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

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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.

Might Makes Right: An American Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Today’s Pentagon as an Ant Farm

ant-farm

W.J. Astore

I was on active duty in the military for twenty years.  My experience: It’s very difficult to see the big picture in the military.  The everyday pressures of the mission keep you focused on the short term.  I recall writing many WARs (weekly activity reports) and being focused on the immediate.  Even the yearly budgetary process tends to keep you focused on the short term.  Assignments for officers and enlisted rarely last longer than three years, with combat tours typically much shorter.  Personnel are constantly changing: for one acquisition project I worked on, four program managers (colonels) rotated in and out in three years.

Along with being focused on the immediate, you are actively discouraged from criticizing the system in any fundamental way.  Of course, you’re not supposed to criticize the commander-in-chief, you’re not supposed to be insubordinate to your chain of command, you’re not supposed to undermine morale.  At the same time, one mistake can be deadly to a career.  People in the military therefore tend to play it safe.  Doubters tend to conform.  They shut their mouths.  Or they vote with their feet by leaving the military.

Critics with the best of intentions often get squashed.  Consider the Air Force pilot who found a problem with the F-22 Raptor’s cockpit oxygen supply system.  This was a top priority, safety of flight, issue, but the Air Force played down the problem so as to protect procurement for the Raptor.  The pilot eventually complained to CBS “60 Minutes” and saw his career stall as a result.  Or consider General Eric Shinseki, who as Army Chief of Staff had the temerity to disagree with the Bush Administration’s rosy talk of low troop requirements in the wake of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Shinseki was shunted aside by a system that had no room for well-informed dissent.

Pressures to conform and short-term planning and personnel cycles combine to produce mediocrity and to reproduce the past.  John Paul Vann, an expert on the Vietnam War who died in that war, noted the U.S. military didn’t have 12 years’ experience in Vietnam: it had one years’ experience repeated 12 times over.  Something similar is true in Afghanistan today: the U.S. doesn’t have 14 years’ experience fighting the Taliban and building Afghan security forces, but rather one years’ experience repeated 14 times.

U.S. military actions are sequential rather than synergistic.  It’s just one damn thing after another.  The reality of this is often seen more clearly by people who are outside of the military.  Outsiders aren’t caught up in everyday pressures or limited by conformism.  They’re not caught in a Pentagonal box in which misguided tactics and mistaken goals are accepted by insiders as SOP – standard operating procedure.

But perhaps “box” is the wrong image for the Pentagon and its unreflective busyness; ant farm might be better.  If you’re of a certain age, you may remember those old ant farms advertised in the back pages of comic books.  You could send away for a see-through container with sand and ants that allowed you to watch as your crew of ants busily worked away in your “farm.”

Today’s Pentagon reminds me of those old ant farms.  The ants work busily within it.  Anyone watching wouldn’t question their dedication.  Yet as you’re standing outside the farm, watching them, you can see how tightly their world is delimited and circumscribed.  What is obvious to you is simply beyond them.  The ants keep digging in and rolling along.

It’s well worth asking why the U.S. military puts so much pride on working to the point of exhaustion.  A friend of mine worked at the Pentagon.  He worked hard during his normal shift – but he left on-time to go home.  His co-workers, noses to the grindstone, would hassle him about leaving “early.”  He’d reply: I can leave on-time because I didn’t spend hours rotating between the coffee maker and the gym.

A mindless emphasis on over-caffeinated work and fitness, as another friend suggested, may be a post-Vietnam War reaction to the McNamara “managerial” culture of the 1960s.  As he put it, “One easy way of showing one has the right stuff is to be an exercise nut, and the penumbras of that mind-set have really distorted the allocation of effort in our military.”  Recall that General David Petraeus made a moral fetish out of personal fitness and how that indirectly cost him his career (he made his initial connection to his mistress/biographer while running together).  Recall that General Stanley McChrystal was celebrated for his fitness regimen, which didn’t convey the smarts to rein in the insubordinate behavior of his men.

