Telling War Stories

There I wasn’t: The Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, August 2009 (Wikipedia)

W.J. Astore

Combat myths matter to more than just military members. So do their ramifications.

I don’t have any personal war stories to tell.  In my twenty years in the U.S. Air Force, I never saw combat.  I started as a developmental engineer, working mainly on computer software, and morphed into a historian of science and technology who taught for six years at the USAF Academy.  I worked on software projects that helped pilots plan their missions and helped the world to keep track of objects in Earth orbit.  I taught military cadets who did see combat and served as the dean of students at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, where I saw plenty of young troops cross the graduation stage with language skills in Arabic and Pashto and other languages as they prepared to deploy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  But no combat for me.

I got lucky.  As one friend, an Army colonel, told me: any day you’re not being shot at is a good day in the Army.  The result, however, is that I can’t tell exciting war stories that begin: “There I was” in Baghdad, or Kandahar, or Fallujah, or the Korengal Valley.

But I was involved in computer simulations (“war games”) at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado near the end of the Cold War.  The one I remember most vividly ended with a Soviet nuclear missile strike on the United States.  As I watched the (simulated) missile tracks emerge from Soviet territory, cross the Arctic circle, and terminate in American cities, I had a momentary glimpse of nuclear terror.  What if I ‘d just witnessed the death of millions of Americans on a monochrome computer screen?  That’s a “war story” that’s stayed with me, and so I’m a firm supporter of eliminating all nuclear weapons everywhere.

That’s my “there I sorta was” story.  Yet, whether you’ve served in the military or not, all Americans tell themselves war stories, or rather stories about America’s wars.  The basic story most tell themselves goes something like this:

America is a good and decent country, our troops are heroes, that we wage wars reluctantly and for noble causes, and that our wars are almost exclusively defensive or preventive.  We tell ourselves we don’t want to be bombing and killing in Afghanistan and Iraq and Somalia and Yemen and elsewhere, but we have to be.  Bad people are doing bad things, and we need to fight them over there else we’ll have to fight them right here.

Yet what if the stories we tell ourselves are all wrong?  What if we are the bad people, or at least the ones doing much of the bad things?  And, even if those stories aren’t always wrong and we aren’t always bad, what are the costs of permanent war – all those “bad things” associated with war – to our democracy, what’s left of it, that is? 

A book I return to is Every Man in this Village is a Liar: An Education in War, by Megan Stack.  Stack was a war correspondent who witnessed the effects of war in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.  She focuses not on strategy or tactics or weaponry or combat but on the impact of war on people.  And in her chapter on “Terrorism and Other Stories,” she reaches this powerful conclusion:

It matters, what you do at war.  It matters more than you ever want to know.  Because countries, like people, have collective consciences and memories and souls, and the violence we deliver in the name of our nation is pooled like sickly tar at the bottom of who we are.  The soldiers who don’t die for us come home again.  They bring with them the killers they became on our national behalf… 

We may wish it were not so, but action amounts to identity.  We become what we do.  You can tell yourself all the stories you want, but you can’t leave your actions over there … All of that poison seeps back into our soil.

Nothing has changed since Stack’s book was published a decade ago.  U.S. forces remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, still fighting that word, terrorism, even as there’s renewed talk within the Pentagon of a new cold war against Russia and China.  A reboot of that Cold War I thought I’d witnessed the end of thirty years ago.  (I even got a certificate signed by President George H.W. Bush thanking me for helping to win that war.) Could it be that real enemy doesn’t reside in Moscow or Beijing, but in us?  As Stack continued:

And it makes us lie to ourselves, precisely because we want to believe that we are good … we Americans tell ourselves that we are fighting tyranny and toppling dictators.  And we say this word, terrorism, because it has become the best excuse of all.  We push into other lands, we chase the ghosts of a concept, because it is too hard to admit that evil is already in our own hearts and blood is on our hands.

As Americans we need to stop telling ourselves self-serving war stories and start telling much tougher ones about working for peace.  We need to stop telling (and selling) stories about a new cold war and stop “investing” a trillion dollars in new nuclear bombers, missiles, and submarines.  I’ve seen those simulated nuclear missile tracks crossing the pole and ending in American cities; that was scary enough. The real thing would be unimaginably terrifying and would likely end life on our planet.

What mad story can we possibly tell ourselves to justify the continued building of more ecocidal and genocidal weapons?

We humans are great storytellers but we’re not smart ones.  Perhaps it’s the power of our stories that has led us to be the dominant and most destructive species on this planet.  The problem is that we still tell far too many war stories and value them far too highly.  Peace, meanwhile, if mentioned at all, is dismissed as fantasy, a tale to be told to children alongside stories of unicorns and fairies—which, to the first generation of voting age adults never to have known it, it sort of is.

Unless we smarten up and grow as a species, our collective war stories will likely be the death of us.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.

