Danny Sjursen – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Fri, 22 Jan 2021 02:42:32 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.7.9 Do Biden’s Foreign Policy Appointees signal new Cold Wars with Russia, China? https://www.juancole.com/2021/01/signal-cold-wars.html Fri, 22 Jan 2021 05:01:55 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=195687 ( Tomdispatch.com) – Hard as it is to believe in this time of record pandemic deaths, insurrection, and an unprecedented encore impeachment, Joe Biden is now officially at the helm of the U.S. war machine. He is, in other words, the fourth president to oversee America’s unending and unsuccessful post-9/11 military campaigns. In terms of active U.S. combat, that’s only happened once before, in the Philippines, America’s second-longest (if often forgotten) overseas combat campaign.

Yet that conflict was limited to a single Pacific archipelago. Biden inherits a global war — and burgeoning new Cold War — spanning four continents and a military mired in active operations in dozens of countries, combat in some 14 of them, and bombing in at least seven. That sort of scope has been standard fare for American presidents for almost two decades now. Still, while this country’s post-9/11 war presidents have more in common than their partisan divisions might suggest, distinctions do matter, especially at a time when the White House almost unilaterally drives foreign policy.

So, what can we expect from commander-in-chief Biden? In other words, what’s the forecast for U.S. service-members who have invested their lives and limbs in future conflict, as well as for the speculators in the military-industrial complex and anxious foreigners in the countries still engulfed in America’s war on terror who usually stand to lose it all?

Many Trumpsters, and some libertarians, foresee disaster: that the man who, as a leading senator facilitated and cheered on the disastrous Iraq War, will surely escalate American adventurism abroad. On the other hand, establishment Democrats and most liberals, who are desperately (and understandably) relieved to see Donald Trump go, find that prediction preposterous. Clearly, Biden must have learned from past mistakes, changed his tune, and should responsibly bring U.S. wars to a close, even if at a time still to be determined.

In a sense, both may prove right — and in another sense, both wrong. The guess of this long-time war-watcher (and one-time war fighter) reading the tea leaves: expect Biden to both eschew big new wars and avoid fully ending existing ones. At the margins (think Iran), he may improve matters some; in certain rather risky areas (Russian relations, for instance), he could worsen them; but in most cases (the rest of the Greater Middle East, Africa, and China), he’s likely to remain squarely on the status-quo spectrum. And mind you, there’s nothing reassuring about that.

It hardly requires clairvoyance to offer such guesswork. That’s because Biden basically is who he says he is and who he’s always been, and the man’s simply never been transformational. One need look no further than his long and generally interventionist past record or the nature of his current national-security picks to know that the safe money is on more of the same. Whether the issues are war, race, crime, or economics, Uncle Joe has made a career of bending with the prevailing political winds and it’s unlikely this old dog can truly learn any new tricks. Furthermore, he’s filled his foreign policy squad with Obama-Clinton retreads, a number of whom were architects of — if not the initial Iraq and Afghan debacles — then disasters in Libya, Syria, West Africa, Yemen, and the Afghan surge of 2009. In other words, Biden is putting the former arsonists in charge of the forever-war fire brigade.

There’s further reason to fear that he may even reject Trump’s “If Obama was for it, I’m against it” brand of war-on-terror policy-making and thereby reverse The Donald’s very late, very modest troop withdrawals in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. Yet even if this new old hand of a president evades potentially existential escalation with nuclear Russia or China and offers only an Obama reboot when it comes to persistent low-intensity warfare, what he does will still matter — most of all to the global citizens who are too often its victims. So, here’s a brief region-by-region flyover tour of what Joe’s squad may have in store for both the world and the American military sent to police that world.

The Middle East: Old Prescriptions for Old Business

It’s increasingly clear that Washington’s legacy wars in the Greater Middle East — Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular — are generally no longer on the public’s radar. Enter an elected old man who’s charged with handling old business that, at least to most civilians, is old news. Odds are that Biden’s ancient tricks will amount to safe bets in a region that past U.S. policies essentially destroyed. Joe is likely to take a middle path in the region between large-scale military intervention of the Bush or Obama kind and more prudent full-scale withdrawal.

As a result, such wars will probably drag on just below the threshold of American public awareness, while avoiding Pentagon or partisan charges that his version of cutting-and-running endangered U.S. security. The prospect of “victory” won’t even factor into the equation (after all, Biden’s squad members aren’t stupid), but political survival certainly will. Here’s what such a Biden-era future might then look like in a few such sub-theaters.

The war in Afghanistan is hopeless and has long been failing by every one of the U.S. military’s own measurable metrics, so much so that the Pentagon and the Kabul government classified them all as secret information a few years back. Actually dealing with the Taliban and swiftly exiting a disastrous war likely to lead to a disastrous future with Washington’s tail between its legs is, in fact, the only remaining option. The question is when and how many more Americans will kill or be killed in that “graveyard of empires” before the U.S. accepts the inevitable. Toward the end of his tenure, Trump signaled a serious, if cynical, intent to so. And since Trump was by definition a monster and the other team’s monsters can’t even occasionally be right, a coalition of establishment Democrats and Lincoln-esque Republicans (and Pentagon officials) decided that the war must indeed go on. That culminated in last July’s obscenity in which Congress officially withheld the funds necessary to end it. As vice president, Biden was better than most in his Afghan War skepticism, but his incoming advisers weren’t, and Joe’s nothing if not politically malleable. Besides, since Trump didn’t pull enough troops out faintly fast enough or render the withdrawal irreversible over Pentagon objections, expect a trademark Biden hedge here.

Syria has always been a boondoggle, with the justifications for America’s peculiar military presence there constantly shifting from pressuring the regime of Bashar al-Assad, to fighting the Islamic State, to backing the Kurds, to balancing Iran and Russia in the region, to (in Trump’s case) securing that country’s meager oil supplies. As with so much else, there’s a troubling possibility that, in the Biden years, personnel once again may become destiny. Many of the new president’s advisers were bullish on Syrian intervention in the Obama years, even wanting to take it further and topple Assad. Furthermore, when it comes time for them to convince Biden to agree to stay put in Syria, there’s a dangerous existing mix of motives to do just that: the emotive sympathy for the Kurds of known gut-player Joe; his susceptibility to revived Islamic State (ISIS) fear-mongering; and perceptions of a toughness-testing proxy contest with Russia.

When it comes to Iran, expect Biden to be better than the Iran-phobic Trump administration, but to stay shackled “inside the box.” First of all, despite Joe’s long-expressed desire to reenter the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran that Trump so disastrously pulled out of, doing so may prove harder than he thinks. After all, why should Tehran trust a political basket case of a negotiating partner prone to significant partisan policy-pendulum swings, especially given the way Washington has waged nearly 70 years of interventions against Iran’s politicians and people? In addition, Trump left Biden the Trojan horse of Tehran’s hardliners, empowered by dint of The Donald’s pugnacious policies. If the new president wishes to really undercut Iranian intransigence and fortify the moderates there, he should go big and be transformational — in other words, see Obama’s tension-thawing nuclear deal and raise it with the carrot of full-blown diplomatic and economic normalization. Unfortunately, status-quo Joe has never been a transformational type.

Keep an Eye on Africa

Though it garners far less public interest than the U.S. military’s long-favored Middle Eastern playground, Africa figures significantly in the minds of those at the Pentagon, in the Capitol, and in Washington’s influential think-tanks. For interventionist hawks, including liberal ones, that continent has been both a petri dish and a proving ground for the development of a limited power-projection paradigm of drones, Special Operations forces, military advisers, local proxies, and clandestine intelligence missions.

It mattered little that over eight years of the Obama administration — from Libya to the West African Sahel to the Horn of East Africa — the war on terror proved, at best, problematic indeed, and even worse in the Trump years. There remains a worrisome possibility that the Biden posse might prove amenable yet again to the alarmism of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) about the rebirth of ISIS and the spread of other al-Qaeda-linked groups there, bolstered by fear-mongering nonsense masquerading as sophisticated scholarship from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, and the Pentagon’s perennial promises of low-investment, low-risk, and high-reward opportunities on the continent. So, a savvy betting man might place chips on a Biden escalation in West Africa’s Sahel and the Horn of East Africa, even if for different reasons.

American Special Forces and military advisors have been in and out of the remote borderlands between Mali and Niger since at least 2004 and these days seem there to stay. The French seized and suppressed sections of the Sahel region beginning in 1892, and, despite granting nominal independence to those countries in 1960, were back by 2013 and have been stuck in their own forever wars there ever since. American war-on-terror(izing) and French neo-colonizing have only inflamed regional resistance movements, increased violence, and lent local grievances an Islamist resonance. Recently, France’s lead role there has truly begun to disintegrate — with five of its troops killed in just the first few days of 2021 and allegations that it had bombed another wedding party. (Already such a war-on-terror cliché!)

Don’t be surprised if French President Emmanuel Macron asks for help and Biden agrees to bail him out. Despite their obvious age gap, Joe and Emmanuel could prove the newest and best of chums. (What’s a few hundred extra troops between friends?)

Especially since Obama-era Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her then-favored errand boy, inbound national security adviser Jake Sullivan, could be said to have founded the current coalition of jihadis in Mali and Niger. That’s because when the two of them championed a heavy-handed regime-change intervention against Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, thousands of his Tuareg fighters blew back into that region in a big way with more than just the clothes on their backs. They streamed from post-Gaddafi Libya into their Sahel homelands loaded with arms and anger. It’s no accident, in other words, that Mali’s latest round of insurgency kicked off in 2012. Now, Sullivan might push new boss Biden to attempt to clean up his old mess.

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On the other side of the continent, in Somalia, where Trump began an eleventh-hour withdrawal of a long-failing and aimless U.S. troop presence (sending most of those soldiers to neighboring countries), there’s a real risk that Biden could double-down in the region, adding soldiers, special operators, and drones. After all, if Trump was against it, even after exponentially increasing bombing in the area, then any good Democrat should be for it, especially since the Pentagon has, for some time now, been banging the drum about Somalia’s al-Shabaab Islamist outfit being the biggest threat to the homeland.

However, the real selling point for Biden might be the fantasy that Russia and China are flooding into the region. Ever since the 2018 National Defense Strategy decisively shifted the Pentagon’s focus from counterterror wars to “great power competition,” or GPC, AFRICOM has opportunistically altered its own campaign plan to align with the new threat of the moment, honing in on Russian and Chinese influence in the Horn region. As a result, AFRICOM’S come-back-to-the-Horn pitch could prove a relatively easy Biden sell.

Toughness Traps: Poking Russian Bears, Ramming Chinese (Sea) Dragons

With that new GPC national security obsession likely to be one Trump-era policy that remains firmly in place, however ill-advised it may be, perhaps the biggest Biden risk is the possibility of stoking up a “new,” two-theater, twenty-first-century version of the Cold War (with the possibility that, at any moment, it could turn into a hot one). After making everything all about Russia in the Trump years, the ascendant Democrats might just feel obliged to follow through and escalate tensions with Moscow that Trump himself already brought to the brink (of nuclear catastrophe). Here, too, personnel may prove a key policy-driver.

Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, is a resident Russia hawk and was an early “arm-Ukraine” enthusiast. Jake Sullivan already has a tendency to make mountains out of molehills on the subject, as when he described a minor road-rage incident as constituting “a Russian force in Syria aggressively attack[ing] an American force and actually injur[ing] American service members.” Then there’s the troubling signal of Victoria Nuland, the recent nominee for undersecretary of state for political affairs, a pick that itself should be considered a road-rage-style provocation. Nuland has a history of hawkish antagonism toward Moscow and is reportedly despised by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Her confirmation will surely serve as a conflict accelerant.

Nevertheless, China may be the lead antagonist in the Biden crew’s race to risk a foolhardy cataclysm. Throughout the election campaign, the new president seemed set on out-hawking Trump in the Western Pacific, explicitly writing about “getting tough” on China in a March 2020 piece he penned in Foreign Affairs. Joe had also previously called Chinese President Xi Jinping “a thug.” And while Michèle Flournoy may (mercifully) have been passed over for secretary of defense, her aggressive posture toward Beijing still infuses the thinking of her fellow Obama alums on Biden’s team.

As TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich pointed out last September, a Flournoy Foreign Affairs article illuminated the sort of absurdity she (and assumedly various Biden appointees) think necessary to effectively deter China. She called for “enhancing U.S. military capabilities so that the United States can credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours.” Consider that Dr. Strangelove-style strategizing retooled for an inbound urbane imperial presidency.

Endgame: War as Abstraction

Historically, foreign-policy paradigm shifts are exceedingly rare, especially when they tack toward peace. Such pivots appear almost impossible once the immense power of America’s military-industrial complex, invested in every way in endless war, as well as endless preparations for future Cold Wars, has reached today’s grotesque level. This is especially so when each and every one of Biden’s archetypal national security nominees has, metaphorically speaking, had his or her mortgage paid by some offshoot of that war industry. In other words, as the muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair used to say: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

Count on tactics including drones, commandos, CIA spooks, and a mostly amenable media to help the Biden administration make war yet more invisible — at least to Americans. Most Trump-detesting, and domestically focused citizens will find that just dandy, even if exhausted troopers, military families, and bombed or blockaded foreigners won’t. More than anything, Biden wishes to avoid overseas embarrassments like unexpected American casualties or scandalous volumes of foreign civilian deaths — anything, that is, that might derail his domestic agenda or hoped-for restorative leadership legacy.

That, unfortunately, may prove to be a pipe dream and leads me to two final predictions: formulaic forever war will never cease boomeranging back home to rot our republican institutions, and neither a celestial God nor secular History will judge Biden-the-war-president kindly.

Copyright 2021 Danny Sjursen

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Via Tomdispatch.com

Can Progressives Push Biden to take on Washington’s Sacred Cows: Foreign Policy and the Pentagon? https://www.juancole.com/2020/11/progressives-washingtons-pentagon.html Mon, 23 Nov 2020 05:01:59 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=194572 In this mystifying moment, the post-electoral sentiments of most Americans can be summed up either as “Ding dong! The witch is dead!” or “We got robbed!” Both are problematic, not because the two candidates were intellectually indistinguishable or ethically equivalent, but because each jingle is laden with a dubious assumption: that President Donald Trump’s demise would provide either decisive deliverance or prove an utter disaster.

While there were indeed areas where his ability to cause disastrous harm lent truth to such a belief — race relations, climate change, and the courts come to mind — in others, it was distinctly (to use a dangerous phrase) overkill. Nowhere was that more true than with America’s expeditionary version of militarism, its forever wars of this century, and the venal system that continues to feed it.

For nearly two years, We the People were coached to believe that the 2020 election would mean everything, that November 3rd would be democracy’s ultimate judgment day. What if, however, when it comes to issues of war, peace, and empire, “Decision 2020” proves barely meaningful? After all, in the election campaign just past, Donald Trump’s sweeping war-peace rhetoric and Joe Biden’s hedging aside, neither nuclear-code aspirant bothered to broach the most uncomfortable questions about America’s uniquely intrusive global role. Neither dared dissent from normative notions about America’s posture and policy “over there,” nor challenge the essence of the war-state, a sacred cow if ever there was one.

