The USA and Israel as Big and Little Prussia

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Co-joined Twins?

W.J. Astore

As a kid, I was a big admirer of Israel.*  I kept a scrapbook on the Yom Kippur War in 1973.  Back then, Israel was America’s plucky ally, David against Goliath, helping to keep the Soviet bear at bay, or so it seemed to me.

Through a kid’s eyes, Israel in 1973 was an island seemingly surrounded by a sea of well-armed enemies: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. Outnumbered and outgunned.  And now look at today’s reality: Egypt and Iraq have been neutralized.  Syria is devastated.  Jordan is wisely (sort of) neutral.  The Saudis are a quasi-ally.  Outside of the more-or-less manageable threat of terrorism (Hamas and Hezbollah), Israel’s chief enemy today appears to be itself.

What I mean by that is this: Israel, which over the last 70 years has fought several wars for its survival, is now a regional superpower.  Yet the mindset of David versus Goliath persists, even though Goliath is hobbled and defeated.  Meanwhile, as Israel combats terrorism and the legacies of West Bank occupation and isolation of the Gaza Strip, the government prosecutes policies that are considered illiberal and dangerous by many Jewish critics within Israel itself.

A similar David-Goliath mindset exists in the USA, but with far less cause.  Bizarrely, the world’s military superpower envisions itself as being surrounded by enemies.  Its response is something like Israel’s, as if the USA is Israel writ large.  Both countries seek total military dominance over their perceived enemies and rivals; both are led by strong men dogged by claims of corruption; both glorify their militaries; both appear to be spoiling for war with Iran.

Interestingly, both are also obsessed with demographic “enemies within”: many Israelis fear growing Arab/Muslim influence within; many Americans fear minorities will soon constitute the majority (estimates say non-whites will outnumber whites in the year 2045, but some Americans – like Laura Ingraham on Fox News – feel it’s already happened).  The result: the ruling administrations of both countries have doubled down on security and identity politics.  Israel has made Arabs second-class citizens, a form of apartheid; Trump & Co. has vilified immigrants (especially Mexicans) as rapists and murderers.  Both are building walls to keep the “enemy” without.  Both see massive military spending (and nuclear weapons) as the ultimate guarantors of peace.

Israel is little Prussia; the USA is big Prussia.  And like Prussia (and Germany) of the past, they pose as the aggrieved party, surrounded by enemies, hemmed in and oppressed.  It’s never wrong to be strong – that’s their guiding motto.  And by strength they mean hardness: military strength, police strength, the strength of superior weapons technology, embraced by leaders willing to kill or torture or imprison others in the name of preserving a “democratic” way of life.

It’s a mindset conducive to authoritarianism, to militarism, to nationalism, even to kleptocracy disguised as essential spending on national security.  At its root is fear, which generates a “no compromise” attitude toward the Other (whether Palestinian “terrorists” or immigrant “killers” and “animals”).  As the Palestinian activist Bassam Aramin put it in an interview in The Sun (October 2016):

“I think our main enemy is the Israelis’ fear.  It’s part of their consciousness.  When they talk about security, the Holocaust is always in the background.  If I throw a stone at an armored tank, they interpret it as the beginning of a new Holocaust.”

Fear is the mind-killer.  It enables perpetual warfare and a police state – and lots of profit and power to those who facilitate the same.

The original Prussia became consumed by militarism and nationalism and collapsed after two devastating world wars.  What will happen to today’s Big and Little Prussia?  Perhaps a war against Iran, timed to coincide with the 2020 presidential campaign season in the USA?  Such an unnecessary and likely disastrous war can’t be ruled out.

Consider the dynamic between the current leaders of the USA and Israel, each egging the other one on to be tougher, less compromising, more Prussian.  A pacific future is not in the cards for these military “superpowers.”  Not when they’re so busy emulating Prussia.

*Why are Americans, generally speaking, supporters and admirers of Israel?  So much so that politicians ostentatiously wear co-joined US/Israel flag lapel pins?  For several reasons:

1.   The US media is generally pro-Israel.  Meanwhile, the Arab world is often synonymous with terrorism in our media.

2.  Israelis seem more like Americans.  What I mean is this: Israeli spokespeople wear western dress and speak English with a faint accent.  Until recently, Arab spokespeople on TV looked and dressed “foreign” and spoke English with a heavier accent.

3.  The power of pro-Israeli political lobbies such as AIPAC and fear among politicians that criticism of Israel will be construed (and demonized) as anti-Semitism.

