William Astore

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 see the script that's coming down the dusty and well-trodden trail, but I'm not sure I could stomach writing a co-column with one of those kids -- let alone attending one of their funerals.

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

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

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

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

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 of white 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 failed casino 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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