On War, Trump Has Largely Been an Appeaser

W.J. Astore

For all his tough-guy posturing and his attempts to pose like Winston Churchill, President Trump has largely been an appeaser to the military-industrial complex and its insatiable appetite for wars and weapons sales.

Trump, frowning (he thinks) like Churchill

Yes, it’s good news that Trump is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, though roughly 2500 troops will remain in each country when Joe Biden takes office in January. In short, Trump isn’t ending these wars; he’s merely reducing the number of boots on the ground. His Acting Defense Secretary, Chris Miller, described it as a “repositioning of forces from those two countries.”

Repositioning! Perish the thought that the U.S. military might retreat or even withdraw. The answer is to “reposition” those deck chairs on the USS Titanic and its imperial wars, never mind the sinking feeling you may be experiencing.

Meanwhile, Trump recently announced more weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates, including F-35 fighter-bombers and Reaper drones, worth $23 billion to U.S. weapons manufacturers. When it comes to empowering merchants of death, the United States is indeed number one.

Throughout his four years of office, Trump courted the Pentagon and the Complex by throwing money at it. He hired Complex functionaries like General (retired) James Mattis and General H.R. McMaster and Raytheon lobbyist Mark Esper to run things for him. The result was predictable: more of the same, such that Trump never kept his campaign promise to end America’s wasteful wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Perhaps this was because Trump didn’t want to be blamed if things went south (as they probably will) if he’d ordered all U.S. troops out of these countries. Trump, like most Americans, hates to be labeled a loser. But what he needed to be reminded of was that these countries were never ours to win to begin with. The answer to “Who lost Afghanistan?” is not the president who finally “repositions” all U.S. troops from that country. The answer is Bush/Cheney, Obama/Biden, Trump/Pence, and, assuming they keep the war going in Afghanistan (and elsewhere), Biden/Harris.

Fighting needless and wasteful wars on the periphery of empire makes sense only to weapons makers and warmongers. Ditto making massive weapons sales, especially to unstable areas. The “Made in America” label used to be seen proudly on everything from clothing and shoes to engines and steel; now it’s affixed mainly to weapons and wars.

Before he took office, Trump promised a new approach, an America First approach, that would end the folly of perpetual wars that cost trillions of dollars. In this he failed. Because when it came to the Pentagon and to weapons makers, Trump chose appeasement rather than confrontation.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.

A Typical Democratic Official on the Pentagon and War

Jeh Johnson with Biden and Obama, 2013 (White House photo)

W.J. Astore

Jeh Johnson, formerly homeland security secretary under President Obama, showed how a typical Democratic official approaches the Pentagon and war as he spoke on ABC’s This Week on Sunday (11/15).  For Johnson, the Pentagon “is typically an island of stability” in the U.S. government, but President Trump was destabilizing that island because of recent changes to Pentagon personnel.  Trump’s changes could be driven by his desire to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, speculated Johnson, which was not a good thing:

“If he [Trump] wants troops out of Afghanistan, as I know most Americans do, we have to do it in a way that makes sense, in an orderly manner, and that comports with battlefield reality … in trying to strike a deal, you don’t unilaterally surrender your greatest point of leverage by unilaterally withdrawing troops before the Afghan government and the Taliban have stuck a deal. So this is very concerning and if I were in the Biden transition team right now, I’d be very focused … on restoring stability in our national security.”

We can’t surrender our “leverage,” those thousands of U.S. troops that remain in harm’s way in an unnecessary war that was won and then lost almost two decades ago, because it’s that “leverage” that will compel the Taliban, who have already won the war, to strike a deal with an Afghan government that exists mainly because the U.S. government props it up.  Makes sense to me.

By the way, only “most Americans” want our troops to come home?  Where are all the other Americans who want them to stay there indefinitely?  Within the Washington Beltway, I’d wager.

The Afghan war has always struck me as nonsensical.  Yes, some kind of response to the 9/11 attacks was needed, and initial U.S. military strikes in 2001-02 succeeded in toppling the Taliban, in the sense they saw no reason to stand and fight against withering fire.  At that moment, the U.S. military should have declared victory and left.  Instead, the Bush/Cheney administration decided on its own disastrous occupation, extended another eight years by Obama/Biden, even though we knew full well the extent of the Soviet disaster in Afghanistan in the 1980s. 

The Afghan war has lasted so long that I’ve been writing articles against it for more than a decade.  You’d think any sensible and sane Democrat would love to see U.S. troops withdrawn and the war finally come to an end.  Not so.  The war must continue in the name of “leverage” and “stability.”

I like Johnson’s truly absurdist reference to “battlefield reality,” which, if we’re being real for a moment, reflects a Taliban victory.  Unless the U.S. wants to occupy Afghanistan forever, with hundreds of thousands of troops, that victory is not about to be reversed.  And what kind of “victory” would that be? 

“Stability” is not preserved by fighting unwinnable wars on the imperial periphery, unless you’re talking about the stability of Pentagon finances and corporate profits.  Johnson’s wiki bio does mention he’s on the boards of Lockheed Martin Corporation and U.S. Steel, which certainly hints at a conflict of interest when it comes to offering advice on ending wars.

