William J. Astore – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Fri, 29 Jul 2022 02:48:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.7.6 Afraid of *Everything* – The Paranoid Nature of American Foreign and Domestic Policy https://www.juancole.com/2022/07/everything-paranoid-american.html Fri, 29 Jul 2022 04:04:21 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=206057 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – I have a brother with chronic schizophrenia. He had his first severe catatonic episode when he was 16 years old and I was 10. Later, he suffered from auditory hallucinations and heard voices saying nasty things to him. I remember my father reassuring him that the voices weren’t real and asking him whether he could ignore them. Sadly, it’s not that simple.

That conversation between my father and brother has been on my mind, as I’ve been experiencing America’s increasingly divided, almost schizoid, version of social discourse. It’s as if this country were suffering from some set of collective auditory hallucinations whose lead feature was nastiness.

Take cover! We’re being threatened by a revived red(dish) menace from a “rogue” Russia! A “Yellow peril” from China! Iran with a nuke! And then there are the alleged threats at home. “Groomers”! MAGA kooks! And on and on.

Of course, America continues to face actual threats to its security and domestic tranquility. Here at home that would include regular mass shootings; controversial decisions by an openly partisan Supreme Court; the Capitol riot that the House January 6th select committee has repeatedly reminded us about; and growing uncertainty when it comes to what, if anything, still unifies these once United States. All this has Americans increasingly vexed and stressed.

Meanwhile, internationally, wars and rumors of war continue to be a constant plague, made worse by the exaggeration of threats to national security. History teaches us that such threats have sometimes not just been inflated but created ex nihilo. Those would, for instance, include the non-existent Gulf of Tonkin attack cited as the justification for a major military escalation of the war in Vietnam in 1965 or those non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq used to justify the 2003 U.S. invasion of that country.

All this and more is combining to create a paranoid and increasingly violent country, an America deeply fearful and perpetually thinking about warring on other peoples as well as on itself.

My brother’s doctors treated him as best they could with various drugs and electroshock therapy. Crude as that treatment regimen was then (and remains today), it did help him cope. But what if his doctors, instead of trying to reduce his symptoms, had conspired to amplify them? Indeed, what if they had told him that he should listen to those voices and so aggravate his fears? What if they had advised him that sanity meant arming himself against those very voices? Wouldn’t we, then or now, have said that they were guilty of the worst form of medical malpractice?

And isn’t that, by analogy, true of America’s leaders in these years, as they’ve driven this society to be ever less trusting and more fearful in the name of protecting and advancing their wealth, power, and security?

Fear Is the Mind-Killer

If you’re plugged into the mental matrix that’s America in 2022, you’re constantly exposed to fear. Fear, as Frank Herbert wrote in Dune, is the mind-killer. The voices around us encourage it. Fear your MAGA-hat-wearing neighbor with his steroidal truck and his sizeable collection of guns as he supposedly plots a coup against America. Alternately, fear your “libtard” neighbor with her rainbow peace flag as she allegedly plots to confiscate your guns and brainwash your kids. Small wonder that more than 37 million Americans take antidepressants, roughly one in nine of us, or that, in 2016, this country accounted for 80% of the global market for opioid prescriptions.


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A climate of fear has led to 43 million new guns being purchased by Americans in 2020 and 2021 in a land singularly awash in more than 400 million firearms, including more than 20 million assault rifles. A climate of fear has led to police forces being heavily militarized and fully funded rather than “defunded” (which actually would mean a bit less money going to the police and a bit more to non-violent options like counseling and mental-health services). A climate of fear has led Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives who can agree on little else to vote almost unanimously to fork over $840 billion to the Pentagon in Fiscal Year 2023 for yet more wars and murderous weaponry. (Of course, the true budget for what is still coyly called “national defense” will soar well above a trillion dollars then, as it often has since 9/11/2001 and the announcement of a “global war on terror.”)

The idea that enemies are everywhere is, of course, useful if you’re seeking to create a heavily armed and militarized form of insanity.

It’s summer and these days it just couldn’t be hotter, so perhaps you’ll allow me to riff briefly about a scene I’ve never forgotten from The Big Red One, a war film I saw in 1980. It involved a World War II firefight between American and German troops in a Belgian insane asylum during which one of the mental patients picks up a submachine gun and starts blasting away, shouting, “I am one of you. I am sane!” In 2022, sign him up and give him a battlefield commission.

Where fear is omnipresent and violence becomes routinized and normalized, what you end up with is dystopia, not democracy.

We Must Not Be Friends but Enemies

At this point, consider us to be in a distinctly upside-down world. Reverse Abraham Lincoln’s moving plea to Southern secessionists in his first inaugural address in 1861 — “We must not be enemies but friends. We must not be enemies” — and you’ve summed up all too well our domestic and foreign policy today. No, we’re neither in a civil war nor a world war yet, but America’s national (in)security state does continue to insist that virtually every rival to our imperial being must be transformed into an enemy, whether it’s Russia, China, or much of the Middle East. Enemies are everywhere and must be feared, or so we’re repetitiously told anyway.

I remember well the time in 1991-1992 when the Soviet Union collapsed and America emerged as the sole victorious superpower of the Cold War. I was a captain then, teaching history at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Those were also the years when, even without the Soviet Union, the militarization of this society somehow never seemed to end. Not long after, in launching a conflict against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, this country officially kicked ass in the Middle East and President George H.W. Bush assured Americans that, by going to war again, we had also kicked our “Vietnam Syndrome” once and for all. Little did we guess then that two deeply destructive and wasteful quagmire wars, entirely unnecessary for our national defense, awaited us in Afghanistan and Iraq in the century to come.

Never has a country squandered victory — and a genuinely global victory at that! — so completely as ours has over the last 30 years. And yet there are few in power who consider altering the fearful course we’re still on.

A significant culprit here is the military-industrial-congressional complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans about in his farewell address in 1961. But there’s more to it than that. The United States has, it seems, always reveled in violence, possibly as an antidote to being consumed by fear. Yet the intensity of both violence and fear seems to be soaring. Yes, our leaders clearly exaggerated the Soviet threat during the Cold War, but at least there was indeed a threat. Vladimir Putin’s Russia isn’t close to being in the same league, yet they’ve treated his war with Ukraine as if it were an attack on California or Texas. (That and the Pentagon budget may be the only things the two parties can mostly agree on.)

Recall that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was in horrible shape, a toothless, clawless bear, suffering in its cage. Instead of trying to help, our leaders decided to mistreat it further. To shrink its cage by expanding NATO. To torment it through various forms of economic exploitation and financial appropriation. “Russia Is Finished” declared the cover article of the Atlantic Monthly in May 2001, and no one in America seemed faintly concerned. Mercy and compassion were in short supply as all seemed right with the “sole superpower” of Planet Earth.

Now the Russian Bear is back — more menacing than ever, we’re told. Marked as “finished” two decades ago, that country is supposedly on the march again, not just in its invasion of Ukraine but in President Vladimir Putin’s alleged quest for a new Russian empire. Instead of Peter the Great, we now have Putin the Great glowering at Europe — unless, that is, America stands firm and fights bravely to the last Ukrainian.

Add to that ever-fiercer warnings about a resurgent China that echo the racist “Yellow Peril” tropes of more than a century ago. Why, for example, must President Joe Biden speak of China as a competitor and threat rather than as a trade partner and potential ally? Even anti-communist zealot Richard Nixon went to China during his presidency and made nice with Chairman Mao, if only to complicate matters for the Soviet Union.

If imperial America were willing to share the world on roughly equal terms, Russia and China could be “near-peer” friends instead of, in the Pentagon phrase of the moment, “near-peer adversaries.” Perhaps they could even be allies of a kind, rather than rivals always on the cusp of what might potentially become a world-ending war. But the voices that seek access to our heads prefer to whisper sneakily of enemies rather than calmly of potential allies in creating a better planet.

And yet, guess what, whether anyone in Washington admits it or not: we’re already rather friendly with (as well as heavily dependent on) China. Here are just two recent examples from my own mundane life. I ordered a fan — it’s hot as I type these words in my decidedly unairconditioned office — from AAFES, a department store of sorts that serves members of the military, in service or retired, and their families. It came a few days later at an affordable price. As I put it together, I saw the label: “Made in China.” Thank you for the cooling breeze, Xi Jinping!

Then I decided to order a Henley shirt from Jockey, a name with a thoroughly American pedigree. You guessed it! That shirt was plainly marked “Made in China.” (Jockey, to its credit, does have a “Made in America” collection and I got two white cotton t-shirts from it.) You get my point: the American consumer would be lost without China, the present workhouse for the world.

You’d think a war, or even a new Cold War, with America’s number-one provider of stuff of every sort would be dumb, but no one is going to lose any bets by underestimating how dumb Americans can be. Otherwise, how can you explain Donald Trump? And not just his presidency either. What about his “Trump steaks,” “Trump university,” even “Trump vodka”? After all, who could be relied upon to know more about the quality of vodka than a man who refuses to drink it?

Learning from Charlie Brown

Returning to fears and psychiatric help, one of my favorite scenes is from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” In that classic 1965 cartoon holiday special, Lucy ostensibly tries to help Charlie with his seasonal depression by labeling what ails him. The wannabe shrink goes through a short list of phobias until she lands on “pantophobia,” which she defines as “the fear of everything.” Charlie Brown shouts, “That’s it!”

Deep down, he knows perfectly well that he isn’t afraid of everything. What he doesn’t know, however, and what that cartoon is eager to show us, is how he can snap out of his mental funk. All that he needs is a little love, a little hands-on kindness from the other children.

America writ large today is, to my mind, a little like Charlie Brown — down in the dumps, bedraggled, having lost a clear sense of what life in our country should be all about. We need to come together and share a measure of compassion and love. Except our Lucys aren’t trying to lend a hand at the “psychiatric help” stand. They’re trying to persuade us that pantophobia, the fear of everything, is normal, even laudable. Their voices keep telling us to fear — and fear some more.

It’s not easy, America, to tune those voices out. My brother could tell you that. At times, he needed an asylum to escape them. What he needed most, though, was love or at least some good will and understanding from his fellow humans. What he didn’t need was more fear and neither do we. We — most of us anyway — still believe ourselves to be the “sane” ones. So why do we continue to tolerate leaders, institutions, and whole political parties intent on eroding our sanity and exploiting our fears in service of their own power and perks?

Remember that mental patient in The Big Red One, who picks up a gun and starts blasting people while crying that he’s “sane”? We’ll know we’re on the path to sanity when we finally master our fear, put down our guns, and stop eternally preparing to blast people at home and abroad.

Copyright 2022 William J. Astore

Via Tomdispatch.com

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Why Going “Hard” Is Taking the Easy Way Out: Hardening Schools and Arming Teachers Is the Wrong Approach https://www.juancole.com/2022/06/hardening-teachers-approach.html Wed, 29 Jun 2022 04:04:21 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=205479 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – American schools are soft, you say? I know what you mean. I taught college for 15 years, so I’ve dealt with my share of still-teenagers fresh out of high school. Many of them inspired me, but some had clearly earned high marks too easily and needed remedial help in math, English, or other subjects. School discipline had been too lax perhaps and standards too slack, because Johnny and Janey often couldn’t or wouldn’t read a book, though they sure could text, tweet, take selfies, and make videos.

Oh, wait a sec, that’s not what you meant by “soft,” is it? You meant soft as in “soft target” in the context of mass school shootings, the most recent being in Uvalde, Texas. Prominent Republicans like Senators Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz have highlighted the supposed softness of American schools, their vulnerability to shooters armed with military-style assault rifles and intent on mass murder.

That “softness” diagnosis leads to a seemingly logical quick fix: “harden” the schools, of course! Make them into “targets” too intimidating to approach thanks to, among other security measures, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, bulletproof doors and windows, reinforced fences, armed guards, and even armed teachers.

