Why America’s Wars Never End

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Really?

W.J. Astore

Inspired by three recent articles at TomDispatch.com, I’d like to suggest why America’s wars never end.

The first article marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is by James Carroll.  It brought me back to when I was a young Air Force captain on active duty.  All of us in the military were surprised when the wall came down.  Soon the Soviet Union would collapse as well.  I know because I got a certificate signed by President G.H.W. Bush congratulating us for winning the Cold War.

In the early 1990s there was much talk about a New World Order (largely undefined) and a Peace Dividend.  The “new” world order quickly became global military adventurism for the U.S. and the peace dividend withered as Desert Shield/Storm and other operations commenced.

I recall some personnel cuts, but no real cuts in weaponry.  And no change to strategy.  NATO remained even though the Warsaw Pact had dissolved.  Indeed, NATO would soon be expanded (in the cause of peace, naturally), even as U.S. imperial ambitions grew.  It was the “end of history” and the U.S. had triumphed, or so we thought.

But why had we triumphed?  Apparently the lesson our leaders took from it was that military strength was the key to our triumph, therefore more of the same would lead to new triumphs.  Pax Americana was not about democracy or freedom: it was about weapons and wars.  Peace through military strength (and destruction) was the driving philosophy.

Unbounded ambition and unbridled power – that was the new world order for America.  The wall came down in Berlin, but it didn’t come down in our minds.  Instead of an open society, Fortress America became the norm.

The second article is by Allegra Harpootlian and focuses on the “collateral damage” (murdered innocents) of America’s global bombing and drone campaigns.  It made me think of a conversation I had with a student; he’d been in the U.S. Army and fought in Afghanistan.  Basically, he described it as a dirt-poor country with a primitiveness that seemed Biblical to him.  He got me thinking about how we “see” people like the Iraqis and Afghans as less than us.  Different.  Inferior.  Primitive.  From another time, and from another place.

So, when Americans kill civilians in those places, it’s almost like it’s cinematic, not real, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”  We just move on.

Of course, Americans are not encouraged to be empathetic people.  The world is supposed to revolve around us.  “You can have it all.”  In a world of selfies, why care about others?  Look out for #1!

To put a bow on this, consider evangelical Christianity and the prosperity gospel.  (The idea God will reward you with material goods and money as a sign of righteousness.)  Remember when charity to others was valued?  Not anymore.

Another way of putting this: In America there’s a huge market for self-help books, videos, etc.  But where are the books and videos encouraging us to help others?

The third article is by Andrew Bacevich and specifically addresses the never-ending nature of America’s wars.  His piece made me think of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who as a presidential candidate has called for an end to regime-change wars (though not the war on terror).  For her pains, she’s been accused of being a Russian asset by Hillary Clinton & Company.

Why is this?  Because there’s just so much money – literally trillions of dollars – at stake here, and the military-industrial-congressional complex knows how to protect itself.

The Complex offers or supports hundreds of thousands of decent-paying jobs, building weapons, staffing think tanks, and so forth.  President Trump may have voiced some skepticism about America’s failed and failing wars, yet he keeps giving the Pentagon more money.  Hence the wars will continue, no matter what sounds come out of Trump’s mouth.

As Tom Engelhardt has noted, for the Pentagon, failure is success.  Naval accidents mean the Navy needs more money.  Failed wars mean the military needs more money to replace weaponry, “modernize,” and prepare for the next round.  Defeat is victory, as in more money.

To recap, America’s wars persist because a martial imperialism is our new world order; because we have limited empathy for others, especially darker-skinned “primitives”; and because war is simply a thriving business, the Washington way to rule.

Here’s a final, bonus, reason America’s wars persist: thoughtfulness is not valued by the U.S. military.  Another “t” word is: toughness.  The U.S. military would rather be strong and wrong than smart and right.

For all the “think” tanks we have inside the Washington beltway, what matters more than thought is toughness.  Action.  Making the other guy whimper and cry, to cite President Trump.  This is yet another reason why America loses.  We prefer to act first, then (grudgingly) think, then act some more.

Thinking implies prudence.  Caution.  Restraint.  Patience.  Un-American qualities!

Here I think of U.S. officer performance reports, which also stress action, results, even when the results are “fragile,” “reversible,” or even made up.  How many officers have been promoted on pacification campaigns that pacified no one?  On training efforts, e.g. for the Iraqi Army, that trained no one?  On battles or skirmishes “won” that had no staying power?  Remember that Petraeus Surge in Iraq?

In a nutshell, perhaps we wage war without end simply because we want to.  We’ll stop when we wake up from our madness – or when someone makes us stop.

Trump Questions NATO: The Horror!

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Trump at a NATO meeting.  Looking to go his own way?

W.J. Astore

News that President Trump has considered withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has drawn great consternation and criticism in the mainstream media.  According to the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s national security team, including Jim Mattis, then the defense secretary, and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, scrambled to keep American strategy on track without mention of a withdrawal that would drastically reduce Washington’s influence in Europe and could embolden Russia for decades.”  On NBC News today, an op-ed suggests that “Trump’s reported desire to leave NATO is a belated Christmas present for Putin.”  In both cases, there’s more than a hint that Trump is favoring Russia and Putin while possibly endangering European allies.

Twenty years ago, I was a major at the Air Force Academy, and we hosted a symposium on coalition warfare during which the future of NATO was discussed.  This was a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.  There were quite a few senior officers at that symposium who, like Trump today, were willing to question the continued relevance of NATO.  One of the “roundtables” specifically addressed the future of NATO.  Its chair was retired General James P. McCarthy, USAF, and its panel consisted of retired Generals Andrew L. Goodpaster, USA; Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley; and John A. Shaud, USAF.

