This week a good friend sent me the image below from Mad Magazine.
Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Senator J.W. Fulbright’s book, “The Pentagon Propaganda Machine” (1970) and came across this footnote on page 57:
“Promotion of the display of the National Flag is one of the Navy’s service-wide public affairs projects. It is laudable enough if it remains unconnected with the current campaign of superpatriots that equates the display of flag decals on automobile windows with love of country and unlimited support for the war in Vietnam.”
And then I came across a photograph by Diane Arbus, “Boy with a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, NYC, 1967.”
It’s a fascinating photo. “Support Our Boys” is now rendered as “Support Our Troops.” Also, today’s flags are a lot bigger. The “Bomb Hanoi” pin speaks for itself.
All of this got me thinking about how “super” patriotism is linked to fanatical support for war, which draws from hatred of “the other,” whether that “other” is foreigners or various alleged enemies within (like those “liberals” and “pacifists” mentioned in the Mad Magazine cartoon).
As the Trump administration appears to promise more wars in the future (consider Mike Pence’s recent bellicose speech at West Point), perhaps in Venezuela or Iran, we need to be on guard against this idea that supporting wars is patriotic. Indeed, the opposite is usually true. “I’m already against the next war” is a good rule of thumb to live by.
How did “super” patriotism become synonymous with blanket support for destructive wars? One thing is certain: it’s nothing new in America.
William Westmoreland (“Westy”) looked like a general should, and that was part of the problem. Tall, handsome, square-jawed, he carried himself rigidly; there was no slouching for Westy. A go-getter, a hard-charger, he did everything necessary to get promoted. He was a product of the Army, a product of a system that began at West Point during World War II and ended with four stars and command in Vietnam during the most critical years of that war (1965-68). His unimaginative and mediocre performance in a losing effort said (and says) much about that system.
I had these thoughts as I read Lewis Sorley’s devastating biography of Westy, recommended to me by a good friend. (Thanks, Paul!) Before tackling the big stuff about Westy, the Army, and Vietnam, I’d like to focus on little things that stayed with me as I read the book.
Visiting West Point as the Army’s Chief of Staff, Westy met the new First Captain, the highest-ranking cadet. Westy thought this cadet wasn’t quite tall enough to be First Captain. It made me wonder whether Napoleon might have won Waterloo if he’d been as tall as Westy.
Westy loved uniforms and awards. Sporting an impressive array of ribbons, badges, devices, and the like, his busy uniform was consistent with his concern for outward show, for image and action over substance and meaning.
Westy tended to focus on the trivial. He’d visit lower commands and ask junior officers whether the troops were getting their mail (vital for morale, he thought). He’d ask narrow technical questions about mortars versus artillery performance. He was a details man in a position that required a much broader sweep of mind.
Westy liked to doodle, including drawing the rank of a five-star general. He arguably saw himself as destined to this rank, following in the hallowed steps of Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley.
Westy never attended professional military education (PME), such as the Army War College, and he showed little interest in books. He was incurious and rather proud of it.
Interestingly, Sorley cites another general who argued Westy’s career should have ended as a regimental colonel. Others believed he served adequately as a major general in command of a division. Above this rank, Westy was, some of his fellow officers agreed, out his depth.
Sorley depicts Westy as an unoriginal and conventional thinker for a war that was unconventional and complex. Bewildered by Vietnam, Westy fell back to what he (and the Army) knew best: massive firepower, search and destroy tactics, and made-up metrics like “body count” as measures of “success.” He tried to win a revolutionary war using a strategy of attrition, paying little attention to political dimensions. For example, he shunted the South Vietnamese military (ARVN) to the side while giving them inferior weaponry to boot.
Another personal weakness: Westy didn’t respond well to criticism. When General Douglas Kinnard published his classic study of the Vietnam War, “The War Managers,” which surveyed senior officers who’d served in Vietnam, Westy wanted him to tattle on those officers who’d objected to his pursuit of body count. (Kinnard refused.)
Sorley identifies Westmoreland as the general who lost Vietnam, and there’s truth in that. Deeply flawed, Westy’s strategy was fated to fail. Yet even the most skilled American general may have lost in Vietnam. Consider here the words of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the middle of 1964. He told McGeorge Bundy “It looks to me like we’re getting’ into another Korea…I don’t think it’s worth fightin’ for and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest damn mess…What the hell is Vietnam worth to me?…What is it worth to this country?” [Quoted in Robert Dallek, “Three New Revelations About LBJ,” The Atlantic, April 1998]
McGeorge Bundy himself, LBJ’s National Security Adviser, said to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that committing large numbers of U.S. troops to Vietnam was “rash to the point of folly.” In October 1964 his brother William Bundy, then the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, said in a confidential memorandum that Vietnam was “A bad colonial heritage of long standing…a nationalist movement taken over by Communism ruling in the other half of an ethnically and historically united country, the Communist side inheriting much the better military force and far more than its share of the talent—these are the facts that dog us today.”
