You know an American war is going poorly when the lies come swiftly, as with the Afghan War, or when it’s hidden under a cloak of secrecy, which is also increasingly true of the Afghan War.
This is nothing new, of course. Perhaps the best book I read in 2019 is H. Bruce Franklin’s Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War. Franklin, who served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s before becoming an English professor, cultural historian, and an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, is devastating in his critique of the military-industrial complex in this memoir. I recommend it highly to all Americans who want to wrestle with tough truths.
Let’s consider one example: Franklin’s dismissal of the “stab-in-the-back” myth (or Rambo myth) that came out of the Vietnam War. This was the idea the U.S. military could have won in Vietnam, and was indeed close to winning, only to be betrayed by weak-kneed politicians and the anti-war movement.
Franklin demolishes this argument in a paragraph that is worth reading again and again:
One widespread cultural fantasy about the Vietnam War blames the antiwar movement for forcing the military to “fight with one arm tied behind its back.” But this belief stands reality on its head. The American people, disgusted and angry about the Korean War, were in no mood to support a war in Vietnam. Staunch domestic opposition kept Washington from going in overtly. So it went covertly. It thereby committed itself to a policy based on deception, sneaking around, and hiding its actions from the American people. The U.S. government thus created the internal nemesis of its own war: the antiwar movement. That movement was inspired and empowered not just by our outrage against the war [but] also by the lies about the war, lies necessitated by the war, coming from our government and propagated by the media. Although it was the Vietnamese who defeated the United States, ultimately it was the antiwar movement, especially within the armed forces, that finally in 1973 forced Washington to accept, at long last, the terms of the 1954 Geneva Accords, and to sign a peace treaty that included, word for word, every major demand made by the National Liberation Front (the so-called Viet Cong) back in 1969…
The truth was that for three decades our nation had sponsored and then waged a genocidal war against a people and a nation that had never done anything to us except ask for our friendship and support [during and after World War II].
This is well and strongly put. The American people had no interest in intervening in Vietnam in the 1950s; the Korean debacle had been enough. But the U.S. government intervened anyway, lying about its involvement until it could no longer lie. Then a bigger lie was concocted, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, to justify a larger commitment of troops in the mid-1960s, which led to near-genocidal destruction in Vietnam.
Wars built on lies are rarely won, especially in a democracy. But even as they are lost (Vietnam in the 1960s, and now Afghanistan), there are always “winners.” Weapons contractors and other war profiteers. The Pentagon, which from war gains more money and more power. And authoritarian elements within society itself, which are reinforced by war.
If we wish to take our democracy back, a powerful first step is to end all American wars overseas. This would not be isolationism; this would be sanity.
Wars, secrecy, and lies are three big enemies of democracy. Maybe the big three. War suppresses thought and supports authoritarianism. Secrecy prevents accountability. Lies mislead the people. And that’s what we have today. Constant warfare. Secrecy, e.g. reports on “progress” in the Afghan War are now classified and no longer shared. Lies are rampant; indeed, lies are policy. Just look at the Afghan Papers.
Yet wars, secrecy, and lies have been incredibly successful. The Pentagon budget is booming! Weapons sales are exploding! No one is being held accountable for failures or war crimes. Indeed, convicted war criminals are absolved and touted as heroes by the president.
The solution is as obvious as it will be painful. We need peace, transparency, and truth. End the wars, declassify all those “secrets” we the people should know about our military and wars, and reward truth-tellers instead of punishing them.
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I look afresh at the many reasons why America’s wars persist — and why the “war train” is soundin’ ever louder across America and indeed much of the world.
Here’s an excerpt; please read the entire article at TomDispatch.
Think of this as the new American exceptionalism. In Washington, war is now the predictable (and even desirable) way of life, while peace is the unpredictable (and unwise) path to follow. In this context, the U.S. must continue to be the most powerful nation in the world by a country mile in all death-dealing realms and its wars must be fought, generation after generation, even when victory is never in sight. And if that isn’t an “exceptional” belief system, what is?
If we’re ever to put an end to our country’s endless twenty-first-century wars, that mindset will have to be changed. But to do that, we would first have to recognize and confront war’s many uses in American life and culture.
War, Its Uses (and Abuses)
A partial list of war’s many uses might go something like this: war is profitable, most notably for America’s vast military-industrial complex; war is sold as being necessary for America’s safety, especially to prevent terrorist attacks; and for many Americans, war is seen as a measure of national fitness and worthiness, a reminder that “freedom isn’t free.” In our politics today, it’s far better to be seen as strong and wrong than meek and right.
