[Note for TomDispatch Readers: TD is taking this weekend off. Next post: Tuesday, August 16th. Tom]
How, I've often wondered, can people who have spent their lives working in an institution, particularly in the military or some other part of the national security state, retire and suddenly see that same institution in a different and far more negative light? Once outside, they become, in essence, critics of their former selves. I've long had a private term for this curious phenomenon: retirement syndrome.
Perhaps the most striking example of (edge-of-)retirement syndrome in modern American history was former five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower. As president, he presided over a vast expansion of the national security state and the military, including its nuclear arsenal, while a growing set of weapons makers and other defense-related outfits were embedding themselves in Washington in a big way. On January 17, 1961, just before he was to end his second term in office and leave public life forever, he gave a "farewell address" to the nation warning -- out of the blue -- of a potential loss of American liberties in part because
"we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations. This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience... In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."
Few could have said it better, then or now. In the process, he gave an unforgettable name -- "the military-industrial complex" -- to a growing danger in American life. The question remained, however: Why exactly had he waited until his criticisms lacked all the force that power can offer? He was, after all, president and commander-in-chief. In this, however, he would hardly prove unique. Take, for example, four-star general George Lee Butler, who from 1991 to 1994 was the last commander of the Air Force's Strategic Air Command and commander in chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, which, as he later explained, "controls all Navy and Air Force nuclear weapons." In 1996 at the National Press Club in Washington, two years after he retired, he spoke out forcefully against the very weapons he had so recently overseen, pointing out that, "over the last 27 years of my military career, I was embroiled in every aspect of American nuclear policy making and force structuring, from the highest councils of government to nuclear command centers; from the arms control arena to cramped bomber cockpits and the confines of ballistic missile silos and submarines." He then called for the "elimination" of such weapons. Ever since then, he has been a forceful anti-nuclear advocate, terming such weaponry a "scourge" to the planet and an immoral danger to humanity.
Then there's William Perry, who spent decades inside the national security state working on nuclear issues. As undersecretary of defense for research and engineering under President Jimmy Carter, and secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, he, too, oversaw a major nuclear build-up including, as California Governor Jerry Brown writes in a recent review of Perry's new memoir, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, helping "launch the B-2, a strategic nuclear bomber, capable of use in both nuclear and nonnuclear missions; revitalized the aging B-52 with air-launched cruise missiles; put[ting] the Trident submarine program back on track; and [making] an ill-fated attempt to bring the MX ICBM, a ten-warhead missile, into operation." Like Butler, Perry has now gone into full-scale anti-nuclear mode, publicly speaking out against the arsenal he had such a hand in building and the sort of devastation that nuclear terrorism, a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, or a new Cold War with Russia might lead to.
In all these years, however, I've seen next to nothing written on the various forms retirement syndrome can take or why, since such sentiments must have been long brewing in the retirees, we never hear critiques from within that national security world while such figures are still active. Today, TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore remedies that, exploring what his own professional life tells him about why we hear so little criticism from those in either our military or the rest of the national security state. Tom
Military Dissent Is Not an Oxymoron
Freeing Democracy from Perpetual War
By William J. Astore
The United States is now engaged in perpetual war with victory nowhere in sight. Iraq is chaotic and scarred. So, too, is Libya. Syria barely exists. After 15 years, "progress" in Afghanistan has proven eminently reversible as efforts to rollback recent Taliban gains continue to falter. The Islamic State may be fracturing, but its various franchises are finding new and horrifying ways to replicate themselves and lash out. Having spent trillions of dollars on war with such sorry results, it's a wonder that key figures in the U.S. military or officials in any other part of America's colossal national security state and the military-industrial complex ("the Complex" for short) haven't spoken out forcefully and critically about the disasters on their watch.
Yet they have remained remarkably mum when it comes to the obvious. Such a blanket silence can't simply be attributed to the war-loving nature of the U.S. military. Sure, its warriors and warfighters always define themselves as battle-ready, but the troops themselves don't pick the fights. Nor is it simply attributable to the Complex's love of power and profit, though its members are hardly eager to push back against government decisions that feed the bottom line. To understand the silence of the military in particular in the face of a visible crisis of war-making, you shouldn't assume that, from private to general, its members don't have complicated, often highly critical feelings about what's going on. The real question is: Why they don't ever express them publicly?
To understand that silence means grasping all the intertwined personal, emotional, and institutional reasons why few in the military or the rest of the national security state ever speak out critically on policies that may disturb them and with which they may privately disagree. I should know, because like so many others I learned to silence my doubts during my career in the military.
My Very Own "Star Wars" Moment
As a young Air Force lieutenant at the tail end of the Cold War, I found myself working on something I loathed: the militarization of space. The Air Force had scheduled a test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile to be launched at high altitude from an F-15 fighter jet. The missile was designed to streak into low earth orbit to strike at the satellites of enemy powers. The Soviets were rumored to have their own ASAT capability and this was our answer. If the Soviets had a capability, Americans had to have the same -- or better. We called it "deterrence."
Ever since I was a kid, weaned on old episodes of "Star Trek," I'd seen space as "the final frontier," a better place than conflict-ridden Earth, a place where anything was possible -- maybe even peace. As far as I was concerned, the last thing we needed was to militarize that frontier. Yet there I was in 1986 working in the Space Surveillance Center in Cheyenne Mountain in support of a test that, if it worked, would have helped turn space into yet another war zone.
It won't surprise you to learn that, despite my feelings, which couldn't have been stronger, I didn't speak up against the test. Not a peep. I kept my critical thoughts and doubts to myself. I told myself that I was doing my duty, that it wasn't my place to question decisions made at high levels in the administration of then-President Ronald Reagan. You can't have a disciplined and orderly military if troops challenge every decision, can you? Orders are to be obeyed, right? Ours not to reason why, ours but to do or die -- especially since we were then at war with the Soviets, even if that war fell under the label of "cold."