Not worth fighting for, rash to the point of folly: Why did the U.S. go to war in Vietnam when the cause was arguably lost before the troops were committed? Traditional answers include the containment of communism, the domino theory, American overconfidence, and so forth, but perhaps there was a larger purpose to the “folly.”
What was that larger purpose? I recall a “letter to the editor” that I clipped from a newspaper years ago. Echoing a critique made by Noam Chomsky,** this letter argued America’s true strategic aim in Vietnam was to prevent Vietnam’s independent social and economic development; to subjugate and/or subordinate Vietnam and its resources to the whims of Western corporations and investors. Winning on the battlefield was less important than winning in the global marketplace. Vietnam would send a loud signal to other countries that, if you tried to chart your own course independent of American interests, you’d end up like Vietnam, a battlefield, a wasteland.
For sure, Westy lost on the battlefield. But did U.S. economic interests triumph globally due to his punishment of Vietnam and the intimidation it established? How compelling, how coercive, were such interests? Think of Venezuela today as it attempts to chart an independent course. Think of U.S. interest in subordinating Venezuela and its reserves of oil to the agendas of Western investors and corporations. There are trillions of dollars to be made here, not just from oil, but by preserving the strength of the petrodollar. (The U.S. dollar’s value is propped up by global oil sales done in dollars, as vouchsafed by leading oil producers like Saudi Arabia. Venezuela has acted against the petrodollar standard.)
Westy was the wrong man for Vietnam, but he was also a fall guy for a doomed war. He and the U.S. military did succeed, however, in visiting a level of destruction on that country that sent a message to those who contemplated resisting Western economic demands. Westy may have been a lousy general, but perhaps he was the perfect message boy for economic interests that prospered more by destruction and intimidation than by traditional victory of arms.
**For Chomsky, America didn’t accidentally or inadvertently or ham-fistedly destroy the Vietnamese village to save it; the village was destroyed precisely to destroy it, thereby strengthening capitalism and U.S. economic hegemony throughout the developing world. As General Smedley Butler said, sometimes generals are economic hit men, even when they don’t know it.
As a general rule, it’s a lot easier in U.S. politics to sell a war as containing or defeating communist aggression (or radical Islamic terrorism in the case of Iran, or ruthless dictators in the cases of Iraq and Libya) than it is for economic interests and the profits of powerful multinational corporations. For the average grunt, “Remember Exxon-Mobil!” isn’t much of a battle-cry.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned Americans about the military-industrial complex in his farewell speech in 1961. He had wanted to add Congress as a key player in and contributor to the Complex, but why alienate Congress, he decided, when he was already taking on the military, industry, and universities/research labs. Ike did his best to rein in the Complex while he was president, but since then it has galloped freely under the not-so-steady hands of subsequent presidents.
Recently, I re-read a diatribe about the Complex that appeared a decade after Ike’s farewell speech. “Playing Soldier” is its title, written by Frank Getlein, a journalist for the Washington Star (1961-76). His critique, sadly, is even more relevant today than it was in 1971.
Here are six insights from Getlein:
Military veterans, Getlein suggests, are not “pushovers for the panic approach from the Pentagon” because “They have seen it all from the inside. They know that the military machine is a fraud, that the military mind is deliberately deluded most of the time, that the military capacity for incompetence is infinite. They know all these things and they have suffered because of them.”
Getlein says America’s wars are “Like the amoeba, they go on forever because they have no form.” To illustrate this argument, he tackles the war of his day, Vietnam:
“Like soap opera, the Vietnam war is endless and hard to follow … Characters come and go, like joint chiefs moving in from the field and out to retirement, or like commanders in chief, for that matter, explaining that their only desire is to get our boys back but we have to keep our boys over there in order to protect our boys who are over there. It’s the same language, the same incredibly circular reasoning that follows doomed heroines every day from career triumphs to mysterious ailments to adulterous temptations. There is no more reason to imagine the war in Indochina will end than ‘Edge of Night’ or ‘The Secret Storm’ will end. All three have within them the seeds of immortality.”
Noting America’s linguistic turn to deny wars, referring to them instead as “police actions” (Korea), “advisory services” (Vietnam), and “incursions” (Cambodia), Getlein notes “We have thus eliminated wars completely except for the people who have to fight them and the people who have to suffer them being fought across their fields, through their villages, and over their dead bodies.”
Getlein notes the emergence of a national security state as a fourth branch of government, one characterized by a hidebound bureaucracy that wages war ineffectively due to its inherent inflexibility, but one that is also deeply socialistic. Indeed, he cites “the biggest triumph of Creeping Socialism yet [is] its all but complete takeover of military procurement.” The national security state represents a “vast” system of “socialist disbursement of federal funds,” all in the nebulous cause of “defense” rather than for the older, more focused, cause of war. From this rigged socialistic process, predictable results ensue, including “shoddy” quality of materiel and “amazing escalation” in costs.
