The Deeply Disturbing Trump-Merkel Press Conference

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Trump, in his own militarized world

W.J. Astore

Yesterday’s Trump-Merkel Press Conference was disturbing on several levels.  Worst of all was the scene of a German Chancellor listening to an American president boast about how strong his military is, and how much stronger it soon will be. Not that long ago in historical terms, Germany was a country that stressed military dominance. Two lost world wars cured Germany of its militarism. American militarism has taken its place.

As Trump responded to questions, again and again he returned to the U.S. military, vowing that he’s going to strengthen it from its “depleted” condition, perhaps to a level of power that “we’ve never seen before.”

America as a country is “very strong, very strong,” said Trump, a “very powerful company/country,” and soon the U.S. military would be “stronger,” and “perhaps far stronger than ever before.”  Naturally, the president added that he hoped he wouldn’t have to use that “far stronger” military, even as the U.S. military garrisons the globe at more than 700 bases while launching ongoing attacks against “radical Islamic terrorism” (Trump loves enunciating those three words) in places like Yemen.

Merkel and Trump hold a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington
She’s right to be worried …

This coming year, Trump is enlarging the military with a fresh influx of $54 billion.  “My generals,” as Trump likes to refer to James Mattis and John Kelly and Company, support him in part because he’s boosting military spending.  But will they continue to support Trump and his advisers like Steve Bannon when the President uses that “much stronger” military in unwise ways?

When you forge a bigger hammer, you tend not to leave it unused in the tool shed.  No — you look for bigger nails to strike.  As Trump noted at the press conference, he’s not an isolationist.  “Fake news,” he said.

That Trump, with his “far stronger” military, is not an isolationist is disturbing “real” news indeed.  Small wonder that the German Chancellor looked discomfited; her country has seen it all before.

What price military dominance?  Perhaps Chancellor Merkel could explain that to President Trump, if only he’d listen.

Can Trump Tame the Pentagon?

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Can Trump tame the Pentagon?

W.J. Astore

Will Donald Trump keep his campaign promise to end America’s wasteful wars overseas?  Since he’s stated he knows more than America’s generals, will he rein them in?  Will he bring major reforms to the military-industrial complex, or will he be nothing but talk and tweets?

At Trump’s first news conference today as president-elect, he had little to say about the military, except once again to complain about the high cost of the F-35 jet fighter program.  The questions asked of him dealt mainly with Russia, hacking, potential conflicts of interest, and Obamacare.  These are important issues, but how Trump will handle the Pentagon and his responsibilities as commander-in-chief are arguably of even greater import.

Ironically, the last president who had some measure of control over the military-industrial complex was the retired general who coined the term: Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Another president – Jimmy Carter – attempted to exercise some control, e.g. he cancelled the B-1 bomber, a pet project of the U.S. Air Force, only to see it revived under Ronald Reagan.

Excepting Carter, U.S. presidents since Ike have issued blank checks to the military, the Pentagon, and its bewildering array of contractors.  Whether Democrats (JFK, LBJ, Clinton, Obama) or Republicans (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, the Bushes), rubber-stamping Pentagon priorities has been a common course of presidential action, aided by a willing Congress that supports military spending to “prime the economic pump” and create jobs.

Ike, of course, was hardly perfect, but he had the cred to command the military, to rein it in, perhaps as much as any one man could in the climate of fear generated by McCarthyism and the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s.  Hardly a pacifist, Ike nevertheless came to hate war.  Can we imagine any president nowadays writing these words?

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Ike’s wisdom stemmed from his experience with the bloody awfulness of war. Recent presidents, by comparison, have been unstinting in their praise of the U.S. military.  Ronald Reagan, who had a cozy job in Hollywood during World War II, was a snappy saluter who oversaw a major military expansion.  More recently, Barack Obama, with no military experience, went out of his way to praise the U.S. military in hyperbolic terms as the “greatest” in human history.

