William Astore: Why Do Military Professionals Remain Silent About America’s Disastrous Wars?

By William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) whovtaught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. Originally published at TomDispatch

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.”

So I buried my misgivings about facilitating a future shooting war in orbit.  I remember, in fact, hoping that the ASAT test would go well and that I’d be seen as effective at my job.  And in this I think I was probably pretty typical of military people, then and now.

The F-15 ASAT program was eventually cancelled, but not before it taught me a lesson that’s obvious only in retrospect: mission priorities and military imperatives in such a hierarchical situation are powerful factors in suppressing morality and critical thinking.  It’s so much easier, so much more “natural,” to do one’s job and conform rather than speak out and buck a system that’s not made for the public expression of dissenting views.  After all, a military with an ethos of “we’re all volunteers, so suck it up — or get out” is well suited to inhibiting dissent, as its creators intended.

To those who’ve been exposed to hierarchical, authority-heavy institutions, that lesson will undoubtedly come as no surprise.  Heck, I grew up Catholic and joined the military, so I know something about the pressures to conform within such institutions.  In the Church, you learn — or at least you did in my day — that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God, and the “old guard” priests and nuns I encountered were more than ready to encourage that fear.  In the military, you learn from day one of basic training that it’s best to put up and shut up.  No grumbling in the ranks.  No quibbling.  Yes, sir; no, sir; no excuse, sir.  Cooperate and graduate.  That conformist mentality is difficult to challenge or change, no matter your subsequent rank or position.

There’s a sensible reason for all this.  You can’t herd cats, nor can you make a cohesive military unit out of them.  In life and death situations, obedience and discipline are vital to rapid action.

As true as that may be, however, America doesn’t need more obedience: it needs more dissent.  Not only among its citizens but within its military — maybe there especially.

Unfortunately, in the post-9/11 era, we’ve exalted and essentially worshipped the military as “our greatest national treasure” (the words of former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta at the recent Democratic convention).  The military has, in fact, become so crucial to Washington that aspiring civilian commanders-in-chief like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump lean on retired generals to anoint them as qualified for the job. (For Trump, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn did the honors; for Hillary, General John Allen.)

The Pentagon has, in a very real sense, become America’s national cathedral.  If we’re going to continue to worship at it, we should at least ask for some minimal level of honesty from its priests.  In militarized America, the question of the moment is how to encourage such honesty.

Call it patriotic dissent.  By “dissent” I mean honest talk from those who should know best about the hazards and horrors of perpetual war, about how poorly those conflicts have gone and are going.  We desperately need to encourage informed critics and skeptics within the military and the Complex to speak their minds in a way that moves the national needle away from incessant bombing and perpetual war.

Yet to do so, we must first understand the obstacles involved.  It’s obvious, for example, that a government which has launched a war against whistleblowers, wielding the World War I-era Espionage Act against them and locking away Chelsea Manning for a veritable lifetime in a maximum security prison, isn’t likely to suddenly encourage more critical thinking and public expression inside the national security state. But much else stands in the way of the rest of us hearing a little critical speech from the “fourth branch” of government.

Seven Reasons Why It’s So Hard to Break Ranks   

As a start, it’s hard for outsiders to imagine just how difficult it is to break ranks when you’re in the military.  So many pressures combine to squelch dissent — everything from feelings of loyalty and patriotism to careerist concerns and worries about punishment.  I wasn’t immune from such pressures, which is why my story is fairly typical.  As I’ve said, I had my criticisms of the military, but I didn’t begin to air them until 2007, two years after I’d retired.

Why the delay?  I can offer explanations but no excuses.  Unless you’ve been in the military, you have little idea how all-enveloping and all-consuming such a life can be.  In a strange way, it may be the closest thing to true socialism in America: base housing provided and tied to your rank, government doctors and “socialized” medicine for all, education for your children in base schools, and worship at the base chapel; in other words, a remarkably insular life, intensified when troops are assigned to “Little Americas” abroad (bases like Ramstein in Germany).  For Star Trek: The Next Generation fans, think of Ramstein and similar bases around the world as the Borg cubes of American life — places where you’re automatically assimilated into the collective.  In such a hive life, resistance is all but futile. 

This effect is only intensified by the tribalism of war.  Unit cohesion, encouraged at all times, reaches a fever pitch under fire as the mission (and keeping your buddies and yourself alive) becomes all-consuming.  Staring at the business end of an AK-47 is hardly conducive to reflective, critical thinking, nor should it be.

Leaving military insularity, unit loyalty, and the pressure of combat aside, however, here are seven other factors I’ve witnessed, which combine to inhibit dissent within military circles.

