How Are We to Understand the Russia-Ukraine War?

Biden, Putin, and Zelensky.

W.J. Astore and M. Davout

My esteemed colleague Davout and I have different ways of looking at the Russia-Ukraine War.  We thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to share our differing perspectives here, allowing our readers to think over the merits of our approaches and the validity of our conclusions.  Davout has framed the questions and made the initial response; I get the last word, so to speak, for each question.  Our mutual intent is not to “win” a pseudo-debate but to pose questions and provide answers that inform and stimulate.  To that end, here we go.

What caused the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Davout: Putin’s desire to reestablish Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe and ensure the stability of his autocratic regime has been the main driver of the invasion. In 2005, Putin declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” What was catastrophic about it for Putin? The eastern flank of the former Soviet Union, including Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldova, and Ukraine shifted from being an appendage of an authoritarian Soviet regime to being a collection of independent democracies or democracies-in-process. Membership in the European Union and in NATO has either been achieved (the Baltic states) or been pursued (Ukraine pursuing both, Moldova pursuing European Union membership only). None of these countries (not to mention the formerly occupied countries of Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia) singly or together have the capacity or will to invade Russia or otherwise project military power across Russian borders. The real threat to which Putin is responding is the example set by the people of former Soviet territories opting for more democratic, less corrupt regimes and societies. That example endangers his own hold on power and pushes his own society toward historical irrelevance.

Astore: Putin was obviously the prime mover of the invasion.  He chose the military option, and he surely believed it would strengthen his authority over a former Soviet republic that was tracking toward joining NATO.

When we speak of causes, however, it’s often wise to take a broad view over a breadth of time.  When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, NATO’s reason for being ended with it.  Nevertheless, NATO persisted, expanding to the very borders of Russia despite assurances to Russian leaders that the alliance would not expand eastwards beyond a newly unified Germany.  Russian leaders, including Putin, had issued clear warnings that NATO expansion into Ukraine would constitute a “red line,” the crossing of which would likely lead to a military response.  Putin’s decision to invade, therefore, was eminently predictable, thus it was also potentially preventable. The United States, which leads NATO, could have sent a clear signal to Russia that Ukraine should and would remain a neutral buffer state.  The US chose not to do so.

One may question the premise of Ukraine as a “more democratic, less corrupt regime.”  In Ukraine, corruption is endemic, exacerbated by extensive U.S. meddling, as in the notorious coup of 2014 orchestrated in part by Victoria Nuland, citing the support of then-Vice President Joe Biden.  And while it’s important to recognize Russian regional hegemonic ambitions, one should never forget the global hegemonic ambitions of the U.S. empire.  In sum, the US has not been an innocent bystander here.  

US proxy war or Ukrainian war of independence?

Davout: A proxy war is a conflict instigated by a state in which it does not directly engage in hostilities. This war was a war of choice on the part of Putin. It has had the unintended result of inspiring patriotic resistance (even amongst Russian-speaking Ukrainians who were formerly pro-Russian like the mayor of Odessa). In the lead up to the invasion, the US and its NATO allies attempted to dissuade Putin from invading. In the invasion’s aftermath, they have provided critical arms and support to Ukraine and have sought economically to undermine Russia’s war-making capacities. While current official US policy may be the crippling of Russia’s capacity to engage in another such invasion in the near future, the US did not instigate this war in pursuit of this aim. While US and NATO armaments are a necessary factor in Ukraine’s continued defense against the Russian invasion, it is Ukrainian solidarity and resolve and Russian refusal to end its invasion that keep this war going.

Astore: Clearly, most Ukrainians believe they are fighting for their independence.  Ukraine has no desire to become a Putin puppet state.  Nor, however, do they wish to become a puppet state to the USA.

Lloyd Austin, the US Secretary of Defense, spoke clearly that weakening Russia was a key goal of this conflict.  To that end, the US government, in a rare show of bipartisan unity, provided $54 billion in largely military aid to a Ukrainian military with a yearly budget of $6 billion.  Such profligacy is not an example of generosity driven by disinterested ideals.  Clearly, the US sees this war as the latest front in a new cold war, a way to stress Russia to the breaking point.  As President Biden openly stated, that man (Putin) must go.

So, it’s worse than a proxy war: it’s yet another US regime-change war.  The stated goal is to topple Putin and turn Russia into a divided and dysfunctional state, much like it was in the 1990s when Western corporations and financial institutions invaded Russia and exploited it in the name of capitalism and reform.   

Are there any legitimate parallels to draw between Putin and Hitler?

Davout: Yes, though the parallels with Hitler are not the same parallels so often drawn to delegitimize non-interventionists as appeasers. Historian John Lukacs’s various histories of Hitler’s strategizing in that crucial period after the invasion of France to the start of the Battle of Britain paint a picture of Hitler less as the hubristic dictator irrationally striving for world conquest than as a canny but flawed geopolitical strategist, driven by geopolitical grievance and with a large capacity to hate those who opposed him. Lukacs argues that Hitler was prepared to cut a deal with Great Britain on terms that would allow Germany to exercise hegemonic powers on the continent. It was Churchill’s longstanding aversion to Hitler and Hitlerism and his ability to maintain British popular support for the war that blocked Hitler’s strategy to cut a deal. Once his overture was blocked by Churchill, Hitler underestimated British morale in the Battle of Britain. Then, in an effort to circumvent Britain’s resistance, Hitler gambled that he could cripple Stalin’s war making capacity and knock him out of the war and thereby present England with a fait accompli of German hegemony on the continent. The picture of Hitler Lukacs draws can plausibly be applied to Putin—a grievance-driven leader attempting to restore a lost geopolitical sphere of influence, who has miscalculated the resolve of democratic leaders and peoples and has doubled down on violence.

