We're Number One (in Self-Promotion)

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by Tom Engelhardt: The
Urge to Surge

Can you believe
that, in certain circles, support for obesity is becoming an American
birthright (as in "the freedom to be…") and a political
position?  Like various radio and TV shock jocks, Sarah Palin
been attacking
Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity initiative as yet
another example of "the nanny state run amok."  (It’s
enough to make you hyperventilate on the couch while watching "Law
and Order" reruns!)  Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Governor
Ed Rendell let
a blast at the National Football League for postponing
a Philadelphia-Minnesota game because of an upcoming blizzard. 
"We’re becoming a nation of wussies," he thundered. (It’s
enough to make you text and tweet up a storm from that same couch!) 

A question
arises: Doesn’t anybody have anything better to do?  I mean,
aren’t there a few more salient problems to attack in our American
world, like the decline
and fall
of just
everything?  Take the U.S. military, about which
– as TomDispatch
and retired Lieutenant Colonel William Astore points
out – American presidents (and the rest of our political crew)
can never say enough hyperbolically praiseworthy things.  Well,
bad times are supposed to be great for military recruitment. 
But even if a flood of gays and lesbians sign on as soon as Do-Ask-I’ll-Tell
official policy
, there are other long-term impediments to producing
an effective fighting force.

In April 2010,
for instance, a group of retired top brass and others released
a report
claiming that 27% of Americans between 17 and 24 are
"too fat to fight."  "Within
just 10 years
, the number of states reporting that 40 percent
of their 18- to 24-year-olds are obese or overweight went from one
[Kentucky] to 39."  No reason to focus on that, though. 
After all, it was so last year.

Just as the
year ended, however, the Education
issued a report indicating that nearly a quarter of all
applicants to the Armed Forces, despite having a high-school diploma,
the necessary military entrance exam.  This isn’t
Rhodes Scholarships we’re talking about, but not having "the
reading, mathematics, science, and problem-solving abilities"
to become a bona fide private in the U.S. Army.  We’re
talking the sort of basic that, according to an Education Trust
spokesperson, makes it "equally likely that the men and women
who don’t pass the test are [also] unprepared for the civilian workforce.”

Last month,
as if to emphasize the seriousness of the problem, Shanghai’s
came in number one in the Program for International
Student Assessment, a well-respected
given to 15-year-old students in 65 countries in reading,
science, and math skills.  U.S. students came in a glorious
17th in reading, 23rd in math, and 31st in science.  In today’s
dispatch, Astore asks whether the U.S. military is actually "the
finest fighting force in the history of the world." Then there’s
that other question: These days, can anyone call the United States
the finest nation in the world with a straight face?  The fattest? 
Maybe, though we’re behind various
Pacific island nations
for that honor.  The least well
educated?  Not yet, but heading that way.  Maybe it’s
time for Congress to launch a No-Nation-Left-Behind program –
for us.  Think about it while you’re eating those
Sarah Palin is plugging.  (To catch Timothy
MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Astore discusses
the military nightmares of a fading empire, click
or, to download it to your iPod, here.)
~ Tom

Fighters for a Fading Empire: What It Means When We Say We Have
the World’s Finest Fighting Force

By William
J. Astore

Words matter,
as candidate Barack Obama said
in the 2008 election campaign.  What to make, then, of President
Obama’s pep talk last month to U.S. troops in Afghanistan in which
he lauded
as "the finest fighting force that the world has ever
known"?  Certainly, he knew that those words would resonate
with the troops as well as with the folks back home.

In fact, this
sort of description of the U.S. military has become something of
a must for American presidents.  Obama’s predecessor George
W. Bush, for example, boasted of that military as alternately "the
greatest force
for freedom in the history of the world"
and "the
greatest force
for human liberation the world has ever known." 
Hyperbolic and self-promoting statements, to be sure, but undoubtedly
sincere, reflecting as they do an American sense of exceptionalism
that sits poorly with the increasingly interconnected world of the
twenty-first century.

I’m a retired
U.S. Air Force officer and a historian who teaches military history. 
The retired officer in me warms to the sentiment of our troops as
both unparalleled fighters and selfless liberators, but the historian
in me begs to differ.

