America Is Stabbing Itself in the Back

W.J. Astore

Americans may already be lying themselves out of what little remains of their democracy.

The big lie uniting and motivating today’s Republicans is, of course, that Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, won the 2020 presidential election.  Other big lies in our recent past include the notion that climate change is nothing but a Chinese hoax, that Russia was responsible for Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat in 2016, and that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was necessary because that country’s leader, Saddam Hussein, had something to do with the 9/11 attacks (he didn’t!) and possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be used against the United States, a “slam dunk” truth, according to then-CIA Director George Tenet (it wasn’t!).

Those and other lies, large and small, along with systemic corruption in Washington are precisely why so many Americans have been driven to despair.  Small wonder that, in 2016, those “deplorables” reached out in desperation to a figure who wasn’t a product of Washington’s mendacious Beltway culture.  Desperate times engender desperate acts, including anointing a failed casino owner and consummate con man as America’s MAGA-cap-wearing savior. As the 45th president, Donald Trump set a record for lies that will likely remain unmatchable in its “greatness” — or so we must hope anyway.

Sadly, Americans have become remarkably tolerant of comfortable lies, generally preferring them to uncomfortable truths.  Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the military realm that I’ve inhabited most of my life.  The first casualty of war, so it’s said, is truth, and since this country has remained perennially at war, we continue to eternally torture the truth as well.

When it comes to war, here are just a few of our all-American falsehoods: that this country is slow to anger because we prefer peace, even if wars are often necessary, which is also why peace-loving America must have the world’s “finest” and by far the most expensive military on the planet; that just such a military is also a unique force for freedom on Planet Earth; that it fights selflessly “to liberate the oppressed” (a Special Forces motto) but never to advance imperial or otherwise selfish ambitions.

For a superpower that loves to flex its military muscles, such lies are essentially par for the course.  Think of them, in fact, as government-issue (GI) lies.  As a historian looking to the future, what worries me more are two truly insidious lies that, in the early 1930s, led to the collapse of a fledgling democracy in Weimar Germany, lies that in their own way helped to facilitate the Holocaust and that, under the right (that is, wrong) circumstances, could become ours as well.  What were those two lies?

Germany’s Tragic Lies After World War I

During World War I, the German military attempted to defeat the combined forces of Britain, France, Russia, and later the United States, among other powers, while simultaneously being “shackled to a corpse,” as one German general described his country’s main ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  By the middle of 1916, the German Second Reich led by Kaiser Wilhelm II had, in essence, become a military dictatorship devoted to total victory at any cost. 

Two years later, that same military had been driven to exhaustion by its commanders.  When it was on the verge of collapse, its generals washed their hands of responsibility and allowed the politicians to sue for peace.  But even before the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918, certain reactionary elements within the country were already rehearsing two big and related lies that would facilitate the rise of a demagogue and the onset of an even more disastrous world war.

The first big lie was that the German military, then considered the world’s finest (sound familiar?), emerged from World War I undefeated in the field, its troops a band of heroes covered in glory. That lie was tenable because Germany itself had not been invaded in World War I; the worst fighting took place in France, Belgium, and Russia.  It was also tenable because its military leaders had lied to the people about the progress being made toward “victory.” (This should again sound familiar to contemporary American ears.)  So, when those senior leaders finally threw in the towel in late 1918, it came as a shock to most Germans, who’d been fed a steady diet of “progress,” while news of serious setbacks on the Western Front was suppressed.

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The second big lie followed from the first.  For if one accepted the “undefeated in the field” myth, as so many Germans did, then who was responsible for the defeat of the world’s finest military?  Not Germany’s generals, of course.  Indeed, in 1919, led by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, those same generals would maliciously claim that disloyal elements on the home front — an enemy within — had conspired to betray the country’s heroic troops.  Thus was born the “stab-in-the-back” myth that placed the blame on traitors from within, while ever so conveniently displacing it from the Kaiser and his generals.

Who, then, were Germany’s backstabbers?  The usual suspects were rounded up: mainly socialists, Marxists, anti-militarists, pacifists, and war profiteers of a certain sort (but not weapons makers like the Krupp Family).  Soon enough, Germany’s Jews would be fingered as well by gutter-inhabitants like Adolf Hitler, since they had allegedly shirked their duty to serve in the ranks.  This was yet another easy-to-disprove lie, but all too many Germans, desperate for scapegoats and undoubtedly bigoted as well, proved eager to believe such lies.

