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!

Talking About Military Leadership

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W.J. Astore

In 2004, when I was still on active duty, I spoke on leadership at the Panetta Institute in Monterey, California.  At the time, I was the associate provost/dean of students at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center.

To prepare for my talk, I jotted down a few notes; I’ve decided not to update these or change them.  (I’m sure I’d say a few different things today; then again, I’ve been retired from the military since 2005.)

Here are my notes from 2004 (with a few additions for the sake of clarity):

What is uniquely military about military leadership?

  • Life and death situations (but also true of Police, Fire, MDs, etc.)
  • Mandate to take the lives of others under certain ROEs (rules of engagement)
  • Inherent chaos (fog and friction) of war.  Thus leaders must promote cohesion—bonds of trust within a unit—else the unit may collapse under the stresses of war
  • Possibility of routine loss of leaders on the battlefield requires the development of junior leaders with the willingness and emotional strength to take command when needed
  • Importance of an officer’s commission from the president, and his/her oath of office to the Constitution.  Fidelity to the Constitution, and Integrity and Honor in general, are essential qualities
  • Role of long-serving NCOs (non-commissioned officers)—take care of them, and help them take care of junior enlisted.  Put their needs before your own.  Share sacrifices: Yes, RHIP (rank has its privileges).  But officers should eat same grub as grunts.  Take care of the needs of the men and women you’re leading before you address your own needs.

No one personality type.  Our greatest leaders have been everything from vainglorious (MacArthur) to self-effacing (Gen Bradley)

“They don’t care how much you know, but they’ll know how much you care.”  Actually, your subordinates care about both.  Combination of emotional intelligence with intellect and hard work.  You don’t have to be the brightest or best, but you may need to compensate with work.

Respect for subordinates; and don’t play favorites

Listen before acting

Keep calm in times of stress

Role model: As a leader, you are always being watched

Humility but not diffidence: If you don’t lead, who will?

Refuse to tolerate incompetence

Recognize top performers.  Don’t take your best people for granted.  Remember to reward them.

Communication: Telling people to suck it up sounds tough and appropriate in a military context.  But are you sucking it up too?  Nothing more corrosive than hypocrisy at the top.  Integrity and sincerity are essential.

Look inside yourself.  Why do you want to be a leader?

Academic leadership: Irony is that many academics avoid leadership positions because they distract from individual scholarship and academic achievement.  [This mindset is] foreign to the military.  Officers and NCOs trained to lead.  Necessary because war might quickly knock out commanders; subordinates must be ready to act.  Thus department chairs [in academe] often rotate; “burden sharing” rather than leadership.  Healthy iconoclasm in academe, but it should not get in the way of leading.

“Question authority” is not enough.  “Change authority” or “Become authority” if you don’t like the answers you’re hearing.

At the USAF Academy, there was a “Bring Me Men” ramp, but that slogan was removed due to sexual harassment scandals, even though the sentiment was based on a quotation from the late 19th century.  But what it always was intended to mean was “Bring Me Leaders.”  Leaders have moral courage to take responsibility and report clearly to the people.  As commissioned officers, we swear an oath to the Constitution, and to protect it against foreign and domestic enemies.  We do not swear an oath of allegiance to a specific leader or monarch.  But an officer must also respect the chain of command.  You go outside that chain at your peril.

Get to know your military.  How many of you plan to serve in the military?  Congress is ignorant of military matters.  A minority have served (about 30%, whereas in 1969 it was nearly 70%) and even fewer have sons and daughters who are willing to serve.  Only six congressional representatives and one senator have children serving in the military.  7/535 members = 1.3%.  Among the rich and connected, the military is not seen as a desirable profession compared to law, medicine, business, or other, honorable professions.

How to get to know “your” military: Take an ROTC course at your college/university.  Attend a military ceremony.  Ask questions.  The U.S. military needs your interest.  Perhaps too narrowly drawn from the lower classes, but that’s not the military’s fault.  No recruit is turned away because he or she is too rich or because he or she attended Stanford or Berkeley.

How would you like to be the leader of a U.S. military unit in Iraq that was expecting to rotate after a year, after which your men and women are told they have to stay for six more months, possibly longer?  How do you keep people’s spirits up?  Keep them focused on the mission while they’re separated from loved ones for months at a time?

End of notes.  Comments, readers?

The Truth Needs Its Own Channel

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W.J. Astore

Today’s article is a potluck of observations.  Please fire away in the comments section if I stimulate some thoughts!

