More on Trump’s Generals

trump

W.J. Astore

In a longer article for TomDispatch.com, I recently wrote about Donald Trump’s team of generals for national defense and homeland security. Trump wants four senior retired generals, two from the Army and two from the Marine Corps, to serve as his senior civilian advisers in matters of defense and security.

Here’s the point: You simply can’t have civilian control of the military when you appoint senior generals to these positions.

I’m astonished more Americans aren’t outraged at this. It’s a sign of how much militarism has gripped our nation and government, as well as the sweep and scope of the national security state.

I was reading Samuel Hynes’ excellent book, The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War, and came across two passages that resonated with me. In talking about war as a culture, Hynes notes that “Military traditions, values, and patterns of behavior penetrate every aspect of army [and Marine Corps] life and make the most ordinary acts and feelings different.”

The generals Trump is hiring are all military careerists, men whose “traditions, values, and patterns of behavior” are steeped in the ways of the Army and Marine Corps, affecting even “the most ordinary acts and feelings.” Their behavior, their commitments, their loyalties, their world views, are the antithesis to civilian culture and to the ethos of democracy. (For example, General James Mattis, Trump’s selection as Secretary of Defense, is most often described as a “warrior-monk,” a man with a Spartan-like dedication to war.  But would Athens have anointed a Spartan, even as its minister of war?)

Again, the point is not to attack the military. It’s that the U.S. government already has plenty of generals in charge, wielding enormous authority. Trump’s decision to add yet another layer of military authority to his government makes it less of a democracy and more of a junta.

A second point from Hynes. He notes how most citizen-soldiers in America’s military past were not war-lovers, but that a few were, notably General George S. Patton. In the same breath, Hynes notes that dictators like Hitler and Mussolini “loved war.”

Which American general does Trump profess to admire the most? George S. Patton. And who among his generals most resembles Patton as a “real” warrior? According to Trump, it’s General Mattis.

Again, the point is not to attack the military, but rather to note the U.S. national security state already has plenty of warriors and warfighters in charge. Putting an alleged Patton-clone in charge of the Pentagon represents an abrogation of two centuries of American tradition that insisted on civilian supremacy over the military.

Given his inflammatory tweets about nuclear arms races with their “bring it on” mentality, Trump has all the makings of tinpot provocateur, an unstable military poseur who likes to speak loudly while swinging a nuclear-tipped stick. Will Trump’s generals, his Pattons and MacArthurs, serve as a check to his provocations and his posturings? It doesn’t seem likely.

Congress should reject Trump’s choices for Secretary of Defense (Mattis) and Homeland Security (Kelly). Not because these retired generals are bad men, but because they are the wrong kind of people. If you want civilian control of the military (and don’t we still want that?), you need to hire true civilians. Men and women whose identities haven’t been forged in armories. Independent thinkers and patriots with some history of dissent.

How about someone like Daniel Ellsberg for Secretary of Defense? And, since global warming is a huge threat to the U.S., how about Bill McKibben for Homeland Security?

After all, whether they’re in or out of uniform, the U.S. government already has plenty of generals.

Trump’s system will gorge itself until it collapses under its own weight. Too bad it’ll take the planet down as well

richardfeynman
Richard Feynman (copyright Tamiko Thiel, 1984)

W.J. Astore

Conflicts of interest characterize Donald Trump and his cabinet even before he and they take power in January, so we can safely predict a lot of corruption will be forthcoming. I always love the way both parties, but especially the Republicans, vow to fight for smaller government and lower deficits — until they get in power. Then it’s bigger government and larger deficits in the service of crony capitalism. Kleptocracy, in a word.

A good friend put it concisely: “It makes me sick!”

But of course that’s why she’s not in Washington. The Washington-types don’t find it sickening. For them, “Greed is good.” They convince themselves that: 1) The more they have, the better. 2) They deserve more because they’re better people. 3) The little people are schmucks who deserve to be exploited.

