Today’s article is a potluck of observations. Please fire away in the comments section if I stimulate some thoughts!
My wife today noticed how the weather is now militarized. An “arctic invasion” of cold air is coming our way, or so the Weather Channel warned. Do we need a new “Weather Force” to meet this “invasion”?
The other day at the gym, I was watching the impeachment drama on two TVs tuned to Fox News and MSNBC. For Fox News and its parade of Republican guests, the impeachment was a “hoax.” For MSNBC, it was a foregone conclusion Trump is as guilty as sin. I mentioned this to my wife and she had the perfect comment: “The truth needs its own channel.”
A reader wrote to me about a piece I wrote in 2008 about all the “warrior” and “warfighter” talk used by the U.S. military today. It got me to thinking yet again about the rhetoric of war. Back in World War II, when we fought real wars and won them, we had a Department of War to which citizen-soldiers were drafted. After World War II, we renamed it the Department of Defense, and after Vietnam we eliminated the draft, after which you began to hear much talk of warriors and warfighters. In the 75 years since 1945, America has fought many wars, none of them formally declared by Congress, and none of them “defensive” in any way. The longest of those wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq) have been utter disasters. Which is not surprising, since wars based on lies and fought for non-compelling reasons usually are losers. So, how do you buck up the morale of all those volunteer troops while encouraging them not to think about the losing causes they’re engaged in? Get them to focus on their warfighter identities, their warrior “cred,” as if it’s a great thing for democracies to fight constant wars.
The New York Times endorsed Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar today as the Democrats best prepared to serve as president. Looks like Jimmy Dore is right: establishment Democrats would rather lose to Trump than win with a true progressive like Bernie Sanders.
The other day, I went to my local post office and saw the POW/MIA flag flying. It got me to thinking: Who are the POWs/MIAs we need to remember today? Don’t get me wrong. As a retired military officer, I think we should remember America’s POWs and MIAs. But I see no reason to fly flags everywhere to remind us of those veterans who were prisoners of war or missing in action. Sadly, the POW/MIA flag is associated with conservative activism and reactionary views; it also can serve as a distraction from the enormous damage inflicted overseas by the U.S. military. As Americans, we are constantly told by our leaders to focus on American victims of war; rarely if ever are we encouraged to think of war itself as a disaster, or to think of the victims on the receiving end of American firepower.
More on the POW/MIA issue: In the early 1990s, when I was a young captain, there were persistent rumors of American POWs who’d been deliberately left behind by our government. These rumors were strong, so strong that the George H.W. Bush administration had to issue denials.
What are we to make of this? One thing strikes me immediately: an often profound mistrust of our government exists within the military. Our government has lied to us so often that some of my fellow officers believed it was lying again when it said there were no POWs remaining in Southeast Asia. We just assumed our government was so wretched and dishonest that it would abandon our troops to their fate.
This is nearly 30 years ago but it’s stayed in my memory — the suspicion back then that those commie bastards still held U.S. troops and our own government was part of the cover-up. (All those Chuck Norris and Rambo movies didn’t help matters.)
For more on this: The POW/MIA issue is still very much alive and is discussed by H. Bruce Franklin in his article, “Missing in Action in the 21st Century,” available at hbrucefranklin.com. As Franklin noted recently to me, “What we now think of as the Trump base was organized originally in this [POW/MIA] movement.” Now that’s a fascinating comment.
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I talk about militarism in the USA, a subject that’s been on my mind ever since President George W. Bush hid behind the bemedaled chest of General David Petraeus in 2007. Here’s an excerpt from my article:
Besides TV shows, movies, and commercials, there are many signs of the increasing embrace of militarized values and attitudes in this country. The result: the acceptance of a military in places where it shouldn’t be, one that’s over-celebrated, over-hyped, and given far too much money and cultural authority, while becoming virtually immune to serious criticism.
