William Astore

America's worst pastime: Why our National Defense Strategy has no plan for peace

William Astore: Humanity's Worst Pastime

Imagine this scenario for a moment: a “great power” watches another major power fight a war in a nearby nation for 10 years before its army limps home defeated and, not so very long after, that country implodes. A little over a decade later, by then unofficially the “last superpower” on planet earth, the second country chooses — yes, you guessed it — to fight its own war in that very same land, which happens to be almost 7,500 miles away by air. Like its predecessor, it, too, finds that, no matter what forces it brings to bear, it simply can’t win. Still, it continues to try for 20 years!

All of that should sound familiar indeed to those of us of a certain age. And yes, of course, I was referring first to the Soviet Union’s disaster in Afghanistan (much aided and abetted by the CIA and significant American financing of the guerrilla forces fighting the Red Army) and then to Washington’s version of the same disaster. That ended in August 2021 in a chaotic U.S. withdrawal and the complete collapse of the Afghan forces it had been backing all those years. In the last moments of that defeat — consider it the icing on the cake — an American drone took out a white Toyota Corolla in a neighborhood near the airport in that nation’s capital, Kabul, where the U.S. evacuation was underway. In the process, it slaughtered 10 Afghans, including a “long-time aid worker” and seven children, misidentified as enemy agents on a mission to attack American forces at that very airport.

Oh, and then the U.S. military did its best to bury its own investigation of that small-scale disaster amid the far larger one, something revealed recently by the remarkable New York Times reporter Azmat Khan.

And here’s my question to you: What did the U.S. military learn from all that? The answer is simple enough, as retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, historian, and TomDispatch regular William Astore makes clear today. No matter that this country had wasted $2.3 trillion on its Afghan adventure, its top military officials learned that nothing could stop Congress from appropriating yet more money for a military budget that, at this point, seems headed for the trillion-dollar mark annually. Consider it strange indeed that, in this all-American world of ours, even though this country hasn’t won a war of significance since World War II, the only politicians in Washington — a small number of progressive Democrats like Barbara Lee aside — who display any interest in cutting that budget are in the otherwise disastrous Trumpist Freedom Caucus. Honestly, what a world!

And with that, I leave you to Astore to consider the Pentagon’s latest assessment of its future and the barrels of money its failures continue to bring in. Tom

Imperial Dominance Disguised as Democratic Deterrence: The Pentagon's National Defense Strategy Drives Record Military Spending

More than two millennia ago, in the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounted a disastrous conflict Athens waged against Sparta. A masterwork on strategy and war, the book is still taught at the U.S. Army War College and many other military institutions across the world. A passage from it describing an ultimatum Athens gave a weaker power has stayed with me all these years. And here it is, loosely translated from the Greek: “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer as they must.”

Recently, I read the latest National Defense Strategy, or NDS, issued in October 2022 by the Pentagon, and Thucydides’s ancient message, a warning as clear as it was undeniable, came to mind again. It summarized for me the true essence of that NDS: being strong, the United States does what it wants and weaker powers, of course, suffer as they must. Such a description runs contrary to the mythology of this country in which we invariably wage war not for our own imperial ends but to defend ourselves while advancing freedom and democracy. Recall that Athens, too, thought of itself as an enlightened democracy even as it waged its imperial war of dominance on the Peloponnesus. Athens lost that war, calamitously, but at least it did produce Thucydides, a military leader who became a historian and wrote all too bluntly about his country’s hubristic, ultimately fatal pursuit of hegemony.

Imperial military ambitions contributed disastrously to Athens’s exhaustion and ultimate collapse, a lesson completely foreign to U.S. strategists. Not surprisingly, then, you’ll find no such Thucydidean clarity in the latest NDS approved by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. In place of that Greek historian’s probity and timeless lessons, the NDS represents an assault not just on the English language but on our very future. In it, a policy of failing imperial dominance is eternally disguised as democratic deterrence, while the greatest “strategic” effort of all goes (remarkably successfully) into justifying massive Pentagon budget increases. Given the sustained record of failures in this century for what still passes as the greatest military power on the planet — Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, of course, but don’t forget Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and indeed the entire $8 trillion Global War on Terror in all its brutality — consider the NDS a rare recent “mission accomplished” moment. The 2023 baseline “defense” budget now sits at $858 billion, $45 billion more than even the Biden administration requested.

With that yearly budget climbing toward a trillion dollars (or more) annually, it’s easy to conclude that, at least when it comes to our military, nothing succeeds like failure. And, by the way, that not only applies to wars lost at a staggering cost but also financial audits blown without penalty. After all, the Pentagon only recently failed its fifth audit in a row. With money always overflowing, no matter how it may be spent, one thing seems guaranteed: some future American Thucydides will have the material to produce a volume or volumes beyond compare. Of course, whether this country goes the way of Athens — defeat driven by military exhaustion exacerbated by the betrayal of its supposedly deepest ideals leading to an ultimate collapse — remains to be seen. Still, given that America’s war colleges continue to assign Thucydides, no one can say that our military and future NDS writers didn’t get fair warning when it comes to what likely awaits them.

Bludgeoning America with Bureaucratese

If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with BS.

That’s a saying I learned early in my career as an Air Force officer, so I wasn’t exactly surprised to discover that it’s the NDS’s guiding philosophy. The document has an almost Alice in Wonderland-like quality to it as words and phrases take on new meanings. China, you won’t be surprised to learn, is a “pacing challenge” to U.S. security concerns; Russia, an “acute threat” to America due to its “unprovoked, unjust, and reckless invasion of Ukraine” and other forms of “irresponsible behavior”; and building “combat-credible forces” within a “defense ecosystem” is a major Pentagon goal, along with continuing “investments in mature, high-value assets” (like defective aircraft carriers, ultra-expensive bombers and fighter jets, and doomsday-promising new ICBMs).

Much talk is included about “leveraging” those “assets,” “risk mitigation,” and even “cost imposition,” a strange euphemism for bombing, killing, or otherwise inflicting pain on our enemies. Worse yet, there’s so much financial- and business-speak in the document that it’s hard not to wonder whether its authors don’t already have at least one foot in the revolving door that could, on their retirement from the military, swing them onto the corporate boards of major defense contractors like Boeing and Raytheon.

Perhaps my favorite redefined concept in that NDS lurks in the word “campaigning.” In the old days, armies fought campaigns in the field and generals like Frederick the Great or Napoleon truly came to know the price of them in blood and treasure. Unlike U.S. generals since 1945, they also knew the meaning of victory, as well as defeat. Perish the thought of that kind of campaigning now. The NDS redefines it, almost satirically, not to say incomprehensibly, as “the conduct and sequencing of logically-linked military initiatives aimed at advancing well-defined, strategy-aligned priorities over time.” Huh?

Campaigning, explains the cover letter signed by Secretary of Defense Austin (who won’t be mistaken for Frederick II in his bluntness or Napoleon in his military acuity), “is not business as usual — it is the deliberate effort to synchronize the [Defense] Department’s activities and investments to aggregate focus and resources to shift conditions in our favor.”

Got it? Good!

Of course, who knows what such impenetrable jargon really means to our military in 2023? This former military officer certainly prefers the plain and honest language of Thucydides. In his terms, America, the strong, intends to do what it will in the world to preserve and extend “conditions in our favor,” as the NDS puts it — a measure by which this country has failed dismally in this century. Weaker countries, especially those that are “irresponsible,” must simply suffer. If they resist, they must be prepared for some “cost imposition” events exercised by our “combat-credible forces.” Included in those are America’s “ultimate backstop” of cost imposition… gulp, its nuclear forces.

Again, the NDS is worthy of close reading (however pain-inducing that may be) precisely because the secretary of defense does claim that it’s his “preeminent guidance document.” I assume he’s not kidding about that, though I wish he were. To me, that document is to guidance as nuclear missiles are to “backstops.” If that last comparison is jarring, I challenge you to read it and then try to think or write clearly.

Bringing Clarity to America’s Military Strategy

To save you the trauma of even paging through the NDS, let me try to summarize it quickly in my version — if not the Pentagon’s — of English:

  1. China is the major threat to America on this planet.
  2. Russia, however, is a serious threat in Europe.
  3. The War on Terror continues to hum along successfully, even if at a significantly lower level.
  4. North Korea and Iran remain threats, mainly due to the first’s growing nuclear arsenal and the second’s supposed nuclear aspirations.
  5. Climate change, pandemics, and cyberwar must also be factored in as “transboundary challenges.”

“Deterrence” is frequently used as a cloak for the planetary dominance the Pentagon continues to dream of. Our military must remain beyond super-strong (and wildly overfunded) to deter nations and entities from striking “the homeland.” There’s also lots of talk about global challenges to be met, risks to be managed, “gray zone” methods to be employed, and references aplenty to “kinetic action” (combat, in case your translator isn’t working) and what’s known as “exploitable asymmetries.”

Count on one thing: whatever our disasters in the real world, nobody is going to beat America in the jargon war.

Missing in the NDS — and no surprise here — is any sense that war is humanity’s worst pastime. Even the mass murder implicit in nuclear weapons is glossed over. The harshest realities of conflict, nuclear war included, and the need to do anything in our power to prevent them, naturally go unmentioned. The very banality of the document serves to mask a key reality of our world: that Americans fund nothing as religiously as war, that most withering of evils.

Perhaps it’s not quite the banality of evil, to cite the telling phrase political philosopher Hannah Arendt used to describe the thoughts of the deskbound mass-murderers of the Holocaust, but it does have all of war’s brutality expunged from it. As we stare into the abyss, the NDS replies with mind-numbing phrases and terms that wouldn’t be out of place in a corporate report on rising profits and market dominance.

Yet as the military-industrial complex maneuvers and plots to become ever bigger, ever better funded, and ever more powerful, abetted by a Congress seemingly lustful for ever more military spending and weapons exports, hope for international cooperation, productive diplomacy, and democracy withers. Here, for instance, are a few of the things you’ll never see mentioned in this NDS:

  1. Any suggestion that the Pentagon budget might be reduced. Ever.
  2. Any suggestion that the U.S. military’s mission or “footprint” should be downsized in any way at all.
  3. Any acknowledgement that the U.S. and its allies spend far more on their militaries than “pacing challengers” like China or “acute threats” like Russia.
  4. Any acknowledgment that the Pentagon’s budget is based not on deterrence but on dominance.
  5. Any acknowledgement that the U.S. military has been far less than dominant despite endless decades of massive military spending that produced lost or stalemated wars from Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.
  6. Any suggestion that skilled diplomacy and common security could lead to greater cooperation or decreased tensions.
  7. Any serious talk of peace.

In brief, in that document and thanks to the staggering congressional funding that goes with it, America is being eternally spun back into an age of great-power rivalry, with Xi Jinping’s China taking the place of the old Soviet Union and Vladimir Putin’s Russia that of Mao Zedong’s China. Consistent with that retro-vision is the true end goal of the NDS: to eternally maximize the Pentagon budget and so the power and authority of the military-industrial-congressional complex.

Basically, any power that seeks to push back against the Pentagon’s vision of security through dominance is defined as a threat to be “deterred,” often in the most “kinetic” way. And the greatest threat of all, requiring the most “deterrence,” is, of course, China.

In a textbook case of strategic mirror-imaging, the Pentagon’s NDS sees that country and its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as acting almost exactly like the U.S. military. And that simply cannot be allowed.

Here’s the relevant NDS passage:

In addition to expanding its conventional forces, the PLA is rapidly advancing and integrating its space, counterspace, cyber, electronic, and information warfare capabilities to support its holistic approach to joint warfare. The PLA seeks to target the ability of the [U.S.] Joint Force to project power to defend vital U.S. interests and aid our Allies in a crisis or conflict. The PRC [China] is also expanding the PLA’s global footprint and working to establish a more robust overseas and basing infrastructure to allow it to project military power at greater distances. In parallel, the PRC is accelerating the modernization and expansion of its nuclear capabilities.

How dare China become more like the United States! Only this country is allowed to aspire to “full-spectrum dominance” and global power, as manifested by its 750 military bases scattered around the world and its second-to-none, blue-water navy. Get back to thy place, China! Only “a free people devoted to democracy and the rule of law” can “sustain and strengthen an international system under threat.” China, you’ve been warned. Better not dare to keep pace with the U.S. of A. (And heaven forfend that, in a world overheating in a devastating way, the planet’s two greatest greenhouse gas emitters should work together to prevent true catastrophe!)

Revisiting the Oath of Office

Being a retired U.S. military officer, I always come back to the oath of office I once swore to uphold: “To support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Naturally, if China, Russia, or any other country or entity attacks or otherwise directly menaces the U.S., I expect our military to defend this country with all due vigor.

That said, I don’t see China, Russia, or weaker countries like Iran or North Korea risking attacks against America proper, despite breathless talk of world “flashpoints.” Why would they, when any such attack would incur a devastating counterattack, possibly including America’s trusty “backstop,” its nuclear weapons?

In truth, the NDS is all about the further expansion of the U.S. global military mission. Contraction is a concept never to be heard. Yet reducing our military’s presence abroad isn’t synonymous with isolationism, nor, as has become ever more obvious in recent years, is an expansive military structure a fail-safe guarantor of freedom and democracy at home. Quite the opposite, constant warfare and preparations for more of it overseas have led not only to costly defeats, most recently in Afghanistan, but also to the increasing militarization of our society, a phenomenon reflected, for instance, in the more heavily armed and armored police forces across America.

The Pentagon’s NDS is a classic case of threat inflation cloaked in bureaucratese where the “facts” are fixed around a policy that encourages the incessant and inflationary growth of the military-industrial complex. In turn, that complex empowers and drives a “rules-based international order” in which America, as hegemon, makes the rules. Again, as Thucydides put it, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer as they must.

Yet, to paraphrase another old book, what does it profit a people to gain the whole world yet lose their very soul? Like Athens before it, America was once a flawed democracy that nevertheless served as an inspiration to many because militarism, authoritarianism, and imperial pretense didn’t drive it. Today, this country is much like Thucydides’s Athens, projecting power ever-outwards in a misbegotten exercise to attain mastery through military supremacy.

It didn’t end well for Athens, nor will it for the United States.

Gaga over a mass-murder machine: Trillions to be spent on expanding the American atomic arsenal

William Astore: Going Nuclear (Again)

It was a backlit wonder of a plane on what looked like a Hollywood set — though the location was actually a Northrop Grumman plant in California. The workers from that giant weapons maker were there, too, chanting “USA! USA!” And so was Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin who “unveiled” it. Only one thing was missing: any emphasis on the fact that the new, ultra-secret B-21 stealth bomber being rolled out for the first time was the latest entry in the potential nuclear destruction of this planet.

But why dwell on that or even go out of your way to mention it? The Washington Post‘s coverage was typical. The word “nuclear” only appeared in the caption under an all-too-dramatic photo. (“Northrop Grumman Corp. rolled out the first plane in a new fleet of long-range stealth nuclear bombers for the U.S. Air Force on December 2.”) Similarly, Austin introduced the new plane with an almost 1,300-word statement, but only used the word “nuclear” once. (“The Raider is designed to deliver both conventional and nuclear munitions, with formidable precision.”) Otherwise, the retired Army four-star general preferred an ancient military code word for a world of nukes, “deterrence.” (“Ladies and gentlemen, this is deterrence the American way.”) And tell me that doesn’t make sense. After all, at such a celebratory moment, why remind anyone, no less us taxpayers who unknowingly spent a fortune creating the plane, that our money is being squandered on a weapons system geared to ending it all?

Honestly, it almost might have been funny, if … well, if… but don’t let me spoil the good times! After all, they’ve been going on for so long. Hey, it all began with the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II, when I was one and the progress was already remarkable by the time I was a boy. In fact, as Robert Jacobs wrote in his book The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age about a 1954 Strategic Air Command (SAC) briefing, “The optimum SAC war plan… called for 150 B-36s and 585 B-47s to drop 600-750 atomic bombs on the Soviet landmass… with the result (in the impression of one Navy captain present), ‘that virtually all of Russia would be nothing but a smoking, radiating ruin at the end of two hours.'” And remember, that was before intercontinental ballistic missiles even made it onto the scene!

Imagine what a fleet of B-21s could someday do to Russia or China (or who knows where else) or what the weaponry of such countries could do to us. Or rather, be smart and don’t imagine it at all. Instead, like those Northrop Grumman workers and Austin, just let the good times roll. If, however, you’re a masochist like me, then take a moment to check out retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, historian, and TomDispatch regular William Astore’s rundown on this country’s nuclear “triad” and what it all adds up to these days. (More than three, believe me!) Tom

Peace Is Not Our Profession: The Madness of Nuclear Warfare, Alive and Well in America

Hey, cheer up because it truly is a beauty! I’m talking about this country’s latest “stealth bomber,” the B-21 Raider, just revealed by Northrop Grumman, the company that makes it, in all its glory. With its striking bat-winged shape and its ability to deliver a very big bang (as in nuclear weapons), it’s our very own “bomber of the future.” As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin put it at its explosive debut, it will “fortify America’s ability to deter aggression, today and into the future.” Now, that truly makes me proud to be an American.

And while you’re at it, on this MAD (as in mutually assured destruction) world of ours, let that scene, that peculiar form of madness, involving the potential end of everything on Planet Earth, sink in. As a retired Air Force officer, it reminded me all too vividly of my former service and brought to mind the old motto of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), “Peace Is Our Profession.” Headed in its proudest years by the notorious General Curtis LeMay, it promised “peace” via the threat of the total nuclear annihilation of America’s enemies.

SAC long controlled two “legs” of this country’s nuclear triad: its land-based bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. During the Cold War, those Titans, Minutemen, and MX “Peacekeepers” were kept on constant alert, ready to pulverize much of the planet at a moment’s notice. It didn’t matter that this country was likely to be pulverized, too, in any war with the Soviet Union. What mattered was remaining atop the nuclear pile. A concomitant benefit was keeping conventional wars from spinning out of control by threatening the nuclear option or, as was said at the time, “going nuclear.” (In the age of Biden, it’s “Armageddon.”)

Luckily, since the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the world hasn’t gone nuclear again and yet this country’s military continues, with the help of weapons makers like Northrop Grumman, to hustle down that very path to Armageddon. Once upon a time, the absurdity of all this was captured by Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, the satirical 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, which featured a “war room” in which there was no fighting, even as its occupants oversaw a nuclear doomsday. Sadly enough, that movie still seems eerily relevant nearly 60 years later in a world lacking the Soviet Union, where the threat of nuclear war nonetheless looms ever larger. What gives?

The short answer is that America’s leaders, like their counterparts in Russia and China, seem to have a collective death wish, a shared willingness to embrace the most violent and catastrophic weapons in the name of peace.

Nuclear Bombers and ICBMs Return!

There’s nothing magical about the nuclear triad. It’s not the Holy “Trinity,” as a congressman from Florida said long ago. Even so, it’s worshipped by the U.S. military in its own all-too-expensive fashion. America’s triad consists of bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons (B-52s, B-1s, B-2s, and someday B-21s), those land-based ICBMs, and that most survivable “leg,” the U.S. Navy’s Trident-missile-firing submarines. No other country has a triad quite as impressive (if that’s the word for it), nor is any other country planning to spend up to $2 trillion over the next three decades “modernizing” it. The Air Force, of course, controls the first two legs of that triad and isn’t about to give them up just because they’re redundant to America’s “defense” (given those submarines), while constituting a threat to life on this planet.

Recently, when the Air Force unveiled that B-21 Raider, its latest nuclear-capable bomber, we learned that it looks much like its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit, with its bat-like shape (known as a “flying wing” design) driven by stealth or the avoidance of radar detection. The Air Force plans to buy “at least” 100 of those planes at a projected cost of roughly $750 million each. Count on one thing, though: with the inevitable delays and cost overruns associated with any high-tech military project these days, the flyaway cost will likely exceed $1 billion per plane, or at least $100 billion of your taxpayer dollars (and possibly even $200 billion).

Four years ago, when I first wrote about the B-21, its estimated cost was $550 million per plane, but you know the story, right? The F-35 was supposed to be a low-cost, multi-role fighter jet. A generation later, by the Air Force’s own admission, it’s now a staggeringly expensive “Ferrari” of a plane, sexy in appearance but laden with flaws. Naturally, the B-21 is advertised as a multi-role bomber that can carry “conventional” or non-nuclear munitions as well as thermonuclear ones, but its main reason for being is its alleged ability to put nuclear bombs on target, even without Slim Pickens (“Major Kong” in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) riding down on one of them.

The main arguments for expensive nuclear bombers are that they can be launched as a show of resolve but also, unlike missiles, recalled, if necessary. (Or so we hope anyway.) They have a “man in the loop” for greater targeting flexibility and so complicate the enemy’s defensive planning. Such arguments may have made some sense in the 1950s and early 1960s, before ICBMs and their sub-launched equivalents were fully mature technologies, but they’re stuff and nonsense today. If nuclear-capable nations like Russia and China aren’t already deterred by the hundreds of missiles with thousands of highly accurate nuclear warheads in America’s possession, they’re not about to be deterred by a few dozen, or even 100, new B-21 stealth bombers, no matter the recent Hollywood-style hype about them.

