About 15 years ago, I was talking to a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who’d served with the 101st Airborne as a battalion commander in Iraq. He told me his troops were well trained and packed a tremendous punch. An American platoon, given its superiority in firepower, communications, and the artillery and air support it can call on, could take on enemy units three times its size and win (easily). Yet this tremendous advantage in firepower proved politically indecisive in Iraq as well as places like Afghanistan and Vietnam.
The typical U.S. military response is to argue for even more firepower – and to blame the rules of engagement (ROE) for not allowing them to use it indiscriminately.
The U.S. military has optimized and always seeks to optimize its hitting power at the sharp end of war. It takes pride in its “hardness” and its “warriors.” But the skirmishes and battles it “wins” never add up to anything. If anything, the more the U.S. military used its superior firepower in Iraq as well as places like Vietnam and Afghanistan, the more collateral damage it spread, the more people it alienated, the more the results became retrograde.
Even as U.S. leaders cited impressive (and false) metrics to show “progress” about districts “pacified,” or how many Vietnamese or Afghan or Iraqi troops were “trained” and ready to assume the roles of U.S. troops, the truth was that U.S. military units were sinking ever deeper into quagmires of their own making. Meanwhile, elements within Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq, enabled by America’s own military-industrial complex, worked cleverly to extract more wealth and resources from a U.S. government that was only fooling itself and the American people with its lies about “progress.”
Let’s take a closer look at the Afghan War as an example. The military historian Dennis Showalter put it memorably to me. He talked of Taliban units offering “symmetry,” or fighting as American units are trained to do, only under exceptional circumstances, and typically to the Taliban’s advantage (e.g. small-unit ambushes using IEDs that drove U.S. troops to respond with massive firepower). Since U.S. troops are adept at reacting quickly and deploying massive firepower, they believe that this is war’s cutting edge. Find ‘em, fix ‘em, kill ‘em, is often the start and end of U.S. military strategy.
As Showalter put it: Like a bull the U.S. military rushes the Taliban cape as the sword goes into its shoulders. If you’re the enemy, wave that cape – just be sure to sidestep the bull’s rush.
Yes, the U.S. military has impressive firepower. Yes, no one projects force like the U.S. military. Yes, the U.S. military can charge and hit with bullish impact. But for what purpose, and to what end? The bull in a bullfight, after all, doesn’t often win.
And when you move the bull from the fighting ring to a delicate situation, a more political one, one that requires subtlety and care, things go very poorly indeed, as they do when bulls find themselves in china shops.
Americans may already be lying themselves out of what little remains of their democracy.
The big lie uniting and motivating today’s Republicans is, of course, that Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, won the 2020 presidential election. Other big lies in our recent past include the notion that climate change is nothing but a Chinese hoax, that Russia was responsible for Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat in 2016, and that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was necessary because that country’s leader, Saddam Hussein, had something to do with the 9/11 attacks (he didn’t!) and possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be used against the United States, a “slam dunk” truth, according to then-CIA Director George Tenet (it wasn’t!).
Those and other lies, large and small, along with systemic corruption in Washington are precisely why so many Americans have been driven to despair. Small wonder that, in 2016, those “deplorables” reached out in desperation to a figure who wasn’t a product of Washington’s mendacious Beltway culture. Desperate times engender desperate acts, including anointing a failed casino owner and consummate con man as America’s MAGA-cap-wearing savior. As the 45th president, Donald Trump set a record for lies that will likely remain unmatchable in its “greatness” — or so we must hope anyway.
Sadly, Americans have become remarkably tolerant of comfortable lies, generally preferring them to uncomfortable truths. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the military realm that I’ve inhabited most of my life. The first casualty of war, so it’s said, is truth, and since this country has remained perennially at war, we continue to eternally torture the truth as well.
When it comes to war, here are just a few of our all-American falsehoods: that this country is slow to anger because we prefer peace, even if wars are often necessary, which is also why peace-loving America must have the world’s “finest” and by far the most expensive military on the planet; that just such a military is also a unique force for freedom on Planet Earth; that it fights selflessly “to liberate the oppressed” (a Special Forces motto) but never to advance imperial or otherwise selfish ambitions.