1. Careerism and ambition: The U.S. military no longer has potentially recalcitrant draftees — it has “volunteers.”  Yesteryear’s draftees were sometimes skeptics; many just wanted to endure their years in the military and get out.  Today’s volunteers are usually believers; most want to excel.  Getting a reputation for critical comments or other forms of outspokenness generally means not being rewarded with fast promotions and plum assignments.  Career-oriented troops quickly learn that it’s better to fail upwards quietly than to impale yourself on your sword while expressing honest opinions.  If you don’t believe me, ask all those overly decorated generals of our failed wars you see on TV.

2. Future careerism and ambition: What to do when you leave the military?  Civilian job options are often quite limited. Many troops realize that they will be able to double or triple their pay, however, if they go to work for a defense contractor, serving as a military consultant or adviser overseas.  Why endanger lucrative prospects (or even your security clearance, which could be worth tens of thousands of dollars to you and firms looking to hire you) by earning a reputation for being “difficult”?    

3. Lack of diversity: The U.S. military is not blue and red and purple America writ small; it’s a selective sampling of the country that has already winnowed out most of the doubters and rebels.  This is, of course, by design.  After Vietnam, the high command was determined never to have such a wave of dissent within the ranks again and in this (unlike so much else) they succeeded.  Think about it: between “warriors” and citizen-soldiers, who is more likely to be tractable and remain silent? 

4. A belief that you can effect change by working quietly from within the system: Call it the Harold K. Johnson effect.  Johnson was an Army general during the Vietnam War who considered resigning in protest over what he saw as a lost cause.  He decided against it, wagering that he could better effect change while still wearing four stars, a decision he later came deeply to regret.  The truth is that the system has time-tested ways of neutralizing internal dissent, burying it, or channeling it and so rendering it harmless.

5. The constant valorization of the military: Ever since 9/11, the gushing pro-military rhetoric of presidents and other politicians has undoubtedly served to quiet honest doubts within the military.  If the president and Congress think you’re the best military ever, a force for human liberation, America’s greatest national treasure, who are you to disagree, Private Schmuckatelli?

America used to think differently.  Our founders considered a standing army to be a pernicious threat to democracy.  Until World War II, they generally preferred isolationism to imperialism, though of course many were eager to take land from Native Americans and Mexicans while double-crossing Cubans, Filipinos, and other peoples when it came to their independence.  If you doubt that, just read War is a Racket by Smedley Butler, a Marine general in the early decades of the last century and two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor. In the present context, think of it this way: democracies should see a standing military as a necessary evil, and military spending as a regressive tax on civilization — as President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously did when he compared such spending to humanity being crucified on a cross of iron.

Chanting constant hosannas to the troops and telling them they’re the greatest ever — remember the outcry against Muhammad Ali when, with significantly more cause, he boasted that he was the greatest? — may make our military feel good, but it won’t help them see their flaws, nor us as a nation see ours.

6. Loss of the respect of peers: Dissent is lonely.  It’s been more than a decade since my retirement and I still hesitate to write articles like this.  (It’s never fun getting hate mail from people who think you’re un-American for daring to criticize any aspect of the military.)  Small wonder that critics choose to keep their own counsel while they’re in the service.

7.  Even when you leave the military, you never truly leave: I haven’t been on a military base in years.  I haven’t donned a uniform since my retirement ceremony in 2005.  Yet occasionally someone will call me “colonel.”  It’s always a reminder that I’m still “in.” I may have left the military behind, but it never left me behind.  I can still snap to attention, render a proper salute, recite my officer’s oath from memory.

In short, I’m not a former but a retired officer.  My uniform may be gathering dust in the basement, but I haven’t forgotten how it made me feel when I wore it.  I don’t think any of us who have served ever do.  That strong sense of belonging, that emotional bond, makes you think twice before speaking out.  Or at least that’s been my experience.  Even as I call for more honesty within our military, more bracing dissent, I have to admit that I still feel a residual sense of hesitation.  Make of that what you will.

Bonus Reason: Troops are sometimes reluctant to speak out because they doubt Americans will listen, or if they do, empathize and understand.  It’s one thing to vent your frustrations in private among friends on your military base or at the local VFW hall among other veterans.  It’s quite another to talk to outsiders.  War’s sacrifices and horrors are especially difficult to convey and often traumatic to relive.  Nevertheless, as a country, we need to find ways to encourage veterans to speak out and we also need to teach ourselves how to listen — truly listen — no matter the harshness of what they describe or how disturbed what they actually have to say may make us feel.

Encouraging Our Troops to Speak More Freely

Perpetual war is a far greater threat to democracy in our country than ISIS, Russia, or any other external threat you want to mention.  To again quote former President Eisenhower, who as supreme commander of Allied forces in World War II had learned something of the true nature of war, “Only Americans can hurt America.”