That blessed bovine has enshrined permanent policies that seem beyond challenge: Uncle Sam’s right and duty to forward deploy troops just about anywhere on the planet; garrison the globe; carry out aerial assassinations; and unilaterally implement starvation sanctions. Likewise the systemic structures that implement and incentivize such rogue-state behavior are never questioned, especially the existence of a sprawling military-industrial complex that has infiltrated every aspect of public life, while stealing money that might have improved America’s infrastructure or wellbeing. It has engorged itself at the taxpayer’s expense, while peddling American blood money — and blood — on absurd foreign adventures and autocratic allies, even as it corrupted nearly every prominent public paymaster and policymaker.

This election season, neither Democrats nor Republicans challenged the cultural components justifying the great game, which is evidence of one thing: empires come home, folks, even if the troops never seem to.

The Company He Keeps

As the election neared, it became impolite to play the canary in American militarism’s coal mine or risk raising Biden’s record — or probable prospects — on minor matters like war and peace. After all, his opponent was a monster, so noting the holes in Biden’s block of Swiss cheese presumably amounted to useful idiocy — if not sinister collusion — when it came to Trump’s reelection. Doing so was a surefire way to jettison professional opportunities and find yourself permanently uninvited to the coolest Beltway cocktail parties or interviews on cable TV.

George Orwell warned of the dangers of such “intellectual cowardice” more than 70 years ago in a proposed preface to his classic novel Animal Farm. “At any given moment,” he wrote, “there is an orthodoxy… that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it… Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.”

And that’s precisely what progressive paragon Cornel West warned against seven months ago after his man, Senator Bernie Sanders — briefly, the Democratic frontrunner — suddenly proved a dead candidate walking. “Vote for Biden, but don’t lie about who he really is,” the stalwart scholar suggested. It seems just enough Americans did the former (phew!), but mainstream media makers and consumers mostly forgot about the salient second part of his sentiment.

With the electoral outcome now apparent — if not yet accepted in Trump World — perhaps such politeness (and the policing that goes with it) will fade away, ushering in a renaissance of fourth estate oppositional truth-telling. In that way — in my dreams at least — persistently energized progressives might send President Joe Biden down dovish alternative avenues, perhaps even landing some appointments in an executive branch that now drives foreign policy (though, if I’m honest, I’m hardly hopeful on either count).

One look at Uncle Joe’s inbound nieces and nephews brings to mind Aesop’s fabled moral: “You are judged by the company you keep.”

Think-Tank Imperialists

One thing is already far too clear: Biden’s shadow national security team will be a distinctly status-quo squad. To know where future policymakers might head, it always helps to know where they came from. And when it comes to Biden’s foreign policy crew, including a striking number of women and a fair number of Obama administration and Clinton 2016 campaign retreads — they were mostly in Trump-era holding patterns in the connected worlds of strategic consulting and hawkish think tanking.

In fact, the national security bio of the archetypal Biden bro (or sis) would go something like this: she (he) sprang from an Ivy League school, became a congressional staffer, got appointed to a mid-tier role on Barack Obama’s national security council, consulted for WestExec Advisors (an Obama alumni-founded outfit linking tech firms and the Department of Defense), was a fellow at the Center for New American Security (CNAS), had some defense contractor ties, and married someone who’s also in the game.

It helps as well to follow the money. In other words, how did the Biden bunch make it and who pays the outfits that have been paying them in the Trump years? None of this is a secret: their two most common think-tank homes — CNAS and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) — are the second- and sixth-highest recipients, respectively, of U.S. government and defense-contractor funding. The top donors to CNAS are Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and the Department of Defense. Most CSIS largesse comes from Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon.

How the inevitable conflicts of interest play out is hardly better concealed. To take just one example, in 2016, Michèle Flournoy, CNAS co-founder, ex-Pentagon official, and “odds-on favorite” to become Biden’s secretary of defense, exchanged emails with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ambassador in Washington. She pitched a project whereby CNAS analysts would, well, analyze whether Washington should maintain drone-sales restrictions in a non-binding multilateral missile technology control agreement. The UAE’s autocratic government then paid CNAS $250,000 to draft a report that (you won’t be surprised to learn) argued for amending the agreement to allow that country to purchase American-manufactured drones.

Which is just what Flournoy and company’s supposed nemeses in the Trump administration then did this very July past. Again, no surprise. American drones seem to have a way of ending up in the hands of Gulf theocracies — states with abhorrent human rights records that use such planes to surveil and brutally bomb Yemeni civilians.

If it’s too much to claim that a future defense secretary Flournoy would be the UAE’s (wo)man in Washington, you at least have to wonder. Worse still, with those think-tank, security-consulting, and defense-industry ties of hers, she’s anything but alone among Biden’s top prospects. Just consider a few other abridged resumes:

Tony Blinken, frontrunner for national security adviser: CSIS; WestExec (which he co-founded with Flournoy); and CNN analyst.

Jake Sullivan, a shoo-in for a “senior post in a potential administration”: the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (“peace,” in this case, being funded by 10 military agencies and defense contractors) and Macro Advisory Partners, a strategic consultancy run by former British spy chiefs.

Avril Haines, a top contender for CIA director or director of national intelligence: CNAS-the Brookings Institution; WestExec; and Palantir Technologies, a controversial, CIA-seeded, NSA-linked data-mining firm.

Kathleen Hicks, probable deputy secretary of defense: CSIS and the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development center that lobbies on defense issues.

An extra note about Hicks: she’s the head of Biden’s Department of Defense transition team and also a senior vice president at CSIS. There, she hosts that think tank’s “Defense 2020” podcast. In case anyone’s still wondering where CSIS’s bread is buttered, here’s how Hicks opens each episode:

“This podcast is made possible by contributions from BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and the Thales Group.”

In other words, given what we already know about Joe Biden’s previous gut-driven policies that pass for “middle of the road” in this anything but middling country of ours, the experiences and affiliations of his “A-Team” don’t bode well for systemic-change seekers. Remember, this is a president-elect who assured rich donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he were elected. Should he indeed stock his national security team with such a conflicts-of-interest-ridden crowd, consider America’s sacred cows of foreign policy all but saved.

Biden’s outfit is headed for office, it seems, to right the Titanic, not rock the boat.

Off The Table: A Paradigm Shift

In this context, join me in thinking about what won’t be on the next presidential menu when it comes to the militarization of American foreign policy.

Don’t expect major changes when it comes to:

• One-sided support for Israel that enables permanent Palestinian oppression and foments undying ire across the Greater Middle East. Tony Blinken put it this way: as president, Joe Biden “would not tie military assistance to Israel to things like annexation [of all or large portions of the occupied West Bank] or other decisions by the Israeli government with which we might disagree.”

• Unapologetic support for various Gulf State autocracies and theocracies that, as they cynically collude with Israel, will only continue to heighten tensions with Iran and facilitate yet more grim war crimes in Yemen. Beyond Michèle Flournoy’s professional connections with the UAE, Gulf kingdoms generously fund the very think tanks that so many Biden prospects have populated. Saudi Arabia, for example, offers annual donations to Brookings and the Rand Corporation; the UAE, $1 million for a new CSIS office building; and Qatar, $14.8 million to Brookings.

• America’s historically unprecedented and provocative expeditionary military posture globally, including at least 800 bases in 80 countries, seems likely to be altered only in marginal ways. As Jake Sullivan put it in a June CSIS interview: “I’m not arguing for getting out of every base in the Middle East. There is a military posture dimension to this as a reduced footprint.”

Above all, it’s obvious that the Biden bunch has no desire to slow down, no less halt, the “revolving door” that connects national security work in the government and jobs or security consulting positions in the defense industry. The same goes for the think tanks that the arms producers amply fund to justify the whole circus.

In such a context, count on this: the militarization of American society and the “thank-you-for-your-service” fetishization of American soldiers will continue to thrive, exhibit A being the way Biden now closes almost any speech with “May God protect our troops.”

All of this makes for a rather discouraging portrait of an old man’s coming administration. Still, consider it a version of truth in advertising. Joe and company are likely to continue to be who they’ve always been and who they continue to say they are. After all, transformational presidencies and unexpected pivots are historically rare phenomena. Expecting the moon from a man mostly offering MoonPies almost guarantees disappointment.

Obama Encore or Worse?

Don’t misunderstand me: a Biden presidency will certainly leave some maneuvering room at the margins of national security strategy. Think nuclear treaties with the Russians (which the Trump administration had been systematically tearing up) and the possible thawing of at least some of the tensions with Tehran.

Nor should even the most cynical among us underestimate the significance of having a president who actually accepts the reality of climate change and the need to switch to alternative energy sources as quickly as possible. Noam Chomsky’s bold assertion that the human species couldn’t endure a second Trump term, thanks to the environmental catastrophe, nuclear brinksmanship, and pandemic negligence he represents, was anything but hyperbole. Yet recall that he was also crystal clear about the need “for an organized public” to demand change and “impose pressures” on the new administration the moment the new president is inaugurated.

Yet, in the coming Biden years, there is also a danger that empowered Democrats in an imperial presidency (when it comes to foreign policy) will actually escalate a two-front New Cold War with China and Russia. And there’s always the worry that the ascension of a more genteel emperor could co-opt — or at least quiet — a growing movement of anti-Trumpers, including the vets of this country’s forever wars who are increasingly dressing in antiwar clothing.

What seems certain is that, as ever, salvation won’t spring from the top. Don’t count on Status-quo Joe to slaughter Washington’s sacred cows of foreign policy or on his national security team to topple the golden calves of American empire. In fact, the defense industry seems bullish on Biden. As Raytheon CEO Gregory Hayes recently put it, “Obviously, there is a concern that defense spending will go way down if there is a Biden administration, but frankly I think that’s ridiculous.” Or consider retired Marine Corps major general turned defense consultant Arnold Punaro who recently said of Biden’s coming tenure, “I think the industry will have, when it comes to national security, a very positive view.”

Given the evidence that business-as-usual will continue in the Biden years, perhaps it’s time to take that advice from Cornel West, absorb the truth about Biden’s future national security squad, and act accordingly. There’s no top-down salvation on the agenda — not from Joe or his crew of consummate insiders. Pressure and change will flow from the grassroots or it won’t come at all.

Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, retired U.S. Army major, contributing editor at antiwar.com, and senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, directs the Eisenhower Media Network and cohosts the “Fortress on a Hill” podcast. A former history instructor at West Point, he served in Iraq and Afghanistan. His two books are Ghost Riders of Baghdad, and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen

Undercover Patriots: Trump, Tulsa, and the Rise of Military Dissent https://www.juancole.com/2020/07/undercover-patriots-military.html Fri, 10 Jul 2020 04:01:30 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=191972 It was June 20th and we antiwar vets had traveled all the way to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the midst of a pandemic to protest President Trump’s latest folly, an election 2020 rally where he was to parade his goods and pretend all was well with this country.

We never planned to go inside the cavernous arena where that rally was to be held. I was part of our impromptu reconnaissance team that called an audible at the last moment. We suddenly decided to infiltrate not just the perimeter of that Tulsa rally, but the BOK Center itself. That meant I got a long, close look at the MAGA crowd there in what turned out to be a more than half-empty arena.

Our boots-on-the-ground coalition of two national antiwar veteran organizations — About Face and Veterans for Peace (VFP) — had thrown together a rather risky direct action event in coordination with the local activists who invited us.

We planned to climb the three main flagpoles around that center and replace an Old Glory, an Oklahoma state flag, and a Tulsa one with Black Lives-themed banners. Only on arrival, we found ourselves stymied by an eleventh-hour change in the security picture: new gates and unexpected police deployments. Hopping metal barriers and penetrating a sizable line of cops and National Guardsmen seemed to ensure a fruitless trip to jail, so into the under-attended indoor rally we went, to — successfully it turned out — find a backdoor route to those flagpoles.

Once inside, we had time to kill. While others in the group infiltrated and the flagpole climbers donned their gear, five of us — three white male ex-foot soldiers in America’s forever wars and two Native American women (one a vet herself) — took a breather in the largely empty upper deck of the rally. Nervous joking then ensued about the absurdity of wearing the Trump “camouflage” that had eased our entrance. My favorite disguise: a Hispanic ex-Marine buddy’s red-white-and-blue “BBQ, Beer, Freedom” tank top.

The music irked me instantly. Much to the concern of the rest of the team, I’d brought a notebook along and was already furtively scribbling. At one point, we listened sequentially to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” and Queen’s “We Are The Champions” over the arena’s loudspeakers. I couldn’t help but wonder how that black man of, let’s say, complicated sexual orientation, four outspoken British hippies, and a gay AIDs victim (Freddie Mercury) would feel about the way the Trump campaign had co-oped their songs. We can guess though, since the late Tom Petty’s family quickly denounced the use of his rock song “I Won’t Back Down” at the rally.

I watched an older white woman in a “Joe Biden Sucks, Nancy Pelosi Swallows” T-shirt gleefully dancing to Michael Jackson’s falsetto (“But the kid is not my son!”). Given that “Billie Jean” blatantly describes an out-of-wedlock paternity battle and that odds were this woman was a pro-life proponent of “family values,” there was something obscene about her carefree shimmy.

A Contrast in Patriotism

And then, of course, there was the version of patriotism on display in the arena. I’ve never seen so many representations of the Stars and Stripes in my life, classic flags everywhere and flag designs plastered on all manner of attire. Remember, I went to West Point. No one showed the slightest concern that many of the red-white-and-blue adaptations worn or waved strictly violated the statutes colloquially known as the U.S. Flag Code (United States Code, Title 4, Chapter 1).

That said, going undercover in Trumplandia means entering a universe in which it’s exceedingly clear that one political faction holds the flag hostage. They see it as theirs — and only theirs. They define its meaning, its symbolism, and its proper use, not to speak of whom it represents. The crowd, after all, was vanilla. (There were more people of color serving beers than cheering the president.)

By a rough estimate, half of the attendees had some version of the flag on their clothing, Trump banners, or other accessories, signaling more than mere national pride. Frequently sharing space with Old Glory were images of (often military-grade) weaponry, skulls (one wearing an orange toupee), and anti-liberal slogans. Notable shirts included: the old Texas War of Independence challenge “Come And Take It!” above the sort of AK-47 assault rifle long favored by America’s enemies; a riff on a classic Nixonian line, “The Silent Majority Is Coming”; and the slanderous “Go To Your Safe Space, Snowflake!”; not to mention a sprinkling of the purely conspiratorial like “Alex Jones Did Nothing Wrong” (with a small flag design on it, too).

The banners were even more aggressive. “Trump 2020: Fuck Your Feelings” was a fan favorite. Another popular one photo-shopped The Donald’s puffy face onto Sylvester Stallone’s muscle-bound physique, a machine gun at his hip. That image, of course, had been lifted from the Reagan-era, pro-Vietnam War film Rambo: First Blood Part II, a fitting accompaniment to Trump’s classically plagiarized Reaganesque rallying cry “Make America Great Again.” Finally, a black banner with pink lettering read “L G B T.” Above the letters, also in pink, were logos depicting, respectively, the Statue of Liberty, a Gun (an M16 assault rifle), a Beer mug, and a profile bust of Donald Trump. Get it?

For our small group of multi-war/multi-tour combat veterans, it was hard not to wonder whether many of these flag-and-weaponry enthusiasts had ever seen a shot fired in anger or sported Old Glory on a right-shoulder uniform sleeve. Though we were all wearing standard black veteran ball-caps and overtly Trump-friendly shirts, several of us interlopers feared the crowd might somehow guess what we actually were. Yet tellingly, the closest we came to outing ourselves — before later pulling off our disguises to expose black “About Face: Veterans Against The War” shirts — was during the national anthem.