Here’s the simple formula for it all: no more limpness, America, it’s time to get hard. Johnny and Janey may still find it challenging to read books or balance a checkbook (or even know what a checkbook is), but, hey, there must be an app for that, right? At least they’ll stay alive in our newly hardened schools. Or so we hope. There’s no app, after all, for reviving our kids after they’ve been shot and shredded by some assault-rifle-wielding maniac.

As a retired military officer and professor, and a former gun owner, the latest chapter in this country’s gun mania, the Republican urge to keep all those assault weapons circulating and still protect our children, strikes me not just all too strangely, but all too familiarly as well. Those voices calling for billions of dollars to “harden” schools reflect, of course, the imagery of a sexualized hyper-masculinity, but something else as well: a fetish for military-speak. In my service, the Air Force, we regularly spoke of “hardening” targets or “neutralizing” them.

In essence, politicians like Graham and Cruz seem way too eager to turn our schools into some combination of fortresses and bomb shelters, baby versions of the massive nuclear shelter I occupied in the 1980s during my first tour of duty in the Air Force (on which more in a moment). Button up and hunker down, America — not from the long-gone “red” enemy without, armed with nuclear missiles, but from the red-hot (as in murderously hateful) enemy within. These days, that increasingly means a school-age shooter or shooters armed with military-grade weaponry, usually acquired all too legally. Sound the klaxons! Lock and (especially) load! It’s time to go to DEFCON 1 (maximum military readiness, as in war) not in nuclear shelters but in America’s schools.

Speaking of my Cold War nuclear-bunker days in the 1980s, when I was stationed at Cheyenne Mountain, America’s command center for its nuclear defense in Colorado, a few things stood out then. Security guards, for one. Locking cipher doors, for another. Security ID badges. Razor wire. Video monitors. Blast doors. I was in the ultimate lockdown fortress. But tell me the truth: Is this truly what we want our schools to look like — pseudo-military bunkers for the (hot) war increasingly blazing in our society?

In fact, the whole “hardening” idea represents not a defense against, but a surrender to the notion of schools as potential sites of gun combat and mass death. To submit to such a scenario is, in the view of this retired military officer and educator, a thoroughly defeatist approach to both safety and education. It’s tantamount to admitting that violence and fear not only rule our lives but will continue to do so in ever more horrific ways and that the only solution is to go hard with even more “security” and even more guns. Hardening our schools implies hardening our hearts and minds, while we cede yet more power to security experts and police forces. And that may be precisely why so many authority figures so lustily advocate for the “hard” way. It is, in the end, the easy path to disaster.

The Hard Way as the Easy Way Out

Though six of my college-teaching years were at a military academy, where I wore a uniform and my students saluted me as class began, it never occurred to me to carry a loaded gun (even concealed). For the remaining nine years, I taught at a conservative college in rural Pennsylvania where, you may be surprised to learn, guns were then forbidden on campus. But that, of course, was in another age. Only at the tail end of my college teaching career were lockable doors installed and voluntary lockdown drills instituted.

I never ran such a drill myself.

Why not? Because I refused to inject more fear into the minds of my students. In truth, given the unimaginably violent chaos of a school shooting, you’d almost automatically know what to do: lock the door(s) to try to keep the shooter out, call 911, and duck and cover (which will sound familiar to veterans of early Cold War era schooling). If cornered and as a last resort, perhaps you’d even rush the shooter. My students, who were young adults, could have plausibly done this. Children in the third and fourth grades, as in the Uvalde slaughter, have no such option.

That mass shooting took place at a hardened school with locking doors, one that ran lockdown and evacuation drills regularly, and had fences. And yet, of course, none of that, including 911 calls from the students, prevented mass death. Not even the presence of dozens of heavily armed police inside and outside the school mattered because the commander at the scene misread the situation and refused to act. Well-trained “good guys with guns” proved remarkably useless against the bad guy with a gun because the “good guys” backed off, waited, and then waited some more, more than an hour in all, an excruciating and unconscionable delay that cost lives.

But combat can be like that. It’s chaotic. It’s confusing. People freeze or act too quickly. It’s not hard to make bad decisions under deadly pressure. At Uvalde, the police disregarded standard operating procedure that directs the immediate engagement of the shooter until he’s “neutralized.” But we shouldn’t be surprised. Fear and uncertainty cloud the judgment even of all-too-hardened professionals, which should teach us something about the limitations of the hard option.

A related hardening measure that’s been proposed repeatedly, including by former President Trump, is to arm and train teachers to confront shooters. It’s a comforting fantasy, imagining teachers as Dirty Harry-like figures, blowing away bad guys with poise and precision. Sadly, it’s just that, a fantasy. Imagine teachers with guns, caught by surprise, panicking as their students are shot before their eyes. How likely are they to respond calmly with deadly accuracy against school shooter(s) who, the odds are, will outgun them? “Friendly fire” incidents happen all too frequently even in combat featuring highly trained and experienced soldiers. Armed teachers could end up accidentally shooting one or more of their students as they tried to engage the shooter(s). How could we possibly ask teachers to bear such a burden?

Let’s also think about the kind of teacher who wants to carry a weapon in a classroom. My brother was a security policeman in the Air Force, and he understands all too well the allure of weaponry to certain types of people. As he put it to me recently, “A gun is power. To some, even the psychologically relatively stable among us, carrying a gun is indeed like having a permanent hard-on. You have the power of life and death as well. It can be a pure ego-driven power trip, sexual, every time you get to pull the trigger. You give a guy a gun and strange things can happen.”

Think of your least favorite teacher in your K-12 experience, perhaps the one who intimidated you the most. Now, think of that very teacher “hardened” with a gun in class. Sounds like a good idea, right?

Arming Lady Liberty (to the Teeth)

Arming teachers is a measure of our collective confusion and desperation, though some politicians like Donald Trump are sure to continue to press for it. Again, if I’m an armed teacher, perhaps with a concealed 9mm pistol, I’d have virtually no chance against a shooter or shooters with AR-15s and body armor. Does that mean I need an AR-15 and body armor, too? Who needs an arms race with the Russians or Chinese when we can have one in every school in America?

What, then, of hardening schools? We’re back to locking security doors, reinforced fences around campus, cameras everywhere, metal detectors at each entrance, and of course more armed police (or “school resource officers,” known as SROs) in the hallways. We’re talking about untold scores of billions of dollars spent to turn every American school into a fortress/bunker, a place to hunker down and ride out a violent weapons-of-mass-destruction storm of our own making.


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And mind you, of all the things we don’t know, one thing we do: this hunkering down, this fear will be indelibly etched into the minds of our kids as they navigate our ever more hardened, over-armed schools. It won’t be healthy, that’s for sure. In seeking to reduce and eliminate school shootings in America, we should be guided by the goal of not making matters worse for our children.

As horrific as they are, headline-grabbing school shootings are rare indeed compared to the number of schools across America. Indeed, given the violence of this society and the extreme violence we routinely export to other countries across the globe, it’s surprising we don’t have more school shootings. Their relative rarity should reassure us that all is not lost. Not yet, anyway.

I get it. We all want to feel safe and, above all, we want our kids to be safe. But buying them bulletproof backpacks or hardening their schools is the wrong approach. Besides, if we spend massively on school security, what’s to stop a shooter determined to kill children from going elsewhere to find them? It’s horrifyingly grim logic, but he’d likely go to a playground, or the movies, or a dance recital, or any other “soft” place where children might gather. And what then? I for one don’t want to live in fortress America, surrounded by armed and armored police and intrusive security gadgetry “for my protection.”

Admittedly, in a country in which Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to agree on anything but the most modest gun reforms (forget banning military-style weapons or even restrictingtheir sale to people 21 and older), the hardening of schools is an easy target (so to speak). As gun enthusiasts like to say: don’t focus on the weapons, focus on the shooters.

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people, right? As best we can, we must identify those crazed enough to want to murder innocent kids and get them the help they need before they start squeezing triggers. We should deny unstable people the ability to own and wield weapons of mass destruction — that is, assault rifles (and preferably simply ban such weaponry period). We must do everything possible to reform our blood-drenched society with all its weapons-porn. One thing is guaranteed, as a “solution” to the gun problem, adding more of them and other forms of “hardness” into an already deadly mix will only worsen matters.

Quick fixes are tempting, but school-hardening measures and even more “good guys with guns” aren’t the answer. If they were, those 19 children and two adults in Uvalde might still be alive. An exercise in over-the-top security, meanwhile, is guaranteed to do one thing — and that is, of course, starve schools of the funds they need to… well, teach our kids. You know, subjects like math and science and English and history. We’re trending toward graduating a generation of young people who may have trouble reading and writing and adding but will be experts at ducking and covering behind hardened backpacks.

Going hard isn’t the answer, America. Unless the “hard” you’re talking about is the hard I grew up with, meaning high academic standards instilled by demanding and dedicated teachers. If, however, we continue to harden and militarize everything, especially our schools and the mindsets of our children, we shouldn’t be at all surprised when this country becomes a bastion bristling with weapons, one where Lady Liberty has relinquished her torch and crown for an AR-15 and a ballistic helmet from the local armory.

And that’s not liberty — it’s madness.

Copyright 2022 William J. Astore

Via Tomdispatch.com

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Destroying the Town Is Not Saving It: Two Unsung Heroes as Role Models for the Air Force https://www.juancole.com/2022/06/destroying-saving-unsung.html Fri, 03 Jun 2022 04:02:09 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=204989 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – Twenty years ago, I left the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs for my next assignment. I haven’t been back since, but today I travel there (if only in my imagination) to give my graduation address to the class of 2022. So, won’t you take a few minutes and join me, as well as the corps of cadets, in Falcon Stadium?

Congratulations to all you newly minted second lieutenants! As a former military professor who, for six years, taught cadets very much like you at the Academy, I salute you and your accomplishments. You’ve weathered a demanding curriculum, far too many room and uniform inspections, parades, restrictions, and everything else associated with a military that thrives on busywork and enforced conformity. You’ve emerged from all of that today as America’s newest officers, part of what recent commanders-in-chief like to call “the finest fighting force” in human history. Merely for the act of donning a uniform and taking the oath of office, many of your fellow Americans already think of you as heroes deserving of a hearty “thank you for your service” and unqualified expressions of “support.”

And I must say you do exude health, youth, and enthusiasm, as well as a feeling that you’re about to graduate to better things, like pilot training or intelligence school, among so many other Air Force specialties. Some of you will even join America’s newest service, the Space Force, which resonates with me, as my first assignment in 1985 was to Air Force Space Command.

In my initial three years in the service, I tested the computer software the Air Force used back then to keep track of all objects in earth orbit, an inglorious but necessary task. I also worked on war games in Cheyenne Mountain, America’s ultimate command center for its nuclear defense. You could say I was paid to think about the unthinkable, the end of civilization as we know it due to nuclear Armageddon. That was near the tail end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. So much has changed since I wore gold bars like you and yet, somehow, we find ourselves once again in another “cold war” with Russia, this time centered on an all-too-hot war in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, instead of, as in 1962, a country in our immediate neighborhood, Cuba. Still, that distant conflict is only raising fresh fears of a nuclear nightmare that could well destroy us all.

What does this old light colonel, who’s been retired for almost as long as he wore the uniform, have to teach you cadets so many years later? What can I tell you that you haven’t heard before in all the classes you’ve attended and all the lectures you’ve endured?

How about this: You’ve been lied to big time while you’ve been here at the Academy.

Ah, I see I have your attention now. More than a few of you are smiling. I used to joke with cadets about how four years at a military school were designed to smother idealism and encourage cynicism, or so it sometimes seemed. Yes, our lead core value may still be “integrity first,” but the brass, the senior leadership, often convinces itself that what really comes first is the Air Force itself, an ideal of “service” that, I think you’ll agree, is far from selfless.