The military and the entire apparatus of the burgeoning national security state should exist for a single purpose: to defend the country — that is, to safeguard the Constitution and our rights, liberties, and freedoms.  When it does that, it’s doing its job, and deserves praise (but never worship).  When it doesn’t, it should be criticized, reformed, even rebuilt from the ground up (and in more modest, less imperial fashion).

But this process is unlikely to begin as long as our leaders continue to wage war without end and we the people continue to shout “Amen!” whenever the Pentagon asks for more weapons and money for war.  To heal our increasingly fractured democracy, we need to empower liberty and nurture integrity within the institution that Americans say they trust the most: the U.S. military.  Dissenting voices must be encouraged and dissenting thoughts empowered in the service of rejecting the very idea of war without end.

Some will doubtless claim that encouraging patriotic dissent within the military can only weaken its combat effectiveness, endangering our national security.  But when, I wonder, did it become wise for a democracy to emulate Sparta?  And when is it ever possible to be perfectly secure? 

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  1. jgordon

    This can be boiled down to:

    Option 1) Do what you’re told and do your best to look enthusiastic about it–and you’ll survive–probably.

    Option 2) Be annoying and fail to at least give the token appearance of trying to do what you’re told (which I was very conscientious about in the military. Appearing to do what I was told was very important to me)–and enjoy a range of consequences from a nasty discharge (with no college and poor future employment prospects) to prison.

    Anyway, no. Change is not going to come from within the military. This is one of those things I’d classify as futile. What might not be futile however would be electing a commander in chief who is universally hated and loathed by the national security establishment. Just pick the candidate they hate the most, whoever it is, then support that person. Now that’s a positive plan we should all get behind!

    1. River

      It’s like the late “Ghengis” John Boyd said “In the military you can be someone (i.e. make rank) or do something (i.e. agitate for change) you can’t do both and if you choose the latter get ready for hard and lonely road” Not a direct quote, but that was the gist of it.

  2. Norello

    It is hard to agree with the underlying premise that these wars are not achieving their intended goals. The only logical conclusion that I can make is that producing failed states in the middle east is the goal of the United States foreign policy. When you ignore stated intentions and look at the actions and results of the United States how could one conclude otherwise?

    1. hemeantwell

      Agreed. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the US and its allies have been eroding the capacities of its former clients without much concern for the consequences, most of which are shouldered by local populations and, now, Europe, including Russia. Yes, there is occasional blowback to the US, but that apparently is an acceptable cost when weighed against narrowly conceived security interests and hoped-for payoffs in resource control. And, lets not forget a chance to keep the military-security apparatus happy. I don’t know that this corresponds to some grand scheme concocted in the early 90s, but I think it does represent a policy consensus that US elites have stumbled into. Here’s hoping that Europe gets this and tells the US to fuck off soon.

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        Don’t underestimate Washington group think. A defense spending cut or a practical spreading around of the money would be a disaster for countless lobbyists, think tank personal, professional journalists, and anyone in the Washington metro area because their incomes even from sweet pay offs don’t justify their hideous mortgages.

        The 90’s was a depression for much of Northern Virginia, despite the “wealth” is such a dump. Those half a million bed room community facades called mcmansions would be worth nothing with sensible federal policy. Being transferred would still leave the friends and employees and former employees of electeds in serious debt.

        They might use phrases such as drivers of economic growth, but the whole place is a facade dependent on government hiring when many of those jobs should be spread around given the innovation of devices such as the telephone.

        1. Optimader

          Group think indeed.
          Just another reapplucation of Taleb’s Firehouse Effect which would be reasonable choice to post as a perpetual link here along with Yves Dark Side of Optimism.

          Ppl like Wolfowitz, VonRumsfeld, Cheney,HRC, Panetta, no point in going on ad naseum are STUPID ( differenting from merely ignorant) and dangerous.
          True believers in the use of military projection as a solution to every percieved foreign policy ” threat”. And most everything is a threat in the Firehouse.

          (Insert MTwains qoute about …it’s the things you know are true that aint so that are the most dangerous…).

          So when we have asshats that have the burning and insatiable desire to be at the levers of power, pursuing policy that is sympatico with the desires for profit of a MIC that has since the Eisenhower admin intentionally been adsorbing the US economy ftom the Private Sector. Consumer Goods manufacturing orientation to the Government sponsored Weapons manufacturing orientation – this is what were left with.

          So now we have an election wherein the decision is a choice between doubling down on status quo warmongering w a candidate that seemingly obfuscates and lies about every position OTHER than being a proud, neocon enabling war monger; and another candidate that may possibly not have that insatiable desire to pursue a foriegn policy of perpetual war , albeit seems to be mecurial w/ some ahem eccentric domestic policy notions, who must be destroyed at all cost with outright misrepresentations,as rqd, by the opposition and captured organs of corporate media .

