I’ve been watching the Winter Olympics on TV, and the color commentators for NBC are typically athletes who’ve earned gold medals in the past, like Tara Lipinski in figure skating or Bode Miller in skiing. Why is it, then, when NBC and other networks seek expert “color” commentary on America’s wars, they turn to retired generals like David Petraeus, who’ve won nothing?
I’m not dissing Petraeus here. He himself admitted his “gains” in Iraq as well as Afghanistan were both “fragile and reversible.” And so they proved. The U.S. fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost thousands of troops and trillions of dollars for gains that truly were ephemeral. Despite this disastrous and tragic reality, Petraeus remains the sage on the stage, the go-to guy for analysis of our never-ending wars on PBS, Fox News, and elsewhere.
But then I got to thinking. Sure, Petraeus hasn’t won any wars. But he’s earned a gold medal in public relations. In spin. In 2007 he spun the Surge as a major U.S. victory in Iraq. (Temporary stability, bought at such a high price, did indeed prove fragile and reversible.) A later surge in Afghanistan didn’t prove as spinnable, but in a strange way his adulterous affair, a personal failure, came to obscure his military one. Now he regularly appears as a pundit, the voice of reason and experience, spinning the Afghan war, for example, as winnable as long as Americans continue to give the Pentagon a blank check to wage generational war.
In facilitating the growth of the national security state and ensuring it never takes the blame for its military defeats, Petraeus has indeed excelled in the eyes of those who matter in Washington. He’s no Tara Lipinski on ice or Bode Miller on snow, but when it comes to spinning wars and gliding over the facts, he takes the gold.
Why does the U.S. military invest so much pride in working to the point of tedium, if not exhaustion? A friend of mine, an Army major, worked at the Pentagon. He worked hard during his normal shift, after which he did what sensible people do – he went home. His co-workers, noses to the grindstone, would hassle him about leaving “early.” He’d reply, I can leave on-time because I don’t waste hours at the coffee maker or in the gym.
A caffeinated emphasis on work and fitness, another friend suggested, may be a post-Vietnam War reaction to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s “managerial culture” of the 1960s. As he put it, “One easy way of showing one has the ‘right stuff’ [in the U.S. military] is to be an exercise nut, and the penumbras of that mind-set have really distorted the allocation of effort in our military.”
Two recent examples of work- and fitness-mania are Army Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. The U.S. media extolled them as ascetic-warriors, yet both flamed out due to serious errors in judgment (Petraeus for an affair with his biographer, with whom he illegally shared highly classified information, and McChrystal for tolerating a climate that undermined his civilian chain of command). Asceticism and sweaty fitness routines, after all, are no substitute for sound judgment and a disciplined mind.
Busy-work within the military is related to Parkinson’s Law, the idea that work expands to fill the time allotted to it. In this case, with America’s wars on terror being open-ended, or “multi-generational” as the U.S. military puts it, the “work” on these wars will continue to expand to fill this time, with the added benefit of “validating” the extra money ($54 billion in 2017 alone) being shoveled to the Pentagon by President Trump.
Along with busy-work are the virtues of suffering, as related by a societal celebration of Navy SEALs and similar special forces (“100 men will test today/but only three win the Green Beret”). I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read articles and seen films featuring these “supermen” and their arduous training. The meme of “sweet–and public–suffering” is related to the whole “warrior” ideal (more on this later) within the U.S. military. There’s a self-righteous shininess here, a triumph of image over substance, or image as substance. (Being physically tough is of course an asset in close quarters combat, but it’s no guarantor of strategic sense or even of common sense.)
In the past, some of America’s finest military leaders had no shame in appearing common, most famously the “shabby” Ulysses S. Grant during the U.S. Civil War.
Civil War officers – true citizen-soldiers, most of them – often had unruly hair and unkempt beards, but they sure as hell fought hard and got the job done. Nowadays, as another reader put it, “there appears to be a whole lot of Army officers who think a white sidewall haircut proves you’re a great officer. It actually is a homage to the Prussian Army that shaved its soldiers’ heads to prevent lice.”
