Ten Cautionary Tenets About Air Power

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It’s always so much more awful on the ground

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I tackle America’s cult of bombing overseas, most recently in the Middle East, Central Asia, and portions of Africa, and the darker facets of air power in general.  Air power may not be “unthinkable” like nuclear war, but most Americans nevertheless choose not to think about it since the bombing, the destruction, the killing are happening elsewhere to people other than us.  Indeed, occasionally America’s politicians talk about bombing as if it’s a joke (consider John McCain’s little ditty about bombing Iran, or Ted Cruz’s reference to carpet bombing ISIS and making the sand “glow”).

Treating air power and bombing so cavalierly is a big mistake.  Much like mass shootings in the “homeland,” it’s become the background noise to our lives.  But it’s a deadly reality to others — and since violence often begets more violence, it may very well prove a prescription for permanent war.

Ten Cautionary Tenets About Air Power

1. Just because U.S. warplanes and drones can strike almost anywhere on the globe with relative impunity doesn’t mean that they should. Given the history of air power since World War II, ease of access should never be mistaken for efficacious results.

2. Bombing alone will never be the key to victory. If that were true, the U.S. would have easily won in Korea and Vietnam, as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq. American air power pulverized both North Korea and Vietnam (not to speak of neighboring Laos and Cambodia), yet the Korean War ended in a stalemate and the Vietnam War in defeat. (It tells you the world about such thinking that air power enthusiasts, reconsidering the Vietnam debacle, tend to argue the U.S. should have bombed even more — lots more.) Despite total air supremacy, the recent Iraq War was a disaster even as the Afghan War staggers on into its 18th catastrophic year.

3. No matter how much it’s advertised as “precise,” “discriminate,” and “measured,” bombing (or using missiles like the Tomahawk) rarely is. The deaths of innocents are guaranteed. Air power and those deaths are joined at the hip, while such killings only generate anger and blowback, thereby prolonging the wars they are meant to end.

Consider, for instance, the “decapitation” strikes launched against Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and his top officials in the opening moments of the Bush administration’s invasion of 2003. Despite the hype about that being the beginning of the most precise air campaign in all of history, 50 of those attacks, supposedly based on the best intelligence around, failed to take out Saddam or a single one of his targeted officials. They did, however, cause “dozens” of civilian deaths. Think of it as a monstrous repeat of the precision air attacks launched on Belgrade in 1999 against Slobodan Milosevic and his regime that hit the Chinese embassy instead, killing three journalists.

Here, then, is the question of the day: Why is it that, despite all the “precision” talk about it, air power so regularly proves at best a blunt instrument of destruction? As a start, intelligence is often faulty. Then bombs and missiles, even “smart” ones, do go astray. And even when U.S. forces actually kill high-value targets (HVTs), there are always more HVTs out there. A paradox emerges from almost 18 years of the war on terror: the imprecision of air power only leads to repetitious cycles of violence and, even when air strikes prove precise, there always turn out to be fresh targets, fresh terrorists, fresh insurgents to strike.

4. Using air power to send political messages about resolve or seriousness rarely works. If it did, the U.S. would have swept to victory in Vietnam. In Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, for instance, Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-1968), a graduated campaign of bombing, was meant to, but didn’t, convince the North Vietnamese to give up their goal of expelling the foreign invaders — us — from South Vietnam. Fast-forward to our era and consider recent signals sent to North Korea and Iran by the Trump administration via B-52 bomber deployments, among other military “messages.” There’s no evidence that either country modified its behavior significantly in the face of the menace of those baby-boomer-era airplanes.

5. Air power is enormously expensive. Spending on aircraft, helicopters, and their munitions accounted for roughly half the cost of the Vietnam War. Similarly, in the present moment, making operational and then maintaining Lockheed Martin’s boondoggle of a jet fighter, the F-35, is expected to cost at least $1.45 trillion over its lifetime. The new B-21 stealth bomber will cost more than $100 billion simply to buy. Naval air wings on aircraft carriers cost billions each year to maintain and operate. These days, when the sky’s the limit for the Pentagon budget, such costs may be (barely) tolerable. When the money finally begins to run out, however, the military will likely suffer a serious hangover from its wildly extravagant spending on air power.