In the meantime, we probably shouldn’t tell our troops, whom we’re supposed to love and support, that we’re keeping them in Afghanistan for “leverage” until the “battlefield reality” is more in our favor.  That’s truly a recipe for endless war in a place that well deserves its reputation as the graveyard of empires.

Finally, a reminder to Democrats: your Pentagon is an island of stability, and your troops are creating the leverage that allows democracy to flourish everywhere.  If this makes sense to you, and if this is the guiding philosophy of Joe Biden’s national security team, we’re truly in deep trouble.

Bonus Lesson: The Pentagon is an “island” of government only if that island is roughly the size of Pangaea.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.

Killing Democracy in America

W.J. Astore

While the mainstream media focuses on alleged threats from without, the most insidious dangers are those from within America, as I argue in my latest article for TomDispatch.com.  Here’s an excerpt:

Killing Democracy in America
The Military-Industrial Complex as a Cytokine Storm
By William J. Astore

The phrase “thinking about the unthinkable” has always been associated with the unthinkable cataclysm of a nuclear war, and rightly so. Lately, though, I’ve been pondering another kind of unthinkable scenario, nearly as nightmarish (at least for a democracy) as a thermonuclear Armageddon, but one that’s been rolling out in far slower motion: that America’s war on terror never ends because it’s far more convenient for America’s leaders to keep it going — until, that is, it tears apart anything we ever imagined as democracy.

I fear that it either can’t or won’t end because, as Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out in 1967 during the Vietnam War, the United States remains the world’s greatest purveyor of violence — and nothing in this century, the one he didn’t live to see, has faintly proved him wrong. Considered another way, Washington should be classified as the planet’s most committed arsonist, regularly setting or fanning the flames of fires globally from Libya to Iraq, Somalia to Afghanistan, Syria to — dare I say it — in some quite imaginable future Iran, even as our leaders invariably boast of having the world’s greatest firefighters (also known as the U.S. military).

Scenarios of perpetual war haunt my thoughts. For a healthy democracy, there should be few things more unthinkable than never-ending conflict, that steady drip-drip of death and destruction that drives militarism, reinforces authoritarianism, and facilitates disaster capitalism. In 1795, James Madison warned Americans that war of that sort would presage the slow death of freedom and representative government. His prediction seems all too relevant in a world in which, year after year, this country continues to engage in needless wars that have nothing to do with national defense.

You Wage War Long, You Wage It Wrong

To cite one example of needless war from the last century, consider America’s horrendous years of fighting in Vietnam and a critical lesson drawn firsthand from that conflict by reporter Jonathan Schell. “In Vietnam,” he noted, “I learned about the capacity of the human mind to build a model of experience that screens out even very dramatic and obvious realities.” As a young journalist covering the war, Schell saw that the U.S. was losing, even as its military was destroying startlingly large areas of South Vietnam in the name of saving it from communism. Yet America’s leaders, the “best and brightest” of the era, almost to a man refused to see that all of what passed for realism in their world, when it came to that war, was nothing short of a first-class lie.

Why? Because believing is seeing and they desperately wanted to believe that they were the good guys, as well as the most powerful guys on the planet. America was winning, it practically went without saying, because it had to be. They were infected by their own version of an all-American victory culture, blinded by a sense of this country’s obvious destiny: to be the most exceptional and exceptionally triumphant nation on this planet.

As it happened, it was far more difficult for grunts on the ground to deny the reality of what was happening — that they were fighting and dying in a senseless war. As a result, especially after the shock of the enemy’s Tet Offensive early in 1968, escalating protests within the military (and among veterans at home) together with massive antiwar demonstrations finally helped put the brakes on that war. Not before, however, more than 58,000 American troops died, along with millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians.

In the end, the war in Indochina was arguably too costly, messy, and futile to continue. But never underestimate the military-industrial complex, especially when it comes to editing or denying reality, while being eternally over-funded for that very reality. It’s a trait the complex has shared with politicians of both parties. Don’t forget, for instance, the way President Ronald Reagan reedited that disastrous conflict into a “noble cause” in the 1980s. And give him credit! That was no small thing to sell to an American public that had already lived through such a war. By the way, tell me something about that Reaganesque moment doesn’t sound vaguely familiar almost four decades later when our very own “wartime president” long ago declared victory in the “war” on Covid-19, even as the death toll from that virus approaches 150,000 in the homeland.

In the meantime, the military-industrial complex has mastered the long con of the no-win forever war in a genuinely impressive fashion. Consider the war in Afghanistan. In 2021 it will enter its third decade without an end in sight. Even when President Trump makes noises about withdrawing troops from that country, Congress approves an amendment to another massive, record-setting military budget with broad bipartisan support that effectively obstructs any efforts to do so (while the Pentagon continues to bargain Trump down on the subject).

