Something Is Rotten in the U.S. Military

W.J. Astore

Winning a war based on lies is truly a fool’s errand, which is why the U.S. military’s record since World War II is so poor. Yet no one is ever held responsible for these lies, which suggests something worse than a losing military: one that is without honor, especially among the brass. That’s the theme of my latest article for TomDispatch, which is appended below in its entirety.

As a military professor for six years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in the 1990s, I often walked past the honor code prominently displayed for all cadets to see. Its message was simple and clear: they were not to tolerate lying, cheating, stealing, or similar dishonorable acts. Yet that’s exactly what the U.S. military and many of America’s senior civilian leaders have been doing from the Vietnam War era to this very day: lying and cooking the books, while cheating and stealing from the American people. And yet the most remarkable thing may be that no honor code turns out to apply to them, so they’ve suffered no consequences for their mendacity and malfeasance.

Where’s the “honor” in that?

It may surprise you to learn that “integrity first” is the primary core value of my former service, the U.S. Air Force.  Considering the revelations of the Pentagon Papers, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971; the Afghan War papers, first revealed by the Washington Post in 2019; and the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, among other evidence of the lying and deception that led to the invasion and occupation of that country, you’ll excuse me for assuming that, for decades now when it comes to war, “integrity optional” has been the true core value of our senior military leaders and top government officials.

As a retired Air Force officer, let me tell you this: honor code or not, you can’t win a war with lies — America proved that in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq — nor can you build an honorable military with them. How could our high command not have reached such a conclusion themselves after all this time?

So Many Defeats, So Little Honesty

Like many other institutions, the U.S. military carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. After all, despite being funded in a fashion beyond compare and spreading its peculiar brand of destruction around the globe, its system of war hasn’t triumphed in a significant conflict since World War II (with the war in Korea remaining, almost three-quarters of a century later, in a painful and festering stalemate).  Even the ending of the Cold War, allegedly won when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, only led to further wanton military adventurism and, finally, defeat at an unsustainable cost — more than $8 trillion — in Washington’s ill-fated Global War on Terror. And yet, years later, that military still has a stranglehold on the national budget.

So many defeats, so little honesty: that’s the catchphrase I’d use to characterize this country’s military record since 1945. Keeping the money flowing and the wars going proved far more important than integrity or, certainly, the truth. Yet when you sacrifice integrity and the truth in the cause of concealing defeat, you lose much more than a war or two. You lose honor — in the long run, an unsustainable price for any military to pay.

Buy the Book

Or rather it should be unsustainable, yet the American people have continued to “support” their military, both by funding it astronomically and expressing seemingly eternal confidence in it — though, after all these years, trust in the military has dipped somewhat recently. Still, in all this time, no one in the senior ranks, civilian or military, has ever truly been called to account for losing wars prolonged by self-serving lies. In fact, too many of our losing generals have gone right through that infamous “revolving door” into the industrial part of the military-industrial complex — only to sometimes return to take top government positions.

Our military has, in fact, developed a narrative that’s proven remarkably effective in insulating it from accountability. It goes something like this: U.S. troops fought hard in [put the name of the country here], so don’t blame us. Indeed, you must support us, especially given all the casualties of our wars. They and the generals did their best, under the usual political constraints. On occasion, mistakes were made, but the military and the government had good and honorable intentions in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. 

Besides, were you there, Charlie? If you weren’t, then STFU, as the acronym goes, and be grateful for the security you take for granted, earned by America’s heroes while you were sitting on your fat ass safe at home.

It’s a narrative I’ve heard time and time again and it’s proven persuasive, partially because it requires the rest of us, in a conscription-free country, to do nothing and think nothing about that. Ignorance is strength, after all.

War Is Brutal

The reality of it all, however, is so much harsher than that. Senior military leaders have performed poorly.  War crimes have been covered up. Wars fought in the name of helping others have produced horrendous civilian casualties and stunning numbers of refugees. Even as those wars were being lost, what President Dwight D. Eisenhowerfirst labeled the military-industrial complex has enjoyed windfall profits and expanding power. Again, there’s been no accountability for failure. In fact, only whistleblowing truth-tellers like Chelsea Manning and Daniel Hale have been punished and jailed.

Ready for an even harsher reality? America is a nation being unmade by war, the very opposite of what most Americans are taught. Allow me to explain.  As a country, we typically celebrate the lofty ideals and brave citizen-soldiers of the American Revolution. We similarly celebrate the Second American Revolution, otherwise known as the Civil War, for the elimination of slavery and reunification of the country; after which, we celebrate World War II, including the rise of the Greatest Generation, America as the arsenal of democracy, and our emergence as the global superpower.

By celebrating those three wars and essentially ignoring much of the rest of our history, we tend to view war itself as a positive and creative act. We see it as making America, as part of our unique exceptionalism. Not surprisingly, then, militarism in this country is impossible to imagine. We tend to see ourselves, in fact, as uniquely immune to it, even as war and military expenditures have come to dominate our foreign policy, bleeding into domestic policy as well.

If we as Americans continue to imagine war as a creative, positive, essential part of who we are, we’ll also continue to pursue it. Or rather, if we continue to lie to ourselves about war, it will persist. 

