Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Armstice Day 11/11/21

(Click on the comic strip for a larger view.)

In 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

You said it, brother.

Thanks to all who have served or are serving, on this Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day.

This post is mostly a repeat I run every year, since I find it hard to top Kelly. My new post this year for Armistice Day is "The Graveyard of Democracy."

Back in 2009, I wrote a series of six related posts for Armistice Day (and as part of an ongoing series on war). The starred posts are the most important, but the list is:

"Élan in The Guns of August"

"Demonizing of the Enemy"

"The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen"

***"Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels"

"The Little Mother"

***"War and the Denial of Loss"

The most significant other entries in the series are:

"How to Hear a True War Story" (2007)

"Day of Shame" (2008)

"The Poetry of War" (2008)

"Armistice Day 2008" (featuring the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon).

"They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again" (2011)

"The Dogs of War" (2013)

"The Courage to Make Others Suffer" (2015)

"The Battle of the Somme" (2017)

I generally update these posts later with links to appropriate pieces for 11/11 by other folks as I find them. If you've written one, feel free to link it in a comment. Thanks.

The Graveyard of Democracy

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
– Dwight D. Eisenhower, "Chance for Peace" speech, 1953
Endless money for wars? No problem. Endless money for tax breaks for the rich? No problem. Endless money for corporate welfare? No problem. But when it comes to providing a $1,200 direct payment to the working class during a pandemic, somehow we can't afford it. Not acceptable.
Bernie Sanders, 12/10/20.

The U.S. war in Afghanistan finally, officially ended in August 2021 after nearly 20 years. The Pentagon lowballs the cost at a nonetheless stunning $825 billion. The "Costs of War" project from Brown University puts the costs at $2.313 trillion and estimates the costs of all U.S. post-9/11 war spending at $8 trillion, which includes future obligations in veterans' care and financial debt for roughly 30 years. The project also estimates the human costs of the 'global war on terror' at 900,000 deaths. Meanwhile, Afghanistan reconstruction was allocated $145 billion, however:
an October 2020 report presented a startling total for the war. Congress at the time had appropriated $134 billion since 2002 for reconstruction in Afghanistan. but SIGAR [the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction] was able to review $63 billion of it – nearly half. They concluded $19 billion of that – almost a third – was "lost to waste, fraud, and abuse."

That's pretty appalling, but looking at the U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and all the "post-9/11 war spending," it's hard not to conclude that a large portion if not most of that $8 trillion (and much more in related costs) won't have been a waste. Afghanistan has been called "the graveyard of empires" because of all the supposedly mighty powers that have failed to conquer it. Unchecked military spending, endless wars, unnecessary wars and unnecessarily prolonged wars could aptly be called the graveyard of democracy for how they rob time, energy, money and lives that could be spent in far more worthwhile pursuits.

Going to war should require a high threshold. That is the position of basic sanity and wisdom. Some war advocates do make their cases sincerely and soberly. But bad faith and bullying are endemic to the pro-war, prolong-the-war crowd. As a 2013 post on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War covered, the Bush administration absurdly claimed that the war would cost as little as 1.7 billion. More damningly:
It also isn't rare, even today, to hear conservative pundits insist (often angrily) that the Bush administration didn't lie in making the case for war, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary (and plenty of misleading, dishonorable rhetoric besides). Sure, one can quibble in some cases whether those many misleading false statements were technically lies versus bullshitting versus the product of egregious self-delusion, but in no universe were they responsible. Meanwhile, it's disappointing but not surprising that the corporate media, who were largely unskeptical cheerleaders for the war and prone to squelching critical voices, would be reluctant to revisit one of their greatest failures in living memory (let alone doing so unflinchingly).

