Can the Military-Industrial Complex Be Tamed?

W.J. Astore

Cutting the Pentagon Budget in Half Would Finally Force the Generals to Think

(Also at TomDispatch.com)

My name is Bill Astore and I’m a card-carrying member of the military-industrial complex (MIC).

Sure, I hung up my military uniform for the last time in 2005. Since 2007, I’ve been writing articles for TomDispatch focused largely on critiquing that same MIC and America’s permanent war economy. I’ve written against this country’s wasteful and unwise wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its costly and disastrous weapons systems, and its undemocratic embrace of warriors and militarism. Nevertheless, I remain a lieutenant colonel, if a retired one. I still have my military ID card, if only to get on bases, and I still tend to say “we” when I talk about my fellow soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen (and our “guardians,” too, now that we have a Space Force).

So, when I talk to organizations that are antiwar, that seek to downsize, dismantle, or otherwise weaken the MIC, I’m upfront about my military biases even as I add my own voice to their critiques. Of course, you don’t have to be antiwar to be highly suspicious of the U.S. military. Senior leaders in “my” military have lied so often, whether in the Vietnam War era of the last century or in this one about “progress” in Iraq and Afghanistan, that you’d have to be asleep at the wheel or ignorant not to have suspected the official story.

Yet I also urge antiwar forces to see more than mendacity or malice in “our” military. It was retired general and then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, after all, who first warned Americans of the profound dangers of the military-industrial complex in his 1961 farewell address. Not enough Americans heeded Ike’s warning then and, judging by our near-constant state of warfare since that time, not to speak of our ever-ballooning “defense” budgets, very few have heeded his warning to this day. How to explain that?

Ike’s warning about the military-industrial complex was also a call to arms to “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” (Image: WhiteHouse.gov)

Well, give the MIC credit. Its tenacity has been amazing. You might compare it to an invasive weed, a parasitic cowbird (an image I’ve used before), or even a metastasizing cancer. As a weed, it’s choking democracy; as a cowbird, it’s gobbling up most of the “food” (at least half of the federal discretionary budget) with no end in sight; as a cancer, it continues to spread, weakening our individual freedoms and liberty. 

Call it what you will. The question is: How do we stop it? I’ve offered suggestions in the past; so, too, have writers for TomDispatch like retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich and retired Army Major Danny Sjursen, as well as William HartungJulia Gledhill, and Alfred McCoy among others. Despite our critiques, the MIC grows ever stronger. If Ike’s warning wasn’t eye-opening enough, enhanced by an even more powerful speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967, what could I and my fellow TomDispatch writers possibly say or do to make a difference?

Maybe nothing, but that won’t stop me from trying. Since I am the MIC, so to speak, maybe I can look within for a few lessons that came to me the hard way (in the sense that I had to live them). So, what have l learned of value?

War Racketeers Enjoy Their Racket

In the 1930s, Smedley Butler, a Marine general twice decorated with the Medal of Honor, wrote a book entitled War Is a Racket. He knew better than most since, as he confessed in that volume, when he wore a military uniform, he served as “a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.” And the corporate-driven racket he helped enable almost a century ago by busting heads from the Caribbean to China was small-scale indeed compared to today’s thoroughly global one.

There’s an obvious lesson to be drawn from its striking endurance, never-ending enlargement, and distinct engorgement in our moment (even after all those lost wars it fought): the system will not reform itself.  It will always demand and take more — more money, more authority, more power.  It will never be geared for peace.  By its nature, it’s authoritarian and distinctly less than honorable, replacing patriotism with service loyalty and victory with triumphant budgetary authority.  And it always favors the darkest of scenarios, including at present a new cold war with China and Russia, because that’s the best and most expedient way for it to thrive.

Within the military-industrial complex, there are no incentives to do the right thing.  Those few who have a conscience and speak out honorably are punished, including truth-tellers in the enlisted ranks like Chelsea Manning and Daniel Hale. Even being an officer doesn’t make you immune.  For his temerity in resisting the Vietnam War, David M. Shoup, a retired Marine Corps general and Medal of Honor recipient, was typically dismissed by his peers as unbalanced and of questionable sanity.

For all the talk of “mavericks,” whether in Top Gun or elsewhere, we — there’s that “we” again (I can’t help myself!) — in the military are a hotbed of go-along-to-get-along conformity.

Recently, I was talking with a senior enlisted colleague about why so few top-ranking officers are willing to speak truth to the powerless (that’s you and me) even after they retire. He mentioned credibility. To question the system, to criticize it, to air dirty laundry in public is to risk losing credibility within the club and so to be rejected as a malcontent, disloyal, even “unbalanced.” Then, of course, that infamous revolving door between the military and giant weapons makers like Boeing and Raytheon simply won’t spin for you.  Seven-figure compensation packages, like the one current Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin gained from Raytheon after his retirement as an Army general, won’t be an option. And in America, who doesn’t want to cash in while gaining more power within the system?

