Support Our Troops — But How?

A1C Courtney Wagner, getting the job done as the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron loadmaster in 2017. When America thinks of “our” troops, someone like A1C Wagner may come to mind (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Divine Cox)

W.J. Astore

Today I saw a “support our troops” magnetic ribbon on a pickup truck.  I used to see more of them, especially in the Bush/Cheney years of the Afghan and Iraq Wars.  I don’t oppose the sentiment, though the “support” it encourages is undefined.  I’ve always thought the best way to “support” our troops is to keep them out of unnecessary and disastrous wars.  Even to bring them home, not only from these wars but from imperial outposts around the globe.  But, again, “support” on these ribbons is unspecified, though the Pentagon seems to equate it with huge budgets that approach a trillion dollars every year.

Americans continue to profess confidence in “their” military, with 69% of us saying so in July 2021, whereas only 12% of us have much confidence in Congress.  Can it be said we hold Congress in contempt?  Americans know, I think, that Congress is bought and paid for, that it answers to the rich and the strong while dismissing the poor and the weak.  If you’re looking for affordable health care, for higher pay, for fair treatment, best not look to Congress.

Indeed, if you want a $15 minimum wage, free government health care, and a government-funded college education, your only option is to enlist in the U.S. military.  These “socialist” programs are a big part of the military, including government-provided housing as well.  Yet we don’t think of them as socialistic when the person getting these benefits is wearing a military uniform.

It’s truly remarkable that despite disastrous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, Americans continue to “support” and have great confidence in “our troops.”  There are many reasons for this.  I think most Americans recognize now that the wars our troops are sent to are losing concerns from the get-go.  You really can’t blame the troops for failing to win unwinnable wars.  You can, and should, blame the leaders for lying us into these wars and then lying again and again about (false) progress in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  But the troops who bleed on the frontlines?  No – we sense it’s not their fault.

I think many Americans also support our troops out of guilt and ignorance.  Most Americans are isolated from the military and therefore have little understanding of its ways and even less understanding of its wars.  Less than 1% of Americans currently serve in the military, plus there’s no draft, so young Americans can safely ignore, so they think, the discomforts and potential perils of a few years spent within the ranks.  After a flurry of attention paid to a humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, the mainstream media is back to saluting the troops while warning of potential conflicts elsewhere, perhaps with China over Taiwan.

The disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq, among others, are already being sent down the Memory Hole to oblivion.  After all, there’s always another war looming, so we’re told, which serves to convince most Americans that a strong “defense” is needed.  So why not support our troops.  We’re going to need them to fight the next war, right?

This is precisely how we fail to support our troops.  We don’t ask enough tough questions – and we don’t demand enough honest answers – about why the next war is necessary.  How it serves national defense and the ideals of the U.S. Constitution.  We are always pressured to salute smartly, even if we’ve never served in the military.  And that way lies militaristic madness.

So, if I had to define how best to support our troops, I’d answer with another bumper sticker motto: Question Authority.  Especially when it’s wrapped in the flag and camouflaged by a military uniform.

It’s folly in the extreme that Americans routinely acquiesce to Pentagon “defense” budgets – let’s face it, these are war budgets — that consume more than half of federal discretionary spending each year, even as the Pentagon loses wars and fails audits. Nevertheless, our very unpopular Congress continues to throw money at the generals and admirals and war contractors, and indeed these groups are often interchangeable, as many senior officers join corporate “defense” boards after retiring from the military.

It’s not Private Jones (or A1C Wagner, pictured above) who’s cashing in here.  It’s America’s military-industrial-congressional complex, which is guided and motivated by one word: more. More money, more power, and, often enough, more wars.

If we keep “supporting” our troops while funneling vast and unaccountable funds to the Pentagon and the weapons makers, America will get more weapons and more wars.  It’s that simple.  And more weapons and more wars will combine to destroy what little is left of our democracy, no matter how many “support our troops” ribbons we stick to our pickup trucks.

Do you really want to support our troops?  Besides questioning authority, one might best begin by reducing their numbers.  America’s military should be no larger than what it needs to be to provide for a robust national defense.  Then we need to remember that a state of permanent war represents a death blow to democracy, no matter how much we profess confidence in our troops.  Since Congress is already deeply unpopular, it should have the guts to cut and limit military and war spending to no more than 25% of federal discretionary spending.

Cutting funds to the military-industrial complex will help bring it to heel – and force more than few spoiled and hidebound generals and admirals to bring our troops home rather than wasting them in faraway countries fighting unwinnable conflicts.

What say you, America?  Ready to support our troops?

