America’s “Beautiful” Weapons

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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

W.J. Astore

President Trump is hawking weapons in the Middle East.  After concluding a deal with the Saudis for $110 billion in weaponry, he sought out the Emir of Qatar and said their discussions would focus on “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.”

Trump’s reference to American weapons as “beautiful” echoed the recent words of Brian Williams at MSNBC, who characterized images from the Tomahawk missile attack on Syria as “beautiful,” not once but three times.

We can vilify Trump and Williams for seeing beauty in weapons that kill, but we must also recognize Americans love their technology of death.  It’s one big reason why we have more than 300 million guns in America, enough to arm virtually every American, from cradle to grave.

Why do we place so much faith in weapons?  Why do we love them so?

In military affairs, America is especially prone to putting its faith in weapons.  The problem is that often weaponry is either less important than one thinks, or seductive in its promise.  Think of U.S. aerial drones, for example.  They’ve killed a lot of people without showing any decisiveness.

Technology is a rational and orderly endeavor, but war is irrational and chaotic.  Countries develop technology for war, thinking they are adding order and predictability, when they are usually adding just another element of unpredictability while expanding death.

U.S. air power is a great example — death everywhere, but no decisiveness.  Look at Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia).  The U.S. obliterated vast areas with high explosive and napalm and Agent Orange, killing millions without winning the war.  The technological image of America today is not stunning cars or clever consumer inventions but rather Predator and Reaper drones and giant bombs like MOAB.

Profligate expenditures on weapons and their export obviously feed America’s military-industrial complex.  Such weapons are sold by our politicians as job-creators, but they’re really widow-makers and life-takers.   Americans used to describe armament makers as “merchants of death,” until, that is, we became the number one producer and exporter of these armaments.  Now they’re “beautiful” to our president and to our media mouthpieces.

We have a strange love affair with weapons that borders on a fetish.  I’ve been to a few military re-enactments, in which well-intended re-enactors play at war.  The guys I’ve talked to are often experts on the nuts and bolts of the military weaponry they carry, but of course the guns aren’t loaded.  It’s all bloodless fun, a “war game,” if you will.

Nowadays real war is often much like a video game, at least to U.S. “pilots” sitting in trailers in Nevada.  It’s not a game to an Afghan or Yemeni getting blown to bits by a Hellfire missile fired by a drone.  For some reason, foreigners on the receiving end of U.S. weaponry don’t think of it as “beautiful.”  Nor do we, when our weapons are turned against us.

Enough with the “beautiful” weapons, America.  Let’s stick to the beauty of spacious skies and amber waves of grain.

Icons of American Militarism

W.J. Astore

At this moment, it’s hard to think of a better symbol of American militarism than a giant bomb with a U.S. flag on it.  President Donald Trump touted the use of the “mother of all bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan as a “very, very successful mission” even though evidence of that success is scant.  He further cited MOAB as evidence of the “tremendous difference, tremendous difference” between his administration’s willingness to use force and Obama’s.  In short, Trump loved MOAB precisely because Obama didn’t use it.  To Trump, MOAB was a sort of penis extender and a big middle finger all-in-one.  Virility and vulgarity.

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MOAB is an icon of U.S. militarism, as are other weapons in the American arsenal.  Weapons like our warplanes, aircraft carriers, Predator and Reaper drones, and Tomahawk and Hellfire missiles.  U.S. foreign policy often hinges on or pivots about the deployment of these icons of power, whether it’s aircraft carriers and anti-missile systems being sent to Korea or more bombs and missiles being used in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, among other countries.

Weapons sales further define U.S. foreign policy.  Witness the recent announcement of $100 billion in arms for the Saudis, soon to be confirmed by Trump in his forthcoming trip to Saudi Arabia.  This sale sets up even more military aid for Israel, in that Washington insists Israel must always maintain a qualitative edge in weaponry over its Arab rivals.

Unlike, say, Wilhelmine Germany, which elevated Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg to iconic status during and after World War I, America today is lacking in winning generals.  Sure, there have been a few pretenders.  William Westmoreland in Vietnam, H. Norman Schwarzkopf in Desert Storm, Tommy Franks in Iraqi Freedom, and David Petraeus of “Surge” fame come to mind, but their “victories” were either illusory or lacking in staying power.  Since we can’t idolize our generals, we celebrate our weapons instead.

These weapons are indeed iconic symbols.  They capture an ideology of destruction.  A predilection for spreading misery worldwide, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest must-read article at TomDispatch.com.  As Engelhardt notes in his “send-out” message to his piece:

The first part of my latest post focuses on the now seven month-long U.S.-backed Iraqi military offensive against the city of Mosul, which shows little sign of ending and has reduced that city, like so many other places in the region, to ruins, if not rubble.  Mosul, in other words, has been on my mind, but perhaps not completely for the reason you might expect.  Its destruction (and the generation of yet more uprooted people and refugees) has led me to wonder what ever happened to the globalizers who for so many years told us about the wonders of tying the planet ever more tightly together and leveling all playing fields.  It seems obvious to me that war, American-style, these last 15 years, has played a distinctly globalizing role on this ever smaller planet of ours — just globalizing misery, not happy news.  In this piece I use the destruction of Mosul to lay out my thoughts on just what globalization really means in 2017, why the Trump presidency is linked to such grim events, and just why the globalizers have stopped talking about the phenomenon.

When I read Tom’s note above about the “leveling” of “playing fields,” my first thought was that America is indeed working to level the world — just not in the figurative sense of promoting economic equality, but in the literal sense of leveling areas with bombs, cities like Mosul, for example, or alleged training areas for terrorists in Afghanistan.  As Engelhardt himself notes in his article, U.S. military action isn’t making the world flatter in the sense of equitable globalization; it’s simply flattening areas with overwhelming explosive force.

Most Americans simply don’t know or care much about foreign cities being leveled/flattened by America’s icons of power.  You might say it’s not on our radar screens.  The media and our leaders do a very good job of keeping us divided, distracted, and downtrodden.  What American has time to worry about Mosul or some obscure region of Afghanistan?  Unless or until the leveling and flattening come our way, to our cities and valleys, but by that point it will be far too late to act.

With all our talk of MOAB and aircraft carriers and missiles and their “beauty” and “tremendous success,” are we that far away from the lost souls in the movie “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” who elevated the atomic bomb as their false idol, their version of the Biblical golden calf?

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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

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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.