Ten Years Ago, Obama Went to West Point to Sell His Afghan Surge

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President Obama with his Surge commander, Stanley McChrystal

W.J. Astore

Ten years ago, President Obama went to West Point to sell his “surge” in the Afghan War.  Back then, I wrote two articles for Huffington Post on Obama’s decision to escalate that war and his choice of venue to announce his decision.  Those two articles are re-posted below.

The Afghan War was supposed to be settled quickly, in America’s favor, by Obama’s surge.  Yet here we are, a decade later, still mired in Afghanistan, with America’s generals either talking about several more years in Afghanistan, or several more generations.  How can they be so foolish?

Obama and the Need to Surge (Posted on December 1, 2009)

In telling the American people about his plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan, President Obama has selected a venue that at first blush seems to make sense. Yet by choosing the United States Military Academy at West Point, Obama is sending at least three disturbing messages. The first message is a tacit admission to the corps of cadets — and to the American people — that we’re facing a long war of at least five, possibly ten, perhaps even fifty, years. After all, why bother to address the class of 2013 unless these cadets can also expect to be deployed to Afghanistan as platoon commanders in 2014?

The second message is that Obama is more than willing to ape the tactics of former President George W. Bush. Often when Bush had a controversial decision to announce, he did so before a sympathetic audience of assembled troops, surrounded by waving flags and military brass. Critics rightly took Bush to task for speaking so often in front of admiring troops in uniform, thereby evading tough questioning from more critical, less deferential, audiences.

The third, somewhat more subtle, message is that Obama sees the situation in Afghanistan primarily in military terms — that, if there’s a solution to Afghanistan, it’s one that must be brokered or imposed by the U.S. military. If he wanted to stress the importance of diplomacy, for example, one might think Obama would have selected the State Department as a venue; if international diplomacy, one might have considered the United Nations. But West Point it is, and thus more escalation and militarization loom.

Here’s what I’d prefer: The President, speaking honestly and directly to the American people, from the Oval Office. No military trappings. No echoes, whether intentional or unintentional, of Douglas MacArthur’s “there is no substitute for victory” speech at West Point in 1962.

West Point is all about “duty, honor, country.” Young, idealistic, and dedicated cadets need no convincing by their commander-in-chief. It’s the rightly skeptical American people who truly need convincing.

By going to West Point, Obama is not just further militarizing his presidency — he’s taking the easy way out.

Obama Goes to West Point: One Week Later (Posted on December 10, 2009)

A week ago, I argued that President Obama sent three disturbing messages in choosing West Point as the site to announce his escalatory plans for the Afghan war. A week later, I’d like to make three further points. First, I believe that the President undermined the grave seriousness of his speech by deciding post-speech to press the flesh of cadets while posing for smiling photos. An urgent call to battle was transformed into a political photo-op. “Grip and grin” photos are best left to times of celebration, like class graduation, rather than to times of grim news of the need to commit more troops to a difficult and deadly war.

Second, the President was right to emphasize that West Point cadets “represent what is finest about our country.” His meaning here was clear: they’re the “finest” because they “stand up for our security.” Having myself taught military cadets for six years, these words resonated with me. But I wish the President had elaborated further because, in spelling out why he considers our troops to be our “finest,” Obama could have reminded us of the enormous burdens — and enormous price — of war.

Put bluntly, by ordering another 35,000 or so American troops to Afghanistan, Obama was ordering men and women, including some of the young cadets from West Point’s long grey line sitting in that very auditorium, to their deaths. Their willingness to sacrifice their lives in the service of their country — to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic — marks them as being among our finest.

The ultimate price these cadets are prepared to pay puts an enormous burden on the judgment and wisdom of their Commander-in-chief. For what president wants to send America’s finest to fight and perhaps die for a lost cause or, even worse, an unjust one?

It’s not for West Point cadets, or for any other serviceman or servicewoman, to question the orders of their Commander-in-chief. They are duty-bound to carry out his orders to the best of their ability. But as “pure” citizens, we are not duty-bound to snap to attention and to salute smartly.

