Trump and the Generals

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W.J. Astore

There’s a new article at The Atlantic by Mark Bowden that cites America’s generals to condemn Donald Trump’s leadership of the military.  Here’s how the article begins:

For most of the past two decades, American troops have been deployed all over the world—to about 150 countries. During that time, hundreds of thousands of young men and women have experienced combat, and a generation of officers have come of age dealing with the practical realities of war. They possess a deep well of knowledge and experience. For the past three years, these highly trained professionals have been commanded by Donald Trump.

That’s quite the opening.  A few comments:

  1. It’s not a good thing that American troops have been deployed to nearly 150 countries over the last 20 years.  Indeed, it points to the scattershot nature of U.S. strategy, such as it is, in the “global war on terror.”
  2. Hundreds of thousands of troops have “experienced combat” — and this is a good thing?  What wars have they won?  What about the dead and wounded?  What about the enormous monetary cost of these wars?
  3. Dealing with “the practical realities of war” — Please tell me, again, how Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc., have played out?
  4. “Highly trained professionals” with “a deep well of knowledge and experience.”  Again, tell me which wars America has clearly won.

The gist of Bowden’s article is that Trump is capricious, vain, contrary, and ignorant.  But his biggest sin is that he doesn’t listen to the experts in the military and the intelligence community, whereas George W. Bush and Barack Obama did.

Aha!  Tell me again how things worked out for Bush and Obama.  Bush led the USA disastrously into Afghanistan and Iraq; Obama “surged” in Afghanistan (a failure), created a disaster in Libya, and oversaw an expansion of Bush’s wars against terror.  And these men did all this while listening to the experts, those “highly trained professionals” with those allegedly “deep” wells of knowledge and experience.

Given this record, can one blame Trump for claiming he’s smarter than the generals?  Can one fault him for trying to end needless wars?  He was elected, after all, on a platform of ending costly and foolish wars.  Is he not trying, however inconsistently or confusingly, to fulfill that platform?

The point here is not to praise Donald Trump, who as commander-in-chief is indeed capricious and ignorant and too convinced of his own brilliance.  The point is to question Bowden’s implied faith in the generals and their supposed “deep well” of expertise.  For if you judge them by their works, and not by their words, this expertise has failed to produce anything approaching victory at a sustainable cost.

Bowden’s article concludes with this warning: In the most crucial areas, the generals said, the military’s experienced leaders have steered Trump away from disaster. So far.

“The hard part,” one general said, “is that he may be president for another five years.”

The generals “have steered Trump away from disaster.”  Really.  Tell me who’s going to steer the generals away from their disasters — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, the list goes on.

Bowden, it must be said, makes valid points about Trump’s weaknesses and blind spots.  But in embracing and even celebrating the generals, Bowden reveals a major blind spot of his own.

The Dangerous Myth of Patriotism

Richard Sahn

For most Americans, patriotism means love of country.  But I’d like to suggest this “love” is misplaced for three reasons.  First, I’d like to suggest that “country” is an imaginary construct.  Two, I’d like to show how patriotism is misused and abused by the powerful, most infamously by President Donald Trump.  And three, I’d like to suggest a new form of patriotism, the love of the tangible, and by this I mean our fellow human beings.

“Country” as an imaginary construct

“Imagine there’s no countries,” John Lennon wrote nearly fifty years ago. Generally, citizens of a given country insist they love their nation. But can one truly “love America,” or any other country or nation? For that matter can you love any state, city, town, or sports team?

In general semantics, a branch of linguistics which is itself a branch of philosophy, the word is not the thing, the map is not the territory. Canada, France, the Red Sox are only names, concepts, phenomena of consciousness. Or a neurological system in the brain if you adhere to the Western materialist worldview.

Think about it: You can’t see, touch, feel, hear, or taste “France.” But you can taste a French pastry made in “France” and see and touch the Eiffel Tower. ”Vive La France” does not mean that French people collectively are going to live a long life. In fact, the concept of France vanishes if there are no longer any human beings left after, say, France is devastated by a massive nuclear attack.

Now, one can literally love the beauty of the land that comprises the legal territory of a given country. I love the mountains and the deserts of the Western U.S., the woods of northern Maine, the seacoasts of California.  I love Fourth of July celebrations, the fireworks and cookouts. I even love the old Frank Sinatra song, “The House I Live In” because it names things in America that you can put your hands on, such as the line “the ‘howdy’ and the handshake.” And then the concluding lyric, “that’s America to me.” (Notice there is no insinuation there is an America out there, only the symbolic meaning of the phrase.)