Astore:  In a word, no.  

Whenever American leaders want to justify military action and high spending on weaponry, they turn to Hitler and World War II.  The claim is made that we must stop the “new” Hitler.  We must not be appeasers.  Saddam Hussein was allegedly the new Hitler in 2003; his WMD was supposed to be a mushroom cloud on our horizon.  But there was no WMD and eliminating Saddam by invasion tipped Iraq into a disastrous civil war from which that country has yet to recover. 

Putin isn’t the new Hitler, and his invasion of Ukraine doesn’t represent the kind of existential threat the Third Reich presented to democracies in 1938-39.

Hitler had the finest military machine of his day backed by the economic powerhouse that was Germany in the late 1930s. Putin’s military machine is mediocre at best, and Russia’s economy is smaller than that of California.  Putin doesn’t appear to be seeking a huge empire or world domination, as Hitler was.  And while Hitler may have temporarily played nice with Britain, that didn’t prevent the Nazis from hatching plans to invade and loot Britain and to massacre its Jews as well.

Of course, Putin was wrong to have invaded Ukraine, but George W. Bush was wrong to have invaded Iraq in 2003.  Both these leaders have essentially nothing in common with Hitler, who was sui generis–a tyrannical dictator driven by genocidal fantasies of world dominance by a “master race.”

To what extent is US democracy hurt or helped by the Biden Administration’s policy of military support for Ukrainian resistance?    

Davout: Seeing his country in hostile competition with western democracies, Putin has deployed various forms of soft power and hard power to undermine confidence in, and injure the working of, democratic regimes. Hackers and internet influencers employed by the Russian state have intervened in the elections of established democracies either to foster social distrust or to promote candidates (e.g., Trump) and policies (e.g., Brexit) that weaken adversary countries. Military interventions are carried out on Russia’s border to maintain regimes favorable to Putin (as was the case when a popular uprising against fraudulent elections in Belarus was put down with the help of Russian soldiers). Meanwhile, as was documented by the Panama and Pandora Papers, the huge amounts of money pilfered from the Russian people by oligarchs moves through the banking, legal, and commercial institutions of democratic countries (including South Dakota!) with corrupting effect on people and officials alike. To be sure, the US has corruption problems of its own. And US military support of Ukraine will have the unfortunate result of strengthening the position of defense contractors and their lobbyists, Pentagon brass, and congressional hawks. However, it would be worst for US democracy if Russian ambitions to occupy or dismember Ukraine succeed. This would undermine European democracies whose continued survival and flourishing provide democratic reformers in the US with critically important role models and partners.

Astore: US democracy hasn’t been hurt or helped by this war because the US is a democracy in name only.

In reality, the US is an oligarchy in which the rich and powerful rule at the expense of the many.  The unofficial fourth branch of government is the US National Security State, a leviathan of enormous power. Its biggest component is what President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961 termed the military-industrial complex (to which he added Congress as well).  This MICC is profiting greatly from this war, not only in the $54 billion in aid provided to Ukraine, but also in the ever-rising Pentagon budget for FY 2023, which will exceed $813 billion, a gargantuan sum justified in part by the Russia-Ukraine War.

The new cold war with Russia, and increasingly with China as well, is strengthening the state of permanent war in America.  As James Madison warned, permanent warfare serves autocracy while insidiously destroying democracy. As militarism becomes more deeply entrenched in the US government, and as that same government continues to send more destructive weaponry to Ukraine such as artillery and missile systems, options for de-escalation narrow even as chances for a nightmarish escalation to nuclear war, whether by design or accident, increase.

What would truly strengthen democracy in America, assuming it could somehow be reanimated, is if the USA pressed ahead with all its strength to broker a peace treaty between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine is getting wrecked by this war, and our aggressive actions, mainly in providing more and more lethal weaponry together with onerous sanctions, are guaranteed to shred more bodies and aggravate economic dislocation both here and in Europe.

Readers, what are your thoughts here?

Coda by M. Davout (6/6/22)

W. J. Astore has asked me to compose a “coda” of sorts, in which I might add some concluding reflections about the commentary provoked by our different views on the war in Ukraine. 

Yes, there is a relevant pre-2022 history to the current conflict—decades old promises from US officials to Russian officials about not expanding NATO east of the Oder, a popular pro-West Ukrainian uprising (supported by Western intelligence agencies, some have plausibly argued) against a Ukrainian administration’s decision to reject closer ties with the European Union (as was the will of the Ukrainian parliament) in favor of the Ukrainian president’s decision to push the country toward closer ties with Russia, a counter-uprising in the Donbas that drew Russian political and military support, etc. But there is also the fact of a full-scale military invasion against a country that posed little if any military threat to Russian borders, a military invasion that has led to the needless deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and combatants and the uprooting of millions of Ukrainians. 

It is undeniable that the invasion has promoted patriotic solidarity among different language speakers within Ukraine against the invasion, including Russian speaking Ukrainians whose rights Putin’s invasion was presumably intended to defend. It is also undeniable that voter support for Ukraine’s resistance to the invasion is very high in Eastern European countries. More noteworthy is the fact that in Western European countries, governments have been forced to respond to the pro-Ukrainian sentiments of their voters by sending arms to Ukraine and destroying longstanding economic relationships with Russia to the financial detriment of both European businesses and consumers.   

