In my latest article for TomDispatch, I write that America is programmed for war. It’s a feature of our polity and our politics and our culture, not a bug. In some sense, we are a country made by war, and that’s not a good feature for a self-avowed democracy to have. Here’s an excerpt:
I know, I know: President Joe Biden has announced that our combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 9/11 of this year, marking the 20th anniversary of the colossal failure of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to defend America.
Of course, that other 9/11 in 2001 shocked us all. I was teaching history at the U.S. Air Force Academy and I still recall hushed discussions of whether the day’s body count would exceed that of the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day of the Civil War. (Fortunately, bad as it was, it didn’t.)
Hijacked commercial airliners, turned into guided missiles by shadowy figures our panicky politicians didn’t understand, would have a profound impact on our collective psyche. Someone had to pay and among the first victims were Afghans in the opening salvo of the misbegotten Global War on Terror, which we in the military quickly began referring to as the GWOT. Little did I know then that such a war would still be going on 15 years after I retired from the Air Force in 2005 and 80 articles after I wrote my first for TomDispatch in 2007 arguing for an end to militarism and forever wars like the one still underway in Afghanistan.
Over those years, I’ve come to learn that, in my country, war always seems to find a way, even when it goes badly — very badly, in fact, as it did in Vietnam and, in these years, in Afghanistan and Iraq, indeed across much of the Greater Middle East and significant parts of Africa. Not coincidentally, those disastrous conflicts haven’t actually been waged in our name. No longer does Congress even bother with formal declarations of war. The last one came in 1941 after Pearl Harbor. During World War II, Americans united to fight for something like national security and a just cause. Today, however, perpetual American-style war simply is. Congress postures, but does nothing decisive to stop it. In computer-speak, endless war is a feature of our national programming, not a bug.
Two pro-war parties, Republicans and Democrats, have cooperated in these decades to ensure that such wars persist… and persist and persist. Still, they’re not the chief reason why America’s wars are so difficult to end. Let me list some of those reasons for you. First, such wars are beyond profitable, notably to weapons makers and related military contractors. Second, such wars are the Pentagon’s reason for being. Let’s not forget that, once upon a time, the present ill-named Department of Defense was so much more accurately and honestly called the Department of War. Third, if profit and power aren’t incentive enough, wars provide purpose and meaning even as they strengthen authoritarian structures in society and erode democratic ones. Sum it all up and war is what America now does, even if the reasons may be indefensible and the results so regularly abysmal.
Support Our Troops! (Who Are They, Again?)
The last truly American war was World War II. And when it ended in 1945, the citizen-soldiers within the U.S. military demanded rapid demobilization — and they got it. But then came the Iron Curtain, the Cold War, the Korean War, fears of nuclear Armageddon (that nearly came to fruition during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962), and finally, of course, Vietnam. Those wars were generally not supported — not with any fervor anyway — by the American people, hence the absence of congressional declarations. Instead, they mainly served the interests of the national security state, or, if you prefer, the military-industrial-congressional complex.
That’s precisely why President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued his grave warning about that Complex in his farewell address in 1961. No peacenik, Ike had overseen more than his share of military coups and interventions abroad while president, so much so that he came to see the faults of the system he was both upholding and seeking to restrain. That was also why President John F. Kennedy called for a more humble and pacific approach to the Cold War in 1963, even as he himself failed to halt the march toward a full-scale war in Southeast Asia. This is precisely why Martin Luther King, Jr., truly a prophet who favored the fierce urgency of peace, warned Americans about the evils of war and militarism (as well as racism and materialism) in 1967. In the context of the enormity of destruction America was then visiting on the peoples of Southeast Asia, not for nothing did he denounce this country as the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.
Collectively, Americans chose to ignore such warnings, our attention being directed instead toward spouting patriotic platitudes in support of “our” troops. Yet, if you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize those troops aren’t really ours. If they were, we wouldn’t need so many bumper stickers reminding us to support them.
With the military draft gone for the last half-century, most Americans have voted with their feet by not volunteering to become “boots on the ground” in the Pentagon’s various foreign escapades. Meanwhile, America’s commanders-in-chief have issued inspiring calls for their version of national service, as when, in the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush urged Americans to go shopping and visit Disney World. In the end, Americans, lacking familiarity with combat boots, are generally apathetic, sensing that “our” wars have neither specific meaning to, nor any essential purpose in their lives.
As a former Air Force officer, even if now retired, I must admit that it took me too long to realize this country’s wars had remarkably little to do with me — or you, for that matter — because we simply have no say in them. That doesn’t mean our leaders don’t seek to wage them in our name. Even as they do so, however, they simultaneously absolve us of any need to serve or sacrifice. We’re essentially told to cheer “our” troops on, but otherwise look away and leave war to the professionals (even if, as it turns out, those professionals seem utterly incapable of winning a single one of them).
Please read the rest of my article here at TomDispatch.com.
Imagine you’re President Joe Biden. You’re looking for nearly $2 trillion to fund vital repairs and improvements to America’s infrastructure. You learn of a warplane, the F-35 Lightning II, that may cost as much as $1.7 trillion to buy, field and maintain through the next half century. Also, you learn it’s roughly $200 billion over budget and more than a decade behind schedule. You learn it was supposed to be a low-cost, high-availability jet but that through time, it’s become a high-cost, low-availability one. Your senior Air Force general compares it to a Ferrari sports car and says we’ll “drive” it only on Sundays. What do you do?
Your first thought would probably be to cancel it, save more than a trillion dollars, and fund America’s infrastructure needs. Yet instead, the U.S. military is turning on the afterburners and going into full production. What gives?
