Uncle Sam Doesn’t Want You — He Already Has You

Uncle Sam wants us.  But who, exactly, is Uncle Sam?
Uncle Sam — He Already Has Us

The Militarized Realities of Fortress America

By William J. Astore (Featured at TomDispatch.com)

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 HomeThe 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.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and TomDispatch regular, edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.

Copyright 2014 William J. Astore

Fighting for Coveted Combat Badges and Patches

the point

W.J. Astore

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.

A slice of military education at West Point (Source: New York Times)
A slice of military education at West Point (Source: New York Times)

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.

All the Insecurity Money Can Buy

It's not nice to fool with nuclear missiles
It’s not nice to fool with nuclear missiles

W.J. Astore

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.

Fresh Thinking on U.S. National Security Policy

More Athens, Less Sparta
More Athens, Less Sparta

Here, as promised, is what I hope is some fresh thinking.  I also posted this at Huffington Post.

Currently, so-called “fresh” thinking on national security from the Obama administration includes the pivot to Asia, more emphasis on cyberwar and drones, continued expansion of Special Forces, a withdrawal from Afghanistan in super-slow motion, and intervention (sending arms at minimum; troops possibly to follow) in Syria. “Defense” budgets are to remain high, with each service getting its usual assortment of high-priced weapons (most notoriously, the $400 billion devoted to procure the F-35 joint strike fighter for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines).

In other words, it’s pretty much business as usual at the Pentagon.

How about some truly fresh thinking on national security? Here are five ideas that are more visionary than anything our sclerotic and self-absorbed bureaucracy will ever produce:

1. Eliminate nuclear weapons in U.S. military arsenals by the year 2025.

The U.S. remains the only country ever to use nuclear weapons (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). It would send a powerful message to the world if we took the lead in eliminating nuclear weapons from the planet. And we can afford to take this risk. Why? Precisely because of our enormous conventional (non-nuclear) military might. Such a bold step would also help to restore our moral standing in the world.

2. Get out of Afghanistan now.

If the Afghan National Army (ANA) isn’t ready to take charge after a decade of U.S. training and scores of billions of dollars, it never will be. The U.S. effort to train the ANA was always a case of putting the cart before the horse, since you can hardly create a national army where there is no nation. It’s time to cut our losses and leave.

3. Define a new “Good Neighbor” Policy.

Remember when FDR declared a “Good Neighbor” policy to improve relations with Latin American countries? Yes, it was eight decades ago. It’s high time that we reach out again to our immediate neighbors, even the “bad boy” ones like Cuba and Venezuela, rather than wasting resources in faraway places like Afghanistan.

4. Renew the Monroe Doctrine — With A Twist.

Remember the Monroe Doctrine? In the early 19th century, we said “hands off our hemisphere” to the other major powers of the world. Backed up by the power of Britain’s Royal Navy, we helped to keep foreign meddling in the Americas to a minimum (we, of course, filled the gap and did plenty of meddling of our own).

Related to (3) above, we need a new Monroe Doctrine, one in which we vow to keep our hands off of other hemispheres.

It’s time to come home, America. We’ve got plenty of problems to fix here. The kind that can’t be fixed by buying more ultra-expensive jet fighters, unwanted main battle tanks, and superfluous nuclear attack submarines.

5. Put an end to threat inflation. In other words, grow up.

Do we have to react like Chicken Little to every threat, real or unreal? China has a stealth fighter! So? We’ve had them for four decades. China has an aircraft carrier (Russian-built)! And they’re building another one! So? We have 10 carrier task forces and 90 years’ experience operating them. Indeed, our Navy must be ecstatic: Finally a problem we understand!

These are not “threats,” unless you’re trying to justify business as usual at the Pentagon and among major defense contractors.

The same goes for terrorist attacks, whether successful or failed. How long are we supposed to doff our shoes at airport security checkpoints because of the inept “shoe bomber”? Another 10 years? Twenty? Forever?

Most Americans know the world is a dangerous place. But the greatest danger isn’t Chinese stealth fighters or the occasional terrorist attack (however tragic for the victims). The greatest danger is the ongoing erosion of our rights as citizens as we continue to expand the militarization of our society in the name of “safety” and “patriotism.”

America is slowly being turned into an enormous prison in which we meekly acquiesce to being monitored and even “locked down” (for our own safety, naturally). This is not the nation of John Wayne and Gary Cooper that I admired in countless westerns I watched as a boy.

Well, there are my five steps to a better national security policy. As a bonus step (and an obvious one), the U.S. must close Gitmo. The prison there is a blot on our nation’s moral standing in the world, and a cause célèbre for would-be terrorists everywhere.

Finally, and perhaps most of all, we need to change our mentality. We need a much broader definition of what “national security” really means. It’s not about having the biggest military or 16 intelligence agencies or expensive weapons. It’s about living a life worth living in which we respect others.

After all, the U.S. is supposed to be a shining city on a hill, not a bristling citadel on a hill.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached atwjastore@gmail.com.

The Need for Fresh Thinking in National Security Policy

It's impossible for Washington to think outside of the Pentagonal Box
It’s impossible for Washington to think outside of the Pentagonal Box

Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel and professor of international relations, writing in January 2009 as Barack Obama took office as president, made the following cogent observation about the need for true “change” in Washington:

When it comes to national security, the standard navigational charts used to guide the ship of state are obsolete.  The assumptions, doctrines, habits, and routines falling under the rubric of “national security policy” have outlived their usefulness.  The antidote to the disappointments and failures of the Bush years, illustrated most vividly in the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not to try harder, but to think differently.  Only then will it become possible to avoid the patently self-destructive behavior that today finds Americans facing the prospect of perpetual conflict that neither our army nor our economy can sustain.

Of course, Obama promised “change,” but with respect to national security policy, the sum total of the last five years of his watch has simply been more of the same.

Admittedly, the war in Iraq finally ended (for U.S. troops, not for the Iraqi people), but that was only because the Iraqis themselves refused to countenance the eternal presence of our troops there (of course, our boondoggle of an embassy in Baghdad survives).  Obama didn’t get us out of Iraq; he acquiesced to a deal Bush had already struck with the Iraqis.

Meanwhile, the U.S. remains ensnared in Afghanistan, squandering lives and resources to the tune of $100 billion a year.  Vague promises are made of an American withdrawal in 2014, but with an “enduring presence” (God help us) for another ten years after that.  Under Obama, drone strikes have expanded and continue; the national security state remains fat as it ever was, garrisoning the globe and spying on the world (including, as we recently learned, American citizens); and various tough-talking “experts” in Congress continue to call for new military interventions in places like Iran and Syria.

Why has this happened?  One reason is that Obama and his team wanted to be reelected in 2012, so they embraced the Bush neo-conservative approach of a hyper-kinetic, interventionist, foreign policy.  Fresh thinking was nowhere to be found, since any downsizing of American military commitments or its national security apparatus would have exposed Obama to charges of being “soft” on (Muslim) terror.

With respect to a bloated national security apparatus and wasteful military interventions, change didn’t come in 2008.  It was a case, as The Who song says, of “Meet the new boss.  Same as the old boss.”  Nor is change coming, seemingly, in the future.  Americans remain wedded to a colossal national security state that neither the president nor the Congress appears willing to challenge, let alone change.

Fresh thinking is the one thing you can’t buy in Washington because it’s priceless.  And for the lack of it, we’re paying a very high price indeed.

Next Article: Some fresh thinking on where we should be headed.

W.J. Astore