Memorial Day 1955 — And Today

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The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

W.J. Astore

How far we’ve come as a country.  Consider the following proclamation by President Dwight D. Eisenhower for Memorial Day in 1955:

“Whereas Memorial Day each year serves as a solemn reminder of the scourge of war and its bitter aftermath of sorrow; and Whereas this day has traditionally been devoted to paying homage to loved ones who lie in hallowed graves throughout the land… I, Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim Memorial Day, Monday, the thirtieth of May, 1955, as a day of Nation-wide prayer for permanent peace.”

Permanent peace?  What was that hippie peacenik president smoking?

I find it remarkable that talk of peace in America has almost completely disappeared from our public discourse.  Permanent war is instead seen as inevitable, the price of confronting evildoers around the world.

Yes, I know Ike’s record as president wasn’t perfect.  But compared to today’s presidents, whether Barack “Kill List” Obama or Donald “Make Genocidal Threats” Trump, Ike was positively pacific.

Memorial Day, as Ike said, is a time for us all to remember the sacrifices of those who fought and died for this country.  But it’s also a time, as Ike said, to work to eliminate the scourge of war.  For the best way to honor our war dead is to work to ensure their ranks aren’t expanded.

Sadly, as Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich notes at TomDispatch.com, those ranks do keep expanding.  The names of our latest war dead are memorialized on a little-known wall in Marseilles, Illinois (including the name of Bacevich’s son, who died serving in Iraq).  Like Ike, Bacevich knows the costs of war, and like Ike he’s not taken in by patriotic talk about noble sacrifices for “freedom.”  As he puts it:

Those whose names are engraved on the wall in Marseilles died in service to their country. Of that there is no doubt. Whether they died to advance the cause of freedom or even the wellbeing of the United States is another matter entirely. Terms that might more accurately convey why these wars began and why they have persisted for so long include oil, dominion, hubris, a continuing and stubborn refusal among policymakers to own up to their own stupendous folly, and the collective negligence of citizens who have become oblivious to where American troops happen to be fighting at any given moment and why. Some might add to the above list an inability to distinguish between our own interests and those of putative allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Those are strong words that all Americans should consider this Memorial Day weekend.  As we consider them, let’s also recall Ike’s 1955 prayer for peace.  And, even better, let’s act on it.

Read the rest of Andrew Bacevich’s article here at TomDispatch.

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Part of the Middle East Conflicts Memorial Wall in Marseilles, Illinois

This November’s “Choice” for President

DEM 2016 Clinton
So many flags, but where’s the fresh thinking? (AP Photo/John Locher)

W.J. Astore

Andrew Bacevich has written a whip-smart article at TomDispatch.com on this November’s choice for the presidency.  Here are a few excerpts:

Trump is a bozo of such monumental proportions as to tax the abilities of our most talented satirists.  Were he alive today, Mark Twain at his most scathing would be hard-pressed to do justice to The Donald’s blowhard pomposity.

Similarly, how did the party of Adlai Stevenson, but also of Stevenson’s hero Franklin Roosevelt, select as its candidate someone so widely disliked and mistrusted even by many of her fellow Democrats?  True, antipathy directed toward Hillary Clinton draws some of its energy from incorrigible sexists along with the “vast right wing conspiracy” whose members thoroughly loathe both Clintons.  Yet the antipathy is not without basis in fact.

Even by Washington standards, Secretary Clinton exudes a striking sense of entitlement combined with a nearly complete absence of accountability.  She shrugs off her misguided vote in support of invading Iraq back in 2003, while serving as senator from New York.  She neither explains nor apologizes for pressing to depose Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, her most notable “accomplishment” as secretary of state.  “We came, we saw, he died,” she bragged back then, somewhat prematurely given that Libya has since fallen into anarchy and become a haven for ISIS.