Worst of all, according to Getlein, is that “The purposes of the state have been subsumed in the purposes of the military establishment.” While the military is supposed to exist to defend the state, defending the military and its power and prerogatives has become the new priority, synonymous with the health of the state in a process that is antithetical to democracy.
In an amusing passage, Getlein suggests America has “become a military state out of the sheer [selective] incompetence of the military”:
“They [the generals] come before us … and confess, more or less annually, that the problems they are paid to handle are beyond their handling and therefore they need more of everything: more men, more rank, more science, more research, more think tankers, more paper condottiere, and, always and everywhere, more money. Like some hopeless, drunken uncle, they seduce us by their inability to make anything work and come around every year to pick up the handout and blackmail us into raising the ante. The American soul has always been a soft touch for a hard luck story, but surely this is the first time … when the panhandler, down on his luck, was invited in to run the show.”
“War may be hell, but peace is no bargain either, from the point of view of a military man,” Getlein wittily notes. The solution is “Permawar,” or permanent war, of which Vietnam was an early example. Whereas many Americans saw Vietnam as an “utter failure,” it was a telling success for the military-industrial complex, Getlein argues, given its vast expenditures and long duration for what was advertised initially as a “brush-fire war.” “Future possibilities of Permawar exist,” Getlein notes, “in the Middle East, in Africa, and, most of all at the moment, in Latin America.” (He mentions Chile; today we’d say Venezuela. And who can ignore the Trump administration’s saber-rattling with Iran and across the Middle East today?)
Even without actual shooting wars, however, Getlein notes how Permawar will continue “without respite or truce in the think tanks, the executive offices and the congressional hearing rooms. The real Permawar is the one of ever-new, more elaborate, more lethal, more expensive, more absolutely essential, weapons systems.”
The result of militarized socialism, socialized militarism, and Permawar? “Our country has become a military dictatorship in its own peculiar American way.” Frank Getlein wrote that sentence toward the end of the Vietnam war. What he said back then is even more accurate today.
Addendum 1: From the Kirkus Review of Getlein’s “Playing Soldier” in 1971:
An entertaining blitzkrieg on creeping or galloping militarism in America. According to journalist-commentator Getlein it began after World War II when the “cheery and modest, honest and limited” War Department was rebaptized the Defense Department thereby acquiring “a permanent all-season hunting license with no place out of bounds.” The inventive Americans outdid themselves acquiring a “nonprofit empire” just as the colony biz was becoming obsolete. Learn how Vietnam is a spectacular success as a “permawar” designed not to work. Meet the paper condottieri, the “contemplative military” (Kahn and Kissinger) who subsist on hypotheses. (“What if the Russians or the Chinese . . . come up with the incredible new weapon of knocking off edges of the moon and so timing the knockoffs that the eastern half of the United States can be thickly covered with moondust?”) Getlein is here to show you how the Pentagon has ‘gone Red’ via non-competitive, no-bidding contract letting under the insufficiently vigilant nose of Reverend Carl MacIntyre, yet. But don’t be fooled by the author’s avowal that Vietnam is “not moral tragedy but slapstick farce.” His true mentors are C. Wright Mills and George Orwell and the caricature, through a glass darkly, of a hardening “crypto-military dictatorship,” is razor-edged.
Addendum 2: A Recent Description of the Pentagon and the Complex (MIC)
“The Pentagon Syndrome,” Harper’s, May 15, 2019 (“The Military-Industrial Virus:
How bloated defense budgets gut our armed forces,” by Andrew Cockburn)
“This entire process, whereby spending growth slows and is then seemingly automatically regenerated, raises an intriguing possibility: that our military-industrial complex has become, in [Chuck] Spinney’s words, a “living organic system” with a built-in self-defense reflex that reacts forcefully whenever a threat to its food supply—our money—hits a particular trigger point. The implications are profound, suggesting that the MIC is embedded in our society to such a degree that it cannot be dislodged, and also that it could be said to be concerned, exclusively, with self-preservation and expansion, like a giant, malignant virus.”
Addendum 3: Every Democratic Senator Supported Trump’s Vast Military Budget in 2018
Senators voted 93-7 for the Pentagon’s $674 billion spending bill in 2018. The seven Senators who voted against: six Republicans and Bernie Sanders (Independent). Military dictatorship is bipartisan in America.
