The Pentagon as Pentagod

W.J. Astore

The other day, retired General Michael Flynn called for “one religion under God” in the United States.

Ah, General Flynn, we already have one religion of militant nationalism and imperialism, and we already have one god, the Pentagod, which is the subject of my latest article for TomDispatch.com.

First, one religion. This weekend I watched the New England Patriots play the Cleveland Brown during which a Pentagon recruiting commercial broke out. The coaches wore camouflage jackets and caps, the game started with military flyovers of combat jets, and there even was a mass military swearing-in ceremony hosted by a four-star general and admiral. That same general claimed during an on-field interview during the game that the military is what keeps America free, which might just be the best definition of militarism that I’ve heard.

(Aside: In a true democracy, the military is seen as a necessary evil, because all militaries are essentially undemocratic. The goal of a true democracy is to spend as little as possible on the military while still providing for a robust defense.)

Here’s an illustration, sent by a friend, of America’s one religion:

So, according to the NFL and the mainstream media, “all of us” need to honor “our” military and indeed anyone who’s ever worn a uniform, no questions asked, apparently. I wore a military uniform for 24 years: four years as a cadet, twenty as a military officer, and I’m telling you this is nonsense — dangerous nonsense. Don’t “salute” authority. Question it. Challenge it. Hold it accountable and responsible. At the very least, be informed about it. And don’t mix sports, which is both business and entertainment, with military service and the machinery of war.

OK, so now let’s talk about America’s god. As I argue below, it certainly isn’t the Jesus Christ I learned about by reading the New Testament and studying the Gospels in CCD. America has never worshipped that god. Clearly the god we worship — at least as measured by money and societal influence — is the Pentagod, which leads me to my latest article at TomDispatch. Enjoy!

The Pentagon As Pentagod

Who is America’s god? The Christian god of the beatitudes, the one who healed the sick, helped the poor, and preached love of neighbor? Not in these (dis)United States. In the Pledge of Allegiance, we speak proudly of One Nation under God, but in the aggregate, this country doesn’t serve or worship Jesus Christ, or Allah, or any other god of justice and mercy. In truth, the deity America believes in is the five-sided one headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.

In God We Trust is on all our coins. But, again, which god? The one of “turn the other cheek”? The one who found his disciples among society’s outcasts? The one who wanted nothing to do with moneychangers or swords? As Joe Biden might say, give me a break.

America’s true god is a deity of wrath, whose keenest followers profit mightily from war and see such gains as virtuous, while its most militant disciples, a crew of losing generals and failed Washington officials, routinely employ murderous violence across the globe. It contains multitudes, its name is legion, but if this deity must have one name, citing a need for some restraint, let it be known as the Pentagod.

Yes, the Pentagon is America’s true god. Consider that the Biden administration requested a whopping $753 billion for military spending in fiscal year 2022 even as the Afghan War was cratering. Consider that the House Armed Services Committee then boosted that blockbuster budget to $778 billion in September. Twenty-five billion dollars extra for “defense,” hardly debated, easily passed, with strong bipartisan support in Congress. How else, if not religious belief, to explain this, despite the Pentagod’s prodigal $8 trillion wars over the last two decades that ended so disastrously? How else to account for future budget projections showing that all-American deity getting another $8 trillion or so over the next decade, even as the political parties fight like rabid dogs over roughly 15% of that figure for much-needed domestic improvements?

Paraphrasing Joe Biden, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you worship. In that context, there can’t be the slightest doubt: America worships its Pentagod and the weapons and wars that feed it.

Prefabricated War, Made in the U.S.A.

I confess that I’m floored by this simple fact: for two decades in which “forever war” has served as an apt descriptor of America’s true state of the union, the Pentagod has failed to deliver on any of its promises. Iraq and Afghanistan? Just the most obvious of a series of war-on-terror quagmires and failures galore.

That ultimate deity can’t even pass a simple financial audit to account for what it does with those endless funds shoved its way, yet our representatives in Washington keep doing so by the trillions. Spectacular failure after spectacular failure and yet that all-American god just rolls on, seemingly unstoppable, unquenchable, rarely questioned, never penalized, always on top.

Talk about blind faith!

To read the rest of my article, please go to TomDispatch here. Here’s my conclusion:

Yet, before I bled Air Force blue, before I was stationed in a cathedral of military power under who knows how many tons of solid granite, I was raised a Roman Catholic. Recently, I caught the words of Pope Francis, God’s representative on earth for Catholic believers. Among other entreaties, he asked “in the name of God” for “arms manufacturers and dealers to completely stop their activity, because it foments violence and war, it contributes to those awful geopolitical games which cost millions of lives displaced and millions dead.”

