America’s Afghan War: Lies and More Lies

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President Obama with General Stanley McChrystal in the days of the ill-fated Afghan Surge

W.J. Astore

Ten years ago, President Barack Obama decided to “surge” in the Afghan War.  The previous year he had run for the presidency on the idea of Iraq being the “bad” war but Afghanistan as the “good” war.  Good as in “winnable” and as countering terrorism.  But Obama’s surge in Afghanistan was a flop, even as American leaders tried to sell it as buying breathing space for the evolution of freer, more stable, Afghan government.

This sell/spin process was all lies, as the Washington Post revealed yesterday:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

Surprise, surprise!  Sadly, the lies were obvious a decade ago, as I wrote about at TomDispatch.com in April of 2009.  Here’s my article from that time.  Remarkably, despite or rather because of all the lies, the war continues still, with no end in sight.

Mary McCarthy in Vietnam, Barack Obama in Afghanistan
Seven Lessons and Many Questions for the President

By William Astore (April 2009)

In 1967, outraged by the course of the Vietnam War, as well as her country’s role in prolonging and worsening it, Mary McCarthy, novelist, memoirist, and author of the bestseller The Group, went to Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, to judge the situation for herself. The next year, she went to the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. She wrote accounts of both journeys, published originally in pamphlet format as Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968), and later gathered with her other writings on Vietnam as a book, The Seventeenth Degree (1974). As pamphlets, McCarthy’s accounts sold poorly and passed into obscurity; deservedly so, some would say.

Those who’d say this, however, would be wrong. McCarthy brought a novelist’s keen eye to America’s activities and its rhetoric in Vietnam. By no means a military expert, not even an expert on Vietnam — she only made a conscious decision to study the war in Vietnam after she returned from her trip to Saigon — her impressionistic writings were nevertheless insightful precisely because she had long been a critical thinker beholden to no authority.

Her insights into our approach to war-fighting and to foreign cultures are as telling today as they were 40 years ago, so much so that President Obama and his advisors might do well to add her unconventional lessons to their all-too-conventional thinking on our spreading war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What were those lessons? Here are seven of them, each followed by questions that, four decades later, someone at President Obama’s next press conference should consider asking him:

1. McCarthy’s most fundamental objection was to the way, in Vietnam, the U.S. government decided to apply “technology and a superior power to a political situation that will not yield to this.” At the very least, the United States was guilty of folly, but McCarthy went further. She condemned our technocentric and hegemonic form of warfare as “wicked” because of its “absolute indifference to the cost in human lives” to the Vietnamese people.

Even in 1967, the widespread, at times indiscriminate, nature of American killing was well known. For example, U.S. planes dropped roughly 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia during the war, nearly five times the tonnage used against Germany during World War II. The U.S. even waged war on the Vietnamese jungle and forest, which so effectively hid Vietnamese guerrilla forces, spraying roughly 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides (including the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange) on it.

In her outrage, McCarthy dared to compare the seeming indifference of many of her fellow citizens toward the blunt-edged sword of technological destruction we had loosed on Vietnam to the moral obtuseness of ordinary Germans under Adolf Hitler.

Questions for President Obama: Aren’t we once again relying on the destructive power of technology to “solve” complex political and religious struggles? Aren’t we yet again showing indifference to the human costs of war, especially when borne by non-Americans? Even though we’re using far fewer bombs in the Af-Pak highlands than we did in Vietnam, aren’t we still morally culpable when these “precision-guided munitions” miss their targets and instead claim innocents, or hit suspected “terrorists” who suddenly morph into wedding parties? In those cases, do we not seek false comfort in the phrase, C’est la guerre, or at least that modern equivalent: unavoidable collateral damage?

2. As Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 by calling for “peace with honor” in Vietnam, McCarthy offered her own warning about the dangers that arose when the office of the presidency collided with an American desire never to be labeled a loser: “The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.”

Questions for President Obama: Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?

3. Though critical of the U.S. military in Vietnam, McCarthy was even more critical of American civilian officials there. “On the whole,” she wrote, they “behaved like a team of promoters with a dubious ‘growth’ stock they were brokering.” At least military men were often more forthright than the civilians, if not necessarily more self-aware, McCarthy noted, because they were part of the war — the product, so to speak — not its salesmen.

Questions for President Obama: In promising to send a new “surge” of State Department personnel and other civilians into Afghanistan, are you prepared as well to parse their words? Are you braced in case they sell you a false bill of goods, even if the sellers themselves, in their eagerness to speak fairy tales to power, continually ignore the Fantasyland nature of their tale?

