I’ve been seeing a lot of headlines, and reading quite a few tributes, about John McCain. A common word used to describe him is “warrior,” as in this op-ed at Al Jazeera of all places. If you do a quick Google search with “John McCain” and “warrior” you’ll see what I mean.
I’m a firm believer in the citizen-soldier tradition. Warrior-speak, I believe, is inappropriate to this tradition and to the ideals of a democracy. “Warrior” should not be used loosely as a substitute for “fighter,” nor should it replace citizen-sailor, which is what John McCain was (or should have been).
Yes, John McCain came from a family of admirals. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy. He became a naval aviator. He was shot down and became a prisoner of war. He showed toughness and fortitude and endurance as a POW under torture. But all this doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make him a “warrior.” Rather, he was a U.S. Navy officer, a product of a citizen-sailor tradition.
It’s corrosive to our democracy as well as to our military when we use “warrior” as a term of high praise. Many Americans apparently think “warrior” sounds cool and tough and manly, but there’s a thin line between “warrior” and “warmonger,” and both terms are corrosive to a country that claims it prefers peace to war.
In sum, it says something disturbing about our country and our culture when “warrior” has become the go-to term of ultimate praise. By anointing McCain as a “warrior,” we’re not praising him: we’re wounding our country.
News of the death of Senator John McCain from cancer has generated enormous sympathy and praise. When he ran for president in 2008, McCain was known as a “maverick” in the media, even though his views were rarely that far removed from traditional Republican orthodoxy. Maybe it was his style that won him that nickname. A former Navy fighter pilot and prisoner of war during the Vietnam war, McCain was less guarded than most politicians, and he courted the media with candor and humor (what a contrast to Donald Trump, who denounces the media as “the enemy of the people”).
Rolling the dice in the 2008 campaign, McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, a folksy governor from Alaska with virtually no experience in national or international politics. But what Palin had was strong populist instincts and a certain plain-speaking charisma. If McCain was the “maverick,” Palin was the “rogue” candidate. She helped to unleash a populist (anti-intellectual) fervor in the Republican party that culminated with Donald Trump.
I well remember the 2008 election. I was living in rural Pennsylvania and both vice-presidential candidates came for a visit. Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, filled a high school gymnasium — roughly 600 people. Sarah Palin filled a minor league baseball stadium to overflowing — roughly 13,000 people.
Back then, Rebecca Traister wrote about Palin’s triumphal tour of rural Pennsylvania here. She also wrote about Palin’s rally at that minor league baseball stadium, Bowman Field. For some reason, the link to that article (which appeared originally at Salon.com) no longer works, but another blogger (“Lowell”) at Contextual Criticism cited portions of it back in early November 2008. Here’s how that blogger, quoting Traister, set the scene:
Palin is in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. It is a cold Thursday night. Thirteen thousand faithful, with “their Christian literature and thundersticks in tow,” have come to an outdoor baseball stadium to see the hockey mom from Alaska, the moose-slayer, the pit bull who ignites their basest instincts.
“Finally, about an hour before Palin’s scheduled arrival, Bowman Field kicked off its pre-party with the National Anthem sung under the giant flag suspended from a crane over the ‘Victory in Pennsylvania’ sign. A security sniper ogled the chilly crowd with his night-vision glasses, and a local minister took the stage to offer a benediction that hit the trifecta of guns, gays and abortion. The preacher asked forgiveness ‘for so many [who] have shed innocent blood through the course of abortions, and so many [who] would stop the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.’ With these abominations in mind, the preacher continued, ‘Thank you for raising up a woman like Gov. Sarah Palin at a time like this. Bless her for standing against those who would remove the guns from our cabinets, and those who would want to remove the baby from the womb of her mother. Bless her family as they adjust to changes in their lives that are going to be taking place on Tuesday.'”
