William Astore on the Myths We Tell Ourselves

John Kelly, President Trump’s chief of staff and a retired Marine Corps general, held a press conference on Thursday to deny he’s quitting or that he’s about to be fired. In passing, he referred to two common myths in America that go almost completely unexamined. (By “myth” I mean a defining belief, held in common, and usually without question.)

The first myth: That the United States has “the greatest military on the planet.” The second myth: That the U.S. military’s value is its “deterrent factor.”

The US certainly has a powerful military, one that costs roughly a trillion dollars a year, when all national security expenses are tallied. But is it “the greatest”? More importantly, why should a democracy and a people allegedly dedicated to peace and freedom be so proud of possessing “the greatest military on the planet”?

Continue reading “William Astore on the Myths We Tell Ourselves”

The Vietnam War: A Tragic Mistake?

I’ve watched the first three episodes of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick series on the Vietnam War, which take us from the French colonial period beginning in the 19th century to the end of 1965 and a mushrooming U.S. military commitment. The narrative thread, it seems to me, is the notion of the war as a tragic mistake, most especially for the United States.

The series begins with a voice-over that suggests the war was begun in good faith by America, even as other American voices in the series suggest otherwise. I kept a notebook handy and jotted down the following notes and thoughts as the series progressed:

  1. There were divisions among the Vietnamese people, but they were more or less united by one idea: resist the foreign invaders/occupiers, whether that foreign presence was French, Japanese, the French again, American, or (both earlier and later) Chinese. And there’s no doubt Ho Chi Minh would have won a democratic election, as promised at Geneva. Which is exactly why that election never came.
    Continue reading “The Vietnam War: A Tragic Mistake?”

Ken Burns and the Vietnam War: Ten Items To Watch For

In two weeks (Sept. 17), a new TV documentary series on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns (famous for past series on the U.S. Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, among others) and Lynn Novick is coming to PBS. Airing in ten parts over 18 hours, the series promises a comprehensive look at the war from all sides, with the catchphrase “There is no single truth in war” serving as a guiding light. Initial excerpts suggest the series isn’t looking to provide definitive answers, perhaps as a way of avoiding political controversy in the Age of Trump.

I’ll be watching the series, but I have ten points of my own to make about America’s war in Vietnam. As a preamble, the Vietnam War (American version) was both mistake and crime. What’s disconcerting in the US media is the emphasis on the war as an American tragedy, when it was truly a horrific tragedy inflicted upon the peoples of Southeast Asia (Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians). Yes, American troops suffered and died in large numbers, yet Southeast Asian casualties were perhaps 50 times as great. Along with wanton killing came the poisoning of the environment with defoliants like Agent Orange; meanwhile, mines and unexploded ordnance from the war continue to kill people today in Southeast Asia. In a sense, the killing from that war still isn’t over.

Continue reading “Ken Burns and the Vietnam War: Ten Items To Watch For”

With the Pentagon, Trump Has Morphed Into Hillary Clinton

Candidate Trump occasionally said unconventional things about the Pentagon and America’s wars. He attacked the Pentagon for wasteful spending; cost overruns on the F-35 jet fighter were a favorite target. He attacked the Iraq and Afghan wars as wasteful, asserting they’d cost trillions of dollars without aiding the U.S. in any measurable way. He argued for friendlier relations with Russia, a détente of sort compared to the policies followed by the Obama administration. Naturally, even as he declaimed against America’s wasteful wars and costly weaponry, he promised to fund the military generously. Finally, he wasn’t afraid to take America’s generals to task, asserting he knew more than they did about war and foreign policy.

President Trump is a different man. “His” generals have brought him under control. Criticism of the F-35 has gone away. Trump, even if reluctantly, has embraced the Afghan war and the Pentagon’s open-ended commitment to it. Russian détente has taken a back seat to tough talk and sanctions (not that Trump had much of a choice, considering his campaign is under investigation for possible collusion with Russia). More than anything, Trump has tacitly admitted “his” generals know far more than he does. Mattis controls the Pentagon and the National Security State. Kelly, as White House Chief of Staff, does his best to control Trump. McMaster, as National Security Adviser, increasingly controls what Trump knows and when he knows it with respect to security policy.

Continue reading “With the Pentagon, Trump Has Morphed Into Hillary Clinton”

William Astore on Trump’s Afghan War Speech: More of the Same, With More Killing

As a private citizen and presidential candidate, Donald Trump railed against the Afghan war. A waste, he said. Americans should withdraw, he said. But in last night’s speech, Trump went against his own instincts (so he said) and went with the failed policies of his predecessors. The war will continue, no timetable set, no troop levels determined, with conditions on the ground dictating America’s actions, according to the president.

What caught my attention, beyond the usual paeans of praise to America’s “warriors” and “warfighters,” was the specious reasoning to justify the continuation of the war. Trump gave three reasons, so let’s take them one at a time:

  1. “First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives …”

It’s piss-poor reasoning to argue that, because a lot of people have sacrificed and died in a war, the war should continue (with more people dying) to justify those previous sacrifices. By this logic, the more who die, the more we should keep fighting, meaning more dead, meaning more fighting, and so on. Where is the honor and “worthy” outcome here?

Continue reading “William Astore on Trump’s Afghan War Speech: More of the Same, With More Killing”

Trump: Much ‘Fire and Fury,’ Signifying Something Vital

The big story today is Trump’s threat to North Korea about “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in response to any aggression against the U.S. and its allies. The world witnessed American “fire and fury” in August of 1945 when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated by atomic bombs (indeed, today is the 72nd anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing). Roughly 250,000 people were killed in those two bombings, and Trump is apparently promising a worst form of fury against North Korea (“like the world has never seen”).

Back in October 2016, I wrote a piece at this site with the title: “On nuclear weapons, Trump is nightmarishly scary,” and that nightmare is beginning to take shape. As I wrote back then, Trump’s worst attribute is his “sweeping ignorance to the point of recklessness when it comes to matters of national defense, and specifically America’s nuclear arsenal.” I further wrote that:

Back in March … Trump boasted at a debate that the US military would follow his orders irrespective of their legality. In this latest debate, he yet again revealed that he has no real knowledge of America’s nuclear capability and how modern and powerful (and scary) it truly is.

Continue reading “Trump: Much ‘Fire and Fury,’ Signifying Something Vital”