It’s time for us to begin seeing it not as our making but our unmaking, potentially even our breaking — as democracy’s undoing as well as the brutal thing it truly is.

A retired U.S. military officer, educated by the system, I freely admit to having shared some of its flaws. When I was an Air Force engineer, for instance, I focused more on analysis and quantification than on synthesis and qualification. Reducing everything to numbers, I realize now, helps provide an illusion of clarity, even mastery.  It becomes another form of lying, encouraging us to meddle in things we don’t understand.

This was certainly true of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, his “whiz kids,” and General William Westmoreland during the Vietnam War; nor had much changed when it came to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and General David Petraeus, among others, in the Afghan and Iraq War years. In both eras, our military leaders wielded metrics and swore they were winning even as those wars circled the drain. 

And worse yet, they were never held accountable for those disasters or the blunders and lies that went with them (though the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era certainly tried). All these years later, with the Pentagon still ascendant in Washington, it should be obvious that something has truly gone rotten in our system.

Here’s the rub: as the military and one administration after another lied to the American people about those wars, they also lied to themselves, even though such conflicts produced plenty of internal “papers” that raised serious concerns about lack of progress. Robert McNamara typically knew that the situation in Vietnam was dire and the war essentially unwinnable. Yet he continued to issue rosy public reports of progress, while calling for more troops to pursue that illusive “light at the end of the tunnel.” Similarly, the Afghan War papers released by the Washington Post show that senior military and civilian leaders realized that war, too, was going poorly almost from the beginning, yet they reported the very opposite to the American people. So many corners were being “turned,” so much “progress” being made in official reports even as the military was building its own rhetorical coffin in that Afghan graveyard of empires.

Too bad wars aren’t won by “spin.” If they were, the U.S. military would be undefeated.

Two Books to Help Us See the Lies

Two recent books help us see that spin for what it was. In Because Our Fathers Lied, Craig McNamara, Robert’s son, reflects on his father’s dishonesty about the Vietnam War and the reasons for it. Loyalty was perhaps the lead one, he writes. McNamara suppressed his own serious misgivings out of misplaced loyalty to two presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, while simultaneously preserving his own position of power in the government. 

Robert McNamara would, in fact, later pen his own mea culpa, admitting how “terribly wrong” he’d been in urging the prosecution of that war. Yet Craig finds his father’s late confession of regret significantly less than forthright and fully honest. Robert McNamara fell back on historical ignorance about Vietnam as the key contributing factor in his unwise decision-making, but his son is blunt in accusing his dad of unalloyed dishonesty. Hence the title of his book, citing Rudyard Kipling’s pained confession of his own complicity in sending his son to die in the trenches of World War I: “If any question why we died/Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

The second book is Paths of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America’s Misguided Wars, edited by Andrew Bacevich and Danny Sjursen. In my view, the word “misguided” doesn’t quite capture the book’s powerful essence, since it gathers 15 remarkable essays by Americans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and witnessed the patent dishonesty and folly of those wars. None dare speak of failure might be a subtheme of these essays, as initially highly motivated and well-trained troops became disillusioned by wars that went nowhere, even as their comrades often paid the ultimate price, being horribly wounded or dying in those conflicts driven by lies.

This is more than a work of dissent by disillusioned troops, however. It’s a call for the rest of us to act.  Dissent, as West Point graduate and Army Captain Erik Edstrom reminds us, “is nothing short of a moral obligation” when immoral wars are driven by systemic dishonesty. Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, who blew an early whistle on how poorly the Afghan War was going, writes of his “seething” anger “at the absurdity and unconcern for the lives of my fellow soldiers displayed by so many” of the Army’s senior leaders. 

Former Marine Matthew Hoh, who resigned from the State Department in opposition to the Afghan “surge” ordered by President Barack Obama, speaks movingly of his own “guilt, regret, and shame” at having served in Afghanistan as a troop commander and wonders whether he can ever atone for it. Like Craig McNamara, Hoh warns of the dangers of misplaced loyalty. He remembers telling himself that he was best suited to lead his fellow Marines in war, no matter how misbegotten and dishonorable that conflict was.  Yet he confesses that falling back on duty and being loyal to “his” Marines, while suppressing the infamies of the war itself, became “a washing of the hands, a self-absolution that ignores one’s complicity” in furthering a brutal conflict fed by lies.    

As I read those essays, I came to see anew how this country’s senior leaders, military and civilian, consistently underestimated the brutalizing impact of war, which, in turn, leads me to the ultimate lie of war: that it is somehow good, or at least necessary — making all the lying (and killing) worth it, whether in the name of a victory to come or of duty, honor, and country. Yet there is no honor in lying, in keeping the truth hidden from the American people. Indeed, there is something distinctly dishonorable about waging wars kept viable only by lies, obfuscation, and propaganda.

An Epigram from Goethe

John Keegan, the esteemed military historian, cites an epigram from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as being essential to thinking about militaries and their wars. “Goods gone, something gone; honor gone, much gone; courage gone, all gone.” 

The U.S. military has no shortage of goods, given its whopping expenditures on weaponry and equipment of all sorts; among the troops, it doesn’t lack for courage or fighting spirit, not yet, anyway. But it does lack honor, especially at the top. Much is gone when a military ceases to tell the truth to itself and especially to the people from whom its forces are drawn. And courage is wasted when in the service of lies.