4. Well before Bush administration officials boasted about creating their own reality and new “facts on the ground” in Iraq, Mary McCarthy recognized the danger of another type of “fact”: “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”

Questions for President Obama: If your surge in Afghanistan fails, will you be able to de-escalate as quickly as you escalated? Or will the fact that you’ve put more troops in harm’s way (with all their equipment and all the money that will go into new base and airfield and road construction), and committed more of your prestige to prevailing, make it even harder to consider leaving?

5. A cursory reading of The Pentagon Papers, the famously secret government documents on Vietnam leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, reveals how skeptical America’s top officials were, early on, in pursuing a military solution to the situation in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, knowing better, the “best and brightest,” as journalist David Halberstam termed them in his famous, ironic book title, still talked themselves into it; and they did so, as McCarthy noted, because they set seemingly meaningful goals (“metrics” or “benchmarks,” we’d say today), which they then convinced themselves they were actually achieving. When you trick yourself into believing that you’re meeting your goals, as Halberstam noted, there’s no reason to reexamine your course of action.

Questions for President Obama: Much has been written about an internal struggle within your administration over the wisdom of surging in Afghanistan. Now, you, too, have called for the setting of “benchmarks” for your new strategy’s success. Are you wise enough to set them to capture the complexities of political realities on the ground rather than playing to American strengths? Are you capable of re-examining them, even when your advisors assure you that they are being achieved?

6. In her day, Mary McCarthy recognized the inequities of burden-sharing at home when it came to the war in Vietnam: “Casualty figures, still low [in 1967], seldom strike home outside rural and low-income groups — the silent part of society. The absence of sacrifices [among the privileged classes] has had its effect on the opposition [to the war], which feels no need, on the whole, to turn away from its habitual standards and practices — what for? We have not withdrawn our sympathy from American power and from the way of life that is tied to it — a connection that is more evident to a low-grade G.I. in Vietnam than to most American intellectuals.”

Questions for President Obama: Are you willing to listen to the common G.I. as well as to the generals who have your ear? Are you willing to insist on greater equity in burden-sharing, since once again most of the burden of Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen on “the silent part of society”? Are you able to recognize that the “best and brightest” in the corridors of power may not be the wisest exactly because they have so little to lose (and perhaps much to gain) from our “overseas contingency operations”?

7. McCarthy was remarkably perceptive when it came to the seductiveness of American technological prowess. Our technological superiority, she wrote, was a large part of “our willingness to get into Vietnam and stay there… The technological gap between us and the North Vietnamese constituted, we thought, an advantage which obliged us not to quit.”

Questions for President Obama: Rather than providing us with a war-winning edge, might our robot drones, satellite imagery, and all our other gadgetry of war seduce us into believing that we can “prevail” at a reasonable and sustainable cost? Indeed, do we think we should prevail precisely because our high-tech military brags of “full spectrum dominance”?

One bonus lesson from Mary McCarthy before we take our leave of her: Even now, we speak too often of “Bush’s war” or, more recently, “Obama’s war.” Before we start chattering mindlessly about Iraq and Afghanistan as American tragedies, we would do well to recall what McCarthy had to say about the war in Vietnam: “There is something distasteful,” she wrote, “in the very notion of approaching [Vietnam] as an American tragedy, whose protagonist is a great suffering Texan [President Lyndon Baines Johnson].”

Yes, there is something distasteful about a media that blithely refers to Bush’s or Obama’s war as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans suffer. For American troops, after all, are not the only ones paying the ultimate price when the U.S. fights foreign wars for ill-considered reasons and misguided goals.

Update: A cartoon panel by Matt Bors that sums it up:

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Ten Years Ago, Obama Went to West Point to Sell His Afghan Surge

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President Obama with his Surge commander, Stanley McChrystal

W.J. Astore

Ten years ago, President Obama went to West Point to sell his “surge” in the Afghan War.  Back then, I wrote two articles for Huffington Post on Obama’s decision to escalate that war and his choice of venue to announce his decision.  Those two articles are re-posted below.

The Afghan War was supposed to be settled quickly, in America’s favor, by Obama’s surge.  Yet here we are, a decade later, still mired in Afghanistan, with America’s generals either talking about several more years in Afghanistan, or several more generations.  How can they be so foolish?

