The Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy

W.J. Astore

Bombs, Bullets, and Bellicosity Instead of Brains

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I parse the meaning of America’s latest National Defense Strategy. Hint: It’s not about defense.

More than two millennia ago, in the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounted a disastrous conflict Athens waged against Sparta. A masterwork on strategy and war, the book is still taught at the U.S. Army War College and many other military institutions across the world. A passage from it describing an ultimatum Athens gave a weaker power has stayed with me all these years. And here it is, loosely translated from the Greek: “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer as they must.”

Recently, I read the latest National Defense Strategy, or NDS, issued in October 2022 by the Pentagon, and Thucydides’s ancient message, a warning as clear as it was undeniable, came to mind again. It summarized for me the true essence of that NDS: being strong, the United States does what it wants and weaker powers, of course, suffer as they must. Such a description runs contrary to the mythology of this country in which we invariably wage war not for our own imperial ends but to defend ourselves while advancing freedom and democracy. Recall that Athens, too, thought of itself as an enlightened democracy even as it waged its imperial war of dominance on the Peloponnesus. Athens lost that war, calamitously, but at least it did produce Thucydides, a military leader who became a historian and wrote all too bluntly about his country’s hubristic, ultimately fatal pursuit of hegemony.

Imperial military ambitions contributed disastrously to Athens’s exhaustion and ultimate collapse, a lesson completely foreign to U.S. strategists. Not surprisingly, then, you’ll find no such Thucydidean clarity in the latest NDS approved by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. In place of that Greek historian’s probity and timeless lessons, the NDS represents an assault not just on the English language but on our very future. In it, a policy of failing imperial dominance is eternally disguised as democratic deterrence, while the greatest “strategic” effort of all goes (remarkably successfully) into justifying massive Pentagon budget increases. Given the sustained record of failures in this century for what still passes as the greatest military power on the planet — Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, of course, but don’t forget SomaliaSyriaYemen, and indeed the entire $8 trillion Global War on Terror in all its brutality — consider the NDS a rare recent “mission accomplished” moment. The 2023 baseline “defense” budget now sits at $858 billion, $45 billion more than even the Biden administration requested.

With that yearly budget climbing toward a trillion dollars (or more) annually, it’s easy to conclude that, at least when it comes to our military, nothing succeeds like failure. And, by the way, that not only applies to wars lost at a staggering cost but also financial audits blown without penalty. After all, the Pentagon only recently failed its fifth audit in a row. With money always overflowing, no matter how it may be spent, one thing seems guaranteed: some future American Thucydides will have the material to produce a volume or volumes beyond compare. Of course, whether this country goes the way of Athens — defeat driven by military exhaustion exacerbated by the betrayal of its supposedly deepest ideals leading to an ultimate collapse — remains to be seen. Still, given that America’s war colleges continue to assign Thucydides, no one can say that our military and future NDS writers didn’t get fair warning when it comes to what likely awaits them.

Bludgeoning America with Bureaucratese

If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with BS.

That’s a saying I learned early in my career as an Air Force officer, so I wasn’t exactly surprised to discover that it’s the NDS’s guiding philosophy. The document has an almost Alice in Wonderland-like quality to it as words and phrases take on new meanings. China, you won’t be surprised to learn, is a “pacing challenge” to U.S. security concerns; Russia, an “acute threat” to America due to its “unprovoked, unjust, and reckless invasion of Ukraine” and other forms of “irresponsible behavior”; and building “combat-credible forces” within a “defense ecosystem” is a major Pentagon goal, along with continuing “investments in mature, high-value assets” (like defective aircraft carriers, ultra-expensive bombers and fighter jets, and doomsday-promising new ICBMs).

Much talk is included about “leveraging” those “assets,” “risk mitigation,” and even “cost imposition,” a strange euphemism for bombing, killing, or otherwise inflicting pain on our enemies. Worse yet, there’s so much financial- and business-speak in the document that it’s hard not to wonder whether its authors don’t already have at least one foot in the revolving door that could, on their retirement from the military, swing them onto the corporate boards of major defense contractors like Boeing and Raytheon.

Perhaps my favorite redefined concept in that NDS lurks in the word “campaigning.” In the old days, armies fought campaigns in the field and generals like Frederick the Great or Napoleon truly came to know the price of them in blood and treasure. Unlike U.S. generals since 1945, they also knew the meaning of victory, as well as defeat. Perish the thought of that kind of campaigning now. The NDS redefines it, almost satirically, not to say incomprehensibly, as “the conduct and sequencing of logically-linked military initiatives aimed at advancing well-defined, strategy-aligned priorities over time.” Huh?

Campaigning, explains the cover letter signed by Secretary of Defense Austin (who won’t be mistaken for Frederick II in his bluntness or Napoleon in his military acuity), “is not business as usual — it is the deliberate effort to synchronize the [Defense] Department’s activities and investments to aggregate focus and resources to shift conditions in our favor.”

Got it? Good!

Of course, who knows what such impenetrable jargon really means to our military in 2023? This former military officer certainly prefers the plain and honest language of Thucydides. In his terms, America, the strong, intends to do what it will in the world to preserve and extend “conditions in our favor,” as the NDS puts it — a measure by which this country has failed dismally in this century. Weaker countries, especially those that are “irresponsible,” must simply suffer. If they resist, they must be prepared for some “cost imposition” events exercised by our “combat-credible forces.” Included in those are America’s “ultimate backstop” of cost imposition… gulp, its nuclear forces.