Quite simply, it pays so much better to mouth untruths, or at least distinctly less-than-full-truths, in service to the powerful. And with that in mind, here, at least as I see it, are a few full truths about my old service, the Air Force, that I guarantee you I won’t be applauded for mentioning. How about this as a start: that the production of F-35s — an overpriced “Ferrari” of a fighter jet that’s both too complex and remarkably successful as an underperformer — should be canceled (savings: as much as $1 trillion over time); that the much-touted new B-21 nuclear bomber isn’t needed (savings: at least $200 billion) and neither is the new Sentinel Intercontinental Ballistic Missile(savings: another $200 billion and possibly the entire Earth from doomsday); that the KC-46 tanker is seriously flawed and should be canceled (savings: another $50 billion). 

Now, tote it up. By canceling the F-35, the B-21, the Sentinel, and the KC-46, I singlehandedly saved the American taxpayer roughly $1.5 trillion without hurting America’s national defense in the least. But I’ve also just lost all credibility (assuming I had any left) with my old service.

Look, what matters to the military-industrial complex isn’t either the truth or saving your taxpayer dollars but keeping those weapons programs going and the money flowing. What matters, above all, is keeping America’s economy on a permanent wartime footing both by buying endless new (and old) weapons systems for the military and selling them globally in a bizarrely Orwellian pursuit of peace through war. 

How are Americans, Ike’s “alert and knowledgeable citizenry,” supposed to end a racket like this? We certainly should know one thing by now: the MIC will never check itself and Congress, already part of it thanks to impressive campaign donations and the like by major weapons makers, won’t corral it either.  Indeed, last year, Congress shoveled $45 billion more than the Biden administration requested (more even than the Pentagon asked for) to that complex, all ostensibly in your name. Who cares that it hasn’t won a war of the faintest significance since 1945. Even “victory” in the Cold War (after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991) was thrown away. And now the complex warns us of an onrushing “new cold war” to be waged, naturally, at tremendous cost to you, the American taxpayer.  

As citizens, we must be informed, willing, and able to act. And that’s precisely why the complex seeks to deny you knowledge, precisely why it seeks to isolate you from its actions in this world. So, it’s up to you — to us! — to remain alert and involved. Most of all, each of us must struggle to keep our identity and autonomy as a citizen, a rank higher than that of any general or admiral, for, as we all need to be reminded, those wearing uniforms are supposed to serve you, not vice-versa.

I know you hear otherwise. You’ve been told repeatedly in these years that it’s your job to “support our troops.” Yet, in truth, those troops should only exist to support and defend you, and of course the Constitution, the compact that binds us all together as a nation.

When misguided citizens genuflect before those troops (and then ignore everything that’s done in their name), I’m reminded yet again of Ike’s sage warning that only Americans can truly hurt this country. Military service may be necessary, but it’s not necessarily ennobling. America’s founders were profoundly skeptical of large militaries, of entangling alliances with foreign powers, and of permanent wars and threats of the same. So should we all be.

Citizens United Is the Answer

No, not that “Citizens United,” not the case in which the Supreme Court decided corporations had the same free speech rights as you and me, allowing them to coopt the legislative process by drowning us out with massive amounts of “speech,” aka dark-money-driven propaganda. We need citizens united against America’s war machine.

Understanding how that machine works — not just its waste and corruption, but also its positive attributes — is the best way to wrestle it down, to make it submit to the people’s will. Yet activists are sometimes ignorant of the most basic facts about “their” military. So what? Does the difference between a sergeant major and a major, or a chief petty officer and the chief of naval operations matter? The answer is: yes.

An antimilitary approach anchored in ignorance won’t resonate with the American people. An antiwar message anchored in knowledge could, however. It’s important, that is, to hit the proverbial nail on the head. Look, for example, at the traction Donald Trump gained in the presidential race of 2015-2016 when he did something few other politicians then dared do: dismiss the Iraq War as wasteful and stupid. His election win in 2016 was not primarily about racism, nor the result of a nefarious Russian plot. Trump won, at least in part because, despite his ignorance on so many other things, he spoke a fundamental truth — that America’s wars of this century were horrendous blunders.

Trump, of course, was anything but antimilitary. He dreamed of military parades in Washington, D.C. But I (grudgingly) give him credit for boasting that he knew more than his generals and by that I mean many more Americans need to challenge those in authority, especially those in uniform.

Yet challenging them is just a start. The only real way to wrestle the military-industrial complex to the ground is to cut its funding in half, whether gradually over years or in one fell swoop. Yes, indeed, it’s the understatement of the century to note how much easier that’s said than done. It’s not like any of us could wave a military swagger stick like a magic wand and make half the Pentagon budget disappear. But consider this: If I could do so, that military budget would still be roughly $430 billion, easily more than China’s and Russia’s combined, and more than seven times what this country spends on the State Department. As usual, you get what you pay for, which for America has meant more weapons and disastrous wars.

Join me in imagining the (almost) inconceivable — a Pentagon budget cut in half. Yes, generals and admirals would scream and Congress would squeal. But it would truly matter because, as a retired Army major general once told me, major budget cuts would force the Pentagon to think — for once. With any luck, a few sane and patriotic officers would emerge to place the defense of America first, meaning that hubristic imperial designs and forever wars would truly be reined in because there’d simply be no more money for them.