Obama and the Need to Surge (Posted on December 1, 2009)

In telling the American people about his plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan, President Obama has selected a venue that at first blush seems to make sense. Yet by choosing the United States Military Academy at West Point, Obama is sending at least three disturbing messages. The first message is a tacit admission to the corps of cadets — and to the American people — that we’re facing a long war of at least five, possibly ten, perhaps even fifty, years. After all, why bother to address the class of 2013 unless these cadets can also expect to be deployed to Afghanistan as platoon commanders in 2014?

The second message is that Obama is more than willing to ape the tactics of former President George W. Bush. Often when Bush had a controversial decision to announce, he did so before a sympathetic audience of assembled troops, surrounded by waving flags and military brass. Critics rightly took Bush to task for speaking so often in front of admiring troops in uniform, thereby evading tough questioning from more critical, less deferential, audiences.

The third, somewhat more subtle, message is that Obama sees the situation in Afghanistan primarily in military terms — that, if there’s a solution to Afghanistan, it’s one that must be brokered or imposed by the U.S. military. If he wanted to stress the importance of diplomacy, for example, one might think Obama would have selected the State Department as a venue; if international diplomacy, one might have considered the United Nations. But West Point it is, and thus more escalation and militarization loom.

Here’s what I’d prefer: The President, speaking honestly and directly to the American people, from the Oval Office. No military trappings. No echoes, whether intentional or unintentional, of Douglas MacArthur’s “there is no substitute for victory” speech at West Point in 1962.

West Point is all about “duty, honor, country.” Young, idealistic, and dedicated cadets need no convincing by their commander-in-chief. It’s the rightly skeptical American people who truly need convincing.

By going to West Point, Obama is not just further militarizing his presidency — he’s taking the easy way out.

Obama Goes to West Point: One Week Later (Posted on December 10, 2009)

A week ago, I argued that President Obama sent three disturbing messages in choosing West Point as the site to announce his escalatory plans for the Afghan war. A week later, I’d like to make three further points. First, I believe that the President undermined the grave seriousness of his speech by deciding post-speech to press the flesh of cadets while posing for smiling photos. An urgent call to battle was transformed into a political photo-op. “Grip and grin” photos are best left to times of celebration, like class graduation, rather than to times of grim news of the need to commit more troops to a difficult and deadly war.

Second, the President was right to emphasize that West Point cadets “represent what is finest about our country.” His meaning here was clear: they’re the “finest” because they “stand up for our security.” Having myself taught military cadets for six years, these words resonated with me. But I wish the President had elaborated further because, in spelling out why he considers our troops to be our “finest,” Obama could have reminded us of the enormous burdens — and enormous price — of war.

Put bluntly, by ordering another 35,000 or so American troops to Afghanistan, Obama was ordering men and women, including some of the young cadets from West Point’s long grey line sitting in that very auditorium, to their deaths. Their willingness to sacrifice their lives in the service of their country — to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic — marks them as being among our finest.

The ultimate price these cadets are prepared to pay puts an enormous burden on the judgment and wisdom of their Commander-in-chief. For what president wants to send America’s finest to fight and perhaps die for a lost cause or, even worse, an unjust one?

It’s not for West Point cadets, or for any other serviceman or servicewoman, to question the orders of their Commander-in-chief. They are duty-bound to carry out his orders to the best of their ability. But as “pure” citizens, we are not duty-bound to snap to attention and to salute smartly.

Obama, after all, is not our Commander-in-chief: he’s our President, our most senior public servant. We owe it to our troops to challenge him if we believe escalation in Afghanistan is not the best course of action to secure America’s safety.

So, my third point is to remind us of our duty as informed citizens to ask the tough questions of our public servants — even, if necessary, to dissent and protest — precisely because our troops are prevented from doing so by their solemn oath of office.

But I worry that we are not informed citizens, and that because of that fact, and because our personal stake in our nation’s wars is so small compared to that of the West Point cadets, we largely don’t seem to care, or care enough.

In a decidedly unscientific poll, I asked three of my classes, a total of 59 students, if they had watched the President’s speech on Afghanistan. Only one student did (and these were students enrolled in History classes).

So, I worry. I worry about more American combat brigades being sent overseas, a momentous decision capped by a photo-op of our President surrounded by beaming cadets in the prime of life. I worry that so many of my students are seemingly so ill-informed, or so uninterested, about the ramifications of this decision.

But I hope, for the sake of our troops as well as for the Afghan people, that our President somehow got it right, and that the cause for which we fight is neither lost nor unjust.

Addendum: When I wrote this article ten years ago, I said this:

It’s not for West Point cadets, or for any other serviceman or servicewoman, to question the orders of their Commander-in-chief. They are duty-bound to carry out his orders to the best of their ability.