When 60 Minutes reported on the F-35 in 2014, the plane was already seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Since then, it has weathered a series of setbacks and complications: Engines that are unreliable and in short supply. An ultra-expensive software system to maintain and repair the plane that doesn’t work. Higher operating costs — as much as 300% higher — compared to previous planes like the F-16 or the A-10. An overly loud engine that creates a noise nuisance to nearby population centers. The list goes on, yet so, too, does the F-35 program.
Why? Because of the power of the military-industrial-congressional complex. The F-35’s lead contractor, Lockheed Martin, used a tried-and-true formula to insulate the plane from political pressure, spreading jobs across 45 states and 307 congressional districts. In essence, the F-35 program has become “too big to fail.” At the Pentagon level, the plane is supposed to fulfill the needs of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps for a “fifth generation” stealthy fighter. There is no alternative, or so you’re told.
Yet, as America’s commander-in-chief, you must always remember there are alternatives. Think about it. Why buy a deeply troubled weapon system at inflated prices? Why reward a military contractor for woeful failures to deliver on time and within budget?
Congress rarely asks such questions because of the corrosive power of corporate lobbyists, the military’s insatiable demands for tech-heavy wonder weapons, and thinly-veiled threats that program cuts will cost jobs — meaning members of Congress might face electoral defeat if they fail to safeguard the F-35 pork apportioned to their districts.
But you’re the president — you should be above all that. You take a wider view like the one President Dwight D. Eisenhower took in 1953 in his “cross of iron” speech. Here Ike, a former five-star Army general, challenged Americans to prioritize instruments of peace over tools of war. Schools and hospitals, Ike wrote, were more vital to a democracy than destroyers and fighter jets. Ike was right then — and even more right today. He famously invested in an interstate highway system that served as an accelerant to the U.S. economy. He knew that warplanes, especially overly pricey and operationally dicey ones, were much less vital to the common good.
The Pentagon tells you it’s the F-35 or bust. But for you as president, it’s the F-35 and bust. You begin to realize that so many of the experts advising you to stay the course on the F-35 stand to profit if you do so.
And then you realize as America’s commander-in-chief that no weapon system should be too big to fail. You take heart from Sen. John McCain. In 2016, that ex-naval aviator declared the F-35 program was “both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule and performance.”
Why continue that scandal? Why not end that tragedy? You can decide to send the strongest and clearest message to the military-industrial-congressional complex by cancelling the F-35. You can vow to reform the flawed system that produced it. And you can fund your vital infrastructure programs with the savings.
William J. Astore is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and history professor. He is currently a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network.
1. Recently I came across a reference to the U.S. military complaining that it never fights with a “home field” advantage. That the fight is always “away,” in sports speak, on the other guy’s field. And the gist of the comment was that the U.S. military must always be prepared to fight at a disadvantage. It seemingly never occurs to the decisionmakers that maybe, just maybe, the U.S. doesn’t have to fight on the other guy’s field. Maybe, just maybe, Vietnam was a bad idea. Iraq was a bad idea. Afghanistan was and remains a bad idea. China in the future would be a very, very, bad idea. And so on.
Or maybe, just maybe, the Pentagon and America’s generals are just too vainglorious in identifying the entire world as their home court?
2. Surprise! Joe Biden’s Pentagon budget is basically the same as Trump’s with a few extra billion thrown in for good measure. So much for reforming “defense” spending in any meaningful way.
3. The U.S.. military continues to define exertion (and merit) mainly in physical terms. Consider this chart sent along by a friend:
As my friend amusingly put it, “If I read this chart correctly, humans reach their full potential only at the moment of death.”
I wrote back to him: Why is exertion in the military always physical? Maybe we should be thinking harder too? It’s fascinating this devotion to physical strength and fitness when modern weaponry is truly the great equalizer. If I can sit in an air-conditioned trailer in Nevada and smite evil-doers in Afghanistan via a drone strike, should I be kicked out if I fail to do 50 pushups or run the obstacle course?
Mental fitness is rarely considered in the U.S. military except in the sense of weeding out the mentally ill or those who can’t conform to military discipline.
Even military promotion seems driven more by brawn than brains. If I run a sub-3 hour marathon, I bet the OPR (officer proficiency report) bullet would be far more favorable than if I wrote an article for Armed Forces Journal.
As another friend of mine, the distinguished military historian Dennis Showalter, said to me: Some flab around the waistline is preferable to flabby thought processes. Just think here of David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, both celebrated in the U.S. media as running and exercise enthusiasts.
5. To come back to the subject of “home field” advantage, it’s precisely because we never have that that U.S. troops have to wear heavy body armor and carry all kinds of gear with them. Whereas the “enemy,” whether in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, is at “home” and can wear street/farm clothes and carry a much lighter load, e.g. a rifle, some ammo, some rations.
The result is that U.S. troops often look like the imperial stormtroopers of “Star Wars” who are always bungling and losing to the lighter-armed rebel alliance.
You do need to be in decent physical shape to carry so much armor and so much weaponry and gear into hostile and foreign lands. But, maybe instead of turning every soldier into Rambo, we should find smart ways to advance our policies without having to fight at all?
It certainly is smarter than a bunch of Army Rangers driving themselves to the brink of death in the cause of maximizing their “human potential.”
There’s a bill before the Rhode Island State Legislature (House Bill 6026) that aims to divest state pension funds from military contractors. I wrote a short letter in favor of this bill and submitted it, as follows:
I served in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2005. There are many of us within the military who recognize the wisdom of General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Medal of Honor. Butler wrote that the best way to end war is to take the profit out of it. Butler wrote in the 1930s, when our country believed that weapons makers were “merchants of death.” They were called that because of the vast killing fields of World War I, a war that killed more than 100,000 Americans, together with millions of other troops from Britain, France, Germany, and elsewhere.