My parents liked the saying, “Birds of a feather flock together.” So the greedy are easy to find. Just look for them in the corridors of power, clustered together. For example, why do so many generals and admirals cash-in at retirement, joining corporate boards and making millions? They have six-figure government pensions, so why do they need more? They think they deserve the money. And they want to continue to play the power game, preening among the flock in the process.

As another friend of mine put it, “Money is the only thing the American elite really cares about. And I always think of Sinclair Lewis’s line that poor Americans never think of themselves as poor, only as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. One of our neighbors and friends told me he was voting Trump because with lower taxes he will be free to make a lot more money. Really? How much does anyone really think taxes will go down for people making what we make?”

The reality for us is that our taxes will probably go down by only a few hundred dollars. It’ll help us pay our air conditioning bills next summer, but that’s about it. Modest tax cuts are not going to turn us all into budding Donald Trumps (thank god for small mercies).

Yes, for people in Trump’s crowd, money is the measure of success. But so too is access. And power. Some of these people will kill themselves to be seen at the right parties, among the “right” kind of people. “Players.” “Operators.” Not people like you and me.

Trump’s government will gorge itself until it collapses under its own weight. The big question is whether its collapse will take the rest of us with it. Consider global warming, and consider the climate change deniers and fossil fuel profiteers that Trump is empowering. How long does our planet have left until we confront true disaster? A few decades, perhaps?

I always told my students the big problem with global warming was that its most serious perils – real as they are – lurked decades in the future. Problems that are decades away are difficult to address when America is driven by a quarterly business cycle and a quadrennial election cycle for the presidency. Now, under Trump, these problems won’t be addressed at all because the business moguls as well as the president simply deny their existence. Why? Because it’s convenient for them to do so. Because they stand to make a great deal of money by doing so. And because they don’t care about decades from now; they care about quarterly profits and getting reelected.

As I grow older, the words from a commercial of my youth have found new resonance in my memory: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” Not only isn’t it nice: it’s incredibly foolhardy. For the words of Richard Feynman about the space shuttle Challenger disaster ring true here:

Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.

Trump and his cronies may fool some of the people all of the time, but they’re not going to fool Nature. Sooner or later (and sooner under Trump), nature’s bill will come.

The Trump Cabinet of Billionaires and Generals

pottersville
Coming soon to a community near you

W.J. Astore

There’s an obvious trend in Trump’s cabinet picks: billionaires and generals. The billionaires favor private enterprise, capitalism unconstrained by regulations (especially those pesky environmental ones), and a view of the world in which global warming either doesn’t exist or can be ignored for the purposes of economic growth and higher profits. The generals?  Well, they’re military men, “lifers” experienced in the ways of weapons and war, with a reputation for no compromise, especially against radical Islamic terrorism.

Trump’s latest cabinet pick (pending official announcement) is Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State. Tillerson is currently the president, CEO, and chairman of Exxon Mobil Corporation.  He’s done some big petro deals with Russia and favors lifting sanctions against that country for its actions in the Crimea.  Expect relations with Putin’s Russia to improve under Trump, not necessarily a bad thing considering the nuclear arsenals that each country has.

If past is prologue, I’d say we can count on a few big changes from Trump and his cabinet in the coming months and years:

1. Privatization and profit are the bywords.  For example, expect more charter schools and lower government funding for public schools.  Expect a low federal minimum wage (it will probably remain stagnant at $7.25 an hour), sold as helping companies with job creation. Expect an emphasis on helping the “job creators,” i.e. rich people, and a revival of trickle down economics.

2. An embrace (or re-embrace) of fossil fuels.  You can forget about major funding for alternative or green energy.

3. A rejection of global warming/climate change as “speculative” and “unproven” by science, thereby enabling more fossil fuel exploration and production.  Remember, there are still trillions of dollars to be made by extracting fossil fuels.  With that much money at stake, it’s not staying in the ground, America.