          Unfortunately interesting times

          Didnt make it all the way through the article, as i’ve read this in the past in different forms.
          Can i assume he left the military short of a full career and has as a matter of conscience declined on recieving a military pension and rather is focusing his activities going forward on socially beneficial persuits?

  3. ewmayer

    To illustrate the MSM’s crucial role in the warrior-worship-cult, consider the latest “outrageous Trump statements … which, when challenged on, he doubled down on rather than retract and beg forgiveness! [Synchronized gravely-appalled looks from the dual TV n00zdesk anchors].” Basically, Trump claimed 0bama and Hillary created ISIS. Now that is a tad simplistic in ignoring Dubya Bush’s role in installing a Shia-dominated post-Saddam government in majority-Sunni Iraq, but it is indisputable that

    [a] Team 0bama continued all the inane Shia-favoring Bush-admin policies in Iraq and ignored the growing unrest and radicalization among the Sunnis an the rampant corruption in the glorious program to create US-trained New Iraqi Military and Police Forces, and

    [b] 0bama/Hillary’s excellent regime-change adventures in Syria and Libya provided fertile soil for militant groups, both in terms of recruitment and the ingenious pipeline:
    o [US+Saudi+Oman] supply weapons and money to ‘moderate’ rebel groups along with free copies of How To Effect Regime Change In 5 Easy Steps. (Alas, no Arabic-language version available, so here’s one in Spanish. No problemo, right?)
    o Recipients of said largess are immediately targeted by ISIS and forced to turn over the swag.

    Now the above are established-beyond-reasonable-doubt facts, but the MSM find it ‘outrageous’ that someone aspiring to become Commander in Chief would have the temerity to point them out. How dare you, sir, profane our beloved and immaculate Republic with these slanderous truths?

    1. 1 kings

      Um, you forgot pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq. Now we know that Cheney, Bush and Rumy are criminals, and the war was immoral, stupid, greed-based, ‘privatized’ etc, and should all be in jail in Kansas busting rocks. But pulling out the only bastion of stability in the country is the main reason we have ISIS today. And while keeping out soldiers there was not politically popular(and what Obama campaigned on), look what has happened since.
      Is that what Trump is saying?

  4. EndOfTheWorld

    As he said: “the troops themselves don’t pick the fights.” The troops have to follow orders or get a bad discharge, or maybe prison. Most of the neocon chicken hawks(eg HRC) have spent zero days with a uniform on. Presumedly they enjoy a sense of power by bossing around the military.
    There are some veterans who talk about the foibles of our foreign policy after they are separated from the service, but nobody seems to be interested, so they just shut up about it.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      Trump didn’t beat Jeb in Bush and military country, South Carolina, USA because he’s so charming. I believe there is a fair amount of discussion about the folly of war, but they don’t have too many places to go given the current environment. I imagine the tar sands boom in the Dakotas drew soldiers.

      Anti-war Democrats always have veterans who will speak out against the war. They are everywhere, but they need a platform. The msm isn’t interested in anti-war veterans. Except for feel good stories about crippled soldiers finding God (were they godless soldiers?) and winning gold at the paralympics, the msm hides soldiers whenever possible.

      Take Jim Webb. When he isn’t being a terrible politician and relatively conservative by nature (still light years better than his Democratic opponent in the Senate primary) he was a hardened opponent of the Iraq War despite the intelligence which said Hussein had a moon base. Webb served two tours in Vietnam. His kid has served multiple tours in our glorious war on Muslims…I mean terror. In all of the chatter about how experienced Hillary was, the press never mentioned Webb was an ardent critic of the Iraq War who pushed his connections to the Marines, the Reagan Administration (Tailhook insensitivity, so maybe not such a good idea), and his election win against an ardent chicken hawk in former Senator George Allen. The msm doesn’t want this, but veterans still talk. There aren’t that many of them versus earlier conflicts, so they are easier to silence.

      1. DJG

        One of the reasons why Andrew Bacevich is so important. He is an excellent writer. He is a veteran. His son died in that glorious war on Muslims.

  5. SteveB

    The Saudi’s seem to have the best plan to end Isis…. drive the price of oil down and cut off the money supply. Contrary to the Bush policy of driving the price to $100/barrel which provided ample funding for weapons, vehicles and recruiting…..

    Cut off the money and food,,,,, and waging war becomes problematic….