So the situation is nowhere near as neat or clear as either my contributions or Astore’s contributions or the contributions of the majority of the commentators would have it be. In this regard, the comments of Denise Donaldson strike me as the most interesting. You can tell that she can see the issue from both sides and is struggling with that ambiguity. 

That is the place to be on the Ukraine war, I think: struggling with ambiguity. There is no clearly right answer: the war is not solely a product of American empire, nor is it solely a product of Russian empire. And there are no good outcomes, only bad or worse outcomes. 

But, in politics, one has to make choices and, for now, I choose align myself with current US and NATO policy. Not because I am a dupe of the mainstream media or a supporter of the Establishment or the MIC (my earlier posts on this website should put those notions to rest) but because I believe the expulsion of the Russian military from the Ukrainian lands it currently occupies (maybe including Crimea, maybe not) is both possible and more likely to lead to a lasting peace in eastern Europe. And my taking that position does not mean that I do not also see some merit in the points my esteemed colleague WJ Astore (and his many followers) make.

Response by Astore (6/6/22)

I would like to thank M. Davout for his reasoned response and for continuing this important discussion. One thing I can say with certainty: you won’t hear such a nuanced and broad debate in the mainstream media, which basically just sells U.S. weaponry while waving Ukrainian flags in our faces.

Davout suggests that Ukraine posed no threat to Russia. Alone, that is true. But Ukraine was planning to join NATO, a powerful alliance led by the world’s most hegemonic country. Surely, that combination was something for Russia to be wary of, and even to fear.

When Americans think of Russia, many negative images come to mind. The evils of communism. A charging and rampaging Russian bear. But Russia has had its share of devastation. Davout certainly knows the rampage of Napoleon’s empire in 1812. Russia and the Soviet Union were almost destroyed by World Wars I and II. Russian leaders have been reassured by Western leaders before that “we come in peace,” but surely 1812, 1914, and 1941 taught Russia much about trusting Western assurances.

Look at a map. From a Russian perspective, NATO surrounds them. Look at military budgets. The U.S. and NATO combined spend more than 20 times what Russia spends. If the roles were reversed and we were the Russians, might we see this differently?

My point is not to excuse Russia’s invasion but to offer a partial explanation.

I agree with Davout that by this point “there are no good outcomes, only bad or worse outcomes.” Therefore, I choose not to align myself with current US and NATO policy, since I see this as recklessly escalatory and focused primarily on providing more and more weaponry to kill more and more Russians (and Ukrainians too). I propose an immediate cease fire, the end of arms shipments to Ukraine, and negotiation that would end with some territory being ceded to Russia, a promise from NATO and Ukraine that the latter will remain neutral, and a promise from Russia that Ukraine will not be attacked again, and that its territorial integrity will be respected. I would also insist on Russia paying reparations dedicated to rebuilding Ukraine. Finally, the U.S. should end all sanctions on Russia and redirect its aid entirely to rebuilding Ukraine rather than to more weaponry.

I think this approach would save lives and restore equilibrium to Europe while avoiding dangerous escalation that could conceivably end in nuclear war. It’s time for statesmanship and compromise, rather than militaristic grandstanding and mendacious obstinacy.

Sadly, I see no one in the US government with the sagacity and cojones to join Putin and Zelensky in working to stop this war reasonably and quickly.

The New Cold War

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch, I tackle the new cold war and the consensus in Washington that future Pentagon budgets must soar ever higher in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. You can read the entire article here. What follows is the concluding section of the article.

Your Role as a Loyal American in the New Cold War

My fellow Americans, in this new cold war of ours, the national security state expects both all too much and all too little of you. Let’s start with the little. It doesn’t expect you to enlist in the military if you’re rich or have “other priorities” (as former Vice President Dick Cheney said about the Vietnam War). It doesn’t expect you to pay close attention to our wars, let alone foreign policy. You don’t even have to vote. It does, however, expect you to cheer at the right times, be “patriotic,” wave the flag, gush about America, and celebrate its fabulous, militarized exceptionalism.

To enlist in this country’s cheerleading squad, which is of course God’s squad, you might choose to wear a flag lapel pin and affix a “Support Our Troops” sticker to your SUV. You should remind everyone that “freedom isn’t free” and that “God, guns, and guts” made America great. If the godly empire says Ukraine is a worthy friend, you might add a blue-and-yellow “frame” to your Facebook profile photo. If that same empire tells you to ignore ongoing U.S. drone strikes in Somalia and U.S. support for an atrocious Saudi war in Yemen, you are expected to comply. Naturally, you’ll also be expected to pay your taxes without complaint, for how else are we to buy all the weapons and wage all the wars that America needs to keep the peace?

Naturally, certain people need to be collectively despised in our very own version of George Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate.” So, when Putin’s visage comes on the screen, or Xi’s, or Kim Jong-un’s, or whoever the enemy du jour is, be prepared to express your outrage. Be prepared to treat them as aliens, almost incomprehensible in their barbarity, as if, in fact, they were Klingons in the original Star Trek series. As a peaceful member of the “Federation,” dominated by the United States, you must, of course, reject those Klingon nations and their warrior vision of life, their embrace of might-makes-right, choosing instead the logic, balance, and diplomacy of America’s enlightened State Department (backed up, of course, by the world’s greatest military).

