America: Submerged in a Violent Cesspool

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What kind of fire is rising in America today?

In a recent article for TomDispatch.com, I argued that Americans have embraced weapons and warriors, guns and gun exports, prisons and guards, all supported by a steady stream of fear.  The end result has been a cesspool of violence largely of our own making.  In such an environment, a man like Donald Trump, more opportunist than populist, more power-driven than public servant, more cynic than idealist, has ample opportunities to thrive. 

The complete article is here; in this excerpt, I focus on Trump’s rise as well as the rise of a uniquely American anti-hero, the vigilante Dark Knight, AKA Batman. 

Since the end of the Cold War, America has been exporting a mirror image of its domestic self — not the classic combo of democracy and freedom, but guns, prisons and security forces. Globally, the label “Made in the USA” has increasingly come to be associated with violence and war, as well, of course, as Hollywood action flicks sporting things that go boom in the night.

Such exports are now so commonplace that, in some cases, Washington has even ended up arming our enemies. Just consider the hundreds of thousands of small arms sent to Iraq and Afghanistan that were simply lost track of. Many of them evidently ended up on sale at local black markets.

Or consider the weapons and equipment Washington provided to Iraq’s security forces, only to see them abandoned on the battlefield and captured by the Islamic State.

Look as well at prisons like Gitmo — which Donald Trump has no intention of ever closing — and Abu Ghraib, and an unknown number of black sites that were in some of these years used for rendition, detention and torture, and gave the United States a reputation in the world that may prove indelible.

And, of course, American-made weaponry like tear gas canisters and bombs, including cluster munitions, that regularly finds its way onto foreign soil in places like Yemen and, in the case of the tear gas, Egypt, proudly sporting those “Made in the USA” labels.

Strangely, most Americans remain either willfully ignorant of, or indifferent to, what their country is becoming. That American-made weaponry is everywhere, that America’s warriors are all over the globe, that America’s domestic prisons are bursting with more than two million captives, is even taken by some as a point of pride…

Increasingly, Americans are submerged in a violent cesspool of our own making. As a man who knows how to stoke fear as well as exploit it, President Trump fits into such an atmosphere amazingly well. With a sense of how to belittle, insult and threaten, he has a knack for inflaming and exploiting America’s collective dark side.

But think of Trump as more symptom than cause, the outward manifestation of an inner spiritual disease that continues to eat away at the country’s societal matrix. A sign of this unease is America’s most popular superhero of the moment. He even has a new Lego movie coming. Yes, it’s Batman, the vigilante alter-ego of Bruce Wayne, ultra-rich philanthropist and CEO of Wayne Enterprises.

The popularity of Batman, Gotham City’s Dark Knight, reflects America’s fractured ethos of anger, pain, and violence. Americans find common cause in his tortured psyche, his need for vengeance, his extreme version of justice. But at least billionaire Bruce Wayne had some regard for the vulnerable and unfortunate.

America now has a darker knight than that in Donald J. Trump, a man who mocks and assaults those he sees as beneath him, a man whose utterances sound more like a Batman villain, a man who doesn’t believe in heroes — only in himself.

The Dark Knight may yet become, under Trump, a genuine dark night for America’s collective soul. Like Batman, Trump is a product of Gotham City. And if this country is increasingly Gotham City writ large, shining the Batman symbol worldwide and having billionaire Trump and his sidekick — Gen. Michael Flynn? — answer the beacon is a prospect that should be more than a little unnerving.

It wasn’t that long ago that another superhero represented America — Superman. Chivalrous, noble, compassionate, he fought without irony for truth, justice and the American way. And his alter ego, of course, was mild-mannered Clark Kent, a reporter no less.

In Trump’s America, imagine the likelihood of reporters being celebrated as freedom fighters as they struggle to hold the powerful accountable. Perhaps it’s more telling than its makers knew that in last year’s dreary slugfest of a movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the bat rode high while the son of Krypton ended up six feet under.

Let me, in this context, return to that moment when the Cold War ended.

Twenty-five years ago, I served as escort officer to Gen. Robinson Risner as he spoke to cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Risner’s long and resolute endurance as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War — captured in his memoir, The Passing of the Night — had made him something of a real-life superhero to us then.

He talked to the cadets about public service, love of country and faith in God — noble virtues, based on humility, grace and inner strength. As I look back to that night, as I remember how Gen. Risner spoke with quiet dignity of the virtues of service and sacrifice, I ask myself how America today could have become such a land of weapons and warriors, guns and gun exports, prisons and fear, led by a boastful and boorish bullyboy.

