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.
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?
- The “reduction” is not a reduction but a return to previous troop levels at the end of the Obama administration.
- 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?
- 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:
- We’re looking forward, not backward!
- This is all old news.
- Nothing to see here, move along.
I kid you not.
Ten years ago, President Barack Obama decided to “surge” in the Afghan War. The previous year he had run for the presidency on the idea of Iraq being the “bad” war but Afghanistan as the “good” war. Good as in “winnable” and as countering terrorism. But Obama’s surge in Afghanistan was a flop, even as American leaders tried to sell it as buying breathing space for the evolution of freer, more stable, Afghan government.
This sell/spin process was all lies, as the Washington Post revealed yesterday:
A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.
Surprise, surprise! Sadly, the lies were obvious a decade ago, as I wrote about at TomDispatch.com in April of 2009. Here’s my article from that time. Remarkably, despite or rather because of all the lies, the war continues still, with no end in sight.
Mary McCarthy in Vietnam, Barack Obama in Afghanistan
Seven Lessons and Many Questions for the President
By William Astore (April 2009)
In 1967, outraged by the course of the Vietnam War, as well as her country’s role in prolonging and worsening it, Mary McCarthy, novelist, memoirist, and author of the bestseller The Group, went to Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, to judge the situation for herself. The next year, she went to the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. She wrote accounts of both journeys, published originally in pamphlet format as Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968), and later gathered with her other writings on Vietnam as a book, The Seventeenth Degree (1974). As pamphlets, McCarthy’s accounts sold poorly and passed into obscurity; deservedly so, some would say.
Those who’d say this, however, would be wrong. McCarthy brought a novelist’s keen eye to America’s activities and its rhetoric in Vietnam. By no means a military expert, not even an expert on Vietnam — she only made a conscious decision to study the war in Vietnam after she returned from her trip to Saigon — her impressionistic writings were nevertheless insightful precisely because she had long been a critical thinker beholden to no authority.
Her insights into our approach to war-fighting and to foreign cultures are as telling today as they were 40 years ago, so much so that President Obama and his advisors might do well to add her unconventional lessons to their all-too-conventional thinking on our spreading war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
What were those lessons? Here are seven of them, each followed by questions that, four decades later, someone at President Obama’s next press conference should consider asking him:
1. McCarthy’s most fundamental objection was to the way, in Vietnam, the U.S. government decided to apply “technology and a superior power to a political situation that will not yield to this.” At the very least, the United States was guilty of folly, but McCarthy went further. She condemned our technocentric and hegemonic form of warfare as “wicked” because of its “absolute indifference to the cost in human lives” to the Vietnamese people.
Even in 1967, the widespread, at times indiscriminate, nature of American killing was well known. For example, U.S. planes dropped roughly 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia during the war, nearly five times the tonnage used against Germany during World War II. The U.S. even waged war on the Vietnamese jungle and forest, which so effectively hid Vietnamese guerrilla forces, spraying roughly 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides (including the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange) on it.
In her outrage, McCarthy dared to compare the seeming indifference of many of her fellow citizens toward the blunt-edged sword of technological destruction we had loosed on Vietnam to the moral obtuseness of ordinary Germans under Adolf Hitler.
Questions for President Obama: Aren’t we once again relying on the destructive power of technology to “solve” complex political and religious struggles? Aren’t we yet again showing indifference to the human costs of war, especially when borne by non-Americans? Even though we’re using far fewer bombs in the Af-Pak highlands than we did in Vietnam, aren’t we still morally culpable when these “precision-guided munitions” miss their targets and instead claim innocents, or hit suspected “terrorists” who suddenly morph into wedding parties? In those cases, do we not seek false comfort in the phrase, C’est la guerre, or at least that modern equivalent: unavoidable collateral damage?
2. As Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 by calling for “peace with honor” in Vietnam, McCarthy offered her own warning about the dangers that arose when the office of the presidency collided with an American desire never to be labeled a loser: “The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.”
Questions for President Obama: Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?
3. Though critical of the U.S. military in Vietnam, McCarthy was even more critical of American civilian officials there. “On the whole,” she wrote, they “behaved like a team of promoters with a dubious ‘growth’ stock they were brokering.” At least military men were often more forthright than the civilians, if not necessarily more self-aware, McCarthy noted, because they were part of the war — the product, so to speak — not its salesmen.
Questions for President Obama: In promising to send a new “surge” of State Department personnel and other civilians into Afghanistan, are you prepared as well to parse their words? Are you braced in case they sell you a false bill of goods, even if the sellers themselves, in their eagerness to speak fairy tales to power, continually ignore the Fantasyland nature of their tale?
