Back in 2007, in his first piece for TomDispatch, retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and historian William Astore focused on the proliferation of self-congratulatory ribbons and medals on the chests of America’s generals. Here, for instance, was General David Petraeus at that time — and keep in mind that, before he commanded the 101st Airborne Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he had never even been to war. As Astore put it then, “I counted nine rows [of ribbons] on Petraeus’ left breast during his Congressional hearings. If they were a valid metric across time, he would be roughly thrice as capable and valorous as George C. Marshall, perhaps America’s greatest soldier-statesman, who somehow ran and won a world war while wearing only three rows of ribbons.” And, by the way, those nine rows weren’t even the sum total of the decorations on that uniform.
In other words, only six years into Washington’s disastrous post-9/11 wars, our losing generals were already treating themselves like minor deities from Olympus. In the ensuing years, much was written about evangelical Christianity and its role in supporting a twice-divorced, pussy-grabbing, religion-dismissing, profane salesman and bankruptee in the Oval Office, but remarkably little about the fervor of those who might be considered the truest evangelicals of our moment: America’s military high command and the Pentagon officials who were part and parcel of their world.
They were, of course, evangelists for a religion that Congress has subscribed to as well with remarkable unanimity, not to say staggering fervor. No matter that its god (about whom Astore will tell you momentarily) continues to suck up trillions of dollars in tithes from the American people as if there were no end to such funds. And mind you, despite all that dough and all those medals on all those chests, the Pentagon couldn’t keep a single promise it made globally when it came to its supposedly singular “skill”: making war. Think of those bemedaled generals then as evangelicals for a faith that couldn’t deliver, big-time — evangelists, in short, for an empire going down, down, down. Now, check out TomDispatch regular Astore, who also runs the Bracing Views blog, on this country’s true god. Tom
The Pentagon as Pentagod
America’s Abyss of Weapons and Warmaking
Who is America’s god? The Christian god of the beatitudes, the one who healed the sick, helped the poor, and preached love of neighbor? Not in these (dis)United States. In the Pledge of Allegiance, we speak proudly of One Nation under God, but in the aggregate, this country doesn’t serve or worship Jesus Christ, or Allah, or any other god of justice and mercy. In truth, the deity America believes in is the five-sided one headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.
In God We Trust is on all our coins. But, again, which god? The one of “turn the other cheek”? The one who found his disciples among society’s outcasts? The one who wanted nothing to do with moneychangers or swords? As Joe Biden might say, give me a break.
America’s true god is a deity of wrath, whose keenest followers profit mightily from war and see such gains as virtuous, while its most militant disciples, a crew of losing generals and failed Washington officials, routinely employ murderous violence across the globe. It contains multitudes, its name is legion, but if this deity must have one name, citing a need for some restraint, let it be known as the Pentagod.
Yes, the Pentagon is America’s true god. Consider that the Biden administration requested a whopping $753 billion for military spending in fiscal year 2022 even as the Afghan War was cratering. Consider that the House Armed Services Committee then boosted that blockbuster budget to $778 billion in September. Twenty-five billion dollars extra for “defense,” hardly debated, easily passed, with strong bipartisan support in Congress. How else, if not religious belief, to explain this, despite the Pentagod’s prodigal $8 trillion wars over the last two decades that ended so disastrously? How else to account for future budget projections showing that all-American deity getting another $8 trillion or so over the next decade, even as the political parties fight like rabid dogs over roughly 15% of that figure for much-needed domestic improvements?
Paraphrasing Joe Biden, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you worship. In that context, there can’t be the slightest doubt: America worships its Pentagod and the weapons and wars that feed it.
Prefabricated War, Made in the U.S.A.
I confess that I’m floored by this simple fact: for two decades in which “forever war” has served as an apt descriptor of America’s true state of the union, the Pentagod has failed to deliver on any of its promises. Iraq and Afghanistan? Just the most obvious of a series of war-on-terror quagmires and failures galore.
That ultimate deity can’t even pass a simple financial audit to account for what it does with those endless funds shoved its way, yet our representatives in Washington keep doing so by the trillions. Spectacular failure after spectacular failure and yet that all-American god just rolls on, seemingly unstoppable, unquenchable, rarely questioned, never penalized, always on top.
Talk about blind faith!
The Pentagod advances a peculiar form of war, one that would puzzle most classic military strategists. In fact, its version of war is beyond strategy of the Clausewitzian sort. I think of it as prefabricated war, borrowing a term from the inestimable Ann Jones’s recent piece for TomDispatch on our Afghan disaster. It’s a term pregnant with meaning.
