How to Fix the U.S. Military’s Lying Problem

W.J. Astore

In my last article, I noted the U.S. military’s pursuit and prosecution of wars based on lies. Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq are the most prominent and costly of these wars, though there were and are others. I argued that dishonorable wars were wasting the courage of U.S. troops even as they greatly weakened the U.S. military as an institution. And not just the U.S. military but the Constitution itself, to which all military members swear a sacred oath to support and defend.

I shared my article with a friend who teaches at a senior U.S. military school, and his one comment to me was a question: “How would you fix these problems?”

I’m flattered when my readers think I have the answers to fix major systemic problems that have existed and persisted since the Korean War, if not before. My colleague’s question was sincere, I am sure, and I assume he agreed with much of my analysis since he didn’t question or challenge my fundamental thesis.

Of course, I’m not the only person to have noticed the U.S. military has a serious issue with honor and integrity. Vox Populi posted my last article today with the following photo caption:

Leaders lie “in the routine performance of their duties,” and “ethical and moral transgressions [occur] across all levels” of the organization [Army]. Leaders have also become “ethically numb,” using “justifications and rationalizations” to overcome any ethical doubts, according to a 2015 study by Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras, who are both professors at the U.S. Army War College.

The title of the Wong/Gerras study is “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession,” published in 2019. Another powerful book is Tim Bakken’s “The Cost of Loyalty: Dishonesty, Hubris, and Failure in the U.S. Military,” published in 2020. Bakken teaches at West Point.

So, what is to be done?

I wrote to my colleague that he should put his question to his own students. Since he teaches at a senior military school, his students are mostly Army and Air Force colonels and Navy captains on the fast track to flag rank and stars. Many of them are America’s future generals and admirals. Surely they are the ones who have to come up with solutions, not me. I retired from the military almost two decades ago. I’m no longer part of the clan. Today’s officers are the ones who must challenge the lies, who must seek honor instead of dishonor, who must have the moral courage as public servants to speak up, to change things, and especially to tell the truth to the American people.

Are we as a nation challenging our public servants, including senior military officers, to be men and women of integrity? Are we insisting that they tell the truth when they testify to Congress? When they talk about wars, are they being frank and honest? Or are they evasive and dishonest? If the latter, are they being held accountable for their lies, both within the military and without it, by Congress and by people like us?

I didn’t attend a senior service school, but I did attend Squadron Officer School (for company-grade officers, which I did in-residence) and Air Command and Staff College (for field-grade officers, which I did by correspondence). From what I recall, there was some emphasis on history, on strategy and tactics, and on leadership but not much emphasis, if any, on moral courage, honesty, truth-telling, and integrity.

Fundamental to any military member is the need to honor one’s oath to the U.S. Constitution. We as a nation need to demand that military leaders serve with honor and integrity; this is far more important to the future of our military and our country than gargantuan military budgets and loads of exotic and expensive weaponry.

I remember exactly one discussion at the Air Force Academy when a roomful of officers started debating about which value was most important, the honor code or loyalty (with loyalty here construed in personal terms as support for one’s superiors, equals, and subordinates). The discussion grew heated in a matter of minutes before it was shut down by the senior officer in the room.

That’s exactly one time in six years that I recall a serious, if abbreviated, discussion of honor and truth-telling versus loyalty and the officer’s duty to both, and the challenge one faces when honor conflicts (or seems to conflict) with loyalty.

The failure to address such tensions is not confined to the military. Think of other hierarchical organizations such as the Catholic Church. As a priest, do you honor God’s commandments and the moral teachings of Christ or should you be loyal to your local bishop and the church? When your conscience tells you one thing and the church tells you something else, which one takes priority?

Readers here know I was raised Catholic. I am no longer a practicing Catholic due to the church’s betrayal of children at the hands of predatory priests and the coverups that followed, done in the name of protecting the church and its reputation. In protecting itself, the church betrayed the people. The church lied. The church lacked moral courage and brought dishonor upon itself. Worst of all, it allowed innocent children to suffer.