She clings to the demonstrably false claim that her use of a private server for State Department business compromised no classified information.  Now opposed to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP) that she once described as the “gold standard in trade agreements,” Clinton rejects charges of political opportunism.  That her change of heart occurred when attacking the TPP was helping Bernie Sanders win one Democratic primary after another is merely coincidental.  Oh, and the big money accepted from banks and Wall Street as well as the tech sector for minimal work and the bigger money still from leading figures in the Israel lobby?  Rest assured that her acceptance of such largesse won’t reduce by one iota her support for “working class families” or her commitment to a just peace settlement in the Middle East.

Let me be clear: none of these offer the slightest reason to vote for Donald Trump.  Yet together they make the point that Hillary Clinton is a deeply flawed candidate, notably so in matters related to national security.  Clinton is surely correct that allowing Trump to make decisions related to war and peace would be the height of folly.  Yet her record in that regard does not exactly inspire confidence.

Not much of a “choice,” right?  Donald Trump is a loose cannon, with no apparent rangefinder, whereas Hillary Clinton is a “fire-at-will” cannon, with a known record of pounding a select list of targets.  Trump doesn’t know what a nuclear triad is and asks why the U.S. has so many nuclear weapons while not using them (good question, actually, but I don’t think The Donald wants to follow this to the logical conclusion that we should eliminate our nuclear arsenal).  Clinton is hopelessly compromised on Israel and so many other issues and is a card-carrying member of American exceptionalism and neo-conservative military adventurism.

Here’s another telling excerpt from Bacevich:

When it comes to fresh thinking, Donald Trump has far more to offer than Clinton — even if his version of “fresh” tends to be synonymous with wacky, off-the-wall, ridiculous, or altogether hair-raising.

The essential point here is that, in the realm of national security, Hillary Clinton is utterly conventional.  She subscribes to a worldview (and view of America’s role in the world) that originated during the Cold War, reached its zenith in the 1990s when the United States proclaimed itself the planet’s “sole superpower,” and persists today remarkably unaffected by actual events.  On the campaign trail, Clinton attests to her bona fides by routinely reaffirming her belief in American exceptionalism, paying fervent tribute to “the world’s greatest military,” swearing that she’ll be “listening to our generals and admirals,” and vowing to get tough on America’s adversaries.  These are, of course, the mandatory rituals of the contemporary Washington stump speech, amplified if anything by the perceived need for the first female candidate for president to emphasize her pugnacity.

A Clinton presidency, therefore, offers the prospect of more of the same — muscle-flexing and armed intervention to demonstrate American global leadership — albeit marketed with a garnish of diversity.  Instead of different policies, Clinton will offer an administration that has a different look, touting this as evidence of positive change.

Yet while diversity may be a good thing, we should not confuse it with effectiveness….  

So the question needs be asked: Has the quality of national security policy improved compared to the bad old days when men exclusively called the shots?  Using as criteria the promotion of stability and the avoidance of armed conflict (along with the successful prosecution of wars deemed unavoidable), the answer would, of course, have to be no.  Although Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and Clinton herself might entertain a different view, actually existing conditions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and other countries across the Greater Middle East and significant parts of Africa tell a different story. 

The abysmal record of American statecraft in recent years is not remotely the fault of women; yet neither have women made a perceptibly positive difference.  It turns out that identity does not necessarily signify wisdom or assure insight.  Allocating positions of influence in the State Department or the Pentagon based on gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation — as Clinton will assuredly do — may well gratify previously disenfranchised groups.  Little evidence exists to suggest that doing so will produce more enlightened approaches to statecraft, at least not so long as adherence to the Washington playbook figures as a precondition to employment. (Should Clinton win in November, don’t expect the redoubtable ladies of Code Pink to be tapped for jobs at the Pentagon and State Department.)

In the end, it’s not identity that matters but ideas and their implementation.  To contemplate the ideas that might guide a President Trump along with those he will recruit to act on them — Ivanka as national security adviser? — is enough to elicit shudders from any sane person.  Yet the prospect of Madam President surrounding herself with an impeccably diverse team of advisers who share her own outmoded views is hardly cause for celebration. 

In short, if you want more endless foreign wars and the abridgment of rights here at home in the name of “security,” vote for Hillary.  If you want “rogue” actions based on knee-jerk sentiments and biases backed by inexperience and a stunning ignorance of even the most basic world facts, vote for Trump.