Two Minutes’ Hate: Still from the movie “1984”

Again, little is expected of you (so far) except your obedience, which should be enthusiastic rather than reluctant. Yet whether you know it or not, much is expected of you as well. You must surrender any hopes and dreams you’ve harbored of a fairer, kinder, more equitable and just society. For example, military needs in the new cold war simply won’t allow us to “build back better.” Forget about money for childcare, a $15 federal minimum wage, affordable healthcare for all, better schools, or similar “luxuries.” Maybe in some distant future (or some parallel universe), we’ll be able to afford such things, but not when we’re faced with the equivalent of the Klingon Empire that must be stopped at any cost.

But wait! I hear some of you saying that it doesn’t have to be this way! And I agree. A better future could be imagined. A saying of John F. Kennedy’s comes to mind: “We shall be judged more by what we do at home than what we preach abroad.” What we’re currently doing at home is building more weapons, sinking more tax dollars into the Pentagon, and enriching more warrior-corporations at the expense of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. Where’s the democratic future in that?

Sheer military might, our leaders seem to believe, will keep them forever riding high in the saddle. Yet you can ride too high in any saddle, making the fall that’s coming that much more precipitous and dangerous.

Americans, acting in concert, could stop that fall, but not by giving our current crop of leaders a firmer grasp of the reins. Do that and they’ll just spur this nation to greater heights of military folly. No, we must have the courage to unseat them from their saddles, strip them of their guns, and corral their war horses, before they lead us into yet another disastrously unending cold war that could threaten the very existence of humanity. We need to find another way that doesn’t prioritize weapons and war, but values compromise, compassion, and comity.

At this late date, I’m not sure we can do it. I only know that we must.

Orwell’s “1984” Holds Many Lessons for the New Cold War

Jeffrey G. Moebus

Anybody attempting to understand what is unfolding in Ukraine and over in the South China Sea and Taiwan should read George Orwell’s 1984. When you do, you will recognize and realize the following.

To use Orwell’s terms:  What we have here and now is a Eurasia with its Putin and an Eastasia with its Xi. All that is lacking is an Oceania with its Big Brother. And we have a whole gaggle of folks on the American political landscape ~ on the Left and on the Right ~ who would love to have the chance to fill that slot.

America’s twenty year “Forever War” after 9/11 was, is, and ever will be a half-time show designed to keep the troops occupied, the defense contractors profitable, and the American people comfortably numb to protracted conflicts in places many of them cannot find on a map of the world.

For now, Russia has recovered from the disintegration of European Communism and the USSR ~ and China has recovered from the madness of Mao ~ sufficiently for either [or especially both] to present viable, credible “threats” to America’s 30-year reign of global, unipolar hegemony since the end of Cold War I in December, 1991.

For now looms Cold War II, with Ukraine, the South China Sea, and/or Taiwan set to kick it off in fine fashion.

And to understand what is happening in Ukraine, in particular, one must also be familiar with the history of Russia’s interaction with Western Europe over the past 200 years.  Napoleon and Hitler both tried to bring the “blessings” of the West to Mother Russia, and failed at terrible cost, particularly to the Land, Country, Nation, and People that was ~ and still is ~ Russia.  

NATO is hard on all of Russia’s borders except in Ukraine; and, given that history spanning over two centuries, it is not at all difficult to understand why Russia wants to keep it that way.  This in no way justifies, excuses, or exonerates Putin and his illegal, immoral, and quite insane invasion of Ukraine.  It merely speculates on a very real possible motive. 

And beyond all that is the fact that a major force at work here in the United States is the possibility of a War, and the effect that that can have on the Citizens of a nation already hammered by a failed national response to a pandemic, inflation kicking in big time, a national Debt that just broached $30 trillion, a crumbling infrastructure increasingly vulnerable to disruptions by weather, cyber attack, and social unrest, and the disintegration of anything even close to a national consensus on virtually every hot-button issue: from vaccine and mask mandates, voting rights, and critical race theory, to gun control, police violence, and crimes against persons and property, to drug overdoses, suicides, and vehicular deaths, abortion, wokeness and cancel culture, “domestic terrorism,” and so forth.   

So that’s the “long answer” to what’s up in Ukraine and East Asia.    

The short, bottom-line, bullet-hits-the bone answer is that it is a very convenient distraction for Putin, Xi, and Biden [ie, his owners, operators, and script writers, America’s Ruling Elite] as they each attempt to deal with very serious economic and social problems within their own kingdoms. 

While the wings haven’t fallen off quite yet, rivets are popping loose and hydraulic fluid is streaming back across the wing tops.  And the folks up in the cockpit are very aware that it is increasingly visible to the other folks back in 1st, Business, and especially Tourist Class. 

Add all that to the fact that this is an election year in the US, and this is shaping up to be a very interesting Chinese “Year of the Black Water Tiger,” indeed.

Note:  One of the biggest differences between 1984 and today is that we all carry our very own portable, personal telescreen around with us. Certainly makes the job of the Thought Police a whole lot easier, eh?

Jeffrey Moebus, a retired U.S. Army Master Sergeant, spent two years in Vietnam in the 1960s and two years in the pre-Operation Desert Storm Middle East in the 1980s.  He lives in Sitka, Alaska on the sailboat he brought up from San Francisco Bay ten years ago this summer, and is the POC for Veterans Against War [Sitka Platoon] at vaw.sitka@gmail.com.

