If there’s one area of bipartisan agreement today, it’s politicians’ professed love of the U.S. military. Consider George W. Bush. He said the U.S. military is the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known. Consider Barack Obama. He said that same military is the finest fighting force the world has ever known. Strong praise, indeed.
Today’s politicians are not to be outdone. This past weekend at Camp David, Paul Ryan praised the military for keeping America safe. Mike Pence noted the military remains “the strongest in the world,” yet paradoxically he said it needs rebuilding. He promised even more “investment” in the military so that it would become “even stronger still.”
Apparently, no matter how strong and superior the U.S. military is, it must be made yet stronger and yet more superior. All in an effort to “keep us safe,” to cite Paul Ryan’s words. Small wonder that the Pentagon’s budget is soaring above $700 billion.
It didn’t use to be this way. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, formerly a five-star general and a man who knew the military intimately, warned us in 1961 of the anti-democratic nature of the military-industrial complex. James Madison, one of America’s founders, warned us in the 18th century of the perils of endless war and how armies drive authoritarian tendencies and contribute to financial debt and national ruin.
Ike knew that national safety shouldn’t be equated with military prowess; quite the reverse, as he warned us against the unchecked power of a burgeoning military-industrial-Congressional complex. Madison knew that armies weren’t “investments”; rather, they were, in historical terms, positive dangers to liberty.
But for America’s politicians today, the idea of national safety has become weaponized as well as militarized. In their minds personal liberty and national democracy, paradoxically, are best represented by an authoritarian and hierarchical military, one possessing vast power, whether measured by its resources across the globe or its reach within American society.
Our politicians find it easy to be uncritical cheerleaders of the U.S. military. They may even think they’re doing a service by issuing blank checks of support. But Ike and Madison would disagree, and so too would anyone with knowledge of the perils of military adulation.
Vice President Mike Pence made a surprise visit to Bagram air base in Afghanistan, reassuring the assembled troops that they are winning the war there, despite evidence to the contrary. For the occasion he donned a spiffy-looking leather military flight jacket, customized for him, as have other presidents and VPs going back at least as far as Ronald Reagan.
I’ve written about this before, this adoption of military clothing by civilian commanders. It’s an insidious blurring of the lines between the civilian chain of command — and the crucial idea of civilian control of the military — and the military chain. You don’t see generals and admirals on active duty showing up to testify before Congress in civilian coat and tie: they wear their uniforms because that’s who they are–commissioned military officers. Similarly, our civilian leaders, whether Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama or Donald Trump, should wear their “uniform,” typically civilian coat and tie, for that is who they are. They should never wear military flight jackets and similar items, no matter how “cool” or “supportive” they think they look. It sends the wrong sartorial and political signals.
I just can’t imagine Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was of course a five-star general before he became president, wearing military jackets and hats while he was president. Ike knew better. He was the civilian commander in chief, thus he dressed like it. Same with George C. Marshall. He wasn’t parading around in military jackets when he was Secretary of State in the aftermath of World War II.
Hitting another common theme, Pence was at pains to praise the troops as heroes, noting that “You are the best of us.” Why this need for endless flattery of the troops? Recall that President Obama praised the U.S. military as the finest fighting force in history. Satirically, you might call it the 4F military: the finest fighting force since forever.
America’s civilian leaders need to put aside hyperbolic praise and wannabe military uniform items. There’s a far better way of complimenting our troops while leading America. That better way? Ending America’s wars and bringing the troops home.
An article yesterday at NBC focusing on Trump and “his” generals got me to thinking on this subject again. Its author, Suzanne Garment, suggests that Trump likes generals as obedient alpha males. They lend him credibility without directly threatening his delicate ego. And there’s truth in this.
But I want to focus on other reasons for Trump’s preference for generals in high positions. A year ago, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com on “All the President’s Generals.” That article focused mainly on the potential impact of these generals on America’s foreign policy and domestic culture. As I wrote last December:
Collectively, the team of Mattis, Flynn, and Kelly could not be more symbolic of the ongoing process of subversion of civilian control of the military. With Trump holding their reins, these self-styled warriors will soon take charge of the highest civilian positions overseeing the military of the world’s sole superpower. Don’t think of this, however, as a “Seven Days in May” scenario in which a hard-headed general mounts a coup against an allegedly soft-hearted president. It’s far worse. Who needs a coup when generals are essentially to be given free rein by a president-elect who fancies himself a military expert because, as a teenager, he spent a few years at a military-themed boarding school?
