Democracy is Impossible in Post-Truth America

truthiness
Post-truth is Anti-democracy (Getty Images at The Week)

W.J. Astore

“Post-truth” was the big word for 2016, according to Oxford Dictionaries. And why not? Donald Trump won the presidency with lies and half-truths and spin, so the word does indeed resonate.

But America has been edging toward post-truth for a long time — even at its founding, skeptics might say.  The “City on a Hill,” forged on an image of Christian rectitude, witnessed the genocide of Native Americans (“savages”) and the embrace of slavery based on specious theories of racial inferiority, even as the Bible taught the love of neighbor and the equality of all before God.

More recently, America has witnessed the triumph of post-truth in the aftermath of 9/11. Recall how the attacks on 9/11 were falsely connected to Iraq, which was then connected to false claims of Iraq having active programs of WMD development, including “yellowcake” uranium as well as chemical and biological agents spread by aerial drones.  All proven false, but all used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Indeed, many Americans continue to believe that Saddam Hussein planned the 9/11 attacks (in league with Osama Bin Laden). Recall here the rare honesty of Britain’s Downing Street Memo of 2002, which asserted that the “facts” being offered by the Bush/Cheney administration were being manufactured (“fixed”) around a pre-determined policy of invasion.  The result?  Iraq was yet another un-democratic war, based in part on lies. Indeed, it’s no accident that Congress hasn’t issued a formal declaration of war since 1941.  (Another war based on lies: the Vietnam War, e.g. recall the false reports of attacks at Tonkin Gulf.)

Another example of post-truth was the Surge of 2007, advertised as a “win” for America even as General David Petraeus warned that progress in Iraq was both “fragile” and “reversible.”  So it has proved, for here we are, a decade later, trying to recapture territory (such as Mosul) that had allegedly been pacified under Petraeus.

America’s post-truth crew has now been captured by a shameless con man, the Tweeter-in-chief, Donald Trump.  Recall a saying often attributed to P.T. Barnum that “a sucker is born every minute.” Trump knows this — and will exploit it to the hilt, if the American people let him.

As January 20th approaches, Americans need to prepare themselves for a post-truth presidency.  As my dad used to say to me: “Don’t believe anything that you read and only half of what you see.”  Wise words for the days and years to come, but they come with a major problem.  Some sense of truth, of consensus based on acknowledged facts and a rigorous and fair-minded process of reasoning, is needed for a democracy to function.

Without integrity, which is based on facts and honesty and a willingness to reason together in good will and with honorable intentions, democracy simply cannot function. Put simply, a post-truth America is an anti-democratic America.  For without truth, without some consensus based on facts, all you have is lies, misinformation, and spin: a foundation of sand upon which nothing of worth can be built.

All the Insecurity Money Can Buy

It's not nice to fool with nuclear missiles
It’s not nice to fool with nuclear missiles

W.J. Astore

The United States spends nearly a trillion dollars a year on national defense, to include wars, homeland security, a bewildering array of intelligence agencies, and the maintenance of nuclear weapons.  Are we buying greater security with all this money?

Consider the following fact.  A private contractor hired to vet security clearances for US intelligence agencies has been accused of faulty and incomplete background checks in 665,000 cases.  Yes, you read that right.  More than half a million background checks for security clearances were not performed properly.  Doesn’t that make you feel safer?

Meanwhile, our nuclear forces have been bedeviled by scandal and mismanagement.  The latest is a cheating scandal involving 34 nuclear launch officers and the potential compromise of nuclear surety.  Previous scandals include a vice admiral, the deputy commander of US nuclear forces, being relieved of command for using forged gambling chips in a casino.  Far worse was the incident in 2007 when a B-52 flew across the US with six “live” nuclear missiles on board. (The missiles were not supposed to have nuclear warheads in them.)

Public servants, especially military officers who put “integrity first,” are expected to be good stewards of the trillions of dollars entrusted to them.  What to make, then, of an alarming bribery scandal in the Pacific, involving a wealthy Malaysian contractor who allegedly used money, hookers, and gifts to bribe several high-ranking US naval officers into awarding him lucrative contracts?  Something tells me this was not the pivot to the Pacific that the Obama Administration had in mind.

Such stories show how moth-eaten the shroud for our national security state really is.  Small wonder that we’re told to avert our eyes (Hey!  It’s classified!) rather than inspecting it closely.

What lessons are we to draw from such betrayals of public trust?  One big one: Our “security” apparatus has grown so large and all-encompassing that it has become far more powerful than the threat it is supposed to check.  Call it the enemy within, the inevitable corruption that accompanies unchecked power.

Any institution, no matter if it puts integrity first, will be compromised if it’s given too much power, especially when that institution veils itself in secrecy.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” as Peter Parker’s gentle Uncle Ben reminded him.  It’s an aphorism from “Spiderman,” but it’s no less true for that.  We’ve given great power to our national security apparatus, but that power is being exercised in ways that too often are irresponsible — and unaccountable.

And that doesn’t bode well for true security.

Update (1/28): Unfortunately, with great power often comes great irresponsibility, as this article on US military brass behaving badly indicates in today’s Washington Post.  And let’s not forget the US general and master of nuclear missiles who got drunk in Moscow while bragging about keeping the world safe — at least he enjoyed the banquet featuring tortillas stuffed with caviar and dill.