As the title of a book by former war reporter Chris Hedges so aptly put it, war is a force that gives us meaning. And let’s face it, a significant part of America’s meaning in this century has involved pride in having the toughest military on the planet, even as trillions of tax dollars went into a misguided attempt to maintain bragging rights to being the world’s sole superpower.
And keep in mind as well that, among other things, never-ending war weakens democracy while strengthening authoritarian tendencies in politics and society. In an age of gaping inequality, using up the country’s resources in such profligate and destructive ways offers a striking exercise in consumption that profits the few at the expense of the many.
In other words, for a select few, war pays dividends in ways that peace doesn’t. In a nutshell, or perhaps an artillery shell, war is anti-democratic, anti-progressive, anti-intellectual, and anti-human. Yet, as we know, history makes heroes out of its participants and celebrates mass murderers like Napoleon as “great captains.”
What the United States needs today is a new strategy of containment — not against communist expansion, as in the Cold War, but against war itself. What’s stopping us from containing war? You might say that, in some sense, we’ve grown addicted to it, which is true enough, but here are five additional reasons for war’s enduring presence in American life:
The delusional idea that Americans are, by nature, winners and that our wars are therefore winnable: No American leader wants to be labeled a “loser.” Meanwhile, such dubious conflicts — see: the Afghan War, now in its 18th year, with several more years, or even generations, to go — continue to be treated by the military as if they were indeed winnable, even though they visibly aren’t. No president, Republican or Democrat, not even Donald J. Trump, despite his promises that American soldiers will be coming home from such fiascos, has successfully resisted the Pentagon’s siren call for patience (and for yet more trillions of dollars) in the cause of ultimate victory, however poorly defined, farfetched, or far-off.
American society’s almost complete isolation from war’s deadly effects: We’re not being droned (yet). Our cities are not yet lying in ruins (though they’re certainly suffering from a lack of funding, as is our most essential infrastructure, thanks in part to the cost of those overseas wars). It’s nonetheless remarkable how little attention, either in the media or elsewhere, this country’s never-ending war-making gets here.
Unnecessary and sweeping secrecy: How can you resist what you essentially don’t know about? Learning its lesson from the Vietnam War, the Pentagon now classifies (in plain speak: covers up) the worst aspects of its disastrous wars. This isn’t because the enemy could exploit such details — the enemy already knows! — but because the American people might be roused to something like anger and action by it. Principled whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning have been imprisoned or otherwise dismissed or, in the case of Edward Snowden, pursued and indicted for sharing honest details about the calamitous Iraq War and America’s invasive and intrusive surveillance state. In the process, a clear message of intimidation has been sent to other would-be truth-tellers.
An unrepresentative government: Long ago, of course, Congress ceded to the presidency most of its constitutional powers when it comes to making war. Still, despite recent attempts to end America’s arms-dealing role in the genocidal Saudi war in Yemen (overridden by Donald Trump’s veto power), America’s duly elected representatives generally don’t represent the people when it comes to this country’s disastrous wars. They are, to put it bluntly, largely captives of (and sometimes on leaving politics quite literally go to work for) the military-industrial complex. As long as money is speech (thank you, Supreme Court!), the weapons makers are always likely to be able to shout louder in Congress than you and I ever will.
America’s persistent empathy gap. Despite our size, we are a remarkably insular nation and suffer from a serious empathy gap when it comes to understanding foreign cultures and peoples or what we’re actually doing to them. Even our globetrotting troops, when not fighting and killing foreigners in battle, often stay on vast bases, referred to in the military as “Little Americas,” complete with familiar stores, fast food, you name it. Wherever we go, there we are, eating our big burgers, driving our big trucks, wielding our big guns, and dropping our very big bombs. But what those bombs do, whom they hurt or kill, whom they displace from their homes and lives, these are things that Americans turn out to care remarkably little about.
All this puts me sadly in mind of a song popular in my youth, a time when Cat Stevens sang of a “peace train” that was “soundin’ louder” in America. Today, that peace train’s been derailed and replaced by an armed and armored one eternally prepared for perpetual war — and that train is indeed soundin’ louder to the great peril of us all.
Democracies should be slow to start wars and quick to end them. James Madison taught us that. Why is America today the very opposite of this?
I thought of this as I read Danny Sjursen’s fine article at TomDispatch.com. Sjursen, a retired Army major, is a strong critic of America’s forever wars. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost soldiers under his command. He knows the bitter cost of war and expresses it well in his article, which I encourage you to read. Here’s an excerpt:
Recently, my mother asked me what I thought my former students [West Point cadets] were now doing or would be doing after graduation. I was taken aback and didn’t quite know how to answer.
