DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Going rogue in combat boots
By William J Astore
The wars in distant lands were always going to come home, but not this way.
It's September 2016, year 15 of America's "Long War" against terror. As weary
troops return to the homeland, a bitter reality assails them: despite their
sacrifices, America is losing.
Iraq is increasingly hostile to remaining occupation forces. Afghanistan is a
riddle that remains unsolved: its army and police forces are untrustworthy, its
government corrupt, and its tribal leaders unsympathetic to the vagaries of US
intervention. Since the Obama surge of 2010, a trillion more dollars have been
devoted to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and other countries in the
vast shatter zone that is Central Asia, without measurable returns; nothing,
that is, except the prolongation of America's Great Recession, now entering its
tenth year without a sustained recovery in sight.
Disillusioned veterans are unable to find decent jobs in a crumbling economy.
Scarred by the physical and psychological violence of war, fed up with the
happy talk of duplicitous politicians who only speak of shared sacrifices, they
begin to organize. Their motto: take America back.
Meanwhile, a lame duck presidency, choking on foreign policy failures, finds
itself attacked even for its putative successes. Healthcare reform is now seen
to have combined the inefficiency and inconsistency of government with the
naked greed and exploitative talents of corporations. Medical rationing is a
fact of life confronting anyone on the high side of 50. Presidential rhetoric
that offered hope and change has lost all resonance. Mainstream media outlets
are discredited and disintegrating, resulting in new levels of information
Protest, whether electronic or in the streets, has become more common - and the
protesters in those streets increasingly carry guns, though as yet armed
violence is minimal. A panicked administration responds with overlapping
executive orders and legislation that is widely perceived as an attack on basic
Tapping the frustration of protesters - including a renascent and mainstreamed
"tea bag" movement - the former captains and sergeants, the ex-Central
Intelligence Agency operatives and out-of-work private mercenaries of the "war
on terror" take action. Conflict and confrontation they seek; laws and orders
they increasingly ignore. As riot police are deployed in the streets, they face
a grim choice: where to point their guns? Not at veterans, they decide, not at
America's erstwhile heroes.
A dwindling middle-class, still waving the flag and determined to keep its
sliver-sized portion of the American dream, throws its support to the
agitators. Wages shrinking, savings exhausted, bills rising, the sober middle
can no longer hold. It vents its fear and rage by calling for a decisive leader
and the overthrow of a can't-do congress.
Savvy members of traditional Washington elites are only too happy to oblige.
They, too, crave order and can-do decisiveness - on their terms. Where better
to find that than in the ranks of America's most respected institution: the
A retired senior officer who led America's heroes in Central Asia is anointed.
His creed: end public disorder, fight the war on terror to a victorious finish,
put America back on top. The United States, he says, is the land of winners,
and winners accept no substitute for victory. Nominated on September 11, 2016,
Patriot Day, he marches to an overwhelming victory that November, embraced in
the streets by an American version of the post-World War I German Freikorps and
the police who refuse to suppress them. A concerned minority is left to wonder
(and tremble) at the de facto military coup that occurred so quickly, and yet
so silently, in their midst.
It can happen here, unless we act
Yes, it can happen here. In some ways, it's already happening. But the key
question is: at this late date, how can it be stopped? Here are some vectors
for a change in course, and in mindset as well, if we are to avoid our own
1. Somehow, we need to begin to reverse the ongoing
militarization of this country, especially our ever-rising "defense" budgets.
The most recent of these, we've just learned, is a staggering US$708 billion
for fiscal year 2011 - and that doesn't even include the $33 billion President
Obama has requested for his latest surge in Afghanistan. We also need to get
rid of the idea that anyone who suggests even minor cuts in defense spending is
either hopelessly naive or a terrorist sympathizer. It's time as well to call a
halt to the privatization of military activity and so halt the rise of security
contractors like Xe (formerly Blackwater), thereby weakening the corporate
profit motive that supports and underpins the American version of perpetual
war. It's time to begin feeling chastened, not proud, that we're by far the
number one country in the world in arms manufacturing and the global arms
2. Let's downsize our global mission rather than endlessly
expanding our military footprint. It's time to have a military capable of
defending this country, not fighting endless wars in distant lands while
garrisoning the globe.
3. Let's stop paying attention to major TV and cable networks
that rely on retired senior military officers, most of whom have ties both to
the Pentagon and military contractors, for "unbiased" commentary on our wars.