Currently, Americans are giving the Pentagon all it wants — plus some. And how’s that been working out for the rest of us? Isn’t it finally time for us to exercise real oversight, as Ike challenged us to do in 1961? Isn’t it time to force the Pentagon to pass an audit each year — it’s failed the last five! — or else cut its budget even more deeply? Isn’t it time to hold Congress truly responsible for enabling ever more war by voting out military sycophants? Isn’t it time to recognize, as America’s founders did, that sustaining a vast military establishment constitutes the slow and certain death of democracy?

Just remember one thing: the military-industrial complex won’t reform itself. It just might have no choice, however, but to respond to our demands, if we as citizens remain alert, knowledgeable, determined, and united. And if it should refuse to, if the MIC can’t be tamed, whether because of its strength or our weakness, you will know beyond doubt that this country has truly lost its way.

Honk if you like guns

W.J. Astore

A distinctly American sentiment

“Honk if you like guns” is on a message board outside a local gun range. It’s a distinctly American sentiment. Since this country has over 400 million guns of various sorts and calibers in circulation, it’s a safe bet that America does indeed “like” guns. And that’s not a liking you’re encouraged to keep to yourself, hence the encouragement to “honk” as you drive past to advertise full throttle your affection for them.

Honk away, I guess (Mariusz Blach, Getty Images)

As I wrote a decade ago, “weapons ‘r’ us.” America, the so-called arsenal of democracy during World War II, is now often simply an arsenal. Guns are expensive and life is cheap. And we literally export that sentiment as America dominates the international trade in arms of all sorts, everything from F-35 jet fighters to M-1 tanks to the humblest of bullets. Indeed, we’re buying so many guns in America there’s even a shortage of those humble bullets.

Americans believe they are unsafe; Americans are also less than happy and are the world’s best customers for anti-depressants, and happiness is a warm gun, as John Lennon wrote.

There is considerable psychic distress in our country, and no wonder. The police video released yesterday of the beating of Tyre Nichols during a routine traffic stop is more than disturbing. A helpless man lies on the ground as police surround him, kicking and hitting him repeatedly. “Savage” is a good descriptor for the beating he took, after which it took nearly half an hour for an ambulance to arrive to render medical aid. Tyre Nichols died in a hospital three days later.

I know it’s an odd juxtaposition: the “honk if you like guns” sentiment and the (alleged) murder of Tyre Nichols by five (or more) police officers in Memphis. Maybe they have little in common, except, perhaps, a liking for violence and the potential of deadly force.

And so, to change the subject, I keep hearing the best way to help Ukraine is to send them more weapons so their armed forces can kill more Russians. It’s a war, after all, and tanks are needed more than talks. Putin only understands one language, the language of murderous violence, and he must be stopped so send Ukraine whatever its military officials request because we can trust them to know best.

And I begin to wonder, which country truly knows the language of murderous violence best? Which country has more mass shootings than any other? Which country spends more on wars and weaponry, has more of its citizens in prison, has more military bases, exports more weaponry around the world, than any other?

Honk if you like guns — it’s a sentiment that says much about our American moment.

Let the Weapons Flow and the Body Count Grow

W.J. Astore

Say “no” to killing, “no” to war

Two articles I read yesterday are typical of polarized, indeed antithetical, views on the Russia-Ukraine War.

At the British Guardian, Simon Tisdall says this is Europe’s moment to step up and support Ukraine in a righteous war against Putin. He concludes, with passion:

Zelenskiy is right. Risk-averse Nato has been too slow and too cautious from the start. To outpace tyranny, Europe must fight – and fight to win. Our common future depends on it.

Putin, the tyrant, must be stopped in Ukraine, or Poland and Germany could be next. Fighting to win means that Ukraine must be given not only hundreds of Leopard 2 tanks but also combat jets. The combination of tanks, jets, and related ancillary equipment will enable Ukraine to drive Russian forces out of the country in a quasi-Blitzkrieg operation. Victory to the West!

Why not talks instead of tanks?

At Antiwar.com, Edward Curtin predicts Russia will win this war even as he suggests it’s mainly the West’s fault for inciting it via NATO expansion and U.S. involvement in the 2014 coup in Ukraine:

we are being subjected to a vast tapestry of lies told by the corporate media for their bosses, as the US continues its doomed efforts to control the world. It is not Russia that is desperate now, but propagandists such as the writers of this strident and stupid editorial [by the New York Times]. It is not the Russian people who need to wake up, as they claim, but the American people and those who still cling to the myth that The New York Times Corporation is an organ of truth. It is the Ministry of Truth with its newspeak, doublespeak, and its efforts to change the past.

Which is it? Is this a war that the U.S. and NATO must win, along with Ukraine, to stop an evil and expansionist dictator, or is this a war that the U.S. and NATO provoked, and surely will lose, given Russia’s military superiority empowered in part by the justice of its cause?

To me, the disturbing part of such polarized, us versus them, views is that they really guarantee only one thing: more fighting and more death. Let the weapons flow and the body count grow: that is the result of these debates.

War, as almost any military historian will tell you, is inherently unpredictable. I have no idea who’s going to “win” this war. I do know the Ukrainians are losing. I say this only because the war is being fought on their soil, and the longer it lasts, the more Ukraine will suffer.

