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Tomgram: Erik Edstrom, Teaching Revisionist History 101 at West Point

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

Born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, a former businessman who had helped run companies into the ground, he was widely considered ill-prepared for the presidency, out of his depth, a lightweight in a heavyweight world. Still, having won the Republican nomination and then a uniquely contested election, once in the Oval Office he proved to have a striking inclination for backing extreme acts and seemingly no compunctions when it came to promoting torture, politicizing the Justice Department, or kidnapping terror suspects (the innocent as well as the guilty) anywhere on Earth. He was determined to fill Guantanamo to the brim, more than ready to loose the U.S. military and American air power across the Greater Middle East, pleased to see that military and the CIA experiment with powerful new weaponry, perfectly willing to kill civilians in significant numbers without mercy, prone to ramping up America's wars, ready to give the Pentagon whatever it needed (and more), eager to take down Iran and for that matter North Korea, and quite willing to put the fate of his foreign policy in the hands of "his" special general.

Oh, you thought I was talking about Donald Trump? My apologies. I can understand the confusion, especially since who thinks about or remembers anything but our Tweeter-in-Chief these days? As it happens, the president I had in mind was George W. Bush. You've forgotten him? You thought he was a retired artist making a pretty penny on the lecture circuit? Well, I understand. The past is a long way off in the age of Trump. Still, it's worth calling to mind the president who launched our never-ending war on terror, sent the first drone assassination flights soaring, invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, oversaw the creation of global "black sites" where a man could experience the sensation of drowning 83 times in a single month, lumped Iraq, Iran, and North Korea together in an "axis of evil," was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, and oversaw -- the single thing for which he seems to be remembered these days -- the mess that was the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort. (Say it ain't so, Brownie!)

Like so many of the officials he worked with, whose grim pasts were cleansed, it seems that George W. Bush is now in the process of being forgotten and rehabilitated at one and the same time, possibly on the grounds that no former president could look bad with Donald Trump in the White House. In any case, one of the latest stops in Bush's rehab tour of America has been our leading military academy, West Point. Let a graduate of that school, Erik Edstrom, who also fought in George Bush's Afghan war, explain. Tom

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Duty, Honor, Atrocity
George W. Bush Receives a Character Award at West Point
By Erik Edstrom

In George W. Bush's home state of Texas, if you are an ordinary citizen found guilty of capital murder, the mandatory sentence is either life in prison or the death penalty. If, however, you are a former president of the United States responsible for initiating two illegal wars of aggression, which killed 7,000 U.S. servicemen and at least 210,000 civilians, displaced more than 10 million people from their homes, condoned torture, initiated a global drone assassination campaign, and imprisoned people for years without substantive evidence or trial in Guantanamo Bay, the punishment evidently is to be given the Thayer Award at West Point.

On October 19th, George W. Bush traveled to the United States Military Academy, my alma mater, to receive the Sylvanus Thayer Award at a ceremony hosted by that school's current superintendent and presented on behalf of the West Point Association of Graduates. The honor is "given to a citizen... whose outstanding character, accomplishments, and stature in the civilian community draw wholesome comparison to the qualities for which West Point strives."

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The Thayer may be one of the most important awards that hardly anyone has ever heard of. In a sense, it's a litmus test when it comes to West Point's moral orientation and institutional values. Academy graduates around the world -- in dusty GP medium tents as well as Pentagon offices -- all sit at the proverbial table where momentous, sometimes perverse decisions are regularly made. To invade or not to invade, to bomb or not to bomb, to torture, or not to torture -- those are the questions. As the Trump era has reminded us, the U.S. military's ability to obliterate all organized human life on Earth is beyond question. So it stands to reason that the types of beliefs pounded into cadets at West Point -- the ones that will serve to guide them throughout their military careers -- do matter. To the classes of cadets now there, this award will offer a message: that George W. Bush and the things he did in his presidency are worth emulating. I could not disagree more.

The United States Military Academy is, or at least should be, a steward of American military values and yet the presentation of the Thayer Award to our former president represents an unprincipled lapse in judgment. In what it condones, it has committed a brazen violation of West Point's honor code, which instructs that "a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do."

George W. Bush deceived the nation, cheated noncombatants of both their bodily autonomy and moral significance, and waged unjustifiable, unnecessary wars, which misallocated trillions of dollars that would have been better used to ensure the prosperity and well-being of Americans. And he once described his messianic mission as "this crusade." Is the world's premier military academy not then honoring the dishonorable?

As I recall from my time wearing cadet grey, West Point regularly indulged in talk about doing "the harder right rather than the easier wrong," about exhibiting "moral courage," and about "Army Values." Our ethical compass was given to us, standard issue, early on, often in the form of quaint military parables.

These were meant to set the ethical standards for behavior in war. Despite serious transgressions of those values by West Point graduates in these years, I still believe that the majority of West Pointers, even in the most stressful situations, are challenged by a nagging little voice asking what West Point would do. In a sense, we have all been hard-wired to follow the ethical protocols we learned at the academy. As far as I'm concerned, however, this award shifts the goal posts. It establishes a new moral paradigm for what should be considered acceptable behavior in war and foreign policy.

As someone who also fought in one of those wars, let me just say that presenting Bush's legacy as a template for cadets to follow is -- not to mince words -- a moral obscenity. Once the collective "we" -- that is, West Point and its alumni -- acknowledge that Bush's wars and the state-sanctioned torture that went with them are not just acceptable, but laudable, we have lost any plausible claim to the moral high ground, the ground I once believed West Point was founded on.

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Now that the Thayer Award has been given to former President Bush and we, the alumni, have even officially sponsored the act (not me, of course), it seems that the values we were taught don't stand for anything at all.

A Cadet Will Not Lie

By idolizing Bush, a man whose major legacy is defined by acts of state terrorism (rebranded "counterterrorism"), West Point and its alumni have canonized by association his now-16-year-old war on terror. West Pointers have long been placed in a precarious position in relation to that war, simultaneously helping to perpetrate it and suffering from it. Too much energy has been devoted to pursuing it and too much lost for it not to have some grand meaning. By retrofitting the past, West Point and its graduates are now attempting to lessen the sting of, the reality of, those last 16 years. In the process, they are continuing to delude its graduates, who are still being deployed to commit political violence in, at best, a morally dubious set of wars.

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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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