Recent presidents have idolized the military, perhaps because they either never served in it or never really experienced its foibles and faults, its flaws and failings.  Perhaps as well they’ve celebrated the military because they saw it as a popular and easy form of patriotism.  But the Pentagon needs a commander-in-chief, not a cheerleader-in-chief.  It needs to be challenged, it needs a boot up its collective ass, if it’s ever going to reform its prodigal ways.

Trump has been critical of the military, an encouraging sign.  But his appointment of retired generals to key positions of power suggests conformity and business as usual.  Trump himself is a military poseur, a man impatient with facts, a man who didn’t know what the nuclear triad was even as he talked of (false) nuclear gaps vis-à-vis Russia.

Even as he talked of wasteful wars and clueless generals, Trump promised to use the U.S. military as a battering ram to smash America’s enemies.  He promised as well to rebuild the military, increasing the Pentagon budget while taking the fight to ISIS, words that suggest President Trump won’t often say “no” to the national security state.  Ike, however, could and did say “no.”  He had the toughness to weather the predictable Pentagon, Congressional, and military/corporate storms.  Will Trump?

Again, the last president to lead a novel initiative in national security was Jimmy Carter, with his focus on human rights.  Dismissed as naïve and pusillanimous, he became a one-term president.  Trump has promised to end wasteful wars, to re-prioritize federal spending to focus on internal “security” measures such as national infrastructure, and to make NATO and other U.S. allies pay their fair share of defense costs.

If he carries through on these promises, he’ll be the first president since Ike to make a measurable and significant course correction to America’s warship of state.  But first he needs to be held to account, most certainly at press conferences but elsewhere as well.  Endless war is a threat to democracy; so too are politicians who posture but do nothing to rein in militarism, imperialism, and authoritarianism.

If Trump combines the two, if he doubles down on incessant war and a cult of authority, American democracy may suffer a mortal blow.

More on Trump’s Generals

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W.J. Astore

In a longer article for TomDispatch.com, I recently wrote about Donald Trump’s team of generals for national defense and homeland security. Trump wants four senior retired generals, two from the Army and two from the Marine Corps, to serve as his senior civilian advisers in matters of defense and security.

Here’s the point: You simply can’t have civilian control of the military when you appoint senior generals to these positions.

I’m astonished more Americans aren’t outraged at this. It’s a sign of how much militarism has gripped our nation and government, as well as the sweep and scope of the national security state.

I was reading Samuel Hynes’ excellent book, The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War, and came across two passages that resonated with me. In talking about war as a culture, Hynes notes that “Military traditions, values, and patterns of behavior penetrate every aspect of army [and Marine Corps] life and make the most ordinary acts and feelings different.”

The generals Trump is hiring are all military careerists, men whose “traditions, values, and patterns of behavior” are steeped in the ways of the Army and Marine Corps, affecting even “the most ordinary acts and feelings.” Their behavior, their commitments, their loyalties, their world views, are the antithesis to civilian culture and to the ethos of democracy. (For example, General James Mattis, Trump’s selection as Secretary of Defense, is most often described as a “warrior-monk,” a man with a Spartan-like dedication to war.  But would Athens have anointed a Spartan, even as its minister of war?)

Again, the point is not to attack the military. It’s that the U.S. government already has plenty of generals in charge, wielding enormous authority. Trump’s decision to add yet another layer of military authority to his government makes it less of a democracy and more of a junta.

A second point from Hynes. He notes how most citizen-soldiers in America’s military past were not war-lovers, but that a few were, notably General George S. Patton. In the same breath, Hynes notes that dictators like Hitler and Mussolini “loved war.”

Which American general does Trump profess to admire the most? George S. Patton. And who among his generals most resembles Patton as a “real” warrior? According to Trump, it’s General Mattis.

Again, the point is not to attack the military, but rather to note the U.S. national security state already has plenty of warriors and warfighters in charge. Putting an alleged Patton-clone in charge of the Pentagon represents an abrogation of two centuries of American tradition that insisted on civilian supremacy over the military.