For a superpower that loves to flex its military muscles, such lies are essentially par for the course. Think of them, in fact, as government-issue (GI) lies. As a historian looking to the future, what worries me more are two truly insidious lies that, in the early 1930s, led to the collapse of a fledgling democracy in Weimar Germany, lies that in their own way helped to facilitate the Holocaust and that, under the right (that is, wrong) circumstances, could become ours as well. What were those two lies?
Germany’s Tragic Lies After World War I
During World War I, the German military attempted to defeat the combined forces of Britain, France, Russia, and later the United States, among other powers, while simultaneously being “shackled to a corpse,” as one German general described his country’s main ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the middle of 1916, the German Second Reich led by Kaiser Wilhelm II had, in essence, become a military dictatorship devoted to total victory at any cost.
Two years later, that same military had been driven to exhaustion by its commanders. When it was on the verge of collapse, its generals washed their hands of responsibility and allowed the politicians to sue for peace. But even before the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918, certain reactionary elements within the country were already rehearsing two big and related lies that would facilitate the rise of a demagogue and the onset of an even more disastrous world war.
The first big lie was that the German military, then considered the world’s finest (sound familiar?), emerged from World War I undefeated in the field, its troops a band of heroes covered in glory. That lie was tenable because Germany itself had not been invaded in World War I; the worst fighting took place in France, Belgium, and Russia. It was also tenable because its military leaders had lied to the people about the progress being made toward “victory.” (This should again sound familiar to contemporary American ears.) So, when those senior leaders finally threw in the towel in late 1918, it came as a shock to most Germans, who’d been fed a steady diet of “progress,” while news of serious setbacks on the Western Front was suppressed.
The second big lie followed from the first. For if one accepted the “undefeated in the field” myth, as so many Germans did, then who was responsible for the defeat of the world’s finest military? Not Germany’s generals, of course. Indeed, in 1919, led by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, those same generals would maliciously claim that disloyal elements on the home front — an enemy within — had conspired to betray the country’s heroic troops. Thus was born the “stab-in-the-back” myth that placed the blame on traitors from within, while ever so conveniently displacing it from the Kaiser and his generals.
Who, then, were Germany’s backstabbers? The usual suspects were rounded up: mainly socialists, Marxists, anti-militarists, pacifists, and war profiteers of a certain sort (but not weapons makers like the Krupp Family). Soon enough, Germany’s Jews would be fingered as well by gutter-inhabitants like Adolf Hitler, since they had allegedly shirked their duty to serve in the ranks. This was yet another easy-to-disprove lie, but all too many Germans, desperate for scapegoats and undoubtedly bigoted as well, proved eager to believe such lies.
Those two big and insidious falsehoods led to an almost total lack of accountability in Weimar Germany for militarists like Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff who were significantly responsible for the country’s defeat. Such lies fed the anger and fattened the grievances of the German people, creating fertile ground for yet more grievous lies. In a climate of fear driven by the massive economic dislocation brought on by the Great Depression of 1929, a previously fringe figure found his voice and his audience. Those two big lies served to empower Hitler and, not surprisingly, he began promoting both a military revival and calls for revenge against the backstabbing “November criminals” who had allegedly betrayed Germany. Hitler’s lies were readily embraced in part because they fell on well-prepared ears.
Of course, a mature democracy like America could never produce a leader remotely like a Hitler or a militaristic empire bent on world domination. Right?
To read the rest of my article for TomDispatch.com, please click here. Thanks!
Note: In writing my book on Paul von Hindenburg, I was greatly helped by Dennis Showalter, a wonderful historian and a better friend. Dennis was remarkably generous to me and to so many other students of history. Dennis died at the end of 2019, and I miss his keen mind, his exceptional scholarship, but most of all his warmth and sense of humor. We joked that our work on Hindenburg represented a rare “bipartisan” collaboration between a Yankees fan (that’s him) and a Red Sox fan (that’s me). Thanks for everything, Dennis.
