Fear of Defeat and the Vietnam War

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General William Westmoreland in 1968 (Stars and Stripes)

W.J. Astore

Fear of defeat drives military men to folly.  Early in 1968, General William Westmoreland, America’s commanding general in Vietnam, feared that communist forces might overrun U.S. military positions at Khe Sanh.  His response, according to recently declassified cables as reported in the New York Times today, was to seek authorization to move nuclear weapons into Vietnam.  He planned to use tactical nuclear weapons against concentrations of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops.  President Lyndon Johnson cancelled Westmoreland’s plans and ordered that discussions about using nuclear weapons be kept secret (i.e. hidden from the American people), which for the last fifty years they have been.

Westmoreland and the U.S. military/government had already been lying to the American people about progress in the war.  Khe Sanh as well as the Tet Offensive of 1968 were illustrations that there was no light in sight at the end of the tunnel — no victory loomed by force of arms.  Thus the call for nuclear weapons to be deployed to Vietnam, a call that President Johnson wisely refused to countenance.

Westmoreland’s recourse to nuclear weapons would have made a limited war (“limited” for U.S. forces, not for the Vietnamese on the receiving end of U.S. firepower) unlimited.  A nuclear attack in Vietnam likely would have been catastrophic to world order, perhaps leading to a much wider war in Asia that could have led to world-ending nuclear exchanges.  But Westmoreland seems to have had only Khe Sanh in his sights: only the staving off of defeat in a position that American forces quickly abandoned after they had “won” the battle.

War, as French leader Georges Clemenceau famously said, is too important to be left to generals.  Generals often see the battlefield in narrow terms, seeking victory at any price, if only to avoid the stain of defeat.

But what price victory if the world ends as a result?

A Trumped-Up Space Force

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Space exploration and exploitation isn’t what it used to be

W.J. Astore

Space, the “final frontier,” isn’t what it used to be.  In the 1960s and early 1970s I grew up a fan of NASA as well as Star Trek with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.  NASA was (and is) a civilian space agency, even though its corps of astronauts was originally drawn from the ranks of military test pilots.  Star Trek offered a vision of a “federation” of planets in the future, united by a vision “to explore strange new worlds,” venturing forth boldly in the cause of peace.  Within the US military, space itself was considered to be the new “high ground,” admittedly a great place for spy satellites (which helped to keep the peace) but a disastrous place for war.  (Of course, that didn’t prevent the military from proposing crazy ideas, like building a military base on the moon armed with nuclear-tipped missiles.)

Attracted to the space mission, my first assignment as a military officer was to Air Force Space Command.  I helped to support the Space Surveillance Center in Cheyenne Mountain Complex, which kept track of all objects in earth orbit, from satellites to space junk.  (You don’t want a lost hammer or other space junk colliding with your billion-dollar satellite at a speed of roughly 17,000 miles per hour.)  In the mid-1980s, when I was in AFSPACECOM, an offensive space force to “dominate” space was a vision shared by very few people.  I had a small role to play in supporting tests of an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile launched from F-15s, but those tests were curtailed and later cancelled as the Soviet Union, considered as America’s main rival for control of space, began to collapse in the late 1980s.

But that was then, and this is now, and the “now” of the moment is a new US military service, an offensive space force, proposed by the Trump administration as essential to US national security.  At TomDispatch.com, William Hartung provides the details of Trump’s new space force in this fine article.  As I read Hartung’s article, a thought flashed through my mind: We’re not the peaceful Federation of Star Trek.  We’re much more like the Klingon Empire.

In the original Star Trek, the Klingons were a highly aggressive and thoroughly militaristic species that was dedicated to dominating space.  They were proudly imperial and driven by conquest.  Trump, who with his bombast and barking and boasting would make a great Klingon, sees a “space force” that’s all military: that’s all about domination through aggressive action and better offensive weaponry.

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying: Everywhere we go, there we are.  Increasingly for America, that saying means: Everywhere we go, there our military and weapons are.  Even in space.

The “final frontier” of space, which in my youth was largely a realm of peaceful exploration, whether by NASA in the real-world or in the imaginary future of Star Trek, is now under Trump an increasingly militarized place.  This is so because our minds, perhaps humanity’s true “final frontier,” have also been thoroughly militarized.

A war-driven people will bring war with them wherever they go.  If the Vulcans (like Mr. Spock, who was half-Vulcan) are smart, they won’t reach out to humans if and when we find a “warp” drive that allows us to travel much faster than the speed of light.  Logical and peaceful beings that they are, perhaps they’ll quarantine earth and humanity instead.  Maybe with the Vulcan equivalent of a big, fat, beautiful wall?