Those two big and insidious falsehoods led to an almost total lack of accountability in Weimar Germany for militarists like Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff who were significantly responsible for the country’s defeat.  Such lies fed the anger and fattened the grievances of the German people, creating fertile ground for yet more grievous lies.  In a climate of fear driven by the massive economic dislocation brought on by the Great Depression of 1929, a previously fringe figure found his voice and his audience.  Those two big lies served to empower Hitler and, not surprisingly, he began promoting both a military revival and calls for revenge against the backstabbing “November criminals” who had allegedly betrayed Germany.  Hitler’s lies were readily embraced in part because they fell on well-prepared ears.

Of course, a mature democracy like America could never produce a leader remotely like a Hitler or a militaristic empire bent on world domination.  Right?

To read the rest of my article for TomDispatch.com, please click here. Thanks!

Note: In writing my book on Paul von Hindenburg, I was greatly helped by Dennis Showalter, a wonderful historian and a better friend. Dennis was remarkably generous to me and to so many other students of history. Dennis died at the end of 2019, and I miss his keen mind, his exceptional scholarship, but most of all his warmth and sense of humor. We joked that our work on Hindenburg represented a rare “bipartisan” collaboration between a Yankees fan (that’s him) and a Red Sox fan (that’s me). Thanks for everything, Dennis.

Dennis Showalter, a remarkable historian and a better friend

Never Again War

W.J. Astore

In the early 1990s, my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting friends in a newly unified Berlin, where we were introduced to the work of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945). Kollwitz lost a beloved son, Peter, in World War I and turned against war in her art. We visited the museum dedicated to her work, which reflected the causes that moved her. She was for people, for workers, for equity, for equality, for mothers and fathers and their children, and she was very much against war.

Here’s one of her powerful images with the theme of No More War:

“Never again war” was a common sentiment across the world in 1924, in the aftermath of the death and devastation of World War I. Yet that sentiment didn’t last, and in the chaos of the Great Depression the Nazis soon gained power and then ruthlessly acted to consolidate it. So much for “never again war.”

The Neue Wache: here Kollwitz has a sculpture of mother and her dead son, based on the Christian imagery of Mary cradling Jesus after his death by crucifixion. Why do we crucify so many of our young via endless war?

Kollwitz was haunted by the death of her son, Peter, in World War I. The burden of pain she carried is captured in this moving and powerful sculpture. There is no glory here. Only grief and suffering and love of the most painful kind.

It’s well worth watching this brief and moving ceremony:

For far too many, war is something like a game, as shown in this telling image of Napoleon playing chess against the Russian Winter (Andreas Paul Weber). So many of us are only pawns in the “game” of war. Where is the glory here, emperor?

Kollwitz knew the pain and loss of war, and she knew how to share that pain and loss with the world. If you should find yourself in Berlin, I urge you to visit her museum and also to visit the Neue Wache memorial to the victims of war and dictatorship.

Here’s a link to the Käthe Kollwitz museum in Berlin: https://www.kaethe-kollwitz.berlin/en/

The Grieving Parents (Memorial to Peter Kollwitz, killed in World War I), Vladslo German war cemetery, Belgium

There’s No Business Like War Business

W.J. Astore

Among my many weak spots is economics and business. I took exactly one course in college on macroeconomics. I took dozens of courses in math and engineering like calculus, statics, dynamics, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, biomechanics, you name it. Then I switched academic specialties and became a historian of science, technology, and religion. Again I took dozens of courses in various branches of history, but again my one economics course remains my brief exposure to that world. And I took it as a freshman forty years ago!

Economics has been on my mind lately because so much of what passes for national military (a redundant phrase) strategy in the U.S. is really about making money. Profit. Capitalism, pure and simple. Moving products, expanding markets, diversifying portfolios, and so on. There’s no business like war business. It’s a capitalist’s dream.