Again, the NDS is worthy of close reading (however pain-inducing that may be) precisely because the secretary of defense does claim that it’s his “preeminent guidance document.” I assume he’s not kidding about that, though I wish he were. To me, that document is to guidance as nuclear missiles are to “backstops.” If that last comparison is jarring, I challenge you to read it and then try to think or write clearly.

Bringing Clarity to America’s Military Strategy

To save you the trauma of even paging through the NDS, let me try to summarize it quickly in my version — if not the Pentagon’s — of English:

  1. China is the major threat to America on this planet.
  2. Russia, however, is a serious threat in Europe.
  3. The War on Terror continues to hum along successfully, even if at a significantly lower level.
  4. North Korea and Iran remain threats, mainly due to the first’s growing nuclear arsenal and the second’s supposed nuclear aspirations.
  5. Climate change, pandemics, and cyberwar must also be factored in as “transboundary challenges.”

“Deterrence” is frequently used as a cloak for the planetary dominance the Pentagon continues to dream of. Our military must remain beyond super-strong (and wildly overfunded) to deter nations and entities from striking “the homeland.” There’s also lots of talk about global challenges to be met, risks to be managed, “gray zone” methods to be employed, and references aplenty to “kinetic action” (combat, in case your translator isn’t working) and what’s known as “exploitable asymmetries.”

Count on one thing: whatever our disasters in the real world, nobody is going to beat America in the jargon war.

Missing in the NDS — and no surprise here — is any sense that war is humanity’s worst pastime. Even the mass murder implicit in nuclear weapons is glossed over. The harshest realities of conflict, nuclear war included, and the need to do anything in our power to prevent them, naturally go unmentioned. The very banality of the document serves to mask a key reality of our world: that Americans fund nothing as religiously as war, that most withering of evils.

Perhaps it’s not quite the banality of evil, to cite the telling phrase political philosopher Hannah Arendt used to describe the thoughts of the deskbound mass-murderers of the Holocaust, but it does have all of war’s brutality expunged from it. As we stare into the abyss, the NDS replies with mind-numbing phrases and terms that wouldn’t be out of place in a corporate report on rising profits and market dominance.

Yet as the military-industrial complex maneuvers and plots to become ever bigger, ever better funded, and ever more powerful, abetted by a Congress seemingly lustful for ever more military spending and weapons exports, hope for international cooperation, productive diplomacy, and democracy withers. Here, for instance, are a few of the things you’ll never see mentioned in this NDS:

  1. Any suggestion that the Pentagon budget might be reduced. Ever.
  2. Any suggestion that the U.S. military’s mission or “footprint” should be downsized in any way at all.
  3. Any acknowledgement that the U.S. and its allies spend far more on their militaries than “pacing challengers” like China or “acute threats” like Russia.
  4. Any acknowledgment that the Pentagon’s budget is based not on deterrence but on dominance.
  5. Any acknowledgement that the U.S. military has been far less than dominant despite endless decades of massive military spending that produced lost or stalemated wars from Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.
  6. Any suggestion that skilled diplomacy and common security could lead to greater cooperation or decreased tensions.
  7. Any serious talk of peace.

In brief, in that document and thanks to the staggering congressional funding that goes with it, America is being eternally spun back into an age of great-power rivalry, with Xi Jinping’s China taking the place of the old Soviet Union and Vladimir Putin’s Russia that of Mao Zedong’s China. Consistent with that retro-vision is the true end goal of the NDS: to eternally maximize the Pentagon budget and so the power and authority of the military-industrial-congressional complex.

Basically, any power that seeks to push back against the Pentagon’s vision of security through dominance is defined as a threat to be “deterred,” often in the most “kinetic” way. And the greatest threat of all, requiring the most “deterrence,” is, of course, China.

In a textbook case of strategic mirror-imaging, the Pentagon’s NDS sees that country and its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as acting almost exactly like the U.S. military. And that simply cannot be allowed.

Here’s the relevant NDS passage:

“In addition to expanding its conventional forces, the PLA is rapidly advancing and integrating its space, counterspace, cyber, electronic, and information warfare capabilities to support its holistic approach to joint warfare. The PLA seeks to target the ability of the [U.S.] Joint Force to project power to defend vital U.S. interests and aid our Allies in a crisis or conflict. The PRC [China] is also expanding the PLA’s global footprint and working to establish a more robust overseas and basing infrastructure to allow it to project military power at greater distances. In parallel, the PRC is accelerating the modernization and expansion of its nuclear capabilities.”

How dare China become more like the United States! Only this country is allowed to aspire to “full-spectrum dominance” and global power, as manifested by its 750 military bases scattered around the world and its second-to-none, blue-water navy. Get back to thy place, China! Only “a free people devoted to democracy and the rule of law” can “sustain and strengthen an international system under threat.” China, you’ve been warned. Better not dare to keep pace with the U.S. of A. (And heaven forfend that, in a world overheating in a devastating way, the planet’s two greatestgreenhouse gas emitters should work together to prevent true catastrophe!)