The Vietnam War, which was destroying the U.S. military, finally ended in an ignominious withdrawal. Almost two decades later, after the 2001 invasion, the war in Afghanistan can now be — the dream of the Vietnam era — fought in a “limited” fashion, at least from the point of view of Congress, the Pentagon, and most Americans (who ignore it), even if not the Afghans. The number of American troops being killed is, at this point, acceptably low, almost imperceptible in fact (even if not to Americans who have lost loved ones over there).

More and more, the U.S. military is relying on air power, unmanned drones, mercenaries, local militias, paramilitaries, and private contractors. Minimizing American casualties is an effective way of minimizing negative media coverage here; so, too, are efforts by the Trump administration to classify nearly everything related to that war while denying or downplaying “collateral damage” — that is, dead civilians — from it.

Their efforts boil down to a harsh truth: America just plain lies about its forever wars, so that it can keep on killing in lands far from home.

When we as Americans refuse to take in the destruction we cause, we come to passively accept the belief system of the ruling class that what’s still bizarrely called “defense” is a “must have” and that we collectively must spend significantly more than a trillion dollars a year on the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and a sprawling network of intelligence agencies, all justified as necessary defenders of America’s freedom. Rarely does the public put much thought into the dangers inherent in a sprawling “defense” network that increasingly invades and dominates our lives.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that low-cost wars, at least in terms of U.S. troops killed and wounded in action, can essentially be prolonged indefinitely, even when they never result in anything faintly like victory or fulfill any faintly useful American goal. The Afghan War remains the case in point. “Progress” is a concept that only ever fits the enemy — the Taliban continues to gain ground — yet, in these years, figures like retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus have continued to call for a “generational” commitment of troops and resources there, akin to U.S. support for South Korea.

Who says the Pentagon leadership learned nothing from Vietnam? They learned how to wage open-ended wars basically forever, which has proved useful indeed when it comes to justifying and sustaining epic military budgets and the political authority that goes with them. But here’s the thing: in a democracy, if you wage war long, you wage it wrong. Athens and the historian Thucydides learned this the hard way in the struggle against Sparta more than two millennia ago. Why do we insist on forgetting such an obvious lesson?

To read more of this dispatch, please click here.

The Pentagon — and War — Win Again

f-35b-lightning-ii_010
The Pentagon Budget: Up, Up, and Away!  That budget is the true stealth warplane, nearly invisible to oversight and nearly impregnable to all challenges

W.J. Astore

Who’s going to win the 2020 election?  I can already tell you who’s won: the military-industrial-congressional complex.  With broad bipartisan support, the next Pentagon budget will be $740.5 billion, and that’s just for starters.  Congress has also acted to thwart troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, because fighting a devastating war for 19 years and counting isn’t enough.  (See this excellent article and video by Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept.)  We must keep fighting that war because — well, reasons.  You can insert various phony reasons here: we must support our Afghan allies; we must combat terrorism; we must stay loyal to the Nato allies we dragooned into the war; we must continue fighting or else Russia wins because … bounties?  Putin?

The real reasons: profit.  Bases.  Resources.  And a total lack of sense and fortitude within the Washington Beltway.

It’s deja vu all over again, because in 2012 I wrote the following article on how the Pentagon had already won the election irrespective of which candidate — Barack Obama or Mitt Romney — prevailed.  And so it proved.

Even during a pandemic, even during a recession, even when American workers and our armies of the unemployed need all the help they can get, the Pentagon budget reigns supreme.  War and weapons are truly the health of the state here in America, uniting Democrats and Republicans in a form of militaristic bliss.  But fighting and containing Covid-19?  Helping the needy?  Not so much.

Here’s my article from 2012, originally posted at TomDispatch.com:

The National Security State Wins (Again)
Why the Real Victor in Campaign 2012 Won’t Be Obama or Romney
By William J. Astore

Now that Mitt Romney is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, the media is already handicapping the presidential election big time, and the neck-and-neck opinion polls are pouring in.  But whether President Obama gets his second term or Romney enters the Oval Office, there’s a third candidate no one’s paying much attention to, and that candidate is guaranteed to be the one clear winner of election 2012: the U.S. military and our ever-surging national security state.

The reasons are easy enough to explain.  Despite his record as a “warrior-president,” despite the breathless “Obama got Osama” campaign boosterism, common inside-the-Beltway wisdom has it that the president has backed himself into a national security corner.  He must continue to appear strong and uncompromising on defense or else he’ll get the usual Democrat-as-war-wimp label tattooed on his arm by the Republicans.

Similarly, to have a realistic chance of defeating him — so goes American political thinking — candidate Romney must be seen as even stronger and more uncompromising, a hawk among hawks.  Whatever military spending Obama calls for, however much he caters to neo-conservative agendas, however often he confesses his undying love for and extols the virtues of our troops, Romney will surpass him with promises of even more military spending, an even more muscular and interventionist foreign policy, and an even deeper love of our troops.