With another officer, I wrote an “executive summary” of this symposium and what these retired generals said about NATO back in 1998.  Here’s what I wrote two decades ago:

The value of America’s most successful and most enduring alliance, NATO, has been called into question since the end of the Cold War, a confrontation many credit it with winning.  But, like many successful alliances after the common foe has been vanquished, NATO’s long-time raison d’être has seemingly evaporated.  That the alliance has managed not just to survive but thrive has baffled many observers.  The four former high-ranking NATO generals who made up this panel shared a common view of the continued high value of the alliance to America’s foreign policy interests.  However, their views diverged on several key issues that face NATO in the years ahead.

General McCarthy opened the discussion … [suggesting] that advancing the causes of peace, prosperity, and security remain NATO’s central task, made more difficult today because of the expansion of NATO’s membership.  Yet NATO continues to be important on the continent to discourage temptations to revert to old insecurities.  General Shaud echoed Goodpaster’s view of NATO’s essential role, saying if NATO did not exist, we would have to invent it.

On the effects of expansion, Shaud stated that NATO needed to expand, both in membership to include Eastern Europe and in mission to include conflict prevention and “out of area” operations.  Goodpaster quoted the late Secretary General Manfred Woerner, “It’s either out of area or out of business.”  He then raised a provocative question: Should NATO’s mission expand to include not just nations but peoples?  General Farrar-Hockley expanded on NATO’s continuing value, noting that during the Cold War, member countries came not to seek advantage for themselves over other members but came to put alliance interests and views first.

The sensitive issue of the effects of NATO’s expansion on Russia brought out disagreement among the panel members.  Farrar-Hockley took the position that to forego expansion because of Russian concerns would be to grant Russia a continuing fiefdom in Eastern Europe.  Russia has nothing to fear from NATO, and besides, it can do nothing to prevent expansion.  If the Soviet Union was an anemic tiger, Russia is more like a circus tiger that may growl but won’t bite.  Goodpaster suggested that NATO could have followed a different path that would not have antagonized Russia.  In the early post-Cold War years, the Soviet Union may have been open to an “overarching relationship” encompassing peaceful relations.  But as NATO developed partnerships with Eastern European countries, it chose not to pursue this approach with Russia.  Partnership for Peace itself could have been done differently by providing a more equal forum analogous to the new European-Atlantic Partnership Council.  Goodpaster asked rhetorically if NATO is a defensive alliance or a collective security alliance, but answered that NATO is what the times require.  It is ultimately a forum for solidarity in Europe, an organization in which different peoples have come to respect and trust one another.  Shaud took a middle view, saying NATO should ensure Russia does not become isolated; continuing dialogue is necessary.  He noted that earlier panels had pointed out Russia’s historical concerns about encirclement, suggesting that Russia’s views on expansion are not ephemeral concerns but rather enduring issues.

Policy Implications

One of the more pressing questions NATO faces today is expansion, the possible inclusion of former Soviet states.  Russian leaders believe, perhaps with some justification, that NATO is directed at them.  It is not that NATO has aggressive intentions, but that former Soviet satellites seek security in NATO’s orbit, thereby tending further to isolate Russia from the West.  The possibilities are ominous—the rise of a new demagogue in Russia in the absence of effective leadership, or alternatively chaos resulting from the implosion of an ungovernable, ineffective state.  How should the United States and NATO manage this sensitive relationship?  Can Russia be brought back from the brink on which it now stands through inclusion in Western institutions?  Or should NATO gather the flock against the impending storm, expanding to Russia’s very doorstep to take in all states desiring inclusion?  If NATO continues to expand, what will become of the cohesion that has been the hallmark of the most successful alliance in modern history?  If NATO stops expanding, what will become of non-members if crisis erupts in regions formerly controlled by the Soviet Union?  Whatever course of action NATO adopts, communication and openness must be its bywords; secrecy and exclusion will reap only suspicion and mistrust.

Again, this was written 20 years ago.  But I’d like to make a few points about this discussion:

  1. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO was no longer needed in Europe in the sense of its original purpose.
  2. Senior leaders disagreed on whether NATO expansion would serve the peace in Europe. Like General Goodpaster, some believed expansion would isolate and perhaps antagonize Russia, while others believed this was a risk worth taking in efforts to contain possible Russian aggression or turmoil.
  3. There was consensus that NATO was worth preserving in some form, but at other times during the symposium, concerns were expressed about equity, i.e. burden-sharing, and the perceived unfairness of the U.S. paying much more that its fair share to keep the alliance functioning.

In short, a generation ago military experts questioned whether NATO had outlived its purpose.  They asked whether the U.S. was paying too high a price, and they wondered whether NATO expansion would alienate Russia.  These were reasonable questions then, and they remain reasonable today.

Trump is not some “Russian agent” or Putin stooge for questioning whether the U.S. still needs to be in NATO.  In this case, he’s shown a willingness to think outside the NATO box.  After all, how long should NATO last?  Don’t all alliances eventually come to an end?  Or is NATO to exist forever?

Personally, I don’t think a precipitous withdrawal from NATO would be in the best interests of the U.S.  But surely there’s something to be said for building a new agreement or alliance in Europe that would be less driven by military concerns, less dependent on American money and weaponry and troops, and more inclusive toward Russia.