Yet Another U.S. Surge in Afghanistan

W,J. Astore

The news out of Washington, D.C. is that another 4000 or so U.S. troops will be sent to help stabilize and reverse the “stalemate” in Afghanistan.  The commitment, relatively small in the number of troops, is open-ended in duration, and of course the numbers could (and likely will) rise.

Back in 2009, I wrote the following article for TomDispatch.com, urging then-President Obama not to give in to the “urge to surge.”  Of course, America did surge in Afghanistan in 2009-10, but that surge, roughly ten times larger than the mini-surge of this moment, failed to alter the fundamentals on the ground.  Indeed, the Taliban and related insurgent forces in Afghanistan have only grown stronger in the aftermath of the failed Obama surge.

Perhaps the new motto of the U.S. military should be: If at first you don’t succeed, surge, surge again.

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Mary McCarthy in Vietnam, Barack Obama in Afghanistan
Seven Lessons and Many Questions for the President

By William Astore (written in 2009)

In 1967, outraged by the course of the Vietnam War, as well as her country’s role in prolonging and worsening it, Mary McCarthy, novelist, memoirist, and author of the bestseller The Group, went to Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, to judge the situation for herself. The next year, she went to the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. She wrote accounts of both journeys, published originally in pamphlet format as Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968), and later gathered with her other writings on Vietnam as a book, The Seventeenth Degree (1974). As pamphlets, McCarthy’s accounts sold poorly and passed into obscurity; deservedly so, some would say.

Those who’d say this, however, would be wrong. McCarthy brought a novelist’s keen eye to America’s activities and its rhetoric in Vietnam. By no means a military expert, not even an expert on Vietnam — she only made a conscious decision to study the war in Vietnam after she returned from her trip to Saigon — her impressionistic writings were nevertheless insightful precisely because she had long been a critical thinker beholden to no authority.

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Mary McCarthy

Her insights into our approach to war-fighting and to foreign cultures are as telling today as they were 40 years ago, so much so that President Obama and his advisors might do well to add her unconventional lessons to their all-too-conventional thinking on our spreading war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What were those lessons? Here are seven of them, each followed by questions that, four decades later, someone at President Obama’s next press conference should consider asking him:

1. McCarthy’s most fundamental objection was to the way, in Vietnam, the U.S. government decided to apply “technology and a superior power to a political situation that will not yield to this.” At the very least, the United States was guilty of folly, but McCarthy went further. She condemned our technocentric and hegemonic form of warfare as “wicked” because of its “absolute indifference to the cost in human lives” to the Vietnamese people.

Even in 1967, the widespread, at times indiscriminate, nature of American killing was well known. For example, U.S. planes dropped roughly 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia during the war, nearly five times the tonnage used against Germany during World War II. The U.S. even waged war on the Vietnamese jungle and forest, which so effectively hid Vietnamese guerrilla forces, spraying roughly 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides (including the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange) on it.

In her outrage, McCarthy dared to compare the seeming indifference of many of her fellow citizens toward the blunt-edged sword of technological destruction we had loosed on Vietnam to the moral obtuseness of ordinary Germans under Adolf Hitler.

Questions for President Obama: Aren’t we once again relying on the destructive power of technology to “solve” complex political and religious struggles? Aren’t we yet again showing indifference to the human costs of war, especially when borne by non-Americans? Even though we’re using far fewer bombs in the Af-Pak highlands than we did in Vietnam, aren’t we still morally culpable when these “precision-guided munitions” miss their targets and instead claim innocents, or hit suspected “terrorists” who suddenly morph into wedding parties? In those cases, do we not seek false comfort in the phrase, C’est la guerre, or at least that modern equivalent: unavoidable collateral damage?

2. As Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 by calling for “peace with honor” in Vietnam, McCarthy offered her own warning about the dangers that arose when the office of the presidency collided with an American desire never to be labeled a loser: “The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.”

Questions for President Obama: Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?

3. Though critical of the U.S. military in Vietnam, McCarthy was even more critical of American civilian officials there. “On the whole,” she wrote, they “behaved like a team of promoters with a dubious ‘growth’ stock they were brokering.” At least military men were often more forthright than the civilians, if not necessarily more self-aware, McCarthy noted, because they were part of the war — the product, so to speak — not its salesmen.

