Sun Tzu, Steve Bannon, and the Trump White House “Warriors”

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Steve Bannon, self-professed student of the Art of War (Getty Images)

W.J. Astore

A favorite book of Steve Bannon’s is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  A classic of military strategy, The Art of War was compiled during the Warring States period (403-221 BCE) in ancient Chinese history.  It was a time of intense civil warfare in China, a time when a cessation in fighting was merely a pause between the next round of battles among warlords.  It’s still widely read today for its insights into war, its clever stratagems and tactics, and its lessons into human nature and behavior.

Bannon, who served in the U.S. Navy, is an armchair strategist with an affinity for military history books.  He appears to believe in inevitable conflict between the Judeo-Christian West, which he favors due to its “enlightened” values, and the World of Islam, which he sees as retrograde and barbaric when compared to the West.  He sees the world as already being in a “warring states” period writ large, a realm of conflict marked by “holy war” to be mastered by warrior/scholars like himself.

Joining him in this belief is Donald Trump, who took great pains to recite the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in his speech before Congress, as if using these words were a mark of personal courage on his part.  Trump has boasted about winning the “next” war, as if war during his presidency is inevitable.  And I suppose it is, with Trump at the helm and advisers like Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller pursuing a bellicose hardline against Islam.

Be careful what you wish for, Trump and cronies, and be especially careful about declaring victory in wars before you’ve even fought them.  Here Sun Tzu has much to teach our “warriors” in the White House.

For one thing, Sun Tzu writes that a battle is best won without fighting at all.  Said Sun Tzu: “Fighting and winning a hundred wars is not the greatest good.  Winning without having to fight is.”  In other words, you set the stage so carefully that the enemy must surrender or face obliteration before the curtain is even raised on war.

Secondly, Sun Tzu warns about the folly of protracted wars, how they deplete the national budget and weaken a state, especially when support among the people is tepid.  Warfare, notes Sun Tzu, must be treated with the greatest caution, even as it is waged with great cunning.  Best of all is to outsmart the enemy; next best is to form alliances, to build a much bigger army than the enemy, which may force them to capitulate.  Worst of all is to get bogged down in long wars, especially in cities, which require expensive sieges that wear on both sides (just ask the Germans at Stalingrad about this).

Ultimately, Sun Tzu writes that by understanding oneself and one’s enemy, a skilled leader can engage in a hundred battles without ever being in serious danger.  But an unskilled leader who does not truly know his own nature or that of his enemies is one who is fated always to lose.  Trump, who fancies himself a great leader and who is ignorant of foreign nations and peoples, does not inspire confidence here, even as he promises the American people that we’re going to win so much, we’ll get bored with winning.

Sun Tzu puts great emphasis on careful planning and sober deliberation before launching attacks.  If the recent Yemen raid is any indicator, Trump is neither a careful planner nor a sober deliberator.  Indeed, Trump’s personal qualities expose him to being manipulated by a cunning enemy.  In listing the personal traits that are dangerous in a commander, Sun Tzu mentions “quick to anger” as well as “self-consciousness” or vanity.  One who’s quick to anger can be goaded by insults into making poor decisions; one who’s vain and self-conscious can be humiliated or manipulated into rash action.

Trump promises an American military that is so big and so strong that no country will dare attack us.  Yet Trump himself, surrounded by his “warrior” advisers, isn’t content to build a huge military while not using it.  Indeed, Trump is already using it, notably in Yemen, pursuing policies that are fated to perpetuate warfare around the globe.  And it’s hardly encouraging that, after the failed Yemen raid, Trump shifted the blame to his generals rather than taking it himself.

Remember what Sun Tzu warned about vanity as well as perpetual warfare, especially when your own people are increasingly divided?  Something tells me this lesson is lost on Trump, Bannon, and crew.  Embracing the stratagems of The Art of War, its emphasis on surprise, subterfuge, deception, and quick strikes, is not enough.  You must seek the wisdom at its core, which is very much against war except as a last resort.