Which country has the most arms manufacturers? Which routinely and proudly leads the world in weapons exports? And which spends more on wars and weaponry than any other, with hardly a challenge from Congress or a demurral from the mainstream media?

And as I stared into the abyss created by those questions, who stared back at me but, of course, the Pentagod.

Being Right For the Wrong Reasons

W.J. Astore

Were you against the Afghan War? The Iraq War? Events proved you right, of course, but for the wrong reasons. And if you were pro-war in both cases, you were of course wrong but for the right reasons. Therefore you will still be celebrated and featured on mainstream media outlets, whereas those “right” people will still be ignored because, again, they may have been right about those disastrous wars, but their reasons were all wrong.

I think I heard this formulation first in Jeremy Scahill’s book “Dirty Wars.” An official said opponents of the war on terror had been “right for the wrong reasons,” but that proponents of war, the Kristols and Krauthammers of the necon world, had been “wrong for the right reasons.”

Nick Turse picks up on this theme in his latest for TomDispatch.com. In 2010, Turse edited a book of essays: “The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan.” In his latest essay, and with tongue firmly in cheek, Turse asks why he’s not being invited to speak on the mainstream media networks, why he’s not being celebrated for his prescience, why he’s not being lauded for being right. And of course Turse knows the answer: he was right — but for the wrong reasons.

If you’re confused, allow me to translate. It’s OK, even laudable, to argue that the Pentagon will win; that wars should be fought; and that U.S. generals are so many reincarnations of Napoleon and Alexander and Caesar.  Because being “wrong” here means that the Pentagon grows ever more powerful; that the U.S. always looks tough (if perhaps dumb); and that America’s generals are celebrated as the “finest” while never being called to account. Again, all these things are “right,” even when, indeed especially when, they’re so obviously wrong.

But it’s not OK, indeed it’s deplorable, to suggest the Pentagon will lose; that wars should not be fought; that U.S. generals are mostly time-serving mediocrities.  Because being “right” here means a weaker Pentagon; it means America fights fewer wars, an obvious sign of national weakness and a calamity to the military-industrial complex; it means holding generals responsible for their self-serving lies and obfuscations.

Being right about all this weakens militarism in America and could lead to lower “defense” budgets and fewer wars. And we can’t have that in America!

So, remember, in America it’s better to be wrong and thus feed the military-industrial complex than to be right and thus possibly to chart a wiser and less bellicose course. To paraphrase Mister Spock, it is not logical, but it is often true.

Sorry, Nick: You were right but for the wrong reasons

Support Our Troops — But How?

A1C Courtney Wagner, getting the job done as the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron loadmaster in 2017. When America thinks of “our” troops, someone like A1C Wagner may come to mind (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Divine Cox)

W.J. Astore

Today I saw a “support our troops” magnetic ribbon on a pickup truck.  I used to see more of them, especially in the Bush/Cheney years of the Afghan and Iraq Wars.  I don’t oppose the sentiment, though the “support” it encourages is undefined.  I’ve always thought the best way to “support” our troops is to keep them out of unnecessary and disastrous wars.  Even to bring them home, not only from these wars but from imperial outposts around the globe.  But, again, “support” on these ribbons is unspecified, though the Pentagon seems to equate it with huge budgets that approach a trillion dollars every year.

Americans continue to profess confidence in “their” military, with 69% of us saying so in July 2021, whereas only 12% of us have much confidence in Congress.  Can it be said we hold Congress in contempt?  Americans know, I think, that Congress is bought and paid for, that it answers to the rich and the strong while dismissing the poor and the weak.  If you’re looking for affordable health care, for higher pay, for fair treatment, best not look to Congress.

Indeed, if you want a $15 minimum wage, free government health care, and a government-funded college education, your only option is to enlist in the U.S. military.  These “socialist” programs are a big part of the military, including government-provided housing as well.  Yet we don’t think of them as socialistic when the person getting these benefits is wearing a military uniform.

It’s truly remarkable that despite disastrous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, Americans continue to “support” and have great confidence in “our troops.”  There are many reasons for this.  I think most Americans recognize now that the wars our troops are sent to are losing concerns from the get-go.  You really can’t blame the troops for failing to win unwinnable wars.  You can, and should, blame the leaders for lying us into these wars and then lying again and again about (false) progress in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  But the troops who bleed on the frontlines?  No – we sense it’s not their fault.