Questions for President Obama: In promising to send a new “surge” of State Department personnel and other civilians into Afghanistan, are you prepared as well to parse their words? Are you braced in case they sell you a false bill of goods, even if the sellers themselves, in their eagerness to speak fairy tales to power, continually ignore the Fantasyland nature of their tale?

4. Well before Bush administration officials boasted about creating their own reality and new “facts on the ground” in Iraq, Mary McCarthy recognized the danger of another type of “fact”: “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”

Questions for President Obama: If your surge in Afghanistan fails, will you be able to de-escalate as quickly as you escalated? Or will the fact that you’ve put more troops in harm’s way (with all their equipment and all the money that will go into new base and airfield and road construction), and committed more of your prestige to prevailing, make it even harder to consider leaving?

5. A cursory reading of The Pentagon Papers, the famously secret government documents on Vietnam leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, reveals how skeptical America’s top officials were, early on, in pursuing a military solution to the situation in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, knowing better, the “best and brightest,” as journalist David Halberstam termed them in his famous, ironic book title, still talked themselves into it; and they did so, as McCarthy noted, because they set seemingly meaningful goals (“metrics” or “benchmarks,” we’d say today), which they then convinced themselves they were actually achieving. When you trick yourself into believing that you’re meeting your goals, as Halberstam noted, there’s no reason to reexamine your course of action.

Questions for President Obama: Much has been written about an internal struggle within your administration over the wisdom of surging in Afghanistan. Now, you, too, have called for the setting of “benchmarks”for your new strategy’s success. Are you wise enough to set them to capture the complexities of political realities on the ground rather than playing to American strengths? Are you capable of re-examining them, even when your advisors assure you that they are being achieved?

6. In her day, Mary McCarthy recognized the inequities of burden-sharing at home when it came to the war in Vietnam: “Casualty figures, still low [in 1967], seldom strike home outside rural and low-income groups — the silent part of society. The absence of sacrifices [among the privileged classes] has had its effect on the opposition [to the war], which feels no need, on the whole, to turn away from its habitual standards and practices — what for? We have not withdrawn our sympathy from American power and from the way of life that is tied to it — a connection that is more evident to a low-grade G.I. in Vietnam than to most American intellectuals.”

Questions for President Obama: Are you willing to listen to the common G.I. as well as to the generals who have your ear? Are you willing to insist on greater equity in burden-sharing, since once again most of the burden of Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen on “the silent part of society”? Are you able to recognize that the “best and brightest” in the corridors of power may not be the wisest exactly because they have so little to lose (and perhaps much to gain) from our “overseas contingency operations”?

7. McCarthy was remarkably perceptive when it came to the seductiveness of American technological prowess. Our technological superiority, she wrote, was a large part of “our willingness to get into Vietnam and stay there… The technological gap between us and the North Vietnamese constituted, we thought, an advantage which obliged us not to quit.”

Questions for President Obama: Rather than providing us with a war-winning edge, might our robot drones, satellite imagery, and all our other gadgetry of war seduce us into believing that we can “prevail” at a reasonable and sustainable cost? Indeed, do we think we should prevail precisely because our high-tech military brags of “full spectrum dominance”?

One bonus lesson from Mary McCarthy before we take our leave of her: Even now, we speak too often of “Bush’s war” or, more recently, “Obama’s war.” Before we start chattering mindlessly about Iraq and Afghanistan as American tragedies, we would do well to recall what McCarthy had to say about the war in Vietnam: “There is something distasteful,” she wrote, “in the very notion of approaching [Vietnam] as an American tragedy, whose protagonist is a great suffering Texan [President Lyndon Baines Johnson].”

Yes, there is something distasteful about a media that blithely refers to Bush’s or Obama’s war as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans suffer. For American troops, after all, are not the only ones paying the ultimate price when the U.S. fights foreign wars for ill-considered reasons and misguided goals.

Copyright 2009 William Astore

Memories of War

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Memories of War: So powerful yet often so fragmentary

W.J. Astore

Memories of war are powerful and fragmentary.  At a national level, we do best at remembering our own war dead while scarcely recognizing the damage to others.  This is one cost of nationalism.  Nationalism is violent, bigoted, and discriminatory.  It elevates a few at the expense of the many.  It fails fully to recognize common human experience, even one as shattering as war.

One example.  I’ve visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  In seeing all those names of American dead on the wall, I was moved to tears.  It’s a remarkable memorial, but what it fails to capture is any sense of the magnitude of death from that war visited upon Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  As I wrote for Alternet, to visualize the extent of death from America’s war in Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese would need a wall that would be roughly 20 to 50 times as long as ours.