How can Democrats win the presidency in 2020? The answer is simple: field a candidate who’s genuinely anti-war. A candidate focused on America and the domestic health of our country rather than on global empire. A candidate like Tulsi Gabbard, for example, who’s both a military veteran and who’s anti-war. (Gabbard does say, however, that she’s a hawk against terrorism.) Another possibility is Bernie Sanders, who’s beginning to hone his anti-war bona fides, and who’s always been focused on domestic issues that help ordinary Americans, e.g. a higher minimum wage, single-payer health care for all, and free college education at public institutions.
Many Democrats still don’t recognize that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 in part because she was more hawkish than Trump on foreign policy and wars. (As an aside, the burdens of war are most likely to fall on those people Hillary dismissed as “deplorables.”) Most Americans are tired of endless wars in faraway places like Afghanistan and Syria as well as endless global commitments that drive a “defense” budget that stands at $716 billion this year, increasing to $750 billion next year. Throwing more money at the Pentagon, to put it mildly, isn’t the wisest approach if your goal is to end wasteful wars and restore greatness here at home.
Many of Trump’s supporters get this. I was reading Ben Bradlee Jr.’s book, The Forgotten, which examines the roots of Trump’s victory by focusing on Pennsylvania. Bradlee interviews a Vietnam veteran, Ed Harry, who had this to say about war and supporting Trump:
“We’re tired. Since I’ve been born, we’ve been in a state of war almost all the time. When does it stop? We’re pissing away all our money building bombs that kill people, and we don’t take care of veterans at home that need the help.”
Harry says he voted for Trump “because he was a nonpolitician” rather than a liberal or conservative. Trump, the “nonpolitician,” dared to talk about America’s wasteful wars and the need to end them, whereas Hillary Clinton made the usual vague yet tough-sounding noises about staying the course and supporting the military.
Again, Democrats need to listen to and embrace veterans like Ed Harry when he says: “All the money pissed away on wars could be used here to take care of the needs of the people.”
I’d like to cite one more Vietnam veteran, Richard Brummett, who was interviewed in 2018 by Nick Turse at The Nation. Brummett, I think, would identify more as a liberal and Harry more as a conservative, but these labels really mean little because these veterans arrive at the same place: arguing against America’s endless wars.
Here’s what Brummett had to say about these wars: “I feel intense sadness that we’ve gotten the country into this. All these naive 20-year-olds, 18-year-olds, are getting chewed up by these wars–and then there’s what we’re doing to the people of all these countries. The list gets longer all the time: Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria. Who is benefiting from all this agony? I had the naive hope, in the years after Vietnam, that when I died–as a really old guy–the obituary would read: ‘America’s last combat veteran of any war died today.'”
If Democrats want to lose again, they’ll run a “centrist” (i.e. a pseudo-Republican) like Joe Biden or Kamala Harris who’ll make the usual noises about having a strong military and keeping the world safe by bombing everywhere. But if they want to win, they’ll run a candidate who’s willing to tell the truth about endless wars and their incredibly high and debilitating costs. This candidate will promise an end to the madness, and as a result he or she will ignite a fire under a large and diverse group of voters, because there are a lot of people out there like Harry and Brummett who are fed up with forever war.
Fear of defeat drives military men to folly. Early in 1968, General William Westmoreland, America’s commanding general in Vietnam, feared that communist forces might overrun U.S. military positions at Khe Sanh. His response, according to recently declassified cables as reported in the New York Times today, was to seek authorization to move nuclear weapons into Vietnam. He planned to use tactical nuclear weapons against concentrations of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops. President Lyndon Johnson cancelled Westmoreland’s plans and ordered that discussions about using nuclear weapons be kept secret (i.e. hidden from the American people), which for the last fifty years they have been.
Westmoreland and the U.S. military/government had already been lying to the American people about progress in the war. Khe Sanh as well as the Tet Offensive of 1968 were illustrations that there was no light in sight at the end of the tunnel — no victory loomed by force of arms. Thus the call for nuclear weapons to be deployed to Vietnam, a call that President Johnson wisely refused to countenance.
Westmoreland’s recourse to nuclear weapons would have made a limited war (“limited” for U.S. forces, not for the Vietnamese on the receiving end of U.S. firepower) unlimited. A nuclear attack in Vietnam likely would have been catastrophic to world order, perhaps leading to a much wider war in Asia that could have led to world-ending nuclear exchanges. But Westmoreland seems to have had only Khe Sanh in his sights: only the staving off of defeat in a position that American forces quickly abandoned after they had “won” the battle.
War, as French leader Georges Clemenceau famously said, is too important to be left to generals. Generals often see the battlefield in narrow terms, seeking victory at any price, if only to avoid the stain of defeat.
But what price victory if the world ends as a result?
I was jesting with a friend the other day about how the U.S. could win the Afghan War. There were two ways, I suggested. The first is to relocate about 10 or 20 million Americans to Afghanistan and declare it the 51st state. Then wait a generation or two. The second was to withdraw all American forces and declare “mission accomplished.” Half-measures that fall in between these options are doomed to fail, which is what we’ve been witnessing since the fall of 2001.
