The Nasty Voices in Our Heads

There’s way too much fear mongering in America, which helps to drive the paranoid nature of U.S. foreign and domestic policy. This is the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch.com, which I’ve included below in its entirety. If you don’t read TomDispatch, I urge you to subscribe (top right corner on the home page). Tom Engelhardt has been running the site for 20 years (I’ve been writing for it for 15 of them), and I’ve found the content to be stimulating and thought-provoking. Many thanks for your continued interest in “Bracing Views” as well, which, I joke to Tom, is a little like a baby TomDispatch.

Dystopia, Not Democracy

I have a brother with chronic schizophrenia. He had his first severe catatonic episode when he was 16 years old and I was 10. Later, he suffered from auditory hallucinations and heard voices saying nasty things to him. I remember my father reassuring him that the voices weren’t real and asking him whether he could ignore them. Sadly, it’s not that simple.

That conversation between my father and brother has been on my mind, as I’ve been experiencing America’s increasingly divided, almost schizoid, version of social discourse. It’s as if this country were suffering from some set of collective auditory hallucinations whose lead feature was nastiness.

Take cover! We’re being threatened by a revived red(dish) menace from a “rogue” Russia! A “Yellow peril” from China! Iran with a nuke! And then there are the alleged threats at home. “Groomers”! MAGA kooks! And on and on.

Of course, America continues to face actual threats to its security and domestic tranquility. Here at home that would include regular mass shootings; controversial decisions by an openly partisan Supreme Court; the Capitol riot that the House January 6th select committee has repeatedly reminded us about; and growing uncertainty when it comes to what, if anything, still unifies these once United States. All this has Americans increasingly vexed and stressed.

Meanwhile, internationally, wars and rumors of war continue to be a constant plague, made worse by the exaggeration of threats to national security. History teaches us that such threats have sometimes not just been inflated but created ex nihilo. Those would, for instance, include the non-existent Gulf of Tonkin attack cited as the justification for a major military escalation of the war in Vietnam in 1965 or those non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq used to justify the 2003 U.S. invasion of that country.

All this and more is combining to create a paranoid and increasingly violent country, an America deeply fearful and perpetually thinking about warring on other peoples as well as on itself.

My brother’s doctors treated him as best they could with various drugs and electroshock therapy. Crude as that treatment regimen was then (and remains today), it did help him cope. But what if his doctors, instead of trying to reduce his symptoms, had conspired to amplify them? Indeed, what if they had told him that he should listen to those voices and so aggravate his fears? What if they had advised him that sanity meant arming himself against those very voices? Wouldn’t we, then or now, have said that they were guilty of the worst form of medical malpractice?

And isn’t that, by analogy, true of America’s leaders in these years, as they’ve driven this society to be ever less trusting and more fearful in the name of protecting and advancing their wealth, power, and security?

Fear Is the Mind-Killer

If you’re plugged into the mental matrix that’s America in 2022, you’re constantly exposed to fear. Fear, as Frank Herbert wrote in Dune, is the mind-killer. The voices around us encourage it. Fear your MAGA-hat-wearing neighbor with his steroidal truck and his sizeable collection of guns as he supposedly plots a coup against America. Alternately, fear your “libtard” neighbor with her rainbow peace flag as she allegedly plots to confiscate your guns and brainwash your kids. Small wonder that more than 37 million Americans take antidepressants, roughly one in nine of us, or that, in 2016, this country accounted for 80% of the global market for opioid prescriptions.

A climate of fear has led to 43 million new guns being purchased by Americans in 2020 and 2021 in a land singularly awash in more than 400 million firearms, including more than 20 million assault rifles. A climate of fear has led to police forces being heavily militarized and fully funded rather than “defunded” (which actually would mean a bit less money going to the police and a bit more to non-violent options like counseling and mental-health services). A climate of fear has led Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives who can agree on little else to vote almost unanimously to fork over $840 billion to the Pentagon in Fiscal Year 2023 for yet more wars and murderous weaponry. (Of course, the true budget for what is still coyly called “national defense” will soar well above a trillion dollars then, as it often has since 9/11/2001 and the announcement of a “global war on terror.”)

The idea that enemies are everywhere is, of course, useful if you’re seeking to create a heavily armed and militarized form of insanity.

