Today at 2PM, the Trump administration releases its National Security Strategy. It’s already making news because Trump is dropping climate change (added by the Obama administration) as a threat. Instead, Trump is placing new emphasis on economic competitiveness and border security (“Build the wall!”), which are two corporate-friendly policies (read: boondoggles).
I’d like to cite two threats that Trump won’t mention in his national security strategy. These two threats are perhaps the biggest ones America faces, and they are related. The first is threat inflation, and the second is the U.S. military itself, as in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s military-industrial-Congressional complex.
Threat inflation is a huge problem in America. The threat of terrorism is vastly inflated, as is the threat from North Korea. If we wanted to focus on what threatens Americans, we’d be redoubling efforts to help those with opioid addictions even as we work to cut deaths by guns and in road accidents. Roughly 120,000 Americans are dying each year from opioid overdoses, road accidents, and shootings. How many are dying from terrorism or from attacks by North Korea?
North Korea is a weak regional power led by an immature dictator who is desperate to keep his grip on power. Kim Jong-un knows that any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea would end in his death and the annihilation of his country. He also knows that nuclear weapons serve as a deterrent and a symbol of prestige domestically and internationally. Does he need to be deterred? Yes. Should Americans cower in fear? Of course not.
Cyberwar is certainly a threat–just look at Russian meddling in our last presidential election. China and Russia are nuclear powers and rivals that bear close watching, but they are not enemies. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War the United States hasn’t faced serious peer enemies. We should have been cashing in our “peace dividends” for the last 25 years. Why haven’t we?
Enter the military-industrial-Congressional complex. Ike warned us about it in 1961. He warned about its misplaced power, its persistence, and its anti-democratic nature. Ike, a retired five-star general who led the allied armies on the Western Front in World War II against the Nazis, knew of what he spoke. He knew the Complex exaggerated threats, such as missile or bomber “gaps” (which didn’t exist) vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. Ike knew the military, its corporate feeders and enablers, and Congress always wanted one thing: more. He did his best to control the military, but once he left office, it was the Complex that took control, leading America into a disastrous war in Vietnam, the first of many “wars of choice” that ended in American defeats, but which proved highly profitable to the Complex itself.
Those endless wars that feed the Complex persist today. Elements of the U.S. military are deployed to 149 countries and 800 foreign bases at a budgetary cost of $700 billion (that’s just for the “defense” budget). Spending so much money on the military represents a tremendous opportunity cost–for that money, Americans could have free health care and college tuition, but who wants good health and a sound education, right?
Ike recognized the opportunity cost of “defense” spending in 1953 in this famous speech:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is 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.
What Ike said. The point is not that Ike was a perfect man (look at the Iran coup, also in 1953), but he sure as hell was a sound and at times a penetrating thinker, a mature man who knew the awful burdens of war.
And now we have Trump, the opposite of Ike, an unsound and shallow thinker, an immature man who knows nothing of the awfulness of war. Add Trump himself–his immaturity, his bellicosity, his ignorance, and his denial of reality–as a threat to our national security.
So, a quick summary of three big threats that won’t make Trump’s “strategy” today:
Threat inflation: terrorism, North Korea, Iran, etc.
The Complex itself and its profligate, prodigal, and anti-democratic nature.
And add back one more: climate change/global warming. Because flooding, fires, droughts, famines, etc., exacerbated by global warming, are already creating security challenges, which will only grow worse over the next half-century. Denying that reality, or calling it “fake news,” won’t change Mother Nature; she has her own implacable ways,
Our government likes to talk about global security, which in their minds is basically synonymous with homeland security. They argue that the best defense is a good offense, that “leaning forward in the foxhole,” or always being ready to attack, is the best way to keep Americans safe. Hence the 800 U.S. military bases in foreign countries, the deployment of special operations units to 130+ countries, and the never-ending “war on terror.”
Consider this snippet from today’s FP: Foreign Policy report:
If Congress votes through the massive tax cuts currently on the House floor, it would likely mean future cuts to Pentagon budgets “for training, maintenance, force structure, flight missions, procurement and other key programs.”
That’s according to former defense secretaries Leon E. Panetta, Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter, who sent a letter to congressional leadership Wednesday opposing the plan. “The result is the growing danger of a ‘hollowed out’ military force that lacks the ability to sustain the intensive deployment requirements of our global defense mission,” the secretaries wrote.
“Our global defense mission”: this vision that the U.S., in order to be secure, must dominate the world ensures profligate “defense” spending, to the tune of nearly $700 billion for 2018. Indeed, the Congress and the President are currently competing to see which branch of government can throw more money at the Pentagon, all in the name of “security,” naturally.