Slinking Away from Afghanistan

W.J. Astore

I retired from the U.S. military in 2005. I had no direct role in America’s Afghan war, which means I have no personal stake in trying to justify it or defend it. I never understood how invading and occupying portions of Afghanistan made any sense.

In re-reading a few of my articles against the Afghan war, I came across this email from a dear friend who put it better than I ever could:

I feel sometimes like our military leaders don’t really think of the human cost [of war], even today. I went to church today and I wiped away many tears as they told the story of a member’s son whose legs were recently blown off in Afghanistan, and of a chaplain in Iraq who was there with dying soldiers. These stories, and working and living with military families for all these years has really humanized war and made it so personal to me — but I don’t think most Americans have this personal connection.

Personal email to author, 2012.

For me, my friend’s words sum up the great tragedy of this war. So many lives lost or damaged, most of them not American, and for what? What were America’s leaders thinking? What were they feeling, or failing to feel?

Obviously, the Afghan war was never America’s to win. Young troops were sent there on a fool’s errand. They may have tried hard — real hard — but they failed. Yet that failure wasn’t their fault. That failure was Bush’s and Obama’s and Trump’s. That failure was shared by a Congress that refused to exercise true oversight. That failure was aggravated by all those who profited from a doomed effort. Small wonder that Americans put so little faith and trust in their government today. We’ve been lied to so often by callous politicians with no skin in the game.

As the Taliban consolidates its control over much of Afghanistan, the entire U.S. and Coalition war effort stands in high relief as a debacle and disaster. Just as South Vietnam’s quick fall in 1975 revealed the dishonesty of U.S. government officials (along with the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and so many other events), the ongoing collapse of America’s position in Afghanistan highlights a system that lacks integrity and honesty.

We lose because we’re craven and dishonest. We lose because we forget the personal costs of war. We lose because we fail to pay attention. We lose because we’re greedy and stupid.

Yes, I’m angry. I’ve written far too many articles against America’s Afghan war. Of course, they changed nothing. Even now, as the evidence is all around us of how much we’ve been lied to about “progress” in Afghanistan, there are still officials who argue we should stay and fight. For what reasons? To what end?

As journalist Megan Stack put it in a recent article in The New Yorker,

As the United States rushes to remove its troops from Afghanistan this summer, the Pentagon has imposed a de-facto press blackout on their departure. The military has ignored requests for embeds, denied pleas for even perfunctory interviews with troops, and generally worked to obstruct the public’s view of the United States pulling up stakes … the obfuscation was predictable. Leaving a country that many expect will now collapse into civil war, the United States has no victory to declare; it can only acknowledge the reality of relinquishment and retreat … [T]he outcome in Afghanistan was ignominious. The conflict will cost taxpayers more than two trillion dollars, including veteran care and interest on war borrowing, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University, which also estimates that more than a hundred and seventy thousand people died in the conflict, counting Afghan forces, Taliban fighters, and contractors. That figure includes twenty-four hundred U.S. troops and forty-seven thousand civilians who died in a project that failed at its most basic goal of defeating the Taliban, who are now surging back to seize control of districts and, according to human-rights groups, carrying out organized revenge killings.

Will anyone in the U.S. government be held accountable for this “ignominious” debacle? This disaster?

Isn’t it sad that we already know that “Not only no, but hell no!” is the answer here?

Update: For what it’s worth, this was my original opening to this article: As the Taliban quickly expands its control over Afghanistan, the dishonesty of the U.S. military and government is revealed. More than a trillion dollars spent over two decades, all those reports of progress in creating Afghan security forces and a centralized government, all the lives lost, and for what?

There’s No Business Like War Business

W.J. Astore

Among my many weak spots is economics and business. I took exactly one course in college on macroeconomics. I took dozens of courses in math and engineering like calculus, statics, dynamics, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, biomechanics, you name it. Then I switched academic specialties and became a historian of science, technology, and religion. Again I took dozens of courses in various branches of history, but again my one economics course remains my brief exposure to that world. And I took it as a freshman forty years ago!

Economics has been on my mind lately because so much of what passes for national military (a redundant phrase) strategy in the U.S. is really about making money. Profit. Capitalism, pure and simple. Moving products, expanding markets, diversifying portfolios, and so on. There’s no business like war business. It’s a capitalist’s dream.