That doesn’t mean I want Ukraine to surrender, nor do I want it to lose. But I don’t think it will win with more Western tanks and planes. Just about any escalation by the West can be matched by Russia. I see further stalemate, not Blitzkrieg-like victories, and stalemate means more and more suffering.

It’s said the pen can prove mightier than the sword. Why not try talking in place of tanks? Put those mighty pens to work by signing an armistice or even an enduring peace treaty. Ukraine and Russia are neighbors; unless they want perpetual war, they must find a way to live together.

More weaponry to Ukraine is unlikely to produce decisive victory, but it is likely to produce far more death and destruction in that country. It’s high time both sides said “no” to killing, “no” to yet more war.

German Panzers in Ukraine

W.J. Astore

What could possibly go wrong?

The U.S. and Germany are currently discussing sending German Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. This is in addition to British Challenger 2 tanks. These weapons are needed so that Ukraine can take the offensive and evict Russian forces from Ukrainian territory, according to Andriy Yermak, head of the Ukrainian presidential administration.

Who knew that Cold War-era German Panzers would possibly meet their Soviet counterparts in a clash of armor featuring Ukraine against Russia? I don’t think anyone predicted that scenario forty years ago.

In fact, as a teenager in the 1970s, I played war games such as “MechWar ‘77,” which envisioned a massive Soviet armored thrust into West Germany countered by NATO armored forces consisting primarily of German and U.S. tanks. You know, the good old days.

In “MechWar ‘23,” it’s now possible that German- and British-made tanks, crewed by Ukrainians, will face their Soviet/Russian counterparts in heated combat. The Germans, considering the legacy of Panzers in Russian and Ukrainian territory in World War II, are understandably reluctant to send tanks to Ukraine to kill Russians. The historical echoes here are more than faintly disturbing.

As the U.S. and NATO keep sending heavier and more powerful offensive weaponry to Ukraine, the dangers of escalation continue to creep upwards. So too do the ambitions of those involved. What started in the West as an allegedly limited effort to help Ukraine defend its soil against Russian attacks is rapidly becoming a full-fledged war to roll back Russian forces not only in Ukraine but also in the Crimea.

Again, what could possibly go wrong in MechWar ‘23?

What’s the best way to end a war?

W.J. Astore

Sending more weapons to Ukraine isn’t the answer

U.S. foreign policy is a place where logic goes to die.

Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, said yesterday that the quickest way to end the Russia-Ukraine War is “to give Ukraine a strong hand on the battlefield,” by which he meant more and more weaponry, including Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and Patriot missile systems together with Challenger II tanks from Great Britain. Not surprisingly, then, the White House also hinted at yet another aid package for Ukraine, which may be announced “as soon as the end of this week.”

A “strong hand” for Ukraine?

Logic suggests the quickest way to end a war is to stop fighting. Announce a cease fire, negotiate, and find acceptable terms for an armistice or peace treaty. Stop the killing—stop the war.

Of course, the U.S. State Department is really a tiny branch of the Pentagon. It’s been that way for decades. The Pentagon budget, $858 billion for this year, is 14 times greater than the State Department’s at $60 billion. It often seems that a primary mission of the State Department is to market and sell U.S. weaponry overseas. Small wonder that Blinken sees more deadly weaponry in Ukraine as the answer to ending a catastrophic war.

In a way, Blinken’s blinkered thinking is typically American. What’s the quickest way to end a war on crime? A drug war? Or almost any other problem in America? Obviously, more guns, more security cameras, more metal detectors, more body armor, and so on. Think about our “solutions” to gun violence in schools, which include armored backpacks for eight-year-olds and semi-automatic pistols for teachers. Too many Americans look to guns as a “solution” to life’s problems; count Blinken among the gun-lovers, at least when it’s in the form of U.S. arms exports.

While it’s true U.S. arms exports and aid may keep Ukraine from losing quickly, it’s highly unlikely these same weapons will help Ukraine to win quickly and decisively. Russia can and likely will match any escalation to this war, and at a cheaper price than the U.S. taxpayer is currently paying (now over $100 billion and rising).

Blinken’s bloodless language about war is also revealing. It’s all about giving Ukraine “a strong hand on the battlefield,” as if Ukraine and Russia are playing a polite game of poker. More weapons to Ukraine means more bloody death and destruction; attrition or even escalation is far more likely than a quick end in Ukraine’s favor.

Blinken probably knows this, but a large part of his intellectual training was spent at Harvard and Columbia Law, just as Jake Sullivan, his younger counterpart at the National Security Council, trained at Yale and Yale Law. These men aren’t stupid, they’re just narrowly trained and partisan functionaries willing to spout whatever the empire needs them to say in the cause of imperial hegemony.

And so U.S. lawyers continue to send guns and money to Ukraine, especially guns, while saying this is the best and quickest way for Ukraine to beat Putin and end the war with Russia. Logic, however, suggests more fighting and dying and a lack of decision for either side.

Best not confuse a “strong hand” with a dead man’s one.

The Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy

W.J. Astore

Bombs, Bullets, and Bellicosity Instead of Brains

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I parse the meaning of America’s latest National Defense Strategy. Hint: It’s not about defense.