4.  The Holocaust.

5.  The Evangelical Context: I remember listening to a talk show on the radio, soon after the Yom Kippur War, in the mid-1970s.  The speaker predicted the Second Coming was near.  That got my attention!  Why was that?  Because, this person said, Israel had gained control over Jerusalem in apparent fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.  Fast forward forty years to today and you hear basically the same evangelical predictions about the Second Coming of Christ being imminent as Israel expands its hegemony over the “holy land” in Palestine.

One cannot underrate the importance of (selective) Biblical prophecy as advanced by fundamentalist Christians nestled within today’s Republican Party.  These evangelicals couldn’t care less about Trump’s sins and transgressions.  Their eyes are on the prize: Armageddon and Christ’s return, which they link to Israel’s domination of the region – which will lead to more wars, a brutal future seen as inevitable, even desirable.

Islamophobia in the Trump Administration

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Let us remember the service and sacrifice of Muslim-Americans

W.J. Astore

Lately, Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been criticized in the news for wanting taxpayers to fund a dining set that costs $31,000.  (He’s tried to shift the blame to his wife.)  We seem to forget a far more disturbing aspect of Carson’s behavior: his Islamophobia.  Remember his anti-Muslim comments as a presidential candidate?  Remember he said that no Muslim-American should ever serve as president?

Back then, I heard from a fellow Air Force officer, a Muslim-American, originally from Iraq, who served proudly in our armed forces.  He said Ben Carson’s comment brought him to tears — that a candidate for a major political party would insist on a religious test that would bar all Muslims from serving this country as president.

Yet for his Islamophobic position, which was contrary to the U.S. Constitution that forbids any religious test for political office, Ben Carson was rewarded by the Trump administration and appointed Secretary at HUD.

Don’t focus on his pricey dining set, America: Focus on his ignorance and his prejudice against millions of patriotic Americans, who just happen to be Muslim.  And remember how he was rewarded for this.

This episode came back to me when I read TomDispatch today.  A U.S. Navy veteran, Nate Terani, recalls his own personal nightmares of being targeted as a Muslim-American by a Trump administration that leans increasingly toward Islamophobia.  As Tom Engelhardt notes in his introduction to Terani’s article, Trump has “tapped the [CIA’s] previous director, Mike Pompeo, a notorious Tea Party Islamophobe and Iranophobe, to replace Twitter-fired Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Now, another key post is evidently about to be up for grabs. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is reportedly almost out the door as the president openly considers a replacement for him, possibly former Bush-era ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton. He’s another major Iranophobe, who has called for launching military operations against that country for years … [Combine this with] the potential return of torture, the possible refilling of Guantanamo with new prisoners, the intensification of war across the Greater Middle East with a new focus on Iran, and the entrenchment of particularly extreme forms of Islamophobia” and you truly have a recipe for a nightmarish America.

There is no room in America for prejudice based on religious belief (or lack thereof).  Religious wars are nightmares of our past; we must not allow the haters to bring them back into our present or our future.

Turning Temporary Problems Into Permanent Ones: America’s Real Military “Strategy”

Tom Engelhardt.  Introduction by W.J. Astore.

Readers of Bracing Views are familiar with Michael Murry’s frequent contributions to our site.  One of Mike’s more penetrating comments originated from a discussion he had with the late Sri Lankan Ambassador Ananda W. P. Guruge.  As Mike recently recounted, Guruge “certainly had it right when he told me once why his government had refused America’s offer of military aid against the Tamil insurgency in that little island country: If the Americans come, they will just draw an arbitrary line through a temporary problem and make it permanent.”

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Dr. Ananda W. P. Guruge. From closertotruth.com

Not many people have noticed how America’s wars, which used to have clear ending dates, like VE and VJ days in 1945 at the end of World War II, presently never seem to end.  In his introduction to Bill Hartung’s new article at TomDispatch.com, “Destabilizing the Middle East (Yet More),” Tom Engelhardt reminds us of how U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere simply never end.  Instead, they fester, they surge and shrink, they metastasize, they become, as Dr. Guruge noted, permanent.

That reality of permanent war is arguably the most insidious problem facing American democracy today.  I didn’t say it; James Madison did:

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.  War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.  In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.  The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both.  No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …

Why do so many Americans fail to see this?  Because believing is seeing.  I heard that line on “American Gods” recently, a compelling reversal of “seeing is believing.”  It applies here because America’s leaders believe in war, and Americans in general believe in their military, and believing is seeing.  A belief in the efficacy of war and the trustworthiness of the military drives America’s “kinetic” actions around the world, and that belief, that faith, serves to make wars permanent.

