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General News    H3'ed 9/10/20

Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, What Have They (and We) Learned?

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I've written a fair number of pieces for TomDispatch, but this one is a bit different -- some might even say strange -- so Tom asked me to introduce it myself.

By almost any measure, we Americans are living through trying times. As a nation, we are long accustomed to being history's spoiled child. Now, it seems our luck may be running out.

What's the preeminent symbol of this extraordinary moment? A pandemic that has killed more than 190,000 of our fellow citizens? High unemployment and massive economic uncertainty? Wildfires and hurricanes that displace hundreds of thousands? Schools struggling just to open their doors? A long overdue reckoning with American racism? A white nationalist backlash? A political system corrupted by money and mired in dysfunction?

Take your pick. I suggest though that there's at least one more item to add to that list: a national security establishment that has lost its way and is no longer able to distinguish between myth and reality.

According to myth: We're Number 1! Planet Earth's unquestioned maximum leader. The reality is somewhat different. Despite exorbitant sums spent by the Pentagon year after year, the American brand of global leadership looks increasingly tarnished, if not ready for the junk heap.

The other day, I stumbled across a striking claim by General James McConville, the chief of staff of the United States Army. You'll find his here's-what-we-stand-for statement prominently displayed on the Army's website: "Winning Matters. We win with our People doing the right things the right way. When we send the U.S. Army somewhere, we don't go to participate, we don't go to try hard, we go to win. There is no second place or honorable mention in combat."

Now, I understand the need for leaders to make a positive case for their organization. In Garry Trudeau's comic strip Doonesbury, the president of Walden College can be counted on to put a positive spin on an institution that ranks at the very bottom of the academic universe. He does know, however, that Walden is not Princeton. It serves no purpose to pretend otherwise.

So "win"? Please. The present-day United States Army rarely wins and it serves no purpose to pretend otherwise.

No doubt soldiers "try hard." They are always out there bravely fighting someone, somewhere, and getting ready to fight somewhere else. The problem isn't want of effort, it's outcomes. And for that, senior military leaders like General McConville must bear at least some responsibility.

Now, it may be that when the general meets privately with his fellow four-stars to discuss how things are going, they ruminate over the lack of meaningful success in places like Afghanistan and Iraq despite endless years of effort. Maybe they even feel some sense of remorse. But if they do, they keep such critical thoughts under wraps. My guess is that they choose to ignore the recent past in favor of conjuring up future wars more to their liking -- imaginary wars rather than real ones. And that qualifies as professional malpractice.

And as a long-ago soldier of no particular distinction, I'm haunted by this pattern of malpractice and the breezily dishonest posturing that sustains it. To illustrate the scope of this dishonesty and its implications, I've conjured up a conversation between three senior army officers -- World War II's hard-driving George Patton (a Trump favorite), Vietnam War commander (and "light at the end of the tunnel" guy) William Westmoreland, and a present-day general of my own invention. Listen in as they engage one another on the imperative of, and difficulty of, learning what war has to teach us all. Andrew

Patton and Westy Meet in a Bar
A Play of Many Parts in One Act
By Andrew Bacevich

It's only mid-afternoon and Army Lieutenant General Victor Constant has already had a bad day.1 Soon after he arrived at the office at 0700, the Chief2 had called. "Come see me. We need to talk."

The call was not unexpected. Any day now, POTUS3 will announce the next four-star to command the war effort in Afghanistan -- how many have there been? -- and Constant felt certain that he'd be tapped for the job. He'd certainly earned it. Multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, worse still, at the Pentagon. If anyone deserved that fourth star, he did.

Unfortunately, the Chief sees things differently. "Time's up, Vic. I need you to retire." Thirty-three years of service and this is what you get: your walking papers, with maybe a medal thrown in.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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