In Afghanistan today, the Taliban controls more territory than ever, the drug trade is flourishing, government corruption is endemic, yet the U.S. military/government continues to speak of progress. This “spin it to win it” approach to the Afghan War is nothing new, of course, which is why the following article that I wrote in 2010 is still relevant.
President Trump had a sound instinct in seeking to end the Afghan War. He was talked out of it by the military. For all his faults, Trump knows a loser policy when he sees it. Will he have the moxie to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan?
No More Afghanistans (originally posted in 2010)
In grappling with Afghanistan, President Obama and his team of national security advisors reveal a tendency all too common within the Washington beltway: privileging fleeting and reversible signs of local success while downplaying endemic difficulties and larger patterns of strategic failure. Our latest intelligence estimates, we are told, show signs of progress. But of what sort? The Taliban appears to be extending its hold in the countryside, corruption continues to spread in the Karzai government, and the Afghan National Army remains unreliable, all despite (or rather because of) prodigious infusions of cash courtesy of the American taxpayer.
The president and his advisors would do well to toss aside the latest “feel good” intel and pick up a good book on war. I’d recommend Summons of the Trumpet: U.S.-Vietnam in Perspective, by Colonel (later, Lieutenant General) Dave Richard Palmer. “One of the essential ingredients of [national] preparedness,” wrote then-Colonel Palmer in 1978, “is a diligent and honest study of the past, an intellectual examination of historical successes and failures.” True to his word, Palmer quoted Major G.P. Baldwin, who wrote in 1928 of the Russo-Japanese War that:
The [Russian] government, the press, and the people as a whole had no enthusiasm for the war, indeed failed to understand what the nation was fighting about … Such support is necessary in any war … Unless the people are enthusiastic about war, unless they have a strong will to win it, they will become discouraged by repeated [setbacks] … no government can go to war with hope of success unless it is assured that the people as a whole know what the war is about, that they believe in their cause, are enthusiastic for it, and possess a determination to win. If these conditions are not present the government should take steps to create them or keep the peace.
Palmer cited these words at the end of his probing account of America’s defeat in Vietnam. Though I don’t agree with all of Palmer’s conclusions, his book is stimulating, incisive, and compelling in its concluding vow: “There must be no more Vietnams.”
Let’s consider the points that Baldwin and Palmer raise in light of today’s situation in Afghanistan. Are the American people enthusiastic for this war? Do they have a strong will to win it (assuming the war is winnable on terms consistent with our interests)? Do they know what the war is about (this seems unlikely, since nine out of ten Americans can’t seem to locate Afghanistan on a map)?
If the answer to these fundamental questions is “no,” and I believe it is, shouldn’t our government and our troops be withdrawing now? Because I don’t see that our government will seek to mobilize the people, mobilize our national will, tell us clearly what our cause is and why it is just, and persist in that cause until it is either won or lost. And if I’m right about this, our government had best work to “keep the peace.”
Some of the reasons Palmer cites for why Vietnam was such an “incomprehensible war” for the United States bear careful consideration for President Obama’s policy review. These reasons include that few Americans knew exactly why we were fighting in Vietnam; that it was a “limited war” during which most Americans “sensed no feeling of immediate danger and certainly no spirit of total involvement”; that no “unifying element” was at work to suppress internal doubt and dissent, common elements in all wars; that the struggle was not only (or even primarily) a military one but one in which economic, political, and psychological factors often intruded; and that a cultural gap of great perplexity separated us from both our in-country allies and our enemy, a gap that “foment[ed] mistrust and misunderstanding.”
In light of these points, Afghanistan may qualify as a new “incomprehensible war.” Let’s not be distracted by the minutia of the latest intelligence reports and their uncertain metrics of “success.” Unless we can give convincing answers to General Palmer’s questions and points – and unless we can wage a war that doesn’t entail destroying the Afghan village in order to save it – our only sound course is expedient withdrawal, followed by a renewed vow: There must be no more Vietnams – or Afghanistans.
I have a simple proposition: Let’s rebuild America instead of paving roads to nowhere in Afghanistan.
The U.S. has spent nearly a trillion dollars on fighting and (mostly) losing the Afghan War over the last seventeen years. That price tag includes paving roads that have already fallen into disrepair. Yet as money continues to flow freely to the Pentagon and to America’s fruitless wars overseas, money for America’s infrastructure barely flows at a trickle from the federal government. How stupid is that?
I was talking to a guy yesterday who owns a local landscaping company. Like me, he couldn’t stomach Trump or Hillary for president in 2016, so he voted for a third-party candidate. He got to asking about my latest writing efforts and I mentioned my recent article on the Air Force’s $100 billion stealth bomber. He asked if I was for it or against it, and I said against. Good, he said. And he started talking about the 1930s and how America invested in itself by building bridges, roads, canals, dams, and other infrastructure. Why aren’t we doing more of that today? Sensible question. Our infrastructure is decaying all around us, but our government would rather invest in military weaponry.