Stop the MADness

W.J. Astore

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is making a comeback as the Pentagon hypes a new Cold War with China and Russia. Threat inflation is a big part of this “new” war, just as it was in the old one. So too is greed. There’s much money to be made (a trillion or more dollars, perhaps) in building new nuclear missiles and bombers, even though these weapons represent incipient holocausts.

We need to stop this MADness. There is no need for a new Cold War, and there is no need for new nuclear weapons, weapons that could very well destroy human civilization and most of life on our planet.

This is the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch.com. What follows is an excerpt. I encourage you to read the article in its entirety here.

Stop the MADness. Seriously.

Only Fools Replay Doomsday

In the early 1960s, at the height of America’s original Cold War with the Soviet Union, my old service branch, the Air Force, sought to build 10,000 land-based nuclear missiles. These were intended to augment the hundreds of nuclear bombers it already had, like the B-52s featured so memorably in the movie Dr. Strangelove. Predictably, massive future overkill was justified in the name of “deterrence,” though the nuclear war plan in force back then was more about obliteration. It featured a devastating attack on the Soviet Union and communist China that would kill an estimated 600 million people in six months (the equivalent of 100 Holocausts, notes Daniel Ellsberg in his book, The Doomsday Machine). Slightly saner heads finally prevailed — in the sense that the Air Force eventually got “only” 1,000 of those Minuteman nuclear missiles.

Despite the strategic arms limitation talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the dire threat of nuclear Armageddon persisted, reaching a fresh peak in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. At the time, he memorably declared the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire,” while nuclear-capable Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles were rushed to Europe. At that same moment, more than a few Europeans, joined by some Americans, took to the streets, calling for a nuclear freeze— an end to new nuclear weapons and the destabilizing deployment of the ones that already existed. If only…

It was in this heady environment that, in uniform, I found myself working in the ultimate nuclear redoubt of the Cold War. I was under 2,000 feet of solid granite in a North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) command post built into Cheyenne Mountain at the southern end of the Colorado front range that includes Pikes Peak. When off-duty, I used to hike up a trail that put me roughly level with the top of Cheyenne Mountain. There, I saw it from a fresh perspective, with all its antennas blinking, ready to receive and relay warnings and commands that could have ended in my annihilation in a Soviet first strike or retaliatory counterstrike.

Yet, to be honest, I didn’t give much thought to the possibility of Armageddon. As a young Air Force lieutenant, I was caught up in the minuscule role I was playing in an unimaginably powerful military machine. And as a hiker out of uniform, I would always do my best to enjoy the bracing air, the bright sunshine, and the deep blue skies as I climbed near the timberline in those Colorado mountains. Surrounded by such natural grandeur, I chose not to give more than a moment’s thought to the nightmarish idea that I might be standing at ground zero of the opening act of World War III.  Because there was one thing I knew with certainty: if the next war went nuclear, whether I was on-duty under the mountain or off-duty hiking nearby, I was certainly going to be dead.

Then came 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was over! America had won! Rather than nightmares of the Red Storm Rising sort that novelist Tom Clancy had imagined or Hollywood’s Red Dawn in which there was an actual communist invasion of this country, we could now dream of “peace dividends,” of America becoming a normal country in normal times.

It was, as the phrase went, “morning again in America” — or, at least, it could have been. Yet here I sit, 30 years later, at sea level rather than near the timberline, stunned by the resurgence of a twenty-first-century version of anticommunist hysteria and at the idea of a new cold war with Russia, the rump version of the Soviet Union of my younger days, joined by an emerging China, both still ostensibly conspiring to endanger our national security, or so experts in and out of the Pentagon tell us.

Excuse me while my youthful 28-year-old self asks my cranky 58-year-old self a few questions: What the hell happened? Dammit, we won the Cold War three decades ago. Decisively so! How, then, could we have allowed a new one to emerge? Why would any sane nation want to refight a war that it had already won at enormous cost? Who in their right mind would want to hit the “replay” button on such a costly, potentially cataclysmic strategic paradigm as deterrence through MAD, or mutually assured destruction?

Please read the rest of my article here.

The Biggest Threat to America

W..J. Astore

Aside from climate change (Armageddon in slow motion) and nuclear war (Armageddon in the blink of an eye), the biggest threat to America is perpetual war and preparations for war driven by threat inflation. We’re witnessing it now, before our very eyes, with America’s increasingly polarized relations with China, notes David Vine in his latest effort for TomDispatch.com. Both parties, Republican and Democratic, accuse the other of being “soft” on China, even as the U.S. “defense” budget (meaning the war and weapons budget) soars with bipartisan support in Congress.

It’s folly, of course, and dangerous folly at that. China has roughly four times as many people as the U.S. and a vibrant economy; China is also a leading trading partner and owner of American debt. China, in short, should be a friend, or friendly rival, or a competitor worthy of respect. What China shouldn’t be in American eyes is a manifestation of a new “Yellow Peril,” an inscrutable foe, a soon-to-be enemy. Anything that tips us in that direction is truly folly, since any war with China could end in nuclear catastrophe. And even if such a catastrophe is avoided, war, even a “cold” one, will destroy any chance for concerted action against climate change, imperiling the very planet we live on.