Speaking again of image, let’s take a close look at the beribboned uniforms of today’s military officers. General Joseph Votel, presently U.S. Centcom commander, is only the most recent example of an excess of ribbons, badges, and other devices:
Contrast Votel’s image to that of General George C. Marshall, who defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II.
How did Marshall manage such military feats with so few ribbons? Nowadays, U.S. generals sport more bling than the Kardashians.
But let’s return to the notion of U.S. troops as “warriors” and “warfighters.” I’ve written extensively on this subject. I see today’s “warrior” conceit as a way of eliminating our democratic citizen-soldier ideal, making the U.S. military a thoroughly professional force, subservient to the government and divorced from the people.
However, there’s another aspect to this “warrior” mythology, a powerful psychological one: the duping of the “warriors” themselves, distracting them from a bitter reality they may be little more than cannon fodder for greed-war.* The U.S. military today is awash with warrior creeds that to me are antithetical to the citizen-soldier ideal of America.
To sum up the U.S. military’s current ethos, then: We have a lot of guys who take great pride in constant busy-work and excessive physical exertion, sporting high and tight haircuts, their uniforms festooned with bewildering displays of ribbons and medals and badges, extolling a warrior code in the service of a government that tells them that multi-generational wars are unavoidable.
And so it shall prove, if these shadows remain unaltered.
*Thanks to Michael Murry for bringing my attention to how the semiotics of “warrior” are dramatically changed if we substitute “gladiator” for “warrior,” followed by less grandiose terms such as “those about to die,” i.e. as scapegoats to the king’s ambition, an insight he gleaned from reading Umberto Eco.
General (retired) David Petraeus was on PBS the other day to explain the current Iraqi offensive on Mosul. Sure, his military “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan had no staying power, and he disgraced himself by sharing classified information with his mistress during an extramarital affair, but nevertheless let’s call on him as an unbiased “expert” on all things military. Right?
But that’s the extent of what we [the U.S.] can do [in Iraq today]. We can encourage, we can nudge, we can cajole [the Iraqi military and Kurdish forces]. We can’t force. And it is going to have to be Iraqis at the end of the day that come together, recognizing that, if they cannot, fertile fields will be planted for the planting of the seeds of ISIS 3.0, of further extremism in Iraq.
Wow. There’s no sense here that the U.S. is to blame for planting the seeds of Iraqi extremism (or, at the very least, fertilizing them) in those “fertile fields.” Overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003 and demobilizing Iraqi military forces predictably left a power vacuum that facilitated factionalism and extremism in Iraq, which was only exacerbated by an extended and mismanaged U.S. occupation. Petraeus’s “Surge” in 2007 papered over some of the worst cracks, but only temporarily, a fact that Petraeus himself knew (consider all his caveats about “gains” being “fragile” and “reversible”).
But no matter. Petraeus is now saying it’s up to the Iraqis to get their act together, with some “nudging” and “cajoling” by the U.S. I’m sure Iraqi leaders are happy to learn that U.S. experts like Petraeus are behind them, ready to encourage and nudge and cajole. They’re likely happiest with U.S. Apache helicopters and direct tactical assistance via Special Ops teams (yes, there are U.S. boots on the ground, and they’re in harm’s way).
And Petraeus’s reference to ISIS 3.0: Isn’t it strange to compare a terrorist organization’s evolution to a new software product roll-out? Petraeus might have added that ISIS 1.0 came as a result of the extended U.S. occupation of Iraq, and that ISIS 2.0 came as U.S. forces pulled out, leaving behind Iraqi security forces that the U.S. claimed were ready to defend Iraq, but which fled in 2014, abandoning their weapons and equipment to ISIS forces. Put plainly, U.S. bungling helped to launch ISIS 1.0 and to equip ISIS 2.0. And yet Petraeus suggests if there’s an ISIS 3.0, that version will be entirely the fault of the Iraqis.