Ms. Traister writes that “Palin was her down-home bestest, peppering her brief address with references to First Dude’s four snow-machine world championships, a lot of gratitude toward the veterans in the crowd, and a lot of folksy, g-droppin’ references to how ‘the time for choosin’s comin’ real soon,’ a golden-oldie reference to Ronald Reagan’s famous 1964 speech in support of Barry Goldwater. Combined with Palin’s repeated use of the phrases ‘You betcha!’ and ‘Drill, baby, drill!’ and her guess that the crowd was ‘so doggone proud’ of the Phillies, and her environmental justification that ‘God has so richly blessed this land with resources’ that [we] should probably strip-mine it, Palin seemed to be imitating Tina Fey’s imitation of her on ‘Saturday Night Live.'”
Toward the end, Palin invoked Reagan again, saying “In the end, what John McCain and I believe in is what Ronald Reagan believes in … we believe that America is still that shining City on a Hill that Ronald Reagan used to speak of.”
Now, lest you think Ms. Traister got out of that God-lovin’ bunch of folks without incident, think again. Here’s how she tells it:
“While I was interviewing some of the attendees, accompanied by another Salon staffer who was holding a video camera, a Palin fan in a newish silver sedan drove by and hit me hard in the back with the side mirror of the car, hard enough to bend the mirror back. Then the car drove off without anybody inside pausing to ask if I was all right. The middle-aged woman in the passenger seat, however, might have saluted me with an un-Christian hand gesture.”
Yes — that happened. Traister, a journalist, was hit “hard in the back” by a car, earning a middle-finger salute for her pains from one of the passengers. Talk about being anti-media! Small wonder that Trump’s diatribes resonate so well with “God-lovin'” people across the USA.
After the rallies in 2008, I asked my students (I was teaching college at the time) about them. They gushed about Palin. One of my students was especially taken by Palin’s husband, whom she considered to be a stud. None of my students had anything to say about the (much smaller and comparatively sedate) Biden rally.
Then and now, the mainstream media and the Democratic Party dismissed Palin as a joke, just as they initially dismissed Trump as a joke in 2015. Yet, as I wrote about Palin in 2010:
Much of what’s been said about Palin was also said of another backwoods American whose values were honed on the frontier: President Andrew Jackson. Palin may be no Jackson, but the liberal media’s sneering dismissal of her constitutes an indulgent, often self-congratulatory, narrative. It’s also a repudiation of our Jacksonian heritage of tough-minded, plain-speaking independence.
Like Jackson, Palin makes no pretense about being a cultivated American. Like it or not, she’s seen by her admirers as genuine precisely because she’s not a conflicted intellectual — precisely because she doesn’t confuse her followers by revealing a fourth side to every three-sided problem. Gosh darn it, she just loves God and loves America and loves our troops and loves her special baby and … well … that’s more than enough for her many admirers and followers.
Rural people in “fly-over” country are naturally suspicious of slick politicians who are both too smarmy and too clever for their own good. Palin is naturally “aw shucks” and seemingly content with her knowledge of the world. And, like Andrew Jackson before her, Palin is unapologetic, undeferential, and unabashedly proud to be an American. One simply can’t imagine her making a “patronizing apology tour” of European capitals, as President Obama was accused of doing by conservatives.
And which past president does Trump believe he’s most like? Andrew Jackson. Trump is, in a way, a male Palin with a lot more celebrity, lots more money, and scads of mendacity.
By selecting Palin as his running mate in 2008, McCain helped to open a door for future populists, a door Trump jumped through in 2015. It may not be McCain’s defining legacy, but it is, perhaps, his most negative.
Reference: See David Smith, “John McCain opened Pandora’s box – Sarah Palin came out, but Trump was right behind her. The senator regretted his choice of running mate. In 2008, no one could have imagined what it would mean,” at The Guardian, which got me thinking about this issue.
Note to reader: In May of 2008, I wrote this draft article, which became the basis of a shorter piece published at Nieman Watchdog later that year under the title, “Networks should replace Pentagon cheerleaders with independent military analysts.” Media coverage of the U.S. military and America’s wars is often lamentable as well as one-sided; if anything, media coverage as well as access under Obama has worsened. I’ve decided not to edit what I wrote in 2008, partly because the underlying dynamic remains the same. Rare it is for the curtain to be lifted on the messy realities of war; and those who choose to lift it, like Chelsea Manning, pay a high price indeed for honesty.