Joining Smedley Butler was another great American, General (later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower. In his famous “Cross of Iron” speech in 1953, Ike wrote that unnecessary spending on weaponry would lead to humanity being crucified on a cross of iron. Here are his 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.
In 1961, President Eisenhower warned all Americans against the dangers of the military-industrial complex. Sixty years later, in 2021, America dominates the world in selling weapons across the globe. We have become the “merchants of death” that Generals Butler and Eisenhower warned us about.
Weapons kill. Weapons make wars more likely. And as Eisenhower said in 1946, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
It’s time for us to hate war again. It’s time for us to beat our swords into ploughshares, as the Bible tells us. It’s time for us to pursue more peaceful activities.
Rhode Island can set a strong example – a shining example – in the pursuit of peace and sanity. I urge you to vote “for” House Bill 6026.
The “Divestment Fact Sheet” for the bill explains its purpose, as follows:
Allows us to redirect our investment dollars toward socially productive corporations addressing important social assets like climate resilience, health, and education, which aid economic growth;
Seeks to move money away from corporations whose output foments violence, death, destruction, and social chaos.
Educates the general public about the role of weapons manufacturers in the cycle of tax breaks, lobbying largesse, increasing military budgets and weapon sales.
Reduces the flow of scarce economic resources to military weapons manufacturers by reducing public investment;
Sends a message to the US Congress that we need to sharply reduce investment in military weapons where the costs are increasingly public (ever increasing health bills for traumatized and injured vets of the endless wars, reconstruction bills in foreign lands, ever increasing maintenance bills and graft on weapons systems) and the benefits are private (lobbying firm profits, huge weapons manufacturer bonuses and excessive CEO pay packages).
In America, money talks. As Smedley Butler said, ending the madness of war will most likely come when we can take the profit out of it. Here’s hoping Rhode Island’s effort succeeds — and sets an example for others across our nation.
Imagine you’re a soldier in combat. What’s the most important feature of any weapon system? That it works. That it’s reliable. Nobody wants a weapon that jams in a firefight. Reliability, simplicity, ruggedness are key features of weaponry. Yet the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex seem to specialize in unreliable, complex, fragile ones. Ones that don’t work, or that don’t work very well, and at inflated prices as well. This is the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch, and here’s an excerpt from it:
Cancel culture is a common, almost viral, term in political and social discourse these days. Basically, somebody expresses views considered to be outrageous or vile or racist or otherwise insensitive and inappropriate. In response, that person is “canceled,” perhaps losing a job or otherwise sidelined and silenced. In being deplatformed by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, for instance, this country’s previous president has, it could be argued, been canceled — at least by polite society. More than a few might add, good riddance.
Cancel culture is all around us, with a single glaring exception: the U.S. military. No matter how poorly a major weapons system performs, no matter how much it goes over budget, no matter how long it takes to field, it almost never gets canceled. As a corollary to this, no matter how poorly a general performs in one of our twenty-first-century wars, no matter his lack of victories or failure to achieve mission objectives, he almost never gets cashiered, demoted, or even criticized. A similar thing could be said of America’s twenty-first-century wars themselves. They are disasters that simply never get canceled. They just go on and on and on.
Is it any surprise, then, that a system which seems to eternally reward failure consistently produces it as well? After all, if cancel culture should apply anywhere, it would be to faulty multibillion-dollar weapons systems and more than a few generals, who instead either get booted upstairs to staff positions or retire comfortably onto the boards of directors of major weapons companies.
Let’s take a closer look at several major weapons systems that are begging to be canceled — and a rare case of one that finally was.
* The F-35 stealth fighter: I’ve writtenextensively on the F-35 over the years. Produced by Lockheed Martin, the plane was at one point seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Nonetheless, the U.S. military persisted and it is now nearing full production at a projected total cost of $1.7 trillion by the year 2070. Even so, nagging problems persist, including engine difficulties and serious maintenance deficiencies. Even more troubling: the plane often can’t be cleared for flying if lightning is anywhere in the area, which is deeply ironic, given that it’s called the Lightning II. Let’s hope that there are no thunderstorms in the next war.
* The Boeing KC-46 tanker: A tanker is basically a flying gas station, air-to-air refueling being something the Air Force mastered half a century ago. Never underestimate the military’s ability to produce new problems while pursuing more advanced technology, however. Doing away with old-fashioned windows and an actual airman as a “boom operator” in the refueling loop (as in a legacy tanker like the KC-135), the KC-46 uses a largely automated refueling system via video. Attractive in theory, that system has yet to work reliably in practice. (Maybe, it will, however, by the year 2024, the Air Force now says.) And what good is a tanker that isn’t assured of actually transferring fuel in mid-air and turns out to be compromised as well by its own fuel leaks? The Air Force is now speaking of “repurposing” its new generation of tankers for missions other than refueling. That’s like me saying that I’m repurposing my boat as an anchor since it happened to spring a leak and sink to the bottom of the lake.
* And speaking of boats, perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that the Navy has had serious problems of its own with its most recent Gerald R.Ford-class aircraft carriers. That service started building carriers in the 1920s, so one might imagine that, by now, the brass had gained some mastery of the process of updating them and building new ones. But never underestimate the allure of cramming unproven and expensive technologies for “next generation” success on board such vessels. Include among them, when it comes to the Ford-class carriers, elevators for raising munitions that notoriously don’t operate well and a catapult system for launching planes from the deck (known as the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System or EMALS) that’s constantly breaking down. As you might imagine, not much can happen on an aircraft carrier when you can’t load munitions or launch planes effectively. Each new Ford-class carrier costs in the neighborhood of $14 billion, yet despite all that money, it simply “isn’t very good at actually being a carrier,” as an article in Popular Mechanics magazine bluntly put it recently. Think of it as the KC-46 of the seas.