It’s summer and these days it just couldn’t be hotter, so perhaps you’ll allow me to riff briefly about a scene I’ve never forgotten from The Big Red One, a war film I saw in 1980. It involved a World War II firefight between American and German troops in a Belgian insane asylum during which one of the mental patients picks up a submachine gun and starts blasting away, shouting, “I am one of you. I am sane!” In 2022, sign him up and give him a battlefield commission.

Where fear is omnipresent and violence becomes routinized and normalized, what you end up with is dystopia, not democracy.

We Must Not Be Friends but Enemies

At this point, consider us to be in a distinctly upside-down world. Reverse Abraham Lincoln’s moving plea to Southern secessionists in his first inaugural address in 1861 — “We must not be enemies but friends. We must not be enemies” — and you’ve summed up all too well our domestic and foreign policy today. No, we’re neither in a civil war nor a world war yet, but America’s national (in)security state does continue to insist that virtually every rival to our imperial being must be transformed into an enemy, whether it’s Russia, China, or much of the Middle East. Enemies are everywhere and must be feared, or so we’re repetitiously told anyway.

I remember well the time in 1991-1992 when the Soviet Union collapsed and America emerged as the sole victorious superpower of the Cold War. I was a captain then, teaching history at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Those were also the years when, even without the Soviet Union, the militarization of this society somehow never seemed to end. Not long after, in launching a conflict against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, this country officially kicked ass in the Middle East and President George H.W. Bush assured Americans that, by going to war again, we had also kicked our “Vietnam Syndrome” once and for all. Little did we guess then that two deeply destructive and wasteful quagmire wars, entirely unnecessary for our national defense, awaited us in Afghanistan and Iraq in the century to come.

Never has a country squandered victory — and a genuinely global victory at that! — so completely as ours has over the last 30 years. And yet there are few in power who consider altering the fearful course we’re still on.

A significant culprit here is the military-industrial-congressional complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans about in his farewell address in 1961. But there’s more to it than that. The United States has, it seems, always reveled in violence, possibly as an antidote to being consumed by fear. Yet the intensity of both violence and fear seems to be soaring. Yes, our leaders clearly exaggerated the Soviet threat during the Cold War, but at least there was indeed a threat. Vladimir Putin’s Russia isn’t close to being in the same league, yet they’ve treated his war with Ukraine as if it were an attack on California or Texas. (That and the Pentagon budget may be the only things the two parties can mostly agree on.)

Recall that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was in horrible shape, a toothless, clawless bear, suffering in its cage. Instead of trying to help, our leaders decided to mistreat it further. To shrink its cage by expanding NATO. To torment it through various forms of economic exploitation and financial appropriation. “Russia Is Finished” declared the cover article of the Atlantic Monthly in May 2001, and no one in America seemed faintly concerned. Mercy and compassion were in short supply as all seemed right with the “sole superpower” of Planet Earth.

Now the Russian Bear is back — more menacing than ever, we’re told. Marked as “finished” two decades ago, that country is supposedly on the march again, not just in its invasion of Ukraine but in President Vladimir Putin’s alleged quest for a new Russian empire. Instead of Peter the Great, we now have Putin the Great glowering at Europe — unless, that is, America stands firm and fights bravely to the last Ukrainian.

Add to that ever-fiercer warnings about a resurgent China that echo the racist “Yellow Peril” tropes of more than a century ago. Why, for example, must President Joe Biden speak of China as a competitor and threat rather than as a trade partner and potential ally? Even anti-communist zealot Richard Nixon went to China during his presidency and made nice with Chairman Mao, if only to complicate matters for the Soviet Union.

If imperial America were willing to share the world on roughly equal terms, Russia and China could be “near-peer” friends instead of, in the Pentagon phrase of the moment, “near-peer adversaries.” Perhaps they could even be allies of a kind, rather than rivals always on the cusp of what might potentially become a world-ending war. But the voices that seek access to our heads prefer to whisper sneakily of enemies rather than calmly of potential allies in creating a better planet.

And yet, guess what, whether anyone in Washington admits it or not: we’re already rather friendly with (as well as heavily dependent on) China. Here are just two recent examples from my own mundane life. I ordered a fan — it’s hot as I type these words in my decidedly unairconditioned office — from AAFES, a department store of sorts that serves members of the military, in service or retired, and their families. It came a few days later at an affordable price. As I put it together, I saw the label: “Made in China.” Thank you for the cooling breeze, Xi Jinping!