4. Well before Bush administration officials boasted about creating their own reality and new “facts on the ground” in Iraq, Mary McCarthy recognized the danger of another type of “fact”: “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”
Questions for President Obama: If your surge in Afghanistan fails, will you be able to de-escalate as quickly as you escalated? Or will the fact that you’ve put more troops in harm’s way (with all their equipment and all the money that will go into new base and airfield and road construction), and committed more of your prestige to prevailing, make it even harder to consider leaving?
5. A cursory reading of The Pentagon Papers, the famously secret government documents on Vietnam leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, reveals how skeptical America’s top officials were, early on, in pursuing a military solution to the situation in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, knowing better, the “best and brightest,” as journalist David Halberstam termed them in his famous, ironic book title, still talked themselves into it; and they did so, as McCarthy noted, because they set seemingly meaningful goals (“metrics” or “benchmarks,” we’d say today), which they then convinced themselves they were actually achieving. When you trick yourself into believing that you’re meeting your goals, as Halberstam noted, there’s no reason to reexamine your course of action.
Questions for President Obama: Much has been written about an internal struggle within your administration over the wisdom of surging in Afghanistan. Now, you, too, have called for the setting of “benchmarks” for your new strategy’s success. Are you wise enough to set them to capture the complexities of political realities on the ground rather than playing to American strengths? Are you capable of re-examining them, even when your advisors assure you that they are being achieved?
6. In her day, Mary McCarthy recognized the inequities of burden-sharing at home when it came to the war in Vietnam: “Casualty figures, still low [in 1967], seldom strike home outside rural and low-income groups — the silent part of society. The absence of sacrifices [among the privileged classes] has had its effect on the opposition [to the war], which feels no need, on the whole, to turn away from its habitual standards and practices — what for? We have not withdrawn our sympathy from American power and from the way of life that is tied to it — a connection that is more evident to a low-grade G.I. in Vietnam than to most American intellectuals.”
Questions for President Obama: Are you willing to listen to the common G.I. as well as to the generals who have your ear? Are you willing to insist on greater equity in burden-sharing, since once again most of the burden of Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen on “the silent part of society”? Are you able to recognize that the “best and brightest” in the corridors of power may not be the wisest exactly because they have so little to lose (and perhaps much to gain) from our “overseas contingency operations”?
7. McCarthy was remarkably perceptive when it came to the seductiveness of American technological prowess. Our technological superiority, she wrote, was a large part of “our willingness to get into Vietnam and stay there… The technological gap between us and the North Vietnamese constituted, we thought, an advantage which obliged us not to quit.”
Questions for President Obama: Rather than providing us with a war-winning edge, might our robot drones, satellite imagery, and all our other gadgetry of war seduce us into believing that we can “prevail” at a reasonable and sustainable cost? Indeed, do we think we should prevail precisely because our high-tech military brags of “full spectrum dominance”?
One bonus lesson from Mary McCarthy before we take our leave of her: Even now, we speak too often of “Bush’s war” or, more recently, “Obama’s war.” Before we start chattering mindlessly about Iraq and Afghanistan as American tragedies, we would do well to recall what McCarthy had to say about the war in Vietnam: “There is something distasteful,” she wrote, “in the very notion of approaching [Vietnam] as an American tragedy, whose protagonist is a great suffering Texan [President Lyndon Baines Johnson].”
Yes, there is something distasteful about a media that blithely refers to Bush’s or Obama’s war as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans suffer. For American troops, after all, are not the only ones paying the ultimate price when the U.S. fights foreign wars for ill-considered reasons and misguided goals.
Update: A cartoon panel by Matt Bors that sums it up:
Ten years ago, President Obama went to West Point to sell his “surge” in the Afghan War. Back then, I wrote two articles for Huffington Post on Obama’s decision to escalate that war and his choice of venue to announce his decision. Those two articles are re-posted below.
The Afghan War was supposed to be settled quickly, in America’s favor, by Obama’s surge. Yet here we are, a decade later, still mired in Afghanistan, with America’s generals either talking about several more years in Afghanistan, or several more generations. How can they be so foolish?
Obama and the Need to Surge (Posted on December 1, 2009)
In telling the American people about his plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan, President Obama has selected a venue that at first blush seems to make sense. Yet by choosing the United States Military Academy at West Point, Obama is sending at least three disturbing messages. The first message is a tacit admission to the corps of cadets — and to the American people — that we’re facing a long war of at least five, possibly ten, perhaps even fifty, years. After all, why bother to address the class of 2013 unless these cadets can also expect to be deployed to Afghanistan as platoon commanders in 2014?
