Nations as Machines for War

british-machine-gun-unit-P
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?

 

For the U.S. Military, the World Is Not Enough

W.J. Astore

In physics, I learned about Newton’s three laws.  But his (fictional and humorous) fourth law may be the most important of all

Somewhere, I don’t remember where, I came across a humorous variant of Newton’s three laws of motion, proposing a fourth law, as follows:

“Newton’s Fourth Law: Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.”

Imagine if the U.S. government/military had followed this “4th law.”  No Vietnam war.  No Afghan war.  No Iraq war.  No Libya.  No Syria.  And so forth.  Trillions of dollars saved, along with millions of lives.

There’s an unbounded and restless quality to U.S. ambitions that reminds me of Germany’s Second Reich under the Kaiser.  Before World War I, Germany was known as the “restless Reich,” contesting for its imperial place in the sun.  A relative latecomer to European imperialism, Germany wanted to enlarge its global span of control — it wanted to be a “world power” like Great Britain and France.  Those global ambitions got Germany two world wars and utter devastation.

Meet the new “restless Reich”: the United States.  Indeed, for the Pentagon and America’s national security state, being a world power isn’t enough.  Not only must the land, sea, and air be dominated, but space and cyberspace as well.  America’s leaders act as if any backsliding in any region of the world is a sign of weakness, tantamount to appeasement vis-à-vis Russia, China, terrorists, and so on.

The result is that it’s very easy for rivals to pluck the U.S. eagle and make it screech. Russia and China can spend relatively little on missiles or jets or ships, and America’s military-industrial complex is guaranteed to scream in response. China has two aircraft carriers! Russia has new missiles!  American supremacy is not compromised by such weapons, but that has never stopped threat inflation in America (recall the fictional “bomber” and “missile” gaps during the Cold War). 

Threat inflation is now global, meaning scaremongering is global.  Even at America’s border with Mexico, a caravan of a few thousand impoverished and desperate people requires the deployment of more than 5800 combat-ready troops to stop this “invasion,” or so the Trump administration argues.

The United States is bankrupting itself in the name of global strength and full-spectrum dominance.  Dwight D. Eisenhower was right when he said that only Americans can truly hurt America. That’s what our leaders are doing with this global scaremongering.

As Army Major Danny Sjursen noted recently at TomDispatch.com, the United States has transformed the entire planet into a militarized zone, slicing and dicing it into various military commands overseen by generals planning for the next war(s).  Sjursen notes a sobering reality:

With Pentagon budgets reaching record levels — some $717 billion for 2019 — Washington has stayed the course, while beginning to plan for more expansive future conflicts across the globe. Today, not a single square inch of this ever-warming planet of ours escapes the reach of U.S. militarization.

Think of these developments as establishing a potential formula for perpetual conflict that just might lead the United States into a truly cataclysmic war it neither needs nor can meaningfully win.

To avert such a cataclysmic war, we’d do well to channel Newton’s (fictitious) Fourth Law: Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.  

Blurring Sports and the Military

af uniform

W.J. Astore

(For an extended essay on sports and the military, please see my latest at TomDispatch.com:  “Why Can’t We Just Play Ball? The Militarization of Sports and the Redefinition of Patriotism,” August 19, 2018, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176459.)

There’s a lot of blurring and blending of sports with the military in the USA today, but my service branch, the U.S. Air Force, has taken it to a new level.  The Falcons football team at the USAF Academy has issued a new “alternate” uniform in honor of air power and specifically the AC-130 gunship.  What this means is that cadets can now wear helmets that feature spooky, grim-reaper-like images together with images of the AC-130 firing on some indistinct enemy below.  Check it out above and below:

reaperThe fog and the shark-like tailfin in the background are nice touches.  Somebody probably got a promotion and/or a commendation medal for putting this campaign together.

Of course, the Air Force celebrates flight, using falcons as the team mascot, which makes sense.   But uniforms dedicated to and celebrating a specific weapon system — really?  The AC-130 gunship rains death from the sky; it’s a nasty weapon system and certainly one that I’d want on my side in a shooting war.  But putting it on football helmets with images of screaming skeletons is a bit much.

How did military academies like West Point and Annapolis play football for so long with just regular uniforms?  Without images of tanks or battleships adorning their uniforms?

I know: I’m an old fuddy-duddy.  This is the new military — the military of warriors and warfighters.  These new uniforms: so cool!  So sexy!  Dealing death is so much fun!

