What would real ‘national defense’ look like?

The three maxims for a newly progressive Pentagon.

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SOURCETomDispatch
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A progressive Pentagon? Talk about an oxymoron! The Pentagon continues to grow and surge with ever larger budgets, ever more expansive missions (for example, a Space Force to dominate the heavens and yet more bases in the Pacific to encircle China), and ever greater ambitions to dominate everywhere, including if necessary through global thermonuclear warfare. No wonder it’s so hard, to the point of absurdity, to imagine a Pentagon that would humbly and faithfully serve only the interests of “national defense.”

Yet, as a thought experiment, why not imagine it? What would a progressive Pentagon look like? I’m not talking about a “woke” Pentagon that touts and celebrates its “diversity,” including its belated acceptance of LGBTQ+ members. I’m glad the Pentagon is arguably more diverse and tolerant now than when I served in the Air Force beginning in the early 1980s. Yet, as a popular meme has it, painting “Black Lives Matter” and rainbow flags on B-52 bombers doesn’t make the bombs dropped any less destructive. To be specific: Was it really a progressive milestone that the combat aircraft in last year’s Super Bowl flyover were operated and maintained entirely by female crews? Put differently, are the bullets and bombs of trans Black G.I. Jane somehow more tolerant and less deadly than cis White G.I. Joe’s?

A progressive military shouldn’t stop with “more Black faces in high places,” more female generals “leaning in” around conference tables, and similar so-called triumphs for diversity. Consider Lloyd Austin, the first Black secretary of defense, whose views and actions have been little different from those of former Defense Secretaries James Mattis or Donald Rumsfeld, and whose background as a retired Army four-star general and well-paid former board member of Raytheon makes him the very stereotype of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex.

No, all-female air crews aren’t nearly enough. Indeed, they are, I’d argue, a form of “woke” camouflage for a predatory military leopard that refuses to change its spots — or curb its appetite.

A truly progressive military should start with the fundamentals. All service members swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution, the system of laws that defines and enshrines our vital rights and freedoms (speech, a free press, the right to assemble, privacy, and so on); in short, the right to live untrammeled by domineering forces. Yet, almost by definition, that right is threatened, if not violated, by a massive military-industrial-congressional complex that penetrates nearly every domain of American life. That complex, after all, is anti-democratic, shrouded in secrecy, and jealous of its power, as well as fundamentally and profoundly anti-progressive. Indeed, it’s fundamentally and profoundly anti-truth.

Consider these hard facts. All too many Americans didn’t know how badly they’d been lied to about the Vietnam War until the Pentagon Papers emerged near the end of that disastrous conflict. All too many Americans didn’t know how badly they’d been lied to about the Afghan War until the Afghan War Papers emerged near the end of that disastrous conflict. All too many Americans didn’t know how badly they’d been lied to about the Iraq War until the myth of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (which had been part of the bogus rationale for invading that country) crumbled; nor did they know how badly they continued to be lied to until the myth of the American “surge” there collapsed when the Islamic State forces triumphed all too easily over an American-built Iraqi security structure that collapsed like a rotten house of cards. Perhaps some of them didn’t truly know until a loudmouthed Republican candidate for president, Donald J. Trump, dared to say that the Iraq War had been an unmitigated disaster, or, in Trump-speak, “a big fat mistake.” That burst of honesty helped him win the presidency in 2016. (His rival in that election, Hillary Clinton, remained essentially the chief spokesperson for the Pentagon.)

Yet despite the horrendous failures (and war crimes) of Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other U.S. military ventures of this century, no one is ever punished! Sure, you could point to Donald Rumsfeld being cashiered as secretary of defense amid the rubble of “the Global War on Terror,” a belated admission by the administration of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that the Iraq War was going poorly indeed. Still, all those cracks were later papered over with the myth of “the surge” and when Rumsfeld died in 2021, he would receive remarkably glowing tributes in obituaries, as well as bipartisan salutes for his “service” to America rather than condemnation for his numerous crimes and blunders.

The Pentagon’s rampant culture of dishonesty, a cancer that above all infects the brass, led one serving Army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling, to write a now-renowned (or, if you’re part of the Pentagon, infamous) paper for Armed Forces Journal in 2007 on America’s failure of generalship. As he memorably noted, a U.S. Army private suffered far more dearly for losing a rifle than America’s generals did for losing a war. The Army’s response was — no surprise — to change nothing, leading Yingling to retire early.

13 tasks for a progressive Pentagon

Venturing into the Pentagon’s innermost corridors of power, one might be excused for recalling Obi-Wan Kenobi’s warning to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars as they approached the spaceport of Mos Eisley: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.”

How does one possibly reform such a top-heavy, self-serving, and dishonest institution along progressive lines? A moment in Greek mythology comes to mind: Hercules and the Augean Stables. Let me nevertheless press ahead with this all too herculean task.

Dreaming is free, as Blondie once sang, so why not dream a little dream with me? Here’s a list — a baker’s dozen, in fact — of ways a progressive Pentagon would both exist and act far differently from America’s current regressive (and very, very aggressive) version of the same.

A progressive Pentagon would:

* Take the lead in working to eliminate all nuclear weapons everywhere — that is, total nuclear disarmament — rather than investing vast sums in the coming decades in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It would disavow using nuclear weapons first (“no first use”) in any conflict. It would cancel all plans to “modernize” the current nuclear triad of missiles, planes, and submarines at an estimated cost of $2 trillion. It would also immediately eliminate obsolete and vulnerable land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs, and cancel as redundant the Air Force’s new B-21 stealth bomber.