Think about that for a moment.  A wall perhaps 50 times as long as our Vietnam memorial wall.  It’s a staggering mental image.  Sadly, today in America the only wall garnering much media interest is Trump’s wall along our border with Mexico, yet another manifestation of nationalist bigotry and bias.

John Dower challenges us to think differently.  To explore our common humanity.  To remember the war dead of other nations and peoples, and to record the true cost of America’s wars, both to others and to ourselves.  His latest article at TomDispatch.com explores how Americans both remember and forget their wars.  Here’s an excerpt:

While it is natural for people and nations to focus on their own sacrifice and suffering rather than the death and destruction they themselves inflict, in the case of the United States such cognitive astigmatism is backlighted by the country’s abiding sense of being exceptional, not just in power but also in virtue. In paeans to “American exceptionalism,” it is an article of faith that the highest values of Western and Judeo-Christian civilization guide the nation’s conduct — to which Americans add their country’s purportedly unique embrace of democracy, respect for each and every individual, and stalwart defense of a “rules-based” international order.

Such self-congratulation requires and reinforces selective memory. “Terror,” for instance, has become a word applied to others, never to oneself. And yet during World War II, U.S. and British strategic-bombing planners explicitly regarded their firebombing of enemy cities as terror bombing, and identified destroying the morale of noncombatants in enemy territory as necessary and morally acceptable. Shortly after the Allied devastation of the German city of Dresden in February 1945, Winston Churchill, whose bust circulates in and out of the presidential Oval Office in Washington (it is currently in), referred to the “bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts.”

Too often, Americans believe they’re waging a war on terror, forgetting that war itself is terror.  That war itself is evil.  That doesn’t mean that war is never justified, as it was, I believe, in the struggle against Nazi tyranny in World War II.  Even in justifiable wars, however, we need to recognize that war breeds corruption; that war, in essence, is corruption, a corruption of the human spirit, of a humanity which should be held in common and nourished, but which during war is degraded if not destroyed.

John Dower recognizes this.  It’s a theme he explores in his new book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two.  Consider it a primer on war’s many corruptions, and a precis of America’s tendency toward a nationalism of callous indifference when it comes to the damages we inflict on others.  It’s not happy reading, but then again wars shouldn’t be a subject for happiness.

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A remarkable primer and meditation on America’s endless wars

Wars and rumors of war seem always to be with us.  Some would say they’re an inevitable part of the human condition.  Our historical record seems to support that grim conclusion.  Yet there is another way, a more pacific path, a path toward peace.  But to walk that path, we must first fully recognize the tangled undergrowth of war that imperils our every footstep.  Dower’s latest book helps us to do just that.

America’s Surging Warrior Ethos

W.J. Astore

I’ve written a lot about America’s warrior ethos and how it represents a departure from a citizen-soldier ideal as embodied by men like George Washington and Major Dick Winters (of “Band of Brothers” fame).  This warrior ethos grew in the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam and the ending of the draft.  It gained impetus during the Reagan years and was symbolized in part by the development of fictional rogue symbols of warrior-toughness such as John Rambo.  Today’s U.S. military has various warrior codes and songs and so on, further reinforcing ideals of Spartan toughness.

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The Rambo Ideal: “Sir, Do We Get to Win This Time?” (Wiki)

My writings against this warrior hype have, on occasion, drawn fire from those who identify as warriors.  I’d like to share two examples.

Here is the first:

The day that we encourage our soldiers to be anything but warriors is the day that we start losing battles and wars. If we are controlled by citizens who are our ultimate leaders then it is up to them to handle the niceties of diplomacy and nation building.  But most of them don’t have the balls to get into the thick of things and try and convert the citizens of the place we are fighting to play at being nice children in the sand pile.  We had to dominate Japan to the nth degree to get them to surrender and so the same for Germany.  You academics never to cease to amaze me with your naïveté.