Whether we’re talking about military officers or ministers and priests, we must demand integrity and honesty, we must seek to inculcate virtue, and we must not tolerate lying, cheating, stealing, and similar crimes and sins.

It’s a very high standard indeed, and perhaps few will live up to it, but I’m not demanding perfection. Just honesty and accountability. A willingness to do the right thing and the courage to admit when the wrong thing is being done and to act to put a stop to it.

So, that’s my “fix” for the U.S. military: a commitment to righteous service where integrity and truth-telling is the priority, even when it hurts one’s career. Because you didn’t take an oath to your career or to your service or to your commanding officer: you took it to the U.S. Constitution, and your officer’s commission is granted by Congress in the name of the people. Serve the people, serve the truth, and remember that moral courage is rarer even than physical courage.

Update (10/3): Clearly, one way to incentivize truth-telling is to reward those who come forward with promotions. The military, however, tends to do the opposite, punishing those who tell “embarrassing” truths to the American people. Two cases in the U.S. Army are LTC Daniel Davis and LTC Paul Yingling. Davis wrote powerfully and honestly about the folly of the Afghan War, based upon his extensive in-country experiences there. Yingling wrote “A Failure in Generalship,” where he noted a private who loses a rifle suffers more repercussions than generals who lose wars. For their courage and honesty, both were ostracized and not promoted.

All service branches usually promote “the true believers,” those who conform, those who who bleed Army green, or Air Force blue, and so on. One gets promoted for doing a good job within the system, and especially for making one’s superiors look good. Davis and Yingling questioned the Army’s performance in the Iraq and Afghan Wars, based on their direct experience with those wars, and for that they were punished.

Other Army officers took note.

My Graduation Speech to the Air Force Academy

With great power comes great responsibility

W.J. Astore

Twenty years ago, I left the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs for my next assignment. I haven’t been back since, but today I travel there (if only in my imagination) to give my graduation address to the class of 2022. So, won’t you take a few minutes and join me, as well as the corps of cadets, in Falcon Stadium?

Congratulations to all you newly minted second lieutenants! As a former military professor who, for six years, taught cadets very much like you at the Academy, I salute you and your accomplishments. You’ve weathered a demanding curriculum, far too many room and uniform inspections, parades, restrictions, and everything else associated with a military that thrives on busywork and enforced conformity. You’ve emerged from all of that today as America’s newest officers, part of what recent commanders-in-chief like to call “the finest fighting force” in human history. Merely for the act of donning a uniform and taking the oath of office, many of your fellow Americans already think of you as heroes deserving of a hearty “thank you for your service” and unqualified expressions of “support.”

And I must say you do exude health, youth, and enthusiasm, as well as a feeling that you’re about to graduate to better things, like pilot training or intelligence school, among so many other Air Force specialties. Some of you will even join America’s newest service, the Space Force, which resonates with me, as my first assignment in 1985 was to Air Force Space Command.

In my initial three years in the service, I tested the computer software the Air Force used back then to keep track of all objects in earth orbit, an inglorious but necessary task. I also worked on war games in Cheyenne Mountain, America’s ultimate command center for its nuclear defense. You could say I was paid to think about the unthinkable, the end of civilization as we know it due to nuclear Armageddon. That was near the tail end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. So much has changed since I wore gold bars like you and yet, somehow, we find ourselves once again in another “cold war” with Russia, this time centered on an all-too-hot war in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, instead of, as in 1962, a country in our immediate neighborhood, Cuba. Still, that distant conflict is only raising fresh fears of a nuclear nightmare that could well destroy us all.

What does this old light colonel, who’s been retired for almost as long as he wore the uniform, have to teach you cadets so many years later? What can I tell you that you haven’t heard before in all the classes you’ve attended and all the lectures you’ve endured?

How about this: You’ve been lied to big time while you’ve been here at the Academy.

Ah, I see I have your attention now. More than a few of you are smiling. I used to joke with cadets about how four years at a military school were designed to smother idealism and encourage cynicism, or so it sometimes seemed. Yes, our lead core value may still be “integrity first,” but the brass, the senior leadership, often convinces itself that what really comes first is the Air Force itself, an ideal of “service” that, I think you’ll agree, is far from selfless.