The second message is that Obama is more than willing to ape the tactics of former President George W. Bush. Often when Bush had a controversial decision to announce, he did so before a sympathetic audience of assembled troops, surrounded by waving flags and military brass. Critics rightly took Bush to task for speaking so often in front of admiring troops in uniform, thereby evading tough questioning from more critical, less deferential, audiences.
The third, somewhat more subtle, message is that Obama sees the situation in Afghanistan primarily in military terms — that, if there’s a solution to Afghanistan, it’s one that must be brokered or imposed by the U.S. military. If he wanted to stress the importance of diplomacy, for example, one might think Obama would have selected the State Department as a venue; if international diplomacy, one might have considered the United Nations. But West Point it is, and thus more escalation and militarization loom.
Here’s what I’d prefer: The President, speaking honestly and directly to the American people, from the Oval Office. No military trappings. No echoes, whether intentional or unintentional, of Douglas MacArthur’s “there is no substitute for victory” speech at West Point in 1962.
West Point is all about “duty, honor, country.” Young, idealistic, and dedicated cadets need no convincing by their commander-in-chief. It’s the rightly skeptical American people who truly need convincing.
By going to West Point, Obama is not just further militarizing his presidency — he’s taking the easy way out.
Obama Goes to West Point: One Week Later (Posted on December 10, 2009)
A week ago, I argued that President Obama sent three disturbing messages in choosing West Point as the site to announce his escalatory plans for the Afghan war. A week later, I’d like to make three further points. First, I believe that the President undermined the grave seriousness of his speech by deciding post-speech to press the flesh of cadets while posing for smiling photos. An urgent call to battle was transformed into a political photo-op. “Grip and grin” photos are best left to times of celebration, like class graduation, rather than to times of grim news of the need to commit more troops to a difficult and deadly war.
Second, the President was right to emphasize that West Point cadets “represent what is finest about our country.” His meaning here was clear: they’re the “finest” because they “stand up for our security.” Having myself taught military cadets for six years, these words resonated with me. But I wish the President had elaborated further because, in spelling out why he considers our troops to be our “finest,” Obama could have reminded us of the enormous burdens — and enormous price — of war.
Put bluntly, by ordering another 35,000 or so American troops to Afghanistan, Obama was ordering men and women, including some of the young cadets from West Point’s long grey line sitting in that very auditorium, to their deaths. Their willingness to sacrifice their lives in the service of their country — to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic — marks them as being among our finest.
The ultimate price these cadets are prepared to pay puts an enormous burden on the judgment and wisdom of their Commander-in-chief. For what president wants to send America’s finest to fight and perhaps die for a lost cause or, even worse, an unjust one?
It’s not for West Point cadets, or for any other serviceman or servicewoman, to question the orders of their Commander-in-chief. They are duty-bound to carry out his orders to the best of their ability. But as “pure” citizens, we are not duty-bound to snap to attention and to salute smartly.
Obama, after all, is not our Commander-in-chief: he’s our President, our most senior public servant. We owe it to our troops to challenge him if we believe escalation in Afghanistan is not the best course of action to secure America’s safety.
So, my third point is to remind us of our duty as informed citizens to ask the tough questions of our public servants — even, if necessary, to dissent and protest — precisely because our troops are prevented from doing so by their solemn oath of office.
But I worry that we are not informed citizens, and that because of that fact, and because our personal stake in our nation’s wars is so small compared to that of the West Point cadets, we largely don’t seem to care, or care enough.
In a decidedly unscientific poll, I asked three of my classes, a total of 59 students, if they had watched the President’s speech on Afghanistan. Only one student did (and these were students enrolled in History classes).
So, I worry. I worry about more American combat brigades being sent overseas, a momentous decision capped by a photo-op of our President surrounded by beaming cadets in the prime of life. I worry that so many of my students are seemingly so ill-informed, or so uninterested, about the ramifications of this decision.
But I hope, for the sake of our troops as well as for the Afghan people, that our President somehow got it right, and that the cause for which we fight is neither lost nor unjust.
Addendum: When I wrote this article ten years ago, I said this:
It’s not for West Point cadets, or for any other serviceman or servicewoman, to question the orders of their Commander-in-chief. They are duty-bound to carry out his orders to the best of their ability.
In writing this ten years ago, I made an assumption the president’s orders would be lawful.
No military member can be forced to follow unlawful orders, which I would define as contrary to the U.S. Constitution and/or consistent with war crimes. So, for example, LT Calley was ordering as well as committing war crimes at My Lai. No troops had to, or should have, followed such orders. But we know from history and from our knowledge of military command systems how difficult it is to disobey orders, even when they are unlawful to the point of enabling war crimes.