In writing this ten years ago, I made an assumption the president’s orders would be lawful.

No military member can be forced to follow unlawful orders, which I would define as contrary to the U.S. Constitution and/or consistent with war crimes. So, for example, LT Calley was ordering as well as committing war crimes at My Lai. No troops had to, or should have, followed such orders. But we know from history and from our knowledge of military command systems how difficult it is to disobey orders, even when they are unlawful to the point of enabling war crimes.

Military cadets are educated on these distinctions; they have to take courses on ethics and discuss these complex issues in the classroom. But it’s much easier to deal with these issues in class, tough as they are, than in the heat of battle.

Things get more slippery if you consider a whole war to be immoral and unjust. If you’re in the military and ordered to participate in such a war, what do you do? You may have an option to resign, assuming you have no service commitment. But often the option is obedience or punishment. And those who are willing to risk and/or endure punishment while taking a principled stance are to be respected, or at the very least not dismissed out of hand.

For me, Chelsea Manning is a true hero. She did what other service members should always do: remembering her oath, she acted to uphold it, irrespective of the cost to her.

But there’s a counterargument that should be considered. What individual soldier has perfect knowledge? In acting, perhaps with one-sided information, are you endangering your fellow troops? Are you truly acting selflessly, or selfishly?

Not every would-be whistleblower is acting wisely or thinking coherently.

These are tough calls where people pay a very high price indeed.

Obedience is needed in the military. Even in the face of death. But obedience is wrong in the face of illegality and immorality. Thus we should elect leaders who respect legality and display morality. Sadly, that is often the very opposite of what we do as a people.

Citizen-Soldiers and Defending the Constitution: The Ideal versus the Reality

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The Minuteman Ideal (Photo by Sean Kraft)

W.J. Astore

Ten years ago, I gave a talk on the ideal of citizen-soldiers and how and why America had drifted from that ideal.  As war looms on the horizon yet again, this time with Iran, we’d be well advised to ask critical questions about our military, such as why we idolize it, how it no longer reflects our country demographically, its reliance on for-profit mercenaries, and the generally mediocre record of its senior leaders.

My talk consisted of notes that I hope are clear enough, but if they aren’t, please ask me to elaborate and I will in the comments section.  Thanks.

 Today [2009] I want to discuss the ideal of the citizen-soldier and how I believe we have drifted from that ideal.

The Ideal: Dick Winters in Band of Brothers; E.B. Sledge in With the Old Breed; Jimmy Stewart.  Until recent times, the American military was justly proud of being a force of citizen-soldiers. It didn’t matter whether you were talking about those famed Revolutionary War Minutemen, courageous Civil War volunteers, or the “Greatest Generation” conscripts of World War II.

Americans have a long tradition of being distrustful of the very idea of a large, permanent army, as well as of giving potentially disruptive authority to generals.

How have we drifted from that ideal?  In six ways, I think:

  1. Burden-sharing and lack of class equity

Historian David M. Kennedy in October 2005: “No American is now obligated to military service, few will ever serve in uniform, even fewer will actually taste battle …. Americans with no risk whatsoever of exposure to military service have, in effect, hired some of the least advantaged of their fellow countrymen to do some of their most dangerous business while the majority goes on with their own affairs unbloodied and undistracted.”

Are we a true citizen-military if we call on only a portion of our citizens to make sacrifices?

All-Volunteer Military, or All-Recruited Military? Our military targets the working classes, the rural poor, young men (mostly men) who are out of work, or high school dropouts, for enlistments.  (Officer corps is recruited somewhat differently.)

With few exceptions, societal elites not targeted by recruiters.

Anecdote: NYT article by Kenneth Harbaugh on exclusion of ROTC from Ivy-League college campuses

“At Yale, which has supplied more than its share of senators and presidents, almost none of my former classmates or students ever noticed the absence of uniforms on campus. In a nation at war, this is a disgrace. But it also shows how dangerously out of touch the elites who shape our national policy have become with the men and women they send to war.

Toward the end of the semester, I took my class to West Point. None of my students had ever seen a military base, and only one had a friend his age in uniform.”

“Support Our Troops” – But who are our troops?  Why are they not drawn from across our class/demographic spectrum?