* And speaking of failing ships, let’s not forget the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), which have earned the nickname “little crappy ships.” A serious propulsion design flaw may end up turning them into “floating garbage piles,” defense journalist Jared Keller recently concluded. The Navy bought 10 of them for roughly half a billion dollars each, with future orders currently on hold. Lockheed Martin is the lead contractor, the same one responsible for the wildly profligate (and profitable) F-35.
* Grimly for the Navy, problems were so severe with its Zumwalt-class of stealth destroyers that the program was actually canceled after only three ships had been built. (The Navy initially planned to build 32 of them.) Critiqued as a vessel in search of a mission, the Zumwalt-class was also bedeviled by problems with its radar and main armament. In total, the Navy spent $22 billion on a failed “next generation” concept whose cancelation offers us that utter rarity of our moment: a weapon so visibly terrible that even the military-industrial complex couldn’t continue to justify it.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday has gone on record as rejecting the idea of integrating exotic, largely untried and untested technologies into new ship designs (known in the biz as “concurrent development”). Godspeed, admiral!
Much like the troubled F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship, the Zumwalt’s spiraling costs were due in part to the Pentagon’s fixation on integrating just such “leading-edge” technologies into designs that themselves were in flux. (Not for nothing do military wags refer to them as bleeding edge technologies.) Such wildly ambitious concurrent development, rather than saving time and money, tends to waste plenty of both, leading to ultra-expensive less-than-fully effective weapons like the Zumwalt, the original version of which had a particularly inglorious breakdown while passing through (or rather not passing through) the Panama Canal in November 2016.
Given such expensive failures, you might be forgiven for wondering whether, in the twenty-first century, while fighting never-ending disastrous wars across significant parts of the planet, America’s military isn’t also actively working to disarm itself. Seriously, if we’re truly talking about weapons that are vital to national defense, failure shouldn’t be an option, but far too often it is.
With this dubious record, one might imagine the next class of Navy vessel could very well be named for Philip Francis Queeg, the disturbed and incompetent ship captain of novelist Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. It’s also quite possible that the Pentagon’s next advanced fighter jet will fulfill former Martin Marietta CEO Norman Augustine’s estimate from the 1980s that, by the year 2054, the entire Pentagon budget would be needed to buy one — and only one – combat aircraft. Perhaps a Death Star for America’s new Space Force?
We discussed the Biden administration and its approach to foreign policy, the Afghan War, the legacy of the Vietnam War, the military-industrial-congressional complex, and similar subjects. That rare word, “peace,” and that rare politician, George McGovern, truly a man of vision and guts, also get a mention.
Ending war is all about getting the profit out of war. General Smedley Butler knew this — yet America’s generals today love their massive “defense” budgets, this year soaring to $740.5 billion.
Another point: Look at the ongoing crisis in Texas with its frozen and failing power grid, lack of potable water, and so on. Why is America building more nuclear weapons when it needs to be upgrading its power grids and related infrastructure?
I came across this quotation yesterday: “I am worried about the state of the readiness of the nuclear triad,” Deputy SecDef nominee Kath Hicks tells the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, “and, if confirmed, that is an area I would want to get my team in place and start to look at right away.”
The U.S. military plans to spend well over a trillion dollars over the next thirty years to “modernize” the nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, nuclear-capable bombers, and sub-launched ballistic missiles. Long ago, I remember reading (from December 1982) that Charles Bennet, a Democratic Congressman, had said “The triad is not the Trinity.” But the Pentagon treats it as if it is a (un)Holy Trinity, shoveling money to build even more nuclear weapons to devastate and destroy humanity. I don’t use the concept of evil lightly, but I can’t think of policies much more evil than developing yet more genocidal weaponry at enormous cost.
We desperately need new thinking in America, which is why I wrote the following article for TomDispatch. Maybe some of these are pipe dreams; then again, maybe we should all be smoking peace pipes more often.
The Power of America’s Example
When it comes to war, if personnel is policy, America is yet again in deep trouble.
As retired Army Major Danny Sjursen recently pointed out at TomDispatch, when it comes to foreign policy, President Joe Biden’s new cabinet and advisers are well stocked with retired generals, reconstituted neocons, unapologetic hawks, and similar war enthusiasts. Biden himself has taken to asking God to protect the troops whenever he makes a major speech. (How about protecting them by bringing them home from our pointless wars?) “Defense” spending, as war spending is generally known in this country, remains at record levels at $740.5 billion for fiscal year 2021. Talk of a new cold war with Russia or China (or both) paradoxically warms Pentagon offices and corridors with yet more funds. The only visible dove of peace at Biden’s inaugural was the giant golden brooch worn by Lady Gaga. So what exactly is to be done?
Peace-driven progressive policies will not emerge easily from the rainbow kettle of hawks Biden has so far assembled, but his inaugural speech did mention leading and inspiring others globally “not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.” It would have been an apt rhetorical flourish indeed, if not for this country’s “forever wars” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. America’s harsh war-fighting reality suggests that “the example of our power” still remains standard operating procedure inside the Washington Beltway. How could this possibly be changed?
I have a few ideas for Biden — a 10-point plan, in fact, for turning his softball rhetoric into hardball reality. Consider, Mr. President, the following powerful examples you could set as America’s latest commander-in-chief:
1. Stop the U.S. from building new generations of nuclear weapons and downsize the vast existing American arsenal, while launching global negotiations to work toward the elimination of all such arsenals. The U.S. military is set to spend well over a trillion dollars in the coming decades to “modernize” its nuclear triad of bombers and land-based and submarine-launched missiles. Such a staggering “investment” can only move the world closer to nuclear Armageddon. If America is to lead by example when it comes to the ultimate power on this planet, why not begin by cancelling this trillion-dollar-nightmare as part of a new global anti-nuclear initiative? Why not commit us, long term, to the elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere, while moving to adopt a “no-first-use” policy?
