Wars, Secrecy, and Lies

W.J. Astore

You know an American war is going poorly when the lies come swiftly, as with the Afghan War, or when it’s hidden under a cloak of secrecy, which is also increasingly true of the Afghan War.

This is nothing new, of course.  Perhaps the best book I read in 2019 is H. Bruce Franklin’s Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War.  Franklin, who served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s before becoming an English professor, cultural historian, and an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, is devastating in his critique of the military-industrial complex in this memoir.  I recommend it highly to all Americans who want to wrestle with tough truths.

Let’s consider one example: Franklin’s dismissal of the “stab-in-the-back” myth (or Rambo myth) that came out of the Vietnam War.  This was the idea the U.S. military could have won in Vietnam, and was indeed close to winning, only to be betrayed by weak-kneed politicians and the anti-war movement.

Franklin demolishes this argument in a paragraph that is worth reading again and again:

One widespread cultural fantasy about the Vietnam War blames the antiwar movement for forcing the military to “fight with one arm tied behind its back.”  But this belief stands reality on its head.  The American people, disgusted and angry about the Korean War, were in no mood to support a war in Vietnam.  Staunch domestic opposition kept Washington from going in overtly.  So it went covertly.  It thereby committed itself to a policy based on deception, sneaking around, and hiding its actions from the American people.  The U.S. government thus created the internal nemesis of its own war: the antiwar movement.  That movement was inspired and empowered not just by our outrage against the war [but] also by the lies about the war, lies necessitated by the war, coming from our government and propagated by the media.  Although it was the Vietnamese who defeated the United States, ultimately it was the antiwar movement, especially within the armed forces, that finally in 1973 forced Washington to accept, at long last, the terms of the 1954 Geneva Accords, and to sign a peace treaty that included, word for word, every major demand made by the National Liberation Front (the so-called Viet Cong) back in 1969…

The truth was that for three decades our nation had sponsored and then waged a genocidal war against a people and a nation that had never done anything to us except ask for our friendship and support [during and after World War II].

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This is well and strongly put.  The American people had no interest in intervening in Vietnam in the 1950s; the Korean debacle had been enough.  But the U.S. government intervened anyway, lying about its involvement until it could no longer lie.  Then a bigger lie was concocted, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, to justify a larger commitment of troops in the mid-1960s, which led to near-genocidal destruction in Vietnam.

Wars built on lies are rarely won, especially in a democracy.  But even as they are lost (Vietnam in the 1960s, and now Afghanistan), there are always “winners.”  Weapons contractors and other war profiteers.  The Pentagon, which from war gains more money and more power.  And authoritarian elements within society itself, which are reinforced by war.

If we wish to take our democracy back, a powerful first step is to end all American wars overseas.  This would not be isolationism; this would be sanity.

Wars, secrecy, and lies are three big enemies of democracy. Maybe the big three. War suppresses thought and supports authoritarianism. Secrecy prevents accountability. Lies mislead the people. And that’s what we have today. Constant warfare. Secrecy, e.g. reports on “progress” in the Afghan War are now classified and no longer shared. Lies are rampant; indeed, lies are policy. Just look at the Afghan Papers.

Yet wars, secrecy, and lies have been incredibly successful. The Pentagon budget is booming! Weapons sales are exploding! No one is being held accountable for failures or war crimes. Indeed, convicted war criminals are absolved and touted as heroes by the president.

The solution is as obvious as it will be painful. We need peace, transparency, and truth. End the wars, declassify all those “secrets” we the people should know about our military and wars, and reward truth-tellers instead of punishing them.

Holding Military Boots to the Fire

Petraeus with Broadwell
Petraeus: Lots of ribbon candy crowded on that uniform

W.J. Astore

I write a lot about the U.S. military, partly because I served in it for 20 years, partly because I’ve been reading about it since I could read, and partly because I have a lot of affection for colleagues, young and old, who still serve.  My articles tend to be critical because there’s much to criticize about our military.  I get interesting responses, like the one from a military man who said I wrote well and had a few interesting things to say, but why couldn’t I write more positive articles about the military?  Why couldn’t I just focus on “good news”?  I explained to him that the military has a small legion of public affairs officers and that sharing good news is their job, not mine.  He didn’t write back.