More than two millennia ago, in the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounted a disastrous conflict Athens waged against Sparta. A masterwork on strategy and war, the book is still taught at the U.S. Army War College and many other military institutions across the world. A passage from it describing an ultimatum Athens gave a weaker power has stayed with me all these years. And here it is, loosely translated from the Greek: “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer as they must.”

Recently, I read the latest National Defense Strategy, or NDS, issued in October 2022 by the Pentagon, and Thucydides’s ancient message, a warning as clear as it was undeniable, came to mind again. It summarized for me the true essence of that NDS: being strong, the United States does what it wants and weaker powers, of course, suffer as they must. Such a description runs contrary to the mythology of this country in which we invariably wage war not for our own imperial ends but to defend ourselves while advancing freedom and democracy. Recall that Athens, too, thought of itself as an enlightened democracy even as it waged its imperial war of dominance on the Peloponnesus. Athens lost that war, calamitously, but at least it did produce Thucydides, a military leader who became a historian and wrote all too bluntly about his country’s hubristic, ultimately fatal pursuit of hegemony.

Imperial military ambitions contributed disastrously to Athens’s exhaustion and ultimate collapse, a lesson completely foreign to U.S. strategists. Not surprisingly, then, you’ll find no such Thucydidean clarity in the latest NDS approved by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. In place of that Greek historian’s probity and timeless lessons, the NDS represents an assault not just on the English language but on our very future. In it, a policy of failing imperial dominance is eternally disguised as democratic deterrence, while the greatest “strategic” effort of all goes (remarkably successfully) into justifying massive Pentagon budget increases. Given the sustained record of failures in this century for what still passes as the greatest military power on the planet — Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, of course, but don’t forget SomaliaSyriaYemen, and indeed the entire $8 trillion Global War on Terror in all its brutality — consider the NDS a rare recent “mission accomplished” moment. The 2023 baseline “defense” budget now sits at $858 billion, $45 billion more than even the Biden administration requested.

With that yearly budget climbing toward a trillion dollars (or more) annually, it’s easy to conclude that, at least when it comes to our military, nothing succeeds like failure. And, by the way, that not only applies to wars lost at a staggering cost but also financial audits blown without penalty. After all, the Pentagon only recently failed its fifth audit in a row. With money always overflowing, no matter how it may be spent, one thing seems guaranteed: some future American Thucydides will have the material to produce a volume or volumes beyond compare. Of course, whether this country goes the way of Athens — defeat driven by military exhaustion exacerbated by the betrayal of its supposedly deepest ideals leading to an ultimate collapse — remains to be seen. Still, given that America’s war colleges continue to assign Thucydides, no one can say that our military and future NDS writers didn’t get fair warning when it comes to what likely awaits them.

Bludgeoning America with Bureaucratese

If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with BS.

That’s a saying I learned early in my career as an Air Force officer, so I wasn’t exactly surprised to discover that it’s the NDS’s guiding philosophy. The document has an almost Alice in Wonderland-like quality to it as words and phrases take on new meanings. China, you won’t be surprised to learn, is a “pacing challenge” to U.S. security concerns; Russia, an “acute threat” to America due to its “unprovoked, unjust, and reckless invasion of Ukraine” and other forms of “irresponsible behavior”; and building “combat-credible forces” within a “defense ecosystem” is a major Pentagon goal, along with continuing “investments in mature, high-value assets” (like defective aircraft carriers, ultra-expensive bombers and fighter jets, and doomsday-promising new ICBMs).

Much talk is included about “leveraging” those “assets,” “risk mitigation,” and even “cost imposition,” a strange euphemism for bombing, killing, or otherwise inflicting pain on our enemies. Worse yet, there’s so much financial- and business-speak in the document that it’s hard not to wonder whether its authors don’t already have at least one foot in the revolving door that could, on their retirement from the military, swing them onto the corporate boards of major defense contractors like Boeing and Raytheon.

Perhaps my favorite redefined concept in that NDS lurks in the word “campaigning.” In the old days, armies fought campaigns in the field and generals like Frederick the Great or Napoleon truly came to know the price of them in blood and treasure. Unlike U.S. generals since 1945, they also knew the meaning of victory, as well as defeat. Perish the thought of that kind of campaigning now. The NDS redefines it, almost satirically, not to say incomprehensibly, as “the conduct and sequencing of logically-linked military initiatives aimed at advancing well-defined, strategy-aligned priorities over time.” Huh?

Campaigning, explains the cover letter signed by Secretary of Defense Austin (who won’t be mistaken for Frederick II in his bluntness or Napoleon in his military acuity), “is not business as usual — it is the deliberate effort to synchronize the [Defense] Department’s activities and investments to aggregate focus and resources to shift conditions in our favor.”

Got it? Good!

Of course, who knows what such impenetrable jargon really means to our military in 2023? This former military officer certainly prefers the plain and honest language of Thucydides. In his terms, America, the strong, intends to do what it will in the world to preserve and extend “conditions in our favor,” as the NDS puts it — a measure by which this country has failed dismally in this century. Weaker countries, especially those that are “irresponsible,” must simply suffer. If they resist, they must be prepared for some “cost imposition” events exercised by our “combat-credible forces.” Included in those are America’s “ultimate backstop” of cost imposition… gulp, its nuclear forces.