Yet logic couldn’t matter less here. What matters is that the Air Force has had nuclear-capable bombers since those first modified B-29s that dropped Little Boy and Fat Man on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the generals are simply not about to give them up — ever. Meanwhile, building any sophisticated weapons system like the B-21 is sure to employ tens of thousands of workers. (There are already 400 parts suppliers for the B-21 scattered across 40 states to ensure the undying love of the most congressional representatives imaginable.) It’s also a boondoggle for America’s many merchants of death, especially the lead contractor, Northrop Grumman.

A reader at my Bracing Views Substack, a Vietnam veteran, nailed it when he described his own reaction to the B-21’s unveiling:

What struck me in my heart (fortunately, I have a great pacemaker) was the self-assured, almost condescending demeanor of the Secretary [of Defense], the Hollywood staging and lighting, and the complete absence of consideration of what cognitive/emotional/moral injuries might be inflicted on the viewer, never mind experiencing exposure to the actual bomber and its payload — add in the incredible cost and use of taxpayer money for a machine and support system that can never actually be used, or if used, would produce incalculable destruction of people and planet; again, never mind how all that could have been used to start making America into a functioning social democracy instead of a declining, tottering empire.

Social democracy? Perish the thought. The U.S. economy is propped up by a militarized Keynesianism tightly embraced by Congress and whatever administration is in the White House. So, no matter how unnecessary those bombers may be, no matter how their costs spiral ever upwards, they’re likely to endure. Look for them flying over a sports stadium near you, perhaps in 2030 — if, that is, we’re still alive as a species.

As the Air Force buys new stealth bombers with your tax dollars, they also plan to purchase a new generation of ICBMs, or a “ground-based strategic deterrent” in Newspeak, to plant in missile silos in garden spots like rural Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming. The Air Force has had ICBMs since the 1960s. Roughly 1,000 of them (though that service initially requested 10,000) were kept on high alert well into the 1980s. Today’s ICBM force is smaller, but ever more expensive to maintain due to its age. It’s also redundant, thanks to the Navy’s more elusive and survivable nuclear deterrent. But, again, logic doesn’t matter here. Whether needed or not, the Air Force wants those new land-based missiles just like those stealth bombers and Congress is all too willing to fund them in your name.

Ka-ching! But hopefully not ka-boom!

Just as the purchase price for the B-21 project is expected to start at $100 billion (but will likely far exceed that), the new ICBMs, known as Sentinels, are also estimated to cost $100 billion. It brings to mind an old saying (slightly updated): a hundred billion here, a hundred billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money. In a case of egregious double-dipping, Northrop Grumman is once again the lead contractor, having recently opened a $1.4 billion facility to design the new missile in Colorado Springs, conveniently close to the Air Force Academy and various other Air and Space Force facilities. Location, location, location!

Why such nuclear folly? The usual reasons, of course. Building genocidal missiles creates jobs. It’s a boon and a half for the industrial part of the military-industrial-congressional complex. It’s considered “healthy” for the communities where those missiles will be located, rural areas that would suffer economically if the Air Force bases there were instead dismantled or decommissioned. For that service, shiny new ICBMs are a budget bonanza, while helping to ensure that the real “enemy” — and yes, I have the U.S. Navy in mind — won’t end up with a monopoly on world-ending weaponry.

In the coming decades, expect those “Sentinels” to be planted in fields far from where most Americans live under the guiding principle that, if we keep them out of sight, they’ll be out of mind as well. Yet I can’t help but think that this country’s military is out of its mind in “planting” them there when the only harvest can be of mass death.

It’s a MAD Old World

As MAD magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman would undoubtedly have said, “What, me worry?”

Oh, MAD old world that has such nukes in it! Color me astonished, in fact, that America’s nuclear weapons mix hasn’t changed much since the 1960s. That sort of world-ending persistence should tell us something, but what exactly? For one thing, that not enough of us can imagine a brave new world without genocidal nuclear weapons in it.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev actually did so. They came close, in fact, to reaching a deal to eliminate nuclear weapons. Sadly, Reagan proved reluctant to abandon his dream of a nuclear space shield, then popularly known as “Star Wars” or, more formally, as the Strategic Defense Initiative. Since Reagan, sadly enough, U.S. presidents have stayed the course on nukes. Most disappointingly, the Nobel Prize-winning Barack Obama spoke of eliminating them, supported by former Cold War stalwarts like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, only to abandon that goal, partly to solidify support in the Senate for a nuclear deal with Iran that, no less sadly, is itself pretty much dead and buried today.

If saintly Reagan and saintly Obama couldn’t do it, what hope do ordinary Americans have of ending our nuclear MADness? Well, to quote a real saint, Catholic peace activist Dorothy Day, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” It’s hard to think of a system more filthy or rotten than one that threatens to destroy most life on our planet, so that this country could in some fashion “win” World War III.

Win what, exactly? A burnt cinder of a planet?

Look, I’ve known airmen who’ve piloted nuclear bombers. I’ve known missileers responsible for warheads that could kill millions (if ever launched). My brother guarded ICBM silos when he was a security policeman in SAC. I sat in the Air Force’s missile-warning center at Cheyenne Mountain under 2,000 feet of solid granite as we ran computerized war games that ended in… yep, mutually assured destruction. We were, at least individually, not insane. We were doing our duty, following orders, preparing for the worst, while (most of us, anyway) hoping for the best.

A word of advice: don’t look for those within this nightmarish system to change it, not when our elected representatives are part of the very military-industrial complex that sustains this MADness. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry, with real freedom, could act to do so for the benefit of humanity. But will we ever do that?

“We’re going backwards as a country,” my wife reminds me — and I fear that she’s right. She summarized the hoopla at the B-21’s recent unveiling this way: “Let’s go gaga over a mass-murder machine.”

Collectively, it seems that we may be on the verge of returning to a nightmarish past, where we lived in fear of a nuclear war that would kill us all, the tall and the small, and especially the smallest among us, our children, who really are our future.

My fear: that we’ve already become comfortably numb to it and no longer can take on that culture of mass death. I say this with great sadness, as an American citizen and a human being.

No matter. At least a few of us will have profited from building new ultra-expensive stealth bombers and shiny new missiles, while ensuring that mushroom clouds remain somewhere in our collective future. Isn’t that what life is truly all about?

Something is rotten in the United States Military

William Astore, Something Is Rotten in the U.S. Military

Here’s the curious thing: since at least the Vietnam War era of the 1960s and early 1970s, the United States has been almost continuously at war. Certain of those conflicts like the Vietnam War itself and those in Iraq and Afghanistan in this century are still remembered by many of us. Honestly, though, who remembers Grenada or Panama or the first Gulf War or even the struggle against ISIS, the endless (still ongoing) bombing of Somalia, and this country’s military adventures in Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Northern Africa? And doubtless, I’m forgetting some conflicts myself. Oh, yes, what about the 1999 bombing of Serbia? So it goes, or at least has gone, for more than half a century.

As Stan Cox pointed out at TomDispatch recently, the U.S. military, as the largest institutional user of petroleum in the world today, now seems at war not just with other countries or terror movements of various sorts, but with the planet itself. And don’t forget those 750 bases our military occupies on every continent except Antarctica or the staggering Pentagon and national security budgets that have continued to fund all of the above (and so little else).

Russia has indeed invaded Ukraine, causing a harrowing nightmare all too near the heart of Europe. And China has indeed been dispatching warships, drones, and missiles menacingly close to Taiwan. Still, when it comes to militarizing the planet in these last decades, nothing compares to our own military. And looking back — as retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, historian, and TomDispatch regular William Astore, who also runs the Bracing Views blog, does today — tell me that it truly isn’t the story from hell.

Astore mentions a phrase that no one who lived through the Vietnam years is ever likely to forget: “the light at the end of the tunnel.” Even the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam used it about a conflict in which only darkness lay at the end of that very “tunnel.” As an image, it was, of course, supposed to offer hope in a war that seemed, like enough of our conflicts in the years that followed, to be going anything but our way. And these days, with such conflicts seemingly heading home in some bizarre fashion, who could doubt that, metaphorically speaking, all of us now find ourselves in some version of that same tunnel — with the light at its end perhaps the flames of an overheating planet. And with that in mind, let Astore explore the nature of the military that so many of your tax dollars have gone to support in these years. And then, be depressed, very depressed. Tom

Integrity Optional: Lies and Dishonor Plague America's War Machine

As a military professor for six years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in the 1990s, I often walked past the honor code prominently displayed for all cadets to see. Its message was simple and clear: they were not to tolerate lying, cheating, stealing, or similar dishonorable acts. Yet that’s exactly what the U.S. military and many of America’s senior civilian leaders have been doing from the Vietnam War era to this very day: lying and cooking the books, while cheating and stealing from the American people. And yet the most remarkable thing may be that no honor code turns out to apply to them, so they’ve suffered no consequences for their mendacity and malfeasance.

Where’s the “honor” in that?

It may surprise you to learn that “integrity first” is the primary core value of my former service, the U.S. Air Force. Considering the revelations of the Pentagon Papers, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971; the Afghan War papers, first revealed by the Washington Post in 2019; and the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, among other evidence of the lying and deception that led to the invasion and occupation of that country, you’ll excuse me for assuming that, for decades now when it comes to war, “integrity optional” has been the true core value of our senior military leaders and top government officials.

As a retired Air Force officer, let me tell you this: honor code or not, you can’t win a war with lies — America proved that in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq — nor can you build an honorable military with them. How could our high command not have reached such a conclusion themselves after all this time?

So Many Defeats, So Little Honesty

Like many other institutions, the U.S. military carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. After all, despite being funded in a fashion beyond compare and spreading its peculiar brand of destruction around the globe, its system of war hasn’t triumphed in a significant conflict since World War II (with the war in Korea remaining, almost three-quarters of a century later, in a painful and festering stalemate). Even the ending of the Cold War, allegedly won when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, only led to further wanton military adventurism and, finally, defeat at an unsustainable cost — more than $8 trillion — in Washington’s ill-fated Global War on Terror. And yet, years later, that military still has a stranglehold on the national budget.

So many defeats, so little honesty: that’s the catchphrase I’d use to characterize this country’s military record since 1945. Keeping the money flowing and the wars going proved far more important than integrity or, certainly, the truth. Yet when you sacrifice integrity and the truth in the cause of concealing defeat, you lose much more than a war or two. You lose honor — in the long run, an unsustainable price for any military to pay.

Or rather it should be unsustainable, yet the American people have continued to “support” their military, both by funding it astronomically and expressing seemingly eternal confidence in it — though, after all these years, trust in the military has dipped somewhat recently. Still, in all this time, no one in the senior ranks, civilian or military, has ever truly been called to account for losing wars prolonged by self-serving lies. In fact, too many of our losing generals have gone right through that infamous “revolving door” into the industrial part of the military-industrial complex — only to sometimes return to take top government positions.

Our military has, in fact, developed a narrative that’s proven remarkably effective in insulating it from accountability. It goes something like this: U.S. troops fought hard in [put the name of the country here], so don’t blame us. Indeed, you must support us, especially given all the casualties of our wars. They and the generals did their best, under the usual political constraints. On occasion, mistakes were made, but the military and the government had good and honorable intentions in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Besides, were you there, Charlie? If you weren’t, then STFU, as the acronym goes, and be grateful for the security you take for granted, earned by America’s heroes while you were sitting on your fat ass safe at home.

It’s a narrative I’ve heard time and time again and it’s proven persuasive, partially because it requires the rest of us, in a conscription-free country, to do nothing and think nothing about that. Ignorance is strength, after all.

War Is Brutal

The reality of it all, however, is so much harsher than that. Senior military leaders have performed poorly. War crimes have been covered up. Wars fought in the name of helping others have produced horrendous civilian casualties and stunning numbers of refugees. Even as those wars were being lost, what President Dwight D. Eisenhower first labeled the military-industrial complex has enjoyed windfall profits and expanding power. Again, there’s been no accountability for failure. In fact, only whistleblowing truth-tellers like Chelsea Manning and Daniel Hale have been punished and jailed.

Ready for an even harsher reality? America is a nation being unmade by war, the very opposite of what most Americans are taught. Allow me to explain. As a country, we typically celebrate the lofty ideals and brave citizen-soldiers of the American Revolution. We similarly celebrate the Second American Revolution, otherwise known as the Civil War, for the elimination of slavery and reunification of the country; after which, we celebrate World War II, including the rise of the Greatest Generation, America as the arsenal of democracy, and our emergence as the global superpower.

By celebrating those three wars and essentially ignoring much of the rest of our history, we tend to view war itself as a positive and creative act. We see it as making America, as part of our unique exceptionalism. Not surprisingly, then, militarism in this country is impossible to imagine. We tend to see ourselves, in fact, as uniquely immune to it, even as war and military expenditures have come to dominate our foreign policy, bleeding into domestic policy as well.

If we as Americans continue to imagine war as a creative, positive, essential part of who we are, we’ll also continue to pursue it. Or rather, if we continue to lie to ourselves about war, it will persist.

It’s time for us to begin seeing it not as our making but our unmaking, potentially even our breaking — as democracy’s undoing as well as the brutal thing it truly is.

A retired U.S. military officer, educated by the system, I freely admit to having shared some of its flaws. When I was an Air Force engineer, for instance, I focused more on analysis and quantification than on synthesis and qualification. Reducing everything to numbers, I realize now, helps provide an illusion of clarity, even mastery. It becomes another form of lying, encouraging us to meddle in things we don’t understand.

This was certainly true of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, his “whiz kids,” and General William Westmoreland during the Vietnam War; nor had much changed when it came to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and General David Petraeus, among others, in the Afghan and Iraq War years. In both eras, our military leaders wielded metrics and swore they were winning even as those wars circled the drain.

And worse yet, they were never held accountable for those disasters or the blunders and lies that went with them (though the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era certainly tried). All these years later, with the Pentagon still ascendant in Washington, it should be obvious that something has truly gone rotten in our system.

Here’s the rub: as the military and one administration after another lied to the American people about those wars, they also lied to themselves, even though such conflicts produced plenty of internal “papers” that raised serious concerns about lack of progress. Robert McNamara typically knew that the situation in Vietnam was dire and the war essentially unwinnable. Yet he continued to issue rosy public reports of progress, while calling for more troops to pursue that illusive “light at the end of the tunnel.” Similarly, the Afghan War papers released by the Washington Post show that senior military and civilian leaders realized that war, too, was going poorly almost from the beginning, yet they reported the very opposite to the American people. So many corners were being “turned,” so much “progress” being made in official reports even as the military was building its own rhetorical coffin in that Afghan graveyard of empires.

Too bad wars aren’t won by “spin.” If they were, the U.S. military would be undefeated.

Two Books to Help Us See the Lies

Two recent books help us see that spin for what it was. In Because Our Fathers Lied, Craig McNamara, Robert’s son, reflects on his father’s dishonesty about the Vietnam War and the reasons for it. Loyalty was perhaps the lead one, he writes. McNamara suppressed his own serious misgivings out of misplaced loyalty to two presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, while simultaneously preserving his own position of power in the government.

Robert McNamara would, in fact, later pen his own mea culpa, admitting how “terribly wrong” he’d been in urging the prosecution of that war. Yet Craig finds his father’s late confession of regret significantly less than forthright and fully honest. Robert McNamara fell back on historical ignorance about Vietnam as the key contributing factor in his unwise decision-making, but his son is blunt in accusing his dad of unalloyed dishonesty. Hence the title of his book, citing Rudyard Kipling’s pained confession of his own complicity in sending his son to die in the trenches of World War I: “If any question why we died/Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

The second book is Paths of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America’s Misguided Wars, edited by Andrew Bacevich and Danny Sjursen. In my view, the word “misguided” doesn’t quite capture the book’s powerful essence, since it gathers 15 remarkable essays by Americans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and witnessed the patent dishonesty and folly of those wars. None dare speak of failure might be a subtheme of these essays, as initially highly motivated and well-trained troops became disillusioned by wars that went nowhere, even as their comrades often paid the ultimate price, being horribly wounded or dying in those conflicts driven by lies.

This is more than a work of dissent by disillusioned troops, however. It’s a call for the rest of us to act. Dissent, as West Point graduate and Army Captain Erik Edstrom reminds us, “is nothing short of a moral obligation” when immoral wars are driven by systemic dishonesty. Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, who blew an early whistle on how poorly the Afghan War was going, writes of his “seething” anger “at the absurdity and unconcern for the lives of my fellow soldiers displayed by so many” of the Army’s senior leaders.

Former Marine Matthew Hoh, who resigned from the State Department in opposition to the Afghan “surge” ordered by President Barack Obama, speaks movingly of his own “guilt, regret, and shame” at having served in Afghanistan as a troop commander and wonders whether he can ever atone for it. Like Craig McNamara, Hoh warns of the dangers of misplaced loyalty. He remembers telling himself that he was best suited to lead his fellow Marines in war, no matter how misbegotten and dishonorable that conflict was. Yet he confesses that falling back on duty and being loyal to “his” Marines, while suppressing the infamies of the war itself, became “a washing of the hands, a self-absolution that ignores one’s complicity” in furthering a brutal conflict fed by lies.

As I read those essays, I came to see anew how this country’s senior leaders, military and civilian, consistently underestimated the brutalizing impact of war, which, in turn, leads me to the ultimate lie of war: that it is somehow good, or at least necessary — making all the lying (and killing) worth it, whether in the name of a victory to come or of duty, honor, and country. Yet there is no honor in lying, in keeping the truth hidden from the American people. Indeed, there is something distinctly dishonorable about waging wars kept viable only by lies, obfuscation, and propaganda.

An Epigram from Goethe

John Keegan, the esteemed military historian, cites an epigram from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as being essential to thinking about militaries and their wars. “Goods gone, something gone; honor gone, much gone; courage gone, all gone.”

The U.S. military has no shortage of goods, given its whopping expenditures on weaponry and equipment of all sorts; among the troops, it doesn’t lack for courage or fighting spirit, not yet, anyway. But it does lack honor, especially at the top. Much is gone when a military ceases to tell the truth to itself and especially to the people from whom its forces are drawn. And courage is wasted when in the service of lies.

Courage wasted: Is there a worst fate for a military establishment that prides itself on its members being all volunteers and is now having trouble filling its ranks?

The paranoid nature of American foreign and domestic policy

William Astore, Pantophobia USA

In case you hadn’t noticed, we’ve been held for ransom by one man — or that’s the way it so often seemed in the media at least. I suspect you know just who I mean. If you can’t guess right off the bat, let me give you a hint or two. He’s a multimillionaire coal baron who gets massive political donations from the oil and gas industry. And he’s officially a Democrat, one of 50 of them in the Senate. Without him, the Democrats essentially can’t pass a damn thing (other than the Pentagon budget, of course).

Yep, you got it. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He’s been the devil himself. He’s stood between the Democrats and glory, or at least the possibility of building back this increasingly woeful country a little bit better. In the midst of a near-global heat wave, with more than 100 million Americans under a heat alert, record temperatures being reached again and again, the Southwest and West in an unprecedented megadrought, and parts of the country from New Mexico to Alaska blazing in a startling fashion, Joe Manchin, it seemed, had been bringing us his own version of hell on Earth… until he finally turned on a dime and compromised with Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer on a potential new build back (somewhat) better bill.

Wait a minute! Something just occurred to me! Why has Manchin been getting so much attention when there are 50 other senators who have been doing even worse things than him? And yes, I’m thinking about the Senate Republicans. They all turn out to be worse than Joe Manchin, especially when it comes to not doing one damn thing about climate change. It’s true that, in the face of an increasingly burning reality, few of those Republicans claim to deny the very reality of global warming any longer. Like Manchin, all they are denying is that we should do anything about it. (In response, President Biden has so far proved unwilling even to declare a presidential climate emergency and give himself the power to do much of significance either.)

And that, by the way, is just to start describing a world which couldn’t be madder. Skip the war in Ukraine and just consider that the greatest greenhouse gas emitting countries, China and the U.S. (now number two, but the greatest emitter in history), can hardly even imagine cooperating to deal with a planet going to hell in a (burning) handbasket. Worse yet, the Biden administration seems intent on pushing a new cold war with China, even if its top officials publicly deny doing so. To put it another way, maybe we’re all Republicans now when it comes to what matters. But enough from me. Let me turn you over to retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and historian, as well as TomDispatch regular, William Astore to face the true madness of this all-American moment of ours. Tom

The Nasty Voices in Our Heads: The Paranoid Nature of American Foreign and Domestic Policy

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 are 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.