How did America’s ideals become so twisted? And how do we regain our nobility of purpose? One thing is certain — the current path, the one of ever greater military spending, of border walls and extreme vetting, of vilification of the Other, justified in terms of toughness and “winning,” will lead only to further violence and darker (k)nights.

Be sure to check out TomDispatch.com, a regular antidote to the mainstream media.

The USA in Iraq: Putting Out the Fire with Gasoline

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Surely, HIMARS will bring peace to Iraq

W.J. Astore

Today brings yet another announcement of more U.S. troops to Iraq.  This time 600 are being sent as logistics support, advisers, and enablers (that term, “enabler,” is fuzzy indeed: enabler of what?  More failure?).  That brings the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to more than 5200, but of course this figure seriously under-represents the American presence in the region.  Nowadays, most “troops” are provided by private contractors, and many of these are U.S. military veterans who discovered they could make a lot more money wearing mufti than in Uncle Sam’s uniforms.  At the same time, the U.S. continues to provide heavy-duty weaponry to the Iraqi military, including Apache attack helicopters and the HIMARS rocket system.  All of this is intended to help the Iraqi military retake the city of Mosul.

That the U.S. is yet again providing more troops as well as heavy weapons as “force multipliers” highlights the failure of U.S. military efforts to “stand up” an effective Iraqi military. The enemy, after all, has no Apache helicopters, no HIMARS system, and no U.S. advisers, although we certainly “enable” them with all the U.S. weaponry they’ve been able to capture or steal.  Despite a lack of U.S. military training and aid, ISIS and crew have proven to be remarkably resilient.  What gives?

Two years ago, I wrote an article at TomDispatch.com on “America’s Hollow Foreign Legions.”  Back then, I said this:

Military training, no matter how intensive, and weaponry, no matter how sophisticated and powerful, is no substitute for belief in a cause.  Such belief nurtures cohesion and feeds fighting spirit.  ISIS has fought with conviction.  The expensively trained and equipped Iraqi army hasn’t.  The latter lacks a compelling cause held in common.  This is not to suggest that ISIS has a cause that’s pure or just. Indeed, it appears to be a complex mélange of religious fundamentalism, sectarian revenge, political ambition, and old-fashioned opportunism (including loot, plain and simple). But so far the combination has proven compelling to its fighters, while Iraq’s security forces appear centered on little more than self-preservation. 

Despite an ongoing record of failure, pulling out of Iraq is never an option that’s considered by the Pentagon.  The only option our leaders know is more: more troops, more weapons, more money.  As I wrote for TomDispatch back in October 2014:

pulling out is never an option, even though it would remove the “American Satan” card from the IS propaganda deck.  To pull out means to leave behind much bloodshed and many grim acts.  Harsh, I know, but is it any harsher than incessant American-led bombing, the commitment of more American “advisers” and money and weapons, and yet more American generals posturing as the conductors of Iraqi affairs?  With, of course, the usual results.

Here we are, two years later, and nothing has changed.  The war song remains the same, as discordant as ever, with a refrain as simple as it is harsh: putting out the fire with gasoline.

War as a Business Opportunity

Pentagon-Money
There’s lots of money in war (and rumors of war)

W.J. Astore

A good friend passed along an article at Forbes from a month ago with the pregnant title, “U.S. Army Fears Major War Likely Within Five Years — But Lacks The Money To Prepare.” Basically, the article argues that war is possible — even likely — within five years with Russia or North Korea or Iran, or maybe all three, but that America’s army is short of money to prepare for these wars.  This despite the fact that America spends roughly $700 billion each and every year on defense and overseas wars.

Now, the author’s agenda is quite clear, as he states at the end of his article: “Several of the Army’s equipment suppliers are contributors to my think tank and/or consulting clients.”  He’s writing an alarmist article about the probability of future wars at the same time as he’s profiting from the sales of weaponry to the army.

As General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Medal of Honor, said: War is a racket. Wars will persist as long as people see them as a “core product,” as a business opportunity.  In capitalism, the profit motive is often amoral; greed is good, even when it feeds war. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is willing to play along.  It always sees “vulnerabilities” and always wants more money.

But back to the Forbes article with its concerns about war(s) in five years with Russia or North Korea or Iran (or all three).  For what vital national interest should America fight against Russia? North Korea?  Iran?  A few quick reminders:

#1: Don’t get involved in a land war in Asia or with Russia (Charles XII, Napoleon, and Hitler all learned that lesson the hard way).

#2: North Korea? It’s a puppet regime that can’t feed its own people.  It might prefer war to distract the people from their parlous existence.

