Americans are being taught powerful lessons when they watch TV and go to the movies. Place your faith in superheroes, (mostly) men of action, those who operate outside the boundaries of rules and laws, whether natural or human. Defer to the police and their amazing investigative powers (witness all those CSI shows). Trust the military and revel in their dedication and their clever technologies. Mister, we could use a show like “All in the Family” again.
On HBO this week, Bill Maher had a compelling segment on the proliferation of superhero shows and movies, including a takedown of Donald Trump as “Orange Sphincter.” The takedown was warranted in the sense that Trump often boasts he is the only man capable of doing something, like reforming health care or solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or bringing back great manufacturing jobs to America (apparently by selling $110 billion in weaponry to the Saudis). Cop shows have been around forever, of course, but they’ve experienced a revival in these times of homegrown terrorism and Homeland Security, even as violent crime itself is mostly on the decline.
Finally, glitzy military shows are hitting their stride this season (no shows critical of the military, even comedies such as MASH, are allowed). As the New York Times recently noted:
One of the most pressing questions for TV executives after President Trump’s election: How would the occupant of the White House affect what showed up on the air? One trend that has emerged is the rise of shows with military themes. NBC is betting big on a drama called “The Brave,” which is getting the coveted 10 p.m. time slot after “The Voice” on Mondays. The show will center on a group of undercover military specialists. The CW will introduce a drama this fall called “Valor,” about a group of highly trained helicopter pilots. They will go on missions and apparently get mixed up in messy intraunit romances. CBS will debut a drama called “SEAL Team.” Executives at the network feel this show has the best chance of being a hit. It stars David Boreanaz, who had leading roles in “Angel” and “Bones.”
Just what we need: More military shows featuring SEALs and helicopter pilots and covert operatives, killing various bad guys in the name of democracy and righteousness.
Popular culture holds a mirror up to society, reflecting how we see ourselves. But it’s more than that: It also shapes how we think. It suggests what is possible and what isn’t. By showcasing superheroes and cops and troops, it drives home the idea that these are the people and constructs with agency in our society. The little people, ordinary Americans like you and me, are demoted in such constructs as bystanders, as supernumeraries. Our main role is to acquiesce, to cheer the “heroes” as they go about their business.
I know that TV and movie executives typically play it safe. They’d say they’re giving the people what they want in the name of making money. They’d say it’s not their job to challenge the powerful in the name of the powerless. The people want superheroes and heroic cops and heroic troops, so that’s what we’ll give them. And because that’s what we can easily sell to corporations as advertising time.
But, again, it’s more complicated than that. The networks themselves are owned by corporations, some of which also own military contractors. Movies about superheroes and the military often lean heavily on the Pentagon for hardware and advice. Again, it’s not that TV and movies are distorted reflections of society (though they are that). They also establish boundaries. To use fancy academic talk, they are hegemonic. They empower one reality while diminishing or denying the possibility of other realities.
Any chance we’ll be seeing lots of blockbuster movies and high-budget TV series about peacemakers, whistle blowers, dissidents, activists, and other crusaders for justice and equity? How about a movie featuring “Disarmament Man” as a hero: he eliminates weapons of mass destruction! Starting in the USA! Or a TV show featuring a bad-ass Mother Nature: she administers stern discipline to corporate polluters and frackers, while teaching her children the perils of global warming. Or a “justice league” of pissed-off Native Americans, who band together to evict all the illegal immigrants to their lands over the last 500 years.
Readers, what movie or TV series would you most like to see? Have some fun in the comments section, and thanks.
As President Trump heads off on an overseas trip, trailing Washington scandals in his wake, it’s worth reminding ourselves of America’s prodigious global presence and the profligate expense at which it comes. As David Vine notes in his latest article for TomDispatch.com, the USA has something like 800 military bases overseas, which must be garrisoned and maintained at a cost of roughly $150 billion each and every year. What exactly are we getting for this colossal global footprint?
Come to think of it, why do we need 800 overseas bases? Our aircraft carriers are basically mobile American bases, and much of our weaponry (Tomahawk cruise missiles, long-range bombers, and Reaper drones, for example) obviates the need for physical bases in foreign lands.