In this rich vein of greed-war, I urge you to read Christian Sorensen’s 5-part series on the military-industrial-congressional complex at Consortium News. (Here’s a link to part 5, which also includes links to the previous four parts.) I really like the way he begins Part 5:

Without looking at military adventurism through the lens of the corporation, analysts are bound to produce error-filled studies. For example, one analyst contended in an interview on The Real News Network, “Military force is almost never going to achieve your political aims. The Americans learned this in Vietnam. They’re learning it in Afghanistan. They’re learning it in Syria… So [President Barack] Obama supporting the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen is a sign really of incoherence on the part of the United States.”

Far from incoherence, the behavior actually is quite rational. A variety of conflicts, disparate and some seemingly futile, is precisely the aim. Conflict itself — producing untold mountains of profit for war corporations and Wall Street — is the goal.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. You can’t look at U.S. military-national “strategy” today through a purely strategic lens or one informed solely by military history (as I’m tempted to do). Clausewitz, Jomini, and other classical military theorists won’t help you much. You need to look to Wall Street, to economics, to how capitalism works. You have to look to business cycles, profit, markets, portfolios, diversification, and similar concepts. You have to recognize war is a special kind of business, one that America is very good at because we specialize in it. War and weaponry may well be our leading exports.

Again, I’m tempted as a former engineer and as a professional historian who’s studied strategy (at Oxford no less) to try to make sense of U.S. national-military strategy in logical terms informed by history, Wrong approach! The right approach is to follow the money. Think not of “war as a continuation of politics” but of war as a continuation of capitalism, a special kind of disaster or death capitalism. Remember too to think in terms of portfolios and diversification of the same, after which U.S. policies make all the sense in the world.  More conflict means more weapons sales means more money.  The same is true of arms races in the false cause of deterrence.

An early example from my life. When I was a young lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, circa 1985, I wrote a paper on the B-1 bomber and the strategy of “manned penetrating bombers.” In plain speak (plane speak?), the Air Force was spending loads of money on a high-tech swing-wing plane loaded with avionics which would in theory enable it to penetrate Soviet airspace and bomb targets directly. This made little sense to me, nor did it make sense to President Jimmy Carter, who had cancelled the plane as unneeded. After all, B-52s could carry highly accurate cruise missiles and launch them from outside of Soviet airspace, and for much less money.

But the B-1, like any major weapon system, had powerful friends in Congress, since Rockwell International had spread production of the plane and its components to as many Congressional districts as possible. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he quickly reversed Carter’s decision. It wasn’t about strategy. It was about business and profit justified in the name of sending a tough message to the “Evil Empire.” Meanwhile, the Soviet Union collapsed a few years later and the U.S. was stuck with 100 B-1 bombers it didn’t need. Time has proven it to be an expensive plane to maintain, and one that’s never been used (fortunately) on the mission for which it was designed.

The U.S. has a lot of weapons like the B-1 bomber: expensive, unreliable, redundant strategically, and ultimately unneeded. It doesn’t make much sense, until you realize it’s all about making money, moving product, inflating threats, and keeping the cycle going, again and again, wars and weapons without end, Amen.

The Last Honest Speech by a U.S. President

jimmy-carter
Former President Jimmy Carter

W.J. Astore

I was sixteen when President Jimmy Carter gave his so-called Malaise speech in 1979.  Focusing on America’s wasteful energy consumption, Carter vowed to cut America’s dependence on oil imports while pushing alternative energies such as solar.  In crafting his speech, he listened to regular Americans and diagnosed a national peril far worse than America’s wanton consumption of energy.  And for his honesty, Carter got voted out of office in 1980.  The sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan arrived, though the “sunny” part didn’t include the solar panels that Carter had added to the White House.  (Under Reagan, these were quickly removed.)  For Carter’s expertise in science (he was formerly a naval nuclear engineer under Admiral Hyman Rickover) came Reagan’s fossil-fuel-friendly policies and Nancy Reagan’s penchant for astrology.  It was morning again in America in the sense that profit once again took priority over policy and people – and fantasy took precedence over reality.

Let’s take a fresh look at Carter’s speech, one in which he never used the word “malaise.”  Carter told Americans in 1979 that: “We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.”

The second, much to be preferred, path was: “the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves.”

Does anyone have any doubt about which path America chose under Reagan and his successors?

The “certain route to failure.”  A route where tens of millions of Americans lose their health care during a pandemic; a route where the government bails out the richest corporations first and the poorest Americans last, if at all; a route where division and fragmentation are the order of the day, embraced by a president who revels in chaos and his own self-interest.  And a route where that same man is likely to be reelected as president in November, despite his colossal mismanagement of a health crisis that he can’t even bring himself to understand, let alone attempt to control.

Jimmy Carter caught the looming dysfunction back in 1979: “What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests.”