Wasting their time and their lives was, I suppose, what I wanted to say. But a more serious analysis, based on a survey of U.S. Army missions in 2019 and bolstered by my communications with peers still in the service, leaves me with an even more disturbing answer. A new generation of West Point educated officers, graduating a decade and a half after me, faces potential tours of duty in… hmm, Afghanistan, Iraq, or other countries involved in the never-ending American war on terror, missions that will not make this country any safer or lead to “victory” of any sort, no matter how defined.
Repetition. Endless repetition. That is the theme of America’s wars today.
Remember the movie “Groundhog Day,” with Bill Murray? Murray’s character repeats the same day, over and over again. He’s stuck in an infinite loop from which he can’t escape. Much like America’s wars today, with one exception: Murray’s character actually learns some humility from the repetition. He shows a capacity for growth and change. And that’s how he escapes his loop. He changes. He grows. The U.S. military’s leadership? Not so much.
But I don’t just blame the senior leaders of the U.S. military. They’re not that dumb. It’s the system of greed-war they and we inhabit. Why change endless war when certain powerful forces are endlessly profiting from it? War, after all, is a racket, as General Smedley Butler knew. It’s a racket that’s contrary to democracy; one that buttresses authoritarianism and even kleptocracy, since you can justify all kinds of theft in the cause of “keeping us safe” and “supporting our troops.”
Danny Sjursen, a true citizen-soldier, remembers that war is supposed to be waged in accordance with the Constitution and only to protect our country against enemies. But being a citizen-soldier has gone out of style in today’s military. Everyone is supposed to identify as a warrior/warfighter, which has the added benefit of suppressing thought about why we fight.
Eager to fight, slow to think, might be the new motto of America’s military. Such a motto, consistent with forever war, is inconsistent with democracy.
Inspired by three recent articles at TomDispatch.com, I’d like to suggest why America’s wars never end.
The first article marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is by James Carroll. It brought me back to when I was a young Air Force captain on active duty. All of us in the military were surprised when the wall came down. Soon the Soviet Union would collapse as well. I know because I got a certificate signed by President G.H.W. Bush congratulating us for winning the Cold War.
In the early 1990s there was much talk about a New World Order (largely undefined) and a Peace Dividend. The “new” world order quickly became global military adventurism for the U.S. and the peace dividend withered as Desert Shield/Storm and other operations commenced.
I recall some personnel cuts, but no real cuts in weaponry. And no change to strategy. NATO remained even though the Warsaw Pact had dissolved. Indeed, NATO would soon be expanded (in the cause of peace, naturally), even as U.S. imperial ambitions grew. It was the “end of history” and the U.S. had triumphed, or so we thought.
But why had we triumphed? Apparently the lesson our leaders took from it was that military strength was the key to our triumph, therefore more of the same would lead to new triumphs. Pax Americana was not about democracy or freedom: it was about weapons and wars. Peace through military strength (and destruction) was the driving philosophy.
Unbounded ambition and unbridled power – that was the new world order for America. The wall came down in Berlin, but it didn’t come down in our minds. Instead of an open society, Fortress America became the norm.
The second article is by Allegra Harpootlian and focuses on the “collateral damage” (murdered innocents) of America’s global bombing and drone campaigns. It made me think of a conversation I had with a student; he’d been in the U.S. Army and fought in Afghanistan. Basically, he described it as a dirt-poor country with a primitiveness that seemed Biblical to him. He got me thinking about how we “see” people like the Iraqis and Afghans as less than us. Different. Inferior. Primitive. From another time, and from another place.
So, when Americans kill civilians in those places, it’s almost like it’s cinematic, not real, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” We just move on.
Of course, Americans are not encouraged to be empathetic people. The world is supposed to revolve around us. “You can have it all.” In a world of selfies, why care about others? Look out for #1!
To put a bow on this, consider evangelical Christianity and the prosperity gospel. (The idea God will reward you with material goods and money as a sign of righteousness.) Remember when charity to others was valued? Not anymore.
Another way of putting this: In America there’s a huge market for self-help books, videos, etc. But where are the books and videos encouraging us to help others?
The third article is by Andrew Bacevich and specifically addresses the never-ending nature of America’s wars. His piece made me think of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who as a presidential candidate has called for an end to regime-change wars (though not the war on terror). For her pains, she’s been accused of being a Russian asset by Hillary Clinton & Company.
Why is this? Because there’s just so much money – literally trillions of dollars – at stake here, and the military-industrial-congressional complex knows how to protect itself.