For the Iraq War especially, it was fairly common for war advocates to go into full Joe McCarthy mode, accusing war skeptics of being traitors and un-American or even threatening them with violence. For the most part, these weren't momentary lapses of reason, but the banality of jackassery, with obnoxious hacks feeling gleefully entitled by what they felt was a pro-war climate to act like assholes toward people they had always hated. Most of their later efforts at apology were weak, self-serving or even downright insulting. (The 2013 post has a more comprehensive account, but examples one, two, three, four and five are pretty representative.)

Such ugliness should give us pause, but the lying by government officials is arguably more troubling and almost certainly more damaging. The Bush administration lied to the American public to sell the Iraq War. The Pentagon Papers revealed that, on the Vietnam War, the Johnson administration "systemically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance." (Nor was Johnson's the only administration to do so.) Vietnam veteran and then-Senator John Kerry made the point more starkly when he said, "Half of the soldiers whose names are on the Vietnam Memorial Wall died after the politicians knew our strategy would not work." More recently in 2019, The Washington Post (which also published the Pentagon Papers) published The Afghanistan Papers, stating, "A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable."

This behavior is disqualifying. On the Afghanistan War specifically, we could talk about how pundits crawled out of the woodwork in 2021 to condemn finally ending the war and the way withdrawal was handled. Coverage on Afghanistan exploded in August 2021 after being relatively low for six to eleven years, and far too much of the new coverage omitted crucial context. For example, the Bush administration could have ended the war all the way back in November 2001, not long after the initial invasion. Why did it drag on for almost 20 years? Meanwhile, the Trump administration took several actions that forced an abrupt departure. Surely that merited mentioning when discussing withdrawal? Afghanistan has a complicated history most Americans don't know, and the U.S. strategy failed to deal with competing factions and corruption in the country. Although some people continue to be sincerely concerned about the well-being of the Afghan citizenry and refugees, most of the pro-war, pro-occupation crowd has never seriously considered such issues and planned for them; they only seem to care about the Afghans as props in bad faith arguments. Withdrawal was very popular with the American public, but not with military contractors and many in the Beltway crowd. Guess which viewpoint dominated the coverage? (For more, see Digby one and two, Tom Sullivan, driftglass one and two, the Poynter Institute, The New Republic, Emptywheel, Strangely Blogged, First Draft, Jon Perr and Jim Wright.)

Criticizing the withdrawal and the Biden administration is fine, but denying essential context is not – and providing context would have flipped much of the criticism. Advocates for withdrawal were definitely challenged in a way advocates for staying largely were not. How many journalists and moderators pushed the pro-war, pro-occupation crowd with something like, "You've had 20 years, three presidents, 2.2 trillion dollars, and you still haven't been able to get the job done in Afghanistan. Why should we believe you'll get it done now? Why should we give you any more time and money?" Or perhaps, "the Afghanistan papers show that U.S. officials have been lying to the American public and have known for years that war cannot be won. Given that, how can you justify staying?" Or even, "Considering all the blood and treasure your views have already cost, why should we give your criticisms of the withdrawal any weight?"

To be fair, some critics focused on the nature of the withdrawal and did not criticize withdrawal itself. Yet while U.S. intelligence agencies did predict a collapse, they were surprised by how quickly the Taliban took over Kabul. And too much coverage focused on the nature of the withdrawal and sidestepped whether withdrawal was good or necessary, and also sidestepped that any withdrawal was going to be pretty messy. This lead to strikingly imbalanced, context-free coverage, where somehow Biden could be pilloried (perhaps justifiably), but Bush, Obama, and Trump mostly got a pass. Responsible journalism requires explaining who created and exacerbated the mess and not pretending the previous 20 years didn't happen. If that weren't bad enough, in many media discussions, there were still pundits arguing that the war was "sustainable" and the U.S. was wrong to leave. "Yeah, U.S. officials completely lied to the American public – and knew the war was unwinnable – and this has cost us trillions of dollars already – but it's still wrong to withdraw" would be an honest argument, but obviously not a convincing one. Those factors are awful on their own, but together they are utterly damning. Once you lie to the public this profoundly and pervasively about an issue as important as war – which, ya know, causes people to die, which is a fault that cannot be undone – you have lost all credibility and just need to shut the hell up. And even if we eliminate all the many liars and hacks, the act of pressing for war, or to continue war – especially with no end in sight – should be a weighty affair. War advocates should be pressed hard and held to account. As it is, advocating for war is typically granted an undeserved veneer of respectability and seriousness, even when its very real human costs are never discussed. The shallow and dishonest war advocates far outnumber the serious ones. And in some Beltway circles, being excited for a war others will fight and die in is socially acceptable or even encouraged.