If we insist on fighting our perpetual "frontier" wars, let's start insisting
as well that they be covered in all their bitter reality: the death, the
mayhem, the waste, the prisons, and the torture. Why is our war coverage
invariably sanitized to "PG [parental guidance]" or even "G," when we can go to
the movies anytime and see "R [restricted]" rated pornographic or violent
films? And by the way, it's time to be more critical of the government's and
the media's use of language and propaganda. Mindlessly parroting the Patriot
Act doesn't make you patriotic.
4. It's time to elect a president who doesn't surround himself
with senior "civilian" advisors and ambassadors who are actually retired
military generals and admirals, one who won't accept a Nobel Peace Prize by
defending war in theory and escalating it in practice.
5. Let's toughen up. Let's stop deferring to authority figures
who promise to "protect" us while abridging our rights. Let's stop bowing down
before men and women in uniform, before they start thinking that it's their
right to be worshipped and act accordingly.
6. Let's act now to relieve the sort of desperation bred by
joblessness and hopelessness that could lead many - notably male workers
suffering from the "He-Cession" - to see a militarized solution in "the
homeland" as a credible last resort. It's the economy, stupid, but with Main
Street's health, not Wall Street's, in our focus.
7. Let's take Sarah Palin and her followers seriously. They're
tapping into anger that's real and spreading. Don't let them become the voices
of the angry working (and increasingly unemployed) classes.
8. Recognize that we face real enemies in our world, the most
powerful of which aren't in distant Afghanistan or Yemen but here at home. The
essence of our struggle to sustain our faltering democracy should not be
against "terrorists," with their shoe and crotch bombs, but against various
powerful, perfectly legal groups here whose interests lie in a Pentagon that
only grows ever stronger.
9. Stop thinking the US is uniquely privileged. Don't take it on
faith that God is on our side. Forget about God blessing America. If you
believe in God, get out there and start trying to earn His blessing through
10. And, most important of all, remember that fear is the
mind-killer that makes militarism possible. Ramping up "terror" is an amazingly
effective way of shredding our constitution. Putting our "safety" above all
else is asking for trouble. The only way we'll be completely safe from the big
bad terrorists, after all, is when we're all living in a maximum security
state. Think of walking down the street while always being subject to a
That's my top 10 things we need to do. It's a daunting list and I'm sure you
have a few ideas of your own. But have faith. Ultimately, it all boils down to
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's words to a nation suffering through the Great
Depression: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. These words came to
mind recently as I read the following missive from a friend and World War II
veteran who's seen tough times:
It's very hard for me to accept how
soft the American people have become. In 1941, with the Western world under
assault by powerful and deadly forces, and a large armada of ships and planes
attacking us directly, I never heard a word of fear as we faced three powerful
nations as enemies. Sixteen million of us went into the military with the very
real possibility of death and I never once heard of fear, except from those
exposed to danger. Now, our people let [their leaders] terrify them into
accepting the destruction of our economy, our image in the world, and our
democracy ... All this over a small group of religious fanatics [mostly] from
Saudi Arabia whom we kowtow to so we can drive eight-cylinder SUVs. Pathetic!
How many times have I stood in 'security lines' at airports and when I
complained of the indignity of taking off shoes and not having water and the
manhandling of passengers, have well educated people smugly said to me, 'Well,
they're just keeping us safe.' I look at the airport bullshit as a training
ground to turn Americans into docile sheep in a totalitarian state.
A public conditioned to act like sheep, to "support our troops" no matter what,
to cower before the idea of terrorism, is a public ready to be herded. A
military that's being used to fight unwinnable wars is a military prone to
return home disaffected and with scores to settle.
Angry and desperate veterans and mercenaries already conditioned to violence,
merging with "tea baggers" and other alienated groups, could one day form our
own Freikorps units, rioting for violent solutions to national decline. Recall
that the Nazi movement ultimately succeeded in the early 1930s because so many
middle-class Germans were scared as they saw their wealth, standard of living,
and status all threatened by the Great Depression.
If our great recession continues, if decent jobs remain scarce, if the
mainstream media continue to foster fear and hatred, if returning troops are
disaffected and their leaders blame politicians for "not being tough enough,"
if one or two more terrorist attacks succeed on US soil, wouldn't this country
be well primed for a coup by any other name?
Don't expect a "Seven Days in May" scenario. No American Caesar will return to
Washington with his legions to decapitate governmental authority. Why not?
Because he won't have to.
As long as we continue to live in perpetual fear in an increasingly militarized
state, we establish the preconditions under which Americans will be nailed to,
and crucified on, a cross of iron.
William J Astore teaches history at the Pennsylvania College of
Technology (email@example.com). A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), he has also
taught at the US Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. A
TomDispatch regular, he is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German