America’s Militarized Profession of Faith

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The Church of the Pentagon

W.J. Astore

I grew up in the Catholic Church, where I professed my faith weekly at every mass I attended.  I also grew up a fan of the U.S. military, even as I read many books critical of its performance in the Vietnam War.  Thankfully, I didn’t have to profess my faith in that military, but if I had, what would such a “profession” have looked like?  This is the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch.com, which you can read about here.

Here’s what I believe America’s profession of faith would look like at this moment in our militarized history:

* We believe in wars. We may no longer believe in formal declarations of war (not since December 1941 has Congress made one in our name), but that sure hasn’t stopped us from waging them. From Korea to Vietnam, Afghanistan to Iraq, the Cold War to the War on Terror, and so many military interventions in between, including Grenada, Panama, and Somalia, Americans are always fighting somewhere as if we saw great utility in thumbing our noses at the Prince of Peace. (That’s Jesus Christ, if I remember my Catholic catechism correctly.)

* We believe in weaponry, the more expensive the better. The underperforming F-35 stealth fighter may cost $1.45 trillion over its lifetime. An updated nuclear triad (land-based missiles, nuclear submarines, and strategic bombers) may cost that already mentioned $1.7 trillion. New (and malfunctioning) aircraft carriers cost us more than $10 billion each. And all such weaponry requests get funded, with few questions asked, despite a history of their redundancy, ridiculously high price, regular cost overruns, and mediocre performance. Meanwhile, Americans squabble bitterly over a few hundred million dollars for the arts and humanities.

* We believe in weapons of mass destruction. We believe in them so strongly that we’re jealous of anyone nibbling at our near monopoly. As a result, we work overtime to ensure that infidels and atheists (that is, the Iranians and North Koreans, among others) don’t get them. In historical terms, no country has devoted more research or money to deadly nuclear, biological, and chemical weaponry than the United States. In that sense, we’ve truly put our money where our mouths are (and where a devastating future might be).

* We believe with missionary zeal in our military and seek to establish our “faith” everywhere. Hence, our global network of perhaps 800 overseas military bases. We don’t hesitate to deploy our elite missionaries, our equivalent to the Jesuits, the Special Operations forces to more than 130 countries annually. Similarly, the foundation for what we like to call foreign assistance is often military training and foreign military sales. Our present supreme leader, Pope Trump I, boasts of military sales across the globe, most notably to the infidel Saudis. Even when Congress makes what, until recently, was the rarest of attempts to rein in this deadly trade in arms, Pope Trump vetoes it. His rationale: weapons and profits should rule all.

* We believe in our college of cardinals, otherwise known as America’s generals and admirals. We sometimes appoint them (or anoint them?) to the highest positions in the land. While Trump’s generals — Michael Flynn, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and John Kelly — have fallen from grace at the White House, America’s generals and admirals continue to rule globally. They inhabit proconsul-like positions in sweeping geographical commands that (at least theoretically) cover the planet and similarly lead commands aimed at dominating the digital-computer realm and special operations. One of them will head a new force meant to dominate space through time eternal. A “strategic” command (the successor to the Strategic Air Command, or SAC, so memorably satirized in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) continues to ensure that, at some future moment, the U.S. will be able to commit mass genocide by quite literally destroying the world with nuclear weapons. Indeed, Pope Trump recently boasted that he could end America’s Afghan War in a week, apparently through the mass nuclear genocide of (his figure) 10 million Afghans. Even as he then blandly dismissed the idea of wiping that country “off the face of the earth,” he openly reflected the more private megalomania of those military professionals funded by the rest of us to think about “the unthinkable.” In sum, everything is — theoretically at least — under the thumbs of our unelected college of cardinals. Their overblown term for it is “full-spectrum dominance,” which, in translation, means they grant themselves god-like powers over our lives and that of our planet (though the largely undefeated enemies in their various wars don’t seem to have acknowledged this reality).