Monday Military Musings

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Pentagon spending keeps rolling along …

W.J. Astore

I get “Air & Space Power Journal” electronically.  You might call it a professional journal for Air Force personnel.  The latest articles had these titles:

Character into Action: How Officers Demonstrate Strengths with Transformational Leadership

Multidomain Observing and Orienting: ISR to Meet the Emerging Battlespace

Preparing for Multidomain Warfare: Lessons from Space/Cyber Operations

An Ethical Decision-Making Tool for Offensive Cyberspace Operation

There’s something about military writing that loves pretentious jargon.  Not just leadership, but “transformational” leadership.  Combat or war must be “multidomain.”  Battle or battlefield isn’t enough: we must now talk of “battlespace.”  My automatic spell-check is having conniptions over these three words.

Instead of resorting to pretentious jargon in titles, why not go for the simple and direct?  Here are my suggested titles for the articles above:

* How to Lead.

*Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance in Battle.

*Lessons from Space/Cyber Warfare.

*Applying Ethics to Cyber Warfare.

(Here I think “warfare” is more honest than “operations.”)

One tiny reason the U.S. military continues to struggle in its various “overseas contingency operations,” i.e. wars, is the pretentiousness of its writing.

As the military drowns in words, it’s also drowning in money, though it’s already thinking about what will happen when the cash is curtailed.  A good friend of mine sent me an article with the title, “Pentagon, Defense Industry Brace for Expected Dip in Future Funding.”  Here’s an excerpt:

Without congressional action, the decrease in defense funding would be dramatic. The base Department of Defense budget would drop to $549 billion in FY 2020 and $564 billion in FY 2021, according to a July 2018 report by the Congressional Research Service. The FY 2019 defense budget, recently signed into law, set spending at $717 billion.

The defense industry knows what a looming congressional budget fight could do to the Pentagon’s current high levels of spending. Executives are preparing Wall Street analysts for what likely lays ahead: Congress reducing the cash flow to the Pentagon and what that will mean to corporate bottom lines.

Yes — we must defend those “corporate bottom lines”!

Defense contractors have to be prudent and prepare for the future.  That said, a decline in defense spending should be good news to the American taxpayer.  Old-school Republicans, who used to fight for smaller government and lower deficits, should also be pleased at the prospect of lower spending.

Except it doesn’t work that way anymore. Few if any Members of Congress of either party want to see a decline in spending.  And of course defense contractors want to keep the money flowing — as President Eisenhower famously warned us about in his military-industrial-Congressional complex speech of 1961.

The rest of the world could declare “peace forever” tomorrow and Ike’s complex would still roll along.  The U.S. economy is now linked (forever?) to inflated spending on weapons and war.

Inflated war/weapons spending and inflated prose about “transformational multidomain battlespace” what-have-yous.  All that’s missing in our military are the victories.

The USA and Israel as Big and Little Prussia

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Co-joined Twins?

W.J. Astore

As a kid, I was a big admirer of Israel.*  I kept a scrapbook on the Yom Kippur War in 1973.  Back then, Israel was America’s plucky ally, David against Goliath, helping to keep the Soviet bear at bay, or so it seemed to me.

Through a kid’s eyes, Israel in 1973 was an island seemingly surrounded by a sea of well-armed enemies: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. Outnumbered and outgunned.  And now look at today’s reality: Egypt and Iraq have been neutralized.  Syria is devastated.  Jordan is wisely (sort of) neutral.  The Saudis are a quasi-ally.  Outside of the more-or-less manageable threat of terrorism (Hamas and Hezbollah), Israel’s chief enemy today appears to be itself.

What I mean by that is this: Israel, which over the last 70 years has fought several wars for its survival, is now a regional superpower.  Yet the mindset of David versus Goliath persists, even though Goliath is hobbled and defeated.  Meanwhile, as Israel combats terrorism and the legacies of West Bank occupation and isolation of the Gaza Strip, the government prosecutes policies that are considered illiberal and dangerous by many Jewish critics within Israel itself.

A similar David-Goliath mindset exists in the USA, but with far less cause.  Bizarrely, the world’s military superpower envisions itself as being surrounded by enemies.  Its response is something like Israel’s, as if the USA is Israel writ large.  Both countries seek total military dominance over their perceived enemies and rivals; both are led by strong men dogged by claims of corruption; both glorify their militaries; both appear to be spoiling for war with Iran.