Know thyself, said Sun Tzu, echoing the Greek philosopher Socrates.  Face yourself squarely, recognize your flaws, your vanity (“All is vanity,” say the Christian Bible, a book Trump professes to treasure), and be careful indeed in unleashing war.

Do Trump, Bannon, and company know themselves, admit to their flaws and vanities, and recognize that war, in all its perils and costs, should be a course of last resort?  So far, evidence is wanting.

Cynicism: It Defines Trump’s Words and Deeds

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He can read from a teleprompter without barking: presidential?

W.J. Astore

One word defines Trump and his cronies: cynicism.  His cabinet picks illustrate this; many of them are against the very agencies’ missions that they’re supposed to uphold, like public education, environmental protection, and decent health care.  He hires billionaires for his cabinet in the name of draining the swamp and championing the cause of the working classes.  Meanwhile, even as Trump poses as commander-in-chief, he ducks responsibility for the failed raid on Yemen, shifting it to “his” generals, whom he otherwise praises as super-capable and deeply respected.

Under Trump, Americans are witnessing the negation of idealism.  Some might say that America’s ideals such as liberty and freedom and democracy have been observed more in the breach than in practice (consider slavery, for example, or the treatment of Native Americans), but at least we had ideals.  They were imperfectly practiced, but with Trump ideals no longer matter.  It’s just cynicism, a naked grab for wealth and power.

Cynics don’t believe in much of anything, except perhaps their own perspicacity in seeing the world “as it is.”  If you don’t believe in anything, you can lash out at anything, without guilt.  And Trump is a lasher.  He attacks everything: “failed” generals, “murderous” Mexicans, “terrorist” Muslims, the “lying” press, unfair judges, even Rosie O’Donnell , beauty queens, and Nordstrom (!).  Anyone and everything can be attacked and vilified when you’re a cynic with no core beliefs other than your own rectitude.

Trump is not a leader, he’s a cynic.  A negator of meaning.  What’s amazing to me is that some in the media recently suggested he looked presidential just because he read a speech written by others off a teleprompter without barking or snarling.  Of course, cynicism is not unique to Trump; Hillary and the Democrats have their share, as Chris Hedges has noted.  Recall, for example, the silencing of anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention in July.  Trump just has less class, even trotting out a war widow while passing the buck on taking responsibility for her grief.

Why is cynicism so dangerous?  I recall watching a documentary on the Holocaust in which a witness to a massacre described the horrific events.  He ended with a cry against cynicism.  The negation of human life he’d witnessed had, at its core, the cynical belief that human life simply didn’t matter.  That people were just so much matter, just things to be exploited or disposed of as their “masters” decreed.

Cynicism, a denial of idealism, of higher meaning, and of humanity, was a propellant to, an accelerant of, the Holocaust.  We see cynicism in Trump’s reference to the dead Navy SEAL in the Yemen raid.  His service and death is celebrated as uniquely heroic and noble (“etched in eternity”), whereas the many Yemeni people killed, including several children, are forgotten.  They simply don’t count; they are beneath being noticed.

Cynicism is spreading in America, with Jewish tombstones being toppled over, with darker-skinned immigrants being shot and killed in the name of “taking back one’s country,” of certain Muslims being excluded solely on their country of origin.  Policies are being driven by cynicism – a cold calculus of profit and power.

To a cynic, all facts are “alternative,” which is to say a lie is judged the same way truth is, by the criterion of whether it advances one’s agenda and one’s power.  What’s “true” is what’s expedient.  To a cynic, facts are unimportant.  All that matters is what you can get people to believe, how you can manipulate them and get them to act to fulfill your agenda.

Cynicism is the enemy of idealism, of truth, of humanity.  Where it ends I truly hesitate to say.

