The Missions Unaccomplished Force

060503_MI3_hmed_1p.grid-6x2
At least we win in Hollywood …

Tom Engelhardt.  Introduction by W.J. Astore.

Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich has a new article at TomDispatch as well as a new book on America’s War for the Greater Middle East (my copy is already coming in the mail). Bacevich’s main point in his latest article couldn’t be more clear: Congressional cowardice.  Congress refuses to exercise the people’s authority over presidential warmaking, a gross dereliction of duty that ensures perpetual wars with missions perennially left unaccomplished.  And that is the theme of Tom Engelhardt’s introduction to Bacevich’s article.

You’ve heard of the Impossible Missions Force, or IMF, which somehow always gets the job done, whether led by Martin Landau or Peter Graves or Tom Cruise?  Well, that’s Hollywood.  In the real world, we have the MUF, or Missions Unaccomplished Force.  Yes, they always muff it, no matter if the “Decider” is the strutting George W. Bush or the cool and calculating Barack Obama.  But let Tom Engelhardt tell the tale …  W.J. Astore  

The Missions Unaccomplished Force, by Tom Engelhardt

It was a large banner and its message was clear.  It read: “Mission Accomplished,” and no, I don’t mean the classic “mission accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln under which, on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush proudly proclaimed (to the derision of critics ever since) that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”  I’m actually referring to a September 1982 banner with those same two words (and an added “farewell” below them) displayed on a landing craft picking up the last Marines sent ashore in Beirut, Lebanon, to be, as President Ronald Reagan put it when they arrived the previous August, “what Marines have been for more than 200 years — peace-makers.”  Of course, when Bush co-piloted an S-3B Viking sub reconnaissance Naval jet onto the deck of the Abraham Lincoln and made his now-classic statement, major combat had barely begun in Iraq (and it has yet to end) — nor was it peace that came to Beirut in September 1982: infamously, the following year 241 Marines would die there in a single day, thanks to a suicide bomber.

“Not for the last time,” writes Andrew Bacevich in his monumental new work, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, “the claim proved to be illusory.”  Indeed, one of the grim and eerie wonders of his book is the way in which just about every wrongheaded thing Washington did in that region in the 14-plus years since 9/11 had its surprising precursor in the two decades of American war there before the World Trade Center towers came down.  U.S. military trainers and advisers, for example, failed (as they later would in Iraq and Afghanistan) to successfully build armies, starting with the Lebanese one; Bush’s “preventive war” had its predecessor in a Reagan directive called (ominously enough given what was to come) “combating terrorism”; Washington’s obsessive belief of recent years that problems in the region could be solved by what Andrew Cockburn has called the “kingpin strategy” — the urge to dismantle terror organizations by taking out their leadership via drones or special operations raids — had its precursor in “decapitation” operations against Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid with similar resulting mayhem.  The belief that “an additional increment of combat power might turn around a failing endeavor” — call it a “surge,” if you will — had its Iraq and Afghan pretrial run in Somalia in 1993.  And above all, of course, there was Washington’s unquenchable post-1980 urge to intervene, military first, in a decisive way throughout the region, which, as Bacevich writes, only “produced conditions conducive to further violence and further disorder,” and if that isn’t the repetitive history of America’s failed post-2001 wars in a nutshell, what is?

As it happened, the effects of such actions from 1980 on were felt not just in the Greater Middle East and Africa, but in the United States, too.  There, as Bacevich writes today, war became a blank-check activity for a White House no longer either checked (in any sense) or balanced by Congress.  Think of it as another sad tale of a surge (or do I mean a decapitation?) that went wrong.

The Next Commander-in-Chief

Governor_John_Kasich
John Kasich

W.J. Astore

A reader wrote to ask my opinion on which presidential candidate would make the best commander-in-chief.  This is a speculative exercise, of course, but why not speculate? I’ve watched most of the debates and have a sense of the candidates, though of course I’ve never met them and have no direct experience with them.  (I once shook President Bill Clinton’s hand, and saw Hillary in the background, but that’s a story for another day.)  So let’s take the five remaining candidates in alphabetical order:

Hillary Clinton: Often wrong and too hawkish, which is a bad combination. She was wrong on the Iraq War, wrong on Libya, and unapologetic in her fondness for Henry Kissinger. Under Clinton, I see more wasteful military interventions.