  6. ProNewerDeal

    The US MIC (just the military portion, not the extended MIC including “intelligence agencies”, “Homeland Security, etc) is $597.5B, a multiple of the next largest of China at $145.8B. Merely cutting the MIC to be DOUBLE China’s spending would be a 48.8% budget cut. This in a nation that is approaching Russia physicists-as-taxi-drivers levels of Type 1 Overqualified Underemployment, even for actually talented skilled & socially useful professionals. MIC professionals are skilled at socially destructive “skills”.

    This is similar to asking why don’t DEA, prison guard workers, police unions, 2B2F money laundering banks, alcohol corporations, the Sinol0a Cart3l, etc; do not advocate for ending the Drug War.

    What is that quote about a man can’t understand something when his pay depends on him not understanding it?

    1. Jim Haygood

      “America used to think differently. Our founders considered a standing army to be a pernicious threat to democracy. Until World War II, they generally preferred isolationism to imperialism.”

      The sea change occurred after WW II, under Truman, with the permanent military occupation of Europe and Japan … and wartime intelligence agencies likewise morphed into a permanent extraconstitutional presence that destabilizes foreign regimes while spying on citizens domestically.

      Responsible American leadership — lacking the bad intent of establishing an empire — would have put a 10-year sunset clause on the U.S. occupation. Instead the military base empire soldiers on to this day, as our occupied euro, nippo and koreo-puppets pretend to be sovereign nations under the bootheel of U.S. occupation.

  7. pretzelattack

    there’s also the chelsea manning example for anybody that might think about questioning things. i really don’t know where the boundaries are, anymore. i don’t think anybody does. how far will they go to suppress dissent–when the vote rigging and the free speech pens and the militarized police don’t do the job, they’ll turn to the military. i’m seeing precious little dissent from the party line in the top ranks of the military–just rival members of the praetorian guard trying to pick the next emperor. someday they may start picking themselves.

  8. Ché Pasa

    The rebellion in the streets during the Vietnam debacle was a challenge for the civilian leadership, but it was the rebellion of the troops in the jungle that put the fear of God into the military leadership.

    Damn, the troops were killing their officers day by day, something that I don’t think had ever happened before, at least not on the scale it happened in Vietnam. There was nothing command could do to stop it.

    Except — literally — to stop the war.

    Which is an a sense what happened long before the troops were withdrawn and Vietnam finally obtained its freedom from imperialist madness.

    I credit the bravery of the troops in opposing their officers — sometimes lethally — in Vietnam with bringing that horror to an end. I credit the Vietnamese people with the fortitude and endurance, whatever their politics, to survive the worst bombing any people have been subjected to in history, let alone all the other monstrous maneuvers conducted against them for more than a decade.
    Unfortunately, the lessons learned by the US Military were the wrong ones. In vowing “never again,” they set the prime objective at force protection, which meant that troops and particularly officers would be safe from (most) harm no matter the harm they inflict, and that they would lose every war of aggression they engage in from here to eternity. It wouldn’t matter to them since their prime objective is force protection not “conquest,” “victory” or what have you.

    The same principle is used by domestic police forces almost everywhere throughout the land, with similar results.

  9. DJG

    Astore is always worth reading: This is an excellent summation of the problem from the point of view of the military. Yet the military’s problem is also that the civilian leadership has politicized the U.S. officer corps and that civilian society is going through a process of cheesy militarization and anti-democratic deference. A prime example of politicization of the officer corps was the handling by Pres Obama of Eric Shinseki. There was no scandal–no scandal related to Shinseki’s qualifications. But Obama brought in a former officer and then expected Shinseki to allow himself obediently to be dumped. Which Shinseki did.

    Lest we forget who Shinseki is, too: Grabbing from Wikipedia: Shinseki publicly clashed with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during the planning of the war in Iraq over how many troops the United States would need to keep in Iraq for the postwar occupation of that country. As Army Chief of Staff, General Shinseki testified to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on February 25, 2003 that “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would probably be required for postwar Iraq. This was an estimate far higher than the figure being proposed by Secretary Rumsfeld in his invasion plan, and it was rejected in strong language by both Rumsfeld and his Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, who was another chief planner of the invasion and occupation.[17] From then on, Shinseki’s influence on the Joint Chiefs of Staff reportedly waned.[18]


    Low-grade militarization: As OIFVet mentioned the other day, it isn’t a strange site in Chicago to see some dumpy local in cargo-pants camo fighting his or her way down the street to the convenience store for a big bag of Doritos. Further, the “thank you for your service” bromide is easily contradicted by the info in Astore’s essay. Then you have the anti-democratic deference, which includes referring to the president of the United States as “commander in chief.” Sorry, I’m a civilian. The president isn’t my commander in chief.

  10. TG

    Interesting, but I think missing the main points.

    1. Any member of the military that speaks out in any way against established policy – publicly but also privately within the ranks – will be efficiently purged. Obama in particular has come down hard on any kind of dissent, not just for uniformed soldiers but also ‘whistleblowers’ in the civilian government ranks.

