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?

The Nobility of Tulsi Gabbard

1st-a-gabbard-1

W.J. Astore

In the South Carolina primary won on Saturday by Joe Biden, Tulsi Gabbard earned only 1.3% of the vote.  Her poor showing was due in part to her outcast status among the Democratic establishment joined by mainstream media outlets like MSNBC and CNN.  Speaking of CNN, I caught a few minutes of coverage last night during which its commentators confessed they couldn’t understand why Tulsi was still running. (Update: See my comment below for more details on this exchange.)  One person (Anderson Cooper, the weasel) suggested she was angling for a job with Fox News.  Of course, Tulsi’s principled opposition to regime-change wars and other disastrous U.S. foreign policy decisions went unmentioned.  When her name is mentioned by the corporate-owned media, it’s usually in the context of the candidate most likely to succeed – in Russia.

By running in the election, Tulsi Gabbard continues to make an invaluable contribution: She highlights the power of the military-industrial-Congressional-media complex and its rejection of any candidate willing to challenge it.  Gabbard’s status as a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard, her service in Congress on the House Armed Services Committee, her military deployments to Iraq: all of this is downplayed or dismissed.  Meanwhile, Mayor Pete’s brief stint in Afghanistan is celebrated as the height of military service.  What’s the difference between them?  Mayor Pete plays ball with big donors and parrots talking points of the Complex – Tulsi doesn’t.

In a recent op-ed for The Hill, Tulsi yet again does America a service by calling out red baiting in America’s elections.  Here’s how her op-ed begins:

Reckless claims by anonymous intelligence officials that Russia is “helping” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are deeply irresponsible. So was former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s calculated decision Tuesday to repeat this unsubstantiated accusation on the debate stage in South Carolina. Enough is enough. I am calling on all presidential candidates to stop playing these dangerous political games and immediately condemn any interference in our elections by out-of-control intelligence agencies.

A “news article” published last week in The Washington Post, which set off yet another manufactured media firestorm, alleges that the goal of Russia is to trick people into criticizing establishment Democrats. This is a laughably obvious ploy to stifle legitimate criticism and cast aspersions on Americans who are rightly skeptical of the powerful forces exerting control over the primary election process. We are told the aim of Russia is to “sow division,” but the aim of corporate media and self-serving politicians pushing this narrative is clearly to sow division of their own — by generating baseless suspicion against the Sanders campaign.

Tulsi is right here – and she’s right when she says that:

The American people have the right to know this information in order to put Russia’s alleged “interference” into proper perspective. It is a mystery why the Intelligence Community would want to hide these details from us. Instead it is relying on highly dubious and vague insinuations filtered through its preferred media outlets, which seem designed to create a panic rather than actually inform the public about a genuine threat.

All this does is undermine voters’ trust in our elections, which is what we are constantly told is the goal of Russia.

She also accurately notes how the “corporate media will do everything they can to turn the general election into a contest of who is going to be ‘tougher’ on Russia. This tactic is necessary to propagandize the American people into shelling over their hard-earned tax dollars to the Pentagon to fund the highly lucrative nuclear arms race that the military-industrial complex craves.”

Tulsi Gabbard may not be in the democratic race much longer, but that’s not because she lacks guts.  Indeed, her willingness to buck the system – and her commitment to making the world a less militaristic place – make her a notable candidate.  She’s been a noble voice crying in a corrupt and self-serving wilderness.