Let’s start
with the fighting part of the equation.  Are we truly the world’s
greatest fighting force, not only at this moment, but as measured
against all militaries across history?  If so, on what basis
is this claim made?  And what does such triumphalist rhetoric
suggest not just about our national narcissism, but Washington’s
priorities?  Consider that no leading U.S. politician thinks
to boast that we have the finest educational system or health-care
system or environmental policies "that the world has ever known." 

Measured in
terms of sheer destructive power, and our ability to project that
power across the globe, the U.S. military is indeed the world’s
"finest" fighting force.  Our nuclear arsenal remains
second to none.  Our air forces (including the Navy’s carrier
task forces, the Army’s armada of helicopter gunships, and the CIA’s
fleet of unmanned aerial drones prosecuting a "secret"
war in Pakistan) dominate the heavens.  Our Navy ("a global
force for good," according to its new
) rules the waves – even more so than old Britannia
did a century ago.  And well should we rule the skies and seas,
given the roughly one trillion dollars a year we spend on achieving
our vision of "full spectrum dominance."

But this awesome
ability to exercise "global
reach, global power
" hardly makes us the finest military
force ever.  After all, "finest" shouldn’t be measured
by sheer strength and reach alone.  First and foremost, of
course, should come favorable results set against the quality of
the opponents bested.  To use a sports analogy, we wouldn’t
call the Pittsburgh Steelers "the finest team in NFL history"
simply because they annihilated Penn State in football.  Similarly,
we can’t measure the success of today’s U.S. military solely in
terms of amazingly quick (if increasingly costly and ultimately
dismal) "victories" over the Taliban in 2001 or Saddam
Hussein’s Iraqi forces in 2003.

To carry the
football analogy a few yards further, one might ask when our "finest
fighting force" had its last Super Bowl win.  Certainly,
1918 and 1945 (World Wars I and II) were such wins, even if as part
of larger coalitions; 1953 (Korea) was a frustrating stalemate;
1973 (Vietnam) was a demoralizing loss; 1991 (Desert Storm in Iraq)
was a distinctly flawed win; and efforts like Grenada or Panama
or Serbia were more like scrimmages.  Arguably our biggest
win, the Cold War, was achieved less through military means than
economic power and technological savvy.

To put it bluntly:
America’s troops are tough-minded professionals, but the finest
fighting force ever?  Sir, no, sir.

Number One!

Americans often
seem to live in the eternal now, which makes it easier to boast
that our military is the finest ever.  Most historians, however,
are not so tied to nationalistic rhetoric or the ceaseless present. 
If asked to identify the finest fighting force in history, my reaction
– and I would hardly be alone in the field – would be
to favor those peoples and empires which existed for war alone.

Examples immediately
spring to mind: the Assyrians, the Spartans, the Romans, the Vikings,
the Mongols, and the Nazis.  These peoples elevated their respective
militaries and martial prowess above all else.  Unsurprisingly,
they were bloodthirsty and ruthless.  Unstinting ambition for
imperial goals often drove them to remarkable feats of arms at an
unconscionable and sometimes difficult to sustain cost.  Yes,
the Spartans defeated the Athenians, but that internecine quarrel
paved the way for the demise of the independent Greek city states
at the hands of Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander (soon enough
to be known as "the Great"). 

Yes, the Romans
conquered an empire, but one of their own historians, Tacitus, put
in the mouth of a Celtic chieftain this description of being on
the receiving end of Roman "liberation":

“The Romans’
tyranny cannot be escaped by any act of reasonable submission. 
These brigands of the world have exhausted the land by their rapacity,
so they now ransack the sea.  When their enemy is rich, they
lust after wealth; when their enemy is poor, they lust after power. 
Neither East nor West has satisfied their hunger.  They are
unique among humanity insofar as they equally covet the rich and
the poor.  Robbery, butchery, and rapine they call ‘Empire.’ 
They create a desert and call it ‘Peace.'”

Talk about
tough love.