Nothing better exemplified the contrast between what I’ve come to think of as the “pageantry patriotism” of the crowd and the more complex “participatory patriotism” of the dissenting vets than that moment. At its first notes — we were still waiting in the arena’s encircling lobby — our whole team reflexively stood at attention, removed our hats, faced the nearest draped flags, and placed our hands upon our hearts. We were the only ones who did so — until, at mid-anthem, a few embarrassed passersby followed our example. Most of the folks, however, just continued to scamper along, often chomping on soft pretzels, and sometimes casting quizzical glances at us. Trumpian patriotism only goes so far.

Our crew was, in fact, rather diverse, but mostly such vets groups remain disproportionately white and male. In fact, one reason local black and native communities undoubtedly requested our attendance was a vague (and not unreasonable) assumption that maleness, whiteness, and veteran’s status might offer their protests some semblance of protection. Nevertheless, my old boss on West Point’s faculty, retired Colonel Gregory Daddis, summed up the limits of such protection in this phrase: “Patriotic” Veterans Only, Please. And just how accurate that was became violently apparent the moment we “unmasked” at the base of those flagpoles.

Approximately three-dozen combat tours braved between us surely didn’t save our nonviolent team from the instant, distinctly physical rancor of the police — or four members of our group from arrest as the climbers shimmied those flagpoles. Nor did deliberately visible veteran’s gear offer any salvation from the instantly jeering crowd, as the rest of us were being escorted to the nearest exit and tossed out. “Antifa!” one man yelled directly into a Marine vet’s face. Truthfully, America’s “thanks for your service” hyper-adulation culture has never been more than the thinnest of veneers. However much we veterans reputedly fought for “our freedom,” that freedom and the respect for the First Amendment rights of antiwar, anti-Trump vets that should go with it evaporates with remarkable speed in such situations.

Three Strands of Veteran or Military Dissent

Still, the intensity of the MAGA crowd’s vitriol — as suggested by the recent hate mail both About Face and I have received — is partly driven by a suspicion that Team Trump is losing the military’s loyalty. In fact, there’s evidence that something is indeed astir in both the soldier and veteran communities the likes of which this country hasn’t seen since the tail end of the Vietnam War, almost half a century ago. Today’s rising doubt and opposition has three main components: retired senior officers, younger combat veterans, and — most disturbingly for national-security elites — rank-and-file serving soldiers and National Guardsmen.

The first crew, those senior officers, have received just about the only media attention, even though they may, in the end, prove the least important of the three. Many of the 89 former defense officials who expressed “alarm” in a Washington Post op-ed over the president’s response to the nationwide George Floyd protests, as well as other retired senior military officers who decried President Trump’s martial threats at the time, had widespread name recognition. They included former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine Corps General Jim (“Mad Dog”) Mattis and that perennial latecomer, former Secretary of State and Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell. And yes, it’s remarkable that such a who’s-who of former military leaders has spoken as if with one voice against Trump’s abhorrent and inflammatory recent behavior.

Still, a little caution is in order before canonizing a crew that, lest we forget, has neither won nor opposed a generation’s worth of unethical wars that shouldn’t have been fought. Recall, for example, that Saint Mattis resigned his post not over his department’s complicity in the borderline genocide underway in Yemen or pointlessly escalatory drone strikes in Somalia, but in response to a mere presidential suggestion of pulling U.S. troops out of the quicksand of the Syrian conflict.

In fact, for all their chatter about the Constitution, oaths betrayed, and citizen rights violated, anti-Trumpism ultimately glues this star-studded crew together. If Joe Biden ever takes the helm, expect these former flag officers to go mute on this country’s forever wars waged in Baghdad and Baltimore alike.

More significant and unique is the recent wave of defiance from normally conservative low- to mid-level combat veterans, most, though not all, a generation junior to the attention-grabbing ex-Pentagon brass and suits. There were early signs of a shift among those post-9/11 boots-on-the-ground types. In the last year, credible polls showed that two-thirds of veterans believed the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria “were not worth fighting,” and 73% supported full withdrawal from the Afghan War in particular. Notably, such rates of antiwar sentiment exceed those of civilians, something for which there may be no precedent.

Furthermore, just before the president’s controversial West Point graduation speech, more than 1,000 military academy alumni signed an open letter addressed to the matriculating class and blatantly critical of Trump’s urge to militarily crack down on the Black Lives Matter protests. Mainly ex-captains and colonels who spanned graduating classes from 1948 to 2019, they briefly grabbed mainstream headlines with their missive. Robin Wright of the New Yorker even interviewed and quoted a few outspoken signatories (myself included). Then there was the powerful visual statement of Marine Corps veteran Todd Winn, twice wounded in Iraq, who stood for hours outside the Utah state capitol in the sweltering heat in full dress uniform with the message “I Can’t Breathe” taped over his mouth.

At the left end of the veterans’ community, the traditional heart of antiwar military dissent, the ranks of the organizations I belong to and with whom I “deployed” to Tulsa have also swelled. Both in that joint operation and in the recent joint Veterans for Peace (largely Vietnam alumni)and About Face decision to launch a “Stand Down for Black Lives” campaign — encouraging and supporting serving soldiers and guardsmen to refuse mobilization orders — the two groups have taken real steps toward encouraging multi-generational opposition to systemic militarism. In fact, more than 700 vets publicly signed their names (as I did) to About Face’s provocative open letter urging just such a refusal. There were even ex-service members among the far greater mass of unaffiliated veterans who joined protesters in the streets of this country’s cities and towns in significant numbers during that month or more of demonstrations.

Which brings us to the final (most fear-inducing) strand of such dissent: those in the serving military itself. Their numbers are, of course, impossible to measure, since such resistance can range from the passive to the overt and the Pentagon is loathe to publicize the slightest hint of its existence. However, About Face quickly received scores of calls from concerned soldiers and Guardsmen, while VFP reported the first mobilization refusals almost immediately. At a minimum, 10 service members are known to have taken “concrete steps” to avoid deployment to the protests and, according to a New York magazine investigation, some troops were “reconsidering their service,” or “ready to quit.”

Finally, there’s my own correspondence. Over the years, I’ve received notes from distraught service members with some regularity. However, in the month-plus since George Floyd’s death, I’ve gotten nearly 100 such messages from serving strangers — as well as from several former West Point students turned lieutenants — more, that is, than in the preceding four years. Last month, one of those former cadets of mine became the first West Point graduate in the last 15 years to be granted conscientious objector status. He will complete his service obligation as a noncombatant in the Medical Service Corps. Within 36 hours of that news spreading, a handful of other former students expressed interest in his case and wondered if I could put them in touch with him.

Intersectional Vets

In a moment of crankiness this January, using a bullhorn pointed at the University of Kansas campus, I decried the pathetic student turnout at a post-Qasem Soleimani assassination rally against a possible war with Iran. And it still remains an open question whether the array of activist groups that About Face and Veterans for Peace have so recently stood in solidarity with will show up for our future antiwar endeavors.

Still, the growth across generations of today’s antiwar veterans’ movement has, I suspect, value in itself — and part of that value lies in our recognition that the problem of American militarism isn’t restricted to the combat zones of this country’s forever wars. By standing up for Black lives, pitching tents at Standing Rock Reservation to fight a community-threatening pipeline, and similar solidarity actions, this generation of antiwar veterans is beginning to set itself apart in its opposition to America’s wars abroad and at home.

As both the Covid-19 crisis and the militarization of the police in the streets of American cities have made clear, the imperial power that we veterans fought for abroad is the same one some of us are now struggling against at home and the two couldn’t be more intimately linked. Our struggle is, at least in part, over who gets to define patriotism.

Should the sudden wave of military and veteran dissent keep rising, it will invariably crash against the pageantry patriots of Chickenhawk America who attended that Tulsa rally and we’ll all face a new and critical theater in this nation’s culture wars. I don’t pretend to know whether such protests will last or military dissent will augur real change of any sort. What I do know is what my favorite rock star, Bruce Springsteen, used to repeat before live renditions of his song “Born to Run”: Remember, in the end nobody wins, unless everybody wins.

Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a retired U.S. Army major and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now lives in Lawrence, Kansas. He has written a memoir of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His latest book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his podcast “Fortress on a Hill.”

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen


Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Kansas City Star: “Army veteran describes his arrest at recent protest”

Will our Post-Pandemic Forever Wars be Fought at a Social Distance? https://www.juancole.com/2020/05/pandemic-forever-distance.html Wed, 27 May 2020 04:01:11 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=191133 ( Tomdispatch.com) – Covid-19, an ongoing global human tragedy, may have at least one silver lining. It has led millions of people to question America’s most malignant policies at home and abroad.

Regarding Washington’s war policies abroad, there’s been speculation that the coronavirus might, in the end, put a dent in such conflicts, if not prove an unintended peacemaker — and with good reason, since a cash-flush Pentagon has proven impotent as a virus challenger. Meanwhile, it’s become ever more obvious that, had a fraction of “defense” spending been invested in chronically underfunded disease control agencies, this country’s response to the coronavirus crisis might have been so much better.

Curiously enough, though, despite President Trump’s periodic complaints about America’s “ridiculous endless wars,” his administration has proven remarkably unwilling to agree to even a modest rollback in U.S. imperial ambitions. In some theaters of operation — Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, and Somalia above all — Washington has even escalated its militarism in a fit of macabre, largely under-the-radar pandemic opportunism.

For all that, this is an obvious moment to reflect on whether America’s nearly two-decade-old “war on terror” (perhaps better thought of as a set of wars of terror) might actually end. Predictions are tricky matters. Nonetheless, the spread of Covid-19 has offered a rare opportunity to raise questions, challenge frameworks, and critically consider what “ending” war might even mean for this country.

In some sense, our post-9/11 wars have been gradually subsiding for some time now. Even though the total number of U.S. troops deployed to the Middle East has actually risen in the Trump years, those numbers pale when compared to the U.S. commitment at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The number of American soldiers taking fire overseas has, in recent years, dropped to levels unthinkably low for those of us who entered the military around the time of the 9/11 attacks.

That said, in these years, even unwinnable, unnecessary wars have proven remarkably unendable. For evidence of this, look no further than that perennial war hawk Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Given the lack of success of the various campaigns run by U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, across that continent and the Pentagon’s stated desire to once again pivot to great-power competition with China and Russia, just before the pandemic arrived on our shores Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced plans for a modest troop drawdown in parts of Africa. Appalled by even such minor retrenchments, Graham, leading a bipartisan group of lawmakers, reportedly confronted Esper and threatened to make his “life hell,” should the secretary downsize U.S. forces there.

Less than two months later, AFRICOM declared a public-health emergency at the largest of this country’s African bases in Djibouti amid concerns that even far smaller, more spartan American facilities on that continent lacked the requisite medical equipment to fight the spreading virus. Whether the pandemic facilitates Esper’s contemplated reductions remains to be seen. (A mid-April AFRICOM press release offering reassurance that the “command’s partnership endures during Covid-19” doesn’t bode well for such a transformation.)

Still, the disease will surely have some effect. Just as quarantine and social-distancing measures have transformed people’s lives and work in the U.S., Washington’s war fighting will undoubtedly have to adapt, too. Minimally, expect the Pentagon to wage wars (largely hidden from public view) that require ever fewer of its troops to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with allies and fewer still to die doing so. Expect Washington to mandate and the Pentagon to practice what might increasingly be thought of as social-distancing-style warfare.

Soldiers will operate in ever smaller teams. Just as senior leaders constantly counseled us junior officers in the bad old days to “put an Iraqi face between you and the problem,” so today’s and tomorrow’s troopers will do their best to place drones or (less precious) proxy lives between themselves and enemies of any sort. Meanwhile, the already immense chasm between the American public and the wars being fought in its name is only likely to widen. What may emerge from these years is a version of war so unrecognizable that, while still unending, it may no longer pass for war in the classic sense.

To grasp how we’ve made it to a social-distancing version of war, it’s necessary to go back to the earlier part of this century, years before a pandemic like Covid-19 was on anyone’s radar screen.

American Wars Don’t End, They Evolve

When, as a young Army lieutenant and later captain, I joined what were then called “surges” in Iraq in 2006 and Afghanistan in 2011, conventional foot soldiers like me were the main game in town. The doctrine of counterinsurgency, or COIN, then ruled the Pentagon’s intellectual roost. The trick, so key commanders believed, was to flood the war zone with infantry brigades, securing the conflict’s “center of gravity“: the locals. Behind the scenes, Special Operations units were already taking on ever-larger roles. Nevertheless, there were ample “boots-on-the-ground” and relatively high casualties in conventional units like mine.

Times have changed. Full-scale invasions and long-term occupations, along with COIN as a war-on-terror cure-all, long ago fell out of favor. By Barack Obama’s second term, such unpopular and costly campaigns were passé. Even so, rather than rethink the efficacy of imperial interventionism, Washington simply substituted new methods masquerading as the latest strategy of success.

By the time Donald Trump delivered his “American carnage” inaugural address, the burdens of Washington war-making had flipped. When I served in Iraq and Afghanistan, about half of the Army’s 40-odd combat brigades were deployed in those two regional theaters at any given time. The remainder were training for their next rotations and already on the “patch chart” where each unit’s logo indicated its future scheduled deployment. This was the life on the conveyor belt of American war that a generation of soldiers like me lived. By January 2017, however, the number of conventional brigades deployed in the war on terror could be counted on one hand.

For instance, the Army’s most recent round of deployments, announced this April, included just six brigades. Of these, two were aviation units and, among the ground forces, one was headed for Europe, another for Kuwait. Only two ground combat brigades, in other words, were slated for Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan and one of them was a reconstituted Security Force Assistance Brigade — essentially a skeleton crew of officers and noncommissioned officers meant to train and advise local troops. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s Special Operations forces, which had by then crested above 70,000, a figure so large as to raise questions about how “special” they remained, stepped onto that conveyor belt. America’s commandos now bear most of the burden of forever-war deployments and (modest) casualties.

A Two-Tier War-Making System

When the virus struck, the Pentagon had long been developing a bifurcated military machine with two separate and largely discrete roles. The commandos — with key assists from drones, CIA paramilitaries, local proxies, and private security contractors — continued to fight the lingering war on terror. They were generally handling the lethal end of American war, calling in airstrikes, while training, advising, and sometimes even leading often abusive indigenous forces.

Conventional active-duty brigades — reduced to 32 — were largely given quite a different task: to prepare for a future revamped Cold War with Russia and, increasingly, China. That crew — infantry, armored brigades, and Navy carrier squadrons — had the “new,” purportedly vital mission of checking, containing, or challenging Moscow in Eastern Europe and Beijing in the South China Sea. Senior generals and admirals were comfortable with such Cold War-style tasks (most having been commissioned in the mid-1980s). However, viewed from Russia or China, such missions looked increasingly provocative as ever more American riflemen, tanks, and warships regularly deployed to former Soviet republics or, in the case of the Navy, to Western Pacific waters that abut China, making the risk of accidental escalation seem ever more conceivable.

Meanwhile, those shadowy special operators were directing the ongoing shooting wars and other conflicts, which, though given precious little attention in this country, seemed patently counterproductive, not to say unwinnable. For the Pentagon and military-industrial-complex profiteers, however, such unending brushfire conflicts, along with a new great-power buildup, were the gift that just kept giving, a two-tiered modus operandi for endless war-funding.

