Congressional declaration.
5. Firm Congressional oversight of all military operations.  An end to secrecy — the military must be accountable to the people.

The president, of course, serves as commander-in-chief.  But here the intent of the Founders was to firmly subordinate the military to civilian control.  It was not to empower the president as a quasi-generalissimo.  So the days of presidents making near-unilateral decisions to commit American troops abroad must end, as it is totally contrary to the original intent of the U.S. Constitution.

Of course, I’m not arguing that we slavishly follow the Founders — in that case, we’d still have slavery, and in more ways than one.  The point is that if we’re going to look to the Founders and celebrate their wisdom, let’s not do that merely for narrow partisan political gain.  Let’s do it in a way that truly nourishes and enlivens democracy.  Ending our permanent state of debilitating and destructive militarism and warfare would be a fine start.  Madison, I think, would approve.

Note: to read more on this subject, see Greg Foster’s “Why the Founding Fathers Would Object to Today’s Military” (2013) at https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2013/07/why-founding-fathers-would-object-todays-military/66668.  As Foster notes, the Founders were not anti-military; they were anti-militarism.  And, having experienced the pains of war, they took pains to prevent future ones.  Let’s emulate them here.

Stamping Out War

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The face of the Afghan War is an unfamiliar one to Americans

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I detail America’s lack of an antiwar movement — which is partly due to war being literally out of sight for us.  Who knows, for example, of extensive U.S. bombing in Somalia and the innocents killed in that bombing?  Nick Turse has a powerful article on that here.  Wars are rarely covered critically in the mainstream media, and the Trump administration, even more so than previous administrations, has essentially issued blackout orders on information pertaining to U.S. wars and casualty figures.

One piece of encouraging news comes from Afghanistan, where a truce with the Taliban offers hope of an end to that disastrous war.  Yet, as the New York Times reports, the reconciliation process won’t be easy:

In the second decade of this conflict, begun as an act of vengeance by the United States in 2001 and at its peak involving a force of more than 100,000 American troops, the war has increasingly fallen on the backs of young Afghans.

Over the past five years alone, about 50,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers have died fighting. The number for the Taliban is estimated to be the same if not more. The fighting has been brutal, intimate, the same forces on each side often battling each other in familiar localities over long stretches of time.

It’s relatively straightforward for U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan.  But what about the Afghan peoples themselves and their struggles with the legacy of this brutal war?

Here’s the beginning of my article:

There is no significant anti-war movement in America because there’s no war to protest. Let me explain. In February 2003, millions of people took to the streets around the world to protest America’s march to war against Iraq. That mass movement failed. The administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had a radical plan for reshaping the Middle East and no protesters, no matter how principled or sensible or determined, were going to stop them in their march of folly. The Iraq War soon joined the Afghan invasion of 2001 as a quagmire and disaster, yet the antiwar movement died down as U.S. leaders worked to isolate Americans from news about the casualties, costs, calamities, and crimes of what was by then called “the war on terror.”

And in that they succeeded. Even though the U.S. now lives in a state of perpetual war, for most Americans it’s a peculiar form of non-war. Most of the time, those overseas conflicts are literally out of sight (and largely out of mind). Meanwhile, whatever administration is in power assures us that our attention isn’t required, nor is our approval asked for, so we carry on with our lives as if no one is being murdered in our name.

War without dire consequences poses a conundrum. In a representative democracy, waging war should require the people’s informed consent as well as their concerted mobilization. But consent is something that America’s leaders no longer want or need and, with an all-volunteer military, there’s no need to mobilize the rest of us.

Back in 2009, I argued that our military was, in fact, becoming a quasi-foreign legion, detached from the people and ready to be dispatched globally on imperial escapades that meant little to ordinary Americans. That remains true today in a country most of whose citizens have been at pains to divorce themselves and their families from military service — and who can blame them, given the atrocious results of those wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa?

Yet that divorce has come at a considerable cost. It’s left our society in a state of low-grade war fever, while accelerating an everyday version of militarism that Americans now accept as normal. A striking illustration of this: President Trump’s recent State of the Union address, which was filled with bellicose boasts about spending trillions of dollars on wars and weaponry, assassinating foreign leaders, and embracing dubious political figures to mount illegal coups (in this case in Venezuela) in the name of oil and other resources. The response: not opposition or even skepticism from the people’s representatives, but rare rapturous applause by members of both political parties, even as yet more troops were being deployed to the Middle East.

Please read the rest of my article here.  Let’s do our best to stamp out war.