This reader cites World War II and America’s victory over Japan and Germany without mentioning the Greatest Generation’s embodiment of the citizen-soldier ideal and their rejection of Japanese and Nazi militarism.  Back then, America’s victory was interpreted as a triumph of democracy over authoritarian states like Japan and Germany.  While it’s true the Soviet Union played the crucial role in defeating Nazi Germany, the Soviets ultimately lost the Cold War, another “victory” by a U.S. military that didn’t self-identify as warriors.  Despite this history, this reader suggests that America’s recent military defeats are attributable to weak civilian leadership and a lack of warrior dominance.  He fails to notice how America’s new ethos of the warrior, inculcated over the last 30 years, has produced nothing close to victory in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

My second example comes from a U.S. Marine:

I watched the transition we made from life takers and widow makers to peace keepers and other terms that did us no good whatsoever.  Then, in 1987, along came a new Commandant, General Al Grey, who resurrected the warrior ethos in our Corps.

We were told, and accepted the fact, that the best way to win a war or battle was to kill the enemy in numbers that could not be sustained.  We did just that during Desert Storm.  I flew 67 combat missions in an F/A-18 and took great pride and satisfaction in killing as many Iraqis as I could so that when our infantry and other ground units pushed through the berms and other obstacles, they had a clear path to their objectives.

We need more emphasis on killing the enemy and maintaining a warrior ethos and less drivel from folks like you who think it’s some type of a debating match rather than combat we undertake when our nation goes to war.

Basically, this Marine argues that war is killing.  Kill enough of the enemy and you win.  Of course, winning by attrition and body count failed during the Vietnam War, but I’m guessing this Marine would argue that the U.S. military simply didn’t kill enough of the enemy there.

This Marine further sets up a straw man argument.  Nowhere did I write or even suggest that war is “some type of debating match.”  Nowhere did I write or even suggest that war doesn’t involve combat and killing.  But criticism of the warrior ideal is often caricatured in this way, making it easier to dismiss it as “naïve” or “drivel.”

The warrior ethos is surging in America today, and not just within the military.  Witness the U.S. media’s positive reaction to President Trump’s missile strikes on Syria or the use of “the mother of all bombs” against ISIS in Afghanistan.  Gushing media praise comes to presidents who let slip the “beautiful” missiles and “massive” bombs of war.

Two centuries ago, the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, did so over an American fortress that was under attack on our soil.  They gave proof through the night that America’s citizen-soldiers were defending our country (our flag was still there).  Nowadays, our rocket’s red glare appears in Syrian skies, our bombs bursting do so in remote regions of Afghanistan, giving proof through the night that America’s warrior ethos is anywhere and everywhere, killing lots of foreign peoples in the name of “winning.”

Call me naïve, say I write drivel, but I don’t see this as a victory for our democracy, for our country, or even for our “warriors.”

Afghan War Update: Fail, Fail Again

Khanabad 08-04-2008 carpenters
Afghan carpenters: the peaceful, “normal,” Afghanistan that Americans rarely see, because “Afghan” and “War” are always co-joined in our minds (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

According to General Joseph Votel, Commander of U.S. Central Command, several thousand more U.S. troops will likely be sent to Afghanistan in an attempt to stabilize Afghan governmental forces and to halt, and eventually reverse, recent Taliban gains.

Basically, the U.S. is rewarding Afghan governmental forces for failure.  The more they fail, the more aid the U.S. sends in the form of money, weaponry, and troops.  Naturally, warrior-corporations (among others) profit from this, so even though the Afghan war itself is unwinnable (you can’t win someone else’s civil war), someone always wins in the sense of making loads of money.

The motto for the U.S. war in Afghanistan might go something like this: If at first you succeed (in defeating the Taliban in 2001), fail and fail again by overstaying your welcome and flailing around in a country that has a well-deserved reputation as “the graveyard of empires.”

There are several reasons why U.S. folly in Afghanistan persists.  First, there’s our national conviction that all wars must be won, else American credibility will be irreparably damaged.  We’d rather persist in a losing cause than to admit defeat and withdraw.  Smart, right?

Second is the domestic political scene.  Afghanistan is already being advertised (by the New York Times, no less) as “Trump’s war.”  Do you think “winner” Trump wants to be seen as backing away from a fight?

Third is the men in charge of the fight and how they see the war.  Trump’s generals and top civilian advisers don’t see the Afghan war in terms of Afghanistan; they see it in terms of themselves and their global war on radical Islamic terrorism.  They can’t be seen as “losing” in that global war, nor can they see themselves as lacking in toughness (especially when compared to the Obama administration), so queue up more troop deployments and future mission creep.