In this rich vein of greed-war, I urge you to read Christian Sorensen’s 5-part series on the military-industrial-congressional complex at Consortium News. (Here’s a link to part 5, which also includes links to the previous four parts.) I really like the way he begins Part 5:

Without looking at military adventurism through the lens of the corporation, analysts are bound to produce error-filled studies. For example, one analyst contended in an interview on The Real News Network, “Military force is almost never going to achieve your political aims. The Americans learned this in Vietnam. They’re learning it in Afghanistan. They’re learning it in Syria… So [President Barack] Obama supporting the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen is a sign really of incoherence on the part of the United States.”

Far from incoherence, the behavior actually is quite rational. A variety of conflicts, disparate and some seemingly futile, is precisely the aim. Conflict itself — producing untold mountains of profit for war corporations and Wall Street — is the goal.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. You can’t look at U.S. military-national “strategy” today through a purely strategic lens or one informed solely by military history (as I’m tempted to do). Clausewitz, Jomini, and other classical military theorists won’t help you much. You need to look to Wall Street, to economics, to how capitalism works. You have to look to business cycles, profit, markets, portfolios, diversification, and similar concepts. You have to recognize war is a special kind of business, one that America is very good at because we specialize in it. War and weaponry may well be our leading exports.

Again, I’m tempted as a former engineer and as a professional historian who’s studied strategy (at Oxford no less) to try to make sense of U.S. national-military strategy in logical terms informed by history, Wrong approach! The right approach is to follow the money. Think not of “war as a continuation of politics” but of war as a continuation of capitalism, a special kind of disaster or death capitalism. Remember too to think in terms of portfolios and diversification of the same, after which U.S. policies make all the sense in the world.  More conflict means more weapons sales means more money.  The same is true of arms races in the false cause of deterrence.

An early example from my life. When I was a young lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, circa 1985, I wrote a paper on the B-1 bomber and the strategy of “manned penetrating bombers.” In plain speak (plane speak?), the Air Force was spending loads of money on a high-tech swing-wing plane loaded with avionics which would in theory enable it to penetrate Soviet airspace and bomb targets directly. This made little sense to me, nor did it make sense to President Jimmy Carter, who had cancelled the plane as unneeded. After all, B-52s could carry highly accurate cruise missiles and launch them from outside of Soviet airspace, and for much less money.

But the B-1, like any major weapon system, had powerful friends in Congress, since Rockwell International had spread production of the plane and its components to as many Congressional districts as possible. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he quickly reversed Carter’s decision. It wasn’t about strategy. It was about business and profit justified in the name of sending a tough message to the “Evil Empire.” Meanwhile, the Soviet Union collapsed a few years later and the U.S. was stuck with 100 B-1 bombers it didn’t need. Time has proven it to be an expensive plane to maintain, and one that’s never been used (fortunately) on the mission for which it was designed.

The U.S. has a lot of weapons like the B-1 bomber: expensive, unreliable, redundant strategically, and ultimately unneeded. It doesn’t make much sense, until you realize it’s all about making money, moving product, inflating threats, and keeping the cycle going, again and again, wars and weapons without end, Amen.

Memorial Day 2021

W.J. Astore

In my village, there’s a memorial to the men who served in “the war with Germany,” 1917-18, which we now call World War I. Here’s a photo of it that I took a few days ago:

It includes the names of some of the oldest and most prominent families of my community, which is not surprising. World War I did witness a draft in America, but there was also a sense of noblesse oblige among the more affluent, a sense that one was required to serve if one was healthy.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Woodrow Wilson, reelected as president in 1916, actually had acted to keep America out of the war, as he promised he would. The “Yanks and the tanks” helped to tip the scales against Imperial Germany on the Western Front in the spring of 1918. Without the presence of U.S. doughboys (troops), and more importantly the promise of more to come, it’s possible the French and British may have been defeated by the great German offensive, or at the very least may have decided to sue for peace. But of course the German offensive ran its course and stalled, and the Allied counteroffensive (supported by a million or so fresh Yanks) wore down the Germans until they sued for peace, with the war finally ending on November 11, 1918.

It’s tempting to think that a German victory or quasi-victory in 1918 or 1919 would have prevented the rise of someone like Adolf Hitler. Hitler himself was devastated by Germany’s loss in 1918, as so many Germans were, and that loss combined with the seductive lie that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by traitorous elements on the homefront created the climate in which a rabble-rouser like Hitler could rise and thrive. And surely the Second Reich under Kaiser Wilhelm and officers like Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff was preferable to the Third Reich under Hitler and his henchmen?