Making America Divided Again

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Rise above the pettiness, don’t be the pettiness

W.J. Astore

Trump’s latest press conference is worrisome for so many reasons.  He seems to live in his own reality (e.g. his administration is “a fine-tuned machine“).  He’s still obsessed with Hillary Clinton and the margin of his victory.  He seems only recently to have learned how serious the prospects of a nuclear holocaust could and would be.  He continues to defend General Michael Flynn, saying that even though Flynn undermined the Obama administration and lied to Vice President Mike Pence, his rapprochement to Russia was laudable (with Trump suggesting that, even though he hadn’t approved Flynn’s actions, he might have).  He even tasked a Black reporter to set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus for him!

What to make of The Donald?  Trump seems to thrive on creating animosity, then exploiting it.  Special targets for him include the U.S. intelligence community and the media, both of which he sees as implacable enemies.  But is animosity and chaos any way to run a country or to represent a people?

I can see how calling out your perceived enemies might work in business, especially a personal one, though Trump’s bankruptcies suggest otherwise.  But Trump is no longer a free-wheeling real estate tycoon.  He’s president now, a symbol (like it or not) of America. Generating animosity and discord as a public servant is divisive, fractious, selfish, and unwise.

A united America is much stronger than a disunited America, but since Trump thrives on division, his personal style is weakening our country. You might say he’s the opposite of Abraham Lincoln, who appealed to the better angels of our nature in a noble but ultimately failed attempt to unite a disunited country. Whatever else Trump is about, it’s not better angels.

Instead of making America great again, Trump is making it divided and uncivil again.

Mister President: Please stop blaming the media, or Hillary, or the intelligence community, or judges, or anyone else for that matter.  Get on with the job of being a public servant.  America needs inspired leadership, not self-serving rhetoric.  We need a uniter, not a divider.

Rise above the pettiness, Mister President.  For the nation’s sake, don’t be the pettiness.

Lessons and Propaganda from the Botched Raid on Yemen

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Nora al-Awlaki, 8 years old, killed in the Yemen raid

W.J. Astore

The Trump administration’s first “kinetic” military action, last weekend’s raid on Yemen that killed a Navy SEAL as well as fifteen women and children, was an operational failure. Aggravating that failure has been the aggressive propaganda spin applied by the White House. According to White House spokesman Sean Spicer, the operation was a major success:

“Knowing that we killed an estimated 14 AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] members and that we gathered an unbelievable amount of intelligence that will prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil – is something that I think most service members understand, that that’s why they joined the service.”

Later, Spicer doubled down, accusing Senator John McCain (and other critics of the raid) of defaming the dead Navy SEAL when he suggested the raid had been something less than a towering success. McCain, Spicer said, owed the dead SEAL an apology.

Trump himself then joined the fray, accusing John McCain in a tweet of emboldening the enemy and suggesting he’d “been losing so long he doesn’t know how to win anymore.”

Yet, by Spicer’s logic, President Trump himself owes an apology to all U.S. troops killed in the Iraq and Afghan wars, since Trump has criticized these wars as either unnecessary or botched in execution. Recall here that Trump said he was against the Iraq invasion in 2003, but once the U.S. invaded, he said the U.S. government botched it by not taking Iraq’s oil, which, he claimed, would have prevented the rise of ISIS.

The Iraq war, Trump has said, was a mistake, a failure, a loss.  He promised to show America how to “win” again.  Is the recent Yemen raid what he meant by a “win”?

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Nearly everything went wrong in the Yemen raid.  Surprise wasn’t achieved.  U.S. troops were killed and wounded.  Far too many non-combatants (innocent civilians) were killed, including an eight-year-old girl.  A $75 million Osprey malfunctioned and had to be destroyed.

To hazard a guess, this raid probably cost the U.S. in the neighborhood of $250 million while failing to achieve its main objective.  Meanwhile, the enemy put up fierce resistance with weaponry, mainly small arms and explosives, that probably cost less than $100,000.

In brief, the U.S. raid on Yemen was prodigal in cost, profligate in resources, and unproductive in results.

