Danny Sjursen

Here's what to expect in the next 4 years of American war under President Biden

Hard as it is to believe in this time of record pandemic deaths, insurrection, and an unprecedented encore impeachment, Joe Biden is now officially at the helm of the U.S. war machine. He is, in other words, the fourth president to oversee America's unending and unsuccessful post-9/11 military campaigns. In terms of active U.S. combat, that's only happened once before, in the Philippines, America's second-longest (if often forgotten) overseas combat campaign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Middle East: Old Prescriptions for Old Business

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

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

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

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

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

Keep an Eye on Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endgame: War as Abstraction

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

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

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

Copyright 2021 Danny Sjursen

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

Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a retired U.S. Army major, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, and director of the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). He taught history at West Point and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the author of Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. He co-hosts the "Fortress on a Hill" podcast.

How two former service members became critics of American forever wars and the military machine

If you have a moment, how about joining two retired officers, Bill Astore and me, Danny Sjursen, as we think about this country's catastrophic forever wars that, regardless of their deadly costs and lack of progress, never seem quite to end?

Recently, in a podcast chat about our very different but somehow twin journeys through those wars, he and I got to thinking about what might have happened if our paths had crossed so much earlier. Both of us, after all, have been writing for TomDispatch for years. As Bill once said to me, thinking about his post-military writing career, "You know, Danny, in my small way I was trying -- and failing -- to stop the wars you were heading into."

Now that's an interesting, if disturbing, thought. But Bill, what would you have said to Lieutenant Danny (that was me once upon a time!) and how might he have responded then?

Who could know now, of course? Still, here's our retrospective attempt to sort that out in joint correspondence in which we track about 15 years' worth of this country's unending wars.

The Frankenstein and Star Trek Years of American War

Bill: When you were graduating from West Point in 2005 and shining your lieutenant's bars, Danny, I was putting my uniform away after 20 years in the Air Force and driving to Pennsylvania for a new career as a history professor. I thought I'd teach and maybe write a book or two. I never pictured myself as a dissenter, and I'd never spoken out publicly against the wars we were in. The one time I was interviewed about them, in 2005 when I was still the military dean of students at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, I remember saying that I preferred our troops use words rather than rifle butts to communicate with the Afghans and Iraqis. Of course, we had so few troops who spoke Arabic or Pashto or Dari that we leaned on our rifles instead, which meant lots of dead and alienated people in both countries.

In the summer of 2007, I was increasingly disgusted by the way the administration of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney was hiding behind the bemedaled chest of Iraq commander General David Petraeus. Our civilian commander-in-chief, George W., was avoiding responsibility for the disastrous Iraq War by sending Petraeus, then known as the "surge" general, before Congress to testify that some sort of victory was still possible, even as he hedged his talk of progress with words like "fragile" and "reversible."

So I got off my butt and wrote an article that argued we needed to end the Iraq War and our folly of "spilling blood and treasure with such reckless abandon." I submitted it to newspapers like the New York Times with no success. Fortunately, a friend told me about TomDispatch, where Tom Engelhardt had been publishing critical articles by retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich. Luckily for me, Tom liked my piece and published it as "Saving the Military from Itself" in October of that same year.

That article put me on the path of dissent from America's forever wars, even if I wasn't so much antiwar as anti-dumb-war then. As I asked at the time, how do you win someone else's civil war? Being a Star Trek fan, I referred to the Kobayashi Maru, a "no-win" scenario introduced in the second Star Trek movie. I saw our troops, young lieutenants like yourself in Iraq, being stuck in a no-win situation and I was already convinced that, no matter how much Petraeus talked about "metrics" and "progress," it wasn't going to happen, that "winning" really meant leaving, and we haven't won yet since, god help us, we're still there.

Of course, the so-called surge in Iraq back then did what it was actually meant to do. It provided an illusion of progress and stability even while proving just as fragile and reversible as the weaselly Petraeus said it would be. Worse yet, the myth of that Iraqi surge would lead disastrously to the Afghan version of the same under Barack Obama and -- yet again -- Petraeus who would prove to be a general for all presidents.

Lucky you! You were on the ground in both surges, weren't you?

Danny: I sure was! Believe it or not, a colonel once told me I was lucky to have done "line duty" in both of them -- platoon and company command, Iraq and Afghanistan, Baghdad and Kandahar. To be honest, Bill, I knew something was fishy even before you retired or I graduated from West Point and headed for those wars.