Military cadets are educated on these distinctions; they have to take courses on ethics and discuss these complex issues in the classroom. But it’s much easier to deal with these issues in class, tough as they are, than in the heat of battle.
Things get more slippery if you consider a whole war to be immoral and unjust. If you’re in the military and ordered to participate in such a war, what do you do? You may have an option to resign, assuming you have no service commitment. But often the option is obedience or punishment. And those who are willing to risk and/or endure punishment while taking a principled stance are to be respected, or at the very least not dismissed out of hand.
For me, Chelsea Manning is a true hero. She did what other service members should always do: remembering her oath, she acted to uphold it, irrespective of the cost to her.
But there’s a counterargument that should be considered. What individual soldier has perfect knowledge? In acting, perhaps with one-sided information, are you endangering your fellow troops? Are you truly acting selflessly, or selfishly?
Not every would-be whistleblower is acting wisely or thinking coherently.
These are tough calls where people pay a very high price indeed.
Obedience is needed in the military. Even in the face of death. But obedience is wrong in the face of illegality and immorality. Thus we should elect leaders who respect legality and display morality. Sadly, that is often the very opposite of what we do as a people.
On NBC News today, I came across the following, revealing, headline:
The U.S. is eager to end its longest war. In interview, Taliban gives little sign it’s ready to change.
Aha! The U.S. military is allegedly seeking an end to its Afghan war, but it’s being stopped in its tracks by stubbornly uncompromising Taliban forces. So, it’s not our fault, right? We’re trying to leave, but the Taliban won’t let us.
I’ve been writing against the Afghan war for a decade. It was always a lost war for the United States, and it always will be. But the U.S. military doesn’t see it that way, as Andrew Bacevich explains in a recent article on America’s flailing and failing generals. These generals, Bacevich notes, have redefined the Afghan war as “successful to date.” How so? Because no major terrorist attack on America has come out of Afghanistan since 9/11/2001. As Bacevich rightly notes, such a criterion of “success” is both narrow and contrived.
So, according to Mark Milley, the most senior general in the U.S. Army, soon to be head of the Joint Chiefs, America can count the Afghan war as “successful.” If so, why are we allegedly so eager to end it? Why not keep the “success” going forever?
Back in November of 2009, I wrote the following about America’s Afghan war.
We have a classic Catch-22. As we send more troops to stiffen Afghan government forces and to stabilize the state, their high-profile presence will serve to demoralize Afghan troops and ultimately to destabilize the state. The more the U.S. military takes the fight to the enemy, the less likely it is that our Afghan army-in-perpetual-reequipping-and-training will do so.
How to escape this Catch-22? The only answer that offers hope is that America must not be seen as an imperial master in Afghanistan. If we wish to prevail, we must downsize our commitment of troops; we must minimize our presence.
But if we insist on pulling the strings, we’ll likely as not perform our own dance of death in this “graveyard of empires.”
Pulling out an old encyclopedia, I then added a little history:
Some two centuries ago, and much like us, the globe-spanning British Empire attempted to extend its mastery over Afghanistan. It did not go well. The British diplomat in charge, Montstuart Elphinstone, noted in his book on “Caubool” the warning of an Afghan tribal elder he encountered: “We are content with discord, we are content with alarms, we are content with blood; but we will never be content with a master.”
As imperial masters, British attitudes toward Afghans were perhaps best summed up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ninth Edition (1875). The Afghans, according to the Britannica, “are familiar with death, and are audacious in attack, but easily discouraged by failure; excessively turbulent and unsubmissive to law or discipline; apparently frank and affable in manner, especially when they hope to gain some object, but capable of the grossest brutality when that hope ceases. They are unscrupulous in perjury, treacherous, vain, and insatiable in vindictiveness, which they will satisfy at the cost of their own lives and in the most cruel manner …. the higher classes are too often stained with deep and degrading debauchery.”
One wonders what the Afghans had to say about the British.
The accuracy of this British depiction is not important; indeed, it says more about imperial British attitudes than it does Afghan culture. What it highlights is a tendency toward sneering superiority exercised by the occupier, whether that occupier is a British officer in the 1840s or an American advisor today. In the British case, greater familiarity only bred greater contempt, as the words of one British noteworthy, Sir Herbert Edwardes, illustrate. Rejecting Elphinstone’s somewhat favorable estimate of their character, Edwardes dismissively noted that with Afghans, “Nothing is finer than their physique, or worse than their morale.”
We should ponder this statement, for it could have come yesterday from an American advisor. If the words of British “masters” from 150 years ago teach us anything, it’s that Afghanistan will never be ours to win.
I stand by that last sentence. Your “successful to date” war has been nothing but folly, General Milley, a reality mainstream media sources are determined not to survey.