Enter the coronavirus.

In Cold Blood

Thought of a certain way, American war will, in the future, increasingly be waged in cold blood. While Covid-19 spreads virally through respiratory droplets, the disease of endless war continues to be blood-borne (even if ever less of it is American blood), ensuring that the social-distancing-style combat of the future could become even more of an abstraction here.

In addition, the preferred post-pandemic warriors of that future may not be uniformed soldiers, special or otherwise, or necessarily American — or in some cases (think drones and future robotic weaponry) human. U.S. war fighting has already been increasingly privatized. Only recently, Erik Prince, the former CEO of the private military company Blackwater, an influential Trump ally as well as the brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, pitched the president on a far-fetched plan to privatize the whole Afghan War.

The Donald passed on the offer, but that it was even considered at such a high level suggests the role of private contractors and soldiers of fortune in future American war-making may be here to stay. In that sense, the recent fiasco of an armed raid led by former Green Berets-turned-mercenaries and aimed at the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro may prove as much a foreboding glimpse of the future as it was a farce.

When uniformed U.S. service members are deemed necessary, the trend toward using just handfuls of them to run an increasingly proxy-war machine is likely to accelerate. Such teams will fit well with public-health guidelines limiting gatherings to 10 people. For instance, drone ground control stations, essentially mobile trailers, require only a pair of operators. Similarly, the military’s newest cyberwar branch (formed in 2015) may not be made up of the hackers of Donald Trump’s imagination (“somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds”), but they, too, will work in tiny teams abroad, and at a great distance. Pushing those guidelines just a tad will be Army Special Forces A-Teams of 12 Green Berets each, which may prove to be core building blocks for a new American version of post-pandemic warfare.

Most disturbingly, American social-distancing ways of war will likely operate smoothly enough without suppressing terrorist groups any more successfully than the previous versions of forever war did, or solving local ethno-religious conflicts, or improving the lives of Africans or Arabs. Like their predecessors, future American wars in cold blood will fail, but with efficiency and, from the point of view of the military-industrial complex, lucratively.

Here, of course, is the deep and tragic paradox of it all. As the coronavirus should have reminded us, the true existential threats to the United States (and humanity) — disease pandemics, a potential nuclear Armageddon, and climate change — will be impervious to Washington’s usual military tools. No matter the number of warships, infantry and armored brigades, or commando teams, none of them will stand a chance against lethal viruses, rising tides, or nuclear fallout. As such, the Pentagon’s plethora of tanks, aircraft carriers (themselves petri dishes for any virus around), and towers of cash (sorely needed elsewhere) will, in the future, be monuments to an era of American delusion.

A rational (or moral) system with any semblance of genuine legislative oversight or citizen input might respond to such conspicuous realities by rethinking the national security paradigm itself and bringing the war state to a screeching halt. Unfortunately, if America’s imperial past is any precedent, what lies ahead is the further evolution of twenty-first-century imperial war to the end of time.

Post-Pandemic War

Still, Covid-19 may prove the death knell of American war as classically imagined. Future combat, even if broadly directed from Washington, may be only vaguely “American.” Few uniformed citizens may take part in it and even fewer die from it.

During the prolonged endgame of wars that don’t really end, U.S. military fatalities will certainly continue to occur in occasional ones and twos — often in far-flung places where few Americans even realize their country is fighting (as with those four U.S. troops killed in an ambush in Niger in 2018 and the Army soldier and two private contractors killed in Kenya earlier this year). Such minuscule American losses will actually offer Washington more leeway to quietly ramp-up its drone attacks, air power, raiding, and killing, as has already happened in Somalia, with assumedly ever less oversight or attention at home. As in the Horn of Africa of late, the Pentagon won’t even have to bother to justify escalations in its war-making. Which raises a sort of “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there…” conundrum: if the U.S. is killing brown folks around the world, but hardly anyone notices, is the country still at war?

Moving forward, policymakers and the public alike may treat war with the same degree of entitlement and abstraction as ordering items from Amazon (especially during a pandemic): Click a button, expect a package at the door posthaste, and pay scant thought to what that click-request set in motion or the sacrifice required to do the deed.

Only in war, one thing at least stays constant: lots of someones get killed. The American people may leave their wars to unrepresentative professional “volunteers” led by an unchecked imperial presidency that increasingly outsources them to machines, mercenaries, and local militias. One thing is, however, guaranteed: some poor souls will be at the other end of those bombsights and rifle barrels.

In contemporary battles, it’s already exceptionally rare that a uniformed American is on that receiving end. Almost midway through 2020, only eight U.S. service members have been killed by hostile fire in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Yet many thousands of locals continue to die there. No one wants U.S. troops to die, but there’s something obscene — and morally troubling — about the staggering casualty disparity implicit in the developing twenty-first-century American way of war, the one that, in a Covid-19 world, is increasingly being fought in a socially-distanced way.

Taken to its not-unimaginable extreme, Americans should prepare themselves for a future in which their government kills and destroys on a global scale without a single service member dying in combat. After the pandemic, in other words, talk of “ending” this country’s forever wars may prove little more than an exercise in semantics.

Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a retired U.S. Army major and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now lives in Lawrence, Kansas. He has written a memoir of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his podcast “Fortress on a Hill.”

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen

Via Tomdispatch.com


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

VOA News from April 12: “Coronavirus: US Evacuates 3 Infected Military Personnel From Afghanistan”

A General once Warned against Military-Industrial Complex: Today’s West Point Mafia is It https://www.juancole.com/2020/04/general-military-industrial.html Fri, 10 Apr 2020 04:01:47 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=190210 (Tomdispatch.com ) – Every West Point class votes on an official motto. Most are then inscribed on their class rings. Hence, the pejorative West Point label “ring knocker.” (As legend has it, at military meetings a West Pointer “need only knock his large ring on the table and all Pointers present are obliged to rally to his point of view.”)Last August, the class of 2023 announced theirs: “Freedom Is Not Free.” Mine from the class of 2005 was “Keeping Freedom Alive.” Each class takes pride in its motto and, at least theoretically, aspires to live according to its sentiments, while championing the accomplishments of fellow graduates.

But some cohorts do stand out. Take the class of 1986 (“Courage Never Quits“). As it happens, both Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are members of that very class, as are a surprisingly wide range of influential leaders in Congress, corporate America, the Pentagon, the defense industry, lobbying firms, Big Pharma, high-end financial services, and even security-consulting firms. Still, given their striking hawkishness on the subject of American war-making, Esper and Pompeo rise above the rest. Even in a pandemic, they are as good as their class motto. When it comes to this country’s wars, neither of them ever quits.

Once upon a time, retired Lieutenant General Douglas Lute (Class of ’75), a former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and a senior commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, taught both Esper and Pompeo in his West Point social sciences class. However, it was Pompeo, the class of ’86 valedictorian, whom Lute singled out for praise, remembering him as “a very strong student — fastidious, deliberate.” Of course, as the Afghanistan Papers, released by the Washington Post late last year, so starkly revealed, Lute told an interviewer that, like so many U.S. officials, he “didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking in Afghanistan.” Though at one point he was President George W. Bush’s “Afghan war czar,” the general never expressed such doubts publicly and his record of dissent is hardly an impressive one. Still, on one point at least, Lute was on target: Esper and Pompeo are smart and that’s what worries me (as in the phrase “too smart for their own good”).

Esper, a former Raytheon lobbyist, had particularly hawkish views on Russia and China before he ever took over at the Pentagon and he wasn’t alone when it came to the urge to continue America’s wars. Pompeo, then a congressman, exhibited a striking pre-Trump-era foreign policy pugnacity, particularly vis-à-vis the Islamic world. It has since solidified into a veritable obsession with toppling the Iranian regime.

Their militarized obsessions have recently taken striking form in two ways: the secretary of defense instructed U.S. commanders to prepare plans to escalate combat against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, an order the mission’s senior leader there, Lieutenant General Robert “Pat” White, reportedly resisted; meanwhile, the secretary of state evidently is eager to convince President Trump to use the Covid-19 pandemic, nowdevastatingIran, to bomb that country and further strangle it with sanctions. Worse yet, Pompeo might be just cunning enough to convince his ill-informed, insecure boss (so open to clever flattery) that war is the answer.

The militarism of both men matters greatly, but they hardly pilot the ship of state alone, any more than Trump does (whatever he thinks). Would that it were the case. Sadly, even if voters threw them all out, the disease runs much deeper than them. Enter the rest of the illustrative class of ’86.

As it happens, Pompeo’s and Esper’s classmates permeate the deeper structure of imperial America. And let’s admit it, they are, by the numbers, an impressive crew. As another ’86 alumnus, Congressman Mark Green (R-TN), bragged on the House floor in 2019, “My class [has] produced 18 general officers… 22-plus presidents and CEOs of major corporations… two state legislators… [and] three judges,” as well as “at least four deans and chancellors of universities.” He closed his remarks by exclaiming, “Courage never quits, ’86!”

However, for all his gushing, Green’s list conceals much. It illuminates neither the mechanics nor the motives of his illustrious classmates; that is, what they’re actually doing and why. Many are key players in a corporate-military machine bent on, and reliant on, endless war for profit and professional advancement. A brief look at key ‘86ers offers insight into President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex in 2020 — and it should take your breath away.

The West Point Mafia

The core group of ’86 grads cheekily refer to themselves as “the West Point mafia.” And for some, that’s an uplifting thought. Take Joe DePinto, CEO of 7-Eleven. He says that he’s “someone who sleeps better at night knowing that those guys are in the positions they’re in.” Of course, he’s an ’86 grad, too.

Back when I called the academy home, we branded such self-important cadets “toolbags.” More than a decade later, when I taught there, I found my students still using the term. Face facts, however: those “toolbags,” thick as thieves today, now run the show in Washington (and despite their busy schedules, they still find time to socialize as a group).

Given Donald Trump’s shady past — one doesn’t build an Atlantic City casino-and-hotel empire without “mobbing-it-up” — that mafia moniker is actually fitting. So perhaps it’s worth thinking of Mike Pompeo as the president’s latest consigliere. And since gangsters rarely countenance a challenge without striking back, Lieutenant General White should watch his back after his prudent attempt to stop the further escalation of America’s wars in Iraq and Iran in the midst of a deadly global pandemic. Worse yet for him, he’s not a West Pointer (though he did, oddly enough, earn his Army commission on the very day that class of ’86 graduated). White’s once promising career is unlikely to be long for this world.

In addition to Esper and Pompeo, other Class of ’86 alums serve in key executive branch roles. They include the vice chief of staff of the Army General Joseph Martin, the director of the Army National Guard, the commander of NATO’s Allied Land Command, the deputy commanding general of Army Forces Command, and the deputy commanding general of Army Cyber Command. Civilian-side classmates in the Pentagon serve as: deputy assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy, and environment; a civilian aide to the secretary of the Army; and the director of stabilization and peace operations policy for the secretary of defense. These Pentagon career civil servants aren’t, strictly speaking, part of the “mafia” itself, but two Pompeo loyalists are indeed charter members.

Pompeo brought Ulrich Brechbuhl and Brian Butalao, two of his closest cadet friends, in from the corporate world. The three of them had, at one point, served as CEO, CFO, and COO of Thayer Aerospace, named for the “father” of West Point, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, and started with Koch Industries seed money. Among other things, that corporation sold the Pentagon military aircraft components.

Brechbuhl and Butalao were given senior positions at the CIA when Pompeo was its director. Currently, Brechbuhl is the State Department’s counselor (and reportedly Pompeo’s de facto chief of staff), while Butalao serves as under secretary for management. According to his official bio, Butalao is responsible “for managing the State Department on a day-to-day basis and [serving as its] Chief Operating Officer.” Funny, that was his exact position under Pompeo at that aerospace company.

Still, this mafia trio can’t run the show by themselves. The national security structure’s tentacles are so much longer than that. They reach all the way to K Street and Capitol Hill.

From Congress to K Street: The Enablers

Before Trump tapped Pompeo to head the CIA and then the State Department, he represented Wichita, Kansas, home to Koch Industries, in the House of Representatives. In fact, Pompeo rode his ample funding from the political action committee of the billionaire Koch brothers straight to the Hill. So linked was he to those fraternal right-wing energy tycoons and so protective of their interests that he was dubbed “the congressman from Koch.” The relationship was mutually beneficial. Pompeo’s selection as secretary of state solidified the previously strained relationship of the brothers with President Trump.

The ’86 mafia’s current congressional heavyweight, however, is Mark Green. An early Trump supporter, he regularly tried to shield the president from impeachment as a minority member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The Tennessee congressman nearly became Trump’s secretary of the Army, but ultimately withdrew his nomination because of controversies that included sponsoring gender-discriminatory bills and commenting that “transgender is a disease.”

Legislators like Green, in turn, take their foreign-policy marching orders from the military’s corporate suppliers. Among those, Esper, of course, represents the gold standard when it comes to “revolving-door” defense lobbying. Just before ascending the Pentagon summit, pressed by Senator Elizabeth Warren during his confirmation hearings, he patently refused to “recuse himself from all matters related to” Raytheon, his former employer and the nation’s third-largest defense contractor. (And that was even before its recent merger with United Technologies Corporation, which once employed another Esper classmate as a senior vice president.) Incidentally, one of Raytheon’s “biggest franchises” is the Patriot missile defense system, the very weapon being rushed to Iraq as I write, ostensibly as a check on Pompeo’s favored villain, Iran.

Less well known is the handiwork of another ’86 grad, longtime lobbyist and CNN paid contributor David Urban, who first met the president in 2012 and still recalls how “we clicked immediately.” The consummate Washington insider, he backed Trump “when nobody else thought he stood a chance” and in 2016 was his senior campaign adviser in the pivotal swing state of Pennsylvania.

Esper and Urban have been close for more than 30 years. As cadets, they served in the same unit during the Persian Gulf War. It was Urban who introduced Esper to his wife. Both later graced the Hill’s list of Washington’s top lobbyists. Since 2002, Urban has been a partner and is now president of a consulting giant, the American Continental Group. Among its clients: Raytheon and 7-Eleven.

It’s hard to overstate Urban’s role. He seems to have landed Pompeo and Esper their jobs in the Trump administration and was a key go-between in marrying class of ’86 backbenchers and moneymen to that bridegroom of our moment, The Donald.

Greasing the Machine: The Moneymen

Another ’86er also passed through that famed military-industrial revolving door. Retired Colonel Dan Sauter left his position as chief of staff of the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command for one at giant weapons maker Lockheed Martin as business developer for the very systems his old unit employed. Since May 2019, he’s directed Lockheed’s $1.5 billion Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) program in Saudi Arabia. Lockheed’s THAAD systems have streamed into that country to protect the Kingdom, even as Pompeo continually threatens Iran.

If such corporate figures are doing the selling, it’s the Pentagon, naturally, that’s doing the buying. Luckily, there are ’86 alumni in key positions on the purchasing end as well, including a retired brigadier general who now serves as the Pentagon’s principal adviser to the under secretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics.

Finally, there are other key consultants linked to the military-industrial complex who are also graduates of the class of ’86. They include a senior vice president of Hillwood — a massive domestic and international real estate development company, chaired by Ross Perot, Jr. — formerly a consultant to the government of the United Arab Emirates. The Emiratis are U.S. allies in the fight against Pompeo’s Iranian nemesis and, in 2019, awarded Raytheon a $1.5 billion contract to supply key components for its air force missile launchers.