Throughout the Petraeus interview, there’s a callous calculus in place. For example, earlier in the interview, Petraeus casually notes the population of Mosul, originally 2 million people, is down to 1.2 million and dropping. Nothing is said about the missing 800,000 Iraqis. Most are refugees, but many are dead. Doesn’t their fate suggest a colossal failure of the war and occupation you ran, General Petraeus? But questions such as this are never asked in the mainstream media.
In its long wars in the Greater Middle East, the U.S. has an incredibly short and corrupted memory. Indeed, to stay with Petraeus and his software analogies, the American memory is a circular file that is constantly overwritten with flawed data. That’s a recipe not for smooth running but for catastrophic crashes. And so it has proved.
One of the more disturbing aspects of American militarism today has been the elevation of generals to the pantheon of heroes. Since 9/11, one U.S. general has excelled all others in hype: David Petraeus, the “Surge” savior of Iraq.
Today, Nick Turse has an outstanding article at TomDispatch.com on Petraeus and his charmed career. Despite his very public marital infidelity, and despite leaking highly classified secrets to his mistress, Petraeus has emerged from scandal as if reborn.
As Turse notes with telling humor, the retired general is more in demand than ever, so busy making money and giving advice to the high and mighty that he has no time to talk to (critical) journalists. Shepherded in style from event to event, looked up to as a sage on nearly every topic facing America today, Petraeus has somehow maintained a Messiah-like aura despite his past sins.
And I truly mean Messiah-like. Turse cites a story about Petraeus that I’d never heard that casts a whole new celestial light on Petraeus and his hype machine. Visiting a wounded soldier in the hospital, a soldier apparently in an irreversible coma, Petraeus reportedly awakened this man by shouting “Currihee,” a Cherokee word and unit battle cry that became famous after HBO’s popular “Band of Brothers” series.
And what immediately popped into my head? Lazarus, come forth!
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ awakened the dead Lazarus. Petraeus awakened a comatose soldier. Petraeus is not just a genius general — He’s the freakin’ Messiah!
America’s continued embrace of Petraeus says much about the American moment. Despite the fact that his “surges,” whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, were not miracles but rather, in their lack of staying power, essentially mistakes, Petraeus is still celebrated as warrior, sage, even saint (despite that obvious scarlet letter).
Is it possible that “saint” Petraeus might be “born again” to become a serious presidential contender in 2020? Heck, if thrice-married Donald Trump can break all the rules of civility to win his party’s nomination, why not the “honorable” Petraeus?
I’m not a prophet, but I’ll issue a warning anyway: Beware of false messiahs in 2020, especially those who wore general’s stars with miracle stories following in their wake.
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, which you can read in its entirety here, I tackle the American infatuation with air power and bombing. Despite its enormous destructiveness and indecisive results in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, the Iraq invasion of 2003, and in the ongoing War on Terror, U.S. leaders persist in bombing as a means to victory, even against dispersed organizations such as ISIS and the Taliban that offer few targets. As I put it in my article:
For all its promise of devastating power delivered against enemies with remarkable precision and quick victories at low cost (at least to Americans), air power has failed to deliver, not just in the ongoing war on terror but for decades before it. If anything, by providing an illusion of results, it has helped keep the United States in unwinnable wars, while inflicting a heavy toll on innocent victims on our distant battlefields. At the same time, the cult-like infatuation of American leaders, from the president on down, with the supposed ability of the U.S. military to deliver such results remains remarkably unchallenged in Washington.
Indeed, as Glenn Greenwald points out, Hillary Clinton’s presumptive Defense Secretary, Michele Flournoy, has already issued calls for more U.S. bombing and military interventions in the Middle East. Talk about doubling down on a losing strategy.
Yet “strategy” isn’t really the right word. Bombing is a method of war, not a strategy. And in this case the method truly is the madness, with the end being perpetual war.
