Let’s (Not) Go To War!

W.J. Astore

Remember the days when America had to be attacked before it went to war? And when it did, it made formal Congressional declarations of the same?

In December 1941, the Japanese attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor as well as elsewhere in the Pacific. In response to those attacks, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress for a formal declaration of war. Nazi Germany then declared war on the U.S., after which the U.S. responded in kind. Compared to the future wars of U.S. empire, Americans were generally united and had some understanding of what the war (World War II, of course) was about.

We haven’t had that kind of unity and clarity since 1945, which is certainly the biggest reason America has suffered so many setbacks and defeats in unpromising places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In all three of those places, there really wasn’t a clear and compelling cause for war, hence there was no Congressional declaration of the same. Hmm … maybe that should have told us something?

In Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution by Congress followed on the heels of an “attack” that had never happened. In Iraq, the “evil dictator” didn’t have the weapons of mass destruction we accused him of having, nor had he played any role in the 9/11 attacks. In Afghanistan, the Taliban had played a secondary role in providing a safe haven to Osama bin Laden prior to 9/11, but it was Al Qaeda, not the Taliban, that was behind the 9/11 attacks.

Indeed, since 15 of the 19 Al Qaeda terrorists were Saudi, as well as their leader, Osama bin Laden, it would have made much more sense to have declared war on Saudi Arabia and invade that country than to have invaded Afghanistan. Of course, it made no sense at all to have declared a general “war on terror,” and rather unsurprisingly, that 20-year-war has only succeeded in spreading terror further.

Now we turn to today’s situation between Russia and Ukraine. Frankly, I don’t see a border dispute between these two countries as constituting a major threat to U.S. national security. It’s certainly no reason for America to go to war. Yet the Biden Administration is taking a hard line with its economic sanctions, its weapons shipments, and its troop deployments to the region.

Somehow, America’s leaders seem to think that such actions will deter, or at least punish, Russia and its leader. But there’s another possibility, one equally as likely, that sanctions and weapons and troops will lead to escalation and a wider war, and for what reason? A Russian-Ukrainian border dispute? This dispute might resolve itself if the U.S. and NATO just had the sense and patience to mind its own business.

A rush to war made sense in 1941, when the U.S. faced powerful and implacable enemies that were focused on its destruction. It hasn’t made sense since then, nor does it make sense today.

In short, let’s not go to war.

Bombing Kills Lots of Innocents: Who Knew?

W.J. Astore

Extensive U.S. bombing overseas kills lots of innocent people: who knew?

So this blinding statement of the obvious popped up in my email today from the New York Times:

A five-year Times investigation found that the U.S. air wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan led to thousands of civilian deaths.
Hidden Pentagon records show a pattern of failures in U.S. airstrikes — a sharp contrast to the American government’s image of war waged by all-seeing drones and precision bombs.
The military’s own confidential assessments of over 1,300 reports of civilian casualties since 2014, obtained by The Times, lays bare how the air war has been marked by deeply flawed intelligence, rushed and often imprecise targeting and the deaths of thousands of civilians, many of them children. None of these failures resulted in a finding of wrongdoing. We are making these Pentagon records public.
This is the first of a two-part investigation. Here are the key takeaways.

Finally, at the end of 2021, the Times is willing to speak up against America’s murderous regimen of bombing overseas. I wrote about this myself at this site in 2016 and 2017, and I’m hardly the only person to have pointed this out. At TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt has been reporting for years and years on wedding parties being wiped out by U.S. bombing missions based on “faulty intelligence.” The mainstream media have largely played down these atrocities until now, when the war in Afghanistan is finally (mostly) over, at least for the U.S.

As I wrote in 2013 for TomDispatch.com, airpower is neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive. Indeed, because it provides an illusion of effectiveness, and because America dominates the “high ground” of the air, all of this “precision” bombing serves to keep America in wars for far longer than is tenable on tactical grounds. Imagine how long the Iraq and Afghan wars would have lasted if America didn’t dominate the air, if the U.S. military had to rely exclusively on ground troops, and thus had suffered much higher casualties in ground combat. My guess is that these wars would have ended earlier, but “progress” could always be faked with all those statistics of bombs dropped and alleged “high value targets” eliminated.

I suppose it’s good to see the “liberal” New York Times cover this issue of murderous bombing after 20 years of the global war on terror. The question remains: why did it take them two decades to cover this issue in depth?

Presidents become “presidential” when they bomb other countries. Meanwhile, Julian Assange rots in prison. Maybe he needs to bomb a few countries?

Update (12/21/21)

More notes on U.S. bombing and the Times report, courtesy of ReThink Round Up:

“Not a single file [from the military about the bombings] includes a finding of wrongdoing. An effort within the military to find lessons learned to prevent future civilian harm was suppressed. An analyst who captures strike imagery even told the Times that superior officers would often “tell the cameras to look somewhere else” because “they knew if they’d just hit a bad target.”

Responding to the report, a Pentagon spokesperson acknowledged that preventing civilian deaths is not just a “moral imperative” but a strategic issue because civilian casualties can fuel recruiting for extremist groups. [New York Times/ Azmat Khan]”

*****

Again, to state the obvious here:

1. There’s no accountability in the system. Murderous mistakes are covered up and no one is held responsible (“tell the cameras to look somewhere else”).

2. The bombing attacks were counterproductive. Guess what? Killing innocents creates more “terrorists.” Who knew?

Murderous inaccuracy, making matters worse, with no accountability: WTF? So much for America’s “awesome” military, as Andrew Bacevich writes about today at TomDispatch.com.

How Awesome Is “Awesome”?

Never Forget — What?

W.J. Astore

The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has come and gone. The theme I often heard was “never forget.” Never forget what, exactly? That we were attacked? All of us of a certain age remember 9/11. We remember where we were when we first heard the news. We remember the shock, the confusion, the sense of loss. We really don’t need to be reminded to “never forget.”