Ten years ago, I gave a talk on the ideal of citizen-soldiers and how and why America had drifted from that ideal. As war looms on the horizon yet again, this time with Iran, we’d be well advised to ask critical questions about our military, such as why we idolize it, how it no longer reflects our country demographically, its reliance on for-profit mercenaries, and the generally mediocre record of its senior leaders.
My talk consisted of notes that I hope are clear enough, but if they aren’t, please ask me to elaborate and I will in the comments section. Thanks.
Today  I want to discuss the ideal of the citizen-soldier and how I believe we have drifted from that ideal.
The Ideal: Dick Winters in Band of Brothers; E.B. Sledge in With the Old Breed; Jimmy Stewart. Until recent times, the American military was justly proud of being a force of citizen-soldiers. It didn’t matter whether you were talking about those famed Revolutionary War Minutemen, courageous Civil War volunteers, or the “Greatest Generation” conscripts of World War II.
Americans have a long tradition of being distrustful of the very idea of a large, permanent army, as well as of giving potentially disruptive authority to generals.
How have we drifted from that ideal? In six ways, I think:
- Burden-sharing and lack of class equity
Historian David M. Kennedy in October 2005: “No American is now obligated to military service, few will ever serve in uniform, even fewer will actually taste battle …. Americans with no risk whatsoever of exposure to military service have, in effect, hired some of the least advantaged of their fellow countrymen to do some of their most dangerous business while the majority goes on with their own affairs unbloodied and undistracted.”
Are we a true citizen-military if we call on only a portion of our citizens to make sacrifices?
All-Volunteer Military, or All-Recruited Military? Our military targets the working classes, the rural poor, young men (mostly men) who are out of work, or high school dropouts, for enlistments. (Officer corps is recruited somewhat differently.)
With few exceptions, societal elites not targeted by recruiters.
Anecdote: NYT article by Kenneth Harbaugh on exclusion of ROTC from Ivy-League college campuses
“At Yale, which has supplied more than its share of senators and presidents, almost none of my former classmates or students ever noticed the absence of uniforms on campus. In a nation at war, this is a disgrace. But it also shows how dangerously out of touch the elites who shape our national policy have become with the men and women they send to war.
Toward the end of the semester, I took my class to West Point. None of my students had ever seen a military base, and only one had a friend his age in uniform.”
“Support Our Troops” – But who are our troops? Why are they not drawn from across our class/demographic spectrum?
- Estrangement of Progressives and Growing Conservatism/Evangelicalism of the Military
If the operating equation is military = bad, are we not effectively excusing ourselves or our children from any obligation to serve — even any obligation simply to engage with the military? Indeed, are we even patting ourselves on the back for the wisdom of our non-choice and our non-participation? Rarely has a failure to sacrifice or even to engage come at a more self-ennobling price — or a more self-destructive one for progressive agendas.
Example: Evangelicalism at the Air Force Academy versus separation of church and state.
Is our professional military a society within our larger society?
- Many “troops” are no longer U.S. military: They’re private contractors. Instead of citizen-soldiers, they’re (in some cases) non-citizen mercenaries and non-citizen contractors.
Blackwater (Xe), Triple Canopy, Dyncorp, KBR: there are more contractor personnel in Iraq than U.S. military, and many contractors are providing security and doing tasks that our military used to do, like KP, for a lot more money.
Profit incentive: privatizing military is like privatizing prisons. You create a profit motive for extending military commitments, and perhaps wars as well.
In other words, citizen-soldiers like Sledge and Winters want to come home. Private mercenaries/contractors want to stay, as long as they’re making good money.
- Cult of the warrior: Reference to American troops as “warfighters.” This is contrary to our American tradition of “Minutemen.” It’s a disturbing change in terminology.
I first noticed the term “warfighter” in 2002. Like many a field-grade staff officer, I spent a lot of time crafting PowerPoint briefings, trying to sell senior officers and the Pentagon on my particular unit’s importance to the President’s new Global War on Terrorism. The more briefings I saw, the more often I came across references to “serving the warfighter.” It was, I suppose, an obvious selling point, once we were at war in Afghanistan and gearing up for “regime-change” in Iraq. And I was probably typical in that I, too, grabbed the term for my briefings. After all, who wants to be left behind when it comes to supporting the troops “at the pointy end of the spear” (to borrow another military trope)?
But I wasn’t comfortable with the term then, and today it tastes bitter in my mouth.
We must not be “warriors” – we must be citizen-soldiers. And note how the word “citizen” comes first.
Aside: Warriors may commit more atrocities precisely because they see themselves as different from, and superior to, civilians.
