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Tomgram: William Astore, We're Number One (in Self-Promotion)

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Can you believe that, in certain circles, support for obesity is becoming an American birthright (as in "the freedom to be"") and a political position?  Like various radio and TV shock jocks, Sarah Palin has been attacking Michelle Obama's anti-obesity initiative as yet another example of "the nanny state run amok."  (It's enough to make you hyperventilate on the couch while watching "Law and Order" reruns!)  Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell let loose a blast at the National Football League for postponing a Philadelphia-Minnesota game because of an upcoming blizzard.  "We're becoming a nation of wussies," he thundered. (It's enough to make you text and tweet up a storm from that same couch!) 

A question arises: Doesn't anybody have anything better to do?  I mean, aren't there a few more salient problems to attack in our American world, like the decline and fall of just about everything?  Take the U.S. military, about which -- as TomDispatch regular and retired Lieutenant Colonel William Astore points out -- American presidents (and the rest of our political crew) can never say enough hyperbolically praiseworthy things.  Well, bad times are supposed to be great for military recruitment.  But even if a flood of gays and lesbians sign on as soon as Do-Ask-I'll-Tell becomes official policy, there are other long-term impediments to producing an effective fighting force.

In April 2010, for instance, a group of retired top brass and others released a report claiming that 27% of Americans between 17 and 24 are "too fat to fight."  "Within just 10 years, the number of states reporting that 40 percent of their 18- to 24-year-olds are obese or overweight went from one [Kentucky] to 39."  No reason to focus on that, though.  After all, it was so last year.

Just as the year ended, however, the Education Trust issued a report indicating that nearly a quarter of all applicants to the Armed Forces, despite having a high-school diploma, can't pass the necessary military entrance exam.  This isn't Rhodes Scholarships we're talking about, but not having "the reading, mathematics, science, and problem-solving abilities" to become a bona fide private in the U.S. Army.  We're talking the sort of basic that, according to an Education Trust spokesperson, makes it "equally likely that the men and women who don't pass the test are [also] unprepared for the civilian workforce."

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Last month, as if to emphasize the seriousness of the problem, Shanghai's students came in number one in the Program for International Student Assessment, a well-respected test given to 15-year-old students in 65 countries in reading, science, and math skills.  U.S. students came in a glorious 17th in reading, 23rd in math, and 31st in science.  In today's dispatch, Astore asks whether the U.S. military is actually "the finest fighting force in the history of the world." Then there's that other question: These days, can anyone call the United States the finest nation in the world with a straight face?  The fattest?  Maybe, though we're behind various Pacific island nations for that honor.  The least well educated?  Not yet, but heading that way.  Maybe it's time for Congress to launch a No-Nation-Left-Behind program -- for us.  Think about it while you're eating those s'mores Sarah Palin is plugging.  (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Astore discusses the military nightmares of a fading empire, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.) Tom

Freedom Fighters for a Fading Empire
What It Means When We Say We Have the World's Finest Fighting Force
>By William J. Astore

Words matter, as candidate Barack Obama said in the 2008 election campaign.  What to make, then, of President Obama's pep talk last month to U.S. troops in Afghanistan in which he lauded them as "the finest fighting force that the world has ever known"?  Certainly, he knew that those words would resonate with the troops as well as with the folks back home.

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In fact, this sort of description of the U.S. military has become something of a must for American presidents.  Obama's predecessor George W. Bush, for example, boasted of that military as alternately "the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world" and "the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known."  Hyperbolic and self-promoting statements, to be sure, but undoubtedly sincere, reflecting as they do an American sense of exceptionalism that sits poorly with the increasingly interconnected world of the twenty-first century.

I'm a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a historian who teaches military history.  The retired officer in me warms to the sentiment of our troops as both unparalleled fighters and selfless liberators, but the historian in me begs to differ.

Let's start with the fighting part of the equation.  Are we truly the world's greatest fighting force, not only at this moment, but as measured against all militaries across history?  If so, on what basis is this claim made?  And what does such triumphalist rhetoric suggest not just about our national narcissism, but Washington's priorities?  Consider that no leading U.S. politician thinks to boast that we have the finest educational system or health-care system or environmental policies "that the world has ever known." 

Measured in terms of sheer destructive power, and our ability to project that power across the globe, the U.S. military is indeed the world's "finest" fighting force.  Our nuclear arsenal remains second to none.  Our air forces (including the Navy's carrier task forces, the Army's armada of helicopter gunships, and the CIA's fleet of unmanned aerial drones prosecuting a "secret" war in Pakistan) dominate the heavens.  Our Navy ("a global force for good," according to its new motto) rules the waves -- even more so than old Britannia did a century ago.  And well should we rule the skies and seas, given the roughly one trillion dollars a year we spend on achieving our vision of "full spectrum dominance."

But this awesome ability to exercise "global reach, global power" hardly makes us the finest military force ever.  After all, "finest" shouldn't be measured by sheer strength and reach alone.  First and foremost, of course, should come favorable results set against the quality of the opponents bested.  To use a sports analogy, we wouldn't call the Pittsburgh Steelers "the finest team in NFL history" simply because they annihilated Penn State in football.  Similarly, we can't measure the success of today's U.S. military solely in terms of amazingly quick (if increasingly costly and ultimately dismal) "victories" over the Taliban in 2001 or Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces in 2003.

To carry the football analogy a few yards further, one might ask when our "finest fighting force" had its last Super Bowl win.  Certainly, 1918 and 1945 (World Wars I and II) were such wins, even if as part of larger coalitions; 1953 (Korea) was a frustrating stalemate; 1973 (Vietnam) was a demoralizing loss; 1991 (Desert Storm in Iraq) was a distinctly flawed win; and efforts like Grenada or Panama or Serbia were more like scrimmages.  Arguably our biggest win, the Cold War, was achieved less through military means than economic power and technological savvy.

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To put it bluntly: America's troops are tough-minded professionals, but the finest fighting force ever?  Sir, no, sir.

We're Number One!

Americans often seem to live in the eternal now, which makes it easier to boast that our military is the finest ever.  Most historians, however, are not so tied to nationalistic rhetoric or the ceaseless present.  If asked to identify the finest fighting force in history, my reaction -- and I would hardly be alone in the field -- would be to favor those peoples and empires which existed for war alone.

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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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