Quite a “choice,” right?

Be sure to read the rest of Bacevich’s article here.

A Major Flaw of the U.S. National Security State

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My copy has this cover

W.J. Astore

I’m a fan of books and book sales.  A few weeks ago, I came across a vintage copy of Hugh Prather’s “Notes to Myself.”  Published in 1970, it caught the Zeitgeist of the “Age of Aquarius” and became a surprise best seller.  Its considerable influence is shown by the fact it was lampooned on “Saturday Night Live” as part of the “Deep Thoughts” series.

Some of Prather’s “notes” are solipsistic and more than a little pretentious, a fact he himself recognized, but some of them also have considerable depth of meaning.

Consider this one:

When I see I am doing it wrong there is

a part of me that wants to keep on doing

it the same way anyway and even starts

looking for reasons to justify the continuation.

When I read this, I instantly thought of U.S. strategy when it comes to the Middle East.  I recently read Colonel (ret.) Andrew Bacevich’s new book, “America’s War for the Greater Middle East,” and Prather’s note could serve as an epigraph to the book, and an epitaph to U.S. wars and policy in the Middle East.

Despite a painfully expensive and tragically wasteful record of militarized interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and many other countries throughout the greater Middle East, the U.S. military and foreign policy establishment persists in staying its presence course.  Sure, the tactics have changed slightly over the years.  Obama is less enamored of committing big battalions of ground troops than Bush/Cheney were, yet his administration is nevertheless committed to constant military interventions, misguided and one-sided relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and unwavering optimism that this time, maybe this time, we’ll finally build effective Iraqi (or Afghan) security forces while simultaneously encouraging liberty in the region by sending more U.S. troops and selling more weaponry (together with bombing and killing, of course).

As Bacevich notes in his book (you should beg, borrow, or otherwise acquire a copy), experience has not taught the U.S. national security state much of anything.  Whether that state is led by a Clinton or a Bush or an Obama matters little.  The U.S. can’t help but meddle, using its powerful military as a more or less blunt instrument, at incredible expense to our country, and at a staggering cost in foreign lives lost or damaged by incessant warfare.  And no matter how catastrophic the results, that national security state can’t help but find reasons, no matter how discredited by events, to “stay the course.”

Consistent with what Prather says, it looks “for reasons to justify the continuation” of present policy, even when it knows things are going wrong in a very bad way.

Perhaps the U.S. national security state needs to make some “notes to itself.”  Consider it a personal audit of sorts, since the Pentagon can’t pass a financial one.  If it ever does, Prather’s “note” above would be a good place to start.

The Missions Unaccomplished Force

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At least we win in Hollywood …

Tom Engelhardt.  Introduction by W.J. Astore.

Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich has a new article at TomDispatch as well as a new book on America’s War for the Greater Middle East (my copy is already coming in the mail). Bacevich’s main point in his latest article couldn’t be more clear: Congressional cowardice.  Congress refuses to exercise the people’s authority over presidential warmaking, a gross dereliction of duty that ensures perpetual wars with missions perennially left unaccomplished.  And that is the theme of Tom Engelhardt’s introduction to Bacevich’s article.

You’ve heard of the Impossible Missions Force, or IMF, which somehow always gets the job done, whether led by Martin Landau or Peter Graves or Tom Cruise?  Well, that’s Hollywood.  In the real world, we have the MUF, or Missions Unaccomplished Force.  Yes, they always muff it, no matter if the “Decider” is the strutting George W. Bush or the cool and calculating Barack Obama.  But let Tom Engelhardt tell the tale …  W.J. Astore  

The Missions Unaccomplished Force, by Tom Engelhardt

It was a large banner and its message was clear.  It read: “Mission Accomplished,” and no, I don’t mean the classic “mission accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln under which, on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush proudly proclaimed (to the derision of critics ever since) that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”  I’m actually referring to a September 1982 banner with those same two words (and an added “farewell” below them) displayed on a landing craft picking up the last Marines sent ashore in Beirut, Lebanon, to be, as President Ronald Reagan put it when they arrived the previous August, “what Marines have been for more than 200 years — peace-makers.”  Of course, when Bush co-piloted an S-3B Viking sub reconnaissance Naval jet onto the deck of the Abraham Lincoln and made his now-classic statement, major combat had barely begun in Iraq (and it has yet to end) — nor was it peace that came to Beirut in September 1982: infamously, the following year 241 Marines would die there in a single day, thanks to a suicide bomber.