All-Domain Operations: Hubris Unleashed!

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Integrate it all!  All-domains!

W.J. Astore

You can always count on the Pentagon to come up with jargon that unleashes hubris.  When I was in the Air Force, it was all about “global reach, global power.”  I also heard about “full-spectrum dominance.”  Now the latest buzzword is “All-Domain Operations.”  “All-domain” means land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace, which are supposed to be integrated by computers, with information being shared at the speed of light, or close to it.  The U.S. military will know so much, be so nimble, and act in such a coordinated fashion that its rivals and enemies won’t have a chance.

This is what the Vice-Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had to say about this:

“we’ll have a significant advantage over everybody in the world for a long time, because it’s the ability to integrate and effectively command and control all domains in a conflict or in a crisis seamlessly — and we don’t know how to do that.  Nobody knows how to do that.”

I’ve been hearing about “seamless” and “global” integration for a long time, and it’s never going to happen.  War is fundamentally messy, chaotic, a realm of chance, influenced by what Clausewitz termed “fog and friction,” and of course the enemy rarely reacts in ways that are predictable.  No matter.  A “global” vision of “all-domain” dominance has the virtue of justifying enormous defense budgets, so it’s likely here to stay.

As an aside, I do like the way the term has grown like Topsy, according to this report:

Breaking Defense readers have seen these ideas evolve rapidly over the last few years, with even the terminology becoming ever more ambitious, from Multi-Domain Battle to Multi-Domain Operations to All-Domain Operations.”

Yes — who wants only multi-domain battles when you can have all-domain operations?  Let’s show some ambition here!

Note how in this vision, there’s no talk of national defense or of upholding the U.S. Constitution.  It’s all about power projection in the cause of dominance.  It’s an enabler to forever war — one that will be increasingly driven by computers.

What could possibly go wrong with such a vision?

One thing is likely: if there’s ever a war of hubristic buzzwords in the future, the Pentagon might finally have a fighting chance.

Presidential Democrats?

W.J. Astore

Tom Tomorrow has the perfect comic to sum up America’s recent Democratic primaries for president:

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How can Bernie Sanders be electable when he keeps winning elections?  A paradox for sure.

Of course, the whole argument against Bernie Sanders is as dishonest as the primary process is long.  Let’s imagine Bernie Sanders gains the nomination and then defeats Trump in November.  Is Bernie going to become a dictator and enact all his “crazy” socialist ideas by fiat?  Surely, mainstream Republicans and Democrats in Congress are just going to roll over and approve all of Bernie’s “radical socialist” agenda.  Right?

If Bernie were to win, he’d obviously face strong opposition from establishment elites, who would oppose and try to block everything he’d try to do.  That said, the rich and privileged obviously don’t want to bother with such battles; they’d rather just nominate a “safe” centrist, or, even better, a person from their own ranks, like Mike Bloomberg.  You can count on Bloomberg acting to protect Wall Street and the 1%.  He’s got billions of reasons to do so.

As Bloomberg is foisted upon us by the lapdog media, other centrist candidates continue to fight for whatever money is left to sustain their campaigns.  Mayor Pete is flitting from fund raiser to fund raiser (shaking more money trees in wine caves?); Elizabeth Warren is making appeals to party unity (good luck with that); Joe Biden is straining to remain relevant (no more malarkey?); and Amy Klobuchar is seeking any traction she can find in a campaign characterized by market-tested bromides (“I know you, and I will fight for you,” a variant of Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain”).

The best way to judge the candidates is by the enemies they make, which is why I strongly support Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard.  Yes, Tulsi is still in the running, perhaps only until Super Tuesday on March 3rd, but her message against regime-change wars and the military-industrial complex is much needed.

Go Bernie.  Go Tulsi.  We need leaders who are unafraid to speak truth.

The Self-Defeating Military

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One of the pilots who flew at the Super Bowl in his F-35 gets a little media love

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I tackle the U.S. military and its self-defeating nature when it comes to wars overseas.  But there is a “war” that the military-industrial complex truly is winning handily, even overwhelmingly, and that’s the one for money and power within and across American society.  Put differently, when it comes to winning hearts and minds, the military fails spectacularly overseas but succeeds brilliantly here in the “homeland.”

Consider only one example: America’s major sporting events.  Each one has now become a military celebration.  At the Super Bowl this past weekend, four 100-year-old military veterans from World War II were the centerpiece of this year’s opening ceremonies (ostensibly to mark the 75th anniversary of the ending of that war in 1945, as well as the 100th year of the NFL), and of course no event is complete without military colorguards, saluting troops, and a loud flyover by combat jets at the close of the national anthem.  This is all accepted as “normal” and patriotic, the very mundanity of which illustrates the triumph of the military-industrial complex in our lives.