Here’s a quick summary of the new “defense” bill and what it authorizes (from the Washington Post):
The bill as it stands increases financial support for missile defense, larger troop salaries and modernizing, expanding and improving the military’s fleet of ships and warplanes. The legislation dedicates billions more than Trump’s request for key pieces of military equipment, such as Joint Strike Fighters — there are 20 more in the bill than in the president’s request — and increasing the size of the armed forces. The bill also outlines an increase of almost 20,000 service members — nearly twice Trump’s request.
In the House of Representatives, the bill passed by a vote of 356-70. At least Congress can agree on something — more and more money for the Pentagon. (The $700 billion price tag includes $65.7 billion “for combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, various places in Africa, and elsewhere,” notes FP: Foreign Policy.)
Besides all this wasteful spending (the Pentagon has yet to pass an audit!), the vision itself is deeply flawed. If you want to defend America, defend it. Strengthen the National Guard. Increase security at the border (including cyber security). Spend money on the Coast Guard. And, more than anything, start closing military bases overseas. End U.S. participation in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and throughout the greater Middle East and Africa. Bring ground troops home. And end air and drone attacks (this would also end the Air Force’s “crisis” of being short nearly 2000 pilots).
This is not a plea for isolationism. It’s a quest for sanity. America is not made safer by spreading military forces around the globe while bombing every “terrorist” in sight. Quite the reverse.
Until we change our vision of what national defense really means–and what it requires–America will be less safe, less secure, and less democratic.
What is true national security? Recent answers to this question focus on the U.S. military, Homeland Security, various intelligence agencies, and the like. The “threat” is usually defined as foreign terrorists, primarily of the Islamist variety; marauding immigrants, mainly of the Mexican variety; and cyber hackers, often of the Russian variety. To “secure” the homeland, to make us “safe,” the U.S. government spends in the neighborhood of $750 billion, each and every year, on the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and intelligence agencies such as the CIA and NSA (and there are roughly 15 more agencies after those two goliaths).
But what makes people truly secure? How about a living wage, decent health care, and quality education? Affordable housing? Some time off to decompress, to pursue one’s hobbies, to connect with family and friends, to continue to grow as a human being? Water without lead, air without toxins, land without poisons?
These thoughts came to me as I read the usual anodyne statement put out by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, nominated as President Trump’s new National Security Adviser. “The safety of the American people and the security of the American homeland are our top priorities,” McMaster said in his statement.
I agree that safety and security are important, but I wouldn’t place them as America’s top priorities, even in the realm of national defense. Our top priority is supporting and defending the U.S. Constitution, including all those rights and freedoms that are often threatened in nervous and excitable times. Institutions like the press, freedoms like the right to assemble and protest, the right to individual privacy, and the like.
When the powerful threaten those freedoms, as President Trump is doing by denouncing the press as the enemy of the people, that very act is a bigger threat to national security than ISIS or illegal immigrants or Russian hackers or what-have-you.
Security is not just about weapons and warriors and killing terrorists and other “bad hombres,” and safety is not just about guarding your money and property or even your person from physical harm. Safety and security draw their strength from our Constitution, our communities, and our societal institutions, not only those that catch and punish criminals, but those that enlighten us, those that make us better, those that enrich our souls.
In the USA, we have a very narrow and negative definition of safety and security. It’s a definition that’s been increasingly militarized, much like our government, over the last few decades.
We’d be wise to broaden and deepen our view of what security and safety really mean; we’d be especially wise not to allow leaders like Donald Trump to define them for us. In their minds, security and safety mean doing what you’re told while shutting up and paying your taxes.
Kneeling before General Zod (to cite Superman for a moment) or indeed any other leader is not what I call safety and security.
Update: Just after I wrote this, I saw these two headlines from today: “Trump on deportations: ‘It’s a military operation,'” and “Trump adviser Bannon assails media at CPAC: Of media coverage of Trump, Steve Bannon said: ‘It’s not only not going to get better — it’s going to get worse every day… they’re corporatist, globalist media.'”
There you have it: militarization (at least of rhetoric) and scapegoating of the media before the fact. Judge Trump, Bannon, and Co. by their deeds, but also by their words.
Update 2: Last night, a PBS report noted that the USA, with less than 5% of the world’s population, accounts for 80% of opioid prescriptions. The overuse of powerful and addictive painkillers points to serious problems in national morale. Even as many Americans have poor access to health care or overpay for it, America itself is awash in prescription drugs, many of them either highly expensive or highly addictive, or both. This reliance on prescription drugs is a sign of a complex communal malaise, yet the government seems most focused on policing the use of marijuana, which is now legal in many states.