Another classmate is a managing partner for Patriot Strategies, which consults for corporations and the government but also separately lands hefty defense contracts itself. His previous “ventures” included “work in telecommunications in the Middle East… and technical security upgrades at U.S. embassies worldwide.”

Yet another grad, Rick Minicozzi, is the founder and CEO of Thayer Leader Development Group (TLDG), which prides itself on “building” corporate leaders. TLDG clients include: 7-Eleven, Cardinal Glass, EMCOR, and Mercedes-Benz. All either have or had ’86ers at the helm. The company’s CEO also owns the Thayer Hotel located right on West Point’s grounds, which hosts many of the company’s lectures and other events. Then there’s the retired colonel who, like me, taught on the West Point history faculty. He’s now the CEO of Battlefield Leadership, which helps corporate leaders “learn from the past” in order to “prepare for an ever-changing business landscape.”

A Class-wide Conflict of Interest

Don’t for a moment think these are all “bad” people. That’s not faintly my point. One prominent ’86 grad, for instance, is Lieutenant General Eric Wesley, the deputy of Army Futures Command. He was my brigade commander at Fort Riley, Kansas, in 2009 and I found him competent, exceptionally empathetic, and a decidedly decent man, which is probably true of plenty of ‘86ers.

So what exactly is my point here? I’m not for a second charging conspiracy or even criminal corruption. The lion’s share of what all these figures do is perfectly legal. In reality, the way the class of ’86 has permeated the power structure only reflects the nature of the carefully crafted, distinctly undemocratic systems through which the military-industrial complex and our political world operate by design. Most of what they do couldn’t, in fact, be more legal in a world of never-ending American wars and national security budgets that eternally go through the roof. After all, if any of these figures had acted in anything but a perfectly legal fashion, they might have run into a classmate of theirs who recently led the FBI’s corruption unit in New Jersey — before, that is, he retired and became CEO of a global security consulting firm. (Sound familiar?)

And that’s my point, really. We have a system in Washington that couldn’t be more lawful and yet, by any definition, the class of ’86 represents one giant conflict of interest (and they don’t stand alone). Alums from that year are now ensconced in every level of the national security state: from the White House to the Pentagon to Congress to K Street to corporate boardrooms. And they have both power and a deep stake, financial or otherwise, in maintaining or expanding the (forever) warfare state.

They benefit from America’s permanent military mobilization, its never-ending economic war-footing, and all that comes with it. Ironically, this will inevitably include the blood of future West Point graduates, doomed to serve in their hopeless crusades. Think of it all as a macabre inversion of their class motto in which it’s not their courage but that of younger graduates sent off to this country’s hopeless wars that they will never allow to “quit.”

Speaking of true courage, lately the only exemplar we’ve had of it in those wars is General “Pat” White. It seems that he, at least, refused to kiss the proverbial rings of those mafia men of ’86.

But of course, he’s not part of their “family,” is he?

Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a retired U.S. Army major and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now lives in Lawrence, Kansas. He has written a memoir of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, and his forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, is available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his podcast “Fortress on a Hill.”

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen

Via Tomdispatch.com


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Senator Elizabeth Warren: “Warren Asks Def. Sec. Nominee Esper to Recuse Himself from Matters Involving Fmr. Employer Raytheon”

]]> Retired US Officers are all in on Forever Wars: Where are the Smedley Butlers of Today? https://www.juancole.com/2020/02/retired-officers-forever.html Fri, 21 Feb 2020 05:01:07 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=189237 (Tomdispatch.com) – There once lived an odd little man — five feet nine inches tall and barely 140 pounds sopping wet — who rocked the lecture circuit and the nation itself. For all but a few activist insiders and scholars, U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Darlington Butler is now lost to history. Yet more than a century ago, this strange contradiction of a man would become a national war hero, celebrated in pulp adventure novels, and then, 30 years later, as one of this country’s most prominent antiwar and anti-imperialist dissidents.

Raised in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and educated in Quaker (pacifist) schools, the son of an influential congressman, he would end up serving in nearly all of America’s “Banana Wars” from 1898 to 1931. Wounded in combat and a rare recipient of two Congressional Medals of Honor, he would retire as the youngest, most decorated major general in the Marines.

A teenage officer and a certified hero during an international intervention in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1900, he would later become a constabulary leader of the Haitian gendarme, the police chief of Philadelphia (while on an approved absence from the military), and a proponent of Marine Corps football. In more standard fashion, he would serve in battle as well as in what might today be labeled peacekeeping, counterinsurgency, and advise-and-assist missions in Cuba, China, the Philippines, Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, France, and China (again). While he showed early signs of skepticism about some of those imperial campaigns or, as they were sardonically called by critics at the time, “Dollar Diplomacy” operations — that is, military campaigns waged on behalf of U.S. corporate business interests — until he retired he remained the prototypical loyal Marine.

But after retirement, Smedley Butler changed his tune. He began to blast the imperialist foreign policy and interventionist bullying in which he’d only recently played such a prominent part. Eventually, in 1935 during the Great Depression, in what became a classic passage in his memoir, which he titled “War Is a Racket,” he wrote: “I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service… And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the Bankers.”

Seemingly overnight, the famous war hero transformed himself into an equally acclaimed antiwar speaker and activist in a politically turbulent era. Those were, admittedly, uncommonly anti-interventionist years, in which veterans and politicians alike promoted what (for America, at least) had been fringe ideas. This was, after all, the height of what later pro-war interventionists would pejoratively label American “isolationism.”

Nonetheless, Butler was unique (for that moment and certainly for our own) in his unapologetic amenability to left-wing domestic politics and materialist critiques of American militarism. In the last years of his life, he would face increasing criticism from his former admirer, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the military establishment, and the interventionist press. This was particularly true after Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany invaded Poland and later France. Given the severity of the Nazi threat to mankind, hindsight undoubtedly proved Butler’s virulent opposition to U.S. intervention in World War II wrong.

Nevertheless, the long-term erasure of his decade of antiwar and anti-imperialist activism and the assumption that all his assertions were irrelevant has proven historically deeply misguided. In the wake of America’s brief but bloody entry into the First World War, the skepticism of Butler (and a significant part of an entire generation of veterans) about intervention in a new European bloodbath should have been understandable. Above all, however, his critique of American militarism of an earlier imperial era in the Pacific and in Latin America remains prescient and all too timely today, especially coming as it did from one of the most decorated and high-ranking general officers of his time. (In the era of the never-ending war on terror, such a phenomenon is quite literally inconceivable.)

Smedley Butler’s Marine Corps and the military of his day was, in certain ways, a different sort of organization than today’s highly professionalized armed forces. History rarely repeats itself, not in a literal sense anyway. Still, there are some disturbing similarities between the careers of Butler and today’s generation of forever-war fighters. All of them served repeated tours of duty in (mostly) unsanctioned wars around the world. Butler’s conflicts may have stretched west from Haiti across the oceans to China, whereas today’s generals mostly lead missions from West Africa east to Central Asia, but both sets of conflicts seemed perpetual in their day and were motivated by barely concealed economic and imperial interests.

Nonetheless, whereas this country’s imperial campaigns of the first third of the twentieth century generated a Smedley Butler, the hyper-interventionism of the first decades of this century hasn’t produced a single even faintly comparable figure. Not one. Zero. Zilch. Why that is matters and illustrates much about the U.S. military establishment and contemporary national culture, none of it particularly encouraging.

Why No Antiwar Generals

When Smedley Butler retired in 1931, he was one of three Marine Corps major generals holding a rank just below that of only the Marine commandant and the Army chief of staff. Today, with about 900 generals and admirals currently serving on active duty, including 24 major generals in the Marine Corps alone, and with scores of flag officers retiring annually, not a single one has offered genuine public opposition to almost 19 years worth of ill-advised, remarkably unsuccessful American wars. As for the most senior officers, the 40 four-star generals and admirals whose vocal antimilitarism might make the biggest splash, there are more of them today than there were even at the height of the Vietnam War, although the active military is now about half the size it was then. Adulated as many of them may be, however, not one qualifies as a public critic of today’s failing wars.

Instead, the principal patriotic dissent against those terror wars has come from retired colonels, lieutenant colonels, and occasionally more junior officers (like me), as well as enlisted service members. Not that there are many of us to speak of either. I consider it disturbing (and so should you) that I personally know just about every one of the retired military figures who has spoken out against America’s forever wars.

The big three are Secretary of State Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson; Vietnam veteran and onetime West Point history instructor, retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich; and Iraq veteran and Afghan War whistleblower, retired Lieutenant Colonel Danny Davis. All three have proven to be genuine public servants, poignant voices, and — on some level — cherished personal mentors. For better or worse, however, none carry the potential clout of a retired senior theater commander or prominent four-star general offering the same critiques.

Something must account for veteran dissenters topping out at the level of colonel. Obviously, there are personal reasons why individual officers chose early retirement or didn’t make general or admiral. Still, the system for selecting flag officers should raise at least a few questions when it comes to the lack of antiwar voices among retired commanders. In fact, a selection committee of top generals and admirals is appointed each year to choose the next colonels to earn their first star. And perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that, according to numerous reports, “the members of this board are inclined, if not explicitly motivated, to seek candidates in their own image — officers whose careers look like theirs.” At a minimal level, such a system is hardly built to foster free thinkers, no less breed potential dissidents.

Consider it an irony of sorts that this system first received criticism in our era of forever wars when General David Petraeus, then commanding the highly publicized “surge” in Iraq, had to leave that theater of war in 2007 to serve as the chair of that selection committee. The reason: he wanted to ensure that a twice passed-over colonel, a protégé of his — future Trump National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster — earned his star.

Mainstream national security analysts reported on this affair at the time as if it were a major scandal, since most of them were convinced that Petraeus and his vaunted counterinsurgency or “COINdinista” protégés and their “new” war-fighting doctrine had the magic touch that would turn around the failing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, Petraeus tried to apply those very tactics twice — once in each country — as did acolytes of his later, and you know the results of that.

But here’s the point: it took an eleventh-hour intervention by America’s most acclaimed general of that moment to get new stars handed out to prominent colonels who had, until then, been stonewalled by Cold War-bred flag officers because they were promoting different (but also strangely familiar) tactics in this country’s wars. Imagine, then, how likely it would be for such a leadership system to produce genuine dissenters with stars of any serious sort, no less a crew of future Smedley Butlers.

At the roots of this system lay the obsession of the American officer corps with “professionalization” after the Vietnam War debacle. This first manifested itself in a decision to ditch the citizen-soldier tradition, end the draft, and create an “all-volunteer force.” The elimination of conscription, as predicted by critics at the time, created an ever-growing civil-military divide, even as it increased public apathy regarding America’s wars by erasing whatever “skin in the game” most citizens had.

More than just helping to squelch civilian antiwar activism, though, the professionalization of the military, and of the officer corps in particular, ensured that any future Smedley Butlers would be left in the dust (or in retirement at the level of lieutenant colonel or colonel) by a system geared to producing faux warrior-monks. Typical of such figures is current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Mark Milley. He may speak gruffly and look like a man with a head of his own, but typically he’s turned out to be just another yes-man for another war-power-hungry president.

One group of generals, however, reportedly now does have it out for President Trump — but not because they’re opposed to endless war. Rather, they reportedly think that The Donald doesn’t “listen enough to military advice” on, you know, how to wage war forever and a day.

What Would Smedley Butler Think Today?

In his years of retirement, Smedley Butler regularly focused on the economic component of America’s imperial war policies. He saw clearly that the conflicts he had fought in, the elections he had helped rig, the coups he had supported, and the constabularies he had formed and empowered in faraway lands had all served the interests of U.S. corporate investors. Though less overtly the case today, this still remains a reality in America’s post-9/11 conflicts, even on occasion embarrassingly so (as when the Iraqi ministry of oil was essentially the only public building protected by American troops as looters tore apart the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in the post-invasion chaos of April 2003). Mostly, however, such influence plays out far more subtly than that, both abroad and here at home where those wars help maintain the record profits of the top weapons makers of the military-industrial complex.

That beast, first identified by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, is now on steroids as American commanders in retirement regularly move directly from the military onto the boards of the giant defense contractors, a reality which only contributes to the dearth of Butlers in the military retiree community. For all the corruption of his time, the Pentagon didn’t yet exist and the path from the military to, say, United Fruit Company, Standard Oil, or other typical corporate giants of that moment had yet to be normalized for retiring generals and admirals. Imagine what Butler would have had to say about the modern phenomenon of the “revolving door” in Washington.

Of course, he served in a very different moment, one in which military funding and troop levels were still contested in Congress. As a longtime critic of capitalist excesses who wrote for leftist publications and supported the Socialist Party candidate in the 1936 presidential elections, Butler would have found today’s nearly trillion-dollar annual defense budgets beyond belief. What the grizzled former Marine long ago identified as a treacherous nexus between warfare and capital “in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives” seems to have reached its natural end point in the twenty-first century. Case in point: the record (and still rising) “defense” spending of the present moment, including — to please a president — the creation of a whole new military service aimed at the full-scale militarization of space.

Sadly enough, in the age of Trump, as numerous polls demonstrate, the U.S. military is the only public institution Americans still truly trust. Under the circumstances, how useful it would be to have a high-ranking, highly decorated, charismatic retired general in the Butler mold galvanize an apathetic public around those forever wars of ours. Unfortunately, the likelihood of that is practically nil, given the military system of our moment.

Of course, Butler didn’t exactly end his life triumphantly. In late May 1940, having lost 25 pounds due to illness and exhaustion — and demonized as a leftist, isolationist crank but still maintaining a whirlwind speaking schedule — he checked himself into the Philadelphia Navy Yard Hospital for a “rest.” He died there, probably of some sort of cancer, four weeks later. Working himself to death in his 10-year retirement and second career as a born-again antiwar activist, however, might just have constituted the very best service that the two-time Medal of Honor winner could have given the nation he loved to the very end.

Someone of his credibility, character, and candor is needed more than ever today. Unfortunately, this military generation is unlikely to produce such a figure. In retirement, Butler himself boldly confessed that, “like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical…”

Today, generals don’t seem to have a thought of their own even in retirement. And more’s the pity…

Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a retired U.S. Army major and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and now lives in Lawrence, Kansas. He has written a memoir of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and his forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, is available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his podcast “Fortress on a Hill.”

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen

Via Tomdispatch.com


Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

AP: “US soldiers killed, wounded in Afghanistan attack”

American Apocalypse: The Rapture of a U.S. Foreign Policy Off the Rails https://www.juancole.com/2020/01/american-apocalypse-rapture.html Fri, 24 Jan 2020 05:01:46 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=188705 By Danny Sjursen | –

(Tomdispatch.com) – In March 1906, on the heels of the U.S. Army’s massacre of some 1,000 men, women, and children in the crater of a volcano in the American-occupied Philippines, humorist Mark Twain took his criticism public. A long-time anti-imperialist, he flippantly suggested that Old Glory should be redesigned “with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.”

I got to thinking about that recently, five years after I became an antiwar dissenter (while still a major in the U.S. Army), and in the wake of another near-war, this time with Iran. I was struck yet again by the way every single U.S. military intervention in the Greater Middle East since 9/11 has backfired in wildly counterproductive ways, destabilizing a vast expanse of the planet stretching from West Africa to South Asia.