Obama’s recent decision to commute Manning’s prison sentence was a rare case of mercy, in this case extended to a truth-teller who did far more than the silver-haired generals cited below to educate Americans about war and its awful realities. 1/18/2017
The first thing that came to mind as I read David Barstow’s exposé [April 2008] in the New York Times, “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand,” was the classic scene in Casablanca where Claude Rains expresses his shock to Humphrey Bogart at the gambling going on, even as he collects his own winnings. Surely, Americans knew that the retired generals and colonels being paraded before them on network news were, in spite of their mufti, anything but unbiased, independent, “civilian” critics?
OK, maybe I’m more skeptical than some. But I was genuinely surprised, even shocked, at the brazenness of the Pentagon’s PR campaign, the fact that so many retired military men eagerly joined in “to carry [the Pentagon’s] water,” even at how eagerly they traded on their military expertise. Some even continued to advise top defense contractors as they offered supposedly disinterested testimony on TV. At times, however, their testimony merely echoed talking points fed to them during invitation-only briefings at the Pentagon. These briefings were designed not to support troops in harm’s way (a laudable goal) but to defend [Secretary of Defense] Don Rumsfeld and the Bush Administration’s strategy. (Those few officers who refused to parrot the Pentagon’s line found their access curtailed or even denied, Barstow shows.)
Not surprisingly, the mainstream media has either ignored Barstow’s exposé or effectively dismissed it as old news or business as usual. Fortunately, Glenn Greenwald at Salon has tenaciously pursued the story, revealing ever more clearly how the Pentagon’s propaganda campaign tried “to put the best possible face” (one retired officer’s words) on failing efforts in Iraq.
Clearly, the Pentagon courted these retired military men, identifying reliable “go to guys” and rewarding them with access to the Pentagon and the Secretary of Defense (access being pure gold within the Washington beltway). Such access included the aforementioned, invitation-only, PowerPoint briefings, which included “talking points” that these officers could then robotically repeat on TV, passing them off as their own informed and unbiased opinions. Such collusion indicates a well-oiled, influence-peddling, Pentagonal machine serviced by sycophantic cheerleaders, and it assuredly warrants investigation by Congress.
Seven Reasons to Dismiss the Sycophants
That said, the very idea of relying on retired military men as expert critics was fundamentally flawed from the beginning. The obvious reason why networks relied on these men (and they were all men) as expert commentators was because they lacked their own in-house experts. That, and the fact that they wanted to purchase the authority of these colonels and generals while being seen by viewers at home as patriotic and supportive of the troops.
I’d like to suggest seven reasons why this reliance on retired military “talking heads” was so wrongheaded, some obvious, some perhaps less so:
Despite their civilian coat-and-tie camouflage, these officers are not ex-generals and ex-colonels: they are retired colonels and generals–a distinction with a difference. They still carry their rank; they still wear the uniform at military functions; the rank-and-file still deferentially call them “sir”; their cars still have military stickers with eagles (for full colonels) and stars (for generals); they’re still saluted smartly when they drive on- and off-post. These men enjoy constant reminders and privileges of their high military status, and I’d wager nearly all of them think of themselves as military men first, “civilians” second. In short, these men identify with the U.S. military–indeed, they are the military–hardly a recipe for disinterested or dispassionate analysis of our military’s performance in Iraq, or anywhere else for that matter.
Along with identifying closely with the military, many of these media generals and colonels serve as advisors to defense contractors, who potentially stand to profit from continued fighting. This remarkable state of affairs persists despite the fact that, throughout their career, military officers are taught to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest, precisely because the potential for impropriety taints the integrity of the officer as well as the entire military-contractor process. It’s not enough to say, “I’m a man of integrity and I’d never compromise it for self-interest or personal gain.” You must strive to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest–a maxim that is so drilled into military training that it should be reflexive to these men, like coming to attention and saluting the flag as the National Anthem is played. Yet several of these men apparently saw no conflict in advising defense contractors while marching before the TV cameras to present “critical” and “independent” military analysis.