Today, I had to go to the auto dealership, and I got talking to an old buck who served as an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam in 1967. What he recalled about the war, he said, was its enormity. All those B-52s lined up at Guam. All those napalm tanks in Vietnam. He remembered pilots dropping napalm in the morning, coming back after the mission to drink (and some to get drunk), then flying the next day to drop more napalm. (The stuff worked, he said, meaning the napalm, but he might have added the alcohol at the club as well.) He had thought about extending his time in the Army, but a lieutenant colonel talked him out of it. (The LTC explained that he’d be coming back to Vietnam much sooner than he thought, probably as a company commander, and so my conversational partner voted with his feet and left the Army.)
America is incredibly profligate in war. We spend like drunken sailors (or pilots) on everything from the biggest and most destructive weapons to bubble gum and comic books for the troops. Yet at least in the olden days our wars had some sense of closure. Nowadays, America’s leaders talk of “long” war, “generational” war, even “infinite” war, as Tom Engelhardt and Colonel (ret.) Andrew Bacevich note at TomDispatch.com. Infinite war — again, how stupid can we be as a people?
Long war or infinite war is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. America is on a permanent war footing, at least in terms of the federal budget and societal propaganda enjoining us to “support our troops” and to be cheerleaders for whatever they do.
We need to call BS on these wars — and also on prodigal weapons like the B-21 — and start rebuilding this country. How about some new roads, bridges, dams, etc.? Instead of paving roads to nowhere in Afghanistan, or blowing cities up in Iraq, let’s pave new roads and rebuild cities right here in the USA.
You can’t win wars that should never have been fought. The U.S. should never have fought the Iraq and Afghan wars, nor should we have fought the Vietnam War.
It’s not that we need to know and master the foreign enemy. We need to know and master the enemy within. The domestic enemy. For the U.S. is defeating only itself in fighting these wars. Yet “experts” in the military and government focus on how to prosecute war more effectively; rarely do they think seriously about ending or, even better, avoiding wars.
Part of this is cultural. Americans are obsessed with the idea of winning, defined in terms of dominance, specifically military/physical dominance, taking the fight to the enemy and never backing down. The best defense is a good offense, as they say in the NFL. Winning is the only thing, as Vince Lombardi said. While those maxims may apply to football, they don’t apply to wars that should never have been fought.
Turning from football to tunnels, how about that image made popular during the Vietnam War that “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel”? Victory, in other words, is in sight and can be reached if we “stay the course” until the tunnel’s end. Few ask why we’re in the tunnel to begin with. Why not just avoid the tunnel (of Vietnam, of Iraq, of Afghanistan) and bask in the light of liberty here in the USA? Indeed, why not brighten liberty’s torch so that others can see and enjoy it? But instead U.S. military forces are forever plunging into foreign tunnels, groping in the dark for the elusive light of victory, a light that ultimately is illusory.
Another point is that the Pentagon is often not about winning wars without; it’s about winning wars within, specifically budgetary wars. Here the Pentagon has been amazingly successful, especially in the aftermath of the Cold War, which should have generated a major reduction in U.S. military spending (and overseas military deployments). The other “war” the Pentagon has won is the struggle for cultural authority/hegemony in the USA. Here again, the Pentagon has won this war, as represented by presidents from Bush to Obama to Trump boasting of the 4F military (the finest fighting force since forever), and as represented by the fact that the military remains the most trusted governmental institution in America. Indeed, most Americans don’t even think of “our” military as being part of the federal government. They think of it as something special, even as they profess to distrust Congress and hate “big government.” Yet nothing screams “big” like our steroidal federal military, and few entities are more wasteful.
My point is that many military commentators and critics frame the problem wrongly. It’s not about reforming the U.S. military so that it can win wars. Americans must reform our culture and our government so that we can avoid wars, even as we end the ones we’re in. For constant warfare is the enemy of democracy and the scourge of freedom.
A final point about winning that’s rarely acknowledged: America’s wars overseas are not all about us. Winning (whatever that might mean) should be unconscionable when it comes at the price of hundreds of thousands of dead, millions of refugees, and regions blasted and destabilized.
Eight years ago to this month, I wrote the following article for Truthout about America’s ongoing folly in Afghanistan. I was inspired by an old Look magazine from the 1960s and its coverage of the Vietnam War.
Reading old articles about the Vietnam War is sobering precisely because they read like articles written yesterday. Consider just one example. On May 30, 1967, Look magazine published a comprehensive, 25-page review entitled “USA in Asia.” The subtitle gave the game away: “Our bloody commitments in Asia horrify many Americans. But like it or not, we are irreversibly involved.”