Let me offer just nine signs of this that would have been so much less conceivable when I was a young boy watching reruns of Dragnet:
1. Roughly two-thirds of the federal government’s discretionary budget for 2020 will, unbelievably enough, be devoted to the Pentagon and related military functions, with each year’s “defense” budget coming ever closer to a trillion dollars. Such colossal sums are rarely debated in Congress; indeed, they enjoy wide bipartisan support.
2. The U.S. military remains the most trusted institution in our society, so say 74% of Americans surveyed in a Gallup poll. No other institution even comes close, certainly not the presidency (37%) or Congress (which recently rose to a monumental 25% on an impeachment high). Yet that same military has produced disasters or quagmires in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere. Various “surges” have repeatedly failed. The Pentagon itself can’t even pass an audit. Why so much trust?
3. A state of permanent war is considered America’s new normal. Wars are now automatically treated as multi-generational with little concern for how permawar might degrade our democracy. Anti-war protesters are rare enough to be lone voices crying in the wilderness.
4. America’s generals continue to be treated, without the slightest irony, as “the adults in the room.” Sages like former Secretary of Defense James Mattis (cited glowingly in the recent debate among 12 Democratic presidential hopefuls) will save America from unskilled and tempestuous politicians like one Donald J. Trump. In the 2016 presidential race, it seemed that neither candidate could run without being endorsed by a screaming general (Michael Flynn for Trump; John Allen for Clinton).
5. The media routinely embraces retired U.S. military officers and uses them as talking heads to explain and promote military action to the American people. Simultaneously, when the military goes to war, civilian journalists are “embedded” within those forces and so are dependent on them in every way. The result tends to be a cheerleading media that supports the military in the name of patriotism — as well as higher ratings and corporate profits.
6. America’s foreign aid is increasingly military aid. Consider, for instance, the current controversy over the aid to Ukraine that President Trump blocked before his infamous phone call, which was, of course, partially about weaponry. This should serve to remind us that the United States has become the world’s foremost merchant of death, selling far more weapons globally than any other country. Again, there is no real debate here about the morality of profiting from such massive sales, whether abroad ($55.4 billion in arms sales for this fiscal year alone, says the Defense Security Cooperation Agency) or at home (a staggering 150 million new guns produced in the USA since 1986, the vast majority remaining in American hands).
7. In that context, consider the militarization of the weaponry in those very hands, from .50 caliber sniper rifles to various military-style assault rifles. Roughly 15 million AR-15s are currently owned by ordinary Americans. We’re talking about a gun designed for battlefield-style rapid shooting and maximum damage against humans. In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, the hunters in my family had bolt-action rifles for deer hunting, shotguns for birds, and pistols for home defense and plinking. No one had a military-style assault rifle because no one needed one or even wanted one. Now, worried suburbanites buy them, thinking they’re getting their “man card” back by toting such a weapon of mass destruction.
8. Paradoxically, even as Americans slaughter each other and themselves in large numbers via mass shootings and suicides (nearly 40,000 gun deaths in 2017 alone), they largely ignore Washington’s overseas wars and the continued bombing of numerous countries. But ignorance is not bliss. By tacitly giving the military a blank check, issued in the name of securing the homeland, Americans embrace that military, however loosely, and its misuse of violence across significant parts of the planet. Should it be any surprise that a country that kills so wantonly overseas over such a prolonged period would also experience mass shootings and other forms of violence at home?
9. Even as Americans “support our troops” and celebrate them as “heroes,” the military itself has taken on a new “warrior ethos” that would once — in the age of a draft army — have been contrary to this country’s citizen-soldier tradition, especially as articulated and exhibited by the “greatest generation” during World War II.
What these nine items add up to is a paradigm shift as well as a change in the zeitgeist. The U.S. military is no longer a tool that a democracy funds and uses reluctantly. It’s become an alleged force for good, a virtuous entity, a band of brothers (and sisters), America’s foremost missionaries overseas and most lovable and admired heroes at home. This embrace of the military is precisely what I would call soft militarism. Jackbooted troops may not be marching in our streets, but they increasingly seem to be marching unopposed through — and occupying — our minds.
