On War, Trump Has Largely Been an Appeaser

W.J. Astore

For all his tough-guy posturing and his attempts to pose like Winston Churchill, President Trump has largely been an appeaser to the military-industrial complex and its insatiable appetite for wars and weapons sales.

Trump, frowning (he thinks) like Churchill

Yes, it’s good news that Trump is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, though roughly 2500 troops will remain in each country when Joe Biden takes office in January. In short, Trump isn’t ending these wars; he’s merely reducing the number of boots on the ground. His Acting Defense Secretary, Chris Miller, described it as a “repositioning of forces from those two countries.”

Repositioning! Perish the thought that the U.S. military might retreat or even withdraw. The answer is to “reposition” those deck chairs on the USS Titanic and its imperial wars, never mind the sinking feeling you may be experiencing.

Meanwhile, Trump recently announced more weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates, including F-35 fighter-bombers and Reaper drones, worth $23 billion to U.S. weapons manufacturers. When it comes to empowering merchants of death, the United States is indeed number one.

Throughout his four years of office, Trump courted the Pentagon and the Complex by throwing money at it. He hired Complex functionaries like General (retired) James Mattis and General H.R. McMaster and Raytheon lobbyist Mark Esper to run things for him. The result was predictable: more of the same, such that Trump never kept his campaign promise to end America’s wasteful wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Perhaps this was because Trump didn’t want to be blamed if things went south (as they probably will) if he’d ordered all U.S. troops out of these countries. Trump, like most Americans, hates to be labeled a loser. But what he needed to be reminded of was that these countries were never ours to win to begin with. The answer to “Who lost Afghanistan?” is not the president who finally “repositions” all U.S. troops from that country. The answer is Bush/Cheney, Obama/Biden, Trump/Pence, and, assuming they keep the war going in Afghanistan (and elsewhere), Biden/Harris.

Fighting needless and wasteful wars on the periphery of empire makes sense only to weapons makers and warmongers. Ditto making massive weapons sales, especially to unstable areas. The “Made in America” label used to be seen proudly on everything from clothing and shoes to engines and steel; now it’s affixed mainly to weapons and wars.

Before he took office, Trump promised a new approach, an America First approach, that would end the folly of perpetual wars that cost trillions of dollars. In this he failed. Because when it came to the Pentagon and to weapons makers, Trump chose appeasement rather than confrontation.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.

A Typical Democratic Official on the Pentagon and War

Jeh Johnson with Biden and Obama, 2013 (White House photo)

W.J. Astore

Jeh Johnson, formerly homeland security secretary under President Obama, showed how a typical Democratic official approaches the Pentagon and war as he spoke on ABC’s This Week on Sunday (11/15).  For Johnson, the Pentagon “is typically an island of stability” in the U.S. government, but President Trump was destabilizing that island because of recent changes to Pentagon personnel.  Trump’s changes could be driven by his desire to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, speculated Johnson, which was not a good thing:

“If he [Trump] wants troops out of Afghanistan, as I know most Americans do, we have to do it in a way that makes sense, in an orderly manner, and that comports with battlefield reality … in trying to strike a deal, you don’t unilaterally surrender your greatest point of leverage by unilaterally withdrawing troops before the Afghan government and the Taliban have stuck a deal. So this is very concerning and if I were in the Biden transition team right now, I’d be very focused … on restoring stability in our national security.”

We can’t surrender our “leverage,” those thousands of U.S. troops that remain in harm’s way in an unnecessary war that was won and then lost almost two decades ago, because it’s that “leverage” that will compel the Taliban, who have already won the war, to strike a deal with an Afghan government that exists mainly because the U.S. government props it up.  Makes sense to me.

By the way, only “most Americans” want our troops to come home?  Where are all the other Americans who want them to stay there indefinitely?  Within the Washington Beltway, I’d wager.

The Afghan war has always struck me as nonsensical.  Yes, some kind of response to the 9/11 attacks was needed, and initial U.S. military strikes in 2001-02 succeeded in toppling the Taliban, in the sense they saw no reason to stand and fight against withering fire.  At that moment, the U.S. military should have declared victory and left.  Instead, the Bush/Cheney administration decided on its own disastrous occupation, extended another eight years by Obama/Biden, even though we knew full well the extent of the Soviet disaster in Afghanistan in the 1980s. 

The Afghan war has lasted so long that I’ve been writing articles against it for more than a decade.  You’d think any sensible and sane Democrat would love to see U.S. troops withdrawn and the war finally come to an end.  Not so.  The war must continue in the name of “leverage” and “stability.”

I like Johnson’s truly absurdist reference to “battlefield reality,” which, if we’re being real for a moment, reflects a Taliban victory.  Unless the U.S. wants to occupy Afghanistan forever, with hundreds of thousands of troops, that victory is not about to be reversed.  And what kind of “victory” would that be? 

“Stability” is not preserved by fighting unwinnable wars on the imperial periphery, unless you’re talking about the stability of Pentagon finances and corporate profits.  Johnson’s wiki bio does mention he’s on the boards of Lockheed Martin Corporation and U.S. Steel, which certainly hints at a conflict of interest when it comes to offering advice on ending wars.

In the meantime, we probably shouldn’t tell our troops, whom we’re supposed to love and support, that we’re keeping them in Afghanistan for “leverage” until the “battlefield reality” is more in our favor.  That’s truly a recipe for endless war in a place that well deserves its reputation as the graveyard of empires.

Finally, a reminder to Democrats: your Pentagon is an island of stability, and your troops are creating the leverage that allows democracy to flourish everywhere.  If this makes sense to you, and if this is the guiding philosophy of Joe Biden’s national security team, we’re truly in deep trouble.

Bonus Lesson: The Pentagon is an “island” of government only if that island is roughly the size of Pangaea.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.