What do I mean when I say you’ve been lied to while being taught the glorious history of the U.S. Air Force? Since World War II began, the air forces of the United States have killed millions of people around the world. And yet here’s the strange thing: we can’t even say that we’ve clearly won a war since the “Greatest Generation” earned its wings in the 1930s and 1940s. In short, boasts to the contrary, airpower has proven to be neither cheap, surgical, nor decisive. You see what I mean about lies now, I hope.

I know, I know. You’re not supposed to think this way. You eat in Mitchell Hall, named after General Billy Mitchell, that airpower martyr who fought so hard after World War I for an independent air service. (His and our collective dream, long delayed, finally came to fruition in 1947.) You celebrate the Doolittle Raiders, those intrepid aviators who flew off an aircraft carrier in 1942, launching a daring and dangerous surprise attack on Tokyo, a raid that helped restore America’s sagging morale after Pearl Harbor. You mark the courage of the Tuskegee Airmen, those African American pilots who broke racial barriers, while proving their mettle in the skies over Nazi Germany. They are indeed worthy heroes to celebrate.

And yet shouldn’t we airmen also reflect on the bombing of Germany during World War II that killed roughly 600,000 civilians but didn’t prove crucial to the defeat of Adolf Hitler? (In fact, Soviet troops deserve the lion’s share of the credit there.) We should reflect on the firebombing of Tokyo that killed more than 100,000 people, among 60 other sites firebombed, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that, both instantly and over time, killed an estimated 220,000 Japanese. During the Korean War, our air forces leveled North Korea and yet that war ended in a stalemate that persists to this day. During Vietnam, our air power pummeled Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, unleashing high explosives, napalm, and poisons like Agent Orange against so many innocent people caught up in American rhetoric that the only good Communist was a dead one. Yet the Vietnamese version of Communism prevailed, even as the peoples of Southeast Asia still suffer and die from the torrent of destruction we rained down on them half a century ago.

Turning to more recent events, the U.S. military enjoyed total air supremacy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other battlefields of the war on terror, yet that supremacy led to little but munitions expended, civilians killed, and wars lost. It led to tens of thousands of deaths by airpower, because, sadly, there are no such things as freedom bombs or liberty missiles.


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If you haven’t thought about such matters already (though I’ll bet you have, at least a little), consider this: You are potentially a death-dealer. Indeed, if you become a nuclear launch officer in a silo in Wyoming or North Dakota, you may yet become a death-dealer of an almost unimaginable sort. Even if you “fly” a drone while sitting in a trailer thousands of miles from your target, you remain a death-dealer. Recall that the very last drone attack the U.S. launched in Afghanistan in 2021 killed 10 civilians, including seven children, and that no one in the chain of command was held accountable. There’s a very good reason, after all, why those drones, or, as we prefer to call them, remotely piloted aircraft, have over the years been given names like Predator and Reaper. Consider that a rare but refreshing burst of honesty.

I remember how “doolies,” or new cadets, had to memorize “knowledge” and recite it on command to upper-class cadets. Assuming that’s still a thing, here’s a phrase I’d like you to memorize and recite: Destroying the town is not saving it. The opposite sentiment emerged as an iconic and ironic catchphrase of the Vietnam War, after journalist Peter Arnett reported a U.S. major saying of devastated Ben Tre, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Incredibly, the U.S. military came to believe, or at least to assert, that destroying such a town was a form of salvation from the alleged ideological evil of communism. But whether by bombs or bullets or fire, destruction is destruction. It should never be confused with salvation.

Will you have the moral courage, when it’s not strictly in defense of the U.S. Constitution to which you, once again, swore an oath today, to refuse to become a destroyer?

Two Unsung Heroes of the U.S. Air Force

In your four years here, you’ve learned a lot about heroes like Billy Mitchell and Lance Sijan, an Academy grad and Medal of Honor recipient who demonstrated enormous toughness and resilience after being shot down and captured in Vietnam. We like to showcase airmen like these, the true believers, the ones prepared to sacrifice everything, even their own lives, to advance what we hold dear. And they are indeed easy to respect.

I have two more courageous and sacrificial role models to introduce to you today. One you may have heard of; one you almost certainly haven’t. Let’s start with the latter. His name was James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth and he rose to the rank of major general in our service. As a lieutenant colonel in Vietnam, Cotton Hildreth and his wingman, flying A-1 Skyraiders, were given an order to drop napalm on a village that allegedly harbored enemy Viet Cong soldiers. Hildreth disobeyed that order, dropping his napalm outside the target area and saving (alas, only temporarily) the lives of 1,200 innocent villagers.

How could Hildreth have possibly disobeyed his “destroy the town” order? The answer: because he and his wingman took the time to look at the villagers they were assigned to kill. In their Skyraiders, they flew low and slow. Seeing nothing but apparently friendly people waving up at them, including children, they sensed that something was amiss. It turns out that they were oh-so-right. The man who wanted the village destroyed was ostensibly an American ally, a high-ranking South Vietnamese official. The village hadn’t paid its taxes to him, so he was using American airpower to exact his revenge and set an example for other villages that dared to deny his demands. By refusing to bomb and kill innocents, Hildreth passed his “gut check,” if you will, and his career doesn’t appear to have suffered for it.

But he himself did suffer. He spoke about his Vietnam experiences in an oral interview after he’d retired, saying they’d left him “really sick” and “very bitter.” In a melancholy, almost haunted, tone, he added, “I don’t talk about this [the war] very much,” and one can understand why.

So, what happened to the village that Hildreth and his wingman had spared from execution by napalm? Several days later, it was obliterated by U.S. pilots flying high and fast in F-105s, rather than low and slow as Hildreth had flown in his A-1. The South Vietnamese provincial official had gotten his way and Hildreth’s chain of command was complicit in the destruction of 1,200 people whose only crime was fighting a tax levy.

My second hero is not a general, not even an officer. He’s a former airman who’s currently behind bars, serving a 45-month sentence because he leaked the so-called drone papers, which revealed that our military’s drone strikes killed far more innocent civilians than enemy combatants in the war on terror. His name is Daniel Hale, and you should all know about him and reflect on his integrity and honorable service to our country.

What was his “crime”? He wanted the American people to know about their military and the innocent people being killed in our name. He felt the burden of the lies he was forced to shoulder, the civilians he watched dying on video monitors due to drone strikes. He wanted us to know, too, because he thought that if enough Americans knew, truly knew, we’d come together and put a stop to such atrocities. That was his crime.

Daniel Hale was an airman of tremendous moral courage. Before he was sentenced to prison, he wrote an eloquent and searing letter about what had moved him to share information that, in my view, was classified mainly to cover up murderous levels of incompetence. I urge you to read Hale’s letter in which he graphically describes the deaths of children and the trauma he experienced in coming to grips with what he termed “the undeniable cruelties that I perpetuated” while serving as an Air Force intelligence analyst.

It’s sobering stuff, but we airmen, you graduates in particular, deserve just such sobering information, because you’re going to be potential death-dealers. Yet it’s important that you not become indiscriminate murderers, even if you never see the people being vaporized by the bombs you drop and missiles you’ll launch with such profligacy.

In closing, do me one small favor before you throw your caps in the air, before the Thunderbirds roar overhead, before you clap yourselves on the back, before you head off to graduation parties and the congratulations of your friends and family. Think about a saying I learned from Spider-Man. Yes, I really do mean the comic-book hero. “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Like so many airmen before you, you may soon find yourself in possession of great power over life and death in wars and other conflicts that, at least so far in this century, have been all too grim. Are you really prepared for such a burden? Because power and authority, unchecked by morality and integrity, will lead you and our country down a very dark path indeed.

Always remember your oath, always aim high, the high of Hildreth and Hale, the high of those who remember that they are citizen-airmen in service to a nation founded on lofty ideals. Listen to your conscience, do the right thing, and you may yet earn the right to the thanks that so many Americans will so readily grant you just by virtue of wearing the uniform.

And if you’ll allow this aging airman one final wish: I wish you a world where the bombs stay in their aircraft, the missiles in their silos, the bullets in their guns, a world, dare I say it, where America is finally at peace.

Copyright 2022 William J. Astore

Via Tomdispatch.com

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The Last Good Guys? Five Reasons Why Washington Can’t Break Its War Addiction https://www.juancole.com/2022/05/reasons-washington-addiction.html Mon, 09 May 2022 04:02:30 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=204536 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – Why has the United States already become so heavily invested in the Russia-Ukraine war? And why has it so regularly gotten involved, in some fashion, in so many other wars on this planet since it invaded Afghanistan in 2001? Those with long memories might echo the conclusion reached more than a century ago by radical social critic Randolph Bourne that “war is the health of the state” or recall the ancient warnings of this country’s founders like James Madison that democracy dies not in darkness, but in the ghastly light thrown by too many bombs bursting in air for far too long.

In 1985, when I first went on active duty in the U.S. Air Force, a conflict between the Soviet Union and Ukraine would, of course, have been treated as a civil war between Soviet republics. In the context of the Cold War, the U.S. certainly wouldn’t have risked openly sending billions of dollars in weaponry directly to Ukraine to “weaken” Russia. Back then, such obvious interference in a conflict between the USSR and Ukraine would have simply been an act of war. (Of course, even more ominously, back then, Ukraine also had nuclear weapons on its soil.)

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, everything changed. The Soviet sphere of influence gradually became the U.S. and NATO sphere of influence. Nobody asked Russia whether it truly cared, since that country was in serious decline. Soon enough, even former Soviet republics on its doorstep became America’s to meddle in and sell arms to, no matter the Russian warnings about “red lines” vis-à-vis inviting Ukraine to join NATO. And yet here we are, with an awful war in Ukraine on our hands, as this country leads the world in sending weapons to Ukraine, including Javelin and Stinger missiles and artillery, while promoting some form of future victory, however costly, for Ukrainians.

Here’s what I wonder: Why in this century has America, the “leader of the free world” (as we used to say in the days of the first Cold War), also become the leader in promoting global warfare? And why don’t more Americans see a contradiction in that reality? If you’ll bear with me, I have what I think are at least five answers, however partial, to those questions:

* First and above all, war is — even if so many Americans don’t normally think of it that way — immensely profitable. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. military-industrial complex recognized a giant business opportunity. During the Cold War, the world’s biggest arms merchants were the U.S. and the USSR. With the Soviet Union gone, so, too, was America’s main rival in selling arms everywhere. It was as if Jeff Bezos had witnessed the collapse of Walmart. Do you think he wouldn’t have taken advantage of the resulting retail vacuum?

Forget about the “peace dividends” Americans were promised then or downsizing the Pentagon budget in a major way. It was time for the big arms manufacturers to expand into markets that had long been dominated by the USSR. Meanwhile, NATO chose to follow suit in its own fashion, expanding beyond the borders of a reunified Germany. Despite verbal promises to the contrary made to Soviet leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev, it expanded into Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Romania, among other countries — that is, to the very borders of Russia itself, even as U.S. weapons contractors made a killing in supplying arms to such new NATO members. In the spirit of management guru Stephen Covey, it may have been a purely “win-win” situation for NATO, the U.S., and its merchants of death then, but it’s proven to be a distinctly lose-lose situation for Russia and now especially for Ukraine as the war there drags on and on, while the destruction only mounts.