Within the military, there’s a strong bias against Monday-morning quarterbacks. There’s a natural tendency to defer to the commander-in-the-field, and to allow him or her to get on with the job without being micro-managed or second-guessed. As newly minted “civilian” advisors to the networks, these men don’t want to become what they themselves probably despised while they still wore the uniform–those cold, timid, milquetoast critics who’ll never know the triumphs and tribulations of Teddy Roosevelt’s mythical man in the arena.
Along with a strong bias against second-guessing, many military men see criticism as disloyal and destructive, not loyal and constructive. As a concept, loyalty within the military is simple to define but incredibly complex in its manifestations. Officers swear an oath to the Constitution of the United States, of course, and to that they must remain loyal. But there also exist strong personal and institutional loyalties; sometimes, these loyalties are so strong that they come to obscure the somewhat more abstract, if higher, loyalty to the Constitution. Sadly, some military men put loyalty to their service branch first, even before loyalty to the Constitution. Or they conflate the two: What’s good for the Army is ipso facto good for the country.
This is not to say these military men are somehow “bad”–only that they’re human. To understand this better, let’s look at a typical general’s background. In a very powerful way, this man probably lives for and loves the military. Military service may be in his family tree for generations. Perhaps he followed his father from post to post as a child (a military “brat,” it’s called, with affection). He then attends a service academy like Annapolis or West Point, where he’s told incessantly that he’s the best, and where he also learns that loyalty to one’s peers and service is paramount. As a commissioned officer, he then serves for thirty or more years in uniform, achieving flag rank and all the privileges as well as burdens that come with that rank. After this man retires, would we expect him to become a dynamic and even outspoken critic of an institution that defined his life? An institution that he loves?
It’s unlikely that senior military men will provide trenchant criticism, not only because they identify closely and personally with the military, but because they don’t want to run the risk of possibly undermining troop morale in the field. Related to this is the belief that “negative” and “biased” media criticism led to America’s defeat in Vietnam, the old “stab-in-the-back” myth that I’ve addressed elsewhere, and that Barstow’s exposé proves is still alive and well in today’s military.
Thus the testimony of these military men is not simply self-interested. They genuinely believe their boosterism is helping to redress the balance of otherwise negatively-biased, “liberal,” anti-military media coverage. Lending credence to this reading is a recent article in the Naval Institute’s Proceedings (January 2008). In “Stop Blaming the Press,” journalist David Danelo recalls a comment made by the current Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Conway, back in September 2006. Lauding Marine reporters, Conway barked to rousing applause, “Maybe if we could get the rest of the media to do the job like you folks, we might have a chance of winning the war [in Iraq].”
In defending the evenhandedness of most media coverage, Danelo’s piece drew two strong dissents in the February issue of Proceedings. One Navy officer wrote to complain that Danelo failed “to level criticism at reporters for not doing their part to ensure victory.” Today’s press, this officer implied, neither supported the American soldier nor wanted to see America succeed in the war. Another officer, a retired Marine, wrote that “just one negative story” from an American journalist “bolsters our enemies’ confidence and resolve while equally destroying support from the public at home, thus eroding our servicemen’s and women’s resolve on the battlefield.” Refusing to suffer such journalistic “fools,” whose “stories could not have been more harmful than if al Qaeda had written them,” this officer demanded immediate military censorship of media working in-theater. Those journalists who refused to cooperate “would operate at their own risk and without military protection,” he concluded ominously.
Such opinions remain a commonplace in today’s military, especially among men of a certain age who began their service at the tail end or soon after the end of the Vietnam War. Indeed, evidence strongly suggests Senator John McCain shares this opinion.
Paradoxically, the fact that the war in Iraq has not gone well may be a reason why some of these military men believe we can’t afford criticism, especially if you believe this war can and must be won, as most of them do. Call this the “You can’t handle the truth” argument, combined with the “wars are always messy” argument. These arguments lead military men to suppress their own doubts, fearing that, if they air them fully, they’ll not only fatally wound an already faltering war effort, but that their peers may even see them as having given aid and comfort to the enemy.
