America’s Phony War

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Blitzkrieg Overseas, Sitzkrieg in the Homeland
By William J. Astore

Overseas, the United States is engaged in real wars in which bombs are dropped, missiles are launched, and people (generally not Americans) are killed, wounded, uprooted, and displaced. Yet here at home, there’s nothing real about those wars.  Here, it’s phony war all the way. In the last 17 years of “forever war,” this nation hasn’t for one second been mobilized. Taxes are being cut instead of raised.  Wartime rationing is a faint memory from the World War II era.  No one is being required to sacrifice a thing.

Now, ask yourself a simple question: What sort of war requires no sacrifice?  What sort of war requires that almost no one in the country waging it take the slightest notice of it?
America’s conflicts in distant lands rumble on, even as individual attacks flash like lightning in our news feeds.  “Shock and awe” campaigns in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, initially celebrated as decisive and game changing, ultimately led nowhere.

Various “surges” produced much sound and fury, but missions were left decidedly unaccomplished.  More recent strikes by the Trump administration against a Syrian air base or the first use of the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal, the MOAB super-bomb, in Afghanistan flared brightly, only to fizzle even more quickly.

These versions of the German blitzkrieg-style attacks of World War II have been lightning assaults that promised much but in the end delivered little.  As these flashes of violence send America’s enemies of the moment (and nearby civilians) to early graves, the homeland (that’s us) slumbers.  Sounds of war, if heard at all, come from TV or video screens or Hollywood films in local multiplexes.
We are, in fact, kept isolated from Washington’s wars, even as America’s warriors traverse a remarkable expanse of the globe, from the Philippines through the Greater Middle East deep into Africa.  As conflicts flare and sputter, ramp up and down and up again, Americans have been placed in a form of behavioral lockdown.  Little more is expected of us than to be taxpaying spectators or, when it comes to the U.S. military, starry-eyed cheerleaders.  Most of the time, those conflicts are not just out of sight, but meant to be out of mind as well.

Rare exceptions are moments when our government asks us to mourn U.S. service members like Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, killed in an abortive raid President Trump ordered in Yemen in early 2017 in which children also died (though that was something just about no one here even noticed).  While the military has been deploying and striking on a global scale, we’ve been told from the very first moments of Washington’s self-proclaimed war on terror to go shopping or to Disney World and let the experts handle it.

We have, in short, been sidelined in what, to draw on the lexicon of World War II, might be thought of as a sitzkrieg, the German term for phony war.

A bizarre version of blitzkrieg overseas and an even stranger version of sitzkrieg at home could be said to define this peculiar American moment.  These two versions exist in a curiously yin-yang relationship to each other.  For how can a nation’s military be engaged in warfare at a near-global level — blitzing people across vast swaths of the globe — when its citizens are sitting on their collective duffs, demobilized and mentally disarmed?  Such a schizoid state of mind can exist only when it’s in the interest of those in power.

Appeals to “patriotism” (especially to revering “our” troops) and an overwhelming atmosphere of secrecy to preserve American “safety” and “security” have been remarkably effective in controlling and stifling interest in the country’s wars and their costs, long before such an interest might morph into dissent or opposition.  If you want an image of just how effective this has been, recall the moment in July 2016 when small numbers of earnest war protesters quite literally had the lights turned off on them at the Democratic National Convention.

To use an expression I heard more than a few times in my years in the military, when it comes to its wars, the government treats the people like mushrooms, keeping them in the dark and feeding them bullshit.

The Fog of Phony War

Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously spoke of the “fog of war,” the confusion created by and inherent uncertainty built into that complex human endeavor.  As thick as that fog often is, in these years the fog of phony war has proven even thicker and more disorienting.

By its very nature, a real war of necessity, of survival, like the Civil War or World War II brings with it clarity of purpose and a demand for results.  Poorly performing leaders are relieved of command when not killed outright in combat.  Consider the number of mediocre Union generals Abraham Lincoln cycled through before he found Ulysses S. Grant.