Then I decided to order a Henley shirt from Jockey, a name with a thoroughly American pedigree. You guessed it! That shirt was plainly marked “Made in China.” (Jockey, to its credit, does have a “Made in America” collection and I got two white cotton t-shirts from it.) You get my point: the American consumer would be lost without China, the present workhouse for the world.

You’d think a war, or even a new Cold War, with America’s number-one provider of stuff of every sort would be dumb, but no one is going to lose any bets by underestimating how dumb Americans can be. Otherwise, how can you explain Donald Trump? And not just his presidency either. What about his “Trump steaks,” “Trump university,” even “Trump vodka”? After all, who could be relied upon to know more about the quality of vodka than a man who refuses to drink it? 

Learning from Charlie Brown

Returning to fears and psychiatric help, one of my favorite scenes is from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” In that classic 1965 cartoon holiday special, Lucy ostensibly tries to help Charlie with his seasonal depression by labeling what ails him. The wannabe shrink goes through a short list of phobias until she lands on “pantophobia,” which she defines as “the fear of everything.” Charlie Brown shouts, “That’s it!”

Deep down, he knows perfectly well that he isn’t afraid of everything. What he doesn’t know, however, and what that cartoon is eager to show us, is how he can snap out of his mental funk. All that he needs is a little love, a little hands-on kindness from the other children.

America writ large today is, to my mind, a little like Charlie Brown — down in the dumps, bedraggled, having lost a clear sense of what life in our country should be all about. We need to come together and share a measure of compassion and love. Except our Lucys aren’t trying to lend a hand at the “psychiatric help” stand. They’re trying to persuade us that pantophobia, the fear of everything, is normal, even laudable. Their voices keep telling us to fear — and fear some more.

It’s not easy, America, to tune those voices out. My brother could tell you that. At times, he needed an asylum to escape them. What he needed most, though, was love or at least some good will and understanding from his fellow humans. What he didn’t need was more fear and neither do we. We — most of us anyway — still believe ourselves to be the “sane” ones. So why do we continue to tolerate leaders, institutions, and whole political parties intent on eroding our sanity and exploiting our fears in service of their own power and perks?

Remember that mental patient in The Big Red One, who picks up a gun and starts blasting people while crying that he’s “sane”? We’ll know we’re on the path to sanity when we finally master our fear, put down our guns, and stop eternally preparing to blast people at home and abroad.

Copyright 2022 William J. Astore

The Keyboard Commandos

W.J. Astore

As war in Ukraine drags on, the possibility for dangerous escalation increases. The goal should be the quickest possible ceasefire and a diplomatic solution that puts an end to hostilities. Or, to cite Vera Brittain in “Testament of Youth” again: “No to killing. No to war.”

An obstacle to this are all the keyboard commandos in the West who are recklessly calling for dangerous escalations against Russia. These include a “no-fly” zone above the city of Kyiv enforced in part by the U.S. Air Force, and direct attacks by European air forces against Russian armored columns on their way to Kyiv. Such calls for military action are indeed reckless since Vladimir Putin has issued a none-too-veiled threat of a nuclear response to them. Is he bluffing? I for one do not want to find out.

The West is already providing advanced weaponry to Ukraine such as Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and Javelin anti-tank missiles. EU countries even talked of sending fighter aircraft to Ukraine, but that deal seems to be falling apart. Such weaponry may increase the costs of war to Russia, but weapons alone are not likely to prove decisive in any way.

For all those keyboard commandos out there, safely tweeting about attacks on Russian forces in the cause of “helping” Ukraine, I have a challenge for you. Come out from behind your keyboards, book a flight to Ukraine, grab a Kalashnikov or perhaps even a Stinger, and show how determined you really are to defend Ukraine. Barring that, and assuming you’re of military age and that you’re American, why not take this opportunity to enlist in the U.S. military, as NFL star Pat Tillman famously did in the aftermath of 9/11. Show us how tough you really are; show us how much you truly care.

Because, if you’re not willing to put up, it really is better (and also much more honest) if you shut up.