I think many Americans also support our troops out of guilt and ignorance.  Most Americans are isolated from the military and therefore have little understanding of its ways and even less understanding of its wars.  Less than 1% of Americans currently serve in the military, plus there’s no draft, so young Americans can safely ignore, so they think, the discomforts and potential perils of a few years spent within the ranks.  After a flurry of attention paid to a humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, the mainstream media is back to saluting the troops while warning of potential conflicts elsewhere, perhaps with China over Taiwan.

The disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq, among others, are already being sent down the Memory Hole to oblivion.  After all, there’s always another war looming, so we’re told, which serves to convince most Americans that a strong “defense” is needed.  So why not support our troops.  We’re going to need them to fight the next war, right?

This is precisely how we fail to support our troops.  We don’t ask enough tough questions – and we don’t demand enough honest answers – about why the next war is necessary.  How it serves national defense and the ideals of the U.S. Constitution.  We are always pressured to salute smartly, even if we’ve never served in the military.  And that way lies militaristic madness.

So, if I had to define how best to support our troops, I’d answer with another bumper sticker motto: Question Authority.  Especially when it’s wrapped in the flag and camouflaged by a military uniform.

It’s folly in the extreme that Americans routinely acquiesce to Pentagon “defense” budgets – let’s face it, these are war budgets — that consume more than half of federal discretionary spending each year, even as the Pentagon loses wars and fails audits. Nevertheless, our very unpopular Congress continues to throw money at the generals and admirals and war contractors, and indeed these groups are often interchangeable, as many senior officers join corporate “defense” boards after retiring from the military.

It’s not Private Jones (or A1C Wagner, pictured above) who’s cashing in here.  It’s America’s military-industrial-congressional complex, which is guided and motivated by one word: more. More money, more power, and, often enough, more wars.

If we keep “supporting” our troops while funneling vast and unaccountable funds to the Pentagon and the weapons makers, America will get more weapons and more wars.  It’s that simple.  And more weapons and more wars will combine to destroy what little is left of our democracy, no matter how many “support our troops” ribbons we stick to our pickup trucks.

Do you really want to support our troops?  Besides questioning authority, one might best begin by reducing their numbers.  America’s military should be no larger than what it needs to be to provide for a robust national defense.  Then we need to remember that a state of permanent war represents a death blow to democracy, no matter how much we profess confidence in our troops.  Since Congress is already deeply unpopular, it should have the guts to cut and limit military and war spending to no more than 25% of federal discretionary spending.

Cutting funds to the military-industrial complex will help bring it to heel – and force more than few spoiled and hidebound generals and admirals to bring our troops home rather than wasting them in faraway countries fighting unwinnable conflicts.

What say you, America?  Ready to support our troops?

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.

Ten Reasons Why America’s Afghan War Lasted So Long and Ended So Disastrously

One thing is certain: The U.S. military succeeded in arming the Taliban (captured military equipment; photo from The Guardian)

W.J. Astore

The headlines claim America’s war in Afghanistan has finally ended, but of course no war ends just because someone claims it to be so. The Afghan people will be living with the chaos and destruction of this war for decades to come, even as mainstream media pundits in the USA and at the Pentagon pivot quickly to new wars or rumors of war in China, Africa, Iran, and elsewhere.

The Afghan War, I’ve argued, was never America’s to win. The U.S. military had the watches but the Afghan people had the time, as the saying goes, and unless U.S. forces stayed there forever (as retired General David Petraeus advised with his empty talk of “sustainable, sustained commitment”), the Taliban or indigenous forces like them were always going to prevail. After all, it’s their country, their culture, their people, and they want to live their way, free of foreign interference, whether it’s British or Russian or American.

That said, why did America persist in a lost cause for two decades? What explains this debacle? If we can explain it, perhaps we can avoid similar catastrophes in the future. 