Believing is seeing.  It explains why our wars, despite catastrophic results that are so plainly in sight, persist without end.  W.J. Astore

America’s Endless Wars

Tom Engelhardt

Not that anyone in a position of power seems to notice, but there’s a simple rule for American military involvement in the Greater Middle East: once the U.S. gets in, no matter the country, it never truly gets out again.  Let’s start with Afghanistan. The U.S. first entered the fray there in 1979 via a massive CIA-led proxy war against the Soviets that lasted until the Red Army limped home in 1989. Washington then took more than a decade off until some of the extremists it had once supported launched the 9/11 attacks, after which the U.S. military took on the role abandoned by the Red Army and we all know where that’s ended — or rather not ended almost 16 years later. In the “longest war” in American history, the Pentagon, recently given a free hand by President Trump, is reportedly planning a new mini-surge of nearly 4,000 U.S. military personnel into that country to “break the stalemate” there.  Ever more air strikes and money will be part of the package. All told, we’re talking about a quarter-century of American war in Afghanistan that shows no sign of letting up (or of success). It may not yet be a “hundred-years’ war,” but the years are certainly piling up.

Then, of course, there’s Iraq where you could start counting the years as early as 1982, when President Ronald Reagan’s administration began giving autocrat Saddam Hussein’s military support in his war against Iran.  You could also start with the first Gulf War of 1990-1991 when, on the orders of President George H.W. Bush, the U.S. military triumphantly drove Saddam’s army out of Kuwait.  Years of desultory air strikes, sanctions, and other war-like acts ended in George W. Bush’s sweeping invasion and occupation of Iraq in the spring of 2003, a disaster of the first order.  It punched a hole in the oil heartlands of the Middle East and started us down the path to, among other things, ISIS and so to Iraq War 3.0 (or perhaps 4.0), which began as an air campaign in August 2014 and has yet to end.  In the process, Syria was pulled into the mix and U.S. efforts there are still ratcheting up almost two years later.  In the case of Iraq, we’re minimally talking about almost three decades of intermittent warfare, still ongoing.

And then, of course, there’s Somalia. You remember the Blackhawk Down incident in 1993, don’t you? That was a lesson for the ages, right? Well, in 2017, the Trump administration is sending more advisers and trainers to that land (and the U.S. military has recently suffered its first combat death there since 1993). U.S. military activities, including drone strikes, are visibly revving up at the moment. And don’t forget Libya, where the Obama administration (along with NATO) intervened in 2011 to overthrow autocrat Muammar Gaddafi and where the U.S. military is still involved more than six years later.

Last but hardly least is Yemen.  The first U.S. special ops and CIA personnel moved into a “counter-terrorism camp” there in late 2001, part of a $400 million deal with the government of then-strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the CIA conducted its very first drone assassination in that country in November 2002. Almost 16 years later, as TomDispatch regular Bill Hartung reports, the U.S. is supporting a grim Saudi air and ground war of terror there, while its own drone strikes have risen to new highs.

It’s a remarkable record and one to keep in mind as you consider Hartung’s account of President Trump’s fervent decision to back the Saudis in a big league way not just in their disastrous Yemeni war, but in their increasingly bitter campaign against regional rival Iran.  After so many decades of nearly unending conflict leading only to more of the same and greater chaos, you might wonder whether an alarm bell will ever go off in Washington when it comes to the U.S. military and war in the Greater Middle East — or is Iran nextTom

To continue reading Bill Hartung’s article at TomDispatch.com, click here.

State of (Military) Failure

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Tom Engelhardt

Reposted from TomDispatch.com and used by permission.

Someday, someone will write a history of the U.S. national security state in the twenty-first century and, if the first decade and a half are any yardstick, it will be called something like State of Failure.  After all, almost 15 years after the U.S. invaded the Taliban’s Afghanistan, launching the second American Afghan War of the past half-century, U.S. troops are still there, their “withdrawal” halted, their rules of engagement once again widened to allow American troops and air power to accompany allied Afghan forces into battle, and the Taliban on the rise, having taken more territory (and briefly one northern provincial capital) than at any time since that movement was crushed in the invasion of 2001.

Thirteen years after George W. Bush and his top officials, dreaming of controlling the oil heartlands, launched the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (the second Iraq War of our era), Washington is now in the third iteration of the same, with 6,000 troops (and thousands of private contractors) back in that country and a vast air campaign underway to destroy the Islamic State.  With modest numbers of special operations troops on the ground and another major air campaign, Washington is also now enmeshed in a complex and so far disastrous war in Syria.  And if you haven’t been counting, that’s three wars gone wrong.