Why is it that these new “alternate” football uniforms of the AF Academy remind me, not of our citizen-airmen force of the past, but of some sinister, darker, force of the future?  Why does the Star Trek episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” come to mind?  (Hint: We’re no longer the “good” Federation.)

uhura
Knives and scars are in plain view in the barbarian “mirror” universe of Star Trek

(You can go to https://twitter.com/hashtag/LetsFly and watch an Air Force video that links AC-130 combat footage with the new uniform, complete with lusty music and stoked players.)

Readers, what say you?

U.S. Politicians and their Love of the Military

W.J. Astore

James_Madison_1894_Issue-2$
James Madison.  We need his wisdom more than ever.

If there’s one area of bipartisan agreement today, it’s politicians’ professed love of the U.S. military.  Consider George W. Bush.  He said the U.S. military is the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.  Consider Barack Obama.  He said that same military is the finest fighting force the world has ever known.  Strong praise, indeed.

Today’s politicians are not to be outdone.  This past weekend at Camp David, Paul Ryan praised the military for keeping America safe.  Mike Pence noted the military remains “the strongest in the world,” yet paradoxically he said it needs rebuilding.  He promised even more “investment” in the military so that it would become “even stronger still.”

Apparently, no matter how strong and superior the U.S. military is, it must be made yet stronger and yet more superior.  All in an effort to “keep us safe,” to cite Paul Ryan’s words.  Small wonder that the Pentagon’s budget is soaring above $700 billion.

It didn’t use to be this way.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower, formerly a five-star general and a man who knew the military intimately, warned us in 1961 of the anti-democratic nature of the military-industrial complex.  James Madison, one of America’s founders, warned us in the 18th century of the perils of endless war and how armies drive authoritarian tendencies and contribute to financial debt and national ruin.

Ike knew that national safety shouldn’t be equated with military prowess; quite the reverse, as he warned us against the unchecked power of a burgeoning military-industrial-Congressional complex.  Madison knew that armies weren’t “investments”; rather, they were, in historical terms, positive dangers to liberty.

But for America’s politicians today, the idea of national safety has become weaponized as well as militarized.  In their minds personal liberty and national democracy, paradoxically, are best represented by an authoritarian and hierarchical military, one possessing vast power, whether measured by its resources across the globe or its reach within American society.

Our politicians find it easy to be uncritical cheerleaders of the U.S. military.  They may even think they’re doing a service by issuing blank checks of support.  But Ike and Madison would disagree, and so too would anyone with knowledge of the perils of military adulation.

Mike Pence’s Visit to Afghanistan

pence_60385_c0-0-4500-2623_s885x516
VP Pence, in his military flight jacket, posing for selfies with the troops

W.J. Astore

Vice President Mike Pence made a surprise visit to Bagram air base in Afghanistan, reassuring the assembled troops that they are winning the war there, despite evidence to the contrary.  For the occasion he donned a spiffy-looking leather military flight jacket, customized for him, as have other presidents and VPs going back at least as far as Ronald Reagan.

I’ve written about this before, this adoption of military clothing by civilian commanders.  It’s an insidious blurring of the lines between the civilian chain of command — and the crucial idea of civilian control of the military — and the military chain.  You don’t see generals and admirals on active duty showing up to testify before Congress in civilian coat and tie: they wear their uniforms because that’s who they are–commissioned military officers.  Similarly, our civilian leaders, whether Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama or Donald Trump, should wear their “uniform,” typically civilian coat and tie, for that is who they are.  They should never wear military flight jackets and similar items, no matter how “cool” or “supportive” they think they look.  It sends the wrong sartorial and political signals.

I just can’t imagine Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was of course a five-star general before he became president, wearing military jackets and hats while he was president.  Ike knew better.  He was the civilian commander in chief, thus he dressed like it.  Same with George C. Marshall.  He wasn’t parading around in military jackets when he was Secretary of State in the aftermath of World War II.

Hitting another common theme, Pence was at pains to praise the troops as heroes, noting that “You are the best of us.”  Why this need for endless flattery of the troops?  Recall that President Obama praised the U.S. military as the finest fighting force in history.  Satirically, you might call it the 4F military: the finest fighting force since forever.

America’s civilian leaders need to put aside hyperbolic praise and wannabe military uniform items.  There’s a far better way of complimenting our troops while leading America.  That better way?  Ending America’s wars and bringing the troops home.

Trump, His Generals, and the Road to Authoritarianism

W.J. Astore

An article yesterday at NBC focusing on Trump and “his” generals got me to thinking on this subject again.  Its author, Suzanne Garment, suggests that Trump likes generals as obedient alpha males.  They lend him credibility without directly threatening his delicate ego.  And there’s truth in this.

trump generals
Trump and his generals.  Mattis and Kelly flanking Trump.  From the NBC article.

