For the U.S. Military, the World Is Not Enough

W.J. Astore

In physics, I learned about Newton’s three laws.  But his (fictional and humorous) fourth law may be the most important of all

Somewhere, I don’t remember where, I came across a humorous variant of Newton’s three laws of motion, proposing a fourth law, as follows:

“Newton’s Fourth Law: Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.”

Imagine if the U.S. government/military had followed this “4th law.”  No Vietnam war.  No Afghan war.  No Iraq war.  No Libya.  No Syria.  And so forth.  Trillions of dollars saved, along with millions of lives.

There’s an unbounded and restless quality to U.S. ambitions that reminds me of Germany’s Second Reich under the Kaiser.  Before World War I, Germany was known as the “restless Reich,” contesting for its imperial place in the sun.  A relative latecomer to European imperialism, Germany wanted to enlarge its global span of control — it wanted to be a “world power” like Great Britain and France.  Those global ambitions got Germany two world wars and utter devastation.

Meet the new “restless Reich”: the United States.  Indeed, for the Pentagon and America’s national security state, being a world power isn’t enough.  Not only must the land, sea, and air be dominated, but space and cyberspace as well.  America’s leaders act as if any backsliding in any region of the world is a sign of weakness, tantamount to appeasement vis-à-vis Russia, China, terrorists, and so on.

The result is that it’s very easy for rivals to pluck the U.S. eagle and make it screech. Russia and China can spend relatively little on missiles or jets or ships, and America’s military-industrial complex is guaranteed to scream in response. China has two aircraft carriers! Russia has new missiles!  American supremacy is not compromised by such weapons, but that has never stopped threat inflation in America (recall the fictional “bomber” and “missile” gaps during the Cold War). 

Threat inflation is now global, meaning scaremongering is global.  Even at America’s border with Mexico, a caravan of a few thousand impoverished and desperate people requires the deployment of more than 5800 combat-ready troops to stop this “invasion,” or so the Trump administration argues.

The United States is bankrupting itself in the name of global strength and full-spectrum dominance.  Dwight D. Eisenhower was right when he said that only Americans can truly hurt America. That’s what our leaders are doing with this global scaremongering.

As Army Major Danny Sjursen noted recently at TomDispatch.com, the United States has transformed the entire planet into a militarized zone, slicing and dicing it into various military commands overseen by generals planning for the next war(s).  Sjursen notes a sobering reality:

With Pentagon budgets reaching record levels — some $717 billion for 2019 — Washington has stayed the course, while beginning to plan for more expansive future conflicts across the globe. Today, not a single square inch of this ever-warming planet of ours escapes the reach of U.S. militarization.

Think of these developments as establishing a potential formula for perpetual conflict that just might lead the United States into a truly cataclysmic war it neither needs nor can meaningfully win.

To avert such a cataclysmic war, we’d do well to channel Newton’s (fictitious) Fourth Law: Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.  

The U.S. Military Takes Us Through the Gates of Hell

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By Tom Engelhardt

[This essay is the introduction to Tom Engelhardt’s new book, A Nation Unmade by War, a Dispatch Book published by Haymarket Books.]

(Since 2007, I’ve had the distinct honor of writing for Tom Engelhardt and TomDispatch.com.  Tom is a patriot in the best sense of that word: he loves his country, and by that I mean the ideals and freedoms we cherish as Americans.  But his love is not blind; rather, his eyes are wide open, his mind is sharp, and his will is unflagging.  He calls America to account; he warns us, as Dwight D. Eisenhower did, about the many dangers of an all-powerful national security state; and, as Ike did sixty years ago, he reminds us that only Americans can truly hurt America.  I think Ike would have commended his latest book, “A Nation Unmade by War.”  Having read it myself, I highly recommend it to thinking patriots everywhere.  W.J. Astore.)

Tom Engelhardt, A Staggeringly Well-Funded Blowback Machine

As I was putting the finishing touches on my new book, the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute published an estimate of the taxpayer dollars that will have gone into America’s war on terror from September 12, 2001, through fiscal year 2018. That figure: a cool $5.6 trillion (including the future costs of caring for our war vets). On average, that’s at least $23,386 per taxpayer.