2. When it comes to President Biden’s commitment to slow climate change and clean up the environment, why not do something in military terms? America’s armed forces have an enormous appetite for fossil fuels. The Pentagon also has a sordid record when it comes to the poisoning of the environment. (Consider the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam, or the military’s burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the birth defects and severe health problems that were linked to the munitions its forces used in assaulting the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004.) If the president wants to set an example when it comes to demilitarizing this over-armed, over-polluted planet of ours, reducing both the military’s fossil-fuel emissions and its poisonous munitions would be a powerful way to start.
3. End this century’s forever wars and radically downsize this country’s unprecedented global network of military bases. Driving the colossal size of today’s military is what my old service, the Air Force, likes to call its “global reach, global power” mission. At least in theory, that mission, in turn, helps justify the sprawling network of 800 or so overseas bases, a network that costs more than $100 billion a year to maintain. Such bases not only consume resources needed here in the U.S. and help stoke those forever wars, but they present high-value targets to opponents and incite ill-feeling and resistance from “host” countries. So, downsizing that global base structure would be an act of peace — and fiscal sanity.
4. Make major cuts in the country’s war budget. Fewer bases and fewer or no wars should translate into a far lower defense budget. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 billion annually to defend this country and cover its real “national security” interests seems reasonable for the self-styled lone superpower. The money saved (roughly $340 billion based on this year’s budget) could then perhaps be partly rebated directly to American families in need in this pandemic. Perhaps every American family earning less than $50,000 a year could see a rebate on their taxes directly attributable to downsizing that budget and America’s imperial footprint overseas. Taking a page from Donald Trump, President Biden, as America’s thrifty and giving commander-in-chief, could even have his name put on those rebate checks. Call it a long-delayed peace dividend. Regular Americans, after all, need such “dividends” far more than giant defense contractors like Boeing or Raytheon. And don’t get me started on the need to invest in rebuilding this nation’s infrastructure at a moment when the extremities associated with climate change threaten to devastate parts of the country.
5. Create a Department of Peace (here’s looking at you, Dennis Kucinich) with influence at least approaching that of the so-called Department of Defense. Currently, the U.S. military is all about power projection, domination of the global battlespace, and similar buzzwords that add up to exporting violence abroad, special op by special op, drone by drone. You are what you do and the U.S. military does permanent war with plenty of “collateral damage.” (Picture mutilated black and brown bodies and flattened and poisoned cities and towns.) If the U.S. government can create a Space Force just to fulfill the fantasies of Donald Trump, then why not a peace force, too? (America’s current, humble Peace Corps asked for $401 million for Fiscal Year 2021, roughly the cost of four underperforming F-35 jet fighters.) Peace, much like war, doesn’t just happen. You have to work at it — and that would be precisely the mission of the Department of Peace.
6.Pay attention, for once, to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address and exert rigorous oversight and zealous control over the military-industrial complex. That means ending the 2001 AUMF, the authorization for use of military force that Congress passed in a climate of panic and revenge in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (though it was only to be against those associated in some fashion with those terror attacks), and the second one Congress authorized in 2002 in preparation for the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. They have been misused and abused by presidents ever since. Furthermore, end any conflict that hasn’t been authorized by a direct Congressional declaration of war. That means withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. America’s security is not, in fact, directly threatened by those countries. As a self-declared democracy, the United States should set an example by not fighting wars disconnected from the people’s will and the true needs of national defense.
7. And speaking of President Eisenhower, America needs to embrace his lesson that military spending represents a theft from Americans who are hungry, sick, and need help. For its “national security,” this country needs more hospitals, better education, safer food, a cleaner environment, and, most of all, clean water and fresh air. Eisenhower knew that warships and warplanes were simply not the answer to the American people’s real and pressing needs.
8. Reject threat inflation, including the heightening talk of a “new cold war” with Russia or China or of an ongoing “generational” war on terror. Eliminate talk of a new Red Menace, of likely wars with Iran or North Korea, or of America’s backwardness in cyberwarfare research and development. Terrorism is nothing new and will always be with us in one form or another (including, vis-a-vis the Capitol on January 6th, domestic terrorism). Indeed, since war is terror, a war on terror should truly be considered an oxymoron. Terrorist acts are mostly the recourse of the weak when taking on the strong. The United States isn’t going to stop them by getting stronger yet. Nor are China and Russia about to invade this country. (This isn’t Red Dawn.) Iran is not coming to impose Sharia law and North Korea is not about to launch nukes against us. As for cyber-attacks, don’t worry: no matter what you’ve heard, no country does cyberwarfare better than the U.S.A.
9. End the practice of foreign aid taking the form of military aid. When taxpayers give aid to foreign countries, it should be in the form of food, medicine, and other essentials, not cluster bombs, F-16s, and Hellfire missiles.
10. Learn from Abraham Lincoln. In President Biden’s recent Inaugural Address, as a call to national unity, he made reference to Lincoln’s initial inaugural appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” But he should have focused on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, the finest speech ever given by any president. As Lincoln put it then, when it came to ending the American Civil War:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Lincoln was unafraid of speaking of and seeking a just and lasting peace. In this century, until at least the Trump years, Americans often heard their leaders speak of this nation’s “exceptional” nature. What could be more exceptional, more laudable, than seeking a lasting global peace?
Biden, like me, is Roman Catholic. My Catholic bible (Matthew 5:9) tells me that Christ said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Instead of beseeching God to protect the troops that American presidents have continually sent into harm’s way, Joe Biden might ask for blessings for America’s peace activists. To echo Lincoln again, that would indeed be a case of right making might, instead of the might-making-right vision that a militaristic America has grown far too comfortable with.