In all of this, Trump represents just the next (giant) step in an ongoing process. His warrior-steeds, his “dream team” of generals, highlight America’s striking twenty-first-century embrace of militarism.
I continue to think this is true. Trump is empowering further military adventurism, even as he reinforces military-style solutions to problems. But there are other reasons for Trump’s tight and eager embrace of the military.
Basically, by embracing the military and elevating it (while feeding it lots of money), Trump has neutralized it as a rival to his power. Indeed, he is borrowing from the military’s authority and standing within our culture to bolster his own.
Recall how Candidate Trump was often quite critical of the U.S. military. He knew more than the generals, he said. Their wars he often called wasteful follies. He was going to win (or end) these wars, he claimed, and hinted that quite a few “loser” generals might be on the receiving end of his infamous “You’re fired” line.
You hear none of this today. Trump is at pains to praise the military and his generals. He says they’re on a winning path, even in Afghanistan (because of Trump’s decisions, naturally). He rewards them with record budgets and unalloyed praise.
And it’s working. The military (and the larger national security state) is content with Trump. He’s letting them have their way, which is another way of saying Trump is having his way.
In American society today, there aren’t too many power centers that truly can challenge Trump. The media he’s diminished with all his attacks (“Fake news!”). A Republican Congress remains quietly subservient. Trump is stacking the judiciary with conservative judges to his liking. The Democratic Party remains feckless and divided. Bankers and corporations? Trump has hired the former and given a huge gift to the latter in the latest Republican tax cut for the richest.
When you think about it, the one power center that could challenge Trump is the military-industrial complex: America’s fourth branch of government. Yet by hiring so many of its generals and by praising it while passing loads of moola its way, Trump has co-opted its authority and power, attaching it to himself in his role as commander-in-chief.
Trump’s last hurdle may be the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian meddling and possible complicity or obstruction by Trump. If Trump gets past this (perhaps even by firing Mueller), is there anyone left with the balls, the sand, the spine, the guts, the moxie (choose your favorite measure of fortitude) and the authority to stop his ambition and designs as an authoritarian leader?
It’s becoming increasingly difficult for Americans to recall that civilian leaders are supposed to command and control the military, not vice-versa. Consider an article posted yesterday at Newsweek with the title, TRUMP’S GENERALS CAN SAVE THE WORLD FROM WAR—AND STOP THE CRAZY. The article extols the virtues of “Trump’s generals”: James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff, and H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser. The article presents them as the adults in the room, the voices of calm and reason, a moderating force on a bombastic and bellicose president.
I’ve written about Trump’s generals already at TomDispatch.com and elsewhere. The latest gushing tribute to America’s generals at Newsweek illustrates a couple of points that bear repeating. First, you don’t hire generals to rein in a civilian leader, or at least you shouldn’t if you care to keep a semblance of democracy in America. Second, lifelong military officers favor military solutions to problems. That’s precisely why you want civilians to control them, and to counterbalance their military advice. Only in a democracy that is already crippled by creeping militarism can the rise of generals to positions of power be celebrated as a positive force for good.
Speaking of creeping militarism in the USA, I caught another headline the other day that referenced General Kelly’s appointment as Chief of Staff. This headline came from the “liberal” New York Times:
John Kelly Quickly Moves to Impose Military Discipline on White House
Note that headline. Not that Kelly was to impose discipline, but rather military discipline. What, exactly, is military discipline? Well, having made my first career in the military, I can describe its features. Obedience. Deference to authority. Respect for the chain of command. A climate that sometimes degenerates to “a put up and shut up” mentality. Such a climate may be needed in certain military settings, but do we want it to rule the White House?
Here is what I wrote back in December about Trump and “his” generals:
In all of this, Trump represents just the next (giant) step in an ongoing process. His warrior-steeds, his “dream team” of generals, highlight America’s striking twenty-first-century embrace of militarism. At the same time, the future of U.S. foreign policy seems increasingly clear: more violent interventionism against what these men see as the existential threat of radical Islam.
Of course, now the threat of nuclear war looms with North Korea. For a moderating influence, America places its faith in military generals controlling the civilian commander-in-chief, and that’s something to draw comfort from, at least according to Newsweek.
When military control of the civilian is celebrated, you know it’s truly opposite day in America.