#3: Iran?  A regional power, already contained, with a young population that’s sympathetic to America, at least to our culture of relative openness and tolerance.  If the U.S. Army thinks tackling Iran would be relatively easy, just consider all those recent “easy” wars and military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria …

Of course, the business aspect of this is selling the idea the U.S. Army isn’t prepared and therefore needs yet another new generation of expensive high-tech weaponry. It’s like convincing high-end consumers their three-year-old Audi or Lexus is obsolete so they must buy the latest model else lose face.

We see this all the time in the U.S. military.  It’s a version of planned or artificial obsolescence. Consider the Air Force.  It could easily defeat its enemies with updated versions of A-10s, F-15s, and F-16s, but instead the Pentagon plans to spend as much as $1.4 trillion on the shiny new and under-performing F-35. The Army has an enormous surplus of tanks and other armored fighting vehicles, but the call goes forth for a “new generation.” No other navy comes close to the U.S. Navy, yet the call goes out for a new generation of ships.

The Pentagon mantra is always for more and better, which often turns out to be for less and much more expensive, e.g. the F-35 fighter.

Wars are always profitable for a few, but they are ruining democracy in America.  Sure, it’s a business opportunity: one that ends in national (and moral) bankruptcy.

U.S. Military Strategy: Of DDT, Bug Zappers, Lawyers, Guns, and Money

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Just spray the bad bugs with DDT.  What can go wrong?

W.J. Astore

Today, the essence of U.S. military “strategy” is targeting.  The enemy is treated as vermin to be exterminated with the right bug bomb.  As if those bombs had no negative consequences; as if we learned nothing from the overuse of DDT, for example.

You might recall DDT, the miracle insecticide of the 1950s and 1960s.  It wiped out bad bugs (and a lot of good ones as well) while leading to DDT-resistant ones.  It also damaged the entire ecology of regions (because DDT is both persistent and bio-accumulative).  Something similar is happening in the Greater Middle East.  The U.S. is killing bad “bugs” (terrorists) while helping to breed a new generation of smarter “bugs.”  Meanwhile, constant violence, repetitive bombing, and other forms of persistent meddling are accumulating in their effects, damaging the entire ecology of the Greater Middle East.

The U.S. government insists the solution is all about putting bombs on target, together with Special Forces operating as bug zappers on the ground.  At the same time, the U.S. sells billions of dollars in weaponry to our “friends” and allies in the region.  Israel just got $38 billion in military aid over ten years, and Saudi Arabia has yet another major arms deal pending, this time for $1.15 billion (with Senator Rand Paul providing that rare case of principled opposition based on human rights violations by the Saudis).

Of course, the U.S. has provided lots of guns and military equipment to Iraqi and Afghan security forces, which often sell or abandon them to enemies such as ISIS and the Taliban.  The special inspector general in Afghanistan reported in 2014 that “As many as 43% of all small arms supplied to the Afghan National Security Forces remain unaccounted for – meaning more than 200,000 guns, including M2s, M16s, and M48s, are nowhere to be found.”  A recent tally this year that includes Iraq suggests that 750,000 guns can’t be accounted for, according to Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), a London-based charity. The Pentagon’s typical solution to missing guns is simply to send more of them.  Thus the U.S. is effectively arming its enemies as well as its allies, a business model that’s a win-win if you’re an arms merchant.

The essence of U.S. strategy makes me think of a Warren Zevon song lyric, “Send lawyers, guns, and money.”  As we’ve seen, U.S. lawyers can authorize anything, even torture, even as U.S. guns and money go missing and end up feeding war and corruption.  The tag line of Zevon’s song is especially pertinent: “The shit has hit the fan.”  How can you flood the Greater Middle East with U.S.-style bureaucracy, guns and money, and not expect turmoil and disaster?

Back in World War II, the USA was an arsenal of democracy.  Now it’s just an arsenal.  Consider Bill Hartung’s  article on U.S. military weaponry that’s flooding the Middle East. The business of America is war, with presidential candidates like Donald Trump just wanting to dump more money into the Pentagon.

There is no end to this madness.  Not when the U.S. economy is so dependent on weapons and war.  Not when the U.S. national security state dominates the political scene.  Not when Americans are told the only choices for president are Trump the Loose Cannon or Hillary the Loaded Gun.