An Alert and Knowledgeable Citizenry
So long ago, President Eisenhower spoke of the importance of having an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry.” Isn’t it time for mainstream media outlets to foster real, critical, investigative journalism that would truly inform those very citizens about America’s wanton military spending and endless wars, while providing educators with crucial material to teach their students about the horrific costs of militarism? This country needs to free its collective mind from the prevailing forever-war narrative. To paraphrase Crosby, Stills, and Nash, if we teach the children well, perhaps they won’t repeat their father’s hell.
In his song “Imagine,” John Lennon asked us all to imagine a different world and said that it’s easy if you try. Lennon got the first and most important part right, but the second part sadly doesn’t apply, at least to this country in this century. Nowadays, Americans are so immersed in a culture driven by war, profit, and exploitation that it’s no longer easy to imagine anything but war. If Americans truly paid attention to war, up close and as personal as they could get, they’d begin to grasp the folly and wickedness of it and so perhaps relinquish what I’ve come to think of as their prisoner-of-war mentality in relation to it. They might actually begin breaking down mental barriers to peace.
Don’t count on Congress doing it, though. Congress is incestuously part of what should be renamed the military-industrial-congressional complex. Don’t count on the military doing it either. Its most senior men and women have been carefully selected, groomed, and promoted because they believe in the system, which includes incessant lobbying for more weaponry and exaggerating the threats to this country to get it. They exist to wage war; the rest of us should be willing to fight for peace.
Change, if and when it comes, will have to be driven by people like us.
It won’t be easy, but it is necessary for America’s survival. And it’s unlikely to come without campaign finance reform and the public funding of elections. In a “pay-to-play” oligarchy disguised as a democracy, the giant weapons-making corporations simply pay much more than you do and so speak through megaphones, leaving you with a dead mic. Unless the corporate dominance of our politics is curtailed, ordinary Americans will continue to be outshouted and overwhelmed by the bellicose and the greedy, leaving the country forever at war.
It won’t be easy to work for peace, but it sure is worth the try. It sure as hell beats the alternative of guns, bombs, and missiles being produced like so many sausages in a militaristic country that ever more resembles George Orwell’s nightmarish image of the future as “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
America’s new president has called for us to lead with the power of our example rather than just the example of our power. I can’t think of anything more exemplary and powerful than a strong commitment to making war no more.
I wrote my latest article for TomDispatch.com (below) before the Capitol riot, adding a quick reference to it at the last minute in the first paragraph. Events at the U.S. Capitol as well as other recent violent events in America lend credence to the idea we’re all prisoners of war of a sort. Global wars may be invisible to most Americans, but domestic ones are all too plain to see. How do we make our “great escape” from a culture of incessant violence and permanent war?
“POWs Never Have A Nice Day.” That sentiment was captured on a button a friend of mine wore for our fourth grade class photo in 1972. That prisoners of war could never have such a day was reinforced by the sad face on that button. Soon after, American POWs would indeed be released by their North Vietnamese captors as the American war in Vietnam ended. They came home the next year to a much-hyped heroes’ welcome orchestrated by the administration of President Richard Nixon, but the government would never actually retire its POW/MIA (missing-in-action) flags. Today, almost half a century later, they continue to fly at federal installations, including the U.S. Capitol as it was breached and briefly besieged last week by a mob incited by this country’s lame-duck president, ostensibly to honor all U.S. veterans who were either POWs or never returned because their bodies were never recovered.
Remembering the sacrifices of our veterans is fitting and proper; it’s why we set aside Memorial Day in May and Veterans Day in November. In thinking about those POWs and the dark legacy of this country’s conflicts since World War II, however, I’ve come to a realization. In the ensuing years, we Americans have all, in some sense, become prisoners of war. We’re all part of a culture that continues to esteem war, embrace militarism, and devote more than half of federal discretionary spending to wars, weaponry, and the militarization of American culture. We live in a country that leads the world in the export of murderous munitions to the grimmest, most violent hotspots on the planet, enabling, for example, a genocidal conflict in Yemen, among other conflicts.
True, in a draft-less country, few enough Americans actually don a military uniform these days. As 2021 begins, most of us have never carried a military identification card that mentions the Geneva Convention on the proper and legal treatment of POWs, as I did when I wore a uniform long ago. So, when I say that all Americans are essentially POWs, I’m obviously using that acronym not in a legal or formal way, but in the colloquial sense of being captured by some phenomenon, held by it, subjected to it in a fashion that tends to restrict, if not eliminate, freedom of thought and action and so compromises this country’s belief in sacred individual liberties. In this colloquial sense, it seems to me that all Americans have in some fashion become prisoners of war, even those few “prisoners” among us who have worked so bravely and tirelessly to resist the phenomenon.
Ask yourself this question: During a deadly pandemic, as the American death toll approaches 400,000 while still accelerating, what unites “our” representatives in Congress? What is the only act that draws wide and fervent bipartisan support, not to speak of a unique override of a Trump presidential veto in these last four years? It certainly isn’t providing health care for all or giving struggling families checks for $2,000 to ensure that food will be on American tables or that millions of us won’t be evicted from our homes in the middle of a pandemic. No, what unites “our” representatives is funding the military-industrial complex to the tune of $740.5 billion in fiscal year 2021 (though the real amount spent on what passes for “national security” each year regularly exceeds a trillion dollars). Still, that figure of $740.5 billion in itself is already higher than the combined military spending of the next 10 countries, including Russia and China as well as U.S. allies like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Not only that, but Congress added language to the latest defense bill that effectively blocked efforts by President Trump before he leaves office on January 20th to mandate the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan (and some troops from Germany). Though it’s doubtful he would have accomplished such goals anyway, given his irresolute nature, that Congress worked to block him tells you what you need to know about “our” representatives and their allegiance to the war complex.