Obama, after all, is not our Commander-in-chief: he’s our President, our most senior public servant. We owe it to our troops to challenge him if we believe escalation in Afghanistan is not the best course of action to secure America’s safety.

So, my third point is to remind us of our duty as informed citizens to ask the tough questions of our public servants — even, if necessary, to dissent and protest — precisely because our troops are prevented from doing so by their solemn oath of office.

But I worry that we are not informed citizens, and that because of that fact, and because our personal stake in our nation’s wars is so small compared to that of the West Point cadets, we largely don’t seem to care, or care enough.

In a decidedly unscientific poll, I asked three of my classes, a total of 59 students, if they had watched the President’s speech on Afghanistan. Only one student did (and these were students enrolled in History classes).

So, I worry. I worry about more American combat brigades being sent overseas, a momentous decision capped by a photo-op of our President surrounded by beaming cadets in the prime of life. I worry that so many of my students are seemingly so ill-informed, or so uninterested, about the ramifications of this decision.

But I hope, for the sake of our troops as well as for the Afghan people, that our President somehow got it right, and that the cause for which we fight is neither lost nor unjust.

Addendum: When I wrote this article ten years ago, I said this:

It’s not for West Point cadets, or for any other serviceman or servicewoman, to question the orders of their Commander-in-chief. They are duty-bound to carry out his orders to the best of their ability.

In writing this ten years ago, I made an assumption the president’s orders would be lawful.

No military member can be forced to follow unlawful orders, which I would define as contrary to the U.S. Constitution and/or consistent with war crimes. So, for example, LT Calley was ordering as well as committing war crimes at My Lai. No troops had to, or should have, followed such orders. But we know from history and from our knowledge of military command systems how difficult it is to disobey orders, even when they are unlawful to the point of enabling war crimes.

Military cadets are educated on these distinctions; they have to take courses on ethics and discuss these complex issues in the classroom. But it’s much easier to deal with these issues in class, tough as they are, than in the heat of battle.

Things get more slippery if you consider a whole war to be immoral and unjust. If you’re in the military and ordered to participate in such a war, what do you do? You may have an option to resign, assuming you have no service commitment. But often the option is obedience or punishment. And those who are willing to risk and/or endure punishment while taking a principled stance are to be respected, or at the very least not dismissed out of hand.

For me, Chelsea Manning is a true hero. She did what other service members should always do: remembering her oath, she acted to uphold it, irrespective of the cost to her.

But there’s a counterargument that should be considered. What individual soldier has perfect knowledge? In acting, perhaps with one-sided information, are you endangering your fellow troops? Are you truly acting selflessly, or selfishly?

Not every would-be whistleblower is acting wisely or thinking coherently.

These are tough calls where people pay a very high price indeed.

Obedience is needed in the military. Even in the face of death. But obedience is wrong in the face of illegality and immorality. Thus we should elect leaders who respect legality and display morality. Sadly, that is often the very opposite of what we do as a people.

No Money, No Speech, No Say

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Have Money, Will Rule

W.J. Astore

When in January 2010 the Supreme Court ruled that money is speech and corporations are citizens, our democracy (or, if you prefer, our representative republic) took a serious hit.  Since then, we’ve witnessed America’s ongoing transition to an oligarchy, and an increasingly militarized and authoritarian one at that.

This was obvious even to me when the Supreme Court rendered its Citizens United decision in favor of corporations.  Right after that decision, I wrote this article for Truthout, which I’m re-posting below.  What do you think, readers?

Corporations Are Citizens – What Are We?
January 24, 2010

This week’s Supreme Court ruling that corporations are protected by “free speech” rights and can contribute enormous sums of money to influence elections is a de jure endorsement of the de facto dominance of corporations over our lives. Indeed, corporations are the new citizens of this country, and ordinary Americans, who used to be known as “citizens,” now fall into three categories: consumers, warriors and prisoners.