Again, the NDS is worthy of close reading (however pain-inducing that may be) precisely because the secretary of defense does claim that it’s his “preeminent guidance document.” I assume he’s not kidding about that, though I wish he were. To me, that document is to guidance as nuclear missiles are to “backstops.” If that last comparison is jarring, I challenge you to read it and then try to think or write clearly.

Bringing Clarity to America’s Military Strategy

To save you the trauma of even paging through the NDS, let me try to summarize it quickly in my version — if not the Pentagon’s — of English:

  1. China is the major threat to America on this planet.
  2. Russia, however, is a serious threat in Europe.
  3. The War on Terror continues to hum along successfully, even if at a significantly lower level.
  4. North Korea and Iran remain threats, mainly due to the first’s growing nuclear arsenal and the second’s supposed nuclear aspirations.
  5. Climate change, pandemics, and cyberwar must also be factored in as “transboundary challenges.”

“Deterrence” is frequently used as a cloak for the planetary dominance the Pentagon continues to dream of. Our military must remain beyond super-strong (and wildly overfunded) to deter nations and entities from striking “the homeland.” There’s also lots of talk about global challenges to be met, risks to be managed, “gray zone” methods to be employed, and references aplenty to “kinetic action” (combat, in case your translator isn’t working) and what’s known as “exploitable asymmetries.”

Count on one thing: whatever our disasters in the real world, nobody is going to beat America in the jargon war.

Missing in the NDS — and no surprise here — is any sense that war is humanity’s worst pastime. Even the mass murder implicit in nuclear weapons is glossed over. The harshest realities of conflict, nuclear war included, and the need to do anything in our power to prevent them, naturally go unmentioned. The very banality of the document serves to mask a key reality of our world: that Americans fund nothing as religiously as war, that most withering of evils.

Perhaps it’s not quite the banality of evil, to cite the telling phrase political philosopher Hannah Arendt used to describe the thoughts of the deskbound mass-murderers of the Holocaust, but it does have all of war’s brutality expunged from it. As we stare into the abyss, the NDS replies with mind-numbing phrases and terms that wouldn’t be out of place in a corporate report on rising profits and market dominance.

Yet as the military-industrial complex maneuvers and plots to become ever bigger, ever better funded, and ever more powerful, abetted by a Congress seemingly lustful for ever more military spending and weapons exports, hope for international cooperation, productive diplomacy, and democracy withers. Here, for instance, are a few of the things you’ll never see mentioned in this NDS:

  1. Any suggestion that the Pentagon budget might be reduced. Ever.
  2. Any suggestion that the U.S. military’s mission or “footprint” should be downsized in any way at all.
  3. Any acknowledgement that the U.S. and its allies spend far more on their militaries than “pacing challengers” like China or “acute threats” like Russia.
  4. Any acknowledgment that the Pentagon’s budget is based not on deterrence but on dominance.
  5. Any acknowledgement that the U.S. military has been far less than dominant despite endless decades of massive military spending that produced lost or stalemated wars from Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.
  6. Any suggestion that skilled diplomacy and common security could lead to greater cooperation or decreased tensions.
  7. Any serious talk of peace.

In brief, in that document and thanks to the staggering congressional funding that goes with it, America is being eternally spun back into an age of great-power rivalry, with Xi Jinping’s China taking the place of the old Soviet Union and Vladimir Putin’s Russia that of Mao Zedong’s China. Consistent with that retro-vision is the true end goal of the NDS: to eternally maximize the Pentagon budget and so the power and authority of the military-industrial-congressional complex.

Basically, any power that seeks to push back against the Pentagon’s vision of security through dominance is defined as a threat to be “deterred,” often in the most “kinetic” way. And the greatest threat of all, requiring the most “deterrence,” is, of course, China.

In a textbook case of strategic mirror-imaging, the Pentagon’s NDS sees that country and its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as acting almost exactly like the U.S. military. And that simply cannot be allowed.

Here’s the relevant NDS passage:

“In addition to expanding its conventional forces, the PLA is rapidly advancing and integrating its space, counterspace, cyber, electronic, and information warfare capabilities to support its holistic approach to joint warfare. The PLA seeks to target the ability of the [U.S.] Joint Force to project power to defend vital U.S. interests and aid our Allies in a crisis or conflict. The PRC [China] is also expanding the PLA’s global footprint and working to establish a more robust overseas and basing infrastructure to allow it to project military power at greater distances. In parallel, the PRC is accelerating the modernization and expansion of its nuclear capabilities.”

How dare China become more like the United States! Only this country is allowed to aspire to “full-spectrum dominance” and global power, as manifested by its 750 military bases scattered around the world and its second-to-none, blue-water navy. Get back to thy place, China! Only “a free people devoted to democracy and the rule of law” can “sustain and strengthen an international system under threat.” China, you’ve been warned. Better not dare to keep pace with the U.S. of A. (And heaven forfend that, in a world overheating in a devastating way, the planet’s two greatestgreenhouse gas emitters should work together to prevent true catastrophe!)

Revisiting the Oath of Office

Being a retired U.S. military officer, I always come back to the oath of office I once swore to uphold: “To support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Naturally, if China, Russia, or any other country or entity attacks or otherwise directly menaces the U.S., I expect our military to defend this country with all due vigor.