In the four decades since then, Congress has been totally consumed by these “well-financed and powerful special interests,” so much so that, to repeat myself, they get bailed out first during a pandemic, tapping into a slush fund that may rise to $4 trillion, while most Americans are lucky to see a one-time payment of $1200.

Meanwhile, what is the message to regular Americans from President Trump and his handlers?  You must get back to work.  Never mind a deadly pandemic.  We must get the economy humming again.  We must make and consume, just as we always have.  Yet Carter had a warning here as well:

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Small wonder that he lost, right?  What madness was Carter talking about in 1979?  Material goods aren’t the source of happiness?

Carter made matters worse by calling for energy conservation and gasoline rationing.  He even asked Americans to lower their thermostats in the winter and to reduce their speed on the highway.  That commie!

In 1980, Americans rejected Carter’s call for sacrifice, preferring the fantasy sold by Reagan.  Forget conservation and gas rationing.  I can’t drive fifty-five!  Don’t you know the best way to help the poor is by empowering the rich?  It’s called trickle-down economics (don’t listen to that guy who called it “voodoo economics”).  Might makes right and the Vietnam War was a “noble cause.”

In 1980, it was like the country took a collective journey to “Fantasy Island,” maybe on the “Love Boat,” a TV show where Ronald Reagan could have had a star turn as an ageing, washed up, actor.  Reagan gained the Oval Office instead, and the former pitchman for GE got to work selling a corporate-dominated America as the natural end state of Democracy.  Yay capitalism!

Is it any surprise that real wages for workers in America have basically been flat since the time of Carter?  Reagan instituted Robin Hood in reverse, facilitating an economy where the rich got far richer, mainly by trampling on the backs of the middle class and poor.

So, we collectively bought a cancerous fantasy in 1980, one which has now metastasized with a malignant and sociopathic exploiter, Donald Trump, at the helm.

One thing is certain: you won’t get any honest speeches from Trump.  Nor from his predecessors back to the time of Reagan, as they all did Wall Street’s bidding, Democrats and Republicans alike.  Nor can you expect any future honesty from the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.

For the last honest speech by an American president, you must go back to Jimmy Carter in 1979.  The malaise came, not from his speech, but from our failure to listen to him.

The U.S. Military, the Founders, and Original Intent

war weary
It’s too easy to speak of war in the abstract … the Founders knew better

W.J. Astore

In America, you sometimes hear talk of “original intent” (or strict constructionism) from conservatives, usually applied to the courts and especially to the Supreme Court.  The idea is to neuter “activist” judges by pressuring them to stick to the letter of the U.S. Constitution as written in the 1780s (as if that document has never required amendment), thereby upholding the original intent of the Founders (as if those men were gods who never got anything wrong).

Why is it, though, that original intent is never applied to America’s vast military establishment?  Because when you read the Founders, you learn they were strongly against large standing armies and vehemently criticized the anti-democratic nature and sheer wastefulness of wars.

James Madison was especially eloquent speaking against war.  In 1793, he wrote that: “In no part of the constitution is more wisdom found than in the clause which confines the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.”

Madison knew presidents could readily enlarge their powers by waging constant wars, just as Britain’s kings had.  So he and his fellow Founders did their best to subjugate the army to Congress through various laws, such as funding it for only two years while also having each member of the House stand for reelection every two years.  An unpopular and wasteful war, Madison figured, wouldn’t be funded after two years, forcing a president to put an end to it.  Voters, meanwhile, would act to get rid of Members of Congress who foolishly or selfishly supported such a war.

Madison, of course, lived in a time when America’s vast and powerful military-industrial complex didn’t exist.  That Complex is now a fourth branch of government that the Founders didn’t anticipate.  But what if the Complex either didn’t exist or could be reined in, and what if “original intent” could be applied to America’s Department of Defense?  We’d see a few things change:

1. No large standing army, thereby reducing American foolhardiness in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
2. Only defensive wars.  An end to the Iraq and Afghan wars would be a start.
3. Gun ownership would be contingent on the willingness and ability to serve in the militia (National Guard or Reserves).
4. No wars, no “overseas contingency operations,” without a formal Congressional declaration.
5. Firm Congressional oversight of all military operations.  An end to secrecy — the military must be accountable to the people.

The president, of course, serves as commander-in-chief.  But here the intent of the Founders was to firmly subordinate the military to civilian control.  It was not to empower the president as a quasi-generalissimo.  So the days of presidents making near-unilateral decisions to commit American troops abroad must end, as it is totally contrary to the original intent of the U.S. Constitution.