I have a few critical things to say in my latest article at TomDispatch: “Seventy Years of Military Mediocrity.”  You can read the entire article here; what follows is an excerpt on America’s most senior officers and some of their faults and failings.  As ever, I welcome your comments.

America’s Senior Officers: Lots of Ribbon Candy, No Sweetness of Victory

In my first article for TomDispatch back in 2007, I wrote about America’s senior military leaders, men like the celebrated David Petraeus. No matter how impressive, even kingly, they looked in their uniforms festooned with ribbons, badges, and medals of all sorts, colors, and sizes, their performance on the battlefield didn’t exactly bring to mind rainstorms of ribbon candy. So why, I wondered then, and wonder still, are America’s senior military officers so generally lauded and applauded? What have they done to deserve those chests full of honors and the endless praise in Washington and elsewhere in this country?

By giving our commanders so many pats on the back (and thanking the troops so effusively and repeatedly), it’s possible that we’ve prevented the development of an American-style stab-in-the-back theory — that hoary yet dangerous myth that a military only loses wars when the troops are betrayed by the homefront. In the process, however, we’ve written them what is essentially a blank check. We’ve given them authority without accountability. They wage “our” wars (remarkably unsuccessfully), but never have to take the blame for defeats.  Unlike President Harry Truman, famous for keeping a sign on his desk that read “the buck stops here,” the buck never stops with them.

Think about two of America’s most celebrated generals of the twenty-first century, Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal and how they fell publicly from grace.  Both were West Point grads, both were celebrated as “heroes,” despite the fact that their military “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan proved fragile and reversible.  They fell only because Petraeus was caught with his pants down (in an extramarital affair with a fawning biographer), while McChrystal ran afoul of the president by tolerating an atmosphere that undermined his civilian chain of command.

And here, perhaps, is the strangest thing of all: even as America’s wars continue to go poorly by any reasonable measure, no prominent high-ranking officer has yet stepped forward either to take responsibility or in protest.  You have to look to the lower ranks, to lieutenant colonels and captains and specialists (and, in the case of Chelsea Manning, to lowly privates), for straight talk and the courage to buck the system.  Name one prominent general or admiral, fed up with the lamentable results of America’s wars, who has either taken responsibility for them or resigned for cause.  Yup — I can’t either.  (This is not to suggest that the military lacks senior officers of integrity.  Recall the way General Eric Shinseki broke ranks with the Bush administration in testimony before Congress about the size of a post-invasion force needed to secure Iraq, or General Antonio Taguba’s integrity in overseeing a thorough investigation of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.  Their good deeds did not go unpunished.)

Authority without accountability means no one is responsible.  And if no one is responsible, the system can keep chugging along, course largely unaltered, no matter what happens.  This is exactly what it’s been doing for years now in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Can we connect this behavior to the faults of the service academies?  Careerism.  Parochialism.  Technocratic tendencies.  Elitism.  A focus on image rather than on substance.  Lots of busywork and far too much praise for our ascetic warrior-heroes, results be damned.  A tendency to close ranks rather than take responsibility.  Buck-passing, not bucking the system.  The urge to get those golden slots on graduation and the desire for golden parachutes into a lucrative world of corporate boards and consultancies after “retirement,” not to speak of those glowing appearances as military experts on major TV and cable networks.

By failing to hold military boots to the fire, we’ve largely avoided unpleasantness between the military and its civilian leadership, not to speak of the American public. But — and here’s the rub — 70 years of mediocrity since World War II and 14 years of failure since 9/11 should have resulted in anti-war protests, Congressional hearings, and public controversy. It should have created public discord, as it did during the Vietnam War, when dissent was a sign of a healthy democracy and an engaged citizenry. Nowadays, in place of protest, we hear the praise, the applause, the thank-yous followed by yet another bombastic rendition of “God Bless America.” Let’s face it. Our military has failed us, but haven’t we failed it, too?