That said, I don’t see China, Russia, or weaker countries like Iran or North Korea risking attacks against America proper, despite breathless talk of world “flashpoints.” Why would they, when any such attack would incur a devastating counterattack, possibly including America’s trusty “backstop,” its nuclear weapons?

In truth, the NDS is all about the further expansion of the U.S. global military mission. Contraction is a concept never to be heard. Yet reducing our military’s presence abroad isn’t synonymous with isolationism, nor, as has become ever more obvious in recent years, is an expansive military structure a fail-safe guarantor of freedom and democracy at home. Quite the opposite, constant warfare and preparations for more of it overseas have led not only to costly defeats, most recently in Afghanistan, but also to the increasing militarization of our society, a phenomenon reflected, for instance, in the more heavily armed and armored police forces across America.

The Pentagon’s NDS is a classic case of threat inflation cloaked in bureaucratese where the “facts” are fixed around a policy that encourages the incessant and inflationary growth of the military-industrial complex. In turn, that complex empowers and drives a “rules-based international order” in which America, as hegemon, makes the rules. Again, as Thucydides put it, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer as they must.

Yet, to paraphrase another old book, what does it profit a people to gain the whole world yet lose their very soul?  Like Athens before it, America was once a flawed democracy that nevertheless served as an inspiration to many because militarism, authoritarianism, and imperial pretense didn’t drive it. Today, this country is much like Thucydides’s Athens, projecting power ever-outwards in a misbegotten exercise to attain mastery through military supremacy.

It didn’t end well for Athens, nor will it for the United States.

The Madness of U.S. Militarism

W.J. Astore

Where are today’s Eisenhowers, Butlers, and Shoups?

As a teenager in the 1970s, I recall talking to my dad about fears of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. My dad took a broad view, suggesting that if U.S. and Soviet leaders were stupid enough to blow each other to smithereens, a billion Chinese people would be left to pick up the slack and move the world forward.

My dad was right about many things, but what he didn’t realize was that U.S. nuclear war plans (known as SIOPs) often called for the elimination of the USSR and China, even if China had had no involvement in events leading up to the war. Basically, the ruling U.S. nuclear war philosophy was: If you’re red, you’re dead.

Daniel Ellsberg wrote about this in his book, The Doomsday Machine. As I wrote in my review of that book:

“U.S. nuclear war plans circa 1960 envisioned a simultaneous attack on the USSR and China that would generate 600 million deaths after six months.  As Ellsberg notes, that is 100 Holocausts.  This plan was to be used even if China hadn’t directly attacked the U.S., i.e. the USSR and China were lumped together as communist bad guys who had to be eliminated together in a general nuclear war.  Only one U.S. general present at the briefing objected to this idea: David M. Shoup, a Marine general and Medal of Honor winner, who also later objected to the Vietnam War.”

What’s truly startling is that only one U.S. military leader present, General David Shoup, objected to the SIOP that would lead to the death of 600 million people in six months. A decade later, scientists learned that such a huge nuclear exchange would likely cause a nuclear winter that would kill billions due to famine. Truly, the (few) living would envy the (many) dead.

Mention of David Shoup’s name leads me to this fine article: “The Marine Corps legend who tried to stop the Vietnam War,” by James Clark. Shoup was a remarkable American who helped to prevent the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 from escalating to a nuclear war. Once he retired from the Marines, he became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and militarism in general, a worthy successor to General Smedley Butler.

The Joint Chiefs in 1961. General Shoup is on the far right, next to General Curtis LeMay, architect of SAC and of a possible nuclear doomsday

I urge you to read Clark’s article on Shoup, who quotes Shoup’s hard-won wisdom here:

About the Vietnam War, Shoup said “I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own.”

In the Atlantic Monthly, Shoup, echoing the warning of Eisenhower about the military-industrial complex, wrote bluntly about America’s war culture and its anti-democratic nature:

Somewhat like a religion, the basic appeals of anti-Communism, national defense and patriotism provide the foundation for a powerful creed upon which the defense establishment can build, grow, and justify its cost. More so than many large bureaucratic organizations, the defense establishment now devotes a large share of its efforts to self-perpetuation, to justifying its organizations, to preaching its doctrines, to self-maintenance and management.

You would think that a Medal of Honor recipient who’d proved his bravery and patriotism at Tarawa during World War II would be immune from charges of being unpatriotic or weak on defense, but you’d be wrong.

Where are today’s Shoups among the U.S. military brass? Where are the leaders who are against genocidal nuclear war and who are willing to speak out against it? Where are the leaders who reject a new cold war with China and Russia? Where are the leaders with the courage to advocate for peace whenever possible in place of more and more war?

Have we fallen so far under the spell of militarism that America no longer produces leaders like Dwight Eisenhower, Smedley Butler, and David Shoup, generals who truly knew war, despised it, and wanted above all to put an end to it?

Talking About War, War Culture, Police, and the U.S. Military

W.J. Astore

On finding a better way forward for America

I recently sat down with Jim Wohlgemuth and Harvey Bennett with Veterans for Peace. We talked for about an hour and covered many topics I’ve written about here at Bracing Views and also at TomDispatch.com. Here is the link:

Or, if it’s easier, click here.