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 goodwill 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.

'Hardening' schools is conceding defeat to violence and death

William Astore, Up in Arms and Armor in America

Consider this a rarity. In my introductions to TomDispatch pieces, I’ve seldom quoted myself, but in April 2021 I wrote a piece I called “Slaughter Central” and, as a lead-in to retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, historian, and TomDispatch regular William Astore’s thoughts on the mad Republican response to the recent school slaughter in Uvalde, Texas, let me offer these excerpts from it. Sadly enough, I wouldn’t change a word.

“By the time you read this piece, it will already be out of date. The reason’s simple enough. No matter what mayhem I describe, with so much all-American weaponry in this world of ours, there’s no way to keep up. Often, despite the headlines that go with mass killings here, there’s almost no way even to know.
“On this planet of ours, America is the emperor of weaponry, even if in ways we normally tend not to put together. There’s really no question about it. The all-American powers-that-be and the arms makers that go with them dream up, produce, and sell weaponry, domestically and internationally, in an unmatched fashion. You’ll undoubtedly be shocked, shocked to learn that the top five arms makers on the planet — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics — are all located in the United States.
“Put another way, we’re a killer nation, a mass-murder machine, slaughter central…
“Before we head abroad or think more about weaponry fit to destroy the planet (or at least human life on it), let’s just start right here at home. After all, we live in a country whose citizens are armed to their all-too-labile fingertips with more guns of every advanced sort than might once have been imaginable. The figures are stunning. Even before the pandemic hit and gun purchases soared to record levels — about 23 million of them (a 64% increase over 2019 sales) — American civilians were reported to possess almost 400 million firearms. That adds up to about 40% of all such weaponry in the hands of civilians globally, or more than the next 25 countries combined.
“And if that doesn’t stagger you, note that the versions of those weapons in public hands are becoming ever more militarized and powerful, ever more AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, not .22s. And keep in mind as well that, over the years, the death toll from those weapons in this country has grown staggeringly large. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote recently, ‘More Americans have died from guns just since 1975, including suicides, murders and accidents (more than 1.5 million), than in all the wars in United States history, dating back to the Revolutionary War (about 1.4 million).’
“…Think of all of this as a single weaponized, well-woven fabric, a single American gun culture that spans the globe… Much as mass shootings and public killings can sometimes dominate the news here, a full sense of the damage done by the weaponization of our culture seldom comes into focus. When it does, the United States looks like slaughter central.”

And with that in mind, let Astore, who also runs the Bracing Views blog, take you into the response from hell to that reality, the “hardening” of American schools. Tom

Why Going “Hard” Is Taking the Easy Way Out

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.

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 restricting their 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.

An open speech to Air Force Academy graduates

William Astore, A Graduation Speech to Air Force Cadets

It’s that moment again. Graduation time in high schools and colleges across the country. Because I’ve always thought that graduation speeches had a certain je ne sais quoi, I’ve given a number of them at TomDispatch to… well, I must admit, never anyone actually graduating from anyplace anywhere, but only, as I once put it, “on the campus of the mind.” Strangely enough, despite my 20 years at this site, no grade school, high school, college, or graduate school has ever asked me to address its graduating class. Explain it as you will. Still, that never stopped me, nor this year has it stopped TomDispatch regular, historian and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel William Astore from ushering the graduating class at the Air Force Academy, where he once he taught, into our all-too-embattled world.

Perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that the actual graduation speech at that academy this year was given by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. If you read it, you’ll see just how relieved Washington types are that, after 20 years of disastrous American war-making across the planet, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and turned us back into — to steal a phrase from an earlier piece by Astore — the “good guys.” In fact, in that academy speech, Austin managed to dismiss this country’s 20-year Afghan disaster all too modestly. “America’s longest war — one that spanned nearly all of your lifetimes — came to an end,” he said. Indeed, it did and what a mess of an end it truly was. Austin, however, made it sound like a near-miracle of Air Force triumphalism. “Last year,” he said, “your fellow graduates played a significant role as the United States evacuated 124,000 people from Afghanistan — the largest air evacuation of civilians in our country’s history. Young service members showed courage, skill, and deep humanity. And they got plane after plane into the sky.” No retreats or losses or disasters there, just a simple evacuation, right?

Of course, don’t bother to ask those seven Afghan children killed in our final air strike in Kabul — the U.S. military termed it a “righteous strike” at the time — what they thought of our “deep humanity.” That, naturally, is beside the point. So, with our strange and ever more disturbing world in mind, including the growing armed violence in this country, take a moment to graduate with William Astore onto a planet spinning into unknown space. Tom

Destroying the Town Is Not Saving It – Two Unsung Heroes as Role Models for the Air Force

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.

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.

Five reasons why Washington refuses to break its war addiction

William Astore, Must the U.S. Be Involved in Every War?

Count on one thing: a Congress that can agree on next to nothing Americans might actually want or need will undoubtedly usher through with all due speed President Biden’s recent $33 billion request for arms and other aid for Ukraine. On that (and little else), Republicans and Democrats seem genuinely capable of agreement. Oh, and add that sum to last month’s $14 billion aid package and Congress will have anted up an almost instant $47 billion for the Ukrainians in their battle with Vladimir Putin’s desperately messed-up military that’s already lost, it seems, at least 12 generals (thanks in part, ominously enough, to U.S. intelligence), a record for modern warfare).

I mean, we’re talking about a Congress essentially incapable of passing legislation that would levy such sums for climate change,child care, or almost anything else that Americans might actually need here at home. But weapons for Ukraine? No big deal, any more than it was a problem when it came to funding this country’s disastrous wars in Afghanistan or Iraq or its unending global war on terror — or a Pentagon budget that contains almost unimaginable sums for America’s giant weapons makers, whether what they’re making works or not, is needed or not.

In other words, the horrifying war in Ukraine may be a catastrophe for the Ukrainians and, in the end, the Russians, too, but for the U.S. military-industrial complex it’s clearly going to be a heaven on earth. You can already feel the thrill of it all in President Biden’s pronouncements, in the urge of the secretary of defense to ensure that Russia is “weakened” big time by its invasion, and the commentary provided by Washington Republicans and Democrats alike. As retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and TomDispatch regular William Astore points out today, when it comes to war, the nightmare in Ukraine is proving to be a thrill and a half in Washington. After so many years of disfiguring military disaster globally, thanks to Vladimir Putin we’re finally the undisputed good guys on planet Earth again and what more could you ask for? Tom

The Last Good Guys? Five Reasons Why Washington Can’t Break Its War Addiction

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.

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.

'What would it take for the Pentagon budget to shrink?': former Air Force colonel

In the spirit of this prolonged moment from hell, let me offer you a homemade conspiracy theory that will hopefully compete with the most vivid — or do I mean livid? — QAnon-ish ones around. Imagine this (even though it’s not true) as an explanation for the origins of the disastrous war in Ukraine: the major weapons-making corporations of our own military-industrial complex plotted long and hard to ensure that Russian president Vladimir Putin invaded that country — and their agents in Russia did so brilliantly! They convinced the oligarchs around Putin — but not too near, since no one gets within 100 yards of the guy — that the Ukrainians were just dying (so to speak) to welcome the Russian army as a liberation force. In their turn, those oligarchs convinced him that an invasion by the Red Army — and yes, they also got him to believe that the present shabby Russian military was still the Soviet force that, once upon a distant time, sent its tanks so successfully into Hungary and Czechoslovakia to repress the revolts of uppity locals — would be a surefire success. And so they got their invasion, big time, but also something so much better. Specifically, in response to the disaster in Ukraine, the Biden administration has only recently called for yet another staggering hike in the Pentagon budget, a godsend for the U.S. arms industry. And it goes without saying that congressional Republicans are eager to send that sum higher yet.

What a plot! And of course, like so many other conspiracy theories of this era, both all too logical (once you start down that path) and crazy as a loon. Still, you do have to find some way to explain the fact that, in this century, no matter what was happening, the Pentagon budget has only continued to soar and the invasion of Ukraine has only made matters worse, or, if you’re a weapons manufacturer, better. It’s certainly a phenomenon wild enough for some kind of conspiracy theory, don’t you think? Especially since, long before the latest suggested national security budget hike, the Pentagon and crew were already raking in more money than the next 11 nations combined, even though the U.S. military hasn’t come out on top in a war that mattered since World War II.

With all of that in mind, take a moment with TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore for a little “thought experiment” about that very budget. Can we really be in a world too wild for it to ever decrease? Tom

What Would It Take for Military Spending in America to Go Down?

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 keyword, 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.

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.

Russia's war on Ukraine is God's gift to the American military-industrial complex

When it comes to bravery in relation to the war in Ukraine, let me just tip my cap to all the antiwar protesters in Russia who have taken to the streets across that ever more autocratic land. They’ve risked arrest to say “no to war” and “shame on you!” to the next global disaster. Thousands of them have been “detained” and who knows what their fate may be. I only wish that antiwar protesters here were doing the same thing before we all truly enter Cold War II, potentially a bigger and better (that is, potentially more perilous) version of the first time around.

In fact, it’s been strange indeed that, with the exception of those rare massive demonstrations in early 2003 before this country invaded Iraq and some protests by vets thereafter, we Americans seem to have paid next to no attention to the wars that were being fought (so disastrously) in our names. Only as the Afghan one ended was there any sign of outrage — and that was about the messiness of the American pullout, not the horror of the war itself (or of the one in Iraq) that left not thousands dead, as in Ukraine so far, but hundreds of thousands. If Americans — or at least our politicians in Washington and the media — are outraged about the Russian invasion of Ukraine (and it is outrageous), why was a similar outrage so absent when this country acted in a fashion no less outrageous — and in our case not even to countries that were our neighbors? (And sanctions against Washington? It was never even imaginable.)

In his own way, that’s part of the question that retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, historian, and TomDispatch regular William Astore raises today in thinking about how our ever-more-militarized country acts at home and abroad. While you may be horrified (as I am) by events in Ukraine, the question is, why aren’t you more horrified by the way your tax dollars continue to create an ever-more militarized American world? Tom

Arsenal of Democracy or Simply an Arsenal?

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.

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 battlegroups 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.

Is democracy going down? Breaking down 3 generations of conspicuous destruction by the military-industrial complex

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.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

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.

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.

What I learned from watching the end of the world

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.

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 Yorkerarticle 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

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his 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.

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.

The real reason Congress can't stop the madness of the Pentagon's ever-expanding budget

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?

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

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his 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.

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.

America's true god is a deity of wrath

Who is America's god? The Christian god of the beatitudes, the one who healed the sick, helped the poor, and preached love of neighbor? Not in these (dis)United States. In the Pledge of Allegiance, we speak proudly of One Nation under God, but in the aggregate, this country doesn't serve or worship Jesus Christ, or Allah, or any other god of justice and mercy. In truth, the deity America believes in is the five-sided one headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.

In God We Trust is on all our coins. But, again, which god? The one of "turn the other cheek"? The one who found his disciples among society's outcasts? The one who wanted nothing to do with moneychangers or swords? As Joe Biden might say, give me a break.

America's true god is a deity of wrath, whose keenest followers profit mightily from war and see such gains as virtuous, while its most militant disciples, a crew of losing generals and failed Washington officials, routinely employ murderous violence across the globe. It contains multitudes, its name is legion, but if this deity must have one name, citing a need for some restraint, let it be known as the Pentagod.

Yes, the Pentagon is America's true god. Consider that the Biden administration requested a whopping $753 billion for military spending in fiscal year 2022 even as the Afghan War was cratering. Consider that the House Armed Services Committee then boosted that blockbuster budget to $778 billion in September. Twenty-five billion dollars extra for "defense," hardly debated, easily passed, with strong bipartisan support in Congress. How else, if not religious belief, to explain this, despite the Pentagod's prodigal $8 trillion wars over the last two decades that ended so disastrously? How else to account for future budget projections showing that all-American deity getting another $8 trillion or so over the next decade, even as the political parties fight like rabid dogs over roughly 15% of that figure for much-needed domestic improvements?

Paraphrasing Joe Biden, show me your budget and I'll tell you what you worship. In that context, there can't be the slightest doubt: America worships its Pentagod and the weapons and wars that feed it.

Prefabricated War, Made in the U.S.A.

I confess that I'm floored by this simple fact: for two decades in which "forever war" has served as an apt descriptor of America's true state of the union, the Pentagod has failed to deliver on any of its promises. Iraq and Afghanistan? Just the most obvious of a series of war-on-terror quagmires and failures galore.

That ultimate deity can't even pass a simple financial audit to account for what it does with those endless funds shoved its way, yet our representatives in Washington keep doing so by the trillions. Spectacular failure after spectacular failure and yet that all-American god just rolls on, seemingly unstoppable, unquenchable, rarely questioned, never penalized, always on top.

Talk about blind faith!

The Pentagod advances a peculiar form of war, one that would puzzle most classic military strategists. In fact, its version of war is beyond strategy of the Clausewitzian sort. I think of it as prefabricated war, borrowing a term from the inestimable Ann Jones's recent piece for TomDispatch on our Afghan disaster. It's a term pregnant with meaning.

Prefabricated war is how the Pentagod has ruled for so endlessly long. There is, as a start, the fabrication of false causes for war. In Vietnam, it was the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the "attacks" on U.S. Navy ships that never happened. In Afghanistan, it was vengeance for the 9/11 attacks against a people who neither planned nor committed them. In Iraq, it was the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein didn't have. Real causes don't matter much to America's war god since false ones can always be fabricated, after which enough true believers — especially in Congress — will embrace them fervently and faithfully.

But prefabricated war doesn't just start with or consist of manufactured causes. It's fabricated far ahead of time in a colossal cathedral of violence — President Eisenhower's military-industrial-congressional complex — that sends its missionaries and minions around the planet on a mission of global reach, global power, and full-spectrum dominance. War is prefabricated on 750 military bases scattered across the globe on every continent except Antarctica, in America's giant arms corporations like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, and by Special Operations forces that act much like the Jesuits of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, spreading the one true faith to 150 countries.

Since America's war god is also a jealous deity, it insists on dominating all domains — not just land, sea, and air but space as well. Even more ethereal realms like cyberspace and virtual/augmented realities must be captured and controlled. It seeks omnipotence and omniscience in the name of your safety and, if you let it, will also know everything about you, while having the power to smite you, should you stop blindly worshipping it and feeding it more money.

Yet, as strong as it may be, its urge to fabricate threats and exaggerate vulnerabilities never ends. China and Russia are allegedly the biggest threats of the moment, two "near-peer" rivals supposedly driving a new cold war. China, for example, now reportedly has a navy of 355 ships, an ostensibly alarming development (even if those vessels are nowhere near as powerful as their American equivalents). That naturally requires yet more shipbuilding by the U.S. Navy.

Russia may have an economy that's smaller than California's, but it's allegedly leading in hypersonic missile development (and China, too, has now entered the fray with, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs put it recently, something "very close" to a "Sputnik moment"). As a result, the Pentagod demands yet more money to bridge this alleged missile gap. Like earlier bomber and missile gaps from the previous Cold War, such vulnerabilities exist mostly in the minds of its proselytizers.

And in that context, here's an article of faith rarely questioned by true believers: while America prides itself on having the world's best and most powerful military, it perennially declares itself in danger of being overmatched. As a result, from aircraft carriers to stealth bombers to nuclear missiles, ever more weaponry must be fabricated. Who cares that it takes the next 11 nations combined to come close to matching the American "defense" budget. Beware the cry, "O ye of little faith!" should you dare to question any of the Pentagod's fabricated "needs."

The notion of prefab war goes deeper still, notes Ann Jones. As she wrote me recently:

"I would also carry the implications of prefabricated war to its source in the industrial world that does the material fabrication that dictates the strategy and style of war and pockets the profits.

"In Afghanistan prefabrication meant forcing Afghan soldiers to drop their trusty Kalashnikovs and retrain endlessly on new U.S. rifles (I forget the model) so heavy and temperamental as to be close to useless; they were particularly sensitive to dust, which in Afghanistan is the principal constituent of the air. The U.S. also trained Afghan soldiers how to enter houses, to search inside and kill every occupant; it erected on the training ground some prefabricated wooden houses for the practice of home invasions. (I witnessed this stuff myself.)"

To her point, I'd add the notion of a prefab "government in a box," a bizarre aspect of the Afghan surge early in President Barack Obama's first term in office. The idea was to drop ready-made mini-democracies into less-than-stable regions of Afghanistan that had been conditionally secured by U.S. troops. Those prefab governments would then supposedly provide a democratic toehold, freeing American troops to do what they did best: apply "kinetic" force elsewhere through massive firepower.

But the Pentagod didn't deliver democracy in a box to Afghanistan. Instead, it brought prefab war, made in the U.S.A., exported globally. Or, as Ann Jones put it to me, "The Afghan war was pulled from a box to be used to pave the way for the Big Box war already planned for Iraq by the Bush/Cheney administration." That such a "Big Box" war then failed so dismally led, of course, to no diminution in the Pentagod's power or authority, blind devotion being what it is.

Judging by the Vietnam, Afghan, and Iraq wars, a shoddy yet destructive form of prefab war has been the ultimate American export of these years.

Losing My Religion

I was once an acolyte of the Pentagod. I served for 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, working in Cheyenne Mountain near the end of the original Cold War. I hunkered down there waiting for the nuclear Armageddon that fortunately never came (though the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was certainly a near miss). A cathedral of power, Cheyenne Mountain could have served as the ultimate temple of doom, but America ultimately "won" the Cold War when the Soviet Union imploded after a disastrous conflict in Afghanistan. That proved a setback indeed for a deity that feared the very thought of a "peace dividend" in the wind. Fortunately, that singular moment of victory proved only temporary, as America's incessant conflicts since Desert Storm in 1991 have shown.

In 1992, the year after the Soviet collapse, I found myself walking around the Trinity test site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where the first atomic blast rumbled and roared in July 1945. You might say that, before using two atomic bombs on the Japanese, this country used the first one on ourselves, or at least on all the creatures living near ground zero at that desert site.

"I have become death, the destroyer of worlds," mused J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, after his "gadget" exploded, irradiating the surrounding desert in a historically unprecedented way. Oppenheimer himself emerged a changed man. He tried unsuccessfully to block the development of the far more powerful hydrogen bomb, an act of clarity and conscience for which, he would be accused of communist sympathies in 1953 and stripped of his security clearance. He and others who followed learned how unwise it is to resist America's god of war and its drive for yet more power.

During that same trip in 1992, I visited Los Alamos National Laboratory, the site where those atomic "gadgets" were first assembled. Fifty years earlier, during World War II, America began to bring together its best and brightest to create a device more destructive than any ever built. They succeeded, in a sense, in tapping into the power of the gods, even if in a remarkably one-sided fashion, gaining an astonishing ability to destroy, but none whatsoever to create. Armageddon, not genesis, became and remains the Pentagod's ultimate power.

Back in 1992, the mood at Los Alamos was glum. A national laboratory to create ever newer, more powerful nuclear warheads and weapons didn't seem to have a promising future with the demise of the Soviet Union. Where, then, did the future lie? Perhaps the best and brightest could turn their thoughts from bombs to consumer goods, or computers, or even what we today call green-energy technologies?

But no such luck. So here I sit, 30 years later, a bit heavier, my hair and beard greying, having lost whatever faith I had. Why? Because the god I served always wanted more. Even now, it wants to spend up to $2 trillion in the coming decades to build "modernized" versions of the nuclear weaponry that I knew, even then, could only create a darker future.

Consider the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD. It's an innocuous acronym for what someday will be hundreds of land-based nuclear missiles, one leg of this country's nuclear "triad" (the others being the Navy's Trident submarine force and the Air Force's strategic bombers). Deploying the GBSD, the Air Force plans to replace its "aging" ICBMs with "youthful" ones, even though such missiles, old or new, were rendered redundant decades ago by equally accurate ones that could be launched from stealthy submarines.

No matter. Northrop Grumman won the contract at a potential lifecycle cost of $264 billion. Think of those future missiles and the silos where the present ones sit in flyover states like Wyoming and North Dakota as so many subterranean chapels of utter destructive power, serviced by dedicated Air Force crews who believe that deterrence is best achieved by a policy that once was all-too-accurately known as MAD, or mutual assured destruction.

Yet, before I bled Air Force blue, before I was stationed in a cathedral of military power under who knows how many tons of solid granite, I was raised a Roman Catholic. Recently, I caught the words of Pope Francis, God's representative on earth for Catholic believers. Among other entreaties, he asked "in the name of God" for "arms manufacturers and dealers to completely stop their activity, because it foments violence and war, it contributes to those awful geopolitical games which cost millions of lives displaced and millions dead."

Which country has the most arms manufacturers? Which routinely and proudly leads the world in weapons exports? And which spends more on wars and weaponry than any other, with hardly a challenge from Congress or a demurral from the mainstream media?