Keep in mind that such figures, however eye-popping, are only the dollar costs of our wars. They don’t, for instance, include the psychic costs to the Americans mangled in one way or another in those never-ending conflicts. They don’t include the costs to this country’s infrastructure, which has been crumbling while taxpayer dollars flow copiously and in a remarkably — in these years, almost uniquely — bipartisan fashion into what’s still laughably called “national security.” That’s not, of course, what would make most of us more secure, but what would make them — the denizens of the national security state — ever more secure in Washington and elsewhere. We’re talking about the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. nuclear complex, and the rest of that state-within-a-state, including its many intelligence agencies and the warrior corporations that have, by now, been fused into that vast and vastly profitable interlocking structure.

In reality, the costs of America’s wars, still spreading in the Trump era, are incalculable. Just look at photos of the cities of Ramadi or Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa or Aleppo in Syria, Sirte in Libya, or Marawi in the southern Philippines, all in ruins in the wake of the conflicts Washington set off in the post–9/11 years, and try to put a price on them. Those views of mile upon mile of rubble, often without a building still standing untouched, should take anyone’s breath away. Some of those cities may never be fully rebuilt.

And how could you even begin to put a dollars-and-cents value on the larger human costs of those wars: the hundreds of thousands of dead? The tens of millions of people displaced in their own countries or sent as refugees fleeing across any border in sight? How could you factor in the way those masses of uprooted peoples of the Greater Middle East and Africa are unsettling other parts of the planet? Their presence (or more accurately a growing fear of it) has, for instance, helped fuel an expanding set of right-wing “populist” movements that threaten to tear Europe apart. And who could forget the role that those refugees — or at least fantasy versions of them — played in Donald Trump’s full-throated, successful pitch for the presidency? What, in the end, might be the cost of that?

Opening the Gates of Hell

America’s never-ending twenty-first-century conflicts were triggered by the decision of George W. Bush and his top officials to instantly define their response to attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center by a tiny group of jihadis as a “war”; then to proclaim it nothing short of a “Global War on Terror”; and finally to invade and occupy first Afghanistan and then Iraq, with dreams of dominating the Greater Middle East — and ultimately the planet — as no other imperial power had ever done.

Their overwrought geopolitical fantasies and their sense that the U.S. military was a force capable of accomplishing anything they willed it to do launched a process that would cost this world of ours in ways that no one will ever be able to calculate. Who, for instance, could begin to put a price on the futures of the children whose lives, in the aftermath of those decisions, would be twisted and shrunk in ways frightening even to imagine? Who could tote up what it means for so many millions of this planet’s young to be deprived of homes, parents, educations — of anything, in fact, approximating the sort of stability that might lead to a future worth imagining?

Though few may remember it, I’ve never forgotten the 2002 warning issued by Amr Moussa, then head of the Arab League. An invasion of Iraq would, he predicted that September, “open the gates of hell.” Two years later, in the wake of the actual invasion and the U.S. occupation of that country, he altered his comment slightly. “The gates of hell,” he said, “are open in Iraq.”

His assessment has proven unbearably prescient — and one not only applicable to Iraq. Fourteen years after that invasion, we should all now be in some kind of mourning for a world that won’t ever be. It wasn’t just the US military that, in the spring of 2003, passed through those gates to hell. In our own way, we all did. Otherwise, Donald Trump wouldn’t have become president.

I don’t claim to be an expert on hell. I have no idea exactly what circle of it we’re now in, but I do know one thing: we are there…

Read the rest of Tom’s article here at TomDispatch.com.

Why Is It Bad News When Military Spending Declines?

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Ike knew the real cost of military spending

W.J. Astore

Scanning my email updates, I saw two articles dealing with allegedly declining militaries.  The Weekly Standard complained that the British military is “damn, busted.”  The article cites Britain’s lack of main battle tanks (only 227) compared to Russia’s 20,000, concluding that Britannia’s leaders have a “narrow-minded, cost-driven vision [that] has left Britain unprepared for great-power conflict.”  And here I thought the Cold War ended in c.1991 and that an island nation historically and sensibly is far more concerned with its navy and air forces than its army.