* Second, when it comes to promoting war globally, consider the U.S. military’s structure and mission. How could this country possibly return to anything like what, so long ago, was known as “isolationism” when it has at least 750 military bases scattered liberally on every continent except Antarctica? How could it not promote war in some fashion, when that unbelievably well-funded military’s mission is defined as projecting power globally across all “spectrums” of combat, including land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace? What could you expect when its budget equals those of the next 11 militaries on this planet combined or when the Pentagon quite literally divides the whole world into U.S. military commands headed by four-star generals and admirals, each one a Roman-style proconsul? How could you not imagine that Washington’s top officials believe this country has a stake in conflicts everywhere under such circumstances? Such attitudes are an obvious product of such a structure and such a sense of armed global mission.

* Third, consider the power of the dominant narrative in Washington in these years. Despite the never-ending war-footing of this country, Americans are generally sold on the idea that we constitute a high-minded nation desirous of peace. In a cartoonish fashion, we’re always the good guys and enemies, like Putin’s Russia now, uniquely evil. Conforming to and parroting this version of reality leads to career success, especially within the mainstream media. As Chris Hedges once so memorably put it: “The [U.S.] press goes limp in front of the military.” And those with the spine to challenge such a militarist narrative are demoted, ostracized, exiled, or even in rare cases imprisoned. Just ask whistleblowers and journalists like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Daniel Hale, and Edward Snowden who have dared to challenge the American war story and paid a price for it.

* Fourth, war both unifies and distracts. In this century, it has helped unify the American people, however briefly, as they were repeatedly reminded to “support our troops” as “heroes” in the fight against “global terror.” At the same time, it’s distracted us from the class war in this country, where the poor and working class (and, increasingly, a shrinking middle class as well) are most definitely losing out. As financier and billionaire Warren Buffett put the matter: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

* Fifth, wars, ranging from the Afghan and Iraq ones to the never-ending global war on terror, including the present one in Ukraine, have served as distractions from another reality entirely: America’s national decline in this century and its ever-greater political dysfunction. (Think Donald Trump, who didn’t make it to the White House by accident, but at least in part because disastrous wars helped pave the way for him.)

Americans often equate war itself with masculine potency. (Putting on “big boy pants” was the phrase used unironically by officials in President George W. Bush’s administration to express their willingness to launch conflicts globally.) Yet by now, many of us do sense that we’re witnessing a seemingly inexorable national decline. Exhibits include a rising number of mass shootings; mass death due to a poorly handled Covid-19 pandemic; massive drug-overdose deaths; increasing numbers of suicides, including among military veterans; and a growing mental-health crisis among our young.


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Political dysfunction feeds on and aggravates that decline, with Trumpism tapping into a reactionary nostalgia for a once “great” America that could be made “great again” — if the right people were put in their places, if not in their graves. Divisions and distractions serve to keep so many of us downtrodden and demobilized, desperate for a leader to ignite and unite us, even if it’s for a cause as shallow and false as the “stop the steal” Capitol riot on January 6, 2021.

Despite the evidence of decline and dysfunction all around us, many Americans continue to take pride and comfort in the idea that the U.S. military remains the finest fighting force in all of history — a claim advanced by presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden, among so many other boosters.

All the World’s A Stage

About 15 years ago, I got involved in a heartfelt argument with a conservative friend about whether it was wise for this country to shrink its global presence, especially militarily. He saw us as a benevolent actor on the world stage. I saw us as overly ambitious, though not necessarily malevolent, as well as often misguided and in denial when it came to our flaws. I think of his rejoinder to me as the “empty stage” argument. Basically, he suggested that all the world’s a stage and, should this country become too timid and abandon it, other far more dangerous actors could take our place, with everyone suffering. My response was that we should, at least, try to leave that stage in some fashion and see if we were missed. Wasn’t our own American stage ever big enough for us? And if this country were truly missed, it could always return, perhaps even triumphantly.

Of course, officials in Washington and the Pentagon do like to imagine themselves as leading “the indispensable nation” and are generally unwilling to test any other possibilities. Instead, like so many ham actors, all they want is to eternally mug and try to dominate every stage in sight.

In truth, the U.S. doesn’t really have to be involved in every war around and undoubtedly wouldn’t be if certain actors (corporate as well as individual) didn’t feel it was just so profitable. If my five answers above were ever taken seriously here, there might indeed be a wiser and more peaceful path forward for this country. But that can’t happen if the forces that profit from the status quo — where bellum (war) is never ante- or post- but simply ongoing — remain so powerful. The question is, of course, how to take the profits of every sort out of war and radically downsize our military (especially its overseas “footprint”), so that it truly becomes a force for “national security,” rather than national insecurity.

Most of all, Americans need to resist the seductiveness of war, because endless war and preparations for more of the same have been a leading cause of national decline. One thing I know: Waving blue-and-yellow flags in solidarity with Ukraine and supporting “our” troops may feel good but it won’t make us good. In fact, it will only contribute to ever more gruesome versions of war.

A striking feature of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that, after so many increasingly dim years, it’s finally allowed America’s war party to pose as the “good guys” again. After two decades of a calamitous “war on terror” and unmitigated disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and so many other places, Americans find themselves on the side of the underdog Ukrainians against that “genocidal” “war criminal” Vladimir Putin. That such a reading of the present situation might be uncritical and reductively one-sided should (but doesn’t) go without saying. That it’s seductive because it feeds both American nationalism and narcissism, while furthering a mythology of redemptive violence, should be scary indeed.

Yes, it’s high time to call a halt to the Pentagon’s unending ham-fisted version of a world tour. If only it were also time to try dreaming a different dream, a more pacific one of being perhaps a first among equals. In the America of this moment, even that is undoubtedly asking too much. An Air Force buddy of mine once said to me that when you wage war long, you wage it wrong. Unfortunately, when you choose the dark path of global dominance, you also choose a path of constant warfare and troubled times marked by the cruel risk of violent blowback (a phenomenon of which historian and critic Chalmers Johnson so presciently warned us in the years before 9/11).

Washington certainly feels it’s on the right side of history in this Ukraine moment. However, persistent warfare should never be confused with strength and certainly not with righteousness, especially on a planet haunted by a growing sense of impending doom.

Copyright 2022 William J. Astore

Via Tomdispatch.com

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It Goes up but Never Comes Down: What Would It Take to Reduce US Military Spending? https://www.juancole.com/2022/04/reduce-military-spending.html Wed, 06 Apr 2022 04:08:01 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=203893 ( Tomdispatch.com) – I have a question for you: What would it take in today’s world for America’s military spending to go down? Here’s one admittedly farfetched scenario: Vladimir Putin loses his grip on power and Russia retrenches militarily while reaching out to normalize relations with the West. At the same time, China prudently decides to spend less on its military, pursuing economic power while abandoning any pretense to a militarized superpower status. Assuming such an unlikely scenario, with a “new cold war” nipped in the bud and the U.S. as the world’s unchallenged global hegemon, Pentagon spending would surely shrink, right?

Well, I wouldn’t count on it. Based on developments after the Soviet Union’s collapse three decades ago, here’s what I suspect would be far more likely to happen. The U.S. military, aided by various strap-hanging think tanks, intelligence agencies, and weapons manufacturers, would simply shift into overdrive. As its spokespeople would explain to anyone who’d listen (especially in Congress), the disappearance of the Russian and Chinese threats would carry its own awesome dangers, leaving this country prospectively even less safe than before.

You’d hear things like: we’ve suddenly been plunged into a more complex multipolar world, significantly more chaotic now that our “near-peer” rivals are no longer challenging us, with even more asymmetrical threats to U.S. military dominance. The key word, of course, would be “more” — linked, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, to omnipresent Pentagon demands for yet more military spending. When it comes to weapons, budgets, and war, the military-industrial complex’s philosophy is captured by an arch comment of the legendary actress Mae West: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”

Even without Russia and China as serious threats to American hegemony, you’d hear again about an “unbalanced” Kim Jong-un in North Korea and his deeply alarming ballistic missiles; you’d hear about Iran and its alleged urge to build nuclear weapons; and, if those two countries proved too little, perhaps the war on terror would be resuscitated. (Indeed, during the ongoing wall-to-wall coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korea did test a ballistic missile, an event a distracted media greeted with a collective shrug.) My point is this: when you define the entire globe as your sphere of influence, as the U.S. government does, there will always be threats somewhere. It matters little, in budgetary terms, whether it’s terror, most often linked to radical Islam, or the struggle over resources linked to climate change, which the Pentagon has long recognized as a danger, even if it still burns carbon as if there were no tomorrow. And don’t discount a whole new set of dangers in space and cyberspace, the latest realms of combat.

Of course, this country is always allegedly falling behind in some vital realm of weapons research. Right now, it’s hypersonic missiles, just as in the early days of the Cold War bomber and missile “gaps” were falsely said to be endangering our security. Again, when national security is defined as full-spectrum dominance and America must reign supreme in all areas, you can always come up with realms where we’re allegedly lagging and where there’s a critical need for billions more of your taxpayer dollars. Consider the ongoing “modernization” of our nuclear arsenal, at a projected cost approaching $2 trillion over the coming decades. As a jobs program, as well as an advertisement of naked power, it may yet rival the Egyptian pyramids. (Of course, the pyramids became wonders of the world rather than threatening to end it.)

No Peace Dividends for You

While a young captain in the Air Force, I lived through the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a romping, stomping performance by our military in the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1991. It felt great! I was teaching history at the Air Force Academy when President George H.W. Bush talked of a “new world order.” On a planet with no Soviet Union and no Cold War, we even briefly heard talk of “peace dividends” to come that echoed the historical response of Americans after prevailing in past wars. In the aftermath of the Civil War, as well as World Wars I and II, rapid demobilization and a dramatic downsizing of the military establishment had occurred.

And indeed, there was initially at least some modest shrinkage of our military after the Soviet collapse, though nothing like what most experts had expected. Personnel cuts came first. As a young officer, I well remember the Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments (VSIP) and the Selective Early Retirement Board (SERB). VSIP offered money to entice officers like me to get out early, while SERB represented involuntary retirement for those judged to have overstayed their welcome. Then there was the dreaded RIF, or Reduction in Force, program, which involved involuntary separation without benefits.

Yet even as personnel were pruned from our military, the ambitions of the national security state only grew. As I wrote long ago, the U.S. didn’t just “contain” the Soviet empire during the Cold War; that empire also contained us. With its main enemy in tatters and facing virtually no restraint to its global ambitions, the military-industrial complex promptly began to search for new realms to dominate and new enemies to contain and defeat. Expansion, not shrinkage, soon became the byword, whether in Asia, Africa, or Europe, where, despite promises made to the last of the Soviet Union’s leaders, NATO’s growth took the lead.

So, let’s jump to 1998, just before the initial round of NATO expansion occurred. I’m a major in the Air Force now, on my second tour of teaching history to cadets and I’m attending a seminar on coalition warfare. Its concluding panel focused on the future of NATO and featured four generals who had served at the highest levels of that alliance. I was feverishly taking notes as one of them argued forcefully for NATO’s expansion despite Russian concerns. “Russia has nothing to fear,” he assured us and, far more important, could no longer prevent it. “If the Soviet Union was an anemic tiger, Russia is more like a circus tiger that may growl but won’t bite,” he concluded. Tell that to the people of Ukraine in 2022.

Retired Army General Andrew Goodpaster had a different view. He suggested that the U.S. could have fostered a peaceful “overarching relationship” with Russia after 1991 but chose antagonism and expansion instead. For him, NATO’s growth was only likely to antagonize a post-Soviet Russia further. Air Force General John Shaud largely agreed, suggesting that the U.S. should work to ensure that Russia didn’t become yet more isolated thanks to such a program of expansion.

In the end, three of those four retired generals urged varying degrees of caution. In an addendum to my notes, I scribbled this: “NATO expansion, from the perspective of many in the West, gathers the flock and unites them against an impending storm. From the Russian perspective, NATO expansion, beyond a certain point, is intolerable; it is the storm.” If three of four former senior NATO commanders and a young Air Force major could see that clearly almost 25 years ago, surely senior government officials of the day could, too.