* Oppose sending any more of those devastating cluster munitions or depleted uranium tank shells to Ukraine; indeed, it would take the lead in eliminating such awful weaponry.

* Stop inflating threats and end all talk of a “new Cold War” with China and Russia.

* Celebrate the insights of Generals Smedley Butler and Dwight D. Eisenhower that war is fundamentally a racket (Butler) and that the military-industrial-congressional complex poses the severest of threats to freedom and democracy in America (President Eisenhower).

* Reject the language of militarism, including describing its troops as “warriors” and “warfighters,” as profoundly undemocratic and un-American.

* Recognize the costs of wars already fought to those troops and ensure full funding of the Department of Veterans Affairs, including for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and moral injuries, among the other wounds of war.

* End the war on terror, launched just after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and urge Congress to repeal the open-ended war authorization it passed then with but a single dissenting vote, because war itself is terror.

* Refuse to go to war unless there’s a formal congressional declaration of the same as the Constitution demands. If the United States had followed that rule, the last war we would have fought was World War II.

* Reject its present culture of secrecy as profoundly counterproductive to success not just in war but in general. That doesn’t mean, of course, sharing specific battle plans (of which there should be far fewer) or detailed information about weaponry with potential enemies. It does mean a willingness to speak truth to the American people, whose support would be needed to prosecute any genuinely necessary war, assuming there even is such a thing.

* Embrace honor and integrity including a willingness of the U.S. military to fall on its own sword — that is, take genuine responsibility for both its deeds and its misdeeds.

* Recognize that one cannot serve both a republic and an empire, that a choice must be made, and that a Pentagon of the present kind in a genuine republic would voluntarily downsize itself, while largely dismantling its imperial infrastructure of perhaps 800 overseas bases.

* Lead the way in demilitarizing space, including eliminating America’s fledgling Space Force and its “guardians.”

* Clearly acknowledge that large, standing militaries and constant wars, as well as preparations for more of the same, are corrosive to democracy, liberty, and the Constitution, as America’s founders recognized.

Imagine that! A progressive Pentagon of peace rather than a regressive one of power and unending warfare. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

Three maxims for a progressive Pentagon

Careful readers won’t be surprised to learn that I was an early Star Wars fan. Naturally, I rooted for the underdog rebels against the evil empire and its henchman, Darth Vader. I saw myself as a potential Jedi Knight, wielding an elegant weapon, a protector of freedom and the republic. (In my defense, I was 14 years old in 1977 when I first saw Star Wars.)

Then, in 1980, I watched The Empire Strikes Back, just as I was pursuing an Air Force ROTC scholarship for college. I heard Yoda, the Jedi master, declare to Luke that “wars not make one great.” That pearl of wisdom floored me then and continues to inform my life.

I’ve read my share of “heavy” philosophy and have the academic credentials to pose as a “serious” enough thinker. Yet I come back to the homespun wisdom captured in certain movies and TV shows that still carries weight for me. Let me share bits of such wisdom with you.

The first is from Kung Fu, the 1970s TV series starring David Carradine. As a young Kwai Chang Caine meets Master Po for the first time, he is astonished to discover that his master is blind. He takes pity on Po, suggesting that his life must be one of endless darkness. Master Po instantly corrects him. “Fear,” he says, “is the only darkness.”

The second is from The Outlaw Josey Wales, a classic western starring Clint Eastwood, also from the 1970s. Josey Wales is a renegade, a wanted man who leaves dead bodies in his wake wherever he travels. Yet he’s also tired of killing, a man in search of peace. In a moving scene, he negotiates just such a peace with Ten Bears, a Comanche chief, saying that there must be a way for people to live together without butchering one another, without constant bloodletting, without race-based hatreds.

A progressive Pentagon would recognize the deep truth of those three maxims: that wars not make one great, that fear is the only darkness, and that there’s a better way for people to live together than constantly butchering one another.

As a Catholic youth, I was taught that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. Today, I’d put that differently. The beginning of wisdom is the quest to master one’s fear, the urge to turn away from fear-driven hatreds, to find better, more pacific, more loving ways.

At the core of the original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas implanted a message that anger, fear, aggression, and violence — the “dark side” of the Force, as he put it — should be resisted. As Darth Vader confesses to Luke, the power of that dark side is nearly irresistible. Fear and related negative emotions, eerily seductive as they are, can consume our minds (and, as it turns out, given the Pentagon budget, our taxpayer dollars as well).

Too many Americans are prey to the dark side, allowing fear to be the mind-killer. It’s not entirely our fault. From the end of World War II until this very moment, we’ve been told time and again to fear — and fear some more. Fear the communists in Korea and Vietnam. Fear Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Fear Russia and its Hitleresque leader, Vladimir Putin. Fear China and its growing authoritarian power. Closer to home, we’re even now regularly told to fear our neighbors, MAGA or “woke,” depending on your “blue” or “red” team allegiance.

In truth, though, fear is the true darkness. You shouldn’t have to be a Jedi master to know that wars not make one great, that the darkness of fear (and arming ourselves against it) is a path to hell, and that people could indeed live together without eternally slaughtering one another. Those, then, would be my three maxims for a newly progressive Pentagon.

To echo the words of Steven Tyler of Aerosmith: Dream until your dreams come true.

Read Tom Engelhardt’s response here.

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