As Britain’s military withers, so too, apparently, does Germany’s.  Hence the following brief from FP: Foreign Policy:

Germany’s defense minister pushes for expanded military budget. German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has requested an additional $14.6 billion for the country’s military budget, saying the current budget of $45 billion is vastly inadequate for the military modernization Germany needs. Germany is currently still below the 2% GDP military budget that NATO asks of members.

The sober, sane, thing to do, according to military experts, is always to expand military spending.  The unwise, perhaps insane, thing to do is to attempt to set sensible goals that focus on national defense, and to spend no more than what’s necessary for a sound deterrent.

Put slightly differently, when we (the United States) announce plans to spend $1.2 trillion on modernizing an already world-smashing and life-ending nuclear force, it’s considered sensible by the president (whether Obama or Trump), Congress, and of course the military-industrial complex.  But when other countries develop a relatively puny force (North Korea) or have the potential to develop a puny force (Iran), these countries are denounced as monstrous dangers to world peace.

And of course U.S. rearmament is always for peace!

Every now and then, it’s worth reading Dwight D. Eisenhower’s message on what we forfeit when we spend money on weapons:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Just so, Ike.  Higher military spending is not something to celebrate.  Lower military spending is.

Ike’s Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex Is Alive and Very Well

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Look, Ma: More Money!  Don’t Worry: We’ll Spend It Wisely

W.J. Astore

The new Congressional budget boosts military spending in a big way.  Last night’s PBS News report documented how military spending is projected to increase by $160 billion over two years, but that doesn’t include “overseas contingency funding” for wars, which is another $160 billion over two years.  Meanwhile, spending for the opioid crisis, which is killing roughly 60,000 Americans a year (more Americans than were killed in the Vietnam War), is set at a paltry $6 billion ($25 billion was requested).

One thing is certain: Ike was right about the undue influence of the military-industrial-Congressional complex.

The military talks about needing all these scores of billions to “rebuild.”  And, sure, there are ships that need to be refitted, planes in need of repairs, equipment that needs to be restocked, and veterans who need to be cared for.  But a massive increase in military and war spending, perhaps as high as $320 billion over two years, is a recipe for excessive waste and even more disastrous military adventurism.

Even if you’re a supporter of big military budgets, this massive boost in military spending is bad news.  Why?  It doesn’t force the military to think.  To set priorities.  To define limits.  To be creative.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the expression, “Spending money like drunken sailors on shore leave.”  Our military has been drunk with money since 9/11.  Is it really wise to give those “sailors” an enormous boost in the loose change they’re carrying, trusting them to spend it wisely?

Mike Pence’s Visit to Afghanistan

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VP Pence, in his military flight jacket, posing for selfies with the troops

W.J. Astore

Vice President Mike Pence made a surprise visit to Bagram air base in Afghanistan, reassuring the assembled troops that they are winning the war there, despite evidence to the contrary.  For the occasion he donned a spiffy-looking leather military flight jacket, customized for him, as have other presidents and VPs going back at least as far as Ronald Reagan.

I’ve written about this before, this adoption of military clothing by civilian commanders.  It’s an insidious blurring of the lines between the civilian chain of command — and the crucial idea of civilian control of the military — and the military chain.  You don’t see generals and admirals on active duty showing up to testify before Congress in civilian coat and tie: they wear their uniforms because that’s who they are–commissioned military officers.  Similarly, our civilian leaders, whether Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama or Donald Trump, should wear their “uniform,” typically civilian coat and tie, for that is who they are.  They should never wear military flight jackets and similar items, no matter how “cool” or “supportive” they think they look.  It sends the wrong sartorial and political signals.

I just can’t imagine Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was of course a five-star general before he became president, wearing military jackets and hats while he was president.  Ike knew better.  He was the civilian commander in chief, thus he dressed like it.  Same with George C. Marshall.  He wasn’t parading around in military jackets when he was Secretary of State in the aftermath of World War II.