* We believe that freedom comes through obedience. Those who break ranks from our militarized church and protest, like Chelsea Manning, are treated as heretics and literally tortured.

* We believe military spending brings wealth and jobs galore, even when it measurably doesn’t. Military production is both increasingly automated and increasingly outsourced, leading to far fewer good-paying American jobs compared to spending on education, infrastructure repairs of and improvements in roads, bridges, levees, and the like, or just about anything else for that matter.

* We believe, and our most senior leaders profess to believe, that our military represents the very best of us, that we have the “finest” one in human history.

* We believe in planning for a future marked by endless wars, whether against terrorism or “godless” states like China and Russia, which means our military church must be forever strengthened in the cause of winning ultimate victory.

* Finally, we believe our religion is the one true faith. (Just as I used to be taught that the Catholic Church was the one true church and that salvation outside it was unattainable.) More pacific “religions” are dismissed as weak, misguided, and exploitative. Consider, for example, the denunciation of NATO countries that refuse to spend more money on their militaries. Such a path to the future is heretical; therefore, they must be punished.

Please read the rest of my article here at TomDispatch.com.  And please comment.  Did I miss anything in my version of America’s militarized profession of faith?

American Militarism Is Riding High

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I again turn to the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex, inspired by a critique written by J. William Fulbright almost a half-century ago.  Given the murderous and disastrous war in Southeast Asia of Fulbright’s time, many Americans back then were willing to be highly critical of the military, especially with a draft still in force.  (A draft that privileged men like Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump managed to avoid.)  Nowadays, of course, Americans are encouraged to venerate the military, to salute “our” troops, to applaud as various warplanes soar overhead, as they did during Donald Trump’s recent militaristic July 4th ceremony.  What we’re not encouraged to do is to criticize or even to question America’s vast military establishment and its enormous power, even though President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about that establishment in his famous farewell speech in 1961.

It’s high time we Americans listened to Ike as well as to J.W. Fulbright.  Let’s give the latter a close listen, shall we?

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Because nothing says “America” like tanks, fences, barriers, police, and a sign saying the way is closed to the “left”

A while back … I stumbled across Senator J. William Fulbright’s 1970 book The Pentagon Propaganda Machine and, out of curiosity, bought it for the princely sum of five dollars. Now, talk about creepy. Fulbright, who left the Senate in 1974 and died in 1995, noted a phenomenon then that should ring a distinct bell today. Americans, he wrote, “have grown distressingly used to war.” He then added a line that still couldn’t be more up to date: “Violence is our most important product.” Congress, he complained (and this, too, should ring a distinct bell in 2019), was shoveling money at the Pentagon “with virtually no questions asked,” while costly weapons systems were seen mainly “as a means of prosperity,” especially for the weapons makers of the military-industrial complex. “Militarism has been creeping up on us,” he warned, and the American public, conditioned by endless crises and warnings of war, had grown numb, leaving “few, other than the young, [to] protest against what is happening.”

Back then, of course, the bogeyman that kept the process going was Communism. America’s exaggerated fear of Communism then (and terrorism now) strengthened militarism at home in a myriad of ways while, as Fulbright put it, “undermining democratic procedure and values.” And doesn’t that ring a few bells, too? Complicit in all this was the Pentagon’s own propaganda machine, which worked hard “to persuade the American people that the military is good for you.”

Perhaps my favorite passage from that book was a message the senator received from a citizen who had attended a Pentagon rah-rah “informational seminar.”  Writing to Fulbright, he suggested that “the greatest threat to American national security is the American Military Establishment and the no-holds-barred type of logic it uses to justify its zillion-dollar existence.”

In a rousing conclusion on the “dangers of the military sell” that seems no less apt nearly a half-century later, Fulbright warned that America’s “chronic state of war” was generating a “monster [military] bureaucracy.” Citing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, he noted how “the mindless violence of war” was eroding America’s moral values and ended by emphasizing that dealing with the growth of immoral militarism was vitally important to the country’s future.