Ted Cruz: Far too eager to use military force.  You’ll recall his posturing about “carpet bombing” and making the sand “glow” in the Middle East, apparently by using nuclear weapons.  The recent terrorist attacks in Belgium have him calling for a police state in U.S. neighborhoods where Muslim-Americans live.

John Kasich: Has experience working military matters while in Congress (18 years on the House Armed Services Committee).  Has executive experience as a governor.  Has had the temerity to criticize the Saudis for supporting radical elements in Islam.  Has opposed wasteful weapons systems (the B-2 and A-12, for example).  Speaks carefully and appears to be temperamentally suited to the job.

Bernie Sanders: He was right to oppose the Iraq War.  Thinks for himself.  Not a slave to neoconservative interventionism.  Yet he lacks experience dealing with the military and with foreign policy.  Has the capacity for growth.

Donald Trump: Lacks an understanding of the U.S. Constitution and his role and responsibilities as commander-in-chief.  Though he has shown a willingness to depart from orthodoxies, e.g. by criticizing the Iraq War and the idea of nation-building, Trump’s temperament is highly suspect.  His bombast amplified by his ignorance could make for a deadly combination.  Hysterical calls for medieval-like torture practices are especially disturbing.

Of the five major candidates, and with Sanders somewhat of a blank slate, I think John Kasich has the best potential — in the short-term — to be an effective commander-in-chief.  This does not mean that I support Kasich for president, for I object to several of his domestic policies.

Not exactly a “bracing view,” perhaps, but it’s my honest attempt to answer a reader’s question.  I do think Sanders has considerable potential to be an excellent commander-in-chief because he possesses moral courage.

Sadly, the odds of either Kasich or Sanders winning in November seem very long indeed.

Terrorism and Threat Inflation: Fear Is the Mind-Killer

threat

W.J. Astore

Over the last ten years in the United States, more than 280,000 Americans (more than 300,000 by some counts) have died because of guns.  Over that same period, roughly 350,000 Americans have died on the roads in vehicular accidents.  That’s roughly 630,000 Americans dying every decade either in road accidents or by gunshots, which is roughly the number of Americans who died in the horrible carnage of the U.S. Civil War from 1861 to 1865, America’s bloodiest war.

In other words, at the hands of guns and vehicles, Americans suffer the equivalent of a civil war-like bloodletting each and every decade.  Is it time to declare war on guns and cars?  (And now roughly 30,000 people each year are dying from drug overdoses related to the abuse of prescription painkillers and other opiates.)

The U.S. media and our leaders prefer to fixate on radical Islamic terrorism, which has accounted for 24 deaths over the same period.  Indeed, by the numbers the White supremacist threat to America is twice as serious as threats from ISIS or other external radical groups.

According to the Washington Times,

“In the 14 years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, nearly twice as many people have been killed in the United States by white supremacists and anti-government radicals than by Muslim jihadis, according to a new study.”

“White supremacists and anti-government radicals have killed 48 Americans … versus 26 killings by Muslim radicals, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center.”

“New America program associate David Sterman said the study shows that white supremacy and anti-government idealists are a major problem, that their growth rate needs to be addressed and that there is an ‘ignored threat’ woven in the fabric of American society.”

Given these numbers and realities, why are America’s leaders so fixated on hyping the threat of radical Islamic terrorists?  Shouldn’t we be focusing on saving lives on our roads? Reducing gun accidents and gun crimes and suicide by guns? On reducing hate-filled radicalism within our own country?

We should be, but we’re not.  Our leaders prefer threat inflation: They believe in making political hay while the foreign terrorist threat shines.  So presidential candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio predictably call for a war on terrorism, for military “boots on the ground” in Syria and Iraq, and (of course) for higher military spending and more surveillance, in the name of protecting America.  Threat inflation knows no political party, of course, with Hillary Clinton joining the chorus of the tough-talkers against terror.

Threat inflation sells.  And threat inflation pays.  This is an important theme in Tom Engelhardt’s latest tour de force at TomDispatch.com, “The National Security State’s Incestuous Relationship with the Islamic State.”  As Engelhardt notes, threat inflation drives a dance of death even as it eliminates grey zones — opportunities for dialog, diplomacy, compromise, forms of accommodation.  It enforces a black and white world of crusaders and jihadists bent on killing one another in the name of righteousness.