Love of country, in short, is nonsensical because a country, a nation, is an abstraction, a conceptual phenomenon, a byproduct of mental processes, that has no existence in the material universe.  Perhaps Lennon’s dream of “imagine there’s no countries” will only become reality when we no longer perceive people as enemies or opponents merely because they live elsewhere or look different.

The misuse and abuse of patriotism

Politicians and journalists tend to affirm, for obvious reasons, that it’s important to state how much you love America. Not to do so could easily result in your career or ambitions heading south. Still, proclaiming your love of country, whatever country that is, all too often has undesirable and destructive consequences. For instance, it becomes easier to support a government taking the country to war.  Or colossal military budgets in the name of “defending” the “country.”

To an unreflective patriot the country is not seen as the sum of its parts but as a reality sui generis, perhaps symbolized by a father figure like Uncle Sam.

us
You know Uncle Sam isn’t real, right?

If I can make a sweeping generalization, among rural chauvinists “country” is part of the “God, Country, and Guns” trinity.  This idea is well captured by the Merle Haggard song from 1970 that “When they’re runnin’ down our country, man/They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”

President Trump’s recent call for members of the so-called squad, the four progressive Congresswomen of color, to “go back”  to where they came from (a takeoff of “love it or leave it”) is one step away from “I will hurt you if I see you  again.” Obviously, there is no place natural-born U.S. citizens can go back to. And even if they were not citizens by birth, why should they have to leave after having become U.S. citizens?  Trump’s “patriotism” is racist nationalism – and shamelessly so.

Patriotism, in the narrow Trumpian usage of that word, demands opponents, sides, an “us versus them” mentality.  And that’s a mentality calculated for division, distraction, and destruction.

Real patriotism

We humans can’t see national borders from space, but we do see our planet.  Our real “homeland.”  Nevertheless, the false choice of “America: love it or leave it” has recently been revived from the days when protesters against the Vietnam War were denounced as unpatriotic. In truth, they were performing the most patriotic act imaginable, if patriotism is properly defined as love of one’s fellow human beings. In that sense, real patriotism is humanitarianism.  It’s focused on humans and the home where we live, not on constructs that are insensible.

False patriotism may remain “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” as Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British social philosopher, observed.  Even so, a literal belief in “my country, right or wrong” could still do us all in some sunny day.  A dangerous myth, indeed.

Richard Sahn is a retired professor of sociology.  You may also wish to read his article on sports and reification.

Trump’s Impeachment

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Happier days for Trump

W.J. Astore

President Donald Trump, it now seems clear, pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate a political rival, Joe Biden.  He exerted this pressure by withholding military aid to Ukraine approved by Congress, and by calling Ukraine’s president and asking him for a “favor,” the said favor being the investigation of Biden and his son, Hunter.  The White House apparently acted to “lock down” transcripts of the phone call, but a whistleblower came forward backed by an inspector general.

And my first reaction was: Can Trump be impeached for stupidity?

Joe Biden is a weak candidate for the presidency.  It’s questionable whether he’ll win the nomination next year.  Why bother going after him in such an egregiously illegal way when Biden is very likely to implode as a candidate on his own?

I can’t answer that question, but I can guess.  Trump, to put it mildly, has never been a public servant, and I include his term as president in this statement.  Trump is always about himself; the world revolves around him, or so he thinks.  He has no conception of following laws simply because he believes he is above them.  Furthermore, Biden may be a weak rival, but rival he is nonetheless.  And Trump, operating from his experience in the take-no-prisoners world of New York real estate, casino management, and similar escapades, knows what to do with a rival: you search for any edge you can get, including pressuring those who are dependent on you to dig up dirt on said rival.

Put bluntly, in this case Trump simply did what he regularly does.  The only difference is that a whistleblower wouldn’t play the game of “nothing to see here, move along.”

If only Trump had done what he promised as a candidate.  If only he’d acted to drain the swamp; if only he’d worked hard to end America’s forever wars; if only he’d truly put America first by rebuilding our country’s infrastructure and cutting taxes for workers.  Instead, he hired the swamp; he refueled those forever wars; he abandoned infrastructure along with meaningful tax cuts for workers.

Trump lacks integrity.  In short, he’s just another self-interested politician.  More than this, however, is Trump’s complete lack of respect for the law.  It’s time for him to go.