I’m not so sure. Germany’s Second Reich achieved something in 1917 the Third Reich couldn’t in 1941: the defeat of Russia. (The injection of Lenin into Russia as a poison pill of sorts contributed to the Russian Revolution and the death of the Tsar.) But that same Second Reich imposed the harshest of peaces on a destabilized Russia. Known as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Germans took huge swaths of territory from Russia, most of its industrial resources, and much of its agricultural base as well. Basically, men like Ludendorff saw the Slavic peoples as inferior and pictured them as Germany’s slaves. Russia’s western lands were to become living space for the superior Germanic peoples. In short, Lebensraum (living space) wasn’t just Hitler’s idea: it was an ambition shared by many German militarists. Let’s recall as well the name of the general who marched beside Hitler in the infamous Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. That general: Ludendorff.

Area Lost by Russia in Treaty. Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918)

A German victory in 1918 or 1919 would have produced a hell of sorts for the Slavic peoples to the east. Perhaps not a Hitlerian Holocaust (virulent and murderous anti-Semitism was peculiar to Hitler and the Third Reich), but nevertheless an empire characterized by an expansionist militarism that saw dispossession and slavery as perfectly legitimate options for the future. In sum, the Germans of early 1918 were ruthless in victory, so when Germany ultimately lost later that year, the Allies reciprocated with ruthlessness of their own in 1919.

German militarism had to be stopped, or so the men with names on the monument in my village appear to have decided. The shame of it all is how World War I led, not to eternal peace as Wilson promised, but to World War II and to so many wars and conflicts after that.

Memorial Day reminds us of the price troops pay for seemingly endless wars, and that even when wars appear to be for good, even noble, causes, how often those causes are betrayed whether during or after those wars.

Guns and Money!

W.J. Astore

Remember in the 1930s how Americans referred to arms dealers, especially those who profited from war, as “merchants of death”? Yes, that was indeed a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. Nowadays, it’s weapons ‘r’ us, and America’s leading sounds of freedom are blam-blam-blam and ka-ching ka-ching ka-ching. Cash registers for weapons makers are truly ka-chinging wildly as America continues to dominate the global trade in war weapons, notes William Hartung at TomDispatch.com. Hartung’s title, “Selling Death,” puts it succinctly. Here’s an excerpt:

When it comes to trade in the tools of death and destruction, no one tops the United States of America.

In April of this year, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published its annual analysis of trends in global arms sales and the winner — as always — was the U.S. of A. Between 2016 and 2020, this country accounted for 37% of total international weapons deliveries, nearly twice the level of its closest rival, Russia, and more than six times that of Washington’s threat du jour, China. 

Sadly, this was no surprise to arms-trade analysts.  The U.S. has held that top spot for 28 of the past 30 years, posting massive sales numbers regardless of which party held power in the White House or Congress.  This is, of course, the definition of good news for weapons contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, even if it’s bad news for so many of the rest of us, especially those who suffer from the use of those arms by militaries in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, the Philippines, and the United Arab Emirates.  The recent bombing and leveling of Gaza by the U.S.-financed and supplied Israeli military is just the latest example of the devastating toll exacted by American weapons transfers in these years.

When it comes to weapons sales, America truly is Number One! Which, in that faraway galaxy ,was once nothing to celebrate. In fact, it was something to deplore and denounce.

Why is this? Christian Sorensen at Consortium News has some answers. In a five-part series, he’s tackling the military-industrial-congressional complex and detailing its reach and power across American society. In “A People’s Guide to the War Industry,” Sorensen has this to say about America’s “solutions”-based war industry:

War corporations market their goods and services as “solutions.” A Raytheon executive, John Harris, explained to the Defense & Aerospace Report in 2018 that engaging “with senior members of government” is just “providing solutions to our customers,” providing “integrated solutions to meet our customers’ needs,” and even “figuring out how we can solve our customers’ problems using a dispassionate system approach.”

The solutions trick works well when selling to the U.S. military. For example, Booz Allen Hamilton offers digital solutions, CACI offers information solutions, and Leidos offers innovative solutions. Through its inherently harmful, anti-democratic activities, the war industry helps create the miserable conditions for which it then offers “solutions,” of course without ever taking responsibility for the dismal state of affairs (i.e. nonstop war) that it helped create.