Parallels to Vietnam in the 1960s are immediate and telling.  The refusal to admit defeat.  Domestic politics.  War in the name of containing a global enemy, whether it’s called communism or terrorism.  Nowadays, since there’s no military draft and relatively few U.S. troops are being killed and wounded, there’s little opposition to the Afghan war in the U.S.  Lacking an opposition movement like the one the U.S. experienced during the Vietnam War, the Afghan war may well continue for generations, sold as it has been as a critical “platform” in the war on terror.

Two comments.  First, we’ll never win the war in Afghanistan because that’s the only way we understand the country and its peoples: as a war.  Second, as the saying goes in Afghanistan, the U.S. has the watches, but the Taliban has the time.  Sure, we have all the fancy technology, all the force multipliers, but all the Taliban (and other “insurgent” forces) has to do is to survive, biding its time (for generations, if necessary) until Americans finally see the light at the end of their own tunnel and leave.

It’s been sixteen years and counting, but we still don’t see the light. Maybe in another sixteen years?

Update (3/11/17): I wrote the following to a reader:

Most of what I read or see about Afghanistan is filtered through the U.S. military, or journalists embedded with the U.S. military.  Rarely do we see in the USA the “real” Afghanistan, the one that’s not synonymous with war or terrorism or corruption or violence or drugs.

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Afghan Chick Pea Vendor (Anna M.)

That’s a BIG problem for our understanding of Afghanistan.  We see what we want to see, which is mainly (to repeat myself) terrorism, violence, IEDs, and heroin.

Back in 2008 or thereabouts, I had a student who’d been in the Army and deployed to Afghanistan.  I asked him what he remembered: he said “dirt” and primitiveness.  That it made him think of Biblical times.  So I think Americans see Afghanistan as “primitive” and “dirty” and benighted. Again, how can we “win” there, with that attitude?

The Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and Lying

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Hannah Arendt (Arendt Center at Bard College)

W.J. Astore

In November 1971, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt published “Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers” in the New York Review of Books.  Earlier that year, Daniel Ellsberg had shared those highly classified government papers with the U.S. media.  They revealed a persistent and systematic pattern of lying and deception by the government about U.S. progress in the Vietnam War.  By undermining the people’s trust in government, lies and deception were destabilizing democracy in America, Arendt said.  Furthermore, America was witnessing two new and related categories of lying.  The first was lying as public relations, the creation and distribution of images substituting for facts and premised in human manipulability (a Madison Avenue approach to war and foreign policy).  The second was lying tied to a country’s reputation as embraced by professional “problem-solvers” as the basis for political action.  Both categories of lying constituted a crisis to the republic.

Widespread lying during the Vietnam War, Arendt explained, had not been aimed at the enemy, as lies often are in war.  Rather, governmental lying had targeted Americans.  The enemy could hardly be fooled, but most Americans could – at least for a time.  Throughout the war, Arendt noted, senior U.S. government and military officials made decisions about Vietnam with the firm knowledge they could not be carried out, a form of self-deception facilitated by constant goal-shifting.  As goals changed and chaos mounted, U.S. officials then became driven by concerns about saving face.  Image-making and image-saving took precedence over reality. The truth about Vietnam – that the U.S. was losing the war – hurt, therefore it was denied, especially in public discourse.

Official lies can fool even the officials themselves, a fact Pulitzer prize-winning reporter David Halberstam noted in his prescient book, “The Making of a Quagmire,” published in 1965.  With respect to the Kennedy Administration’s support of the corrupt Diem/Nhu government of South Vietnam, Halberstam wrote that:

Having failed to get [the Diem/Nhu regime to make needed] reforms, our officials said that these reforms were taking place; having failed to improve the demoralized state of the [South] Vietnamese Army, the Americans talked about a new enthusiasm in the Army; having failed to change the tactics of the [South Vietnamese] military, they talked about bold new tactics which were allegedly driving the Communists back.  For the essence of our policy was: There is no place else to go.

When reporters began to file stories which tended to show that the [U.S.] policy was not working, its authors, President Kennedy and General [Maxwell] Taylor, clung to it stubbornly.  At least part of the explanation for this apparent blindness is that although they knew things were going wrong, they felt that the alternatives were worse.

This “blindness,” a sustained willingness to deny harsh truths about the Vietnam War, persisted throughout the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations.  U.S. leaders continued to package and sell a losing effort as a winning product. It helped, in Arendt’s words, that U.S. officials had “a truly amazing and entirely honest ignorance of the historically pertinent background” when it came to Vietnam.  Their ignorance was “honest” in the sense they did not believe facts were all that important to success.  What was needed, U.S. officials concluded, were not incontestable facts but the right premises, hypotheses, and theories (such as the infamous Domino Theory) to fit Vietnam within prevailing Cold War orthodoxies.  Overwhelming applications of U.S. military power would serve to actuate these premises, facts be damned.