Of course, there are many reasons why these bases persist. One is the influence they give us (or that we think they give us) in places like Turkey and South Korea, for example. Second is the fear American officials have of losing their leading roles on the world stage, i.e. the concern that, if we abandon “our” bases, other countries will take them over, and we will be shunted aside, losing our starring role in world affairs.
Indeed, you could say Americans are the divos and divas of the world stage, elbowing our way into operatic tragedy after operatic tragedy.
Third (always a consideration) is money. There’s so much money to be made from these bases, and so many U.S. contractors involved in making it. And fourth is intelligence. Americans think these bases are essential to gathering intelligence, even as our “intelligence” routinely proves wrong or incomplete.
I spent three years in Britain at U.S. bases there (“Little Americas”), and could have been assigned to U.S. bases in Iceland and Turkey, but the latter never materialized. It’s funny: When you’re in the military, you never give much thought to why we have bases in faraway places. You just take it for granted; it’s the status quo for us.
(As an aside, think of the irony here of Trump’s border wall with Mexico. Even as Americans are everywhere in the world, thrusting our way into foreign countries with our militarized bases, we boast of building walls to keep other peoples out of “Fortress USA.” Only “exceptional” U.S. officials could see no contradiction here.)
Select foreign bases have some value, but the U.S. has far too many at far too high a cost. We’d do well to stop investing in them and to start closing them. American bases in Turkey, South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere are not the key to our security. Our security begins right here at home.
Remember that saying, “Yankee go home”? Why don’t we?
Anyone who’s been in the military knows what happens as the end of a fiscal year approaches: wild spending. Any money that’s left in your budget must be spent, if only to justify next year’s budgetary appropriation. Woe to any unit with leftover money! Not only is there no incentive to economize at the Pentagon: there’s a negative incentive to save money, and a positive one to spend as much as possible within your yearly allotment, while complaining to anyone within earshot that you never have enough.
Trump has already promised to enlarge Pentagon funding by 10% next year, or roughly $54 billion. According to Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, Trump’s budget is all about “hard-power,” a signal to “our allies and our potential adversaries that this is a strong-power administration.” At $54 billion, that is indeed a very expensive signal.
Forget about the global fight against ISIS: The big focus at the Pentagon is now going to be on spending that windfall of taxpayers’ dollars. And, unlike the ISIS fight, which is expected to last for at least another generation, the “fight” to spend lots of money quickly is one that the Pentagon will surely win. Believe me, the military-industrial-Congressional complex knows how to spend.
Want to make the Pentagon a better, more effective, place? Cut its budget by 10%. And keep cutting, year by year, while downsizing its mission. Force it to economize – force it to think.
Let me give you a few examples. How does the stealthy, super-expensive, F-35 jet fighter contribute to the war on terror? It doesn’t. Does the U.S. Navy really need more super-expensive aircraft carriers? No, it doesn’t. Do U.S. nuclear forces really need to be modernized and expanded at a cost of nearly a trillion dollars over the next few decades? No, they don’t. More F-35s, more carriers, and more nukes are not going “to make America great again.” What they will do is consume enormous amounts of money for little real gain.
Throwing cash at the Pentagon is not the way to greater security: it’s a guarantee of frivolous military wish lists and “more of the same, only more” thinking. In case you haven’t noticed, the Pentagon’s record since 9/11/2001 is more than a little mixed; some would say it’s been piss-poor. Why is this? One thing is certain: shortage of money hasn’t been the problem.
Want to send a signal about “hard-power,” President Trump? Go hard on the Pentagon by cutting its budget. Spend the savings on alternative energy development and similar investments in American infrastructure. That’s the best way to put America first.
Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway didn’t invent alternative facts. The U.S. government has been peddling those for decades. Consider the recent history of the Iraq War. Recall that in 2002 it was a “slam dunk” case that Iraq had active programs to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD). (We couldn’t allow the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud, said Condoleezza Rice.) In 2003, President George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and declared that major combat operations were over in Iraq – mission accomplished! And in 2007, the “surge” orchestrated by General David Petraeus was sold as snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in Iraq. All of those are “alternative facts.” All were contradicted by the facts on the ground.