Please read the entire article here at TomDispatch.com.
Update (10/25/19): Speaking of militarization, let’s not forget the popularity of video games (or “shooter” games) such as Call of Duty. And with Halloween coming, who can resist costumes such as this (photo taken by a military friend):
You thus have war reduced to a game and a costume party. Welcome to Amerika!
Ten years ago, I gave a talk on the ideal of citizen-soldiers and how and why America had drifted from that ideal. As war looms on the horizon yet again, this time with Iran, we’d be well advised to ask critical questions about our military, such as why we idolize it, how it no longer reflects our country demographically, its reliance on for-profit mercenaries, and the generally mediocre record of its senior leaders.
My talk consisted of notes that I hope are clear enough, but if they aren’t, please ask me to elaborate and I will in the comments section. Thanks.
Today  I want to discuss the ideal of the citizen-soldier and how I believe we have drifted from that ideal.
The Ideal: Dick Winters in Band of Brothers; E.B. Sledge in With the Old Breed; Jimmy Stewart. Until recent times, the American military was justly proud of being a force of citizen-soldiers. It didn’t matter whether you were talking about those famed Revolutionary War Minutemen, courageous Civil War volunteers, or the “Greatest Generation” conscripts of World War II.
Americans have a long tradition of being distrustful of the very idea of a large, permanent army, as well as of giving potentially disruptive authority to generals.
How have we drifted from that ideal? In six ways, I think:
Burden-sharing and lack of class equity
Historian David M. Kennedy in October 2005: “No American is now obligated to military service, few will ever serve in uniform, even fewer will actually taste battle …. Americans with no risk whatsoever of exposure to military service have, in effect, hired some of the least advantaged of their fellow countrymen to do some of their most dangerous business while the majority goes on with their own affairs unbloodied and undistracted.”
Are we a true citizen-military if we call on only a portion of our citizens to make sacrifices?
All-Volunteer Military, or All-Recruited Military? Our military targets the working classes, the rural poor, young men (mostly men) who are out of work, or high school dropouts, for enlistments. (Officer corps is recruited somewhat differently.)
With few exceptions, societal elites not targeted by recruiters.
Anecdote: NYT article by Kenneth Harbaugh on exclusion of ROTC from Ivy-League college campuses
“At Yale, which has supplied more than its share of senators and presidents, almost none of my former classmates or students ever noticed the absence of uniforms on campus. In a nation at war, this is a disgrace. But it also shows how dangerously out of touch the elites who shape our national policy have become with the men and women they send to war.
Toward the end of the semester, I took my class to West Point. None of my students had ever seen a military base, and only one had a friend his age in uniform.”
“Support Our Troops” – But who are our troops? Why are they not drawn from across our class/demographic spectrum?
Estrangement of Progressives and Growing Conservatism/Evangelicalism of the Military
If the operating equation is military = bad, are we not effectively excusing ourselves or our children from any obligation to serve — even any obligation simply to engage with the military? Indeed, are we even patting ourselves on the back for the wisdom of our non-choice and our non-participation? Rarely has a failure to sacrifice or even to engage come at a more self-ennobling price — or a more self-destructive one for progressive agendas.
Example: Evangelicalism at the Air Force Academy versus separation of church and state.
Is our professional military a society within our larger society?
Many “troops” are no longer U.S. military: They’re private contractors. Instead of citizen-soldiers, they’re (in some cases) non-citizen mercenaries and non-citizen contractors.
Blackwater (Xe), Triple Canopy, Dyncorp, KBR: there are more contractor personnel in Iraq than U.S. military, and many contractors are providing security and doing tasks that our military used to do, like KP, for a lot more money.
Profit incentive: privatizing military is like privatizing prisons. You create a profit motive for extending military commitments, and perhaps wars as well.
In other words, citizen-soldiers like Sledge and Winters want to come home. Private mercenaries/contractors want to stay, as long as they’re making good money.