In that spirit of optimism, here are ten reasons why America’s Afghan War lasted so long and ended so disastrously:

  1. Lack of a military draft in the USA. No, I’m not advocating for a return of the draft. But because there is no draft, because America allegedly has an “all-volunteer” military, most Americans pay it little mind, including the wars it fights, no matter how long they last.
  2. Related to (1) is the Pentagon’s practice of isolating Americans from the true costs of war. Elsewhere, I’ve called it the new American isolationism. We are simply encouraged not to look at the true face of war and its many horrors. Isolation from wars’ costs, I’d argue, acts to prolong the killing and dying.
  3. Related to (1) and (2) is the lack of a sustained anti-war movement in America. When there’s no draft and little exposure to war’s horrors, there is neither the cause nor the outrage needed to generate a significant anti-war movement. The lack of a strong anti-war movement serves to prolong Pentagon folly, which is fine with the Pentagon, as long as budgets for war continue to increase.
  4. Related to (2) and (3) is extensive Pentagon lying, which is abetted by mainstream media propaganda. The Afghan Papers in 2019 revealed how the American people had been lied to repeatedly about “progress” in Afghanistan, but those revelations came late, and most Americans, isolated from the war, paid them little mind anyway.
  5. Politics. It seems like every decision about Afghanistan was driven more by U.S. domestic politics than by realities on the ground. Firstly, the U.S. invaded as revenge for 9/11, even though the Taliban wasn’t responsible for that attack. Attempts by the Taliban to surrender or to turn over Osama bin Laden were rebuffed. Later, Barack Obama and the Democrats cynically turned the Afghan War into the “good” war as opposed to the badly botched Iraq War of Bush/Cheney. Obama persisted in fighting the Afghan War partly as a way of showing his “seriousness” as U.S. President. Trump inherited the war, thought about ending it, then decided he’d prosecute it even more vigorously than Obama did, after which he decided to negotiate with the Taliban without bringing the war to a conclusive end. Biden inherited that mess, a mess he’d helped to create as Obama’s Vice President, and is now being blamed for a chaotic withdrawal, even as he tried to tie the war’s conclusion to the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It’s a sordid record with plenty of cynical manipulation by Democrats and Republicans alike. In Washington, the war became a political football, tossed about willy-nilly with plenty of unforced fumbles resulting. 
  6. Solipsism.  Everywhere we go, there we are. Did the Afghan people even exist in the minds of Washington officials?
  7. Profit. Endless wars generate boundless profits for a select few. As General Smedley Butler noted in the 1930s, war is a racket. Many warrior-corporations got very rich off the Afghan War. Most in Congress willingly went along with this: they were getting paid too. Hence Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial-Congressional complex as a vastly powerful entity. It only gains strength as war is prolonged.
  8. Poor strategy. You simply can’t deliver a “government in a box” to Afghan peoples destabilized by decades of war exacerbated by foreign meddling and manipulation. Creating well-armed “national” police and security forces, meanwhile, is a great way to build an authoritarian police state, but not a participatory democracy. Did the U.S. spend so much time creating police and military forces in Afghanistan because that is what the Pentagon and its various mercenary camp followers understood best? If so, the effort still failed spectacularly.
  9. Dereliction of duty. The U.S. military knew it was losing the war. It hid the truth by massaging metrics and by lying repeatedly, including to Congress. Senior commanders were never held accountable for these lies. Indeed, the two most famous U.S. commanders, David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, were fired from their jobs for reasons unrelated to lies and lack of progress in this war.
  10.  Too many guns brought to a knife fight.  The U.S. military used massive firepower in the cause of limiting American casualties. Afghan casualties didn’t matter. But every time a drone strike hit a wedding party, or a Hellfire missile generated “collateral damage,” more Afghans turned against America and its military occupation.

Looking at these ten reasons, facing them squarely, is tougher than it sounds. Addressing them is even tougher. Some suggested reforms:

  1. A return to a military draft that picks the most privileged sons and daughters of America first. Start with the families of Members of Congress and the Executive Branch. Fill out the ranks with anyone attending the Ivy League and all private prep schools. And fight no war without a Congressional declaration of the same. (If this all sounds like nonsense, because you “know” the rich and privileged won’t allow their sons and daughters to be drafted and to serve in harm’s way, then you should also know from this that America’s wars since 1945 are dishonest as well as avoidable.)
  2. Face the true costs of war. Any expenditures on war should result in an immediate tax hike on the richest Americans (those in the top 10% of wealth). Casualties of war, whether of U.S. troops or foreign innocents, should be aired on national media in a manner similar to the New York Times’ coverage of 9/11 victims in 2001.
  3. Anti-war voices deserve at least an equal hearing in the mainstream media as pro-war ones. Indeed, anti-war voices should be amplified to provide a humane balance to pro-war ones.
  4. Given the evidence of consistent Pentagon mendacity, whether in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan and elsewhere, the default position of the mainstream media should be supreme skepticism. At the same time, information about war should be declassified and shared with the American people so that informed decisions can be made about the war’s true course and progress toward victory (or lack thereof).
  5. War, the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said, is the continuation of politics by other means. By this he didn’t mean that war should be defined and driven by an internal politics focused tightly on partisan advantage. War may be too important to be left to generals; it is also most assuredly too important (and deadly) to be left to partisan politicians striking tough guy poses.  Coda: Any politician making noises about putting on “big boy pants” and similar bellicose nonsense shall be handed a rifle and deployed immediately to the front.
  6. Before waging war with or against a people, those people should be recognized as, well, people, possessing their own unique culture, mindsets, and abilities.
  7. Taking the profit out of war is perhaps the best way of ending it. If America must wage war, it should be a non-profit operation.
  8. Strategy at the highest level should be agreed upon by the American people and be explicable by the same. Americans should be able to explain “why we fight,” with clear ideas about ending the war quickly, i.e., an exit strategy.
  9. Military officials caught lying to the American people, whether before Congress or elsewhere, demonstrate a lack of integrity and should be fired with loss of all future benefits. More serious lies shall result in prison sentences.
  10. Any war that requires U.S. military forces to use massive firepower merely to tread water against much weaker enemies is a lost war from day one. Using sledgehammers to kill gnats is never wise, no matter how much Americans like to sling sledgehammers. 

For any self-avowed democracy, a politics based on honesty, equity of burden-sharing, and humane values among citizens is a must. If America is to wage war, which I would prefer it not do, except in those rarest of cases when America is directly attacked or imminently in danger, that war’s causes and goals should be debated honestly and fully, with the burden of warfighting shared fairly.  A quick cessation of hostilities should be the goal.

Ultimately, you wage war long, you wage it wrong, should become the byword of U.S. policy now and forever.

Slinking Away from Afghanistan

W.J. Astore

I retired from the U.S. military in 2005. I had no direct role in America’s Afghan war, which means I have no personal stake in trying to justify it or defend it. I never understood how invading and occupying portions of Afghanistan made any sense.

In re-reading a few of my articles against the Afghan war, I came across this email from a dear friend who put it better than I ever could:

I feel sometimes like our military leaders don’t really think of the human cost [of war], even today. I went to church today and I wiped away many tears as they told the story of a member’s son whose legs were recently blown off in Afghanistan, and of a chaplain in Iraq who was there with dying soldiers. These stories, and working and living with military families for all these years has really humanized war and made it so personal to me — but I don’t think most Americans have this personal connection.

Personal email to author, 2012.

For me, my friend’s words sum up the great tragedy of this war. So many lives lost or damaged, most of them not American, and for what? What were America’s leaders thinking? What were they feeling, or failing to feel?

Obviously, the Afghan war was never America’s to win. Young troops were sent there on a fool’s errand. They may have tried hard — real hard — but they failed. Yet that failure wasn’t their fault. That failure was Bush’s and Obama’s and Trump’s. That failure was shared by a Congress that refused to exercise true oversight. That failure was aggravated by all those who profited from a doomed effort. Small wonder that Americans put so little faith and trust in their government today. We’ve been lied to so often by callous politicians with no skin in the game.

As the Taliban consolidates its control over much of Afghanistan, the entire U.S. and Coalition war effort stands in high relief as a debacle and disaster. Just as South Vietnam’s quick fall in 1975 revealed the dishonesty of U.S. government officials (along with the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and so many other events), the ongoing collapse of America’s position in Afghanistan highlights a system that lacks integrity and honesty.

We lose because we’re craven and dishonest. We lose because we forget the personal costs of war. We lose because we fail to pay attention. We lose because we’re greedy and stupid.

Yes, I’m angry. I’ve written far too many articles against America’s Afghan war. Of course, they changed nothing. Even now, as the evidence is all around us of how much we’ve been lied to about “progress” in Afghanistan, there are still officials who argue we should stay and fight. For what reasons? To what end?