The Pentagon’s Mantra: Spend, Spend, Spend

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It’s spend, spend, spend at the Pentagon

W.J. Astore

The United States is addicted to war — and to war-spending.  That’s the message of Bill Hartung’s latest article at TomDispatch.com.  Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, writes:

The more that’s spent on “defense”… the less the Pentagon wants us to know about how those mountains of money are actually being used.  As the only major federal agency that can’t pass an audit, the Department of Defense (DoD) is the poster child for irresponsible budgeting. 

It’s not just that its books don’t add up, however.  The DoD is taking active measures to disguise how it is spending the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars it receives every year — from using the separate “war budget” as a slush fund to pay for pet projects that have nothing to do with fighting wars to keeping the cost of its new nuclear bomber a secret.  Add in dozens of other secret projects hidden in the department’s budget and the Pentagon’s poorly documented military aid programs, and it’s clear that the DoD believes it has something to hide.

Having served in the military and DoD for twenty years and having read about it for twenty more, none of this surprises me.

Here’s the thing: In the Pentagon and the wider military, there’s absolutely no incentive to save money.  Indeed, the incentive is to spend as much as possible, because that is the best way to increase next year’s budgetary allotment. The military is filled with “Type A” officers whose job it is to spend, spend, spend, while fighting sister services for a bigger slice of the budgetary pie.  The more money you get for your program and service, the more likely you’ll get pats on the back, a medal or two, and a glowing promotion recommendation.

Next, Members of Congress.  Their incentive is also to spend — to bring home the pork to their districts.  And the most lucrative source of pork is “defense” spending, which has the added benefit of being easily spun as “patriotic” and in “support” of the troops.

Finally, the President.  His incentive is also to spend.  That’s the best way to avoid being charged as being “weak” on defense.  It’s also about the only leverage the US has left in foreign policy.  Just look at President Obama’s recent trip to Vietnam.  The headlines have focused on the US ending its 50-year arms embargo with Vietnam, as if that’s a wonderful thing for Americans and the Vietnamese.  As Peter Van Buren noted, normalizing relations with Vietnam by selling them lethal weapons is truly an exercise in cynicism by a declining American empire.

Whether it’s the Pentagon, the Congress, or the president, the whole defense wars and weapons complex is structured to spend the maximum amount of money possible while engorging and enlarging itself.  Small wonder it’s never passed an audit!

Making matters worse is how the Pentagon uses various shady practices (e.g. secret budgets) to hamstrung reformers seeking to corral the system’s excesses.  After detailing the Byzantine complexity of the budgetary process, Hartung concludes that:

If your head is spinning after this brief tour of the Pentagon’s budget labyrinth, it should be. That’s just what the Pentagon wants its painfully complicated budget practices to do: leave Congress, any administration, and the public too confused and exhausted to actually hold it accountable for how our tax dollars are being spent. So far, they’re getting away with it.

Put succinctly, the US National Security State may be losing its overseas wars, yet losing equates to winning when it comes to increased budgetary authority abetted by a Congress that prefers enablement to oversight.  And as any military officer knows, authority without responsibility is a recipe for serious abuse.

Hair-Trigger America

Easy on that trigger, America
Easy on that trigger, America

W.J. Astore

I wrote this for Truthout but debated whether to publish it.  I just didn’t want to deal with all the gun enthusiasts who equate liberty with owning lots of guns and ammo.  This article is not specifically about guns.  It’s about our propensity for seeking quick and violent solutions to societal and political problems.  It’s about our willingness to spend billions on weaponry and also our willingness to sell billions in weaponry. It’s about a mentality that’s captured in the image of fingers tensed on so many hair-triggers, whether metaphorically or literally.

A nation that used to espouse isolationism has morphed into one poised for hair-trigger pre-emptive war, privately armed to the teeth and the leading purveyor in the global arms trade.

We live in hair-trigger America, an America that’s quick to kill, slow to think. A nation and a people that used to espouse isolationism (even if the practice was imperfect) has morphed into one poised for constant warfare. America’s leaders call for hair-trigger pre-emptive war even if the odds of an attack on the United States are 100 to 1against. America’s military and the CIA use Predator and Reaper drones to kill “enemies,” even when they’re not completely sure they are the enemy.

This is not the first time we’ve been a hair-trigger people. When I worked in the Air Force at the Cheyenne Mountain complex in Colorado in the 1980s, fear of nuclear annihilation was palpable. US nuclear forces were on hair-trigger alert. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, annihilatory fears abated.  We were, in the words of President George H.W. Bush, offered a chance to cash-in our peace dividends. We were, in the words of Jeanne Kirkpatrick (no dove she), offered a chance to become a normal country in normal times.