Here is how Engelhardt puts it:

the officials of [the U.S. national] security state have bet the farm on the preeminence of the terrorist “threat,” which has, not so surprisingly, left them eerily reliant on the Islamic State and other such organizations for the perpetuation of their way of life, their career opportunities, their growing powers, and their relative freedom to infringe on basic rights, as well as for that comfortably all-embracing blanket of secrecy that envelops their activities.  Note that, as with so many developments in our world which have caught them by surprise, the officials who run our vast surveillance network and its staggering ranks of intelligence operatives and analysts seemingly hadn’t a clue about the IS plot against Paris (even though intelligence officials in at least one other country evidently did).  Nonetheless, whether they see actual threats coming or not, they need Paris-style alarms and nightmares, just as they need local “plots,” even ones semi-engineered by FBI informers or created online by lone idiots, not lone wolves. Otherwise, why would the media keep prattling on about terrorism or presidential candidates keep humming the terror tune, and how, then, would public panic levels remain reasonably high on the subject when so many other dangers are more pressing in American life?

The relationship between that ever-more powerful shadow government in Washington and the Islamic terrorists of our planet is both mutually reinforcing and unnervingly incestuous.

Of course, Engelhardt knows that terrorism must be fought.  The point is not to lose our collective heads over the (much exaggerated) threat of it.  To cite Frank Herbert’s insight in Dune, “Fear is the mind-killer.”  Yet our media and leaders seem determined to hype fear so as to kill our minds.

As our media and politicians stoke our fear by exaggerating the threat posed by terrorism, ask yourself to what purpose are they attacking your minds.

Hint: It certainly isn’t about keeping you safe.

I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier: A Mother’s Plea for Peace

My copy of the sheet music (1915)
My copy of the sheet music (1915)

W.J. Astore

The year was 1915.  Europe, indeed much of the world, was embroiled in the devastating Great (or World) War.  Under President Woodrow Wilson, the United States was proud to have stayed out of the war, the massive bloodletting of which seemed peculiarly European, an “Old World” form of militarized madness that most Americans wanted no part of.  In fact, in 1916 Wilson would be reelected in large part because he had kept America out of Europe’s great war.  (Of course, the very next year the United States did choose to join the war effort against Germany.)

Yet in 1915 the idea of celebrating the military, nobilizing the military experience, finding higher purpose and meaning in war, was the furthest thing from the minds of most Americans.  Unlike the America of 2015, there was no mantra of “support our troops,” no publicity campaigns that encouraged citizens to “salute” the troops.  What publicity existed discouraged Americans from getting involved in war, a fact exhibited by some old sheet music that I recently ran across in a local thrift shop.

“I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier,” copyright 1915 and “respectfully dedicated to Every Mother – Everywhere,” shows a mother protectively holding her grown son as visions of battle assault her mind near the family hearth.  It was a popular song; you can listen to an old Edison recording here.

The lyrics are as simple as they are telling:

Ten million soldiers to the war have gone,

Who may never return again.

Ten million mothers’ hearts must break,

For the ones who died in vain.

Head bowed down in sorrow in her lonely years,

I heard a mother murmur thro’ her tears:

Chorus:

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier,

I brought him up to be my pride and joy,

Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder,

To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?

Let nations arbitrate their future troubles,

It’s time to lay the sword and gun away,

There’d be no war today,

If mothers all would say,

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.

(Chorus)

What victory can cheer a mother’s heart,

When she looks at her blighted home?

What victory can bring her back,

All she cared to call her own.

Let each mother answer in the years to be,

Remember that my boy belongs to me!

Nowadays, such lyrics seem hopelessly quaint and naïve, or even cowardly and defeatist.  America must stand up to evildoers around the world.  We must fight ISIS and other elements of radical Islam.  We must “stay the course” in Afghanistan.  We must maintain large and deadly military forces, ever ready to slay other mothers’ sons and daughters in the name of making peace.  Or so we are told, almost daily, by our leaders.

Indeed, our new national chorus goes something like this:  Let’s have another drink of war!  We haven’t had too many.  Keep the bullets coming and the blood flowing.  That is the way to victory!

But as we dream about “victory” by arms, we should recall the line from “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier”:

What victory can bring her back, All she cared to call her own.

Unlike in 1915, that’s a question that’s never asked in today’s America.

Making War on Everything is the American Way

When you're at war, even your own youth become potential enemies.  A sign after the Kent State shootings
When you’re at war, even your own youth become potential enemies. A sign after the Kent State shootings (1970)

W.J. Astore

Here are a few excerpts from my latest article at TomDispatch.com.  I urge you to read the entire article here.  Thank you!