Chaos, it seems, is now Washington’s stock-in-trade. Perhaps, then, it’s time to resurrect Twain’s comment — only today maybe those stars on our flag should be replaced with the universal symbol for chaos.

After all, our present administration, however unhinged, hardly launched this madness. President Trump’s rash, risky, and repugnant decision to assassinate Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani on the sovereign soil of Iraq was only the latest version of what has proven to be a pervasive state of affairs. Still, that and Trump’s other recent escalations in the region do illustrate an American chaos machine that’s gone off the rails. And the very manner — I’m loathe to call it a “process” — by which it’s happened just demonstrates the way this president has taken American chaos to its dark but logical conclusion.

The Goldilocks Method

Any military officer worth his salt knows full well the importance of understanding the basic psychology of your commander. President George W. Bush liked to call himself “the decider,” an apt term for any commander. Senior leaders don’t, as a rule, actually do that much work in the traditional sense. Rather, they hobnob with superiors, buck up unit morale, evaluate and mentor subordinates, and above all make key decisions. It’s the operations staff officers who analyze problems, present options, and do the detailed planning once the boss blesses or signs off on a particular course of action.

Though they may toil thanklessly in the shadows, however, those staffers possess immense power to potentially circumscribe the range of available options and so influence the future mission. In other words, to be a deft operations officer, you need to know your commander’s mind, be able translate his sparse guidance, and frame his eventual choice in such a manner that the boss leaves a “decision briefing” convinced the plan was his own. Believe me, this is the actual language military lifers use to describe the tortured process of decision-making.

In 2009, as a young captain, fresh out of Baghdad, Iraq, I spent two unfulfilling, if instructive, years enmeshed in exactly this sort of planning system. As a battalion-level planner, then assistant, and finally a primary operations officer, I observed this cycle countless times. So allow me to take you “under the hood” for some inside baseball. I — and just about every new staff officer — was taught to always provide the boss with three plans, but to suss out ahead of time which one he’d choose (and, above all, which one you wanted him to choose).

Confident in your ability to frame his choices persuasively, you’d often even direct your staffers to begin writing up the full operations order beforethe boss’s briefing took place. The key to success was what some labeled the Goldilocks method. You’d always present your commander with a too-cautious option, a too-risky option, and a “just-right” course of action. It nearly always worked.

I did this under the command of two very different lieutenant colonels. The first was rational, ethical, empathetic, and tactically competent. He made mission planning easy on his staff. He knew the game as well as we did and only pretended to be fooled. He built relationships with his senior operations officers over the course of months, thereby revealing his preferred methods, tactical predilections, and even personal learning style. Then he’d give just enough initial guidance — far more than most commanders — to set his staff going in a reasonably focused fashion.

Unfortunately, that consummate professional moved on to bigger things and his replacement was a sociopath who gave vague, often conflicting guidance, oozed insecurity in briefings, and had a disturbing penchant for choosing the most radical (read: foolhardy) option around. Sound familiar? It should!

Still, military professionals are coached to adapt and improvise and so we did. As a staff we worked to limit his range of options by reverseordering the choices we presented him or even lying about nonexistent logistical limitations to stop him from doing the truly horrific.

And as recent events remind us, such exercises play out remarkably similarly, no matter whether you’re dealing at a battalion level (perhaps 400 to 700 troops) or that of this country’s commander-in-chief (more than two million uniformed service personnel). The behind-the-scenes war-gaming of the boss, the entire calculus, remains the same, whether the options are ultimately presented by a captain (me, then) or — as in the recent decision to assassinate Iranian Major General Suleimani — Mark Milley, the four-star general at the helm of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Soon after President Trump’s egregious, a-strategic, dubiously legal, unilateral execution of a uniformed leader of a sovereign country, reports surfaced describing his convoluted decision-making process. Perhaps predictably, it appears that The Donald took his military staff by surprise and chose the most extreme measure they presented him with — assassinating a foreign military figure. Honestly, that this president did so should have surprised no one. That, according toa report in the New York Times, his generals were indeed surprised strikes me as basic dereliction of duty (especially given that, seven months earlier, Trump had essentially given the green light to such a future assassination — the deepest desire, by the way, of both his secretary of state and his then-national security advisor, John Bolton).

At this point in their careers, having played out such processes at every possible level for at least 30 years, his generals ought to have known their boss better, toiled valiantly to temper his worst instincts, assumed he might choose the most extreme measure offered and, when he did so, publicly resigned before potentially relegating their soldiers to a hopeless new conflict. That they didn’t, particularly that the lead briefer Milley didn’t, is just further proof that, 18-plus years after our latest round of wars began, such senior leaders lack both competence and integrity.

Bush, Obama, and the Chaos Machine’s Tragic Foundations

The current commander-in-chief could never have expanded America’s wars in the Greater Middle East (contra his campaign promises) or unilaterally drone-assassinated a foreign leader, without the militaristic foundations laid down for him by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. So it’s vital to review, however briefly, the chaotic precedents to the rule of Donald Trump.

Guided by a coterie of neoconservative zealots, Bush the Younger committed the nation to the “original sin” of expansive, largely unsanctioned wars as his chosen response to the 9/11 attacks. It was his team that would write the playbook on selling an ill-advised, illegal invasion of Iraq based on bad intelligence and false pretenses. He also escalated tensions with Iran to the brink of war by including the Islamic Republic in an imaginary “axis of evil” (with Iraq and North Korea) after invading first one of its neighbors, Afghanistan, and then the other, Iraq, while imposing sanctions, which froze the assets of Iranians allegedly connected to that country’s nuclear program. He ushered in the use of torture, indefinite detention, extraordinary rendition, illegal domestic mass surveillance, and drone attacks over the sovereign airspace of other countries — then lied about it all. That neither Congress, nor the courts, nor his successor held him (or anyone else) accountable for such decisions set a dangerous new standard for foreign policy.

Barack Obama promised “hope and change,” a refreshing (if vague) alternative to the sins of the Bush years. The very abstraction of that slogan, however, allowed his supporters to project their own wants, needs, and preferred policies onto the future Obama experiment. So perhaps none of us ought to have been as surprised as many of us were when, despite slowly pulling troops out of Iraq, he only escalated the Afghan War, continued the forever wars in general (even returning to Iraq in 2014), and set his own perilous precedents along the way.

It was, after all, Obama who, as an alternative to large-scale military occupations, took Bush’s drone program and ran with it. He would be the first president to truly earn the sobriquet “assassin-in-chief.” He made selecting individuals for assassination in “Terror Tuesday” meetings at the White House banal and put his stamp of approval on the drone campaigns across significant parts of the planet that followed — even killing American citizens without due process. Encouraged by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he also launched a new regime-change war in Libya, turning that land into a failed state filled with terror groups, a decision which, he later admitted, added up to a “shit show.” After vacillating for a couple years, he also mired the U.S., however indirectly, in the Syrian civil war, empowering Islamist factions there and worsening that already staggering humanitarian catastrophe.

In response to the sudden explosion of the Islamic State — an al-Qaeda offshoot first catalyzed by the Bush invasion of Iraq and actually formed in an American prison in that country — its taking of key Iraqi cities and smashing of the American-trained Iraqi army, Obama loosed U.S. air power on them and sent American troops back into that country. He also greatly expanded his predecessor’s nascent military interventions across the African continent. There, too, the results were largely tragic and counterproductive as ethnic militias and Islamic terror groups have spread widely and civil warfare has exploded.

Finally, it was Obama who first sanctioned, supported, and enabled the Saudi terror bombing of Yemen, which, even now, remains perhaps the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. So it is that, from Mali to Libya, Syria to Afghanistan, every one of Bush’s and Obama’s military forays has sowed further chaos, startling body counts, and increased rates of terrorism. It’s those policies, those results, and the military toolbox that went with them that Donald J. Trump inherited in January 2017.

The Trumpian Perfect Storm

During the climax to the American phase of a 30-year war in Vietnam, newly elected President Richard Nixon, a well-established Republican cold warrior, developed what he dubbed the “madman theory” for bringing the intractable U.S. intervention there to a face-saving conclusion. The president’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, recalled Nixon telling him:

“I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ and [North Vietnamese leader] Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

It didn’t work, of course. Nixon escalated and expanded the war. He briefly invaded neighboring Cambodia and Laos, secretly (and illegally) bombed both countries, and ramped up air strikes on North Vietnam. Apart from slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocents, however, none of this had a notable effect on the ultimate outcome. The North Vietnamese called his bluff, extending the war long enough to force an outright American withdrawal less than four years later. Washington lost in Southeast Asia, just as today it’s losing in the Greater Middle East.

So it was, with the necessary foundations of militarism and hyper-interventionism in place, that Donald Trump entered the White House, at times seemingly intent on testing out his own personal “fire and fury” version of the madman theory. Indeed, his more irrational and provocative foreign policy incitements, including pulling out of the Paris climate accords, spiking a working nuclear deal with Iran, existentially threatening North Korea, seizing Syrian oil fields, sending yet more military personnel into the Persian Gulf region, and most recently assassinating a foreign leader seem right out of some madman instruction manual. And just like Nixon’s stillborn escalations, Trump’s most absurd moves also seem bound to fail.

Take the Suleimani execution as a case in point. An outright regional war has (so far) been avoided, thanks not to the “deal-making” skills of that self-styled “stable genius” in the White House but to Iran’s long history of restraint. As retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, a former top aide to Secretary of State Colin Powell, recently put it: “The leadership in Tehran is far more rational than the leadership in Washington.”

In fact, Trump’s unprecedented assassination order backfired at every level. He even managed briefly to unite a divided Iranian nation, caused the Iraqi government to demand a full U.S. troop withdrawal from that country, convinced Iran to end its commitment to restrain its enrichment of uranium, and undoubtedly incentivized both Tehran and Pyongyang not to commit to, or abide by, any future nuclear deals with Washington.

If George W. Bush and Barack Obama sowed the seeds of the American chaos machine, Donald Trump represents the first true madman at the wheel of state, thanks to his volatile temperament, profound ignorance, and crippling insecurity.

The Rapture as Foreign Policy

All of which raises another disturbing question: What if this administration’s chaos-sowing proves an end in itself, one that coheres with the millenarian fantasies of sections of the Republican Christian Right? After all, several key figures on the Trump team — notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence — explicitly view the Middle East as evangelical Christians. Like a disturbing 73% of evangelicals (or 20% of the U.S. population), Pompeo and Pence believe that the Rapture (that is, the prophesied Christian end of the world) is likely to unfold in this generation and that a contemporary conflict in Israel and an impending war with Iran might actually be trigger events ushering in just such an apocalypse.

Donald Trump is, by all indications, far too self-serving, self-absorbed, and cynical to adhere to the eschatological blind-faith of the two Mikes. He clearly believes only in Donald Trump. And yet what a terrible irony it would be if, due to his perfect-storm disposition, he unwittingly ends up playing the role of the very Antichrist those evangelicals believe necessary to usher in end-times.

Given the foundations set in place for Trump by George W. Bush and Barack Obama and his capacity to throw caution to the wind, it’s hard to imagine a better candidate to play that role.

Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a retired U.S. Army major and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now lives in Lawrence, Kansas. He has written a memoir of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his podcast “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vets Chris Henriksen and Keegan Ryan Miller.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen

Via Tomdispatch.com


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NBC News: “Donald Trump’s Actions In Iran Prove Presidential War Powers Are Out Of Control | Think | NBC News”

When an Imperial U.S. first Tried to Crush a Muslim Movement: Massacres in the Philippines https://www.juancole.com/2019/12/imperial-movement-philippines.html Wed, 18 Dec 2019 05:02:11 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=187946 (Tomdispatch.com) – For a decade and a half, the U.S. Army waged war on fierce tribal Muslims in a remote land. Sound familiar?

As it happens, that war unfolded half a world away from the Greater Middle East and more than a century ago in the southernmost islands of the Philippines. Back then, American soldiers fought not the Taliban, but the Moros, intensely independent Islamic tribesmen with a similarly storied record of resisting foreign invaders. Precious few today have ever heard of America’s Moro War, fought from 1899 to 1913, but it was, until Afghanistan, one of America’s longest sustained military campaigns.

Popular thinking assumes that the U.S. wasn’t meaningfully entangled in the Islamic world until Washington became embroiled in the Islamist Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, both in the pivotal year of 1979. It simply isn’t so. How soon we forget that the Army, which had fought prolonged guerrilla wars against tribal Native Americans throughout the nineteenth century, went on — often led by veterans of those Indian Wars — to wage a counterinsurgency war on tribal Islamic Moros in the Philippine Islands at the start of the new century, a conflict that was an outgrowth of the Spanish-American War.

That campaign is all but lost to history and the collective American memory. A basic Amazon search for “Moro War,” for instance, yields just seven books (half of them published by U.S. military war colleges), while a similar search for “Vietnam War” lists no less than 10,000 titles. Which is curious. The war in the Southern Philippines wasn’t just six years longer than conventional American military operations in Vietnam, but also resulted in the awarding of 88 Congressional Medals of Honor and produced five future Army chiefs of staff. While the insurgency in the northern islands of the Philippines had fizzled out by 1902, the Moro rebels fought on for another decade. As Lieutenant Benny Foulois — later a general and the “father” of Army aviation — reflected, “The Filipino insurrection was mild compared to the difficulties we had with the Moros.”

Here are the relevant points when it comes to the Moro War (which will sound grimly familiar in a twenty-first-century forever-war context): the United States military shouldn’t have been there in the first place; the war was ultimately an operational and strategic failure, made more so by American hubris; and it should be seen, in retrospect, as (using a term General David Petraeus applied to our present Afghan War) the nation’s first “generational struggle.”

More than a century after the U.S. Army disengaged from Moroland, Islamist and other regional insurgencies continue to plague the southern Philippines. Indeed, the post-9/11 infusion of U.S. Army Special Forces into America’s former colony should probably be seen as only the latest phase in a 120-year struggle with the Moros. Which doesn’t portend well for the prospects of today’s “generational struggles” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and parts of Africa.

Welcome to Moroland

Soldiers and officers streaming into what they dubbed “Moroland” at the turn of the century might as well have been entering Afghanistan in 2001-2002. As a start, the similarity between the Moro islands and the Afghan hinterlands is profound. Both were enormous. The Moro island of Mindanao alone is larger than Ireland. The more than 369 southern Philippine islands also boasted nearly impassable, undeveloped terrain — 36,000 square miles of jungle and mountains with just 50 miles of paved roads when the Americans arrived. So impenetrable was the landscape that soldiers called remote areas the “boondocks” — a corruption of the Tagalog word bundok — and it entered the American vernacular.

The Moros (named for the Muslim Moors ejected from Spain in 1492) were organized by family, clan, and tribe. Islam, which had arrived via Arab traders 1,000 years earlier, provided the only unifying force for the baker’s dozen of cultural-linguistic groups on those islands. Intertribal warfare was endemic but more than matched by an historic aversion to outside invaders. In their three centuries of rule in the Philippines, the Spanish never managed more than a marginal presence in Moroland.

There were other similarities. Both Afghans and Moros adhered to a weapons culture. Every adult male Moro wore a blade and, when possible, sported a firearm. Both modern Afghans and nineteenth-century Moros often “used” American occupiers as a convenient cudgel to settle tribal feuds. The Moros even had a precursor to the modern suicide bomber, a “juramentado” who ritualistically shaved his body hair and donned white robes before fanatically charging to his death in blade-wielding fury against American troops. So fearful of them and respectful of their incredible ability to weather gunshot wounds were U.S. soldiers that the Army eventually replaced the standard-issue .38 caliber revolver with the more powerful Colt .45 pistol.