Indeed, with respect to the national security complex, candidate Romney already comes across like Edward G. Robinson’s Johnny Rocco in the classic film Key Largo: he knows he wants one thing, and that thing is more.  More ships for the Navy.  More planes for the Air Force.  More troops in general — perhaps 100,000 more.  And much more spending on national defense.

Clearly, come November, whoever wins or loses, the national security state will be the true victor in the presidential sweepstakes.

Of course, the election cycle alone is hardly responsible for our national love of weaponry and war.  Even in today’s straitened fiscal climate, with all the talk of government austerity, Congress feels obliged to trump an already generous president by adding yet more money for military appropriations.  Ever since the attacks of 9/11, surging defense budgetsforever war, and fear-mongering have become omnipresent features of our national landscape, together with pro-military celebrations that elevate our warriors and warfighters to hero status.  In fact, the uneasier Americans grow when it comes to the economy and signs of national decline, the more breathlessly we praise our military and its image of overwhelming power.  Neither Obama nor Romney show any sign of challenging this celebratory global “lock and load” mentality.

To explain why, one must consider not only the pro-military positions of each candidate, but their vulnerabilities — real or perceived — on military issues.  Mitt Romney is the easier to handicap.  As a Mormon missionary in France and later as the beneficiary of a high draft lottery number, Romney avoided military service during the Vietnam War.  Perhaps because he lacks military experience, he has already gone on record (during the Republican presidential debates) as deferring to military commanders on decisions such as whether we should bomb Iran.  A President Romney, it seems, would be more implementer-in-chief than civilian commander-in-chief.

Romney’s métier at Bain Capital was competence in the limited sense of buying low and selling high, along with a certain calculated ruthlessness in dividing companies and discarding people to manufacture profit.  These skills, such as they are, earn him little respect in military circles.  Compare him to Harry Truman or Teddy Roosevelt, both take-charge leaders with solid military credentials.  Rather than a Trumanesque “the buck stops here,” Romney is more about “make a buck here.”  Rather than Teddy Roosevelt’s bloodied but unbowed “man in the arena,” Romney is more bloodless equity capitalist circling high above the fray in a fancy suit.

Consider as well Romney’s five telegenic sons.  It’s hard to square Mitt’s professions of love for our military with his sons’ lack of interest in military service.  Indeed, when asked about their lack of enthusiasm for joining the armed forces during the surge in Iraq in 2007, Mitt off-handedly replied that his sons were already performing an invaluable national service by helping him get elected.

An old American upper class sense of noblesse oblige, of sons of privilege like George H.W. Bush or John F. Kennedy volunteering for national service in wartime, has been dead for decades in our otherwise military-happy country.  When it comes to sending American sons (and increasingly daughters) into harm’s way, for President Romney it’ll be another case of chickenhawk guts and working-class blood.

For election 2012, however, the main point is that the Romney family’s collective lack of service makes him vulnerable on national defense, a weakness that has already led Mitt and his campaign to overcompensate with ever more pro-military policy pronouncements supplemented with the usual bellicose rhetoric of all Republicans (Ron Paul excepted).  As a result, President-elect Romney will ultimately find himself confined, cowed, and controlled by the national security complex — and he’ll have only himself (and Barack Obama) to blame.

Obama, by way of contrast, has already shown a passion for military force that in saner times would make him invulnerable to charges of being “weak” on defense.  Fond of dressing up in military flight jackets and praising the troops to the rafters, Obama has substance to go with his style.  He’s made some tough calls like sending SEAL Team 6 into Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden; using NATO airpower to take down Qaddafi in Libya; expanding special ops and drone warfare in Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, including the assassination of U.S. citizens without judicial process.  America’s Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2009 has become a devotee of special forces, kill teams, and high-tech drones that challenge the very reality of national sovereignty.  Surely such a man can’t be accused of being weak on defense.

The political reality, of course, is different.  Despite his record, the Republican Party is forever at pains to portray Obama as suspect (that middle name Hussein!), divided in his loyalties (that Kenyan connection!), and not slavish enough in his devotion to “underdog” Israel.  (Could he be a crypto-Muslim?)

The president and his campaign staff are no fools.  Since any sign of “weakness” vis-à-vis Iran and similar enemies du jour or any expression of less than boundless admiration for our military will be exploited ruthlessly by Romney et al., Obama will continue to tack rightwards on military issues and national defense.  As a result, once elected he, too, will be a prisoner of the Complex.  In this process, the only surefire winner and all-time champ: once again, the national security state.

So what can we expect on the campaign trail this summer and fall?  Certainly not prospective civilian commanders-in-chief confident in the vitally important role of restraining or even reversing the worst excesses of an imperial state.  Rather, we’ll witness two men vying to be cheerleader-in-chief for continued U.S. imperial dominance achieved at nearly any price.

Election 2012 will be all about preserving the imperial status quo, only more so.  Come January 2013, regardless of which man takes the oath of office, we’ll remain a country with a manic enthusiasm for the military.  Rather than a president who urges us to abhor endless war, we’ll be led by a man intent on keeping us oblivious to the way we’re squandering our nation’s future in fruitless conflicts that ultimately compromise our core constitutional principles.