As journalist Megan Stack put it in a recent article in The New Yorker,

As the United States rushes to remove its troops from Afghanistan this summer, the Pentagon has imposed a de-facto press blackout on their departure. The military has ignored requests for embeds, denied pleas for even perfunctory interviews with troops, and generally worked to obstruct the public’s view of the United States pulling up stakes … the obfuscation was predictable. Leaving a country that many expect will now collapse into civil war, the United States has no victory to declare; it can only acknowledge the reality of relinquishment and retreat … [T]he outcome in Afghanistan was ignominious. The conflict will cost taxpayers more than two trillion dollars, including veteran care and interest on war borrowing, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University, which also estimates that more than a hundred and seventy thousand people died in the conflict, counting Afghan forces, Taliban fighters, and contractors. That figure includes twenty-four hundred U.S. troops and forty-seven thousand civilians who died in a project that failed at its most basic goal of defeating the Taliban, who are now surging back to seize control of districts and, according to human-rights groups, carrying out organized revenge killings.

Will anyone in the U.S. government be held accountable for this “ignominious” debacle? This disaster?

Isn’t it sad that we already know that “Not only no, but hell no!” is the answer here?

Update: For what it’s worth, this was my original opening to this article: As the Taliban quickly expands its control over Afghanistan, the dishonesty of the U.S. military and government is revealed. More than a trillion dollars spent over two decades, all those reports of progress in creating Afghan security forces and a centralized government, all the lives lost, and for what?

Imagine If America Had A Real Department of Defense

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I ask a simple question: What would real national defense look like? Here are some answers.

What would real national defense for this country look like?  Rarely do any of us pose this question, no less examine what it might truly mean.  Rarely do we think about all the changes we’d have to make as a nation and a people if we were to put defense first, second, and last, while leaving behind both our imperial wars and domestic militarism.

I know what it wouldn’t look like.  It wouldn’t look like today’s grossly inflated military.  A true Department of Defense wouldn’t need 800 foreign military bases, nor would the national security state need a budget that routinely exceeds a trillion dollars annually.  We wouldn’t need a huge, mechanized army, a navy built around aircraft carriers, or an air force that boasts of its global reach and global power, all of it created not for defense but for offense — for destruction, anytime, anywhere.

As a country, we would need to imagine a new “people’s” military as a force that could truly defend the American republic. That would obviously mean one focused above all on supporting the Constitution and the rights we (at least theoretically) hold sacred like freedom of speech, the press, and assembly, the right to privacy and due process, and of course the right to justice for all, not just for the highest bidder or those with the deepest pockets.

What might such a new military look like?  First, it would be much smaller.  America’s current military, including troops on active duty, reservists, and members of the National Guard, consists of roughly 2.4 million men and women.  Those numbers should gradually be cut at least in half.  Second, its budget should similarly be dramatically cut, the end goal being to have it 50% lower than next year’s proposed budget of $715 billion.  Third, it wouldn’t be based and deployed around the world. As a republican force (note the lower-case “r”), it would instead serve democratic ends rather than imperial ones.  It would certainly need far fewer generals and admirals.  Its mission wouldn’t involve “global reach,” but would be defensive, focused on our borders and this hemisphere.

Buy the Book

A friend of mine, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, speaks of a military that would consist of a Coast Guard, “militias” (that is, the National Guard) for each of the fifty states, and little else.  Yes, in this America, that sounds beyond extreme, but he has a point.  Consider our unique advantages in terms of geography.  Our continent is protected by two vast oceans.  We share a long and peaceful border with Canada.  While the border with Mexico is certainly troubled, we’re talking about unarmed, desperate migrants, not a military invasion flooding into Texas to retake the Alamo. 

Here, then, are just 10 ways America’s military could change under a vision that would put the defense of America first and free up some genuine funds for domestic needs as well:

  1. No more new nuclear weapons.  It’s time to stop “modernizing” that arsenal to the tune of possibly $1.7 trillion over the next three decades.  Land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles like the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, expected to cost more than $264 billion during its lifetime, and “strategic” (nuclear) bombers like the Air Force’s proposed B-21 Raider should be eliminated.  The Trident submarine force should also be made smaller, with limited modernization to improve its survivability.
  2. All Army divisions should be reduced to cadres (smaller units capable of expansion in times of war), except the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the 10th Mountain Division.
  3. The Navy should largely be redeployed to our hemisphere, while aircraft carriers and related major surface ships are significantly reduced in number.
  4. The Air Force should be redesigned around the defense of America’s air space, rather than attacking others across the planet at any time.  Meanwhile, costly offensive fighter-bombers like the F-35, itself a potential $1.7 trillion boondoggle, should simply be eliminated and the habit of committing drone assassinations across the planet ended. Similarly, the separate space force created by President Trump should be folded back into a much-reduced Air Force.
  5. The training of foreign militaries and police forces in places like Iraq and Afghanistan should be stopped.  The utter collapse of the U.S.-trained forces in Iraqin the face of the Islamic State in 2014 and the ongoing collapse of the U.S.-trained Afghan military today have made a mockery of this whole process.
  6. Military missions launched by intelligence agencies like the CIA, including those drone assassination programs overseas, should be halted and the urge to intervene secretly in the political and military lives of so many other countries finally brought under some kind of control.
  7. The “industrial” part of the military-industrial complex should also be brought under control, so that taxpayer dollars don’t go to fabulously expensive, largely useless weaponry. At the same time, the U.S. government should stop promoting the products of our major weapons makers around the planet.
  8. Above all, in a democracy like ours, a future defensive military should only fight in a war when Congress, as the Constitution demands, formally declares one.
  9. The military draft should be restored.  With a far smaller force, such a draft should have a limited impact, but it would ensure that the working classes of America, which have historically shouldered a heavy burden in military service, will no longer do so alone. In the future America of my military dreams, a draft would take the eligible sons and daughters of our politicians first, followed by all eligible students enrolled in elite prep schools and private colleges and universities, beginning with the Ivy League.  After all, America’s best and brightest will surely want to serve in a military devoted to defending their way of life.
  10. Finally, there should be only one four-star general or admiral in each of the three services. Currently, believe it or not, there are an astonishing 44 four-star generals and admirals in America’s imperial forces. There are also hundreds of one-star, two-star, and three-star officers.  This top-heavy structure inhibits reform even as the highest-ranking officers never take responsibility for America’s lost wars.

Pivoting to America

Perhaps you’ve heard of the “pivot to Asia” under the Obama administration — the idea of redeploying U.S. military forces from the Greater Middle East and elsewhere in response to perceived threats from China.  As it happened, it took the new Biden administration to begin to pull off that particular pivot, but America’s imperial military regularly seems to be pivoting somewhere or other.  It’s time to pivot to this country instead.

Echoing the words of George McGovern, a highly decorated World War II bomber pilot who unsuccessfully ran for president against Richard Nixon in 1972, “Come home, America.” Close all those foreign military bases.  Redirect resources from wars and weapons to peace and prosperity.  Focus on restoring the republic.  That’s how Americans working together could truly defend ourselves, not only from our “enemies” overseas, almost always much exaggerated, but from ourselves, the military-industrial-congressional complex, and all our fears.

Please read all of this article at TomDispatch.com.

The Unexamined U.S. Military

W.J. Astore

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. Can it also be said that the unexamined military is not worth having?

What amazes me about the U.S. military is how little it is scrutinized. Sure, there’s armed services committees in the House and Senate, but they seem most concerned about shoveling more money toward the Pentagon. Either that or the dire perils of “critical race theory,” which is surely threatening the Republic more than runaway militarism, endless wars, and unneeded nuclear weapons.

What is to be done? I see only one solution: major cuts to the “defense” budget. And that budget is even higher than the stated figure of $705 billion or thereabouts. Nuclear weapons come under the Department of Energy, for example. Homeland Security has its separate budget (isn’t defense of the homeland what the Pentagon is all about?). The various intelligence agencies like the CIA and NSA and so forth churn through scores of billions yet couldn’t predict the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 9/11 attacks. Interestingly, after 9/11 these agencies saw vast increases in funding. Who knew incompetence could be so rewarding?

If you add up all the billions tied to weapons and wars and “defense” in America, you routinely exceed a trillion dollars a year. It’s almost an unfathomable sum. Perhaps it is to the U.S. military as well, since they can’t pass an audit. No one really knows where all the money is going.

Ike knew the score. Sixty years ago, President Eisenhower warned us all about the military-industrial-Congressional complex. A few people listened, but nobody in power did anything about it. Since then the Complex has only grown stronger and more pervasive (and invasive) in America. And now that same Complex owns the mainstream media. Remarkably, the “journalists” telling us all about the Complex on MSNBC and CNN and Fox are often retired CIA and military officials; they don’t even bother disclosing their obvious conflict of interest here.

Strangely, it’s become patriotic to salute our military rather than to examine it and challenge it. Americans, generally a boisterous and busy bunch, are remarkably quiet and passive except for all the saluting and praising. Until this mindset, and this behavior, changes radically, America will continue on a wasteful and wanton path forged by weapons and war.

And that really is something we need to examine in the collective life of our country.