Consider the number of senior officers relieved during World War II by General George C. Marshall, who knew that, in a global struggle against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, subpar performances couldn’t be tolerated.  In wars of necessity or survival, moreover, the people are invariably involved.  In part, they may have little choice, but they also know (or at least believe they know) “why we fight” — and generally approve of it.

Admittedly, even in wars of necessity there are always those who will find ways to duck service. In the Civil War, for example, the rich could pay others to fight in their place.  But typically in such wars, everyone serves in some capacity. Necessity demands it.

The definition of twenty-first-century phony war, on the other hand, is its lack of clarity, its lack of purpose, its lack of any true imperative for national survival (despite a never-ending hysteria over the “terrorist threat”).  The fog it produces is especially disorienting.  Americans today have little idea “why we fight” other than a vague sense of fighting them over there (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Niger, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, etc.) so they won’t kill us here, to cite George W. Bush’s rationale for launching the war on terror.

Meanwhile, with such a lack of national involvement and accountability, there’s no pressure for the Pentagon or the rest of the national security state to up its game; there’s no one even to point out that wherever the U.S. military has gone into battle in these years, yet more terror groups have subsequently sprouted like so many malignant weeds.  Bureaucracy and mediocrity go unchallenged; massive boosts in military spending reward incompetency and the creation of a series of quagmire-like “generational” wars.

Think of it as war on a Möbius strip.  More money shoveled into the Pentagon brings more chaos overseas, more imperial overreach, and undoubtedly more blowback here at home, all witnessed — or rather largely ignored — by a sitzkrieg citizenry.

Of course, for those fighting the wars, they are anything but phony.  It’s just that their experience remains largely isolated from that of the rest of us, an isolation that only serves to elevate post-traumatic stress disorder rates, suicides, and the like.  When today’s troops come home, they generally suffer in silence and among themselves.

America’s New (Phony) National Defense Strategy

Even phony wars need enemies.  In fact, they may need them more (and more of them) than real wars do.  No surprise then that the Trump administration’s recently announced National Defense Strategy (NDS) offers a laundry list of such enemies.  China and Russia top it as “revisionist powers” looking to reverse America’s putative victory over Communism in the Cold War.

“Rogue” powers like North Korea and Iran are singled out as especially dangerous because of their nuclear ambitions.  (The United States, of course, doesn’t have a “rogue” bone in its body, even if it is now devoting at least $1.2 trillion to building a new generation of more usable nuclear weapons.)  Nor does the NDS neglect Washington’s need to hammer away at global terrorists until the end of time or to extend “full-spectrum dominance” not just to the traditional realms of combat (land, sea, and air) but also to space and cyberspace.

Amid such a plethora of enemies, only one thing is missing in America’s new defense strategy, the very thing that’s been missing all these years, that makes twenty-first-century American war so phony: any sense of national mobilization and shared sacrifice (or its opposite, antiwar resistance).  If the United States truly faces all these existential threats to our democracy and our way of life, what are we doing frittering away more than $45 billion annually in a quagmire war in Afghanistan?  What are we doing spending staggering sums on exotic weaponry like the F-35 jet fighter (total projected program cost: $1.45 trillion) when we have far more pressing national needs to deal with?

Like so much else in Washington in these years, the NDS doesn’t represent a strategy for real war, only a call for more of the same raised to a higher power.  That mainly means more money for the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and related “defense” agencies, facilitating more blitz attacks on various enemies overseas.  The formula — serial blitzkrieg abroad, serial sitzkrieg in the homeland — adds up to victory, but only for the military-industrial complex.

Solutions to Sitzkrieg

Of course, one solution to phony war would be to engage in real war, but for that the famed American way of life would actually have to be endangered.  (By Afghans?  Syrians? Iraqis? Yemenis?  Really?)  Congress would then have to declare war; the public would have to be mobilized, a draft undoubtedly reinstated, and taxes raised.  And those would be just for starters.  A clear strategy would have to be defined and losing generals demoted or dismissed.

Who could imagine such an approach when it comes to America’s forever wars?  Another solution to phony war would be for the American people to actually start paying attention.  The Pentagon would then have to be starved of funds. (With less money, admirals and generals might actually have to think.)  All those attacks overseas that blitzed innocents and spread chaos would have to end.  Here at home, the cheerleaders would have to put down the pom-poms, stop mindlessly praising the troops for their service, and pick up a few protest signs.