- Deference of civilians to military experts, instead of vice-versa. Why I wrote my first piece for TomDispatch. Idea that President George W. Bush couldn’t make the final decision on the Surge in Iraq until we heard from General David Petraeus.
In a country founded on civilian control of the military, it’s disturbing indeed that, as a New York Times/CBS poll indicated recently (2007), Americans trust their generals three times as much as Congress and 13 times as much as the President.
Also, abdication of responsibility by U.S. Congress. Our country is founded on civilian control of the military. But Congress afraid of being charged with hurting or abandoning our troops.
Georges Clemenceau: “War is too important to be left to generals.” Why? “Can-do” spirit to our military, no matter how dumb the war. And militaries seek military solutions.
So, “supporting our troops” must not mean putting blind faith in our military:
In “A Failure in Generalship,” which appeared in Armed Forces Journal in May 2007, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling argues that, prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, our generals “refused to prepare the Army to fight unconventional wars” and thereafter failed to “provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.” Put bluntly, he accuses them of dereliction of duty. Bewailing a lack of accountability for such failures in the military itself, Yingling memorably concludes that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”
- Oath of Office: Supporting the Constitution of the U.S. against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Oath of allegiance is to the Constitution and to the ideas and ideals we cherish as Americans. But how are the “long wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan advancing these ideals? Are they consistent with our defense and our ideas/ideals of citizenship?
Breaking News: President Obama just decided to send another 17,000 American troops to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, today in the NYT, U.S. generals are already predicting that 50K+ U.S. troops may need to stay in Afghanistan for the next five years. In other words, this is not a temporary surge. [How true! Ten years later, we’re still in Afghanistan with no end in sight.]
So, how do we reverse these trends and reassert our ideal of a citizen-military?
- Not with a draft, but perhaps with National Service (AmeriCorps, Green Corps, Peace Corps, Military).
- Renewed commitment by Progressives to engage with the military. To understand the military, its rank structure, its ethos.
- Reduce/eliminate dependence on mercenaries/private contractors, even if it costs us more.
- Eliminate the “cult of the warrior.” Replace warfighter rhetoric with citizen-soldier ideal.
- Deference to military experts for tactical/battlefield advice is sensible, but ultimately our military is commanded by the president and wars are authorized by the Congress, i.e. our elected representatives
- Oath of office: Every time we deploy troops, we must ask: How is this advancing our national ideals as embodied in our Constitution? How are we defending ourselves?
Permit me to quote a passage from James Madison, the principal architect of the U.S. Constitution. He noted in 1795 that:
“Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the dominion of the few… [There is also an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and … degeneracy of manners and of morals… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
And Madison’s idea of continual warfare = our military’s “Long War” = Forever War? What is our exit strategy? Do we even have one?
The ongoing absurdity of America’s Afghan War was captured in two headlines today from my New York Times feed. Here’s the first:
Taliban Talks Raise Question of What U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan Could Mean
By MARK LANDLER, HELENE COOPER and ERIC SCHMITT
A hasty American withdrawal, experts said, would erode the authority and legitimacy of the Afghan government, raising the risk that the Taliban could recapture control.
Think about this. What kind of “authority” and “legitimacy” does an Afghan government have if that authority and legitimacy can be fatally undermined by a “quick” withdrawal of U.S. troops over 18 months? The Taliban, meanwhile, does not pose a serious threat to the United States, and anyway who are we to say which group should rule in Afghanistan?
Here is the second headline:
To Slow U.S. Exit, Afghan Leader Offers Trump a Cost Reduction
By MUJIB MASHAL
A letter from President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan to President Trump is among the strongest signs yet that Mr. Ghani is worried about an American withdrawal.
So, all of a sudden, faced with the prospect the U.S. military may finally end its quagmire war and the $40 billion or so it spends in Afghanistan each year, Afghan governmental leaders are finally suggesting ways to reduce the cost of the U.S. occupation. Shouldn’t that tell us something about the nature of U.S. efforts there, as well as the motives of America’s putative allies?
No matter how grim the news, no matter how high the price, America’s foreign policy experts favor forever war rather than a negotiated settlement. That’s my grim conclusion from these headlines today.
Speaking of grim news: I just received some data from SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. These data points suggest no real American progress in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Taliban is stronger, the Afghan government is weaker, corruption is increasing, and so too is the drug trade, even as the U.S. military drops more and more bombs and missiles. And we should keep doing this?
— The Afghan government’s control or influence over the population declined this quarter. According to RS, as of October 31, 2018, 63.5% of the population lived in areas under Afghan government control or influence, down 1.7% from the previous quarter. The insurgency slightly increased its control or influence over areas where 10.8% of the population lives. The population living in contested areas increased to 25.6% of the population.