The last, and perhaps most powerful, reason why networks should not lean heavily on retired military men as commentators is that it’s extremely difficult for anyone, let alone a diehard military man, to criticize our military because such criticism is taken so personally by so many Americans. When you criticize the military, people don’t necessarily recognize the patriotic subtlety of your exposé of the military-industrial complex. They hear you attacking Johnny and Suzy—the efforts of their son and daughter, or the boy and girl next door, who selflessly joined the military to defend America and make a positive difference in the world. Who really wants to hear that Johnny and Suzy may possibly be fighting (and dying) for a mistake? (Another way of putting this might be, “Why doesn’t that Cindy Sheehan shut up already?”) And, assuming he believed it, what retired military man wants to pass along that message to an audience of millions on TV?
What Is to be Done?
Relying on senior military officers, recently retired, to serve as disinterested critics is a bit like inviting Paul von Hindenburg, ex-Field Marshal of the German Army, to testify in 1919 on why his army lost World War I. You may get some interesting testimony–just don’t expect it to be critical or for that matter even true.
What the mainstream media must do now is act. Specifically, they must develop their own, independent, military experts, ones not beholden to the military-industrial complex, ones who don’t own stock in the defense industry, ones who don’t serve as advisors to defense contractors.
The mainstream media must also be willing to risk the ire of the American people by criticizing the military in stronger terms. The fact that major media outlets have come to rely on military talking heads for “critical” analysis reveals the inherent timidity of today’s media in taking on the Pentagon and the Bush Administration. Media outlets must get over their fear of being perceived as unpatriotic. They must air tough-minded criticism, even if some viewers tune out, turn off, and drop in to “patriotic” outlets like Fox News.
Obviously, it will take time for the media to develop its own, truly independent, military experts. In the meantime, they should consider using junior officers and NCOs, with recent combat experience, who have separated from the service. Why does an “expert” have to be a retired, white-haired colonel or general?
For that matter, why does an “expert” need to have worn an American military uniform? Some of the most creative analysis may come from “civilian” military historians or even from foreign military officers who are not emotionally connected to the U.S. military, and who thus don’t have to worry about having their patriotism questioned each time they hazard a criticism of U.S. strategy or tactics.
Until the mainstream media takes these steps, it will continue to be in thrall to the military, as is Congress itself, which also largely refuses to challenge the military before or during a war, in part because members of Congress fear being accused of defeatism and thus of losing elections.
The truth is that there’s a creeping militarism in our country–an excessive deference to military men, whether retired or still on active duty. Just look at the acclaim awarded to General Petraeus each time he comes to testify before Congress. Indeed, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, is already deferring to Petraeus, stating he would not make any decision regarding diverting troops to Afghanistan to search for Osama bin Laden without first receiving the blessing of the presumptive commanding general of CENTCOM.
If that’s where we’re headed, why don’t we just declare Petraeus to be our Caesar and appoint our “civilian” mainstream media military experts to command his Praetorian Guard? It sure would make matters clearer to the American people.
I get a situation report (or SITREP) from FP: Foreign Policy. I’ve pasted it below. The gist of it is that Afghanistan is going poorly, therefore there’ll be no U.S. troop drawdown; and Iraq is going poorly, therefore the U.S. is sending more troops and money.
“Poorly” never seems to lead to the obvious conclusion: withdrawal. Rather it always leads to escalation: more troops and more money. So the U.S. always reinforces failure, exactly the opposite of sound military strategy.
The illogical nature of U.S. foreign policy would surely befuddle Mr. Spock. Put differently, U.S. foreign policy has a “logic” of its own. It goes something like this: Never admit mistakes. Domestic politics always come first, so never leave yourself open to charges of “cutting and running.” Never close an avenue to “influence” and future weapons sales, no matter if that avenue is a dead end.
No foreign policy update would be complete without a Republican charge of weakness or pusillanimity leveled against the Obama administration, hence the concluding comment by John McCain.
Here is the FP SITREP:
“The Institute for the Study of War recently released a map of Taliban strongholds throughout the country, showing the Taliban gains in the south.”
“A spokesman for the U.S. military command in Kabul tells SitRep that no U.S. servicemembers were caught up in the attack. In a statement, Gen. John Nicholson, head of U.S. and NATO troops in the country, said that the attack “shows the insurgents are unable to meet Afghan forces on the battlefield and must resort to these terrorist attacks.” Nicholson, who took command of America’s longest war last month, is still working to draw up a list of recommendations for what assets he’ll need. It’s expected he will ask that troop numbers remain at the current level of 9,800, and not drop to about 5,500 by the end of the year.”