A similar phrase is “always remember.” Like “never forget,” it’s remarkably labile, much like Obama’s slogans of “hope” and “change.” And that’s the point. It’s vague while being emotive. It plays on our emotions without encouraging us to think.

So, let’s think critically for a moment. What should we “never forget”? We should never forget the victims, of course. The heroes. The first responders who gave their lives. And, by the way, why is Congress always so reluctant to provide health care to those first responders who worked so tirelessly in the dangerously unhealthy rubble of the Twin Towers? Let’s not forget them in their moments of need.

But what else shouldn’t we forget and “always remember”? I think we should remember the colossal failure of the Bush/Cheney administration to act on intelligence that indicated Al Qaeda was determined to strike in the U.S. We should remember the chaos generated by those attacks, and how our government responded so slowly, and with a measure of panic. And we should remember how quickly men like Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld deflected any blame and took no responsibility for what can only be described as a massive defeat.

Also, it’s important to recall that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, yet America’s leaders chose to invade Afghanistan and Iraq after announcing a global war on terror. In short, they used 9/11 as a pretext to embark on wars that they wanted to fight, wars of choice that proved disastrous, and for which they’ve largely evaded responsibility.

As a military historian, I’m also taken aback by our leaders choosing to rebrand 9/11 as “Patriot Day.” When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, America’s leaders didn’t rebrand that day as an occasion for patriotism. They recognized it was a date of infamy and declared war on the attacker.

It’s almost as if 9/11 has become a date of victimhood for the U.S. An old Air Force buddy of mine put it well recently in a message to me:

“It felt like it wasn’t about remembrance as much as just wallowing in self-pity. Interesting you bring up Pearl Harbor. Back then we went off and fought a 4-year war, beat our enemy, and helped them rebuild. For 9/11, we went off and fought a 20-year war, came home with our tails between our legs, and left our enemy more empowered. A celebration of victimhood, but not of honor.”

I like my friend’s appeal to honor. It’s an old-fashioned word that you hear rarely in America’s offices and corridors of power. Where is the honor in turning the 9/11 calamity into some kind of celebration of victimhood and patriotism?

As a historian, of course I want 9/11 to be remembered. But let’s not allow propaganda and cheap sentiment to shape our memories. And let’s “never forget” the failures of our leaders both before and after that date of infamy.

Twenty Years After 9/11

W.J. Astore

When the first hijacked plane hit the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001, I was at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.  I was in my car, listening to the radio, just outside the North Gate, where a B-52 sits on static display as a symbol of American power. The first reports suggested it was an accident, but it soon became apparent it was a deliberate act.  As a second and then a third plane hit the WTC and the Pentagon, I remember hearing speculation that 9/11 could have a higher death toll than the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day of the U.S. Civil War.  It was bad enough, if not that bad.

I remember confusion and chaos in the government, and the use of the word “folks” by President George W. Bush to describe the hijackers.  Very quickly, his rhetoric changed, and soon America would be launched on a global crusade against terrorists and other evildoers.

The flags came out and America came together, but that team spirit, so to speak, was quickly seized upon and exploited by Bush/Cheney to justify war anywhere and everywhere.  Good will was squandered and wise counsel was rejected in a calculated plot for power-projection disguised as righteous vengeance. Sweep everything up, related and unrelated, go big: those were the sentiments of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and crew.  They had failed so badly at protecting America on 9/11; they were not going to fail to use 9/11 for their own nefarious purposes.

And now, 20 years later, we’re witnessing how badly their hubris and dishonesty have damaged democracy in America, as well as damaging or destroying millions of lives around the globe.

After finishing my tour at the AF Academy in 2002, I became the Dean of Students at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey. I wonder how many of “my” young troops who so proudly crossed the stage with newly acquired language skills in Pashto and Dari and Arabic never made it home from Bush and Cheney’s GWOT, their “global war on terror.”

9/11 remains a traumatic day for America. It’s a day we remember where we were and what we were doing when we first learned of this horrific attack on our country. However briefly, 9/11 brought America together, but militarism and constant warfare along with prejudice and ignorance have served only to weaken our democracy while impoverishing our country.

This madness was on my mind as I recently re-watched “The City on the Edge of Forever,” a classic Star Trek episode in which history’s changed when Dr. McCoy travels back in time to 1930s America.  Here he saves the life of Edith Keeler, a social activist who, in an alternate timeline, delays U.S. entry into World War II, which allows the Nazis to develop the atomic bomb first, thereby winning the war.  Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock learn they must prevent McCoy from saving Keeler, which is complicated by the fact that Kirk falls hard for her.  She’s a visionary who speaks of space travel and a better world.  As Kirk courts her, Keeler says she dreams of a future in which all the money currently spent on war and death … and Kirk completes her thought by saying that that money will be spent instead on life.  Kindred spirits they are, Kirk and Keeler, yet to restore history to its proper place, he must let her die.

Joan Collins as Edith Keeler and William Shatner as Captain Kirk: Reaching for the stars

Keeler’s dream of peace – of all the trillions of dollars spent on weapons and war and death being instead spent on life – is the proper one, the right one, even as it was tragically premature.  For this she must die, forgotten to history, a bit player remembered only for running a small neighborhood mission for those with nowhere else to go.

I’ve always been attracted to science fiction and to plots both utopian, or at least hopeful, and dystopian.  But in the dystopia in which we increasingly find ourselves today, we need hopeful visions.  We need Edith Keelers.  But to use Star Trek-speak again, what I see issuing from the U.S. government is far more consistent with a Klingon Empire driven by war than a peaceful and life-affirming “federation” of planets.  The U.S. empire is not about to go quietly, nor will it go peacefully.