Of course, I’m not arguing that we slavishly follow the Founders — in that case, we’d still have slavery, and in more ways than one.  The point is that if we’re going to look to the Founders and celebrate their wisdom, let’s not do that merely for narrow partisan political gain.  Let’s do it in a way that truly nourishes and enlivens democracy.  Ending our permanent state of debilitating and destructive militarism and warfare would be a fine start.  Madison, I think, would approve.

Note: to read more on this subject, see Greg Foster’s “Why the Founding Fathers Would Object to Today’s Military” (2013) at https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2013/07/why-founding-fathers-would-object-todays-military/66668.  As Foster notes, the Founders were not anti-military; they were anti-militarism.  And, having experienced the pains of war, they took pains to prevent future ones.  Let’s emulate them here.

Trillions for Warplanes: The Case of the F-35

f-35b-lightning-ii_010
F-35 Costs: Up, Up, and Away!

W.J. Astore

My latest article for TomDispatch.com focuses on the F-35 stealth fighter, which is estimated to cost $1.5 trillion over the life of the program.  I hope you can read all of the article here; what follows is an extended excerpt on the history of the program.  Did you ever notice how Congress never asks where the money is coming from for these incredibly expensive weapons?  But ask for money for education, environmental protection, infrastructure, and especially for poor people and Congress starts screaming about the deficit, which is booming under Trump.  But there’s always money for weapons!  We need to remember that “government” money is our money, and we need to start spending it on priorities that matter to us, not to defense contractors and generals.

A Brief History of the F-35 Program

I first heard of what would become the F-35 in 1995. I was then a captain in the Air Force, working on flight-planning software. I was told that a new Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF, was being developed.  The “joint” meant that the Air Force, Navy, and Marines would all use it. Its big selling point at the time was the striking level of anticipated savings expected due to the commonality of the design, of spare parts, and of everything else. (Those in the know then, however, remembered the Pentagon’s previous shot at “jointness,” the TFX program in the 1960s; the resulting plane, the F-111, would be rejected by the Navy and unloved by the Air Force.)

The new JSF was advertised as offering the highest-tech possible at the lowest price imaginable, a fighter that would replace legacy aircraft like the Air Force’s F-16s and A-10s and the Navy’s F-18s. Winning the competition to develop the plane was weapons giant Lockheed Martin and a prototype F-35 Lightning II first took to the skies in 2006, by which time I was already retired from the Air Force. In the 13 years since then, the F-35 has gone through a mind-boggling series of major program delays and setbacks, burning money all the way.

In 2014, the plane’s woeful record finally caught the eye of CBS’s 60 Minutes, which documented how the program was seven years behind schedule and already $163 billion over budget. The Pentagon, however, simply plunged ahead. Its current plan: to buy more than 2,600 F-35s by 2037, with the assumption that their service lives will possibly extend to 2070. In Pentagon terms, think of it as a multi-generational warplane for America’s multi-generational wars.

Five years after that 60 Minutes exposé and 13 years after its first flight, the F-35 unsurprisingly remains mired in controversyHarper’s Andrew Cockburn recently used it to illustrate what he termed “the Pentagon Syndrome,” the practice of expending enormous sums on weapons of marginal utility.  The F-35, he noted, “first saw combat [in 2018], seventeen years after the program began. The Marines sent just six of them on their first deployment to the Middle East, and over several months only managed to fly, on average, one combat sortie per plane every three days. According to the Pentagon’s former chief testing official, had there been opposition, these ‘fighters’ could not have survived without protection from other planes.” 

So far, in other words, the F-35 has had an abysmally low rate of availability. Technically speaking, it remains in “initial operational testing and evaluation,” during which, as defense journalist Dan Grazier has noted, it achieved a “fully mission capable rate” of just 11% in its combat testing phase. (The desired goal before going into full production is 80%, which is, in a sense, all you need to know about the “success” of that aircraft so many years later.) Compounding those dreadful percentages is another grim reality: the F-35’s design isn’t stable and its maintenance software has been a buggy nightmare, meaning the testers are, in a sense, trying to evaluate a moving and messy target.

These and similar problems led President Trump and former acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to push possible alternatives to the F-35 as a way of pressuring Lockheed Martin to improve its performance.  In December 2016, before he even entered the Oval Office, for example, Trump tweeted about building F-18 Super Hornets in place of the F-35. Later, Shanahan advocated for an updated version of the venerable F-15 Eagle, made by Boeing, a company for which he had only recently been a senior executive. But the president’s tweets have moved on, as has Shanahan, and Lockheed Martin continues to hold all the cards. For the Pentagon, it’s still the F-35 or bust.