The Complex offers or supports hundreds of thousands of decent-paying jobs, building weapons, staffing think tanks, and so forth. President Trump may have voiced some skepticism about America’s failed and failing wars, yet he keeps giving the Pentagon more money. Hence the wars will continue, no matter what sounds come out of Trump’s mouth.
As Tom Engelhardt has noted, for the Pentagon, failure is success. Naval accidents mean the Navy needs more money. Failed wars mean the military needs more money to replace weaponry, “modernize,” and prepare for the next round. Defeat is victory, as in more money.
To recap, America’s wars persist because a martial imperialism is our new world order; because we have limited empathy for others, especially darker-skinned “primitives”; and because war is simply a thriving business, the Washington way to rule.
Here’s a final, bonus, reason America’s wars persist: thoughtfulness is not valued by the U.S. military. Another “t” word is: toughness. The U.S. military would rather be strong and wrong than smart and right.
For all the “think” tanks we have inside the Washington beltway, what matters more than thought is toughness. Action. Making the other guy whimper and cry, to cite President Trump. This is yet another reason why America loses. We prefer to act first, then (grudgingly) think, then act some more.
Here I think of U.S. officer performance reports, which also stress action, results, even when the results are “fragile,” “reversible,” or even made up. How many officers have been promoted on pacification campaigns that pacified no one? On training efforts, e.g. for the Iraqi Army, that trained no one? On battles or skirmishes “won” that had no staying power? Remember that Petraeus Surge in Iraq?
In a nutshell, perhaps we wage war without end simply because we want to. We’ll stop when we wake up from our madness – or when someone makes us stop.
Ten years ago, I gave a talk on the ideal of citizen-soldiers and how and why America had drifted from that ideal. As war looms on the horizon yet again, this time with Iran, we’d be well advised to ask critical questions about our military, such as why we idolize it, how it no longer reflects our country demographically, its reliance on for-profit mercenaries, and the generally mediocre record of its senior leaders.
My talk consisted of notes that I hope are clear enough, but if they aren’t, please ask me to elaborate and I will in the comments section. Thanks.
Today  I want to discuss the ideal of the citizen-soldier and how I believe we have drifted from that ideal.
The Ideal: Dick Winters in Band of Brothers; E.B. Sledge in With the Old Breed; Jimmy Stewart. Until recent times, the American military was justly proud of being a force of citizen-soldiers. It didn’t matter whether you were talking about those famed Revolutionary War Minutemen, courageous Civil War volunteers, or the “Greatest Generation” conscripts of World War II.
Americans have a long tradition of being distrustful of the very idea of a large, permanent army, as well as of giving potentially disruptive authority to generals.
How have we drifted from that ideal? In six ways, I think:
Burden-sharing and lack of class equity
Historian David M. Kennedy in October 2005: “No American is now obligated to military service, few will ever serve in uniform, even fewer will actually taste battle …. Americans with no risk whatsoever of exposure to military service have, in effect, hired some of the least advantaged of their fellow countrymen to do some of their most dangerous business while the majority goes on with their own affairs unbloodied and undistracted.”
Are we a true citizen-military if we call on only a portion of our citizens to make sacrifices?
All-Volunteer Military, or All-Recruited Military? Our military targets the working classes, the rural poor, young men (mostly men) who are out of work, or high school dropouts, for enlistments. (Officer corps is recruited somewhat differently.)
With few exceptions, societal elites not targeted by recruiters.
Anecdote: NYT article by Kenneth Harbaugh on exclusion of ROTC from Ivy-League college campuses
“At Yale, which has supplied more than its share of senators and presidents, almost none of my former classmates or students ever noticed the absence of uniforms on campus. In a nation at war, this is a disgrace. But it also shows how dangerously out of touch the elites who shape our national policy have become with the men and women they send to war.
Toward the end of the semester, I took my class to West Point. None of my students had ever seen a military base, and only one had a friend his age in uniform.”
“Support Our Troops” – But who are our troops? Why are they not drawn from across our class/demographic spectrum?
Estrangement of Progressives and Growing Conservatism/Evangelicalism of the Military
If the operating equation is military = bad, are we not effectively excusing ourselves or our children from any obligation to serve — even any obligation simply to engage with the military? Indeed, are we even patting ourselves on the back for the wisdom of our non-choice and our non-participation? Rarely has a failure to sacrifice or even to engage come at a more self-ennobling price — or a more self-destructive one for progressive agendas.
Example: Evangelicalism at the Air Force Academy versus separation of church and state.