  1. Estrangement of Progressives and Growing Conservatism/Evangelicalism of the Military

If the operating equation is military = bad, are we not effectively excusing ourselves or our children from any obligation to serve — even any obligation simply to engage with the military? Indeed, are we even patting ourselves on the back for the wisdom of our non-choice and our non-participation? Rarely has a failure to sacrifice or even to engage come at a more self-ennobling price — or a more self-destructive one for progressive agendas.

Example: Evangelicalism at the Air Force Academy versus separation of church and state.

Is our professional military a society within our larger society? 

  1. Many “troops” are no longer U.S. military: They’re private contractors. Instead of citizen-soldiers, they’re (in some cases) non-citizen mercenaries and non-citizen contractors.

Blackwater (Xe), Triple Canopy, Dyncorp, KBR: there are more contractor personnel in Iraq than U.S. military, and many contractors are providing security and doing tasks that our military used to do, like KP, for a lot more money.

Profit incentive: privatizing military is like privatizing prisons.  You create a profit motive for extending military commitments, and perhaps wars as well.

In other words, citizen-soldiers like Sledge and Winters want to come home.  Private mercenaries/contractors want to stay, as long as they’re making good money.

  1. Cult of the warrior: Reference to American troops as “warfighters.” This is contrary to our American tradition of “Minutemen.”  It’s a disturbing change in terminology.

I first noticed the term “warfighter” in 2002. Like many a field-grade staff officer, I spent a lot of time crafting PowerPoint briefings, trying to sell senior officers and the Pentagon on my particular unit’s importance to the President’s new Global War on Terrorism. The more briefings I saw, the more often I came across references to “serving the warfighter.” It was, I suppose, an obvious selling point, once we were at war in Afghanistan and gearing up for “regime-change” in Iraq. And I was probably typical in that I, too, grabbed the term for my briefings. After all, who wants to be left behind when it comes to supporting the troops “at the pointy end of the spear” (to borrow another military trope)?

But I wasn’t comfortable with the term then, and today it tastes bitter in my mouth.

We must not be “warriors” – we must be citizen-soldiers.  And note how the word “citizen” comes first.

Aside:  Warriors may commit more atrocities precisely because they see themselves as different from, and superior to, civilians.

  1. Deference of civilians to military experts, instead of vice-versa. Why I wrote my first piece for TomDispatch.  Idea that President George W. Bush couldn’t make the final decision on the Surge in Iraq until we heard from General David Petraeus.

In a country founded on civilian control of the military, it’s disturbing indeed that, as a New York Times/CBS poll indicated recently (2007), Americans trust their generals three times as much as Congress and 13 times as much as the President.

Also, abdication of responsibility by U.S. Congress.  Our country is founded on civilian control of the military.  But Congress afraid of being charged with hurting or abandoning our troops.

Georges Clemenceau: “War is too important to be left to generals.”  Why?  “Can-do” spirit to our military, no matter how dumb the war.  And militaries seek military solutions.

So, “supporting our troops” must not mean putting blind faith in our military:

In “A Failure in Generalship,” which appeared in Armed Forces Journal in May 2007, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling argues that, prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, our generals “refused to prepare the Army to fight unconventional wars” and thereafter failed to “provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.” Put bluntly, he accuses them of dereliction of duty. Bewailing a lack of accountability for such failures in the military itself, Yingling memorably concludes that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

  1. Oath of Office: Supporting the Constitution of the U.S. against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Oath of allegiance is to the Constitution and to the ideas and ideals we cherish as Americans.  But how are the “long wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan advancing these ideals?  Are they consistent with our defense and our ideas/ideals of citizenship?

Breaking News:  President Obama just decided to send another 17,000 American troops to Afghanistan.  Meanwhile, today in the NYT, U.S. generals are already predicting that 50K+ U.S. troops may need to stay in Afghanistan for the next five years.  In other words, this is not a temporary surge.  [How true! Ten years later, we’re still in Afghanistan with no end in sight.]

So, how do we reverse these trends and reassert our ideal of a citizen-military?

  1. Not with a draft, but perhaps with National Service (AmeriCorps, Green Corps, Peace Corps, Military).
  2. Renewed commitment by Progressives to engage with the military.  To understand the military, its rank structure, its ethos.
  3. Reduce/eliminate dependence on mercenaries/private contractors, even if it costs us more.
  4. Eliminate the “cult of the warrior.”  Replace warfighter rhetoric with citizen-soldier ideal.
  5. Deference to military experts for tactical/battlefield advice is sensible, but ultimately our military is commanded by the president and wars are authorized by the Congress, i.e. our elected representatives
  6. Oath of office: Every time we deploy troops, we must ask: How is this advancing our national ideals as embodied in our Constitution?  How are we defending ourselves?