“The best defense against militarism is peace; the next best thing is the vigorous practice of democracy,” he noted, citing the dissenters of his day who opposed America’s murderous war in Southeast Asia. And he added a warning no less applicable today: Americans shouldn’t put their faith in senior military men whose “parochial talents” were too narrow “to equip them with the balance of judgment needed to play the political role they now hold in our society.”

Reading Fulbright today, I couldn’t help but recall one of my dad’s favorite sayings, translated from the French: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Sure, the weaponry may be upgraded (drones with Hellfire missiles rather than bombers dropping napalm); the names of the countries may be different (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia rather than Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia); even the stated purpose of the wars of the moment may have altered (fighting terrorism rather than defeating Communism); but over the last 50 years, the most fundamental things have remained remarkably consistent: militarism, violence, the endless feeding of the military-industrial complex, the growth of the national security state, and wars, ever more wars, always purportedly waged in the name of peace.

Sometimes when you buy a used book, it comes with a bonus. This one held between its pages a yellowed clipping of a contemporary New York Times review with the telling title, “O What a Lovely Pentagon.” In agreeing with Fulbright, the reviewer, Herbert Mitgang, himself a veteran of World War II, wrote:

“To keep up the [Pentagon] budgets, all three services compete for bigger and better armaments in coordination with the publicity salesmen from the major corporations — for whom retired generals and admirals serve as front men. Thousands of uniformed men and millions of dollars are involved in hard-selling the Pentagon way of life.”

Change “millions” to “billions” and Mitgang’s point remains as on target as ever.

Citing another book under review, which critiqued U.S. military procurement practices, Mitgang concluded: “What emerges here is a permanent floating crap game with the taxpayer as loser and Congress as banker, shelling out for Pentagon and peace profiteers with an ineptitude that would bankrupt any other business.”

Spot on, Herb Mitgang, who perhaps played his share of craps during his Army service!

As I read Fulbright’s almost 50-year-old polemic and Mitgang’s hard-hitting review, I asked myself, how did the American people come to forget, or perhaps never truly absorb, such lessons? How did we stop worrying about war and come to love the all-volunteer military quite so much? (Thank you for your service!) So much so that, today, we engorge the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state with well more than a trillion taxpayer dollars annually — and the power to match…

Read more of my essay here at TomDispatch.com.

Addendum: Along with Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Trump’s July 4th ceremony turned into a military air show of sorts.  When you read the Declaration of Independence from 1776, you’re reminded that the colonists wanted to be free of the King’s wars and their high costs.  Now, on Independence Day, we celebrate our military weaponry without mentioning the high costs, even as we ignore our unending wars.

It’s time for another political revolution against the king’s wars and their high costs.  It’s time to throw off the heavy yoke of militarism in America.

Iran Wants War!

W.J. Astore

You won’t see this illustration in the mainstream media:

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If the Iranians really wanted peace, they’d move their country.

In all seriousness, U.S. media talking heads, many of them retired military officers, are constantly talking about the aggression of others and their weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  Never do these “experts” speak of U.S. aggression and the WMD we have in our possession.  Indeed, the U.S. maintains an earth-busting arsenal of nuclear weapons, and we remain the only country to have used atomic bombs for real (at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945).  Yet we’re the ones who have to worry about Iranian nuclear weapons that don’t yet exist (and probably never will)?

Tom Engelhardt has a great new article at TomDispatch.com on how the U.S. always sees itself as the victim, as the aggrieved party, as the one who’s being threatened.  Here’s an excerpt:

So here’s the strange thing, on a planet on which, in 2017, U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to 149 countries, or approximately 75% of all nations; on which the U.S. has perhaps 800 military garrisons outside its own territory; on which the U.S. Navy patrols most of its oceans and seas; on which U.S. unmanned aerial drones conduct assassination strikes across a surprising range of countries; and on which the U.S. has been fighting wars, as well as more minor conflicts, for years on end from Afghanistan to Libya, Syria to Yemen, Iraq to Niger in a century in which it chose to launch full-scale invasions of two countries (Afghanistan and Iraq), is it truly reasonable never to identify the U.S. as an “aggressor” anywhere?