Unsurprisingly, the president has changed his tune, enthusing that the F-35 is invisible (“You literally can’t see it”) rather than merely difficult to detect on radar. (He has also referred to Marillyn Hewson, the CEO of Lockheed Martin, as Marillyn Lockheed.)  The main selling point of the F-35 is indeed its stealth technology, marking it as a “fifth generation” fighter when compared to the older F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, and A-10s, which are decidedly unstealthy and radar detectable. Primarily because of such technology, the Pentagon argues that the F-35 will prove far more “survivable” than previous warplanes in any future conflict with Russia, China, or some other country equipped with sophisticated radars and surface-to-air missiles.

Yet such stealthiness comes at a real cost and not just in monetary terms. To maintain its stealthy profile, the F-35 must carry its weaponry internally, limiting its load and destructive power compared to “fourth generation” planes like the A-10 and F-15. It must also rely on an internal fuel system, which will limit its range in battle, while its agility in air-to-air combat seems poor compared to older fighters like the F-16. (The Pentagon counters, unconvincingly, that the F-35 wasn’t designed for such dogfighting.)

As a former Air Force project engineer and historian of technology and warfare, here’s my take on the F-35 program today: in trying to build an aircraft to meet the diverse requirements of three services, Lockheed Martin has produced a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none albatross. Each military service piled requirements onto the F-35, as ever more esoteric features were added, including that stealth capability; special software featuring eight million lines of code; unique (and wildly expensive) helmets for its pilots; and vertical landing/short takeoff capacity for the Marines, which led to an airframe design that made it ever less maneuverable for the Air Force and Navy. The result: perhaps the classic example of a plane that is far less than the sum of its staggeringly expensive parts.

To get more specific, consider the mission of close air support, or CAS, which means supporting troops in or near combat. The best and most survivable plane for such a role remains the one specifically designed for it: the unglamorous A-10 Warthog, which ground troops love but Air Force officialdom hates (because it was designed in response to Army, not Air Force, needs). By comparison, the F-35, which is supposed to fill the A-10’s role, simply isn’t designed for such a mission.  It’s too fast, meaning its loiter time over targets is severely limited; its weapons load is inadequate; it has only one engine, making it more vulnerable to ground fire; and its (malfunctioning) gun lacks punch. (It also costs twice as much to fly.) Despite all this, the Air Force continues to advocate for the F-35 in a CAS role, even as it grudgingly re-wings A-10s to extend their lives.

And keep in mind as well that, if you want an attack platform that can loiter for hours, while removing all risk to pilots, why not just use already existing drones like the military’s Reapers?  Who even needs an expensive F-35 stealth fighter?  To these and similar criticisms the Pentagon responds that it’s fifth generation! It’s new! It’s stealthy! It’s a game-changer! It scares the Russians and Chinese! And if those answers don’t work, there’s always that old standby: tell me why you hate our troops!

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin’s profits are soaring as that company and the Pentagon sell the F-35 to allies around the world. Despite its delays, cost overruns, and performance issues, it’s still being promoted as America’s latest and greatest.  Foreign military sales have the added benefit of driving down per-unit costs for the Pentagon, even as politicians tout the F-35 as a huge job creator. In short, with no alternative in sight, Lockheed Martin remains top gun in the Pentagon’s cockpit (Eat your heart out, Tom Cruise!), with virtually guaranteed profits for the next half-century.

Read the rest of the article here.

When Will We Ever Learn?

Ronald Enzweiler (Guest Author)

What America’s National Security State Got Wrong in Its Wars of Choice and How to Deconstruct the War State

I’m a Washington outsider/non-careerist who worked seven years as a civilian advisor in our country’s Wars of Choice in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Earlier in my life, I served in and worked for the military-industrial complex.  I have lived, worked and traveled throughout Europe and the Greater Middle East.  Given this background, I’ve written a book (Will We Ever Learn?) recounting from personal knowledge how our nation’s interventionist foreign policy and military adventurism has transformed the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about in 1961 into today’s unimaginable $1.25 trillion/year national security establishment.  This enterprise operates as a de facto shadow government apart from our representative democracy.  It perpetuates a bipartisan war culture driven by defense industry lobbyists and special interests.  Our burgeoning multi-agency “War State” is the primary reason for Congress’ $1-trillion-plus/year budget deficits and our country’s $22 trillion in national debt.

