A Typical Democratic Official on the Pentagon and War

Jeh Johnson with Biden and Obama, 2013 (White House photo)

W.J. Astore

Jeh Johnson, formerly homeland security secretary under President Obama, showed how a typical Democratic official approaches the Pentagon and war as he spoke on ABC’s This Week on Sunday (11/15).  For Johnson, the Pentagon “is typically an island of stability” in the U.S. government, but President Trump was destabilizing that island because of recent changes to Pentagon personnel.  Trump’s changes could be driven by his desire to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, speculated Johnson, which was not a good thing:

“If he [Trump] wants troops out of Afghanistan, as I know most Americans do, we have to do it in a way that makes sense, in an orderly manner, and that comports with battlefield reality … in trying to strike a deal, you don’t unilaterally surrender your greatest point of leverage by unilaterally withdrawing troops before the Afghan government and the Taliban have stuck a deal. So this is very concerning and if I were in the Biden transition team right now, I’d be very focused … on restoring stability in our national security.”

We can’t surrender our “leverage,” those thousands of U.S. troops that remain in harm’s way in an unnecessary war that was won and then lost almost two decades ago, because it’s that “leverage” that will compel the Taliban, who have already won the war, to strike a deal with an Afghan government that exists mainly because the U.S. government props it up.  Makes sense to me.

By the way, only “most Americans” want our troops to come home?  Where are all the other Americans who want them to stay there indefinitely?  Within the Washington Beltway, I’d wager.

The Afghan war has always struck me as nonsensical.  Yes, some kind of response to the 9/11 attacks was needed, and initial U.S. military strikes in 2001-02 succeeded in toppling the Taliban, in the sense they saw no reason to stand and fight against withering fire.  At that moment, the U.S. military should have declared victory and left.  Instead, the Bush/Cheney administration decided on its own disastrous occupation, extended another eight years by Obama/Biden, even though we knew full well the extent of the Soviet disaster in Afghanistan in the 1980s. 

The Afghan war has lasted so long that I’ve been writing articles against it for more than a decade.  You’d think any sensible and sane Democrat would love to see U.S. troops withdrawn and the war finally come to an end.  Not so.  The war must continue in the name of “leverage” and “stability.”

I like Johnson’s truly absurdist reference to “battlefield reality,” which, if we’re being real for a moment, reflects a Taliban victory.  Unless the U.S. wants to occupy Afghanistan forever, with hundreds of thousands of troops, that victory is not about to be reversed.  And what kind of “victory” would that be? 

“Stability” is not preserved by fighting unwinnable wars on the imperial periphery, unless you’re talking about the stability of Pentagon finances and corporate profits.  Johnson’s wiki bio does mention he’s on the boards of Lockheed Martin Corporation and U.S. Steel, which certainly hints at a conflict of interest when it comes to offering advice on ending wars.

In the meantime, we probably shouldn’t tell our troops, whom we’re supposed to love and support, that we’re keeping them in Afghanistan for “leverage” until the “battlefield reality” is more in our favor.  That’s truly a recipe for endless war in a place that well deserves its reputation as the graveyard of empires.

Finally, a reminder to Democrats: your Pentagon is an island of stability, and your troops are creating the leverage that allows democracy to flourish everywhere.  If this makes sense to you, and if this is the guiding philosophy of Joe Biden’s national security team, we’re truly in deep trouble.

Bonus Lesson: The Pentagon is an “island” of government only if that island is roughly the size of Pangaea.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.

Thanking Our Troops for their Service

Author's photo, July 2014, of the American Flag at Dusk
Author’s photo, July 2014, of the American Flag at Dusk

W.J. Astore

I served for twenty years in the Air Force.  Service in the military involves sacrifice even when combat isn’t involved, but it also conveys privileges and provides opportunity, or at least it did so for me.  I can’t recall people thanking me for my service when I wore a uniform, nor did I expect them to.  I just saw myself as doing my duty to the best of my ability, and therefore deserving of no special thanks or commendation.

At TomDispatch.com, former Army Ranger Rory Fanning talks about his discomfort with the thank you parade directed at “our” troops.  His honest words are a reminder that a thank you repeated again and again loses its meaning, especially when it’s appropriated by megastars and sponsored by corporations.  Think, for example, of that Budweiser ad during last year’s Super Bowl that featured a returning LT.  We see him greeting his pretty wife at the airport, then we cut to a surprise parade in his honor down Main Street USA complete with the Budweiser Clydesdales and teary-eyed veterans.  The sentiment, however honest to many of the celebrants, is cheapened as heart strings are tugged to sell beer.  Or consider those Bank of America ads for wounded warriors airing during this year’s World Series.  Images of wounded troops continuing to triumph in spite of war injuries are appropriated to associate a huge bank with the sacrifices endured by ordinary GIs.  Again, however well-intentioned such ads may be, heart strings are being tugged by a bank with a dubious record of sympathy for the little guy and gal.

As retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich has noted, elaborate thank you ceremonies can be a form of cheap grace in which Americans clap themselves on the back in spasms of feel-good celebratory pageantry.  Some of these celebrations are so over the top in their flag-waving thanks that you just can’t help having darker thoughts.  Is this a recruitment video?  Are we even meant to think at all or just gush with pride?  Are we simply meant to bask in the reflected glow of the medals on the chests of our young men and women in uniform?

We thank our troops for complicated reasons as well as simple ones.  The simple are easy to write about: genuine thanks, from one person to another, no megastars, no corporations.  Just a handshake and a nod or a few kind words.  I’ve had people thank me in that way since I retired from service, and I appreciate it and respond graciously.

But the complicated reasons  – well, these reasons are not as easy to write about.  The guilt of those who avoid service.  Pro forma thanks.  The thanks that comes from people who believe their involvement with the military both starts and ends there.  The related idea that if one thanks the troops, one has done one’s bit for the war (whichever war our president says we’re fighting today).

More disturbingly is the thanks that allows us all to deny the reality of America’s wars (the reality of all wars): the sordidness of wartime bungling and mismanagement and violence and murder.  Often the latter is drowned out by the bugle calls of thanks! thanks! thanks! coming from the cheering multitudes.

My father taught me “an empty barrel makes the most noise.”  I think that’s true even when the noise is presented as thanks to our troops.