What you might say about the United States is that, as the self-proclaimed leading proponent of democracy and human rights (even if its president is now having a set of love affairs with autocrats and dictators), Americans consider ourselves at home just about anywhere we care to be on planet Earth.  It matters little how we may be armed and what we might do. Consequently, wherever Americans are bothered, harassed, threatened, attacked, we are always the ones being provoked and aggressed upon, never provoking and aggressing. I mean, how can you be the aggressor in your own house, even if that house happens to be temporarily located in Afghanistan, Iraq, or perhaps soon enough in Iran?

The U.S. as an aggressor?  Impossible!  Our military installations, our weaponry, even our wars are all about keeping the peace.  Right?

There was a time, almost 250 years ago, when Americans successfully fought for their independence (though quite a few “loyalists” preferred compromise with the British crown).  There was a time, 75 years ago, when Americans landed on the beaches of Normandy to defeat Nazi aggression.  But when you look at America’s long history of wars, precious few of them can be said to have been defensive in nature.  Indeed, most were acts of aggression, e.g. the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the long bloody wars against Native Americans, the Vietnam War, and more recent, undeclared, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dare I state the obvious?  Americans are generally not shy, diffident, passive people.  Ask most foreigners about Americans and you’ll hear words like pushy, outspoken, loud, and, yes, aggressive.  (Of course. not all Americans fit this description, but think of recent representatives like Trump, Pompeo, and Bolton or Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld.)  Yet, with all our aggressiveness, with all our violent tendencies, why do we continue to see others as the pushy ones, the headstrong ones, the ones who want war?

A little empathy, America?  Forget about it!  Come on, Iran.  It’s time to move.  And since the U.S. dominates this planet, I have the perfect destination for you.  How about Mars?

But wait: NASA wants to launch a manned mission there!  And since Mars is named after the god of war, it’s a natural for us.  Red and fiery in the sky — how long until we build our first military base there?

The Pentagon’s Long Con

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Guess what?  “The Good Ol Days” never left us!  Just think of the new “cold war” with Russia and China and the U.S. military’s call for a $1.7 trillion “investment” in new nukes!

W.J. Astore

War is a racket,” wrote General Smedley Butler in the 1930s.  Dwight D. Eisenhower warned at the end of his presidency about the military-industrial complex and its misplaced, anti-democratic power.  Martin Luther King Jr spoke against militarism and the “spiritual death” he believed Americans were suffering from in the 1960s.  As MLK put it, we’ve become a country of guided missiles and misguided men, a generation maimed and mutilated by militarism, a country seemingly in a state of permanent war.  And let’s not forget James Madison’s warning about long wars as being pernicious to liberty and freedom.

I often find myself writing variations of what Butler, Ike, MLK, and Madison warned us about generations (or centuries) ago.  All I can say in my defense is that the message bears repeating.  We’ve become a country that celebrates “our” military and militarism, a country that leads every other country in the world in weapons sales, a country that spends enormous sums ($750 billion in 2020, if Trump gets his way) on “defense” that impoverishes health care, education, infrastructure repairs, and other areas of societal wellness.

Americans are warned about socialism by the mainstream media, but they’re never warned about militarism.  I wonder why?

America is the victim of a long con orchestrated by the Pentagon and the National Security State, as I explain today in my latest article for TomDispatch.  You can read the entire article here; what follows is an extract.  As MLK said, America needs a revolution in values; we must overcome our arrogance of power and set our own house in order.  But we can’t do that until we end our mindless militarism.

How the Pentagon Took Ownership of Donald Trump

Donald Trump is a con man. Think of Trump University or a juicy Trump steak or can’t-lose casinos (that never won). But as president, one crew he hasn’t conned is the Pentagon. Quite the opposite, they’ve conned him because they’ve been at the game a lot longer and lie (in Trump-speak) in far biglier ways.