It’s time for a new course, a far less bellicose one, but a no less determined one, where Americans look within rather than without. Echoing Edith Keeler, let’s spend our money and resources on life, not death, love, not war. Let’s try that for the next 20 years. If we do, I bet we’ll be a lot better off in 2041 than we are today.

Why Can’t American Troops Just Leave Iraq?

W.J. Astore

The Biden administration says it wants to remove U.S. combat troops from Iraq. Hooray! Mission finally accomplished, right? It may be 18 years after George W. Bush declared it to be so, but who’s counting the years?

Not so fast. For President Biden still wants to keep roughly 2000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq for training and advisory purposes. So much for mission accomplished.

Why can’t U.S. troops just leave — for good? If Iraq can’t defend itself after nearly two decades of U.S. “training” in the war on terror, maybe it’s finally time to admit our limits (or our folly) and simply leave.

It almost seems like America’s system of “defense” is an imperial project — an effort to enlarge American power at almost any cost (and the Iraq war has cost America in the trillions of dollars).

This is the telling argument of Tom Engelhardt’s latest post at TomDispatch.com. The U.S. is the empire that dare not speak its name, even as it begins to collapse due to perpetual war externally and perpetual rancor internally. And, believe me, as former President Trump would say, those two are related. He should know, given how he tapped that rancor and aggravated it for his own purposes.

Here’s an excerpt from Engelhardt’s latest, where he points out what might be termed the Pentagon Paradox: The more America’s generals fail, the more they succeed (more money, more promotions, more power):

Still, let’s face it, this isn’t the set of conflicts that, once upon a time, involved invasions, massive air strikes, occupations, the killing of staggering numbers of civilians, widespread drone attacks, the disruption of whole countries, the uprooting and displacement of more than 37 million people, the deployment at one point of 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan alone, and the spending of untold trillions of American taxpayer dollars, all in the name of fighting terror and spreading democracy. And think of it as mission (un)accomplished in the truest sense imaginable.

In fact, that idea of spreading of democracy didn’t really outlast the Bush years. Ever since, there’s been remarkably little discussion in official Washington about what this country was really doing as it warred across significant parts of the planet. Yes, those two decades of conflict, those “forever wars,” as they came to be called first by critics and then by anyone in sight, are at least winding, or perhaps spiraling, down — and yet, here’s the strange thing: Wouldn’t you think that, as they ended in visible failure, the Pentagon’s stock might also be falling? Oddly enough, though, in the wake of all those years of losing wars, it’s still rising. The Pentagon budget only heads ever more for the stratosphere as foreign policy “pivots” from the Greater Middle East to Asia (and Russia and the Arctic and, well, anywhere but those places where terror groups still roam).

Buy the Book

In other words, when it comes to the U.S. military as it tries to leave its forever wars in someone else’s ditch, failure is the new success story.

And how! Maybe we need a new saying in America: Nothing succeeds like failure. It’s truly paradoxical until you realize that someone is always winning and profiting from this failure, even as the rest of America suffers.

Engelhardt’s book above has a well-judged title: “A Nation Unmade By War.” But perhaps we can improve it? How about “An Empire Unmade By War”?

America Is Programmed for War

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch, I write that America is programmed for war. It’s a feature of our polity and our politics and our culture, not a bug. In some sense, we are a country made by war, and that’s not a good feature for a self-avowed democracy to have. Here’s an excerpt:

Why don’t America’s wars ever end?

I know, I know: President Joe Biden has announced that our combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 9/11 of this year, marking the 20th anniversary of the colossal failure of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to defend America.

Of course, that other 9/11 in 2001 shocked us all. I was teaching history at the U.S. Air Force Academy and I still recall hushed discussions of whether the day’s body count would exceed that of the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day of the Civil War. (Fortunately, bad as it was, it didn’t.)

Hijacked commercial airliners, turned into guided missiles by shadowy figures our panicky politicians didn’t understand, would have a profound impact on our collective psyche. Someone had to pay and among the first victims were Afghans in the opening salvo of the misbegotten Global War on Terror, which we in the military quickly began referring to as the GWOT. Little did I know then that such a war would still be going on 15 years after I retired from the Air Force in 2005 and 80 articles after I wrote my first for TomDispatch in 2007 arguing for an end to militarism and forever wars like the one still underway in Afghanistan.

Over those years, I’ve come to learn that, in my country, war always seems to find a way, even when it goes badly — very badly, in fact, as it did in Vietnam and, in these years, in Afghanistan and Iraq, indeed across much of the Greater Middle East and significant parts of Africa. Not coincidentally, those disastrous conflicts haven’t actually been waged in our name. No longer does Congress even bother with formal declarations of war. The last one came in 1941 after Pearl Harbor. During World War II, Americans united to fight for something like national security and a just cause. Today, however, perpetual American-style war simply is. Congress postures, but does nothing decisive to stop it. In computer-speak, endless war is a feature of our national programming, not a bug.

Two pro-war parties, Republicans and Democrats, have cooperated in these decades to ensure that such wars persist… and persist and persist. Still, they’re not the chief reason why America’s wars are so difficult to end. Let me list some of those reasons for you. First, such wars are beyond profitable, notably to weapons makers and related military contractors. Second, such wars are the Pentagon’s reason for being. Let’s not forget that, once upon a time, the present ill-named Department of Defense was so much more accurately and honestly called the Department of War. Third, if profit and power aren’t incentive enough, wars provide purpose and meaning even as they strengthen authoritarian structures in society and erode democratic ones. Sum it all up and war is what America now does, even if the reasons may be indefensible and the results so regularly abysmal.

Support Our Troops! (Who Are They, Again?)