Permit me to quote a passage from James Madison, the principal architect of the U.S. Constitution.  He noted in 1795 that:

“Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the dominion of the few… [There is also an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and … degeneracy of manners and of morals… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

And Madison’s idea of continual warfare = our military’s “Long War” = Forever War?  What is our exit strategy?  Do we even have one?

Thank you.

Military Clothing for Presidents? No, Sir!

W.J. Astore

A reader reminded me yesterday of an article I wrote a decade ago about U.S. presidents donning military flight jackets.  And he sent along this image of President Trump dressed up for his recent visit to the troops in Iraq:

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Here’s my article from 2010 on this subject.  You can see how much U.S. presidents listen to me.

This past weekend, President Obama made a surprise trip to Afghanistan, during which he doffed his civilian coat and tie and donned a “Commander-in-chief” leather flight jacket provided to him by the Air Force. I suppose the president believed he could better connect with the troops by wearing “less formal” garb; I suppose as well he thought he was honoring the military by wearing the flight jacket associated with Air Force One. But as snazzy as the president may have looked in his flight jacket (and I liked my jacket when I was in the Air Force), his decision to don it was a blunder.

No, I’m not saying the president is a military wannabe; I’m not saying the president is a poseur. What I’m saying is that the president, whether he knows it or not, is blurring the vitally important distinction between a democratically-elected, thoroughly civilian, commander-in-chief and the military members the president commands in our — the people’s — name.

Though the president commands our military, he is not, strictly speaking, a member of it. Rather, as our highest ranking public servant, he stands above it, exercising the authority granted to him by the Constitution to command the military in the people’s name.

Whenever the president addresses our troops, he should, indeed he must, appear in civilian clothing, because that’s precisely what he is: a civilian, a very special one, to be sure, but that’s what he is — and what he always must be.

We must wean ourselves from Hollywood illusions that our president should parade around like the ultimate fighter pilot (even if, once upon a time, he flew fighters, like George W. Bush did). This is not the set of “Independence Day.” Neither is it a photo op.

President Obama admires Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln visited General George McClellan during our Civil War, he didn’t don a military greatcoat; instead, with army tents and uniformed men all around him, Lincoln dared to look incongruous in his dress civilian clothes, complete with top hat.

Incongruous? Perhaps. But look closely at the photo: Never was Lincoln’s authority clearer.

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And that’s the point: Lincoln knew he was a civilian commander-in-chief. Precisely by not donning military clothing, he asserted his ultimate civilian authority over McClellan and the army.

Please, President Obama (and all future presidents): Put away the flight jackets and other militaria when you address our troops. Appear as the civilian commander-in-chief that you are. By doing so, you remind our troops that they are citizens first, and soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen second.

As our wars grow ever longer, that’s a reminder that should loom ever larger.

Addendum (12/18): Besides taking multiple draft deferments during the Vietnam War, it appears Donald Trump had the help of two podiatrists who rented space from his father.  Those doctors appear to have done Young Trump a favor by diagnosing him with heel spurs, which disqualified him from being drafted.  And yet Trump the draft dodger is now proud to wear military clothing and to boast that “nobody does military better than me.”  What a country we live in!

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Another shot of Trump in a flight jacket.  Why didn’t Melania get one?

Thoughts on a Saturday Afternoon

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W.J. Astore

Weekends are a good time to sit back, reflect, and think.  Here are a few ideas I’ve been thinking about:

1. Remember 9/11/2001?  Of course you do.  Almost everyone back then seemed to compare it to Pearl Harbor, another date that would live in infamy — and that was a big mistake. In 1941, the USA was attacked by another sovereign nation. In 2001, we were attacked by a small group of terrorists. But international terrorism was nothing new, and indeed the U.S. was already actively combating Al Qaeda. The only new thing was the shock and awe of the 9/11 attacks — especially the images of the Twin Towers collapsing.

By adopting the Pearl Harbor image, our response was predetermined, i.e. the deployment of the U.S. military to wage war. Even that wasn’t necessarily a fatal mistake, if we’d stopped with Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban. But, as Henry Kissinger said, Afghanistan wasn’t enough. Someone else had to pay, in this case the unlucky Iraqis. And then the U.S. military was stuck with two occupations that it was fated to lose.  And millions of Afghan and Iraqi people suffered for our leaders’ mistakes.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of 9/11 was how no one in Washington took the blame for it.  I don’t recall any high-level firings. The buck stopped nowhere. Same with torture. The buck stopped nowhere. Officialdom looked the other way, including the next administration under the “change” candidate, Barack Obama.  He changed nothing in this area.  His mantra about “looking forward” meant learning nothing from history.