“Not for the last time,” writes Andrew Bacevich in his monumental new work, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, “the claim proved to be illusory.”  Indeed, one of the grim and eerie wonders of his book is the way in which just about every wrongheaded thing Washington did in that region in the 14-plus years since 9/11 had its surprising precursor in the two decades of American war there before the World Trade Center towers came down.  U.S. military trainers and advisers, for example, failed (as they later would in Iraq and Afghanistan) to successfully build armies, starting with the Lebanese one; Bush’s “preventive war” had its predecessor in a Reagan directive called (ominously enough given what was to come) “combating terrorism”; Washington’s obsessive belief of recent years that problems in the region could be solved by what Andrew Cockburn has called the “kingpin strategy” — the urge to dismantle terror organizations by taking out their leadership via drones or special operations raids — had its precursor in “decapitation” operations against Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid with similar resulting mayhem.  The belief that “an additional increment of combat power might turn around a failing endeavor” — call it a “surge,” if you will — had its Iraq and Afghan pretrial run in Somalia in 1993.  And above all, of course, there was Washington’s unquenchable post-1980 urge to intervene, military first, in a decisive way throughout the region, which, as Bacevich writes, only “produced conditions conducive to further violence and further disorder,” and if that isn’t the repetitive history of America’s failed post-2001 wars in a nutshell, what is?

As it happened, the effects of such actions from 1980 on were felt not just in the Greater Middle East and Africa, but in the United States, too.  There, as Bacevich writes today, war became a blank-check activity for a White House no longer either checked (in any sense) or balanced by Congress.  Think of it as another sad tale of a surge (or do I mean a decapitation?) that went wrong.

The Best and the Brightest Have Become the Venal and the Vacuous

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W.J. Astore

Over at TomDispatch.com, retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich asks a telling question: Why does Washington continue to rely on policy “experts,” the “best and brightest” as they were called during the Vietnam War, even when events prove their advice to be consistently wrong?

As Bacevich puts it (with considerable relish):

“Policy intellectuals — eggheads presuming to instruct the mere mortals who actually run for office — are a blight on the republic. Like some invasive species, they infest present-day Washington, where their presence strangles common sense and has brought to the verge of extinction the simple ability to perceive reality. A benign appearance — well-dressed types testifying before Congress, pontificating in print and on TV, or even filling key positions in the executive branch — belies a malign impact. They are like Asian carp let loose in the Great Lakes.”

One of the big drawbacks of a Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush joust in 2016 is that both candidates will be relying on the same neocon “experts” who got us into Afghanistan and Iraq and the ongoing, seemingly endless, war on terror.  What Washington needs most of all is fresh blood and fresher thinking; what 2016 promises is retread candidates and recycled pundits.

The problem is that these pundits rarely admit that they’re wrong.  Even when they do, their admissions run false. They say things like: “We were wrong for the right reason [about Iraq and WMD],” a sentiment echoed by George W. Bush in his memoir that “There are things we got wrong in Iraq, but the cause is eternally right.”  So, as long as your cause is “eternally right” (fighting against Communism in Vietnam; against terror in the Middle East), it doesn’t matter how many things you get wrong (such as how many innocents you end up killing, especially if they’re foreigners).

Their mantra is something like this: Never admit your wrong.  And never apologize. Instead, double down on talking tough and committing troops.