If we want to avoid Armageddon, whether the one in slow motion or the one in the blink of an eye, the USA needs good relations with China, based again on mutual respect and a cooperative spirit. What should unite us (working to mitigate climate change and reduce the threat of nuclear war) is far more important than what is allegedly dividing us.

But threat inflation works, especially for the military-industrial-congressional complex, to justify colossal war budgets to the American people. Here’s the problem, though: When you inflate the threat, in some way you also create it. You instantiate it, at least in your own mind. You give it more and more substance.  And the more weapons you build to meet the threat you created, the more likely it becomes that you’ll choose to use those weapons when push comes to shove — and Americans sure do a lot of shoving in the world.

I just hope the Chinese are wise enough to see that America’s national security state is indeed a big threat — to America.  So they’d be wisest to stand back and let America defeat itself with debilitating wars and profligate spending on costly weaponry.  Meanwhile, they can use their strong economy to dominate trade.  While we build weapons and fight wars, China will defeat us — at capitalism!  Ah, the irony, comrade.

Yet even as China wins the new cold war, the planet itself will lose. Anything that distracts humanity from facing climate change together is folly. It may not seem so at this moment, but check back with the planet in 2031. Another decade lost to military folly is another nail in the coffin to efforts at preserving and restoring life on our planet.

So, as David Vine asks in his article, Do you want a new cold war? Anyone with any sense knows that “No!” is the only possible answer.

The Pentagon Gets More Money

W.J. Astore

Imagine you’re a parent with a difficult son. You send him to the most expensive schools, you give him prodigious sums of money, but when Johnny comes home from school with his report card, you see he got an “F” in Afghanistan, an “F” in Iraq, and an “F” in Libya, among other “classes.” Projects he’s working on, like the F-35 jet fighter or Ford-class carriers, are also proving to be expensive failures. Even in deportment he’s receiving an “F,” with the teachers telling you he’s prone to bullying his fellow students as he boasts of being the most exceptional student in the world.

How would you handle Johnny? Well, our collective Johnny is the Pentagon and the National Security State, and our government’s way of handling him is to shove more money his way, another $24 billion or so, with more promised in the future.

Is it any wonder why Johnny Pentagon never changes its behavior?

That’s the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch.com. Here’s the first half of the article; please go to TomDispatch.com to read the rest. Many thanks!

William Astore, A Bright Future for Weapons and War

Yoda, the Jedi Master in the Star Wars films, once pointed out that the future is all too difficult to see and it’s hard to deny his insight. Yet I’d argue that, when it comes to the U.S. military and its wars, Yoda was just plain wrong. That part of the future is all too easy to imagine. It involves, you won’t be shocked to know, more budget-busting weaponry for the Pentagon and more military meddling across the globe, perhaps this time against “near-peer” rivals China and Russia, and a global war on terror that will never end. What’s even easier to see is that peace will be given no chance at all. Why? Because it’s just not in the interests of America’s deeply influential military-congressional-industrial complex.

When that vast complex, which President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about six decades ago, comes to my mind, I can’t help thinking of a song from the last years of the then seemingly endless Cold War. (How typical, by the way, that when the Soviet Union finally imploded in 1991, it barely affected Pentagon funding.)

“The future’s so bright (I gotta wear shades)” was that 1986 song’s title. And I always wonder whether that future could indeed be nuclear-war bright, given our military’s affection for such weaponry. I once heard the saying, “The [nuclear] triad is not the Trinity,” which resonated with me given my Catholic upbringing. Still, it’s apparently holy enough at the Pentagon or why would the high command there already be planning to fund the so-called modernization of the American nuclear arsenal to the tune of at least $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years? Given this nation’s actual needs, that figure blows me away (though not literally, I hope).

What is that “triad” the complex treats as a holy trinity? It consists of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs; nuclear-weapons-capable bombers like the B-1, B-2, and the venerable B-52; and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs. Given our present vast nuclear arsenal, there’s no strategic need for building new ICBMs at a price beyond compare. In fact, as the most vulnerable “leg” of the triad, the ones the Air Force currently has should be decommissioned.

Nor is there a strategic need for an ultra-expensive new bomber like the Air Force’s proposed B-21 Raider (basically, an updated version of the B-2 Spirit “stealth” bomber that’s most frequently used these days for flyovers at big college and Super Bowl football games). America’s Ohio-class nuclear submarines that still wander the world’s oceans armed with Trident missiles are more than capable of “deterring” any conceivable opponent into the distant future, even if they also offer humanity a solid shot at wholesale suicide via a future nuclear winter. But reason not the need, as Shakespeare once had King Lear say. Focus instead on the profits to be made (he might have added, had he lived in our time and our land) by building “modernized” nukes.

As my old service, the Air Force, clamors for new nuclear missiles and bombers, there’s also the persistent quest for yet more fighter jets, including overpriced, distinctly underperforming ones like the F-35, the “Ferrari” of fighter planes according to the Air Force chief of staff. If the military gets all the F-35s it wants, add another $1.7 trillion to the cost of national “defense.” At the same time, that service is seeking a new, “lower-cost” (but don’t count on it) multirole fighter — what the F-35 was supposed to be once upon a time — even as it pursues the idea of a “6th-generation” fighter even more advanced (read: pricier) than 5th-generation models like the F-22 and F-35.

I could go on similarly about the Navy (more Ford-class aircraft carriers and new nuclear-armed submarines) or the Army (modernized Abrams tanks; a new infantry fighting vehicle), but you get the idea. If Congress and the president keep shoveling trillions of dollars down the military’s gullet and those of its camp followers (otherwise known as “defense” contractors), count on one thing: they’ll find ever newer ways of spending that dough on anything from space weaponry to robot “companions.”