Testament of Youth

W.J. Astore

Perhaps the most powerful antiwar film that I’ve seen is “Testament of Youth” (2014), based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of the same title. I watched it soon after it first came out, and I rewatched it this past week after Russia invaded Ukraine. The film rips your heart out with its depiction of the costs of war: battered and bloodied bodies, blasted and shattered nature. It’s set during World War I and recounts Brittain’s heartrending loss of her fiancé, her brother, and other close friends. Brittain is played brilliantly by Alicia Vikander, who pours her heart and soul into every scene.

Especially powerful is the scene near the end, where Brittain passionately denounces war and the way it demonizes and dehumanizes the enemy, even as “patriots” (including her younger self) send young men off to fight and die in the name of honor. Even if you haven’t seen all that leads up to this scene, it retains its power (you may need to click and watch on YouTube):

“No to killing. No to war.”

Near the end of Brittain’s memoir, she passionately asks us to find another way, a better way, than the murderous one of war. She seeks to “rescue mankind from that domination by the irrational which leads to war,” to lead an “exultant fight” against war that would enlarge the soul of humanity.

Earlier in her memoir, she quoted from the war diary she kept that “It is impossible to find any satisfaction in the thought of 25,000 slaughtered Germans, left to mutilation and decay; the destruction of men as though beasts, whether they be English, French, German or anything else, seems a crime to the whole march of civilization.” How right she was, and remains.

One aspect of this film I truly appreciate is that it shows the costs of war without glorifying battle. In fact, there are no spectacular battle scenes; no rousing music; nothing to distract us from war’s many horrors. The movie does not romanticize war in any way, which makes it that much more effective.

I’m astonished this movie isn’t better known. It is worth 100 “Avatars” and “Titanics” and Marvel/DC superhero movies. Then again, I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked; antiwar films are rarely that popular, no matter how powerful, no matter how well-crafted, no matter how true.

If you haven’t seen it, watch it. Think about its message. We need to ask ourselves, again and again, why we as humans simply can’t say no to war.

Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain in “Testament of Youth”

Condemning War

W.J. Astore

And so the dogs of war are off and running again, this time unleashed by Putin’s Russia against Ukraine. What is Putin up to? Is it a punitive raid against Ukraine, or a general invasion followed by an occupation, or something in between? Time will tell, but wars are unpredictable. Just look at America’s wars. Vietnam was supposed to be over with quickly after the U.S. committed large numbers of troops there in 1965. Afghanistan started as a punitive raid in 2001, then morphed into a wider invasion and occupation that persisted for two decades. Iraq was supposed to be over and done with in a few weeks in 2003, but that general invasion also morphed into an occupation that persisted for nearly a decade.

At their best, wars are controlled chaos, and that contradiction in terms is intended. My best guess is that Putin sees this as an extended punitive raid to send a message to Ukraine and to NATO that Russia won’t tolerate NATO expansion into Ukraine. Put bluntly, NATO, led by the USA, got into Putin’s grill on Ukraine, and Putin calculated that drawing his saber was a better choice than simply rattling it. Whether he who lives by the sword will die by it remains to be seen.

In the meantime, I took a quick look at how the mainstream media is covering the Russian invasion. I noted that NBC spoke of Russia’s “terrifying might,” while CBS spoke of “dozens reported dead” in Ukraine. CNN simply said that “Russia invades Ukraine” and that “Ukraine vows defiance.” I have nothing against these headlines, but I wonder if the same coverage would apply to the U.S. military. Would NBC speak of the “terrifying might” of U.S. military attacks? Would our mainstream media mouthpieces report on the deaths of foreigners from those attacks? Did we see terse headlines that read, simply, “U.S. invades Iraq” or “U.S. invades Afghanistan” or “U.S. invades Vietnam”? I can’t remember seeing them, since we like to think of the U.S. military as “liberating” or “assisting” other countries, or, even better, bringing democracy to them with our “freedom” bombs and “liberty” missiles.

U.S. leaders like Antony Blinken and Nancy Pelosi have shown their toughness. Blinken said Putin will “pay for a long, long time” for his actions, and Pelosi said the Russian invasion is an “attack on democracy.” Did Ukraine truly have a functional democracy? For that matter, does the United States have one?

I’m with Ike: I hate war with a passion. Most often it’s the innocent and the most vulnerable who end up dead. Whatever Putin is up to, it’s wrong and he should be condemned. But while condemning Putin for his invasion, we shouldn’t forget America’s wars. Indeed, in condemning Putin for his invasion, it offers us a fresh chance to condemn war in general — even, or especially, America’s own versions.