Of course, I can’t say for certain that the raid didn’t secure vital intelligence.  According to Spicer, an “unbelievable” amount of intelligence was seized.  But early signs are unpromising.  The U.S. military chose to share, in the immediate aftermath of the raid, a video of bomb-making training by al-Qaeda (apparently from a seized laptop), only to remove it when they learned the training video was a decade old and readily available on YouTube.  Some intelligence coup!

The Trump administration is promising to launch more raids, featuring an “easier approval cycle” than witnessed under President Obama.  Indeed, some reports suggest President Trump was goaded into approving the Yemen raid by being told his predecessor wouldn’t have approved it.

If the Yemen raid is the new face of “winning” under Trump, America may yet long for the days of “losing” under previous presidents.

 

Pentagon Spending: Up, Up, and Away!

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The Navy at flank speed, in pursuit of more money

W.J. Astore

Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.  Under the Trump administration, what is valued is spending on military weaponry and wars.  The Pentagon is due to get a major boost under Trump, as reported by the Associated Press and FP: Foreign Policy:

Money train. It’s looking like it might be Christmas in February for the U.S. defense industry. The Pentagon has delivered a $30 billion wish list to Congress that would fund more ships, planes, helicopters, drones, and missiles, the AP reports.

And that might only be the beginning.

President Trump has already ordered the Pentagon to draft a “supplemental” budget for 2017 that would include billions more for the U.S. military on top of the $600 billion the Obama administration budgeted for… 

As FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce recently reported, there are proposals floating around for a defense budget as high as $640 billion for 2018, which would bust through congressionally-mandated spending caps that Democrats — and many Republicans — are happy to keep in place. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has been tasked with completing the supplemental request by March 1.

The Pentagon, which has never passed a financial audit and which has wasted more than two trillion dollars over the years (this figure came in 2001, when Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense under Bush/Cheney), is due to be given even more money to spend, irrespective of past performance or future need.

Naturally, each military service is already posturing and clamoring for the extra money promised by Trump.  Consider the U.S. Navy, which, according to Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William Moran, will be “Just Flat Out Out Of Money” without this supplemental funding boost from Congress.

According to the Navy and Marine Corps:

Five attack submarines would see their maintenance availabilities canceled this year and be put at risk of being decertified if no supplemental were passed out of Congress, Moran added, in addition to similar cuts to surface ship maintenance availabilities.

Assistant Commandant Gen. Glenn Walters said “we would stop flying in about July” without a supplemental. He clarified that forward forces would continue to operate, but for units training at home, “all training would cease without a supplemental, and that includes the parts money and the flying hour money.”

Even if the supplemental – which could total between $30 and $40 billion for all the armed services – is passed in a timely manner, the Navy and Marine Corps still face massive readiness issues that money can’t immediately address.

That last part is disturbing indeed.  Even with billions in additional funding, the Navy still faces “massive readiness issues.”

Well, here are a few radical suggestions for Trump and the Pentagon:

  1. If money is tight, why not re-prioritize?  If readiness is compromised, why not scale back the mission?
  2. Before boosting funding, why not force the Pentagon to pass a financial audit?
  3. If trillions of dollars have gone “missing” over the last decades (remember, a Republican Secretary of Defense made this claim), why not launch missions to find that money before spending billions of new money?

You don’t reform a bureaucracy that wastes money by giving them more money.  It’s like reforming an addict on drugs by giving him more money to spend on drugs. Until the Pentagon can account for its spending, its budget needs to be flatlined or cut.

The only way to force the Pentagon to think about “defense” spending is to limit its budget.  Throwing money at the Pentagon just ensures more of the same, only more: as in more weaponry, more wars, and more fraud, waste, and abuse.

Given the Pentagon’s track record over the last half-century, does anyone truly think that more money is a solution to anything?

Is the Idea of a Military Coup Hysterical?