Hitting another common theme, Pence was at pains to praise the troops as heroes, noting that “You are the best of us.”  Why this need for endless flattery of the troops?  Recall that President Obama praised the U.S. military as the finest fighting force in history.  Satirically, you might call it the 4F military: the finest fighting force since forever.

America’s civilian leaders need to put aside hyperbolic praise and wannabe military uniform items.  There’s a far better way of complimenting our troops while leading America.  That better way?  Ending America’s wars and bringing the troops home.

The Biggest National Security Threats

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Trump, surrounded by the military, vows to give it more (and more!) money

W.J. Astore

Today at 2PM, the Trump administration releases its National Security Strategy.  It’s already making news because Trump is dropping climate change (added by the Obama administration) as a threat.  Instead, Trump is placing new emphasis on economic competitiveness and border security (“Build the wall!”), which are two corporate-friendly policies (read: boondoggles).

I’d like to cite two threats that Trump won’t mention in his national security strategy.  These two threats are perhaps the biggest ones America faces, and they are related.  The first is threat inflation, and the second is the U.S. military itself, as in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s military-industrial-Congressional complex.

Threat inflation is a huge problem in America.  The threat of terrorism is vastly inflated, as is the threat from North Korea.  If we wanted to focus on what threatens Americans, we’d be redoubling efforts to help those with opioid addictions even as we work to cut deaths by guns and in road accidents.  Roughly 120,000 Americans are dying each year from opioid overdoses, road accidents, and shootings.  How many are dying from terrorism or from attacks by North Korea?

North Korea is a weak regional power led by an immature dictator who is desperate to keep his grip on power.  Kim Jong-un knows that any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea would end in his death and the annihilation of his country.  He also knows that nuclear weapons serve as a deterrent and a symbol of prestige domestically and internationally.  Does he need to be deterred?  Yes.  Should Americans cower in fear?  Of course not.

Cyberwar is certainly a threat–just look at Russian meddling in our last presidential election.  China and Russia are nuclear powers and rivals that bear close watching, but they are not enemies.  Indeed, since the end of the Cold War the United States hasn’t faced serious peer enemies.  We should have been cashing in our “peace dividends” for the last 25 years.  Why haven’t we?

Enter the military-industrial-Congressional complex.  Ike warned us about it in 1961.  He warned about its misplaced power, its persistence, and its anti-democratic nature.  Ike, a retired five-star general who led the allied armies on the Western Front in World War II against the Nazis, knew of what he spoke.  He knew the Complex exaggerated threats, such as missile or bomber “gaps” (which didn’t exist) vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.  Ike knew the military, its corporate feeders and enablers, and Congress always wanted one thing: more.  He did his best to control the military, but once he left office, it was the Complex that took control, leading America into a disastrous war in Vietnam, the first of many “wars of choice” that ended in American defeats, but which proved highly profitable to the Complex itself.

Those endless wars that feed the Complex persist today.  Elements of the U.S. military are deployed to 149 countries and 800 foreign bases at a budgetary cost of $700 billion (that’s just for the “defense” budget).  Spending so much money on the military represents a tremendous opportunity cost–for that money, Americans could have free health care and college tuition, but who wants good health and a sound education, right?

Ike recognized the opportunity cost of “defense” spending in 1953 in this famous speech:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

What Ike said.  The point is not that Ike was a perfect man (look at the Iran coup, also in 1953), but he sure as hell was a sound and at times a penetrating thinker, a mature man who knew the awful burdens of war.

And now we have Trump, the opposite of Ike, an unsound and shallow thinker, an immature man who knows nothing of the awfulness of war.  Add Trump himself–his immaturity, his bellicosity, his ignorance, and his denial of reality–as a threat to our national security.

So, a quick summary of three big threats that won’t make Trump’s “strategy” today:

  1. Threat inflation: terrorism, North Korea, Iran, etc.
  2. The Complex itself and its profligate, prodigal, and anti-democratic nature.
  3. Trump.

