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William Astore: America's Mutant Military

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In September 2001, the Bush administration launched its "global war on terror," to which its supporters later tried to attach names like "the long war" or "World War IV." Their emphasis: that we were now engaged in nothing less than a multi-generational struggle without end. (World War III had theoretically been the Cold War.) In fact, only the "war on terror" would stick and, in 2009, even that would be tossed overboard when the Obama administration opted for a global war with no name at all. Nonetheless, the idea that we were now in an eternal "wartime" became part of the post-9/11 atmosphere. At the same time, George W. Bush famously called on Americans to act as if everything were normal -- to spend, vacation, and visit Disney World.

In other words, the "homeland," protected in new ways, was to be locked down and at peace, while Washington was to be a war capital into the distant future. In the process, the Bush administration invoked warring powers of every sort -- from torture and offshore imprisonment to assassination and warrantless wiretaps. At the time, all of this seemed like a unique combination, but looking back, the marriage of war and Disney, of military might and consumerism, has a far longer history. Considered a certain way, Washington has been a war capital since December 7, 1941, and certainly the global capital of consumerism since at least 1945.

Unlike after World War I, post-World War II demobilization proved to be anything but complete. The various structures of the relatively new national security state and its intelligence networks, as well as the U.S. military, were left largely in place and soon expanded massively, as were the array of global bases from which the U.S. had fought its world war. From 1945 on, as the Cold War gained strength and staying power, war was distinctly on Washington's agenda. In a big way in Korea and Vietnam, of course, but also globally in what was then called "the shadows." And it didn't end when the Soviet Union began to totter and finally imploded. The 1980s and 1990s saw a range of interventions, invasions, raids, air strikes, and the like in Afghanistan, Grenada, Lebanon, Libya, Panama, Serbia, Somalia, and of course Iraq (again and again). In the twenty-first century, the U.S. military was simply let loose across the Greater Middle East and North Africa and eternal war (as well as military-first policies of all sorts) became the American Way. Meanwhile, in Washington, there arose a war-hawk party in Congress and beyond who never saw a military solution that didn't appeal to them (no matter how ineffective it had proved in its previous incarnations). All of this, in turn, took place in a country in which corporations were mobilized to go to war while the population itself was demobilized in just about every way imaginable. In other words, Americans became ever more divorced from their military and ever more fawning about it.

As retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and TomDispatch regular William Astore makes clear today, there was something increasingly unconstrained about this phenomenon (and the funding and building of the U.S. military and the national security state that went with it). In a sense, Americans have yet to come to grips with what a never-ending "wartime" has meant in and to this country. Astore offers a place to start. Tom

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

The American Military Uncontained
Chaos Spread, Casualties Inflicted, Missions Unaccomplished
By William J. Astore

It's 1990. I'm a young captain in the U.S. Air Force. I've just witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, something I never thought I'd see, short of a third world war. Right now I'm witnessing the slow death of the Soviet Union, without the accompanying nuclear Armageddon so many feared. Still, I'm slightly nervous as my military gears up for an unexpected new campaign, Operation Desert Shield/Storm, to expel Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein's military from Kuwait. It's a confusing moment. After all, the Soviet Union was forever (until it wasn't) and Saddam had been a stalwart U.S. friend, his country a bulwark against the Iran of the Ayatollahs. (For anyone who doubts that history, just check out the now-infamous 1983 photo of Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy for President Reagan, all smiles and shaking hands with Saddam in Baghdad.) Still, whatever my anxieties, the Soviet Union collapsed without a whimper and the campaign against Saddam's battle-tested forces proved to be a "cakewalk," with ground combat over in a mere 100 hours.

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Think of it as the trifecta moment: Vietnam syndrome vanquished forever, Saddam's army destroyed, and the U.S. left standing as the planet's "sole superpower."

Post-Desert Storm, the military of which I was a part stood triumphant on a planet that was visibly ours and ours alone. Washington had won the Cold War. It had won everything, in fact. End of story. Saddam admittedly was still in power in Baghdad, but he had been soundly spanked. Not a single peer enemy loomed on the horizon. It seemed as if, in the words of former U.N. ambassador and uber-conservative Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. could return to being a normal country in normal times.

What Kirkpatrick meant was that, with the triumph of freedom movements in Central and Eastern Europe and the rollback of communism, the U.S. military could return to its historical roots, demobilizing after its victory in the Cold War even as a "new world order" was emerging. But it didn't happen. Not by a long shot. Despite all the happy talk back then about a "new world order," the U.S. military never gave a serious thought to becoming a "normal" military for normal times. Instead, for our leaders, both military and civilian, the thought process took quite a different turn. You might sum up their thinking this way, retrospectively: Why should we demobilize or even downsize significantly or rein in our global ambitions at a moment when we can finally give them full expression? Why would we want a "peace dividend" when we could leverage our military assets and become a global power the likes of which the world has never seen, one that would put the Romans and the British in the historical shade? Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer caught the spirit of the moment in February 2001 when he wrote, "America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will."

What I didn't realize back then was: America's famed "containment policy" vis---vis the Soviet Union didn't just contain that superpower -- it contained us, too. With the Soviet Union gone, the U.S. military was freed from containment. There was nowhere it couldn't go and nothing it couldn't do -- or so the top officials of the Bush administration came into power thinking, even before 9/11. Consider our legacy military bases from the Cold War era that already spanned the globe in an historically unprecedented way. Built largely to contain the Soviets, they could be repurposed as launching pads for interventions of every sort. Consider all those weapon systems meant to deter Soviet aggression. They could be used to project power on a planet seemingly without rivals.

Now was the time to go for broke. Now was the time to go "all in," to borrow the title of Paula Broadwell's fawning biography of her mentor and lover, General David Petraeus. Under the circumstances, peace dividends were for wimps. In 1993, Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under Bill Clinton, caught the coming post-Cold War mood of twenty-first-century America perfectly when she challenged Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell angrily over what she considered a too-cautious U.S. approach to the former Yugoslavia. "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about," she asked, "if we can't use it?"

Yet even as civilian leaders hankered to flex America's military muscle in unpromising places like Bosnia and Somalia in the 1990s, and Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen in this century, the military itself has remained remarkably mired in Cold War thinking. If I could transport the 1990 version of me to 2015, here's one thing that would stun him a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union: the force structure of the U.S. military has changed remarkably little. Its nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, submarine-launched SLBMs, and nuclear-capable bombers remains thoroughly intact. Indeed, it's being updated and enhanced at mind-boggling expense (perhaps as high as a trillion dollars over the next three decades). The U.S. Navy? Still built around large, super-expensive, and vulnerable aircraft carrier task forces. The U.S. Air Force? Still pursuing new, ultra-high-tech strategic bombers and new, wildly expensive fighters and attack aircraft -- first the F-22, now the F-35, both supremely disappointing. The U.S. Army? Still configured to fight large-scale, conventional battles, a surplus of M-1 Abrams tanks sitting in mothballs just in case they're needed to plug the Fulda Gap in Germany against a raging Red Army. Except it's 2015, not 1990, and no mass of Soviet T-72 tanks remains poised to surge through that gap.

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Much of our military today remains structured to meet and defeat a Soviet threat that long ago ceased to exist. (Occasional sparring matches with Vladimir Putin's Russia in and around Ukraine do not add up to the heated "rumbles in the jungle" we fought with the Soviet leaders of yesteryear.) And it's not just a matter of weaponry. Our military hierarchy remains wildly and unsustainably top-heavy, with a Cold War-style cupboard of generals and admirals, as if we were still stockpiling brass in case of another world war and a further expansion of what is already uncontestably the largest military on the planet. If you had asked me in 1990 what the U.S. military would look like in 2015, the one thing I wouldn't have guessed was that, in its force structure, it would look basically the same.

This persistence of such Cold War structures and the thinking that goes with them is a vivid illustration of military inertia, the plodding last-war conservatism that is a common enough phenomenon in military history. It's also a reminder that the military-industrial-congressional-complex that President Dwight Eisenhower first warned us about in 1961 remains in expansion mode more than half a century later, with its taste for business as usual (meaning, among other things, wildly expensive weapons systems). Above all, though, it's an illustration of something far more disturbing: the failure of democratic America to seize the possibility of a less militarized world.

Today, it's hard to recapture the heady optimism of 1990, the idea that this country, as after any war, might at least begin to take steps to demobilize, however modestly, to become a more peaceable land. That's why 1990 should be considered the high-water mark of the U.S. military. At that moment, we were poised on the brink of a new normalcy -- and then it all began to go wrong. To understand how, it's important to see not just what remained the same, but also what began to change and just how we ended up with today's mutant military.

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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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