In point of fact, America’s all-too-real wars overseas aren’t likely to end until the phony war here at home is dispatched to oblivion.

A final thought: Americans tell pollsters that, after all these years of failed wars abroad, they continue to trust the military more than any other societal institution.  Consistent with phony war, however, much of that trust is based on ignorance, on not really knowing what that military is doing overseas.  So, is there a chance that, one of these days, Americans might actually begin to pay some attention to “their” wars?  And if so, would those polls begin to change and how might that military, which has experienced its share of blood, sweat, and tears, respond to such a loss of societal prestige?  Beware the anger of the legions.

Faith in institutions undergirds democracy.  Keeping the people deliberately demobilized and in the dark about the costs and carnage of America’s wars follows a pattern of governmental lying and deceit that stretches from the Vietnam War to the Iraq Wars of 1991 and 2003, to military operations in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere today.  Systemic lies and the phony war that goes with them continue to contribute to a slow-motion process of political and social disintegration that could result in a much grimmer future for this country: perhaps an authoritarian one; certainly, a more chaotic and less democratic one.

Societal degradation and democratic implosion, caused in part by endless phony war and the lies associated with it, are this country’s real existential enemies, even if you can’t find them listed in any National Defense Strategy.  Indeed, the price tag for America’s wars may in the end prove not just heavy but catastrophic.

Finkelstein on Gaza: Who or What Has a Right to Exist?

“The significance of Israel’s functional character is that colonialism created it in order to fill a specific role; it is a colonialist project that is not connected to Judaism, but made use of the Jews so they would serve as pawns, and they were, under the motto ‘the Promised Land’ and ‘the Beloved Land,’ and they brought them here”…
[Official PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Jan. 15, 2018

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni “audaciously declared in the midst of Cast Lead that ‘no humanitarian crisis’ existed in Gaza. UNRWA director described what was obvious from eyewitness photographs and newscasts: “‘We have a catastrophe unfolding in Gaza for the civilian population…. They’re trapped, they’re traumatized, they’re terrorized.” What was also obvious was that Israel systematically targeted Gaza’s civilian infrastructure. 1400 civilians were killed, including 350 children. Amnesty International and the Goldstone Report established that Israeli soldiers, not Hamas, used civilians as human shields.

 The book primarily investigates the official reports about Operation Cast Lead (2008-09), the Mavi Marmara (2010), and Operation Protective Edge (2014). Finkelstein attributes these assaults in part to Israel’s intention to prove its deterrence capacity after its defeat by Hezbollah in 2006. A pattern emerges of Israel’s surreptitious provocations that conceal its own aggression, use of disproportionate military force and targeting of civilians, specious legality, and lies that exonerate Israel and permit ever-increasing brutality. The Dahiya doctrine refers to Israel’s military strategy of acting immediately, decisively, and with disproportionate force.

 Dahiya is a suburb of Beirut that was flattened by Israel in the 2006 war. Operation Cast Lead was preceded by Israeli assaults that destroyed Gaza’s infrastructure, cruelly named 2004 Operation Rainbow, 2004 Operation Days of Penitence, 2006 Operation Summer Rains and Autumn Clouds, 2008 Operation Hot Winter. After the democratic election of Hamas in 2005, Israel imposed a punishing blockade which UN Special Rapporteur John Dugard noted was the first time an occupied people were subject to sanctions and that were a violation of major UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions and a ruling by the International Court of Justice.

 Israel attacked a civilian population imprisoned within its territory and already decimated by a ruined economy. Israel attacked Gaza with the most advanced combat aircraft in the world, flying nearly 3000 sorties and dropping 1000 tons of explosives. The U.S. Senate unanimously supported the attack and the House vote was 390 to 5. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman “joined the chorus of hallelujahs during Cast Lead” and expressed hope that Israel would “’educate’ Hamas by inflicting a heavy death toll on Hamas militants and heavy pain on the Gaza population.”

 Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni “audaciously declared in the midst of Cast Lead that ‘no humanitarian crisis’ existed in Gaza. UNRWA director described what was obvious from eyewitness photographs and newscasts: “‘We have a catastrophe unfolding in Gaza for the civilian population…. They’re trapped, they’re traumatized, they’re terrorized.” What was also obvious was that Israel systematically targeted Gaza’s civilian infrastructure. 1400 civilians were killed, including 350 children. Amnesty International and the Goldstone Report established that Israeli soldiers, not Hamas, used civilians as human shields.

 The Goldstone Report found that much of the devastation was premeditated and anchored in a military doctrine. The Report stated that the assault constituted “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population….” The Report also paid tribute to “the resilience and dignity of the Gazan people.” It recommended that individual states “start criminal investigations in national courts, using universal jurisdiction….” It noted Israel’s “seemingly deliberate cruelty” to children. On April 1, 2011, Goldstone disowned the “devastating UN report of Israeli crimes carrying his name.”

 The gist of his recantation was that Israel did not commit war crimes and that it was fully capable of investigating violations of international law. The other three investigators issued a statement unequivocally affirming the Report’s original findings. Finkelstein goes into considerable detail about Goldstone’s recantation which essentially legitimized Israel’s alibis: that Israel does not target civilians but those civilian casualties were due to error or were collateral to targeting militants, and that its grossly disproportionate destructiveness was justified self-defense. An explosion from an Israeli airstrike is seen in Rafah, in the densly populated Gaza Strip.

 An explosion from an Israeli airstrike is seen in Rafah, in the densly populated Gaza Strip. Goldstone attributed his recantation to a drone photograph of the Al-Samouni family compound that Israel offered as evidence 22 months after the massacre of 29 family members. Several family members were actually gathering firewood but the blurry photograph purported to show that they were carrying rocket launchers. Israeli soldiers based close to the house had even warned the commanding officer, Colonel Malka, that the Al-Samounis were civilians. The Israeli investigation claimed that the massacre was just a “simple mistake.”

 From his investigations, Goldstone also knew well from soldiers’ testimonies that they had license to go “crazy”, “lunatic”, “insane”, “to destroy everything in its way” and “ kill everything that moves.” John Dugard, previous UN Special Rapporteur, adjudged that “there are no new facts that exonerate Israel and that could possibly have led Goldstone to change his mind.”

Finkelstein’s verdict: “In one fell swoop, Goldstone inflicted irreparable damage on the cause of truth and justice and the rule of law….He poisoned Jewish-Palestinian relations, undermined the courageous work of Israeli dissenters, ‘and – most unforgivably – increased the risk of another merciless IDF assault. … the singular distinction of Goldstone’s recantation was that it renewed Israel’s license to kill.”

 Israel’s killing of nine passengers on the Mavi Marmara, part of the Gaza flotilla to break the blockade of Gaza, followed the same pattern of previous assaults: Israel characterized their victims as terrorists; the pre-planned attack by Israeli commandos was vastly disproportionate. The commandos opened fire on the unarmed passengers with tear gas, smoke and stun grenades, and live ammunition.

Israel appointed Jacob Turkel, a former Israeli Supreme Court justice, to chair Israel’s investigation, and UN Secretary General Ban K-Moon appointed the corrupt and criminal Colombian president Alvaro Uribe to chair a UN Panel. According to the official investigations, the “shaheeds” armed themselves to kill Israelis but did not manage to kill even those in their custody, whereas the Israelis took “every precaution and exercised every restraint not to kill anyone but ended up killing nine people.”

 The UN Report invented a novel legal fiction by differentiating the land and sea blockades as if boats are for smuggling weapons, thereby justifying the naval blockade and attack on the Mavi Marmara. “It must be a first … that a report bearing its [UN] imprimatur vilified the victims of a murderous assault because they sought to cast light on an ongoing crime against humanity.”

Operation Protective Edge was the deadliest massacre. Again, Israel provoked and opportunistically seized a timely opportunity to attack. Israel assassinated Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari and exacerbated Israeli racism and paranoia through its concealing facts about the killing of three settlement youth. Arab Spring had turned into Arab Winter, with Egypt again closing the Gaza border.