6. Aerial surveillance (as with drones), while useful, can also be misleading. Command of the high ground is not synonymous with god-like “total situational awareness.” It can instead prove to be a kind of delusion, while war practiced in its spirit often becomes little more than an exercise in destruction. You simply can’t negotiate a truce or take prisoners or foster other options when you’re high above a potential battlefield and your main recourse is blowing up people and things.

7. Air power is inherently offensive. That means it’s more consistent with imperial power projection than with national defense. As such, it fuels imperial ventures, while fostering the kind of “global reach, global power” thinking that has in these years had Air Force generals in its grip.

8. Despite the fantasies of those sending out the planes, air power often lengthens wars rather than shortening them. Consider Vietnam again. In the early 1960s, the Air Force argued that it alone could resolve that conflict at the lowest cost (mainly in American bodies). With enough bombs, napalm, and defoliants, victory was a sure thing and U.S. ground troops a kind of afterthought. (Initially, they were sent in mainly to protect the airfields from which those planes took off.) But bombing solved nothing and then the Army and the Marines decided that, if the Air Force couldn’t win, they sure as hell could. The result was escalation and disaster that left in the dust the original vision of a war won quickly and on the cheap due to American air supremacy.

9. Air power, even of the shock-and-awe variety, loses its impact over time. The enemy, lacking it, nonetheless learns to adapt by developing countermeasures — both active (like missiles) and passive (like camouflage and dispersion), even as those being bombed become more resilient and resolute.

10. Pounding peasants from two miles up is not exactly an ideal way to occupy the moral high ground in war.

The Road to Perdition

If I had to reduce these tenets to a single maxim, it would be this: all the happy talk about the techno-wonders of modern air power obscures its darker facets, especially its ability to lock America into what are effectively one-way wars with dead-end results…

In reality, this country might do better to simply ground its many fighter planes, bombers, and drones. Paradoxically, instead of gaining the high ground, they are keeping us on a low road to perdition.

To read all of this article, please go to TomDispatch.com.b52

The Next Commander-in-Chief

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John Kasich

W.J. Astore

A reader wrote to ask my opinion on which presidential candidate would make the best commander-in-chief.  This is a speculative exercise, of course, but why not speculate? I’ve watched most of the debates and have a sense of the candidates, though of course I’ve never met them and have no direct experience with them.  (I once shook President Bill Clinton’s hand, and saw Hillary in the background, but that’s a story for another day.)  So let’s take the five remaining candidates in alphabetical order:

Hillary Clinton: Often wrong and too hawkish, which is a bad combination. She was wrong on the Iraq War, wrong on Libya, and unapologetic in her fondness for Henry Kissinger. Under Clinton, I see more wasteful military interventions.

Ted Cruz: Far too eager to use military force.  You’ll recall his posturing about “carpet bombing” and making the sand “glow” in the Middle East, apparently by using nuclear weapons.  The recent terrorist attacks in Belgium have him calling for a police state in U.S. neighborhoods where Muslim-Americans live.

John Kasich: Has experience working military matters while in Congress (18 years on the House Armed Services Committee).  Has executive experience as a governor.  Has had the temerity to criticize the Saudis for supporting radical elements in Islam.  Has opposed wasteful weapons systems (the B-2 and A-12, for example).  Speaks carefully and appears to be temperamentally suited to the job.

Bernie Sanders: He was right to oppose the Iraq War.  Thinks for himself.  Not a slave to neoconservative interventionism.  Yet he lacks experience dealing with the military and with foreign policy.  Has the capacity for growth.

Donald Trump: Lacks an understanding of the U.S. Constitution and his role and responsibilities as commander-in-chief.  Though he has shown a willingness to depart from orthodoxies, e.g. by criticizing the Iraq War and the idea of nation-building, Trump’s temperament is highly suspect.  His bombast amplified by his ignorance could make for a deadly combination.  Hysterical calls for medieval-like torture practices are especially disturbing.