When In Doubt, Send Troops

W.J. Astore

On that proverbial table in Washington D.C. where all options are allegedly kept, the one option that’s always used is military escalation. First, the U.S. sent more weaponry to Ukraine. Now, America’s commander-in-chief is sending more troops, according to this news update today from the Boston Globe:

President Biden is sending about 2,000 troops from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Poland and Germany this week and sending part of an infantry Stryker squadron of roughly 1,000 troops based in Germany to Romania, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

The military moves come amid stalled talks with Russia over its military buildup at Ukraine’s borders. And they underscore growing fears across Europe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is poised to invade Ukraine — and smaller NATO countries on the eastern flank worry they could be next.

Has Russia given any sign of invading “smaller NATO countries on the eastern flank”? No matter. The solution is obviously to send small contingents of U.S. troops as a sign of resolve. A couple thousand troops split between Poland and Romania will show Vladimir Putin that America means business. (War business, that is.)

Such small troop contingents have negligible military value, so their real significance is in domestic politics. Biden, a typical Democratic president, is forever on guard against accusations of “weakness” vis-a-vis Russia or China or Iran or you-name-it. To minimize such accusations, while keeping the military-industrial complex happy, the go-to option on the table is to send in the weapons and the troops. Who cares about the risk of military escalation and a wider war between major nuclear powers?

One could imagine a different president, a savvier one, winning major international points by offering to defuse tensions between Ukraine and Russia through negotiation. But that option, farfetched as it would be, is never on that table of options kept in Washington. And why Russia would trust the U.S. is beyond me.

Kyiv (Kiev) in Ukraine is roughly 5500 miles from me by airplane. That’s a very long way indeed from what I consider to be my “eastern flank.” Maybe America should practice a new foreign policy in which we learn to mind our own business, or, if you prefer, stay in our own backyard?

A Ukrainian soldier. One imagines he’s hoping for a peaceful solution. But this is not what I think of as America’s (or NATO’s) eastern flank

Russia, Ukraine, and the USA

W.J. Astore

The situation along the border of Russia and Ukraine is volatile. War is possible. Given this volatility and the possibility of war, does it make any sense to send more weaponry to Ukraine?

From this CNN report, that is exactly what the USA is doing: sending more arms and ammunition to Ukraine:

“The second bird in Kyiv! More than 80 tons of weapons to strengthen Ukraine’s defense capabilities from our friends in the USA! And this is not the end,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in a tweet Sunday. The first shipment of security assistance from the US had arrived in Ukraine on Friday. That shipment included “close to 200,000 pounds of lethal aid, including ammunition for the front line defenders of Ukraine,” the US Embassy in Kyiv tweeted Friday night. The shipments come as the US has sought to convince Moscow to de-escalate the situation at the Ukrainian border, where Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops. Earlier Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken amplified his warning against a Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying “a single additional Russian force” entering Ukraine “in an aggressive way” would result in a severe response by the US and its allies. “If a single additional Russian force goes into Ukraine in an aggressive way, as I said, that would trigger a swift, a severe and a united response from us and from Europe,” Blinken told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”

Let me get this straight: weapons and ammo are “security assistance,” or “lethal aid,” a construction that should win a prize for best oxymoron of the year. Hi! I’m here to help you. How about some “lethal” aid? Meanwhile, even as the US escalates the situation with “lethal aid” and threats, the US State Department insists it’s the Russians who need to “de-escalate the situation.” No contradiction here, right?

Consider here the words of Antony Blinken, he of the “swift” and “severe” and “united” response if only a “single” Russian force should enter Ukraine “in an aggressive way.” This naked bombast directly contradicts President Joe Biden’s words at last week’s press conference. Biden, who occasionally has “senior moments” of inadvertent truth, explained that NATO wasn’t united and that a minor incursion by Russian forces probably wouldn’t trigger a swift and severe response. It’s reassuring to know we have such skilled and consistent leaders as Biden and Blinken in charge here.

US meddling in Ukraine is complex, but let’s just say America’s leaders are part of the problem, not the solution. As usual, the US response to almost any situation is to send troops and weapons while telling the other side to “de-escalate.”