“Providing solutions” sounds prettier and more generous than “making money off death and destruction.” MIC officials also regularly couch Washington’s imperialism, weapon sales, and war-first foreign policy as giving the troops the “tools they need.” A similar phrase (“We’ve listened to the warfighter”) is utilized when selling goods and services, particularly upgrades and technological insertions.

I’d add that, not only do war corporations market “solutions” to the warfighter, but the Pentagon sells these to the American people as “investments” in peace.

And who can be against “solutions” and “investments”?

I had the pleasure to be at a Warren Zevon concert in the early 1980s when he sang one of his signature songs, “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” How right he was! Between a rock and a hard place, America knows how to send lawyers, guns, and money.

I urge you to read Hartung and Sorensen and then reflect on the words of MLK about a nation that spends so much on weaponry and exports so much violence as one that is as a result approaching spiritual death.

Atlanta, Georgia, USA — Martin Luther King Jr. listens at a meeting of the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, at a restaurant in Atlanta. The SCLC is a civil rights organization formed by Martin Luther King after the success of the Montgomery bus boycott. — Image by © Flip Schulke/CORBIS

Time Again for a Nuclear Freeze, Followed by Reduction and Elimination

W.J. Astore

The bomb in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” Not our Alpha, but it could very well be our Omega

Coming of age in the 1970s, I had a real fear of nuclear Armageddon. Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, guaranteed both the USA and USSR would be destroyed in the case of a “general” nuclear war (as opposed to a “limited” one). When Ronald Reagan was elected and started denouncing the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire” while stationing Pershing II and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles in Europe in the early 1980s, a powerful movement calling for a “nuclear freeze” (no new nuclear weapons) helped to provide a measure of sanity. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, it seemed the world had stepped back from the brink of nuclear annihilation. Indeed, Barack Obama campaigned on eliminating nuclear weapons, supported by conservative voices like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz.

But you can’t keep a bad bomb down, apparently. Amazingly, nuclear weapons are back and in a big way. So-called nuclear modernization of America’s strategic triad may cost as much as $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years, notes Andrew Bacevich in his latest article for TomDispatch.com. Here’s an excerpt:

President Biden has left essentially untouched the core assumptions that justify the vast (and vastly well funded) national security apparatus created in the wake of World War II.  Central to those assumptions is the conviction that global power projection, rather than national defense per se, defines the U.S. military establishment’s core mission.  Washington’s insistence on asserting global primacy (typically expressed using euphemisms like “global leadership”) finds concrete expression in a determination to remain militarily dominant everywhere.   

So far at least, Biden shows no inclination to renounce, or even reassess, the practices that have evolved to pursue such global military dominion.  These include Pentagon expenditures easily exceeding those of any adversary or even plausible combination of adversaries; an arms industry that corrupts American politics and openly subverts democracy; a massive, essentially unusable nuclear strike force presently undergoing a comprehensive $1.7 trillion “modernization”; a network of hundreds of bases hosting U.S. troop contingents in dozens of countries around the world; and, of course, an inclination to use force unmatched by any nation with the possible exception of Israel.

Of course, “global military dominion” makes little sense if the world is a burnt out radioactive husk after a general nuclear strike. So why is America’s military pursuing a new generation of land-based ICBMs, new nuclear stealth bombers, and submarines (the most secure and survivable “leg” of the triad)? Money and jobs, I suppose, are always key factors. But there’s something deeper at work here, a sort of bizarre religion in which America’s death-dealers actually worship the bomb, as in the movie “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” Here’s a relevant scene from that movie:

Worshiping at the altar of global destruction is about as black of a mass as I can imagine. The only course of action that makes any sense for the future of humanity is a nuclear freeze (no new nuclear weapons, warheads, and delivery systems) followed by reductions and culminating in elimination.

Meanwhile, let’s assume we save $1.7 trillion by not “modernizing” the triad. How about investing that money in America’s crumbling infrastructure? Why not build bridges and roads and high-speed rail and dams instead of planning on blowing them up and all of humanity with them?

To read all of Andrew Bacevich’s article, go to TomDispatch.com.

Marxism in the Military!