Update (2/5): A new story reveals that Army recruiters as well as civilians cheated the American taxpayer out of $100 million in recruiting bonuses.  The bonuses were aimed at boosting recruits during the difficult days of the Iraq War.  Sadly, it also boosted fraud within the Army, as some recruiters lined their own pockets with bonuses obtained under fraudulent terms.

In Praise of Douglas Kinnard, A Truth-telling General of the Vietnam War

My Copy of "The War Managers"
My Copy of “The War Managers”

W.J. Astore

The death on July 29 of retired Army general and professor Douglas Kinnard at the age of 91 reminded me of the vital quality of integrity and truth-telling, especially in life-and-death military settings.  A fast-rising general who became critical of America’s path in Indochina in the late 1960s, Kinnard retired from the military and wrote The War Managers (1977), a probing and fascinating survey of what he and his fellow general officers thought about the Vietnam War and America’s efforts to win it.

The general officers who answered Kinnard’s survey in The War Managers give the lie to the so-called Rambo myth, the idea that the American military could and should have won the Vietnam War, but were prevented from doing so by meddling civilians, mendacious media, and malicious hippie war resisters.

The survey results bear this out.  For example, Kinnard notes that “almost 70 percent of the Army generals who managed the war were uncertain of its objectives.” (25)  One general wrote that “Objectives lost meaning and were modified to justify events.”  Another wrote that “The U.S. was committed to a military solution, without a firm military objective–the policy was attrition–killing VC–this offered no solution–it was senseless.”

Along with unclear or swiftly changing objectives, the Army employed large units and massive firepower that tore up the land and produced millions of casualties.  This “search and destroy” approach of General William Westmoreland was termed “not sound” by one-third of the generals surveyed, with a further quarter saying it was “sound when first implemented–not later.”

Kinnard himself had direct experience with the Army’s reliance on costly and counterproductive firepower, specifically harassment and interdiction (H and I) by artillery.  In a note on page 47, he writes:

“In May 1969 I returned to Vietnam as Commanding General of II Field Force Artillery.  On my second day in the country I asked to have the intelligence targets plotted on my map.  Afterward, I asked to see the person who selected the targets, together with the data on which he based his selections.  A 1st Lieutenant appeared with a coordinate square; inspecting a map, he selected, at random, points in the areas where nighttime firing was authorized, and then measured off the coordinates for firing.  This had been the method of choosing intelligence targets in that zone for the preceding several months.”

In other words, U.S. forces were firing blindly into the jungle.

Most seriously of all, a ticket-punching culture in which officers rotated in and out of command every six months,* together with pressure from the top to inflate “body count” of the enemy, led to severe erosion of integrity in the U.S. Army.  Nearly two-thirds of the generals admitted that enemy body count was “often inflated,” with the following comments made by individual generals:

“The immensity of the false reporting is a blot on the honor of the Army.”

“I shudder to think how many of our soldiers were killed on a body-counting mission–what a waste.”

“I had one Division Commander whose reports I never believed or trusted.”

“Many commanders resorted to false reports to prevent their own relief.” (All quotes on page 75)

Along with inflated and dishonest body counts that compromised integrity was the failure to admit that Vietnamization was fatally flawed.  As Kinnard put it, “How could an army or a government so grossly corrupt [as those of South Vietnam], even in a country where corruption is expected, summon the enthusiastic support of its soldiers or its people?  There was no way to do so, as successive American advisers [to South Vietnam] discovered.” (84)

Several generals noted that the heavy-handed, can-do-right-now, approach of the American military to Vietnamization was fundamentally at odds with Vietnamese culture.  Two quotations illustrate this point:

“We erroneously tried to impose the American system on a people who didn’t want it, couldn’t handle it and may lose because they tried it.” (Written before the fall of Saigon in April 1975.)

“In this, as in all our foreign wars, we never really established rapport [with the Vietnamese].  This was largely due to our overinflated hypnosis with the myth that the American way–in economics, politics, sociology, manners, morals, military equipment, methodology, organization, tactics, etc.–is automatically and unchallengeably the best (really the only) way to do things.  This failure may well be the area of greatest weakness for the future of American arms.” (92)

As President Obama and his advisers meet today to discuss Syria, they should keep that lesson in mind, as well as Kinnard’s reminder that clear objectives are vital to the success of any military operation.  Even better, they should all be required to read (and re-read) Kinnard’s book, and to reflect on his wisdom.

Let’s leave the last word to Kinnard.  Before committing American forces to combat in the future, Kinnard wrote that “The situation itself must be one in which American interests are clearly at stake in a way that can be made understandable to the public … An important corollary is the need for truthfulness in dealing with the public.  From the president all the way to the field units, the practice of letting the facts speak for themselves is the best hope.  In the Vietnam War there was too much tricky optimism from LBJ [President Johnson] on down.  Furthermore, there was too much concealing of the implications of half-announced decisions.” (166-67)

Unclear objectives, compromised integrity, indiscriminate firepower, cultural blindness, “tricky” optimism, concealing the realities of the war from the American people: all of these reasons, and more, contributed to the disaster of Vietnam.  The sad truth is that we still haven’t fully learned the lessons of Kinnard’s honest, no-holds-barred, after action report that is “The War Managers.”

W.J. Astore

*With respect to ticket-punching and command rotation, Kinnard recalled that “Those of us who had our own command positions in Vietnam were required to attend changes of command ceremonies for others almost weekly.  In time, this became about as interesting as attending the baptism of an infant of distant friends.” (111)