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Unlike George Washington or Cincinnatus, today’s warrior-generals don’t return to the plough.  They cash-in at the trough of the military-industrial complex

W.J. Astore

The National Review labels the idea of a military coup in Trump’s America “hysterical.” Here’s David French criticizing my recent article at TomDispatch.com:

Here we go again — another article talking about how the retired generals in Trump’s cabinet, civilians who are nominated by a civilian and confirmed by a civilian senate, represent the erosion of the principle of civilian control over the military. But this time, there’s a hysterical twist. The nomination of James Mattis for secretary of defense and John Kelly for secretary of homeland security and the selection of Michael Flynn for national security adviser is worse than a real-life coup. No, really.

French goes on to say the following:

Lots of people read this nonsense. Lots of people believe this nonsense. I’ve been arguing for some time that the prime threat to our national unity isn’t action but reaction. Activists and pundits take normal politics (retired generals have a long history of serving this nation in civilian offices, beginning with George Washington) and respond with an overreaction that pushes their fellow citizens into believing that the sky is falling.

In my article for TomDispatch.com, I made the same point that retired generals have a long history of serving this nation, beginning with Washington.  But Washington was a special case, an American Cincinnatus, a citizen first, a soldier second.  As I mentioned in my article, today’s generals are cut from a different cloth.  They self-identify as warriors first and foremost.  Even when they retire, they usually go to work immediately for the military-industrial complex, making millions in the process.

French seems to think that if a civilian like Donald Trump nominates four recently retired warrior/generals, and if a civilian Congress approves them, this in no way constitutes a coup.  And, strictly speaking, that’s true.

Yet consider this.  These four warrior/generals will direct the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and the National Security Council.  Professional warriors are filling the highest leadership positions in a superpower military complex that is supposed to be overseen by civilians.  They will command budgetary authority approaching a trillion dollars annually. If this isn’t a de facto military coup, what is?

Consider as well that their boss, Donald Trump, professes to admire two American generals: George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur.  In choosing Patton and MacArthur, Trump has all the signs of an immature military hero-lover. Mature historians recognize that generals like George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley were far more distinguished (and far more in keeping with the American citizen-soldier ideal) than Patton and MacArthur. Indeed, both Patton and MacArthur were over-hyped, deliberately so, for propaganda purposes during Word War II. MacArthur was a disaster in the Philippines, and Patton wasn’t even needed during D-Day. Both fancied themselves to be warriors; both were vainglorious showboats, stuck on themselves and their alleged military brilliance.

“Retired” warriors are simply not the right men in a democracy to ride herd on the military. Warrior/generals like Mattis, Flynn, and Kelly — men defined by the military and loyal to it for their entire lives — are not going to become free-thinkers and tough-minded critics in a matter of months, especially when they’ve already cashed in after retirement by joining corporate boards affiliated with the military-industrial complex.

Look, I realize some Americans see nothing wrong with generals taking charge of America. As one disgruntled reader wrote me, “I value the experience of generals who led Soldiers and Marines in combat on the ground.”

Well, I value that too.  So does our country, which is why the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) advise our president.  But what Trump has done is to surround himself with a rival JCS, his own band of warriors, generals that he sees as the equivalent to Patton and MacArthur. He’s created a dynamic in which the only advice he’ll get on national security is from military minds.  And if you’re looking to Congress as a check on military rule, consider that the last time Congress formally exercised its authority to declare war was December 1941.  Yes, 75 years ago this month.

Hey, nothing to worry about here.  Don’t get hysterical.  Let the “civilian” generals rule! After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Further Thoughts: I think many in America equate militarism to fascism; they think that, so long as jackbooted troops aren’t marching loudly down American streets and breaking down doors, militarism doesn’t exist here.