What intervened, of course, was the shock and awe of 9/11, together with what President Dwight D. Eisenhower termed the growing power of the military-industrial complex. Motive and opportunity drove a military (and militantly hysterical) response to 9/11 (to include torture) that was in retrospect entirely out of proportion to the damage done as well as to the threat posed by the attackers. At the same time, US troops were lauded as so many heroes, their leaders as so many Caesars. Forgotten was our founders’ hard-earned skepticism of militarism and war, their prediction that constant warfare would trigger the end of liberty.

More than a decade after 9/11, America remains poised to strike, fingers at ready on so many hair triggers. The military and especially its Special Forces remain on alert, trigger-pullers who are forward-deployed in 100-plus countries for rapid responses (and deadly interventions). Drones patrol foreign skies, always circling, always seeking targets. Full-spectrum dominance is the military’s stated goal. The land, the seas, the skies, space, even cyberspace – all must be treated as potential war zones.  All must therefore be dominated.

A hair-trigger mentality is both glitch and feature of a distinctly militarized and authoritarian American moment.  And those hair-triggers often morph into trigger-pullers, literally so, domestically as well as internationally.  Gun deaths in America continue to exceed 30,000 a year; by 2015, they may exceed traffic deaths. If not trigger-pullers, so many millions of Americans are trigger owners. As of 2009, there were 310 million non-military firearms in the United States, enough guns to arm every man, woman and child. One nation, under guns (but certainly not under-gunned).

Of course, Americans are not only trigger-pullers, but trigger-pushers. And by that I mean that the United States dominates the world’s (legal) arms trade. In 2010, we accounted for 53 percent of this trade; in 2011, a banner year, we accounted for a whopping 75 percent of this trade, dropping back to only 58 percent in 2012. Add to this legal arms trade the propensity for American guns to cross borders illegally to end up at crime scenes in Mexico and elsewhere, even when our own government isn’t involved in facilitating the trade.

To be seen as ready, willing, and able to pull various triggers is a distinctly American trope. Toughness, especially in dealing with foreign adversaries, is measured by a willingness to kill, a form of martial virtue. No American president can be seen without a gun in his hand, a trigger being pulled, even Barack Obama, whose staff took pains to release a photo of him shooting skeet.

When will we learn, as Eisenhower said, that only Americans can hurt America? And that trigger-pulling and trigger-pushing Americans are an especially grave threat, not only to America, but also to the world?

Recalling the words of Kirkpatrick, it’s long past time for America to become a normal country in normal times.  A time when fingers need not be tensed on so many hair triggers. Or any triggers at all.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Prediction for 2014: War Will Continue to Find A Way

“War is like love; it always finds a way.”  So wrote Bertolt Brecht, and when it comes to American politics and foreign policy in 2014, you can bet on Brecht being right.  There is no major anti-war party in the USA today.  Despite claims to fiscal austerity, Democrats and Republicans fall over themselves to fully fund the Pentagon and its ongoing wars across the globe.  Our misguided involvement in Afghanistan lurches into its thirteenth year with promises that it won’t end until 2024 at the earliest.  The only certainty for 2014 is more dead bodies, more casualties of war, more money wasted.

Barbara Tuchman, a historian who knew how to write for the educated public, was right in pointing out the persistence of folly in history.  A heavily militarized U.S. foreign policy is an illustration of that.  Our country continues to seek global dominance through militarized measures, perhaps because we’ve exported so much of our non-militarized economy to countries having cheaper labor. War and weapons are now are primary export.  That, and our desire for total information dominance that produced all of the abuses that Edward Snowden is revealing.

As we persist in war and weapons and surveillance, we’d do well to recall the words of John Bright, a British statesman who spoke about war and its dangers in the House of Commons in 1854. Here’s what Bright had to say:

“It is a painful and terrible thing to think how easy it is to stir up a nation to war … and you will find that wars are always supported by a class of arguments which, after the war is over, the people find were arguments they should not have listened to.”

When are we going to stop listening to arguments in favor of more wars and more weapons and more infringements of our rights, all justified in the name of “toughness” and “sanity” and “security”?

Sadly, not in 2014.

But if we’re truly looking to make meaningful resolutions for 2014, how about bringing our troops home?  How about building fewer weapons?  How about working to eliminate our nuclear arsenal? How about spying less and trusting more?

There are those that think that pursuing a less militant course is naive.  But what’s truly naive is the idea that constant warfare is consistent with any kind of enlightened democracy.

Let’s work together to ensure my prediction for 2014 is wrong.  Let’s find ways to stir up our nation to pursue peace.

John Bright
John Bright