That said, an irresolute Trump administration has been most resolute in just one area: selling advanced weaponry overseas. It’s been rushing to export American-made bombs, missiles, and jets to the Middle East before turning over government efforts to shill for America’s merchants of death to President Joe Biden and his crew of deskbound warriors.
Speaking of Biden, that he selected retired General Lloyd Austin III to be his secretary of defense sends the strongest possible signal of his own allegiance to the primacy of militarism and war in American culture. After all, upon retiring, General Austin promptly cashed in by joining the board of directors of United Technologies from which he received $1.4 million in “stock and other compensation” before it merged with giant weapons-maker Raytheon and he ended up on the board of that company. (He holds roughly $500,000 in Raytheon stock, a nice supplement to his six-figure yearly military pension.)
How better than selecting him as SecDef to ensure that the “military” and the “industrial” remain wedded in that famed complex? America’s secretary of defense is, of course, supposed to be a civilian, someone who can exercise strong and independent oversight over America’s ever-growing war complex, not a lifelong military officer and general to boot, as well as an obvious war profiteer.
War Is Peace
As Quincy Institute President Andrew Bacevich so aptly put it, “many Americans have made their peace with endless war.” Within America’s war culture, peace activists like Medea Benjamin and organizations like Veterans for Peace are seen as not just “radical,” but genuinely aberrant. Meanwhile, an unquestioning acceptance of the fact that this country is now eternally at war across significant parts of the planet is considered normal, even respectable. Certainly, not something to put real time or thought into considering.
As a result, warmongers like former Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton are touted in some quarters as hard-headed realists. In seeing the world as a hostile place that Americans need to (but somehow, almost 20 years later, can’t) dominate means their heads are screwed on straight, unlike those screwy thinkers who advocate for peace. But as Dorothy Day, the Catholic peace activist, once said: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”
That Americans mostly refuse to see permanent war as filthy and rotten, or to think much about it or the “defense” budget that goes with it showcases the triumph of a broader war culture here. Whereas this country’s profligate and prodigal military complex has given us stunning failure after stunning failure overseas (just consider all those disastrous efforts to win “hearts and minds” from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq and on and on), it has proved stunningly successful in winning — or at least taming — hearts and minds in the homeland. How else to explain the way those trillion-dollar-plus “national security” budgets are routinely rubber-stamped by Congress with hardly a murmur of protest?
In the twenty-first century, Americans are suffering a form of cognitive capture in which war has become the new normal. As an astute reader at my blog, Bracing Views, put it: “Our desire to live without war is held in a stockade, and every day that we wake up and walk out into the yard that understanding is being broken down by the powerful monied elites.”
In America’s collective stockade of the mind, activism for peace is an aberration, while acceptance of the war state is second nature. Small wonder that Biden’s proposed cabinet and administration features so many neocon-style policymakers who made their peace with war, whether in Iraq and Afghanistan or Libya and Syria (Antony Blinken as secretary of state; Jake Sullivan as national security advisor; retired general Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense; and Avril Haines as director of national intelligence). Biden’s hawkish picks avidly place their faith in U.S. military power. And they will be advising a new president, who once supported war in Iraq himself and talks not of reducing “defense” spending but of boosting it.
Perhaps you’ve noticed, in fact, how every president from George W. Bush in 2001 on has been proud to pose at some point as a “wartime” president. Perhaps you’ve noticed as well that this country can’t or won’t close Gitmo, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, flooded with prisoners from the global war on terror beginning late in 2001, men who will likely be imprisoned until death does us part.
Perhaps this is why the U.S. government “tortured some folks,” as President Obama put it in 2014, and abused Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. (Avril Haines, Biden’s proposed national intelligence director, once helped suppress evidence of just such abuse and torture.) Perhaps this is why every president starting with George W. Bush has unapologetically smited evildoers around the world via robotic assassin drones. (Remember, the drone assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Suleimani at Baghdad International Airport by one Donald J. Trump?) Perhaps this is also why U.S. bombing never seems to stop and those wars never end, even when a president comes into office promising that they will. After all, it’s so empowering to be a “wartime” president!
In his novel 1984, George Orwell put it simply enough when he coined the slogan “war is peace” for his fictional dystopian society. Randolph Bourne put it no less simply when, during World War I, he explained that “war is the health of the state.” Rosa Brooks, who worked at the Pentagon, put it bluntly when she titled her 2016 book How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. What we have in America today is warfare as welfare, a form of man-made disaster capitalism, profitable for a few at the expense of the many.
Say it again: We are all POWs now.
The Time I Met a Real POW
In the early 1990s, when I was a young captain in the U.S. Air Force, I served as an escort officer for Brigadier General Robinson Risner. It’s not too much to say that Risner is held in awe in the Air Force. A skilled fighter pilot and Korean War ace, he was a colonel and on the cover of Time magazine in 1965, just as the Vietnam War was ramping up, after which he was shot down and became a POW. He later wrote The Passing of the Night, a harrowing account of the seven years he spent as a prisoner in the “Hanoi Hilton,” the sardonic name American POWs gave North Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison.
What sustained Risner through torture and those years of captivity was his Christian faith and patriotism. I vividly recall a talk he gave at the Air Force Academy about his experiences and how that faith of his had sustained him. I’ve never heard a more vivid evocation of the spirit of duty, honor, and country sustained by faith in a higher power. I was proud to have a photo taken with General Risner, as we stood next to the trophy named after him and annually awarded to the top graduate of the Air Force’s Weapons School, the AF’s Top Gun, so to speak.