Courage wasted: Is there a worst fate for a military establishment that prides itself on its members being all volunteers and is now having trouble filling its ranks?

Copyright 2022 William J. Astore

Why Burn Books When You Can Stop Them from Being Published?

You won’t have to burn them if they’re never published

W.J. Astore

There are many forms of lying. One that we don’t always think about is lying by omission. A partial truth can be a more insidious lie than an outright falsehood. I might argue, for example, that the Vietnam War was awful for America, dividing the country and costing more than 58,000 U.S. troops their lives, along with innumerable other mental and physical casualties. But if I leave out or downplay the far more horrifying costs to Southeast Asia, the literally millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians killed in that war, the poisoning of their land by highly toxic chemicals like Agent Orange along with millions of unexploded mines and munitions, which still kill to this day, I have most definitely lied by omission. Perhaps the Vietnam War was a “tragedy” for the U.S., but it was far, far worse for those on the receiving end of American firepower.

It’s not easy to get books published that tell tough truths we’d prefer not to hear. For example, Nick Turse’s book about “the real American war in Vietnam,” entitled “Kill Anything that Moves,” was published by Metropolitan Books, which is now being shuttered and shut down, notes Tom Engelhardt in his latest article at TomDispatch.com. Engelhardt has seen this before, with Pantheon Books, another publisher known for publishing books that told uncomfortable truths about America. It too was a victim of consolidation in publishing, of being shut down, mainly because the consolidators simply didn’t like the books being published. And perhaps too because these same books sometimes didn’t make enough money (though some proved to be bestsellers, which, from the owners’ ideological perspective, may have been worse).

Engelhardt’s heartfelt article made me think. Imagine that. It made me think that the best way to “burn” books is to make sure they’re never published.  Same with banning books.  You don’t have to ban them when they can’t find their way into print.

Also, it’s far easier to manufacture consent — to control the national discourse — when only certain books are being published and hyped — the ones reflecting and reinforcing mainstream thought.

Whether it’s shutting down Pantheon or Metropolitan or similar publishing houses, it’s about blocking alternative views that challenge capitalism, neoliberalism,, neoconservatism, and similar mainstream ideologies. You can always claim that the house you’re shuttering just wasn’t making enough money, wasn’t moving enough product, never mind the quality of that “product” and the invaluable service it was providing to democracy and the free exchange of ideas.

Readers here know that I started writing for TomDispatch in 2007. My first article was critical of the Petraeus Surge in the Iraq War, but my goal back then was “to save the U.S. military from itself,” from its misleading and often mendacious metrics to its inflated sense of itself, shown most clearly with its obsession with medals and decorations even as the war was going very poorly indeed. I tried several mainstream publishers including the New York Times and Washington Post without success. A friend mentioned TomDispatch to me, I wrote to Tom, and he found something in my writing worthy of being published at his site. My next “Tomgram” will be the 95th I’ve written for the site.

If TomDispatch didn’t exist, my criticisms and critiques would probably have never been published. Tom’s example inspired me to write further, to become a regular at Huff Post and Antiwar.com and to start my own blogs. Bracing Views exists because of the example provided by TomDispatch.

Good books beget other good books. Critical books beget other critical books. Scholarship builds on itself. When you block or severely limit opportunities for good, daring, and critical books from being published, you strike a blow against scholarship, against the free exchange of ideas, against the very idea of an enlightened America made more powerful and righteous by its informed citizens.

Sure, it’s just another publisher being put out of business. Nothing to see here, move along. Except it’s much more than that. It’s a form of book burning before the book ever existed, a silencing of synapses in our minds, an insidious form of mind control in the sense of curtailing certain thoughts and ideas from ever taking form.

Do I exaggerate? Readers, what do you think?

The U.S. Military as a Bull

It’s not going well for the bull

W.J. Astore

About 15 years ago, I was talking to a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who’d served with the 101st Airborne as a battalion commander in Iraq.  He told me his troops were well trained and packed a tremendous punch.  An American platoon, given its superiority in firepower, communications, and the artillery and air support it can call on, could take on enemy units three times its size and win (easily).  Yet this tremendous advantage in firepower proved politically indecisive in Iraq as well as places like Afghanistan and Vietnam.

The typical U.S. military response is to argue for even more firepower – and to blame the rules of engagement (ROE) for not allowing them to use it indiscriminately.

The U.S. military has optimized and always seeks to optimize its hitting power at the sharp end of war.  It takes pride in its “hardness” and its “warriors.” But the skirmishes and battles it “wins” never add up to anything.  If anything, the more the U.S. military used its superior firepower in Iraq as well as places like Vietnam and Afghanistan, the more collateral damage it spread, the more people it alienated, the more the results became retrograde.

Even as U.S. leaders cited impressive (and false) metrics to show “progress” about districts “pacified,” or how many Vietnamese or Afghan or Iraqi troops were “trained” and ready to assume the roles of U.S. troops, the truth was that U.S. military units were sinking ever deeper into quagmires of their own making.  Meanwhile, elements within Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq, enabled by America’s own military-industrial complex, worked cleverly to extract more wealth and resources from a U.S. government that was only fooling itself and the American people with its lies about “progress.”