Is our professional military a society within our larger society?
Many “troops” are no longer U.S. military: They’re private contractors. Instead of citizen-soldiers, they’re (in some cases) non-citizen mercenaries and non-citizen contractors.
Blackwater (Xe), Triple Canopy, Dyncorp, KBR: there are more contractor personnel in Iraq than U.S. military, and many contractors are providing security and doing tasks that our military used to do, like KP, for a lot more money.
Profit incentive: privatizing military is like privatizing prisons. You create a profit motive for extending military commitments, and perhaps wars as well.
In other words, citizen-soldiers like Sledge and Winters want to come home. Private mercenaries/contractors want to stay, as long as they’re making good money.
Cult of the warrior: Reference to American troops as “warfighters.” This is contrary to our American tradition of “Minutemen.” It’s a disturbing change in terminology.
I first noticed the term “warfighter” in 2002. Like many a field-grade staff officer, I spent a lot of time crafting PowerPoint briefings, trying to sell senior officers and the Pentagon on my particular unit’s importance to the President’s new Global War on Terrorism. The more briefings I saw, the more often I came across references to “serving the warfighter.” It was, I suppose, an obvious selling point, once we were at war in Afghanistan and gearing up for “regime-change” in Iraq. And I was probably typical in that I, too, grabbed the term for my briefings. After all, who wants to be left behind when it comes to supporting the troops “at the pointy end of the spear” (to borrow another military trope)?
But I wasn’t comfortable with the term then, and today it tastes bitter in my mouth.
We must not be “warriors” – we must be citizen-soldiers. And note how the word “citizen” comes first.
Aside: Warriors may commit more atrocities precisely because they see themselves as different from, and superior to, civilians.
Deference of civilians to military experts, instead of vice-versa. Why I wrote my first piece for TomDispatch. Idea that President George W. Bush couldn’t make the final decision on the Surge in Iraq until we heard from General David Petraeus.
In a country founded on civilian control of the military, it’s disturbing indeed that, as a New York Times/CBS poll indicated recently (2007), Americans trust their generals three times as much as Congress and 13 times as much as the President.
Also, abdication of responsibility by U.S. Congress. Our country is founded on civilian control of the military. But Congress afraid of being charged with hurting or abandoning our troops.
Georges Clemenceau: “War is too important to be left to generals.” Why? “Can-do” spirit to our military, no matter how dumb the war. And militaries seek military solutions.
So, “supporting our troops” must not mean putting blind faith in our military:
In “A Failure in Generalship,” which appeared in Armed Forces Journal in May 2007, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling argues that, prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, our generals “refused to prepare the Army to fight unconventional wars” and thereafter failed to “provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.” Put bluntly, he accuses them of dereliction of duty. Bewailing a lack of accountability for such failures in the military itself, Yingling memorably concludes that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”
Oath of Office: Supporting the Constitution of the U.S. against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Oath of allegiance is to the Constitution and to the ideas and ideals we cherish as Americans. But how are the “long wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan advancing these ideals? Are they consistent with our defense and our ideas/ideals of citizenship?
Breaking News: President Obama just decided to send another 17,000 American troops to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, today in the NYT, U.S. generals are already predicting that 50K+ U.S. troops may need to stay in Afghanistan for the next five years. In other words, this is not a temporary surge. [How true! Ten years later, we’re still in Afghanistan with no end in sight.]
So, how do we reverse these trends and reassert our ideal of a citizen-military?
Not with a draft, but perhaps with National Service (AmeriCorps, Green Corps, Peace Corps, Military).
Renewed commitment by Progressives to engage with the military. To understand the military, its rank structure, its ethos.
Reduce/eliminate dependence on mercenaries/private contractors, even if it costs us more.
Eliminate the “cult of the warrior.” Replace warfighter rhetoric with citizen-soldier ideal.
Deference to military experts for tactical/battlefield advice is sensible, but ultimately our military is commanded by the president and wars are authorized by the Congress, i.e. our elected representatives
Oath of office: Every time we deploy troops, we must ask: How is this advancing our national ideals as embodied in our Constitution? How are we defending ourselves?
Permit me to quote a passage from James Madison, the principal architect of the U.S. Constitution. He noted in 1795 that:
“Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the dominion of the few… [There is also an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and … degeneracy of manners and of morals… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
And Madison’s idea of continual warfare = our military’s “Long War” = Forever War? What is our exit strategy? Do we even have one?