Of the five major candidates, and with Sanders somewhat of a blank slate, I think John Kasich has the best potential — in the short-term — to be an effective commander-in-chief.  This does not mean that I support Kasich for president, for I object to several of his domestic policies.

Not exactly a “bracing view,” perhaps, but it’s my honest attempt to answer a reader’s question.  I do think Sanders has considerable potential to be an excellent commander-in-chief because he possesses moral courage.

Sadly, the odds of either Kasich or Sanders winning in November seem very long indeed.

The Bizarre and Scary World of Republicans

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There they go again

W.J. Astore

I watched last night’s Republican debate from Florida (transcript here) and then checked this morning’s coverage from major networks such as NBC and CBS.  The focus of media coverage was the “civility” of this debate compared to previous ones, combined with typical horse race speculations about which candidate won and which lost.

Well, I can’t tell you who won, but I can tell you who lost: the American people lost.

Several lowlights from the debate that stick in my mind:

1. Marco Rubio was asked about climate change and whether human action, such as the emission of greenhouse gases, contributed to it.  Rubio essentially denied that human action had any significant impact on global warming.  The essence of his answer: the climate is changing because the climate always changes.  And the U.S. government can take no action to reduce it.

2.  Donald Trump held to his position on torture.  He believes waterboarding should be used, that laws should be changed to allow harsher means of torture, apparently because the enemy (ISIS) beheads its opponents or drowns them in cages.  He was not challenged on how he would change international laws against torture, nor was he challenged on consistent evidence that torture does not work in efforts to gain accurate intelligence.  Nor were any questions raised about the morality of torture and its proposed expansion if he wins the presidency.

3.  All of the candidates expressed support for sending U.S. ground troops, perhaps 20,000 to 30,000, to combat ISIS in the Middle East.  The situation was presented as a civil war within Islam between radical Sunni and Shia forces, but no candidate explained how U.S. combat forces could win someone else’s civil war, a war driven by fierce ideological differences.  Somehow, magically, the reappearance of big battalions of U.S. troops and massive displays of air power would “shock and awe” radical jihadists into collapse and capitulation.

4.  For the candidates, nothing Obama has done in the last seven years is worthy of the slightest praise.  Obamacare must be repealed.  The Iran nuclear deal is a disaster.  His forthcoming trip to Cuba represents a capitulation to communism.  His executive actions are illegal; all of them must be reversed.

5.  Each candidate tried to best the other on who is more pro-Israel.  According to Trump, “there’s nobody on this stage that’s more pro-Israel than I am.”  Apparently Israel is the only U.S. ally that is worthy of total support and unconditional love by Republican candidates.

6.  Trump refused to qualify his statement that there is “tremendous hate” in the Islamic world directed against the United States.  However, there was no reason given for this hate, and no sense that U.S. military actions overseas, to include invasions, drone strikes, and special ops raids, contribute in any way to Islamic animosity.  The candidates were simply not asked why some, most, or nearly all Muslims “hate” America.

7.  Finally, topics that weren’t discussed at this debate but which are commonly discussed at Democratic debates: racism, shootings by police against Blacks, prison and justice reform, raising the minimum wage, the rising gap between the richest 1% and everyone else, reducing the cost of college education, and efforts to guarantee affordable health care for all.  Nor were women’s issues, such as equal pay for equal work, mentioned.  Indeed, with the exception of Trump’s comment about women being mistreated by the Muslim world, women’s issues simply didn’t exist, not in this debate and not in most of the others.  Indeed, my wife turned to me during a previous Republican debate and said, “Not one of these guys cares one whit about women’s issues — they’re offering us nothing.”

And on that sad yet telling note, I’ll end.

 

 

Might Makes Right: An American Tradition

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W.J. Astore (also posted at History News Network)

To hear Republican candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz talk, almost any act of violence is justifiable to defeat the enemy. Trump talks of torture, far worse than waterboarding, and total destruction. Cruz ups the ante, speaking of carpet bombing and making the sand glow, apparently via nuclear weapons. Both appear to treat the enemy as inhuman.