In fact, it's funny that you should mention Bacevich. I was first introduced to his work in the winter of 2004 as a West Point senior by then-Lieutenant Colonel Ty Seidule. Back then, for a guy like me, Bacevich had what could only be called bracing antiwar views (a wink-nod to your Bracing Views blog, Bill) for a classroom of burgeoning neocons just about certain to head for Iraq. Frankly, most of us couldn't wait to go.

And we wouldn't have that long to wait either. The first of our classmates to die, Emily Perez, was killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb in September 2006 within 18 months of graduation (and five more were to die in the years to come). I took a scout platoon to southeast Baghdad a month later and we didn't leave -- most of us, that is -- for 15 months.

My partly Bacevich-bred sneaking suspicions about America's no-longer distant wars were, of course, all confirmed. It turned out that policing an ethno-religious-sectarian conflict, mostly of our own country's making, while dodging counter-counterinsurgent attacks aimed at expelling us occupiers from that country was as tough as stateside invasion opponents had predicted.

On lonely outpost mornings, I had a nasty daily habit of reading the names of our announced dead. Midway through my tour, one of those countless attacks killed 1st Lt. Andrew J. Bacevich. When I saw that name, I realized instantly that he must be the son of the man whose book I had read two years earlier, the man who is now our colleague. The moment remains painfully crystal clear in my memory.

By the way, Bill, your Iraq War take was dead on. During my own tour there, I came to the same realization. Embarrassingly enough, though, it took me seven years to say the same things publicly in my first book, fittingly subtitled "The Myth of the Surge." By then, of course, ISIS -- the Frankenstein's monster of America's misadventure -- was already streaming across Syria's synthetic borders and conquering swaths of northern and western Iraq, which made an anti-Iraq War screed seem quaint indeed, at least in establishment circles.

But Bill, do go on.

Bill: It was also back in 2007 when something John McCain said on PBS really ticked me off. In essence, he warned that if the U.S. military lost in Iraq, it wouldn't be the generals' fault. No, it would be ours, those of us who had questioned the war and its conduct and so had broken faith with that very military. In response, I wrote a piece at TomDispatch with the sarcastic title, "If We Lose Iraq, You're to Blame," because I already found such "stab-in-the-back" lies pernicious beyond words. As Andy Bacevich noted recently when it came to such lies about an earlier American military disaster: we didn't lose the Vietnam War in 1975 when Saigon fell, we lost it in 1965 when President Johnson committed American troops to winning a civil war that South Vietnam had already lost.

Something similar is true for the Iraq and Afghan wars today. We won't lose those conflicts when we finally pull all U.S. troops out and the situation goes south (as it most likely will). No, we lost the Afghan War in 2002 when we decided to turn a strike against the Taliban and al-Qaeda into an occupation of that country; and we lost the Iraq War the moment we invaded in 2003 and found none of the weapons of mass destruction that Bush and his top officials had sworn were there. Those were wars of choice, not of necessity, and we could only "win" them by finally choosing to end them. We lose them -- and maybe our democracy as well -- by choosing to keep on waging them in the false cause of "stability" or "counterterrorism," or you-name-it.

Early in 2009, I had an epiphany of sorts while walking around a cemetery. With those constant deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and dozens of other countries globally, the U.S. military, I thought, was becoming a foreign legion, almost like the quintessential French version of the same, increasingly separated from the people, and increasingly recruited from "foreign" elements, including recent immigrants to this country looking for a fast-track to citizenship.

Danny: Bill, one of my own soldiers fit the mold you just mentioned. Private First Class Gustavo Rios-Ordonez, a married father of two and a Colombian national. Partly seeking citizenship through service, he was the last trooper to join my command just before we shipped out and the first killed when, on June 20, 2011, he stepped on an improvised explosive device within sight of the Afghan outpost I then commanded. Typing this now, I stare at a framed dusty unit guidon, the pennant that once flew over that isolated sandbagged base of ours and was gifted to me by my soldiers.

Sorry, Bill, last interruption... scout's honor!

Surges to Nowhere

Bill: So I wrote an article that asked if our military was morphing into an imperial police force. As I put it then: "Foreign as in being constantly deployed overseas on imperial errands; foreign as in being ever more reliant on private military contractors; foreign as in being increasingly segregated from the elites that profit most from its actions, yet serve the least in its ranks." And I added, "Now would be a good time to ask exactly why, and for whom, our troops are currently fighting and dying in the urban jungles of Iraq and the hostile hills of Afghanistan."

A few people torched me for writing that. They thought I was saying that the troops themselves were somehow foreign, that I was attacking the rank-and-file, but my intent was to attack those who were misusing the military for their own purposes and agendas and all the other Americans who were acquiescing in the misuse of our troops. It's a strange dynamic in this country, the way we're cajoled into supporting our troops without ourselves having to serve or even pay attention to what they're doing.

