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.

Military Haves and Have-Nots

W.J. Astore

Privates should make more, generals should make less, in today’s military

My great nephew recently reported to the local MEPS (military entrance processing station) and took the oath of office. He’s enlisting in the Marine Corps and I wish him all the best.

In November 2021, with him in mind, I wrote an article, “Should you join the U.S. military?” For him, the answer was yes, and I respect his decision.

Enlisting in the U.S. military is a big step for any young adult. And there are certain benefits to it like health care, money for education, some kind of housing (or pay for housing), and of course job training and an identity, e.g “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

There are many drawbacks as well, the biggest, of course, being death. 

Death is a high price to earn a place on the “Gold Star” tree at the White House (Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

One that we often don’t think of, though, is low pay, which is why Andrea Mazzarino’s article at TomDispatch is so telling. Mazzarino, a military spouse, reminds us that more than a few military members are “food insecure.” In other words, they often have to choose between paying their rent and other bills and going hungry, which is another way of saying that the military is a (distorted) reflection of American society.

Here’s an excerpt from Mazzarino’s article:

I recently interviewed Tech Sergeant Daniel Faust, a full-time Air Force reserve member responsible for training other airmen. He’s a married father of four who has found himself on the brink of homelessness four times between 2012 and 2019 because he had to choose between necessities like groceries and paying the rent. He managed to make ends meet by seeking assistance from local charities. And sadly enough, that airman has been in all-too-good company for a while now. In 2019, an estimated one in eight military families were considered food insecure. In 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, that figure rose to nearly a quarter of them. More recently, one in six military families experienced food insecurity, according to the advocacy group Military Family Advisory Network.

You would think that a military with a colossal yearly budget of $858 billion would pay its troops enough so that they wouldn’t go hungry, but it simply isn’t so. Much of that colossal budget goes to the weapons makers (perhaps we should call them the wealth-takers?). Big companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman. Meanwhile, Private Jones, or even Sergeant Smith, is left struggling to put food on the table.

This is a perennial problem. My dad told me how he made $30 a month in the CCC in 1937 even as Army privates were making $19 a month. Small wonder that so few young men leaving the CCC decided to enlist in the military, even after hearing rah-rah recruitment speeches, my dad noted wryly.

Contrast relatively low pay for enlisted troops with the high pay of general officers. The latter make six-figure salaries (with lots of perks) and retire with six-figure pensions. They also usually “sell” their military service to weapons makers after they spin through the revolving door of the military-industrial complex. Lloyd Austin is typical. After retiring as a general officer, he made roughly $1.4 million from 2016 to 2019 in executive compensation from Raytheon. That was, of course, in addition to a generous government pension that paid him another million or so.

No one expects now-Secretary of Defense Austin to have taken vows of poverty upon retirement, but he sure could pay closer attention to the needs of the troops under him. To put it simply, privates should make more and generals less in today’s military.

Young military members are much on my mind as my great nephew prepares for boot camp. Can’t we make sure that they have enough money so that they don’t have to choose between food and rent?

Don’t Get Too Big For Your Britches

W.J. Astore

A lesson from my dad

One of the sayings my dad taught me was “don’t get too big for your britches.” It’s sound advice. Too many people are too quick to try to punch above their weight, to push and boast and to try to take charge when they shouldn’t. It’s a lesson my friends and I used to quote from the movie “Magnum Force,” where Inspector Harry Callahan, played to perfection by Clint Eastwood, reminds those around him that “a man’s got to know his limitations.”

You’re in the CCC now. My dad is on the far left, seated in front.

Recently, I was reading my father’s journal that recounts his days in the CCC, or Civilian Conservation Corps, during the 1930s at the height of the Great Depression. My father had ringside seats to a boxing match that didn’t end well for a fighter who most definitely didn’t know his limitations and got too big for his britches. But I’ll let my dad recount the story:

James Strollo was a misfit and a welterweight boxer on our team.  About 5’6” tall, he was a “no mercy” fighter.  A tall Irish boy who was a lightweight sparred with him but later refused to box with him.  Jimmy would try to knock out anyone he trained with.  But a bantamweight boxer, Jimmy Souza who fought professionally was a good friend of Jimmy Strollo—about the only feller he wouldn’t try to hurt while sparring.

Well, Al Gelinas was a pro boxer from Holyoke, Mass., who agreed to help our CCC boxing team.  He was a ranking welterweight and a real nice guy.  He agreed to fight an exhibition match with Jimmy Strollo.  The show was put on for all the CCC camp members.

The bell rang for the first and only round of the Gelinas/Strollo fight.  I was standing next to the ring and had a good view of the match.  Well, Strollo made a big mistake.  Instead of just boxing and putting on a good show, he started to pressure Al and tried to knock him out.  Well, two left jabs, a left hook, and a beautiful straight right and Strollo was K.O. right in front of me.  What a sight.  Strollo went glassy eye from the punches and collapsed on the canvas.  All the fight was taken out of him.  Nobody blamed Al Gelinas for the K.O. of Strollo.  I hope Strollo learnt a lesson.

Willie, most fighters are the nicest people you can meet.