Veterans Day Is a Time to Reflect on the Purpose of Veterans

My dad (R) home on leave with his brother Gino, c. 1944

W.J. Astore

I come from a family of veterans.  My father and his two brothers served in the military during World War II.  My mother’s brother fought at Guadalcanal against the Japanese and was awarded the Bronze Star.  Later, my eldest brother enlisted in the Air Force at the tail end of the Vietnam War, which my brother-in-law had fought in as a radio operator attached to the artillery.  Their service helped to inspire my decision to become an officer in the U.S. Air Force.

Military service is honorable, not because of wars waged or lives taken, but because of its purpose: to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.  And this should be the purpose of Veterans Day: to take note of our veterans and their service in upholding the ideals of our Constitution, including freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of the press, a right to privacy, and most of all a government that is responsive to our needs and accountable to our oversight.

Yet since World War II America has fought wars without formal Congressional declarations.  The Korean War, the Vietnam War, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, have lacked the wholehearted support of the American people.  They were arguably unnecessary wars in the sense these countries and peoples posed no direct threat to America and our Constitution.  Indeed, prosecuting these wars often posed more of a threat to that very Constitution.

Naturally, America associates veterans with wars and combat, and we say the dead made “the ultimate sacrifice,” which indeed they did.  But for what purpose, and to what end?  We owe it to veterans to ask these questions: for what purposes are we risking their lives, and to what end are these wars being waged?  If we can’t answer these simple questions, in terms intimately associated with our Constitution and the true needs of national defense, we should end these wars immediately.

Unending wars are the worst enemy of freedom and liberty.  This isn’t just my sentiment.  As James Madison put it, “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded … No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”  America once knew this; we were once a nation that was slow to anger and with little taste for large military establishments.

A few years ago, I stumbled across old sheet music in a bookstore.  Catching my eye was the title of the song: “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier,” respectfully dedicated to “Every Mother – Everywhere.”  From 1915, this popular song captured American resistance to the calamitous “Great War” that we now call World War I.  Anti-war sentiment was strong that year in America, and indeed Woodrow Wilson would be reelected president in 1916 in large part because he had kept Americans out of the war.  The lyrics put it plainly: a mother who’d brought her son up “to be my pride and joy” didn’t want to see that same son having “to shoot some other mother’s darling boy.”

The contrast in these lyrics to recent U.S. military recruitment commercials couldn’t be starker.  In a new Department of Defense advertising campaign, featuring the catchphrase “Their success tomorrow begins with your support today,” mothers are shown incongruously in military settings asking their sons why they wanted to sign up.  Weapons are featured prominently in these ads, but no combat.  There’s much talk of teamwork and being part of something larger than yourself but no talk of the U.S. Constitution.  At the end of these spots, the young men depicted have convinced their mothers that it’s desirable indeed to have your boy become a soldier.

Recruitment ads, of course, have never been at pains to show the true costs of war.  When I was a teen, the Army’s motto was “Be all that you can be.”  For the Navy, service was about “adventure.”  For the Air Force, it was about “a great way of life.”  These ads, by ignoring or eliding war’s costs, have contributed to America’s tighter embrace of war on the world stage and its severe impact, not only on our veterans but on our democracy.  America’s strategy of “global reach, global power” has embroiled us in wars of choice that we increasingly choose not to end.  Surely, it’s time to chart a more pacific path.

Sometimes the best offense is a good defense.  On this Veterans Day, let’s remind ourselves that veterans exist to defend our Constitution and our country, but that endless warfare, and intensifying militarism, are in fact among the most pressing dangers to our democracy.    

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.

Monday Musings, October Surprise Edition

My vote for 2020 is in …

W.J. Astore

The real October surprise is that there is no surprise. Trump or Biden will win, meaning Wall Street, Big Finance, and the Military-Industrial Complex win. (Biden is on record as saying he would increase defense spending!) All you “little people,” whether you’re for Trump or Biden: you lose.

My dad, born in 1917 and a survivor of the Great Depression, used to remind me you need three things in life: A roof over your head, three square meals, and clothes to keep you warm. (Nowadays, given the high cost of getting sick, I’d add health care coverage.) How sad is it that America may soon face a massive eviction crisis, and is already seeing people hungry in the streets, even as Wall Street booms? (Yes, I know America has had trouble housing and feeding people for decades — and it’s only getting worse.)

Amy Coney Barrett was picked for one reason, and one reason alone: Her mentors and handlers know how she will vote in the future. So much for judicial independence.

When you think about it, there shouldn’t be “liberal” or “conservative” justices. Each justice should interpret the law based on her understanding of it informed by her conscience. If this were true, justices would be more or less unpredictable in their rulings. But the justices are hopelessly politicized, rendering “justice” politicized as well.

Speaking of justice, Amy Coney Barrett is a friend of corporations; she’s also uncertain whether global warming even exists. Does this sound like a person with a strong conscience, someone who will fight for equality under the law?

What does it mean that the U.S. military is still at war in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but that few Members of Congress even attempt to exercise oversight of the same, let alone make an attempt to end these wars?

I got my ballot this weekend. Faced with a choice of voting for Biden and Harris versus Trump and Pence, I wrote in Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders, in that order. It’s the only way I couldn’t waste my vote.

Tulsi would make a great president. Young, insightful, smart, she’s taken a critical stance against the military-industrial complex and wants to end America’s awful regime-change wars. Bernie would make a terrific vice president. Seasoned, dedicated, he could focus on domestic policy while Tulsi remakes U.S. foreign policy. Imagine if Bernie really could advance his essential policies: Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage, free college education, relief of student debt, and so on. Gabbard and Sanders are the closest candidates to my positions, so I voted for them.

There are still plenty of good people in the USA, but callousness and cruelty are on the rise. Who knew that as the Covid-19 death toll soars past 200,000 to approach possibly as high as 400,000 by the new year, so many people would just shrug collectively and then consider voting for a man who so disastrously mismanaged the pandemic response? Trump — what a loser!