I’d like to thank Jim and Harvey for inviting me on their show and for their interest in my writing, but most especially for their work on promoting peace and sanity. Special bonus song at the end of the interview!

History Is Un-American

W.J. Astore

Real Americans Create Their Own Futures

I was bantering online with an old friend and fellow historian and I hit him with my best shot: history is un-American. If you think like an historian, and especially if you think America and its future actions should be informed, or possibly even constrained, by history, you are clearly un-American. History is more or less bunk, Henry Ford famously said, and Americans can safely ignore it. We are like gods, creating our own futures out of nothing, imposing our will on everything around us.

Henry Ford, American god

This attitude, this hubris, explains much about the U.S. military’s woeful record since 1945. The French lost in Indochina? No matter. Americans will prevail in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia because we’re not the French. The Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan? No matter. Americans will prevail there because we’re not the Russians. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his minority Sunni government will unleash chaos that strengthens Shia forces in Iraq, aligning that country more closely with Iran? No matter. America will bring order and the blessings of democracy to Iraq at the point of gun or a Hellfire missile.

Karl Rove, a major player in the Bush/Cheney administration, summed up this hubris in this now-infamous passage:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

That man did not want for confidence.

Related to the idea of history being un-American is the business- and management-oriented nature of the officer corps in the U.S. military. To be promoted to field-grade (major or lieutenant commander), you almost have to have a master’s degree or be close to finishing one. But rarely do officers choose to pursue a master’s in history or any other subject related to the humanities. The master’s of choice is in business administration or some type of management.

By pursuing MBAs and management degrees, officers show their practical nature. They also set themselves up well for future careers once they retire or separate from the military. After all, who needs to know history, even military history? The U.S. military will simply act, creating its own realities, which feckless historians will then passively study as America’s real actors get on with the job of remaking the world in America’s image.

We live in the United States of Amnesia, Gore Vidal quipped, and history is part of that amnesia. Who remembers that America was at war in Afghanistan as late as 2021? It’s on to new “great power” struggles with China and Russia. Look forward, not backward, Barack Obama said when he became president, meaning there was no need to hold the Bush/Cheney administration responsible for anything, including torture and other war crimes. “We tortured some folks” — time to move on!

An expression I learned in the U.S. military is “analysis paralysis,” as in don’t overthink the problem. Act! But if America’s military record since World War II proves one thing, it’s that ignoring history because it’s “bunk” or less practical than another business or management course is a very unwise idea.

Acting should be informed by thinking. Dare I say, historically-informed thinking. Even for America’s wannabe gods.

The Year of Living Dangerously

W.J. Astore

In 2023, let’s embrace the Vulcan salute, not military ones

2022 has been the year of living dangerously. The Russia-Ukraine War escalated with no immediate end in sight. U.S. government officials, most notably the Democratic Party, have gotten behind Ukraine as if it’s the 51st American state. Aid to Ukraine, mainly in the form of weapons and other war materiel, has approached $100 billion in less than a year. Zelensky has been touted as a “wartime” leader akin to Winston Churchill and lionized before Congress. President Biden, meanwhile, has called for Putin to be removed from power, joined by Republican voices like Senator Lindsey Graham. Biden, with Armageddon on his mind, as in nuclear war, nevertheless persisted in rejecting calls for diplomatic efforts to end the war.

As we turn toward 2023, wars and rumors of war persist. Fear of possible Chinese moves against Taiwan helped drive a record Pentagon budget of $858 billion, $45 billion more than Joe “Armageddon” Biden requested. The Air Force requested 100 new B-21 nuclear bombers and hundreds of new Sentinel ICBMs at a projected cost of roughly $500 billion. That the Pentagon yet again failed an audit, its fifth failure in a row, is no reason to cut or even to control massive military spending, so Congress has collectively concluded.

The so-called leftist or liberal Democrats have emerged as America’s war party; Republicans, meanwhile, are torn between calling for yet higher military spending and trying to curtail military aid to Ukraine and runaway spending on “Ferrari” weapons systems like the F-35. No one of any prominence in either party is calling for peace and for serious reductions in spending on wars and weapons. 

Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value, Biden once said. Obviously, the Washington elites value war and profits from the same. It’s an anti-democratic commitment that fosters greater authoritarianism and repression in the so-called homeland as well as abroad.

I wish I could say 2023 promises change. It doesn’t, at least not from our government and its leaders. The change will have to come from us.

I have an old polaroid from 1/1/1980. In that photo, I’m caught rendering the Vulcan gesture of welcome with a high school friend. Recently, I got together with another old friend and gave the same salute:

Your author, out in the wild

The message, of course, of the Vulcan salute is “Peace. Live long and prosper.” The Vulcans, those eminently logical aliens of “Star Trek” fame, did their best to change their warlike nature, adopting logic and emotional control in place of violence and mass murder. While I doubt America is prepared to adopt logic and emotional control en masse, surely we can find a way to cultivate peace. We have the means as well to “live long and prosper,” assuming we can ever stop wasting so much of our energy and efforts on war and weaponry.

There is much wisdom contained in the Vulcan salute. May we learn to embrace its message in 2023.

Happy New Year, everyone.