Revisiting the Oath of Office

Being a retired U.S. military officer, I always come back to the oath of office I once swore to uphold: “To support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Naturally, if China, Russia, or any other country or entity attacks or otherwise directly menaces the U.S., I expect our military to defend this country with all due vigor.

That said, I don’t see China, Russia, or weaker countries like Iran or North Korea risking attacks against America proper, despite breathless talk of world “flashpoints.” Why would they, when any such attack would incur a devastating counterattack, possibly including America’s trusty “backstop,” its nuclear weapons?

In truth, the NDS is all about the further expansion of the U.S. global military mission. Contraction is a concept never to be heard. Yet reducing our military’s presence abroad isn’t synonymous with isolationism, nor, as has become ever more obvious in recent years, is an expansive military structure a fail-safe guarantor of freedom and democracy at home. Quite the opposite, constant warfare and preparations for more of it overseas have led not only to costly defeats, most recently in Afghanistan, but also to the increasing militarization of our society, a phenomenon reflected, for instance, in the more heavily armed and armored police forces across America.

The Pentagon’s NDS is a classic case of threat inflation cloaked in bureaucratese where the “facts” are fixed around a policy that encourages the incessant and inflationary growth of the military-industrial complex. In turn, that complex empowers and drives a “rules-based international order” in which America, as hegemon, makes the rules. Again, as Thucydides put it, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer as they must.

Yet, to paraphrase another old book, what does it profit a people to gain the whole world yet lose their very soul?  Like Athens before it, America was once a flawed democracy that nevertheless served as an inspiration to many because militarism, authoritarianism, and imperial pretense didn’t drive it. Today, this country is much like Thucydides’s Athens, projecting power ever-outwards in a misbegotten exercise to attain mastery through military supremacy.

It didn’t end well for Athens, nor will it for the United States.

The Madness of U.S. Militarism

W.J. Astore

Where are today’s Eisenhowers, Butlers, and Shoups?

As a teenager in the 1970s, I recall talking to my dad about fears of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. My dad took a broad view, suggesting that if U.S. and Soviet leaders were stupid enough to blow each other to smithereens, a billion Chinese people would be left to pick up the slack and move the world forward.

My dad was right about many things, but what he didn’t realize was that U.S. nuclear war plans (known as SIOPs) often called for the elimination of the USSR and China, even if China had had no involvement in events leading up to the war. Basically, the ruling U.S. nuclear war philosophy was: If you’re red, you’re dead.

Daniel Ellsberg wrote about this in his book, The Doomsday Machine. As I wrote in my review of that book:

“U.S. nuclear war plans circa 1960 envisioned a simultaneous attack on the USSR and China that would generate 600 million deaths after six months.  As Ellsberg notes, that is 100 Holocausts.  This plan was to be used even if China hadn’t directly attacked the U.S., i.e. the USSR and China were lumped together as communist bad guys who had to be eliminated together in a general nuclear war.  Only one U.S. general present at the briefing objected to this idea: David M. Shoup, a Marine general and Medal of Honor winner, who also later objected to the Vietnam War.”

What’s truly startling is that only one U.S. military leader present, General David Shoup, objected to the SIOP that would lead to the death of 600 million people in six months. A decade later, scientists learned that such a huge nuclear exchange would likely cause a nuclear winter that would kill billions due to famine. Truly, the (few) living would envy the (many) dead.

Mention of David Shoup’s name leads me to this fine article: “The Marine Corps legend who tried to stop the Vietnam War,” by James Clark. Shoup was a remarkable American who helped to prevent the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 from escalating to a nuclear war. Once he retired from the Marines, he became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and militarism in general, a worthy successor to General Smedley Butler.

The Joint Chiefs in 1961. General Shoup is on the far right, next to General Curtis LeMay, architect of SAC and of a possible nuclear doomsday

I urge you to read Clark’s article on Shoup, who quotes Shoup’s hard-won wisdom here:

About the Vietnam War, Shoup said “I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own.”

In the Atlantic Monthly, Shoup, echoing the warning of Eisenhower about the military-industrial complex, wrote bluntly about America’s war culture and its anti-democratic nature:

Somewhat like a religion, the basic appeals of anti-Communism, national defense and patriotism provide the foundation for a powerful creed upon which the defense establishment can build, grow, and justify its cost. More so than many large bureaucratic organizations, the defense establishment now devotes a large share of its efforts to self-perpetuation, to justifying its organizations, to preaching its doctrines, to self-maintenance and management.

You would think that a Medal of Honor recipient who’d proved his bravery and patriotism at Tarawa during World War II would be immune from charges of being unpatriotic or weak on defense, but you’d be wrong.

Where are today’s Shoups among the U.S. military brass? Where are the leaders who are against genocidal nuclear war and who are willing to speak out against it? Where are the leaders who reject a new cold war with China and Russia? Where are the leaders with the courage to advocate for peace whenever possible in place of more and more war?

Have we fallen so far under the spell of militarism that America no longer produces leaders like Dwight Eisenhower, Smedley Butler, and David Shoup, generals who truly knew war, despised it, and wanted above all to put an end to it?

A Peculiar Form of American Madness

W.J. Astore

Heroification of the military is a strange mindset for any self-avowed democracy

America is touched by a peculiar form of collective madness that sees military action as creative rather than destructive, desirable rather than deplorable, and constitutive to democracy rather than corrosive to it.