Risner was gracious and compelling, and I was humbled to meet a POW who’d endured and overcome as much as he had. Yet, back then (to be honest), I never gave a thought to his actions as a fighter pilot leading bombing missions during Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam. Since the U.S. government had chosen not to officially declare war against North Vietnam, whether his missions were even legal should have been open to question. Lacking such an official declaration, one could argue that Risner and U.S. POWs like him did not enjoy the legal protections of the Geneva Convention. Using American terminology today, Risner might then have been termed an “enemy combatant” to be held indefinitely, as the U.S. today holds captives at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, POWs who have little hope of ever being released.
To your average American captured by U.S. war culture, objections here are easy. Of course, Risner’s bombing missions were legal. Of course, he deserved to be recognized as a POW and treated decently. America never goes to war without righteous cause, in this case the containment of Communism by any means short of nuclear weapons. The North Vietnamese saw it differently, however, perhaps because it was they who were being bludgeoned and flattened by U.S. military power.
My point is neither to praise Risner nor to bury him. Rather, it’s to bury war and the culture that breeds and then feeds on it. The more Americans facilitate war (largely by ignoring it and so giving it our tacit approval), the more Washington funds it, the more other people die because of “our” wars and “our” weaponry, the more this country becomes a POW nation writ large.
My Friend’s Button Again
Remember my friend’s button, the one that insisted POWs never have a nice day? As a POW nation writ large, it should apply to all of us. America won’t have a nice day again until it extricates itself from war in all its manifestations. There will be no nice day until Congress stops funding munitions makers and starts seeking peace and helping the sick and poor. There will be no nice day until Americans hate war with all the passion now saved for “patriotic” flag waving. There will be no nice day until presidents bless peacemakers instead of beseeching God to protect the troops.
So, the next time you see a POW/MIA flag outside a federal building, don’t dismiss it as a relic of America’s past. Think about its meaning and relevance in an era of constant global warfare and colossal military spending. Then, if you dare, ask yourself if you, too, are a POW of sorts — not in the strictly legal sense that applies to formal militaries in declared wars, but in the sense of this country being captured by war in all its death, destruction, and despair. And then ask yourself, what does America have to do, collectively, to break out of the POW camp in which it’s imprisoned itself?
Upon that question hinges the future of the American republic.
Copyright 2021 William J. Astore
Many thanks to UTEJACK for the “stockade” quote and the inspiration. Many thanks to Tori LaGarde for identifying the POW button in the 4th grade photo — and for the inspiration as well.
This week, Congress will attempt to override President Trump’s veto of the NDAA, the national defense authorization act, which in 2021 provides $740 billion to the Pentagon and its wars. As usual, there is strong bipartisan support for this massive war budget. Democrats will join Republicans in bowing and scraping before the military-industrial complex, even as they frame it in terms of “supporting” the troops and defending America. In short, Trump’s veto will not stand.
I’m so fed up with Democrats serving the war party, denying health care to all Americans, and so on that I finally changed my political party designation in my home state. I am now a no-party independent instead of a registered Democrat. (My wife joined me as she’s no fan of “handsy” Joe Biden and the refusal of “centrist” Democrats to help people in meaningful ways.)
Perhaps that’s what we all need to do. Reject the Republican and Democratic parties and fight for a political establishment that would put people first rather than billionaires and corporations. Short of revolution, I don’t see other options that promise meaningful change.
To my knowledge, the last major party presidential candidate who called for meaningful reductions in war spending was George McGovern. For example, McGovern called for a defense budget in 1975 of $54.8 billion, roughly $32 billion less than what the Nixon administration had proposed. McGovern, of course, had to couch this in terms of America still being a superpower with a nuclear arsenal that would be second to none, but at least he had the courage to talk of peace and of new approaches to foreign policy that would put diplomacy first instead of weaponry and war. What a loser he was, right?
If we applied a McGovern-size cut to today’s NDAA, we’d be talking about a “defense” budget of roughly $470 billion a year, still plenty of money, one would think, for the Pentagon to defend America. The $270 billion in savings could and should be applied to stimulus checks for Americans desperate for help in these Covid-disturbed times.
Imagine Americans getting a check from the government — a rebate of sorts — as a peace dividend! What would Americans rather have: a bunch of expensive F-35 jet fighters; ultra-expensive newer nuclear weapons on top of the ultra-expensive older ones; or some cash in pocket to buy groceries and pay their rent? I don’t know about you, but more F-35s and more nuclear bombers and missiles are not helping my bottom line.
To return to my changed political party affiliation: When a Democratic president-elect nominates a retired general and board member of Raytheon as the best person to exercise civilian oversight over the Pentagon, you know the Democratic party is a toady to the military-industrial complex and devoid of integrity as well as fresh ideas.
War? What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Time for some peace dividends, America.
At the American Conservative, I discuss the War on Terror, the nomination of General (retired) Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense, the lack of an American anti-war movement, and why we never see a “peace dividend” in the USA. My discussion begins at the 16-minute point.
Also, articles by Matt Taibbi and David Sirota suggest that the biggest winner of the latest Covid-relief stimulus talks in Congress is, believe it or not, the military-industrial complex. Right now there are no plans to send money to the American people, even as nearly 15 million have lost their employer-sponsored health care and millions more face eviction or foreclosure in the new year.
“Amazing” Hypocrisy: Democrats Make Wreck of Covid-19 Relief Negotiations Democrats stonewalled all year on a new pandemic relief package. Now they’re proposing a new plan that undercuts even Republican proposals, and screws everyone but – get this – defense contractors, by Matt Taibbi at https://taibbi.substack.com/p/amazing-hypocrisy-democrats-make
Taibbi quotes one aide as saying: “There are no direct payments for regular working people, people living off tips. But they made sure there’s a provision in there to help defense contractors who aren’t working right now. They get what they’re looking for.”
In short, the military-industrial complex wins again. The American people? They lose again.