W.J. Astore

A friend sent along an article on a certain lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force who is being disciplined because he wrote a book warning about Marxism in the U.S. military. Apparently this officer is deeply concerned about “critical race theory,” which he connects to Marxism, and how the military is being contaminated by an emphasis on diversity and other “liberal” ideas. In short, by stressing inclusion, diversity, and tolerance, (neo)Marxism is unmaking the U.S. military, or perhaps remaking it in a revolutionary way that excludes conservative views espoused by white men like this Lt Col.

And I thought Marxism was about class conflict, about seizing the means of production from the rich capitalists and ensuring an equitable distribution of wealth to the workers. Marxism is supposed to witness a withering away of the state as societal hierarchies are flattened or leveled in the cause of creating a more equitable and just society. Nowadays, Marxism has become a bogeyman term of great elasticity, associated with anything somebody doesn’t like that can be further tarred with labels like “liberal” or “leftist.”

Too much diversity isn’t exactly the biggest problem facing the U.S. Air Force today. Consider the under-performing F-35 jet fighter that’s 10 years behind schedule and $200 billion over budget. Consider a new and unneeded B-21 stealth bomber that will cost at least $100 billion (I think you can double or triple that price, based on cost overruns for previous AF projects). Consider the plan to spend at least $100 billion on new land-based ICBMs, an obsolete concept that is also dangerously escalatory. Indeed, so-called nuclear modernization, meaning more megatons of explosives and deadly radiation with which we can destroy all life on planet earth, may cost more than a trillion dollars over the next 30 years. I’d say these issues are a bit more disconcerting than rumors of Marxism in the ranks.

Another concern this lieutenant colonel had was with the politicization of the military, which he associates with contamination by liberal agendas that are neo-Marxist. I think the good colonel should realize the U.S. military is already politicized, but not in the way he imagines. The brass may be willing to pay lip service to diversity and LGBTQ empowerment and so on, but what they really care about is budgetary authority, pure power and influence.

The U.S. military isn’t being undone by neo-Marxist agendas: it’s being undone by unwinnable wars and wasteful spending on unnecessary or ineffective weaponry.

Unwinnable (and unnecessary) wars have cost the American taxpayer more than $6 trillion since 9/11. We’ve lost thousands of troops killed with tens of thousands seriously injured. Profligate spending on prodigal weapon systems is further driving America into debt, even as more nuclear weapons threaten our planet with destruction.

The problem isn’t Karl Marx invading our military. The problem is greed and stupidity, threat inflation and dereliction of duty.

We really could use more diversity in the U.S. military, as in diversity of ideas, of strategy. How about some “diverse” leaders who have the courage to challenge and change the militaristic and imperial path we’re on?

Karl Marx. No, he’s not a problem for the U.S. military, but unwinnable wars and more nuclear weapons are

America Is Programmed for War

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch, I write that America is programmed for war. It’s a feature of our polity and our politics and our culture, not a bug. In some sense, we are a country made by war, and that’s not a good feature for a self-avowed democracy to have. Here’s an excerpt:

Why don’t America’s wars ever end?

I know, I know: President Joe Biden has announced that our combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 9/11 of this year, marking the 20th anniversary of the colossal failure of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to defend America.

Of course, that other 9/11 in 2001 shocked us all. I was teaching history at the U.S. Air Force Academy and I still recall hushed discussions of whether the day’s body count would exceed that of the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day of the Civil War. (Fortunately, bad as it was, it didn’t.)

Hijacked commercial airliners, turned into guided missiles by shadowy figures our panicky politicians didn’t understand, would have a profound impact on our collective psyche. Someone had to pay and among the first victims were Afghans in the opening salvo of the misbegotten Global War on Terror, which we in the military quickly began referring to as the GWOT. Little did I know then that such a war would still be going on 15 years after I retired from the Air Force in 2005 and 80 articles after I wrote my first for TomDispatch in 2007 arguing for an end to militarism and forever wars like the one still underway in Afghanistan.

Over those years, I’ve come to learn that, in my country, war always seems to find a way, even when it goes badly — very badly, in fact, as it did in Vietnam and, in these years, in Afghanistan and Iraq, indeed across much of the Greater Middle East and significant parts of Africa. Not coincidentally, those disastrous conflicts haven’t actually been waged in our name. No longer does Congress even bother with formal declarations of war. The last one came in 1941 after Pearl Harbor. During World War II, Americans united to fight for something like national security and a just cause. Today, however, perpetual American-style war simply is. Congress postures, but does nothing decisive to stop it. In computer-speak, endless war is a feature of our national programming, not a bug.