The last truly American war was World War II. And when it ended in 1945, the citizen-soldiers within the U.S. military demanded rapid demobilization — and they got it. But then came the Iron Curtain, the Cold War, the Korean War, fears of nuclear Armageddon (that nearly came to fruition during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962), and finally, of course, Vietnam. Those wars were generally not supported — not with any fervor anyway — by the American people, hence the absence of congressional declarations. Instead, they mainly served the interests of the national security state, or, if you prefer, the military-industrial-congressional complex.

Ike knew the score

That’s precisely why President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued his grave warning about that Complex in his farewell address in 1961. No peacenik, Ike had overseen more than his share of military coups and interventions abroad while president, so much so that he came to see the faults of the system he was both upholding and seeking to restrain. That was also why President John F. Kennedy called for a more humble and pacific approach to the Cold War in 1963, even as he himself failed to halt the march toward a full-scale war in Southeast Asia. This is precisely why Martin Luther King, Jr., truly a prophet who favored the fierce urgency of peace, warned Americans about the evils of war and militarism (as well as racism and materialism) in 1967. In the context of the enormity of destruction America was then visiting on the peoples of Southeast Asia, not for nothing did he denounce this country as the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.

Collectively, Americans chose to ignore such warnings, our attention being directed instead toward spouting patriotic platitudes in support of “our” troops. Yet, if you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize those troops aren’t really ours. If they were, we wouldn’t need so many bumper stickers reminding us to support them.

With the military draft gone for the last half-century, most Americans have voted with their feet by not volunteering to become “boots on the ground” in the Pentagon’s various foreign escapades. Meanwhile, America’s commanders-in-chief have issued inspiring calls for their version of national service, as when, in the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush urged Americans to go shopping and visit Disney World. In the end, Americans, lacking familiarity with combat boots, are generally apathetic, sensing that “our” wars have neither specific meaning to, nor any essential purpose in their lives.

As a former Air Force officer, even if now retired, I must admit that it took me too long to realize this country’s wars had remarkably little to do with me — or you, for that matter — because we simply have no say in them. That doesn’t mean our leaders don’t seek to wage them in our name. Even as they do so, however, they simultaneously absolve us of any need to serve or sacrifice. We’re essentially told to cheer “our” troops on, but otherwise look away and leave war to the professionals (even if, as it turns out, those professionals seem utterly incapable of winning a single one of them).

Please read the rest of my article here at TomDispatch.com.

War and Meaninglessness in America

W.J. Astore

Joe Biden is America’s new president, but nothing has changed on the war front. In Iraq, a U.S. airstrike has killed the top leader of the Islamic State, notes today’s New York Times. The paper notes that “the United States has about 2,500 troops left on three Iraqi military bases. While Iraqi capability in fighting the Islamic State group has improved, the country still relies on intelligence, surveillance assets and air support from the US-led coalition.”

Remember when U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011? Of course, despite all the military training and equipment the U.S. showered on a new Iraqi military, that military totally collapsed in 2014 under pressure from the Islamic State. Naturally, the U.S. military took no blame, even as the collapse opened a door for more U.S. military intervention. And so the fighting persists, but at a low-enough level that it stays off of most American radar screens.

Revealingly, this is how the Iraqi parliament responded to the latest U.S. “victory” on terror: “After the drone strike, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution demanding the government expel US forces from Iraq, a move that has not been implemented.”

Do you think President Biden will listen to the Iraqi parliament and withdraw U.S. troops once and for all?

War has been made much too easy in America. Imagine if Joe Biden, or Donald Trump, or Barack Obama, or George W. Bush, actually had to lead troops from the front, exposing themselves to potential harm as they waged America’s wars overseas. It’s easy to sit in the Oval Office and push paper that translates into killing people. I’m not getting nostalgic for the age of Napoleon or the time of kings and queens, but there’s something to be said for physical and moral courage and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for what one believes.

This put me to mind of a passage from Tana French’s novel, “The Likeness,” from 2008. French writes the following “rant” for one of her characters:

“Look at the old wars, centuries ago: the king led his men into battle.  Always.  That was what the ruler was: both on a practical level and on a mystical one, he was the one who stepped forwards to lead his tribe, put his life at stake for them, become the sacrifice for their safety.  If he had refused to do that most crucial thing at that most crucial moment, they would have ripped him apart—and rightly so: he would have shown himself to be an impostor, with no right to the throne.  The king was the country; how could he possibly expect it to go into battle without him?  But now…Can you see any modern president or prime minister on the front line, leading his men into the war he’s started?  And once that physical and mystical link is broken, once the ruler is no longer willing to be the sacrifice for his people, he becomes not a leader but a leech, forcing others to take his risks while he sits in safety and battens on their losses.  War becomes a hideous abstraction, a game for bureaucrats to play on paper; soldiers and civilians become mere pawns, to be sacrificed by the thousands for reasons that have no roots in any reality.  As soon as rulers mean nothing, war means nothing; human life means nothing.  We’re ruled by venal little usurpers, all of us, and they make meaninglessness everywhere they go.” (pages 320-21, emphasis added)

Tana French

It’s a powerful passage that has much to say about America’s seemingly eternal wars against someone somewhere.

For America’s rulers, war has largely become “kinetic action” at an entirely safe distance, so far away as to become almost an imaginary construct, except for the vast profits earned from it. To most Americans, as French suggests, it has become an exercise in meaninglessness. And whatever else war is or should be, it should have meaning, otherwise it’s just killing for nothing.

A Very American Coup

W.J. Astore

All this talk of coups, and U.S. military veterans’ involvement in the same, reminds me of an article I wrote for TomDispatch.com exactly eleven years ago in 2010. In the article, I suggested the possibility of “a very American coup” in 2016, and I wrote that “A military that’s being used to fight unwinnable wars is a military prone to return home disaffected and with scores to settle.” Recent events at the U.S. Capitol suggest that many Americans do have scores to settle, and some of them are disaffected veterans.