Nowadays, most people admit Iraq had no active WMD programs in 2002 and that the mission wasn’t accomplished in 2003, but the success of the surge in 2007 is still being sold as truth, notes Danny Sjursen at TomDispatch.com. Sjursen, who participated in the surge as a young Army lieutenant, notes that it did succeed in temporarily reducing sectarian violence in Iraq, but that was precisely the problem: it was temporary. The surge was supposed to allow space for a stable and representative Iraqi government to emerge, but that never happened.
A short-term tactical success, the surge was a strategic failure in the long-term. Partly this was because long-term success was never in American hands to achieve, and it certainly wasn’t attainable by U.S. military action alone. In sum, the blood and treasure spilled in Iraq was for naught. But that harsh truth hasn’t stopped the surge from becoming a myth of U.S. military triumph, one that led to another unsuccessful surge, this time in Afghanistan in 2009-10, also conducted by General Petraeus.
These surges sustain an alternative fact that the U.S. military can “win” messy insurgencies and sectarian/ethnic wars, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or Libya or Yemen or elsewhere. They contribute to hubris and the idea we can remake the world by using our military, a belief that President Trump and his bevy of generals (all veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan) seem to share and want to put into practice again. This time, they promise to get it right.
The President and the Pentagon are currently considering sending several thousand more troops to Afghanistan. This mini-surge is being advertised as America’s best chance of defeating terrorists in the AfPak region. Even though previous, and much bigger, surges in Iraq and Afghanistan were failures, the alternative fact narrative of “successful” surges remains compelling, even authoritative, among U.S. national security experts. They may grudgingly admit that, yes, those previous surges weren’t quite perfect, but we’ve learned from those – promise!
Prepare for more troop deployments and more surges, America. And for more “victories” as alternative facts, as in lies.
Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value. Under the Trump administration, what is valued is spending on military weaponry and wars. The Pentagon is due to get a major boost under Trump, as reported by the Associated Press and FP: Foreign Policy:
Money train. It’s looking like it might be Christmas in February for the U.S. defense industry. The Pentagon has delivered a $30 billion wish list to Congress that would fund more ships, planes, helicopters, drones, and missiles, the AP reports.
And that might only be the beginning.
President Trump has already ordered the Pentagon to draft a “supplemental” budget for 2017 that would include billions more for the U.S. military on top of the $600 billion the Obama administration budgeted for…
As FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce recently reported, there are proposals floating around for a defense budget as high as $640 billion for 2018, which would bust through congressionally-mandated spending caps that Democrats — and many Republicans — are happy to keep in place. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has been tasked with completing the supplemental request by March 1.
The Pentagon, which has never passed a financial audit and which has wasted more than two trillion dollars over the years (this figure came in 2001, when Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense under Bush/Cheney), is due to be given even more money to spend, irrespective of past performance or future need.
Naturally, each military service is already posturing and clamoring for the extra money promised by Trump. Consider the U.S. Navy, which, according to Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William Moran, will be “Just Flat Out Out Of Money” without this supplemental funding boost from Congress.
According to the Navy and Marine Corps:
Five attack submarines would see their maintenance availabilities canceled this year and be put at risk of being decertified if no supplemental were passed out of Congress, Moran added, in addition to similar cuts to surface ship maintenance availabilities.
Assistant Commandant Gen. Glenn Walters said “we would stop flying in about July” without a supplemental. He clarified that forward forces would continue to operate, but for units training at home, “all training would cease without a supplemental, and that includes the parts money and the flying hour money.”
Even if the supplemental – which could total between $30 and $40 billion for all the armed services – is passed in a timely manner, the Navy and Marine Corps still face massive readiness issues that money can’t immediately address.
That last part is disturbing indeed. Even with billions in additional funding, the Navy still faces “massive readiness issues.”