When will the madness end? To be honest, I don’t see an end in the immediate future, so invested in bombing are America’s leaders and foreign “diplomats.”
Here’s the rest of my article for TomDispatch.com.
Yet despite this “asymmetric” advantage [America’s dominance of the air], despite all the bombing, missile strikes, and drone strikes, “progress” proved both “fragile” and endlessly “reversible” (to use words General David Petraeus applied to his “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan). In fact, 12,000 or so strikes after Washington’s air war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq began in August 2014, we now know that intelligence estimates of its success had to be deliberately exaggerated by the military to support a conclusion that bombing and missile strikes were effective ways to do in the Islamic State.
So here we are, in 2016, 25 years after Desert Storm and nearly a decade after the Petraeus “surge” in Iraq that purportedly produced that missing mission accomplished moment for Washington — and U.S. air assets are again in action in Iraqi and now Syrian skies. They are, for instance, flying ground support missions for Iraqi forces as they attempt to retake Falluja, a city in al-Anbar Province that had already been “liberated” in 2004 at a high cost to U.S. ground troops and an even higher one to Iraqi civilians. Thoroughly devastated back then, Falluja has again found itself on the receiving end of American air power.
If and when Iraqi forces do retake the city, they may inherit little more than bodies and rubble, as they did in taking the city of Ramadi last December. About Ramadi, Patrick Cockburn noted last month that “more than 70% of its buildings are in ruins and the great majority of its 400,000 people are still displaced” (another way of saying, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”). American drones, meanwhile, continue to soar over foreign skies, assassinating various terrorist “kingpins” to little permanent effect.
Tell Me How This Ends
Here’s the “hot wash”: something’s gone terribly wrong with Washington’s soaring dreams of air power and what it can accomplish. And yet the urge to loose the planes only grows stronger among America’s political class.
Given the frustratingly indecisive results of U.S. air campaigns in these years, one might wonder why a self-professed smart guy like Ted Cruz, when still a presidential candidate, would have called for “carpet” bombing our way to victory over ISIS, and yet in these years he has been more the norm than the exception in his infatuation with air power. Everyone from Donald Trump to Barack Obama has looked to the air for the master key to victory. In 2014, even Petraeus, home from the wars, declared himself “all in” on more bombing as critical to victory (whatever that word might now mean) in Iraq. Only recently he also called for the loosing of American air power (yet again) in Afghanistan — not long after which President Obama did just that.
Even as air power keeps the U.S. military in the game, even as it shows results (terror leaders killed, weapons destroyed, oil shipments interdicted, and so on), even as it thrills politicians in Washington, that magical victory over the latest terror outfits remains elusive. That is, in part, because air power by definition never occupies ground. It can’t dig in. It can’t swim like Mao Zedong’s proverbial fish in the sea of “the people.” It can’t sustain persuasive force. Its force is always staccato and episodic.
Its suasion, such as it is, comes from killing at a distance. But its bombs and missiles, no matter how “smart,” often miss their intended targets. Intelligence and technology regularly prove themselves imperfect or worse, which means that the deaths of innocents are inevitable. This ensures new recruits for the very organizations the planes are intent on defeating and new cycles of revenge and violence amid the increasing vistas of rubble below. Even when the bombs are on target, as happens often enough, and a terrorist leader or “lieutenant” is eliminated, what then? You kill a dozen more? As Petraeus said in a different context: tell me how this ends.
Recalling the Warbirds
From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, dropping bombs and firing missiles has been the presidentially favored way of “doing something” against an enemy. Air power is, in a sense, the easiest thing for a president to resort to and, in our world, has the added allure of the high-tech. It looks good back home. Not only does the president not risk the lives of American troops, he rarely risks retaliation of any kind.
