Ending Wars, Not “Winning” Them, Should Be America’s Goal

 

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Beware the tunnels you choose to go down (Wikimedia)

W.J. Astore

You can’t win wars that should never have been fought.  The U.S. should never have fought the Iraq and Afghan wars, nor should we have fought the Vietnam War.

It’s not that we need to know and master the foreign enemy.  We need to know and master the enemy within.  The domestic enemy.  For the U.S. is defeating only itself in fighting these wars.  Yet “experts” in the military and government focus on how to prosecute war more effectively; rarely do they think seriously about ending or, even better, avoiding wars.

Part of this is cultural.  Americans are obsessed with the idea of winning, defined in terms of dominance, specifically military/physical dominance, taking the fight to the enemy and never backing down.  The best defense is a good offense, as they say in the NFL.  Winning is the only thing, as Vince Lombardi said.  While those maxims may apply to football, they don’t apply to wars that should never have been fought.

Turning from football to tunnels, how about that image made popular during the Vietnam War that “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel”?  Victory, in other words, is in sight and can be reached if we “stay the course” until the tunnel’s end.  Few ask why we’re in the tunnel to begin with.  Why not just avoid the tunnel (of Vietnam, of Iraq, of Afghanistan) and bask in the light of liberty here in the USA?  Indeed, why not brighten liberty’s torch so that others can see and enjoy it?  But instead U.S. military forces are forever plunging into foreign tunnels, groping in the dark for the elusive light of victory, a light that ultimately is illusory.

Another point is that the Pentagon is often not about winning wars without; it’s about winning wars within, specifically budgetary wars.  Here the Pentagon has been amazingly successful, especially in the aftermath of the Cold War, which should have generated a major reduction in U.S. military spending (and overseas military deployments).  The other “war” the Pentagon has won is the struggle for cultural authority/hegemony in the USA.  Here again, the Pentagon has won this war, as represented by presidents from Bush to Obama to Trump boasting of the 4F military (the finest fighting force since forever), and as represented by the fact that the military remains the most trusted governmental institution in America.  Indeed, most Americans don’t even think of “our” military as being part of the federal government.  They think of it as something special, even as they profess to distrust Congress and hate “big government.”  Yet nothing screams “big” like our steroidal federal military, and few entities are more wasteful.

My point is that many military commentators and critics frame the problem wrongly.  It’s not about reforming the U.S. military so that it can win wars.  Americans must reform our culture and our government so that we can avoid wars, even as we end the ones we’re in.  For constant warfare is the enemy of democracy and the scourge of freedom.

A final point about winning that’s rarely acknowledged: America’s wars overseas are not all about us.  Winning (whatever that might mean) should be unconscionable when it comes at the price of hundreds of thousands of dead, millions of refugees, and regions blasted and destabilized.

In sum, ending wars is winning them.

America’s Phony Wars and the National Defense Strategy

Afghan National Army takes charge at Observation Post Mace
U.S. troops and outposts and flags are everywhere, but for whose interests, and at what cost?

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I address America’s real wars overseas and contrast them with the phony war in the so-called Homeland.  What I mean by “phony” is the lack of national mobilization for, and even interest in, these overseas wars.  These wars exist and persist; they are both ever-spreading and never-ending; yet few Americans outside of the military and the Washington beltway crowd have any stake in them.  Except when U.S. troops die or a spectacular bomb is used, the mainstream media rarely covers them.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has defined a new National Defense Strategy (NDS) that has only expanded America’s list of enemies and rivals.  A quick summary:

  1. Conventional conflict against peer enemies, e.g. Russia and China.
  2. Conventional conflict against “rogue” states, e.g. North Korea and Iran.
  3. Unconventional (anti-terror) operations, e.g. Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Niger, etc.

If that’s not enough, the Pentagon also seeks extended nuclear supremacy (at a cost of at least $1.2 trillion over the next few decades) and full-spectrum dominance for space and cyber as well as land, sea, and air.  As U.S. “defense” budgets continue to grow, there’s really no sense of limits, monetary or otherwise.  Rising budgets feed endless war, and vice-versa.  It’s a fail-safe recipe for imperial over-stretch and the decline if not collapse of America.

What follows is an excerpt from my latest article; you can read the entire article here at TomDispatch.com.