When, after defeating the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay and forcing the quick surrender of the garrison there, the U.S. annexed the Philippines via the 1898 Treaty of Paris, the Moros weren’t consulted. Spanish rule had always been tenuous in their territories and few Moros had even heard of Paris. They certainly hadn’t acceded to American rule.

Early on, U.S. Army officers deployed to Moroland contributed to the locals’ sense of independence. General John Bates, eager to focus on a daunting Filipino uprising on the main islands, signed an agreement with Moro tribal leaders pledging that the U.S. would not meddle with their “rights and dignities” or “religious customs” (including slavery). Whatever his intentions, that agreement proved little more than a temporary expedient until the war in the north was won. That Washington saw the relationship with those tribal leaders as analogous to its past ones with “savage” Native American tribes was lost on the Moros.

Though the Bates agreement held only as long as was convenient for American military and political leaders, it was undoubtedly the best hope for peace in the islands. The limited initial U.S. objectives in Moroland — like the similarly constrained goals of the initial CIA/Special Forces invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 — were so much wiser than the eventual expansive, futile goals of control, democratization, and Americanization in both conflicts. U.S. Army officers and civilian administrators couldn’t countenance for long Moro (and later Afghan) practices. Most advocated the full abrogation of the Bates agreement. The result was war.

Leadership by Personality: Different Officers, Views, and Strategies

The pacification of Moroland — like that in the “war on terror” — was run mostly by young officers in remote locales. Some excelled, others failed spectacularly. Yet even the best of them couldn’t alter the strategic framework of imposing “democracy” and the “American way” on a distant foreign populace. Many did their best, but due to the Army’s officer rotation system, what resulted was a series of disconnected, inconsistent, alternating strategies to impose American rule in Moroland.

When the Moros responded with acts of banditry and random attacks on American sentries, punitive military expeditions were launched. In the first such instance, General Adna Chaffee (later Army chief of staff) gave local Moro tribal leaders a two-week ultimatum to turn over the murderers and horse thieves. Understandably unwilling to accept American sovereignty over a region their Spanish predecessors had never conquered, they refused — as they would time and again in the future.

Colonel Frank Baldwin, who led the early campaign, applied brutal, bloody tactics (that would prove familiar indeed in twenty-first-century Afghanistan) to tame the Moros. Some younger Army officers disagreed with his approach, however. One, Captain John Pershing, complained that Baldwin “wanted to shoot the Moros first and give them the olive branch afterwards.”

Over the next 13 years of rotating commanders, there would be an internal bureaucratic battle between two prevailing schools of thought as to how best to pacify the restive islands — the very same struggle that would plague the post-9/11 “war on terror” military. One school believed that only harsh military responses would ever cow the warlike Moros. As General George Davis wrote in 1902, “We must not forget that power is the only government that [the Moros] respect,” a sentiment that would pervade the book that became the U.S. Army’s bible when it came to the twenty-first-century “Arab mind.”

Others, best personified by Pershing, disagreed. Patiently dealing with Moro leaders man-to-man, maintaining a relatively light military footprint, and accepting even the most “barbaric” local customs would, these mavericks thought, achieve basic U.S. goals with far less bloodshed on both sides. Pershing’s service in the Philippines briefly garnered attention during the 2016 presidential campaign when candidate Donald Trump repeated a demonstrably false story about how then-Captain John Pershing (future commanding general of all U.S. forces in World War I) — “a rough, rough guy” — had once captured 50 Muslim “terrorists,” dipped 50 bullets in pig’s blood, shot 49 of them, and set the sole survivor loose to spread the tale to his rebel comrades. The outcome, or moral of the story, according to Trump, was that “for 25 years, there wasn’t a problem, OK?”

Well, no, actually, the Philippine insurgency dragged on for another decade and a Muslim-separatist rebellion continues in those islands to this day.

In reality, “Black Jack” Pershing was one of the less brutal commanders in Moroland. Though no angel, he learned the local dialect and traveled unarmed to distant villages to spend hours chewing betel nut (which had a stimulating effect similar to modern Somali khat) and listening to local problems. No doubt Pershing could be tough, even vicious at times. Still, his instinct was always to negotiate first and only fight as a last resort.

When General Leonard Wood took over in Moroland, the strategy shifted. A veteran of the Geronimo campaign in the Apache Wars and another future Army chief of staff — a U.S. Army base in Missouri is named after him — he applied the scorched earth tactics of his Indian campaigns against the Moros, arguing that they should be “thrashed” just as America’s Indians had been. He would win every single battle, massacring tens of thousands of locals, without ever quelling Moro resistance.

In the process, he threw out the Bates agreement, proceeded to outlaw slavery, imposed Western forms of criminal justice, and — to pay for the obligatory American-style roads, schools, and infrastructure improvements — imposed new taxes on the Moros whose tribal leaders saw all of this as a direct attack on their social, political, and religious customs. (It never occurred to Wood that his taxation-without-representation model was also inherently undemocratic or that a similar policy had helped catalyze the American Revolution.)

The legal veneer for his acts would be a provincial council, similar to the American Coalition Provisional Authority that would rule Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion. That unelected body included Wood himself (whose vote counted twice), two other Army officers, and two American civilians. In his arrogance, Wood wrote to the American governor of the Philippines, future President William Howard Taft: “All that is necessary to bring the Moro into line and to start him ahead is a strong policy and vigorous enforcement of the law.” How wrong he would be.

Career advancement was Leonard Wood’s raison d’être, while knowledge about or empathy for the Moro people never ranked high on his list of priorities. One of his subordinate commanders, Major Robert Bullard — future commander of the 1st Infantry Division in World War I — noted that Wood exhibited “a sheer lack of knowledge of the people, of the country… He seemed to want to do everything himself without availing himself of any information from others.”

His tactical model was to bombard fortified Moro villages — “cottas” — with artillery, killing countless women and children, and then storm the walls with infantrymen. Almost no prisoners were ever taken and casualties were inevitably lopsided. Typically, in a campaign on the island of Jolo, 1,500 Moros (2% of the island’s population) were killed along with 17 Americans. When the press occasionally caught wind of his massacres, Wood never hesitated to lie, omit, or falsify reports in order to vindicate his actions.

When his guard came down, however, he could be open about his brutality. In a macabre prelude to the infamous U.S. military statement in the Vietnam era (and its Afghan War reprise) that “it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it,” Wood asserted: “While these measures may appear harsh, it is the kindest thing to do.” Still, no matter how aggressive the general was, his operations never pacified the proud, intransigent Moros. When he finally turned over command to General Tasker Bliss, the slow-boiling rebellion was still raging.

His successor, another future Army chief (and current Army base namesake), was a far more cerebral and modest man, who later would help found the Army War College. Bliss preferred Pershing’s style. “The authorities,” he wrote, “forget that the most critical time is after the slaughter has stopped.” With that in mind, he halted large-scale punitive expeditions and prudently accepted that some level of violence and banditry in Moroland would be the reality of the day. Even so, Bliss’s “enlightened” tenure was neither a morality play nor a true strategic success. After all, like most current American generals addicted to (or resigned to) “generational war,” he concluded that a U.S. military presence would be necessary indefinitely.

After his (relatively) peaceful tour, Bliss predicted that “the power of government would, stripped of all misleading verbiage, amount to the naked fact that the United States would have to hold the larger part of the people by the throat while the smaller part governs it.” That vision of forever war haunts America still.

The Bud Dajo Massacre and the Limits of “Enlightened” Officership

Behind the veil of road-building, education, and infrastructure improvements, American military rule in Moroland ultimately rested on force and brutality. Occasionally, this inconvenient truth manifested itself all too obviously, as in the 1906 Bud Dajo massacre. Late in 1905, Major Hugh Scott, then the commander on Jolo and another future Army chief, received reports that up to 1,000 Moro families — in a tax protest of sorts — had decided to move into the crater of a massive dormant volcano, Bud Dajo, on the island of Jolo. He saw no reason to storm it, preferring to negotiate. As he wrote, “It was plain that many good Americans would have to die before it could be taken and, after all, what would they be dying for? In order to collect a tax of less than a thousand dollars from savages!” He figured that life on the mountaintop was harsh and most of the Moros would peacefully come down when their harvests ripened. By early 1906, just eight families remained.

Then Scott went home on leave and his pugnacious, ambitious second-in-command, Captain James Reeves, strongly backed by outgoing provincial commander Leonard Wood, decided to take the fight to the Jolo Moros. Though Scott’s plan had worked, many American officers disagreed with him, seeing the slightest Moro “provocation” as a threat to American rule.

Reeves sent out alarmist reports about a bloodless attack on and burglary at a U.S. rifle range. Wood, who had decided to extend his tour of duty in Moroland to oversee the battle to come, concluded that the Bud Dajo Moros would “probably have to be exterminated.” He then sent deceptive reports, ignored a recent directive from Secretary of War Taft forbidding large-scale military operations without his express approval, and issued secret orders for an impending attack.

As word reached the Moros through their excellent intelligence network, significant numbers of them promptly returned to the volcano’s rim. By March 5, 1906, Wood’s large force of regulars had the mountain surrounded and he promptly ordered a three-pronged frontal assault. The Moros, many armed with only blades or rocks, put up a tough fight, but in the end a massacre ensued. Wood eventually lined the rim of Bud Dajo with machine guns, artillery, and hundreds of riflemen, and proceeded to rain indiscriminate fire on the Moros, perhaps 1,000 of whom were killed. When the smoke cleared, all but six defenders were dead, a 99% casualty rate.

Wood, unfazed by the sight of Moro bodies, stacked five deep in some places, was pleased with his “victory.” His official report noted only that “all the defenders were killed.” Some of his troopers proudly posed for a photograph standing above the dead, including hundreds of women and children, as though they were big game trophies from a safari hunt. The infamous photo would fly around the world in an early twentieth-century version of “going viral,” as the anti-imperialist press went crazy and Wood faced a scandal. Even some of his fellow officers were horrified. Pershing wrote his wife: “I would not want to have that on my conscience for the fame of Napoleon.”

The massacre would eventually even embarrass a president. Before the scandal broke in the press, Theodore Roosevelt had sent Wood a congratulatory letter, praising “the brilliant feat of arms wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the American flag.” He’d soon regret it.

Mark Twain, a leading literary spokesman for the anti-imperialists, even suggested that Old Glory be replaced by a pirate skull-and-crossbones flag. Privately, he wrote, “We abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother.” The photograph also galvanized African-American civil rights activists. W.E.B. Du Bois declared the crater image to be “the most illuminating I’ve ever seen” and considered displaying it on his classroom wall “to impress upon the students what wars and especially wars of conquest really mean.”

The true tragedy of the Bud Dajo massacre — a microcosm of the Moro War — was that the “battle” was so unnecessary, as were the mindless assaults on empty, booby-trapped Afghan villages that my own troop undertook in Afghanistan in 2011-2012, or the random insertion of other American units into indefensible outposts in mountain valleys in that country’s far northeast, which resulted, infamously, in disaster when the Taliban nearly overran Combat Outpost Keating in 2009.

On Jolo Island, a century earlier, Hugh Scott had crafted a bloodless formula that might, one day, have ended the war (and American occupation) there. However, the careerism of a subordinate and the simplistic philosophy of his superior, General Wood, demonstrated the inherent limitations of “enlightened” officership to alter the course of such aimless, ill-advised wars.

The scandal dominated American newspapers for about a month until a sensational new story broke: a terrible earthquake and fire had destroyed San Francisco on April 18, 1906. In those months before the massacre was forgotten, some press reports were astute indeed. On March 15, 1906, for instance, an editorial in the Nation — in words that might be applied verbatim to today’s endless wars — asked “if there is any definite policy being pursued in regard to the Moros… There seems to be merely an aimless drifting along, with occasional bloody successes… But the fighting keeps up steadily and no one can discover that we are making any progress.” This conclusion well summarized the futility and hopeless inertia of the war in the southern Philippines. Nonetheless, then (and now, as the Washington Post has demonstrated only recently), the generals and senior U.S. officials did their best to repackage stalemate as success.

Corners Turned: The Illusion of “Progress” in Moroland

As in Vietnam and later Afghanistan, the generals leading the Moro War perennially assured the public that progress was being made, that victory was imminent. All that was needed was yet more time. And in Moroland, as until recently in the never-ending Afghan War, politicians and citizens alike swallowed the optimistic yarns of those generals, in part because the conflicts took place so far beyond the public eye.

Once the larger insurgency in the main Philippine islands fizzled out, most Americans lost interest in a remote theater of war so many thousands of miles away. Returning Moro War veterans (like their war on terror counterparts) were mostly ignored. Many in the U.S. didn’t even realize that combat continued in the Philippines.

One vet wrote of his reception at home that, “instead of glad hands, people stare at a khaki-clad man as though he had escaped from the zoo.” The relatively low (American) casualties in the war contributed to public apathy. In the years 1909 and 1910, just eight regular Army soldiers were killed, analogous to the mere 32 troopers killed in 2016-2017 in Afghanistan. This was just enough danger to make a tour of duty in Moroland, as in Afghanistan today, terrifying, but not enough to garner serious national attention or widespread war opposition.

In the style recently revealed by Craig Whitlock of the Post when it came to Afghanistan, five future Army chiefs of staff treated their civilian masters and the populace to a combination of outright lies, obfuscations, and rosy depictions of “progress.” Adna Chaffee, Leonard Wood, Hugh Scott, Tasker Bliss, and John Pershing — a virtual who’s who in the Army pantheon of that era — repeatedly assured Americans that the war on the Moros was turning a corner, that victory was within the military’s grasp.

It was never so. A hundred and six years after the “end” of America’s Moro War, the Post has once again highlighted how successive commanders and U.S. officials in our time have lied to the citizenry about an even longer war’s “progress.” In that sense, generals David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal, Mark Milley, and so many others of this era share disturbing commonalities with generals Leonard Wood, Tasker Bliss, and company.

As early as October 1904, Wood wrote that the “Moro question… is pretty well settled.” Then, Datu Ali, a rebel leader, became the subject of a two-year manhunt — not unlike the ones that finally killed al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden and ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In June 1906, when Ali was finally caught and killed, Colliers magazine featured an article entitled “The End of Datu Ali: The Last Fight of the Moro War.”

After Bud Dajo, Tasker Bliss toned down Wood’s military operations and oversaw a comparatively quiet tour in Moroland, but even he argued against any troop withdrawals, predicting something akin to “generational war” as necessary to fully pacify the province. In 1906, he wrote that the Moros, as a “savage” and “Mohammedan” people “cannot be changed entirely in a few years and the American people must not expect results… such as other nations operating under similar conditions have taken a century or more to accomplish.”

As Pershing lamented in 1913, the 14th year of the war, “The Moros never seemed to learn from experience.” And the violence only continued after his departure, even if American troops took an ever more advisory role, while the Filipino army fought the ongoing rebellion.

The Moros, of course, continue to combat Manila-based troops to this very day, a true “generational struggle” for the ages.