Given his inflammatory tweets about nuclear arms races with their “bring it on” mentality, Trump has all the makings of tinpot provocateur, an unstable military poseur who likes to speak loudly while swinging a nuclear-tipped stick. Will Trump’s generals, his Pattons and MacArthurs, serve as a check to his provocations and his posturings? It doesn’t seem likely.

Congress should reject Trump’s choices for Secretary of Defense (Mattis) and Homeland Security (Kelly). Not because these retired generals are bad men, but because they are the wrong kind of people. If you want civilian control of the military (and don’t we still want that?), you need to hire true civilians. Men and women whose identities haven’t been forged in armories. Independent thinkers and patriots with some history of dissent.

How about someone like Daniel Ellsberg for Secretary of Defense? And, since global warming is a huge threat to the U.S., how about Bill McKibben for Homeland Security?

After all, whether they’re in or out of uniform, the U.S. government already has plenty of generals.

Prussia Without the Victories: Kaiser Trump’s Cabinet of Generals

Trump holds a rally with supporters at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Michigan, U.S.
Kaiser Trump is surrounding himself with generals

W.J. Astore

In my latest article at TomDispatch.com, “All the President’s Generals,” I examine Trump’s affection for retired military generals to fill America’s most senior civilian positions related to national defense.  I urge you to read the entire article at TomDispatch.com; here I wish to focus on the quartet of generals/warriors Trump is empowering as part of his drive to “win” again.  Trump seems most pleased that “his” generals are allegedly cut from the same cloth as George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur, two of America’s most anti-democratic generals.

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us.  Like Prussia in the age of Frederick the Great, America is increasingly becoming a colossal military establishment with a state attached to it. Unlike Prussia, our colossus is not producing any meaningful victories.  And no one, I think, would confuse the educated and enlightened Frederick with America’s angry and undisciplined Tweeter-in-chief.

Too Many Generals Spoil the Democracy (from TomDispatch.com)

General officers, by the way, have come to resemble a self-replicating organism.  The grooming process, favoring homogeneity as it does, is partly to blame. Disruptive creativity and a reputation for outspokenness can mark one as not being a “team player.”  Political skills and conformity are valued more highly.  It’s a mistake, then, to assume that America’s generals are the best and the brightest. “The curated and the calculating” is perhaps a more accurate description.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Trump’s chosen threesome, starting with General Mattis.  He has his virtues: a distinguished career in the Marine Corps, a sensible stance against torture, a dedication to all ranks within the military.  Yet like so many high-ranking military retirees — take General Mark Welsh of the Air Force, for example — Mattis quickly cashed in on his career, reputation, and continuing influence via the military-industrial complex.  Despite a six-figure pension, he joined corporate boards, notably that of military-industrial powerhouse General Dynamics where he quickly earned or acquired nearly $1.5 million in salary and stock options.  Mattis is also on the board at Theranos, a deeply troubled company that failed to deliver on promises to develop effective blood-testing technologies for the military.

And then, of course, there was his long military career, itself a distinctly mixed bag.  As head of U.S. Central Command under President Obama, for instance, his hawkish stance toward Iran led to his removal and forced retirement in 2013.  Almost a decade earlier in 2004, the aggressive tactics he oversaw in Iraq as commanding general of the 1st Marine Division during the Battle of Fallujah have been characterized by some as war crimes.  For Trump, however, none of this matters.  Mattis, much like General Patton (in the president-elect’s view), is a man who “plays no games.”

And Mattis seems like the voice of reason and moderation compared to Flynn, whose hatred of Islam is as virulent as it is transparent.  Like Trump, Flynn is a fan of tweeting, perhaps his most infamous being “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”  A brusque man convinced of his own rectitude, who has a reputation for not playing well with others, Flynn was forced from his position as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014, after which he became a harsh critic of the Obama administration.