America’s New (Phony) National Defense Strategy

Even phony wars need enemies.  In fact, they may need them more (and more of them) than real wars do.  No surprise then that the Trump administration’s recently announced National Defense Strategy (NDS) offers a laundry list of such enemies.  China and Russia top it as “revisionist powers” looking to reverse America’s putative victory over Communism in the Cold War.  “Rogue” powers like North Korea and Iran are singled out as especially dangerous because of their nuclear ambitions.  (The United States, of course, doesn’t have a “rogue” bone in its body, even if it is now devoting at least $1.2 trillion to building a new generation of more usable nuclear weapons.)  Nor does the NDS neglect Washington’s need to hammer away at global terrorists until the end of time or to extend “full-spectrum dominance” not just to the traditional realms of combat (land, sea, and air) but also to space and cyberspace.

Amid such a plethora of enemies, only one thing is missing in America’s new defense strategy, the very thing that’s been missing all these years, that makes twenty-first-century American war so phony: any sense of national mobilization and shared sacrifice (or its opposite, antiwar resistance).  If the United States truly faces all these existential threats to our democracy and our way of life, what are we doing frittering away more than $45 billion annually in a quagmire war in Afghanistan?  What are we doing spending staggering sums on exotic weaponry like the F-35 jet fighter (total projected program cost: $1.45 trillion) when we have far more pressing national needs to deal with?

Like so much else in Washington in these years, the NDS doesn’t represent a strategy for real war, only a call for more of the same raised to a higher power.  That mainly means more money for the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and related “defense” agencies, facilitating more blitz attacks on various enemies overseas.  The formula — serial blitzkrieg abroad, serial sitzkrieg in the homeland — adds up to victory, but only for the military-industrial complex.

Why the Pentagon Gets So Much Money So Easily

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The five-sided puzzle palace on the Potomac is about to be flooded with new money

W.J. Astore

Over at Foreign Policy, there’s a good article on how the Pentagon gets so much money so easily.  Basically, the Pentagon complains about lack of “readiness” for war, and Congress caves.  But as the article’s author, Gordon Adams, notes, most of the boost in spending goes not to training and maintenance and other readiness issues but to expensive new weaponry:

But the big bucks, according to the Pentagon’s own briefing, will go into conventional military equipment. That means more F-35s and F-18s than planned, a new presidential helicopter, Navy surveillance planes and destroyers, Marine helicopters, space launch rockets, tank modifications, another Army multipurpose vehicle, and a joint tactical vehicle the Army, Marines, and Air Force can all use. Basically, the services will soon have shiny new hardware.

With its $160+ billion budgetary boost over the next two years, the U.S. military will soon have many more shiny toys, which pleases Congress (jobs) and of course the military-industrial complex (higher and higher profits).

All of this is par for the Pentagon course, yet there are other, cultural and societal, reasons why the Pentagon is winning all the budgetary battles at home.  Here are seven key reasons:

  1. The heroes narrative. Collectively and individually, U.S. troops have been branded as heroes. And who is churlish and ungenerous enough to underfund America’s heroes?
  2. Military weaponry has been rebranded as being all about our “safety” and “security.” With spillover into the Homeland, and even America’s classrooms (think about how guns for teachers are now being equated with safety for America’s children).
  3. Defense contractors increasingly influence (and even own) the media, ensuring “journalists” like Brian Williams will wax poetically about the inspiring beauty of weapons. Rarely do you hear sustained criticism from the mainstream media about wasteful spending at the Pentagon.
  4. At the same time, the mainstream media relies on “retired” senior military officers for analysis and commentary. Some of these men have links to defense contractors, and all of them are loath to criticize the military.  They are, in a word, conflicted.
  5. Throughout U.S. popular culture, military hardware is portrayed as desirable and “cool.” Think of all the superhero movies featuring jet fighters and other military hardware, or all the jets and helicopters flying over sports stadiums across the USA.  For that matter, think of all the video games that focus on war and weaponry.
  6. Related to (5) is a collective fantasy of power based on violence in war. Most Americans are powerless when it comes to politics and decision-making.  Here is where our “beautiful” weapons can serve as potent symbols for a largely impotent people.
  7. Finally, the ever-present climate of fear: fear of terrorists, immigrants, missiles from North Korea, Russian nukes, and so forth, even as the real killers in the USA (opioid abuse, vehicle accidents, shootings, bad or no healthcare, poor diets, climate-change-driven catastrophes, and of course diseases, some of which are preventable) are downplayed.

