Today’s article is a potluck of observations. Please fire away in the comments section if I stimulate some thoughts!
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”?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Remember when those who advocated for peace were dismissed as “dreamers”? The great John Lennon imagined a world where peace could reign, and he wasn’t afraid of the dreamer label, because he knew it could be more than a dream. Peace is often presented as a fantasy embraced by soft-hearted people. War, by comparison, is a harsh reality embraced by hard-headed realists, or so we’re told.
What if it’s the opposite? What if peace is really based on pragmatism, and war on fantasy? What if the hard-headed realists are really those who advocate for peace via dialog, diplomacy, treaties, and the like? And it’s the warmongers who are truly the soft-headed dreamers?
Consider the results of recent American wars. The wars in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) were total disasters. Ditto interventions in Iraq and Libya. The Afghan War approaches its third decade with no end in sight. How are these wars pragmatic or preemptive or necessary or productive? They’ve been based on fears and fantasies. They’ve been colossal mistakes based on lies and fantasies of power.
Indeed, it’s the neocons who have been America’s leading fantasists, starting disastrous wars driven by an ideology of American exceptionalism and warrior masculinity in which they believe they can create and control their own reality irrespective of history and the facts. These men can’t imagine peace. All they can imagine is a world in which American military power creates a world “safe for democracy,” which means safe for their own greed and power and profit, including profit from more and more weapons sales.
We see this fantasy at work today. Somehow, starting wars is sold as a way to prevent them. Killing a senior Iranian general in a foreign country without the approval of that country or Congress for that matter is sold as preventing war. The president commits an act of war in the name of peace.
To believe this, you must be a fantasist in the extreme. We need to denounce these pro-war fantasists for what they are. They may fancy themselves as hard-headed men of action, but they’re really thick-headed sociopaths guided by delusional fantasies.
Update (1/5): Speaking of pro-war fantasists, I just saw this Trump tweet, which is what happens when you elect and empower a bully-boy as president:
“The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment. We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way…and without hesitation!”
You know an American war is going poorly when the lies come swiftly, as with the Afghan War, or when it’s hidden under a cloak of secrecy, which is also increasingly true of the Afghan War.
This is nothing new, of course. Perhaps the best book I read in 2019 is H. Bruce Franklin’s Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War. Franklin, who served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s before becoming an English professor, cultural historian, and an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, is devastating in his critique of the military-industrial complex in this memoir. I recommend it highly to all Americans who want to wrestle with tough truths.
Let’s consider one example: Franklin’s dismissal of the “stab-in-the-back” myth (or Rambo myth) that came out of the Vietnam War. This was the idea the U.S. military could have won in Vietnam, and was indeed close to winning, only to be betrayed by weak-kneed politicians and the anti-war movement.
Franklin demolishes this argument in a paragraph that is worth reading again and again:
One widespread cultural fantasy about the Vietnam War blames the antiwar movement for forcing the military to “fight with one arm tied behind its back.” But this belief stands reality on its head. The American people, disgusted and angry about the Korean War, were in no mood to support a war in Vietnam. Staunch domestic opposition kept Washington from going in overtly. So it went covertly. It thereby committed itself to a policy based on deception, sneaking around, and hiding its actions from the American people. The U.S. government thus created the internal nemesis of its own war: the antiwar movement. That movement was inspired and empowered not just by our outrage against the war [but] also by the lies about the war, lies necessitated by the war, coming from our government and propagated by the media. Although it was the Vietnamese who defeated the United States, ultimately it was the antiwar movement, especially within the armed forces, that finally in 1973 forced Washington to accept, at long last, the terms of the 1954 Geneva Accords, and to sign a peace treaty that included, word for word, every major demand made by the National Liberation Front (the so-called Viet Cong) back in 1969…
The truth was that for three decades our nation had sponsored and then waged a genocidal war against a people and a nation that had never done anything to us except ask for our friendship and support [during and after World War II].
This is well and strongly put. The American people had no interest in intervening in Vietnam in the 1950s; the Korean debacle had been enough. But the U.S. government intervened anyway, lying about its involvement until it could no longer lie. Then a bigger lie was concocted, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, to justify a larger commitment of troops in the mid-1960s, which led to near-genocidal destruction in Vietnam.