It’s this lack of accountability, perhaps, that made Trump possible. He lies constantly and blunders and blusters, yet (so far) there’s no accountability for that either. People just expect our government to be composed of con men and serial liars, so why not just elect one as president?

No accountability after 9/11 and torture led to “no accountability” Trump.

2.  Another thought on 9/11: The 9/11 war-driven response was part of American exceptionalism. What I mean is this: America is not supposed to be on the receiving end of “shock and awe.” We are supposed to be the givers of it. As Americans, we were totally unprepared, psychologically, for such a blow. (A Soviet nuclear attack, a million times more devastating, would have made more “sense” in that the danger was drummed into us.) An attack by hijacked airliners, a mutant form of airpower? Well, America is supposed to rule the skies. We bomb others; they don’t bomb us.  Right?

It was all so shocking and destabilizing, hence the “rally around the flag” effect and the blank check issued by Congress to Bush/Cheney for what has proved to be a forever war on terror — or something.  And now, with Trump and crew, is the new “something” Iran?

3.  In our military-first culture, projects like the B-21 stealth bomber are just accepted as business as usual — the cost of keeping America “safe.” We had more debate about weapons systems during the Cold War, when we truly faced an existential threat. Now, weapons ‘r’ us. It’s a peculiar moment in American history, a sort of cult of the gun, whether that “gun” is a bomber, missile, aircraft carrier, etc.

Put differently, our personal insecurities (due to debt, health care, jobs, weather catastrophes, fear of immigrants, etc.) have driven a cult of security in which guns and related military technologies have been offered as a palliative or even a panacea. Feel secure — buy a gun. Feel secure — build a new stealth bomber. Stand your ground — global strike. The personal is the political is the military.

4.  If Reagan’s motto was “trust — but verify” with the Soviet Union, Trump’s motto with North Korea is simply “trust.”  Yes — it’s a good thing that Trump is no longer threatening to bring nuclear fire and fury to the North Koreans, but his recent meeting with Kim Jong-un, large in image, was short on substance.  Will those verification details be worked out in the future?  Do the North Koreans have any intent to give up their nuclear weapons?  Both are doubtful.  So, does Trump deserve a Nobel peace prize?  About as much as Obama did.

5.  I’ve never witnessed a man destroy a political party like Trump has taken apart the Republicans.  It’s a remarkable achievement, actually.  And I don’t mean that as a compliment.  I was once a Gerald Ford supporter in the 1976 election, and I voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984.  (We make mistakes when we’re young; that said, Walter Mondale was an uninspiring Democratic candidate.)  I thought the Republican Party had principles; I think it did in the 1970s and 1980s.  Now, the only “principles” are money and power, as in getting more of both.  If that means kowtowing to Trump, so be it.  Kneel before Zod, Republicans!

That’s enough for my Saturday afternoon.  Fire away in the comments section, readers!

Trump’s Anti-Government

scrabble
Trump’s not shy about his cabinet choices

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump’s cabinet choices form an anti-government of sorts.  A climate change skeptic as head of the EPA who’s involved in suing the EPA.  A head of the Energy department who previously said he wanted to eliminate that department.  A head of Education who’s a fervid proponent of charter schools and further privatization.  A head of housing and urban development with no background in government and no apparent sympathy for the poor.  A head of Labor who’s a fast-food mogul, an opponent of a higher minimum wage, and a proponent of robots replacing humans because the former don’t get sick or need health care or strike for higher pay.  And, let’s not forget, a gaggle of retired generals in civilian security positions at the Pentagon and within the White House.

You have to hand it to Trump and the Republicans: when they select cabinet members, they’re not trying to triangulate; they’re not trying to reach out to the Democrats or rule in a bipartisan fashion.  Their attitude is “We won — and we’re taking no prisoners.”

Remember how newly elected President Obama triangulated in 2008? He kept on Republican Bob Gates as Secretary of Defense.  He selected retired Marine Corps General James Jones to be his National Security Adviser, which drew high praise from John McCain. He appointed Tim Geithner at Treasury, a former member of the Kissinger Associates and advocate of the TARP (the Wall Street bailout).  He tried to appoint other Republicans to his cabinet, such as Judd Gregg at Commerce.  Despite Obama’s huge mandate and his message of “change,” most of his cabinet appointees were conventional Washington insiders, more than acceptable to Republicans.