Defense spending used to be examined closely, with many programs exposed as wasteful.  This was common in the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the 1970s and early 1980s – remember Senator William Proxmire and his Golden Fleece awards?  Now, it seems there’s no such thing as wasteful spending.  It’s a remarkable change of narrative representing an amazing success story for the military-industrial complex.

It will take more than cutting the Pentagon’s budget to effect change.  America needs to change its mindset, an ethos in which weapons, even wars, are equated with safety and security and potency, and even occasionally with entertainment and fun.

In sum, the Pentagon is doing what it’s always done: issuing demands for more and more money.  It’s up to us (and Congress) to say “no.”

A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money

Imacon Color Scanner
Painting of Everett Dirksen, a thrifty Republican.  Remember those?

W.J. Astore

Though it’s unconfirmed that Congressman Everett M. Dirksen ever uttered perhaps the most famous words attributed to him: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money,” the sentiment surely needs to be updated for America’s profligate military moment.  Replace “billion” with “trillion” and you have the perfect catchphrase for today’s Pentagon.

Consider the following facts:

  1. The F-35 jet fighter is projected to cost $1.45 trillion over the life of the program.
  2. Modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is projected to cost $1.2 trillion, though some estimates suggest $1.7 trillion as the more likely sum.
  3. America’s Afghan War has already cost $1 trillion.  Add to that another $45+ billion to support war ops for this year, and perhaps the same amount of spending each year for the next decade.
  4. A low-ball estimate for America’s Iraq War is $1 trillion, but when one adds in veterans health care and similar long-term issues, the cost rises into the $2-3 trillion range.
  5.  Each year, spending on the Pentagon, Homeland Security, wars, nuclear weapons, the VA, and interest on the national debt associated with previous military spending approaches $1 trillion.

We’re talking about real money, right?

Yet all this spending is scarcely debated within Congress.  Together with the Trump administration, Congress is a rubber stamp for the Pentagon.  Meanwhile, Congress will fight tooth and nail over a few million dollars to support the arts, humanities, and similar “wasteful” programs.  Planned Parenthood is always under attack, despite the paltry sum they receive (roughly half a billion) to provide vital functions for women’s health.  Even the $200 billion promised by Trump to support infrastructure improvements is a trickle of money compared to the gusher of funds dedicated to the Pentagon and all of its exotic WMD.

People laughed at Bernie Sanders when he proposed health care for all and free education in state colleges.  That socialist fool!  America can’t afford that!  Indeed, much better for people to go into debt as they struggle to pay for health care or college.  That’s private enterprise and “freedom” for you.  Own the debt and you can own the world.

No — Bernie Sanders wasn’t crazy.  America could easily afford universal health care and virtually free education at state colleges and universities.  Our elites simply choose not to consider these proposals, let alone fund them.  But more nukes?  More wars?  More jets and subs and tanks?  Right this way, my boy!

All these trillions for weapons and wars — one thing is certain: “freedom,” as they say, sure isn’t free.

Update (2/27/18): At TomDispatch.com, Bill Hartung goes into greater detail on the Pentagon’s massive budget for 2018 and 2019.  As he notes: “The figures contained in the recent budget deal that kept Congress open, as well as in President Trump’s budget proposal for 2019, are a case in point: $700 billion for the Pentagon and related programs in 2018 and $716 billion the following year. Remarkably, such numbers far exceeded even the Pentagon’s own expansive expectations. According to Donald Trump, admittedly not the most reliable source in all cases, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis reportedly said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we got everything we wanted’ — a rare admission from the head of an organization whose only response to virtually any budget proposal is to ask for more.”

The title of Hartung’s article sums it up: The Pentagon Budget as Corporate Welfare for Weapons Makers.

Put succinctly, it’s warfare as welfare — and wealth-care — for the military-industrial complex.

National Defense versus Global (In)Security

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Carrier strike forces, bombers, fighters: As American as apple pie

W.J. Astore

Our government likes to talk about global security, which in their minds is basically synonymous with homeland security.  They argue that the best defense is a good offense, that “leaning forward in the foxhole,” or always being ready to attack, is the best way to keep Americans safe.  Hence the 800 U.S. military bases in foreign countries, the deployment of special operations units to 130+ countries, and the never-ending “war on terror.”