The Romans
would certainly have to be in the running for "finest military"
of all time.  They conquered many peoples, expanded far, and
garrisoned vast areas of the Mediterranean, North Africa, and what
would become Europe, while their legions marched forth, often to
victory (not to speak of plunder), for hundreds of years. 
Still, the gold medal for the largest land empire in history –
and the finest fighting force of all time – must surely go
to the thirteenth century Mongols. 

Led by Genghis
Khan and his successors, Mongol horsemen conquered China and the
Islamic world – the two most powerful, sophisticated civilizations
of their day – while also exerting control over Russia for
two and a half centuries.  And thanks to a combination of military
excellence, clever stratagem, fleetness of foot (and far more important,
hoof), flexibility, and when necessary utter ferocity, they did
all this while generally being outnumbered by their enemies.

Even the fighting
power of the finest militaries waxed and waned, however, based in
part on the quality of those leading them.  The Macedonians
blossomed under Philip and Alexander.  It was not simply Rome
that conquered Gaul, but Julius Caesar.  The Mongols were at
each other’s throats until Genghis Khan united them into an unstoppable
military machine that swept across a continent.  The revolutionary
French people in their famed levée en masse had
martial fervor, but only Napoleon gave them direction.  History’s
finest fighting forces are associated closely with history’s greatest

Measure that
against the American military today.  General David Petraeus
is certainly a successful officer who exhibits an enviable mastery
of detail and a powerful political sense of how to handle Washington,
but a Genghis Khan?  An Alexander?  A Caesar?  Even
as he’s been called both by admirers and more than
a few detractors, might blush at such comparisons.  After all,
at the head of the most powerfully destructive force in the Middle
East, and later Central Asia, he has won no outright victories and
conquered nothing.  His triumph in Iraq in 2006-2007 may yet
prove more "confected" than

As for our
armed forces, though most Americans don’t know it, within U.S. military
circles much criticism exists of an officer corps of "tarnished
that is deficient in professionalism; of generals
who are more concerned with covering
their butts
than leading from the front; of instruction at military
academies that is divorced
from war’s realities; of an aversion
"to innovation or creativity… [leading to] an atmosphere
of anti-intellectualism" that undermines strategy and makes
a hash of counterinsurgency efforts.  Indeed, our military’s
biting criticism of itself is one of the few positive signs in a
fighting force that is otherwise overstretched, deeply frustrated,
and ridiculously overpraised by genuflecting politicians.

So I’m sorry,
President Obama.  If you wish to address the finest fighting
force the world has ever known, you’ll need a time machine, not
Air Force One.  You’ll have to doff your leather Air Force-issue
and don Mongolian armor.  And in so doing, you’ll
have to embrace mental attitudes and a way of life utterly antithetical
to democracy and the rights of humanity as we understand them today.
  For that is the price of building a fighting force second
to none – and one reason why our politicians should stop insisting
that we have one.

Greatest Force for Human Liberation"

Two centuries
ago, Napoleon led his armies out of France and brought "liberty,
equality, and fraternity" to much of the rest of ancien
régime Europe – but on his terms and via the barrel
of a musket.  His invasion of Spain, for example, was viewed
as anything but a "liberation" by the Spanish, who launched
a fierce guerrilla campaign against their French occupiers that
sapped the strength of Napoleon’s empire and what was generally
considered the finest fighting force of its moment.  British
aid to the insurgency helped ensure that this campaign would become
Napoleon’s "Spanish

The "Little
Corporal" ultimately decided to indirectly strike back at the
British by invading Russia, which was refusing to enforce France’s
so-called continental blockade.  As Napoleon’s army bled out
or froze solid in the snows of a Russian winter, the Prussians and
the Austrians found new reasons to reject French "fraternity." 
Within years, Napoleon’s empire was unsaddled and destroyed, a fate
shared by its leader, sent into ignominious exile on the island
of Saint Helena.