Speaking of Trump, is he even our president? As near as I can tell, he’s spent most of his presidential days golfing, tweeting, attending rallies, signing statements and holding them up like a child, and traveling to and from his various resorts. America’s next authoritarian autocrat will be far less lazy and spoiled — and far more dangerous to the world.

Putting the Hype in Hypersonic Weapons

As a teenager, I loved this magazine and read it at my local library

W.J. Astore

Supersonic just isn’t fast enough anymore. Now we need hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic generally refers to something that travels at Mach 5 or above, or five times the speed of sound. (Most supersonic jets max out at Mach 2 or thereabouts.) Missiles that are hypersonic would be very difficult to intercept and could be deadly against large, slow-moving targets, e.g. aircraft carriers. So occasionally you hear about China or Russia or both developing hypersonic weapons, followed by a Chicken Little, sky-is-falling, warning about how the U.S. is failing to keep up.

This is all on my mind because I got an email invitation to a hypersonic weapons conference. As a retired Air Force officer and former engineer, this could have been my life: working for a defense contractor, hyping hypersonic weaponry. Where did I go wrong?

“In light of the Department of Defense’s recent & successful hypersonic glide body test marking a major milestone for the DOD’s fielding of hypersonic capabilities, IDGA is bringing back the Hypersonic Weapons Summit this October 28-30, in order to comprehensively analyze and enable the fielding of hypersonic warfighting capabilities.”

“This summit will highlight critical areas to include:

• Enabling Hypersonic Capabilities Utilization for Warfighters across Multiple Domains
• S&T Roadmaps & Investment Areas to Achieve Hypersonic Utilization
• Guiding Hypersonic Testing to Understand Technological Needs
• Workforce Initiatives
• US Academia/University Collaboration”

This invitation makes me nostalgic for my military days: all those acronyms, all that jargon, all those references to “warfighting” and “warfighters,” all those vague references, e.g. multiple domains, workforce, investment, and so on.

Again, this is just a random invite, the kind that industry people see daily, but it does reveal the military-industrial-university complex in all its hyperventilating glory.

Advertised speakers at this conference include civilians from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the commanding general of Air Force Global Strike Command, the Army Hypersonic Project Office, a senior representative from U.S. Strategic Command, and a professor of the Hypersonic Systems Initiative, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, University of Notre Dame.

What a lineup! These people make very good money developing faster and faster missiles to blow things up or to intercept other missiles that blow things up. And I do appreciate the rare honesty of the name “Air Force Global Strike Command.” Global strike is far more accurate than national defense.

As a teenager, I used to read “Aviation Week & Space Technology” at my local library. I loved keeping track of the latest cool weapons, which back then meant fighter jets like the F-14 and F-15 or bombers like the B-1. I hate to admit it, but I didn’t give much thought to what these and similar weapons were all about: blowing things up and killing people. They just seemed exciting and a little bit sexy, and I bought the hype.

Sad to say to my teenage self but this will be a conference I’ll have to miss.

Three Generals Walk Into a Bar …

W.J. Astore (and Andrew Bacevich)

Back in May of 2019, I wrote an article here on General William Westmoreland and the Vietnam War. Westmoreland was conventional in every sense of the word; it was his misfortune to be put in charge of an unconventional war in Southeast Asia, a war he didn’t understand but also one that was unnecessary for U.S. security and incredibly wasteful to boot. Relieved of command by being booted upstairs, Westmoreland went to his grave convinced that the war was winnable. If only he’d received the reinforcements he needed …

Today at TomDispatch.com, Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and author, imagines Westmoreland grousing in a bar with two other generals: George S. Patton of World War II fame, and an imaginary general of today’s wars, Victor Constant. Let’s just say General Constant does not cover himself in glory, failing to live up to his victor(ious) first name as he loses himself in vapid catchphrases he’s gleaned from PowerPoint briefings on war and its meaning. Much like today’s generals, in fact.

So, with the blessing of TomDispatch.com, here is that barroom conversation, as imagined by Colonel (ret.) Bacevich:

Patton and Westy Meet in a Bar
A Play of Many Parts in One Act
By Andrew Bacevich

It’s only mid-afternoon and Army Lieutenant General Victor Constant has already had a bad day.1 Soon after he arrived at the office at 0700, the Chief2 had called. “Come see me. We need to talk.”

The call was not unexpected. Any day now, POTUS3 will announce the next four-star to command the war effort in Afghanistan — how many have there been? — and Constant felt certain that he’d be tapped for the job. He’d certainly earned it. Multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, worse still, at the Pentagon. If anyone deserved that fourth star, he did.

Unfortunately, the Chief sees things differently. “Time’s up, Vic. I need you to retire.” Thirty-three years of service and this is what you get: your walking papers, with maybe a medal thrown in.

Constant returns to his office, then abruptly tells his staff that he needs some personal time. A 10-minute drive and he’s at the O-Club, where the bar is just opening. “Barkeep,” he growls. “Bourbon. Double. Rocks.” On the job long enough to have seen more than a few senior officers get the axe, the bartender quietly complies.

Constant has some thinking to do. For the first time in his adult life, he’s about to become unemployed. His alimony payments and college tuition bills are already killing him. When he and Sally have to move out of quarters,4 she’s going to expect that fancy house in McLean or Potomac that he had hinted at when they were dating. But where’s the money going to come from?

He needs a plan. “Barkeep. Another.” Lost in thought, Constant doesn’t notice that he’s no longer alone. Two soldiers — one boisterous, the other melancholy — have arrived and are occupying adjacent bar stools.