Two pro-war parties, Republicans and Democrats, have cooperated in these decades to ensure that such wars persist… and persist and persist. Still, they’re not the chief reason why America’s wars are so difficult to end. Let me list some of those reasons for you. First, such wars are beyond profitable, notably to weapons makers and related military contractors. Second, such wars are the Pentagon’s reason for being. Let’s not forget that, once upon a time, the present ill-named Department of Defense was so much more accurately and honestly called the Department of War. Third, if profit and power aren’t incentive enough, wars provide purpose and meaning even as they strengthen authoritarian structures in society and erode democratic ones. Sum it all up and war is what America now does, even if the reasons may be indefensible and the results so regularly abysmal.

Support Our Troops! (Who Are They, Again?)

The last truly American war was World War II. And when it ended in 1945, the citizen-soldiers within the U.S. military demanded rapid demobilization — and they got it. But then came the Iron Curtain, the Cold War, the Korean War, fears of nuclear Armageddon (that nearly came to fruition during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962), and finally, of course, Vietnam. Those wars were generally not supported — not with any fervor anyway — by the American people, hence the absence of congressional declarations. Instead, they mainly served the interests of the national security state, or, if you prefer, the military-industrial-congressional complex.

Ike knew the score

That’s precisely why President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued his grave warning about that Complex in his farewell address in 1961. No peacenik, Ike had overseen more than his share of military coups and interventions abroad while president, so much so that he came to see the faults of the system he was both upholding and seeking to restrain. That was also why President John F. Kennedy called for a more humble and pacific approach to the Cold War in 1963, even as he himself failed to halt the march toward a full-scale war in Southeast Asia. This is precisely why Martin Luther King, Jr., truly a prophet who favored the fierce urgency of peace, warned Americans about the evils of war and militarism (as well as racism and materialism) in 1967. In the context of the enormity of destruction America was then visiting on the peoples of Southeast Asia, not for nothing did he denounce this country as the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.

Collectively, Americans chose to ignore such warnings, our attention being directed instead toward spouting patriotic platitudes in support of “our” troops. Yet, if you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize those troops aren’t really ours. If they were, we wouldn’t need so many bumper stickers reminding us to support them.

With the military draft gone for the last half-century, most Americans have voted with their feet by not volunteering to become “boots on the ground” in the Pentagon’s various foreign escapades. Meanwhile, America’s commanders-in-chief have issued inspiring calls for their version of national service, as when, in the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush urged Americans to go shopping and visit Disney World. In the end, Americans, lacking familiarity with combat boots, are generally apathetic, sensing that “our” wars have neither specific meaning to, nor any essential purpose in their lives.

As a former Air Force officer, even if now retired, I must admit that it took me too long to realize this country’s wars had remarkably little to do with me — or you, for that matter — because we simply have no say in them. That doesn’t mean our leaders don’t seek to wage them in our name. Even as they do so, however, they simultaneously absolve us of any need to serve or sacrifice. We’re essentially told to cheer “our” troops on, but otherwise look away and leave war to the professionals (even if, as it turns out, those professionals seem utterly incapable of winning a single one of them).

Please read the rest of my article here at TomDispatch.com.

Musings for Monday

W.J. Astore

A quick Google search reveals that, “According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, it would cost $20 billion to end homelessness in the United States.” That’s roughly the cost of a few dozen ICBM interceptor missiles (estimated cost: $18 billion) that are unlikely to work and which may encourage potential adversaries to build more nuclear missiles to overcome them (assuming they do work, but hitting a bullet with a bullet is truly a long shot). Another cost comparison: ending homelessness in America could be done for the cost of roughly 150 F-35 jet fighters. Another: ending homelessness in America could be done for less than half the yearly cost of America’s Afghan War. Yet we’d rather build interceptors, fighter jets, and continue wars than house the homeless.

I’m seeing predictions by America’s generals that Afghan national forces will likely collapse if U.S. combat troops are withdrawn by 9/11. Yet the U.S. military has been training those same Afghan forces for nearly twenty years, all the while making “progress” according to those same generals. What gives? If after two decades Afghan forces don’t have the wherewithal to defend themselves despite untold billions in U.S. assistance and aid, isn’t it logical to assume they will never have the wherewithal?