I’m a fan of books and book sales. A few weeks ago, I came across a vintage copy of Hugh Prather’s “Notes to Myself.” Published in 1970, it caught the Zeitgeist of the “Age of Aquarius” and became a surprise best seller. Its considerable influence is shown by the fact it was lampooned on “Saturday Night Live” as part of the “Deep Thoughts” series.
Some of Prather’s “notes” are solipsistic and more than a little pretentious, a fact he himself recognized, but some of them also have considerable depth of meaning.
Consider this one:
When I see I am doing it wrong there is
a part of me that wants to keep on doing
it the same way anyway and even starts
looking for reasons to justify the continuation.
When I read this, I instantly thought of U.S. strategy when it comes to the Middle East. I recently read Colonel (ret.) Andrew Bacevich’s new book, “America’s War for the Greater Middle East,” and Prather’s note could serve as an epigraph to the book, and an epitaph to U.S. wars and policy in the Middle East.
Despite a painfully expensive and tragically wasteful record of militarized interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and many other countries throughout the greater Middle East, the U.S. military and foreign policy establishment persists in staying its presence course. Sure, the tactics have changed slightly over the years. Obama is less enamored of committing big battalions of ground troops than Bush/Cheney were, yet his administration is nevertheless committed to constant military interventions, misguided and one-sided relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and unwavering optimism that this time, maybe this time, we’ll finally build effective Iraqi (or Afghan) security forces while simultaneously encouraging liberty in the region by sending more U.S. troops and selling more weaponry (together with bombing and killing, of course).
As Bacevich notes in his book (you should beg, borrow, or otherwise acquire a copy), experience has not taught the U.S. national security state much of anything. Whether that state is led by a Clinton or a Bush or an Obama matters little. The U.S. can’t help but meddle, using its powerful military as a more or less blunt instrument, at incredible expense to our country, and at a staggering cost in foreign lives lost or damaged by incessant warfare. And no matter how catastrophic the results, that national security state can’t help but find reasons, no matter how discredited by events, to “stay the course.”
Consistent with what Prather says, it looks “for reasons to justify the continuation” of present policy, even when it knows things are going wrong in a very bad way.
Perhaps the U.S. national security state needs to make some “notes to itself.” Consider it a personal audit of sorts, since the Pentagon can’t pass a financial one. If it ever does, Prather’s “note” above would be a good place to start.
I was on active duty in the military for twenty years. My experience: It’s very difficult to see the big picture in the military. The everyday pressures of the mission keep you focused on the short term. I recall writing many WARs (weekly activity reports) and being focused on the immediate. Even the yearly budgetary process tends to keep you focused on the short term. Assignments for officers and enlisted rarely last longer than three years, with combat tours typically much shorter. Personnel are constantly changing: for one acquisition project I worked on, four program managers (colonels) rotated in and out in three years.
Along with being focused on the immediate, you are actively discouraged from criticizing the system in any fundamental way. Of course, you’re not supposed to criticize the commander-in-chief, you’re not supposed to be insubordinate to your chain of command, you’re not supposed to undermine morale. At the same time, one mistake can be deadly to a career. People in the military therefore tend to play it safe. Doubters tend to conform. They shut their mouths. Or they vote with their feet by leaving the military.
Critics with the best of intentions often get squashed. Consider the Air Force pilot who found a problem with the F-22 Raptor’s cockpit oxygen supply system. This was a top priority, safety of flight, issue, but the Air Force played down the problem so as to protect procurement for the Raptor. The pilot eventually complained to CBS “60 Minutes” and saw his career stall as a result. Or consider General Eric Shinseki, who as Army Chief of Staff had the temerity to disagree with the Bush Administration’s rosy talk of low troop requirements in the wake of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Shinseki was shunted aside by a system that had no room for well-informed dissent.
Pressures to conform and short-term planning and personnel cycles combine to produce mediocrity and to reproduce the past. John Paul Vann, an expert on the Vietnam War who died in that war, noted the U.S. military didn’t have 12 years’ experience in Vietnam: it had one years’ experience repeated 12 times over. Something similar is true in Afghanistan today: the U.S. doesn’t have 14 years’ experience fighting the Taliban and building Afghan security forces, but rather one years’ experience repeated 14 times.
U.S. military actions are sequential rather than synergistic. It’s just one damn thing after another. The reality of this is often seen more clearly by people who are outside of the military. Outsiders aren’t caught up in everyday pressures or limited by conformism. They’re not caught in a Pentagonal box in which misguided tactics and mistaken goals are accepted by insiders as SOP – standard operating procedure.