Missing the Big Picture, Then and Now

The last major American-led battle on Jolo in 1913 proved a farcical repeat of Bud Dajo. When several hundred intransigent Moros climbed into another crater atop Bud Bagsak, Pershing, who’d criticized Wood’s earlier methods and was once again in command, tried to launch a more humane operation. He attempted to negotiate and organized a blockade that thinned the defenders’ ranks. Still, in the end, his troops would storm the mountain’s crest and kill some 200 to 300 men, women, and children, though generating little of the attention given to the earlier massacre because the vast majority of Pershing’s soldiers were Filipinos led by U.S. officers. The same shift toward indigenous soldiers in Afghanistan has lowered both (American) casualties and the U.S. profile in an equally failed war.

Though contemporary Army officers and later military historians claimed that the battle at Bud Bagsak broke the back of Moro resistance, that was hardly the case. What ultimately changed was not the violence itself, but who was doing the fighting. Filipinos now did almost all of the dying and U.S. troops slowly faded from the field.

For example, when total casualties are taken into account, 1913 was actually the bloodiest year of the Moro conflict, just as 2018 was the bloodiest of the Afghan War. Late in 1913, Pershing summed up his own uncertainty about the province’s future in his final official report: “It remains for us now to hold all that we have gained and to substitute for a government by force something more in keeping with the changed conditions. Just what form that will take has not been altogether determined.” It still hasn’t been determined, not in Moroland, not in Afghanistan, and nowhere, in truth, in America’s Greater Middle East conflicts of this century.

The Filipino government in Manila continues to wage war on rebellious Moros. To this day, two groups — the Islamist Abu Sayyaf and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front — continue to contest central government control there. After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Army again intervened in Moroland, sending Special Forces teams to advise and assist Filipino military units. If few of the American Green Berets knew anything of their own country’s colonial history, the locals hadn’t forgotten.

In 2003, as U.S. forces landed at Jolo’s main port, they were greeted by a banner that read: “We Will Not Let History Repeat Itself! Yankee Back Off.” Jolo’s radio station played traditional ballads and one vocalist sang, “We heard the Americans are coming and we are getting ready. We are sharpening our swords to slaughter them when they come.”

More than a century after America’s ill-fated Moro campaign, its troops were back where they started, outsiders, once again resented by fiercely independent locals. One of the last survivors of the Moro War, Lieutenant (and later Air Corps General) Benny Foulois published his memoirs in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam insurgency. Perhaps with that conflict in mind, he reflected on the meaning of his own youthful war: “We found that a few hundred natives living off their land and fighting for it could tie down thousands of American troops… and provoke a segment of our population to take the view that what happens in the Far East is none of our business.”

How I wish that book had been assigned during my own tenure at West Point!

[Note:For more detailed information on the conflict in the southern Philippines, see The Moro War by James Arnold, the main source for much of the information in this piece.]

Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a retired U.S. Army major and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now lives in Lawrence, Kansas. He has written a memoir of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his podcast “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris Henriksen.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen

Via Tomdispatch.com


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Philippines’ Muslim region votes on new autonomy law | Al Jazeera English

What hope for a New Generation of US Troops graduating into the Forever Wars? https://www.juancole.com/2019/11/generation-graduating-forever.html Fri, 08 Nov 2019 05:02:04 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=187260 (Tomdispatch.com) – Patches, pins, medals, and badges are the visible signs of an exclusive military culture, a silent language by which soldiers and officers judge each other’s experiences, accomplishments, and general worth. In July 2001, when I first walked through the gate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point at the ripe young age of 17, the “combat patch” on one’s right shoulder — evidence of a deployment with a specific unit — had more resonance than colorful medals like Ranger badges reflecting specific skills. Back then, before the 9/11 attacks ushered in a series of revenge wars “on terror,” the vast majority of officers stationed at West Point didn’t boast a right shoulder patch. Those who did were mostly veterans of modest combat in the first Gulf War of 1990-1991. Nonetheless, even those officers were regarded by the likes of me as gods. After all, they’d seen “the elephant.”

We young cadets arrived then with far different expectations about Army life and our futures, ones that would prove incompatible with the realities of military service in a post-9/11 world. When my mother — as was mandatory for a 17-year-old — put her signature on my future Army career, I imagined a life of fancy uniforms; tough masculine training; and maybe, at worst, some photo opportunities during a safe, “peace-keeping” deployment in a place like Kosovo.

Sure, the U.S. was then quietly starving hundreds of thousands of children with a crippling sanctions regime against autocrat Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, occasionally lobbingcruise missiles at “terrorist” encampments here or there, and garrisoning much of the globe. Still, the life of a conventional Army officer in the late 1990s did fit pretty closely with my high-school fantasies.

You won’t be surprised to learn, however, that the world of future officers at the Academy irreparably changed when those towers collapsed in my home town of New York. By the following May, it wasn’t uncommon to overhear senior cadets on the phone with girlfriends or fiancées explaining that they were heading for war upon graduation.

As a plebe (freshman), I still had years ahead in my West Point journey during which our world changed even more. Older cadets I’d known would soon be part of the invasion of Afghanistan. Drinking excessively at a New York Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day in 2003, I watched in wonder as, on TV, U.S. bombs and missiles rained down on Iraq as part of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s promised “shock-and-awe” campaign.

Soon enough, the names of former cadets I knew well were being announced over the mess hall loudspeaker at breakfast. They’d been killed in Afghanistan or, more commonly, in Iraq.

My greatest fear then, I’m embarrassed to admit, was that I’d miss the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It wasn’t long after my May 28, 2005, graduation that I’d serve in Baghdad. Later, I would be sent to Kandahar, Afghanistan. I buried eight young men under my direct command. Five died in combat; three took their own lives. After surviving the worst of it with my body (though not my mind) intact, I was offered a teaching position back at my alma mater. During my few years in the history department at West Point, I taught some 300 or more cadets. It was the best job I ever had.

I think about them often, the ones I’m still in touch with and the majority whom I’ll never hear from or of again. Many graduated last year and are already out there carrying water for empire. The last batch will enter the regular Army next May. Recently, my mother asked me what I thought my former students were now doing or would be doing after graduation. I was taken aback and didn’t quite know how to answer.

Wasting their time and their lives was, I suppose, what I wanted to say. But a more serious analysis, based on a survey of U.S. Army missions in 2019 and bolstered by my communications with peers still in the service, leaves me with an even more disturbing answer. A new generation of West Point educated officers, graduating a decade and a half after me, faces potential tours of duty in… hmm, Afghanistan, Iraq, or other countries involved in the never-ending American war on terror, missions that will not make this country any safer or lead to “victory” of any sort, no matter how defined.

A New Generation of Cadets Serving the Empire Abroad

West Point seniors (“first-class cadets”) choose their military specialties and their first duty-station locations in a manner reminiscent of the National Football League draft. This is unique to Academy grads and differs markedly from the more limited choices and options available to the 80% of officers commissioned through the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) or Officer Candidate School (OCS).

Throughout the 47-month academy experience, West Pointers are ranked based on a combination of academic grades, physical fitness scores, and military-training evaluations. Then, on a booze-fueled, epic night, the cadets choose jobs in their assigned order of merit. Highly ranked seniors get to pick what are considered the most desirable jobs and duty locations (helicopter pilot, Hawaii). Bottom-feeding cadets choose from the remaining scraps (field artillery, Fort Sill, Oklahoma).

In truth, though, it matters remarkably little which stateside or overseas base one first reports to. Within a year or two, most young lieutenants in today’s Army will serve in any number of diverse “contingency” deployments overseas. Some will indeed be in America’s mostly unsanctioned wars abroad, while others will straddle the line between combat and training in, say, “advise-and-assist” missions in Africa.

Now, here’s the rub: given the range of missions that my former students are sure to participate in, I can’t help but feel frustration. After all, it should be clear 18 years after the 9/11 attacks that almost none of those missions have a chance in hell of succeeding. Worse yet, the killing my beloved students might take part in (and the possibility of them being maimed or dying) won’t make America any safer or better. They are, in other words, doomed to repeat my own unfulfilling, damaging journey — in some cases, on the very same ground in Iraq and Afghanistan where I fought.

Consider just a quick survey of some of the possible missions that await them. Some will head for Iraq — my first and formative war — though it’s unclear just what they’ll be expected to do there. ISIS has been attritted to a point where indigenous security forces could assumedly handle the ongoing low-intensity fight, though they will undoubtedly assist in that effort. What they can’t do is reform a corrupt, oppressive Shia-chauvinist sectarian government in Baghdad that guns down its own protesting people, repeating the very mistakes that fueled the rise of the Islamic State in the first place. Oh, and the Iraqi government, and a huge chunk of Iraqis as well, don’t want any more American troops in their country. But when has national sovereignty or popular demand stopped Washington before?

Others are sure to join the thousands of servicemen still in Afghanistan in the 19th year of America’s longest ever war — and that’s even if you don’t count our first Afghan War (1979-1989) in the mix. And keep in mind that most of the cadets-turned-officers I taught were born in 1998 or thereafter and so were all of three years old or younger when the Twin Towers crumbled.

The first of our wars to come from that nightmare has always been unwinnable. All the Afghan metrics — the U.S. military’s own “measures for success” — continue to trend badly, worse than ever in fact. The futility of the entire endeavor borders on the absurd. It makes me sad to think that my former officemate and fellow West Point history instructor, Mark, is once again over there. Along with just about every serving officer I’ve known, he would laugh if asked whether he could foresee — or even define — “victory” in that country. Take my word for it, after 18-plus years, whatever idealism might once have been in the Army has almost completely evaporated. Resignation is what remains among most of the officer corps. As for me, I’ll be left hoping against hope that someone I know or taught isn’t the last to die in that never-ending war from hell.

My former cadets who ended up in armor (tanks and reconnaissance) or ventured into the Special Forces might now find themselves in Syria — the war President Trump “ended” by withdrawing American troops from that country, until, of course, almost as many of them were more or less instantly sent back in. Some of the armor officers among my students might even have the pleasure of indefinitely guarding that country’s oil fields, which — if the U.S. takes some of that liquid gold for itself — might just violate international law. But hey, what else is new?

Still more — mostly intelligence officers, logisticians, and special operators — can expect to deploy to any one of the dozen or so West African or Horn of Africa countries that the U.S. military now calls home. In the name of “advising and assisting” the local security forces of often autocratic African regimes, American troops still occasionally, if quietly, die in “non-combat” missions in places like Niger or Somalia.

None of these combat operations have been approved, or even meaningfully debated, by Congress. But in the America of 2019 that doesn’t qualify as a problem. There are, however, problems of a more strategic variety. After all, it’s demonstrably clear that, since the founding of the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2008, violence on the continent has only increased, while Islamist terror and insurgent groups have proliferated in an exponential fashion. To be fair, though, such counterproductivity has been the name of the game in the “war on terror” since it began.

Another group of new academy graduates will spend up to a year in Poland, Romania, or the Baltic states of Eastern Europe. There, they’ll ostensibly train the paltry armies of those relatively new NATO countries — added to the alliance in foolish violation of repeated American promises not to expand eastward as the Cold War ended. In reality, though, they’ll be serving as provocative “signals” to a supposedly expansionist Russia. With the Russian threat wildly exaggerated, just as it was in the Cold War era, the very presence of my Baltic-based former cadets will only heighten tensions between the two over-armed nuclear heavyweights. Such military missions are too big not to be provocative, but too small to survive a real (if essentially unimaginable) war.

The intelligence officers among my cadets might, on the other hand, get the “honor” of helping the Saudi Air Force through intelligence-sharing to doom some Yemeni targets — often civilian — to oblivion thanks to U.S. manufactured munitions. In other words, these young officers could be made complicit in what’s already the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.

Other recent cadets of mine might even have the ignominious distinction of being part of military convoys driving along interstate highways to America’s southern border to emplace what President Trump has termed “beautiful” barbed wire there, while helping detain refugees of wars and disorder that Washington often helped to fuel.

Yet other graduates may already have found themselves in the barren deserts of Saudi Arabia, since Trump has dispatched 3,000 U.S. troops to that country in recent months. There, those young officers can expect to go full mercenary, since the president defended his deployment of those troops (plus two jet fighter squadrons and two batteries of Patriot missiles) by noting that the Saudis would “pay” for “our help.” Setting aside for the moment the fact that basing American troops near the Islamic holy cities of the Arabian Peninsula didn’t exactly end well the last time around — you undoubtedly remember a guy named bin Laden who protested that deployment so violently — the latest troop buildup in Saudi Arabia portends a disastrous future war with Iran.

None of these potential tasks awaiting my former students is even remotely linked to the oath (to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic”) that newly commissioned officers swear on day one. They are instead all unconstitutional, ill-advised distractions that benefit mainly an entrenched national security state and the arms-makers that go with them. The tragedy is that a few of my beloved cadets with whom I once played touch football, who babysat my children, who shed tears of anxiety and fear during private lunches in my office might well sustain injuries that will last a lifetime or die in one of this country’s endless hegemonic wars.

A Nightmare Come True

This May, the last of the freshman cadets I once taught will graduate from the Academy. Commissioned that same afternoon as second lieutenants in the Army, they will head off to “serve” their country (and its imperial ambitions) across the wide expanse of the continental United States and a broader world pepperedwith American military bases. Given my own tortured path of dissent while in that military (and my relief on leaving it), knowing where they’re heading leaves me with a feeling of melancholy. In a sense, it represents the severing of my last tenuous connection with the institutions to which I dedicated my adult life.

Though I was already skeptical and antiwar, I still imagined that teaching those cadets an alternative, more progressive version of our history would represent a last service to an Army I once unconditionally loved. My romantic hope was that I’d help develop future officers imbued with critical thinking and with the integrity to oppose unjust wars. It was a fantasy that helped me get up each morning, don a uniform, and do my job with competence and enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, as my last semester as an assistant professor of history wound down, I felt a growing sense of dread. Partly it was the realization that I’d soon return to the decidedly unstimulating “real Army,” but it was more than that, too. I loved academia and “my” students, yet I also knew that I couldn’t save them. I knew that they were indeed doomed to take the same path I did.

My last day in front of a class, I skipped the planned lesson and leveled with the young men and women seated before me. We discussed my own once bright, now troubled career and my struggles with my emotional health. We talked about the complexities, horror, and macabre humor of combat and they asked me blunt questions about what they could expect in their future as graduates. Then, in my last few minutes as a teacher, I broke down. I hadn’t planned this, nor could I control it.

My greatest fear, I said, was that their budding young lives might closely track my own journey of disillusionment, emotional trauma, divorce, and moral injury. The thought that they would soon serve in the same pointless, horrifying wars, I told them, made me “want to puke in a trash bin.” The clock struck 1600 (4:00 pm), class time was up, yet not a single one of those stunned cadets — unsure undoubtedly of what to make of a superior officer’s streaming tears — moved for the door. I assured them that it was okay to leave, hugged each of them as they finally exited, and soon found myself disconcertingly alone. So I erased my chalkboards and also left.

Three years have passed. About 130 students of mine graduated in May. My last group will pin on the gold bars of brand new army officers in late May 2020. I’m still in touch with several former cadets and, long after I did so, students of mine are now driving down the dusty lanes of Iraq or tramping the narrow footpaths of Afghanistan.

My nightmare has come true.

Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a retired U.S. Army major and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now lives in Lawrence, Kansas. He has written a memoir of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his podcast “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris Henriksen.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen

Via Tomdispatch.com


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

11Alive “Local soldiers deploy to Afghanistan”