And as I stared into the abyss created by those questions, who stared back at me but, of course, the Pentagod.

Copyright 2021 William J. Astore

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his 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.

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.

America has a runaway empire — and we must dismantle it before it destroys us

Yoda, the Jedi Master in the Star Wars films, once pointed out that the future is all too difficult to see and it's hard to deny his insight. Yet I'd argue that, when it comes to the U.S. military and its wars, Yoda was just plain wrong. That part of the future is all too easy to imagine. It involves, you won't be shocked to know, more budget-busting weaponry for the Pentagon and more military meddling across the globe, perhaps this time against "near-peer" rivals China and Russia, and a global war on terror that will never end. What's even easier to see is that peace will be given no chance at all. Why? Because it's just not in the interests of America's deeply influential military-congressional-industrial complex.

When that vast complex, which President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about six decades ago, comes to my mind, I can't help thinking of a song from the last years of the then seemingly endless Cold War. (How typical, by the way, that when the Soviet Union finally imploded in 1991, it barely affected Pentagon funding.)

"The future's so bright (I gotta wear shades)" was that 1986 song's title. And I always wonder whether that future could indeed be nuclear-war bright, given our military's affection for such weaponry. I once heard the saying, "The [nuclear] triad is not the Trinity," which resonated with me given my Catholic upbringing. Still, it's apparently holy enough at the Pentagon or why would the high command there already be planning to fund the so-called modernization of the American nuclear arsenal to the tune of at least $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years? Given this nation's actual needs, that figure blows me away (though not literally, I hope).

What is that "triad" the complex treats as a holy trinity? It consists of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs; nuclear-weapons-capable bombers like the B-1, B-2, and the venerable B-52; and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs. Given our present vast nuclear arsenal, there's no strategic need for building new ICBMs at a price beyond compare. In fact, as the most vulnerable "leg" of the triad, the ones the Air Force currently has should be decommissioned.

Nor is there a strategic need for an ultra-expensive new bomber like the Air Force's proposed B-21 Raider (basically, an updated version of the B-2 Spirit "stealth" bomber that's most frequently used these days for flyovers at big college and Super Bowl football games). America's Ohio-class nuclear submarines that still wander the world's oceans armed with Trident missiles are more than capable of "deterring" any conceivable opponent into the distant future, even if they also offer humanity a solid shot at wholesale suicide via a future nuclear winter. But reason not the need, as Shakespeare once had King Lear say. Focus instead on the profits to be made (he might have added, had he lived in our time and our land) by building "modernized" nukes.

As my old service, the Air Force, clamors for new nuclear missiles and bombers, there's also the persistent quest for yet more fighter jets, including overpriced, distinctly underperforming ones like the F-35, the "Ferrari" of fighter planes according to the Air Force chief of staff. If the military gets all the F-35s it wants, add another $1.7 trillion to the cost of national "defense." At the same time, that service is seeking a new, "lower-cost" (but don't count on it) multirole fighter — what the F-35 was supposed to be once upon a time — even as it pursues the idea of a "6th-generation" fighter even more advanced (read: pricier) than 5th-generation models like the F-22 and F-35.

I could go on similarly about the Navy (more Ford-class aircraft carriers and new nuclear-armed submarines) or the Army (modernized Abrams tanks; a new infantry fighting vehicle), but you get the idea. If Congress and the president keep shoveling trillions of dollars down the military's gullet and those of its camp followers (otherwise known as "defense" contractors), count on one thing: they'll find ever newer ways of spending that dough on anything from space weaponry to robot "companions."

Indeed, I asked a friend who's still intimate with the military-industrial complex what's up with its dreams and schemes. The military's latest Joint Warfighting Concept, he told me, "is all about building Systems of Systems based in AI [artificial intelligence] and quantum computing." Then he added: "All it will do is give us more sophisticated ways to lose wars." (You can see why he's my friend.) The point is that AI and quantum computing sound futuristically super-sexy, which is why they'll doubtless be used to justify super-expensive future budgetary requests by the Pentagon.

In that context, don't you find it staggering how much the military spent in Afghanistan fighting and losing all too modernistically to small, under-armed units of the Taliban? Two trillion-plus dollars to wage a counterinsurgency campaign that failed dismally. Imagine if, in the next decade or two, the U.S. truly had to fight a near-peer rival like China. Even if the U.S. military somehow won the battles, this nation would undoubtedly collapse into bankruptcy and financial ruin (and it would be a catastrophe for the whole endangered planet of ours). It could get so bad that even Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk might have to pay higher taxes, if, that is, they haven't already slipped the surly bonds of Earth to mingle with the twinkling stars.

If America's post-9/11 war-on-terror military spending, including for the Afghan and Iraq wars, has indeed reached the unimaginable sum of $8 trillion, as Brown University's Costs of War Project estimates, imagine how much a real war, a "conventional" war, featuring the air force, the fleet, big battalions, and major battles, would cost this country. Again, the mind (mine at least) boggles at the prospect. Which is not to say that the U.S. military won't fight for every penny so that it's over-prepared to wage just such a war (and worse).

The idea that this country faces a perilous new cold war that could grow hot at any moment, this time with China, crops up in unusual places. Consider this passage by Dexter Filkins, a well-known war reporter, that appeared recently in the New Yorker:

"We've spent decades fighting asymmetrical wars, but now there's a symmetrical one looming. The United States has never faced an adversary of China's power: China's G.D.P. is, by some measures, greater than ours, its active-duty military is larger than ours, and its weapon systems are rapidly expanding. China appears determined to challenge the status quo, not just the territorial one but the scaffolding of international laws that govern much of the world's diplomatic and economic relations. If two forever wars are finally coming to an end, a new Cold War may await."

A new war is "looming." Our adversary has more money and more troops than us and is seeking better weaponry. Its leadership wants to challenge a "status quo" (that favors America) and international laws (which this country already routinely breaks when our leaders feel in the mood).

Why are so many otherwise sane people, including Joe Biden's foreign policy team, already rattling sabers in preparation for a new faceoff with China, one that would be eminently avoidable with judicious diplomacy and an urge to cooperate on this embattled planet of ours?

Future Wars Won't Keep Americans Together

Looking at the U.S. from across an ocean, a British friend of mine was bemused by this country's propensity for turning rivals into dangers of the worst sort. He asked me whether the very unity of the United States hinges on hyping and then confronting external enemies, an "artificially contrived military commonality," as he put it, that may serve to prevent this country's states from performing their own little "Brexits."

He has a point. What is it about this country that makes our leaders so regularly revel in inflating threats to our well-being? War profits, of course, as well as the kinds of dangers that seem to justify an ever more colossal military. Still, I suggested to my friend that inflating such dangers hasn't induced a sense of national unity, though it has, at least, provided a major distraction from what, so late in the game, can still only be called class warfare. (Spoiler alert: the richest among us have already won that war, Karl Marx be damned.) They also, of course, offer our oligarchs and kleptocrats yet more opportunities to plunder taxpayer dollars.

Despite the recent wall-to-wall coverage on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 of how that moment united us in a desire for revenge, our wars generally haven't brought Americans together. (Remember the Civil War?) The lone exception was World War II, which is why it's still so constantly cited. Perhaps the Cold War provided some sense of unity, as long as you weren't the subject of a McCarthyite witch hunt, but the Vietnam War tore America apart. The memory of that nightmare undoubtedly helps explain why our leaders have worked so hard to ensure that today's wars happen in the background and are no more than an afterthought for most of us (which is exactly how the Pentagon and weapons makers want it).

As an Air Force buddy of mine said to me recently, you really can't blame members of the complex "for hustling an easy buck." It's what they're geared to do. "The bigger issue," he suggested, "is with their enablers, who are legion. Because society is so cut off from the military, most of us have no way to really understand what it does or to measure its effectiveness. You see the four stars and rows of ribbons on those generals and think they must know their business. The funny part is that, by the standards of the business world, these guys are failures, their ROI [return on investment] is terrible."

If I truly wanted to effect change, my friend added, I should focus on ordinary Americans. Wake them up, tell them tough truths, and forget about Congress and those defense contractors. His advice reminded me of a scene I witnessed recently at the beach. A small boy was aiming a squirt gun at the incoming tide. "Take that, wave!" he shouted, firing again and again. Sometimes I feel like that boy, firing my own squirt gun of critiques as wave after wave from America's oceanic military-congressional-industrial complex crashes at my feet. The riptide of militarism in the U.S. can be both exhausting and deadly.

Twenty years after the war on terror began and even with the war in Afghanistan seemingly over, most Americans remain remarkably isolated from this country's conflicts and the rest of what passes for "national defense." The first tough truth is this: America has a runaway empire. The second: Somehow, we must unite and dismantle it, before it dismantles us.

My Squirt-Gun Message

Here's the rest of my message to my fellow citizens. Stop rewarding the Pentagon and its failed generals and admirals with yet more money. Hold them accountable for their disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and elsewhere. Pay closer attention to current events. Seek out alternative media. Know when you're being conned. (Hint: any war in a far-off place you've barely heard of is almost sure to prove another con job.)

Recognize that the wars in our recent past have been disasters, reports of "progress" have been shams, and the national treasury has been continually plundered before our very eyes. In other words, your wallets and your purses have been emptied to buy more bullets and bombs to kill or uproot the lives of mostly brown and black people across the globe who posed you little threat and few of whom ever meant you any harm.

Some of those same foreigners, however, might well be pissed off by now and contemplating a measure of revenge, which is basically the definition of blowback, as Chalmers Johnson warned us before 9/11 even happened. Someone must break the never-ending twenty-first-century cycle of violence. Why not us for once?

Recognize, too, that greed is not good, especially when it's driven by profits from weapons that could quite literally extinguish life on Earth. Recall President Eisenhower's words that spending on wars and weapons represents a theft from those who hunger; that U.S. leaders, in building more weapons and prosecuting more wars, are stealing from the future of your own children and grandchildren. Learn how to hate not the alleged "evil" foreigners but war itself and the war machine that lives off it, as well as the terrible waste of it all. Refuse to follow leaders who yearn for yet another cold (no less hot) war, who sing that old siren song of uniting in a crusade against another "axis of evil."

Finally, recognize that this country is stronger together. That what unites us is more important than what divides us. Learn to ignore the methods of the richest few and their political allies, who work so hard to stir us up and keep us distracted, disunited, and angry at each other. Let them know that they're playing with fire.

So, maybe Yoda's right after all. The future is difficult to see. It's always in motion. The question is: Do we have the courage to unite and head in a new direction? Why not set a new course for peace and, in the process, remake our democracy?

It's surely better than the same old future of ever more weapons, ever more wars, and far less hope.

Copyright 2021 William J. Astore

Featured image: African Lion Artillery by U.S. Army is licensed under CC BY 2.o / Flickr.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his 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.

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.

We failed to heed Eisenhower's dire warning — but here's how we can finally start to listen

As a ROTC cadet and an Air Force officer, I was a tiny part of America's vast Department of Defense (DoD) for 24 years until I retired and returned to civilian life as a history professor. My time in the military ran from the election of Ronald Reagan to the reign of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. It was defined by the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, America's brief unipolar moment of dominance and the beginning of its end, as Washington embroiled itself in needless, disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 attacks. Throughout those years of service, I rarely thought about a question that seems ever more critical to me today: What would a real system of American national defense look like?

During the Cold War, I took it for granted that this country needed a sprawling network of military bases, hundreds of them globally. Back then, of course, the stated U.S. mission was to "contain" the communist pathogen. To accomplish that mission, it seemed all too logical to me then for our military to emphasize its worldwide presence. Yes, I knew that the Soviet threat was much exaggerated. Threat inflation has always been a feature of the DoD and at the time I'd read books like Andrew Cockburn'sThe Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine. Still, the challenge was there and, as the leader of the "free world," it seemed obvious to me that the U.S. had to meet it.

And then the Soviet Union collapsed — and nothing changed in the U.S. military's global posture.

Or, put differently, everything changed. For with the implosion of the USSR, what turned out to remain truly uncontained was our military, along with the dreams of neoconservatives who sought to remake the world in America's image. But which image? That of a republic empowering its citizens in a participatory democracy or of an expansionist capitalist empire, driven by the ambition and greed of a set of oligarchs?

A few people spoke then of a "peace dividend." They were, however, quickly drowned out by the military-industrial complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had warned this country about. That complex, to which today we might add not only Congress (as Ike had done in an earlier draft of his address) but America's sprawling intelligence apparatus of 18 agencies, eagerly moved into the void created by the Soviet collapse and that of the Warsaw Pact. It quickly came to dominate the world's trade in arms, for instance, even as Washington sought to expand NATO, an alliance created to contain a Soviet threat that no longer existed. Such an expansion made no sense, defensively speaking, but it did serve to facilitate further arms sales and bring U.S. imperial hegemony to the very borders of Russia.

And there was the rub — for me at least. As an Air Force officer, I'd always thought of myself, however naively, as supporting and defending the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic (the words of my oath of office). After 1991, however, the main foreign enemy had disappeared and, though I didn't grasp it then, our new enemy would prove to be domestic, not foreign. It consisted of those who embraced as a positive good what I've come to think of as greed-war, while making no apologies for American leadership, no matter how violent, destructive, or self-centered it might prove to be.

In short, the arsenal of democracy of World War II fame had, by the 1960s, become the very complex of imperialism, militarism, and industrialism that Eisenhower warned Americans about first in his 1953 "Cross of Iron" speech and then in his more famous farewell address of 1961. Despite the efforts of a few brave Americans, that arsenal of democracy was largely allowed to morph into an arsenal of empire, a radical change that came shrouded in the myth of "national security." The complex would then only serve to facilitate the war crimes of Vietnam and of subsequent disasters like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, among so many others.

Yet those same misdeeds were so often dismissed by the mainstream media as the unavoidable costs of "national defense" or even supported as the unavoidable price of spreading freedom and democracy around the world. It was as if, in some twisted Orwellian fashion, war had come to be seen as conducive to liberty and righteousness. But as George Orwell had indeed warned us, war is not peace, nor should constant warfare at a global level be the product of any democratic government worthy of its name. War is what empires do and it's what America has become: a machine for war.

Creating a People's Military

So, I ask again: What would real national defense for this country look like? Rarely do any of us pose this question, no less examine what it might truly mean. Rarely do we think about all the changes we'd have to make as a nation and a people if we were to put defense first, second, and last, while leaving behind both our imperial wars and domestic militarism.

I know what it wouldn't look like. It wouldn't look like today's grossly inflated military. A true Department of Defense wouldn't need 800 foreign military bases, nor would the national security state need a budget that routinely exceeds a trillion dollars annually. We wouldn't need a huge, mechanized army, a navy built around aircraft carriers, or an air force that boasts of its global reach and global power, all of it created not for defense but for offense — for destruction, anytime, anywhere.

As a country, we would need to imagine a new "people's" military as a force that could truly defend the American republic. That would obviously mean one focused above all on supporting the Constitution and the rights we (at least theoretically) hold sacred like freedom of speech, the press, and assembly, the right to privacy and due process, and of course the right to justice for all, not just for the highest bidder or those with the deepest pockets.

What might such a new military look like? First, it would be much smaller. America's current military, including troops on active duty, reservists, and members of the National Guard, consists of roughly 2.4 million men and women. Those numbers should gradually be cut at least in half. Second, its budget should similarly be dramatically cut, the end goal being to have it 50% lower than next year's proposed budget of $715 billion. Third, it wouldn't be based and deployed around the world. As a republican force (note the lower-case "r"), it would instead serve democratic ends rather than imperial ones. It would certainly need far fewer generals and admirals. Its mission wouldn't involve "global reach," but would be defensive, focused on our borders and this hemisphere.

A friend of mine, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, speaks of a military that would consist of a Coast Guard, "militias" (that is, the National Guard) for each of the fifty states, and little else. Yes, in this America, that sounds beyond extreme, but he has a point. Consider our unique advantages in terms of geography. Our continent is protected by two vast oceans. We share a long and peaceful border with Canada. While the border with Mexico is certainly troubled, we're talking about unarmed, desperate migrants, not a military invasion flooding into Texas to retake the Alamo.

Here, then, are just 10 ways America's military could change under a vision that would put the defense of America first and free up some genuine funds for domestic needs as well:

  1. No more new nuclear weapons. It's time to stop "modernizing" that arsenal to the tune of possibly $1.7 trillion over the next three decades. Land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles like the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, expected to cost more than $264 billion during its lifetime, and "strategic" (nuclear) bombers like the Air Force's proposed B-21 Raider should be eliminated. The Trident submarine force should also be made smaller, with limited modernization to improve its survivability.
  2. All Army divisions should be reduced to cadres (smaller units capable of expansion in times of war), except the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the 10th Mountain Division.
  3. The Navy should largely be redeployed to our hemisphere, while aircraft carriers and related major surface ships are significantly reduced in number.
  4. The Air Force should be redesigned around the defense of America's air space, rather than attacking others across the planet at any time. Meanwhile, costly offensive fighter-bombers like the F-35, itself a potential $1.7 trillion boondoggle, should simply be eliminated and the habit of committing drone assassinations across the planet ended. Similarly, the separate space force created by President Trump should be folded back into a much-reduced Air Force.
  5. The training of foreign militaries and police forces in places like Iraq and Afghanistan should be stopped. The utter collapse of the U.S.-trained forces in Iraq in the face of the Islamic State in 2014 and the ongoing collapse of the U.S.-trained Afghan military today have made a mockery of this whole process.
  6. Military missions launched by intelligence agencies like the CIA, including those drone assassination programs overseas, should be halted and the urge to intervene secretly in the political and military lives of so many other countries finally brought under some kind of control.
  7. The "industrial" part of the military-industrial complex should also be brought under control, so that taxpayer dollars don't go to fabulously expensive, largely useless weaponry. At the same time, the U.S. government should stop promoting the products of our major weapons makers around the planet.
  8. Above all, in a democracy like ours, a future defensive military should only fight in a war when Congress, as the Constitution demands, formally declares one.
  9. The military draft should be restored. With a far smaller force, such a draft should have a limited impact, but it would ensure that the working classes of America, which have historically shouldered a heavy burden in military service, will no longer do so alone. In the future America of my military dreams, a draft would take the eligible sons and daughters of our politicians first, followed by all eligible students enrolled in elite prep schools and private colleges and universities, beginning with the Ivy League. After all, America's best and brightest will surely want to serve in a military devoted to defending their way of life.
  10. Finally, there should be only one four-star general or admiral in each of the three services. Currently, believe it or not, there are an astonishing 44 four-star generals and admirals in America's imperial forces. There are also hundreds of one-star, two-star, and three-star officers. This top-heavy structure inhibits reform even as the highest-ranking officers never take responsibility for America's lost wars.

Pivoting to America

Perhaps you've heard of the "pivot to Asia" under the Obama administration — the idea of redeploying U.S. military forces from the Greater Middle East and elsewhere in response to perceived threats from China. As it happened, it took the new Biden administration to begin to pull off that particular pivot, but America's imperial military regularly seems to be pivoting somewhere or other. It's time to pivot to this country instead.

Echoing the words of George McGovern, a highly decorated World War II bomber pilot who unsuccessfully ran for president against Richard Nixon in 1972, "Come home, America." Close all those foreign military bases. Redirect resources from wars and weapons to peace and prosperity. Focus on restoring the republic. That's how Americans working together could truly defend ourselves, not only from our "enemies" overseas, almost always much exaggerated, but from ourselves, the military-industrial-congressional complex, and all our fears.

Because let's be frank: how could striking at allegedly Iranian-backed militias operating in Iraq and Syria possibly be a form of self-defense, as the Biden administration claimed back in June? How is keeping U.S. troops in either of those two countries, or almost any other foreign country, truly a "defensive" act? America's "new" department of genuine defense, the one I imagine anyway, will know better.

In my nearly six decades, I've come to witness an America that increasingly equates "might" with "right," and praises its presidents whenever they decide to bomb anyone (usually people in the Middle East or Central Asia, but occasionally in Africa now, too), as long as it's framed in defensive or "preemptive" terms. Whether you call this aggression, imperialism, militarism, or something even more unflattering (atrocity?), the one thing it shouldn't be called is national defense.

Collectively, we need to imagine a world in which we as Americans are no longer the foremost merchants of death, in which we don't imagine ourselves as the eternal global police force, in which we don't spend as much on our military as the next 10 countries combined. We need to dream of a world that's not totally sliced and diced into U.S. military commands like Africa Command (AFRICOM); the Indo-Pacific Command or INDOPACOM; and the Middle Eastern Central Command (CENTCOM), among others. How would Americans feel if China had an "AMERICOM" and patrolled the Gulf of Mexico with nuclear-armed aircraft carriers very much "Made in China"? Chances are we wouldn't accept Beijing's high-minded claims about the "defensive" nature of those patrols.