Today, more than forty years later, many say the same of our involvement in Central Asia. Our bloody commitments continue to horrify Americans. And yet again we’re told we’re irreversibly involved. Yet if Vietnam taught us anything, it’s that the “irreversible” is eminently reversible.
Historians and pundits alike can cite dozens of well-informed reasons why today’s Afghanistan is not like yesterday’s Vietnam. And they’re right — and wrong. For what remains the same is us, especially the power of our own self-regard, as well as that of our overly militarized vision, both of which must be overcome if we are ever to succeed in Asia.
Consider how Look in 1967 labeled Vietnam as “our albatross.” Yet those Americans who dared to question our country’s immense military commitment to this “albatross” were labeled as leftist isolationists, “more upset about the billions diverted to Asia than the $22 billion being spent to put a man on the moon,” a non sequitur if ever there was one. Meanwhile, comparing Vietnam to landlocked Laos, an unnamed US official gushed that Vietnam has “the ocean, and we’re great on the ocean. It’s the right place.”
So, Look portrayed “our” Vietnam either as an albatross weighing us down or as the “right place” for American power projection. That the real Vietnam was something different from a vexatious burden for us or an ideal showcase for our military prowess doesn’t seem to have occurred to an Amero-centric Look staff.
Consider as well Look’s précis of the Vietnam War in 1967 and its relevance to our approach to fighting in Afghanistan today:
“The crux is winning the loyalty of the people. We have spent billions … [on] ‘strategic hamlets’ to ‘Revolutionary Development,’ and have failed to make much progress. We have had to reoccupy villages as many as eight times. There is no front and no sanctuary.”
“Our latest ploy has been to turn ‘pacification’ over to the South Vietnamese Army … Unfortunately, most of the ARVN is badly trained and led, shows little energy and is reputedly penetrated by the Vietcong …. Whether such an undisciplined army can move into villages and win over the people is dubious.
“We are trying harsher measures. We have even organized ‘counter-terror’ teams to turn Vietcong tactics against their own terrorist leaders. ‘The real cancer is the terrorist inner circle,’ says one U.S. leader. ‘These terrorists are very tough people. We haven’t scratched the surface yet.’
“We can really win in Vietnam only if we achieve the ‘pacification’ that now seems almost impossible.”
Note the continuities between past and present: the emphasis on winning hearts and minds, the unreliability and corruption of indigenous allied forces, the use of counter-terror against a “very tough” terrorist foe (with barely suppressed disgust that “our” friendly allies lack this same toughness, for reasons that are not exposed in bright sunlight), the sense of mounting futility.
Counterinsurgency combined with counter-terror, escalating US combat forces while simultaneously seeking to “Vietnamize” (today’s “Afghanize”) the war to facilitate an American withdrawal: An approach that failed so miserably forty years ago does not magically improve with age.
Look’s Asian tour concluded on a somber, even fatalistic, note: “The wind blows not of triumphs but of struggle, at a high price, from which there is no escape and with which we have to learn to live…. Men who bomb; men who are killed. Men who booby-trap; men who are maimed. And children who are maimed and who die. They are the price of our bloody involvements in Asia.”
Bloody inevitability — but was it inevitable? Was it irreversible?
So it seems, even today. Why? Precisely because we continue to look so unreflectively and so exclusively through military field glasses for solutions. As Look noted in 1967: “Our massive military presence dominates our involvement in Asia,” words that ring as true today as they did then. And as Secretary of State Dean Rusk opined back then, “It’s going to be useful for some time to come for American power to be able to control every wave of the Pacific, if necessary.”
Again, the sentiment of “full spectrum dominance” rings ever true.
But one thing has changed. Back then, Look described our “massive” commitment to Asia as a byproduct of our “might and wealth,” evidence of our “fat.” We wouldn’t be there, Look suggested, “if we were poor or powerless.”
Today, a slimmer America (at least in terms of budgetary strength) nevertheless persists in making massive military commitments to Asia. Again, we say we’re irreversibly involved, and that blood is the price of our involvement.
But is Central Asia truly today’s new “right place” to project American power? In arresting the spread of a “very tough” terrorist foe, must we see Afghanistan as a truly irreversible — even irresistible — theater for war?
Our persistence in squinting at Asia through blood-stained military goggles suggests that we still have much to learn from old articles about Vietnam.
The Kennedy Administration: Camelot or Incompetence?
President John F. Kennedy is surrounded by myths, the most famous of which is Camelot. The Kennedys brought youth and glamour to the White House, a reprieve from the perceived stodginess of Ike and Mamie Eisenhower (as well as the “square” and indeed criminal Nixon White House to come). They seemed the perfect couple, John and Jackie, and it seems churlish and graceless to note how much of this was image. Kennedy was a notorious womanizer, a fact both known and suppressed by a fawning Washington Press Corps. Jackie came across as a traditional wife: loyal, unobjectionable, limited by her times but also steely in her grace and fortitude after her husband was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963 (the latest movie that captures this awful event is Jackie, starring Natalie Portman).