As Bacevich notes:

The present-day successors to Bundy, Rostow, and Huntington subscribe to their own reigning verities.  Chief among them is this: that a phenomenon called terrorism or Islamic radicalism, inspired by a small group of fanatic ideologues hidden away in various quarters of the Greater Middle East, poses an existential threat not simply to America and its allies, but — yes, it’s still with us — to the very idea of freedom itself.  That assertion comes with an essential corollary dusted off and imported from the Cold War: the only hope of avoiding this cataclysmic outcome is for the United States to vigorously resist the terrorist/Islamist threat wherever it rears its ugly head….

The fact that the enterprise itself has become utterly amorphous may actually facilitate such efforts.  Once widely known as the Global War on Terror, or GWOT, it has been transformed into the War with No Name.  A little bit like the famous Supreme Court opinion on pornography: we can’t define it, we just know it when we see it, with ISIS the latest manifestation to capture Washington’s attention.

All that we can say for sure about this nameless undertaking is that it continues with no end in sight.  It has become a sort of slow-motion Vietnam, stimulating remarkably little honest reflection regarding its course thus far or prospects for the future.  If there is an actual Brains Trust at work in Washington, it operates on autopilot.  Today, the second- and third-generation bastard offspring of RAND that clutter northwest Washington — the Center for this, the Institute for that — spin their wheels debating latter day equivalents of Strategic Hamlets, with nary a thought given to more fundamental concerns.”

Tough talk by “experts” with no skin in the game has proved to be a recipe for disaster in slow-motion.  The best and the brightest have become the venal and the vacuous.  Bacevich is right: We can do better, America.

The Need for Fresh Thinking in National Security Policy

It's impossible for Washington to think outside of the Pentagonal Box
It’s impossible for Washington to think outside of the Pentagonal Box

Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel and professor of international relations, writing in January 2009 as Barack Obama took office as president, made the following cogent observation about the need for true “change” in Washington:

When it comes to national security, the standard navigational charts used to guide the ship of state are obsolete.  The assumptions, doctrines, habits, and routines falling under the rubric of “national security policy” have outlived their usefulness.  The antidote to the disappointments and failures of the Bush years, illustrated most vividly in the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not to try harder, but to think differently.  Only then will it become possible to avoid the patently self-destructive behavior that today finds Americans facing the prospect of perpetual conflict that neither our army nor our economy can sustain.

Of course, Obama promised “change,” but with respect to national security policy, the sum total of the last five years of his watch has simply been more of the same.

Admittedly, the war in Iraq finally ended (for U.S. troops, not for the Iraqi people), but that was only because the Iraqis themselves refused to countenance the eternal presence of our troops there (of course, our boondoggle of an embassy in Baghdad survives).  Obama didn’t get us out of Iraq; he acquiesced to a deal Bush had already struck with the Iraqis.

Meanwhile, the U.S. remains ensnared in Afghanistan, squandering lives and resources to the tune of $100 billion a year.  Vague promises are made of an American withdrawal in 2014, but with an “enduring presence” (God help us) for another ten years after that.  Under Obama, drone strikes have expanded and continue; the national security state remains fat as it ever was, garrisoning the globe and spying on the world (including, as we recently learned, American citizens); and various tough-talking “experts” in Congress continue to call for new military interventions in places like Iran and Syria.

Why has this happened?  One reason is that Obama and his team wanted to be reelected in 2012, so they embraced the Bush neo-conservative approach of a hyper-kinetic, interventionist, foreign policy.  Fresh thinking was nowhere to be found, since any downsizing of American military commitments or its national security apparatus would have exposed Obama to charges of being “soft” on (Muslim) terror.

With respect to a bloated national security apparatus and wasteful military interventions, change didn’t come in 2008.  It was a case, as The Who song says, of “Meet the new boss.  Same as the old boss.”  Nor is change coming, seemingly, in the future.  Americans remain wedded to a colossal national security state that neither the president nor the Congress appears willing to challenge, let alone change.

Fresh thinking is the one thing you can’t buy in Washington because it’s priceless.  And for the lack of it, we’re paying a very high price indeed.

Next Article: Some fresh thinking on where we should be headed.

W.J. Astore