Wars built on lies are rarely won, especially in a democracy. But even as they are lost (Vietnam in the 1960s, and now Afghanistan), there are always “winners.” Weapons contractors and other war profiteers. The Pentagon, which from war gains more money and more power. And authoritarian elements within society itself, which are reinforced by war.
If we wish to take our democracy back, a powerful first step is to end all American wars overseas. This would not be isolationism; this would be sanity.
Wars, secrecy, and lies are three big enemies of democracy. Maybe the big three. War suppresses thought and supports authoritarianism. Secrecy prevents accountability. Lies mislead the people. And that’s what we have today. Constant warfare. Secrecy, e.g. reports on “progress” in the Afghan War are now classified and no longer shared. Lies are rampant; indeed, lies are policy. Just look at the Afghan Papers.
Yet wars, secrecy, and lies have been incredibly successful. The Pentagon budget is booming! Weapons sales are exploding! No one is being held accountable for failures or war crimes. Indeed, convicted war criminals are absolved and touted as heroes by the president.
The solution is as obvious as it will be painful. We need peace, transparency, and truth. End the wars, declassify all those “secrets” we the people should know about our military and wars, and reward truth-tellers instead of punishing them.
The Afghan Papers have revealed widespread, systemic, and enduring lying about the course and progress of the Afghan War by U.S. military and civilian leaders. So, what’s the punishment for all this lying? Record-setting Pentagon budgets! The more they lie, the more money they get. Is it any wonder why these wars persist, without apparent end, when no one is punished for lies that lead to the death of American troops (not forgetting all the foreign innocents who are killed and wounded because of these lies)?
This may seem hard to believe, but “Integrity First” is the fundamental core value of the U.S. Air Force. But what happens when the system is revealed to have no integrity? When the system sends young Americans to die in a lost war, a war that our most senior leaders have lied about since almost the very beginning?
I know we’re all jaded and cynical, but this is a monstrous failure, a horrendous betrayal of trust.
The entire military leadership at the top should be gutted. Anyone implicated in these lies, distortions, etc. should be cashiered. That’s what a real president and commander-in-chief would do. Heads should roll!
But the Pentagon prefers to obfuscate and pretend that the Afghan Papers are old news, and pretty much meaningless at that. Meanwhile, fake tough guy Trump (along with the Congress) kowtows to the Pentagon, giving the generals everything they want as next year’s Pentagon budget soars to $738 billion, including money for a “Space Force,” among many other boondoggles.
Endless self-serving lies rewarded by scads of money — small wonder that America’s wars persist without end.
Trump was elected president in 2016 partly because he railed against America’s wasteful wars. So, what did his advisers talk him into? A mini-surge of troops to Afghanistan. I still recall the odd news of Trump being shown photos of Afghan women in skirts (vintage 1972) to convince him that westernization and modernization of Afghanistan was possible.
Several thousand additional U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan in 2017, predictably achieving nothing of note. A little more than two years later, we have another item of “big” news today, according to CNN:
The Trump Administration is preparing to announce a long-awaited reduction of US troops in Afghanistan, a senior administration official confirmed to CNN. There are between 12,000 and 13,000 US troops in the country right now, and the US has maintained a solid presence throughout the 18-year war in the area. This drawdown would remove up to 4,000 troops, with more possible reductions in the future, the official said. That matches the claim Trump made on Fox News Radio in August that his administration would take the number “down to 8,600.” The reduction comes at the same time the US is restarting peace talks with the Taliban, and some worry the troop drawdown could be seen as a concession to the terrorist group.
Where to begin with this CNN snippet?
The “reduction” is not a reduction but a return to previous troop levels at the end of the Obama administration.
The U.S. “has maintained a solid presence”? Good god. You’d never know about all the bombing, droning, and killing the U.S. has done over the last 18+ years. Or is that the “solid presence” we’ve been maintaining?
The troop “drawdown” as a “concession” to the Taliban? Guess what: The Taliban aren’t going anywhere, and they’re winning. A few thousand U.S. troops, either as a “plus-up” or “drawdown,” have had and will have no impact on the reality on the ground.
Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or do both. Perhaps my dad put it best: “We laugh to hide the tears.”
Update (12/17): Speaking of laughing to hide the tears, the Pentagon has responded to the systematic lying revealed by the so-called Afghan Papers. It won’t surprise you the response consists of three artless dodges:
Ten years ago, President Barack Obama decided to “surge” in the Afghan War. The previous year he had run for the presidency on the idea of Iraq being the “bad” war but Afghanistan as the “good” war. Good as in “winnable” and as countering terrorism. But Obama’s surge in Afghanistan was a flop, even as American leaders tried to sell it as buying breathing space for the evolution of freer, more stable, Afghan government.
A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.
Surprise, surprise! Sadly, the lies were obvious a decade ago, as I wrote about at TomDispatch.com in April of 2009. Here’s my article from that time. Remarkably, despite or rather because of all the lies, the war continues still, with no end in sight.
Mary McCarthy in Vietnam, Barack Obama in Afghanistan
Seven Lessons and Many Questions for the President
By William Astore (April 2009)
In 1967, outraged by the course of the Vietnam War, as well as her country’s role in prolonging and worsening it, Mary McCarthy, novelist, memoirist, and author of the bestseller The Group, went to Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, to judge the situation for herself. The next year, she went to the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. She wrote accounts of both journeys, published originally in pamphlet format as Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968), and later gathered with her other writings on Vietnam as a book, The Seventeenth Degree (1974). As pamphlets, McCarthy’s accounts sold poorly and passed into obscurity; deservedly so, some would say.
Those who’d say this, however, would be wrong. McCarthy brought a novelist’s keen eye to America’s activities and its rhetoric in Vietnam. By no means a military expert, not even an expert on Vietnam — she only made a conscious decision to study the war in Vietnam after she returned from her trip to Saigon — her impressionistic writings were nevertheless insightful precisely because she had long been a critical thinker beholden to no authority.
Her insights into our approach to war-fighting and to foreign cultures are as telling today as they were 40 years ago, so much so that President Obama and his advisors might do well to add her unconventional lessons to their all-too-conventional thinking on our spreading war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
What were those lessons? Here are seven of them, each followed by questions that, four decades later, someone at President Obama’s next press conference should consider asking him:
1. McCarthy’s most fundamental objection was to the way, in Vietnam, the U.S. government decided to apply “technology and a superior power to a political situation that will not yield to this.” At the very least, the United States was guilty of folly, but McCarthy went further. She condemned our technocentric and hegemonic form of warfare as “wicked” because of its “absolute indifference to the cost in human lives” to the Vietnamese people.
Even in 1967, the widespread, at times indiscriminate, nature of American killing was well known. For example, U.S. planes dropped roughly 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia during the war, nearly five times the tonnage used against Germany during World War II. The U.S. even waged war on the Vietnamese jungle and forest, which so effectively hid Vietnamese guerrilla forces, spraying roughly 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides (including the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange) on it.
In her outrage, McCarthy dared to compare the seeming indifference of many of her fellow citizens toward the blunt-edged sword of technological destruction we had loosed on Vietnam to the moral obtuseness of ordinary Germans under Adolf Hitler.
Questions for President Obama: Aren’t we once again relying on the destructive power of technology to “solve” complex political and religious struggles? Aren’t we yet again showing indifference to the human costs of war, especially when borne by non-Americans? Even though we’re using far fewer bombs in the Af-Pak highlands than we did in Vietnam, aren’t we still morally culpable when these “precision-guided munitions” miss their targets and instead claim innocents, or hit suspected “terrorists” who suddenly morph into wedding parties? In those cases, do we not seek false comfort in the phrase, C’est la guerre, or at least that modern equivalent: unavoidable collateral damage?
2. As Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 by calling for “peace with honor” in Vietnam, McCarthy offered her own warning about the dangers that arose when the office of the presidency collided with an American desire never to be labeled a loser: “The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.”
Questions for President Obama: Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?