Be careful picking your fights — and be very careful fighting against someone more skilled than you. Push too hard and you’re likely to be knocked on your britches.

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!

The Fight Over the Speaker of the House

W.J. Astore

If only Progressive Democrats had fought at all when they had the chance in 2021

There is no Left in America, not in Congress, at least. Whenever the so-called Left, or Progressives, or the Squad have an opportunity to drive policy changes, they cave to the corporate centrists within the Democratic Party. Which is why I laugh, however ruefully, when Republicans warn about the “radical left” and how powerful it allegedly is in America. What “radical left”?

Two years ago, before Nancy Pelosi was yet again elected Speaker of the House, so called Progressives (perhaps we should call them PINOs, or progressives in name only) had a rare opportunity to drive change by withholding their votes for Pelosi as Speaker, just as Republicans are doing now for Kevin McCarthy as Speaker. Like today’s Republicans, the PINOs could have extracted concessions from Pelosi, including a House vote on Medicare for all, for a $15 federal minimum wage, and similar policies the PINOs claim are at the top of their agenda. They chose to do nothing. They got no concessions. They drove no change. And thus the centrist/corporate Democrats continue to ride roughshod over them.

Remember this, Democrats? Force the vote was a rare opportunity to drive change, but the PINOs caved to Pelosi and got nothing in return

Which is why I salute the Republicans who are holding up McCarthy’s appointment as Speaker. They have convictions and are willing to fight for them. They are extracting concessions from McCarthy. Meanwhile, all the PINOs are doing is posing for selfies while poking fun at alleged Republican disorder.

No, you PINOs. This is what true democracy looks like. It’s messy. It involves in-fighting. You have to be willing to get bloodied, at least figuratively speaking. And if you’re unwilling to fight, to “bring the ruckus” to your own party, as AOC claimed she wanted to do, party rulers like Pelosi and current House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries will diss, dominate, and demote you, as they did and do. 

Let’s take a quick look at the new House Minority Leader.  CNN praised Jeffries as “the first Black lawmaker to lead a party in Congress.” That’s truly what matters, right? Diversity. More Black faces in high places. Or more women at the top. Or more LGBTQ+ and so on.

But what if “diversity” results in no meaningful policy changes? What if diversity, as my wife puts it, is mainly an optical illusion?

Jeffries, as Sabby Sabs of RBN (the Revolutionary Blackout Network) notes here, is just another corporate Democrat who’s especially skilled at fundraising for the Party. He’s against Medicare for all, he despises the Squad, he’s a fervid supporter of Israel (the “sixth borough of New York City,” he quipped), and his resume includes Georgetown University and (of course) a law degree.

Hakeem Jeffries, House Minority Leader

Can we expect progressive policies from Jeffries? Is he a radical leftist? Of course not! He’s a younger version of Pelosi, a corporate shill who’s sold as a change agent because he’s the first Black party leader in Congress, just as Pelosi was praised for the “change” she represented as the first Madam Speaker.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s generally a good thing when more women, more BIPOC, and other traditionally underrepresented groups attain positions of power. But if their ideas, policies, commitments, and practices are basically the same as those old white fat tomcats who preceded them, where’s the progress? Where’s the change?

In so many ways, today’s Democrats are yesterday’s Republicans. They are pro-war, pro-military, pro-business, and thoroughly corporate. Their alleged diversity is mostly optical. Meanwhile, the Republicans, whatever else they may be, are showing true diversity of views, as manifested by Kevin McCarthy’s messy fight for votes from his own party.

All those corporate Democrats and PINOs in Congress should take a very long look in a truth-telling mirror before crowing about how dysfunctional the Republicans allegedly are. If dysfunction means fighting for change that’s consistent with your principles and campaign promises, the Democrats could truly use some of that “dysfunction.” So too could America.

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.

Even AI Is Suspicious of the Military-Industrial Complex

W.J. Astore

Asking a leading question of the computer gods

In my eclectic reading, I came across a couple of references to ChatGPT, an experiment in artificial intelligence (AI). You ask the AI bot a question, or give it a task, and it spits out an answer, and I must say a pretty good one judging from the task I gave it.

My task to the AI bot: “Write a critical essay on the military-industrial complex.” Here’s what it generated:

The military-industrial complex refers to the relationship between a country’s military and the defense industry that supplies it, seen together as a vested interest which influences public policy. This relationship has been a source of concern for many people, who argue that it can lead to an unnecessary expansion of military budgets and an over-reliance on military solutions to problems.

One of the main criticisms of the military-industrial complex is that it can result in the waste of taxpayer money. Military contracts are often given to a select group of companies, which can result in overcharging for goods and services. Additionally, the military often purchases weapons and equipment that are unnecessary or not well-suited for the tasks at hand. This can lead to a tremendous amount of waste and inefficiency, as resources are poured into projects that do not provide much value.

Another concern is that the military-industrial complex can distort foreign policy decision-making. Countries with a strong military-industrial complex may be more likely to engage in military action, even when diplomatic solutions would be more appropriate. This can lead to an escalation of conflicts and an increased risk of war.