    2. The power of a military is it’s unity and chain of command. You can’t have a strong military unless people rapidly and unquestioningly obey orders. That’s also why the military model is such a disaster for running something like, for example, an entire country.

    3. The military serves the civilian world. It’s not the soldier’s fault. It’s OUR fault, for voting for scumbags like Dubya and Obama and (soon) Clinton, and letting them get away with it. We as citizens have failed the military, not the other way around…

  11. Paul Art

    America is now a systemic failure in which it is futile to be discussing individual boils and sores. Our Defense forces are such a sore. One thing that could mitigate the Omerta of the military is to force them to become a non-volunteer and draft entity. The draft during Vietnam was a very powerful catalyst in engendering public disenchantment with the war. These days the smart people do not care about the wars. They get qualified and then go to work for Defense contractors. For a more permanent solution, one must target the two main heads of the hydra that need beheading in America, the Banker-Hedge Fund crowd and the repeal of the Clinton Telecommunications Act which allowed media houses to consolidate, allowed corporations to buy media houses etc. The press should NEVER be a for profit sector and it should NEVER be allowed to make money via advertising. We need someone with FDR’s balls to tackle these systemic changes. Sadly Bernie proved to be a enuch.

  12. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio

    As I read through this essay, it struck me that this “groupthink” is not much different in any large organization – civilian or military. Dissent is simply not part of the game plan if you want to be on the stairway to heaven. Too many of us have witnessed how conscientious employees have expressed their opinions in an open and candid manner with due respect for authority only to disappear in the course of the next reorganization. I once quipped to an executive that ‘REORG” was just another 5-letter word for “PURGE”. No, I was not fired. But feedback via the grapevine intimated that I might not want to be so “candid” in the future.

    This groupthink is endemic to any hierarchical organization in which superior – subordinate relationships prevail. Rare is the boss who can be called a freakin’ idiot to his/her face in front of other employees and laugh it off when it pertains to the business at hand. There is a limit to how much dissent will be tolerated or allowed before there are consequences. Only in the rarest of circumstances will expertise trump managerial authority. It’s the “inner cop” whispering to you: Watch it, don’t push too far. You will be cast out – and for what? If you don’t do it. someone else will. So suck it up. Remember, much like the military, EMPLOYMENT is voluntary – employment at will – right? No coercion involved.

    Perhaps the notion that employment, much like military service, is voluntary explains this lack of testicular/ovarian fortitude – DISSENT. We’ve been convinced that we’re so free that we no longer know or understand coercion.

  13. John Wright

    The economic effects of the military are manifest. In my own employment (electronics industry) everyone knows how important the US military is in driving demand for high performance products and in the initial jump starting of the industry in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

    Even the more military skeptical politicians know the economic power of the MIC.

    I remember CA Senator Barbara Boxer, who voted against the AUMF in Iraq, earlier fighting to preserve Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo CA when it was on the chopping block.

    Mare Island closed in 1996.

    One can drive through the old base and see only a small portion has been re-purposed successfully and the host city of Vallejo declared bankruptcy in 2008.

    On a small positive note, whenever one hears “The government doesn’t create jobs, only private industry does”, one can point to the US government, that clearly has been a jobs creator, via the military budget, for a long time.

    If only the military budget could be re-purposed into climate change efforts, but it is difficult to see this happening in any serious way under Hawk Hillary.

    1. OIFVet

      The thing is, there is far more effective way for government spending to create jobs than military spending. For example, infrastructure spending. When FDR came into office, government spent big on infrastructure and jobs programs. Ike did too, which is why it’s the ‘Eisenhower’ Interstate System that we travel on and that hauls the goods we ‘consumers’ consume. Government infrastructure spending has a much higher multiplier factor than military spending. Being former military, yes, bases are indeed an important source of money for their host communities. But it hardly spreads outside of those communities. And then it has that unwelcome side effect of America being in a permanent state of war, which in my book wipes all economic gains from military spending, and then some. See our decaying infrastructure as prime example…

      1. Harold

        In order to get funding for the highways Ike had to call it a military expense, necessary of national defense. The highways, my spouse was a highway designer at that time, could have been made much nicer and more scenic if they had not been first and foremost designed for the passage of military tanks. Federal funding for education was also sold this way.

  14. Pespi

    Good points, I think the career aspect is the strongest. If you dissent, you’re over, that’s it. It’s obedience or nothing. That value has spread through American culture, and is very disheartening.

    Lots of soldiers are happy to get things off their chest, man to man, but couldn’t dream of speaking publicly about them.

    The military is lionized despite all the evidence that it doesn’t work, great at destroying infrastructure and terrible at everything else.