Then, of course, there was the American (and NATO) intervention in Libya in 2011, which cracked that autocratic country open and made way for the rise of Islamic extremist movements there, as well as the most powerful Islamic State franchise outside Syria and Iraq.  Today, plans are evidently being drawn up for yet more air strikes, special operations raids, and the like there.  Toss in as well Washington’s never-ending drone war in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, its disastrous attempt to corral al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen (leading to a grim and horrifying Saudi-led, American-supported internecine conflict in that country), and the unending attempt to destroy al-Shabaab in Somalia, and you have at least seven wars and conflicts in the Greater Middle East, all about to be handed on by President Obama to the next president with no end in sight, no real successes, nothing.  In these same years Islamic terror movements have only spread and grown stronger under the pressure of the American war machine.

It’s not as if Washington doesn’t know this. It’s quite obvious and, as TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse, author of the highly praised Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, points out today in his latest report on the U.S. military’s pivot to Africa, the pattern is only intensifying, something clearly recognized by key American commanders. What’s strange, however, is that none of this seems to have caused anyone in the national security state or the military to reconsider the last 15 years of military-first policies, of bombs dropped, troops dispatched, drones sent in, and what the results were across the Greater Middle East and now Africa. There is no serious recalibration, no real rethinking. The response to 15 years of striking failure in a vast region remains more of the same. State of failure indeed!

Be sure to read Nick Turse on how U.S. military efforts in Africa show more regress than progress.

Where’s the Anti-War Movement?

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Thousands of people with signs of peace gather on Library Mall for the start of an anti-war rally protesting a potential United States-led war against Iraq. Protesters later marched up State Street to the Wisconsin State Capitol Building. ©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: Jeff Miller

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, Ira Chernus had a stimulating article at TomDispatch.com in which he noted the present lack of an American anti-war movement.  When it comes to war and foreign policy, Americans face a Hobson’s choice: the Democrats with drones and Special Ops and bombing against evildoers, or the Republicans with even more drones and Special Ops and bombing against even more evildoers.  The American master narrative, Chernus noted, is essentially all war.

He’s right about this, and I think it’s mainly for five reasons:

  1. The military draft is gone, so our youth can safely (they think) ignore America’s never-ending wars. In Vietnam, with the draft, most of our youth didn’t have the luxury of apathy.  Today, our youth have little personal incentive (as yet) to push back against the prevailing war narrative.
  2. Militarism.  Creeping militarism has shifted the American narrative rightwards.  In the Vietnam period, General Curtis LeMay’s “bomb them back to the stone age” was a fringe opinion; now it’s mainstream with “carpet bombing” Cruz and Trump and Rubio, the “top three” Republican presidential contenders after the Iowa caucuses.
  3. The Democrats have also shifted rightwards, so much so that now both major political parties embrace endless war. War, in short, has been normalized and removed from partisan politics.  As Chernus documents, you simply can’t get an alternative narrative from the U.S. political mainstream.  For that, you have to look to much smaller political parties, e.g. the Green Party.
  4. The U.S. mainstream media has been thoroughly co-opted by corporations that profit from war.  Anti-war ideas simply don’t get published; or, if they do, they’re dismissed as unserious.  I simply can’t imagine any of today’s TV talking heads coming out against the war on terror like Walter Cronkite came out in the 1960s against Vietnam. There is simply no push back from the U.S. media.
  5. Finally, a nebulous factor that’s always lurking: FEAR.  The popular narrative today is that terrorists may kill you at any time right here in America.  So you must be ready to “lockdown“; you must be ready to “shelter in place.”  You must always defer to the police and military to keep you safe.  You must fully fund the military or YOU WILL DIE. Repeated incantations of fear reinforce the master narrative of war.

Chernus makes many good points about how America’s constant warring in the Middle East only feeds radical Islam.  In short, it’s vital to develop a new narrative, not only because the current one feeds war and death, but also because it’s fated to fail.

I doubt pacifism will fly in warrior corp USA.  But why not containment?  Containment worked against the Soviet Union, or so most Americans believe.  If it worked against the far greater threat posed by the USSR, why shouldn’t it work against radical Islam?

Containment suggests several concrete actions: American troops should pull out of the Middle East.  Bombing and drone strikes should stop.  Establish a cordon sanitaire around the area.  Lead a diplomatic effort to resolve the conflicts.  And recognize that violent civil and ideological wars within Islam may need to burn themselves out.