At this moment, it’s hard to think of a better symbol of American militarism than a giant bomb with a U.S. flag on it. President Donald Trump touted the use of the “mother of all bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan as a “very, very successful mission” even though evidence of that success is scant. He further cited MOAB as evidence of the “tremendous difference, tremendous difference” between his administration’s willingness to use force and Obama’s. In short, Trump loved MOAB precisely because Obama didn’t use it. To Trump, MOAB was a sort of penis extender and a big middle finger all-in-one. Virility and vulgarity.
MOAB is an icon of U.S. militarism, as are other weapons in the American arsenal. Weapons like our warplanes, aircraft carriers, Predator and Reaper drones, and Tomahawk and Hellfire missiles. U.S. foreign policy often hinges on or pivots about the deployment of these icons of power, whether it’s aircraft carriers and anti-missile systems being sent to Korea or more bombs and missiles being used in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, among other countries.
Weapons sales further define U.S. foreign policy. Witness the recent announcement of $100 billion in arms for the Saudis, soon to be confirmed by Trump in his forthcoming trip to Saudi Arabia. This sale sets up even more military aid for Israel, in that Washington insists Israel must always maintain a qualitative edge in weaponry over its Arab rivals.
Unlike, say, Wilhelmine Germany, which elevated Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg to iconic status during and after World War I, America today is lacking in winning generals. Sure, there have been a few pretenders. William Westmoreland in Vietnam, H. Norman Schwarzkopf in Desert Storm, Tommy Franks in Iraqi Freedom, and David Petraeus of “Surge” fame come to mind, but their “victories” were either illusory or lacking in staying power. Since we can’t idolize our generals, we celebrate our weapons instead.
These weapons are indeed iconic symbols. They capture an ideology of destruction. A predilection for spreading misery worldwide, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest must-read article at TomDispatch.com. As Engelhardt notes in his “send-out” message to his piece:
The first part of my latest post focuses on the now seven month-long U.S.-backed Iraqi military offensive against the city of Mosul, which shows little sign of ending and has reduced that city, like so many other places in the region, to ruins, if not rubble. Mosul, in other words, has been on my mind, but perhaps not completely for the reason you might expect. Its destruction (and the generation of yet more uprooted people and refugees) has led me to wonder what ever happened to the globalizers who for so many years told us about the wonders of tying the planet ever more tightly together and leveling all playing fields. It seems obvious to me that war, American-style, these last 15 years, has played a distinctly globalizing role on this ever smaller planet of ours — just globalizing misery, not happy news. In this piece I use the destruction of Mosul to lay out my thoughts on just what globalization really means in 2017, why the Trump presidency is linked to such grim events, and just why the globalizers have stopped talking about the phenomenon.
When I read Tom’s note above about the “leveling” of “playing fields,” my first thought was that America is indeed working to level the world — just not in the figurative sense of promoting economic equality, but in the literal sense of leveling areas with bombs, cities like Mosul, for example, or alleged training areas for terrorists in Afghanistan. As Engelhardt himself notes in his article, U.S. military action isn’t making the world flatter in the sense of equitable globalization; it’s simply flattening areas with overwhelming explosive force.
Most Americans simply don’t know or care much about foreign cities being leveled/flattened by America’s icons of power. You might say it’s not on our radar screens. The media and our leaders do a very good job of keeping us divided, distracted, and downtrodden. What American has time to worry about Mosul or some obscure region of Afghanistan? Unless or until the leveling and flattening come our way, to our cities and valleys, but by that point it will be far too late to act.
With all our talk of MOAB and aircraft carriers and missiles and their “beauty” and “tremendous success,” are we that far away from the lost souls in the movie “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” who elevated the atomic bomb as their false idol, their version of the Biblical golden calf?
Yesterday’s Trump-Merkel Press Conference was disturbing on several levels. Worst of all was the scene of a German Chancellor listening to an American president boast about how strong his military is, and how much stronger it soon will be. Not that long ago in historical terms, Germany was a country that stressed military dominance. Two lost world wars cured Germany of its militarism. American militarism has taken its place.
As Trump responded to questions, again and again he returned to the U.S. military, vowing that he’s going to strengthen it from its “depleted” condition, perhaps to a level of power that “we’ve never seen before.”
America as a country is “very strong, very strong,” said Trump, a “very powerful company/country,” and soon the U.S. military would be “stronger,” and “perhaps far stronger than ever before.” Naturally, the president added that he hoped he wouldn’t have to use that “far stronger” military, even as the U.S. military garrisons the globe at more than 700 bases while launching ongoing attacks against “radical Islamic terrorism” (Trump loves enunciating those three words) in places like Yemen.