As I document in my book, $7.5 trillion of the $12 trillion increase in our national debt since 9/11 is attributable to increases in defense spending mainly related to the War on Terror.  I can attest that the trillions spent on these idiotic wars was a waste of taxpayers’ money.  Much worse, they created over 6,000 Gold Star parents and tens of thousands of maimed and PTSD-stricken brave patriots.  Yet, overspending on our military goes on – even as War on Terror proponents admit Americans are less safe today.  Most political leaders responsible for our recent wars and their funding – and the pundits who advocated for them – are still around as esteemed figures in Washington.   No four-star generals – company men one and all — were held accountable for the DoD’s egregious mistakes in warfighting strategy and tactics that I document in my book.

The swamp creatures who rule over Washington’s war culture know they must maintain our War State as an expanding $1.25 trillion/year enterprise (including what I estimate to be $250 billion/year for nuclear-war deterrence) to stay in power – regardless of how much national debt they run up and how many Gold Star parents, maimed soldiers, and PTSD cases result from their military adventurism.  Congressional leadership supports the War State because both parties receive massive campaign funding to maintain the status quo from corporate lobbyists and big donors. This insiders’ money game is not the America my Uncle Norb – who I never knew because he was killed storming the beach at Eniwetok Atoll as a 19-year-old Marine in 1944 – died fighting to preserve as member of our nation’s greatest generation.

In my book (and this essay), I identify specific changes in  foreign and military policy and $500 billion/year in defense spending cuts which, if made, would make America and the world safer.  These sensible and practical actions recognize the instability and trepidation that Washington’s bullying and war culture are causing around the world.

My remedies include restricting the development and proliferation of conventional weapons and eliminating all nuclear weapons from the world under a United Nations Treaty ratified in 2017 by 123 countries.  This U.N. initiative followed a 2007 Wall Street Journal commentary titled “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” by Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn — hardly naïve isolationists.  President Obama also persuasively advocated for a no-nuke world in a speech he gave in Prague in 2009.  Under my plan to scale-back U.S. militarism, our country would still spend twice as much on national security as our two presumed military adversaries combined: Russia with its crumbling economy and China with its growing dissident problems.  If our national security state officials can’t keep America safe with a 2:1 spending advantage over these two troubled countries, they all should be fired.

Senator Bernie Sanders is the only 2020 presidential candidate who has pledged to take on the military-industry complex and cut defense spending.  But in a Vox interview, Sanders admitted that, given the power the national security state’s shadow government exerts over Congress, defense spending cuts are a nonstarter the way Congress now works — no matter who is president.

What’s a solution to this predicament that engenders our idiotic wars and is driving our country off a fiscal cliff?  Simple: Empower — and require – all members of Congress, as our directly elected representatives, to make up-or-down floor votes on specific spending “tradeoffs” as a follow-on step to the current Congressional appropriations process.  For example, the Democratic caucus in the House could require a tradeoff vote on cancelling funding in the DoD’s approved appropriations bill for the $1.5-trillion life-time-costs F-35 fighter program (the late Senator John McCain – hardly an anti-military pacifist — called the F-35 program “a scandal and a tragedy” at a 2016 Senate hearing ); or spending the same amount over the same timeframe for better health care, free college tuition, student debt forgiveness, and similar programs.

If a specific tradeoff challenge vote passes both Houses of Congress, it would go the President to accept or reject.  A challenge could fail.  But each member of Congress who voted “no” in this example would have to explain at reelection time why he or she thinks our military needs over 2,000 F-35s when Russia has zero Su-57s in service; and why he or she believes the money spent on unneeded F-35’s could not be better used to reduce the federal budget deficit (also an option in my plan) — or make college affordable for all our citizens as the tradeoff vote in this example.

These changes can all happen if voters bring up these reform initiatives at candidate forums and obtain pledges from candidates for federal office to commit to fixing Congress so it serves the interests of individual citizens — not corporate lobbyists and special interests.  Getting these changes adopted may yet prevent our democracy from going down the low road to perdition.

Plenty of Money for Warplanes

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What golden idols are we making and worshiping today?

W.J. Astore

Even as Congress fights over a few billion dollars for the 9/11 first responders, there’s no shortage of money for warplanes.  This week the Pentagon announced the largest military procurement deal in history: $34 billion for 478 F-35 warplanes.  This decision comes despite the less-than-stellar performance of the F-35.

How can we forget the suffering of 9/11 first responders yet continue to buy overpriced jets at mind-boggling prices?  Sometimes I think we worship weapons as a golden idol.  People get so excited about them – almost as if they “own” their own personal F-35.  What can these warplanes do for us except blow things up?  Who’s going to attack the U.S. with a vast air fleet such that we need all these planes for “defense”?