In his brief retirement, Flynn served as a paid lobbyist to a Turkish businessman with close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, while running a business consultancy that is due to profit by providing surveillance drones to patrol the U.S.-Mexican border.  Rising to prominence during the Trump campaign, he led the chant against Hillary Clinton (“Lock her up!”) at the Republican National Convention in July.  (His son recently helped spread the false rumor that Clinton was involved in a child sex trafficking ring involving a Washington, D.C., pizzeria.)  Flynn, who sees Islam as a political conspiracy rather than a legitimate religion, is an angry warrior, a dyed-in-the-wool crusader.  That Trump sees such a figure as qualified to serve as the nation’s senior civilian security adviser speaks volumes about the president-elect and the crusading militarism that is likely to be forthcoming from his administration.

Serving in a supporting capacity to Flynn as chief of staff of the National Security Council (NSC) is yet another high-ranking military man (and early supporter of Trump’s presidential run), Army retired Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg.  Almost a generation older than Flynn, Kellogg served as chief operations officer for the ill-fated Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, which badly mismanaged the U.S. military’s occupation of the country after the fall of Baghdad in 2003.  Like most retired generals, Kellogg has profited from close links to defense-related industries, including CACI International, Oracle Corporation (Homeland Security Division), and Cubic, where he was senior vice president for ground combat programs.  It’s hard to see fresh ideas coming from the NSC with long-serving military diehards like Flynn and Kellogg ruling the roost.

General John Kelly, the last of the quartet and soon to be head of the Department of Homeland Security, is yet another long-serving Marine with a reputation for bluntness.  He opposed efforts by the Obama administration to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, claiming that the remaining detainees were “all bad boys,” both guilty and dangerous.  He also ran afoul of the administration by criticizing efforts to open combat positions to qualified servicewomen, claiming such efforts were “agenda-driven” and would lead to lower standards and decreased military combat effectiveness.  Despite these views, or perhaps because of them, Kelly, who served as senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and has been well vetted by the system, is likely to be confirmed with little real debate.

Of Coups and Crusades

Collectively, the team of Mattis, Flynn, and Kelly could not be more symbolic of the ongoing process of subversion of civilian control of the military.  With Trump holding their reins, these self-styled warriors will soon take charge of the highest civilian positions overseeing the military of the world’s sole superpower.  Don’t think of this, however, as a “Seven Days in May” scenario in which a hard-headed general mounts a coup against an allegedly soft-hearted president.  It’s far worse.  Who needs a coup when generals are essentially to be given free rein by a president-elect who fancies himself a military expert because, as a teenager, he spent a few years at a military-themed boarding school?

In all of this, Trump represents just the next (giant) step in an ongoing process.  His warrior-steeds, his “dream team” of generals, highlight America’s striking twenty-first-century embrace of militarism.

Read the entire article at TomDispatch.com.  Many thanks.

Greed-War: The Power and Danger of the Military-Industrial Complex

Ike
Ike in 1959: Too critical of the military to be elected today

W.J. Astore

President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his most powerful speech as he left office in 1961.  He warned the American people about an emerging military-industrial complex, a complex that was already beginning to erode democratic rule in America.  Originally, Ike had Congress as a collaborator with and enabler of that Complex, but he deleted the reference in the final version, apparently deciding that by alienating Members of Congress, he’d only push them further into the Complex’s corner.

The military-industrial complex, the Complex for short, has only grown in power over the last half-century.  Today, more than half of Federal discretionary funding goes to it.  With the post-9/11 addition of Homeland Security and more and more intelligence agencies (seventeen of them at last count), the Complex continues to grow like Topsy.  It consumes roughly $750 billion each and every year, a sum likely to grow whether Trump or Clinton wins the presidency.  (Trump has promised to rebuild an allegedly shattered military; Clinton, meanwhile, is a steadfast supporter of the military as well as neo-con principles of aggressive foreign interventionism.)