This madness, this hubris, this elevation or heroification of the military and war has to end, or it will most certainly end America, if not the world.

Related to this, America advances and sustains a historical narrative based on triumphalism, exceptionalism, and goodness. We Americans see total military dominance as something to crow about, even as we insist that it’s our birthright as “exceptional” Americans. This mindset, or Zeitgeist if you will, enables and empowers a national security state that easily consumes more than half of federal discretionary spending each year. As long as this mindset persists, the MICC or MICIMATT will persist and continue to grow in reach and power.

So that’s my first big step in taming the military-industrial-congressional-intelligence-media-academia-think-tank complex. America’s mindset, its culture, must change. Change the mindset and you begin to change the deference if not adulation granted to the MICIMATT.

Change the mindset, weaken the blob. That was what Dwight D. Eisenhower had in mind in his “Cross of Iron” speech in 1953.1 Our peculiar form of militarized madness is simply no way of life at all for democracy or for the planet.

It won’t be easy because we’re taught to salute the military and support “our” beloved troops. We’re taught that corporations like Boeing and Raytheon are job-creators, even citizens. We look to Congress to represent us, even as its members thrive on corporate campaign contributions (bribes) while genuflecting to the generals and admirals. We look to the media for news and information even as those outlets are fueled by advertising dollars from companies like Boeing, if not owned by them. We look to “liberal” academia for new ideas even as colleges and universities compete for Pentagon research and development dollars. We look to think tanks for fresh approaches even as they’re funded by weapons contractors.

Under these conditions, it’s not surprising that the U.S. no longer sees peace as possible or even as desirable. Peace is rarely mentioned by U.S. political candidates or by the mainstream media. War is simply taken for granted; even worse, it’s seen as the health of the state.

That war is now seen as the health of the state is indeed a peculiar form of American madness. As the Christmas season approaches, is it too much to ask for sanity as in peace on earth and good will toward all?

1

Ike’s “Cross of Iron” speech in 1953 was brilliant in its clarity and power. Can you imagine any U.S. politician saying these words today?

“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. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.  It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. 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.”

Militarism Run Mad

W.J. Astore

Remember President Biden’s request for $33 billion in “aid” to Ukraine? That $33 billion package has become $40 billion and has already been approved by the House. More than half of this “aid” is in the form of weapons or in support of deploying more U.S. troops and equipment to Europe. And even that $40 billion isn’t high enough for some members of the Senate, who are calling for even more “aid,” i.e. more spending at the expense of the American taxpayer that will likely serve to prolong the Russia-Ukraine War.

More and more money for war recalls a famous quip by Winston Churchill in the age of navalism, when industrial interests in the UK pushed for more and more battleships to be built so that Britain could continue to rule the waves and not be slaves.

As Churchill famously said: The Admiralty had demanded six ships; the economists offered four; and we finally compromised on eight.

America has embraced a militarized Keynesianism that is very good indeed for weapons makers like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. It’s also very good for the Pentagon, whose budget projections keep rising when they should be falling.

Think about it. Overall, the Russian military hasn’t yet distinguished itself in Ukraine, and the longer the war lasts, the weaker that military becomes. If the U.S. military budget was actually based on an honest assessment of threats, the budget should be decreasing as Russia becomes less of a threat.

Another interesting aspect of this is that it’s mainly been Republicans voting against the $40 billion package in “aid.” Democrats, no matter how “progressive,” are eagerly voting for it, even as inflation soars in America and people struggle to make ends meet.

Perhaps it’s time to build more battleships to help the poor and struggling? We can house the unhoused in ships!

Housing for the unhoused! The HMS Dreadnought battleship

The Military-Industrial Complex Is Not a Way of Life at All

W.J. Astore

As I mentioned in a previous Bracing View, I was invited to participate in a forum to generate new ideas to tackle the military-industrial complex (MIC) that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about in 1961. Here are a few more thoughts in response to this stimulating collaboration:

When I was a college student in the early 1980s, and in Air Force ROTC, I wrote critically of the Reagan defense buildup. Caspar Weinberger, he of the “Cap the knife” handle for cost-cutting, became “Cap the ladle” as Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, ladling money in huge amounts to the Pentagon.  History is repeating itself again as the Biden administration prepares to ladle $813 billion (and more) to the Pentagon.

How do we stop this?  Of course, we must recognize (as I’m sure we all do) what we’re up against.  Both political parties are pro-military and, in the main, pro-war.  Our economy is based on a militarized Keynesianism and our culture is increasingly militarized.  Mainstream Democrats, seemingly forever afraid of being labeled “weak” on defense, are at pains to be more pro-military than the Republicans.  Biden, in Poland, echoed the words of Obama and other past presidents, declaring the U.S. military to be “the finest fighting force” in history.  Think about that boast.  Think about how Biden added that the nation owes the troops big. This is a sign of a sick culture.

Ike gave his MIC speech in 1961, and for 61 years the MIC has been winning.  Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early ‘90s, the MIC held its own; after 9/11, it went into warp speed and is accelerating.  To cite Scotty from Star Trek: “And at Warp 10, we’re going nowhere mighty fast.” 

We need a reformation of our institutions; we need a restoration of our democracy; we need a reaffirmation of the U.S. Constitution; we need to remember who we are, or perhaps who we want to be, as a people.