The first of them smells of horses. To judge by his jodhpurs and riding crop, he’s just returned from playing polo. He has thinning gray hair, small uneven teeth, a high-pitched voice, and a grin that says: I know things you never will, you dumb sonofabitch. He exudes arrogance and charisma. He is George S. Patton. He orders whiskey with a beer chaser.

The second wears Vietnam-era jungle fatigues, starched. His jump boots glisten.5 On his ballcap, which he carefully sets aside, are four embroidered silver stars. He is impeccably groomed and manicured. The nametape over his breast pocket reads: WESTMORELAND. He exudes the resentment of someone who has been treated unfairly — or thinks he has.

“Westy! Damned if you still don’t look like TIME’s Man of the Year back in ’65! Ease up, man! Have a drink. What’ll it be?”

“Just water for me, General. It’s a bit early in the day.”

“Shit. Water? You think my guys beat the Nazis by filling their canteens with water?”

Westmoreland sniffs. “Alcohol consumption does not correlate with battlefield performance — although my troops did not suffer from a shortage of drink. They never suffered from shortages of anything.”

Patton guffaws. “But you lost! That’s the point, ain’t it? You lost!”

The bickering draws Victor Constant out of his reverie. “Gentlemen, please.”

“Who are you, bucko?” asks Patton.

“I am Lieutenant General Victor Constant, U.S. Army. To my friends, I’m VC.”

“VC!” Westy nearly falls off of his stool. “My army has generals named after the Vietcong?”

Patton intervenes. “Well, VC, tell us old timers what you’re famous for and why you’re here, drinking in uniform during duty hours.

“Well, sir, first of all, I’m a warrior. I commanded a company in combat, then a battalion, then a brigade, then a division. But I’m here now because the chief just told me that I need to retire. That came as a bit of a blow. I don’t know what Sally is going to say.” He stares at his drink.

Patton snorts. “Well, my young friend, sounds like you’ve seen plenty of action. All that fighting translates into how many wins?”

“Wins?” VC doesn’t quite grasp the question.

“Wins,” Patton says again. “You know, victories. The enemy surrenders. Their flag comes down and ours goes up. The troops go home to a heroes’ welcome. Polo resumes.”

Westy interjects. “Wins? Are you that out of touch, George? The answer is: none. These so-called warriors haven’t won anything.”

“With all due respect, sir, I don’t think that’s fair. Everyone agrees that, back in ’91, Operation Desert Storm was a historic victory. I know. I was there, fresh out of West Point.”

Patton smirks. “Then why did you have to go back and do it again in 2003? And why has your army been stuck in Iraq ever since? Not to mention Syria! And don’t get me started on Afghanistan or Somalia! The truth is your record isn’t any better than Westy’s.”

“Now, see here, George. You’re being unreasonable. We never lost a fight in Vietnam.” He pauses and corrects himself. “Well, maybe not never, but very rarely.”

“Rarely lost a fight!” Patton roars. “What does that have to do with anything? That’s like you and your thing with body counts! Dammit, Westy, don’t you know anything about war?”

VC ventures an opinion. “General Westmoreland, sir, I’m going to have to agree with General Patton on this one. You picked the wrong metric to measure progress. We don’t do body counts anymore.”

“Well, what’s your metric, sonny?”

VC squirms and falls silent.

His hackles up, Westy continues. “First of all, the whole body-count business was the fault of the politicians. We knew exactly how to defeat North Vietnam. Invade the country, destroy the NVA,6 occupy Hanoi. Just like World War II: Mission accomplished. Not complicated.”

He pauses to take a breath. “But LBJ and that arrogant fool McNamara7 wouldn’t let us. They imposed limits. They wouldn’t even mobilize the reserves. They set restrictions on where we could go, what we could attack. General Patton here had none of those problems in ’44-’45. And then the press turned on us. And the smartass college kids who should have been fighting communists started protesting. Nothing like it before or since — the home front collaborating with the enemy.”

Westy changes his mind about having a drink. “Give me a gin martini,” he barks. “Straight up. Twist of lemon. And give VC here” — his voice drips with contempt — “another of whatever he’s having.”

The bartender, who has been eavesdropping while pretending to polish glassware, grabs a bottle and pours.

“Hearts and minds, Westy, hearts and minds.” Patton taunts, obviously enjoying himself.

“Yes, hearts and minds. Don’t you think, George, that we understood the importance of winning over the South Vietnamese? But after Diem’s assassination,8 the Republic of Vietnam consisted of little more than a flag. After D-Day, you didn’t need to create France. You just needed to kick out the Germans and hand matters over to De Gaulle.”9

Westmoreland is becoming increasingly animated. “And you fought alongside the Brits. We were shackled to a Vietnamese army that was miserably led and not eager to fight either.”

“Monty was a horse’s ass,”10 Patton interjects, apropos of nothing.

“The point is,” Westmoreland continues, “liberating Europe was politically simple. Defending South Vietnam came with complications you could never havedreamed of. Did the New York Times pester you about killing civilians? All you had to do to keep the press on your side was not to get caught slapping your own soldiers.”

“That was an isolated incident and I apologized,” Patton replies, with a tight smile. “But the fact is, Westy, all your talk about ‘firepower and mobility’ didn’t work. ‘Search and destroy’? Hell, you damn near destroyed the whole U.S. Army. And the war ended with the North Vietnamese sitting in Saigon.”

“Ho Chi Minh City,” Victor Constant offers by way of correction.

“Oh, shut up,” Patton and Westmoreland respond simultaneously.

Patton leans menacingly toward Victor Constant and looks him right in the eye. “Have you seen my movie, son?”11

“Yes, of course, sir. Several times.”

“Then you should understand what war is all about. You ‘hold onto him by the nose’ and you ‘kick him in the ass.’ That’s what I said in the movie. Why is that so hard to understand? How is it that my soldiers could defeat those Hun bastards and you and your crew can’t manage to take care of a few thousand ‘militants’ who don’t have tanks or an air force or even decent uniforms, for God’s sake?”