In the U.S. today, the Complex is almost unchallengeable.  This is not only because of its size and power.  The Complex has worked to convince Americans that war is inevitable and therefore endless (it’s never the fault of the Complex, of course: it’s the terrorists, or the Russians, or the Chinese …), and also that military service (and spending) is virtuous and therefore a boon to democracy.

America’s founders like James Madison thought differently, knowing from bitter experience and deep learning that incessant wars and standing militaries are an insidious threat to democracy.  Nowadays, however, Americans say they trust their military more than any other societal institution, and mainstream society universally celebrates “our” troops as selfless heroes, the very best of America.  This moral, indeed metaphysical, elevation of the U.S. military serves to silence legitimate criticism of its failings as well as its corrosive effect on democratic principles and values.

All of these topics I’ve written about before, but I wish to cite them again by way of introducing an article by Maximilian C. Forte, an anthropologist who writes at Zero Anthropology (I first saw his work at Fabius Maximus).  The article Forte wrote is on Bernie Sanders and his limitations, but what struck me most was his reference to C. Wright Mills and his analysis of the nexus of interests and power between U.S. capitalism and militarism.

The following extended excerpt from Forte’s article shines much light into the darker corners of America’s corridors of power:

In The Power Elite (1956) and “The Structure of Power in American Society” (The British Journal of Sociology, March 1958), Mills’ explanations can look like an elaborated, in-depth version of what former president Dwight Eisenhower described as the military-industrial complex, but with a stronger focus on the role of private corporations and special interest lobbies. These approaches endure today — because the problem they describe and analyze continues — as shown in the work of anthropologists such as Wedel on Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market[as well as works by other authors that showcase] the relationship between the stock market, multinational corporations and the US’ CIA-led coups against foreign governments …

For C. Wright Mills, the problem was not just “Wall St.,” nor the “Pentagon” alone — focusing on one over the other produces a half-headed understanding, with all of the political demerits that result. As he argued in his 1958 article, “the high military, the corporation executives, the political directorate have tended to come together to form the power elite of America” (pp. 32-33). The power elite is what he described as a “triangle of power,” linking corporations, executive government, and the military: “There is a political economy numerously linked with military order and decision. This triangle of power is now a structural fact, and it is the key to any understanding of the higher circles in America today” (Mills, 1958, p. 32).

Contrary to Bernie Sanders, Mills emphasizes the decisive influence of the military in the corporate oligarchic state (as Kapferer later called it):

“The military order, once a slim establishment in a context of civilian distrust, has become the largest and most expensive feature of government; behind smiling public relations, it has all the grim and clumsy efficiency of a great and sprawling bureaucracy. The high military have gained decisive political and economic relevance. The seemingly permanent military threat places a premium upon them and virtually all political and economic actions are now judged in terms of military definitions of reality: the higher military have ascended to a firm position within the power elite of our time”. (Mills, 1958, p. 33)

US politics are dominated, Mills argued, “by a few hundred corporations, administratively and politically interrelated, which together hold the keys to economic decision,” and the economy that results is “at once a permanent-war economy and a private-corporation economy”:

“The most important relations of the corporation to the state now rest on the coincidence between military and corporate interests, as defined by the military and the corporate rich, and accepted by politicians and public”. (Mills, 1958, p. 33)

Mills also pays attention to the history of this type of corporate-military state. The influence of private lobbies dates back deep into US political history, when the influence of railway tycoons, banana magnates, and tobacco barons was considerable at different times. From this Mills discerned the rise of what he called the “invisible government,” which existed starting from at least 50 years prior to his 1958 article…

“Fifty years ago many observers thought of the American state as a mask behind which an invisible government operated. But nowadays, much of what was called the old lobby, visible or invisible, is part of the quite visible government. The ‘governmentalization of the lobby’ has proceeded in both the legislative and the executive domain, as well as between them. The executive bureaucracy becomes not only the centre of decision but also the arena within which major conflicts of power are resolved or denied resolution. ‘Administration’ replaces electoral politics; the maneuvering of cliques (which include leading Senators as well as civil servants) replaces the open clash of parties”. (Mills, 1958, p. 38)

The corporate-military government is tied to US global dominance, and its power increased dramatically from 1939 onwards. As Mills noted, “the attention of the elite has shifted from domestic problems — centered in the ’thirties around slump — to international problems centered in the ’forties and ’fifties around war” (1958, p. 33). (As I argued elsewhere, this shift also registers in US anthropology, which moved from research at home, on domestic social problems, to fieldwork abroad as the dominant norm.)