This country's rebirth will only begin when we truly put our Constitution first and seek to defend it in wiser, which means so much more restrained, ways.

Copyright 2021 William J. Astore

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his 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.

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.

Tough truths are desperately needed about America's lost wars

Americans may already be lying themselves out of what little remains of their democracy.

The big lie uniting and motivating today's Republicans is, of course, that Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, won the 2020 presidential election. Other big lies in our recent past include the notion that climate change is nothing but a Chinese hoax, that Russia was responsible for Hillary Clinton's electoral defeat in 2016, and that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was necessary because that country's leader, Saddam Hussein, had something to do with the 9/11 attacks (he didn't!) and possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be used against the United States, a "slam dunk" truth, according to then-CIA Director George Tenet (it wasn't!).

Those and other lies, large and small, along with systemic corruption in Washington are precisely why so many Americans have been driven to despair. Small wonder that, in 2016, those "deplorables" reached out in desperation to a figure who wasn't a product of Washington's mendacious Beltway culture. Desperate times engender desperate acts, including anointing a failed casino owner and consummate con man as America's MAGA-cap-wearing savior. As the 45th president, Donald Trump set a record for lies that will likely remain unmatchable in its "greatness" — or so we must hope anyway.

Sadly, Americans have become remarkably tolerant of comfortable lies, generally preferring them to uncomfortable truths. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the military realm that I've inhabited most of my life. The first casualty of war, so it's said, is truth, and since this country has remained perennially at war, we continue to eternally torture the truth as well.

When it comes to war, here are just a few of our all-American falsehoods: that this country is slow to anger because we prefer peace, even if wars are often necessary, which is also why peace-loving America must have the world's "finest" and by far the most expensive military on the planet; that just such a military is also a unique force for freedom on Planet Earth; that it fights selflessly "to liberate the oppressed" (a Special Forces motto) but never to advance imperial or otherwise selfish ambitions.

For a superpower that loves to flex its military muscles, such lies are essentially par for the course. Think of them, in fact, as government-issue (GI) lies. As a historian looking to the future, what worries me more are two truly insidious lies that, in the early 1930s, led to the collapse of a fledgling democracy in Weimar Germany, lies that in their own way helped to facilitate the Holocaust and that, under the right (that is, wrong) circumstances, could become ours as well. What were those two lies?

Germany's Tragic Lies After World War I

During World War I, the German military attempted to defeat the combined forces of Britain, France, Russia, and later the United States, among other powers, while simultaneously being "shackled to a corpse," as one German general described his country's main ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the middle of 1916, the German Second Reich led by Kaiser Wilhelm II had, in essence, become a military dictatorship devoted to total victory at any cost.

Two years later, that same military had been driven to exhaustion by its commanders. When it was on the verge of collapse, its generals washed their hands of responsibility and allowed the politicians to sue for peace. But even before the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918, certain reactionary elements within the country were already rehearsing two big and related lies that would facilitate the rise of a demagogue and the onset of an even more disastrous world war.

The first big lie was that the German military, then considered the world's finest (sound familiar?), emerged from World War I undefeated in the field, its troops a band of heroes covered in glory. That lie was tenable because Germany itself had not been invaded in World War I; the worst fighting took place in France, Belgium, and Russia. It was also tenable because its military leaders had lied to the people about the progress being made toward "victory." (This should again sound familiar to contemporary American ears.) So, when those senior leaders finally threw in the towel in late 1918, it came as a shock to most Germans, who'd been fed a steady diet of "progress," while news of serious setbacks on the Western Front was suppressed.

The second big lie followed from the first. For if one accepted the "undefeated in the field" myth, as so many Germans did, then who was responsible for the defeat of the world's finest military? Not Germany's generals, of course. Indeed, in 1919, led by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, those same generals would maliciously claim that disloyal elements on the home front — an enemy within — had conspired to betray the country's heroic troops. Thus was born the "stab-in-the-back" myth that placed the blame on traitors from within, while ever so conveniently displacing it from the Kaiser and his generals.

Who, then, were Germany's backstabbers? The usual suspects were rounded up: mainly socialists, Marxists, anti-militarists, pacifists, and war profiteers of a certain sort (but not weapons makers like the Krupp Family). Soon enough, Germany's Jews would be fingered as well by gutter-inhabitants like Adolf Hitler, since they had allegedly shirked their duty to serve in the ranks. This was yet another easy-to-disprove lie, but all too many Germans, desperate for scapegoats and undoubtedly bigoted as well, proved eager to believe such lies.

Those two big and insidious falsehoods led to an almost total lack of accountability in Weimar Germany for militarists like Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff who were significantly responsible for the country's defeat. Such lies fed the anger and fattened the grievances of the German people, creating fertile ground for yet more grievous lies. In a climate of fear driven by the massive economic dislocation brought on by the Great Depression of 1929, a previously fringe figure found his voice and his audience. Those two big lies served to empower Hitler and, not surprisingly, he began promoting both a military revival and calls for revenge against the backstabbing "November criminals" who had allegedly betrayed Germany. Hitler's lies were readily embraced in part because they fell on well-prepared ears.

Of course, a mature democracy like America could never produce a leader remotely like a Hitler or a militaristic empire bent on world domination. Right?

America may indeed never produce its own Hitler, a demagogue who might indeed be described as a very unstable genius, and by "genius" I mean his uncanny ability to tap into and exploit the darker passions of his people and his age. Yet the United States in 2021 certainly does have power-hungry, less-than-stable "geniuses" of its own — as all countries do in all times. Men without principles or limits, willing to repeat big lie after big lie until they gain absolute power. Someone like former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or Senator Tom Cotton perhaps? Or perhaps an updated version of retired Lt. General Michael Flynn, Donald Trump's fleeting national security advisor, who only recently expressed support for a military coup to overthrow the government. Or perhaps, in 2024, Trump himself.

America's Own Big Lies

Of course, Germany in the aftermath of World War I is hardly a perfect analog for the United States in the aftermath of two decades of its disastrous but distant war on terror. And history is, at best, suggestive rather than duplicative. Yet we study it in part because the past provides insight into potential futures. Personalities and events change, but human nature remains much the same, which is why military officers still read the work of Athenian general and historian Thucydides with profit, despite the fact that his wars ended more than two millennia ago.

So, let's return to the two big lies that, in retrospect, were fatal to Weimar Germany's democracy. How might they apply to the U.S. today? Since 9/11, our military has prosecuted two big wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as numerous smaller conflicts in places like Libya, Syria, and Somalia. That same military has lost both of those big wars, while creating or exacerbating ongoing humanitarian crises and disasters in the "smaller" ones across the Greater Middle East and Africa.

Yet, in the American "homeland" (as it came to be known after the 9/11 attacks), it's remarkable how seldom anyone notes how badly that same military has bungled all those wars. Indeed, it's generally celebrated in most of the country and certainly in Washington as the finest military force in the world, perhaps even in world history. Its budget continues to rise as if in response to victories everywhere and therefore deserving of the lion's share of taxpayer dollars. Its retired generals and admirals are celebrated and rewarded with healthy pensions and even healthier pay and benefits if they so choose (and many do) to speed through the revolving door that links them to highly profitable war corporations like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon.

In essence, Americans have been sold on the idea that "their" military has been undefeated in the field, or, if "defeated" in the sense of suffering setbacks, not responsible for them. But if America's troops are the best of us and their losing commanders generally good enough to be eternally rewarded, who is to blame for America's loss in Iraq? In Afghanistan? Not them, obviously, not if you believe polling results which show that Americans have more "confidence" in the military than most other U.S. institutions (though those figures, still high, have been dropping recently).

If responsibility for defeat is not to be assigned either to the troops or their military commanders, and if we Americans most certainly can't imagine that an enemy like the Taliban is capable of defeating our mighty forces, who is to blame? An enemy within! Someone in the homeland who's stabbing America's noble heroes in the back. But, if so, who exactly?

Senior leaders in the U.S. military are already complaining that Joe Biden's troop withdrawal from Afghanistan may yet sow the seeds of defeat in that country (as if nearly 20 years of waging a disastrous war there had somehow set the stage for success). Republicans, as is their custom, have their knives out, too. They seem to be preparing to stab Democrats for being weak on defense and appeasers of "dictators" like the leaders of Iran and China.

And if you're thinking about a future "enemy within" narrative, don't forget the recent letter signed by 124 of our retired generals and admirals who seek to blame the decline of democracy in this country not on Trump and his lackeys, but on the spread of progressivism, socialism, even Marxism. That they might bear the slightest responsibility for the situation America finds itself in today would never occur to that company-sized gaggle of losers posing as self-appointed prophets.

But the truth is far harsher than those flag-rank opportunists are prepared to admit. Incessant war, insidious militarism, and our failure to face it all should be considered the real enemies within. And those "enemies" are helping to kill democracy in America, as James Madison, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, warned us about decades, even centuries, ago.

Here's the simple truth of it: America's wars since 9/11 were never this country's to win. They were pointless conflicts of opportunity, profiting the Pentagon (and its ever-rising budget). They were tainted by a need for vengeance and badly mismanaged by some of the same flag-rank officers who signed that letter. Honest self-reflection would require a serious course correction within that military and most certainly a wholesale rejection of militarism and military adventurism. And this is undoubtedly why so many in the military-industrial-congressional complex prefer the comfort of big lies.

We've seen versions of this before. Ronald Reagan reinterpreted a criminal war in Southeast Asia as "a noble cause." George H.W. Bush referred to a rational and reasoned reluctance to fight needless overseas wars as "the Vietnam syndrome," claiming the U.S. had finally "kicked it" with its ephemeral victory over Saddam Hussein in the Desert Storm campaign of 1991. The Rambo myth in popular culture reinforced the notion that American warriors had won the war in Vietnam, only to be stabbed in the back by duplicitous politicians and antiwar protestors who also spit on the returning troops. (They didn't.) Together such myths worked to shelter the U.S. military from radical reforms, ensuring an ongoing business-as-usual attitude at the Pentagon until, after 9/11, its true "mission (un)accomplished" years arrived.

Tough Truths Are the Antidote to Big Lies

Americans need a day of reckoning that shows no sign of coming. After all, we're talking about a Congress that can't even agree to form a joint commission to investigate the January 6th storming of the Capitol. Still, a guy can dream, can't he? My own dream would involve the formation of a truth commission to hold senior leaders, military and civilian, accountable not only for their lies about America's many wars but for the decisions to launch them and the pathetic performances that followed, as they did their unprincipled best to absolve themselves of responsibility.

Allow me to dream as well about what such an exercise in truth-telling and true accountability would involve:

  1. Bipartisan Congressional investigations into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including sworn testimony by presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, as well as vice presidents Cheney, Biden, and Pence, and those failed former commanding generals of ours.
  2. Bipartisan Congressional investigations into the military's endless lies about progress in its wars, coupled with war crimes inquiries as needed.
  3. Major reductions in military spending by Congress to curb present and future military adventurism.
  4. An end to military adulation, a rejection of militarism, and a recommitment to democracy and truth-telling.
  5. No future wars overseas without a Congressional declaration of the same, followed by mandatory conscription that would begin with the sons and daughters of members of Congress.

Through big lies and its allegiance to them, the United States today may be following a path already violently trod by Weimar Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s. Celebrating the military despite its defeats is a recipe for perpetual war and perpetual dishonesty. Equating democratic forces within America with divisiveness and sedition is a recipe not only for unrest but for a potentially harsher, far more violent future.

Here history teaches a disturbing lesson. What finally forced most Germans to face harsh truths, to reject militarism and megalomaniacal dreams of world empire, was catastrophic defeat in World War II. What, if anything, will force Americans to face similar harsh truths? Humanity can't afford yet another world war, not one in which a president has the power to unleash a thousand holocausts via an eternally "modernized" nuclear arsenal.

Just remember: Big lies do have consequences.

The real reason America's wars never end

Why don't America's wars ever end?

I know, I know: President Joe Biden has announced that our combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 9/11 of this year, marking the 20th anniversary of the colossal failure of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to defend America.

Of course, that other 9/11 in 2001 shocked us all. I was teaching history at the U.S. Air Force Academy and I still recall hushed discussions of whether the day's body count would exceed that of the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day of the Civil War. (Fortunately, bad as it was, it didn't.)

Hijacked commercial airliners, turned into guided missiles by shadowy figures our panicky politicians didn't understand, would have a profound impact on our collective psyche. Someone had to pay and among the first victims were Afghans in the opening salvo of the misbegotten Global War on Terror, which we in the military quickly began referring to as the GWOT. Little did I know then that such a war would still be going on 15 years after I retired from the Air Force in 2005 and 80 articles after I wrote my first for TomDispatch in 2007 arguing for an end to militarism and forever wars like the one still underway in Afghanistan.

Over those years, I've come to learn that, in my country, war always seems to find a way, even when it goes badly — very badly, in fact, as it did in Vietnam and, in these years, in Afghanistan and Iraq, indeed across much of the Greater Middle East and significant parts of Africa. Not coincidentally, those disastrous conflicts haven't actually been waged in our name. No longer does Congress even bother with formal declarations of war. The last one came in 1941 after Pearl Harbor. During World War II, Americans united to fight for something like national security and a just cause. Today, however, perpetual American-style war simply is. Congress postures, but does nothing decisive to stop it. In computer-speak, endless war is a feature of our national programming, not a bug.

Two pro-war parties, Republicans and Democrats, have cooperated in these decades to ensure that such wars persist… and persist and persist. Still, they're not the chief reason why America's wars are so difficult to end. Let me list some of those reasons for you. First, such wars are beyond profitable, notably to weapons makers and related military contractors. Second, such wars are the Pentagon's reason for being. Let's not forget that, once upon a time, the present ill-named Department of Defense was so much more accurately and honestly called the Department of War. Third, if profit and power aren't incentive enough, wars provide purpose and meaning even as they strengthen authoritarian structures in society and erode democratic ones. Sum it all up and war is what America now does, even if the reasons may be indefensible and the results so regularly abysmal.

Support Our Troops! (Who Are They, Again?)

The last truly American war was World War II. And when it ended in 1945, the citizen-soldiers within the U.S. military demanded rapid demobilization — and they got it. But then came the Iron Curtain, the Cold War, the Korean War, fears of nuclear Armageddon (that nearly came to fruition during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962), and finally, of course, Vietnam. Those wars were generally not supported — not with any fervor anyway — by the American people, hence the absence of congressional declarations. Instead, they mainly served the interests of the national security state, or, if you prefer, the military-industrial-congressional complex.

That's precisely why President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued his grave warning about that Complex in his farewell address in 1961. No peacenik, Ike had overseen more than his share of military coups and interventions abroad while president, so much so that he came to see the faults of the system he was both upholding and seeking to restrain. That was also why President John F. Kennedy called for a more humble and pacific approach to the Cold War in 1963, even as he himself failed to halt the march toward a full-scale war in Southeast Asia. This is precisely why Martin Luther King, Jr., truly a prophet who favored the fierce urgency of peace, warned Americans about the evils of war and militarism (as well as racism and materialism) in 1967. In the context of the enormity of destruction America was then visiting on the peoples of Southeast Asia, not for nothing did he denounce this country as the world's greatest purveyor of violence.

Collectively, Americans chose to ignore such warnings, our attention being directed instead toward spouting patriotic platitudes in support of "our" troops. Yet, if you think about it for a moment, you'll realize those troops aren't really ours. If they were, we wouldn't need so many bumper stickers reminding us to support them.

With the military draft gone for the last half-century, most Americans have voted with their feet by not volunteering to become "boots on the ground" in the Pentagon's various foreign escapades. Meanwhile, America's commanders-in-chief have issued inspiring calls for their version of national service, as when, in the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush urged Americans to go shopping and visit Disney World. In the end, Americans, lacking familiarity with combat boots, are generally apathetic, sensing that "our" wars have neither specific meaning to, nor any essential purpose in their lives.

As a former Air Force officer, even if now retired, I must admit that it took me too long to realize this country's wars had remarkably little to do with me — or you, for that matter — because we simply have no say in them. That doesn't mean our leaders don't seek to wage them in our name. Even as they do so, however, they simultaneously absolve us of any need to serve or sacrifice. We're essentially told to cheer "our" troops on, but otherwise look away and leave war to the professionals (even if, as it turns out, those professionals seem utterly incapable of winning a single one of them).

You know that yellow "crime scene" tape the police use to keep curious bystanders at bay? Our government essentially uses "war scene" tape to keep the curious among us from fathoming what the military is doing across so much of the world. That "tape" most often involves the use of classification, with everything that might matter to us designated "secret" or "top secret" and not fit for our eyes to see. This cult of secrecy enables ignorance and reinforces indifference.

Anyone like a Chelsea Manning or a John Kiriakou who seeks to cut that tape and so let ordinary citizens examine any of our war crime scenes in all their ugliness is punished. You, John Q. Public, are not supposed to know of war crimes in Iraq. You, Jane Q. Public, are not supposed to know of CIA torture programs. And when you don't know, and even when you do (if only a little), you have no ability to question this country's warlords in any rigorous fashion. You have no ability to resist wars vigorously and you know it, so most likely you won't act — as so many once did in the Vietnam era — to stop them.

For a self-styled democracy that should abjure such conflicts, war has instead become both omnipresent, omni-absent (if you'll let me invent a word for our strange situation), and oddly mercenary in these disunited states of ours. Borrowing a line from The Godfather, war isn't personal in America, it's strictly business. Basically, this country has its very own powerful warlords, even if they don't have personal names, just collective ones — like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon. In those wars of "ours" lies undeniable evidence that corporations are indeed citizens, as the Supreme Court declared in 2010 by judicial fiat in the eerily named "Citizens United" case. As a result, America's corporate warlords are now a new kind of ultra-powerful citizen. Think of them as warped versions of Marvel superheroes, collectively profiting from incessant conflict.

Did I say America no longer has citizen-soldiers? Of course, America has them. In place of old-style heroes like Alvin York (from World War I) or Audie Murphy (from World War II), we now have "heroes" like Citizen Raytheon and Citizen Boeing. Remember, as Mitt Romney reminded us, "corporations are people, my friend."

Your Views on War Don't Matter — Or Do They?

As I think about war, American-style, certain phrases pop into my head from the Catholic catechism: is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen. Apply that to America's global conflicts and you've captured the grim reality of this forever-war moment, even if President Biden is now trying to get U.S. combat troops out of one of them (and others are looking fervently for ways to continue fighting it). Worse yet, behind the scenes, that "world without end" invariably threatens to become a world with an end as the Pentagon persists in building yet more nuclear weapons — the phrase of the moment is "modernizing the nuclear arsenal" — while pursuing an antagonistic new cold war with China and Russia.

Referring to Catholic doxology in this fashion may seem heretical to some, but thought about another way, it's all too appropriate, as war in some sense is a widely shared cult, if not a religion, in America. Too many people believe in it, even worship it. Signs of this include the transformation of anyone who wears a military uniform into an automatic hero. People sacrifice their children to that cult. And even if you or your children choose not to serve (as so many Americans do), or if you're among those rare citizens who vociferously protest against our wars, your tax dollars nevertheless feed a war machine that's always cranking away, well-lubricated by our endless cash contributions.

While our coins still say "In God We Trust," the god our nation's leaders profess to trust is most assuredly a warrior, not the prince of peace. Under the circumstances and against a backdrop of perpetual war, no one should be surprised that this country is increasingly wracked by conflict and rent by violent impulses.

Common sense informed by history tells us that war is terror, atrocity, and murder. More than a few of America's sons and daughters have indeed been transformed by war into murderers overseas — and that's before "our" troops come home, haunted by deadly experiences and their physical and moral wounds. Yet despite their pain, despite those wounds, America's war machine rumbles on, sowing the dragon's teeth of future conflicts through vast weapons sales abroad and further military deployments that so often are justified, bizarrely enough, as helping to prevent war.

Of course, we'd like to think of our country as a shining city on a hill, but to others we must seem more like a citadel bristling with weaponry, a colossus of war. And sadly enough, too many of our fellow Americans in that citadel would rather be militarily strong and wrong than pacifically meek and right.

That grim reality was summed up for me by an offhand comment from that self-styled lord of war, then-Vice President Dick Cheney. Early in 2008, his administration's invasion and occupation of Iraq having cratered and with casualties mounting, he was reminded that public opinion in this country had turned against that war and people wanted it to end. "So?" Cheney replied.

Who cares if the people are against war? For that matter, who cares about right and wrong? What matters is what the national security state wants and what it wants is war till the end of time.

What is to be done? I see two possible paths for this country. One is to work to find ways to end all our wars and the massive global military presence that goes with them. In the process, we would begin to dismantle our imperial war machine and so hobble the military-industrial complex and its warlords. The other is the path this country remains on (despite Joe Biden's inclination to end the Afghan War). If followed, it will continue to allow the petty Caesars among us to rage until this imperial power finally collapses under the weight of its military excesses and failures. One path would lead to a possible restoration of democracy and citizen empowerment as America's founders intended; the other will undoubtedly terminate in the chaos of slow-motion collapse in a world threatened by nuclear annihilation.