And add back one more: climate change/global warming.  Because flooding, fires, droughts, famines, etc., exacerbated by global warming, are already creating security challenges, which will only grow worse over the next half-century.  Denying that reality, or calling it “fake news,” won’t change Mother Nature; she has her own implacable ways,

Can Trump Tame the Pentagon?

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Can Trump tame the Pentagon?

W.J. Astore

Will Donald Trump keep his campaign promise to end America’s wasteful wars overseas?  Since he’s stated he knows more than America’s generals, will he rein them in?  Will he bring major reforms to the military-industrial complex, or will he be nothing but talk and tweets?

At Trump’s first news conference today as president-elect, he had little to say about the military, except once again to complain about the high cost of the F-35 jet fighter program.  The questions asked of him dealt mainly with Russia, hacking, potential conflicts of interest, and Obamacare.  These are important issues, but how Trump will handle the Pentagon and his responsibilities as commander-in-chief are arguably of even greater import.

Ironically, the last president who had some measure of control over the military-industrial complex was the retired general who coined the term: Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Another president – Jimmy Carter – attempted to exercise some control, e.g. he cancelled the B-1 bomber, a pet project of the U.S. Air Force, only to see it revived under Ronald Reagan.

Excepting Carter, U.S. presidents since Ike have issued blank checks to the military, the Pentagon, and its bewildering array of contractors.  Whether Democrats (JFK, LBJ, Clinton, Obama) or Republicans (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, the Bushes), rubber-stamping Pentagon priorities has been a common course of presidential action, aided by a willing Congress that supports military spending to “prime the economic pump” and create jobs.

Ike, of course, was hardly perfect, but he had the cred to command the military, to rein it in, perhaps as much as any one man could in the climate of fear generated by McCarthyism and the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s.  Hardly a pacifist, Ike nevertheless came to hate war.  Can we imagine any president nowadays writing these words?

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Ike’s wisdom stemmed from his experience with the bloody awfulness of war. Recent presidents, by comparison, have been unstinting in their praise of the U.S. military.  Ronald Reagan, who had a cozy job in Hollywood during World War II, was a snappy saluter who oversaw a major military expansion.  More recently, Barack Obama, with no military experience, went out of his way to praise the U.S. military in hyperbolic terms as the “greatest” in human history.

Recent presidents have idolized the military, perhaps because they either never served in it or never really experienced its foibles and faults, its flaws and failings.  Perhaps as well they’ve celebrated the military because they saw it as a popular and easy form of patriotism.  But the Pentagon needs a commander-in-chief, not a cheerleader-in-chief.  It needs to be challenged, it needs a boot up its collective ass, if it’s ever going to reform its prodigal ways.

Trump has been critical of the military, an encouraging sign.  But his appointment of retired generals to key positions of power suggests conformity and business as usual.  Trump himself is a military poseur, a man impatient with facts, a man who didn’t know what the nuclear triad was even as he talked of (false) nuclear gaps vis-à-vis Russia.

Even as he talked of wasteful wars and clueless generals, Trump promised to use the U.S. military as a battering ram to smash America’s enemies.  He promised as well to rebuild the military, increasing the Pentagon budget while taking the fight to ISIS, words that suggest President Trump won’t often say “no” to the national security state.  Ike, however, could and did say “no.”  He had the toughness to weather the predictable Pentagon, Congressional, and military/corporate storms.  Will Trump?

Again, the last president to lead a novel initiative in national security was Jimmy Carter, with his focus on human rights.  Dismissed as naïve and pusillanimous, he became a one-term president.  Trump has promised to end wasteful wars, to re-prioritize federal spending to focus on internal “security” measures such as national infrastructure, and to make NATO and other U.S. allies pay their fair share of defense costs.

If he carries through on these promises, he’ll be the first president since Ike to make a measurable and significant course correction to America’s warship of state.  But first he needs to be held to account, most certainly at press conferences but elsewhere as well.  Endless war is a threat to democracy; so too are politicians who posture but do nothing to rein in militarism, imperialism, and authoritarianism.

If Trump combines the two, if he doubles down on incessant war and a cult of authority, American democracy may suffer a mortal blow.