  15. human

    Any number of active and former military and intelligence personnel have spoken out. The MSM avoids them like the plague. Their only platform is the alternate media.

    This is one reason that I find TomDispatch to be something of a gatekeeper. There is no mention of those courageous and patriotic individuals who _have_ spoken out … some of them having paid the ultimate price, re Pat Tillman. Those with an audience rarely use any strong language, but, typically equivocation and weasel wording in their articles. Passive aggression. Anger, hurt and pointed language and fingers is what is needed. Not just the frustration.

    The answer, of course, is that we are an Empire ™ now. These are not _wars_, they are policing and peace keeping actions. Where is the widespread, front page coverage of the $6.5T of unallocated DOD funds? If a “welfare queen” was found double dipping to the tune of say $10,000.00 it would be front page news for at least one news cycle with followup reports for the rest of the week!

    “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” – Frederick Douglass
    Albeit from another who insisted, his entire life, to work within the system to reform it and never succeeded. He died a veritable slave to the system. So be it.

  16. F

    Oligarchs love the military, because the military behaves like they want the rest of the grubby azz wretched refuse to behave

    Obedient, non-complainers willing to take one for the team, that do what they are told. In exchange, they get cradle-to-grave benefits unavailable anywhere else.

    1. Winston

      Only minority of military has pensions. In expensive places, military families even live on food stamps. Veteran Administrations healthcare system is underfunded.

      “Although the military’s retirement program serves only a small minority of the force—about 17 percent of military personnel eventually qualify for retired pay”
      The Need to Reform Military Compensation

      Military families turn to food stamps
      WATCH: Senator Destroys Republicans for Underfunding VA by $850 Million

  17. Praedor

    The reasons are the same for why it is nearly impossible to close ANY useless military bases. The Complex IS complex. For military bases, the Pentagon intentionally spread itself all over bejeezus so every possible state had direct economic benefits from many scattered military bases. Any talk of closing any base brings out fed and local representatives screaming for no closure because it would devastate a local economy.

    With all our warmongering, the Pentagon personnel are DEEPLY in bed with the big contractors, either enjoying their access and power and/or making sure they have a very lucrative civie job with one of said contractors (as lobbyist or executive) when they retire at 40 yrs old. All those desk flyers at the Pentagon are also dependent for promotion upon having their name associated with some big ticket, “important” military contract/procurement/system/program and the best way to 1) secure promotion; 2) secure a post-military-retirement Richie Rich career is to get all kissy-faced with civilian contractors. The BEST way to get 1 and 2 is via war. Contractors get contracts extended or new ones created, private security and private intel firms, made up of prostitute former military members get lucrative contracts which are then able to hire from the scum pushing war and their products at the Pentagon. The Dept of State and all its cancerous tumors in the CIA and foreign policy establishment all make bank on wars and destabilization. Countries that were opposed to US military bases, US corporate incursion, privatization of their natural resources get kicked out of the way and everyone makes bank.

    Money, politics, corruption runs rife through State, the Dept of Defense, and ALL Administrations. The entire establishment is very very incestuous, each feeding upon the conflicts they rig up.

    I was serving full-time active duty when the Berlin Wall fell followed by the fall of the Soviet Union. I feared losing my military career BUT also accepted that it had to happen. I expected the “Peace Dividend” and, with trepidation for my military career prospects, accepted that it was for the best. I DID lose my job (got RIF’d along with a lot of others in the military draw down). Boy was THAT short-lived. The Pentagon and State got busy creating new reasons to reverse the military draw-down. They created a new war in the Balkens, started talking up how dangerous to the US was Iraq (again), how bad Iran was…new boogiemen! During the first year of my new civilian life I got a letter from the Dept of Defense asking for many of us to come back in. “We need you back! Please come back!” By that point I was already in grad school but I sure did consider it. I loved being in the military BUT I also still believed in the NEED and value of a Peace Dividend. I split the difference and joined the Reserves and watched from the inside as all the boogiemen were created to justify an expansion again of military spending. New wars, new civilian contracts, new promotions for purveyors of chaos at the Pentagon and in the State Dept.

    They ALL belong in jail. There’s no way to fix the problem without cleaning house and cutting off Pentagon personnel from making bank by getting tight with military contractors. They must be BANNED from becoming lobbyists or working for any contractor with whom the Pentagon had any ties to for at least 15 years. Privatization of war needs to be curtailed and reversed. The useless skin working at the Pentagon needs to be regularly rotated OUT so they cannot make a career in the Pentagon in close relationship with contractors and contracts. The neocons need to be flushed out of State as the turds in the toilet they are. Don’t hold your breath. The ONLY economic growth possible with the neoliberal state of the US economy is via financialization and/or military contracts and both requires the overthrow of any and ALL countries that resist US neoliberal dominance.