Update (9/27/19)

A few comments in passing:

1. Investigating Trump, on credible charges, is not an example of Trump Derangement Syndrome.
2. Saying that Biden is also corrupt, or that Democrats are corrupt, in no way exonerates Trump. For my money, let’s prosecute all corruption everywhere.
3. Often, the cover-up is worse than the crime. That may well be the case here.
4. Trump, as is his wont, is making matters worse, suggesting the whistleblower’s sources acted like spies and suggesting execution would be appropriate. (Please don’t say he was vague; we all know what he meant.)
5. Readers of this blog know that I voted third party in 2016. If you examine my articles, you’ll find I’m critical of both Democrats and Republicans.
6. Justice should not be partisan, even as it’s inevitably influenced by it.
7. I don’t care if the Republican-controlled Senate chooses not to convict Trump. Our lawmakers will have to go on the record, as they should, History will render the final verdict.
8. I don’t know if impeachment will make Trump stronger or weaker, and I don’t care. What it will do, assuming the evidence is sufficient, is to make justice in America stronger. No man should be above the law.

James Mattis, the General Who Couldn’t

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W.J. Astore

James Mattis is making the talk show rounds, promoting his new book, “Call Sign Chaos.”  Interestingly, while openly critical of President George W. Bush for being unprepared for the Iraq War, and President Barack Obama for lacking a strategy and being too soft toward enemies like Iran, Mattis is remarkably circumspect about his service as Secretary of Defense under President Donald Trump.  Perhaps Trump’s non-disclosure agreements really do pack a punch?

I’ve written about Mattis before.  Trump may have picked him in part because he looks a little like George S. Patton of World War II fame.  While serving under Trump, Mattis was deferential but not as big of an ass-kisser as most of Trump’s subordinates.  Mattis was a disappointment nonetheless, bought off by all the money Trump and the Republicans (and Democrats as well) shoveled to the Pentagon.

Mattis, among several generals Trump called “his” own, did nothing to end America’s disastrous overseas wars and the profligate spending on them.  He also did nothing to curb the U.S. military’s desire to spend $1.7 trillion on genocidal nuclear weapons.  He had no vision for a U.S. military that would be less imperial, less wasteful, and, in two words, less stupid.

Mattis was more interested in better relations with allies than was Trump, especially NATO, but that was about the only notable difference.  That and the fact that Mattis seemed even more dedicated to using the U.S. military in debacles like Afghanistan and Syria, whereas Trump, displaying his usual fickleness and ignorance, waxed between total destruction and total withdrawal.

Strategic chaos has been the result of Mattis’s service under Trump, so the book’s title is unintentionally accurate.  If only retired generals would do what they used to do way back when, such as fishing and golfing, enjoying a sinecure or two but otherwise doing no harm.  But, sadly, that’s no longer the American way.  Too many generals, retired or otherwise, are spoiling the Democracy, and Mattis is one of them.

Among noteworthy American generals who could, men like Patton and Ike and Grant and Sherman, Mattis is yet another pretender like David Petraeus, a man who couldn’t.  He couldn’t win a major, enduring, victory, and he didn’t define a new course forward that would truly safeguard America’s national security.  Call sign chaos, indeed.

America’s Manufactured Culture War

W.J. Astore

So much of what passes for America’s Kulturkampf (culture struggle) consists of phony, made up, manufactured issues.  Consider the following sign, sent to me by a friend as he toured the wilds of Pennsylvania:

PC Penntucky

It is supposedly “politically incorrect” to say Merry Christmas, to state the Pledge of Allegiance (“one nation under God”), to salute the flag, and to thank the troops.  Those who do all these things apparently take pride in their alleged outspokenness and their love of all things American.

Sigh.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but it’s never been politically incorrect to say Merry Christmas.  Virtually all Americans say they believe in God or some higher power.  Nearly all Americans respect the flag (even those who kneel in protest, I’d argue), and America’s respect for the military has never been higher.

But this sign with its false narrative encapsulates much of the Republican/Trumpian message: We’re the real Americans.  And anyone who says “Happy Holidays” or who suggests separation of church and state or who sees protest as legitimate free speech is obviously un-American and should leave the country.

I just wonder at all those Americans who buy signs like this, thinking that by doing so they’re showcasing their bravery at being non-PC and their pride in being so “American.”

One thing is certain: this manufactured culture war is a great way to distract and divide the commoners as the rich and powerful continue their looting of America.