Sure, stealth bombers look cool. But together we paid roughly $2 billion per plane for a weapon designed to drop nuclear bombs on people.

America Doesn’t Have A Foreign Policy, It Has A Business Plan

Business as usual

W.J. Astore

America doesn’t have a foreign policy, it has a business plan, and it’s business as usual in the Biden administration. Joe Biden promised his donors that nothing would fundamentally change in his administration. Kamala Harris said her agenda wasn’t about substantive change. So what we’re getting under the Biden/Harris team is eminently predictable:

  1. More blank checks for Israel, and no recognition of any rights for Palestinians.
  2. A revival of the old Cold War, with China as the leading “threat” but with Russia not forgotten.
  3. Politics subordinated to the military, rather than the military in service of political aims. In brief, military dominance is America’s foreign policy.
  4. Related to (1-3) is dominance of the world’s trade in weapons. The State Department has become a tiny branch of the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex. It’s all about closing arms deals, moving hardware, selling weaponry, making a buck.
  5. Naturally, one of Biden’s first acts as president was to bomb a foreign country, in this case Syria. So presidential!

In Joe Biden, America has a fading and flailing man to lead a fading and flailing empire. In Kamala Harris, America has an example of old wine in new packaging. She’s a woman, she’s Black, she’s South Asian — and she thinks like Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger.

Joined at the hip

Remember when Joe Biden said he’d be all about diplomacy? That the power of America’s example would rule over the example of our power? Nice words, but that’s all they’ve been so far. Words.

Two examples where Biden has appeared to offer meaningful change are with Afghanistan and Yemen. With Afghanistan, Biden has promised a complete military withdrawal by 9/11/2021. But does this apply only to combat troops while excluding mercenaries, the CIA, special forces “trainers,” and the like? It’s not yet clear. Plus anything can happen between now and 9/11 for Biden to switch gears and keep some combat troops in place.

With Yemen, Biden made a point about excluding offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia while still allowing defensive ones. Almost any weapon can be labeled as defensive in nature, so it’s doubtful whether Saudi operations in Yemen will be impacted at all by Biden’s weasel-word policies.

The Biden/Harris foreign policy, such as it is, is retrograde. It’s a return to the Cold War, with an emphasis on new nuclear weapons and larger Pentagon budgets. It’s about global dominance while America at home burns. It’s foolish and stupid yet it will make a few people richer for a few more business cycles.

And thus it’s business as usual in Washington, which is exactly what Biden/Harris were hired for.

More Afghan War Lies

Like much of Biden’s face, America’s Afghan War is kept hidden behind a dark mask (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

W.J. Astore

President Biden has announced that all U.S. military combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 9/11/2021. That date was chosen deliberately and cynically. Recall that 15 of the 19 terrorist hijackers of 9/11 were Saudi. Recall that Osama bin Laden was Saudi. Recall that it was Al Qaeda, not the Taliban in Afghanistan, that was behind the 9/11 attacks on America. Yet America’s Afghan War has always been falsely advertised as both preemptive and preventative, i.e. America went to war to preempt another 9/11-style attack and has continued that war to prevent similar attacks coming from Afghanistan. It’s a false narrative that has largely worked to sustain the Afghan War for twenty years, and Biden is reinforcing it.

Another critical issue: What does it really mean when Biden says those combat troops will be withdrawn? What it doesn’t mean is that the war will end. Doubtless the CIA and similar intelligence operatives will remain behind, shrouded in secrecy. Doubtless some special forces units will stay. Doubtless private contractors, many of them ex-military, will stay. Doubtless America will reserve the “right” to continue to bomb Afghanistan and to conduct drone strikes from halfway across the world, ostensibly in support of the Afghan “national” government in Kabul. So is the war really ending?

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is getting what it wants: a boosted budget (even above what Trump requested) and a future defined by plans for war with China and Russia (and perhaps Iran as well). I’ve seen plenty of articles screaming that China is building a powerful navy, that China is building dangerous missiles, that China is building advanced fighter jets, and so on, which is exactly what the Pentagon wants: a “near-peer” rival to justify even more military spending, especially for big-ticket items like aircraft carriers, fighters, bombers, missile defense systems, and so on.

Biden’s linking of the failed Afghan War to 9/11 and its forthcoming 20th anniversary is yet another exercise in pernicious lying by America’s vast national security state. Once again, we’re reminded that the first casualty in war is truth. And perhaps the last casualty of the Afghan War (whenever it really ends, at least for America) will also be truth.