What do I mean when I say you’ve been lied to while being taught the glorious history of the U.S. Air Force? Since World War II began, the air forces of the United States have killed millions of people around the world. And yet here’s the strange thing: we can’t even say that we’ve clearly won a war since the “Greatest Generation” earned its wings in the 1930s and 1940s. In short, boasts to the contrary, airpower has proven to be neither cheap, surgical, nor decisive. You see what I mean about lies now, I hope.

I know, I know. You’re not supposed to think this way. You eat in Mitchell Hall, named after General Billy Mitchell, that airpower martyr who fought so hard after World War I for an independent air service. (His and our collective dream, long delayed, finally came to fruition in 1947.) You celebrate the Doolittle Raiders, those intrepid aviators who flew off an aircraft carrier in 1942, launching a daring and dangerous surprise attack on Tokyo, a raid that helped restore America’s sagging morale after Pearl Harbor. You mark the courage of the Tuskegee Airmen, those African American pilots who broke racial barriers, while proving their mettle in the skies over Nazi Germany. They are indeed worthy heroes to celebrate.

And yet shouldn’t we airmen also reflect on the bombing of Germany during World War II that killed roughly 600,000 civilians but didn’t prove crucial to the defeat of Adolf Hitler? (In fact, Soviet troops deserve the lion’s share of the credit there.) We should reflect on the firebombing of Tokyo that killed more than 100,000 people, among 60 other sites firebombed, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that, both instantly and over time, killed an estimated 220,000 Japanese. During the Korean War, our air forces leveled North Korea and yet that war ended in a stalemate that persists to this day. During Vietnam, our air power pummeled Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, unleashing high explosives, napalm, and poisons like Agent Orange against so many innocent people caught up in American rhetoric that the only good Communist was a dead one. Yet the Vietnamese version of Communism prevailed, even as the peoples of Southeast Asia still suffer and die from the torrent of destruction we rained down on them half a century ago.

Turning to more recent events, the U.S. military enjoyed total air supremacy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other battlefields of the war on terror, yet that supremacy led to little but munitions expended, civilians killed, and wars lost. It led to tens of thousands of deaths by airpower, because, sadly, there are no such things as freedom bombs or liberty missiles.

If you haven’t thought about such matters already (though I’ll bet you have, at least a little), consider this: You are potentially a death-dealer. Indeed, if you become a nuclear launch officer in a silo in Wyoming or North Dakota, you may yet become a death-dealer of an almost unimaginable sort. Even if you “fly” a drone while sitting in a trailer thousands of miles from your target, you remain a death-dealer. Recall that the very last drone attack the U.S. launched in Afghanistan in 2021 killed 10 civilians, including seven children, and that no one in the chain of command was held accountable. There’s a very good reason, after all, why those drones, or, as we prefer to call them, remotely piloted aircraft, have over the years been given names like Predator and Reaper. Consider that a rare but refreshing burst of honesty.

I remember how “doolies,” or new cadets, had to memorize “knowledge” and recite it on command to upper-class cadets. Assuming that’s still a thing, here’s a phrase I’d like you to memorize and recite: Destroying the town is not saving it. The opposite sentiment emerged as an iconic and ironic catchphrase of the Vietnam War, after journalist Peter Arnett reported a U.S. major saying of devastated Ben Tre, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Incredibly, the U.S. military came to believe, or at least to assert, that destroying such a town was a form of salvation from the alleged ideological evil of communism. But whether by bombs or bullets or fire, destruction is destruction. It should never be confused with salvation.

Will you have the moral courage, when it’s not strictly in defense of the U.S. Constitution to which you, once again, swore an oath today, to refuse to become a destroyer?

Two Unsung Heroes of the U.S. Air Force

In your four years here, you’ve learned a lot about heroes like Billy Mitchell and Lance Sijan, an Academy grad and Medal of Honor recipient who demonstrated enormous toughness and resilience after being shot down and captured in Vietnam. We like to showcase airmen like these, the true believers, the ones prepared to sacrifice everything, even their own lives, to advance what we hold dear. And they are indeed easy to respect.