People condemn President Trump for his incessant lying and his con games — and rightly so. But few Americans condemn the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state, even though we’ve been the victims of their long con for decades now. As it happens, from the beginning of the Cold War to late last night, they’ve remained remarkably skilled at exaggerating the threats the U.S. faces and, believe me, that represents the longest con of all. It’s kept the military-industrial complex humming along, thanks to countless trillions of taxpayer dollars, while attempts to focus a spotlight on that scam have been largely discredited or ignored.

One thing should have, but hasn’t, cut through all the lies: the grimly downbeat results of America’s actual wars. War by its nature tells harsh truths — in this case, that the U.S. military is anything but “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known.” Why? Because of its almost unblemished record of losing, or at least never winning, the wars it engages in. Consider the disasters that make up its record from Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s to, in the twenty-first century, the Iraq War that began with the invasion of 2003 and the nearly 18-year debacle in Afghanistan — and that’s just to start down a list. You could easily add Korea (a 70-year stalemate/truce that remains troublesome to this day), a disastrous eight-year-old intervention in Libya, a quarter century in (and out and in) Somalia, and the devastating U.S.-backed Saudi war in Yemen, among so many other failed interventions.

In short, the U.S. spends staggering sums annually, essentially stolen from a domestic economy and infrastructure that’s fraying at the seams, on what still passes for “defense.” The result: botched wars in distant lands that have little, if anything, to do with true defense, but which the Pentagon uses to justify yet more funding, often in the name of “rebuilding” a “depleted” military. Instead of a three-pointed pyramid scheme, you might think of this as a five-pointed Pentagon scheme, where losing only wins you ever more, abetted by lies that just grow and grow. When it comes to raising money based on false claims, this president has nothing on the Pentagon. And worse yet, like America’s wars, the Pentagon’s long con shows no sign of ending. Eat your heart out, Donald Trump!

Eternal MADness

“So many lies, so little time” is a phrase that comes to mind when I think of the 40 years I’ve spent up close and personal with the U.S. military, half on active duty as an Air Force officer. Where to begin? How about with those bomber and missile “gaps,” those alleged shortfalls vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s? They amounted to Chicken Little-style sky-is-falling hoaxes, but they brought in countless billions of dollars in military funding. In fact, the “gaps” then were all in our favor, as this country held a decisive edge in both strategic bombers and nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.

Or consider the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that served to authorize horrific attacks on Vietnam in retaliation for a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. Navy destroyers that never happened. Or think about the consistent exaggeration of Soviet weapons capabilities in the 1970s (the hype surrounding its MiG-25 Foxbat fighter jet, for example) that was used to justify a new generation of ultra-expensive American weaponry. Or the justifications for the Reagan military buildup of the 1980s — remember the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”) or the MX ICBM and Pershing II missiles, not to speak of the neutron bomb and alarming military exercises that nearly brought us to nuclear war with the “Evil Empire” in 1983. Or think of another military miracle: the “peace dividend” that never arrived after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 and the last superpower (you know which one) was left alone on a planet of minor “rogue states.” And don’t forget that calamitous “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003 in the name of neutralizing weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist or the endless global war on terror that still ignores the fact that 15 of the 19 September 11th terrorist hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.

And this endless long con of the Pentagon’s was all the more effective because so many of its lies were sold by self-serving politicians.

Please go to TomDispatch.com to read the rest of this article.

A Few Observations on War, Sports, Fortresses, America, and Life

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America the beautiful?  Yes, that’s a stealth bomber designed for nuclear attack cruising over a football stadium, because America!

W.J. Astore

It’s a new year!  And as we adjust to 2019, I thought I’d share a few random observations (hopefully of some import).

“Retirement”: Many Americans fear the concept of retirement.  Part of the challenge is coming to grips with the word.  In America, your identity often hinges on your title, your job, and your paycheck.  Since retiring from teaching (after retiring from the military), I’m still mentally adjusting to not having a fixed schedule, to not having expectations on the job that have to be met. I’ve never been an especially driven person but I’ve always sought to do well. Now I have to do well on terms defined by me. It’s a mental adjustment.