For all the suspense the media will gin up in the coming months, the ballots are already in and the real winner of election 2012 will be the national security state.  Unless you’re a denizen of that special interest state, we know the loser, too. It’s you.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a TomDispatch regular.  He welcomes reader comments at wjastore@gmail.com. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Astore discusses how the two presidential candidates are sure to out-militarize each other in the coming election campaign, click here or download it to your iPod here.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 William J. Astore

A Thought Experiment for America’s Afghan War

Obama
President Obama with his chosen “surge” commander, General Stanley McChrystal

W.J. Astore

The Afghan War is back in the news, mainly because of allegations that Russian entities offered a bounty to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops.  Pulling no punches, Alternet used this headline: “The Pentagon leaks an explosive story of Trump’s dereliction of duty — widening the rift between the military and the White House.”

The U.S. military has been fighting the Taliban ever since 2001, so why the latter now needs bounties to motivate them is unclear.  Indeed, the original “bounty” story at the New York Times was thinly and anonymously sourced and has been denied by Russia and the Taliban.  Of course, in the past U.S. officials had their own bounties on various “terrorists,” and who can forget President George W. Bush’s appeal to Old West lore when he echoed those “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters in the search for Osama bin Laden?

President Trump has said he wants to end the Afghan War by November, but he is surprisingly weak in reining in the Pentagon.  At some level, Trump knows the Afghan War is unwinnable; it always has been.  It’s unjust as well, though Trump never uses that kind of language.  He sees it mainly as a business proposition that’s losing money bigtime.  Yet despite all his fawning words for the military, he can’t impose his will on the Pentagon.

Back in 2010, I tried to point out the folly of America’s war in the following article.  At the time, President Obama was implementing a “surge” of troops that proved both unsustainable and unwise.  So I put together this thought experiment, putting my gun-toting neighbors and friends in the rugged hills of rural Pennsylvania in the role of an American Taliban responding to an invasive force.  A decade ago, I had no doubt who would prevail, whether in reality or in my experiment.

As the Afghan War approaches two decades, how will we ever end our folly when even so-called liberal media sources are waving red shirts and inflaming passions with talk of Russian bounties? (6/28/2020)

A Thought Experiment for Our Afghan Surge

(Written in January 2010)

Consider the following thought experiment. Give the Afghan Taliban our technology and money, and have them journey thousands of miles to the densely forested hills and mountains of rural Pennsylvania, close to where I currently live. Who’s going to prevail? The Afghans fighting a high-tech counterinsurgency campaign, or the PA locals fighting a low-tech campaign to defend their homes and way of life?

My money would be on my “hillbilly” (a term I use affectionately) neighbors who love to hunt, who know the terrain, and who are committed to liberty. My students, male and female, are generally tough, resourceful, love the outdoors, make their own beef jerky, cut and split their own wood, have plenty of guns and ammo and bows and knives and, well, you get the idea. Even in my classes, they’re wearing camouflage pants, vests, and hats. They could go from college student to people’s warrior before you could say Mao Zedong. And I doubt they’d spare much love for foreign fighters on their turf.

Now, consider an Afghan intelligence officer trying to understand rural PA culture, to blend in with the locals, to win hearts and minds. What are the chances this intelligence operative would be successful? If he speaks English, it’s in a broken, heavily accented form, insensitive to local and regional variations. If he can’t bargain with words, he might be able to bribe a few locals into helping him, but their allegiance will wane as the money runs out.

As this imaginary Afghan force seeks to gain control over the countryside, its members find themselves being picked off like so many whitetail deer. Using their drones and Hellfire missiles, they strike back at the PA rebels, only to mistake a raucous yet innocent biker rally for a conglomeration of insurgents. Among the dead bodies and twisted Harleys, a new spirit of resistance is born.

Now, if you’ve followed me in this thought experiment, why don’t we get it? Why can’t we see that the odds are stacked against us in Afghanistan? Why are we surprised that, by our own assessment, our intelligence in Afghanistan is still “clueless” after eight years and “ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced … and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers”?

And why would we think that a surge of more “clueless” operatives would reverse the tide?

Would more Taliban forces deployed to the hills and valleys of PA win the hearts and minds of the locals?

I know the answer to that hypothetical: as the PA rebels might say, no friggin’ way.

Stamping Out War

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The face of the Afghan War is an unfamiliar one to Americans

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I detail America’s lack of an antiwar movement — which is partly due to war being literally out of sight for us.  Who knows, for example, of extensive U.S. bombing in Somalia and the innocents killed in that bombing?  Nick Turse has a powerful article on that here.  Wars are rarely covered critically in the mainstream media, and the Trump administration, even more so than previous administrations, has essentially issued blackout orders on information pertaining to U.S. wars and casualty figures.