War on drugsWar on poverty. War in Afghanistan. War in Iraq. War on terror. The biggest mistake in American policy, foreign and domestic, is looking at everything as war. When a war mentality takes over, it chooses the weapons and tactics for you.  It limits the terms of debate before you even begin. It answers questions before they’re even asked.

When you define something as war, it dictates the use of the military (or militarized police forces, prisons, and other forms of coercion) as the primary instruments of policy.  Violence becomes the means of decision, total victory the goal.  Anyone who suggests otherwise is labeled a dreamer, an appeaser, or even a traitor.

War, in short, is the great simplifier — and it may even work when you’re fighting existential military threats (as in World War II).  But it doesn’t work when you define every problem as an existential one and then make war on complex societal problems (crime, poverty, drugs) or ideas and religious beliefs (radical Islam).

America’s Omnipresent War Ethos

Consider the Afghan War — not the one in the 1980s when Washington funneled money and arms to the fundamentalist Mujahideen to inflict on the Soviet Union a Vietnam-style quagmire, but the more recent phase that began soon after 9/11.  Keep in mind that what launched it were those attacks by 19 hijackers (15 of whom were Saudi nationals) representing a modest-sized organization lacking the slightest resemblance to a nation, state, or government.  There was as well, of course, the fundamentalist Taliban movement that then controlled much of Afghanistan.  It had emerged from the rubble of our previous war there and had provided support and sanctuary, though somewhat grudgingly, to Osama bin Laden.

With images of those collapsing towers in New York burned into America’s collective consciousness, the idea that the U.S. might respond with an international “policing” action aimed at taking criminals off the global streets was instantly banished from discussion.  What arose in the minds of the Bush administration’s top officials instead was vengeance via a full-scale, global, and generational “war on terror.”  Its thoroughly militarized goal was not just to eliminate al-Qaeda but any terror outfits anywhere on Earth, even as the U.S. embarked on a full-fledged experiment in violent nation building in Afghanistan.  More than 13 dismal years later, that Afghan War-cum-experiment is ongoing at staggering expense and with the most disappointing of results.

While the mindset of global war was gaining traction, the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq.  The most technologically advanced military on Earth, one that the president termed “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known,” was set loose to bring “democracy” and a Pax Americana to the Middle East.  Washington had, of course, been in conflict with Iraq since Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991, but what began as the equivalent of a military coup (aka a “decapitation” operation) by an outside power, an attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein and eliminate his armed forces and party, soon morphed into a prolonged occupation and another political and social experiment in violent nation-building.  As with Afghanistan, the Iraq experiment with war is still ongoing at enormous expense and with even more disastrous results …

It’s the mindset that matters.  In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, places that for most Americans exist only within a “war” matrix, the U.S. invades or attacks, gets stuck, throws resources at the problem indiscriminately, and “makes a desert and calls it ‘peace'” (to quote the Roman historian Tacitus).  After which our leaders act surprised as hell when the problem only grows.

Sadly, the song remains monotonously the same in America: more wars, made worse by impatience for results driven by each new election cycle.  It’s a formula in which the country is eternally fated to lose…

b. traven asked me about “First Causes” when it comes to America’s permanent war mentality. With respect to the Middle East, he mentioned the Saudis and Israelis and the extent to which the USA kowtows to each. Here is my quick response:

I’d say that our war mentality pre-dates our tango with the Saudis and Israelis.  We really didn’t come to support them in a big way until the early 1970s, and by that point Korea and Vietnam and the military-industrial complex had already created a permanent war mentality.

First Cause(s): It’s so hard to say.  The Cold War and anti-Communist hysteria played a powerful role.  So did our culture: the John Wayne mentality.  American exceptionalism and our own myths.  The misreading of history: We must always resist violently or we’re risking another Munich.  Capitalism and the pursuit of profit by any means, to include violence.  Violence itself as a means to profit.

Maybe that’s it: Naked greed feeds wanton aggression.

What say you, readers?  Why is America always at war with itself and the world?

Do We Learn Anything from History?

Worthless?
Worthless?

W.J. Astore

As a historian, I like to think we learn valuable lessons from history.  Those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them, or so my students tell me, paraphrasing (often unknowingly) the words of George Santayana.

We applaud that saying as a truism, yet why do we persist in pursuing mistaken courses?  Why two costly and destructive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Why an energy policy that exploits dirty fossil fuels at the expense of the environment?  Why a foreign policy that is dominated by military interventionists in love with Special Forces and drones?