Of course, it’s an effective strategy for U.S. generals to warn of an impending collapse after Biden’s troop withdrawal. For when it comes, they can say “we told you so” and shift the blame for the loss to Biden and the politicians. Sorry, folks, Afghanistan was never ours to win to begin with. It wasn’t even ours to lose, because we never “had” it. Never mind that: Whenever the U.S. military loses anywhere (including Vietnam), there is always someone else to blame.

The NFL draft concluded this past weekend, and once again I was astonished by the media coverage: the sheer amount of resources dedicated to it. Just go to ESPN, for example, which has “draft cards” on every player with all their vitals, including video highlights. If only the media devoted a tenth of the resources to covering America’s various wars across the globe! With verifiable metrics and video highlights (or lowlights). It’s good to know that sports are much more important to our nation than the military’s global presence and actions.

And now to return to the beginning: Why not act to end homelessness? WWJD: What would Jesus do? I always remember from Catholic mass how Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, and helped the poor. Where’s that Jesus nowadays? He seems to have been replaced, at least in America, by Prosperity Gospel Jesus, who shares good news and money only with the richest and most fortunate of Americans.

Can I please have “old” Jesus back? The one who helped lame people to walk and blind people to see?

Jesus healing a blind man. I like this Jesus.

The Never-Ending Afghan War

General Mark Milley. So many ribbons, so few victories (Gabriella Demczuk/New America)

Tom Engelhardt. Introduction by W.J. Astore.

Ever since that fateful day of 9/11/2001, Americans have been trying to process what can only be termed a colossal defeat. Showing our usual capacity for denial, we’ve rebranded it as a day for patriotism. We built the Freedom Tower, exactly 1776 feet high, on the ruins of the Twin Towers. We “got” Osama bin Laden. Yet the first victims of our collective rage, the Taliban in Afghanistan, have somehow emerged triumphant in a long destructive war against U.S. and NATO forces.

With his usual powerful prose, careful research, and keen eye for telling details, Tom Engelhardt has written a compelling introduction to Rajan Menon’s latest article on the Afghan War. It’s reposted here with Tom’s permission. W.J. Astore

It started with three air strikes on September 11, 2001. The fourth plane, heading perhaps for the Capitol (a building that wouldn’t be targeted again until last January 6th), ended up in a field in Pennsylvania. Those three strikes led to an American invasion of Afghanistan, beginning this country’s second war there in the last half-century. Almost 20 years later, according to the New York Times, there have been more than 13,000 U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan. Call that payback after a fashion. There’s only one problem: the greatest military on the planet, with a budget larger than that of the next 10 countries combined, has visibly lost its war there and is now in full-scale retreat. It may not be withdrawing the last of its forces on May 1st, as the Trump administration had agreed to do, but despite the pressure of the American military high command, President Biden “overrode the brass” and announced that every last American soldier would be gone by the 20th anniversary of those first airstrikes against the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

At this late date, consider it grimly fascinating that the generals who all those years kept claiming that “corners” were being turned and “progress” made, that we were “on the road to winning” in Afghanistan, as the present Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley insisted back in 2013, simply can’t let go of one of their great failures and move on. Under the circumstances, don’t for a second assume that the American war in Afghanistan is truly over. For one thing, the Taliban have not yet agreed to the new withdrawal date, as they did to the May 1st one. Instead, some of its commanders are promising a “nightmare” for U.S. troops in the months to come. Were they, for instance, to attack an air base and kill some American soldiers, who knows what the reaction here might be?

In addition, the Pentagon high command and this country’s intelligence agencies are still planning for possibly making war on Afghanistan from a distance in order to “prevent the country from again becoming a terrorist base.” As Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper of the New York Times reported recently, “Planners at the military’s Central Command in Tampa, Fla., and Joint Staff in Washington have been developing options to offset the loss of American combat boots on the ground.”

In other words, the American war in Afghanistan may be ending but, as with so much else about that endless experience, even the finale is still up for grabs. In that context, consider the thoughts of TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon on what has, without any doubt, been the American war from hell of this century. Tom

Please read Rajan Menon’s latest article at TomDispatch.com.