Let’s take a closer look at the Afghan War as an example.  The military historian Dennis Showalter put it memorably to me.  He talked of Taliban units offering “symmetry,” or fighting as American units are trained to do, only under exceptional circumstances, and typically to the Taliban’s advantage (e.g. small-unit ambushes using IEDs that drove U.S. troops to respond with massive firepower).  Since U.S. troops are adept at reacting quickly and deploying massive firepower, they believe that this is war’s cutting edge.  Find ‘em, fix ‘em, kill ‘em, is often the start and end of U.S. military strategy.

As Showalter put it: Like a bull the U.S. military rushes the Taliban cape as the sword goes into its shoulders.  If you’re the enemy, wave that cape – just be sure to sidestep the bull’s rush.

Yes, the U.S. military has impressive firepower. Yes, no one projects force like the U.S. military. Yes, the U.S. military can charge and hit with bullish impact. But for what purpose, and to what end? The bull in a bullfight, after all, doesn’t often win.

And when you move the bull from the fighting ring to a delicate situation, a more political one, one that requires subtlety and care, things go very poorly indeed, as they do when bulls find themselves in china shops.

A Just Cause? Why Lie?

W.J. Astore

Readers, my memory here is a bit fuzzy, so please bear with me.

When I was at the Air Force Academy in the late 1990s, a British diplomat came to speak on Anglo-American policies and activities in the Middle East. A controversial subject was the “No-Fly” zone enforced by the U.S. Air Force as well as sanctions against Iraq, with the stated goal of encouraging the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam Hussein. That overthrow never happened; instead, the U.S. military had to invade in 2003 with “shock and awe,” leading to war, insurgency, and torture that truly was shocking and awful.

I recall asking a question of the diplomat, a younger guy, slick and polished, probably a product of Oxbridge (and I had recently earned my D.Phil. from Oxford, so I knew the type). The gist of my question was this: Why are we continuing with sanctions when they appear not to be hurting Saddam but only ordinary people in Iraq?

The diplomat smoothly ignored the tenor of my question and instead praised Anglo-American resolve and cooperation in the struggle against Saddam and similar bad actors in the Middle East. I was nonplussed but I didn’t push the matter. I was in a classroom with a couple of dozen other AF officers and we were all supposed to be on the same team.

This all came back to me today as I listened to Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor at The Gray Zone. He recalled a British major asking similar questions of similar diplomats, but the British major went much further than I had in challenging the BS he was being fed. COL Macgregor quotes this major as saying the following in response:

If our cause is just, why do we have to lie about it?

Those words should be seared in the minds of all Americans at this perilous moment. I wish I’d had the clarity of mind and the confidence to say something similar, but I recall thinking that maybe I just didn’t know enough about what was going on in Iraq.

Of course, Madeleine Albright, asked on “60 Minutes” if the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children due to sanctions was a price worth paying for Saddam’s eventual downfall, readily replied that yes, she believed this price was worth paying.

Her sociopathic calculation didn’t even work; only a massive U.S. invasion finally toppled Saddam, leading to yet more chaos and mass death in Iraq.

We need to stop lying to ourselves that America’s policies are generally noble and just or even morally defensible or forced upon us by a harsh and cruel world. In fact, perhaps that harsh and cruel world is exactly the one we’ve created for ourselves — and for so many others as well.

Let’s (Not) Go To War!

W.J. Astore

Remember the days when America had to be attacked before it went to war? And when it did, it made formal Congressional declarations of the same?

In December 1941, the Japanese attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor as well as elsewhere in the Pacific. In response to those attacks, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress for a formal declaration of war. Nazi Germany then declared war on the U.S., after which the U.S. responded in kind. Compared to the future wars of U.S. empire, Americans were generally united and had some understanding of what the war (World War II, of course) was about.

We haven’t had that kind of unity and clarity since 1945, which is certainly the biggest reason America has suffered so many setbacks and defeats in unpromising places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In all three of those places, there really wasn’t a clear and compelling cause for war, hence there was no Congressional declaration of the same. Hmm … maybe that should have told us something?

In Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution by Congress followed on the heels of an “attack” that had never happened. In Iraq, the “evil dictator” didn’t have the weapons of mass destruction we accused him of having, nor had he played any role in the 9/11 attacks. In Afghanistan, the Taliban had played a secondary role in providing a safe haven to Osama bin Laden prior to 9/11, but it was Al Qaeda, not the Taliban, that was behind the 9/11 attacks.

Indeed, since 15 of the 19 Al Qaeda terrorists were Saudi, as well as their leader, Osama bin Laden, it would have made much more sense to have declared war on Saudi Arabia and invade that country than to have invaded Afghanistan. Of course, it made no sense at all to have declared a general “war on terror,” and rather unsurprisingly, that 20-year-war has only succeeded in spreading terror further.

Now we turn to today’s situation between Russia and Ukraine. Frankly, I don’t see a border dispute between these two countries as constituting a major threat to U.S. national security. It’s certainly no reason for America to go to war. Yet the Biden Administration is taking a hard line with its economic sanctions, its weapons shipments, and its troop deployments to the region.