Do we really want to be the world’s largest dealer of arms?  Do we really want to spend a trillion or more dollars, each and every year, on wars and weapons, more than the next dozen or so countries combined, most of which are allies of ours?  (“Yes” is seemingly the answer here, for both Democrats and Republicans.)  Is that really the best way to serve the American people?  Humanity itself?

Consider plans to “invest” in “modernizing” America’s nuclear triad.  (Notice the words used here by the MIC.)  What does this really mean?  To me, it means we plan on spending nearly $2 trillion over the next 30 years to replace an older suicide vest with a newer one, except this suicide vest will take out humanity itself, as well as most other life forms on our planet.  To channel Greta Thunberg’s righteous anger, “How dare you!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVlRompc1yE

Or, as Ike said in 1953, “This is not a way of life at all … it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

We will need the broadest possible coalition to tackle this outrage against civilization and humanity.  That’s why I applaud these efforts to tackle the MIC, even as I encourage all of us to enlist and recruit more people to join our ranks.

My father enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 to do his bit for his family and his nation.  He fought forest fires in Oregon and later became a firefighter after serving in the Army during World War II.  That was the last formally declared war that America fought.  It was arguably the last morally justifiable war this country has fought, waged by citizens who donned a uniform, not “warriors” who are told that the nation owes them big.

In “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Jimmy Stewart, a true war hero, played a man who never fought in World War II, who stayed at home and helped ordinary people even as his younger brother Harry went off to war and earned the Medal of Honor.  Yet the movie doesn’t celebrate Harry’s war heroism; it celebrates the nobility, decency, and humility of George Bailey.

How do we get back to that America?  The America from before the MIC, that celebrated decency and kindness and humanitarianism?

Yes, I know.  It’s just a Frank Capra movie, and America has never been a perfect shining city.  All I’m saying is we need more of that spirit, and more of the righteous anger of Greta Thunberg, if we are to prevail.

Time for a Real Peace Dividend

W.J. Astore

On “Two Minutes to Midnight,” I talk about some of the themes I’ve developed at this site. Produced by Catalysta, the idea behind the series is to encourage fresh thinking on the challenges confronting us in a rapidly changing world.

Here is the Youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTc7Qj4AXWU&t=59s

In this interview, I explain how and why America spends way too much on weaponry and wars, and how we can shift the narrative and revive the idea of peace. Echoing George McGovern, it’s time to “come home, America,” to invest in our country and ourselves, rather than to fund more weaponry and more overseas wars.

Near the end of the video, I make an appeal to younger generations of America to lift their voices against the military-industrial-Congressional complex. I urge them not to be intimidated and to speak their mind, explaining that many veterans are just as fed up as they are. Collectively, we need to act. And perhaps the first and most critical step is getting big corporate money out of politics even as we work to make major cuts to the U.S. war budget.

Special thanks to Edward Goldberg at Catalysta.net for inviting me and offering me a chance to share my views with a wider audience.

The Unexamined U.S. Military

W.J. Astore

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. Can it also be said that the unexamined military is not worth having?

What amazes me about the U.S. military is how little it is scrutinized. Sure, there’s armed services committees in the House and Senate, but they seem most concerned about shoveling more money toward the Pentagon. Either that or the dire perils of “critical race theory,” which is surely threatening the Republic more than runaway militarism, endless wars, and unneeded nuclear weapons.

What is to be done? I see only one solution: major cuts to the “defense” budget. And that budget is even higher than the stated figure of $705 billion or thereabouts. Nuclear weapons come under the Department of Energy, for example. Homeland Security has its separate budget (isn’t defense of the homeland what the Pentagon is all about?). The various intelligence agencies like the CIA and NSA and so forth churn through scores of billions yet couldn’t predict the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 9/11 attacks. Interestingly, after 9/11 these agencies saw vast increases in funding. Who knew incompetence could be so rewarding?

If you add up all the billions tied to weapons and wars and “defense” in America, you routinely exceed a trillion dollars a year. It’s almost an unfathomable sum. Perhaps it is to the U.S. military as well, since they can’t pass an audit. No one really knows where all the money is going.

Ike knew the score. Sixty years ago, President Eisenhower warned us all about the military-industrial-Congressional complex. A few people listened, but nobody in power did anything about it. Since then the Complex has only grown stronger and more pervasive (and invasive) in America. And now that same Complex owns the mainstream media. Remarkably, the “journalists” telling us all about the Complex on MSNBC and CNN and Fox are often retired CIA and military officials; they don’t even bother disclosing their obvious conflict of interest here.

Strangely, it’s become patriotic to salute our military rather than to examine it and challenge it. Americans, generally a boisterous and busy bunch, are remarkably quiet and passive except for all the saluting and praising. Until this mindset, and this behavior, changes radically, America will continue on a wasteful and wanton path forged by weapons and war.

And that really is something we need to examine in the collective life of our country.

Sure, stealth bombers look cool. But together we paid roughly $2 billion per plane for a weapon designed to drop nuclear bombs on people.