The other day, I was reading old reporting from World War II (in the Library of America series).  There was an article on war rationing and how Americans were fighting for more gasoline for their personal cars.  And a war ration board member referenced the amount of gas a bomber needed just to warm up its engines as the reason why ordinary Americans had to ration gas.

Imagine if Americans today had to ration gas so that our F-35s and stealth bombers could fly.  Imagine if you couldn’t go on your summer vacation because you couldn’t get the gas due to the war on terror or the gas-guzzling appetites of B-52s and Navy jets operating near Iran.

Americans might actually pay attention to our foreign wars!  They might begin to question why they couldn’t get gas for their cars, trucks, boats, and campers because of Iran deployments or Afghan operations or what-have-you.

But unlike in World War II, today we are asked to make no sacrifices.  None.  Only our tax dollars — and our collective futures.

After the Mueller Report, Should Trump Be Impeached?

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French Ambassador Araud: Like Louis XIV, Trump believes he is the state.

W.J. Astore

The redacted Mueller Report is out, and there’s plenty of evidence that President Trump attempted to obstruct the investigation, which he saw as a partisan “witch hunt.” Indeed, Trump was saved by his aides, who refused to follow his orders to impede the investigation and to fire Robert Mueller.  Predictably, Republicans still support Trump, whereas prominent Democrats like Elizabeth Warren are calling for impeachment.

Should Trump be impeached?  No, I don’t think so.

I’m no fan of Trump.  I think he disqualified himself as a candidate in 2016 when he said he’d issue illegal orders to the U.S. military, which his generals would be obliged to follow.  Trump is not a public servant; in fact, he’s not much of a leader, period.  His basic instinct is to divide and conquer.  He looks for toadies and yes-men.  He cares little for anyone but himself and his immediate family.  He’s a master of regressive politics, a fomenter of discord.  His idea of justice is everything for Trump.

In sum, I don’t reject impeachment because I favor Trump.  I reject impeachment since the process will consume Congress and the country.

We have much higher priorities to address in America.  People are hurting.  Congress should focus (for once!) on helping ordinary people, not chasing Trump down various rabbit holes.

The outgoing French ambassador to the U.S. put it well in a recent interview.  Comparing Trump to Louis XIV, Ambassador Araud said “You have an old king, a bit whimsical, unpredictable, uninformed, but he wants to be the one deciding.”  Part of his act is to humiliate his subordinates as a way of showing his “mastery” of them.  He saves his admiration for other “strong men” like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.  That’s who Trump is.

Trump’s an awful president.  But impeachment won’t kill him — it will likely make him stronger.  Put differently, Trump has already been convicted in the court of public opinion.  Even some of his followers recognize that Trump’s a con man who can’t be trusted.  The point is not to remove him via impeachment, but to defeat him in 2020 by offering a progressive vision rather than a regressive one.

Focus on helping the American people, Congress.  Leave the “old king” to his ignorance and whimsies.

Trump, the Wall, and Ruling by Emergency Decree

Paul v. Hindenburg
As President of Weimar, Paul von Hindenburg ruled by emergency decree, becoming a proto-dictator.  Is America heading down that road?

W.J. Astore

In the Weimar Republic of Germany during the early 1930s, the President of that time, Paul von Hindenburg, ruled increasingly by emergency decree due to a hopelessly divided and ineffectual Reichstag (parliament or congress).  In 1932, for example, Hindenburg issued 66 emergency decrees while the Reichstag itself succeeded in passing only five laws.  Even before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Hindenburg had emerged, in a supposedly democratic Germany, as a fuhrer or dictator, issuing decrees in the name of getting things done.  A time-limited “emergency” executive power, in sum, became Weimar’s new normal, setting the stage for a much more malignant autocracy in the future.

As Donald Trump contemplates declaring a national emergency to enlarge America’s preexisting wall along the border with Mexico, Americans would do well to remember the Weimar example.  Ruling by emergency decree is the path to authoritarianism, and Congress, no matter how divided or ineffectual it is, should act to stop executive overreach before it finds itself neutered and irrelevant.

Of course, the U.S. Congress has already largely refused to exercise its “power of the purse” over the military as well as its power to declare (and control) America’s wars.  Whether America’s elected representatives have the collective guts to stop Trump’s potential usurpation of power remains to be seen.

One thing is certain.  Americans are growing accustomed to a divided, dysfunctional, even a shutdown, government.  And we’re growing accustomed to presidents acting like dictators, especially under circumstances couched as “wars” or other national emergencies (as determined by that same executive branch).  No matter your political party or allegiance (or lack thereof), this is not how democracy works — it’s how democracy dies.