What follows is an excerpt from my article from TomDispatch:

The Future Is What It Used to Be

Long ago, New York Yankee catcher and later manager Yogi Berra summed up what was to come this way: “The future ain’t what it used to be.” And it wasn’t. We used to dream, for example, of flying cars, personal jetpacks, liberating robots, and oodles of leisure time. We even dreamed of mind-bending trips to Jupiter, as in Stanley Kubrick’s epic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like so much else we imagined, those dreams haven’t exactly panned out.

Yet here’s an exception to Berra’s wisdom: strangely enough, for the U.S. military, the future is predictably just what it used to be. After all, the latest futuristic vision of America’s military leaders is — hold onto your Kevlar helmets — a “new” cold war with its former communist rivals Russia and China. And let’s add in one other aspect of that military’s future vision: wars, as they see it, are going to be fought and settled with modernized (and ever more expensive) versions of the same old weapons systems that carried us through much of the mid-twentieth century: ever more pricey aircraft carriers, tanks, and top of the line jet fighters and bombers with — hey! — maybe a few thoroughly destabilizing tactical nukes thrown in, along with plenty of updated missiles carried by planes of an ever more “stealthy” and far more expensive variety. Think: the F-35 fighter, the most expensive weapons system in history (so far) and the B-21 bomber.

For such a future, of course, today’s military hardly needs to change at all, or so our generals and admirals argue. For example, yet more ships will, of course, be needed. The Navy high command is already clamoring for 355 of them, while complaining that the record-setting $738 billion Pentagon budget for 2020 is too “tight” to support such a fleet.

Not to be outdone when it comes to complaints about “tight” budgets, the Air Force is arguing vociferously that it needs yet more billions to build a “fleet” of planes that can wage two major wars at once. Meanwhile, the Army is typically lobbying for a new armored personnel carrier (to replace the M2 Bradley) that’s so esoteric insiders joke it will have to be made of “unobtainium.”

In short, no matter how much money the Trump administration and Congress throw at the Pentagon, it’s a guarantee that the military high command will only complain that more is needed, including for nuclear weapons to the tune of possibly $1.7 trillion over 30 years. But doubling down on more of the same, after a record 75 years of non-victories (not to speak of outright losses), is more than stubbornness, more than grift. It’s obdurate stupidity.

Why, then, does it persist? The answer would have to be because this country doesn’t hold its failing military leaders accountable. Instead, it applauds them and promotes them, rewarding them when they retire with six-figure pensions, often augmented by cushy jobs with major defense contractors. Given such a system, why should America’s generals and admirals speak truth to power? They are power and they’ll keep harsh and unflattering truths to themselves, thank you very much, unless they’re leaked by heroes like Daniel Ellsberg during the Vietnam War and Chelsea Manning during the Iraq War, or pried from them via a lawsuit like the one by the Washington Post that recently led to those Afghanistan Papers.

My Polish mother-in-law taught me a phrase that translates as, “Don’t say nothin’ to nobody.” When it comes to America’s wars and their true progress and prospects, consider that the official dictum of Pentagon spokespeople. Yet even as America’s wars sink into Vietnam-style quagmires, the money keeps flowing, especially to high-cost weapons programs.

Consider my old service, the Air Force. As one defense news site put it, “Congressional appropriators gave the Air Force [and Lockheed Martin] a holiday gift in the 2019 spending agreement… $1.87 billion for 20 additional F-35s and associated spare parts.” The new total just for 2020 is “98 aircraft — 62 F-35As, 16 F-35Bs, and 20 F-35Cs — at the whopping cost of $9.3 billion, crowning the F-35 as the biggest Pentagon procurement program ever.” And that’s not all. The Air Force (and Northrop Grumman) got another gift as well: $3 billion more to be put into its new, redundant, B-21 stealth bomber. Even much-beleaguered Boeing, responsible for the disastrous 737 MAX program, got a gift: nearly a billion dollars for the revamped F-15EX fighter, a much-modified version of a plane that first flew in the early 1970s. Yet, despite those gifts, Air Force officials continue to claim with straight faces that the service is getting the “short straw” in today’s budgetary battles in the Pentagon.

What does this all mean? One obvious answer would be: the only truly winning battles for the Pentagon are the ones for our taxpayer dollars.

Read the rest of my article here.  And thanks!