Consider this snippet from today’s FP: Foreign Policy report:

If Congress votes through the massive tax cuts currently on the House floor, it would likely mean future cuts to Pentagon budgets “for training, maintenance, force structure, flight missions, procurement and other key programs.”

That’s according to former defense secretaries Leon E. Panetta, Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter, who sent a letter to congressional leadership Wednesday opposing the plan. “The result is the growing danger of a ‘hollowed out’ military force that lacks the ability to sustain the intensive deployment requirements of our global defense mission,” the secretaries wrote.

“Our global defense mission”: this vision that the U.S., in order to be secure, must dominate the world ensures profligate “defense” spending, to the tune of nearly $700 billion for 2018.  Indeed, the Congress and the President are currently competing to see which branch of government can throw more money at the Pentagon, all in the name of “security,” naturally.

Here’s a quick summary of the new “defense” bill and what it authorizes (from the Washington Post):

The bill as it stands increases financial support for missile defense, larger troop salaries and modernizing, expanding and improving the military’s fleet of ships and warplanes. The legislation dedicates billions more than Trump’s request for key pieces of military equipment, such as Joint Strike Fighters — there are 20 more in the bill than in the president’s request — and increasing the size of the armed forces. The bill also outlines an increase of almost 20,000 service members — nearly twice Trump’s request.

In the House of Representatives, the bill passed by a vote of 356-70.  At least Congress can agree on something — more and more money for the Pentagon.  (The $700 billion price tag includes $65.7 billion “for combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, various places in Africa, and elsewhere,” notes FP: Foreign Policy.)

Besides all this wasteful spending (the Pentagon has yet to pass an audit!), the vision itself is deeply flawed.  If you want to defend America, defend it.  Strengthen the National Guard.  Increase security at the border (including cyber security).  Spend money on the Coast Guard.  And, more than anything, start closing military bases overseas.  End U.S. participation in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and throughout the greater Middle East and Africa.  Bring ground troops home.  And end air and drone attacks (this would also end the Air Force’s “crisis” of being short nearly 2000 pilots).

This is not a plea for isolationism.  It’s a quest for sanity.  America is not made safer by spreading military forces around the globe while bombing every “terrorist” in sight.  Quite the reverse.

Until we change our vision of what national defense really means–and what it requires–America will be less safe, less secure, and less democratic.

Business as Usual at the Pentagon

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It keeps spinning and spinning …

W.J. Astore

The revolving door between major defense contractors and the Pentagon is spinning ever more rapidly, notes FP: Foreign Policy.  Here’s a telling report from last week:

McCain says enough, but does he mean it? During a hearing Thursday to vet several Trump administration nominees for top Pentagon jobs, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was tired of seeing defense industry executives go to work in the Pentagon.

But he indicated he’ll support the Mark Esper, chief lobbyist for for Raytheon — the fourth largest defense contractor in the United States — for secretary of the Army, telling Esper his concerns “grew out of early consultations I had with the administration about potential nominations, including yours.” McCain added that “it was then that I decided I couldn’t support further nominees with that background, beyond those we had already discussed.”

Lots of defense industry execs already at work. But at least one more will soon pass through McCain’s Senate Armed Services Committee, however. At some point in the coming weeks, John C. Rood, senior vice president for Lockheed Martin International will testify for the under secretary of defense for policy job, the third highest position in the Defense Department.

The Senate has already approved former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan to be deputy defense secretary — the second highest position in the Pentagon — and Ellen Lord, the former chief executive officer of Textron Systems, to be undersecretary of defense for acquisition.

In short, there are no fresh thinkers at the Pentagon: just men and women drawn mainly from the corporate world or from the ranks of military retirees (or both).  They’re hired because they know the system — but also because they believe in it.  They’re not going to rock the boat.  They believe in “staying the course.”

The result is a system with no new ideas.  Consider Afghanistan.  Sixteen years after the initial invasion after 9/11, American forces are still bogged down there.  As FP: Foreign Policy reports today, we finally have an official number for the latest mini-surge orchestrated by retired Generals John Kelly and James Mattis:

We have a surge number. After months of tapdancing around exactly how many more U.S. troops are are heading to Afghanistan, Monday’s request asks for $1.2 billion to support an additional 3,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Somehow, a few thousand extra U.S. troops are supposed to reverse the growth of the Taliban while improving Afghan security forces and reining in Afghan governmental corruption.  In short, sixteen years’ experience has meant nothing to U.S. decision makers.