“Hearts and minds, George, hearts and minds.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, Westy?”

“Your kick-them-in-the-ass approach isn’t good enough these days. You studied Clausewitz — war is politics with guns. Now, I’ll give you this much: in Vietnam, we never got the politics right. We couldn’t solve the puzzle of making war work politically. Maybe there wasn’t a solution. Maybe the war was already lost the day I showed up. So we just killed to no purpose. That’s a failure I took to my grave.”

A bead of perspiration is forming on Westmoreland’s lip. “But these guys” — he nods toward Constant — “now, we’ve got a generation of generals who think they’ve seen a lot of war but don’t know squat about politics — and don’t even want to know. And we’ve got a generation of politicians who don’t know squat about war, but keep doling out the money. There’s no dialogue, no strategy, no connecting war and politics.”

Victor Constant is mystified. Dialogue? He rouses himself to defend his service. “Gentlemen, let me remind you that the United States Army today is far and away the world’s finest military force. No one else comes close.”

Westy just presses on. “So what has your experience in war taught you? What have you learned?”

Patton repeats the question. “What have you learned, Mr. Warrior? Tell us.”

Learned? After several drinks, Victor Constant is not at his best. “Well, I’ve learned a lot. The whole army has.”

He struggles to recall recent PowerPoint briefings that he’s dozed through. Random phrases come to mind. “Leap-ahead technology. Dominant maneuver in an ever-enlarging battlespace. Simultaneous and sequential operations. Artificial Intelligence. Quantum computing. Remote sensing. Machine learning. Big data analytics. 5G technology. High-fidelity, multi-domain training.”

However dimly, VC realizes he’s babbling. He pauses to catch his breath. “It’s all coming, if they’ll just give us the money.”

Patton stares at him silently. Victor Constant senses that it’s time to go home.

“Can I call you a taxi?” Westmoreland asks.

“No, sir, thank you.” With as much dignity as he can muster, Victor Constant straightens his tie, finds his headgear, and walks unsteadily toward the door.

What have I learned? What did they even mean? He was a general officer in the best army in the world. Maybe the best army ever. Wasn’t that enough? He needed to ask Sally.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

Copyright 2020 Andrew Bacevich


1 Victor Constant is the name of the ski slope at the United States Military Academy, called such in memory of a cadet ski instructor killed in an accident during World War II. To my knowledge, there is no officer bearing that name in the U.S. Army. Return to story.

2 The chief of staff, U.S. Army. Return to story.

3 The president of the United States. Return to story.

4 Many of the army’s most senior officers are housed at government-owned quarters at Fort Myers, Virginia, and Fort McNair in Washington. Return to story.

5 Beginning in World War II, U.S. Army paratroopers sported a distinctive style of black leather boot, more fashionable than standard army issue. After the war, Westmoreland attended jump school and commanded the 101st Airborne Division. Return to story.

6 Shorthand for the North Vietnamese army. Return to story.

7 Lyndon Johnson served as U.S. president from November 1963 to January 1969. Robert Strange McNamara filled the post of defense secretary from 1961 to 1968. Return to story.

8 The November 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem destroyed whatever slight political legitimacy the Republic of Vietnam had possessed. Return to story.

9 Charles De Gaulle was the leader of the Free French during World War II. Return to story.

10 Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, the senior British commander in the European Theater of Operations in World War II, had a low opinion of American officers from U.S. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower on down. Return to story.

11 “Patton” (1970), starring George C. Scott. Return to story.

On War Dead, Politics, and Trump

Glory_(1989_film)_poster

M. Davout

I was recently re-watching Glory (1989), starring Matthew Broderick and Morgan Freeman, with my high school senior son (for whom this was a first viewing). I’ve regularly shown sequences from this dramatization of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first “Colored” combat units to enter the fight against the Confederacy, to students in my “Film and Politics” course. Toward the end of the film, as the action swung to the 54th’s frontal assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863, I let slip, to my son’s chagrin, that the attack would fail and result in the regiment’s near destruction. He rhetorically asked why they would make a film about this regiment if the attack failed and all the main characters died.

My son is a tech geek with libertarian leanings and, as a result, he tends to analyze interactions through a transactional lens. In assessing whether a deal or agreement or commitment makes sense, he asks himself what each party materially stands to gain. From his point of view, the conclusion of the dramatic arc of Glory was problematic because it depicted men who failed and died rather than lived and won. And it left viewers with an emotional deficit rather than a surplus.

My son’s response to Glory put me to mind of the uproar over President Trump’s reportedly disdainful remarks about US war dead, which continues to reverberate in the mainstream media. The sources for the Atlantic Monthly story remain anonymous to date but Trump’s documented pattern of openly contemptuous remarks about John McCain’s harrowing imprisonment by North Vietnamese captors gives credence to reports that Trump considered fallen US soldiers to have been “suckers” and “losers.” He openly wondered during a visit with his then chief-of-staff John Kelly to the grave of Kelly’s soldier son why his son had put his life at risk for his country.

Trump’s reported comments and the attitude toward military sacrifice they purportedly exemplify have provoked attacks from Democratic politicians and a deafening silence from Republican politicians. It remains to be seen what lasting damage, if any, this controversy will do to Trump’s electoral prospects.

Sometime an outrageous comment can illuminate an issue worth thinking about that would otherwise be obscured in the dust of political combat. While Trump could be faulted for lacking decorum in pressing Kelly about the rationale for his son’s death, it isn’t an unserious question to wonder why someone would volunteer to be a soldier in a country at war. After all, countries or nation-states are mostly abstractions. People experience them mainly as aggregations of bureaucratic practices and routines which determine where borders are, where certain customs hold or one language or currency is in use rather than another.