One thing is certain: society is always trying to pigeonhole us.  When I tell people I’m “retired,” the immediate response is “You’re too young” or “But what do you do?” said in an incredulous voice.  To avoid this problem, sometimes I tell people I’m a writer or a historian, both true, though I currently have no salaried position as such.  To state the obvious, American culture is job-centered. Look at our health care: lose your job, lose your health insurance. So much of our identity, as well as our ability to navigate American society, is based on our jobs.

People find meaning in work.  But inspiration can be found elsewhere.  Find something of value to you that’s inspiring and I don’t think you’ll ever be “retired.”

“A man’s home is his castle”: Is it good that men are encouraged to think of their homes as their castles?  For what are castles but fortresses? And fortresses need defending, with guns and security alarms and fences and all the rest.  And if a man is Lord of his Castle, then everyone else is his subject, including his wife and children. Perhaps especially his wife and children.  We need to think of home as home, not as a castle, not as a fortress in which a man fortifies and actuates his own fears and aggression.  (This observation was inspired by an article on male violence in the home.)

On Mourning America’s War Dead: A subject worthy of discussion is how we mourn our troops. When flag-draped caskets return to American soil, our troops are honored. But they are mourned mainly within family settings, or among neighbors in close-knit communities. Rarely are they mourned within wider communal settings. And I sense that some families are torn: there is little serenity for them, not only because they lost a loved one, but because there is a sense, a suspicion, that loved ones died for lesser causes, causes unrelated to ideals held sacred.

Of course, a soldier never dies in vain when he dies for his fellow troops. But that can be said of all soldiers on all sides in all wars. In a republic like the USA, or a polis as in ancient Greece, soldiers are supposed to die for something greater than the unit. That larger purpose is a communal ideal. Call it truth, justice, and the American way. Or call it something else, a sense of rightness if not righteousness.

But where is the rightness in America’s wars today?

On America’s Standing Military and Congressional Authority:  The nation’s founders knew there’d be national emergencies that would require a larger “standing” military (i.e., not just state militias of “minutemen”), but they wanted to prevent a state of permanent war, which they attempted to do with the two-year appropriation clause. They were well familiar with history and all those hundred years’, thirty years’, and seven years’, wars.  By giving the people (Congress) the power of the purse, they hoped to prevent those long wars by cutting off open-ended funding.

Of course, today that doesn’t apply.  The AUMF (authorization for the use of military force) that dates from 2001 is used to justify a state of perpetual war and the funding of the same.  Congress has abnegated its responsibility to check overweening Executive power for war-making, but actually it’s worse than that: Congress has joined the Executive branch in pursuing perpetual war. We no longer even bother with formal Congressional declarations; permanent war is considered to be the new normal in America: business as usual.

Not only have we created a permanent standing military — we devote the lion’s share of federal resources to it and brag about how great it is.  That reality is antithetical to our national ideals as imagined and articulated by this nation’s founders.

Sports, Movies, and the Military in America:  There’s a tendency for people to dismiss sports as “just sports” or movies as “just movies.” Yet astute people recognize the power of both. The classic case is Nazi Germany and the 1936 Olympics, and of course Leni Riefenstahl and spectacles like “The Triumph of the Will.” These, of course, were blatant, in-your-face, rallies. Today, U.S. sports/military celebrations may not be as blatant, but sports connects powerfully to feel-good patriotism as fanatical boosterism, which is precisely why the military is so eager to appropriate sports imagery (and to infiltrate sporting events). The corporate sponsors see it as a win-win: a win for profits, and a win for their image as “patriots.”

Hollywood is the dream factory. Sports too has a strong fantasy element. Speaking as an American male, who hasn’t dreamed of hitting the big home run like Big Papi or pitching a no-hitter like Matt Scherzer?