Think about it. Perhaps you’ve noticed, as a friend of mine has, that the term “citizen” has largely disappeared from our public and political discourse. And what term has taken its place? Consumer. That’s our new role: not to exercise our rights as citizens (perish the thought, that’s for corporations to do!), but to exercise our credit cards as consumers. Here one might recall President George W. Bush’s inspiring words to Americans after 9-11 to “go shopping” and to visit Disney.

Think again of our regulatory agencies like the FDA or SEC. They no longer take action to protect us as “citizens.” Rather, they act to safeguard the confidence of “consumers.” And apparently the only news that’s worthy of note is that which affects us as consumers.

As one-dimensional “consumers,” we’ve been reduced to obedient eunuchs in thrall to the economy. Our sole purpose is to keep buying and spending. Corporations, meanwhile, are the citizen-activists in our politics, with the voting and speech rights to match their status.

At the same time we’ve reduced citizens to consumers, we’ve reduced citizen-soldiers to “warriors” or “warfighters.” The citizen-soldier of World War II did his duty in the military, but his main goal was to come home, regain his civilian job, and enjoy the freedoms and rights of American citizenship. Today, our military encourages a “warrior” mentality: a narrow-minded professionalism that emphasizes warfighting skills over citizenship and civic duty.

And if that’s not disturbing enough, think of our military’s ever-increasing reliance on private military contractors or mercenaries.

The final category of American is all-too-obvious: prisoner. No country in the modern industrialized world incarcerates more of its citizens than the United States. More than 7.3 million Americans currently languish somewhere in our prison system. Our only hope, apparently, for a decline in prison population is the sheer expense to states of caring and feeding all these “offenders.”

There you have it. Corporations are our new citizens. And you? If you’re lucky, you get to make a choice: consumer, warrior or prisoner. Which will it be?

Thomas Paine on War and Empire

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It’s time again to listen to the common sense of Thomas Paine

W.J. Astore

This past weekend, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the JCS, said U.S. troops would remain in Syria for another few years, ostensibly to prevent an ISIS resurgence, and that troops would also continue to fight the Afghan War for several years to come.  This should have been been big news, but in an America now distracted by a public impeachment circus, endless wars are greeted with a collective shrug within the media.

Thomas Paine would not have been happy.  Famously outspoken for writing “Common Sense” at the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, Paine had some choice words about war and empire that Americans would do well to read and heed today.

“If there is a sin superior to every other,” Paine wrote, “it is that of willful and offensive war … he who is the author of a war, lets loose the whole contagion of Hell, and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.”

Paine then wrote that “We leave it to England and Indians [allied with England] to boast of these honors; we feel no thirst for such savage glory; a nobler flame, a purer spirit animates America.”

Imagine an America today that felt no thirst for the savage glory of war!

Paine supported only defensive wars, for Freedom and against Tyranny, as he put it.  Remind me how keeping troops in Syria to secure oil is a just war for freedom?  Remind me how prolonging the Afghan War (now in its 18th year) by several more years is necessary for America’s defense and in the cause of freedom?

Paine further had choice words for empires that were foolish enough to wage ruinous wars far from home.  Naturally, he had Britain most in mind:

“If ever a nation was mad and foolish, blind to its own interest and bent on its own destruction, it is Britain … Bless’d with all the commerce she could wish for, and furnished by a vast extension of dominion with the means of civilizing both the eastern and western world, she has made no other use of both than proudly to idolize her own ‘Thunder,’ and rip up the bowels of whole countries for what she could get; –like Alexander she has made war her sport, and inflicted misery for prodagality [sic] sake.”

Making war our sport while idolizing our “thunderous” military — isn’t that an apt description of much of U.S. foreign policy for the past few decades?

But Paine wasn’t finished.  He made a dire prediction:

“All countries have sooner or later been called to their reckoning; the proudest empires have sunk when the balance was struck; and Britain, like an individual penitent, must undergo her day of sorrow, and the sooner it happens to her the better.”