Of course, my vintage 2010 crystal ball wasn’t completely clear, but I think I got a few things more or less right, especially my prescriptions for preventing coups, which still apply today, I’d argue. What do you think, readers?

A Very American Coup
Coming Soon to a Hometown Near You
By William J. Astore

(Originally posted on January 19, 2010)

The wars in distant lands were always going to come home, but not this way.

It’s September 2016, year 15 of America’s “Long War” against terror.  As weary troops return to the homeland, a bitter reality assails them: despite their sacrifices, America is losing.

Iraq is increasingly hostile to remaining occupation forces.  Afghanistan is a riddle that remains unsolved: its army and police forces are untrustworthy, its government corrupt, and its tribal leaders unsympathetic to the vagaries of U.S. intervention.  Since the Obama surge of 2010, a trillion more dollars have been devoted to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and other countries in the vast shatter zone that is central Asia, without measurable returns; nothing, that is, except the prolongation of America’s Great Recession, now entering its tenth year without a sustained recovery in sight.

Disillusioned veterans are unable to find decent jobs in a crumbling economy.  Scarred by the physical and psychological violence of war, fed up with the happy talk of duplicitous politicians who only speak of shared sacrifices, they begin to organize.  Their motto: take America back.

Meanwhile, a lame duck presidency, choking on foreign policy failures, finds itself attacked even for its putative successes.  Health-care reform is now seen to have combined the inefficiency and inconsistency of government with the naked greed and exploitative talents of corporations.  Medical rationing is a fact of life confronting anyone on the high side of 50.  Presidential rhetoric that offered hope and change has lost all resonance.  Mainstream media outlets are discredited and disintegrating, resulting in new levels of information anarchy.

Protest, whether electronic or in the streets, has become more common — and the protestors in those streets increasingly carry guns, though as yet armed violence is minimal.  A panicked administration responds with overlapping executive orders and legislation that is widely perceived as an attack on basic freedoms.

Tapping the frustration of protesters — including a renascent and mainstreamed “tea bag” movement — the former captains and sergeants, the ex-CIA operatives and out-of-work private mercenaries of the War on Terror take action.  Conflict and confrontation they seek; laws and orders they increasingly ignore.  As riot police are deployed in the streets, they face a grim choice: where to point their guns?  Not at veterans, they decide, not at America’s erstwhile heroes.

A dwindling middle-class, still waving the flag and determined to keep its sliver-sized portion of the American dream, throws its support to the agitators.  Wages shrinking, savings exhausted, bills rising, the sober middle can no longer hold.  It vents its fear and rage by calling for a decisive leader and the overthrow of a can’t-do Congress.

Savvy members of traditional Washington elites are only too happy to oblige.  They too crave order and can-do decisiveness — on their terms.  Where better to find that than in the ranks of America’s most respected institution: the military?

A retired senior officer who led America’s heroes in central Asia is anointed.  His creed: end public disorder, fight the War on Terror to a victorious finish, put America back on top.  The United States, he says, is the land of winners, and winners accept no substitute for victory.  Nominated on September 11, 2016, Patriot Day, he marches to an overwhelming victory that November, embraced in the streets by an American version of the post-World War I German Freikorps and the police who refuse to suppress them.  A concerned minority is left to wonder (and tremble) at the de facto military coup that occurred so quickly, and yet so silently, in their midst.

It Can Happen Here, Unless We Act

Yes, it can happen here.  In some ways, it’s already happening.  But the key question is: at this late date, how can it be stopped?  Here are some vectors for a change in course, and in mindset as well, if we are to avoid our own stealth coup:

1. Somehow, we need to begin to reverse the ongoing militarization of this country, especially our ever-rising “defense” budgets.  The most recent of these, we’ve just learned, is a staggering $708 billion for fiscal year 2011 — and that doesn’t even include the $33 billion President Obama has requested for his latest surge in Afghanistan.  We also need to get rid of the idea that anyone who suggests even minor cuts in defense spending is either hopelessly naïve or a terrorist sympathizer.  It’s time as well to call a halt to the privatization of military activity and so halt the rise of security contractors like Xe (formerly Blackwater), thereby weakening the corporate profit motive that supports and underpins the American version of perpetual war.  It’s time to begin feeling chastened, not proud, that we’re by far the number one country in the world in arms manufacturing and the global arms trade.

2. Let’s downsize our global mission rather than endlessly expanding our military footprint.  It’s time to have a military capable of defending this country, not fighting endless wars in distant lands while garrisoning the globe

3. Let’s stop paying attention to major TV and cable networks that rely on retired senior military officers, most of whom have ties both to the Pentagon and military contractors, for “unbiased” commentary on our wars.  If we insist on fighting our perpetual “frontier” wars, let’s start insisting as well that they be covered in all their bitter reality: the death, the mayhem, the waste, the prisons, and the torture.  Why is our war coverage invariably sanitized to “PG” or even “G,” when we can go to the movies anytime and see “R” rated, pornographically violent films?  And by the way, it’s time to be more critical of the government’s and the media’s use of language and propaganda.  Mindlessly parroting the Patriot Act doesn’t make you patriotic.

4. It’s time to elect a president who doesn’t surround himself with senior “civilian” advisors and ambassadors who are actually retired military generals and admirals, one who won’t accept a Nobel Peace Prize by defending war in theory and escalating it in practice.

5. Let’s toughen up.  Let’s stop deferring to authority figures who promise to “protect” us while abridging our rights.  Let’s stop bowing down before men and women in uniform, before they start thinking that it’s their right to be worshipped and act accordingly.