President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned Americans about the military-industrial complex in his farewell speech in 1961. He had wanted to add Congress as a key player in and contributor to the Complex, but why alienate Congress, he decided, when he was already taking on the military, industry, and universities/research labs. Ike did his best to rein in the Complex while he was president, but since then it has galloped freely under the not-so-steady hands of subsequent presidents.
Recently, I re-read a diatribe about the Complex that appeared a decade after Ike’s farewell speech. “Playing Soldier” is its title, written by Frank Getlein, a journalist for the Washington Star (1961-76). His critique, sadly, is even more relevant today than it was in 1971.
Here are six insights from Getlein:
Military veterans, Getlein suggests, are not “pushovers for the panic approach from the Pentagon” because “They have seen it all from the inside. They know that the military machine is a fraud, that the military mind is deliberately deluded most of the time, that the military capacity for incompetence is infinite. They know all these things and they have suffered because of them.”
Getlein says America’s wars are “Like the amoeba, they go on forever because they have no form.” To illustrate this argument, he tackles the war of his day, Vietnam:
“Like soap opera, the Vietnam war is endless and hard to follow … Characters come and go, like joint chiefs moving in from the field and out to retirement, or like commanders in chief, for that matter, explaining that their only desire is to get our boys back but we have to keep our boys over there in order to protect our boys who are over there. It’s the same language, the same incredibly circular reasoning that follows doomed heroines every day from career triumphs to mysterious ailments to adulterous temptations. There is no more reason to imagine the war in Indochina will end than ‘Edge of Night’ or ‘The Secret Storm’ will end. All three have within them the seeds of immortality.”
Noting America’s linguistic turn to deny wars, referring to them instead as “police actions” (Korea), “advisory services” (Vietnam), and “incursions” (Cambodia), Getlein notes “We have thus eliminated wars completely except for the people who have to fight them and the people who have to suffer them being fought across their fields, through their villages, and over their dead bodies.”
Getlein notes the emergence of a national security state as a fourth branch of government, one characterized by a hidebound bureaucracy that wages war ineffectively due to its inherent inflexibility, but one that is also deeply socialistic. Indeed, he cites “the biggest triumph of Creeping Socialism yet [is] its all but complete takeover of military procurement.” The national security state represents a “vast” system of “socialist disbursement of federal funds,” all in the nebulous cause of “defense” rather than for the older, more focused, cause of war. From this rigged socialistic process, predictable results ensue, including “shoddy” quality of materiel and “amazing escalation” in costs.
Worst of all, according to Getlein, is that “The purposes of the state have been subsumed in the purposes of the military establishment.” While the military is supposed to exist to defend the state, defending the military and its power and prerogatives has become the new priority, synonymous with the health of the state in a process that is antithetical to democracy.
In an amusing passage, Getlein suggests America has “become a military state out of the sheer [selective] incompetence of the military”:
“They [the generals] come before us … and confess, more or less annually, that the problems they are paid to handle are beyond their handling and therefore they need more of everything: more men, more rank, more science, more research, more think tankers, more paper condottiere, and, always and everywhere, more money. Like some hopeless, drunken uncle, they seduce us by their inability to make anything work and come around every year to pick up the handout and blackmail us into raising the ante. The American soul has always been a soft touch for a hard luck story, but surely this is the first time … when the panhandler, down on his luck, was invited in to run the show.”
“War may be hell, but peace is no bargain either, from the point of view of a military man,” Getlein wittily notes. The solution is “Permawar,” or permanent war, of which Vietnam was an early example. Whereas many Americans saw Vietnam as an “utter failure,” it was a telling success for the military-industrial complex, Getlein argues, given its vast expenditures and long duration for what was advertised initially as a “brush-fire war.” “Future possibilities of Permawar exist,” Getlein notes, “in the Middle East, in Africa, and, most of all at the moment, in Latin America.” (He mentions Chile; today we’d say Venezuela. And who can ignore the Trump administration’s saber-rattling with Iran and across the Middle East today?)
Even without actual shooting wars, however, Getlein notes how Permawar will continue “without respite or truce in the think tanks, the executive offices and the congressional hearing rooms. The real Permawar is the one of ever-new, more elaborate, more lethal, more expensive, more absolutely essential, weapons systems.”
The result of militarized socialism, socialized militarism, and Permawar? “Our country has become a military dictatorship in its own peculiar American way.” Frank Getlein wrote that sentence toward the end of the Vietnam war. What he said back then is even more accurate today.