In part, I think, because our decision makers have no respect for the lessons of history.  They think the lessons don’t apply to them.  They think they can make history freely: that history is like a blank canvas for their creative (and destructive) impulses.  They figure they are in complete control.  Hubris, in other words.

Such hubris was captured in a notorious boast of the Bush Administration (in words later attributed to Karl Rove) that judicious study of the past was, well, antiquarian and passé.  Why?  Because men like Karl Rove would strut the historical stage to create an entirely new reality.  And the rest of us would be reduced to impotent watchers, our only role being to applaud the big swinging dicks at their climactic “mission accomplished” moments.  In Rove’s words:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Rove’s rejection of history stemmed from hubris.  For the character of Joaquin in Scott Anderson’s novel Triage, history is “The worst invention of man” for a very different reason.  History was to be reviled because it tries to make rational what is often irrational; history invents reasons for what is often unreasonable or beyond reason.

In Joaquin’s words:

“We invented history for the same reason we invented God, because the alternative is too terrible to imagine.  To accept that there is no reason for any of it, that we are only animals—special animals, maybe, but still animals—and there is no explaining the things we do, that happen to us—too awful, no?  … To hell with history.  If there is anything to be learned from any of it, it is only that civilization is fragile, that in war it takes nothing for a man—any man, fascist, communist, schoolteacher, peasant, it doesn’t matter—to become a beast.”

As a good Catholic, I was taught that wisdom begins with the fear of God.  A secular version might be that wisdom begins with the fear of history.  Our history.  Because it teaches us what we’re capable of.  We invent all sorts of seemingly reasonable excuses to kill one another.  We grow bored, so we kill.  In the words of Joaquin, we come to slaughter one another “because we wanted to see how blood ran, because it seemed an interesting thing to do.  We killed because we could.  That was the reason.”

The beginning of wisdom is not the fear of God.  It’s the fear of ourselves—the destruction that we as humans are capable of in the name of creating new realities.  The historical record provides a bible of sorts that records our harshness as well as our extraordinary capacity for self-deception.  Such knowledge is not to be reviled, nor should it be dismissed.

The more we dismiss history—the more we exalt ourselves as unconstrained creators of new realities—the more we pursue policies that are unwise—perhaps even murderously so.  If we learn nothing else from history, let us learn that.

The Predatory Nature of War

A predatory war bird: The A-10 Warthog
A predatory war bird: The A-10 Warthog

W.J. Astore

Are we fighting a war on terror, or a war against predators? Surely the latter is more accurate. We see terrorists as predators. We fear them as such. They’re hiding in the weeds, morphing into the background, only to emerge to kill innocents with seemingly arbitrary (and thus very scary) rapacity. Therefore, following Barbara Ehrenreich’s amazing book, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (1997), “vulnerable” Americans believe they must band together to kill or cage these predators. It’s the way we control our instinctive fear of being prey — we’d much rather be the hunter than the hunted.

When you see the enemy as murderous predators with no soul but that of a demon with a hunger to kill, why bother trying to understand them? Just go ahead and torture them.  They’re soulless predators bent on killing your loved ones. Or go ahead and kill them, perhaps from the skies with drones: death by aerial sniper. Torture or death: it simply doesn’t matter when you’re dealing with mindless predators.

But, and here’s the rub, who are the real predators? Are we not predators too? We sure pose as such. Look at our heavily armed drones and their names: Predator, Reaper. Look at our war birds and their names and nose art: eagles and falcons and raptors and warthogs with shark’s teeth painted around the 30mm Gatling gun of the A-10 Warthog. Are we not predatory as well?

We reap what we sow. In the name of extinguishing predators, we become that which we wish to extinguish. In the name of saving lives, we kill. We fortify everything. We even spy on our closest allies because you just never know — they might be predators too.

President Obama says his number one priority is keeping America safe, and we applaud. But his number one priority should be upholding our Constitution. It’s our communal laws and system of justice — our Constitutional safeguards — that ultimately keep us safe, not our predatory actions.

Our quest to destroy the world’s predators is inuring us to our own predatory nature.  The wild passions of war rule; endless cycles of violence are the result.

Surely the war on terror is the ultimate oxymoron, since war itself produces terror.  War feasts on terror. Indeed, war is the ultimate predator.  The more we wage it in the name of eliminating the predators among us, the more we ensure its predations will continue.

Such is the paradox of war.