4. A repudiation of environmental protections as making America “uncompetitive” in the global marketplace.

5. More military interventionism in the cause of combating radical Islamic terrorism.  And more endless wars as those interventions fail to end the threat, creating blowback and more conflict instead.

6.  A health care system that is increasingly privatized, complicated, and expensive, making many people long for the days of Obamacare.  (People are going to love shopping for their own health care in the private sector under Trump, right?)

7. Renewed emphasis on an ethos based on endless work, knee-jerk patriotism (“We’re Number One!  At something!  Military spending!  The number of hours we work for low pay!  And for no health care!  America!”), and violence both here and abroad.  The rejection of diversity and attacks on “the Other” in the false (and dangerous) cause of “making America American again.”  Prejudice and vulgarity disguised as principled rejection of “political correctness.”

Despite Trump’s thin-skinned nature and relative ignorance of foreign affairs, I don’t see nuclear war in the immediate future.  But I do see creeping militarism and growing authoritarianism, always disguised as “necessary” and “to keep us safe.” I see more people suffering, some even dying, due to cutbacks in government aid, also in the name of “security,” e.g. cutting the deficit. I see more passion directed against marginalized people and less compassion for the afflicted. This will be couched as “realism” and as “fiscally responsible.”  I see “rugged individualism” extolled, even as government welfare is extended to corporations and financiers, again in the name of “competitiveness” and “job creation.”  In the meantime, life will indeed become more rugged for individuals as government welfare for them is cut.

As the holidays approach, many of us will watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” yet again, starring a true war hero, Jimmy Stewart.  In that movie, he wages a long battle against Mr. Potter, a greedy and unprincipled banker, the Trump of his community.  In a brief scene near the end of the movie, Stewart’s character is given a glimpse of how his beloved community of Bedford Falls would have fared if Potter had ruled unchallenged.

pottersville_burlesque
Pottersville: Trump’s kind of place

The lurid and tawdry streets of “Pottersville” are a vivid reminder to Stewart of the value of principled resistance against petty tyrants.

Whether you call it Pottersville or Trump Towers, naked greed and exploitation must be fought.  Just remember: the Potters and Trumps of the world do not fight fair.

The USA No Longer Sees Freedom and Liberty as Core Strengths

liberty-tree1
Why are we so intent on chopping it down?

W.J. Astore

In the crusade against Communism, otherwise known as the Cold War, the U.S. saw “freedom” as its core strength.  Our liberties were contrasted with the repression of our chief rival, the USSR.  We drew strength from the idea that our system of government, which empowered people whose individualism was guided by ethics based on shared values, would ultimately prevail over godless centralism and state-enforced conformity.  An important sign of this was our belief in citizen-soldiers rather than warriors, and a military controlled by democratically-elected civilians rather than by dictators and strong men.

Of course, U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War could be amoral or immoral, and ethics were often shunted aside in the name of Realpolitik.  Even so, morality was nevertheless treated as important, and so too were ethics.  They weren’t dismissed out of hand.

Fast forward to today.  We no longer see “freedom” as a core U.S. strength.  Instead, too many of us see freedom as a weakness.  In the name of defeating radical Islamic terrorism, we’ve become more repressive, even within the USA itself.  Obedience and conformity are embraced instead of individualism and liberty.  In place of citizen-soldiers, professional warriors are now celebrated and the military is given the lion’s share of federal resources without debate.  Trump, a CEO rather than a statesman, exacerbates this trend as he surrounds himself with generals while promising to obliterate enemies and to revive torture.

In short, we’ve increasingly come to see a core national strength (liberty, individualism, openness to others) as a weakness.  Thus, America’s new crusades no longer have the ethical underpinnings (however fragile they often proved) of the Cold War.  Yes, the Cold War was often unethical, but as Tom Engelhardt notes at TomDispatch.com today, the dirty work was largely covert, i.e. we were in some sense embarrassed by it.  Contrast this to today, where the new ethos is that America needs to go hard, to embrace the dark side, to torture and kill, all done more or less openly and proudly.