But militarism, as a descriptive term, also involves the permeation of military attitudes and values throughout civil society and political culture in America.  Since 9/11, if not before, Americans have been actively encouraged to “support our troops” as a patriotic duty.  Those troops have been lauded as “warriors,” “war-fighters,” and “heroes,” even as the U.S. military has become both thoroughly professionalized and increasingly isolated from civil society.  This isolation, however, does not extend to public celebrations of the military, most visibly at major sporting events (e.g. NFL football games).  (A small sign of this is major league baseball players wearing camouflaged uniforms to “honor” the troops.)

Trump’s decision — to put four senior “retired” generals in charge of America’s military and national security — acts as an accelerant to the permeation of military attitudes and values throughout America’s civil society and political culture.  Again, the USA, one must recall, was founded on civilian control of the military as well as the ideal of the citizen-soldier.  The latter ideal is dead, replaced as it has been by a new ideal, that of the warrior.

And civilian control?  With four generals in command, enabled by an inexperienced civilian commander-in-chief whose ideal general is defined by Patton and MacArthur, you have in essence a repudiation of civilian control.

 

Trump’s system will gorge itself until it collapses under its own weight. Too bad it’ll take the planet down as well

richardfeynman
Richard Feynman (copyright Tamiko Thiel, 1984)

W.J. Astore

Conflicts of interest characterize Donald Trump and his cabinet even before he and they take power in January, so we can safely predict a lot of corruption will be forthcoming. I always love the way both parties, but especially the Republicans, vow to fight for smaller government and lower deficits — until they get in power. Then it’s bigger government and larger deficits in the service of crony capitalism. Kleptocracy, in a word.

A good friend put it concisely: “It makes me sick!”

But of course that’s why she’s not in Washington. The Washington-types don’t find it sickening. For them, “Greed is good.” They convince themselves that: 1) The more they have, the better. 2) They deserve more because they’re better people. 3) The little people are schmucks who deserve to be exploited.

My parents liked the saying, “Birds of a feather flock together.” So the greedy are easy to find. Just look for them in the corridors of power, clustered together. For example, why do so many generals and admirals cash-in at retirement, joining corporate boards and making millions? They have six-figure government pensions, so why do they need more? They think they deserve the money. And they want to continue to play the power game, preening among the flock in the process.

As another friend of mine put it, “Money is the only thing the American elite really cares about. And I always think of Sinclair Lewis’s line that poor Americans never think of themselves as poor, only as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. One of our neighbors and friends told me he was voting Trump because with lower taxes he will be free to make a lot more money. Really? How much does anyone really think taxes will go down for people making what we make?”

The reality for us is that our taxes will probably go down by only a few hundred dollars. It’ll help us pay our air conditioning bills next summer, but that’s about it. Modest tax cuts are not going to turn us all into budding Donald Trumps (thank god for small mercies).

Yes, for people in Trump’s crowd, money is the measure of success. But so too is access. And power. Some of these people will kill themselves to be seen at the right parties, among the “right” kind of people. “Players.” “Operators.” Not people like you and me.

Trump’s government will gorge itself until it collapses under its own weight. The big question is whether its collapse will take the rest of us with it. Consider global warming, and consider the climate change deniers and fossil fuel profiteers that Trump is empowering. How long does our planet have left until we confront true disaster? A few decades, perhaps?

I always told my students the big problem with global warming was that its most serious perils – real as they are – lurked decades in the future. Problems that are decades away are difficult to address when America is driven by a quarterly business cycle and a quadrennial election cycle for the presidency. Now, under Trump, these problems won’t be addressed at all because the business moguls as well as the president simply deny their existence. Why? Because it’s convenient for them to do so. Because they stand to make a great deal of money by doing so. And because they don’t care about decades from now; they care about quarterly profits and getting reelected.

As I grow older, the words from a commercial of my youth have found new resonance in my memory: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” Not only isn’t it nice: it’s incredibly foolhardy. For the words of Richard Feynman about the space shuttle Challenger disaster ring true here:

Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.

Trump and his cronies may fool some of the people all of the time, but they’re not going to fool Nature. Sooner or later (and sooner under Trump), nature’s bill will come.