Man does not live by bread alone; to a certain extent, we live by dreams. Through our aspirations. And our dreams and aspirations are being channeled along certain lines: along more military lines, both at and by sporting events as well as at the movie theater.

It’s not just crass commercialism. It’s about shaping dreams, defining what’s appropriate (and what isn’t).

Thank you for indulging me as I cram into this article a few observations I’ve been kicking around.  I’d also like as ever to thank all my readers and especially my faithful commenters and correspondents.  Fire away in the comments section, readers!

Military Clothing for Presidents? No, Sir!

W.J. Astore

A reader reminded me yesterday of an article I wrote a decade ago about U.S. presidents donning military flight jackets.  And he sent along this image of President Trump dressed up for his recent visit to the troops in Iraq:

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Here’s my article from 2010 on this subject.  You can see how much U.S. presidents listen to me.

This past weekend, President Obama made a surprise trip to Afghanistan, during which he doffed his civilian coat and tie and donned a “Commander-in-chief” leather flight jacket provided to him by the Air Force. I suppose the president believed he could better connect with the troops by wearing “less formal” garb; I suppose as well he thought he was honoring the military by wearing the flight jacket associated with Air Force One. But as snazzy as the president may have looked in his flight jacket (and I liked my jacket when I was in the Air Force), his decision to don it was a blunder.

No, I’m not saying the president is a military wannabe; I’m not saying the president is a poseur. What I’m saying is that the president, whether he knows it or not, is blurring the vitally important distinction between a democratically-elected, thoroughly civilian, commander-in-chief and the military members the president commands in our — the people’s — name.

Though the president commands our military, he is not, strictly speaking, a member of it. Rather, as our highest ranking public servant, he stands above it, exercising the authority granted to him by the Constitution to command the military in the people’s name.

Whenever the president addresses our troops, he should, indeed he must, appear in civilian clothing, because that’s precisely what he is: a civilian, a very special one, to be sure, but that’s what he is — and what he always must be.

We must wean ourselves from Hollywood illusions that our president should parade around like the ultimate fighter pilot (even if, once upon a time, he flew fighters, like George W. Bush did). This is not the set of “Independence Day.” Neither is it a photo op.

President Obama admires Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln visited General George McClellan during our Civil War, he didn’t don a military greatcoat; instead, with army tents and uniformed men all around him, Lincoln dared to look incongruous in his dress civilian clothes, complete with top hat.

Incongruous? Perhaps. But look closely at the photo: Never was Lincoln’s authority clearer.

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And that’s the point: Lincoln knew he was a civilian commander-in-chief. Precisely by not donning military clothing, he asserted his ultimate civilian authority over McClellan and the army.

Please, President Obama (and all future presidents): Put away the flight jackets and other militaria when you address our troops. Appear as the civilian commander-in-chief that you are. By doing so, you remind our troops that they are citizens first, and soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen second.

As our wars grow ever longer, that’s a reminder that should loom ever larger.

Addendum (12/18): Besides taking multiple draft deferments during the Vietnam War, it appears Donald Trump had the help of two podiatrists who rented space from his father.  Those doctors appear to have done Young Trump a favor by diagnosing him with heel spurs, which disqualified him from being drafted.  And yet Trump the draft dodger is now proud to wear military clothing and to boast that “nobody does military better than me.”  What a country we live in!

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Another shot of Trump in a flight jacket.  Why didn’t Melania get one?

Nations as Machines for War

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British machine gun unit in World War I: repetitive mass shootings

W.J. Astore

Back in 1992, when I was thinking about what to write my dissertation on, I put together a statement of intent and a bibliography.  My statement was titled, “Economic Mobilization and National Strategies in Great Britain and France during the Great War.”  As it turns out, I decided not to pursue a military subject, turning instead to science and religion, an area I examined when I pursued my master’s degree.  I was reminded of all this as I looked through old documents this weekend in pursuit of references for a friend.

Anyway, here’s my statement from 1992 about World War I as a killing machine:

The Great War was a struggle waged by modern industrial juggernauts.  The Western Front witnessed organized destruction on a scale heretofore thought impossible. Staggered by the costs of modern war, all combatants mobilized their economies, with varying degrees of success.