There is no fate but what we make, said Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies. What'll it be, America? Do we have the collective courage to make a better fate for ourselves by pulling the plug on the war machine?

Copyright 2021 William J. Astore

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.

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.

The looming risk of a new cold war

The future isn't what it used to be. As a teenager in the 1970s, I watched a lot of TV science fiction shows, notably Space: 1999 and UFO, that imagined a near future of major moon bases and alien attacks on Earth. Movies of that era like Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey envisioned colossal spaceships and space stations featuring international crews on mind-blowing missions to Jupiter and beyond. Who'd have thought that, 20 years after Kubrick's alternate reality of 2001, we humans would effectively be marooned on a warming "sixth extinction" planet with no moon bases and, to the best of my knowledge, no alien attacks either.

Sure, there's been progress of a sort in the heavens. Elon Musk's Space X may keep going down in flames, but the Chinese now have their very own moon rocks. As the old-timey, unmanned Voyager probe continues to glide beyond our solar system, Mars is a subject for research by new probes hailing from the United Arab Emirates, China, and the U.S. Meanwhile, the International Space Station continues conducting research in low-earth orbit.

As with space exploration, so, too, with America's military. What amazes me most in 2021 is how much of its structure and strategy resembles what held sway in 1981 when I joined the Air Force as a college student in ROTC. Instead of futuristic starship troopers flying around with jetpacks and firing lasers, the U.S. military is still essentially building the same kinds of weaponry we were then. They're newer, of course, glitzier, if often less effective, but this country still has a Navy built around aircraft carriers, an Air Force centered on fighter jets and stealth bombers, and an Army based on tanks, helicopters, and heavy brigades. Admittedly, that Army may soon spend $20 billion on "augmented reality goggles" for the troops. (Perhaps those goggles will be programmed so that "reality" always looks like we win.)

As in the days of the old Cold War — and we may indeed be heading into a new cold war in 2021 — America is even witnessing a $100-billion revival of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, weapons that were vulnerable by the 1960s and obsolete by the 1980s. Consider them doubly-obsolete and no less escalatory in the 2020s. And despite having an ever larger and overly secretive military within the military, Special Operations Command, today's forces are generally structured in a way eerily similar to those I joined two generations ago. Think of it as the Pentagon's version of science fiction in which stasis rules instead of progress.

It's true, of course, that, thanks to the vanity of our last president, a new Space Force has been added to the services (though without moon bases, alien interceptors, or much of anything else yet). And one sci-fi-style "advance," drone warfare, has become increasingly automated and unbounded. Otherwise, this country's war song of 2021 remains much the same as 2001 or even 1981. It still has a force structure designed first and foremost to deter and defeat another great power like China and Russia, the very bogeymen I first raised my right hand to defend America against 40 years ago. Indeed, the Cold War is simply being rebooted and rebranded for a new century, a century more likely to be China's than America's.

Nowadays, instead of speaking about the "containment" of communism and the Soviet Union, as in the Cold War, the talk is of prevailing in "near-peer" conflicts. (Note how the U.S. military may have near-peers but is ultimately peerless, since there can't be any question that we're number one, militarily speaking.) Who are those "near-peers" so intent on challenging America and spoiling our freedom-driven version of imperialism? China and Russia, mainly, with Iran and North Korea tossed in as minor-league risks. Again, for my 1981 junior military self, it's déjà vu all over again. Iran as a perfidious enemy? Check. Russia and China as autocratic menaces? Check. An unpredictable North Korea? Check.

Thinking about this the other day, I realized that the generals and admirals currently making force-structure decisions for our military are my contemporaries. They're men (and a few women) who, like me, are in their late fifties and early sixties. They came of age as I did after the calamity of the Vietnam War and largely agree, I assume, that President Ronald Reagan's defense buildup of the 1980s was instrumental in the collapse of the Soviet Union and America's putative victory in the Cold War. They're still going with what they know, and what they know are aircraft carriers, fighter jets, and tanks, with plenty of nukes thrown in as what still passes for a "deterrent."

Is this a classic case of a known tendency among military commanders to prepare for the next war by refighting the last one? Or is there even more at work here? And if, by the way, this country supposedly won the last Cold War roughly 30 years ago, why is our military so earnestly preparing to contest it again, using essentially the same weapons and mindset? Why risk refighting a war you've already won?

Before tackling these questions, consider the moment when I joined the military. In 1981, America's armed forces were still recovering from the trauma of defeat in Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia). And if there was one thing the Pentagon knew for sure, it was this: it didn't want to repeat the disaster of the Vietnam War ever again. The safe way to go was to focus on the Cold War against — President Ronald Reagan's term — the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union. Such a course had the particular benefit of feeding and fattening the military-industrial complex in the Reagan era without the need to fight another disastrous counterinsurgency war.

Fast forward to 2021. Curiously enough, America's armed forces are once again recovering from the trauma of a conflict — the "war on terror" — that, over nearly 20 years, has largely been lost. For most Pentagon officials, repeating disasters like Iraq and Afghanistan ad infinitum would be anything but a desirable course. So, once again, it's back to the past, an all-too-comfortable return to planning for future wars against near-peer threats.

Instead of unconventional warfare against so-called asymmetrical foes (think Islamist militias with roadside bombs), we're back to relatively symmetrical warfare using staggeringly expensive conventional weaponry, as well as skills and mindsets that have the concomitant benefit of justifying huge Pentagon budgets long into the future. Think of it as a win-win situation for all, or so the U.S. military evidently now believes. And if the expected war never comes, at least that military will be replenished with lots of new weaponry (at considerable taxpayer expense).

Of Military Pathologies

I mentioned I was (and remain) a sci-fi fan. In the 1970s, in fact, I avidly watched reruns of the original Star Trek. Lately, one episode, "A Taste of Armageddon," has been on my mind. It featured two planets, Eminiar VII and Vendikar, at war with each other for 500 years. Here was the catch: those planets no longer used real weapons. Instead, they fought bloodlessly with computer-simulated attacks, even as citizens marked as "dead" had to report to disintegration chambers in a bizarre ritual meant to keep the peace through a computer-driven holocaust. The peoples of these two planets had become so accustomed to endless war that they couldn't imagine an alternative, especially one that ended in a negotiated peace.

So many years later, I can't help thinking that our country's military establishment has something in common with the leaders of Eminiar VII and Vendikar. There's so much repetition when it comes to America's wars — with little hope of negotiated settlements, little talk of radically different approaches, and a remarkably blasé attitude toward death — especially when it's largely the death of others; when foreign peoples, as if on another planet, are just "disintegrated," whether by monster bombs like MOAB or more discrete Hellfire missile strikes via remotely piloted drones.

What gives? Right now, America's military leaders are clearly turning back to the war they'd prefer to be fighting, the one they think they can win (or at least eternally not lose). A conventional warlike state vis-à-vis those near-peers seems to play to their skills. It's also a form of "war" that makes loads of money for the military-industrial complex, driving lucrative acquisition decisions about weaponry in a remarkably predictable fashion.

Near-peer "war" remains largely a fantasy set of operations (though with all-too-real dangers of possible conflagrations to come, right up to nuclear disaster). In contrast, real war, as in this century's terror wars, is a realm of chaos. So much the better to keep things as predictable as possible. Fresh and original ideas about war (and peace) are unlikely to prove profitable for the military-industrial complex. Worse yet, at an individual level, they could damage one's chances for promotion or, on retirement, for future posts within the industrial part of that complex. It's a lot healthier to salute smartly, keep planning for a near-peer future, and conform rather than fall on one's sword for a dissenting idea (especially one related to peace and so to less money for the Pentagon).

A Lesson from Space: 1999

During the Reagan years, as a young lieutenant, I recall reading Tom Clancy's novel Red Storm Rising while on duty at the Air Force's Cheyenne Mountain Complex, the ultimate bomb shelter. Clancy envisioned a war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact that happily never happened in real life. Today's version of Red Storm Rising might be 2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and retired Admiral James Stavridis. The plot: a naval clash between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea escalates into a world war and devastating nuclear attacks. Miscalculation is the order of the day. In it, 2034 becomes a year of Armageddon.

That near-future war novel is obviously meant to be a warning of sorts, but it also reveals something potentially fatal about Washington's collective military and political mindset. We exaggerate the threats we face, ranging from our response to the 9/11 attacks to our present fears about China taking our place as the leader of the global pack. Thanks to such fears, we misinterpret the actions of others and, in response, dream of and plan for violent conflict instead of nonviolent accord. (Why is it that there are always "war games" but never "peace games"?) Yet even as we plan for war and invest mightily in its future, we continue to self-righteously claim that we seek peace.

This militaristic mindset made me recall an episode of Space: 1999 produced in 1974, near the tail end of the Vietnam War. In "War Games," the Earth's moon, now traveling freely through space thanks to an accident that blasted it out of orbit, nears a planet that seems ideal for human habitation. The intrepid crew stranded on Moonbase Alpha, led by its commander John Koenig (actor Martin Landau), is eager to colonize that planet but instead experiences a devastating attack.

The catch: that attack happens just in the minds of Koenig and his crew. The aliens on that planet, far more advanced than humans, live in peace but are capable of tapping the deepest fears and fantasies of the desperate humans, showing them just how incompatible they are with an alien species that knows neither war, hate, nor violence. Faced with such harrowing self-awareness, Koenig and his crew reluctantly decide to remain on the moon, their barbarism denying them the very sanctuary they seek.

Nearly half a century later, it seems that we're still stranded on Moonbase Alpha. It hardly occurs to us to question how the Pentagon's mad military scenarios about near-peer wars could indeed end in nuclear annihilation.

The "red storm" imagined in Tom Clancy's thriller never came to pass as the Soviet Union collapsed within five years of its publication. Will a cataclysmic war driven by intense rivalries between the U.S. and China (and/or Russia) also fail to come to pass, perhaps due to wise diplomacy and sound policy based on mutual tolerance and enlightened morality? Or is our fate to be ever more massive military budgets and incendiary provocations from the South China to the Baltic seas and so nuclear brinksmanship to the end of time?

The U.S. military's new emphasis on near-peer conflicts will undoubtedly help funnel trillions of dollars into yet more weaponry, including a revamped nuclear arsenal, but it does not bode well for reasoned diplomacy or anything like peace on this planet. Absent some fresh thinking at the Pentagon and elsewhere in this country, the alternative may well be that, sooner or later, our reborn cold war flares hot, perhaps this time destroying humanity's life on this planet.

Such an ending, lived with so endlessly but never experienced during that first Cold War, when schoolkids regularly prepared for Armageddon by "ducking and covering" under their desks, should be unthinkable and intolerable. It should be a plot line reserved for the most outlandish and farfetched fictional thrillers and nothing else. If only.

Copyright 2021 William J. Astore

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.

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.

The spectacular and expensive failures of the U.S. military

Cancel culture is a common, almost viral, term in political and social discourse these days. Basically, somebody expresses views considered to be outrageous or vile or racist or otherwise insensitive and inappropriate. In response, that person is "canceled," perhaps losing a job or otherwise sidelined and silenced. In being deplatformed by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, for instance, this country's previous president has, it could be argued, been canceled — at least by polite society. More than a few might add, good riddance.

Cancel culture is all around us, with a single glaring exception: the U.S. military. No matter how poorly a major weapons system performs, no matter how much it goes over budget, no matter how long it takes to field, it almost never gets canceled. As a corollary to this, no matter how poorly a general performs in one of our twenty-first-century wars, no matter his lack of victories or failure to achieve mission objectives, he almost never gets cashiered, demoted, or even criticized. A similar thing could be said of America's twenty-first-century wars themselves. They are disasters that simply never get canceled. They just go on and on and on.

Is it any surprise, then, that a system which seems to eternally reward failure consistently produces it as well? After all, if cancel culture should apply anywhere, it would be to faulty multibillion-dollar weapons systems and more than a few generals, who instead either get booted upstairs to staff positions or retire comfortably onto the boards of directors of major weapons companies.

Let's take a closer look at several major weapons systems that are begging to be canceled — and a rare case of one that finally was.

* The F-35 stealth fighter: I've writtenextensively on the F-35 over the years. Produced by Lockheed Martin, the plane was at one point seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Nonetheless, the U.S. military persisted and it is now nearing full production at a projected total cost of $1.7 trillion by the year 2070. Even so, nagging problems persist, including engine difficulties and serious maintenance deficiencies. Even more troubling: the plane often can't be cleared for flying if lightning is anywhere in the area, which is deeply ironic, given that it's called the Lightning II. Let's hope that there are no thunderstorms in the next war.

* The Boeing KC-46 tanker: A tanker is basically a flying gas station, air-to-air refueling being something the Air Force mastered half a century ago. Never underestimate the military's ability to produce new problems while pursuing more advanced technology, however. Doing away with old-fashioned windows and an actual airman as a "boom operator" in the refueling loop (as in a legacy tanker like the KC-135), the KC-46 uses a largely automated refueling system via video. Attractive in theory, that system has yet to work reliably in practice. (Maybe, it will, however, by the year 2024, the Air Force now says.) And what good is a tanker that isn't assured of actually transferring fuel in mid-air and turns out to be compromised as well by its own fuel leaks? The Air Force is now speaking of "repurposing" its new generation of tankers for missions other than refueling. That's like me saying that I'm repurposing my boat as an anchor since it happened to spring a leak and sink to the bottom of the lake.

* And speaking of boats, perhaps you won't be surprised to learn that the Navy has had serious problems of its own with its most recent Gerald R.Ford-class aircraft carriers. That service started building carriers in the 1920s, so one might imagine that, by now, the brass had gained some mastery of the process of updating them and building new ones. But never underestimate the allure of cramming unproven and expensive technologies for "next generation" success on board such vessels. Include among them, when it comes to the Ford-class carriers, elevators for raising munitions that notoriously don't operate well and a catapult system for launching planes from the deck (known as the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System or EMALS) that's constantly breaking down. As you might imagine, not much can happen on an aircraft carrier when you can't load munitions or launch planes effectively. Each new Ford-class carrier costs in the neighborhood of $14 billion, yet despite all that money, it simply "isn't very good at actually being a carrier," as an article in Popular Mechanics magazine bluntly put it recently. Think of it as the KC-46 of the seas.

* And speaking of failing ships, let's not forget the Navy's Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), which have earned the nickname "little crappy ships." A serious propulsion design flaw may end up turning them into "floating garbage piles," defense journalist Jared Keller recently concluded. The Navy bought 10 of them for roughly half a billion dollars each, with future orders currently on hold. Lockheed Martin is the lead contractor, the same one responsible for the wildly profligate (and profitable) F-35.

* Grimly for the Navy, problems were so severe with its Zumwalt-class of stealth destroyers that the program was actually canceled after only three ships had been built. (The Navy initially planned to build 32 of them.) Critiqued as a vessel in search of a mission, the Zumwalt-class was also bedeviled by problems with its radar and main armament. In total, the Navy spent $22 billion on a failed "next generation" concept whose cancelation offers us that utter rarity of our moment: a weapon so visibly terrible that even the military-industrial complex couldn't continue to justify it.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday has gone on record as rejecting the idea of integrating exotic, largely untried and untested technologies into new ship designs (known in the biz as "concurrent development"). Godspeed, admiral!

Much like the troubled F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship, the Zumwalt's spiraling costs were due in part to the Pentagon's fixation on integrating just such "leading-edge" technologies into designs that themselves were in flux. (Not for nothing do military wags refer to them as bleeding edge technologies.) Such wildly ambitious concurrent development, rather than saving time and money, tends to waste plenty of both, leading to ultra-expensive less-than-fully effective weapons like the Zumwalt, the original version of which had a particularly inglorious breakdown while passing through (or rather not passing through) the Panama Canal in November 2016.

Given such expensive failures, you might be forgiven for wondering whether, in the twenty-first century, while fighting never-ending disastrous wars across significant parts of the planet, America's military isn't also actively working to disarm itself. Seriously, if we're truly talking about weapons that are vital to national defense, failure shouldn't be an option, but far too often it is.

With this dubious record, one might imagine the next class of Navy vessel could very well be named for Philip Francis Queeg, the disturbed and incompetent ship captain of novelist Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny. It's also quite possible that the Pentagon's next advanced fighter jet will fulfill former Martin Marietta CEO Norman Augustine's estimate from the 1980s that, by the year 2054, the entire Pentagon budget would be needed to buy one — and only one – combat aircraft. Perhaps a Death Star for America's new Space Force?

Is It Even Possible to Cancel a Major Weapons System Like the F-35?

The Navy's Zumwalt-class of destroyers was such a disaster that the program was indeed canceled a mere $22 billion along the line, but what about a program like the F-35? Is it even possible to cancel such a behemoth of a weapons system?

That question was put to me by Christian Sorensen, author of Understanding the War Industry, who like me is a member of the Eisenhower Media Network. Overpriced and underperforming weapons, Sorensen noted, are a feature of, rather than some sort of bug in, the military-industrial complex as future profits for giant weapons companies drive design and fielding decisions, not capability, efficiency, or even need. He's right, of course. There may even be a perverse incentive within the system to build flawed weapons, since there's so much money to be made in troubleshooting and "fixing" those flaws. Meanwhile, the F-35, like America's leading financial institutions in the 2007-2009 Great Recession, is treated as if it were too big to fail. And perhaps it is.

Jobs, profits, influence, and foreign trade are all involved here, so much so that mediocre (or worse) performance is judged acceptable, if only to keep the money flowing and the production lines rolling. And as it happens, the Air Force really has no obvious alternative to the F-35. During the 1950s and 1960s, the aerospace industry used to build a wealth of models: the "century series" of fighters, from the F-100 through the F106. (The notorious F-111 was an early version of the F-35.) The Air Force could also tap Navy designs like for the F-4 Phantom. Now, it's essentially the F-35 or bust.

In its obvious desperation, that service is turning to older designs like the F-15 Eagle (circa 1970) and the F-117 Stealth Fighter (circa 1980) to bridge the gap created by delays and cost overruns in the F-35 program. Five decades after its initial flight, it's something of a miracle that the F-15 is still being produced — and, of course, an obvious indictment of the soaring costs and inadequate performance of its replacements.

The exorbitant pricing of the F-35, as well as the F-22 Raptor, has recently even driven top Air Force officials to propose the creation of an entirely new "low cost" fighter. Irony of ironies, once upon a time in another universe, the F-35 was supposed to be the low-cost replacement for "fourth-generation" F-15s and F-16s. Last month, current Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles "CQ" Brown exhibited the usual convoluted and nonsensical logic of the military-industrial complex when he discussed that new dream fighter:

"If we have the capability to do something even more capable [than the F-16] for cheaper and faster, why not? Let's not just buy off the shelf, let's actually take a look at something else out there that we can build."

In other words, why buy already-proven and much-improved variants of the F-16 when you could design and build an entirely new plane from scratch, supposedly in a "cheaper" and "faster" manner? Of course, given that new fighters now take roughly two decades to design and field, that's an obvious fantasy from the start. If my old service — I'm a retired Air Force officer — wants fast and cheap, it should simply go with the tried-and-true F-16. Yet an entirely new plane is so much more attractive to a service under the spell of the giant weapons makers, even as the F-35 continues to be produced under its old, now demonstrably false, mantra of cheaper-and-better.

As Christian Sorensen summed up our present situation to me: "If an exorbitant under-performing platform like the F-35 can't be canceled, then what are we doing? How do we ever expect to bring home the troops [garrisoning the globe] if we can't even end one awful weapons platform or address the underlying systemic issues that cause such a platform to be created?"

Of course, an "alert and knowledgeable citizenry" like the one that President Dwight D. Eisenhower described in his 1961 farewell address to the nation (in which he first warned of the dangers of a "military-industrial complex" gaining "unwarranted influence") would work to cancel wasteful, unnecessary weapons systems like the F-35. But what if the forces in place in American society act to keep that very citizenry apathetic and ignorant instead?

Call me jaded, but I can't see the F-35 being canceled outright, even though it hasn't technically yet reached the stage of full production. Likely enough, however, such a cancellation would only happen in the wake of major cuts to the defense budget that forced the services to make hard choices. But such cuts clearly aren't on the agenda of a Congress that continues to fund record Pentagon budgets in a bipartisan fashion; a Congress that, unchecked as it is by us citizens, simply won't force the Pentagon to make tough choices.

And here's one more factor to consider as to why cancel culture is never applied to Pentagon weaponry: Americans generally love weaponry. We embrace weapons, celebrate them, pose with them. To cancel them, we'd have to cancel a version of ourselves that revels in high-tech mayhem. To cancel them, we'd have to cancel a made-in-America mindset that equates such weaponry — the stealthier and sexier the better — with safety and security, and that sees destruction overseas as serving democracy at home.