It is intuitively graspable why one would be prepared to sacrifice one’s life for one’s child or one’s family or one’s close friend or even a flesh-and-blood stranger in a car accident whose distress provokes an immediate empathetic response. (Maybe not for Trump—he does not seem capable of empathizing with anyone enough to put his interests or life at risk for them.) But to be prepared to die for one set of bureaucratic routines and practices in a conflict with others fighting for a different set of bureaucratic routines and practices? How does that make sense?

Recognizing the challenge of getting citizens to feel a self-sacrificing love of country, the functionaries of emerging nation-states have come universally to institute all sorts of cultural practices designed to foster an emotional connection to one’s nation: pledges of allegiance, national anthems, patriotic rhetoric and ceremonies (e.g., France’s Bastille Day Parade), even the instrumentalization of war dead as a way of tugging on citizen heartstrings (e.g., Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address).

However, the fact that the inhabitants of a bureaucratically-inscribed geographic region come to love their country and feel ready to sacrifice their lives for its good does not, in and of itself, guarantee the reasonableness of their sacrifice or the moral worthiness of the policies that led to that sacrifice. People do end up dying for stupid or bad or even evil national causes and a government’s instrumentalization of the war dead has sometimes had a role in rallying people to do wrong or even terrible things. (See for example the Totenehrung at the 1934 Nazi Nuremberg Rally.) As numerous columns at Bracingviews.com have argued, notions of patriotic service to country can be enlisted in a program of militarization that mainly benefits corporate profits and bureaucratic growth.

So fault Trump for a narcissism so pathological that he cannot control his disdain and contempt whenever he is faced with the spectacle of people who have sacrificed in the service of others. Fault him for colossal presidential laziness and mammoth personal vanity in not wanting to pay respects at a second US military cemetery in France because the rainy weather would force him to take a long drive and get his hair wet. Fault him for his lack of sensitivity in needlessly rubbing raw the sorrow of a father at the grave of his fallen son. But do not let the anger (whether righteous or hypocritical) being expended on him in this heated moment of political controversy obscure the duty citizens have to judge the right and wrong of war policy and the reasonableness of dying for country.

M. Davout, a political science professor who teaches in the Deep South, is an occasional contributor to Bracing Views.

My Vote for President in 2020

tulsi-gabbard-gty-aa-191228_hpMain_16x9_992

W.J. Astore

I’ve given a lot of thought to my vote for the presidency in 2020.  Neither Trump nor Biden is attractive to me.  These men haven’t earned my vote.  Who has?

I like Tulsi Gabbard, and I’m planning on voting for her in November 2020.

I know: she’s pulled out of the race.  She even endorsed Joe Biden.  But I can’t vote for the Biden/Harris ticket.  To me, they’re corporate cronies who endorse U.S. militarism and empire.

Trump, the Republican alternative, is a disaster.  Totally self-absorbed and lazy to boot, Trump cares nothing about our country and will sacrifice anything and everything to his own definition of success.

Now, I live in a state that is safely blue; in the big picture, my vote is meaningless.  But it’s not meaningless to me.  I want to vote for something I believe in, and I believe in Tulsi’s stand against war.

Here’s a recent statement from Tulsi Gabbard that convinced me she’s still in the vanguard of reform.  If only Biden/Harris would say something like this, but of course they won’t.

STATEMENT FROM TULSI GABBARD

When I first ran for Congress in 2012, I knew that we needed to bring our troops home from Afghanistan and made that a central focus of my campaign. After two decades of fighting in a war that has no clear objective, cost thousands of lives, and continues to cost taxpayers at least $4 billion a month, most Democrats and Republicans want to continue this war. This is why I voted against this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – a $740.1 Billion defense bill that disproportionately benefits the military industrial complex, continues to escalate the new Cold War, and needlessly continues our decades-long war in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, this bill passed the House with bipartisan support.

Nevertheless, as a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, I fought hard to get many provisions added to the bill, including:

  • improving the quality of life for servicemembers and military families,
  • addressing sexual assault in the military,
  • providing transparency of the devastating humanitarian impact of U.S. sanctions,
  • allowing servicemembers to use over-the-counter hemp products,
  • and helping to mitigate and reduce the environmental threats that impact our troops.
READ MORE

We have much work ahead of us. I will continue to do all I can to bring our troops home from Afghanistan, work to end the new Cold War and nuclear arms proliferation, and ensure the safety, prosperity, and well-being of the American people and our planet.

Now, it’s time for Congress and this Administration to do the same.

Mahalo and be well,
Tulsi

Update (8/16/20): I believe politicians have to earn our votes.  We should never feel obligated to vote for them.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Trump wins. People will predictably argue that it’s people like me who are to blame, since I didn’t vote for Biden. (Nor will I vote for Trump.)

No. It won’t be my fault. If you wish to blame someone, blame the Trump voters. And blame the DNC for nominating a candidate (Biden) who didn’t earn the vote of people like me.

The same applies to Hillary’s loss in 2016. She lost to a con man and a reality TV celebrity because she ran a poor campaign, and because her hypocrisy and elitism were so obvious. Remember her “basket of deplorables” comment? Remember all the money she took from Goldman Sachs and the like? $675K for three speeches, even as she opposed Bernie’s call for $15 minimum wage.

With a $15 minimum wage, it would take a “deplorable” more than 22 years of hard work to earn what Hillary got in roughly three hours of speechifying.

And I’m supposed to admire Hillary and vote for her because the DNC said so?

And I’m supposed to vote for Biden because once again the DNC, joined by Obama and Hillary, gave the shaft to Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard?

If I vote for Joe, I’m rewarding the DNC for its blatant corruption.  So I choose to vote for someone who’s offering something more than the status quo of endless war and bottomless corruption.