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Unfortunately, it turned out that they simply didn’t care. For the military-industrial complex, as journalist Andrew Cockburn noted in 2015, such expansion was simply too lucrative to pass up. It meant more money, profits, and jobs, as Eastern European militaries retooled with weaponry from the West, much of it made in the USA. It didn’t matter that Russia was prostrate and posed no threat; it didn’t matter that NATO’s main reason for being had disappeared. What mattered was more: more countries in NATO, meaning more weapons sold, more money made, more influence peddled. Who cared if expansion pissed off the Russians? What was a toothless “circus tiger” going to do about it anyway, gum us to death?

If there ever was a time for peace dividends and military demobilization, the 1990s were it. This country even had a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who was focused far more on domestic concerns than foreign policy. And there’s the rub. He simply had no desire to challenge the military-industrial complex. Few presidents do.

Early in his first term, he’d already lost big-time in arguing for gays to serve openly in the ranks, leading to his ignominious surrender and the institutionalization of “don’t ask, don’t tell” as military policy. As that complex then frog-marched Clinton through what remained of the twentieth century, hardheaded hawks like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz were already hatching their plans for America’s triumphant return to a policy of complete unipolar dominance empowered by a kick-ass military. Their time came with George W. Bush’s less than legitimate election in 2000, accelerated by the September 11th tragedy the following year.

America’s New Normal Is War

Ever since 9/11, endless conflict has been this country’s new normal. If you’re an American 21 years of age or younger, you’ve never known a time when your country hasn’t been at war, even if, thanks to the end of the draft in the previous century, you stand no chance of being called to arms yourself. You’ve never known a time of “normal” defense budgets. You have no conception of what military demobilization, no less peacetime might actually be like. Your normal is only reflected in the Biden administration’s staggering $813 billion Pentagon budget proposal for the next fiscal year. Naturally, many congressional Republicans are already clamoring for even higher military spending. Remember that Mae West quip? What a “wonderful” world!

And you’re supposed to take pride in this. As President Biden recently told soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division now stationed in Poland, this country has the “finest fighting force in the history of the world.” Even with the mountains of cash we give to that military, the nation still “owes you big,” he assured them.

Well, I’m gobsmacked. During my 20-year career in the military, I never thought my nation owed me a thing, let alone owed me big. Now that I think of it, however, I can say that this nation owed me (and today’s troops as well) one very big thing: not to waste my life; not to send me to fight undeclared, arguably unconstitutional, wars; not to treat me like a foreign legionnaire or an imperial errand-boy. That’s what we, the people, really owe “our” troops. It should be our duty to treat their service, and potentially their deaths, with the utmost care, meaning that our leaders should wage war only as a last, not a first, resort and only in defense of our most cherished ideals.

This was anything but the case of the interminable Afghan and Iraq wars, reckless conflicts of choice that burned through trillions of dollars, with tens of thousands of U.S. troops killed and wounded, and millions of foreigners either dead or transformed into refugees, all for what turned out to be absolutely nothing. Small wonder today that a growing number of Americans want to see less military spending, not more. Citizen.org, representing 86 national and state organizations, has called on President Biden to decrease military spending. Joining that call was POGO, the Project on Government Oversight, as well as William Hartung at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. And they couldn’t be more on target, though they’re certain to be ignored in Washington.

Consider the recent disastrous end to the Afghan War. Viewing that conflict in the aggregate, what you see is widespread corruption and untold waste, all facilitated by generals who lied openly and consistently to the rest of us about “progress,” even as they spoke frankly in private about a lost war, a reality the Afghan War Papers all too tellingly revealed. That harsh story of abysmal failure, however, highlights something far worse: a devastating record of lying on a massive scale within the highest ranks of the military and government. And are those liars and deceivers being called to account? Perish the thought! Instead, they’ve generally been rewarded with yet more money, promotions, and praise.

So, what would it take for the Pentagon budget to shrink? Blowing the whistle on wasteful and underperforming weaponry hasn’t been enough. Witnessing murderous and disastrous wars hasn’t been enough. To my mind, at this point, only a full-scale collapse of the U.S. economy might truly shrink that budget and that would be a Pyrrhic victory for the American people.

In closing, let me return to President Biden’s remark that the nation owes our troops big. There’s an element of truth there, perhaps, if you’re referring to the soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen, many of whom have served selflessly within its ranks. It sure as hell isn’t true, though, of the self-serving strivers and liars at or near the top, or the weapons-making corporations who profited off it all, or the politicians in Washington who kept crying out for more. They owe the rest of us and America big.

My fellow Americans, we have now reached the point in our collective history where we face three certainties: death, taxes, and ever-soaring spending on weaponry and war. In that sense, we have become George Orwell’s Oceania, where war is peace, surveillance is privacy, and censorship is free speech.

Such is the fate of a people who make war and empire their way of life.

Copyright 2022 William J. Astore

Via Tomdispatch.com

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The New Cold War and the “Arsenal of Democracy” https://www.juancole.com/2022/03/cold-arsenal-democracy.html Thu, 17 Mar 2022 04:02:09 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=203514 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – In certain quarters in this country, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has generated enthusiasm for a new cold war. At the New York Times, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin have been described as “children of the [old] Cold War” now involved in a “face off,” an “eyeball to eyeball” confrontation harkening back to John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev contesting Berlin and Cuba in “dramatic fashion” 60 years ago. (Never mind that the “drama” over Cuba nearly led to nuclear war and the possible end of most life on Earth.) Such breathless accounts make me think of the role Slim Pickens played as Major Kong in Stanley Kubrick’s famed film Dr. Strangelove, giddy with resolve, even relief of a kind, now that he and his B-52 crew are finally headed for nuclear combat with the Russkies.

Whatever else one might say of the crisis in Ukraine, the new cold war dreamscape that Washington think tanks and the Pentagon helped promulgate over the last decade against Russia or China or both is here to stay. Consider that a calamity in its own right. The end of America’s failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the disastrous results of America’s Global War on Terror launched amid a barrage of lies and self-praise, might indeed have left an opening, however slight, for a shift away from colossal military budgets and creeping militarization.

Russia’s ill-planned and immoral invasion of Ukraine marks the definitive end of that possibility, however small it might have been. Putin’s actions, whatever their motivation and justification, are being seized upon by the military-industrial-congressional complex as proof positive that Pentagon budgets, already in the stratosphere, must soar higher yet. For so many of the Putin-haters (and I’m no fan), his destructive actions supposedly demonstrate why the U.S. must be prepared to double down in kind.

That, of course, means yet more weapons production and sales globally for the country that’s already the planet’s leading purveyor of such products. It also means more bellicose rhetoric, and ultimately more militarism, because that’s all Putin and his authoritarian ilk will allegedly ever understand (as is sadly true of so many in Washington as well). Consider all this a peculiar form of American madness, akin to the idea that a guy with a gun, or better yet, lots of guys with lots of guns, the more powerful the better, are the sanest way to prevent gun violence.

Thought about a certain way, in taking such an approach, our government and, by extension, the American people are ceding our autonomy of thought and action to “bad actors” like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. For every war Putin launches, America, so we’re told, must respond with yet more weapons sales, troop deployments, debilitating sanctions, and above all, astronomically higher military spending. For every aircraft carrier the Chinese build, or any new expansion onto yet another tiny island in the South China Sea, the U.S. military must “pivot” harder toward Asia, while building yet more staggeringly expensive ships of its own. As possibilities, disengagement and détente go unmentioned. “Peace” isn’t a word American presidents favor anymore. As a result, even modest military moves by Putin and Xi are essentially guaranteed to drive the U.S. economy yet deeper into militarized debt. (As if $6 trillion already squandered on the disastrous war on terror wasn’t pricey enough.) After all, full-spectrum dominance over the global battlespace, a fantasy in the “best” of times, and a new cold war won’t come cheap, a fact that U.S. weapons manufacturers are surely banking on.

Even before the recent Russian invasion, estimates for the fiscal year 2023 Pentagon budget had risen to $770 billion or even $800 billion. With Russian tanks now rolling through (or stalled in) Ukraine, you can bet your bottom dollar that $800 billion will be the floor, not the ceiling for that future budget and the Pentagon’s 2023 demands from Congress. This country, we’re once again hearing, is to be the arsenal of democracy (to steal a phrase from the World War II era). But count on this: if you’re not careful an arsenal of democracy can easily enough devolve into little more than an arsenal. And that time, I suspect, is now.

The World Is Not Enough

Don’t misunderstand me: I condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s a horror and an obvious disaster in the making. That said, Russia may have a super nuclear arsenal, but it’s not a superpower, despite all those Cold War memories of ours, nor does its attack on Ukraine, in and of itself, pose a major threat to our own national security. Indeed, experts around the world have been predicting for decades that NATO expansion, exacerbated by U.S. meddling in Ukraine, could provoke Vladimir Putin to launch just such a war. In short, Russia’s invasion was indeed predictable, even if not faintly excusable.

Nor are the Russian president’s designs on Ukraine and his quest for greater power in eastern Europe historically surprising. In fact, serious self-reflection should lead us to the obvious conclusion that the scale of Russia’s ambitions, objectionable as they might be, are also limited compared to ours.

Again, Russia remains a distinctly regional power, while the United States still fancies itself to be the last remaining superpower on planet Earth. No other country comes close to the scale of our global ambitions (and they’re higher still, if you count this country’s Trump-era Space Force with its vision that the heavens are but the next “warfighting domain” for us to dominate). In other words, in this century, when it came to our military, the world was not enough. All realms were to be under its command: land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. Note, in fact, that we have a military force or special military command for all of them and our leaders simply take for granted that such dominance is to be ours and no one else’s.


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Think about it. Of all the countries on Earth, only the U.S. divides the entire globe into military commands run by four-star generals and admirals; only America has 750 or so military bases scattered across every continent except Antarctica; only America sees a country — I’m thinking here of Ukraine (although not so long ago it could have been Afghanistan or Iraq), roughly 5,000 miles away across a vast ocean, as its legitimate eastern flank. At the same time, only this country sees a body of water like the South China Sea as a lake for its Navy to navigate and dominate, as if it were part of our coastal waters.

Imagine, for a moment, that Russia or China had an America Command, an AMERCOM. Imagine that Russian advisors were training and equipping Canadian troops, while Chinese aircraft carrier task forces regularly sailed the Gulf of Mexico. As Americans, we, of course, can’t imagine such things and yet that’s the world we inhabit, even if in reverse.

Most of us seem to consider the imperial ambitions of this country, including the eventual expansion of NATO into Ukraine and Georgia and the continued deployment of powerful aircraft carrier strike groups near the coast of China, as benign, uncontroversial evidence of our military resolve. Under the circumstances, it shouldn’t be that hard to recognize that others on this planet might not feel quite the same way.

That America’s pursuit of global reach and global power would be seen as a challenge, indeed a provocation, by a regional power like Russia or one with full-scale imperial ambitions, even if of a largely economic sort, like China with its trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative, should surprise no one. Under the circumstances, it was inevitable that, sooner or later, this country’s continued pursuit of full-spectrum dominance would produce a new cold war, as certain American experts predicted, and some seemed to desire. Think of the chaotic and disturbed world we’re now living in as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, as well as a rare “triumph” of long-term strategic planning by certain elements within the national security state. What they wished for, they got. Today, it should be all too obvious that the results are anything but pleasing.

Your Role as a Loyal American in the New Cold War

My fellow Americans, in this new cold war of ours, the national security state expects both all too much and all too little of you. Let’s start with the little. It doesn’t expect you to enlist in the military if you’re rich or have “other priorities” (as former Vice President Dick Cheney said about the Vietnam War). It doesn’t expect you to pay close attention to our wars, let alone foreign policy. You don’t even have to vote. It does, however, expect you to cheer at the right times, be “patriotic,” wave the flag, gush about America, and celebrate its fabulous, militarized exceptionalism.