America's military-industrial complex will undoubtedly keep building the fanciest, most expensive weaponry known to humanity, even if the end products are quite often ineffective and unsound. Yet as scores of billions of dollars are thrown away on such weapons systems, America's roads, bridges, and other forms of infrastructure continue to crumble. How about it, America? Why not cancel those weapons and build back better at home?

Copyright 2021 William J. Astore

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.

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.

Here's a 10-point plan for Biden to live up to the promise of his inaugural address

When it comes to war, if personnel is policy, America is yet again in deep trouble.

As retired Army Major Danny Sjursen recently pointed out at TomDispatch, when it comes to foreign policy, President Joe Biden's new cabinet and advisers are well stocked with retired generals, reconstituted neocons, unapologetic hawks, and similar war enthusiasts. Biden himself has taken to asking God to protect the troops whenever he makes a major speech. (How about protecting them by bringing them home from our pointless wars?) "Defense" spending, as war spending is generally known in this country, remains at record levels at $740.5 billion for fiscal year 2021. Talk of a new cold war with Russia or China (or both) paradoxically warms Pentagon offices and corridors with yet more funds. The only visible dove of peace at Biden's inaugural was the giant golden brooch worn by Lady Gaga. So what exactly is to be done?

Peace-driven progressive policies will not emerge easily from the rainbow kettle of hawks Biden has so far assembled, but his inaugural speech did mention leading and inspiring others globally "not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example." It would have been an apt rhetorical flourish indeed, if not for this country's "forever wars" in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. America's harsh war-fighting reality suggests that "the example of our power" still remains standard operating procedure inside the Washington Beltway. How could this possibly be changed?

I have a few ideas for Biden — a 10-point plan, in fact, for turning his softball rhetoric into hardball reality. Consider, Mr. President, the following powerful examples you could set as America's latest commander-in-chief:

1. Stop the U.S. from building new generations of nuclear weapons and downsize the vast existing American arsenal, while launching global negotiations to work toward the elimination of all such arsenals. The U.S. military is set to spend well over a trillion dollars in the coming decades to "modernize" its nuclear triad of bombers and land-based and submarine-launched missiles. Such a staggering "investment" can only move the world closer to nuclear Armageddon. If America is to lead by example when it comes to the ultimate power on this planet, why not begin by cancelling this trillion-dollar-nightmare as part of a new global anti-nuclear initiative? Why not commit us, long term, to the elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere, while moving to adopt a "no-first-use" policy?

2. When it comes to President Biden's commitment to slow climate change and clean up the environment, why not do something in military terms? America's armed forces have an enormous appetite for fossil fuels. The Pentagon also has a sordid record when it comes to the poisoning of the environment. (Consider the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam, or the military's burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the birth defects and severe health problems that were linked to the munitions its forces used in assaulting the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004.) If the president wants to set an example when it comes to demilitarizing this over-armed, over-polluted planet of ours, reducing both the military's fossil-fuel emissions and its poisonous munitions would be a powerful way to start.

3. End this century's forever wars and radically downsize this country's unprecedented global network of military bases. Driving the colossal size of today's military is what my old service, the Air Force, likes to call its "global reach, global power" mission. At least in theory, that mission, in turn, helps justify the sprawling network of 800 or so overseas bases, a network that costs more than $100 billion a year to maintain. Such bases not only consume resources needed here in the U.S. and help stoke those forever wars, but they present high-value targets to opponents and incite ill-feeling and resistance from "host" countries. So, downsizing that global base structure would be an act of peace — and fiscal sanity.

4. Make major cuts in the country's war budget. Fewer bases and fewer or no wars should translate into a far lower defense budget. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 billion annually to defend this country and cover its real "national security" interests seems reasonable for the self-styled lone superpower. The money saved (roughly $340 billion based on this year's budget) could then perhaps be partly rebated directly to American families in need in this pandemic. Perhaps every American family earning less than $50,000 a year could see a rebate on their taxes directly attributable to downsizing that budget and America's imperial footprint overseas. Taking a page from Donald Trump, President Biden, as America's thrifty and giving commander-in-chief, could even have his name put on those rebate checks. Call it a long-delayed peace dividend. Regular Americans, after all, need such "dividends" far more than giant defense contractors like Boeing or Raytheon. And don't get me started on the need to invest in rebuilding this nation's infrastructure at a moment when the extremities associated with climate change threaten to devastate parts of the country.

5. Create a Department of Peace (here's looking at you, Dennis Kucinich) with influence at least approaching that of the so-called Department of Defense. Currently, the U.S. military is all about power projection, domination of the global battlespace, and similar buzzwords that add up to exporting violence abroad, special op by special op, drone by drone. You are what you do and the U.S. military does permanent war with plenty of "collateral damage." (Picture mutilated black and brown bodies and flattened and poisoned cities and towns.) If the U.S. government can create a Space Force just to fulfill the fantasies of Donald Trump, then why not a peace force, too? (America's current, humble Peace Corps asked for $401 million for Fiscal Year 2021, roughly the cost of four underperforming F-35 jet fighters.) Peace, much like war, doesn't just happen. You have to work at it — and that would be precisely the mission of the Department of Peace.

6.Pay attention, for once, to President Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1961 farewell address and exert rigorous oversight and zealous control over the military-industrial complex. That means ending the 2001 AUMF, the authorization for use of military force that Congress passed in a climate of panic and revenge in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (though it was only to be against those associated in some fashion with those terror attacks), and the second one Congress authorized in 2002 in preparation for the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. They have been misused and abused by presidents ever since. Furthermore, end any conflict that hasn't been authorized by a direct Congressional declaration of war. That means withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. America's security is not, in fact, directly threatened by those countries. As a self-declared democracy, the United States should set an example by not fighting wars disconnected from the people's will and the true needs of national defense.

7. And speaking of President Eisenhower, America needs to embrace his lesson that military spending represents a theft from Americans who are hungry, sick, and need help. For its "national security," this country needs more hospitals, better education, safer food, a cleaner environment, and, most of all, clean water and fresh air. Eisenhower knew that warships and warplanes were simply not the answer to the American people's real and pressing needs.

8. Reject threat inflation, including the heightening talk of a "new cold war" with Russia or China or of an ongoing "generational" war on terror. Eliminate talk of a new Red Menace, of likely wars with Iran or North Korea, or of America's backwardness in cyberwarfare research and development. Terrorism is nothing new and will always be with us in one form or another (including, vis-a-vis the Capitol on January 6th, domestic terrorism). Indeed, since war is terror, a war on terror should truly be considered an oxymoron. Terrorist acts are mostly the recourse of the weak when taking on the strong. The United States isn't going to stop them by getting stronger yet. Nor are China and Russia about to invade this country. (This isn't Red Dawn.) Iran is not coming to impose Sharia law and North Korea is not about to launch nukes against us. As for cyber-attacks, don't worry: no matter what you've heard, no country does cyberwarfare better than the U.S.A.

9. End the practice of foreign aid taking the form of military aid. When taxpayers give aid to foreign countries, it should be in the form of food, medicine, and other essentials, not cluster bombs, F-16s, and Hellfire missiles.

10. Learn from Abraham Lincoln. In President Biden's recent Inaugural Address, as a call to national unity, he made reference to Lincoln's initial inaugural appeal to "the better angels of our nature." But he should have focused on Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, the finest speech ever given by any president. As Lincoln put it then, when it came to ending the American Civil War:

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

Lincoln was unafraid of speaking of and seeking a just and lasting peace. In this century, until at least the Trump years, Americans often heard their leaders speak of this nation's "exceptional" nature. What could be more exceptional, more laudable, than seeking a lasting global peace?

Biden, like me, is Roman Catholic. My Catholic bible (Matthew 5:9) tells me that Christ said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God." Instead of beseeching God to protect the troops that American presidents have continually sent into harm's way, Joe Biden might ask for blessings for America's peace activists. To echo Lincoln again, that would indeed be a case of right making might, instead of the might-making-right vision that a militaristic America has grown far too comfortable with.

An Alert and Knowledgeable Citizenry

So long ago, President Eisenhower spoke of the importance of having an "alert and knowledgeable citizenry." Isn't it time for mainstream media outlets to foster real, critical, investigative journalism that would truly inform those very citizens about America's wanton military spending and endless wars, while providing educators with crucial material to teach their students about the horrific costs of militarism? This country needs to free its collective mind from the prevailing forever-war narrative. To paraphrase Crosby, Stills, and Nash, if we teach the children well, perhaps they won't repeat their father's hell.

In his song "Imagine," John Lennon asked us all to imagine a different world and said that it's easy if you try. Lennon got the first and most important part right, but the second part sadly doesn't apply, at least to this country in this century. Nowadays, Americans are so immersed in a culture driven by war, profit, and exploitation that it's no longer easy to imagine anything but war. If Americans truly paid attention to war, up close and as personal as they could get, they'd begin to grasp the folly and wickedness of it and so perhaps relinquish what I've come to think of as their prisoner-of-war mentality in relation to it. They might actually begin breaking down mental barriers to peace.

It won't be easy, but it is necessary for America's survival. And it's unlikely to come without campaign finance reform and the public funding of elections. In a "pay-to-play" oligarchy disguised as a democracy, the giant weapons-making corporations simply pay much more than you do and so speak through megaphones, leaving you with a dead mic. Unless the corporate dominance of our politics is curtailed, ordinary Americans will continue to be outshouted and overwhelmed by the bellicose and the greedy, leaving the country forever at war.Don't count on Congress doing it, though. Congress is incestuously part of what should be renamed the military-industrial-congressional complex. Don't count on the military doing it either. Its most senior men and women have been carefully selected, groomed, and promoted because they believe in the system, which includes incessant lobbying for more weaponry and exaggerating the threats to this country to get it. They exist to wage war; the rest of us should be willing to fight for peace.

Change, if and when it comes, will have to be driven by people like us.

It won't be easy to work for peace, but it sure is worth the try. It sure as hell beats the alternative of guns, bombs, and missiles being produced like so many sausages in a militaristic country that ever more resembles George Orwell's nightmarish image of the future as "a boot stamping on a human face — forever."

America's new president has called for us to lead with the power of our example rather than just the example of our power. I can't think of anything more exemplary and powerful than a strong commitment to making war no more.

Copyright 2021 William J. Astore

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.

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.

We're all prisoners of war now

"POWs Never Have A Nice Day." That sentiment was captured on a button a friend of mine wore for our fourth grade class photo in 1972. That prisoners of war could never have such a day was reinforced by the sad face on that button. Soon after, American POWs would indeed be released by their North Vietnamese captors as the American war in Vietnam ended. They came home the next year to a much-hyped heroes' welcome orchestrated by the administration of President Richard Nixon, but the government would never actually retire its POW/MIA (missing-in-action) flags. Today, almost half a century later, they continue to fly at federal installations, including the U.S. Capitol as it was breached and briefly besieged last week by a mob incited by this country's lame-duck president, ostensibly to honor all U.S. veterans who were either POWs or never returned because their bodies were never recovered.

Remembering the sacrifices of our veterans is fitting and proper; it's why we set aside Memorial Day in May and Veterans Day in November. In thinking about those POWs and the dark legacy of this country's conflicts since World War II, however, I've come to a realization. In the ensuing years, we Americans have all, in some sene, become prisoners of war. We're all part of a culture that continues to esteem war, embrace militarism, and devote more than half of federal discretionary spending to wars, weaponry, and the militarization of American culture. We live in a country that leads the world in the export of murderous munitions to the grimmest, most violent hotspots on the planet, enabling, for example, a genocidal conflict in Yemen, among other conflicts.

True, in a draft-less country, few enough Americans actually don a military uniform these days. As 2021 begins, most of us have never carried a military identification card that mentions the Geneva Convention on the proper and legal treatment of POWs, as I did when I wore a uniform long ago. So, when I say that all Americans are essentially POWs, I'm obviously using that acronym not in a legal or formal way, but in the colloquial sense of being captured by some phenomenon, held by it, subjected to it in a fashion that tends to restrict, if not eliminate, freedom of thought and action and so compromises this country's belief in sacred individual liberties. In this colloquial sense, it seems to me that all Americans have in some fashion become prisoners of war, even those few "prisoners" among us who have worked so bravely and tirelessly to resist the phenomenon.

Ask yourself this question: During a deadly pandemic, as the American death toll approaches 400,000 while still accelerating, what unites "our" representatives in Congress? What is the only act that draws wide and fervent bipartisan support, not to speak of a unique override of a Trump presidential veto in these last four years? It certainly isn't providing health care for all or giving struggling families checks for $2,000 to ensure that food will be on American tables or that millions of us won't be evicted from our homes in the middle of a pandemic. No, what unites "our" representatives is funding the military-industrial complex to the tune of $740.5 billion in fiscal year 2021 (though the real amount spent on what passes for "national security" each year regularly exceeds a trillion dollars). Still, that figure of $740.5 billion in itself is already higher than the combined military spending of the next 10 countries, including Russia and China as well as U.S. allies like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Not only that, but Congress added language to the latest defense bill that effectively blocked efforts by President Trump before he leaves office on January 20th to mandate the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan (and some troops from Germany). Though it's doubtful he would have accomplished such goals anyway, given his irresolute nature, that Congress worked to block him tells you what you need to know about "our" representatives and their allegiance to the war complex.

That said, an irresolute Trump administration has been most resolute in just one area: selling advanced weaponry overseas. It's been rushing to export American-made bombs, missiles, and jets to the Middle East before turning over government efforts to shill for America's merchants of death to President Joe Biden and his crew of deskbound warriors.

Speaking of Biden, that he selected retired General Lloyd Austin III to be his secretary of defense sends the strongest possible signal of his own allegiance to the primacy of militarism and war in American culture. After all, upon retiring, General Austin promptly cashed in by joining the board of directors of United Technologies from which he received $1.4 million in "stock and other compensation" before it merged with giant weapons-maker Raytheon and he ended up on the board of that company. (He holds roughly $500,000 in Raytheon stock, a nice supplement to his six-figure yearly military pension.)

How better than selecting him as SecDef to ensure that the "military" and the "industrial" remain wedded in that famed complex? America's secretary of defense is, of course, supposed to be a civilian, someone who can exercise strong and independent oversight over America's ever-growing war complex, not a lifelong military officer and general to boot, as well as an obvious war profiteer.

War Is Peace

As Quincy Institute President Andrew Bacevich so aptly put it, "many Americans have made their peace with endless war." Within America's war culture, peace activists like Medea Benjamin and organizations like Veterans for Peace are seen as not just "radical," but genuinely aberrant. Meanwhile, an unquestioning acceptance of the fact that this country is now eternally at war across significant parts of the planet is considered normal, even respectable. Certainly, not something to put real time or thought into considering.

As a result, warmongers like former Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton are touted in some quarters as hard-headed realists. In seeing the world as a hostile place that Americans need to (but somehow, almost 20 years later, can't) dominate means their heads are screwed on straight, unlike those screwy thinkers who advocate for peace. But as Dorothy Day, the Catholic peace activist, once said: "Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system."

That Americans mostly refuse to see permanent war as filthy and rotten, or to think much about it or the "defense" budget that goes with it showcases the triumph of a broader war culture here. Whereas this country's profligate and prodigal military complex has given us stunning failure after stunning failure overseas (just consider all those disastrous efforts to win "hearts and minds" from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq and on and on), it has proved stunningly successful in winning — or at least taming — hearts and minds in the homeland. How else to explain the way those trillion-dollar-plus "national security" budgets are routinely rubber-stamped by Congress with hardly a murmur of protest?

In the twenty-first century, Americans are suffering a form of cognitive capture in which war has become the new normal. As an astute reader at my blog, Bracing Views, put it: "Our desire to live without war is held in a stockade, and every day that we wake up and walk out into the yard that understanding is being broken down by the powerful monied elites."

Perhaps you've noticed, in fact, how every president from George W. Bush in 2001 on has been proud to pose at some point as a "wartime" president. Perhaps you've noticed as well that this country can't or won't close Gitmo, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, flooded with prisoners from the global war on terror beginning late in 2001, men who will likely be imprisoned until death does us part.In America's collective stockade of the mind, activism for peace is an aberration, while acceptance of the war state is second nature. Small wonder that Biden's proposed cabinet and administration features so many neocon-style policymakers who made their peace with war, whether in Iraq and Afghanistan or Libya and Syria (Antony Blinken as secretary of state; Jake Sullivan as national security advisor; retired general Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense; and Avril Haines as director of national intelligence). Biden's hawkish picks avidly place their faith in U.S. military power. And they will be advising a new president, who once supported war in Iraq himself and talks not of reducing "defense" spending but of boosting it.

Perhaps this is why the U.S. government "tortured some folks," as President Obama put it in 2014, and abused Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. (Avril Haines, Biden's proposed national intelligence director, once helped suppress evidence of just such abuse and torture.) Perhaps this is why every president starting with George W. Bush has unapologetically smited evildoers around the world via robotic assassin drones. (Remember, the drone assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Suleimani at Baghdad International Airport by one Donald J. Trump?) Perhaps this is also why U.S. bombing never seems to stop and those wars never end, even when a president comes into office promising that they will. After all, it's so empowering to be a "wartime" president!

In his novel 1984, George Orwell put it simply enough when he coined the slogan "war is peace" for his fictional dystopian society. Randolph Bourne put it no less simply when, during World War I, he explained that "war is the health of the state." Rosa Brooks, who worked at the Pentagon, put it bluntly when she titled her 2016 book How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. What we have in America today is warfare as welfare, a form of man-made disaster capitalism, profitable for a few at the expense of the many.

Say it again: We are all POWs now.

The Time I Met a Real POW

In the early 1990s, when I was a young captain in the U.S. Air Force, I served as an escort officer for Brigadier General Robinson Risner. It's not too much to say that Risner is held in awe in the Air Force. A skilled fighter pilot and Korean War ace, he was a colonel and on the cover of Time magazine in 1965, just as the Vietnam War was ramping up, after which he was shot down and became a POW. He later wrote The Passing of the Night, a harrowing account of the seven years he spent as a prisoner in the "Hanoi Hilton," the sardonic name American POWs gave North Vietnam's Hoa Lo Prison.

What sustained Risner through torture and those years of captivity was his Christian faith and patriotism. I vividly recall a talk he gave at the Air Force Academy about his experiences and how that faith of his had sustained him. I've never heard a more vivid evocation of the spirit of duty, honor, and country sustained by faith in a higher power. I was proud to have a photo taken with General Risner, as we stood next to the trophy named after him and annually awarded to the top graduate of the Air Force's Weapons School, the AF's Top Gun, so to speak.

Risner was gracious and compelling, and I was humbled to meet a POW who'd endured and overcome as much as he had. Yet, back then (to be honest), I never gave a thought to his actions as a fighter pilot leading bombing missions during Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam. Since the U.S. government had chosen not to officially declare war against North Vietnam, whether his missions were even legal should have been open to question. Lacking such an official declaration, one could argue that Risner and U.S. POWs like him did not enjoy the legal protections of the Geneva Convention. Using American terminology today, Risner might then have been termed an "enemy combatant" to be held indefinitely, as the U.S. today holds captives at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, POWs who have little hope of ever being released.

To your average American captured by U.S. war culture, objections here are easy. Of course, Risner's bombing missions were legal. Of course, he deserved to be recognized as a POW and treated decently. America never goes to war without righteous cause, in this case the containment of Communism by any means short of nuclear weapons. The North Vietnamese saw it differently, however, perhaps because it was they who were being bludgeoned and flattened by U.S. military power.

My point is neither to praise Risner nor to bury him. Rather, it's to bury war and the culture that breeds and then feeds on it. The more Americans facilitate war (largely by ignoring it and so giving it our tacit approval), the more Washington funds it, the more other people die because of "our" wars and "our" weaponry, the more this country becomes a POW nation writ large.

My Friend's Button Again

Remember my friend's button, the one that insisted POWs never have a nice day? As a POW nation writ large, it should apply to all of us. America won't have a nice day again until it extricates itself from war in all its manifestations. There will be no nice day until Congress stops funding munitions makers and starts seeking peace and helping the sick and poor. There will be no nice day until Americans hate war with all the passion now saved for "patriotic" flag waving. There will be no nice day until presidents bless peacemakers instead of beseeching God to protect the troops.

So, the next time you see a POW/MIA flag outside a federal building, don't dismiss it as a relic of America's past. Think about its meaning and relevance in an era of constant global warfare and colossal military spending. Then, if you dare, ask yourself if you, too, are a POW of sorts — not in the strictly legal sense that applies to formal militaries in declared wars, but in the sense of this country being captured by war in all its death, destruction, and despair. And then ask yourself, what does America have to do, collectively, to break out of the POW camp in which it's imprisoned itself?

Upon that question hinges the future of the American republic.

Copyright 2021 William J. Astore

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.