But perhaps “box” is the wrong image for the Pentagon and its unreflective busyness; ant farm might be better. If you’re of a certain age, you may remember those old ant farms advertised in the back pages of comic books. You could send away for a see-through container with sand and ants that allowed you to watch as your crew of ants busily worked away in your “farm.”
Today’s Pentagon reminds me of those old ant farms. The ants work busily within it. Anyone watching wouldn’t question their dedication. Yet as you’re standing outside the farm, watching them, you can see how tightly their world is delimited and circumscribed. What is obvious to you is simply beyond them. The ants keep digging in and rolling along.
It’s well worth asking why the U.S. military puts so much pride on working to the point of exhaustion. A friend of mine worked at the Pentagon. He worked hard during his normal shift – but he left on-time to go home. His co-workers, noses to the grindstone, would hassle him about leaving “early.” He’d reply: I can leave on-time because I didn’t spend hours rotating between the coffee maker and the gym.
A mindless emphasis on over-caffeinated work and fitness, as another friend suggested, may be a post-Vietnam War reaction to the McNamara “managerial” culture of the 1960s. As he put it, “One easy way of showing one has the right stuff is to be an exercise nut, and the penumbras of that mind-set have really distorted the allocation of effort in our military.” Recall that General David Petraeus made a moral fetish out of personal fitness and how that indirectly cost him his career (he made his initial connection to his mistress/biographer while running together). Recall that General Stanley McChrystal was celebrated for his fitness regimen, which didn’t convey the smarts to rein in the insubordinate behavior of his men.
One more anecdote about incessant “army ant” work. A Vietnam veteran told me this story about mindless work for the sake of show:
“One feature of my first Vietnam unit epitomized all this to me: the trucks in our motor pool were perfectly lined up. I don’t know how they did it. Must have had squads of soldiers pushing them to just the right spot then stuck chocks under the wheels to keep them there. The 4-star-corps commander used to drive by our motor pool frequently to go to USARV HQ. He never stopped to see if the trucks were drivable. They were not. Almost all deadlined.”
Lots of busy-work down on the ant farm may look good from a distance, but it does not produce victory.
Today’s U.S. military has its enemies outgunned. There’s little wrong with its work ethic. What the U.S. military hasn’t done is to outthink its enemies. Indeed, the military’s actions often conspire to create new ones. To admit this is not to place the blame entirely on the military. Its civilian leaders have to shoulder blame as well. But ultimately it’s the military that advises the president and Congress, and I haven’t witnessed senior military officers resigning because their advice hasn’t been followed.
If the U.S. military is to be reformed, you can’t look to the ants to do it. They’re too busy keeping the system running. We must look beyond the farm, to outsiders who are able and willing to think freely. Yet the military too needs to act, if for no other reason than to end a miserable run of defeats (or pyrrhic victories, if that sounds less harsh). Rather than simply promoting loyal and hardworking ants, it needs to foster seers and thinkers – people willing to buck the system.
It won’t be easy – but it’s sure better than losing.
“Global reach, global power”: that was one motto of the U.S. Air Force when I was on active duty. “A global force for good”: that’s the new motto in advertisements for the U.S. Navy. Note that word: global. For the ambitions of the U.S. government and military transcend national security: they truly are global ambitions of dominance, which is exactly what Tom Engelhardt documents so fully in his new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books).
Engelhardt powerfully documents the growing power of a “shadow government,” a government shrouded in secrecy (and which routinely classifies 100 million documents per year), a government that relentlessly prosecutes anyone who tries to lift this shroud of secrecy, a government that continues to grow in size and power despite, or rather because of, its failures. It’s a government of intelligence agencies and Special Forces and drone strikes and private military contractors and a 1000+ military bases overseas and carrier task forces and rendition/black sites, a government that divides the globe into major military commands like CENTCOM and AFRICOM and NORTHCOM, a government that can’t think of the “homeland” without adding the word “security” and lots of guns and tanks.
This week, Engelhardt introduced his new book at TomDispatch with the following shocker:
“What are the odds? You put about $68 billion annually into a maze of 17 major intelligence outfits. You build them glorious headquarters. You create a global surveillance state for the ages. You listen in on your citizenry and gather their communications in staggering quantities. Your employees even morph into avatars and enter video-game landscapes, lest any Americans betray a penchant for evil deeds while in entertainment mode. You collect information on visits to porn sites just in case, one day, blackmail might be useful. You pass around naked photos of them just for… well, the salacious hell of it. Your employees even use aspects of the system you’ve created to stalk former lovers and, within your arcane world, that act of ‘spycraft’ gains its own name: LOVEINT.