Cult of the warrior: Reference to American troops as “warfighters.” This is contrary to our American tradition of “Minutemen.” It’s a disturbing change in terminology.
I first noticed the term “warfighter” in 2002. Like many a field-grade staff officer, I spent a lot of time crafting PowerPoint briefings, trying to sell senior officers and the Pentagon on my particular unit’s importance to the President’s new Global War on Terrorism. The more briefings I saw, the more often I came across references to “serving the warfighter.” It was, I suppose, an obvious selling point, once we were at war in Afghanistan and gearing up for “regime-change” in Iraq. And I was probably typical in that I, too, grabbed the term for my briefings. After all, who wants to be left behind when it comes to supporting the troops “at the pointy end of the spear” (to borrow another military trope)?
But I wasn’t comfortable with the term then, and today it tastes bitter in my mouth.
We must not be “warriors” – we must be citizen-soldiers. And note how the word “citizen” comes first.
Aside: Warriors may commit more atrocities precisely because they see themselves as different from, and superior to, civilians.
Deference of civilians to military experts, instead of vice-versa. Why I wrote my first piece for TomDispatch. Idea that President George W. Bush couldn’t make the final decision on the Surge in Iraq until we heard from General David Petraeus.
In a country founded on civilian control of the military, it’s disturbing indeed that, as a New York Times/CBS poll indicated recently (2007), Americans trust their generals three times as much as Congress and 13 times as much as the President.
Also, abdication of responsibility by U.S. Congress. Our country is founded on civilian control of the military. But Congress afraid of being charged with hurting or abandoning our troops.
Georges Clemenceau: “War is too important to be left to generals.” Why? “Can-do” spirit to our military, no matter how dumb the war. And militaries seek military solutions.
So, “supporting our troops” must not mean putting blind faith in our military:
In “A Failure in Generalship,” which appeared in Armed Forces Journal in May 2007, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling argues that, prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, our generals “refused to prepare the Army to fight unconventional wars” and thereafter failed to “provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.” Put bluntly, he accuses them of dereliction of duty. Bewailing a lack of accountability for such failures in the military itself, Yingling memorably concludes that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”
Oath of Office: Supporting the Constitution of the U.S. against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Oath of allegiance is to the Constitution and to the ideas and ideals we cherish as Americans. But how are the “long wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan advancing these ideals? Are they consistent with our defense and our ideas/ideals of citizenship?
Breaking News: President Obama just decided to send another 17,000 American troops to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, today in the NYT, U.S. generals are already predicting that 50K+ U.S. troops may need to stay in Afghanistan for the next five years. In other words, this is not a temporary surge. [How true! Ten years later, we’re still in Afghanistan with no end in sight.]
So, how do we reverse these trends and reassert our ideal of a citizen-military?
Not with a draft, but perhaps with National Service (AmeriCorps, Green Corps, Peace Corps, Military).
Renewed commitment by Progressives to engage with the military. To understand the military, its rank structure, its ethos.
Reduce/eliminate dependence on mercenaries/private contractors, even if it costs us more.
Eliminate the “cult of the warrior.” Replace warfighter rhetoric with citizen-soldier ideal.
Deference to military experts for tactical/battlefield advice is sensible, but ultimately our military is commanded by the president and wars are authorized by the Congress, i.e. our elected representatives
Oath of office: Every time we deploy troops, we must ask: How is this advancing our national ideals as embodied in our Constitution? How are we defending ourselves?
Permit me to quote a passage from James Madison, the principal architect of the U.S. Constitution. He noted in 1795 that:
“Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the dominion of the few… [There is also an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and … degeneracy of manners and of morals… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
And Madison’s idea of continual warfare = our military’s “Long War” = Forever War? What is our exit strategy? Do we even have one?