Sadly, for America this is nothing new. Just read Bernard Fall on America’s war against Vietnam. In an article for Ramparts (“This Isn’t Munich, It’s Spain”), Fall wrote late in 1965 that the American military strategy in Vietnam was based on massive killing through overwhelming firepower:

The new mix of air war and of land and seaborne firepower in Vietnam is one of technological counter-insurgency — if you keep up the kill rate you will eventually run out of enemies. Or at least armed enemies. Of course, the whole country will hate you, but at least they won’t resist you. What you will get is simply a cessation of resistance — an acquiescence in one’s fate rather than a belief that your side and your ideas have really prevailed.

In other words, America sought to bludgeon the Vietnamese into compliance, rather than winning their hearts and minds through ideas or ideals.

“But what I really fear most,” Fall continued, “is the creation of new ethics to match new warfare. Indications are that a new ethic is already being created, and such influential men as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson have begun to provide its intellectual underpinning.”

Fall cited a speech at Amherst College in 1965 in which Acheson declared:

The end sought by our foreign policy . . . is, as I have said, to preserve and foster an environment in which free societies may exist and flourish. Our policies and actions must be decided by whether they contribute to or detract from achievement of this end. They need no other justification or moral or ethical embellishment. . .

To keep the free world free, America was justified to do anything it desired, irrespective of ethics and morality. Acheson’s words in 1965 have become the essence of U.S. foreign policy today as advanced by men like Trump and Cruz. In short, the end (a “free” society) justifies any means (torture, carpet bombing, perhaps even nuclear weapons) to preserve it.

Fall went on to cite a Pastoral Letter from French Cardinal Feltin in 1960 during France’s war with Algeria. In that letter to French military chaplains, Cardinal Feltin noted:

There cannot be a morality which justifies efficacy by all means, if those means are in formal contradiction with Natural Law and Divine Law. Efficacy, in that case, goes against the very aim it seeks to achieve. There can be exceptional laws for exceptional situations. . . there cannot exist an exceptional morality which somehow takes leave of Natural Law and Divine Law.

Too often in the past as well as today, U.S. foreign policy has taken leave of natural and divine law. The ends do not and should not justify the means, especially when the means (torture, carpet bombing, and the like) contravene the end (a “free” society based on ethical and moral principles).

Rather than posing as protectors of the free world, people like Trump and Cruz should admit their own amorality. They should admit they see the world as a brutal place, occupied by brutes, and that only by slaying those brutes in a brutish way can America preserve its dominant position as chief brute.

Doubtless many of their followers would still salute them for this view. But more reflective souls would see the honesty of Pogo’s famous insight that “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


The Republican Debate of Texas

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Let the insults fly (Rubio and Trump)

W.J. Astore

Last night’s Republican Presidential Debate in Texas would dismay almost anyone interested in debates or politics.  Insults flew.  Boasts filled the air. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio postured about which could be meaner toward “illegals” (undocumented workers).  There was more talk of border walls, of higher defense spending, of cutting taxes, of eliminating Obamacare, of reanimating Antonin Scalia and restoring him to the Supreme Court (think of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” but retitled as “SCOTUS Sematary”) — OK, that last one I made up, but if they could, they would.

I took a high school course on “debate and discussion,” and later as a professor I graded my students on debates.  Remember rules like staying on subject?  On following the rules? On keeping to the time allotted, on being civil to your opponent, on sticking to facts, on relying on evidence?  If you don’t recall those criteria, join the club of Trump, Cruz, and Rubio.

Almost any objective observer of the debate would score a win for John Kasich, the governor of Ohio.  He was clear, passionate, and stuck mainly to the subject.  He stressed his executive and governmental experience, spoke in complete sentences, and avoided insults and sound bites.  I don’t agree with much of what Kasich advocates, but he has the temperament and qualifications to make him a sound choice for the presidency.