Somehow, America’s leaders seem to think that such actions will deter, or at least punish, Russia and its leader. But there’s another possibility, one equally as likely, that sanctions and weapons and troops will lead to escalation and a wider war, and for what reason? A Russian-Ukrainian border dispute? This dispute might resolve itself if the U.S. and NATO just had the sense and patience to mind its own business.

A rush to war made sense in 1941, when the U.S. faced powerful and implacable enemies that were focused on its destruction. It hasn’t made sense since then, nor does it make sense today.

In short, let’s not go to war.

Being Right For the Wrong Reasons

W.J. Astore

Were you against the Afghan War? The Iraq War? Events proved you right, of course, but for the wrong reasons. And if you were pro-war in both cases, you were of course wrong but for the right reasons. Therefore you will still be celebrated and featured on mainstream media outlets, whereas those “right” people will still be ignored because, again, they may have been right about those disastrous wars, but their reasons were all wrong.

I think I heard this formulation first in Jeremy Scahill’s book “Dirty Wars.” An official said opponents of the war on terror had been “right for the wrong reasons,” but that proponents of war, the Kristols and Krauthammers of the necon world, had been “wrong for the right reasons.”

Nick Turse picks up on this theme in his latest for TomDispatch.com. In 2010, Turse edited a book of essays: “The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan.” In his latest essay, and with tongue firmly in cheek, Turse asks why he’s not being invited to speak on the mainstream media networks, why he’s not being celebrated for his prescience, why he’s not being lauded for being right. And of course Turse knows the answer: he was right — but for the wrong reasons.

If you’re confused, allow me to translate. It’s OK, even laudable, to argue that the Pentagon will win; that wars should be fought; and that U.S. generals are so many reincarnations of Napoleon and Alexander and Caesar.  Because being “wrong” here means that the Pentagon grows ever more powerful; that the U.S. always looks tough (if perhaps dumb); and that America’s generals are celebrated as the “finest” while never being called to account. Again, all these things are “right,” even when, indeed especially when, they’re so obviously wrong.

But it’s not OK, indeed it’s deplorable, to suggest the Pentagon will lose; that wars should not be fought; that U.S. generals are mostly time-serving mediocrities.  Because being “right” here means a weaker Pentagon; it means America fights fewer wars, an obvious sign of national weakness and a calamity to the military-industrial complex; it means holding generals responsible for their self-serving lies and obfuscations.

Being right about all this weakens militarism in America and could lead to lower “defense” budgets and fewer wars. And we can’t have that in America!

So, remember, in America it’s better to be wrong and thus feed the military-industrial complex than to be right and thus possibly to chart a wiser and less bellicose course. To paraphrase Mister Spock, it is not logical, but it is often true.

Sorry, Nick: You were right but for the wrong reasons

The Highly Profitable Racket of Building Foreign Militaries

W.J. Astore

Is building effective security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere really what the U.S. military and government is about? Given the total collapse of the Iraqi military in 2014 and its Afghan equivalent in 2021, I’d have to say no. What are these efforts really all about? A few heretical thoughts:

  1. The top priority is profits for America’s military-industrial-Congressional complex. Foreign military forces are always provided with loads of U.S.-built weaponry, much of it unneeded or inappropriate to their capabilities and missions. When these forces collapse, as they did in 2014 and this summer, enemies such as ISIS or the Taliban are the recipients of plenty of new weapons funded by the American taxpayer. In short, the U.S. arms its (failed) proxy armies and its enemies as well, which almost guarantees more fighting and/or bombing in the future. Call it a win/win for weapons makers even when the U.S. loses.
  2. If profit-making is the top priority, so too is making it last. Until they utterly collapse, often without much combat, America’s proxy militaries are never fully ready to stand on their own. They always require more U.S. training and funding, that is until the lie is exposed.
  3. Along with profit-making, it’s important for the U.S. military to look good while providing the training. Looking good requires lying about progress. And so America’s proxy militaries are always making progress (on paper, if nowhere else) which helps everyone involved get promoted while keeping the money flowing.
  4. Along with perpetual profits and promotions, these proxy militaries must never be allowed to become independent from the U.S. military. Sure, the U.S. government says it’s seeking “standalone” forces, but in practice Iraqi and Afghan forces were always dependent on U.S. logistical support as well as air power. Which is just the way the U.S. government wanted it and wants it. Dependency ensures pliability and control (until the inevitable collapse, that is).
  5. In sum, one must always follow the money and ask, who is profiting the most from these “training” efforts? Most of the billions and billions spent on training and equipping these militaries goes to the military-industrial complex and to local warlords. It sure didn’t go to Iraqi or Afghan foot soldiers. Again, failure here is its own success; the longer it takes to build “reliable” proxy armies, the longer the money flows to military contractors in the USA. And if your proxy military collapses, maybe you can even rebuild it (at ever higher costs) or at least fight the enemy that captured the expensive high-tech weapons funded so generously by the U.S. taxpayer.

I hope this list is useful as one reads an article at Foreign Affairs, “Why America Can’t Build Allied Armies,” sent to me by a friend. It’s not that America can’t build them. It’s more that we really don’t want to build them; indeed, that there are perverse incentives to do a half-assed job, making money all the while, until the rot can no longer be hidden.