  1. My wife today noticed how the weather is now militarized.  An “arctic invasion” of cold air is coming our way, or so the Weather Channel warned.  Do we need a new “Weather Force” to meet this “invasion”?
  2. The other day at the gym, I was watching the impeachment drama on two TVs tuned to Fox News and MSNBC.  For Fox News and its parade of Republican guests, the impeachment was a “hoax.”  For MSNBC, it was a foregone conclusion Trump is as guilty as sin.  I mentioned this to my wife and she had the perfect comment: “The truth needs its own channel.”
  3. A reader wrote to me about a piece I wrote in 2008 about all the “warrior” and “warfighter” talk used by the U.S. military today.  It got me to thinking yet again about the rhetoric of war.  Back in World War II, when we fought real wars and won them, we had a Department of War to which citizen-soldiers were drafted.  After World War II, we renamed it the Department of Defense, and after Vietnam we eliminated the draft, after which you began to hear much talk of warriors and warfighters.  In the 75 years since 1945, America has fought many wars, none of them formally declared by Congress, and none of them “defensive” in any way.  The longest of those wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq) have been utter disasters.  Which is not surprising, since wars based on lies and fought for non-compelling reasons usually are losers.  So, how do you buck up the morale of all those volunteer troops while encouraging them not to think about the losing causes they’re engaged in?  Get them to focus on their warfighter identities, their warrior “cred,” as if it’s a great thing for democracies to fight constant wars.
  4. The New York Times endorsed Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar today as the Democrats best prepared to serve as president.  Looks like Jimmy Dore is right: establishment Democrats would rather lose to Trump than win with a true progressive like Bernie Sanders.
  5. The other day, I went to my local post office and saw the POW/MIA flag flying.  It got me to thinking: Who are the POWs/MIAs we need to remember today?  Don’t get me wrong.  As a retired military officer, I think we should remember America’s POWs and MIAs.  But I see no reason to fly flags everywhere to remind us of those veterans who were prisoners of war or missing in action.  Sadly, the POW/MIA flag is associated with conservative activism and reactionary views; it also can serve as a distraction from the enormous damage inflicted overseas by the U.S. military.  As Americans, we are constantly told by our leaders to focus on American victims of war; rarely if ever are we encouraged to think of war itself as a disaster, or to think of the victims on the receiving end of American firepower.

More on the POW/MIA issue: In the early 1990s, when I was a young captain, there were persistent rumors of American POWs who’d been deliberately left behind by our government.  These rumors were strong, so strong that the George H.W. Bush administration had to issue denials.

What are we to make of this?  One thing strikes me immediately: an often profound mistrust of our government exists within the military.  Our government has lied to us so often that some of my fellow officers believed it was lying again when it said there were no POWs remaining in Southeast Asia.  We just assumed our government was so wretched and dishonest that it would abandon our troops to their fate.

This is nearly 30 years ago but it’s stayed in my memory — the suspicion back then that those commie bastards still held U.S. troops and our own government was part of the cover-up.  (All those Chuck Norris and Rambo movies didn’t help matters.)

For more on this: The POW/MIA issue is still very much alive and is discussed by H. Bruce Franklin in his article,  “Missing in Action in the 21st Century,” available at hbrucefranklin.com.  As Franklin noted recently to me, “What we now think of as the Trump base was organized originally in this [POW/MIA] movement.”  Now that’s a fascinating comment.

What say you, readers?

Trump Wishes Peace to Iran while Accusing Democrats of Enabling Attacks on U.S. Troops

Trump US Iran, Washington, USA - 08 Jan 2020
Trump boasting of big missiles while denouncing Democrats

W.J. Astore

I watched Trump’s speech today to the nation on Iran.  It had the usual boasts about the U.S. military and its “big” and “lethal” missiles, the usual bombast, the usual lies.  But this passage of his speech truly struck me as beyond the pale:

Iran’s hostilities substantially increased after the foolish Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2013, and they were given 150 billion dollars, not to mention 1.8 billion dollars in cash. Instead of saying thank you to the United States, they chanted Death to America.

In fact, they chanted Death to America the day the agreement was signed. Then Iran went on a terrorist spree funded by the money from the deal and created hell in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.

That’s right: the missiles used against U.S. forces last night we’re paid for by the Obama administration.  Not only that: Iran went on a “terrorist spree” funded by the “foolish” Iran nuclear treaty, spreading “hell” throughout Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  I’m sure glad Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United States, and other military actors in the region never spread any “hell,” despite all those Hellfire missiles launched from American drones.

So here’s a new claim for you.  If the U.S. military is losing in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, the culprit is clear: the Obama administration and by extension the Democrats, the appeasers who funded Iran and made possible all of its “terrorist” activities.

Best of all, Trump wished peace and prosperity to the Iranian people, but you heard nothing about working peacefully and in prosperous ways with the Democrats.

Clearly, Trump sees the real enemy of America: Obama and the Democrats.