The military-industrial complex can also have negative impacts on domestic policy. It can divert resources away from other important priorities, such as education and healthcare. Additionally, the influence of the defense industry on policy decisions can lead to the prioritization of the needs of military contractors over the needs of the general public.

Some have argued that the military-industrial complex represents a threat to democracy, as it can give undue influence to a small group of powerful interests. This can lead to a lack of transparency and accountability in decision-making, as well as a distorted political process.

In conclusion, the military-industrial complex is a complex and multifaceted issue that has the potential to have negative impacts on both domestic and foreign policy. It is important for citizens to be aware of the potential dangers of this relationship and to hold their elected officials accountable for ensuring that military spending is responsible and transparent.

Not bad! Firstly, I’m glad I’m no longer a professor actively teaching and grading papers. Something tells me more than a few students might be reaching for help from the AI bot on their assignments. Often, I was able to catch plagiarism (the giveaway was an essay written too well with too many “big words” used correctly) by searching for certain phrases or sentences that struck me as more than odd or much too advanced, but now with these AI programs I’m guessing it’s going to be a lot harder to ensure students do their own work.

Anyhow, the AI bot essay on the military-industrial complex makes some good points, don’t you think? Though there’s still room for a human here (at least I hope so).

So what does this human intelligence (that’s me) have to say?

  1. “Unnecessary expansion of military budgets”: that’s for sure! The latest Pentagon budget is $858 billion, and that doesn’t count roughly $45 billion in aid (mostly military) to Ukraine. It also leaves out much spending related to homeland security, policing, and the like. By some estimates, 2/3rds of the federal discretionary budget is devoted to military, security, and policing.
  2. “Over-reliance on military solutions”: bingo! Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, the whole “war on terror” was and is driven by the idea that America’s singular military strength can solve everything.
  3. A “vested interest” that “influences public policy”: I think the AI bot has read Eisenhower’s warning about the undue influence of the MIC and the danger it poses to freedom and democracy.
  4. A “tremendous amount of waste and inefficiency”: Looks like the AI bot has heard that the Pentagon is missing trillions of dollars and has failed five audits in a row. It’s probably heard about wasteful weapons like the F-35 and B-21 as well. (Coincidence: as I was typing “wasteful,” the computer corrected my initial misspelling to “hateful.” Yes, I suppose a nuclear bomber that can kill millions could be described as “hateful”).
  5. “Escalation of conflicts” and “an increased risk of war”: Well, I’m glad our leaders have the Ukraine situation firmly in hand and are seeking a well-considered diplomatic solution. (Yes, that’s sarcasm. Match that, AI bot!)
  6. “Negative impacts on domestic policy”: Well, I’m glad Americans have excellent and affordable health care, virtually no debt due to educational costs, and that John Q. Public is heard as much as Boeing and Raytheon in the halls of power. (More sarcasm from the human!)
  7. “Lack of transparency and accountability”: Boy, this AI bot is smart! When’s the last time you heard of a U.S. general or admiral being cashiered for losing a war?
  8. “Important for citizens to be aware of the potential dangers” of the MIC: Hooray for the AI bot! If only we still had citizens in America who were kept informed about the dangers of the MIC. We’ve all been reduced to passive consumers and occasional voters who are told by the mainstream media to cheer for war and to revel in the beauty of our missiles.

I think you’ll agree, dear reader, that the AI bot is less sarcastic and more dispassionate than I am. It also speaks with much greater probity of the dangers of the MIC than people like Biden or Trump or Pelosi or DeSantis. So I say “three cheers!” for our new robot master. ChatGPT for President in 2024!

Just be sure to ask it the right questions …

He’s a “wartime” president!

W.J. Astore

How about words of praise for “peacetime” presidents?

I caught only a couple of minutes of mainstream media coverage of the Zelensky visit, and I suppose that makes me lucky. In that brief period, I heard Zelensky described twice in positive terms as a “wartime” president. As if it’s a great thing to be the leader of Ukraine during a devastating war.

Remember when George W. Bush took a fancy to being described as a “wartime” president in the aftermath of 9/11? The mainstream media seems to fancy the term as well. What a wonderful, praiseworthy thing it is to be a wartime president! Look at how Zelensky dresses so simply, in olive drab, as if he just stepped out of a command post. What a guy.

War shouldn’t be a spectacle. Battle flags are far less impressive than flags of peace

When I caught that media coverage yesterday of Zelensky’s visit, which included a quick meet and greet with Joe and Jill Biden with Marine Corps guards saluting in the background, I was with my brother. My brother Stevie is mentally ill. But as I watched the coverage on TV, in my brother’s room, I reflected that he’s far saner than those media types gushing about war, and a far wiser and more honest soul than the so-called leaders I was watching at the White House.

There’s nothing like being a “wartime” leader that makes certain people gush. Obviously, many leaders love it too, since wartime grants them far more authority in the cause of waging and “winning” the war. And all this is treated as the height of sobriety and sanity within our war-crazed society.

When is the mainstream media going to praise our leaders for being peacetime presidents? Jesus Christ, after all, was the Prince of Peace. We need some princes of peace today. Then again, look what they did to Jesus.