Along with this open and proud embrace of the dark side, America has come increasingly to reject science.  During the Cold War, science and democracy advanced together.  Indeed, the superior record of American science vis-à-vis that of the Soviet Union was considered proof of the strength and value of democracy.  Today, that is no longer the case in America.  Science is increasingly questioned; evidence is dismissed as if it’s irrelevant.  “Inconvenient truths” are no longer recognized as inconvenient — they’re simply rejected as untrue.  Consider the astonishing fact that we have a president-elect who’s suggested climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China.

Yesterday, I saw the following comment online, a comment that summed up the new American ethos: “Evidence and facts are for losers.”  After all, President-elect Trump promised America we’d win again.  Let’s not let facts get in the way of “victory.”

That’s what a close-minded crusader says.  That the truth doesn’t matter.  All that matters is belief and faith.  Obey or suffer the consequences.

Where liberty is eroded and scientific evidence is denied, you don’t have democracy.  You have something meaner.  And dumber.  Something like autocracy, kleptocracy, idiocracy.  And tyranny.

What Did 9/11 Inaugurate?

apocalypse_vasnetsov
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Viktor Vasnetsov)

W.J. Astore

On this 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, we should ask ourselves what those attacks inaugurated.  In a word, calamity.  The wildly successful actions of Al Qaeda, combined with the wild overreactions of the Bush/Cheney administration, marked the 21st century as one that will likely become known to future historians as calamitous.

In thinking about the 9/11 attacks, as an Air Force officer, what struck me then, and still does now, is the psychological blow.  We Americans like to think we invented flight (not just that the Wright Brothers succeeded in the first powered flight that was both sustained and controlled).  We like to think that airpower is uniquely American.  We take great pride that many airliners are still “Made in the USA,” unlike most other manufactured goods nowadays.

To see our airliners turned into precision missiles against our skyscrapers, another potent image of American power, by a terrorist foe (that was once an ally against Soviet forces in Afghanistan) staggered our collective psyche.  That’s what I mean when I say Al Qaeda’s attacks were “successful.”  They created an enormous shock from which our nation has yet to recover.

This shock produced, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest article at TomDispatch.com, a form of government psychosis for vengeance via airpower.  The problem, of course, is that the terrorist enemy (first Al Qaeda, then the Taliban, now ISIS) simply doesn’t offer big targets like skyscrapers or the Pentagon.  The best the U.S. can do via airpower is to strike at training camps or small teams or even individuals, all of which matter little in the big scheme of things.  Meanwhile, U.S. air strikes (and subsequent land invasions by ground troops) arguably strengthen the enemy strategically.  Why?  Because they lend credence to the enemy’s propaganda that the USA is launching jihad against the Muslim world.

The wild overreactions of the Bush/Cheney administration, essentially continued by Obama and the present national security state, have played into the hands of those seeking a crusade/jihad in the Greater Middle East.  What we have now, so the experts say, is a generational or long war, with no foreseeable end point.  Its product, however, is obvious: chaos, whether in Iraq or Libya or Yemen or Syria.  And this chaos is likely to be aggravated by critical resource shortages (oil, water, food) as global warming accelerates in the next few decades.

We are in the early throes of the calamitous 21st century, and it all began fifteen years ago on 9/11/2001.

Hillary and the Earth Wreckers

nothing
Nothing to see here … move along

W.J. Astore

News that Hillary Clinton has selected Ken Salazar to head her transition team should give pause to anyone who believes Hillary’s claim that she’s a “Progressive.”  Assuming Hillary wins the presidency, Salazar will chair the team that helps her to fill more than 4000 appointments.

What do we know about Salazar?  According to a report at The Intercept,

As a senator, Salazar was widely considered a reliable friend to the oil, gas, ranching and mining industries. As interior secretary, he opened the Arctic Ocean for oil drilling, and oversaw the botched response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Since returning to the private sector, he has been an ardent supporter of the TPP, while pushing back against curbs on fracking….