To enlist in this country’s cheerleading squad, which is of course God’s squad, you might choose to wear a flag lapel pin and affix a “Support Our Troops” sticker to your SUV. You should remind everyone that “freedom isn’t free” and that “God, guns, and guts” made America great. If the godly empire says Ukraine is a worthy friend, you might add a blue-and-yellow “frame” to your Facebook profile photo. If that same empire tells you to ignore ongoing U.S. drone strikes in Somalia and U.S. support for an atrocious Saudi war in Yemen, you are expected to comply. Naturally, you’ll also be expected to pay your taxes without complaint, for how else are we to buy all the weapons and wage all the wars that America needs to keep the peace?

Naturally, certain people need to be collectively despised in our very own version of George Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate.” So, when Putin’s visage comes on the screen, or Xi’s, or Kim Jong-un’s, or whoever the enemy du jour is, be prepared to express your outrage. Be prepared to treat them as aliens, almost incomprehensible in their barbarity, as if, in fact, they were Klingons in the original Star Trek series. As a peaceful member of the “Federation,” dominated by the United States, you must, of course, reject those Klingon nations and their warrior vision of life, their embrace of might-makes-right, choosing instead the logic, balance, and diplomacy of America’s enlightened State Department (backed up, of course, by the world’s greatest military).

Again, little is expected of you (so far) except your obedience, which should be enthusiastic rather than reluctant. Yet whether you know it or not, much is expected of you as well. You must surrender any hopes and dreams you’ve harbored of a fairer, kinder, more equitable and just society. For example, military needs in the new cold war simply won’t allow us to “build back better.” Forget about money for childcare, a $15 federal minimum wage, affordable healthcare for all, better schools, or similar “luxuries.” Maybe in some distant future (or some parallel universe), we’ll be able to afford such things, but not when we’re faced with the equivalent of the Klingon Empire that must be stopped at any cost.

But wait! I hear some of you saying that it doesn’t have to be this way! And I agree. A better future could be imagined. A saying of John F. Kennedy’s comes to mind: “We shall be judged more by what we do at home than what we preach abroad.” What we’re currently doing at home is building more weapons, sinking more tax dollars into the Pentagon, and enriching more warrior-corporations at the expense of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. Where’s the democratic future in that?

Sheer military might, our leaders seem to believe, will keep them forever riding high in the saddle. Yet you can ride too high in any saddle, making the fall that’s coming that much more precipitous and dangerous.

Americans, acting in concert, could stop that fall, but not by giving our current crop of leaders a firmer grasp of the reins. Do that and they’ll just spur this nation to greater heights of military folly. No, we must have the courage to unseat them from their saddles, strip them of their guns, and corral their war horses, before they lead us into yet another disastrously unending cold war that could threaten the very existence of humanity. We need to find another way that doesn’t prioritize weapons and war, but values compromise, compassion, and comity.

At this late date, I’m not sure we can do it. I only know that we must.

Copyright 2022 William J. Astore

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America’s Disastrous 60-Year War: Three Generations of Conspicuous Destruction by the Military-Industrial Complex https://www.juancole.com/2022/02/generations-conspicuous-destruction.html Wed, 16 Feb 2022 05:02:41 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=202993 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – In my lifetime of nearly 60 years, America has waged five major wars, winning one decisively, then throwing that victory away, while losing the other four disastrously. Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as the Global War on Terror, were the losses, of course; the Cold War being the solitary win that must now be counted as a loss because its promise was so quickly discarded.

America’s war in Vietnam was waged during the Cold War in the context of what was then known as the domino theory and the idea of “containing” communism. Iraq and Afghanistan were part of the Global War on Terror, a post-Cold War event in which “radical Islamic terrorism” became the substitute for communism. Even so, those wars should be treated as a single strand of history, a 60-year war, if you will, for one reason alone: the explanatory power of such a concept.

For me, because of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation in January 1961, that year is the obvious starting point for what retired Army colonel and historian Andrew Bacevich recently termed America’s Very Long War (VLW). In that televised speech, Ike warned of the emergence of a military-industrial complex of immense strength that could someday threaten American democracy itself. I’ve chosen 2021 as the VLW’s terminus point because of the disastrous end of this country’s Afghan War, which even in its last years cost $45 billion annually to prosecute, and because of one curious reality that goes with it. In the wake of the crashing and burning of that 20-year war effort, the Pentagon budget leaped even higher with the support of almost every congressional representative of both parties as Washington’s armed attention turned to China and Russia.

At the end of two decades of globally disastrous war-making, that funding increase should tell us just how right Eisenhower was about the perils of the military-industrial complex. By failing to heed him all these years, democracy may indeed be in the process of meeting its demise.

The Prosperity of Losing Wars

Several things define America’s disastrous 60-year war. These would include profligacy and ferocity in the use of weaponry against peoples who could not respond in kind; enormous profiteering by the military-industrial complex; incessant lying by the U.S. government (the evidence in the Pentagon Papers for Vietnam, the missing WMD for the invasion of Iraq, and the recent Afghan War papers); accountability-free defeats, with prominent government or military officials essentially never held responsible; and the consistent practice of a militarized Keynesianism that provided jobs and wealth to a relative few at the expense of a great many. In sum, America’s 60-year war has featured conspicuous destruction globally, even as wartime production in the U.S. failed to better the lives of the working and middle classes as a whole.

Let’s take a closer look. Militarily speaking, throwing almost everything the U.S. military had (nuclear arms excepted) at opponents who had next to nothing should be considered the defining feature of the VLW. During those six decades of war-making, the U.S. military raged with white hot anger against enemies who refused to submit to its ever more powerful, technologically advanced, and destructive toys.


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I’ve studied and written about the Vietnam War and yet I continue to be astounded by the sheer range of weaponry dropped on the peoples of Southeast Asia in those years — from conventional bombs and napalm to defoliants like Agent Orange that still cause deaths almost half a century after our troops finally bugged out of there. Along with all that ordnance left behind, Vietnam was a testing ground for technologies of every sort, including the infamous electronic barrier that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sought to establish to interdict the Ho Chi Minh trail.

When it came to my old service, the Air Force, Vietnam became a proving ground for the notion that airpower, using megatons of bombs, could win a war. Just about every aircraft in the inventory then was thrown at America’s alleged enemies, including bombers built for strategic nuclear attacks like the B-52 Stratofortress. The result, of course, was staggeringly widespread devastation and loss of life at considerable cost to economic fairness and social equity in this country (not to mention our humanity). Still, the companies producing all the bombs, napalm, defoliants, sensors, airplanes, and other killer products did well indeed in those years.

In terms of sheer bomb tonnage and the like, America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were more restrained, mainly thanks to the post-Vietnam development of so-called smart weapons. Nonetheless, the sort of destruction that rained down on Southeast Asia was largely repeated in the war on terror, similarly targeting lightly armed guerrilla groups and helpless civilian populations. And once again, expensive strategic bombers like the B-1, developed at a staggering cost to penetrate sophisticated Soviet air defenses in a nuclear war, were dispatched against bands of guerrillas operating in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Depleted uranium shells, white phosphorus, cluster munitions, as well as other toxic munitions, were used repeatedly. Again, short of nuclear weapons, just about every weapon that could be thrown at Iraqi soldiers, al-Qaeda or ISIS insurgents, or Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, would be used, including those venerable B-52s and, in one case, what was known as the MOAB, or mother of all bombs. And again, despite all the death and destruction, the U.S. military would lose both wars (one functionally in Iraq and the other all too publicly in Afghanistan), even as so many in and out of that military would profit and prosper from the effort.

What kind of prosperity are we talking about? The Vietnam War cycled through an estimated $1 trillion in American wealth, the Afghan and Iraq Wars possibly more than $8 trillion (when all the bills come due from the War on Terror). Yet, despite such costly defeats, or perhaps because of them, Pentagon spending is expected to exceed $7.3 trillion over the next decade. Never in the field of human conflict has so much money been gobbled up by so few at the expense of so many.

Throughout those 60 years of the VLW, the military-industrial complex has conspicuously consumed trillions of taxpayer dollars, while the U.S. military has rained destruction around the globe. Worse yet, those wars were generally waged with strong bipartisan support in Congress and at least not actively resisted by a significant “silent majority” of Americans. In the process, they have given rise to new forms of authoritarianism and militarism, the very opposite of representative democracy.

Paradoxically, even as “the world’s greatest military” lost those wars, its influence continued to grow in this country, except for a brief dip in the aftermath of Vietnam. It’s as if a gambler had gone on a 60-year losing binge, only to find himself applauded as a winner.

Constant war-making and a militarized Keynesianism created certain kinds of high-paying jobs (though not faintly as many as peaceful economic endeavors would have). Wars and constant preparations for the same also drove deficit spending since few in Congress wanted to pay for them via tax hikes. As a result, in all those years, as bombs and missiles rained down, wealth continued to flow up to ever more gigantic corporations like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, places all too ready to hire retired generals to fill their boards.

And here’s another reality: very little of that wealth ever actually trickled down to workers unless they happened to be employed by those weapons makers, which — to steal the names of two of this country’s Hellfire missile-armed drones — have become this society’s predators and reapers. If a pithy slogan were needed here, you might call these the Build Back Better by Bombing years, which, of course, moves us squarely into Orwellian territory.

Learning from Orwell and Ike

Speaking of George Orwell, America’s 60-Year War, a losing proposition for the many, proved a distinctly winning one for the few and that wasn’t an accident either. In his book within a book in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell wrote all-too-accurately of permanent war as a calculated way of consuming the products of modern capitalism without generating a higher standard of living for its workers. That, of course, is the definition of a win-win situation for the owners. In his words:

“The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labor. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent. Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labor power without producing anything that can be consumed [by the workers].”

War, as Orwell saw it, was a way of making huge sums of money for a few at the expense of the many, who would be left in a state where they simply couldn’t fight back or take power. Ever. Think of such war production and war-making as a legalized form of theft, as Ike recognized in 1953 in his “cross of iron” speech against militarism. The production of weaponry, he declared eight years before he named “the military-industrial complex,” constituted theft from those seeking a better education, affordable health care, safer roads, or indeed any of the fruits of a healthy democracy attuned to the needs of its workers. The problem, as Orwell recognized, was that smarter, healthier workers with greater freedom of choice would be less likely to endure such oppression and exploitation.

And war, as he knew, was also a way to stimulate the economy without stimulating hopes and dreams, a way to create wealth for the few while destroying it for the many. Domestically, the Vietnam War crippled Lyndon Johnson’s plans for the Great Society. The high cost of the failed war on terror and of Pentagon budgets that continue to rise today regardless of results are now cited as arguments against Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal arguably would have never been funded if today’s vast military-industrial complex, or even the one in Ike’s day, had existed in the 1930s.

As political theorist Crane Brinton noted in The Anatomy of Revolution, a healthy and growing middle class, equal parts optimistic and opportunistic, is likely to be open to progressive, even revolutionary ideas. But a stagnant, shrinking, or slipping middle class is likely to prove politically reactionary as pessimism replaces optimism and protectionism replaces opportunity. In this sense, the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House was anything but a mystery and the possibility of an autocratic future no less so.

All those trillions of dollars consumed in wasteful wars have helped foster a creeping pessimism in Americans. A sign of it is the near-total absence of the very idea of peace as a shared possibility for our country. Most Americans simply take it for granted that war or threats of war, having defined our immediate past, will define our future as well. As a result, soaring military budgets are seen not as aberrations, nor even as burdensome, but as unavoidable, even desirable — a sign of national seriousness and global martial superiority.