One thing is certain: Because violent U.S. actions are most likely to act as accelerants to radical Islam, we need to stop attacking.  Now.

Yes, the U.S. has a responsibility to help the peoples of the region.  American actions helped to create the mess.  But you don’t “solve” the mess by blowing more people and things to smithereens.

Containment, diplomacy, humanitarian aid.  Not a chest-thumping course of action celebrated by the likes of Trump or Cruz or Clinton, but a new master narrative that would be more likely to spare lives and reduce the chaos in the Middle East.

A Contrary Perspective on the Middle East

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W.J. Astore

How about a contrary perspective on the Middle East, courtesy of my old globe?  It dates from the early 1920s, just after World War I but before Russia became the Soviet Union.  Taking a close look at the Middle East (a geographic term that I use loosely), you’ll notice more than a few differences from today’s maps and globes:

  1. Iraq and Syria don’t exist.  Neither does Israel.  Today’s Iran is yesterday’s Persia, of course.
  2. Instead of Iraq and Syria, we have Mesopotamia, a name that resonates history, part of the Fertile Crescent that encompassed the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as well as the Nile in Egypt.  Six thousand years ago, the cradle of human civilization, and now more often the scene of devastation caused mainly by endless war.
  3. Ah, Kurdistan!  The Kurds today in northern Iraq and southern Turkey would love to have their own homeland.  Naturally, the Arabs and Turks, along with the Persians, feel differently.
  4. Look closely and you’ll see “Br. Mand.” and “Fr. Mand.”  With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (roughly a larger version of modern-day Turkey) at the end of World War I, the British gained a mandate over Palestine and Mesopotamia and the French gained one over territory that would become Lebanon and Syria.  The British made conflicting promises to Jews and Arabs over who would control Palestine while scheming to protect their own control over the Suez Canal.  A large portion of Palestine, of course, was given to Jews after the Holocaust of World War II, marking the creation of Israel and setting off several Arab-Israeli Wars(1948-73) and the ongoing low-level war between Israel and the Palestinians, most bitterly over the status of the “Occupied Territories”: land captured by the Israelis during these wars, i.e. the West Bank (of the Jordan River) and the Gaza Strip (both not labeled on my outdated globe).
  5. Improvisation marked the creation of states such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.  Borders encapsulated diverse peoples with differing goals. Western powers like Britain and France cared little for tribal allegiances or Sunni/Shia sensitivities or political leanings, favoring autocratic rulers who could keep the diverse peoples who lived there in line.
  6. Historically powerful peoples with long memories border the Middle East.  The Turks and the Persians (Iranians), of course, with Russians hovering in the near distance.  They all remain players with conflicting goals in the latest civil war in Syria and the struggle against ISIS/ISIL.
  7. Three of the world’s “great” religions originated from a relatively tiny area of our globe: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Talk about a fertile crescent!  Sadly, close proximity and shared roots did not foster tolerance: quite the reverse.
  8. Remember when Saudi Arabia was just Arabia?  Ah, those were the good old days, Lawrence.
  9. Nobody talks much about Jordan, an oasis of relative calm in the area (not shown on my old globe).  Lucky Jordan.
  10. The presence of Armenia in Turkey on my old globe raises all kinds of historical ghosts, to include the Armenian genocide of World War I. Today, Turkey continues to deny that the word “genocide” is appropriate to the mass death of Armenians during World War I.

My fellow Americans, one statement: The idea that America “must lead” in this area of the world speaks to our hubris and ignorance.  We are obviously not seen as impartial.  Our “leadership” is mainly expressed by violent military action.

But we just can’t help ourselves.  The idea of “global reach, global power” is too intoxicating.  We see the globe as ours to spin.  Ours to control.

Perhaps old globes can teach us the transitory nature of power.  After all, those British and French mandates are gone.  European powers, however grudgingly, learned to retrench.  (Of course, the British and French, together with the Germans, are now bombing and blasting old mandates in the name of combating terrorism.)

I wonder how a globe made in 2115 will depict this area of the world. Will it look like today’s globe, or more like my globe from c.1920, or something entirely different?  Will it show a new regional empire or more fragmentation?  An empire based on Islam or a shattered and blasted infertile crescent ravaged by war and an inhospitable climate driven by global warming?

Readers: I welcome your comments and predictions.

The American Cult of Bombing

A common sight: American warplanes over a burning Iraq
A common sight: American warplanes over a burning desert

Why You Should Expect More Bombs to be Dropped Everywhere
By William J. Astore

Read the entire article at TomDispatch.com

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.”