Worst of all, though, from an American perspective, is the lack of skilled and smart leadership in the White House. Biden appears confused and his vice president is hapless. Blinken is a neo-con tool who won’t be confused with Bismarck, let alone Henry Kissinger. He thinks American diplomacy is most effective when it’s backed by brazen military threats. No speaking softly with a big stick held prudently in reserve; Blinken prefers to shout loudly while openly brandishing the big stick of the US military.

It doesn’t bode well, does it?

Kamala Harris and Joe Biden with Antony Blinken on the far right. Not exactly the A-Team.

Stop the MADness

W.J. Astore

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

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

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

Stop the MADness. Seriously.

Only Fools Replay Doomsday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please read the rest of my article here.

Fox News and The New York Times Agree: America is Weak!

W.J. Astore

Did you know that the world’s lone surviving military superpower, the one that spends more than a trillion dollars yearly on all things military, is weak?

Fox News would have you think that. And so too would the New York Times (NYT).

Over at Fox News, the headline suggests Biden’s weakness is inviting “the next Pearl Harbor,” even as the article focuses mainly on alleged weakness vis-a-vis Russia-Ukraine and China-Taiwan. Meanwhile, my daily summary from the NYT agrees that “U.S. weakness emboldens Moscow and Beijing.” So what does the NYT suggest America should do to show strength?

With respect to Russia and Ukraine, this is the sage advice of the New York Times:

On its own, Ukraine’s military seems outmatched by Russia’s. And a full-scale U.S. military response seems doubtful, given a weariness of foreign wars that Biden and many American voters share.
But Biden still has options. The U.S. can increase its military support to Ukraine, which could make a potential invasion look bloodier and more costly for Russia. (The U.S. is pursuing a related strategy in Taiwan.)
Biden can also threaten sanctions on Russia, as he did on the call with Putin yesterday, according to Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser. “He told President Putin directly that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States and our European allies would respond with strong economic measures,” Sullivan told reporters. If Russia does attack Ukraine, Biden said that the U.S. would react more strongly than it did to the 2014 takeover of the Crimean Peninsula.
But sanctions might not be enough to deter Putin.

In sum, here’s the tough-minded advice of the “liberal” New York Times: Sell more expensive weaponry to Ukraine (as well as Taiwan). Threaten the most violent economic warfare possible. And, since sanctions “might not be enough” to deter Russia or China, there’s more than a hint that America may need to go to war, despite “weariness” of wars allegedly shared by Biden and “many American voters.”

A show of hands here: How many Americans think it’s wise to risk nuclear war if Russia attacks Ukraine or China attacks Taiwan?

Even if the risk of nuclear war is discounted (which it shouldn’t be), how many Americans think it’s wise for the U.S. military to get involved in a land war in Asia or against Russia in Ukraine?

Maybe patient diplomacy is the answer here? After all, what does the “defense” of Ukraine or Taiwan by U.S. forces have to do with defending our country and our constitution?

America doesn’t lack toughness — it lacks smarts. Selling more weapons to Ukraine or Taiwan isn’t the answer. Nor are constant threats.

Sun Tzu taught that the best way to win is when you can achieve your objectives without even having to fight. Guile is not weakness, nor is restraint. But Fox News, joined by the New York Times, would have us think that toughness is mostly about weaponry and a willingness to wage war. Because, you know, it’s worked so well for America in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so many other places around the globe.

Ending America’s Wars

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, I went on Keeping Democracy Alive with Burt Cohen to discuss ways of ending America’s wars. Click on the link below for the podcast.

Can it Happen Now: Real National Security, an End to Endless Wars?

We discussed the Biden administration and its approach to foreign policy, the Afghan War, the legacy of the Vietnam War, the military-industrial-congressional complex, and similar subjects. That rare word, “peace,” and that rare politician, George McGovern, truly a man of vision and guts, also get a mention.

Ending war is all about getting the profit out of war. General Smedley Butler knew this — yet America’s generals today love their massive “defense” budgets, this year soaring to $740.5 billion.

Another point: Look at the ongoing crisis in Texas with its frozen and failing power grid, lack of potable water, and so on. Why is America building more nuclear weapons when it needs to be upgrading its power grids and related infrastructure?

I know: stop making sense!

Nothing will fundamentally change?

Monday Musings: On Russia, Helplessness, and Polls

W.J. Astore

A few items for this Monday:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readers, what are your musings for this Monday?