“You listen in on foreign leaders and politicians across the planet. You bring on board hundreds of thousands of crony corporate employees, creating the sinews of an intelligence-corporate complex of the first order. You break into the ‘backdoors’ of the data centers of major Internet outfits to collect user accounts. You create new outfits within outfits, including an ever-expanding secret military and intelligence crew embedded inside the military itself (and not counted among those 17 agencies). Your leaders lie to Congress and the American people without, as far as we can tell, a flicker of self-doubt. Your acts are subject to secret courts, which only hear your versions of events and regularly rubberstamp them — and whose judgments and substantial body of lawmaking are far too secret for Americans to know about.”
And yet despite all the trillions invested in America’s global security state, we’re no safer today than we were before 9/11. Indeed, we’re less safe in a thoroughly militarized world in which Americans increasingly find their rights being abridged in the false name of security.
A painful irony is that however much they fail (like in their recent failure to predict the rise of ISIS), America’s global security state continues to grow. As Engelhardt notes:
“Keep in mind that the twenty-first-century version of intelligence began amid a catastrophic failure: much crucial information about the 9/11 hijackers and hijackings was ignored or simply lost in the labyrinth. That failure, of course, led to one of the great intelligence expansions, or even explosions, in history. (And mind you, no figure in authority in the national security world was axed, demoted, or penalized in any way for 9/11 and a number of them were later given awards and promoted.) However they may fail, when it comes to their budgets, their power, their reach, their secrecy, their careers, and their staying power, they have succeeded impressively.
“You could, of course, say that the world is simply a hard place to know and the future, with its eternal surprises, is one territory that no country, no military, no set of intelligence agencies can occupy, no matter how much they invest in doing so. An inability to predict the lay of tomorrow’s land may, in a way, be par for the course. If so, however, remind me: Why exactly are we supporting 17 versions of intelligence gathering to the tune of at least $68 billion a year?”
Good question. The more they fail, the more money and power they get.
In some ways, the U.S. global security state is like a Rube Goldberg machine, absurdly and immensely complicated, with many points of potential failure. Then again, Rube Goldberg might not be the best metaphor, since his devices actually worked. They accomplished a simple task in an absurdly and often amusingly complex way. But there’s nothing amusing about the U.S. global security machine, which can’t win its wars even as it succeeds in perpetuating its own growth.
What the global security state resembles most is a golem, a soulless monster of immense power. The government summoned it in the name of smiting enemies, but it has now grown so powerful that no one fully controls it. It continues to intervene powerfully and destructively, with wildly unpredictable results. Yet its creators are so simultaneously frightened of it and in awe of it that they continue to feed the beast while sending it forth to do battle.
The shadow government as golem: a shambling monster seeking vengeance but lacking a soul and without a hint of compassion. It’s a terrifying idea. After reading Engelhardt’s new book, you should indeed be terrified of what is lurking in the immense and menacing shadow cast by the global security state.
President Obama’s decision to deploy 3,000 troops to Liberia in Africa to assist in efforts to contain Ebola got me to thinking about the military as white blood cells. As a military officer, I took an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. In a sense, I was vowing to defend the collective body politic just as white blood cells defend our individual bodies against “enemy” invaders.
But when was the last time the United States faced invaders who posed a virulent and direct threat to our existence? Invaders who directly attacked (or planned to attack) and utterly defeat our body politic? You’d have to go back to World War II and Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor; similarly, Nazi Germany did have plans (that were never implemented) to take its world war to U.S. shores once the Soviet Union and Britain were defeated. Fortunately, our body mobilized its “white blood cells” and defeated (with lots of help from our allies) these enemies before they could afflict our vitals here at home.
Jump ahead to 2001 and the al Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Yes, they were serious and shocking and traumatic. But compared to the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II (true cancers), al Qaeda was the equivalent to a 24-hour “bug,” violent in the extreme, but ultimately not a serious long-term threat to the health of America.
By calling 9/11 a “bug,” I don’t mean to diminish the tragedy of 9/11 for those who lost loved ones. It’s just that repeats of 9/11-like attacks were not possible: al Qaeda simply lacked the resources to sustain them. There was no “cancer” that could metastasize. So there was no need to deploy our white blood cells (our troops) in extended wars, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, the latter country of which had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11.
Now we have the President referring to the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) as a “cancer” that must be eradicated, even though that “cancer” has no means of attacking the body that is our country. Despite this fact, the U.S. is deploying its white blood cells yet again to quash a threat that for our nation simply doesn’t exist.
From medicine, we know that overactive white blood cells can be as dangerous as underactive ones. White blood cells are part of our immune systems; when these systems are overactive, they convert non-threats into threats. Sometimes that results in violent allergic reactions that can lead to death. Other times, one’s own immune system turns on healthy tissue within one’s body. The immune system itself becomes a cancer, eating away at the body in misdirected attempts to defend it.
