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Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, What Obsessing About You-Know-Who Causes Us To Miss

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Since the late eighteenth century, the United States has been involved in an almost ceaseless string of wars, interventions, punitive expeditions, and other types of military ventures abroad -- from fighting the British and Mexicans to the Filipinos and Koreans to the Vietnamese and Laotians to the Afghans and Iraqis. The country has formally declared war 11 times and has often engaged in undeclared conflicts with some form of congressional authorization, as with the post-9/11 "wars" that rage on today.

Recent presidents have conducted such wars without seemingly asking the hard questions -- whether about the validity of intelligence claims, the efficacy of military power, or the likely blowback from invasions, drone strikes, and the deposing of dictators. The consequences have been catastrophic for Afghans and Iraqis, Libyans and Yemenis, among others. At last, however, we finally have a president willing to raise some of the hard questions about war. Well, at least, about one war. Or, rather, questions about one war that are, at least, hard to decipher.

"People don't ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?" President Donald Trump wondered in a recent interview, referring to America's nineteenth century war over slavery. "Why could that one not have been worked out?"

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Trump then suggested that, had President Andrew Jackson -- to whom he's compared himself -- been in office, he would have avoided the conflict that claimed more American lives than any other: "He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, 'There's no reason for this.'" Of course, Andrew Jackson, who fought in his fair share of America's ceaseless conflicts (including against the British during the War of 1812 and the Seminoles in Spanish Florida), died in 1845, more than a decade and a half before the Civil War began.

No matter. The important thing is that we finally have a president willing to ask some questions about some wars -- even if it's the wrong questions about a war that ended more than 150 years ago.

Today, TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich offers a cheat sheet of sorts: the real questions about war and national security that should be asked but never are in these United States. Since it's bound to take President Trump some time to work his way to the present -- what with all the questions about why we fought Japanese, Koreans, Spaniards, Filipinos, Chinese, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Haitians, Japanese (again), Germans, Koreans (again), Chinese (again), Vietnamese, and so many others -- it's incumbent upon the rest of us to start asking Bacevich's questions and demanding some answers. Nick Turse

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Forbidden Questions?
24 Key Issues That Neither the Washington Elite Nor the Media Consider Worth Their Bother
By Andrew J. Bacevich

Donald Trump's election has elicited impassioned affirmations of a renewed commitment to unvarnished truth-telling from the prestige media. The common theme: you know you can't trust him, but trust us to keep dogging him on your behalf. The New York Times has even unveiled a portentous new promotional slogan: "The truth is now more important than ever." For its part, the Washington Post grimly warns that "democracy dies in darkness," and is offering itself as a source of illumination now that the rotund figure of the 45th president has produced the political equivalent of a total eclipse of the sun. Meanwhile, National Public Radio fundraising campaigns are sounding an increasingly panicky note: give, listener, lest you be personally responsible for the demise of the Republic that we are bravely fighting to save from extinction.

If only it were so. How wonderful it would be if President Trump's ascendancy had coincided with a revival of hard-hitting, deep-dive, no-holds-barred American journalism. Alas, that's hardly the case. True, the big media outlets are demonstrating both energy and enterprise in exposing the ineptitude, inconsistency, and dubious ethical standards, as well as outright lies and fake news, that are already emerging as Trump era signatures. That said, pointing out that the president has (again) uttered a falsehood, claimed credit for a nonexistent achievement, or abandoned some position to which he had previously sworn fealty requires something less than the sleuthing talents of a Sherlock Holmes. As for beating up on poor Sean Spicer for his latest sequence of gaffes -- well, that's more akin to sadism than reporting.

Apart from a commendable determination to discomfit Trump and members of his inner circle (select military figures excepted, at least for now), journalism remains pretty much what it was prior to November 8th of last year: personalities built up only to be torn down; fads and novelties discovered, celebrated, then mocked; "extraordinary" stories of ordinary people granted 15 seconds of fame only to once again be consigned to oblivion -- all served with a side dish of that day's quota of suffering, devastation, and carnage. These remain journalism's stock-in-trade. As practiced in the United States, with certain honorable (and hence unprofitable) exceptions, journalism remains superficial, voyeuristic, and governed by the attention span of a two year old.

As a result, all those editors, reporters, columnists, and talking heads who characterize their labors as "now more important than ever" ill-serve the public they profess to inform and enlighten. Rather than clearing the air, they befog it further. If anything, the media's current obsession with Donald Trump -- his every utterance or tweet treated as "breaking news!" -- just provides one additional excuse for highlighting trivia, while slighting issues that deserve far more attention than they currently receive.

To illustrate the point, let me cite some examples of national security issues that presently receive short shrift or are ignored altogether by those parts of the Fourth Estate said to help set the nation's political agenda. To put it another way: Hey, Big Media, here are two dozen matters to which you're not giving faintly adequate thought and attention.

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1. Accomplishing the "mission": Since the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States has been committed to defending key allies in Europe and East Asia. Not long thereafter, U.S. security guarantees were extended to the Middle East as well. Under what circumstances can Americans expect nations in these regions to assume responsibility for managing their own affairs? To put it another way, when (if ever) might U.S. forces actually come home? And if it is incumbent upon the United States to police vast swaths of the planet in perpetuity, how should momentous changes in the international order -- the rise of China, for example, or accelerating climate change -- affect the U.S. approach to doing so?

2. American military supremacy: The United States military is undoubtedly the world's finest. It's also far and away the most generously funded, with policymakers offering U.S. troops no shortage of opportunities to practice their craft. So why doesn't this great military ever win anything? Or put another way, why in recent decades have those forces been unable to accomplish Washington's stated wartime objectives? Why has the now 15-year-old war on terror failed to result in even a single real success anywhere in the Greater Middle East? Could it be that we've taken the wrong approach? What should we be doing differently?

3. America's empire of bases: The U.S. military today garrisons the planet in a fashion without historical precedent. Successive administrations, regardless of party, justify and perpetuate this policy by insisting that positioning U.S. forces in distant lands fosters peace, stability, and security. In the present century, however, perpetuating this practice has visibly had the opposite effect. In the eyes of many of those called upon to "host" American bases, the permanent presence of such forces smacks of occupation. They resist. Why should U.S. policymakers expect otherwise?

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("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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