Update (8/18/20):

I’m surprised that David Sirota, who worked for Bernie Sanders, had this to say about Democrats’ alleged “choice”:

“If the Sanders-Biden battle was perceived as a choice between Sanders’s daunting promise of an exhausting revolutionary struggle and Biden’s promise of a glide path back to normal, then it’s no mystery why Biden ultimately prevailed. Easy street was an understandably alluring vision for an electorate already tired out by Trump’s never-ending conflicts and controversies.

In reality, though, this was not a choice between two possibilities — it was a choice between honesty and fantasy, and Democratic voters picked the latter.”

https://sirota.substack.com/p/did-americans-want-a-political-revolution

I disagree with him because Democratic voters chose nothing. They had no choice. The DNC, the establishment, and especially Obama intervened to torpedo and sink Bernie just as he was riding high. Saint Obama even convinced Amy K. and Mayor Pete to drop out; we’ll see their rewards/price if Biden wins.

Democratic voters, when polled, broadly support Bernie’s agenda. But DNC operatives don’t give a f*ck about what voters want; they care about what the owners and donors want.

This is why I refuse to watch this convention. It’s a rigged, dishonest, show.

I know what happened to the two candidates I favored: Bernie and Tulsi. And I refuse to reward the DNC with my vote based on everything that we witnessed in this corrupt primary season.

It Should Never Be Done Again: Hiroshima, 75 Years Later

Hiroshima after the bomb
Hiroshima after the bomb

W.J. Astore

Note: I wrote this article in 2015 on the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima.  Nuclear weapons should be eliminated from the planet.

August 6, 1945.  Hiroshima.  A Japanese city roughly the size of Houston.  Incinerated by the first atomic bomb.  Three days later, Nagasaki.  Japanese surrender followed.  It seemed the bombs had been worth it, saving countless American (and Japanese) lives, seeing that a major invasion of the Japanese home islands was no longer needed.  But was the A-bomb truly decisive in convincing the Japanese to surrender?

President Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs against Japan is perhaps the most analyzed, and, in the United States, most controversial decision made during World War II.  The controversy usually creates more heat than light, with hardliners posed on mutually opposed sides.  The traditional interpretation is that Truman used the A-bombs to convince a recalcitrant Japanese Emperor that the war was truly lost.  A quick Japanese surrender appeared to justify Truman’s choice.  It also saved tens of thousands of Allied lives in the Pacific (while killing approximately 250K Japanese).  This thesis is best summed up in Paul Fussell’s famous essay, “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb.”

Even before Hiroshima, however, a small number of scientists argued that the A-bomb should not be used against Japan without a prior demonstration in a remote and uninhabited location.  Later, as the horrible nature of radiation casualties became clearer to the American people, and as the Soviet Union developed its own arsenal of atomic weapons, threatening the United States with nuclear Armageddon, Americans began to reexamine Truman’s decision in the context of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race.  Gar Alperovitz’s revisionist view that Truman was practicing “atomic diplomacy” won its share of advocates in the 1960s. (Alperovitz expanded upon this thesis in the 1990s.)  Other historians suggested that racism and motives of revenge played a significant role in shaping the U.S. decision.  This debate reached its boiling point in the early 1990s, as the Smithsonian’s attempt to create a “revisionist” display to mark the bomb’s 50th anniversary became a lightning rod in the “culture wars” between a Democratic administration and a resurgent Republican Congress.

Were the atomic bombs necessary to get the Japanese to surrender?  Would other, more humane, options have worked, such as a demonstration to the Japanese of the bomb’s power?  We’ll never know with certainty the answer to such questions.  Perhaps if the U.S. had been more explicit in their negotiations with Japan that “unconditional surrender” did not mean the end of Japan’s Emperor, the Japanese may have surrendered earlier, before the A-bomb was fully ready.  Then again, U.S. flexibility could have been interpreted by Japanese hardliners as a sign of American weakness or war fatigue.

Unwilling to risk appearing weak or weary, U.S. leaders dropped the A-bomb to shock the Japanese into surrendering. Together with Stalin’s entry into the war against Japan, these shocks were sufficient to convince the Japanese emperor “to bear the unbearable,” in this case total capitulation, a national disgrace.

A longer war in the Pacific — if only a matter of weeks — would indeed have meant higher casualties among the Allies, since the Japanese were prepared to mount large-scale Kamikaze attacks.  Certainly, the Allies were unwilling to risk losing men when they had a bomb available that promised results.  The mentality seems to have been: We developed it.  We have it.  Let’s use it.  Anything to get this war over with as quickly as possible.

That mentality was not humane, but it was human.  Truman had a weapon that promised decisiveness, so he used it.  The attack on Hiroshima  was basically business as usual, especially when you consider the earlier firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay.  Indeed, such “conventional” firebombing raids continued after Hiroshima and Nagasaki until the Japanese finally sent a clear signal of surrender.

Of course, an event as momentous, as horrific, as Hiroshima took on extra meaning after the war, given the nuclear arms race, the Cold War and a climate represented by the telling acronym of MAD (mutually assured destruction). U.S. decisionmakers like Truman were portrayed as callous, as racist, as war criminals.  Yet in the context of 1945, it’s difficult to see any other U.S. president making a different decision, especially given Japan’s apparent reluctance to surrender and their proven fanaticism at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and elsewhere.

As Andrew Rotter notes in Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb (2008), World War II witnessed the weakening, if not erasure, of distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, notably during LeMay’s firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 but in many other raids as well (Rotterdam and Coventry and Hamburg and Dresden, among so many others). In his book, Rotter supports the American belief that Japan would fight even more fanatically for their home islands than they did at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two horrendous battles in 1945 that preceded the bomb. But he argues that Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson engaged in “self-deception” when they envisioned that the effects of the atomic bomb could be limited to “a purely military” target.

A quarter of a million Japanese died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the years and decades following.  They died horrible deaths.  And their deaths serve as a warning to us all of the awful nature of war and the terrible destructiveness of nuclear weapons.