Whenever the U.S. faces a “threat” nowadays, our leaders treat it aggressively as a “cancer” even when the threat poses no direct peril to us. American presidents, whether they’re named Bush or Obama, eagerly deploy America’s antibodies — the military — to search and destroy bad terrorist cells. But the USA is like a patient whose antibodies have run wild, a patient whose antibodies have turned on external threats even when they’re not threats, a patient whose antibodies are now attacking healthy tissue within the American body politic.
Consider the fact that U.S. presidents commit the troops — our nation’s antibodies — to wars against “cancers” without formal declarations of war by Congress. In the name of protecting America, they violate the Constitution that our troops are sworn to uphold. They fail to recognize it’s their actions that pose the true threat to the Constitution. It’s their actions that constitute the cancer.
The invasive “cure” of continuous military action without oversight exercised by the people is truly worse than the disease, for it’s a “cure” that violates our Constitution and weakens our body politic.
I spent four college years in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and then served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force. In the military, especially in basic training, you have no privacy. The government owns you. You’re “government issue,” just another G.I., a number on a dogtag that has your blood type and religion in case you need a transfusion or last rites. You get used to it. That sacrifice of individual privacy and personal autonomy is the price you pay for joining the military. Heck, I got a good career and a pension out of it, so don’t cry for me, America.
But this country has changed a lot since I joined ROTC in 1981, was fingerprinted, typed for blood, and otherwise poked and prodded. (I needed a medical waiver for myopia.) Nowadays, in Fortress America, every one of us is, in some sense, government issue in a surveillance state gone mad.
Unlike the recruiting poster of old, Uncle Sam doesn’t want you anymore — he already has you. You’ve been drafted into the American national security state. That much is evident from Edward Snowden’s revelations. Your email? It can be read. Your phone calls? Metadata about them is being gathered. Your smartphone? It’s a perfect tracking device if the government needs to find you. Your computer? Hackable and trackable. Your server? It’s at their service, not yours.
Many of the college students I’ve taught recently take such a loss of privacyfor granted. They have no idea what’s gone missing from their lives and so don’t value what they’ve lost or, if they fret about it at all, console themselves with magical thinking — incantations like “I’ve done nothing wrong, so I’ve got nothing to hide.” They have little sense of how capricious governments can be about the definition of “wrong.”
Consider us all recruits, more or less, in the new version of Fortress America, of an ever more militarized, securitized country. Renting a movie? Why not opt for the first Captain America and watch him vanquish the Nazis yet again, a reminder of the last war we truly won? Did you head for a baseball park on Memorial Day? What could be more American or more innocent? So I hope you paid no attention to all those camouflaged caps and uniforms your favorite players were wearing in just another of an endless stream of tributes to our troops and veterans.
Let’s hear no whining about militarized uniforms on America’s playing fields. After all, don’t you know that America’s real pastime these last years has been war and lots of it?
Be a Good Trooper
Think of the irony. The Vietnam War generated an unruly citizen’s army that reflected an unruly and increasingly rebellious citizenry. That proved more than the U.S. military and our ruling elites could take. So President Nixon ended the draft in 1973 and made America’s citizen-soldier ideal, an ideal that had persisted for two centuries, a thing of the past. The “all-volunteer military,” the professionals, were recruited or otherwise enticed to do the job for us. No muss, no fuss, and it’s been that way ever since. Plenty of war, but no need to be a “warrior,” unless you sign on the dotted line. It’s the new American way.
But it turned out that there was a fair amount of fine print in the agreement that freed Americans from those involuntary military obligations. Part of the bargain was to “support the pros” (or rather “our troops”) unstintingly and the rest involved being pacified, keeping your peace, being a happy warrior in the new national security state that, particularly in the wake of 9/11, grew to enormous proportions on the taxpayer dollar. Whether you like it or not, you’ve been drafted into that role, so join the line of recruits and take your proper place in the garrison state.
If you’re bold, gaze out across the increasingly fortified and monitoredborders we share with Canada and Mexico. (Remember when you could cross those borders with no hassle, not even a passport or ID card? I do.) Watch for those drones, home from the wars and already hovering in or soon to arrive in your local skies — ostensibly to fight crime. Pay due respect to your increasingly up-armored police forces with their automatic weapons, their special SWAT teams, and their converted MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles). These vintage Iraqi Freedom vehicles are now military surplus given away or sold on the cheap to local police departments. Be careful to observe their draconian orders for prison-like “lockdowns” of your neighborhood or city, essentially temporary declarations of martial law, all for your safety and security.