All countries in 1914 expected a short war and lacked plans for economic mobilization. Confronted by a stalemate on the Western Front which owed everything to modern industrialism, Britain and France drastically modified their economies. In Britain, the “Shells Scandal” provoked a cabinet crisis and the establishment of a new ministry of munitions, headed by David Lloyd George.  Riding roughshod over the army’s traditional procurement practices, Lloyd George worked production miracles. Fed by massive imports of coal and metal from England, France embarked on an industrial program characterized by massive improvisation. Together, Britain and France formed an industrial alliance that proved to be a war-winning “arsenal of democracy”.

My dissertation will examine the efforts of Britain and France to gear their economies for war. I will focus on cooperation between the two countries. Since the Great War was primarily an industrial war, events in the economic sphere largely determined national strategies. My dissertation will also examine how economic concerns drove military strategy and operations on the Western Front.

As a preliminary thesis, I hold that the “industrial miracle” of Britain and France led to an overvaluing of machines at the soldiers’ expense. For Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and others like him, the new artillery with its massive stockpile of shells was a deus ex machina, a winning god of war. In his hands, soldiers became little more than power units, trained automatons who at the Somme in 1916 only needed to walk across no-man’s land and occupy the enemy’s trenches.

Overwhelmed by the conditions of modern warfare, British and French commanders placed too much faith in machines. Far from underestimating the impact of technology on the battlefield, they saw it as a panacea. Triumphs of production were frittered away in battle due to inadequate training and insufficient attention to tactical performance.  Worst of all, as commanders consumed vast quantities of munitions, they seemed to become hardened to an expenditure of lives on a similar, but infinitely more horrendous, scale.

Furthermore, as economic means were mobilized, sacrifices incurred by destructive industrialism drove nations to inflate strategic ends and incite national will. Total economic warfare led to heightened political demands, eliminating chances for compromise; an incited populace could only be calmed by total victory. War was not politics by other means; it was industrial production by any means. This was not at the bequest of a “merchants of death” cartel; it was the natural outcome of a crisis which turned nations into machines for war.

In a sense, modern war became equivalent to modern industrialism, and vice-versa. Lewis Mumford suggests that “The army is in fact the ideal form toward which a purely mechanical system of industry must tend.” The individual soldier was reduced to a power unit and trained to be an automaton.  Mass production and mass conscription had much in common, Mumford notes.  “Quantity production must rely for its success upon quantity consumption; and nothing ensures replacement like organized destruction.”

The Great War witnessed a crisis of morale, and at the root of this crisis was the realization that military power had grown uncontrollable, and this was directly attributable to weapons technology. What disturbed so many was the futility of their efforts: the decidedly unheroic deaths awaiting them.  As historian Paul Kennedy observed, victory went to the side whose combination of both military-naval and financial-industrial-technological resources was the greatest.

Extreme military effort drove countries to pursue extreme political gains.  Nations became machines for war and little else.

Looking back, I can see why I didn’t pursue this.  I wasn’t interested in economic mobilization; what really interested me was how warfare had changed, how nations became war machines, how it altered the politics of nations and the mindset of peoples.  In a way, fascism in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere in the 1920s and 1930s was the logical outcome of near-total war mobilization in World War I.

Consider the United States today.  The U.S. dominates the world’s trade in weaponry.  The U.S. spends enormous sums of money on its military.  The U.S. is devoted to the machinery of warfare, celebrating its weapons of mass destruction at various sporting events.  The U.S. is even planning on revamping its world-destroying nuclear arsenal at a cost of $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years.  All of this is considered “normal” in what Americans still consider as the world’s leading democracy.

Yet, how can a machine for war be consistent with democracy?  How did we come to see more and more weapons — even WMD — as the guarantor of peace and freedom?  How did the machinery of war become synonymous with the health of the state?  What does it say about us as a nation?