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Tomgram: William Astore, Military Strength Is Our National Religion

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

After almost 18 years of the war (or rather wars) on (or perhaps of) terror, there's some good news! The Washington Post reports that American troops are finally coming home from Afghanistan! Actually, let me amend that slightly. They will only come home if Taliban and U.S. negotiators complete a deal by September that leads to a countrywide ceasefire (and if the Taliban agrees to certain other conditions as well). In fact, let me amend that one more time: "they" turns out to refer to the withdrawal of just about 5,000 U.S. military personnel, leaving 8,000-9,000 U.S. troops still in place after "peace" breaks out.

For Donald Trump who, years ago, repeatedly demanded that the Afghan War be ended and all American troops brought home, only to agree in mid-2017 to dispatch another 4,000 of them to that land, such a peace pact would just return U.S. troop levels to more or less what they were at that moment two years ago. In the age of Trump, that, I suppose, is the definition of "progress" in America's never-ending wars. Perhaps you won't be surprised to also learn that, according to the Post, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Austin Miller, is "open" to such a peace proposal precisely "because he believes it would protect U.S. interests by maintaining a counterterrorism force that can strike the Islamic State and al-Qaeda." If one were to turn this into a riddle, it might go something like: When is a Trumpian withdrawal hardly a withdrawal at all?

On the other hand, don't let any of this worry you. The troops may not be coming home, but the wars have been on their way here for a long time. That should have been obvious at least since, in 2014, local police, using equipment off America's distant battlefields, made such a public splash in responding to protests in Ferguson, Missouri. From thousands of troops sent to the U.S.-Mexican border to the Pentagon spy drones that have long flown over parts of the U.S., further examples of the growing militarization of this country abound. Perhaps the most recent, as reported by the Guardian, is the news that the military is now "conducting wide-area surveillance tests across six Midwest states using experimental high-altitude balloons... Travelling in the stratosphere at altitudes of up to 65,000 feet, the balloons are intended to 'provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats,' according to a filing made on behalf of the Sierra Nevada Corporation, an aerospace and defense company. The balloons are carrying hi-tech radars designed to simultaneously track many individual vehicles day or night, through any kind of weather."

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As it happens, almost unnoticed, America's twenty-first-century wars have been coming home in another way as well: in the increasingly worshipful attitudes of so many Americans (especially those in the seats of power in Washington, D.C.) toward the Pentagon and the U.S. military, as vividly described today by retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, historian, and TomDispatch regular William Astore. Tom

In Wars and Weapons We Trust
America's Militarized Profession of Faith
By William J. Astore

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I looked to the heavens: to God and Christianity (as arbitrated by the Catholic Church) and to the soaring warbirds of the U.S. military, which I believed kept us safe. To my mind then, they were classic manifestations of American technological superiority over the godless Communists.

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With all its scandals, especially when it came to priestly sexual abuse, I lost my faith in the Catholic Church. Indeed, I would later learn that there had been a predatory priest in my own parish when I was young, a grim man who made me uneasy at the time, though back then I couldn't have told you why. As for those warbirds, like so many Americans, I thrilled to their roar at air shows, but never gave any real thought to the bombs they were dropping in Vietnam and elsewhere, to the lives they were ending, to the destruction they were causing. Nor, at that age, did I ever consider their enormous cost in dollars or just how much Americans collectively sacrificed to have "top cover," whether of the warplane or godly kind.

There were good and devoted priests in my Catholic diocese. There were good and devoted public servants in the U.S. military. Admittedly, I never seriously considered the priesthood, but I did sign up for the Air Force, surprising myself by serving in it for 20 years. Still, both institutions were then, and remain, deeply flawed. Both seek, in a phrase the Air Force has long used, "global reach, global power." Both remain hierarchies that regularly promote true believers to positions of authority. Both demand ultimate obedience. Both sweep their sins under the rug. Neither can pass an audit. Both are characterized by secrecy. Both seem remarkably immune to serious efforts at reform. And both, above all, know how to preserve their own power, even as they posture and proselytize about serving a higher one.

However, let me not focus here on the one "holy catholic and apostolic church," words taken from the "profession of faith" I recited during Mass each week in my youth. I'd prefer to focus instead on that other American holy church, the U.S. military, with all its wars and weapons, its worshipers and wingmen, together with its vision of global dominance that just happens to include end-of-world scenarios as apocalyptic as those of any imaginable church of true believers. I'm referring, of course, to our country's staggeringly large arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, just now being updated -- the term seems to be "modernized" -- to the tune of something like $1.7 trillion over the decades to come.

A Profession of Twenty-First-Century All-American Faith

"Show me your budget and I will tell you what you value" is a telling phrase linked to Joe Biden. And in those same terms, there's no question what the American government values most: its military, to the tune of almost $1.5 trillion over the next two years (although the real number may well exceed $2 trillion). Republicans and Democrats agree on little these days, except support for spending on that military, its weaponry, its wars to come, and related national security state outlays.

In that context, I've been wondering what kind of "profession of faith" we might have to recite, if there were the equivalent of Mass for what has increasingly become our military church. What would it look like? Whom and what would we say we believed in? As a lapsed Catholic with a lot of practice in my youth professing my faith in the Church, as well as a retired military officer and historian, I have a few ideas about what such a "profession" might look like:

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* We believe in wars. We may no longer believe in formal declarations of war (not since December 1941 has Congress made one in our name), but that sure hasn't stopped us from waging them. From Korea to Vietnam, Afghanistan to Iraq, the Cold War to the War on Terror, and so many military interventions in between, including Grenada, Panama, and Somalia, Americans are always fighting somewhere as if we saw great utility in thumbing our noses at the Prince of Peace. (That's Jesus Christ, if I remember my Catholic catechism correctly.)

* We believe in weaponry, the more expensive the better. The underperforming F-35 stealth fighter may cost $1.45 trillion over its lifetime. An updated nuclear triad (land-based missiles, nuclear submarines, and strategic bombers) may cost that already mentioned $1.7 trillion. New (and malfunctioning) aircraft carriers cost us more than $10 billion each. And all such weaponry requests get funded, with few questions asked, despite a history of their redundancy, ridiculously high price, regular cost overruns, and mediocre performance. Meanwhile, Americans squabble bitterly over a few hundred million dollars for the arts and humanities.

* We believe in weapons of mass destruction. We believe in them so strongly that we're jealous of anyone nibbling at our near monopoly. As a result, we work overtime to ensure that infidels and atheists (that is, the Iranians and North Koreans, among others) don't get them. In historical terms, no country has devoted more research or money to deadly nuclear, biological, and chemical weaponry than the United States. In that sense, we've truly put our money where our mouths are (and where a devastating future might be).

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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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