Upon taking power in 1969, the Nixon Administration, which had promised a quick and honorable end to the war, continued the lies of previous administrations.  Even as Nixon and Henry Kissinger spoke publicly of peace with honor, they talked privately of a lost war.  To shift the blame for defeat, they cast about for scapegoats (as corroborated recently in the HBO documentary, “Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words”).  Kissinger settled on South Vietnamese “incompetence” as the primary scapegoat.  He reassured Nixon that, after a “decent interval” between U.S. withdrawal and the inevitable South Vietnamese collapse, most Americans would come to see Vietnam as a regrettable (and forgettable) “backwater.”  Naturally, harsh facts such as these were ones Nixon and Kissinger refused to share with the American people.

For Hannah Arendt, truth as represented by verifiable facts is the chief stabilizing factor in politics.  Lacking truths held in common, action is compromised, judgment is flawed, reality is denied.  Deception feeds self-deception until politics is poisoned and collective action for the common good is disrupted.  Yet lies cannot be eliminated simply by moral outrage, Arendt noted.  Rather, truth must be fought for even as humility before truth must be cultivated.

The American people must fight for the truth: that is the lesson of Arendt’s essay.

Next Week: Part II: More Lies and Deception in the Iraq War of 2003

“Members of the jury, you have just found Jesus Christ guilty”: Remembering the Catonsville Nine

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W.J. Astore

In May 1968, nine Catholic activists set fire to draft records in Catonsville, Maryland, in a deliberate act of sabotage and protest against the Vietnam War.  For the crime of destroying government property, a crime they freely admitted, they were tried in federal court in Baltimore and found guilty.  I’ve been reading the edited trial transcript (with commentary) by Daniel Berrigan, one of the Catonsville Nine and a Catholic priest.  What unified these nine people was their moral opposition to the Vietnam War, a moral revulsion to the acts their country was committing in Vietnam, a revulsion that drove them to burn draft records with a weak brew of homemade napalm so as to gain the attention of their fellow citizens.

On this Easter Weekend, I would like to focus on a few of the statements made by the Catonsville Nine, as recorded by Daniel Berrigan in “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.”

Statement by Philip Berrigan

We have been accused of arrogance
But what of the fantastic arrogance … of our leaders
What of their crimes against the people … the poor and powerless
Still no court will try them … no jail will receive them
They live in righteousness … They will die in honor
For them we have one message … for those
in whose manicured hands … the power of the land lies
We say to them
Lead us … Lead us in justice
and there will be no need to break the law
Let the President do … what his predecessors failed to do
Let him obey the rich less … and the people more
Let him think less of the privileged
and more of the poor
Less of America and more of the world
Let lawmakers … judges … and lawyers
think less of the law … more of justice
less of legal ritual … more of human rights …

Statement by Thomas Lewis

We were speaking as Americans
We were proud to be Americans
Yet we have representatives in Vietnam
who do terrible things in our name
We were saying to the military
This is wrong … This is immoral … This is illegal
And their response to this was
they were only obeying orders

Question from the Judge: But they did respond to you, did they not?

Thomas Lewis: It was an atrocious response.

Statement by Marjorie Melville

I know that burning draft files
is not an effective way
to stop a war … but
who has found a way
of stopping this war
I have racked my brain
I have talked to all kinds of people
What can you do
They say yes … yes
But there is no answer
no stopping it
the horror continues

Statement by Thomas Melville

I hear our president … confuse greatness with strength
riches with goodness … fear with respect
hopelessness and passivity with peace
The clichés of our leaders
pay tribute to property … and indifference to suffering
We long for a hand of friendship and succor
and that hand
clenches into a fist
I wonder how long we can endure

Statement by George Mische

We were not out to destroy life
There is a higher law we are commanded to obey
It takes precedence over human laws
My intent was to follow the higher law
My intent was to save lives … Vietnamese lives
North and South American lives
To stop the madness
That was the intent

Statement of Daniel Berrigan

Question from the Judge: You say your intention was to save these children, of the jury, of myself, when you burned the [draft] records?  That is what I heard you say.  I ask if you meant that.