Rather than challenge the arms industry, whose growing size and power stunned Eisenhower, Sanders would simply tax them more. It is open to debate whether Sanders is offering even half of a solution, and whether he sees even half of the bigger picture. Usually Sanders has voted in favour of military appropriations, supported the financing of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has backed a range of regime change and “humanitarian interventionist” efforts, from NATO’s war in Kosovo, to support for the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act and for regime change in Libya (contrary to his false representations on the latter point). He is also an aggressive supporter of NATO and its anti-Russian posture. While he is not even half of anti-imperialist, some might argue that it is also too generous to see him as half of a socialist–either way, we need to do better than beat each other up with half-answers.

*** 

Forte’s criticism of Sanders is spot on.  My guess is that Sanders refused to take on the Complex precisely because of its financial, its political, and finally its cultural and societal clout.  There are only so many windmills you can tilt at, Sanders may have decided.  Yet, notwithstanding his willingness to appease the Complex, Sanders has been relegated to the sidelines by a corrupt Democratic establishment that did everything it could to ensure that one of its own, Complex-abettor Hillary Clinton, won the party nomination.

The fundamental problem for the U.S. today is as obvious as it appears insoluble.  The Complex has co-opted both political parties, Republican and Democratic.  It has at the same time redefined patriotism in militaristic terms, and loyalty in terms of unquestioning support of, even reverence for, American military adventurism and interventionism.  Candidates who have rival ideas, such as Libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein, are simply not allowed on the stage.  Their voices of dissent are suppressed.  They are never heard within the mainstream.

Johnson, for example, has suggested cuts to the Complex approaching 20%; Jill Stein has suggested cuts as deep as 50%.  Such suggestions, of course, are never seriously discussed in mainstream America.  Indeed, when they’re mentioned at all, they’re instantly dismissed by the “power elite” as the ravings of weak-kneed appeasers or unserious ignoramuses.  (Johnson, for example, is now depicted as an ignoramus by the mainstream media because he couldn’t place Aleppo or instantly name a foreign leader he adored.)

We have a new reality in U.S. government and society today: the Complex essentially rules unchallenged.  Back in the 1950s, Ike had the military and political authority to constrain it.  Today, well, no.  There are no restraints.  Just look at Hillary and Trump, both boasting of how many generals and admirals support them, as if they couldn’t run for office unless they’d been anointed by men in military uniforms wearing stars.

And America calls this democracy?

Democracy in America is dying.  It’s dying because it’s being strangled by winner-take-all capitalism and corrosive militarism.  Greed-war is consuming America’s resources.  Not just material, not just political, but mental and emotional resources as well.  The greed-war nexus as represented and nurtured by the Complex and its power elite is both narrowing and coloring the horizons of America.  Tortured by mindless fear and overwrought concerns about weakness and decline, Americans embrace the Complex ever tighter.

The result: America builds (and sells) more weapons, supports higher military spending, and wages more war.  Trump or Clinton, the war song remains the same.  It’s a narrowing of national horizons, a betrayal of American promise, that we will overcome only when we reject greed-war.

Afterword: The sad part is that Martin Luther King said it far better than I can fifty years ago in this speech on Vietnam.  Ike in 1961, MLK in 1967, both prophetic, both largely ignored today for their insights into the “spiritual death” represented by greed-war.  Even earlier, General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Medal of Honor, argued in the 1930s that war is a racket and that it would end only when the profit motive was eliminated from it.