The Senate Trial of Donald Trump begins today, though the outcome seems clear: Trump will be exonerated for his alleged role in inciting the Capitol riot.
Democrats will do their best to put all the blame for this riot on Trump. They would be better advised to focus on why Americans stormed the Capitol to begin with, and why 74 million voters chose Trump — despite all his flaws — as their champion back in November.
Trump voters shouldn’t be shoved en masse into a basket of deplorables. Nor should they be dismissed as being beyond redemption, as Hillary Clinton did in 2016. That an incompetent buffoon like Trump could win so many votes says as much about the (lack of) appeal of the Democratic Party as it says about the grifter skills of Trump.
If Democrats want to continue winning elections while actually doing their jobs as public servants, they’d advance policies that would help ordinary Americans. So far, signs that the Democrats understand this are few. Joe Biden has already said the Covid relief package may not advance the policy of a $15 minimum wage. Covid relief checks, promised at $2000 and pronto, are already reduced and delayed until March at the earliest. Medicare for all is dead; so too is a single-payer option. Biden and Pelosi have promised only extra funds for people to buy high-priced private health care coverage in Obamacare markets.
Americans support Medicare for all. Americans support a higher minimum wage. Americans desperately need Covid relief now. And so far Biden and his establishment Democrats are failing on all of these. This isn’t a bug or glitch in the Democratic matrix, it’s a feature. “Nothing will fundamentally change,” Biden said before his election, and that’s the one promise he may well keep.
Joe Bageant knew the score. A self-confessed “Appalachian native who grew up dirt-eating poor,” Bageant explained how he’d “managed to live a couple of decades in the middle class as a news reporter, magazine editor, and publishing executive.” He also knew to keep his eyes and ears open, writing in September 2008 that “the liberal middle class is condescending to working-class redneck culture–which is insulting, but not a crime. The real crime is the way corporate conservatives lie to my people, screw us blind, kill us in wars, and keep us in economic serfdom.”
If you read “corporate conservatives” as Republicans, you’d be only half-right. As a term, “corporate conservatives” includes Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and most of the people around them inside the Washington Beltway. That doesn’t bode well for “redneck culture”–and it most certainly doesn’t bode well for the country.
Americans are tired of being lied to and disrespected and mistreated. They are also in many cases desperate for help. Angry and desperate people do not make for normalcy. Nor are they an obliging audience for the tepid and often phony acts of corporate politicians, whether Democrat or Republican.
Reading an article by historian Dennis Showalter*, a friend and mentor, reminded me of how the Nazis mobilized “the petty spite and everyday resentment” of “frustrated little men and good Germans” of the early 1930s. About these people Showalter wrote: “They wanted help. They wanted to voice grievances. They wanted to be heard. They turned to the Nazis because the Nazis expressed sympathy for their problems and implied the possibility of solutions in the framework of a new order.”
Trump’s appeal, of course, was to an old order (Make America Great Again). But it wasn’t entirely retrograde or racist. Trump succeeded in showing sympathy for ordinary Americans, e.g. their loss of jobs due to trade deals that favored the richest of Americans, and he did promise solutions even as he failed to deliver on them. Even after all his debacles and disasters, 74 million Americans still voted for him instead of the Democrats.
A few days ago, I was watching an interview of Ralph Nader as he described the powerbrokers of the Democratic Party. A few of his choice words about them: arrogant, bureaucratic, decrepit, exclusive, and indentured (to corporations and special interests). I don’t think Nader is wrong here.
So, as the Democratic Party postures and sputters against Trump this week, they’d best remember that the real issue is helping ordinary Americans, including those in “redneck culture.” People want to be heard, and if Democrats are unwilling to hear them, others will.
* Showalter, “Letters to Der Sturmer: The Mobilization of Hostility in the Weimar Republic,” Modern Judaism, 3 (May 1983), 173-87.
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