You’re Going to Have It Tough at the End

It should be mind-blowing that, despite the wealth being created (and often destroyed) by the United States and impressive gains in worker productivity, the standard of living for workers hasn’t increased significantly since the early 1970s. One thing is certain: it hasn’t happened by accident.

For those who profit most from it, America’s 60-Year War has indeed been a resounding success, even if also a colossal failure when it comes to worker prosperity or democracy. This really shouldn’t surprise us. As former President James Madison warned Americans so long ago, no nation can protect its freedoms amid constant warfare. Democracies don’t die in darkness; they die in and from war. In case you hadn’t noticed (and I know you have), evidence of the approaching death of American democracy is all around us. It’s why so many of us are profoundly uneasy. We are, after all, living in a strange new world, worse than that of our parents and grandparents, one whose horizons continue to contract while hope contracts with them.

I’m amazed when I realize that, before his death in 2003, my father predicted this. He was born in 1917, survived the Great Depression by joining Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, and worked in factories at night for low pay before being drafted into the Army in World War II. After the war, he would live a modest middle-class life as a firefighter, a union job with decent pay and benefits. Here was the way my dad put it to me: he’d had it tough at the beginning of his life, but easy at the end, while I’d had it easy at the beginning, but I’d have it tough at the end.

He sensed, I think, that the American dream was being betrayed, not by workers like himself, but by corporate elites increasingly consumed by an ever more destructive form of greed. Events have proven him all too on target, as America has come to be defined by a greed-war for which no armistice, let alone an end, is promised. In twenty-first-century America, war and the endless preparations for it simply go on and on. Consider it beyond irony that, as this country’s corporate, political, and military champions claim they wage war to spread democracy, it withers at home.

And here’s what worries me most of all: America’s very long war of destruction against relatively weak countries and peoples may be over, or at least reduced to the odd moment of hostilities, but America’s leaders, no matter the party, now seem to favor a new cold war against China and now Russia. Incredibly, the old Cold War produced a win that was so sweet, yet so fleeting, that it seems to require a massive do-over.

Promoting war may have worked well for the military-industrial complex when the enemy was thousands of miles away with no capacity for hitting “the homeland,” but China and Russia do have that capacity. If a war with China or Russia (or both) comes to pass, it won’t be a long one. And count on one thing: America’s leaders, corporate, military, and political, won’t be able to shrug off the losses by looking at positive balance sheets and profit margins at weapons factories.

Copyright 2022 William J. Astore

Via Tomdispatch.com

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Only Fools Replay Doomsday: The Cold War, Reborn and Resurgent https://www.juancole.com/2022/01/replay-doomsday-resurgent.html Wed, 19 Jan 2022 05:02:53 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=202490 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – In the early 1960s, at the height of America’s original Cold War with the Soviet Union, my old service branch, the Air Force, sought to build 10,000 land-based nuclear missiles. These were intended to augment the hundreds of nuclear bombers it already had, like the B-52s featured so memorably in the movie Dr. Strangelove. Predictably, massive future overkill was justified in the name of “deterrence,” though the nuclear war plan in force back then was more about obliteration. It featured a devastating attack on the Soviet Union and communist China that would kill an estimated 600 million people in six months (the equivalent of 100 Holocausts, notes Daniel Ellsberg in his book, The Doomsday Machine). Slightly saner heads finally prevailed — in the sense that the Air Force eventually got “only” 1,000 of those Minuteman nuclear missiles.

Despite the strategic arms limitation talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the dire threat of nuclear Armageddon persisted, reaching a fresh peak in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. At the time, he memorably declared the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire,” while nuclear-capable Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles were rushed to Europe. At that same moment, more than a few Europeans, joined by some Americans, took to the streets, calling for a nuclear freeze — an end to new nuclear weapons and the destabilizing deployment of the ones that already existed. If only…

It was in this heady environment that, in uniform, I found myself working in the ultimate nuclear redoubt of the Cold War. I was under 2,000 feet of solid granite in a North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) command post built into Cheyenne Mountain at the southern end of the Colorado front range that includes Pikes Peak. When off-duty, I used to hike up a trail that put me roughly level with the top of Cheyenne Mountain. There, I saw it from a fresh perspective, with all its antennas blinking, ready to receive and relay warnings and commands that could have ended in my annihilation in a Soviet first strike or retaliatory counterstrike.

Yet, to be honest, I didn’t give much thought to the possibility of Armageddon. As a young Air Force lieutenant, I was caught up in the minuscule role I was playing in an unimaginably powerful military machine. And as a hiker out of uniform, I would always do my best to enjoy the bracing air, the bright sunshine, and the deep blue skies as I climbed near the timberline in those Colorado mountains. Surrounded by such natural grandeur, I chose not to give more than a moment’s thought to the nightmarish idea that I might be standing at ground zero of the opening act of World War III. Because there was one thing I knew with certainty: if the next war went nuclear, whether I was on-duty under the mountain or off-duty hiking nearby, I was certainly going to be dead.

Then came 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was over! America had won! Rather than nightmares of the Red Storm Rising sort that novelist Tom Clancy had imagined or Hollywood’s Red Dawn in which there was an actual communist invasion of this country, we could now dream of “peace dividends,” of America becoming a normal country in normal times.

It was, as the phrase went, “morning again in America” — or, at least, it could have been. Yet here I sit, 30 years later, at sea level rather than near the timberline, stunned by the resurgence of a twenty-first-century version of anticommunist hysteria and at the idea of a new cold war with Russia, the rump version of the Soviet Union of my younger days, joined by an emerging China, both still ostensibly conspiring to endanger our national security, or so experts in and out of the Pentagon tell us.

Excuse me while my youthful 28-year-old self asks my cranky 58-year-old self a few questions: What the hell happened? Dammit, we won the Cold War three decades ago. Decisively so! How, then, could we have allowed a new one to emerge? Why would any sane nation want to refight a war that it had already won at enormous cost? Who in their right mind would want to hit the “replay” button on such a costly, potentially cataclysmic strategic paradigm as deterrence through MAD, or mutually assured destruction?

Meet the New Cold War – Same as the Old One

Quite honestly, the who, the how, and the why depress me. The “who” is simple enough: the military-industrial-congressional complex, which finds genocidal nuclear weapons to be profitable, even laudable. Leading the charge of the latest death brigade is my old service, the Air Force. Its leaders want new ICBMs, several hundred of them in fact, with a potential price tag of $264 billion, to replace the Minutemen that still sit on alert, waiting to inaugurate death on an unimaginable scale, not to speak of a global nuclear winter, if they’re ever launched en masse. Not content with such new missiles, the Air Force also desires new strategic bombers, B-21 Raiders to be precise (the “21” for our century, the “Raider” in honor of General Jimmy Doolittle’s morale-boosting World War II attack on Tokyo a few months after Pearl Harbor). The potential price tag: somewhere to the north of $200 billion through the year 2050.

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New nuclear missiles and strategic bombers obviously don’t come cheap. Those modernized holocaust-producers are already estimated to cost the American taxpayer half-a-trillion dollars over the next three decades. Honestly, though, I doubt anyone knows the true price, given the wild cost overruns that seem to occur whenever the Air Force builds anything these days. Just look at the $1.7 trillion F-35 fighter, for example, where the “F” apparently stands for Ferrari or, if you prefer brutal honesty, failure.

The “how” is also simple enough. The vast military machine I was once part of justifies such new weaponry via the tried-and-true (even if manifestly false) tactics of the Cold War. Start with threat inflation. In the old days, politicians and generals touted false bomber and missile “gaps.” Nowadays, we hear about China building missile silos, as if these would pose a new sort of dire threat to us. (They wouldn’t, assuming that China is dumb enough to build them.) A recent New Yorker article on Iran’s ballistic missile program is typical of the breed. Citing a Pentagon estimate, the author suggests “that China could have at least a thousand [nuclear] bombs by 2030.” Egad! Be afraid!

Yet the article neglects to mention America’s overwhelmingly superior nuclear weapons and the actual number of nuclear warheads and bombs our leaders have at their disposal. (The current numbers: roughly 5,600 nuclear warheads for the U.S., 350 for China.) At the same time, Iran, which has no nuclear weapons, is nonetheless defined as a serious threat, “an increasingly shrewd rival,” in the same article. A “rival” – how absurd! A nation with no nukes isn’t a rival to the superpower that nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, killing 250,000 Japanese, and planned to utterly destroy the Soviet Union and China in the 1960s. Believe me, nobody, but nobody, rivals this country’s military when it comes to apocalyptic scenarios — and the mindset as well as the ability to achieve them.

On a nuclear spectrum, Iran poses no threat and China is readily deterred, indeed completely overmatched, just with the U.S. Navy’s fleet of Trident-missile-firing submarines. To treat Iran as a “rival” and China as a nuclear “near-peer” is the worst kind of threat inflation (and imagining nuclear war of any sort is a horror beyond all measure).

The “why” is also simple enough, and it disgusts me. Weapons makers, though driven by profit, pose as job-creators. They talk about “investing” in new nukes; they mention the need to “modernize” the arsenal, as if nuclear weapons have an admirable return on investment as well as an expiration date. What they don’t talk about (and never will) is how destabilizing, redundant, unnecessary, immoral, and unimaginably ghastly such weapons are.

Nuclear weapons treat human beings as matter to be irradiated and obliterated. One of the better cinematic depictions of this nightmare came in the 1991 movie Terminator II when Sarah Connor, who knows what’s coming, is helpless to save herself, no less children on a playground, when the nukes start exploding. It’s a scene that should be seared into all our minds as we think about the hellish implications of the weapons the U.S. military is clamoring for.

In the late 1980s, when I was still in Cheyenne Mountain, I watched the tracks of Soviet nuclear missiles as they terminated at American cities. Sure, it only happened on screen in the missile warning center, driven by a scenario tape simulating an attack, but that was more than enough for me. Yet, today, my government is moving in a direction — both in funding the “modernization” of the American arsenal and in creating a new version of the Cold War of my Air Force days — that could once again make that old scenario tape I saw plausible in what remains of my lifetime.

Excuse me, but where has the idea of nuclear disarmament gone? A scant 15 years ago, old Cold War hands like Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, and Sam Nunn, joined by our “hope and change” president Barack Obama, promoted the end of nuclear terror through the actual elimination of nuclear weapons. But in 2010 Obama threw that possibility away in an attempt to secure Senate support for new strategic arms reduction talks with the Russians. Unsurprisingly, senators and representatives in western states like Wyoming and North Dakota, which thrive off Air Force bases that bristle with nuclear bombers and missiles, quickly abandoned the spirit of Obama’s grand bargain and to this day remain determined to field new nuclear weapons.

Not More, But No More

This country narrowly averted disaster in the old Cold War and back then we had leaders of some ability and probity like Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. All this new cold war rhetoric and brinksmanship may not end nearly as well in a plausible future administration led, if not by Donald Trump himself, then by some self-styled Trumpist warrior like former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or Senator Tom Cotton. They would, I suspect, be embraced by an increasing number of evangelicals and Christian nationalists in the military who might, in prophetic terms, find nuclear Armageddon to be a form of fulfillment.

Ironically, I read much of Red Storm Rising, Tom Clancy’s World War III thriller, in 1987 while working a midnight shift in Cheyenne Mountain. Thankfully, that red storm never rose, despite a climate that all too often seemed conducive to it. But why now recreate the conditions for a new red storm, once again largely driven by our own fears as well as the profit- and power-driven fantasies of the military-industrial-congressional complex? Such a storm could well end in nuclear war, despite pledges to the contrary. If a war of that sort is truly unwinnable, which it is, our military shouldn’t be posturing about fighting and “winning” one.