It puts me to mind of a great description of military thinking from C.S. Forester’s “The General,” a remarkable novel about British generalship in World War I (and one of General John Kelly’s favorite books).  Here’s what Forester had to say about the persistence of military folly among the generals planning major offensives in that war:

“In some ways it was like the debate of a group of savages as to how to extract a screw from a piece of wood. Accustomed only to nails, they had made one effort to pull out the screw by main force, and now that it had failed they were devising methods of applying more force still, of obtaining more efficient pincers, of using levers and fulcrums so that more men could bring their strength to bear. They could hardly be blamed for not guessing that by rotating the screw it would come out after the exertion of far less effort; it would be a notion so different from anything they had ever encountered that they would laugh at the man who suggested it.”

Forester goes on to write that:

“The Generals round the table were not men who were easily discouraged–men of that sort did not last long in command in France. Now that the first shock of disappointment had been faced they were prepared to make a fresh effort, and to go on making those efforts as long as their strength lasted.”

That’s the U.S. military in Afghanistan in a nutshell: fresh efforts, but no fresh thinking.  How could it not be so?  The same generals are in charge, men like Mattis and Kelly, who led previous “surges,” backed by civilian leaders drawn from private military contractors, whose main priority it is to spend this year’s massive defense budget while ensuring next year’s budget will be even more massive.

There’s no incentive in the system for fresh thinking, and certainly none for saving money.  Instead, it’s all about showing “resolve,” even if resolve in this case means hammering and pulling away at so many screws.  And this even makes a weird sort of sense, for there’s a lot of profit to be made in the name of  developing better pincers and levers and fulcrums to tackle “screws” like Afghanistan.

With the Pentagon, Trump Has Morphed Into Hillary Clinton

trump-clinton
More alike than we knew?

W.J. Astore

Candidate Trump occasionally said unconventional things about the Pentagon and America’s wars.  He attacked the Pentagon for wasteful spending; cost overruns on the F-35 jet fighter were a favorite target.  He attacked the Iraq and Afghan wars as wasteful, asserting they’d cost trillions of dollars without aiding the U.S. in any measurable way.  He argued for friendlier relations with Russia, a détente of sort compared to the policies followed by the Obama administration.  Naturally, even as he declaimed against America’s wasteful wars and costly weaponry, he promised to fund the military generously.  Finally, he wasn’t afraid to take America’s generals to task, asserting he knew more than they did about war and foreign policy.

President Trump is a different man.  “His” generals have brought him under control.  Criticism of the F-35 has gone away.  Trump, even if reluctantly, has embraced the Afghan war and the Pentagon’s open-ended commitment to it.  Russian détente has taken a back seat to tough talk and sanctions (not that Trump had much of a choice, considering his campaign is under investigation for possible collusion with Russia).  More than anything, Trump has tacitly admitted “his” generals know far more than he does.  Mattis controls the Pentagon and the National Security State.  Kelly, as White House Chief of Staff, does his best to control Trump.  McMaster, as National Security Adviser, increasingly controls what Trump knows and when he knows it with respect to security policy.

In short, the generals have won.  Consider the fates of Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and John Bolton.  Bannon was eased out; Gorka was fired; and Bolton, according to today’s FP: Foreign Policy report, “has been shut out of the White House under the new leadership of chief of staff John Kelly. FP’s Dan De Luce writes that several sources confirm Bolton’s regular meetings with Trump are a thing of the past, and he has been unable to deliver a plan he devised to get Washington out of the deal it signed with Tehran to halt that country’s nuclear program.”

I’m no fan of Bannon-Gorka-Bolton, but they did represent a challenge to the U.S. military and the neo-con orthodoxy that rules Washington.

Trump is now firmly under the U.S. military’s control, even as he continues to feed the beast with more money and influence.  His only way out is to starve the beast — to cut its funding by cutting its mission.  Fat chance of that happening anytime soon, with generals like Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster in charge.

Most in the mainstream media see this in a positive light.  We read about how Trump’s generals are the adults in the room, a moderating influence on Trump’s ill-informed impetuosity.  There may even be some truth to this.  But here’s the rub: President Trump, at least on national security policy, has ironically morphed into Hillary Clinton.  He’s become a conventional hawk with no new ideas, when as a candidate he had the temerity to criticize America’s wasteful weaponry and disastrous imperial policies.

As Trump himself might tweet, “Sad.”