  18. shinola

    Want to stop/curtail the USA’s involvement in stupid wars? There is a way:

    RE-INSTATE THE DRAFT! (As Paul Art mentioned above). And this time include women.

    See how fast attitudes change from the vacuous “thank you for you service” to forceful “not my son/daughter”.

    (There is another unlikely way – a campaign to stop volunteering; a “HELL NO, WE WON’T GO” nationwide PR blitz. Oh well, one can fantasize…)

  19. VietnamVet

    These are all good points. But, the article does not discuss the elephant in the room; corruption. The Saudis and Israel’s Supporters have bought the services of the American military to sever the Shiite Crescent from Lebanon to Iran. Supporting and killing Jihadis at the same time in the same battlefield is schizophrenic. The war’s refugees are stressing Europe and Lone Wolf attacks proliferating.

    Finally, restarting the Cold War 2.0 with Russia is in nobody’s best interest. It is a classic case of greed and power overwhelming common sense.

    1. fajensen

      I believe that both the flood of the EU with “refugees” and Cold War reboot is actively pursued because it is in the US interest to have a politically weak, unstable and therfore subservient EU *and* to eliminate unwanted competition for resources, business and indeed ideals – there can be no viable alternatives to US corporatism and social Darwinism!

      The worst scenario imaginable for the US is the EU aligning with Russia. I believe that the US is willing to take a hot war over that one and that “our” politicians have indeed been threatened with this, which is why the US anti-Russian stance is adopted so willingly with total disregard for the collateral damage.

      The US empire stonked over the whole of South- and Central- America for decades. Why should we be treated any different? We are not Americans too, so we are also un-people that will be eliminated if we dare to stand in the way of profits for US corporations.

  20. Gaylord

    I expect that abrupt climate change will necessitate greatly increased deployment of the world’s military forces for the purposes of disaster recovery, mass migration and refugee assistance, extreme storm-drought-wildfire-flooding mitigation, and massive relocation of coastal cities’ populations and infrastructure. That ought to give them something life-affirming to do, until the inevitable collapse of civilization makes it all moot. Business As Usual is only hastening that outcome.

    1. JTMcPhee

      Hey, Gaylord, chin up, bucko!

      Be comforted, my people, that “the military” has long since planned for and is well on the way to preparing for just that eventuality You can read the detail here, “Trends and Implications of Climate Change on National and International Security,” http://fas.org/irp/agency/dod/dsb/climate.pdf.

      The first part lays out the geosciences scenarios that the Defense Science Board and of course our Great Military Planners are convinced are already baked in to the global environment’s future. Covers everything from causes of temperature rise and the effects of same, to water scarcity, to mass migrations, to “trans-border” planning for all the sh!t that these Fokkers have helped in small and large ways to bring about.

      Along with, in the latter portion of the document, all the wonderful details of how “the [imperial] military,” having brought all the other national militaries and national police forces together under the Grand Global Network-Centric Interoperable Battlespace, thanks to what “interoperability” really means when you get down into the details, will thereafter battlespace-manage all the dislocations and R2P and “humanitarian responses.” And help the post-supra-transnational corporations to market their engineering expertise, earthmoving and construction equipment, genetically modified products and, of course, full-spectrum military weaponized dominance over the gasping planet.

      And of course the planning, procurement and logistics parts of all this are well on the way to “fulfillment of objectives.” Why, my little town in central coastal Florida, where the most recent inundation maps from NOAA show that our homes will not so vary far down the road be “under water,” literally and not in the FIRE sense, has a whole warehouse of “Mine Resistant Armored Personnel Carriers” and all the SWAT and Special Ops and riot control gear needed to keep the mopes from getting out of hand, like a whole lot of other “communities” not only in what used to be “America…” And no, that is not “tinfoil stuff.” I wish it were.

      But hey! there’s room for a sh!pload of credentialed experts to acquire “good paying middle-class jobs” helping it all play out! Go along to get along! “Resistance is futile.” So no worries, mates! it’s all in capable hands! And population reduction appears to be (with deep regrets, of course, but sighs for the unfortunate inevitability) part of the mix…

      And there’s not a goddam thing us mopes can do about any of it, other than hope that the Network that is the backbone of all this planning and grand doctrine will collapse and fracture the bigger structures down into more localized polities that might have a chance to organize under a more comity-based set of principles and thus survive, somehow…

    1. JTMcPhee

      Most of those retired O-6s and up manage to find nice paydays in a variety of more-war-all-the-time civilian gigs, a real nice double dip self-licking icecream cone if ever I seen one…And there’s no premium for maintaining radio silence — quite the opposite, it would seem…

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