Trump, of course, plays up his business acumen as preparing him for the presidency, and his argument against bickering politicians like Cruz and Rubio is compelling.  But let’s face it: watch the debates for just a few minutes and you realize Trump is a bully whose main attribute is bombastic self-confidence. By temperament he is unsuited to be president. The grim reality is that Republicans appear to have no answer to him.

This is partly because the debates are about issues only in passing.  They’re mainly about show, and “The Donald” knows how to put on a show.  As Cruz and Rubio split the vote, and Kasich and Carson slowly fade, Trump tightens his grip on the delegate total needed to grab the Republican nomination.

The amazing thing is this: It’s now quite conceivable that come January 2017, we will see Donald Trump inaugurated as president.

Last Night’s Nasty Republican Debate

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Southern charm did not rub off on these candidates

W.J. Astore

One word describes last night’s Republican debate from South Carolina: nasty. That’s the word Donald Trump used to describe Ted Cruz (transcript here), and that’s the word that best describes the tone of most of the debate.  Ben Carson and John Kasich, as usual, tried to take the high road, but Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush joined Trump and Cruz in the mud-slinging, tossing accusations about who’s lying and who isn’t, who’s insulting whose family, ad nauseam. (According to the LA Times, the candidates together made 22 accusations of lying; all that was missing was the old expression we used as kids, “Liar! Liar! Pants on fire!”)

As far as content, there wasn’t much new.  The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia touched off a dishonest discussion as to what President Obama should do about his empty seat.  Pretty much all the candidates suggested the “lame duck” president should not nominate a replacement for Scalia (thereby abdicating his Constitutional duties). According to them, Obama is such a polarizing figure, and so untrustworthy, that he should leave to the next president the duty of nominating a new justice.  It was all nonsense, but it illustrated the patent dishonesty of politics as practiced in America today.

As I listened to the debate, the content and tone reminded me of the mean and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge before his conversion.  Again, there was much talk of deporting illegal immigrants, of blowing away our enemies (especially the Islamic State), of protecting gun rights, of ending Obamacare, of lowering taxes on the rich, all to be done in the name of our Lord.

Some media headlines from the debate coverage: “Jeb Bush attacks Donald Trump” (New York Times); “Sparks Fly at Rowdy Republican Debate” (NBC News); “The Gloves Come Off” (CBS News).  Yes, much heat was generated, but precious little light.  A dispiriting exercise, the debate illustrated the bad faith of the leading Republican candidates, as well as the rot within and across our entire political system.

If you missed the debate, consider yourself fortunate.

Republicans Are Scaring Me Again

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Kasich, Bush, Rubio, Trump, Cruz, Carson, Christie (left to right)

W.J. Astore

I watched last night’s Republican Presidential Debate from New Hampshire.  And then I slept poorly.  John Kasich and a subdued Ben Carson excepted, all of the candidates were determined to frighten me and mine.  As they shouted and gesticulated, I wrote down some of their words and some of the thoughts and feelings they generated.  It went something like this:

We’re in danger!  Obama’s gutting our military!  Muslims are shouting “death to America”!  China!  America is weak!  We must build a HUGE WALL to keep out illegals! Abortion is murder!  Take their oil!  Chopping heads!  Dying in the street! Waterboarding isn’t torture, which doesn’t matter, because we need more torture!  Respect the police! People need to fear us again!  We don’t win — we need to win again!  Iranian and North Korean nukes!  America must get back in the game and be strong!  Tough!  Win!

Well, you get the picture.  The prize for most obscene statement of the night (among a wealth of obscene statements) was Ted Cruz’s claim that America’s possession of overwhelming airpower — its ability to carpet bomb enemies into oblivion — is a blessing.  A blessing — I’m assuming he meant from God, not the Dark One, but who knows?

My wife’s impression?  She said the candidates reminded her of low-blow fighters, or teenage boys in high school.

It’s simple, really: If you want more bombing, more killing, more war, more torture, more police, more walls, and lower taxes on corporations (yes — that came up too), vote Republican in November.

My nightmare scenario: this is exactly the vision Marco Rubio had in mind when he repeatedly called America “the single greatest nation in the history of the world.”