Indeed, under George W. Bush, we were even discouraged from commemorating the honored dead, denied seeing footage of returning flag-draped caskets. We were to celebrate our troops, while they (especially the dead and wounded) were kept out of sight -- literally behind curtains, by Bush administration order -- and so mostly out of mind.

I was against the Afghan surge, Danny, because I knew it would be both futile and unsustainable. In arguing that case, I reached back to the writings of two outspoken opponents of the Vietnam War, Norman Mailer and Mary McCarthy. As President Obama deliberated on whether to surge or not, I suggested that he should confer with broadminded critics outside the government, tough-minded freethinkers cut from the cloth of Mailer and McCarthy.

Mailer, for example, had argued that the Vietnamese were "faceless" to Americans (just as the Iraqis and Afghans have been all these years), that we knew little about them as a people and cared even less. He saw American intervention in "heart of darkness" terms. McCarthy was even blunter, condemning as "wicked" the government's technocentric and hegemonic form of warfare with its "absolute indifference to the cost in human lives." Predictably, Obama listened to conventional wisdom and surged again, first under General Stanley McChrystal and then, of course, under Petraeus.

Danny: Well, Bill, paltry as it may now sound, I truly thank you for your post-service service to sensibility and decency -- even if those efforts didn't quite spare me the displeasure of a second stint in a second theater with Petraeus as my supreme commander for a second time.

By the way, I ran into King David (as he came to be known) last year in a long line for the urinals at Newark airport. Like you, I've been tearing the guy's philosophy and policies up for years. Still, I decided decorum mattered, so I introduced myself and mentioned that we'd met once at a Baghdad base in 2007. But before I could even kid him about how his staff had insisted that we stock ample kiwi slices because he loved to devour them, Petraeus suddenly walked off without even making it to the stall! I found it confusing behavior until I glimpsed myself in the mirror and remembered that I was wearing an "Iraq Veterans Against the War" t-shirt.

Okay, here's a more instructive anecdote: Have I ever mentioned to you that my Afghan outpost, "Pashmul South" as it was then known, featured prominently in the late journalist Michael Hasting's classic book, The Operators (which inspired the Netflix original movie War Machine)? At one point, Hastings describes how Petraeus's predecessor in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, visited an isolated base full of war-weary and war-exasperated infantrymen. In one of the resident platoons, all but seven of its 25 original members had "been killed, wounded, or lost their minds." And yes, that was the "palace" I took over a couple of years later, an outpost the Taliban was then attacking almost daily.

By the time I took up the cause of "Enduring Freedom" (as the Afghan operation had been dubbed by the Pentagon), I had already resigned myself to being one of those foreign legionnaires you've talked about, if not an outright mercenary. During the Afghan surge, I fought for pay, healthcare, a future West Point faculty slot, and lack of a better alternative (or alternate identity). My principles then were simple enough: patrol as little as possible, kill as few locals as you can, and make sure that one day you'll walk (as many of my scouts literally did) out of that valley called Arghandab.

I was in a dark headspace then. I didn't believe a damn thing my own side said, held out not an ounce of hope for victory, and couldn't even be bothered to hate my "enemy." On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, staff officers at brigade headquarters sent a Reuters reporter deep into the boonies to profile the only commander around from the New York City area and I told him just what I thought, or close enough in any case. Suffice it to say that my colonels were less than pleased when Captain Sjursen was quoted as saying that "the war was anything but personal" and that he never "thought about 9/11 at all" or when he described the Taliban this way: "It's farm-boys picking up guns. How do you hate that?"

Rereading that article now, I feel a certain sadness for that long-gone self of mine, so lost in fatalism, hopelessness, and near-nihilism. Then I catch myself and think: imagine how the Afghans felt, especially since they didn't have a distant home to scurry off to sooner or later.

Anyway, I never forgot that it was Obama -- from whom I'd sought Iraq War salvation -- who ordered my troops on that even more absurd Afghan surge to nowhere (and I'm not sure I've forgiven him either). Still, if there was a silver lining in all that senselessness, perhaps it was that such a bipartisan betrayal widened both the breadth and depth of my future dissent.

The Struggle Itself

Bill: Speaking of surges, Danny, even the word is a military misnomer. It's dishonest. Real generals advance and retreat. They reinforce. They win (or lose). They occupy the battlefield. Lines move on maps. Foes are beaten and surrender. None of this happens with a "surge." Our generals just added more troops to exert temporary control over an area in what was nothing more than a fallacious face-saving gesture. A mask. A conceit. All those surges did was sustain a losing cause and reinforce failure. Consider them a fundamental mistake of military strategy, like throwing good money after bad or doubling down on a losing hand.