Well, here are a few radical suggestions for Trump and the Pentagon:
If money is tight, why not re-prioritize? If readiness is compromised, why not scale back the mission?
Before boosting funding, why not force the Pentagon to pass a financial audit?
If trillions of dollars have gone “missing” over the last decades (remember, a Republican Secretary of Defense made this claim), why not launch missions to find that money before spending billions of new money?
You don’t reform a bureaucracy that wastes money by giving them more money. It’s like reforming an addict on drugs by giving him more money to spend on drugs. Until the Pentagon can account for its spending, its budget needs to be flatlined or cut.
The only way to force the Pentagon to think about “defense” spending is to limit its budget. Throwing money at the Pentagon just ensures more of the same, only more: as in more weaponry, more wars, and more fraud, waste, and abuse.
Given the Pentagon’s track record over the last half-century, does anyone truly think that more money is a solution to anything?
Note to reader: In May of 2008, I wrote this draft article, which became the basis of a shorter piece published at Nieman Watchdog later that year under the title, “Networks should replace Pentagon cheerleaders with independent military analysts.” Media coverage of the U.S. military and America’s wars is often lamentable as well as one-sided; if anything, media coverage as well as access under Obama has worsened. I’ve decided not to edit what I wrote in 2008, partly because the underlying dynamic remains the same. Rare it is for the curtain to be lifted on the messy realities of war; and those who choose to lift it, like Chelsea Manning, pay a high price indeed for honesty.
Obama’s recent decision to commute Manning’s prison sentence was a rare case of mercy, in this case extended to a truth-teller who did far more than the silver-haired generals cited below to educate Americans about war and its awful realities. 1/18/2017
The first thing that came to mind as I read David Barstow’s exposé [April 2008] in the New York Times, “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand,” was the classic scene in Casablanca where Claude Rains expresses his shock to Humphrey Bogart at the gambling going on, even as he collects his own winnings. Surely, Americans knew that the retired generals and colonels being paraded before them on network news were, in spite of their mufti, anything but unbiased, independent, “civilian” critics?
OK, maybe I’m more skeptical than some. But I was genuinely surprised, even shocked, at the brazenness of the Pentagon’s PR campaign, the fact that so many retired military men eagerly joined in “to carry [the Pentagon’s] water,” even at how eagerly they traded on their military expertise. Some even continued to advise top defense contractors as they offered supposedly disinterested testimony on TV. At times, however, their testimony merely echoed talking points fed to them during invitation-only briefings at the Pentagon. These briefings were designed not to support troops in harm’s way (a laudable goal) but to defend [Secretary of Defense] Don Rumsfeld and the Bush Administration’s strategy. (Those few officers who refused to parrot the Pentagon’s line found their access curtailed or even denied, Barstow shows.)
Not surprisingly, the mainstream media has either ignored Barstow’s exposé or effectively dismissed it as old news or business as usual. Fortunately, Glenn Greenwald at Salon has tenaciously pursued the story, revealing ever more clearly how the Pentagon’s propaganda campaign tried “to put the best possible face” (one retired officer’s words) on failing efforts in Iraq.
Clearly, the Pentagon courted these retired military men, identifying reliable “go to guys” and rewarding them with access to the Pentagon and the Secretary of Defense (access being pure gold within the Washington beltway). Such access included the aforementioned, invitation-only, PowerPoint briefings, which included “talking points” that these officers could then robotically repeat on TV, passing them off as their own informed and unbiased opinions. Such collusion indicates a well-oiled, influence-peddling, Pentagonal machine serviced by sycophantic cheerleaders, and it assuredly warrants investigation by Congress.
Seven Reasons to Dismiss the Sycophants
That said, the very idea of relying on retired military men as expert critics was fundamentally flawed from the beginning. The obvious reason why networks relied on these men (and they were all men) as expert commentators was because they lacked their own in-house experts. That, and the fact that they wanted to purchase the authority of these colonels and generals while being seen by viewers at home as patriotic and supportive of the troops.