3. Though critical of the U.S. military in Vietnam, McCarthy was even more critical of American civilian officials there. “On the whole,” she wrote, they “behaved like a team of promoters with a dubious ‘growth’ stock they were brokering.” At least military men were often more forthright than the civilians, if not necessarily more self-aware, McCarthy noted, because they were part of the war — the product, so to speak — not its salesmen.
Questions for President Obama: In promising to send a new “surge” of State Department personnel and other civilians into Afghanistan, are you prepared as well to parse their words? Are you braced in case they sell you a false bill of goods, even if the sellers themselves, in their eagerness to speak fairy tales to power, continually ignore the Fantasyland nature of their tale?
4. Well before Bush administration officials boasted about creating their own reality and new “facts on the ground” in Iraq, Mary McCarthy recognized the danger of another type of “fact”: “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”
Questions for President Obama: If your surge in Afghanistan fails, will you be able to de-escalate as quickly as you escalated? Or will the fact that you’ve put more troops in harm’s way (with all their equipment and all the money that will go into new base and airfield and road construction), and committed more of your prestige to prevailing, make it even harder to consider leaving?
5. A cursory reading of The Pentagon Papers, the famously secret government documents on Vietnam leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, reveals how skeptical America’s top officials were, early on, in pursuing a military solution to the situation in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, knowing better, the “best and brightest,” as journalist David Halberstam termed them in his famous, ironic book title, still talked themselves into it; and they did so, as McCarthy noted, because they set seemingly meaningful goals (“metrics” or “benchmarks,” we’d say today), which they then convinced themselves they were actually achieving. When you trick yourself into believing that you’re meeting your goals, as Halberstam noted, there’s no reason to reexamine your course of action.
Questions for President Obama: Much has been written about an internal struggle within your administration over the wisdom of surging in Afghanistan. Now, you, too, have called for the setting of “benchmarks” for your new strategy’s success. Are you wise enough to set them to capture the complexities of political realities on the ground rather than playing to American strengths? Are you capable of re-examining them, even when your advisors assure you that they are being achieved?
6. In her day, Mary McCarthy recognized the inequities of burden-sharing at home when it came to the war in Vietnam: “Casualty figures, still low [in 1967], seldom strike home outside rural and low-income groups — the silent part of society. The absence of sacrifices [among the privileged classes] has had its effect on the opposition [to the war], which feels no need, on the whole, to turn away from its habitual standards and practices — what for? We have not withdrawn our sympathy from American power and from the way of life that is tied to it — a connection that is more evident to a low-grade G.I. in Vietnam than to most American intellectuals.”
Questions for President Obama: Are you willing to listen to the common G.I. as well as to the generals who have your ear? Are you willing to insist on greater equity in burden-sharing, since once again most of the burden of Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen on “the silent part of society”? Are you able to recognize that the “best and brightest” in the corridors of power may not be the wisest exactly because they have so little to lose (and perhaps much to gain) from our “overseas contingency operations”?
7. McCarthy was remarkably perceptive when it came to the seductiveness of American technological prowess. Our technological superiority, she wrote, was a large part of “our willingness to get into Vietnam and stay there… The technological gap between us and the North Vietnamese constituted, we thought, an advantage which obliged us not to quit.”
Questions for President Obama: Rather than providing us with a war-winning edge, might our robot drones, satellite imagery, and all our other gadgetry of war seduce us into believing that we can “prevail” at a reasonable and sustainable cost? Indeed, do we think we should prevail precisely because our high-tech military brags of “full spectrum dominance”?
One bonus lesson from Mary McCarthy before we take our leave of her: Even now, we speak too often of “Bush’s war” or, more recently, “Obama’s war.” Before we start chattering mindlessly about Iraq and Afghanistan as American tragedies, we would do well to recall what McCarthy had to say about the war in Vietnam: “There is something distasteful,” she wrote, “in the very notion of approaching [Vietnam] as an American tragedy, whose protagonist is a great suffering Texan [President Lyndon Baines Johnson].”
Yes, there is something distasteful about a media that blithely refers to Bush’s or Obama’s war as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans suffer. For American troops, after all, are not the only ones paying the ultimate price when the U.S. fights foreign wars for ill-considered reasons and misguided goals.
Update: A cartoon panel by Matt Bors that sums it up: