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Tomgram: William Astore, America's Post-Democratic Military

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Permanent war making - it's marching on.
Permanent war making - it's marching on.
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[Note for TomDispatch Readers: The offer -- for a contribution to this site of $100 (or more) -- of a signed, personalized copy of bestselling historian Adam Hochschild's superb new book, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, remains open. From the initial rush of donations, I can tell that there are many Hochschild fans reading TomDispatch . Check out our donation page for the details. To get a taste of the book, read Hochschild's recent TD post, "The Oilman Who Loved Dictators." By the way, for those of you planning to buy that book at Amazon, just click on the link above to do so and TomDispatch gets a small cut of your purchase at no cost to you. It's always a good way to contribute to this site. Tom]

In recent times, one of the strangest aspects of war, American-style, has been the inability of the most powerful military on the planet to extricate itself from any of the conflicts it's initiated or somehow gotten itself involved in -- even those it's officially walked away from. Like the sirens in The Odyssey, such conflicts seem to beckon Washington alluringly until it finds itself once again on the shoals of hell. Iraq is, of course, exhibit A. The United States is now, in effect, in the fourth iteration of war there. In the first, now largely forgotten, it backed autocrat Saddam Hussein in his disastrous 1980 invasion of Iran and the eight-year-war that followed, actively offering help, for instance, in targeting Iranian forces even when he was using chemical weaponry against them. In 1991 came Desert Storm, Bush-the-father's campaign against Saddam. Victory parades followed that "triumph." In 2003, there was Bush-the-son's invasion, the "decapitation" of Saddam's regime, and the disastrous occupation that followed. In 2014 -- we're now up to four wars and counting -- President Obama reentered the fray, this time against that creature of our previous wars in Iraq, the Islamic State and its "caliphate," a conflict now without an end in sight.

Washington's first Afghan War began, of course, in 1979 with the urge to give the Soviet Union its "Vietnam." When the U.S. finally ended that massive CIA-directed effort in support of extreme fundamentalist Islamic groups, Russia had indeed experienced its own "bleeding wound," the Red army had been defeated, the Soviet Union had finally imploded, and in triumph the U.S. turned from Afghanistan forever... or at least until October 2001 when it invaded, decimated the Taliban, and "liberated" the country. Almost 15 years later, its war there continues and, despite announced drawdowns and withdrawals, things are reportedly going terribly with (according to Pentagon sources) possibly decades still to go.

In Somalia, a first American intervention ended disastrously in 1993 in the event that is remembered here as "Blackhawk Down," after which the U.S. left, never to... whoops, it just conducted air strikes and special ops raids there in a conflict that now seems to be ramping up again. Or how about Libya? There, the U.S. had for years tried with intermittent lack of success to "decapitate" its autocratic ruler, Muammar Gaddafi. This ended in 2011 with an air intervention during which he was killed and the country "liberated" and turned into a democratic... whoops, the country actually collapsed into sets of warring militias and governments; Gaddafi's extensive arsenals were looted and the weaponry sent to terror groups and others across the region; the Islamic State gained a major foothold in the country; and U.S. operations are once again on the rise with the promise of more to come.

The one exception in the region: Syria. There, the U.S. is on its first war of either the twentieth or twenty-first centuries, and what could possibly go wrong?

This strange record came to mind as I read today's post by retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and TomDispatchregular William Astore, whose focus is on the development, since 1973, of a post-democratic military in this country. Think of the above as a brief record of what it's meant on the ground to have such a force at Washington's command. Tom

A Force Unto Itself
A Military Leviathan Has Emerged as America's 51st and Most Powerful State
By William J. Astore

In the decades since the draft ended in 1973, a strange new military has emerged in the United States. Think of it, if you will, as a post-democratic force that prides itself on its warrior ethos rather than the old-fashioned citizen-soldier ideal. As such, it's a military increasingly divorced from the people, with a way of life ever more foreign to most Americans (adulatory as they may feel toward its troops). Abroad, it's now regularly put to purposes foreign to any traditional idea of national defense. In Washington, it has become a force unto itself, following its own priorities, pursuing its own agendas, increasingly unaccountable to either the president or Congress.

Three areas highlight the post-democratic transformation of this military with striking clarity: the blending of military professionals with privatized mercenaries in prosecuting unending "limited" wars; the way senior military commanders are cashing in on retirement; and finally the emergence of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as a quasi-missionary imperial force with a presence in at least 135 countries a year (and counting).

The All-Volunteer Military and Mercenaries: An Undemocratic Amalgam

I'm a product of the all-volunteer military. In 1973, the Nixon administration ended the draft, which also marked the end of a citizen-soldier tradition that had served the nation for two centuries. At the time, neither the top brass nor the president wanted to face a future in which, in the style of the Vietnam era just then winding up, a force of citizen-soldiers could vote with their feet and their mouths in the kinds of protest that had only recently left the Army in significant disarray. The new military was to be all volunteers and a thoroughly professional force. (Think: no dissenters, no protesters, no antiwar sentiments; in short, no repeats of what had just happened.) And so it has remained for more than 40 years.

Most Americans were happy to see the draft abolished. (Although young men still register for selective service at age 18, there are neither popular calls for its return, nor serious plans to revive it.) Yet its end was not celebrated by all. At the time, some military men advised against it, convinced that what, in fact, did happen would happen: that an all-volunteer force would become more prone to military adventurism enabled by civilian leaders who no longer had to consider the sort of opposition draft call-ups might create for undeclared and unpopular wars.

In 1982, historian Joseph Ellis summed up such sentiments in a prophetic passage in an essay titled "Learning Military Lessons from Vietnam" (from the book Men at War):

"[V]irtually all studies of the all-volunteer army have indicated that it is likely to be less representative of and responsive to popular opinion, more expensive, more jealous of its own prerogatives, more xenophobic -- in other words, more likely to repeat some of the most grievous mistakes of Vietnam " Perhaps the most worrisome feature of the all-volunteer army is that it encourages soldiers to insulate themselves from civilian society and allows them to cling tenaciously to outmoded visions of the profession of arms. It certainly puts an increased burden of responsibility on civilian officials to impose restraints on military operations, restraints which the soldiers will surely perceive as unjustified."

Ellis wrote this more than 30 years ago -- before Desert Storm, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, or the launching of the War on Terror. These wars (and other U.S. military interventions of the last decades) have provided vivid evidence that civilian officials have felt emboldened in wielding a military freed from the constraints of the old citizen army. Indeed, it says something of our twenty-first-century moment that military officers have from time to time felt the need to restrain civilian officials rather than vice versa. Consider, for instance, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki's warning early in 2003 that a post-invasion Iraq would need to be occupied by "several hundred thousand" troops. Shinseki clearly hoped that his (all-too-realistic) estimate would tamp down the heady optimism of top Bush administration officials that any such war would be a "cakewalk," that the Iraqis would strew "bouquets" of flowers in the path of the invaders, and that the U.S. would be able to garrison an American-style Iraq in the fashion of South Korea until hell froze over. Prophetic Shinseki was, but not successful. His advice was dismissed out of hand, as was he.

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