I have two more courageous and sacrificial role models to introduce to you today. One you may have heard of; one you almost certainly haven’t. Let’s start with the latter. His name was James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth and he rose to the rank of major general in our service. As a lieutenant colonel in Vietnam, Cotton Hildreth and his wingman, flying A-1 Skyraiders, were given an order to drop napalm on a village that allegedly harbored enemy Viet Cong soldiers. Hildreth disobeyed that order, dropping his napalm outside the target area and saving (alas, only temporarily) the lives of 1,200 innocent villagers.

How could Hildreth have possibly disobeyed his “destroy the town” order? The answer: because he and his wingman took the time to look at the villagers they were assigned to kill. In their Skyraiders, they flew low and slow. Seeing nothing but apparently friendly people waving up at them, including children, they sensed that something was amiss. It turns out that they were oh-so-right. The man who wanted the village destroyed was ostensibly an American ally, a high-ranking South Vietnamese official. The village hadn’t paid its taxes to him, so he was using American airpower to exact his revenge and set an example for other villages that dared to deny his demands. By refusing to bomb and kill innocents, Hildreth passed his “gut check,” if you will, and his career doesn’t appear to have suffered for it.

But he himself did suffer. He spoke about his Vietnam experiences in an oral interview after he’d retired, saying they’d left him “really sick” and “very bitter.” In a melancholy, almost haunted, tone, he added, “I don’t talk about this [the war] very much,” and one can understand why.

So, what happened to the village that Hildreth and his wingman had spared from execution by napalm? Several days later, it was obliterated by U.S. pilots flying high and fast in F-105s, rather than low and slow as Hildreth had flown in his A-1. The South Vietnamese provincial official had gotten his way and Hildreth’s chain of command was complicit in the destruction of 1,200 people whose only crime was fighting a tax levy.

My second hero is not a general, not even an officer. He’s a former airman who’s currently behind bars, serving a 45-month sentence because he leaked the so-called drone papers, which revealed that our military’s drone strikes killed far more innocent civilians than enemy combatants in the war on terror. His name is Daniel Hale, and you should all know about him and reflect on his integrity and honorable service to our country.

What was his “crime”? He wanted the American people to know about their military and the innocent people being killed in our name. He felt the burden of the lies he was forced to shoulder, the civilians he watched dying on video monitors due to drone strikes. He wanted us to know, too, because he thought that if enough Americans knew, truly knew, we’d come together and put a stop to such atrocities. That was his crime.

Daniel Hale was an airman of tremendous moral courage. Before he was sentenced to prison, he wrote an eloquent and searing letter about what had moved him to share information that, in my view, was classified mainly to cover up murderous levels of incompetence. I urge you to read Hale’s letter in which he graphically describes the deaths of children and the trauma he experienced in coming to grips with what he termed “the undeniable cruelties that I perpetuated” while serving as an Air Force intelligence analyst.

It’s sobering stuff, but we airmen, you graduates in particular, deserve just such sobering information, because you’re going to be potential death-dealers. Yet it’s important that you not become indiscriminate murderers, even if you never see the people being vaporized by the bombs you drop and missiles you’ll launch with such profligacy.

In closing, do me one small favor before you throw your caps in the air, before the Thunderbirds roar overhead, before you clap yourselves on the back, before you head off to graduation parties and the congratulations of your friends and family. Think about a saying I learned from Spider-Man. Yes, I really do mean the comic-book hero. “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Like so many airmen before you, you may soon find yourself in possession of great power over life and death in wars and other conflicts that, at least so far in this century, have been all too grim. Are you really prepared for such a burden? Because power and authority, unchecked by morality and integrity, will lead you and our country down a very dark path indeed.

Always remember your oath, always aim high, the high of Hildreth and Hale, the high of those who remember that they are citizen-airmen in service to a nation founded on lofty ideals. Listen to your conscience, do the right thing, and you may yet earn the right to the thanks that so many Americans will so readily grant you just by virtue of wearing the uniform.