Why didn't they listen to me? Why didn't they stop the Iraq and Afghan surges and end those wars? And now that, with other retired military types, we're both in the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN) you organized, continuing to speak out against the twenty-first-century American way of making war, why do they still not listen to us? I fear that the answer's simple enough: they have a trillion reasons not to. After all, roughly a trillion-plus dollars is spent each year on the Pentagon, on so-called homeland security, on nuclear weapons, on intelligence and surveillance, on buying weaponry and then more of the same after that. Why won't they listen to us? We threaten their bottom line, their profits. And why should we get invites to CNN and MSNBC and other mainstream media sites when they already have Pentagon cheerleaders on their staffs and retired senior officers who spout the party line, as journalist David Barstow revealed in his Pulitzer-award-winning series? We aren't really in EMN, Danny, we're in the IMF, the impossible missions force.

I remember reading old newspapers from the 1930s that were quite blunt about how to end war: get the profit motive out of it. That was when the standing U.S. military was fairly small and Americans were skeptical of weapons makers, the "merchants of death" as they were so rightly called back then. Almost a century later, we're the leading merchant of death, the country that arms the world. Domestically, we're awash in weaponry, with a gun for every American and a mini-tank for every police force. I've attacked this creeping militarism, this degradation of our democracy, but with little success. So welcome to the IMF from the classic TV show Mission Impossible. Unless we smarten up and end these perpetual wars, this democracy will self-destruct in five seconds. The odds are long, but it's a mission we just have to accept.

Danny: I couldn't agree more, Bill. The militarism problem is cyclical and systemic with a backstory that's sure to ping our shared historian's radar. I hinted at this two months ago in remarks I made at legendary antiwar vet Smedley Butler's graveside (the former major general I wrote about at TomDispatch in February). Highlighting his prophetic aspect, I noted that the two-time Medal of Honor-recipient had diagnosed core components of the military-industrial complex a quarter of a century before our new organization's namesake, former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, coined the term in his Cassandra-like 1961 farewell address. If that isn't proof our forever-war problems are systemic rather than discrete, I don't know what is.

That short speech of mine was occasioned by the 19th anniversary of our absurd Afghan War, the conflict you couldn't singlehandedly stop in time to save me from a second surge excursion. Anyway, don't beat yourself up about that, Bill. Like you said, the war-state beast is humongous and our buddy Bacevich has been beating this drum since you were still wearing Air Force blue. Under the circumstances and in these pandemic times, what could be more appropriate than a buck-up from that ever-cheery French novelist of plagues and philosopher Albert Camus: "The struggle itself... is enough to fill a man's heart."

And you won't believe this, but I had to stop there a moment to field a tortured text from an ex-student of mine turned Army lieutenant who's now straddling those spheres of doubt and dissent that you and I know all too well. You may recall that I penned a piece last year for our mutual friend Tom Engelhardt on "Watching My Students Turn Into Soldiers of Empire." Damned if that wasn't a hard pill to swallow. Come to think of it, that must be precisely the feeling of failure you've described in our recent correspondence.

Well, at least the military dissent gestation period seems to be shortening. I commissioned exactly 20 years after you. The last crop of cadets from the freshman history class I taught at West Point after I returned from those wars were just 15 years behind me and some of them are now in doubt deep.

The thing is, I fear you're a better man than I am, my friend. I can see the script that's coming down the dusty and well-trodden trail, but I'm not sure I could stomach writing a co-column with one of those kids -- let alone attending one of their funerals.

I guess we old hands had better get to work. In the battle against endless war, our motto has to be: no retreat, no surrender.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular and a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals. His personal blog is Bracing Views.

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

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.opyright 2020 Danny Sjursen and William J. Astore

Here's the uncomfortable truth about Biden's forthcoming foreign policy agenda

In this mystifying moment, the post-electoral sentiments of most Americans can be summed up either as "Ding dong! The witch is dead!" or "We got robbed!" Both are problematic, not because the two candidates were intellectually indistinguishable or ethically equivalent, but because each jingle is laden with a dubious assumption: that President Donald Trump's demise would provide either decisive deliverance or prove an utter disaster.

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

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

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

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

The Company He Keeps

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

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

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

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

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

Think-Tank Imperialists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off The Table: A Paradigm Shift

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

Don't expect major changes when it comes to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama Encore or Worse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen

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