Daniel Berrigan:

I meant that
of course I mean that
or I would not say it
The great sinfulness
of modern war is
that it renders concrete things abstract
I do not want to talk
about Americans in general ….
I poured napalm [on the draft records]
on behalf of the prosecutor’s
and the jury’s children

Closing Statement by Daniel Berrigan

When at what point will you say no to this war?
We have chosen to say
with the gift of our liberty
if necessary our lives:
the violence stops here
the death stops here
the suppression of truth stops here
this war stops here
Redeem the times!
The times are inexpressibly evil
Christians pay conscious … indeed religious tribute
to Caesar and Mars
by the approval of overkill tactics … by brinksmanship
by nuclear liturgies … by racism … by support of genocide
They embrace their society with all their heart
and abandon the cross
They pay lip service to Christ
and military service to the powers of death
And yet … and yet … the times are inexhaustibly good
solaced by the courage and hope of many
The truth rules … Christ is not forsaken …

At the end of the trial, as all nine defendants were found guilty, a “member of the audience” cried, “Members of the jury, you have just found Jesus Christ guilty.”

That last statement, and the words of the Catonsville Nine, give us much to ponder on this Easter Weekend.

America’s Post-Democratic Military

Three_soldiers
America’s citizen-military no longer exists

W.J. Astore

In October 2005, during the Iraq War, historian David M. Kennedy noted that “No American is now obligated to military service, few will ever serve in uniform, even fewer will actually taste battle …. Americans with no risk whatsoever of exposure to military service have, in effect, hired some of the least advantaged of their fellow countrymen to do some of their most dangerous business while the majority goes on with their own affairs unbloodied and undistracted.”

We have, in essence, a post-democratic military in the U.S. today, which is the subject of my latest article for TomDispatch.com.  You can read the entire article here; what follows is the first section on how our citizen-soldier tradition morphed into a professional force of volunteer-warriors augmented by privatized forces of mercenaries and corporations.

From TomDispatch.com:

In the decades since the draft ended in 1973, a strange new military has emerged in the United States. Think of it, if you will, as a post-democratic force that prides itself on its warrior ethos rather than the old-fashioned citizen-soldier ideal.   As such, it’s a military increasingly divorced from the people, with a way of life ever more foreign to most Americans (adulatory as they may feel toward its troops).  Abroad, it’s now regularly put to purposes foreign to any traditional idea of national defense.  In Washington, it has become a force unto itself, following its own priorities, pursuing its own agendas, increasingly unaccountable to either the president or Congress.

Three areas highlight the post-democratic transformation of this military with striking clarity: the blending of military professionals with privatized mercenaries in prosecuting unending “limited” wars; the way senior military commanders are cashing in on retirement; and finally the emergence of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as a quasi-missionary imperial force with a presence in at least 135 countries a year (and counting).

The All-Volunteer Military and Mercenaries: An Undemocratic Amalgam

I’m a product of the all-volunteer military.  In 1973, the Nixon administration ended the draft, which also marked the end of a citizen-soldier tradition that had served the nation for two centuries.  At the time, neither the top brass nor the president wanted to face a future in which, in the style of the Vietnam era just then winding up, a force of citizen-soldiers could vote with their feet and their mouths in the kinds of protest that had only recently left the Army in significant disarray.  The new military was to be all volunteers and a thoroughly professional force.  (Think: no dissenters, no protesters, no antiwar sentiments; in short, no repeats of what had just happened.)  And so it has remained for more than 40 years.

Most Americans were happy to see the draft abolished.  (Although young men still register for selective service at age 18, there are neither popular calls for its return, nor serious plans to revive it.)  Yet its end was not celebrated by all.  At the time, some military men advised against it, convinced that what, in fact, did happen would happen: that an all-volunteer force would become more prone to military adventurism enabled by civilian leaders who no longer had to consider the sort of opposition draft call-ups might create for undeclared and unpopular wars.

In 1982, historian Joseph Ellis summed up such sentiments in a prophetic passage in an essay titled “Learning Military Lessons from Vietnam” (from the book Men at War):

“[V]irtually all studies of the all-volunteer army have indicated that it is likely to be less representative of and responsive to popular opinion, more expensive, more jealous of its own prerogatives, more xenophobic — in other words, more likely to repeat some of the most grievous mistakes of Vietnam … Perhaps the most worrisome feature of the all-volunteer army is that it encourages soldiers to insulate themselves from civilian society and allows them to cling tenaciously to outmoded visions of the profession of arms.  It certainly puts an increased burden of responsibility on civilian officials to impose restraints on military operations, restraints which the soldiers will surely perceive as unjustified.”