Hans Bethe worked on the bomb during the Manhattan Project.  A decent, humane, and thoughtful man, he nevertheless worked hard to create a weapon of mass destruction. His words of reflection have always stayed with me.  They come in Jon Else’s powerful documentary, “The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb.”

Here is what Bethe said (edited slightly):

The first reaction we [scientists] had [after Hiroshima] was one of fulfillment.  Now it has been done.  The second reaction was one of shock and awe: What have we done?  What have we done.  The third reaction was it should never be done again.

It should never be done again: Just typing those words here from memory sends chills up my spine.

Let us hope it is never done again.  Let us hope a nuclear weapon is never used again. For that way madness lies.

Here are two comments I made in response to previous comments on this article:

1.

I think the comments once again show that no consensus is possible on whether the atomic bombs were decisive in ending the war sooner. Even well-informed people at the time disagreed.

Again, I return to the context of August 1945. A war-weary America, facing the prospect of a delayed Japanese surrender, was using every weapon at its disposal to drive the Japanese into the ground. That included blockade, firebombing, and invasions (Iwo Jima and Okinawa). A longer blockade and more Japanese would have starved. More firebombing, more dead Japanese. More invasions, more dead Japanese, and of course Allied troops as well. The Japanese were well indoctrinated to fall in battle like cherry blossoms in the service of the emperor, whom they viewed as a god.

How to get a Japanese leadership and people to surrender when they saw the very act as dishonorable to the warrior code of Bushido? How to persuade a military that was already committing suicide on a massive scale in Kamikaze attacks against Allied ships to capitulate and live on with the shame of defeat?

It’s clear from the evidence that Truman believed the atomic bomb would shock the “beast” of Japan (“beast” was Truman’s word, a description that Allied soldiers and other Asian peoples who suffered at the hands of Japan, e.g. the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Koreans, would have agreed with). It surely did shock them. Profoundly. Was it sufficient? Was it necessary?

Again, there is no alternate reality in which the atomic bomb wasn’t dropped, and thus no way of knowing whether in that other reality, the Japanese would have agreed to surrender on August 15th.

2.

My reading of the evidence is that impressing the Soviets was a factor, but not THE factor, in the decision to use the bomb. Ending the war as quickly as possible was the driving factor. If the bomb had been ready in December 1944, it would have been used against Nazi Germany as the Battle of the Bulge raged. But the bomb wasn’t ready until July 1945, when the Germans had already surrendered.

Iwo Jima and Okinawa were fresh in the minds of everyone. Though the Japanese had extended peace-feelers, others in Japan were hardline and didn’t wish to surrender on any terms. Faced with a war that could last weeks or months longer, perhaps into 1946 if an invasion of the Japanese home islands had been necessary, the US leadership decided the bomb could be the shock that would force the Japanese to capitulate. And so it seemed, after the fact.

It’s a very complicated question that I’ve read a lot about, and written about as well. Many people at the time simply saw the bomb as a “bigger” bomb, not as something world-changing. Only a few people truly grasped the horror of atomic weapons.

I know this probably isn’t convincing, but again this is my reading of the evidence. Certainly, Nagasaki was completely unnecessary — it came far too quickly for the Japanese to process what had happened at Hiroshima.

The Superpower As Super-Spreader, and Other Snippets

US Navy aircraft carrier
I need one of these to protect me from Covid-19.  And it will stimulate the economy!

W.J. Astore

Item: After reading an interesting story about Joseph McCarthy’s rise and fall in the 1950s, I came across this headline today at NBC News: “‘I’m not a communist’: Potential Biden running mate Rep. Bass reassures Cuban American voters.”

Explains Congresswoman Bass of California:  “I’m not a socialist. I’m not a communist. I’ve belonged to one party my entire life and that’s the Democratic Party and I’m a Christian,” Bass told NBC News.

Isn’t that reassuring?  She’s a Christian and a Democrat.  And she has to deny strongly that she’s a communist, as if 2020 was really 1952 at the height of McCarthyism.

Why today are we supposed to be so scared of the commie wolf?  I thought America won the Cold War thirty years ago.

Item: Speaking of the big bad commie wolf, a friend who’s privy to senior U.S. military thinking (ha!) tells me that this is the “New Era of Great Power Competition,” i.e. a new cold war.  How else can you justify rapidly expanding “defense” budgets?  Another concept — or opportunistic notion — being kicked around is “unbounded strategic uncertainty.”  For the military-industrial complex, this sounds like a very useful concept indeed.  In these unbounded, uncertain times, shouldn’t America’s “defense” budget also be unbounded?  Who knows what will be the next threat?  We must dominate everything!

This reminds me of the story of mask shortages among troops in the U.S. military.  The military’s solution, at least in the short-term, was to encourage troops and their families to make their own protective masks for the Covid-19 outbreak.  A trillion-dollar military complex can’t afford to outfit troops with protective masks that cost pennies on the dollar.  But of course we can fund more F-35s, more aircraft carriers … It’s like the satirical Onion said: Each American should get an aircraft carrier as a stimulus.  What better way to protect ourselves while stimulating the economy?

Item: Andrea Mazzarino, a Navy spouse, has a great new article at TomDispatch.com that brings together two subjects that are rarely connected: the U.S. has a global empire with bases in 80 countries, even as Covid-19 cases spike in the “homeland” and affect (and infect) U.S. troops.  It’s conceivable that infected U.S. troops, in their worldwide deployments, will emerge as super-spreaders of a sort, especially given the out-of-control nature of Covid-19 cases in the American South, where so many U.S. troops are stationed.

We Americans fancy ourselves as the world’s sole superpower.  Will we emerge as the world’s viral super-spreader as well?  Yet another example of full spectrum dominance!

And that’s enough items to ponder today.  Readers, what say you?