Memorial Day 2021

W.J. Astore

In my village, there’s a memorial to the men who served in “the war with Germany,” 1917-18, which we now call World War I. Here’s a photo of it that I took a few days ago:

It includes the names of some of the oldest and most prominent families of my community, which is not surprising. World War I did witness a draft in America, but there was also a sense of noblesse oblige among the more affluent, a sense that one was required to serve if one was healthy.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Woodrow Wilson, reelected as president in 1916, actually had acted to keep America out of the war, as he promised he would. The “Yanks and the tanks” helped to tip the scales against Imperial Germany on the Western Front in the spring of 1918. Without the presence of U.S. doughboys (troops), and more importantly the promise of more to come, it’s possible the French and British may have been defeated by the great German offensive, or at the very least may have decided to sue for peace. But of course the German offensive ran its course and stalled, and the Allied counteroffensive (supported by a million or so fresh Yanks) wore down the Germans until they sued for peace, with the war finally ending on November 11, 1918.

It’s tempting to think that a German victory or quasi-victory in 1918 or 1919 would have prevented the rise of someone like Adolf Hitler. Hitler himself was devastated by Germany’s loss in 1918, as so many Germans were, and that loss combined with the seductive lie that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by traitorous elements on the homefront created the climate in which a rabble-rouser like Hitler could rise and thrive. And surely the Second Reich under Kaiser Wilhelm and officers like Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff was preferable to the Third Reich under Hitler and his henchmen?

I’m not so sure. Germany’s Second Reich achieved something in 1917 the Third Reich couldn’t in 1941: the defeat of Russia. (The injection of Lenin into Russia as a poison pill of sorts contributed to the Russian Revolution and the death of the Tsar.) But that same Second Reich imposed the harshest of peaces on a destabilized Russia. Known as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Germans took huge swaths of territory from Russia, most of its industrial resources, and much of its agricultural base as well. Basically, men like Ludendorff saw the Slavic peoples as inferior and pictured them as Germany’s slaves. Russia’s western lands were to become living space for the superior Germanic peoples. In short, Lebensraum (living space) wasn’t just Hitler’s idea: it was an ambition shared by many German militarists. Let’s recall as well the name of the general who marched beside Hitler in the infamous Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. That general: Ludendorff.

Area Lost by Russia in Treaty. Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918)

A German victory in 1918 or 1919 would have produced a hell of sorts for the Slavic peoples to the east. Perhaps not a Hitlerian Holocaust (virulent and murderous anti-Semitism was peculiar to Hitler and the Third Reich), but nevertheless an empire characterized by an expansionist militarism that saw dispossession and slavery as perfectly legitimate options for the future. In sum, the Germans of early 1918 were ruthless in victory, so when Germany ultimately lost later that year, the Allies reciprocated with ruthlessness of their own in 1919.

German militarism had to be stopped, or so the men with names on the monument in my village appear to have decided. The shame of it all is how World War I led, not to eternal peace as Wilson promised, but to World War II and to so many wars and conflicts after that.

Memorial Day reminds us of the price troops pay for seemingly endless wars, and that even when wars appear to be for good, even noble, causes, how often those causes are betrayed whether during or after those wars.

Brief Reflections on Trump, War, and Militarism

Trump’s motto: In generals I trust. It didn’t work out so well for him. Or the country.

W.J. Astore

As the Senate prepares to acquit Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial, I thought it would be a good time for a quick look at his legacy on war and militarism. Trump’s fans like to say he started no new wars. But he was hardly a man of peace, and his legacy on war and militarism is almost entirely negative. Here, in no particular order, are my quick thoughts on this subject:

  1. He boosted military spending and weapons sales. Trump basically bought off the military-industrial-congressional complex by throwing scores of billions of dollars its way while selling weapons around the world. It’s an old formula for U.S. presidents and it worked.
  2. He boosted a militant nationalism vis-a-vis rivals and even traditional allies. Trump was no friend to Russia and aggravated relations with China. Relations with NATO allies were also aggravated as he pressured them to spend more on weapons and wars.
  3. He boosted militarism at home and specifically with police forces. Trump supported and encouraged violent police crackdowns of BLM activists. He called for the deployment of active duty military in the streets of Washington, DC. He even called for a massive military parade (which never happened).
  4. He boosted overseas bombing and drone strikes. Recall the use of MOAB in Afghanistan, or Trump’s missile strike against Syria, and increased bombing in Afghanistan.
  5. He boosted tensions with Iran nearly to the breaking point. Trump’s drone strike against Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was an act of war; harsh economic sanctions and withdrawal from the Obama-era nuclear treaty with Iran also heightened tensions.
  6. He boosted the chances of nuclear war in the future. Trump was a fan of nuclear weapons; he seems to think of them simply as bigger, mightier bombs. His pursuit of “smaller” tactical nuclear warheads and their deployment on Trident-class nuclear submarines increase the possibility of nuclear war in the future.
  7. He boosted economic sanctions against Venezuela while pursuing a coup. Trump knows Venezuela has vast oil reserves. Why not overthrow their government and take their oil? That was Trump’s policy, more or less. (It doesn’t appear to have changed under Joe Biden.)
  8. Creation of a Space Force. Yet another military competitor for U.S. taxpayer dollars, even as space itself becomes another sphere for the U.S. military to “dominate.”
  9. Failure to end wars that he promised to end. Trump was talked out of ending the war in Afghanistan by generals like James Mattis and H.R. McMaster. Ending such wars was a promise Trump foolishly abandoned.
  10. Reliance on Generals as wise men. Trump, overall a weak and vainglorious man, surrounded himself with generals like Mattis, McMaster, John Kelly, and (briefly) Michael Flynn. Thus he got narrow-minded war-mongering advice.
  11. Seeing the world as a zero-sum game of winners and losers and debasing the art of diplomacy. Putting Mike Pompeo in charge of the State Department was a new low in the pursuit of peace through diplomacy.
  12. Aiding genocide in Yemen while kowtowing to Israel and Saudi Arabia: Trump was a willing participant to genocide in Yemen while pursuing a “peace” plan with Israel that was totally one-sided vis-a-vis the status and rights of Palestinians.