One piece of encouraging news comes from Afghanistan, where a truce with the Taliban offers hope of an end to that disastrous war.  Yet, as the New York Times reports, the reconciliation process won’t be easy:

In the second decade of this conflict, begun as an act of vengeance by the United States in 2001 and at its peak involving a force of more than 100,000 American troops, the war has increasingly fallen on the backs of young Afghans.

Over the past five years alone, about 50,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers have died fighting. The number for the Taliban is estimated to be the same if not more. The fighting has been brutal, intimate, the same forces on each side often battling each other in familiar localities over long stretches of time.

It’s relatively straightforward for U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan.  But what about the Afghan peoples themselves and their struggles with the legacy of this brutal war?

Here’s the beginning of my article:

There is no significant anti-war movement in America because there’s no war to protest. Let me explain. In February 2003, millions of people took to the streets around the world to protest America’s march to war against Iraq. That mass movement failed. The administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had a radical plan for reshaping the Middle East and no protesters, no matter how principled or sensible or determined, were going to stop them in their march of folly. The Iraq War soon joined the Afghan invasion of 2001 as a quagmire and disaster, yet the antiwar movement died down as U.S. leaders worked to isolate Americans from news about the casualties, costs, calamities, and crimes of what was by then called “the war on terror.”

And in that they succeeded. Even though the U.S. now lives in a state of perpetual war, for most Americans it’s a peculiar form of non-war. Most of the time, those overseas conflicts are literally out of sight (and largely out of mind). Meanwhile, whatever administration is in power assures us that our attention isn’t required, nor is our approval asked for, so we carry on with our lives as if no one is being murdered in our name.

War without dire consequences poses a conundrum. In a representative democracy, waging war should require the people’s informed consent as well as their concerted mobilization. But consent is something that America’s leaders no longer want or need and, with an all-volunteer military, there’s no need to mobilize the rest of us.

Back in 2009, I argued that our military was, in fact, becoming a quasi-foreign legion, detached from the people and ready to be dispatched globally on imperial escapades that meant little to ordinary Americans. That remains true today in a country most of whose citizens have been at pains to divorce themselves and their families from military service — and who can blame them, given the atrocious results of those wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa?

Yet that divorce has come at a considerable cost. It’s left our society in a state of low-grade war fever, while accelerating an everyday version of militarism that Americans now accept as normal. A striking illustration of this: President Trump’s recent State of the Union address, which was filled with bellicose boasts about spending trillions of dollars on wars and weaponry, assassinating foreign leaders, and embracing dubious political figures to mount illegal coups (in this case in Venezuela) in the name of oil and other resources. The response: not opposition or even skepticism from the people’s representatives, but rare rapturous applause by members of both political parties, even as yet more troops were being deployed to the Middle East.

Please read the rest of my article here.  Let’s do our best to stamp out war.

Top Stories of U.S. Foreign Policy in 2019

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What happened to Afghanistan and all that lying about progress?

W.J. Astore

According to FP: Foreign Policy, these are the top five stories in U.S. foreign policy in 2019.  I’ve inserted quick comments at the end in bold:

1. U.S. and Turkey Lock Horns Over Syria.

“U.S. support to the Syrian Democratic Forces has long angered Turkey, a NATO ally which views the Kurdish-led group as a terrorist threat … But in a fateful October phone call, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated his longtime threat to launch a cross-border invasion. This time Trump capitulated, moving a handful of U.S. troops so the Turks could begin the assault against the Kurds … Hundreds have been killed and roughly 200,000 people were displaced.”

Comment: Syria is not a vital U.S. interest.  U.S. forces shouldn’t be there.  And who are these “democratic forces” of Syria?

2. Trump Impeached Over Ukraine Scandal.

“Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating a Democratic rival this year led to the third impeachment of a U.S. president in history, thrusting Washington’s national security apparatus into the spotlight.”

Comment: The U.S. shouldn’t be meddling in Ukraine.  And we shouldn’t be sending more weapons there.  I sure as hell don’t want my taxpayer dollars going to weapons for Ukraine.

3. North Korea Talks Sputter and Stall.

“The historic nuclear talks between Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un in 2018 offered hope that the two countries could de-escalate tensions and prevent a nuclear confrontation. Talks stalled after the Singapore Summit in June 2018. While both sides made significant verbal commitments in 2019, the year saw a gradual deterioration of bilateral relations.”

Comment: North Korea isn’t giving up its nuclear weapons.  The North Koreans saw what happened to Gaddafi in Libya when he gave up his WMD.  Plus nuclear weapons and missiles are a prestige project for Kim Jong-un, who’s played Trump like a fiddle.

4. Iran Strikes Back.

“Tensions between Iran and the United States skyrocketed in 2019, as the U.S. maximum pressure campaign took effect and Tehran lashed out against harsh U.S. sanctions. (Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal in 2018.) … Attacks have ceased in recent weeks as Tehran launched a brutal crackdown on the worst political unrest the country has seen since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago. But U.S. officials are bracing for another devastating strike in the region, this time perhaps targeting the region’s critical sources of drinking water.”