 The 2014 downing of the Malaysian plane conveniently deflected attention from Israel, and Israel bombed Gaza hours later. The disproportion is self-evident. Hamas killed 73 Israelis of whom only 8% were civilians while Israel killed 2200 Gazans of whom fully 70% were civilians. Israel killed 550 [recent figure is 556] children, and Hamas killed one Israeli child. The ratio of civilian dwellings destroyed was 18,000:1. As well, Israel again destroyed vital infrastructure, leaving Gazans without electrical power, potable water, medical care. Finkelstein dissects the major investigative reports.

 Both the Amnesty and the UN Human Rights Council investigations of Operation Protective Edge refused to accuse Israel of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity or of violating the UN Charter or the Geneva Conventions. These reports appallingly presumed an equivalence of suffering by Gazans and by Israeli Jews. Joining in this whitewash were UNICEF, the Lancet medical journal editor Dr. Richard Horton, Jacques de Maio of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and International Criminal Court former chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo who heaped praise on israel’s respect for the “rule of law.”

 The International Court of Justice which had previously declared the settlements illegal, evasively claimed that Protective Edge was “highly complicated”, to which Finkelstein asks “where the complication lay: was it when Israel dropped 100 one-ton bombs on Shja’iya or when it indiscriminately fired 20,000 high-explosive artillery shells in densely populated civilian areas?” These investigations bought into Israel’s claims that it only targeted “militants”. Finkelstein commented: “On this evidentiary standard, Amnesty couldn’t find that Israel had committed a war crime unless and until Israel acknowledged its commission .” Amnesty accepted Israel’s internal investigation which “found that the attacks had been carried out in accordance with international law.”

 The UNHCR even accepted Israel’s alibis about the killing of 18 people at the UNRWA Beit Hanoun School. Finkelstein: Israel did not take “all feasible precautions to protect civilians, even though it did take all feasible precautions to set them up for a bloodbath.” A United Nations aid agency car lies destroyed by shrapnel from an Israeli strike in the Jebaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, July 29, 2014. A United Nations aid agency car lies destroyed from an Israeli airstrike in the Jebaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, July 29, 2014. (AP Photo) Both Freud and Marx explored the distortions of thinking in which abstractions are treated as material or animistic things, an observation that appears to be lost in much political discourse.

 The most egregious examples are that the “state” and “corporations” or even the “planet” have a “right to exist” while people do not. Finkelstein’s inquest concerns depraved individual behavior made credible and enforceable in association with abstract powerful institutions. Israel’s vicious massacres are hardly the first. Post Cold War, the U.S.’ 1991 bombing of Baghdad, the ensuing UN sanctions leading to ½ million child deaths, and the sieges of Fallujah were among many other atrocities showing that it is easy to get away with murder.

 What are the forces from within and without that protest collusion with murder? Some institutions (always created by people and made up of people) are inherently and historically destructive to human life, like the military, corporations and a range of financial institutions, and perhaps the UN Security Council, while other institutions have an uneven record or are modifiable. In today’s world, states must be assessed in terms of the deaths they cause or facilitate inside and outside their borders.

 Similarly, the humanitarian organizations investigated by Finkelstein necessitate this kind of standard. Amnesty and the UNHRC are cases in point. Astonishingly, Saudi Arabia remains chair of the UNHRC. In 2012 Suzanne Nossel was named chair of AIUSA. On Nossel’s watch, child murder justifier Madeleine Albright gave the keynote address to the AIUSA AGM in 2012. Maximilian Forte, author of Slouching towards Sirte: Nato’s War on Libya and Africa, reported that In her State Department job, Nossel had played a key role drawing up the UN Human Rights Council resolution that ultimately formed the basis for Security Council Resolution 1973 that led to the NATO intervention in Libya.

Amnesty had also credited the unfounded reports about Iraq and the incubator babies that was used to justify the devastating 1991 war. Was there dissent within Amnesty? Have there been retractions or admissions of guilt and of responsibility for complicity in so many deaths? The good work of Amnesty then serves to lend credibility to its disastrous positions.
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