Allow me to explain. The author of this article assigns blame mainly to the “partner” militaries, suggesting these “partners” in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t interested in building effective militaries: they’re interested in money and power instead. Displacing blame onto our “partners” is always good fun, but shouldn’t the U.S. government have recognized this dynamic instead of feeding it? (Let’s face it: the U.S. is driven by money and power as well.)

In fairness to the author, she does advise that maybe the U.S. government should smarten up and stop throwing money at foreign militaries. Here’s an excerpt:

But the United States also has another option: it could scale down its train-and-equip efforts altogether. Rather than using advisory missions as the preferred option for addressing local security threats, it could instead reserve such programs for states with strong national institutions and a demonstrated interest in building better militaries. This pathway would lead to the termination of most U.S. security assistance projects, including the ongoing effort to build the Iraqi security forces.

Too often, the United States’ efforts to train and equip foreign militaries have been motivated by bureaucratic logic rather than sound strategy. The fall of Kabul exposed more than the rot within the armies the United States builds. It also exposed the rot within the United States’ approach to building them.

Sound advice, except the author doesn’t discuss how much these “train-and-equip efforts” are really money laundering operations for the military-industrial-Congressional complex. War is a racket, as General Smedley Butler taught us, and building hollow legions overseas, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or earlier in Vietnam, is a racket that pays very well indeed.

The Collapse of America’s Position in Afghanistan

W.J. Astore

It didn’t take long, did it? The Taliban are already in Kabul and the American-supported central government has scattered to the winds. What happened? What can we learn from this dramatic collapse?

Images of Saigon in 1975 keep appearing in minds and on TV screens, but let’s not forget the collapse of the American-trained Iraqi military in 2014. It turns out that a special product of America’s military-industrial-Congressional complex is junk militaries, whether in Vietnam in 1975 or Iraq in 2014 or Afghanistan in 2021. As I wrote about in 2014 at TomDispatch.com, the U.S. really knows how to invest in junk armies. And when they inevitably collapse, no one is held responsible, whether in the military or in Congress or in the various mercenary corporations that ostensibly trained and equipped Afghan security forces.

What follows is an excerpt from my article written in 2014 when Iraqi forces collapsed. The lessons I drew from that collapse are applicable to the latest one in Afghanistan. Just substitute “The Taliban” for ISIS and Afghan security forces for Iraqi ones in the paragraphs below.

A Kleptocratic State Produces a Kleptocratic Military

In the military, it’s called an “after action report” or a “hotwash” — a review, that is, of what went wrong and what can be learned, so the same mistakes are not repeated. When it comes to America’s Iraq training mission, four lessons should top any “hotwash” list:

1. Military training, no matter how intensive, and weaponry, no matter how sophisticated and powerful, is no substitute for belief in a cause.  Such belief nurtures cohesion and feeds fighting spirit.  ISIS has fought with conviction.  The expensively trained and equipped Iraqi army hasn’t.  The latter lacks a compelling cause held in common.  This is not to suggest that ISIS has a cause that’s pure or just. Indeed, it appears to be a complex mélange of religious fundamentalism, sectarian revenge, political ambition, and old-fashioned opportunism (including loot, plain and simple). But so far the combination has proven compelling to its fighters, while Iraq’s security forces appear centered on little more than self-preservation. 

2. Military training alone cannot produce loyalty to a dysfunctional and disunified government incapable of running the country effectively, which is a reasonable description of Iraq’s sectarian Shia government.  So it should be no surprise that, as Andrew Bacevich has noted, its security forces won’t obey orders.  Unlike Tennyson’s six hundred, the Iraqi army is unready to ride into any valley of death on orders from Baghdad. Of course, this problem might be solved through the formation of an Iraqi government that fairly represented all major parties in Iraqi society, not just the Shia majority. But that seems an unlikely possibility at this point.  In the meantime, one solution the situation doesn’t call for is more U.S. airpower, weapons, advisers, and training.  That’s already been tried — and it failed. 

3. A corrupt and kleptocratic government produces a corrupt and kleptocratic army.  On Transparency International’s 2013 corruption perceptions index, Iraq came in 171 among the 177 countries surveyed. And that rot can’t be overcome by American “can-do” military training, then or now. In fact, Iraqi security forces mirror the kleptocracy they serve, often existing largely on paper.  For example, prior to the June ISIS offensive, as Patrick Cockburn has noted, the security forces in and around Mosul had a paper strength of 60,000, but only an estimated 20,000 of them were actually available for battle. As Cockburn writes, “A common source of additional income for officers is for soldiers to kickback half their salaries to their officers in return for staying at home or doing another job.”

When he asked a recently retired general why the country’s military pancaked in June, Cockburn got this answer:

“‘Corruption! Corruption! Corruption!’ [the general] replied: pervasive corruption had turned the [Iraqi] army into a racket and an investment opportunity in which every officer had to pay for his post. He said the opportunity to make big money in the Iraqi army goes back to the U.S. advisers who set it up ten years ago. The Americans insisted that food and other supplies should be outsourced to private businesses: this meant immense opportunities for graft. A battalion might have a nominal strength of six hundred men and its commanding officer would receive money from the budget to pay for their food, but in fact there were only two hundred men in the barracks so he could pocket the difference. In some cases there were ‘ghost battalions’ that didn’t exist at all but were being paid for just the same.”