6. Let’s act now to relieve the sort of desperation bred by joblessness and hopelessness that could lead many — notably male workers suffering from the “He-Cession” — to see a militarized solution in “the homeland” as a credible last resort.  It’s the economy, stupid, but with Main Street’s health, not Wall Street’s, in our focus.

7. Let’s take Sarah Palin and her followers seriously.  They’re tapping into anger that’s real and spreading.  Don’t let them become the voices of the angry working (and increasingly unemployed) classes.

8. Recognize that we face real enemies in our world, the most powerful of which aren’t in distant Afghanistan or Yemen but here at home.  The essence of our struggle to sustain our faltering democracy should not be against “terrorists,” with their shoe and crotch bombs, but against various powerful, perfectly legal groups here whose interests lie in a Pentagon that only grows ever stronger.

9. Stop thinking the U.S. is uniquely privileged.  Don’t take it on faith that God is on our side.  Forget about God blessing America.  If you believe in God, get out there and start trying to earn His blessing through deeds.

10. And, most important of all, remember that fear is the mind-killer that makes militarism possible.  Ramping up “terror” is an amazingly effective way of shredding our Constitution.  Putting our “safety” above all else is asking for trouble.  The only way we’ll be completely safe from the big bad terrorists, after all, is when we’re all living in a maximum security state.  Think of walking down the street while always being subject to a “full-body scan.”    

That’s my top 10 things we need to do.  It’s a daunting list and I’m sure you have a few ideas of your own.  But have faith.  Ultimately, it all boils down to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words to a nation suffering through the Great Depression: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  These words came to mind recently as I read the following missive from a friend and World War II veteran who’s seen tough times: 

“It’s very hard for me to accept how soft the American people have become. In 1941, with the western world under assault by powerful and deadly forces, and a large armada of ships and planes attacking us directly, I never heard a word of fear as we faced three powerful nations as enemies. Sixteen million of us went into the military with the very real possibility of death and I never once heard of fear, except from those exposed to danger. Now, our people let [their leaders] terrify them into accepting the destruction of our economy, our image in the world, and our democracy… All this over a small group of religious fanatics [mostly] from Saudi Arabia whom we kowtow to so we can drive 8-cylinder SUV’s.  Pathetic!”

“How many times have I stood in ‘security lines’ at airports and when I complained of the indignity of taking off shoes and not having water and the manhandling of passengers, have well educated people smugly said to me, ‘Well, they’re just keeping us safe.’ I look at the airport bullshit as a training ground to turn Americans into docile sheep in a totalitarian state.”

A public conditioned to act like sheep, to “support our troops” no matter what, to cower before the idea of terrorism, is a public ready to be herded.  A military that’s being used to fight unwinnable wars is a military prone to return home disaffected and with scores to settle.

Angry and desperate veterans and mercenaries already conditioned to violence, merging with “tea baggers” and other alienated groups, could one day form our own Freikorps units, rioting for violent solutions to national decline.  Recall that the Nazi movement ultimately succeeded in the early 1930s because so many middle-class Germans were scared as they saw their wealth, standard of living, and status all threatened by the Great Depression.

If our Great Recession continues, if decent jobs remain scarce, if the mainstream media continue to foster fear and hatred, if returning troops are disaffected and their leaders blame politicians for “not being tough enough,” if one or two more terrorist attacks succeed on U.S. soil, wouldn’t this country be well primed for a coup by any other name?

Don’t expect a “Seven Days in May” scenario.  No American Caesar will return to Washington with his legions to decapitate governmental authority.  Why not?  Because he won’t have to. 

As long as we continue to live in perpetual fear in an increasingly militarized state, we establish the preconditions under which Americans will be nailed to, and crucified on, a cross of iron.

William J. Astore teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology (wastore@pct.edu).  A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), he has also taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School.  A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism.

Copyright 2010 William J. Astore

The Military-Industrial Complex Wins Again

Does the Pentagon and its contractors need a stimulus more than the American people?

W.J. Astore

At the American Conservative, I discuss the War on Terror, the nomination of General (retired) Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense, the lack of an American anti-war movement, and why we never see a “peace dividend” in the USA. My discussion begins at the 16-minute point.

Also, articles by Matt Taibbi and David Sirota suggest that the biggest winner of the latest Covid-relief stimulus talks in Congress is, believe it or not, the military-industrial complex. Right now there are no plans to send money to the American people, even as nearly 15 million have lost their employer-sponsored health care and millions more face eviction or foreclosure in the new year.

Here are the headlines:

“Stimulus Bill Bails Out Defense Contractors, Denies Direct Payments to Families,” by David Sirota and Julia Rock at https://www.dailyposter.com/p/stimulus-bill-bails-out-defense-contractors

“Amazing” Hypocrisy: Democrats Make Wreck of Covid-19 Relief Negotiations
Democrats stonewalled all year on a new pandemic relief package. Now they’re proposing a new plan that undercuts even Republican proposals, and screws everyone but – get this – defense contractors, by Matt Taibbi at https://taibbi.substack.com/p/amazing-hypocrisy-democrats-make

Taibbi quotes one aide as saying: “There are no direct payments for regular working people, people living off tips. But they made sure there’s a provision in there to help defense contractors who aren’t working right now. They get what they’re looking for.”

In short, the military-industrial complex wins again. The American people? They lose again.

Three Generals Walk Into a Bar …

W.J. Astore (and Andrew Bacevich)

Back in May of 2019, I wrote an article here on General William Westmoreland and the Vietnam War. Westmoreland was conventional in every sense of the word; it was his misfortune to be put in charge of an unconventional war in Southeast Asia, a war he didn’t understand but also one that was unnecessary for U.S. security and incredibly wasteful to boot. Relieved of command by being booted upstairs, Westmoreland went to his grave convinced that the war was winnable. If only he’d received the reinforcements he needed …

Today at TomDispatch.com, Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and author, imagines Westmoreland grousing in a bar with two other generals: George S. Patton of World War II fame, and an imaginary general of today’s wars, Victor Constant. Let’s just say General Constant does not cover himself in glory, failing to live up to his victor(ious) first name as he loses himself in vapid catchphrases he’s gleaned from PowerPoint briefings on war and its meaning. Much like today’s generals, in fact.