Ellis wrote this more than 30 years ago — before Desert Storm, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, or the launching of the War on Terror.  These wars (and other U.S. military interventions of the last decades) have provided vivid evidence that civilian officials have felt emboldened in wielding a military freed from the constraints of the old citizen army.  Indeed, it says something of our twenty-first-century moment that military officers have from time to time felt the need to restrain civilian officials rather than vice versa.  Consider, for instance, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki’s warning early in 2003 that a post-invasion Iraq would need to be occupied by “several hundred thousand” troops.  Shinseki clearly hoped that his (all-too-realistic) estimate would tamp down the heady optimism of top Bush administration officials that any such war would be a “cakewalk,” that the Iraqis would strew “bouquets” of flowers in the path of the invaders, and that the U.S. would be able to garrison an American-style Iraq in the fashion of South Korea until hell froze over.  Prophetic Shinseki was, but not successful.  His advice was dismissed out of hand, as was he.

Events since Desert Storm in 1991 suggest that the all-volunteer military has been more curse than blessing.  Partially to blame: a new dynamic in modern American history, the creation of a massive military force that is not of the people, by the people, or for the people.  It is, of course, a dynamic hardly new to history.  Writing in the eighteenth century about the decline and fall of Rome, the historian Edward Gibbon noted that:

“In the purer ages of the commonwealth [of Rome], the use of arms was reserved for those ranks of citizens who had a country to love, a property to defend, and some share in enacting those laws, which it was their interest, as well as duty, to maintain. But in proportion as the public freedom was lost in extent of conquest, war was gradually improved into an art, and degraded into a trade.”

As the U.S. has become more authoritarian and more expansive, its military has come to serve the needs of others, among them elites driven by dreams of profit and power.  Some will argue that this is nothing new.  I’ve read my Smedley Butler and I’m well aware that historically the U.S. military was often used in un-democratic ways to protect and advance various business interests.  In General Butler’s day, however, that military was a small quasi-professional force with a limited reach.  Today’s version is enormous, garrisoning roughly 800 foreign bases across the globe, capable of sending its Hellfire missile-armed drones on killing missions into country after country across the Greater Middle East and Africa, and possessing a vision of what it likes to call “full-spectrum dominance” meant to facilitate “global reach, global power.”  In sum, the U.S. military is far more powerful, far less accountable — and far more dangerous.

As a post-democratic military has arisen in this country, so have a set of “warrior corporations” — that is, private, for-profit mercenary outfits that now regularly accompany American forces in essentially equal numbers into any war zone.  In the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Blackwater was the most notorious of these, but other mercenary outfits like Triple Canopy and DynCorp were also deeply involved.  This rise of privatized militaries and mercenaries naturally contributes to actions that are inherently un-democratic and divorced from the will and wishes of the people.  It is also inherently a less accountable form of war, since no one even bothers to count the for-profit dead, nor do their bodies come home in flag-draped coffins for solemn burial in military cemeteries; and Americans don’t approach such mercenaries to thank them for their service.  All of which allows for the further development of a significantly under-the-radar form of war making.

The phrase “limited war,” applied to European conflicts from the close of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 to the French Revolution in 1789, and later to conventional wars in the nuclear age, has fresh meaning in twenty-first-century America.  These days, the limits of limited war, such as they are, fall less on the warriors and more on the American people who are increasingly cut out of the process.  They are, for instance, purposely never mobilized for battle, but encouraged to act as though they were living in a war-less land.  American war efforts, which invariably take place in distant lands, are not supposed to interfere with business as usual in the “homeland,” which, of course, means consumerism and consumption.  You will find no rationing in today’s America, nor calls for common sacrifice of any sort.  If anything, wars have simply become another consumable item on the American menu.  They consume fuel and resources, money, and intellect, all in staggering amounts.  In a sense, they are themselves a for-profit consumable, often with tie-ins to video games, movies, and other forms of entertainment.

In the rush for money and in the name of patriotism, the horrors of wars, faced squarely by many Americans in the Vietnam War era, are now largely disregarded.  One question that this election season has raised: What if our post-democratic military is driven by an autocrat who insists that it must obey his whims in the cause of “making America great again”?

Come 2017, we may find out.