“All eyes on Mosul. There are another 217 U.S. troops headed to Iraq to help security forces fight their way toward the ISIS-held city of Mosul, bringing the official number of American servicemembers there to just over 4,000. Hundreds more are in country but are not counted on the official rolls, meaning the real number is over 5,000, defense officials have said.”
“As part of the new aid package announced in Baghdad by Defense Secretary Ash Carteron Monday, the Pentagon will also start handing over $415 million to the Kurdish government to help pay their fighters, who have gone without pay amid a budget crunch due to falling oil prices.”
“The new troops will move out with Iraqi forces, advising local commanders at the battalion level, potentially putting them closer to the fight as the Iraqi army pushes north toward Mosul. Until this point, American advisors generally stayed at the division level or above. The new troops will also fly Apache helicopters that will strike ISIS fighters and man artillery systems, including the HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System), which can fire multiple 200-lb. GPS-guided rockets over 40 miles. The HIMARS has already been used by U.S. forces to pound ISIS around Ramadi, and one U.S.-manned system has fired from Jordan into Syria in recent months. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the new deployment the kind of ‘grudging incrementalism that rarely wins wars.'”
On 30 April 1970, 45 years ago this month, President Richard M. Nixon ordered an invasion into Cambodia. Explaining his reasoning for widening the war in Southeast Asia, Nixon declared:
If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions.” [Emphasis added]
So much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, then and now, is frightfully worried about appearing weak, helpless, impotent. The solution, then and now, is military action. They all want to be Caesars, if only in their own besotted minds. As Shakespeare had Cassius say about Caesar:
he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a colossus, and we petty men/Walk under his huge legs and peep about/To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
America, to its image-conscious imperators like Nixon, must bestride the world like a well-hung giant, while little foreigners gasp in awe at the shadow cast, especially when aroused.
Think about John McCain’s fervent desire to bomb Iran, as Dan White deconstructed here. Think about George W. Bush’s transparent desire to play the conquering hero in the Middle East, ending Saddam Hussein’s reign once and for all in Iraq in 2003. Recall here the words of Henry Kissinger when he was asked about why he supported the invasion of Iraq, when it was clear that country bore no responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. “Because [attacks on] Afghanistan wasn’t enough,” Kissinger replied. Radical Islam had humiliated the U.S. at 9/11, and now it was our turn to strike back harder and to humiliate them. That simple.
As America’s foreign policy establishment continues to struggle with radical Islam and instability in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere, don’t expect any strategic retreats or retrenchment. Don’t expect wisdom. Don’t expect a containment policy that might allow radical Islam to burn itself out. No. Expect more military strikes, more troops, more weapons, more impassioned speeches about holding the line against barbarians determined to end our way of life.
Why? In part because it’s far easier for insecure men to lash out as a way of compensating for their impotence and growing irrelevance. Acting tough is the easier path. Having patience, demonstrating forbearance, knowing when to sheath the sword, requires a quieter strength and a more confident sense of self.
You would think the “most powerful nation on the planet” with “the world’s best military in all of history” would have such quiet strength and confidence. But remember that Nixon quote: No matter how big and strong we are, we can’t afford to look tiny and weak.
When you do something again and again, placing great faith in it, investing enormous amounts of money in it, only to see indifferent or even negative results, you wouldn’t be entirely surprised if a neutral observer questioned your sanity or asked you if you were part of some cult. Yet few Americans question the sanity or cult-like behavior of American presidents as they continue to seek solutions to complex issues by bombing Iraq (as well as numerous other countries across the globe).
Poor Iraq. From Operation Desert Shield/Storm under George H.W. Bush to enforcing no-fly zones under Bill Clinton to Operation Iraqi Freedom under George W. Bush to the latest “humanitarian” bombing under Barack Obama, the one constant is American bombs bursting in Iraqi desert air. Yet despite this bombing — or rather in part because of it — Iraq is a devastated and destabilized country, slowly falling apart at seams that have been unraveling under almost a quarter-century of steady, at times relentless, pounding. “Shock and awe,” anyone?