Off the top of my head, that’s my top twelve of Trump’s legacies in this arena. What do you think, readers? Can you think of others? And will any of this really change under Joe Biden?

A Very American Coup

W.J. Astore

All this talk of coups, and U.S. military veterans’ involvement in the same, reminds me of an article I wrote for TomDispatch.com exactly eleven years ago in 2010. In the article, I suggested the possibility of “a very American coup” in 2016, and I wrote that “A military that’s being used to fight unwinnable wars is a military prone to return home disaffected and with scores to settle.” Recent events at the U.S. Capitol suggest that many Americans do have scores to settle, and some of them are disaffected veterans.

Of course, my vintage 2010 crystal ball wasn’t completely clear, but I think I got a few things more or less right, especially my prescriptions for preventing coups, which still apply today, I’d argue. What do you think, readers?

A Very American Coup
Coming Soon to a Hometown Near You
By William J. Astore

(Originally posted on January 19, 2010)

The wars in distant lands were always going to come home, but not this way.

It’s September 2016, year 15 of America’s “Long War” against terror.  As weary troops return to the homeland, a bitter reality assails them: despite their sacrifices, America is losing.

Iraq is increasingly hostile to remaining occupation forces.  Afghanistan is a riddle that remains unsolved: its army and police forces are untrustworthy, its government corrupt, and its tribal leaders unsympathetic to the vagaries of U.S. intervention.  Since the Obama surge of 2010, a trillion more dollars have been devoted to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and other countries in the vast shatter zone that is central Asia, without measurable returns; nothing, that is, except the prolongation of America’s Great Recession, now entering its tenth year without a sustained recovery in sight.

Disillusioned veterans are unable to find decent jobs in a crumbling economy.  Scarred by the physical and psychological violence of war, fed up with the happy talk of duplicitous politicians who only speak of shared sacrifices, they begin to organize.  Their motto: take America back.

Meanwhile, a lame duck presidency, choking on foreign policy failures, finds itself attacked even for its putative successes.  Health-care reform is now seen to have combined the inefficiency and inconsistency of government with the naked greed and exploitative talents of corporations.  Medical rationing is a fact of life confronting anyone on the high side of 50.  Presidential rhetoric that offered hope and change has lost all resonance.  Mainstream media outlets are discredited and disintegrating, resulting in new levels of information anarchy.

Protest, whether electronic or in the streets, has become more common — and the protestors in those streets increasingly carry guns, though as yet armed violence is minimal.  A panicked administration responds with overlapping executive orders and legislation that is widely perceived as an attack on basic freedoms.

Tapping the frustration of protesters — including a renascent and mainstreamed “tea bag” movement — the former captains and sergeants, the ex-CIA operatives and out-of-work private mercenaries of the War on Terror take action.  Conflict and confrontation they seek; laws and orders they increasingly ignore.  As riot police are deployed in the streets, they face a grim choice: where to point their guns?  Not at veterans, they decide, not at America’s erstwhile heroes.

A dwindling middle-class, still waving the flag and determined to keep its sliver-sized portion of the American dream, throws its support to the agitators.  Wages shrinking, savings exhausted, bills rising, the sober middle can no longer hold.  It vents its fear and rage by calling for a decisive leader and the overthrow of a can’t-do Congress.

Savvy members of traditional Washington elites are only too happy to oblige.  They too crave order and can-do decisiveness — on their terms.  Where better to find that than in the ranks of America’s most respected institution: the military?

A retired senior officer who led America’s heroes in central Asia is anointed.  His creed: end public disorder, fight the War on Terror to a victorious finish, put America back on top.  The United States, he says, is the land of winners, and winners accept no substitute for victory.  Nominated on September 11, 2016, Patriot Day, he marches to an overwhelming victory that November, embraced in the streets by an American version of the post-World War I German Freikorps and the police who refuse to suppress them.  A concerned minority is left to wonder (and tremble) at the de facto military coup that occurred so quickly, and yet so silently, in their midst.

It Can Happen Here, Unless We Act

Yes, it can happen here.  In some ways, it’s already happening.  But the key question is: at this late date, how can it be stopped?  Here are some vectors for a change in course, and in mindset as well, if we are to avoid our own stealth coup:

1. Somehow, we need to begin to reverse the ongoing militarization of this country, especially our ever-rising “defense” budgets.  The most recent of these, we’ve just learned, is a staggering $708 billion for fiscal year 2011 — and that doesn’t even include the $33 billion President Obama has requested for his latest surge in Afghanistan.  We also need to get rid of the idea that anyone who suggests even minor cuts in defense spending is either hopelessly naïve or a terrorist sympathizer.  It’s time as well to call a halt to the privatization of military activity and so halt the rise of security contractors like Xe (formerly Blackwater), thereby weakening the corporate profit motive that supports and underpins the American version of perpetual war.  It’s time to begin feeling chastened, not proud, that we’re by far the number one country in the world in arms manufacturing and the global arms trade.

