A few months ago, I was talking to a researcher about the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, and America’s fourth (and most powerful?) branch of government: the national security state. After talking about the enormous sweep and power of these entities, she said to me, it’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? More than that, I replied: It’s the rampaging herd of elephants in the room. Even so, we prefer to ignore the herd, even as it dominates and destroys.
This thought came back to me as I read Danny Sjursen’s recent article at Antiwar.com. His main point was that enormous Pentagon spending and endless wars went undebated during this election cycle. President Trump preferred to talk of “invasions” by caravans of “criminals,” when not denigrating Democrats as a mutinous mob; the Democrats preferred to talk of health care and coverage for preexisting conditions, when not attacking Trump as hateful and reckless. No one wanted to talk about never-ending and expanding wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa, and no one in the mainstream dared to call for significant reductions in military spending.
Scientists tell us a perpetual motion machine is impossible (that pesky 2nd law of thermodynamics about entropy), but America’s leaders are proving a perpetual war machine is quite possible, as events in Afghanistan prove. The USA is now entering the 18th year of its Afghan war, with regress rather than progress being the reality of nearly a trillion dollars committed to this war. At TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt notes that “Though few realized it at the time [in 2001], the American people married war. Permanent, generational, infinite war is now embedded in the American way of life, while just about the only part of the government guaranteed ever more soaring dollars, no matter what it does with them, is the U.S. military.” At Slate.com, Fred Kaplan notes that the Afghan War:
has been going on for 17 years now… making it the longest war in American history. Yet we are no closer than we have ever been to accomplishing our objectives, in part because those objectives have been so sketchily, inconsistently, and unrealistically defined.
In fact, the Taliban is gaining strength; other jihadist groups, including ISIS and a revivified al-Qaida, are joining the fight (against the Afghan government, Western forces, and the Taliban); the Afghan Army is suffering casualties at an alarming rate; the chaos is spiraling to unsustainable levels.
Nevertheless, the USA persists in its folly. There are many reasons for this, but I’d like to focus on one: the warrior ethos in the US military. “Warriors wanted,” say new US Army TV ads and web campaigns. The warrior ethos, according to the Army, compels us to never accept defeat. Check out goarmy.com/warriors to get your lesson on America’s warrior ethos. The site says the Army must be “unbeatable.” The site says “We never accept defeat.”
Space, the “final frontier,” isn’t what it used to be. In the 1960s and early 1970s I grew up a fan of NASA as well as Star Trek with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. NASA was (and is) a civilian space agency, even though its corps of astronauts was originally drawn from the ranks of military test pilots. Star Trekoffered a vision of a “federation” of planets in the future, united by a vision “to explore strange new worlds,” venturing forth boldly in the cause of peace. Within the US military, space itself was considered to be the new “high ground,” admittedly a great place for spy satellites (which helped to keep the peace) but a disastrous place for war. (Of course, that didn’t prevent the military from proposing crazy ideas, like building a military base on the moon armed with nuclear-tipped missiles.)
Attracted to the space mission, my first assignment as a military officer was to Air Force Space Command. I helped to support the Space Surveillance Center in Cheyenne Mountain Complex, which kept track of all objects in earth orbit, from satellites to space junk. (You don’t want a lost hammer or other space junk colliding with your billion-dollar satellite at a speed of roughly 17,000 miles per hour.) In the mid-1980s, when I was in AFSPACECOM, an offensive space force to “dominate” space was a vision shared by very few people. I had a small role to play in supporting tests of an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile launched from F-15s, but those tests were curtailed and later canceled as the Soviet Union, considered as America’s main rival for control of space, began to collapse in the late 1980s.
I was watching the Bill Maher Show this past weekend on HBO. Generally considered a liberal and a free-thinker, Maher argued that U.S. military forces had to stay in Afghanistan to prevent a resurgence of terrorism. He and his guests seem to have forgotten US military testimony that roughly 20 terrorist groups are currently present in Afghanistan; indeed, that the presence of American troops has attracted more terrorist activity, even as the Taliban has increased its control and the drug trade has vastly expanded. How is long-term failure over 17 years an argument for an even longer “enduring presence” by US troops? How long should those troops stay – forever?
General Smedley Butler knew the score. Five years ago, I wrote this post citing his confession about how war is a racket, driven by the profit motive, exploited by the powerful, even as the grunts and the native people of foreign lands pay the price.
As a kid, I was a big admirer of Israel.* I kept a scrapbook on the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Back then, Israel was America’s plucky ally, David against Goliath, helping to keep the Soviet bear at bay, or so it seemed to me.
Through a kid’s eyes, Israel in 1973 was an island seemingly surrounded by a sea of well-armed enemies: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. Outnumbered and outgunned. And now look at today’s reality: Egypt and Iraq have been neutralized. Syria is devastated. Jordan is wisely (sort of) neutral. The Saudis are a quasi-ally. Outside of the more-or-less manageable threat of terrorism (Hamas and Hezbollah), Israel’s chief enemy today appears to be itself.
What I mean by that is this: Israel, which over the last 70 years has fought several wars for its survival, is now a regional superpower. Yet the mindset of David versus Goliath persists, even though Goliath is hobbled and defeated. Meanwhile, as Israel combats terrorism and the legacies of West Bank occupation and isolation of the Gaza Strip, the government prosecutes policies that are considered illiberal and dangerous by many Jewish critics within Israel itself.
Tuesday night, as I was watching the PBS News Hour, I snapped to attention as I heard a new euphemism for murdered innocents from bombing: “civilian casualty incidents.”
A PBS reporter used it, unthinkingly I believe, repeating bureaucratic jargon about all the innocents in Yemen smashed to bits or shredded by “dumb” bombs, cluster munitions, and even “smart” bombs that are really only as smart as the pilots launching them (and the often imperfect “actionable intelligence” gathered to sanction them).
The overall tone of the PBS report was reassuring. General Mattis appeared to comfort Americans that the Saudis are doing better with bombing accuracy, and that America’s role in helping the Saudis is limited to aerial refueling and intelligence gathering about what not to hit. Of course, the Saudis can’t bomb without fuel, so the U.S. could easily stop aerial massacres if we wanted to, but the Saudis are our allies and they buy weapons in massive quantities from us, so forget about any real criticism here.