So, with the blessing of TomDispatch.com, here is that barroom conversation, as imagined by Colonel (ret.) Bacevich:

Patton and Westy Meet in a Bar
A Play of Many Parts in One Act
By Andrew Bacevich

It’s only mid-afternoon and Army Lieutenant General Victor Constant has already had a bad day.1 Soon after he arrived at the office at 0700, the Chief2 had called. “Come see me. We need to talk.”

The call was not unexpected. Any day now, POTUS3 will announce the next four-star to command the war effort in Afghanistan — how many have there been? — and Constant felt certain that he’d be tapped for the job. He’d certainly earned it. Multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, worse still, at the Pentagon. If anyone deserved that fourth star, he did.

Unfortunately, the Chief sees things differently. “Time’s up, Vic. I need you to retire.” Thirty-three years of service and this is what you get: your walking papers, with maybe a medal thrown in.

Constant returns to his office, then abruptly tells his staff that he needs some personal time. A 10-minute drive and he’s at the O-Club, where the bar is just opening. “Barkeep,” he growls. “Bourbon. Double. Rocks.” On the job long enough to have seen more than a few senior officers get the axe, the bartender quietly complies.

Constant has some thinking to do. For the first time in his adult life, he’s about to become unemployed. His alimony payments and college tuition bills are already killing him. When he and Sally have to move out of quarters,4 she’s going to expect that fancy house in McLean or Potomac that he had hinted at when they were dating. But where’s the money going to come from?

He needs a plan. “Barkeep. Another.” Lost in thought, Constant doesn’t notice that he’s no longer alone. Two soldiers — one boisterous, the other melancholy — have arrived and are occupying adjacent bar stools.

The first of them smells of horses. To judge by his jodhpurs and riding crop, he’s just returned from playing polo. He has thinning gray hair, small uneven teeth, a high-pitched voice, and a grin that says: I know things you never will, you dumb sonofabitch. He exudes arrogance and charisma. He is George S. Patton. He orders whiskey with a beer chaser.

The second wears Vietnam-era jungle fatigues, starched. His jump boots glisten.5 On his ballcap, which he carefully sets aside, are four embroidered silver stars. He is impeccably groomed and manicured. The nametape over his breast pocket reads: WESTMORELAND. He exudes the resentment of someone who has been treated unfairly — or thinks he has.

“Westy! Damned if you still don’t look like TIME’s Man of the Year back in ’65! Ease up, man! Have a drink. What’ll it be?”

“Just water for me, General. It’s a bit early in the day.”

“Shit. Water? You think my guys beat the Nazis by filling their canteens with water?”

Westmoreland sniffs. “Alcohol consumption does not correlate with battlefield performance — although my troops did not suffer from a shortage of drink. They never suffered from shortages of anything.”

Patton guffaws. “But you lost! That’s the point, ain’t it? You lost!”

The bickering draws Victor Constant out of his reverie. “Gentlemen, please.”

“Who are you, bucko?” asks Patton.

“I am Lieutenant General Victor Constant, U.S. Army. To my friends, I’m VC.”

“VC!” Westy nearly falls off of his stool. “My army has generals named after the Vietcong?”

Patton intervenes. “Well, VC, tell us old timers what you’re famous for and why you’re here, drinking in uniform during duty hours.

“Well, sir, first of all, I’m a warrior. I commanded a company in combat, then a battalion, then a brigade, then a division. But I’m here now because the chief just told me that I need to retire. That came as a bit of a blow. I don’t know what Sally is going to say.” He stares at his drink.

Patton snorts. “Well, my young friend, sounds like you’ve seen plenty of action. All that fighting translates into how many wins?”

“Wins?” VC doesn’t quite grasp the question.

“Wins,” Patton says again. “You know, victories. The enemy surrenders. Their flag comes down and ours goes up. The troops go home to a heroes’ welcome. Polo resumes.”

Westy interjects. “Wins? Are you that out of touch, George? The answer is: none. These so-called warriors haven’t won anything.”

“With all due respect, sir, I don’t think that’s fair. Everyone agrees that, back in ’91, Operation Desert Storm was a historic victory. I know. I was there, fresh out of West Point.”

Patton smirks. “Then why did you have to go back and do it again in 2003? And why has your army been stuck in Iraq ever since? Not to mention Syria! And don’t get me started on Afghanistan or Somalia! The truth is your record isn’t any better than Westy’s.”

“Now, see here, George. You’re being unreasonable. We never lost a fight in Vietnam.” He pauses and corrects himself. “Well, maybe not never, but very rarely.”

“Rarely lost a fight!” Patton roars. “What does that have to do with anything? That’s like you and your thing with body counts! Dammit, Westy, don’t you know anything about war?”

VC ventures an opinion. “General Westmoreland, sir, I’m going to have to agree with General Patton on this one. You picked the wrong metric to measure progress. We don’t do body counts anymore.”

“Well, what’s your metric, sonny?”

VC squirms and falls silent.

His hackles up, Westy continues. “First of all, the whole body-count business was the fault of the politicians. We knew exactly how to defeat North Vietnam. Invade the country, destroy the NVA,6 occupy Hanoi. Just like World War II: Mission accomplished. Not complicated.”