But I want to focus on other reasons for Trump’s preference for generals in high positions.  A year ago, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com on “All the President’s Generals.”  That article focused mainly on the potential impact of these generals on America’s foreign policy and domestic culture.  As I wrote last December:

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

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

I continue to think this is true.  Trump is empowering further military adventurism, even as he reinforces military-style solutions to problems.  But there are other reasons for Trump’s tight and eager embrace of the military.

Basically, by embracing the military and elevating it (while feeding it lots of money), Trump has neutralized it as a rival to his power.  Indeed, he is borrowing from the military’s authority and standing within our culture to bolster his own.

Recall how Candidate Trump was often quite critical of the U.S. military.  He knew more than the generals, he said.  Their wars he often called wasteful follies.  He was going to win (or end) these wars, he claimed, and hinted that quite a few “loser” generals might be on the receiving end of his infamous “You’re fired” line.

You hear none of this today. Trump is at pains to praise the military and his generals. He says they’re on a winning path, even in Afghanistan (because of Trump’s decisions, naturally).  He rewards them with record budgets and unalloyed praise.

And it’s working.  The military (and the larger national security state) is content with Trump.  He’s letting them have their way, which is another way of saying Trump is having his way.

In American society today, there aren’t too many power centers that truly can challenge Trump.  The media he’s diminished with all his attacks (“Fake news!”).  A Republican Congress remains quietly subservient.  Trump is stacking the judiciary with conservative judges to his liking.  The Democratic Party remains feckless and divided.  Bankers and corporations?  Trump has hired the former and given a huge gift to the latter in the latest Republican tax cut for the richest.

When you think about it, the one power center that could challenge Trump is the military-industrial complex: America’s fourth branch of government.  Yet by hiring so many of its generals and by praising it while passing loads of moola its way, Trump has co-opted its authority and power, attaching it to himself in his role as commander-in-chief.

Trump’s last hurdle may be the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian meddling and possible complicity or obstruction by Trump.  If Trump gets past this (perhaps even by firing Mueller), is there anyone left with the balls, the sand, the spine, the guts, the moxie (choose your favorite measure of fortitude) and the authority to stop his ambition and designs as an authoritarian leader?

Military Control of the Civilian: It’s Opposite Day in America

mattis
General Mattis: Celebrated as a moderating influence on Trump

W.J. Astore

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for Americans to recall that civilian leaders are supposed to command and control the military, not vice-versa.  Consider an article posted yesterday at Newsweek with the title, TRUMP’S GENERALS CAN SAVE THE WORLD FROM WAR—AND STOP THE CRAZY.  The article extols the virtues of “Trump’s generals”: James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff, and H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser.  The article presents them as the adults in the room, the voices of calm and reason, a moderating force on a bombastic and bellicose president.

I’ve written about Trump’s generals already at TomDispatch.com and elsewhere.  The latest gushing tribute to America’s generals at Newsweek illustrates a couple of points that bear repeating.  First, you don’t hire generals to rein in a civilian leader, or at least you shouldn’t if you care to keep a semblance of democracy in America.  Second, lifelong military officers favor military solutions to problems.  That’s precisely why you want civilians to control them, and to counterbalance their military advice.  Only in a democracy that is already crippled by creeping militarism can the rise of generals to positions of power be celebrated as a positive force for good.

Speaking of creeping militarism in the USA, I caught another headline the other day that referenced General Kelly’s appointment as Chief of Staff.  This headline came from the “liberal” New York Times:

John Kelly Quickly Moves to Impose Military Discipline on White House

 

Note that headline.  Not that Kelly was to impose discipline, but rather military discipline. What, exactly, is military discipline?  Well, having made my first career in the military, I can describe its features. Obedience.  Deference to authority.  Respect for the chain of command.  A climate that sometimes degenerates to “a put up and shut up” mentality. Such a climate may be needed in certain military settings, but do we want it to rule the White House?

Here is what I wrote back in December about Trump and “his” generals:

In all of this, Trump represents just the next (giant) step in an ongoing process.  His warrior-steeds, his “dream team” of generals, highlight America’s striking twenty-first-century embrace of militarism. At the same time, the future of U.S. foreign policy seems increasingly clear: more violent interventionism against what these men see as the existential threat of radical Islam. 

Of course, now the threat of nuclear war looms with North Korea.  For a moderating influence, America places its faith in military generals controlling the civilian commander-in-chief, and that’s something to draw comfort from, at least according to Newsweek.

When military control of the civilian is celebrated, you know it’s truly opposite day in America.