Addendum 1: From the Kirkus Review of Getlein’s “Playing Soldier” in 1971:
An entertaining blitzkrieg on creeping or galloping militarism in America. According to journalist-commentator Getlein it began after World War II when the “cheery and modest, honest and limited” War Department was rebaptized the Defense Department thereby acquiring “a permanent all-season hunting license with no place out of bounds.” The inventive Americans outdid themselves acquiring a “nonprofit empire” just as the colony biz was becoming obsolete. Learn how Vietnam is a spectacular success as a “permawar” designed not to work. Meet the paper condottieri, the “contemplative military” (Kahn and Kissinger) who subsist on hypotheses. (“What if the Russians or the Chinese . . . come up with the incredible new weapon of knocking off edges of the moon and so timing the knockoffs that the eastern half of the United States can be thickly covered with moondust?”) Getlein is here to show you how the Pentagon has ‘gone Red’ via non-competitive, no-bidding contract letting under the insufficiently vigilant nose of Reverend Carl MacIntyre, yet. But don’t be fooled by the author’s avowal that Vietnam is “not moral tragedy but slapstick farce.” His true mentors are C. Wright Mills and George Orwell and the caricature, through a glass darkly, of a hardening “crypto-military dictatorship,” is razor-edged.
Addendum 2: A Recent Description of the Pentagon and the Complex (MIC)
“The Pentagon Syndrome,” Harper’s, May 15, 2019 (“The Military-Industrial Virus:
How bloated defense budgets gut our armed forces,” by Andrew Cockburn)
“This entire process, whereby spending growth slows and is then seemingly automatically regenerated, raises an intriguing possibility: that our military-industrial complex has become, in [Chuck] Spinney’s words, a “living organic system” with a built-in self-defense reflex that reacts forcefully whenever a threat to its food supply—our money—hits a particular trigger point. The implications are profound, suggesting that the MIC is embedded in our society to such a degree that it cannot be dislodged, and also that it could be said to be concerned, exclusively, with self-preservation and expansion, like a giant, malignant virus.”
Addendum 3: Every Democratic Senator Supported Trump’s Vast Military Budget in 2018
Senators voted 93-7 for the Pentagon’s $674 billion spending bill in 2018. The seven Senators who voted against: six Republicans and Bernie Sanders (Independent). Military dictatorship is bipartisan in America.
In my latest for TomDispatch.com, I examine the price of America’s wars and why senior U.S. military men learn all the wrong lessons from them. Here’s an extract from my article:
“Veni, Vidi, Vici,” boasted Julius Caesar, one of history’s great military captains. “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed that famed saying when summing up the Obama administration’s military intervention in Libya in 2011 — with a small alteration. “We came, we saw, he died,” she said with a laugh about the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, that country’s autocratic leader. Note what she left out, though: the “vici” or victory part. And how right she was to do so, since Washington’s invasions, occupations, and interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere in this century have never produced anything faintly like a single decisive and lasting victory.
“Failure is not an option” was the stirring 1995 movie catchphrase for the dramatic 1970 rescue of the Apollo 13 moon mission and crew, but were such a movie to be made about America’s wars and their less-than-vici-esque results today, the phrase would have to be corrected in Clintonian fashion to read “We came, we saw, we failed.”
Wars are risky, destructive, unpredictable endeavors, so it would hardly be surprising if America’s military and civilian leaders failed occasionally in their endless martial endeavors, despite the overwhelming superiority in firepower of “the world’s greatest military.” Here’s the question, though: Why have all the American wars of this century gone down in flames and what in the world have those leaders learned from such repetitive failures?
The evidence before our eyes suggests that, when it comes to our senior military leaders at least, the answer would be: nothing at all.
Let’s begin with General David Petraeus, he of “the surge” fame in the Iraq War. Of course, he would briefly fall from grace in 2012, while director of the CIA, thanks to an affair with his biographer with whom he inappropriately shared highly classified information. When riding high in Iraq in 2007, however, “King David” (as he was then dubbed) was widely considered an example of America’s best and brightest. He was a soldier-scholar with a doctorate from Princeton, an “insurgent” general with the perfect way — a revival of Vietnam-era counterinsurgency techniques — to stabilize invaded and occupied Iraq. He was the man to snatch victory from the jaws of looming defeat. (Talk about a fable not worthy of Aesop!)
Though retired from the military since 2011, Petraeus somehow remains a bellwether for conventional thinking about America’s wars at the Pentagon, as well as inside the Washington Beltway. And despite the quagmire in Afghanistan (that he had a significant hand in deepening), despite the widespread destruction in Iraq (for which he would hold some responsibility), despite the failed-state chaos in Libya, he continues to relentlessly plug the idea of pursuing a “sustainable” forever war against global terrorism; in other words, yet more of the same.