I’d like to suggest seven reasons why this reliance on retired military “talking heads” was so wrongheaded, some obvious, some perhaps less so:
Despite their civilian coat-and-tie camouflage, these officers are not ex-generals and ex-colonels: they are retired colonels and generals–a distinction with a difference. They still carry their rank; they still wear the uniform at military functions; the rank-and-file still deferentially call them “sir”; their cars still have military stickers with eagles (for full colonels) and stars (for generals); they’re still saluted smartly when they drive on- and off-post. These men enjoy constant reminders and privileges of their high military status, and I’d wager nearly all of them think of themselves as military men first, “civilians” second. In short, these men identify with the U.S. military–indeed, they are the military–hardly a recipe for disinterested or dispassionate analysis of our military’s performance in Iraq, or anywhere else for that matter.
Along with identifying closely with the military, many of these media generals and colonels serve as advisors to defense contractors, who potentially stand to profit from continued fighting. This remarkable state of affairs persists despite the fact that, throughout their career, military officers are taught to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest, precisely because the potential for impropriety taints the integrity of the officer as well as the entire military-contractor process. It’s not enough to say, “I’m a man of integrity and I’d never compromise it for self-interest or personal gain.” You must strive to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest–a maxim that is so drilled into military training that it should be reflexive to these men, like coming to attention and saluting the flag as the National Anthem is played. Yet several of these men apparently saw no conflict in advising defense contractors while marching before the TV cameras to present “critical” and “independent” military analysis.
Within the military, there’s a strong bias against Monday-morning quarterbacks. There’s a natural tendency to defer to the commander-in-the-field, and to allow him or her to get on with the job without being micro-managed or second-guessed. As newly minted “civilian” advisors to the networks, these men don’t want to become what they themselves probably despised while they still wore the uniform–those cold, timid, milquetoast critics who’ll never know the triumphs and tribulations of Teddy Roosevelt’s mythical man in the arena.
Along with a strong bias against second-guessing, many military men see criticism as disloyal and destructive, not loyal and constructive. As a concept, loyalty within the military is simple to define but incredibly complex in its manifestations. Officers swear an oath to the Constitution of the United States, of course, and to that they must remain loyal. But there also exist strong personal and institutional loyalties; sometimes, these loyalties are so strong that they come to obscure the somewhat more abstract, if higher, loyalty to the Constitution. Sadly, some military men put loyalty to their service branch first, even before loyalty to the Constitution. Or they conflate the two: What’s good for the Army is ipso facto good for the country.
This is not to say these military men are somehow “bad”–only that they’re human. To understand this better, let’s look at a typical general’s background. In a very powerful way, this man probably lives for and loves the military. Military service may be in his family tree for generations. Perhaps he followed his father from post to post as a child (a military “brat,” it’s called, with affection). He then attends a service academy like Annapolis or West Point, where he’s told incessantly that he’s the best, and where he also learns that loyalty to one’s peers and service is paramount. As a commissioned officer, he then serves for thirty or more years in uniform, achieving flag rank and all the privileges as well as burdens that come with that rank. After this man retires, would we expect him to become a dynamic and even outspoken critic of an institution that defined his life? An institution that he loves?
It’s unlikely that senior military men will provide trenchant criticism, not only because they identify closely and personally with the military, but because they don’t want to run the risk of possibly undermining troop morale in the field. Related to this is the belief that “negative” and “biased” media criticism led to America’s defeat in Vietnam, the old “stab-in-the-back” myth that I’ve addressed elsewhere, and that Barstow’s exposé proves is still alive and well in today’s military.
Thus the testimony of these military men is not simply self-interested. They genuinely believe their boosterism is helping to redress the balance of otherwise negatively-biased, “liberal,” anti-military media coverage. Lending credence to this reading is a recent article in the Naval Institute’s Proceedings (January 2008). In “Stop Blaming the Press,” journalist David Danelo recalls a comment made by the current Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Conway, back in September 2006. Lauding Marine reporters, Conway barked to rousing applause, “Maybe if we could get the rest of the media to do the job like you folks, we might have a chance of winning the war [in Iraq].”