No empire lasts forever — certainly not one that engages in endless and largely pointless wars.  Paine warned Britain about the high costs of war with America and how British forces were fated to lose, and he was right.

In a country that supposedly respects and even worships its Founders, isn’t it time Americans listened to Thomas Paine on the horrors of war and the perils of empires blinded by power and greed?

End the wars, America.  Bring our troops home.  And restore freedom to our land.

(Quotations from Paine are from “The American Crisis” as published in Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, Library of America, pp. 108, 165-66, written originally in 1777 and 1778)

My Dad’s Silver Dollars

Tomorrow is Veterans Day, which used to be known as Armistice Day. It was a day to celebrate peace — 11/11/1918 marked the end of World War I. But of course it’s become a day to celebrate veterans, but we already have Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, etc. There’s even a “National Day of the Deployed,” as in troops deployed overseas, which occurred this year on Oct. 26th.

11/11 should be a day to celebrate the end of war. A day to mark the promise of peace. That’s what my dad’s silver dollars were all about in the 1920s.

It’s high time “peace” became a thing again.

Bracing Views

W.J. Astore

My dad left me two silver dollars.  They’re worth much in sentimental value (I’ll explain in a moment), but they also teach us something about how America has changed.

Here’s a photo of them.  Lady Liberty is on the front, an eagle is on the back.

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These were “peace” dollars issued in the aftermath of World War I.  (Note the word “peace” under the eagle.)  Imagine that: a coin issued by the USA dedicated to and celebrating peace!  It’s truly hard to imagine such a coin being issued today, and not only because our currency is now made only with base metal (a debased currency?).

In keeping with U.S. foreign policy today, an equivalent 2018 (faux silver) dollar would doubtless feature the god of war on the front with a menacing eagle clutching missiles, drones, and bombs on the back.

Anyway, I promised a story about my dad’s…

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Democracy and War

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James Madison knew that endless war is the harshest enemy of liberty

W.J. Astore

Democracies should be slow to start wars and quick to end them.  James Madison taught us that.  Why is America today the very opposite of this?

I thought of this as I read Danny Sjursen’s fine article at TomDispatch.com.  Sjursen, a retired Army major, is a strong critic of America’s forever wars.  He served in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost soldiers under his command.  He knows the bitter cost of war and expresses it well in his article, which I encourage you to read.  Here’s an excerpt:

Recently, my mother asked me what I thought my former students [West Point cadets] were now doing or would be doing after graduation. I was taken aback and didn’t quite know how to answer.

Wasting their time and their lives was, I suppose, what I wanted to say. But a more serious analysis, based on a survey of U.S. Army missions in 2019 and bolstered by my communications with peers still in the service, leaves me with an even more disturbing answer. A new generation of West Point educated officers, graduating a decade and a half after me, faces potential tours of duty in… hmm, Afghanistan, Iraq, or other countries involved in the never-ending American war on terror, missions that will not make this country any safer or lead to “victory” of any sort, no matter how defined.

Repetition.  Endless repetition.  That is the theme of America’s wars today.

Remember the movie “Groundhog Day,” with Bill Murray?  Murray’s character repeats the same day, over and over again.  He’s stuck in an infinite loop from which he can’t escape.  Much like America’s wars today, with one exception: Murray’s character actually learns some humility from the repetition.  He shows a capacity for growth and change.  And that’s how he escapes his loop.  He changes.  He grows.  The U.S. military’s leadership?  Not so much.

But I don’t just blame the senior leaders of the U.S. military.  They’re not that dumb.  It’s the system of greed-war they and we inhabit.  Why change endless war when certain powerful forces are endlessly profiting from it?  War, after all, is a racket, as General Smedley Butler knew.  It’s a racket that’s contrary to democracy; one that buttresses authoritarianism and even kleptocracy, since you can justify all kinds of theft in the cause of “keeping us safe” and “supporting our troops.”