Trump is a Trump Supremacist

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He soars over all of us

W.J. Astore

Over at ABC News, an article asks whether Donald Trump is a white supremacist.  Bernie Sanders thinks so.  Elizabeth Warren does too.

I’m not so sure.  Trump sounds like a white supremacist.  His rhetoric encourages white supremacists.  He has a long history of bigotry and racism.  QED?

I’m hesitant to say it’s proven, but I know one thing is certain: Trump is a Trump supremacist.

A self-confessed “very stable genius.”  A man without a racist bone in his body.  The least racist person you’ll ever meet, according to Trump himself.  A president who ranks himself as roughly equal to Abraham Lincoln, considered by most historians to have been America’s finest president.

Vanity, thy name is Trump.  And because Trump is a white male, ipso facto white men are supreme; they must be, because Trump is one of them, indeed the finest example of them, at least in his own mind.

So, I think it’s tempting yet too simplistic to say Trump is a white supremacist.  Trump is a Trump supremacist.  Everyone else is inferior to Trump, some more so than others.  The less you look like Trump, or act like Trump, the less he thinks of you.  Thus it’s no surprise he surrounds himself with mostly white men, many with dubious pasts of sexism or racism.  To Trump, these are not disqualifiers.  How could they be?  He’s sexist and racist, so how can that ultimately be a bad thing?

From his lofty perch as the greatest human in all of history, Trump looks down on all of us.  He just sneers a bit more if you’re brown or black or less than 100% boorishly male.

Mass Shootings and American Carnage

mass-shooting

W.J. Astore

What can you say about mass shootings in America that hasn’t already been said?  El Paso and Dayton (not Toledo, Mr. Trump) are the most recent in a seemingly unending series of shootings in America.  A grim statistic:

“Dayton was the 22nd mass killing in America this year, according to an AP/USA Today/Northeastern University mass murder database, which tracks all attacks involving four or more people killed.”

Or, alternatively: “The shooting in Ohio marked the 31st deadly mass shooting in America this year, defined as those where at least three people are killed by gun violence in a single episode.”

Or, alternatively:

“As of today (Aug. 4), we are 216 days into 2019. In the US over that time, more than 1,300 people have been injured or killed in mass shootings, according to data collected by the Gun Violence Archive.

QUARTZ
Injuries and deaths related to mass shootings.

The nonprofit organization, which is based in Washington, DC, defines a mass shooting as an event in which at least four people were shot. By its calculations, that means there have been some 292 mass shootings in the US since the year began.”

In a prepared statement this morning, President Trump came out against white supremacy, racism, and bigotry, but tragically this is a clear case of “Do what I say, not what I do” for Trump.  He compounded his hypocrisy by ignoring the ready availability of assault weapons, blaming instead mental illness and violent video games, among other factors.

Firstly, the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.  Secondly, violent video games are a global phenomenon, but I’m not reading about dozens of mass shootings each year in Japan or Korea or Sweden.

Trump’s weak-willed words were thoroughly predictable; he’s closely aligned with the National Rifle Association and its total fixation on gun rights to the exclusion of all others.  He’s not alone in this.  When I taught in rural Pennsylvania, my students knew all about the Second Amendment.  But their knowledge of the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments was far weaker.  Yes, for many Americans guns really do trump free speech, freedom of the press, and similar rights.

Predictably, Americans search for a magic bullet (pun intended) after these horrifying massacres to put a stop to them.  How about better background checks?  Eliminating extended magazines for the millions of assault rifles that are already in the hands of Americans?  Better databases to track the mentally ill and the criminally violent?  And so on.  And we should have better background checks before you can buy a gun; we should stop selling military-style hardware; we should keep better track of dangerous people.  But steps such as these will only stem the violence (if that).  They won’t put an end to it.

Our culture is suffused with violence.  At the same time, powerful forces are at play (stoked by our very own president) to divide us, to inflame our passions, to turn us against them, where “them” is some category of “other,” as with the El Paso shooter, who targeted immigrants “invading” America.

To stop mass shootings, we must change our culture of violence.  This is made much more difficult by men like Trump, who’ve embraced violent rhetoric for their own selfish purposes.  But we must change it nonetheless, else witness more carnage across America.

Note to readers: This is not the first time I’ve written about violence and guns in America.  Here are links to a few articles on this subject at Bracing Views:

God, Country, Guns

Guns and Grievances

“People Who Cherish the Second Amendment”

America: Submerged in a Violent Cesspool

Lockdown America and School Shootings