Well, I confess to being shocked: that U.S. airpower assets, including strategic bombers like B-52s and B-1s, built during the Cold War to deter and, if necessary, attack that second planetary superpower, the Soviet Union, have routinely been used to attack countries that are essentially helpless to defend themselves from bombing.
In 1985, when I entered active duty as an Air Force lieutenant, if you had asked me which country the U.S. would “have” to bomb in four sustained aerial campaigns spanning three decades, among the last countries I would have suggested was Iraq. Heck, back then we were still helping Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, sharing intelligence that aided his military in pinpointing (and using his chemical weapons against) Iranian troop concentrations. The Reagan administration had sent future Bush secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld there to shake Saddam’s hand for a photo op. We even overlooked Iraq’s “accidental” bombing in 1987 of a American naval vessel, the USS Stark, that resulted in the death of 37 American sailors, all in the name of containing Iran (and Shia revolutionary fervor).
What we need in 2014 is a new expression that catches the essence of the cult of U.S. air power, something like: “The bomber will always get funded — and used.”
Let’s tackle the first half of that equation: the bomber will always get funded. Skeptical? What else captures the reality (as well as the folly) of dedicating more than $400 billion to the F-35 fighter-bomber program, a wildly over-budget and underperforming weapons system that may, in the end, cost the American taxpayer $1.5 trillion. Yes, you read that right. Or the persistence of U.S. plans to build yet another long-range “strike” bomber to augment and replace the B-1 and B-2 fleet? It’s a “must-have,” according to the Air Force, if the U.S. is to maintain its “full-spectrum dominance” on Planet Earth. Already pegged at an estimated price of $550 million per plane while still on the drawing boards, it’s just about guaranteed to replace the F-35 in the record books, when it comes to delays, cost overruns, and price. And if you don’t think it’ll get funded, you don’t know recent history.
Heck, I get it. I was a teenager once. In the 1970s, as an Air Force enthusiast and child of the Cold War, I hugged exotic and therefore pricey bomber jets to my chest. (Well, models of them, anyway.) I considered them to be both uniquely American and an absolute necessity when it came to defending our country against the lumbering (but nevertheless menacing) Soviet “bear.” As a result, I gasped in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter dared to cancel the B-1 bomber program. While I was a little young to pen my outrage, more mature critics than I quickly accused him of being soft on defense, of pursuing “unilateral disarmament.”
Back then, I’d built a model of the B-1 bomber. In my mind’s eye I still see its sexy white body and its rakish swing wings. No question that it was a man’s bomber. I recall attaching a firecracker to its body, lighting the wick, and dropping the plane from the third-floor porch. It exploded in mid-air, symbolic to me of the plane’s tragic fate at the hands of the pusillanimous Carter.
But I need not have feared for the B-1. In October 1981, as one of his first major acts in office, President Ronald Reagan rescinded Carter’s cancellation and revived the mothballed program. The Air Force eventually bought 100 of the planes for $28 billion, expensive at the time (and called a “turkey” by some), but a relative bargain in the present budgetary environment when it comes to bombers (but these days, little else).
At that point, I was a young lieutenant serving on active duty in the Air Force. I had by then come to learn that Carter, the peanut farmer (and former Navy nuclear engineer), was right. We really didn’t need the B-1 for our defense. In 1986, for a contest at Peterson Air Force Base where I was stationed, I wrote a paper against the B-1, terming the idea of a “penetrating strategic bomber” a “flawed strategy” in an era of long-range air-launched cruise missiles. It earned an honorable mention, the equivalent of drawing the “you have won second prize in a beauty contest” card in Monopoly, but without the compensatory $10.
That “penetrating,” by the way, meant being loaded with expensive avionics, nowadays augmented by budget-busting “stealth” features, so that a plane could theoretically penetrate enemy air defenses while eluding detection. If the idea of producing such a bomber was flawed in the 1980s, how much more is it today, in an age of remotely-piloted drones and missiles guided by GPS and in a world in which no country the U.S. chooses to bomb is likely to have air defenses of any sophistication? Yet the Air Force insists that it needs at least 100 of the next generation version of them at a cost of $55 billion. (Based on experience, especially with the F-35, you should automatically double or even triple that price tag, cost overruns and product development delays being a given in the process. So let’s say it’ll cost closer to $150 billion. Check back with me, God willing, in 2040 to see whether the Air Force’s figure or mine was closer to reality.)