He pauses to take a breath. “But LBJ and that arrogant fool McNamara7 wouldn’t let us. They imposed limits. They wouldn’t even mobilize the reserves. They set restrictions on where we could go, what we could attack. General Patton here had none of those problems in ’44-’45. And then the press turned on us. And the smartass college kids who should have been fighting communists started protesting. Nothing like it before or since — the home front collaborating with the enemy.”

Westy changes his mind about having a drink. “Give me a gin martini,” he barks. “Straight up. Twist of lemon. And give VC here” — his voice drips with contempt — “another of whatever he’s having.”

The bartender, who has been eavesdropping while pretending to polish glassware, grabs a bottle and pours.

“Hearts and minds, Westy, hearts and minds.” Patton taunts, obviously enjoying himself.

“Yes, hearts and minds. Don’t you think, George, that we understood the importance of winning over the South Vietnamese? But after Diem’s assassination,8 the Republic of Vietnam consisted of little more than a flag. After D-Day, you didn’t need to create France. You just needed to kick out the Germans and hand matters over to De Gaulle.”9

Westmoreland is becoming increasingly animated. “And you fought alongside the Brits. We were shackled to a Vietnamese army that was miserably led and not eager to fight either.”

“Monty was a horse’s ass,”10 Patton interjects, apropos of nothing.

“The point is,” Westmoreland continues, “liberating Europe was politically simple. Defending South Vietnam came with complications you could never havedreamed of. Did the New York Times pester you about killing civilians? All you had to do to keep the press on your side was not to get caught slapping your own soldiers.”

“That was an isolated incident and I apologized,” Patton replies, with a tight smile. “But the fact is, Westy, all your talk about ‘firepower and mobility’ didn’t work. ‘Search and destroy’? Hell, you damn near destroyed the whole U.S. Army. And the war ended with the North Vietnamese sitting in Saigon.”

“Ho Chi Minh City,” Victor Constant offers by way of correction.

“Oh, shut up,” Patton and Westmoreland respond simultaneously.

Patton leans menacingly toward Victor Constant and looks him right in the eye. “Have you seen my movie, son?”11

“Yes, of course, sir. Several times.”

“Then you should understand what war is all about. You ‘hold onto him by the nose’ and you ‘kick him in the ass.’ That’s what I said in the movie. Why is that so hard to understand? How is it that my soldiers could defeat those Hun bastards and you and your crew can’t manage to take care of a few thousand ‘militants’ who don’t have tanks or an air force or even decent uniforms, for God’s sake?”

“Hearts and minds, George, hearts and minds.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, Westy?”

“Your kick-them-in-the-ass approach isn’t good enough these days. You studied Clausewitz — war is politics with guns. Now, I’ll give you this much: in Vietnam, we never got the politics right. We couldn’t solve the puzzle of making war work politically. Maybe there wasn’t a solution. Maybe the war was already lost the day I showed up. So we just killed to no purpose. That’s a failure I took to my grave.”

A bead of perspiration is forming on Westmoreland’s lip. “But these guys” — he nods toward Constant — “now, we’ve got a generation of generals who think they’ve seen a lot of war but don’t know squat about politics — and don’t even want to know. And we’ve got a generation of politicians who don’t know squat about war, but keep doling out the money. There’s no dialogue, no strategy, no connecting war and politics.”

Victor Constant is mystified. Dialogue? He rouses himself to defend his service. “Gentlemen, let me remind you that the United States Army today is far and away the world’s finest military force. No one else comes close.”

Westy just presses on. “So what has your experience in war taught you? What have you learned?”

Patton repeats the question. “What have you learned, Mr. Warrior? Tell us.”

Learned? After several drinks, Victor Constant is not at his best. “Well, I’ve learned a lot. The whole army has.”

He struggles to recall recent PowerPoint briefings that he’s dozed through. Random phrases come to mind. “Leap-ahead technology. Dominant maneuver in an ever-enlarging battlespace. Simultaneous and sequential operations. Artificial Intelligence. Quantum computing. Remote sensing. Machine learning. Big data analytics. 5G technology. High-fidelity, multi-domain training.”

However dimly, VC realizes he’s babbling. He pauses to catch his breath. “It’s all coming, if they’ll just give us the money.”

Patton stares at him silently. Victor Constant senses that it’s time to go home.

“Can I call you a taxi?” Westmoreland asks.

“No, sir, thank you.” With as much dignity as he can muster, Victor Constant straightens his tie, finds his headgear, and walks unsteadily toward the door.

What have I learned? What did they even mean? He was a general officer in the best army in the world. Maybe the best army ever. Wasn’t that enough? He needed to ask Sally.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

Copyright 2020 Andrew Bacevich


1 Victor Constant is the name of the ski slope at the United States Military Academy, called such in memory of a cadet ski instructor killed in an accident during World War II. To my knowledge, there is no officer bearing that name in the U.S. Army. Return to story.

2 The chief of staff, U.S. Army. Return to story.

3 The president of the United States. Return to story.

4 Many of the army’s most senior officers are housed at government-owned quarters at Fort Myers, Virginia, and Fort McNair in Washington. Return to story.

5 Beginning in World War II, U.S. Army paratroopers sported a distinctive style of black leather boot, more fashionable than standard army issue. After the war, Westmoreland attended jump school and commanded the 101st Airborne Division. Return to story.

6 Shorthand for the North Vietnamese army. Return to story.

7 Lyndon Johnson served as U.S. president from November 1963 to January 1969. Robert Strange McNamara filled the post of defense secretary from 1961 to 1968. Return to story.

8 The November 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem destroyed whatever slight political legitimacy the Republic of Vietnam had possessed. Return to story.

9 Charles De Gaulle was the leader of the Free French during World War II. Return to story.

10 Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, the senior British commander in the European Theater of Operations in World War II, had a low opinion of American officers from U.S. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower on down. Return to story.

11 “Patton” (1970), starring George C. Scott. Return to story.