I can tell you one thing with certainty: our generals know one word and it’s not “win,” it’s more. More nuclear missiles. More nuclear bombers. They’ll never get enough. The same is true of certain members of Congress and the president. So, the American people need to learn two words, no more, and say them repeatedly to those same generals and their enablers, when they come asking for almost $2 trillion for that nuclear modernization program of theirs.

In that spirit, I ask you to join a young Air Force lieutenant as he walks past Cheyenne Mountain’s massive blast door and down the long tunnel. Join him in taking a deep breath as you exit that darkness into clear crystalline skies and survey the city lights beneath you and the pulse of humanity before you. Another night’s duty done; another night that nuclear war didn’t come; another day to enjoy the blessings of this wonder-filled planet of ours.

America’s new cold war puts those very blessings, that wonder, in deep peril. It’s why we must walk ever so boldly out of tunnels built by fear and greed and never return to them. We need to say “no more” to new nuclear weapons and recommit to the elimination of all such weaponry everywhere. We had a chance to embark on such a journey 30 years ago in the aftermath of the first Cold War. We had another chance when Barack Obama was elected. Both times we failed.

It’s finally time for this country to succeed in something again — something noble, something other than the perpetuation of murderous war and the horrific production of genocidal weaponry. After all, only fools replay scenarios that end in doomsday.

Copyright 2022 William J. Astore

Via Tomdispatch.com

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The Pentagon lost the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, so why are we upping its Funding to $778 billion? https://www.juancole.com/2021/12/pentagon-afghanistan-billion.html Mon, 13 Dec 2021 05:02:39 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=201756 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – Where are you going to get the money? That question haunts congressional proposals to help the poor, the unhoused, and those struggling to pay the mortgage or rent or medical bills, among so many other critical domestic matters. And yet — big surprise! — there’s always plenty of money for the Pentagon. In fiscal year 2022, in fact, Congress is being especially generous with $778 billion in funding, roughly $25 billion more than the Biden administration initially asked for. Even that staggering sum seriously undercounts government funding for America’s vast national security state, which, since it gobbles up more than half of federal discretionary spending, is truly this country’s primary, if unofficial, fourth branch of government.

Final approval of the latest military budget, formally known as the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, may slip into January as Congress wrangles over various side issues. Unlike so much crucial funding for the direct care of Americans, however, don’t for a second imagine it won’t pass with supermajorities. (Yes, the government could indeed be shut down one of these days, but not — never! — the U.S. military.)

Some favorites of mine among “defense” budget side issues now being wrangled over include whether military members should be able to refuse Covid-19 vaccines without being punished, whether young women should be required to register for the selective service system when they turn 18 (even though this country hasn’t had a draft in almost half a century and isn’t likely to have one in the foreseeable future), or whether the Iraq War AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force), passed by Congress to disastrous effect in 2002, should be repealed after nearly two decades of calamity and futility.

As debates over these and similar issues, predictably partisan, grab headlines, the biggest issue of all eludes serious coverage: Why, despite decades of disastrous wars, do Pentagon budgets continue to grow, year after year, like ever-expanding nuclear mushroom clouds? In other words, as voices are raised and arms waved in Congress about vaccine tyranny or a hypothetical future draft of your 18-year-old daughter, truly critical issues involving your money (hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of taxpayer dollars) go largely uncovered.

What are some of those issues that we should be, but aren’t, looking at? I’m so glad you asked!

Seven Questions with “Throw-Weight”

Back in my Air Force days, while working in Cheyenne Mountain (the ultimate bomb shelter of the Cold War era), we talked about nuclear missiles in terms of their “throw-weight.” The bigger their throw-weight, the bigger the warhead. In that spirit, I’d like to lob seven throw-weighty questions — some with multiple “warheads” — in the general direction of the Pentagon budget. It’s an exercise worth doing largely because, despite its sheer size, that budget generally seems impervious to serious oversight, no less real questions of any sort.

So, here goes and hold on tight (or, in the nuclear spirit, duck and cover!):

1. Why, with the end of the Afghan War, is the Pentagon budget still mushrooming upward? Even as the U.S. war effort there festered and then collapsed in defeat, the Pentagon, by its own calculation, was burning through almost $4 billion a month or $45 billon a year in that conflict and, according to the Costs of War Project, $2.313 trillion since it began. Now that the madness and the lying are finally over (at least theoretically speaking), after two decades of fraud, waste, and abuses of every sort, shouldn’t the Pentagon budget for 2022 decrease by at least $45 billion? Again, America lost, but shouldn’t we taxpayers now be saving a minimum of $4 billion a month?

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2. After a disastrous war on terror costing upward of $8 trillion, isn’t it finally time to begin to downsize America’s global imperial presence? Honestly, for its “defense,” does the U.S. military need 750 overseas bases in 80 countries on every continent but Antarctica, maintained at a cost somewhere north of $100 billion annually? Why, for example, is that military expanding its bases on the Pacific island of Guam at the expense of the environment and despite the protests of many of the indigenous people there? One word: China! Isn’t it amazing how the ever-inflating threat of China empowers a Pentagon whose insatiable budgetary demands might be in some trouble without a self-defined “near-peer” adversary? It’s almost as if, in some twisted sense, the Pentagon budget itself were now being “Made in China.”

3. Speaking of China and its alleged pursuit of more nuclear weaponry, why is the U.S. military still angling for $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years for its own set of “modernized” nuclear weapons? After all, the Navy’s current strategic force, as represented above all by Ohio-class submarines with Trident missiles, is (and will for the foreseeable future be) capable of destroying the world as we know it. A “general” nuclear exchange would end the lives of most of humanity, given the dire impact the ensuing nuclear winter would have on food production. What’s the point of Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill, if America’s leaders are preparing to destroy it all with a new generation of holocaust-producing nuclear bombs and missiles?

4. Why is America’s military, allegedly funded for “defense,” configured instead for force projection and global strikes of every sort? Think of the Navy, built around aircraft carrier strike groups, now taking the fight to the “enemy” in the South China Sea. Think of Air Force B-52 strategic bombers, still flying provocatively near the borders of Russia, as if the movie Dr. Strangelove had been released not in 1964 but yesterday. Why, in sum, does the U.S. military refuse to stay home and protect Fortress America? An old sports cliché, “the best defense is a good offense,” seems to capture the bankruptcy of what passes, even after decades of lost wars in distant lands, for American strategic thinking. It may make sense on a football field, but, judging by those wars, it’s been a staggering loss leader for our military, not to mention the foreign peoples on the receiving end of lethal weapons very much “Made in the USA.”

Instead of reveling in shock and awe, this country should find the wars of choice it’s fought since 1945 genuinely shocking and awful — and act to end them for good and defund any future versions of them.

5. Speaking of global strikes with awful repercussions, why is the Pentagon working so hard to encircle China, while ratcheting up tensions that can only contribute to nuclear brinksmanship and even possibly a new world war as early as 2027? Related question: Why does the Pentagon continue to claim that, in its “wargames” with China over a prospective future battle for the island of Taiwan, it always loses? Is it because “losing” is really winning, since that very possibility can then be cited to justify yet more requests for funds from Congress so that this country can “catch up” to the latest Red Menace?

(Bonus question: As America’s generals keep losing real wars as well as imaginary ones, why aren’t any of them ever fired?)

6. Speaking of global aggression, why does this country maintain a vast, costly military within the military that’s run by Special Operations Command and operationally geared to facilitating interventions anywhere and everywhere? (Note that this country’s special ops forces are bigger than the full-scale militaries of many countries on this planet!) When you look back over the last several decades, Special Operations forces haven’t proven to be all that special, have they? And it doesn’t matter whether you’re citing the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Put differently, for every SEAL Team 6 mission that kills a big bad guy, there are a surprising number of small-scale catastrophes that only alienate other peoples, thereby generating blowback (and so, of course, further funding of the military).

7. Finally, why, oh why, after decades of military losses, does Congress still defer so spinelessly to the “experience” of our generals and admirals? Why issue so many essentially blank checks to the gang that simply can’t shoot straight, whether in battle or when they testify before Congressional committees, as well as to the giant companies (and congressional lobbying monsters) that make the very weaponry that can’t shoot straight?

It’s a compliment in the military to be called a straight shooter. I suggest President Biden start firing a host of generals until he finds a few who are willing to do exactly that and tell him and the rest of us some hard truths, especially about malfunctioning weapons and lost wars.

Forty years ago, after Ronald Reagan became president, I started writing in earnest against the bloating of the Pentagon budget. At that time, though, I never would have imagined that the budgets of those years would look modest today, especially after the big enemy of that era, the Soviet Union, imploded in 1991.

Why, then, does each year’s NDAA rise ever higher into the troposphere, drifting on the wind and poisoning our culture with militarism? Because, to state the obvious, Congress would rather engage in pork-barrel spending than exercise the slightest real oversight when it comes to the national security state. It has, of course, been essentially captured by the military-industrial complex, a dire fate President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about 60 years ago in his farewell address. Instead of being a guard dog for America’s money (not to mention for our rapidly disappearing democracy), Congress has become a genuine lapdog of the military brass and their well-heeled weapons makers.

So, even as Congress puts on a show of debating the NDAA, it’s really nothing but, at best, a political Kabuki dance (a metaphor, by the way, that’s quite common in the military, which tells you something about the well-traveled sense of humor of its members). Sure, our congressional representatives act as if they’re exercising oversight, even as they do as they’re told, while the deep-pocketed contractors make major contributions to the campaign “war chests” of the very same politicians. It’s a win for them, of course, but a major loss for this country — and indeed for the world.

Doing More With Less

What would real oversight look like when it comes to the defense budget? Again, glad you asked!

It would focus on actual defense, on preventing wars, and above all, on scaling down our gigantic military. It would involve cutting that budget roughly in half over the next few years and so forcing our generals and admirals to engage in that rarest of acts for them: making some tough choices. Maybe then they’d see the folly of spending $1.7 trillion on the next generation of world-ending weaponry, or maintaining all those military bases globally, or maybe even the blazing stupidity of backing China into a corner in the name of “deterrence.”

Here’s a radical thought for Congress: Americans, especially the working class, are constantly being advised to do more with less. Come on, you workers out there, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and put your noses to those grindstones!

To so many of our elected representatives (often sheltered in grotesquely gerrymandered districts), less money and fewer benefits for workers are seldom seen as problems, just challenges. Quit your whining, apply some elbow grease, and “git-r-done!

The U.S. military, still proud of its “can-do” spirit in a warfighting age of can’t-do-ism, should have plenty of smarts to draw on. Just consider all those Washington “think tanks” it can call on! Isn’t it high time, then, for Congress to challenge the military-industrial complex to focus on how to do so much less (as in less warfighting) with so much less (as in lower budgets for prodigal weaponry and calamitous wars)?

For this and future Pentagon budgets, Congress should send the strongest of messages by cutting at least $50 billion a year for the next seven years. Force the guys (and few gals) wearing the stars to set priorities and emphasize the actual defense of this country and its Constitution, which, believe me, would be a unique experience for us all.

Every year or so, I listen again to Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex speech. In those final moments of his presidency, Ike warned Americans of the “grave implications” of the rise of an “immense military establishment” and “a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions,” the combination of which would constitute a “disastrous rise of misplaced power.” This country is today suffering from just such a rise to levels that have warped the very structure of our society. Ike also spoke then of pursuing disarmament as a continuous imperative and of the vital importance of seeking peace through diplomacy.

In his spirit, we should all call on Congress to stop the madness of ever-mushrooming war budgets and substitute for them the pursuit of peace through wisdom and restraint. This time, we truly can’t allow America’s numerous smoking guns to turn into so many mushroom clouds above our beleaguered planet.

Copyright 2021 William J. Astore

Via Tomdispatch.com

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