Kennedy’s father, Joe Sr., taught his sons a sense of winning at all costs. A sense of recklessness. Kennedy’s older brother, Joe Jr. died leading a risky bombing mission in World War II, and John F. Kennedy nearly died when he lost his PT boat in action in the Pacific. The loss of PT-109 was depicted as a heroic act, as the young JFK helped to save some of his crew, but one may question how he came to lose his boat in the first place. JFK’s perfect marriage, as already mentioned, was a sham, and despite his relative youth, he was not in the best of health, plagued by a bad back, Addison’s disease, and other health issues. His Pulitzer-prize winning book, “Profiles in Courage,” was largely ghost written. JFK’s life was often more a triumph of image than a profile in courage.
As President, Kennedy made many unwise decisions. He escalated American involvement in Laos and Vietnam, setting the stage for a major commitment of U.S. ground troops by President Lyndon Johnson early in 1965. He oversaw the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which backfired badly on the inexperienced U.S. commander-in-chief. As Lawrence Freedman put it in his book, Kennedy’s Wars (2000), “This was exactly the sort of move—gambling on the basis of insufficient strength and then abandoning the operation before it was complete—that made [Dean] Acheson despair.” Freedman further cites Acheson as saying European leaders compared JFK’s bungling to “a gifted amateur practicing with a boomerang and suddenly knocking himself cold. They were amazed that so inexperienced a person should play with so lethal a weapon.”
Greater lethality was to come the next year with the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is often sold as JFK’s moment of steely toughness, when he made the Soviets blink and back down, but as a recent book by Daniel Ellsberg reveals, that crisis nearly resulted in nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It was yet another instance of JFK’s tendency toward taking big risks as a way of proving himself. Almost precipitating nuclear Armageddon, however, is terrifying way to prove one’s fitness for office.
Even before JFK became president, he fabricated what today might be called “alternative facts.” He invented a missile gap vis-à-vis the Soviet Union that didn’t exist. In fact, the true missile gap was the opposite of what JFK claimed, in that the U.S. had many more nuclear ICBMs than the Soviets did. When he became president, JFK embarked on a strategic policy of “Flexible Response” (suggested by General Maxwell Taylor) that activated and empowered more conventional operations by the U.S. military. In practice what this meant was that the U.S. became embroiled in conflicts that were secondary to national interests; worst of all, of course, was a major land war in Vietnam that was essentially a lost cause even before Kennedy chose to escalate it with more advisers and materiel aid.
Defenders of JFK suggest he grew in office and would have seen the folly of continuing in Vietnam, but there’s little evidence to support this narrative. The recent Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War cites Kennedy as saying the U.S. couldn’t win in Vietnam, but that he couldn’t order a withdrawal because to do so would cost him his reelection in 1964. JFK, moreover, fancied the notion of Flexible Response, his New Look military and its emphasis on special ops forces such as the Green Berets, and he saw Vietnam as a test bed for a “counterinsurgency” approach to defeating communism. What LBJ did in 1965 in escalating that conflict by committing U.S. ground troops is probably what JFK would have done if he had lived. (In his book, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, Fredrik Logevall suggests JFK may have had the political will to resist escalation in 1965, effectively allowing South Vietnam to fall to communism, an intriguing if unprovable scenario.)
In sum, JFK set the stage for America’s disastrous war in Southeast Asia while provoking the Soviet Union into an escalatory nuclear arms race that threatened the world with extinction. Profiles in courage these are not.
It’s worth briefly comparing JFK’s record to that of Richard Nixon, who has no Camelot myths attached to him. Nixon, of course, was and is vilified as “Tricky Dick” and dismissed as one of America’s worst presidents. He deserves opprobrium for his mendacious, meretricious, and murderous policies vis-à-vis Southeast Asia, especially his well-nigh treasonous meddling in peace negotiations in 1968, before he was elected president. Nixon and Henry Kissinger saw themselves as the world’s powerbrokers, working to overthrow governments they disliked, as in Chile with the coup against Allende. But Nixon and Kissinger deserve a measure of credit for opening negotiations with communist China as well as starting a process of détente with the Soviet Union. Nixon showed a capacity for growth in office even as he permitted his own ego and paranoia to undermine his administration’s accomplishments in foreign policy.
The point here is not to praise Nixon, a man of considerable gifts but also of crippling flaws. Rather, the point is to highlight an overly fawning approach to the presidency of John F. Kennedy. His administration, rather than serving as a shining moment, a Camelot, ultimately was an exercise in imagery and incompetence.