And if you’ll allow this aging airman one final wish: I wish you a world where the bombs stay in their aircraft, the missiles in their silos, the bullets in their guns, a world, dare I say it, where America is finally at peace.

Copyright 2022 William J. Astore. Originally at TomDispatch.com. Please read TomDispatch.com, a regular antidote to the mainstream media. Thank you!

Air Force Core Values

W.J. Astore

I was thinking today about my old service branch’s core values. No — not “more fighters, more bombers, more missiles” or “put bombs on target” or “jet noise is the sound of freedom” or “show me the money!” or that old Strategic Air Command classic, “peace is our profession.” No — the core values all airmen are supposed to uphold — integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do, in that order, sometimes abbreviated as integrity, service, excellence. How’s the Air Force doing here?

Not well, I’m afraid. Think of “integrity,” which I think of as truth-telling. Over the last 20 years, and indeed over the life of the service, going back to 1947 and before, the Air Force has consistently overestimated the accuracy of its bombing and consistently underestimated the number of civilians and non-combatants killed by that bombing. And that’s putting it charitably. In reality, the Air Force has conspired to advance an image of airpower as surgical and precise when it clearly isn’t, and indeed never has been. My old service branch advances this image because it’s good for the Air Force. It’s really that simple. Such image-making, i.e. lying, may be good for the Air Force budget, but it isn’t good for integrity. Nor is it good for America or those unfortunates on the receiving end of U.S. munitions.

Turning to “service before self,” I think of a system that when I served often stressed and rewarded self before service. For example, the promotion system in the military was structured to reward the hard-chargers, the overachievers, Type-A personalities, the thrusters and the true believers. Perhaps this is true of most bureaucracies, but the emphasis on ticket-punching and hoop-jumping in the Air Force was conducive to a narrow form of achievement in which “service” played second fiddle, when it played at all. Another way of putting it is that a certain kind of personal selfishness is more than acceptable as long as it advances institutional goals and agendas — a quite narrow form of service, if one is again being charitable.

And now we come to “excellence in all we do,” which brings to mind all kinds of disasters, such as drone strikes that kill innocents, or wayward generals, or cheating nuclear missile crews, and so on. But I’d like to focus on recent procurement practices, such as the lamentable F-35 jet fighter, which was supposed to be a fairly low-cost, high-availability fighter but which even the Air Force Chief of Staff now compares to a Ferrari, i.e. super-expensive and often in the shop. From tankers that can’t refuel to fighter planes that can’t shoot straight to nuclear bombers and missiles that the country (and, for that matter, humanity) simply doesn’t need, the Air Force’s record of excellence is spotty indeed.

What are we to do with a service that is so unwilling or unable to live up to its core values? Well, as usual, accountability and punishment are out of the question. I guess we’ll just have to give the Air Force more money while hoping it’ll reform itself, because you know that strategy always works.

The F-35 “Ferrari”: It costs a lot and is often in the shop, but it looks kinda sexy. Too bad the F-35 was supposed to be a reliable workhorse, not a temperamental stallion. Interestingly, the inspiration for the Ferrari symbol of a prancing horse came from an Italian fighter pilot during World War I.

America Needs A Can’t Do Military

W.J. Astore

“Can-do” is an attitude that’s common, indeed obligatory, in the U.S. military. “Can’t do” is for quitters, for losers, for the “whiskey deltas” (weak dicks) who don’t have “the right stuff” to succeed. Yet I’d argue the U.S. military could use a few good men and women who are willing to say “can’t do,” not because they’re losers or lazy or otherwise “weak,” but because they’re smart and willing to speak uncomfortable truths.

“Saluting smartly” goes along with a “can-do” attitude. But was it sensible to salute smartly and invade Afghanistan and seek to remake a complex and decentralized tribal society into a centralized pseudo-democracy? Was it sensible to invade and occupy Iraq, disband its army, and seek to remake an ethnically and religiously fractured society, previously controlled by an authoritarian dictator, into a centralized pseudo-democracy? And by “remake,” I mean imposing a new government by often violent means by outsiders (yes, that’s us). Of course it wasn’t sensible, as events proved. These were “can’t do” scenarios, and never-should-have-done wars, and the U.S. military should have said so, and loudly, rather than saluting smartly and lying year after year about “progress.”