“We know that, from everything we’ve seen, there’s not a single case where hydraulic fracking has created an environmental problem for anyone,” Salazar told the attendees, who included the vice president of BP America, another keynote speaker at the conference. “We need to make sure that story is told.”

Really, Mr. Salazar?  I lived in Pennsylvania for nine years, during the height of the fracking boom.  A friend of mine lost his family farm and land due to poisoned water caused by fracking.  Earthquakes have been traced to fracking.  Methane seepage and burn-off contributes to global warming.  Fracking chemicals are highly toxic and wastewater from fracking is radioactive.  And these are just a few of the dangers associated with fracking.

It’s one thing to argue that fracking is hazardous but that those hazards can be controlled through rigorous practices that emphasize environmental safety.  It’s a defensible position, though I believe the hazards are not fully known, therefore they can’t be fully controlled, let alone minimized.  But Salazar is arguing fracking has not caused a single environmental problem!  For anyone!

Yes, Hillary now claims she’s against fracking (when she led the State Department, she was strongly for it).  But how does that flip-flop square with her decision to appoint yet another earth wrecker to a key position in her government-to-be?  Just what the planet needs: a pro-fracking, pro-industry, corporate shill who will help to ensure that people like himself will occupy key positions of authority in a Clinton government.

I’ve witnessed enough earth wrecking.  Count me out of Hillary 2016.

The Calamitous 21st Century

tuchman

W.J. Astore

We’re only sixteen years into the 21st century, but it seems like a “best of times, worst of times” kind of epoch.  It’s the best of times for the aristocracy of the rich, and the worst of times for the poor and disadvantaged, especially when they live close to or in war zones.

Perhaps that’s a statement of the obvious, except the gap between the richest and poorest continues to grow.  Their worlds, their realities, are so different as to be virtually disconnected.  This is a theme of several recent science fiction films, including the “Hunger Games” series (the Capitol versus the Districts) and “Elysium,” in which the privileged rich literally live above the sordid earth with its teeming masses.

Some of the big fears of our present century include the emergence of a “super bug,” a contagion that is highly resistant to traditional drugs.  We’ve overused antibiotics and are slowly breeding new strains of bacteria that modern medicine can no longer defeat.  Meanwhile, many people in the U.S. still lack health care, or they’re reluctant to use it because it’s too expensive for them.  And then there are the workers who lack sick leave.  They force themselves to go to work, even when sick, because they need the money.  How long before inadequate health care and sick workers facilitate the conditions for the spread of a plague?

And then there’s the contagion of violence and war.  America’s wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa are basically open-ended.  They are today’s version of the “Hundred Years’ War” between England and France, an on-again, off-again struggle for dominance that sprawled across two centuries.  In fact, America’s “war on terror,” with its “surgical strikes” and reliance on technology as a quasi-panacea, seems to be breeding new types of “super-bug” terrorists who are highly resistant to traditional techniques of policing and war.

In this effort, one thing is certain: No U.S. president will be declaring “peace” or even “normal” times for the next decade or two (or three).

Finally, let’s not forget global warming.  The Pentagon and the CIA haven’t.  Republicans may have their share of climate change deniers, but when it comes to the U.S. national security state, contingency plans are already in place for the disasters awaiting us from global warming.  Competition for scarce resources (potable water especially, but food and fuel as well) combined with more intense storms, widespread flooding, and much warmer temperatures, will generate or aggravate wars, famines, and plagues.

Are we living in a failed or failing world?

In “A Distant Mirror,” the historian Barbara Tuchman wrote about the calamitous 14th century of plagues and wars and a mini-ice age in the northern hemisphere. We seem to be facing a calamitous 21st century of plagues and wars and a mini-hothouse age.  It’s a grim prospect.

The question is: Can we act collectively to avert or avoid the worst of these calamities?  Or are we fated to dance our very own 21st-century danse macabre?