Like Napoleon’s
fired up revolutionary troops, the American military also sees itself
as on a mission to spread democracy and freedom.  Afghans and
Iraqis have, however, proven no more eager than the Spaniards of
two centuries ago to be "liberated" at gun (or "Hellfire"
missile) point, even when the liberators come
bearing gifts,
which in today’s terms means the promise of roads, jobs, and "reconstruction,"
or even cash by
the pallet

Because we
Americans believe our own press releases, it’s difficult to imagine
others (except, of course, those so fanatic as to be blind to reality) seeing us as anything but well-intentioned liberators. 
As journalist Nir Rosen has put
: "There’s… a deep sense among people in the [American]
policy world, in the military, that we’re the good guys.  It’s
just taken for granted that what we’re doing must be right because
we’re doing it.  We’re the exceptional country, the essential
nation, and our role, our intervention, our presence is a benign
and beneficent thing."

In reporting
on our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Rosen and others
have offered ample proof for those who care to consider it that
our foreign interventions have been anything but benign or beneficent,
no less liberating.  Our invasion of Iraq opened the way to
civil war and mayhem.  For many ordinary Iraqis, when American
intervention didn’t lead to death, destruction, dislocation, and
exile, it bred "deep humiliation and disruption" as well
as constant fear, a state of affairs that, as Rosen notes, is "painful
and humiliating and scary."

In Afghanistan,
Rosen points out, most villagers see our troops making common cause
with a despised and predatory government.  Huge infusions of
American dollars, meanwhile, rarely trickle down to the village
level, but instead promote the interests
of Afghan warlords and foreign businesses.  Small wonder that,
more than nine years later, a majority of Afghans say
they want to be liberated from us.

If the U.S.
military is not "the greatest force for human liberation"
in all history, what is?  Revealingly, it’s far easier to identify
the finest fighting force of history.  If put on the
spot, though, I’d highlight the ideas and ideals of human dignity,
of equality before the law, of the fundamental value of each and
every individual, as the greatest force for human liberation. 
Such ideals are shared by many peoples.  They may sometimes
be defended by the sword, but were inscribed by the pens of great
moralists and thinkers of humanity’s collective past.  In this
sense, when it comes to advancing freedom, the pen has indeed been
mightier than the sword.

Fighters for a Fading Empire

The historian
John Lukacs once noted: "There are many things wrong with the
internationalist idea to Make the World Safe for Democracy, one
of them being that it is not that different from the nationalist
idea that What Is Good for America Is Good for the World."

In our post-9/11
world, whatever our rhetoric about democratizing the planet, our
ambitions are guided by the seemingly hardheaded goal of making
Americans safe from terrorists.  A global war on terrorism
has, however, proven anything but consistent with expanding liberty
at home or abroad.  Indeed, the seductive and self-congratulatory
narrative of our troops as selfless liberators and the finest freedom
fighters around actually helps blind us to our violent methods in
far-off lands, even as it distances us from the human costs of our
imperial policies.

we officially seek to extinguish terrorists, our actions abroad
serve as obvious accelerants to terror.  To understand why
this is so, ask yourself how comforted you would be if foreign military
"liberators" kicked
in your door
, shouted commands in a language you didn’t understand,
confiscated your guns, dragged your father and brothers and sons
off in cuffs and hoods to locations unknown, all in the name of
"counterterror" operations?  How comforted would
you be if remotely
piloted drones
hovered constantly overhead, ready to unleash
Hellfire missiles at terrorist "targets of opportunity"
in your neighborhood?

Better not
to contemplate such harsh realities.  Better to praise our
troops as so many Mahatma Gandhis, so many freedom fighters. 
Better to praise them as so many Genghis Khans, so many ultimate

At a time of
feared national
, our leaders undoubtedly prescribe military action in
part to comfort us (and themselves) and restore our sense of potency
and pride.  In doing so, they violate the famous phrase long
associated with the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

7, 2011

Engelhardt [send him mail]
of the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com, is the co-founder of
the American Empire
. His book, The
End of Victory Culture
, has recently been updated in a newly
issued edition. He edited, and his work appears in, the first best
of TomDispatch book, The
World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire

(Verso), an alternative history of the mad Bush years. His new book
is The
American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's
. William
J. Astore [send him mail],
a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is
a TomDispatch
.  To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast
audio interview in which Astore discusses the military nightmares
of a fading empire, click
or, to download it to your iPod, here.

Best of Tom Engelhardt

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