Interestingly, both are also obsessed with demographic “enemies within”: many Israelis fear growing Arab/Muslim influence within; many Americans fear minorities will soon constitute the majority (estimates say non-whites will outnumber whites in the year 2045, but some Americans – like Laura Ingraham on Fox News – feel it’s already happened).  The result: the ruling administrations of both countries have doubled down on security and identity politics.  Israel has made Arabs second-class citizens, a form of apartheid; Trump & Co. has vilified immigrants (especially Mexicans) as rapists and murderers.  Both are building walls to keep the “enemy” without.  Both see massive military spending (and nuclear weapons) as the ultimate guarantors of peace.

Israel is little Prussia; the USA is big Prussia.  And like Prussia (and Germany) of the past, they pose as the aggrieved party, surrounded by enemies, hemmed in and oppressed.  It’s never wrong to be strong – that’s their guiding motto.  And by strength they mean hardness: military strength, police strength, the strength of superior weapons technology, embraced by leaders willing to kill or torture or imprison others in the name of preserving a “democratic” way of life.

It’s a mindset conducive to authoritarianism, to militarism, to nationalism, even to kleptocracy disguised as essential spending on national security.  At its root is fear, which generates a “no compromise” attitude toward the Other (whether Palestinian “terrorists” or immigrant “killers” and “animals”).  As the Palestinian activist Bassam Aramin put it in an interview in The Sun (October 2016):

“I think our main enemy is the Israelis’ fear.  It’s part of their consciousness.  When they talk about security, the Holocaust is always in the background.  If I throw a stone at an armored tank, they interpret it as the beginning of a new Holocaust.”

Fear is the mind-killer.  It enables perpetual warfare and a police state – and lots of profit and power to those who facilitate the same.

The original Prussia became consumed by militarism and nationalism and collapsed after two devastating world wars.  What will happen to today’s Big and Little Prussia?  Perhaps a war against Iran, timed to coincide with the 2020 presidential campaign season in the USA?  Such an unnecessary and likely disastrous war can’t be ruled out.

Consider the dynamic between the current leaders of the USA and Israel, each egging the other one on to be tougher, less compromising, more Prussian.  A pacific future is not in the cards for these military “superpowers.”  Not when they’re so busy emulating Prussia.

*Why are Americans, generally speaking, supporters and admirers of Israel?  So much so that politicians ostentatiously wear co-joined US/Israel flag lapel pins?  For several reasons:

1.   The US media is generally pro-Israel.  Meanwhile, the Arab world is often synonymous with terrorism in our media.

2.  Israelis seem more like Americans.  What I mean is this: Israeli spokespeople wear western dress and speak English with a faint accent.  Until recently, Arab spokespeople on TV looked and dressed “foreign” and spoke English with a heavier accent.

3.  The power of pro-Israeli political lobbies such as AIPAC and fear among politicians that criticism of Israel will be construed (and demonized) as anti-Semitism.

4.  The Holocaust.

5.  The Evangelical Context: I remember listening to a talk show on the radio, soon after the Yom Kippur War, in the mid-1970s.  The speaker predicted the Second Coming was near.  That got my attention!  Why was that?  Because, this person said, Israel had gained control over Jerusalem in apparent fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.  Fast forward forty years to today and you hear basically the same evangelical predictions about the Second Coming of Christ being imminent as Israel expands its hegemony over the “holy land” in Palestine.

One cannot underrate the importance of (selective) Biblical prophecy as advanced by fundamentalist Christians nestled within today’s Republican Party.  These evangelicals couldn’t care less about Trump’s sins and transgressions.  Their eyes are on the prize: Armageddon and Christ’s return, which they link to Israel’s domination of the region – which will lead to more wars, a brutal future seen as inevitable, even desirable.

“Civilian Casualty Incidents”

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Just another civilian casualty incident?  Original caption: Mourners carry the coffin of a child at the funeral procession for those killed in an airstrike on a bus in Yemen. Photograph: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

W.J. Astore

Last night, as I was watching the PBS News Hour, I snapped to attention as I heard a new euphemism for murdered innocents from bombing: “civilian casualty incidents.”

A PBS reporter used it, unthinkingly I believe, repeating bureaucratic jargon about all the innocents in Yemen smashed to bits or shredded by “dumb” bombs, cluster munitions, and even “smart” bombs that are really only as smart as the pilots launching them (and the often imperfect “actionable intelligence” gathered to sanction them).