Sometimes, integrity means admitting that you can’t do. It recalls a line from Dirty Harry in “Magnum Force”: A man’s got to know his limitations. Not everything is achievable or even desirable, no matter how much money and “Hooah!” spirit you throw at the problem.

But officers in the military don’t get promoted for saying “can’t do,” no matter how sensible the sentiment may be. You’ve got to make it work, or die or lie trying, no matter the folly of it all. Here I recall a weapon system I worked on in the Air Force in the mid-1990s. It was over-budget, under-performing, and also being overtaken by newer, cheaper, technologies that flight crews liked better. But my job (and possibly my future promotion) hinged on refusing to recognize this truth. Instead, I had to do my part to make the “bad” system work — or seem to work.

As I recently wrote to a fellow former Air Force officer: As a captain, I worked on a project that probably should have been canceled. But the pressure on me was to make it work, at least my piece of it. Jobs depended on it. We are a can-do military even when can’t- or shouldn’t-do would be the much wiser course of action.

This fellow officer, also a captain and engineer, sent along this perceptive comment:

I don’t know about your path to promotion, but in my Support Group position, our annual performance reviews and officer promotion path was dependent upon being responsible for an ever expanding budget, year after year. I could never see a situation where being in charge of less compared to the previous year was ever a positive if one wanted to make a career out of military service. It really didn’t matter if the expansion was due to the inclusion of unnecessary spending. After I left active duty it finally sank in that all of the personal/professional incentives are to continually spend more, never to save the taxpayer money. I have since felt that the personal promotion incentive is one of several internal systems that creates the environment that is present; where DoD spending is commonly and fairly criticized for fraud, waste and abuse and why there are few incentives for the military leadership to do a better job of advising the civilian leadership to war less.

So, for example, saying “can’t do” while saving money is often the worst sort of action one could make if you want to get ahead in the military. Saying “can-do” while burning through money and accomplishing nothing but an expansion of next year’s budget is, however, rewarded by the system. You have proven yourself to be a “team player,” irrespective of results.

Of course, what America really needs is not a can- or can’t-do military but rather one with unimpeachable integrity in its oath to the U.S. Constitution. That oath carries with it an obligation to speak the truth, and a willingness to put the truth before conformity and ambition and “going along to get along.”

Our history since 9/11 would have been far different if the U.S. military knew its limitations and was willing to say “can’t do” when it was given unachievable objectives.

Rewarding the Pentagon for Lying

what
Nothing to see here, people!

W.J. Astore

The Afghan Papers have revealed widespread, systemic, and enduring lying about the course and progress of the Afghan War by U.S. military and civilian leaders.  So, what’s the punishment for all this lying?  Record-setting Pentagon budgets!  The more they lie, the more money they get.  Is it any wonder why these wars persist, without apparent end, when no one is punished for lies that lead to the death of American troops (not forgetting all the foreign innocents who are killed and wounded because of these lies)?

This may seem hard to believe, but “Integrity First” is the fundamental core value of the U.S. Air Force.  But what happens when the system is revealed to have no integrity? When the system sends young Americans to die in a lost war, a war that our most senior leaders have lied about since almost the very beginning?

I know we’re all jaded and cynical, but this is a monstrous failure, a horrendous betrayal of trust.

The entire military leadership at the top should be gutted. Anyone implicated in these lies, distortions, etc. should be cashiered. That’s what a real president and commander-in-chief would do. Heads should roll!

But the Pentagon prefers to obfuscate and pretend that the Afghan Papers are old news, and pretty much meaningless at that.  Meanwhile, fake tough guy Trump (along with the Congress) kowtows to the Pentagon, giving the generals everything they want as next year’s Pentagon budget soars to $738 billion, including money for a “Space Force,” among many other boondoggles.

Endless self-serving lies rewarded by scads of money — small wonder that America’s wars persist without end.

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)