Only in fantasies like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings do ghost battalions make a difference on the battlefield. Systemic graft and rampant corruption can be papered over in parliament, but not when bullets fly and blood flows, as events in June proved.

Such corruption is hardly new (or news). Back in 2005, in his article “Why Iraq Has No Army,” James Fallows noted that Iraqi weapons contracts valued at $1.3 billion shed $500 million for “payoffs, kickbacks, and fraud.” In the same year, Eliot Weinberger, writing in the London Review of Books, cited Sabah Hadum, spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, as admitting, “We are paying about 135,000 [troop salaries], but that does not necessarily mean that 135,000 are actually working.” Already Weinberger saw evidence of up to 50,000 “ghost soldiers” or “invented names whose pay is collected by [Iraqi] officers or bureaucrats.”  U.S. government hype to the contrary, little changed between initial training efforts in 2005 and the present day, as Kelley Vlahos noted recently in her article “The Iraqi Army Never Was.”    

4. American ignorance of Iraqi culture and a widespread contempt for Iraqis compromised training results.  Such ignorance was reflected in the commonplace use by U.S. troops of the term “hajji,” an honorific reserved for those who have made the journey (or hajj) to Mecca, for any Iraqi male; contempt in the use of terms such as “raghead,” in indiscriminate firing and overly aggressive behavior, and most notoriously in the events at Abu Ghraib prison.  As Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel, noted in December 2004, American generals and politicians “did not think through the consequences of compelling American soldiers with no knowledge of Arabic or Arab culture to implement intrusive measures inside an Islamic society.  We arrested people in front of their families, dragging them away in handcuffs with bags over their heads, and then provided no information to the families of those we incarcerated.  In the end, our soldiers killed, maimed, and incarcerated thousands of Arabs, 90 percent of whom were not the enemy.  But they are now.”

Sharing that contempt was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who chose a metaphor of parent and child, teacher and neophyte, to describe the “progress” of the occupation.  He spoke condescendingly of the need to take the “training wheels” off the Iraqi bike of state and let Iraqis pedal for themselves.  A decade later, General Allen exhibited a similarly paternalistic attitude in an article he wrote calling for the destruction of the Islamic State.  For him, the people of Iraq are “poor benighted” souls, who can nonetheless serve American power adequately as “boots on the ground.”  In translation that means they can soak up bullets and become casualties, while the U.S. provides advice and air support.  In the general’s vision — which had déjà vu all over again scrawled across it — U.S. advisers were to “orchestrate” future attacks on IS, while Iraq’s security forces learned how to obediently follow their American conductors. 

The commonplace mixture of smugness and paternalism Allen revealed hardly bodes well for future operations against the Islamic State.   

What Next?

The grim wisdom of Private Hudson in the movie Aliens comes to mind: “Let’s just bug out and call it ‘even,’ OK? What are we talking about this for?”

Unfortunately, no one in the Obama administration is entertaining such sentiments at the moment, despite the fact that ISIS does not actually represent a clear and present danger to the “homeland.” The bugging-out option has, in fact, been tested and proven in Vietnam.  After 1973, the U.S. finally walked away from its disastrous war there and, in 1975, South Vietnam fell to the enemy.  It was messy and represented a genuine defeat — but no less so than if the U.S. military had intervened yet again in 1975 to “save” its South Vietnamese allies with more weaponry, money, troops, and carpet bombing.  Since then, the Vietnamese have somehow managed to chart their own course without any of the above and almost 40 years later, the U.S. and Vietnam find themselves informally allied against China.

To many Americans, IS appears to be the latest Islamic version of the old communist threat — a bad crew who must be hunted down and destroyed.  This, of course, is something the U.S. tried in the region first against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and again in 2003, then against various Sunni and Shiite insurgencies, and now against the Islamic State.  Given the paradigm — a threat to our way of life — pulling out is never an option, even though it would remove the “American Satan” card from the IS propaganda deck.  To pull out means to leave behind much bloodshed and many grim acts.  Harsh, I know, but is it any harsher than incessant American-led bombing, the commitment of more American “advisers” and money and weapons, and yet more American generals posturing as the conductors of Iraqi affairs?  With, of course, the usual results.

One thing is clear: the foreign armies that the U.S. invests so much money, time, and effort in training and equipping don’t act as if America’s enemies are their enemies.  Contrary to the behavior predicted by Donald Rumsfeld, when the U.S. removes those “training wheels” from its client militaries, they pedal furiously (when they pedal at all) in directions wholly unexpected by, and often undesirable to, their American paymasters.

And if that’s not a clear sign of the failure of U.S. foreign policy, I don’t know what is.

Why Can’t American Troops Just Leave Iraq?

W.J. Astore

The Biden administration says it wants to remove U.S. combat troops from Iraq. Hooray! Mission finally accomplished, right? It may be 18 years after George W. Bush declared it to be so, but who’s counting the years?