Be a good trooper and do what you’re told. Stay out of public areas when you’re ordered to do so. Learn to salute smartly. (It’s one of the first lessons I was taught as a military recruit.) No, not that middle-finger salute, you aging hippie. Render a proper one to those in authority. You had best learn how.
Or perhaps you don’t even have to, since so much that we now do automatically is structured to render that salute for us. Repeated singings of “God Bless America” at sporting events. Repeated viewings of movies that glorify the military. (Special Operations forces are a hot topic in American multiplexes these days from Act of Valor to Lone Survivor.) Why not answer the call of duty by playing militarized video games like Call of Duty? Indeed, when you do think of war, be sure to treat it as a sport, a movie, a game.
Surging in America
I’ve been out of the military for nearly a decade, and yet I feel more militarized today than when I wore a uniform. That feeling first came over me in 2007, during what was called the “Iraqi surge” — the sending of another 30,000 U.S. troops into the quagmire that was our occupation of that country. It prompted my first article for TomDispatch. I was appalled by the way our civilian commander-in-chief, George W. Bush, hid behind the beribboned chest of his appointed surge commander, General David Petraeus, to justify his administration’s devolving war of choice in Iraq. It seemed like the eerie visual equivalent of turning traditional American military-civilian relationships upside down, of a president who had gone over to the military. And it worked. A cowed Congress meekly submitted to “King David” Petraeus and rushed to cheer his testimony in support of further American escalation in Iraq.
Since then, it’s become a sartorial necessity for our presidents to donmilitary flight jackets whenever they address our “warfighters” as a sign both of their “support” and of the militarization of the imperial presidency. (For comparison, try to imagine Matthew Brady taking a photo of “honest Abe” in the Civil War equivalent of a flight jacket!) It is now de rigueur for presidents to praise American troops as “the finest military in world history” or, as President Obama typically said to NBC’s Brian Williams in aninterview from Normandy last week, “the greatest military in the world.” Even more hyperbolically, these same troops are celebrated across the country in the most vocal way possible as hardened “warriors” andbenevolent freedom-bringers, simultaneously the goodest and the baddest of anyone on the planet — and all without including any of the ugly, as in the ugliness of war and killing. Perhaps that explains why I’ve seen military recruitment vans (sporting video game consoles) at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Given that military service is so beneficent, why not get the country’s 12-year-old prospects hopped up on the prospect of joining the ranks?
Too few Americans see any problems in any of this, which shouldn’t surprise us. After all, they’re already recruits themselves. And if the prospect of all this does appall you, you can’t even burn your draft card in protest, so better to salute smartly and obey. A good conduct medal will undoubtedly be coming your way soon.
It wasn’t always so. I remember walking the streets of Worcester, Massachusetts, in my freshly pressed ROTC uniform in 1981. It was just six years after the Vietnam War ended in defeat and antiwar movies likeComing Home, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now were still fresh in people’s minds. (First Blood and the Rambo “stab-in-the-back” myth wouldn’t come along for another year.) I was aware of people looking at me not with hostility, but with a certain indifference mixed occasionally with barely disguised disdain. It bothered me slightly, but even then I knew that a healthy distrust of large standing militaries was in the American grain.
No longer. Today, service members, when appearing in uniform, are universally applauded and repetitiously lauded as heroes.
I’m not saying we should treat our troops with disdain, but as our history has shown us, genuflecting before them is not a healthy sign of respect. Consider it a sign as well that we really are all government issue now.
Shedding a Militarized Mindset
If you think that’s an exaggeration, consider an old military officer’s manual I still have in my possession. It’s vintage 1950, approved by that great American, General George C. Marshall, Jr., the man most responsible for our country’s victory in World War II. It began with this reminder to the newly commissioned officer: “[O]n becoming an officer a man does not renounce any part of his fundamental character as an American citizen. He has simply signed on for the post-graduate course where one learns how to exercise authority in accordance with the spirit of liberty.” That may not be an easy thing to do, but the manual’s aim was to highlight the salutary tension between military authority and personal liberty that was the essence of the old citizen’s army.
It also reminded new officers that they were trustees of America’s liberty, quoting an unnamed admiral’s words on the subject: “The American philosophy places the individual above the state. It distrusts personal power and coercion. It denies the existence of indispensable men. It asserts the supremacy of principle.”
Those words were a sound antidote to government-issue authoritarianism and militarism — and they still are. Together we all need to do our bit, not as G.I. Joes and Janes, but as Citizen Joes and Janes, to put personal liberty and constitutional principles first. In the spirit of Ronald Reagan, who toldSoviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this [Berlin] wall,” isn’t it time to begin to tear down the walls of Fortress America and shed our militarized mindsets? Future generations of citizens will thank us, if we have the courage to do so.