Whether our presidents know it or not, however, air power always comes with hidden costs, starting with the increasingly commonplace blowback of retaliatory terrorist strikes on “soft” targets (meaning people) in cities like Paris or Madrid or London. Strikes that target senior members of enemy armies or terrorist organizations often miss, simply stoking yet more of the sorts of violent behavior we are trying to eradicate with our own version of violence. When they don’t miss and the leadership of terror groups is hit, as Andrew Cockburn has shown, the result is often the emergence of even more radical and brutal leaders and the further spread of such movements. In addition, U.S. air power, especially the White House-run drone assassination program, is leading the way globally when it comes to degrading the sovereignty of national borders. (Witness the latest drone strike against the head of the Taliban in violation of Pakistani airspace.) Right now, Washington couldn’t care less about this, but it is pioneering a future that, once taken up by other powers, may look far less palatable to American politicians.
Despite the sorry results delivered by air power over the last 65 years, the U.S. military continues to invest heavily in it — not only in drones but also in ultra-expensive fighters and bombers like the disappointing F-35 (projected total cost: $1.4 trillion) and the Air Force’s latest, already redundant long-range strike bomber (initial acquisition cost: $80 billion and rising). Dismissing the frustratingly mixed and often destabilizing results that come from air strikes, disregarding the jaw-dropping prices of the latest fighters and bombers, America’s leaders continue to clamor for yet more warplanes and yet more bombing.
And isn’t there a paradox, if not a problem, in the very idea of winning a war on terror through what is in essence terror bombing? Though it’s not something that, for obvious reasons, is much discussed in this country, given the historical record it’s hard to deny that bombing is terror. After all, that’s why early aviators like Douhet and Mitchell embraced it. They believed it would be so terrifyingly effective that future wars would be radically shortened to the advantage of those willing and able to bomb.
As it turned out, what air power provided was not victory, but carnage, terror, rubble — and resistance.
Americans should have a visceral understanding of why populations under our bombs and missiles resist. They should know what it means to be attacked from the air, how it pisses you off, how it generates solidarity, how it leads to new resolve and vows of vengeance. Forget Pearl Harbor, where my uncle, then in the Army, dodged Japanese bombs on December 7, 1941. Think about 9/11. On that awful day in 2001, Homeland USA was “bombed” by hijacked jet liners transformed into guided missiles. Our skies became deadly. A technology indelibly associated with American inventiveness and prowess was turned against us. Colossally shocked, America vowed vengeance.
Are our enemies any less resolutely human than we are? Like us, they’re not permanently swayed by bombing. They vow vengeance when friends, family members, associates of every sort are targeted. When American “smart” bombs obliterate wedding parties and other gatherings overseas, do we think the friends and loved ones of the dead shrug and say, “That’s war”? Here’s a hint: we didn’t.
Having largely overcome the trauma of 9/11, Americans today look to the sky with hope. We watch the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds with a sense of awe, wonder, and pride. Warplanes soar over our sports stadiums. The sky is ourhigh ground. We see evidence of America’s power and ingenuity there. Yet people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere often pray for clouds and bad weather; for them, clear skies are associated with American-made death from above.
It’s time we allow other peoples to look skyward with that same sense of safety and hope as we normally do. It’s time to recall the warbirds. They haven’t provided solutions. Indeed, the terror, destruction, and resentments they continue to spread are part of the problem.
Two news items this morning caught my eye. The first involves Edward Snowden, the security contractor who revealed massive (and ongoing) spying by the National Security Agency (NSA), much of it illegal. Snowden says he will consider returning to the United States if he is given a fair trial (he is currently in Russia, where he’s been granted asylum and a residency permit for three years).
Watching the Citizenfour documentary (which I recommend highly), it’s apparent that Snowden revealed the sweeping extent of the NSA’s spying not out of malice, not for money, and not out of disloyalty, but rather because he wanted to serve the people by shedding light on the dangerous activities of powerful governmental agencies. Snowden, in short, was motivated by patriotism. He saw how power was corrupting governmental agencies like the NSA, he recognized the dangers of that power to democracy, and he acted to warn the people of the possibility of this power ending in tyranny.
If he returns to the USA, how should he be punished? May I suggest that he receive the same penalty as General David Petraeus, who also leaked highly classified information? That penalty would be two years’ probation and a $40,000 fine.