Comment: Harsh U.S. sanctions are an act of war — or at least we’d see them that way if the roles were reversed.  And why is Iran always seen as the aggressor capable of launching “devastating” strikes?

5. Venezuela Crisis Simmers.

“Venezuela’s Russia-backed leader Nicolás Maduro clung to power this year despite an economic collapse, nationwide blackouts and fierce opposition from Juan Guaidó, who declared himself Venezuela’s interim president in January with support from the West. Tensions threatened to boil over in May, when Guaidó tried and failed to ignite an uprising.  The attempted coup was seen as an embarrassing failure by the United States and particularly National Security Advisor John Bolton, reportedly the architect of multiple attempts to unseat Maduro. In addition to harsh sanctions, the United States went so far as to draw up military options, but never took any action.”

Comment: Looks like Bolton takes the fall for inept U.S. meddling in Venezuela.  Guess what?  It’s all about the oil — and the money.

Of course, FP: Foreign Policy missed the biggest story of 2019: Consistent, extensive, and persistent lying by U.S. leaders about the course of the Afghan War, as revealed by the “Afghan Papers” published by the Washington Post.

Readers — what do you think about this list?  In the holiday spirit, I see much naughtiness here, and no niceness.  Santa won’t be pleased.

Rewarding the Pentagon for Lying

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Nothing to see here, people!

W.J. Astore

The Afghan Papers have revealed widespread, systemic, and enduring lying about the course and progress of the Afghan War by U.S. military and civilian leaders.  So, what’s the punishment for all this lying?  Record-setting Pentagon budgets!  The more they lie, the more money they get.  Is it any wonder why these wars persist, without apparent end, when no one is punished for lies that lead to the death of American troops (not forgetting all the foreign innocents who are killed and wounded because of these lies)?

This may seem hard to believe, but “Integrity First” is the fundamental core value of the U.S. Air Force.  But what happens when the system is revealed to have no integrity? When the system sends young Americans to die in a lost war, a war that our most senior leaders have lied about since almost the very beginning?

I know we’re all jaded and cynical, but this is a monstrous failure, a horrendous betrayal of trust.

The entire military leadership at the top should be gutted. Anyone implicated in these lies, distortions, etc. should be cashiered. That’s what a real president and commander-in-chief would do. Heads should roll!

But the Pentagon prefers to obfuscate and pretend that the Afghan Papers are old news, and pretty much meaningless at that.  Meanwhile, fake tough guy Trump (along with the Congress) kowtows to the Pentagon, giving the generals everything they want as next year’s Pentagon budget soars to $738 billion, including money for a “Space Force,” among many other boondoggles.

Endless self-serving lies rewarded by scads of money — small wonder that America’s wars persist without end.

Troop “Reduction” in Afghanistan!

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Photo that allegedly persuaded Trump that Afghanistan wasn’t a lost cause

W.J. Astore

Trump was elected president in 2016 partly because he railed against America’s wasteful wars.  So, what did his advisers talk him into?  A mini-surge of troops to Afghanistan.  I still recall the odd news of Trump being shown photos of Afghan women in skirts (vintage 1972) to convince him that westernization and modernization of Afghanistan was possible.

Several thousand additional U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan in 2017, predictably achieving nothing of note.  A little more than two years later, we have another item of “big” news today, according to CNN:

The Trump Administration is preparing to announce a long-awaited reduction of US troops in Afghanistan, a senior administration official confirmed to CNN. There are between 12,000 and 13,000 US troops in the country right now, and the US has maintained a solid presence throughout the 18-year war in the area. This drawdown would remove up to 4,000 troops, with more possible reductions in the future, the official said. That matches the claim Trump made on Fox News Radio in August that his administration would take the number “down to 8,600.” The reduction comes at the same time the US is restarting peace talks with the Taliban, and some worry the troop drawdown could be seen as a concession to the terrorist group.

Where to begin with this CNN snippet?

  1.  The “reduction” is not a reduction but a return to previous troop levels at the end of the Obama administration.
  2. The U.S. “has maintained a solid presence”?  Good god.  You’d never know about all the bombing, droning, and killing the U.S. has done over the last 18+ years.  Or is that the “solid presence” we’ve been maintaining?
  3. The troop “drawdown” as a “concession” to the Taliban?  Guess what: The Taliban aren’t going anywhere, and they’re winning.  A few thousand U.S. troops, either as a “plus-up” or “drawdown,” have had and will have no impact on the reality on the ground.

Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or do both.  Perhaps my dad put it best: “We laugh to hide the tears.”

Update (12/17): Speaking of laughing to hide the tears, the Pentagon has responded to the systematic lying revealed by the so-called Afghan Papers.  It won’t surprise you the response consists of three artless dodges:

  1. We’re looking forward, not backward!
  2. This is all old news.
  3. Nothing to see here, move along.

I kid you not.