The overall tone of the PBS report was reassuring.  General Mattis appeared to comfort Americans that the Saudis are doing better with bombing accuracy, and that America’s role in helping the Saudis is limited to aerial refueling and intelligence gathering about what not to hit.  Of course, the Saudis can’t bomb without fuel, so the U.S. could easily stop aerial massacres if we wanted to, but the Saudis are our allies and they buy weapons in massive quantities from us, so forget about any real criticism here.

I’ve written about Orwellian euphemisms for murderous death before: “collateral damage” is often the go-to term for aerial attacks gone murderously wrong.  To repeat myself: George Orwell famously noted the political uses of language and the insidiousness of euphemisms.  Words about war matter.  Dishonest words contribute to dishonest wars.  They lead to death, dismemberment, and devastation. That’s not “collateral” — nor is it merely a “civilian casualty incident” — that’s a defining and terrifying reality.

What if innocent Americans were being killed?  Would they be classified and covered as regrettable if inevitable “civilian casualty incidents”?

John McCain the “Warrior”

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John McCain as a POW during the Vietnam war

W.J. Astore

I’ve been seeing a lot of headlines, and reading quite a few tributes, about John McCain.  A common word used to describe him is “warrior,” as in this op-ed at Al Jazeera of all places.  If you do a quick Google search with “John McCain” and “warrior” you’ll see what I mean.

I’m a firm believer in the citizen-soldier tradition.  Warrior-speak, I believe, is inappropriate to this tradition and to the ideals of a democracy.  “Warrior” should not be used loosely as a substitute for “fighter,” nor should it replace citizen-sailor, which is what John McCain was (or should have been).

Yes, John McCain came from a family of admirals.  He attended the U.S. Naval Academy.  He became a naval aviator.  He was shot down and became a prisoner of war.  He showed toughness and fortitude and endurance as a POW under torture.  But all this doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make him a “warrior.”  Rather, he was a U.S. Navy officer, a product of a citizen-sailor tradition.

It’s corrosive to our democracy as well as to our military when we use “warrior” as a term of high praise.  Many Americans apparently think “warrior” sounds cool and tough and manly, but there’s a thin line between “warrior” and “warmonger,” and both terms are corrosive to a country that claims it prefers peace to war.

In sum, it says something disturbing about our country and our culture when “warrior” has become the go-to term of ultimate praise.  By anointing McCain as a “warrior,” we’re not praising him: we’re wounding our country.

Blurring Sports and the Military

af uniform

W.J. Astore

(For an extended essay on sports and the military, please see my latest at TomDispatch.com:  “Why Can’t We Just Play Ball? The Militarization of Sports and the Redefinition of Patriotism,” August 19, 2018, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176459.)

There’s a lot of blurring and blending of sports with the military in the USA today, but my service branch, the U.S. Air Force, has taken it to a new level.  The Falcons football team at the USAF Academy has issued a new “alternate” uniform in honor of air power and specifically the AC-130 gunship.  What this means is that cadets can now wear helmets that feature spooky, grim-reaper-like images together with images of the AC-130 firing on some indistinct enemy below.  Check it out above and below:

reaperThe fog and the shark-like tailfin in the background are nice touches.  Somebody probably got a promotion and/or a commendation medal for putting this campaign together.

Of course, the Air Force celebrates flight, using falcons as the team mascot, which makes sense.   But uniforms dedicated to and celebrating a specific weapon system — really?  The AC-130 gunship rains death from the sky; it’s a nasty weapon system and certainly one that I’d want on my side in a shooting war.  But putting it on football helmets with images of screaming skeletons is a bit much.

How did military academies like West Point and Annapolis play football for so long with just regular uniforms?  Without images of tanks or battleships adorning their uniforms?

I know: I’m an old fuddy-duddy.  This is the new military — the military of warriors and warfighters.  These new uniforms: so cool!  So sexy!  Dealing death is so much fun!

Why is it that these new “alternate” football uniforms of the AF Academy remind me, not of our citizen-airmen force of the past, but of some sinister, darker, force of the future?  Why does the Star Trek episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” come to mind?  (Hint: We’re no longer the “good” Federation.)

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Knives and scars are in plain view in the barbarian “mirror” universe of Star Trek

(You can go to https://twitter.com/hashtag/LetsFly and watch an Air Force video that links AC-130 combat footage with the new uniform, complete with lusty music and stoked players.)

Readers, what say you?