Indeed, I asked a friend who’s still intimate with the military-industrial complex what’s up with its dreams and schemes. The military’s latest Joint Warfighting Concept, he told me, “is all about building Systems of Systems based in AI [artificial intelligence] and quantum computing.” Then he added: “All it will do is give us more sophisticated ways to lose wars.” (You can see why he’s my friend.) The point is that AI and quantum computing sound futuristically super-sexy, which is why they’ll doubtless be used to justify super-expensive future budgetary requests by the Pentagon.

In that context, don’t you find it staggering how much the military spent in Afghanistan fighting and losing all too modernistically to small, under-armed units of the Taliban? Two trillion-plus dollars to wage a counterinsurgency campaign that failed dismally. Imagine if, in the next decade or two, the U.S. truly had to fight a near-peer rival like China. Even if the U.S. military somehow won the battles, this nation would undoubtedly collapse into bankruptcy and financial ruin (and it would be a catastrophe for the whole endangered planet of ours). It could get so bad that even Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk might have to pay higher taxes, if, that is, they haven’t already slipped the surly bonds of Earth to mingle with the twinkling stars.

If America’s post-9/11 war-on-terror military spending, including for the Afghan and Iraq wars, has indeed reached the unimaginable sum of $8 trillion, as Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates, imagine how much a real war, a “conventional” war, featuring the air force, the fleet, big battalions, and major battles, would cost this country. Again, the mind (mine at least) boggles at the prospect. Which is not to say that the U.S. military won’t fight for every penny so that it’s over-prepared to wage just such a war (and worse).

The idea that this country faces a perilous new cold war that could grow hot at any moment, this time with China, crops up in unusual places. Consider this passage by Dexter Filkins, a well-known war reporter, that appeared recently in the New Yorker:

“We’ve spent decades fighting asymmetrical wars, but now there’s a symmetrical one looming. The United States has never faced an adversary of China’s power: China’s G.D.P. is, by some measures, greater than ours, its active-duty military is larger than ours, and its weapon systems are rapidly expanding. China appears determined to challenge the status quo, not just the territorial one but the scaffolding of international laws that govern much of the world’s diplomatic and economic relations. If two forever wars are finally coming to an end, a new Cold War may await.”

A new war is “looming.” Our adversary has more money and more troops than us and is seeking better weaponry. Its leadership wants to challenge a “status quo” (that favors America) and international laws (which this country already routinely breaks when our leaders feel in the mood).

Why are so many otherwise sane people, including Joe Biden’s foreign policy team, already rattling sabers in preparation for a new faceoff with China, one that would be eminently avoidable with judicious diplomacy and an urge to cooperate on this embattled planet of ours?

Why indeed? Please read the rest of my article at TomDispatch.com.

The Cold War, Rebooted and Rebranded

In my latest for TomDispatch.com, I tackle the Pentagon’s latest proclivity for “near-peer” conflicts, the near-peers being China and Russia, which conveniently serves to justify huge war budgets in perpetuity. It’s the Cold War, rebooted and rebranded, with a new generation of nuclear weapons thrown into the mix to make things even more interesting. As they say, what could possibly go wrong?

What follows is an excerpt that focuses on a “Star Trek” episode that has much to teach us:

In the 1970s, in fact, I avidly watched reruns of the original Star Trek. Lately, one episode, “A Taste of Armageddon,” has been on my mind. It featured two planets, Eminiar VII and Vendikar, at war with each other for 500 years. Here was the catch: those planets no longer used real weapons. Instead, they fought bloodlessly with computer-simulated attacks, even as citizens marked as “dead” had to report to disintegration chambers in a bizarre ritual meant to keep the peace through a computer-driven holocaust. The peoples of these two planets had become so accustomed to endless war that they couldn’t imagine an alternative, especially one that ended in a negotiated peace.

So many years later, I can’t help thinking that our country’s military establishment has something in common with the leaders of Eminiar VII and Vendikar. There’s so much repetition when it comes to America’s wars — with little hope of negotiated settlements, little talk of radically different approaches, and a remarkably blasé attitude toward death — especially when it’s largely the death of others; when foreign peoples, as if on another planet, are just “disintegrated,” whether by monster bombs like MOAB or more discrete Hellfire missile strikes via remotely piloted drones.

What gives? Right now, America’s military leaders are clearly turning back to the war they’d prefer to be fighting, the one they think they can win (or at least eternally not lose). A conventional warlike state vis-à-vis those near-peers seems to play to their skills. It’s also a form of “war” that makes loads of money for the military-industrial complex, driving lucrative acquisition decisions about weaponry in a remarkably predictable fashion.

Near-peer “war” remains largely a fantasy set of operations (though with all-too-real dangers of possible conflagrations to come, right up to nuclear disaster). In contrast, real war, as in this century’s terror wars, is a realm of chaos. So much the better to keep things as predictable as possible. Fresh and original ideas about war (and peace) are unlikely to prove profitable for the military-industrial complex. Worse yet, at an individual level, they could damage one’s chances for promotion or, on retirement, for future posts within the industrial part of that complex. It’s a lot healthier to salute smartly, keep planning for a near-peer future, and conform rather than fall on one’s sword for a dissenting idea (especially one related to peace and so to less money for the Pentagon).