— According to Resolute Support, as of October 31, 2018, the Afghan government controlled or influenced 53.8% of the total number of districts. This represents a decrease of seven government-controlled or influenced districts compared to last quarter and eight since the same period of 2017. 12.3% of Afghanistan’s districts are now reportedly under insurgent control or influence. 33.9% of districts are contested.
— USFOR-A reported that the assigned (actual) personnel strength of the ANDSF [government defense/security forces] as October 31, 2018, was 308,693 personnel – or 87.7% strength. ANDSF strength decreased by 3,635 personnel since last quarter and is at the lowest it has been since the RS mission began in January 2015.
— According to U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT), U.S. air assets in Afghanistan dropped 6,823 munitions in the first 11 months of 2018. This year’s figure was already 56% higher than the total number of munitions released in 2017 (4,361), and is more than five times the total in 2016.
— The Department of Justice (DOJ) reports that the Afghan government has made insufficient progress to investigate and prosecute corruption cases. DOJ also reported that the Afghan government has not yet demonstrated sufficient motivation or action to deter future corrupt actors, or to convince the Afghan people that the government is serious about combating corruption.
— Narcotics trafficking remains a widespread problem, with CSTC-A observing senior Afghan security force leaders and civilian provincial authorities often controlling narcotics trafficking networks in the western, southwestern, and northern regions.
Can anyone see a light at the end of the Afghan tunnel?
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I discuss how and why the U.S. military has a sustained record of turning victory (however fleeting) into defeat. What follows is an excerpt from my article.
A Sustained Record of Losing
During World War II, British civilians called the “Yanks” who would form the backbone of the Normandy invasion in June 1944 (the one that contributed to Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender less than a year later) “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” What can be said of today’s Yanks? Perhaps that they’re overfunded, overhyped, and always over there — “there” being unpromising places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
Let’s start with always over there. As Nick Turse recently reported for TomDispatch, U.S. forces remain deployed on approximately 800 foreign bases across the globe. (No one knows the exact number, Turse notes, possibly not even the Pentagon.) The cost: somewhere to the north of $100 billion a year simply to sustain that global “footprint.” At the same time, U.S. forces are engaged in an open-ended war on terror in 80 countries, a sprawling commitment that has cost nearly $6 trillion since the 9/11 attacks (as documented by the Costs of War Project at Brown University). This prodigious and prodigal global presence has not been lost on America’s Tweeter-in-Chief, who opined that the country’s military “cannot continue to be the policeman of the world.” Showing his usual sensitivity to others, he noted as well that “we are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous.”
Yet Trump’s inconsistent calls to downsize Washington’s foreign commitments, including vows to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and halve the number in Afghanistan, have encountered serious pushback from Washington’s bevy of war hawks like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and his own national security advisor, John Bolton. Contrary to the president’s tweets, U.S. troops in Syria are now destined to remain there for at least months, if not years, according to Bolton. Meanwhile, Trump-promised troop withdrawals from Afghanistan may be delayed considerably in the (lost) cause of keeping the Taliban — clearly winning and having nothing but time — off-balance. What matters most, as retired General David Petraeus argued in 2017, is showing resolve, no matter how disappointing the results. For him, as for so many in the Pentagon high command, it’s perfectly acceptable for Americans to face a “generational struggle” in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) that could, he hinted, persist for as long as America’s ongoing commitment to South Korea — that is, almost 70 years.
Turning to overfunded, the unofficial motto of the Pentagon budgetary process might be “aim high” and in this they have succeeded admirably. For example, President Trump denounced a proposed Pentagon budget of $733 billion for fiscal year 2020 as “crazy” high. Then he demonstrated his art-of-the-deal skills by suggesting a modest cut to $700 billion, only to compromise with his national security chiefs on a new figure: $750 billion. That eternal flood of money into the Pentagon’s coffers — no matter the political party in power — ensures one thing: that no one in that five-sided building needs to think hard about the disastrous direction of U.S. strategy or the grim results of its wars. The only hard thinking is devoted to how to spend the gigabucks pouring in (and keep more coming).
Instead of getting the most bang for the buck, the Pentagon now gets the most bucks for the least bang. To justify them, America’s defense experts are placing their bets not only on their failing generational war on terror, but also on a revived cold war (now uncapitalized) with China and Russia. Such rivals are no longer simply to be “deterred,” to use a commonplace word from the old (capitalized) Cold War; they must now be “overmatched,” a new Pentagon buzzword that translates into unquestionable military superiority (including newly “usable” nuclear weapons) that may well bring the world closer to annihilation.