Of course, this is just further proof (if more is needed) that Democrats like Obama and the Clintons are just another business party, a Republican-lite party. I’d say establishment Democrats don’t have the courage of their convictions, except I’m not sure they have convictions.

Well, Trump has convictions.  And he’s unafraid to act on them with his cabinet choices. You think the Democrats might learn something from this?

At Informed Comment, Juan Cole has an excellent column on this whole issue, “Why do GOP Presidents get to go Hard Right, and Dems are just GOP Lite?” Here’s how Cole begins his column:

After it was confirmed that Donald J. Trump will appoint former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson Secretary of State, the shape of the Trump cabinet and team has become clear. Neofascist Steve Bannon is White House Strategist. Openly racist Jeff Sessions is Attorney General (guess how many civil rights actions he is going to initiate). General James “Mad Dog” Mattis is Secretary of War (call it what it is). Notorious Islamophobe and conspiracy theorist, who denies that Islam is a religion, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn is National Security adviser.

But Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, when they came to power (and both were very popular and had real mandates) did not go left in the way that George W. Bush and now Trump have gone right.

In fact, the anecdote is told that in 1993 Clinton and his cabinet looked around the room at each other and observed, “Here we are, Eisenhower Republicans.” Why?

Why, indeed?  Just imagine if a true liberal Democrat won the White House.  And let’s imagine he or she is casting about for a suitable Secretary of Defense, someone who thinks outside of the pentagonal box.  How about Ralph Nader or Noam Chomsky?  (Cole mentions Frida Berrigan, another provocative choice.)

Call it spine, call it stones, call it sand, call it whatever you want, but Trump’s Republicans have it and the spineless Democrats don’t.  Just wait until January, when we start to hear about a few Democrats crossing the aisle to work with Trump in the spirit of “bipartisanship” and “putting government back to work.”  It makes me think of another saying of my parents: Trump and his cabinet of billionaires and millionaires “will be laughing all the way to the bank.”  The rest of us?  We may be laughing, but only to hide the tears.

Note: Revised on 12/19 to add retired Marine Corps General Jones as another example of Obama’s ill-fated effort to “move to the center” and to appease Republicans.

America: Land of Extremes

superman
He said he fought for truth, justice, and the American way.  Why does that seem so much more far-fetched today?

W.J. Astore

This is an Andy Rooney moment for me, but did you ever notice how Americans tend to favor either humongous trophy houses (McMansions), or closet-like tiny houses?  Did you ever notice how so many Americans tend to be either very fat or super fit?  Crusading evangelicals or militant atheists?  Faithful believers in creationism or fervid followers of science?  Proud “cave man” carnivores or proselytizing vegans?  Coffee fiends or caffeine avoiders?  Lushes or teetotalers?   Materialists and hoarders or declutterers and minimalists?

The list of opposites, of extremes, goes on.  Heck, why not include Obama supporters or Trump followers?  Obama is urbane, sophisticated, cerebral, “no drama.”  A devoted family man with one very successful marriage.  The Donald?  Well, let’s just say he’s very different than our sitting president.  And I’m not talking skin color.

A good friend of mine once complained about his fellow Americans that he didn’t necessarily mind their extremism.  What he did mind was their efforts to convert him to whatever extreme causes they believed in.  Rodney King famously asked, Can’t we all just get along?  My friend’s cry was more plaintive: Can’t you all just leave me alone?

As Trump crawls closer to power, America risks devolving even more into a society where the byword is “My way or the highway.”  Where the national motto is no longer “In God we trust” or the older “E pluribus unum” (out of many, one) but instead “America: love it or leave it.”

I once read a great rejoinder to the “America: love it or leave it” sentiment.  I first saw it in a bicycle repair book.  The author simply added this coda: “Or change it.”

Extremism in the pursuit of your own selfish definition of “liberty” can indeed be a vice, America.  We need to reject a black/white, love/hate, on/off, Manichean view of each other and the world.  Moderation as a way of pursuing a more inclusive and compassionate world can indeed be a virtue.

That doesn’t mean one submits supinely to injustice.  That doesn’t mean one surrenders meekly to tyrants.  What it does mean is a rejection of a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to life and each other.  We have enough polarization already in America, and we certainly have enough death.

Superman used to say he fought for truth, justice, and the American way.  There was a sense, a few generations ago, that those words were not laughable.  That they meant something.  We need to get back to those times.

Impossible, you say?  We won’t know unless we try.