Please read the article in its entirety here at TomDispatch.

On Eminiar VII, “casualties” of computer war willingly enter disintegration chambers to die as a way of keeping “peace”

Monday Musings: On Russia, Helplessness, and Polls

W.J. Astore

A few items for this Monday:

1. A strategic analyst wrote to me about how America can improve relations with Russia. The gist of my response was this:

I totally agree on ending the “new” cold war. But the military-industrial complex (MIC) seems determined to use threat inflation to justify high Pentagon budgets. Meanwhile, establishment Democrats think they can use Trump’s alleged softness toward Russia against him. Hardline policies rule the day.

What is to be done? First, I suppose, is recognizing the vital importance of domestic politics — and profit and power — vis-a-vis our foreign relations with Russia. As long as the MIC keeps exaggerating the Russian threat, and as long as the Democrats keep exaggerating the Russian threat to the election while alleging Trump is a Putin-puppet, there’s little we can do. We simply need to work to change the narrative.

2. So many Americans have a sense of learned powerlessness. We simply think there’s nothing we can do to effect change. As I wrote to a friend this weekend: Lots of people have lost faith in government. But they’ve lost faith in collective action as well. They just don’t think they can do anything to fight corruption and a rigged system.

They feel powerless — then a Messiah-like candidate comes along offering hope and change. (In a strange way, Trump is the yang to Obama’s yin.) Trump said he’d drain the swamp — but it proved fetid and fertile land for his long con. His supporters just love the guy even as he hurts them — but at least he makes them feel good, empowered, liberated from the libtards …

A true confidence man, Trump poses as a helper. He’s going to drain the swamp, make things better, make us (you) great again. Turn back the clock — when America was America, men were men, women were women.

Interestingly, Trump has no vision for the future. His vision is relentlessly retrograde. The only way we can be great “again” is by rejecting change and today’s “kids” who support BLM, LGBTQ, and so on.

A new wrinkle is the reactionary and authoritarian “blue lives matter” narrative. Who could have guessed that American activism would culminate in societal militarization and the glorification of police forces?

I’ve seen a few of these on cars and trucks — and I live in an allegedly strong Democratic state

3. Recent polling suggests Joe Biden has a lead of up to 14%. Don’t believe it. As I wrote to a friend: My sense is that this election will be very close. Many people support Trump but they keep that support quiet. And his people show up to vote. Maybe twice if they follow Trump’s advice. Plus, of course, it’s the electoral college that matters, not the popular vote. And there’s still a lot that can happen in the next month.

Readers, what are your musings for this Monday?

“Great-Power Rivalry” Is Back

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A carrier strike group is an enormous investment in ships, money, and manpower.  Its chief aim is sea control and power projection.  As its name suggests, it’s primarily an offensive force. (US Navy illustration)

W.J. Astore

Should we have a Department of Offense in place of a Department of Defense (DoD)?  Wouldn’t “Offense” be more accurate?  Perhaps in more ways than one?

Consider the revival of “great-power rivalry,” meaning China and Russia as America’s main rivals.  (Terrorists may be trouble, but you don’t necessarily need nuclear-powered carriers and stealth bombers to neutralize them.)  The new “cold war” is all the rage within the DoD, even though China and Russia are regional land powers, having little of the arsenal of global power projection in which the U.S. takes so much pride.

On this subject, the following snippet on Russia’s navy, courtesy of FP: Foreign Policy, is eye-opening:

The Russian military is considering decommissioning its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, a Soviet era ship that has been beset by maintenance problems and whose reliability is so questionable that a tug boat follows it around on deployments.”

A sputtering and antiquated aircraft carrier that needs tugboats to get around: not much to fear there, America.

Like Russia, China has a single aircraft carrier, though there are plans to build one or two more.  Even if China does, the U.S. will still maintain an enormous lead on its “great-power” rivals.  Some rivalry!

The U.S. Navy currently has eleven fleet aircraft carriers, with two new ones under construction and a further two on order.  Indeed, to make space for all these new carriers, the Navy has plans to retire CVN-75, Harry S Truman, 20 years early, an idea even Congress finds silly.

But give the Navy credit.  They knew Congress would balk at early retirement for the Truman, which doesn’t mean they’re backing off on new carrier orders.  Instead, the Navy wants it all: two new carriers and a refurbished and refueled Truman.

Consider the following exchange between a senator and an admiral:

“If we were to give you more money, you’d keep the Truman in place, wouldn’t you? Would that be your druthers?” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) asked.

“Our druthers would be to not surrender a carrier that has 50-percent of its life remaining, but we would like to not do that at the expense of moving out on these other technologies that every assessment has told us” the Navy will need in the future, [said] Vice Adm. Bill Merz, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems.

“So basically we should consider giving you more money, right?” Hirono asked.

Replied Merz, “yes, ma’am.”

You just have to love these admirals and generals.  The answer is always more money!

U.S. “defense” experts have always been most expert at getting the biggest slice of the federal budgetary pie.  That, and threat inflation.  Hence the appeal to a new cold war with China (primarily an economic juggernaut) and Russia (an energy giant with lots of nukes), even though the U.S. military clearly outclasses both countries in global dominance and “defense” spending.

The world of “defense” is just getting too absurd for me.  What next?  A U.S. carrier strike group deployed off the coast to defend our border with Mexico?  Our president did say we’re being invaded.  You heard it here first.