Actually, that penalty wouldn’t be fair to Snowden, since Petraeus’s motivation for leaking classified information was personal. According to the New York Times, Petraeus shared his “black book” notes, much of the content highly classified, freely to Paula Broadwell, his lover and biographer. He apparently did so in order that she could write a more glowing account of his life. It’s also possible that this was part of the seduction process between the two: the sharing of those “sexy,” highly classified notes in exchange for further intimacies exchanged between the sheets (or under the desk).
So, Paula Broadwell gained access to “classified notes about official meetings, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and the names of covert officers.” Later, Petraeus lied to the FBI about the sharing of those notes. And for these transgressions, he remains at liberty, with a lucrative deal at a private equity firm, teaching at Harvard University and walking the halls of power as an ascetic “hero” of the Surge in Iraq (2007).
Meanwhile, Snowden, who has been very careful not to compromise covert assets, remains in exile, vilified by many as a traitor to his country.
That’s the American moment for you. A general with powerful friends gets a slap on the wrist for leaking highly classified material to his mistress and lying about it to the FBI, and a young patriot who acts to shed light on the growing power of governmental agencies to spy on the people and to violate their liberties is hounded into exile and denounced as a traitor.
And justice for all, America?
Glenn Greenwald notes that Snowden’s desire to return to the U.S. is nothing new (and not news). The main obstacle is that U.S. law prohibits Snowden from using the defense that the documents/information he leaked should never have been classified to begin with. In other words, in a democracy, government should be transparent and accountable to the people, rather than being shrouded in secrecy and unaccountable to the people. Imagine that!
Greenwald’s article, of course, changes nothing that I wrote above about the two-track justice system in the U.S. If only Snowden had been a military general and ex-chief of the CIA before he became a whistleblower! But, sadly, he was just a young man inspired by idealism and fired up about the dangers of the total surveillance state.
Idealism driven by concerns about the overweening powers of the national security state: We can’t have that in America. Hang Snowden! Opportunism and deceit by a powerful man who ran a key component of that state (the CIA) and who should definitely have known better about violating security and lying to investigators? Well, that’s OK, “hero” Petraeus. Pay a token fine — and here’s your “Get out of jail free” card.
A recent article in the New York Times about how General (Ret.) David Petraeus is being honored by the New York Historical Society featured a word often used to describe Petraeus as well as another retired U.S. general fallen on hard times, Stanley McChrystal. The word is “ascetic.” The American media loved to hype the ascetic nature of both these men: their leanness, the number of miles they ran or push-ups they did, how hard they worked, how few hours of sleep they required, and so on. Somehow “ascetic” became associated with superlative leadership and sweeping strategic vision, as if eating sparse meals or running ten miles in an hour is the stuff of a winning general.
Of prospective generals Napoleon used to ask, “Is he lucky?” In other words, does he find ways to win in spite of the odds? It seems our media identifies a winning general by how many chin-ups and sit-ups he can perform, or how few calories he needs in a day.
The whole ascetic ideal is not a citizen-soldier concept. It’s a Spartan or Prussian conceit. And it’s fascinating to me how generals like Petraeus and McChrystal were essentially anointed as ascetic warrior-priests by the U.S. media. So much so that in 2007 the Bush Administration took to hiding behind the beribboned and apparently besmirchless chest of Petraeus.
Of course, both Petraeus and McChrystal bought their own media hype, each imploding in his own way, but both manifesting a lack of discipline that gave the lie to the highly disciplined “ascetic” image of the warrior-priest.
And of course both are now being rehabilitated by the powers-that-be, a process that says much about our imperial moment.
Something tells me we’d be better off with a few plain-speaking, un-hyped, citizen-soldier types like Ulysses S. Grant rather than the over-hyped “ascetic warriors” of today. Or as a friend of mine put it, “I’d prefer a little fat at the gut to lots of fat above the ears.”