In defending the evenhandedness of most media coverage, Danelo’s piece drew two strong dissents in the February issue of Proceedings. One Navy officer wrote to complain that Danelo failed “to level criticism at reporters for not doing their part to ensure victory.” Today’s press, this officer implied, neither supported the American soldier nor wanted to see America succeed in the war. Another officer, a retired Marine, wrote that “just one negative story” from an American journalist “bolsters our enemies’ confidence and resolve while equally destroying support from the public at home, thus eroding our servicemen’s and women’s resolve on the battlefield.” Refusing to suffer such journalistic “fools,” whose “stories could not have been more harmful than if al Qaeda had written them,” this officer demanded immediate military censorship of media working in-theater. Those journalists who refused to cooperate “would operate at their own risk and without military protection,” he concluded ominously.
Such opinions remain a commonplace in today’s military, especially among men of a certain age who began their service at the tail end or soon after the end of the Vietnam War. Indeed, evidence strongly suggests Senator John McCain shares this opinion.
Paradoxically, the fact that the war in Iraq has not gone well may be a reason why some of these military men believe we can’t afford criticism, especially if you believe this war can and must be won, as most of them do. Call this the “You can’t handle the truth” argument, combined with the “wars are always messy” argument. These arguments lead military men to suppress their own doubts, fearing that, if they air them fully, they’ll not only fatally wound an already faltering war effort, but that their peers may even see them as having given aid and comfort to the enemy.
The last, and perhaps most powerful, reason why networks should not lean heavily on retired military men as commentators is that it’s extremely difficult for anyone, let alone a diehard military man, to criticize our military because such criticism is taken so personally by so many Americans. When you criticize the military, people don’t necessarily recognize the patriotic subtlety of your exposé of the military-industrial complex. They hear you attacking Johnny and Suzy—the efforts of their son and daughter, or the boy and girl next door, who selflessly joined the military to defend America and make a positive difference in the world. Who really wants to hear that Johnny and Suzy may possibly be fighting (and dying) for a mistake? (Another way of putting this might be, “Why doesn’t that Cindy Sheehan shut up already?”) And, assuming he believed it, what retired military man wants to pass along that message to an audience of millions on TV?
What Is to be Done?
Relying on senior military officers, recently retired, to serve as disinterested critics is a bit like inviting Paul von Hindenburg, ex-Field Marshal of the German Army, to testify in 1919 on why his army lost World War I. You may get some interesting testimony–just don’t expect it to be critical or for that matter even true.
What the mainstream media must do now is act. Specifically, they must develop their own, independent, military experts, ones not beholden to the military-industrial complex, ones who don’t own stock in the defense industry, ones who don’t serve as advisors to defense contractors.
The mainstream media must also be willing to risk the ire of the American people by criticizing the military in stronger terms. The fact that major media outlets have come to rely on military talking heads for “critical” analysis reveals the inherent timidity of today’s media in taking on the Pentagon and the Bush Administration. Media outlets must get over their fear of being perceived as unpatriotic. They must air tough-minded criticism, even if some viewers tune out, turn off, and drop in to “patriotic” outlets like Fox News.
Obviously, it will take time for the media to develop its own, truly independent, military experts. In the meantime, they should consider using junior officers and NCOs, with recent combat experience, who have separated from the service. Why does an “expert” have to be a retired, white-haired colonel or general?
For that matter, why does an “expert” need to have worn an American military uniform? Some of the most creative analysis may come from “civilian” military historians or even from foreign military officers who are not emotionally connected to the U.S. military, and who thus don’t have to worry about having their patriotism questioned each time they hazard a criticism of U.S. strategy or tactics.
Until the mainstream media takes these steps, it will continue to be in thrall to the military, as is Congress itself, which also largely refuses to challenge the military before or during a war, in part because members of Congress fear being accused of defeatism and thus of losing elections.
The truth is that there’s a creeping militarism in our country–an excessive deference to military men, whether retired or still on active duty. Just look at the acclaim awarded to General Petraeus each time he comes to testify before Congress. Indeed, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, is already deferring to Petraeus, stating he would not make any decision regarding diverting troops to Afghanistan to search for Osama bin Laden without first receiving the blessing of the presumptive commanding general of CENTCOM.