Danny Sjursen, a true citizen-soldier, remembers that war is supposed to be waged in accordance with the Constitution and only to protect our country against enemies.  But being a citizen-soldier has gone out of style in today’s military.  Everyone is supposed to identify as a warrior/warfighter, which has the added benefit of suppressing thought about why we fight.

Eager to fight, slow to think, might be the new motto of America’s military.  Such a motto,  consistent with forever war, is inconsistent with democracy.

Don’t Vote for the Person You Believe In!

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Feel the Bern

W.J. Astore

The corporate-owned media is at it again, urging Democrats to vote for a sensible centrist like Joe Biden.  According to Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post:

“Warren is a much bigger risk for Democrats (and the survival of our democracy) than is Biden. There may be candidates who could, if they managed to rise to the top of the Democratic polls and win nomination, be as competitive as Biden, but Warren and Sanders fail to attract a chunk of voters that Biden grabs, and by the way they are campaigning, they are unlikely to remedy that deficit.”

Poor Elizabeth Warren.  Not only is she a “bigger risk for Democrats.”  Her very emergence as a contender imperils “the survival of our democracy.”  And I thought a Trump presidency was bad!

Unsurprisingly, the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post is against Warren, Bernie Sanders, and other progressives.  Bezos loves his billions and doesn’t wish to share them with anyone.  Taxes, after all, are for the little people, not for the mega-billionaire owner of Amazon.

It’s amazing how the mainstream media peddles the same narrative election cycle after election cycle.  Democrats are always told to reject “radical” or “extreme” politicians like Warren and Sanders, even though Warren is a former Republican and Bernie is basically FDR-lite.  Instead, Democrats are supposed to embrace the “sensible centrist,” someone like Joe Biden, who is basically a corporate hack who will run and rule as an Eisenhower Republican (just as Barack Obama did, as he himself admitted in an interview).

It’s funny how the “radical” Republicans got their man (Donald Trump), but Democrats are advised to reject “radical” candidates who promise them better health care, student loan debt relief, taxpayer-subsidized college education, affordable housing, and the like.  That’s crazy talk!  You can’t have your man (or woman), progressives.  You need to vote for solid old Joe Biden, or Milquetoast Mayor Pete, or someone similar who’s “safe” and “moderate” in their views.

What arrant nonsense.  We need to vote for the man or woman we believe in.  The one who excites us.  The one who stands for what we believe in.

For me, that candidate is Bernie Sanders.

Healthcare in America: No Pony for Us

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Wise up, America!  Only the richest little girls get ponies (Scene from “Gone with the Wind”)

W.J. Astore

The comedian and political commentator Jimmy Dore has a great sketch about Americans not getting a pony.  The “pony” in question is taxpayer-funded, single-payer health care.  Only the most naive or gullible or spoiled Americans could possibly believe they deserve such a pony — this is an argument advanced by Democratic sages like Hillary Clinton, among many others, like Nancy Pelosi.  She’s supported today by “sensible centrists” like Joe Biden and “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg, who argue that Medicare for All is wildly impractical and crazily expensive.

As my wife quipped, for “sensible centrists” and their ilk, we don’t get a pony — but we do get to pony up.

Yes, Americans get to pony up — and up — and up, in the form of high insurance costs, deductibles, co-pays, and the like.  And let’s not forget the high cost of life-giving prescriptions, such as insulin, which under our wonderful private systems have soared in price.

Those who attempt to sell Medicare for All in America, like Elizabeth Warren this weekend, are dismissed as delusional.  Take this headline at Reuters: Republicans, Democrats, ‘SNL’ attack Warren’s U.S. ‘Medicare for All’ plan.

Wow!  Everyone is against her — even liberal comedians at Saturday Night Live (SNL).  No pony for us!

Yet, as Jimmy Dore pointed out in his skit, other countries and peoples get ponies.  The Canadians do.  The British do.  The Germans.  The French.  The Italians.  The Japanese.  And so on.

Want a pony, America?  Better move to Finland.  Or Hong Kong.  Or Greece.  Or New Zealand.  Or Tara.  Because you’re not getting a “pony” here.