It's also worth considering U.S. military spending in general. There's a saying that the United States is "an insurance company with an army." United States military spending in 2020 was a staggering $778 billion. The next closest nation was China, at $252 billion. In third place was India at $72.9 billion. The U.S. routinely outspends the next 10 or 11 nations combined every year, and some of those are U.S. allies. To use another metric, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in 2019 lead to many great stories about the space race, and some pieces mentioned the cost, roughly $25.8 billion. But at least one commentator pointed out that during the same era, the Vietnam War cost about as much in a single year as the entire space race. It's estimated that the Vietnam War cost the U.S. $141 billion over 14 years. So the space race was much, much cheaper and produced research and innovation that had countless civilian applications and spurred many other developments. The Pentagon has never passed an audit and waste is endemic; it simply fabricates numbers but receives little pushback from Congress. This is not a new problem; Chuck Spinney started called out wasteful military spending in the 1980s and continued until his retirement in 2003. Decades earlier, Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose military credentials were impeccable, memorably warned in his 1961 presidential farewell address:
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. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

To pick one noteworthy example, the F-35 jet is a much criticized and expensive aircraft, and the costs of the F-35 program (some of which may be hidden) keep escalating. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in April 2021 that the Department of Defense "plans to acquire nearly 2,500 F-35 aircraft for about $400 billion. It projects spending another $1.27 trillion to operate and sustain them—an estimate that has steadily increased since 2012." Despite criticism for years, the program's astronomical spending just continues.

Just imagine if military spending were reduced, still leaving the U.S. as number one, but say, to beat China and not most of the world. Just imagine if the Pentagon could pass an audit and eliminate waste. Just imagine if military spending prioritized technology more likely to have civilian applications. Imagine spending less on widgets and armaments and more on military personnel themselves, investing in salaries, education, and training, all of which could benefit both them and the country when they transitioned out of the armed forces. Imagine more investment in better health care for active duty military personnel and for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Conservatives believe in military spending for creating jobs and economic growth, but other domestic spending, more in the spirit of the New Deal, would deliver many more jobs and far more growth. Imagine investing in teachers, doctors, nurses, general education, libraries, parks, the arts, or any sort of human or physical infrastructure. Imagine if military budgets had to be justified and weren't rubber-stamped, despite the staggering amounts of money involved. Even the most ambitious proposed domestic programs typically cost a small fraction of annual U.S. military spending. Imagine if public discussions of domestic programs (such as the recent "build back better" framework, or universal health care, or many other measures) discussed the benefits to the American public and the country and didn't focus almost exclusively on the cost. Imagine if the dynamics were flipped, and we could have rational and wise discussions of the U.S. budget and what the public really wanted and needed. For years, the Pentagon has been saying that climate change is a risk to national security. Imagine if some (or much more) of the current military spending was reallocated to fighting climate change and developing green energy. That would actually accomplish the Defense Department's supposed mission of protecting the country while providing a host of other benefits as well. The U.S. is not lacking for better policies and better choices. It's lacking in political will.

Bill Moyers once observed that "plutocracy and democracy don't mix." Unrestrained military spending and imperialism dovetail with plutocracy quite easily and dangerously, especially in the United States. Imperialism and democracy don't mix, either. Strengthening American democracy requires confronting right-wing extremism domestically. But it also requires confronting unchecked military spending and endless wars if we're going to avoid the graveyard of democracy.