Finally, there’s overhyped. Washington leaders of all stripes love to boast of a military that’s “second to none,” of a fighting force that’s the “finest” in history. Recently, Vice President Mike Pence reminded the troops that they are “the best of us.” Indeed you could argue that “support our troops” has become a new American mantra, a national motto as ubiquitous as (and synonymous with) “In God we trust.” But if America’s military truly is the finest fighting force since forever, someone should explain just why it’s failed to produce clear and enduring victories of any significance since World War II.
Despite endless deployments, bottomless funding, and breathless hype, the U.S. military loses — it’s politely called a “stalemate” — with remarkable consistency. America’s privates and lieutenants, the grunts at the bottom, are hardly to blame. The fish, as they say, rots from the head, which in this case means America’s most senior officers. Yet, according to them, often in testimony before Congress, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, that military is always making progress. Victory, so they claim, is invariably around the next corner, which they’re constantly turning or getting ready to turn.
America’s post-9/11 crop of generals like Mattis, H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, and especially Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus have been much celebrated here in the mainstream media. And in their dress uniforms shimmering with colorful ribbons, badges, and medals, they certainly looked the part of victors.
Indeed, when three of them were still in Donald Trump’s administration, the pro-war mainstream media unabashedly saluted them as the “adults in the room,” allegedly curbing the worst of the president’s mad impulses. Yet consider the withering critique of veteran reporter William Arkin who recently resigned from NBC News to protest the media’s reflexive support of America’s wars and the warriors who have overseen them. “I find it disheartening,” he wrote, “that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.” NBC News, he concluded in his letter of resignation, has been “emulating the national security state itself — busy and profitable. No wars won but the ball is kept in play.”
Arkin couldn’t be more on target. Moreover, self-styled triumphalist warriors and a cheeringly complicit media are hardly the ideal tools with which to fix a tottering republic, one allegedly founded on the principle of rule by informed citizens, not the national security state.
For the rest of my article, please visit TomDispatch.com.
Good news: President Trump is withdrawing troops from Syria and Afghanistan. While the President’s stated reason for the Syrian withdrawal — that Isis is totally defeated in the region — is dubious, it’s hard to tell how the presence of a couple of thousand U.S. troops is either needed or desirable for counter-terror operations there. In Afghanistan, Trump has ordered the withdrawal of seven thousand U.S. troops, or roughly half the force there. One can only hope he’ll withdraw the remaining troops by the end of 2019.
Trump’s moves are consistent with his campaign promises about ending costly troop deployments and wasteful overseas wars. Despite this, he’s being castigated by Republicans and Democrats for putting America at risk by leaving Syria and preparing to leave Afghanistan. Ostensibly, the U.S. has two major political parties, but they often act together as a single war party. Trump knows this and is unafraid (so far) to confront them.
Indeed, it’s possible Trump won in 2016 because he outspokenly denounced the waste of America’s wars. Evidence suggests that pro-Trump sentiment in rural areas especially was driven in part by people who agreed with his anti-war critique: by people who’d either served in these wars or whose sons/daughters had served.
Compare this to the Clintons and mainstream Democrats (and Republicans), who’ve worked hard to suppress anti-war forces, the McGovernite wing of the party, so to speak. Recall that it was Hillary the Hawk who warmly and proudly embraced Henry Kissinger in 2016, and look where that got her.
Adding further intrigue and disruption is Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s announcement of his resignation, effective in February 2019. I never thought Mattis was the right candidate to serve as America’s civilian Secretary of Defense; Trump apparently sees him as too conventional in outlook (almost a Democrat, Trump has said). Mattis has disagreed with Trump’s boorish treatment of America’s allies, especially of NATO, and there’s no doubt that Trump has been crude, rude, and socially unacceptable, as we used to say as teenagers. But that is Trump’s prerogative. The Americans who elected him, after all, knew they weren’t getting a glad-handing soft-talking diplomat.
Finally, Trump is still fighting for five billion dollars to extend the wall along the southern border with Mexico. He’s threatening to shutdown the government for a very long time and (at least partially) to own the blame. It’s a waste of money, of course, though $5 billion is a drop in the bucket when you consider the Pentagon’s budget of roughly $716 billion.
I’m a huge Trump critic (I was very critical of Obama as well), but I give him credit for taking unpopular stances even as he tries to honor campaign promises. Pulling ground troops out of Syria and Afghanistan is the right thing to do. The wall is a ridiculous boondoggle, but even here, Trump is willing to fight for it. Would that Democratic leadership show similar resolve over issues like affordable health care, a living wage, and climate change.
Bring the troops home, Mister President. End the wars and reinvest in America. If you do these things, it’s likely you’ll be reelected in 2020. It pains me to write that, because I’m no fan of Trump’s mendacity and greed, among his many other faults, but I think it’s true.