So, if I had one question for Hillary and Trump, this would be it: When it comes to your decision to enlarge the military-industrial complex, to feed it ever more money and resources, what makes your decision right and the warnings of Ike, MLK, and General Butler wrong?

The U.S. Military in Science Fiction

W.J. Astore

Two weeks ago, I did an interview with TheoFantastique on the military in science fiction. I’d like to thank John Morehead, the site’s creator, for inviting me to answer a few questions on a subject near and dear to my heart.

TheoFantastique: Bill, thanks for making a little time to respond to a few questions related to the subject matter of your article. What are some general observations you have made about the shift in science fiction film depictions of the American military from the post-World War II period to the present?

3175_8dayearth_lgBill Astore: Thanks for inviting me, John. I grew up in the late 1960s and 1970s, in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Films of that era were generally critical of the establishment, including sci-fi films. I fondly recall Planet of the Apes with its anti-nuclear message. Also Soylent Green with its warning about over-population, but even more dire was the way in which the authorities hid from the people the true nature of their new food source. Think also of Capricorn One, hardly a great film, but one which exposed a government conspiracy at the heart of the first manned mission to Mars. And Silent Running with Bruce Dern. The basic message was how humans were destroying planet earth, often due to nuclear war or environmental destruction, or both. Finally, Logan’s Run was a favorite of mine, but again the message was how the government of that world hid from the people the true nature of life outside of the bubble.

I remember seeing Alien in the theater and being blown away by the alien “birth” scene. But again the theme of that film was you can’t trust the authorities, who wanted the “alien” at any cost, i.e. the crew was expendable. Think of Outland as well with Sean Connery: yet more corruption among the establishment, this time involving drugs and production quotas in space mining. Here the workers were expendable.

I know I’m digressing from your question, but my general point is this: Sci-Fi films (and stories) are generally questioning (or questing, perhaps). They are usually not pro-military or pro-authority. Put differently, for every Starship Troopers there’s a Bill the Galactic Hero as a counterweight.

Think of one of my all-time favorite films, The Day the Earth Stood Still. The military is completely ineffectual in that film. Worse: the military contributes to the problem. Similarly, in the 1950s lots of films were made about the dangers of nuclear war and radiation. The military usually didn’t emerge in a favorable light in those films, if I recall correctly.

I think this began to change with films like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Star Wars could be read as apolitical (“a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”), even if that wasn’t George Lucas’s intent. In Close Encounters, a terrific film that I saw in the theater, the authorities actually know what they’re doing. They greet the alien mothership peacefully, and communicate with music and light instead of guns and nukes. Again, I don’t think Spielberg was making a pro-authority or pro-military film, but I believe he didn’t want to make a political film, a film like The Day the Earth Stood Still.

7ef4082d1After these two films, Hollywood embraced space operas and feel-good movies. There were exceptions, of course. One of my favorite movies is Starman with Jeff Bridges. Again, the authorities only want the alien for the powers he brings with him. Think too of The Man Who Fell to Earth and the way in which his life is corrupted by human excess. Doesn’t he get addicted to television?

The movie that really changed it all was Independence Day, a perfect film in the aftermath of Desert Storm (the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait). Here, of course, the militaries of various countries come together to defeat the aliens, led by an American president who climbs into the cockpit to lead the charge himself. This proved so popular that it’s no surprise George W. Bush tried to replicate the scene in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (his infamous landing on an aircraft carrier, followed by his “Mission Accomplished” victory speech).

TheoFantastique: What represents much of the portrayal of the U.S. and its military, and what does this say back to us by way of reflection on American militarism around the world?