Idols for Worship, Urges to Satisfy
Obviously, there are staggering amounts of money to be made by feeding America’s fetish for bombers. But the U.S. cult of air power and its wildly expensive persistence requires further explanation. On one level, exotic and expensive attack planes like the F-35 or the future “long range strike bomber” (LRS-B in bloodless acronym-speak) are the military equivalent of sacred cows. They are idols to be worshipped (and funded) without question. But they are also symptoms of a larger disease — the engorgement of the Department of Defense. In the post-9/11 world, this has become so pronounced that the military-industrial-congressional complex clearly believes it is entitled to a trough filled with money with virtually no accountability to the American taxpayer.
Add to that sense of entitlement the absurdist faith of administration after administration in the efficacy of bombing as a problem solver — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — and you have a truly lethal combo. Senator John McCain was widely mocked by progressives for his “bomb Iran” song, warbled during the 2008 presidential campaign to the tune of the Beach Boys’s “Barbara Ann.” In fact, his tuneless rendition captured perfectly Washington’s absolute faith in bombing as a solution to…whatever.
Even if the bombs bursting over Iraq or elsewhere don’t solve anything, even when they make things worse, they still make a president look, well, presidential. In America, land of warbirds, it is always better politically to pose as a hunting hawk than a helpless dove.
So don’t blame the Air Force for wanting more and deadlier bombers. Or don’t blame only them. Just as admirals want more ships, flyboys naturally want more planes, even when strategically obsolete from scratch and blazingly expensive. No military service has ever willingly given up even a tiny slice of its share of the prospective budgetary pie, especially if that slice cuts into the service’s core image. In this sense, the Air Force takes its motto from King Lear’s “Reason not the need!” and from Zack Mayo’s “I want to fly jets!” (memorably uttered by that great Shakespearean actor Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman).
The sad truth runs deeper: Americans evidently want them, too. More bombers. More bombs. In the movie Top Gun, Tom Cruise’s Maverick got it all wrong. It’s not speed Americans feel a need for; they have an urge to bomb. When you refuse to reason, when you persist in investing ever more resources in ever more planes, use almost automatically follows.
In other words, fund it, build it, and, as promised in the second half of my equation, the bomber will always get used. Mock him all you want, but John McCain was on to something. It’s bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb if not (yet) Iran… then Iraq, or Pakistan, or Libya, or Yemen, or (insert intransigent foreign country/peoples here).
And like cults everywhere, it’s best not to question the core belief and practices of its leaders — after all, bombs bursting in air is now as American as the “Star Spangled Banner.”
As the drums of war sound ever louder for some kind of attack against Syria, apparently because the President mentioned a “red line” when it comes to chemical weapons, I’m left staring in despair at my black rock and white tank.
And so the following ditty popped into my head:
The rock is black
The tank is white
Together we learn to hit and fight
It’s not a beautiful sight …
(Some of you may recall the real lyrics here: The ink is black/the page is white/together we learn to read and write.)
It’s amazing to think that we may yet again be attacking a country in the name of maintaining America’s “credibility.” Apparently, when the President draws a red line, he has to enforce any violation of it, else he and his fellow countrymen will be seen as weak and impotent. Even before the President launches the cruise missiles, he’s already under attack by more rabid souls like Senator John McCain for not being tough enough, meaning he won’t kill enough people and he won’t destroy enough Syrian military and governmental facilities. In the name of what exactly? Showing American resolve?
When you think about it, drawing a red line and telling the enemy you’ll hit him if he crosses it leaves the initiative totally in his hands. He can decide if and when the time is propitious to cross that line, forcing you to put up or shut up.
Well, no American in government can shut up, so off go the missiles to show we’re not to be messed with.
Together we learn to hit and fight … it’s not a beautiful sight.