If that’s where we’re headed, why don’t we just declare Petraeus to be our Caesar and appoint our “civilian” mainstream media military experts to command his Praetorian Guard? It sure would make matters clearer to the American people.
Will Donald Trump keep his campaign promise to end America’s wasteful wars overseas? Since he’s stated he knows more than America’s generals, will he rein them in? Will he bring major reforms to the military-industrial complex, or will he be nothing but talk and tweets?
At Trump’s first news conference today as president-elect, he had little to say about the military, except once again to complain about the high cost of the F-35 jet fighter program. The questions asked of him dealt mainly with Russia, hacking, potential conflicts of interest, and Obamacare. These are important issues, but how Trump will handle the Pentagon and his responsibilities as commander-in-chief are arguably of even greater import.
Ironically, the last president who had some measure of control over the military-industrial complex was the retired general who coined the term: Dwight D. Eisenhower. Another president – Jimmy Carter – attempted to exercise some control, e.g. he cancelled the B-1 bomber, a pet project of the U.S. Air Force, only to see it revived under Ronald Reagan.
Excepting Carter, U.S. presidents since Ike have issued blank checks to the military, the Pentagon, and its bewildering array of contractors. Whether Democrats (JFK, LBJ, Clinton, Obama) or Republicans (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, the Bushes), rubber-stamping Pentagon priorities has been a common course of presidential action, aided by a willing Congress that supports military spending to “prime the economic pump” and create jobs.
Ike, of course, was hardly perfect, but he had the cred to command the military, to rein it in, perhaps as much as any one man could in the climate of fear generated by McCarthyism and the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s. Hardly a pacifist, Ike nevertheless came to hate war. Can we imagine any president nowadays writing these words?
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Ike’s wisdom stemmed from his experience with the bloody awfulness of war. Recent presidents, by comparison, have been unstinting in their praise of the U.S. military. Ronald Reagan, who had a cozy job in Hollywood during World War II, was a snappy saluter who oversaw a major military expansion. More recently, Barack Obama, with no military experience, went out of his way to praise the U.S. military in hyperbolic terms as the “greatest” in human history.
Recent presidents have idolized the military, perhaps because they either never served in it or never really experienced its foibles and faults, its flaws and failings. Perhaps as well they’ve celebrated the military because they saw it as a popular and easy form of patriotism. But the Pentagon needs a commander-in-chief, not a cheerleader-in-chief. It needs to be challenged, it needs a boot up its collective ass, if it’s ever going to reform its prodigal ways.
Trump has been critical of the military, an encouraging sign. But his appointment of retired generals to key positions of power suggests conformity and business as usual. Trump himself is a military poseur, a man impatient with facts, a man who didn’t know what the nuclear triad was even as he talked of (false) nuclear gaps vis-à-vis Russia.
Even as he talked of wasteful wars and clueless generals, Trump promised to use the U.S. military as a battering ram to smash America’s enemies. He promised as well to rebuild the military, increasing the Pentagon budget while taking the fight to ISIS, words that suggest President Trump won’t often say “no” to the national security state. Ike, however, could and did say “no.” He had the toughness to weather the predictable Pentagon, Congressional, and military/corporate storms. Will Trump?
Again, the last president to lead a novel initiative in national security was Jimmy Carter, with his focus on human rights. Dismissed as naïve and pusillanimous, he became a one-term president. Trump has promised to end wasteful wars, to re-prioritize federal spending to focus on internal “security” measures such as national infrastructure, and to make NATO and other U.S. allies pay their fair share of defense costs.
If he carries through on these promises, he’ll be the first president since Ike to make a measurable and significant course correction to America’s warship of state. But first he needs to be held to account, most certainly at press conferences but elsewhere as well. Endless war is a threat to democracy; so too are politicians who posture but do nothing to rein in militarism, imperialism, and authoritarianism.
If Trump combines the two, if he doubles down on incessant war and a cult of authority, American democracy may suffer a mortal blow.