Doing some housecleaning of the mind, so to speak:
I recently read a book that argued the U.S. military loses its wars due to poor strategy and lack of understanding of “limited” war. It was a sophisticated book that cited the usual suspects in classical military theory, like Clausewitz. And it got me to thinking. I don’t think the U.S. loses wars because of poor military theory or improper applications thereof. And I don’t think the U.S. can win wars by better/smarter theory. Rather, the wars the U.S. has been fighting since Korea should never have been started or joined to begin with. Whether it’s Vietnam in the 1960s or Afghanistan and Iraq today, these are and never were “winnable” wars. Why? Because they were unnecessary to U.S. national security. And the only way to “win” such wars is to end them.
Unnecessary wars persist for many reasons. A big one is profit, as in Ike’s military-industrial complex. Perhaps as well these wars are sustained by a belief the U.S. military could win them if only the generals hit on the right strategy. But there is no smarter way to win dumb wars. You win them when you end them.
War criminals. There’s been talk lately of President Trump wanting to pardon war criminals and how this would jeopardize order and discipline within the U.S. military. But let’s leave aside low-level offenders (your sergeants and captains) and talk about high-ranking war criminals. Indeed, what about the men who chose to go to war under false pretenses in the first place? If you choose not to prosecute men like Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld, why pursue and prosecute the little guys?
I once read that the guilt for war crimes is greater the further you are from the crimes you effectively ordered. Adolf Eichmann didn’t dirty his own hands; he was a deskbound murderer. And perhaps that’s the worst kind.
Historically, we recognize the moral and legal culpability of high-ranking murderers like Eichmann. Should America’s top leaders be held responsible for the murderous results of wars that they launched?
Lady Liberty Locked and Loaded. The U.S. routinely brags of having the best military ever while leading the world in weapons sales while professing to be an exceptional bastion of liberty. And most Americans see no contradiction here. Simultaneously, men like Trump continue to vilify brown-skinned immigrants as bringing violence to America. Lady Liberty, in short, no longer lights her torch for the huddled masses. If we (or the French?) were making her today, she’d carry a .44 magnum (or an assault rifle?) in place of a torch. Do you feel lucky, immigrant punks?
Coincidence: A friend just sent me the Global Peace Index for the world’s 163 countries. The USA ranks #128. (Iceland is #1, followed by New Zealand at #2.) USA! USA! USA!
A friend of mine sent along a campaign ad for a woman running for Congress in Texas. Kim Olson is her name, and she has some good ideas. But the ad itself is telling for different reasons. A retired Air Force colonel, Olson appears in her military-issue flight jacket, complete with her rank, wings, and command patch, as she talks about being a “warrior.”
I have nothing against Colonel (retired) Olson. She’s gutsy and committed to public service. But enough of the “warrior” talk and enough with the military uniforms! You didn’t see Ike campaigning for president while wearing a jacket with five stars on it.
Readers of this blog may know that I taught at the Air Force Academy for six years. Impressive? Not according to the Secretary of the Air Force. In her words: “We are now boarding and recommending people for instructor duty and you’re not going to be able to do it unless you’re the best of the best. Historically, we didn’t value instructor duty. If you taught at Lackland or at the Air Force Academy or ROTC…that was kind of because you couldn’t get a better position and it was kind of a dead end. So now we’ve flipped that.”
I’ve changed my call sign to William “Dead End” Astore. It has a nice ring to it.
In all seriousness, the military has always favored doers over thinkers. Nowadays, you’re supposed to be a warrior, constantly doing…well…something. So we’ve been doing something, usually the same thing, repeatedly, in Iraq and Afghanistan, regardless of results. And history? Who cares? America’s military members barely know their own history, let alone the history of foreign peoples and cultures.
Incredibly, the military’s push for better education (defined as “intellectual overmatch,” I kid you not) is couched in terms of out-thinking the Russians and Chinese. In other words, we’re doomed.
As I put it to a friend, “The services need to develop senior officers with depth and breadth of vision, but the system is designed to produce narrow-minded true believers. It’s a little like trying to reform the Catholic church and its hierarchy of conservative, insular, cardinals and bishops.”
