Rewarding the Pentagon for Lying

what
Nothing to see here, people!

W.J. Astore

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Key Reason Why the USA Keeps Losing Wars

lie

W.J. Astore

In a word, dishonesty.  That’s the key reason why America keeps losing its wars of choice, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, or elsewhere.

Dishonesty is nothing new, of course.  Recall the lessons from the Pentagon Papers in the Vietnam War.  U.S. leaders knew the war was lost, yet they lied to the American people about seeing lights at the end of tunnels.  Recall the Iraq war and the “fixing” of intelligence to justify the invasion.  Today the newspeak for Afghanistan is “corners,” as in we’ve turned yet another corner toward victory in that 16-year conflict, according to military testimony before Congress this week.

About those “corners,” here’s a concise summary from FP: Foreign Policy:

Afghanistan turning a corner. Again. Or still? After 16 years of war, the United States and its Afghan partners “have turned the corner,” and Kabul’s battered forces are “on a path to a win.” the top U.S. general there told reporters on Tuesday.

But FP’s Paul McLeary notes that we’ve heard this before. American generals have been seeing victory on the horizon since at least 2007, and “Gen. John Nicholson is at least the eighth top commander in the last decade to forecast a pathway to victory in a war that has dragged on nearly all century, and his optimistic forecasts contrast starkly with deteriorating Afghan government control and a resurgent Taliban.”

The military and our leaders can’t even level with us on the number of troops deployed in Syria.  Consider this report today, courtesy of FP: Foreign Policy:

The Pentagon is good at a great many things, but they can do absolutely magical things with troop numbers. The U.S. Central Command announced this week that it was pulling 400 Marines out of Syria, where they had been providing artillery support for the Syrian Democratic Forces battling ISIS.

The number is remarkable given that the military continues to insist there are only 503 U.S. troops in Syria overall. And somehow, that 503 number has managed to remain exactly the same even after the Marines left. Recently, a general running U.S. special operations in Iraq and Syria said there were 4,000 U.S. troops in Syria. He quickly backtracked, saying the number was around 500 and holding steady, despite all actual physical evidence to the contrary.

Do we have 500 troops in Syria, or 2000, or 4000?  Who are our generals trying to fool?  Our rivals and enemies know how many troops we have in their regions and countries.  Why can’t the American people have a full and honest accounting of what “our” troops are up to in places like Syria?

Whether from the Executive branch or from the military, the dishonesty keeps coming.  This is exactly why we fail.

Why are we so persistent in our folly?  For several reasons.  Some people come to believe their own lies, their own happy talk.  Careerism plays a role; so does politics.  Money is a big concern, since there’s so much of it to be made in war.  Some people even think it’s OK to lie if it’s for the “right” reason, i.e. better to project an image of dumb strength than one of pacific wisdom.  America must never appear “weak”!  For some, that means never quitting a war, no matter how foolish.  Better to lie about “progress” than to admit problems that should lead to dramatic change.

Deception is at the heart of war, but we’re supposed to be deceiving the enemy, not ourselves.  We’ve allowed public relations — driven by dishonesty — to rule our thinking and reporting on war.  But, to paraphrase a saying of Richard Feynman with respect to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster,

To wage a successful war, reality must take precedence over public relations, for the war gods cannot be fooled.

And to borrow from the penultimate sentence of his report (using the Pentagon in place of NASA): The Pentagon “owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.”

Imagine if our leaders were frank, honest, and informative about our wars and their costs?  But they prefer dishonesty instead — and that is why they (and we) fail.

The Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and Lying

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Hannah Arendt (Arendt Center at Bard College)

W.J. Astore

In November 1971, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt published “Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers” in the New York Review of Books.  Earlier that year, Daniel Ellsberg had shared those highly classified government papers with the U.S. media.  They revealed a persistent and systematic pattern of lying and deception by the government about U.S. progress in the Vietnam War.  By undermining the people’s trust in government, lies and deception were destabilizing democracy in America, Arendt said.  Furthermore, America was witnessing two new and related categories of lying.  The first was lying as public relations, the creation and distribution of images substituting for facts and premised in human manipulability (a Madison Avenue approach to war and foreign policy).  The second was lying tied to a country’s reputation as embraced by professional “problem-solvers” as the basis for political action.  Both categories of lying constituted a crisis to the republic.

Widespread lying during the Vietnam War, Arendt explained, had not been aimed at the enemy, as lies often are in war.  Rather, governmental lying had targeted Americans.  The enemy could hardly be fooled, but most Americans could – at least for a time.  Throughout the war, Arendt noted, senior U.S. government and military officials made decisions about Vietnam with the firm knowledge they could not be carried out, a form of self-deception facilitated by constant goal-shifting.  As goals changed and chaos mounted, U.S. officials then became driven by concerns about saving face.  Image-making and image-saving took precedence over reality. The truth about Vietnam – that the U.S. was losing the war – hurt, therefore it was denied, especially in public discourse.

Official lies can fool even the officials themselves, a fact Pulitzer prize-winning reporter David Halberstam noted in his prescient book, “The Making of a Quagmire,” published in 1965.  With respect to the Kennedy Administration’s support of the corrupt Diem/Nhu government of South Vietnam, Halberstam wrote that:

Having failed to get [the Diem/Nhu regime to make needed] reforms, our officials said that these reforms were taking place; having failed to improve the demoralized state of the [South] Vietnamese Army, the Americans talked about a new enthusiasm in the Army; having failed to change the tactics of the [South Vietnamese] military, they talked about bold new tactics which were allegedly driving the Communists back.  For the essence of our policy was: There is no place else to go.

When reporters began to file stories which tended to show that the [U.S.] policy was not working, its authors, President Kennedy and General [Maxwell] Taylor, clung to it stubbornly.  At least part of the explanation for this apparent blindness is that although they knew things were going wrong, they felt that the alternatives were worse.

This “blindness,” a sustained willingness to deny harsh truths about the Vietnam War, persisted throughout the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations.  U.S. leaders continued to package and sell a losing effort as a winning product. It helped, in Arendt’s words, that U.S. officials had “a truly amazing and entirely honest ignorance of the historically pertinent background” when it came to Vietnam.  Their ignorance was “honest” in the sense they did not believe facts were all that important to success.  What was needed, U.S. officials concluded, were not incontestable facts but the right premises, hypotheses, and theories (such as the infamous Domino Theory) to fit Vietnam within prevailing Cold War orthodoxies.  Overwhelming applications of U.S. military power would serve to actuate these premises, facts be damned.

Upon taking power in 1969, the Nixon Administration, which had promised a quick and honorable end to the war, continued the lies of previous administrations.  Even as Nixon and Henry Kissinger spoke publicly of peace with honor, they talked privately of a lost war.  To shift the blame for defeat, they cast about for scapegoats (as corroborated recently in the HBO documentary, “Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words”).  Kissinger settled on South Vietnamese “incompetence” as the primary scapegoat.  He reassured Nixon that, after a “decent interval” between U.S. withdrawal and the inevitable South Vietnamese collapse, most Americans would come to see Vietnam as a regrettable (and forgettable) “backwater.”  Naturally, harsh facts such as these were ones Nixon and Kissinger refused to share with the American people.

For Hannah Arendt, truth as represented by verifiable facts is the chief stabilizing factor in politics.  Lacking truths held in common, action is compromised, judgment is flawed, reality is denied.  Deception feeds self-deception until politics is poisoned and collective action for the common good is disrupted.  Yet lies cannot be eliminated simply by moral outrage, Arendt noted.  Rather, truth must be fought for even as humility before truth must be cultivated.

The American people must fight for the truth: that is the lesson of Arendt’s essay.

Next Week: Part II: More Lies and Deception in the Iraq War of 2003