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 seethe 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

The nightmare campaign is over — but we could have had so much more

As I lived through the nightmare of the election campaign just past, I often found myself dreaming of another American world entirely. Anything but this one.

In that spirit, I also found myself looking at a photo of my fourth-grade class, vintage 1972. Tacked to the wall behind our heads was a collage, a tapestry of sorts that I could make out fairly clearly. It evoked the promise and the chaos of a turbulent year so long ago. The promise lay in a segment that read "peace" and included a green ecology flag, a black baseball player (Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman Jackie Robinson, who had died that year), and a clenched fist inside the outline of the symbol for female (standing in for the new feminism of that moment and the push for equal rights for women).

Representing the chaos of that era were images of B-52s dropping bombs in Vietnam (a war that was still ongoing) and a demonstration for racist Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace (probably because he had been shot and wounded in an assassination attempt that May). A rocket labeled "USA" reminded me that this country was then still launching triumphant Apollo missions to the moon.

How far we've come in not quite half a century! In 2020, "peace" isn't even a word in the American political dictionary; despite Greta Thunberg, a growing climate-change movement, and Joe Biden's two-trillion-dollar climate plan, ecology was largely a foreign concept in the election just past as both political parties embraced fracking and fossil fuels (even if Biden's embrace was less tight); Major League Baseball has actually suffered a decline in African-American players in recent years; and the quest for women's equality remains distinctly unfulfilled.

Bombing continues, of course, though those bombs and missiles are now aimed mostly at various Islamist insurgencies rather than communist ones, and it's often done by drones, not B-52s, although those venerable planes are still used to threaten Moscow and Beijing with nuclear carnage. George Wallace has, of course, been replaced by Donald Trump, a racist who turned President Richard Nixon's southern strategy of my grade school years into a national presidential victory in 2016 and who, as president, regularly nodded in the direction ofwhite supremacists.

Progress, anyone? Indeed, that class photo of mine even featured the flag of China, a reminder that Nixon had broken new ground that very year by traveling to Beijing to meet with Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong and de-escalate the Cold War tensions of the era. Nowadays, Americans only hear that China is a military and economic threat; that Joe Biden and some Democrats are allegedly far too China-friendly (they aren't); and that Covid-19 (aka the "Wuhan Flu" or "Kung Flu") was -- at least to Donald Trump and his followers -- a plague sent by the Chinese to kill us.

Another symbol from that tapestry, a chess piece, reminded me that in 1972 we witnessed the famous Cold War meeting between the youthful, brilliant, if mercurial Bobby Fischer and Soviet chess champion Boris Spassky in a match that evoked all the hysteria and paranoia of the Cold War. Inspired by Fischer, I started playing the game myself and became a card-carrying member of the U.S. Chess Federation until I realized my talent was limited indeed.

The year 1972 ended with Republican Richard Nixon's landslide victory over Democratic Senator George McGovern, who carried only my home state of Massachusetts. After Nixon's landslide victory, I remember bumper stickers that said: "Don't blame me for Nixon, I'm from Massachusetts."

Eighteen years later, in 1990, I would briefly meet the former senator. He was attending a history symposium on the Vietnam War at the U.S. Air Force Academy and, as a young Air Force captain, I chased down a book for him in the Academy's library. I don't think I knew then of McGovern's stellar combat record in World War II. A skilled pilot, he had flown 35 combat missions in a B-24 bomber, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for, at one point, successfully landing a plane heavily damaged by enemy fire and saving his crew. Nixon, who had served in the Navy during that war, never saw combat. But he did see lots of time at the poker table, winning a tidy sum of money, which he would funnel into his first political campaign.

Like so many combat veterans of the "greatest generation," McGovern never bragged about his wartime exploits. Over the years, however, that sensible, honorable, courageous American patriot became far too strongly associated with peace, love, and understanding. A staunch defender of civil rights, a believer in progressive government, a committed opponent of the Vietnam War, he would find himself smeared by Republicans as weak, almost cowardly, on military matters and an anti-capitalist (the rough equivalent today of democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders).

Apparently, this country couldn't then and still can't accept any major-party candidate who doesn't believe in a colossal military establishment and a government that serves business and industry first and foremost or else our choice in 2020 wouldn't have been Trump-Pence versus Biden-Harris.

Channeling Lloyd Bentsen

As I began writing this piece in late October, I didn't yet know that Joe Biden would indeed win the most embattled election of our lifetime. What I did know was that the country that once produced (and then rejected) thoughtful patriots like George McGovern was in serious decline. Most Americans desperately want change, so the pollsters tell us, whether we call ourselves Republicans or Democrats, conservatives, liberals, or socialists. Both election campaigns, however, essentially promised us little but their own versions of the status quo, however bizarre Donald Trump's may have been.

In truth, Trump didn't even bother to present a plan for anything, including bringing the pandemic under control. He just promised four more years of Keeping America Trumpish Again with yet another capital gains tax cut thrown in. Biden ran on a revival of Barack Obama's legacy with the "hope and change" idealism largely left out. Faced with such a choice in an increasingly desperate country, with spiking Covid-19 cases in state after state and hospitals increasingly overwhelmed, too many of us sought relief in opioids or gun purchases, bad habits like fatty foods and lack of exercise, and wanton carelessness with regard to the most obvious pandemic safety measures.

Since the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and especially since September 11, 2001, it's amazing what Americans have come to accept as normal. Forget about peace, love, and understanding. What we now see on America's streets aren't antiwar protesters or even beat cops, but Robocops armed to the teeth with military-style weaponry committing indefensible acts of violence. Extremist "militias" like the Proud Boys are celebrated (by some) as "patriots." Ludicrous QAnon conspiracy theories are taken all too seriously with political candidates on the Republican side of the aisle lining up to endorse them.

Even six-figure death tolls from a raging pandemic were normalized as President Trump barnstormed the country, applauding himself to maskless crowds at super-spreader rallies for keeping Covid-19 deaths under the mythical figure of 2.2 million. Meanwhile, the rest of us found nothing to celebrate in what -- in Vietnam terms -- could be thought of as a new body count, this time right here in the homeland.

And speaking of potential future body counts, consider again the Proud Boys whom our president in that first presidential debate asked to "stand back and stand by." Obviously not a militia, they might better be described as a gang. Close your eyes and imagine that all the Proud Boys were black. What would they be called then by those on the right? A menace, to say the least, and probably far worse.

A real militia would, of course, be under local, state, or federal authority with a chain of command and a code of discipline, not just a bunch of alienated guys playing at military dress-up and spoiling for a fight. Yet too many Americans see them through a militarized lens, applauding those "boys" as they wave blue-line pro-police flags and shout "all lives matter." Whatever flags they may wrap themselves in, they are, in truth, nothing more than nationalist bully boys.

Groups like the Proud Boys are only the most extreme example of the "patriotic" poseurs, parades, and pageantry in the U.S.A. of 2020. And collectively all of it, including our lost and embattled president, add up to a red-white-and-blue distraction (and what a distraction it's been!) from an essential reality: that America is in serious trouble -- and you can take that "America" to mean ordinary people working hard to make a living (or not working at all right now), desperate to maintain roofs over their heads and feed their kids.

It's a distraction as well from the reality that America hasn't decisively won a war since the time George McGovern flew all those combat missions in a B-24. It's a distraction from some ordinary Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake being not just manipulated and exploited, but murdered, hence the need for a Black Lives Matter movement to begin with. It's a distraction from the fact that we don't even debate gargantuan national security budgets that now swell annually above a trillion dollars, while no one in a position of power blinks.

Today's never-ending wars and rumors of more to come remind me that George McGovern was not only against the Vietnam conflict, but the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, too. Joe Biden, meanwhile, voted for the Iraq War, which Donald Trump also spoke in favor of, then, only to campaign on ending this country's wars in 2016, even if by 2020 he hadn't done so -- though he had set up a new military service, the Space Force. Feeling the need to sharpen his own pro-war bona fides, Biden recently said he'd raise "defense" spending over and above what even Trump wanted.

If you'll indulge my fantasy self for a moment, I'd like to channel Lloyd Bentsen, the 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee who, in a debate with his Republican opposite Dan Quayle, dismissed him as "no Jack Kennedy." In that same spirit, I'd like to say this to both Trump and Biden in the wake of the recent Covid-19 nightmare of a campaign: "I met George McGovern. George McGovern, in a different reality, could have been my friend. You, Joe and Donald, are no George McGovern."

Prior military service is not essential to being president and commander-in-chief, but whose finger would you rather have on America's nuclear button: that of Trump, who dodged the draft with heel spurs; Biden, who dodged the draft with asthma; or a leader like McGovern, who served heroically in combat, a leader who was willing to look for peaceful paths because he knew so intimately the blood-spattered ones of war?

A Historical Tapestry for Fourth Graders as 2020 Ends

What about a class photo for fourth graders today? What collage of images would be behind their heads to represent the promise and chaos of our days? Surely, Covid-19 would be represented, perhaps by a mountain of body bags in portable morgues. Surely, a "Blue Lives Matter" flag would be there canceling out a Black Lives Matter flag. Surely, a drone launching Hellfire missiles, perhaps in Somalia or Yemen or some other distant front in America's endless war of (not on) terror, would make an appearance.

And here are some others: surely, the flag of China, this time representing the growing tensions, not rapprochement, between the two great powers; surely, a Trump super-spreader rally filled with the unmasked expressing what I like to think of as the all-too-American "ideal" of "live free and die"; surely, a vast firenado rising from California and the West, joined perhaps by a hurricane flag to represent another record-breaking year of such storms, especially on the Gulf Coast; surely, some peaceful protesters being maced or tased or assaulted by heavily armed and unidentified federal agents just because they cared about the lives of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others.

And I suppose we could add something about sports into that collage, maybe an image of football players in empty stadiums, kneeling as one for racial equality. Look, sports used to unite us across race and class lines, but in his woebegone presidency, Donald Trump, among others, used sports only to divide us. Complex racial relations and legacies have been reduced to slogans, Black Lives Matter versus blue lives matter, but what's ended up being black and blue is America. We've beaten ourselves to a pulp and it's the fight promoters, Donald Trump above all, who have profited most. If we are to make any racial progress in America, that kind of self-inflicted bludgeoning has to end.

And what would be missing from the 2020 collage that was in my 1972 one? Notably, clear references to peace, ecology, and equal rights for women. Assuming that, on January 20th, Joe Biden really does take his place in the Oval Office, despite the angriest and most vengeful man in the world sitting there now, those three issues would be an ideal place for him to start in his first 100 days as president (along, of course, with creating a genuine plan to curb Covid-19): (1) seek peace in Afghanistan and elsewhere by ending America's disastrous wars; (2) put the planet first and act to abate climate change and preserve all living things; (3) revive the Equal Rights Amendment and treat women with dignity, respect, and justice.

One final image from my fourth-grade collage: an elephant is shown on top of a somewhat flattened donkey. It was meant, of course, to capture Richard Nixon's resounding victory over George McGovern in 1972. Yet, even with Joe Biden's victory last week, can we say with any confidence that the donkey is now on top? Certainly not the one of McGovern's day, given that Biden has already been talking about austerity at home and even higher military spending.

Sadly, it's long past time to reclaim American idealism and take a stand for a lot less war and a lot more help for the most vulnerable among us, including the very planet itself. How sad that we don't have a leader like George McGovern in the White House as a daunting new year looms.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular. His personal blog is Bracing Views.

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, William J. Astore

America's dark side: We've grown numb to Trump's madness and evil

What pops into your head when you hear the number 1,000 in a political-military context? Having studied German military history, I immediately think of Adolf Hitler's confident boast that his Third Reich would last a thousand years. In reality, of course, a devastating world war brought that Reich down in a mere 12 years. Only recently, however, such boasts popped up again in the dark dreams of Donald Trump. If Iran dared to attack the United States, Trump tweeted and then repeated on Fox & Friends, the U.S. would strike back with "1,000 times greater force."

Think about that for a moment. If such typical Trumpian red-meat rhetoric were to become reality, you would be talking about a monumental war crime in its disproportionality. If, say, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard shot a missile at an American base in the region and killed 10 U.S. military personnel, Trump is saying that, in response, he'd then seek to kill 10,000 Iranians -- an act that would recall Nazi reprisals in World War II when entire villages like Lidice were destroyed because one prominent Nazi official had been killed. Back then, Americans knew that such murderous behavior was evil. So why do so many of us no longer flinch at such madness?

If references to "evil" seem inappropriate to you, keep in mind that I was raised Catholic and one idea the priests and nuns firmly implanted in me then was the presence of evil in our world -- and in me as a microcosm of that world. It's a moral imperative -- so they taught me -- to fight evil by denying it, as much as humanly possible, a place in our lives, even turning the other cheek to avoid giving offense to our brothers and sisters. Christ, after all, didn't teach us to whip someone 1,000 times if they struck you once.

Speaking of large numbers, I still recall Christ's teaching on forgiveness. How many times, he asked, should we forgive those who offend us? Seven times, perhaps? No, seventy times seven. He didn't, of course, mean 490 acts of forgiveness. Through that hyperbolic number, Christ was saying that forgiveness must be large and generous, as boundless as we imperfect humans can make it.

Trump loves hyperbolic numbers, but his are plainly in the service of boundless revenge, not forgiveness. His catechism is one of intimidation and, if that fails, retribution. It doesn't matter if it takes the form of mass destruction and death (including, in the case of Americans, death by coronavirus). By announcing such goals so openly, of course, he turns the rest of us into his accomplices. Passively or actively, if we do nothing, we accept the possibility of mass murder in the service of Trump's dark dreams of smiting those who would dare strike at his version of America.

It's easy to dismiss his threats as nothing more than red meat to his base, but they are also distinctly anti-Christian. The saddest thing, however, is that they are, unfortunately, not at all un-American, as any quick survey of this country's record of wanton destructiveness in war would show.

So while I do reject all Trump's murderous words and empty promises, I find them strangely unexceptional and unnervingly all-American. Indeed, my own guess is that he's won such a boisterous following in this country precisely because he does so visibly, so thunderously, so bigly embody its darkest dreams of destruction, which have all too often become reality when visited upon recalcitrant peoples who refused to bend to our will.

Destruction as Salvation

Americans today are sold an image of war as almost antiseptic -- hardly surprising given our distance and detachment from this country's "forever wars." But as history reminds us, real war isn't like that. It never was, not when colonists were killing Native Americans in vast numbers; nor when we were busy killing our fellow Americans in our Civil War; nor when U.S. troops were ruthlessly putting down the Filipino insurrection in the early twentieth century; nor when our air force firebombed Dresden, Tokyo, and so many other cities in World War II and later nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki; nor when North Korea was flattened by bombing in the early 1950s; nor when Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were bludgeoned by bombs, napalm, and Agent Orange in the 1960s and early 1970s; nor when Iraqis were killed by the tens of thousands during the first Gulf war of 1990-1991.

And that, of course, is only a partial and selective accounting of the wanton carnage overseen by past presidents. In reality, Americans have never been shy about killing on a mass scale in the alleged cause of righteousness and democracy.

In that sense, Trump's rhetoric of mass destruction is truly nothing new under the sun (except perhaps in its pure blustering bravado); Trump, that is, just salivates more openly at the prospect of inflicting pain on a mass scale on peoples he doesn't like. And even that isn't as new as you might imagine.

In this century, Republicans have been especially keen to share their dreams of massively bombing others. On the campaign trail in 2007, to the tune of the Beach Boys' cover "Barbara Ann," Senator (and former bomber pilot and Vietnam POW) John McCain smirkingly sang of bombing Iran. ("Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran!") Similarly, during the Republican presidential debates of 2016, Senator Ted Cruz boasted of wanting to "utterly destroy" the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq by carpet-bombing its territory and, in doing so, making the desert sand "glow in the dark." The implication was, of course, that as president he'd happily use nuclear weapons in the Middle East. (Talk about all options being on the table!)

Alarming? Yes! Very American? USA #1!

Consider two examples from the nuclear era, then and now. In the depth of the Cold War years, in response to a possible Soviet nuclear attack, this country's war plans envisioned a simultaneous assault on the Soviet Union and China that military planners estimated would, in the end, kill 600 million people. That would have been the equivalent of 100 Holocausts, notes Pentagon whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who was privy to those plans.

Whether China had joined or even known about the Soviet attack didn't matter. As communists, they were guilty by association and so to be obliterated anyway. Ellsberg notes that only one man present at the briefing where this "plan" was presented objected to such a mindless act of mass murder, David Shoup, a Marine general and Medal of Honor winner who would later similarly object to the Vietnam War.

Fast forward to today and our even more potentially planet-ending nuclear forces are still being "modernized" to the tune of $1.7 trillion over the coming decades. Any Ohio-class SSBN nuclear submarine in the Navy's inventory, for example, could potentially kill millions of people with its 24 Trident II ballistic missiles (each carrying as many as eight nuclear warheads, each warhead with roughly six times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb). While such vessels are officially meant to "deter" nuclear war, they are, of course, ultimately built to fight one. Each is a submerged holocaust waiting to be unleashed.

Rarely, if ever, do we think about what those subs truly represent, historically speaking. Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues to "invest" (as the military likes to say) in ever-newer generations of nuclear-capable bombers and land-based missiles, promising a holocaust of planetary proportions if ever used. To grasp what an actual nuclear war would mean, you would have to update an old saying: one death is a tragedy; several billion is a statistic.

Aggravating such essential collective madness in this moment (and the president's fiery and furious fascination with such weaponry) is Trump's recent cynical call for what might be thought of as the nuking of our history: the installation of a truly "patriotic" education in our schools (in other words, a history that would obliterate everything but his version of American greatness). That would, of course, include not just the legacy of slavery and other dark chapters in our past, but our continued willingness to build weaponry that has the instant capacity to end it all in a matter of hours.

As a history professor, I can tell you that such a version of our past would be totally antithetical to sound learning in this or any world. History must, by definition, be critical of the world we've created. It must be tough-minded and grapple with our actions (and inactions), crimes and all, if we are ever to grow morally stronger as a country or a people.

History that only focuses on the supposedly good bits, however defined, is like your annoying friend's Facebook page -- the one that shows photo after photo of smiling faces, gourmet meals, exclusive parties, puppies, ice cream, and rainbows, that features a flurry of status updates reducible to "I'm having the time of my life." We know perfectly well, of course, that no one's life is really like that -- and neither is any country's history.

History should, of course, be about understanding ourselves as we really are, our strengths and weaknesses, triumphs, tragedies, and transgressions. It would even have to include an honest accounting of how this country got one Donald J. Trump, a failedcasino owner and celebrity pitchman as president at a moment when most of its leaders were still claiming that it was the most exceptional country in the history of the universe. I'll give you a hint: we got him because he represented a side of America that was indeed exceptional, just not in any way that was ever morally just or democratically sound.

Jingoistic history says, "My country, right or wrong, but my country." Trump wants to push this a goosestep further to "My country and my leader, always right." That's fascism, not "patriotic" history, and we need to recognize that and reject it.

Learning without Flinching from History

The United States has been the imperial power of record on this planet since World War II. Lately, the economic and moral aspects of that power have waned, even as our military power remains supreme (though without being able to win anything whatsoever). That should tell you something about America. We're still a "SmackDown" country, to borrow a term from professional wrestling, in a world that's increasingly being smacked down anyway.

Harold Pinter, the British playwright, caught this country's imperial spirit well in his Nobel Prize lecture in 2005. America, he said then, has committed crimes that "have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis."

Anyone with a knowledge of our history knows that there was truth indeed in what Pinter said 15 years ago. He noticed how this country's leaders wielded language "to keep thought at bay." Like George Orwell before him, Pinter was at pains to use plain language about war, noting how the Americans and British had "brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people and call[ed] it bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East."

The point here was not simply to bash America. It was to get us to think about our actions in genuine historical terms. A decade and a half ago, Pinter threw down a challenge, and even if you disagreed with him, or maybe especially if you did so, you need the intellectual tools and command of the facts to grapple with that critique. It should never be enough simply to shout "USA! USA!" in an ever-louder fashion and hope it will drown out not only critics and dissenters but reality itself -- and perhaps even your own secret doubts.

And we should have such doubts. We should be ready to dissent. We should recognize, as America's current attorney general most distinctly does not, that dissenters are often the truest patriots of all, even if they are also often the loneliest ones. We should especially have doubts about a leader who threatens to bring violence against another country 1,000 times greater than anything that country could visit upon us.

I don't need the Catholic Church, or even Christ in the New Testament, to tell me that such thinking is wrong in a Washington that now seems to be offering a carnivorous taste of what a future American autocracy could be like. I just need to recall the wise words of my Polish mother-in-law: "Have a heart, if you've got a heart."

Have a heart, America. Reject American carnage in all its forms.

William Astore, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, taught history for 15 years. A TomDispatch regular, he also has a personal blog,Bracing Views.

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 William J. Astore

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