This coming year, Trump is enlarging the military with a fresh influx of $54 billion. “My generals,” as Trump likes to refer to James Mattis and John Kelly and Company, support him in part because he’s boosting military spending. But will they continue to support Trump and his advisers like Steve Bannon when the President uses that “much stronger” military in unwise ways?
When you forge a bigger hammer, you tend not to leave it unused in the tool shed. No — you look for bigger nails to strike. As Trump noted at the press conference, he’s not an isolationist. “Fake news,” he said.
That Trump, with his “far stronger” military, is not an isolationist is disturbing “real” news indeed. Small wonder that the German Chancellor looked discomfited; her country has seen it all before.
What price military dominance? Perhaps Chancellor Merkel could explain that to President Trump, if only he’d listen.
Will Donald Trump keep his campaign promise to end America’s wasteful wars overseas? Since he’s stated he knows more than America’s generals, will he rein them in? Will he bring major reforms to the military-industrial complex, or will he be nothing but talk and tweets?
At Trump’s first news conference today as president-elect, he had little to say about the military, except once again to complain about the high cost of the F-35 jet fighter program. The questions asked of him dealt mainly with Russia, hacking, potential conflicts of interest, and Obamacare. These are important issues, but how Trump will handle the Pentagon and his responsibilities as commander-in-chief are arguably of even greater import.
Ironically, the last president who had some measure of control over the military-industrial complex was the retired general who coined the term: Dwight D. Eisenhower. Another president – Jimmy Carter – attempted to exercise some control, e.g. he cancelled the B-1 bomber, a pet project of the U.S. Air Force, only to see it revived under Ronald Reagan.
Excepting Carter, U.S. presidents since Ike have issued blank checks to the military, the Pentagon, and its bewildering array of contractors. Whether Democrats (JFK, LBJ, Clinton, Obama) or Republicans (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, the Bushes), rubber-stamping Pentagon priorities has been a common course of presidential action, aided by a willing Congress that supports military spending to “prime the economic pump” and create jobs.
Ike, of course, was hardly perfect, but he had the cred to command the military, to rein it in, perhaps as much as any one man could in the climate of fear generated by McCarthyism and the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s. Hardly a pacifist, Ike nevertheless came to hate war. Can we imagine any president nowadays writing these words?
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Ike’s wisdom stemmed from his experience with the bloody awfulness of war. Recent presidents, by comparison, have been unstinting in their praise of the U.S. military. Ronald Reagan, who had a cozy job in Hollywood during World War II, was a snappy saluter who oversaw a major military expansion. More recently, Barack Obama, with no military experience, went out of his way to praise the U.S. military in hyperbolic terms as the “greatest” in human history.
Recent presidents have idolized the military, perhaps because they either never served in it or never really experienced its foibles and faults, its flaws and failings. Perhaps as well they’ve celebrated the military because they saw it as a popular and easy form of patriotism. But the Pentagon needs a commander-in-chief, not a cheerleader-in-chief. It needs to be challenged, it needs a boot up its collective ass, if it’s ever going to reform its prodigal ways.
Trump has been critical of the military, an encouraging sign. But his appointment of retired generals to key positions of power suggests conformity and business as usual. Trump himself is a military poseur, a man impatient with facts, a man who didn’t know what the nuclear triad was even as he talked of (false) nuclear gaps vis-à-vis Russia.
Even as he talked of wasteful wars and clueless generals, Trump promised to use the U.S. military as a battering ram to smash America’s enemies. He promised as well to rebuild the military, increasing the Pentagon budget while taking the fight to ISIS, words that suggest President Trump won’t often say “no” to the national security state. Ike, however, could and did say “no.” He had the toughness to weather the predictable Pentagon, Congressional, and military/corporate storms. Will Trump?
Again, the last president to lead a novel initiative in national security was Jimmy Carter, with his focus on human rights. Dismissed as naïve and pusillanimous, he became a one-term president. Trump has promised to end wasteful wars, to re-prioritize federal spending to focus on internal “security” measures such as national infrastructure, and to make NATO and other U.S. allies pay their fair share of defense costs.
If he carries through on these promises, he’ll be the first president since Ike to make a measurable and significant course correction to America’s warship of state. But first he needs to be held to account, most certainly at press conferences but elsewhere as well. Endless war is a threat to democracy; so too are politicians who posture but do nothing to rein in militarism, imperialism, and authoritarianism.
If Trump combines the two, if he doubles down on incessant war and a cult of authority, American democracy may suffer a mortal blow.