Bill Astore: I think many, if not most, Americans now want to see the U.S. military portrayed in a positive light in films. Since the 1980s, and especially since the 1990s, Americans have been told to “support our troops.” After 9/11, ordinary Americans were taught and told we live in a dangerous world filled with “alien” terrorists, and that we had to submit to authority to combat and defeat those “aliens.”

area51-independence-day-attackSome recent sci-fi films, I believe, have come to celebrate the military, its weaponry, and its can-do spirit of “warriors.” They’ve played it safe, in other words. In some cases, film makers may have curried favor with the Pentagon as a way of securing military cooperation in filming. For example, to secure access to bases, to advanced technologies such as the F-22 and F-35 jet fighters, and so on. It makes their films “sexier” to have such access.

I’m sure some would say, So what? What’s wrong with a summer blockbuster that portrays military action in a favorable light? To that I’d say: reel war is nothing like real war. The best science fiction films — or the memorable ones — inspire us to dream of bettering ourselves as individuals and as a species. And I think the best films still seek to challenge us to be more noble, more benevolent, more compassionate.

TheoFantastique:
How do you feel as a retired Air Force officer about current science fiction’s perspective on the U.S. military?

Bill Astore:
I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m glad that films are not universally anti-military. On the other hand, I’m upset that many films tend to glorify battle and war. War often looks very sexy and exciting in today’s crop of sci-fi action flicks. We need to remember that war is bloody awful, and that lasers and light sabers would not make it any less awful.

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Surging to Defeat: Learning from the Germans

armor show

W.J. Astore

I recently read “Armor and Blood” by Dennis Showalter.  It’s about the Battle of Kursk in July of 1943, the massive, last-ditch offensive by the Nazis on the Eastern Front, and how the Soviet Army was able to stymy it, seize the initiative, and take the offensive for good.  As Showalter notes, the Nazi offensive at Kursk in 1943 was much like the Ludendorff Offensives in the Spring of 1918 near the end of World War I.  They were offensives of desperation.  As General Ludendorff said in 1918, first we’ll punch a hole in the enemy’s lines, and then we’ll see.  Tactical zeal (and wishful thinking) took the place of careful strategic calculation.

In 1918 as well as in 1943, the German military was given free rein to pursue a military solution when there wasn’t one to be had.  Germany simply didn’t have the military means for the strategic end they sought to achieve.  In 1918, Ludendorff believed he could defeat the Entente forces (the French, British, and other allies, to include the rapidly arriving Americans) on the Western Front, but his offensives only served to weaken his own army, ensuring its exhaustion and defeat by that November.  In 1943, Hitler gambled he could defeat the Soviet Army at Kursk, but his massive offensive only weakened his own army, ensuring its exhaustion and eventual defeat in the spring of 1945.  Both times, more military action only precipitated defeat and disaster.

Is the United States the inheritor of this Germanic bias?  Instead of punching a hole, the U.S. military speaks of “surges.”  It surged in Iraq in 2007.  It surged in Afghanistan in 2010-11.  But after each “surge,” the situation in those countries was basically the same – and, over time, grew worse.

Of course, U.S. “surges,” in each case involving roughly 30,000 additional troops, were in scale dwarfed by the German offensives in 1918 and 1943, involving millions of men and the movement of entire armies.  But scale is less important than process.  In each case, “victory” was staked on more military action, in part because both Germans and Americans believed themselves to be in the possession of “the finest fighting forces in the history of the world.”  Neither, of course, would admit that they were fighting on foreign soil, that the enemy had agency too, and that the longer the fighting continued, the weaker they grew as the enemy grew stronger.  So, in the name of “victory” the German and American “surges” played themselves out, and nothing changed strategically – there were no victories to be had.

The Germans, of course, drove themselves to utter collapse, both in 1918 and especially in 1945, after which they could no longer fool themselves as to the success of their “surges.”  A superpower with enormous resources, the United States is not yet on the verge of collapse.  But enormous budgetary deficits, driven in part by endless wars and a plethora of imperial commitments and overseas bases, are gradually eating away at the sinews of American strength, even as militarism eats away at the marrow of democracy.

After their utter defeat in 1945, the Germans learned to avoid endless war and the seductions of militarism.  The question is: Will it require a total collapse of the American Empire before its leaders learn the same lesson?