2. Let’s downsize our global mission rather than endlessly expanding our military footprint.  It’s time to have a military capable of defending this country, not fighting endless wars in distant lands while garrisoning the globe

3. Let’s stop paying attention to major TV and cable networks that rely on retired senior military officers, most of whom have ties both to the Pentagon and military contractors, for “unbiased” commentary on our wars.  If we insist on fighting our perpetual “frontier” wars, let’s start insisting as well that they be covered in all their bitter reality: the death, the mayhem, the waste, the prisons, and the torture.  Why is our war coverage invariably sanitized to “PG” or even “G,” when we can go to the movies anytime and see “R” rated, pornographically violent films?  And by the way, it’s time to be more critical of the government’s and the media’s use of language and propaganda.  Mindlessly parroting the Patriot Act doesn’t make you patriotic.

4. It’s time to elect a president who doesn’t surround himself with senior “civilian” advisors and ambassadors who are actually retired military generals and admirals, one who won’t accept a Nobel Peace Prize by defending war in theory and escalating it in practice.

5. Let’s toughen up.  Let’s stop deferring to authority figures who promise to “protect” us while abridging our rights.  Let’s stop bowing down before men and women in uniform, before they start thinking that it’s their right to be worshipped and act accordingly.

6. Let’s act now to relieve the sort of desperation bred by joblessness and hopelessness that could lead many — notably male workers suffering from the “He-Cession” — to see a militarized solution in “the homeland” as a credible last resort.  It’s the economy, stupid, but with Main Street’s health, not Wall Street’s, in our focus.

7. Let’s take Sarah Palin and her followers seriously.  They’re tapping into anger that’s real and spreading.  Don’t let them become the voices of the angry working (and increasingly unemployed) classes.

8. Recognize that we face real enemies in our world, the most powerful of which aren’t in distant Afghanistan or Yemen but here at home.  The essence of our struggle to sustain our faltering democracy should not be against “terrorists,” with their shoe and crotch bombs, but against various powerful, perfectly legal groups here whose interests lie in a Pentagon that only grows ever stronger.

9. Stop thinking the U.S. is uniquely privileged.  Don’t take it on faith that God is on our side.  Forget about God blessing America.  If you believe in God, get out there and start trying to earn His blessing through deeds.

10. And, most important of all, remember that fear is the mind-killer that makes militarism possible.  Ramping up “terror” is an amazingly effective way of shredding our Constitution.  Putting our “safety” above all else is asking for trouble.  The only way we’ll be completely safe from the big bad terrorists, after all, is when we’re all living in a maximum security state.  Think of walking down the street while always being subject to a “full-body scan.”    

That’s my top 10 things we need to do.  It’s a daunting list and I’m sure you have a few ideas of your own.  But have faith.  Ultimately, it all boils down to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words to a nation suffering through the Great Depression: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  These words came to mind recently as I read the following missive from a friend and World War II veteran who’s seen tough times: 

“It’s very hard for me to accept how soft the American people have become. In 1941, with the western world under assault by powerful and deadly forces, and a large armada of ships and planes attacking us directly, I never heard a word of fear as we faced three powerful nations as enemies. Sixteen million of us went into the military with the very real possibility of death and I never once heard of fear, except from those exposed to danger. Now, our people let [their leaders] terrify them into accepting the destruction of our economy, our image in the world, and our democracy… All this over a small group of religious fanatics [mostly] from Saudi Arabia whom we kowtow to so we can drive 8-cylinder SUV’s.  Pathetic!”

“How many times have I stood in ‘security lines’ at airports and when I complained of the indignity of taking off shoes and not having water and the manhandling of passengers, have well educated people smugly said to me, ‘Well, they’re just keeping us safe.’ I look at the airport bullshit as a training ground to turn Americans into docile sheep in a totalitarian state.”

A public conditioned to act like sheep, to “support our troops” no matter what, to cower before the idea of terrorism, is a public ready to be herded.  A military that’s being used to fight unwinnable wars is a military prone to return home disaffected and with scores to settle.

Angry and desperate veterans and mercenaries already conditioned to violence, merging with “tea baggers” and other alienated groups, could one day form our own Freikorps units, rioting for violent solutions to national decline.  Recall that the Nazi movement ultimately succeeded in the early 1930s because so many middle-class Germans were scared as they saw their wealth, standard of living, and status all threatened by the Great Depression.

If our Great Recession continues, if decent jobs remain scarce, if the mainstream media continue to foster fear and hatred, if returning troops are disaffected and their leaders blame politicians for “not being tough enough,” if one or two more terrorist attacks succeed on U.S. soil, wouldn’t this country be well primed for a coup by any other name?

Don’t expect a “Seven Days in May” scenario.  No American Caesar will return to Washington with his legions to decapitate governmental authority.  Why not?  Because he won’t have to. 

As long as we continue to live in perpetual fear in an increasingly militarized state, we establish the preconditions under which Americans will be nailed to, and crucified on, a cross of iron.

William J. Astore teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology (wastore@pct.edu).  A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), he has also taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School.  A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism.

Copyright 2010 William J. Astore