One more anecdote about incessant “army ant” work.  A Vietnam veteran told me this story about mindless work for the sake of show:

“One feature of my first Vietnam unit epitomized all this to me: the trucks in our motor pool were perfectly lined up. I don’t know how they did it. Must have had squads of soldiers pushing them to just the right spot then stuck chocks under the wheels to keep them there. The 4-star-corps commander used to drive by our motor pool frequently to go to USARV HQ. He never stopped to see if the trucks were drivable. They were not. Almost all deadlined.”

Lots of busy-work down on the ant farm may look good from a distance, but it does not produce victory.

Today’s U.S. military has its enemies outgunned.  There’s little wrong with its work ethic.  What the U.S. military hasn’t done is to outthink its enemies.  Indeed, the military’s actions often conspire to create new ones.  To admit this is not to place the blame entirely on the military.  Its civilian leaders have to shoulder blame as well.  But ultimately it’s the military that advises the president and Congress, and I haven’t witnessed senior military officers resigning because their advice hasn’t been followed.

If the U.S. military is to be reformed, you can’t look to the ants to do it.  They’re too busy keeping the system running.  We must look beyond the farm, to outsiders who are able and willing to think freely.  Yet the military too needs to act, if for no other reason than to end a miserable run of defeats (or pyrrhic victories, if that sounds less harsh).  Rather than simply promoting loyal and hardworking ants, it needs to foster seers and thinkers – people willing to buck the system.

It won’t be easy – but it’s sure better than losing.

Hillary Clinton’s “Low Blow”

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Bernie and Hillary at last night’s debate (Source: NYT)

W.J. Astore

Last night’s Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Milwaukee hit the usual notes for these two candidates (the transcript is here). Clinton is all about competence and being ready on “day one” in the Oval office, whereas Bernie seeks a political revolution to galvanize the people. But a few telling items came up, mostly toward the end of the debate.

1.  Hillary accused Bernie of being too critical of President Obama, of not supporting him, of suggesting he was “weak,” and of not respecting Obama’s legacy of results, especially the Affordable Care Act.  This was a “low blow” for Bernie, who explained that he fully supported Obama, considered him to be a friend, and that he did indeed respect the president’s accomplishments.  Besides that, Bernie noted, “one of us ran against Barack Obama [in 2008]. I was not that candidate.”

2. Bernie actually dared to suggest the Defense Department’s budget had to be given careful scrutiny, noting that the DoD has yet to pass an audit.  In these days of issuing blank checks to the Pentagon, it was a significant moment.

3.  Bernie took Hillary to task, successfully I believe, for her cozy relationship with Henry Kissinger.  In my view, this was the most important moment of the night. With respect to U.S. foreign policy, Hillary promises continuity with neo-conservative principles of American interventionism and preemptive war.  Bernie, even as he promises to crush the Islamic State, is far less enamored with neo-con agendas and peace through aggression.

Here is what Bernie had to say about Kissinger:

“I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country.  I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger. And in fact, Kissinger’s actions in Cambodia, when the United States bombed that country, overthrew Prince Sihanouk, created the instability for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to come in, who then butchered some 3 million innocent people, one of the worst genocides in the history of the world. So count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger…”

“Kissinger was one of those people during the Vietnam era who talked about the domino theory. Not everybody remembers that. You do. I do. The domino theory, you know, if Vietnam goes, China, da, da, da, da, da, da, da.  That’s what he talked about, the great threat of China.”

“And then, after the war, this is the guy who, in fact, yes, you’re right, he opened up relations with China, and now pushed various type of trade agreements, resulting in American workers losing their jobs as corporations moved to China.”

“The terrible, authoritarian, Communist dictatorship he warned us about, now he’s urging companies to shut down and move to China. Not my kind of guy.”

Hillary defended her relationship with Kissinger, just as she defended herself from suggestions she’d be influenced by big money donors. In both cases, she came across as the establishment candidate, one who is most comfortable in the corridors of power, schmoozing with other power brokers and players.

In sum, even as Hillary attempts to appropriate some of Bernie’s anti-establishment rhetoric, her actions demonstrate how much she’s ensconced within the establishment camp, especially when it comes to U.S. foreign policy.

For voters looking for change in November, Hillary promises only an amped up version of more of the same.