What will West Point graduates do without wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Don’t worry! There are a lot more threats listed on the classroom chalkboard.
The New York Times this morning has an interesting article on this year’s West Point graduates. With the end of the war in Iraq (at least for us) and the winding down of the Afghan conflict (again, at least for us), West Point graduates face the prospect of not being immediately deployed to a shooting war. The article paints this as grim times, at least for the graduates, many of whom are seeking opportunities in the Special Forces for a better chance at earning “coveted” combat badges and patches.
And this is precisely the problem with a professional military that is self-defined as “warriors.” Its members desire war: a chance, so they think, to test themselves in the crucible of combat. They want to be where the action is, even if that action is ill-advised or even illegal under international law.
Two centuries ago, the model for West Point was a citizen-soldier engineering school, a band of brothers who would help tame our continent more through engineering skill than fighting prowess. Our army, of course, has never been reluctant to fight when the cause was just (or when they were told by various leaders the cause was just), but the emphasis was on civilian needs first, notably the development of our nation’s infrastructure.
Contrast that with today. The article in the New York Times includes a photo of a chalkboard used in a West Point class to explain today’s security environment. The threats listed on the board include terrorism, cyber, Egypt, Syria, China, Iran, and North Korea (NK). The Army’s priorities appear to be defense of the homeland (the HL), something about preserving order, and something about promoting our economic interests and values overseas. Notably absent (as far as I can tell from the photo) was any explicit mention of the citizen-soldier ideal of supporting and defending our Constitution.
I wouldn’t want to make too much of a few words scribbled on a chalkboard. But it appears from that list of “threats” that our West Point graduates will have plenty of opportunities in their military careers to march to the sound of gunfire. And probably more than a few opportunities to add some “coveted” combat badges and patches to their uniforms.
They’ll be no lack, in short, of red badges of courage. More’s the pity for ourselves and for our nation.
The United States spends nearly a trillion dollars a year on national defense, to include wars, homeland security, a bewildering array of intelligence agencies, and the maintenance of nuclear weapons. Are we buying greater security with all this money?
Consider the following fact. A private contractor hired to vet security clearances for US intelligence agencies has been accused of faulty and incomplete background checks in 665,000 cases. Yes, you read that right. More than half a million background checks for security clearances were not performed properly. Doesn’t that make you feel safer?
Meanwhile, our nuclear forces have been bedeviled by scandal and mismanagement. The latest is a cheating scandal involving 34 nuclear launch officers and the potential compromise of nuclear surety. Previous scandals include a vice admiral, the deputy commander of US nuclear forces, being relieved of command for using forged gambling chips in a casino. Far worse was the incident in 2007 when a B-52 flew across the US with six “live” nuclear missiles on board. (The missiles were not supposed to have nuclear warheads in them.)
Public servants, especially military officers who put “integrity first,” are expected to be good stewards of the trillions of dollars entrusted to them. What to make, then, of an alarming bribery scandal in the Pacific, involving a wealthy Malaysian contractor who allegedly used money, hookers, and gifts to bribe several high-ranking US naval officers into awarding him lucrative contracts? Something tells me this was not the pivot to the Pacific that the Obama Administration had in mind.
Such stories show how moth-eaten the shroud for our national security state really is. Small wonder that we’re told to avert our eyes (Hey! It’s classified!) rather than inspecting it closely.
What lessons are we to draw from such betrayals of public trust? One big one: Our “security” apparatus has grown so large and all-encompassing that it has become far more powerful than the threat it is supposed to check. Call it the enemy within, the inevitable corruption that accompanies unchecked power.
Any institution, no matter if it puts integrity first, will be compromised if it’s given too much power, especially when that institution veils itself in secrecy.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” as Peter Parker’s gentle Uncle Ben reminded him. It’s an aphorism from “Spiderman,” but it’s no less true for that. We’ve given great power to our national security apparatus, but that power is being exercised in ways that too often are irresponsible — and unaccountable.
And that doesn’t bode well for true security.
Update (1/28): Unfortunately, with great power often comes great irresponsibility, as this article on US military brass behaving badly indicates in today’s Washington Post. And let’s not forget the US general and master of nuclear missiles who got drunk in Moscow while bragging about keeping the world safe — at least he enjoyed the banquet featuring tortillas stuffed with caviar and dill.
Update (2/5): A new story reveals that Army recruiters as well as civilians cheated the American taxpayer out of $100 million in recruiting bonuses. The bonuses were aimed at boosting recruits during the difficult days of the Iraq War. Sadly, it also boosted fraud within the Army, as some recruiters lined their own pockets with bonuses obtained under fraudulent terms.