Or, as one of my Air Force friends put it, waxing satirically: “But you know, the problem really is that we don’t award enough ribbons, haven’t changed the uniform in a few years, and are allowing transgendered to serve while violating the rights of commanders by not allowing them to share [with subordinates] their [conservative Christian] faith.”
That’s enough random thoughts for this Thursday. What say you, readers?
A recent article in The National Interest captured an open secret: Donald Trump has been using drone strikes far more than Barack Obama ever did.
The Pentagon likes to depict such strikes as incredibly accurate, with few or even no innocents killed. Such a portrayal is inaccurate, however, since “precision” bombing isn’t precise. Intelligence is often wrong. Missiles don’t always hit their targets. Explosions and their effects are unpredictable.
Recognizing those realities, are drone strikes also cowardly?
America likes to fancy itself the “home of the brave,” a land of “heroes” and “warriors.” But how heroic is it to launch a Hellfire missile from a drone, without any risk to yourself? Aren’t warriors supposed to be on the receiving end of elemental violence as well as being the inflictors of it?
Experiencing violence, even reveling in it while enduring war’s passions and horrific results was part of what it meant to be a warrior. Think of Achilles versus Hector in ancient days, or knights jousting with knights in the Middle Ages, or men not firing until they saw the white of the enemy’s eyes at Bunker Hill. Even when machines intruded, it wasn’t just T-34 tanks versus Tigers at Kursk in 1943, or B-17 bombers versus Focke-Wulf Fw 190s over Berlin in 1944: it was the men operating those machines who mattered — and who demonstrated heroism and warrior spirit.
But when war becomes robotic and routine for one side, action at a great distance and indeed at total remove from violence and its effects, can that be heroic in any way? Isn’t drone warfare a form of denatured war, war without passion, war without risk to U.S. drone operators?
Don’t get me wrong. Drone warfare has its pains for its “operators.” PTSD exists for these men and women who pilot the drones and launch the missiles; watching other people die on video, when you’re responsible for their deaths, carries a cost, at least for some. But is it not all-too-tempting to smite and kill others when they have no way of smiting you back?
It is not well that war grows less terrible for us – for we are growing much too fond of it.”
That the Trump administration is turning so fondly to drone strikes (following the example of Obama, for once proudly) is yet another sign that America is far too devoted to war. Is it not because war is so profitable for a few, and so painless for the rest of us?
There is no direct pain to America from drone warfare, but there’s also little recognition of war’s horrific costs and the need to end them; there is no immediate risk, but there’s also little recognition that there are ways to triumph other than simply killing one’s perceived enemies.
A final, heretical, question: Are Americans so eager to celebrate their warriors as heroes precisely because they so often practice a form of warfare that is unheroic and even cowardly? If Americans were routinely on the receiving end of drone strikes by a distant foreign power, I think I know how we’d answer that question.
I’ve been seeing a lot of headlines, and reading quite a few tributes, about John McCain. A common word used to describe him is “warrior,” as in this op-ed at Al Jazeera of all places. If you do a quick Google search with “John McCain” and “warrior” you’ll see what I mean.
I’m a firm believer in the citizen-soldier tradition. Warrior-speak, I believe, is inappropriate to this tradition and to the ideals of a democracy. “Warrior” should not be used loosely as a substitute for “fighter,” nor should it replace citizen-sailor, which is what John McCain was (or should have been).
Yes, John McCain came from a family of admirals. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy. He became a naval aviator. He was shot down and became a prisoner of war. He showed toughness and fortitude and endurance as a POW under torture. But all this doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make him a “warrior.” Rather, he was a U.S. Navy officer, a product of a citizen-sailor tradition.
It’s corrosive to our democracy as well as to our military when we use “warrior” as a term of high praise. Many Americans apparently think “warrior” sounds cool and tough and manly, but there’s a thin line between “warrior” and “warmonger,” and both terms are corrosive to a country that claims it prefers peace to war.
In sum, it says something disturbing about our country and our culture when “warrior” has become the go-to term of ultimate praise. By anointing McCain as a “warrior,” we’re not praising him: we’re wounding our country.