Not so fast. For President Biden still wants to keep roughly 2000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq for training and advisory purposes. So much for mission accomplished.

Why can’t U.S. troops just leave — for good? If Iraq can’t defend itself after nearly two decades of U.S. “training” in the war on terror, maybe it’s finally time to admit our limits (or our folly) and simply leave.

It almost seems like America’s system of “defense” is an imperial project — an effort to enlarge American power at almost any cost (and the Iraq war has cost America in the trillions of dollars).

This is the telling argument of Tom Engelhardt’s latest post at TomDispatch.com. The U.S. is the empire that dare not speak its name, even as it begins to collapse due to perpetual war externally and perpetual rancor internally. And, believe me, as former President Trump would say, those two are related. He should know, given how he tapped that rancor and aggravated it for his own purposes.

Here’s an excerpt from Engelhardt’s latest, where he points out what might be termed the Pentagon Paradox: The more America’s generals fail, the more they succeed (more money, more promotions, more power):

Still, let’s face it, this isn’t the set of conflicts that, once upon a time, involved invasions, massive air strikes, occupations, the killing of staggering numbers of civilians, widespread drone attacks, the disruption of whole countries, the uprooting and displacement of more than 37 million people, the deployment at one point of 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan alone, and the spending of untold trillions of American taxpayer dollars, all in the name of fighting terror and spreading democracy. And think of it as mission (un)accomplished in the truest sense imaginable.

In fact, that idea of spreading of democracy didn’t really outlast the Bush years. Ever since, there’s been remarkably little discussion in official Washington about what this country was really doing as it warred across significant parts of the planet. Yes, those two decades of conflict, those “forever wars,” as they came to be called first by critics and then by anyone in sight, are at least winding, or perhaps spiraling, down — and yet, here’s the strange thing: Wouldn’t you think that, as they ended in visible failure, the Pentagon’s stock might also be falling? Oddly enough, though, in the wake of all those years of losing wars, it’s still rising. The Pentagon budget only heads ever more for the stratosphere as foreign policy “pivots” from the Greater Middle East to Asia (and Russia and the Arctic and, well, anywhere but those places where terror groups still roam).

Buy the Book

In other words, when it comes to the U.S. military as it tries to leave its forever wars in someone else’s ditch, failure is the new success story.

And how! Maybe we need a new saying in America: Nothing succeeds like failure. It’s truly paradoxical until you realize that someone is always winning and profiting from this failure, even as the rest of America suffers.

Engelhardt’s book above has a well-judged title: “A Nation Unmade By War.” But perhaps we can improve it? How about “An Empire Unmade By War”?

Operation Enduring War

W.J. Astore

War Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

It’s another very warm and very humid day here in the Bracing Views HQ.  As the situation in Afghanistan continues to go poorly, at least from the perspective of the U.S. government, I thought I’d reflect on a comment I made with the theme of “Wherever we go, there we are.” In other words, wherever America makes war, we bring certain aspects of ourselves and our culture with us.  What do I mean by this?

When America intervenes in (or invades) countries like Iraq and Afghanistan in the stated cause of “freedom” (recall these operations were unironically named Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, proving that the U.S. government can out-Orwell George Orwell), we bring anything but freedom.  That’s because our “freedom” wars feature an almost total reliance on the military (no surprise there), and the military simply isn’t about freedom. That military is trained for kinetic ops, i.e., murderous violence; and that military features “force multipliers” (bombs and missiles and chemical agents of various sorts, otherwise known as weapons of mass destruction) to subdue various “enemies” while limiting American casualties.

At the same time as lots of foreigners are being killed, Americans generally maintain a stubborn ignorance of the foreign country in which we’re involved.  Their history doesn’t matter; all that matters is putting bombs on target and killing the “right” people, the bad guys, whoever they are.  Even as the war starts going poorly, predictably because we don’t really know who the “bad guys” are, nor are we sensible enough to recognize we’re the “foreigners” and often the real bad guys, the U.S. military proceeds to engage in a mindless pursuit of “victory,” however poorly defined, which in the end degenerates to a desire not to be labeled a “loser” in any war, no matter how stupid and unnecessary it is.

Related to this is the reality that once a war gets ginned up, there is an overwhelming desire by war profiteers in the U.S. military-industrial complex to keep the good times rolling.  Look at how long the Vietnam war lasted, or the Afghan war for that matter.  Decades of “good times” await war profiteers as long as American troops are kept in harm’s way, busily hammering away at “freedom,” because “our” troops must be “defended” at any cost.

Americans in general, ignoring obvious evidence to the contrary, have a strong bias that U.S. troops are always fighting on the side of the angels.  Who really wants to believe otherwise?  Such a bias makes it easier for us to wash our hands of the whole sordid affair.  And whether you like it or not, the U.S. military always fights in your and my name.

There are many other factors at work to explain the woeful nature of America’s wars, but the ones I mention above are important, I think, as we examine how dreadful America’s “freedom” wars turn out to be.  And when these freedom wars end poorly, as they do, the very last organization to shoulder any blame is the U.S. government.

Perhaps that’s truly the lead feature of U.S. war-making today: Even when you lose, and lose badly, war means never having to say you’re sorry.

For the Pentagon, sorry seems to be the hardest word