“I would contend that the fight against Islamist extremists is not one that we’re going to see the end of in our lifetimes probably. I think this is a generational struggle, which requires you to have a sustained commitment. But of course you can only sustain it if it’s sustainable in terms of the expenditure of blood and treasure.”
His comment brings to mind a World War II quip about General George S. Patton, also known as “old blood and guts.” Some of his troops responded to that nickname this way: yes, his guts, but our blood. When men like Petraeus measure the supposed sustainability of their wars in terms of blood and treasure, the first question should be: Whose blood, whose treasure?
When it comes to Washington’s Afghan War, now in its 18th year and looking ever more like a demoralizing defeat, Petraeus admits that U.S. forces “never had an exit strategy.” What they did have, he claims, “was a strategy to allow us to continue to achieve our objectives… with the reduced expenditure in blood and treasure.”
Think of this formulation as an upside-down version of the notorious “body count” of the Vietnam War. Instead of attempting to maximize enemy dead, as General William Westmoreland sought to do from 1965 to 1968, Petraeus is suggesting that the U.S. seek to keep the American body count to a minimum (translating into minimal attention back home), while minimizing the “treasure” spent. By keeping American bucks and body bags down (Afghans be damned), the war, he insists, can be sustained not just for a few more years but generationally. (He cites 70-year troop commitments to NATO and South Korea as reasonable models.)
Talk about lacking an exit strategy! And he also speaks of a persistent “industrial-strength” Afghan insurgency without noting that U.S. military actions, including drone strikes and an increasing relianceon air power, result in ever more dead civilians, which only feed that same insurgency. For him, Afghanistan is little more than a “platform” for regional counterterror operations and so anything must be done to prevent the greatest horror of all: withdrawing American troops too quickly.
In fact, he suggests that American-trained and supplied Iraqi forces collapsed in 2014, when attacked by relatively small groups of ISIS militants, exactly because U.S. troops had been withdrawn too quickly. The same, he has no doubt, will happen if President Trump repeats this “mistake” in Afghanistan. (Poor showings by U.S.-trained forces are never, of course, evidence of a bankrupt approach in Washington, but of the need to “stay the course.”)
Petraeus’s critique is, in fact, a subtle version of the stab-in-the-back myth. Its underlying premise: that the U.S. military is always on the generational cusp of success, whether in Vietnam in 1971, Iraq in 2011, or Afghanistan in 2019, if only the rug weren’t pulled out from under the U.S. military by irresolute commanders-in-chief.
Of course, this is all nonsense. Commanded by none other than General David Petraeus, the Afghan surge of 2009-2010 proved a dismal failure as, in the end, had his Iraq surge of 2007. U.S. efforts to train reliable indigenous forces (no matter where in the embattled Greater Middle East and Africa) have also consistently failed. Yet Petraeus’s answer is always more of the same: more U.S. troops and advisers, training, bombing, and killing, all to be repeated at “sustainable” levels for generations to come.
The alternative, he suggests, is too awful to contemplate:
“You have to do something about [Islamic extremism] because otherwise they’re going to spew violence, extremism, instability, and a tsunami of refugees not just into neighboring countries but… into our western European allies, undermining their domestic political situations.”
No mention here of how the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq spread destruction and, in the end, a “tsunami of refugees” throughout the region. No mention of how U.S. interventions and bombing in Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere help “spew” violence and generate a series of failed states.
And amazingly enough, despite his lack of “vici” moments, the American media still sees King David as the go-to guy for advice on how to fight and win the wars he’s had such a hand in losing. And just in case you want to start worrying a little, he’s now offering such advice on even more dangerous matters. He’s started to comment on the new “cold war” that now has Washington abuzz, a coming era — as he puts it — of “renewed great power rivalries” with China and Russia, an era, in fact, of “multi-domain warfare” that could prove far more challenging than “the asymmetric abilities of the terrorists and extremists and insurgents that we’ve countered in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan and a variety of other places, particularly since 9/11.”
For Petraeus, even if Islamic terrorism disappeared tomorrow and not generations from now, the U.S. military would still be engaged with the supercharged threat of China and Russia. I can already hear Pentagon cash registers going ka-ching!
And here, in the end, is what’s most striking about Petraeus’s war lessons: no concept of peace even exists in his version of the future. Instead, whether via Islamic terrorism or rival great powers, America faces intractable threats into a distant future. Give him credit for one thing: if adopted, his vision could keep the national security state funded in the staggering fashion it’s come to expect for generations, or at least until the money runs out and the U.S. empire collapses.
Please read the rest of my article here at TomDispatch.com.