Prefabricated war is how the Pentagod has ruled for so endlessly long. There is, as a start, the fabrication of false causes for war. In Vietnam, it was the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the “attacks” on U.S. Navy ships that never happened. In Afghanistan, it was vengeance for the 9/11 attacks against a people who neither planned nor committed them. In Iraq, it was the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein didn’t have. Real causes don’t matter much to America’s war god since false ones can always be fabricated, after which enough true believers — especially in Congress — will embrace them fervently and faithfully.
But prefabricated war doesn’t just start with or consist of manufactured causes. It’s fabricated far ahead of time in a colossal cathedral of violence — President Eisenhower’s military-industrial-congressional complex — that sends its missionaries and minions around the planet on a mission of global reach, global power, and full-spectrum dominance. War is prefabricated on 750 military bases scattered across the globe on every continent except Antarctica, in America’s giant arms corporations like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, and by Special Operations forces that act much like the Jesuits of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, spreading the one true faith to 150 countries.
Since America’s war god is also a jealous deity, it insists on dominating all domains — not just land, sea, and air but space as well. Even more ethereal realms like cyberspace and virtual/augmented realities must be captured and controlled. It seeks omnipotence and omniscience in the name of your safety and, if you let it, will also know everything about you, while having the power to smite you, should you stop blindly worshipping it and feeding it more money.
Yet, as strong as it may be, its urge to fabricate threats and exaggerate vulnerabilities never ends. China and Russia are allegedly the biggest threats of the moment, two “near-peer” rivals supposedly driving a new cold war. China, for example, now reportedly has a navy of 355 ships, an ostensibly alarming development (even if those vessels are nowhere near as powerful as their American equivalents). That naturally requires yet more shipbuilding by the U.S. Navy.
Russia may have an economy that’s smaller than California’s, but it’s allegedly leading in hypersonic missile development (and China, too, has now entered the fray with, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs put it recently, something “very close” to a “Sputnik moment”). As a result, the Pentagod demands yet more money to bridge this alleged missile gap. Like earlier bomber and missile gaps from the previous Cold War, such vulnerabilities exist mostly in the minds of its proselytizers.
And in that context, here’s an article of faith rarely questioned by true believers: while America prides itself on having the world’s best and most powerful military, it perennially declares itself in danger of being overmatched. As a result, from aircraft carriers to stealth bombers to nuclear missiles, ever more weaponry must be fabricated. Who cares that it takes the next 11 nations combined to come close to matching the American “defense” budget. Beware the cry, “O ye of little faith!” should you dare to question any of the Pentagod’s fabricated “needs.”
The notion of prefab war goes deeper still, notes Ann Jones. As she wrote me recently:
“I would also carry the implications of prefabricated war to its source in the industrial world that does the material fabrication that dictates the strategy and style of war and pockets the profits.
“In Afghanistan prefabrication meant forcing Afghan soldiers to drop their trusty Kalashnikovs and retrain endlessly on new U.S. rifles (I forget the model) so heavy and temperamental as to be close to useless; they were particularly sensitive to dust, which in Afghanistan is the principal constituent of the air. The U.S. also trained Afghan soldiers how to enter houses, to search inside and kill every occupant; it erected on the training ground some prefabricated wooden houses for the practice of home invasions. (I witnessed this stuff myself.)”
To her point, I’d add the notion of a prefab “government in a box,” a bizarre aspect of the Afghan surge early in President Barack Obama’s first term in office. The idea was to drop ready-made mini-democracies into less-than-stable regions of Afghanistan that had been conditionally secured by U.S. troops. Those prefab governments would then supposedly provide a democratic toehold, freeing American troops to do what they did best: apply “kinetic” force elsewhere through massive firepower.
But the Pentagod didn’t deliver democracy in a box to Afghanistan. Instead, it brought prefab war, made in the U.S.A., exported globally. Or, as Ann Jones put it to me, “The Afghan war was pulled from a box to be used to pave the way for the Big Box war already planned for Iraq by the Bush/Cheney administration.” That such a “Big Box” war then failed so dismally led, of course, to no diminution in the Pentagod’s power or authority, blind devotion being what it is.
Judging by the Vietnam, Afghan, and Iraq wars, a shoddy yet destructive form of prefab war has been the ultimate American export of these years.
Losing My Religion
I was once an acolyte of the Pentagod. I served for 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, working in Cheyenne Mountain near the end of the original Cold War. I hunkered down there waiting for the nuclear Armageddon that fortunately never came (though the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was certainly a near miss). A cathedral of power, Cheyenne Mountain could have served as the ultimate temple of doom, but America ultimately “won” the Cold War when the Soviet Union imploded after a disastrous conflict in Afghanistan. That proved a setback indeed for a deity that feared the very thought of a “peace dividend” in the wind. Fortunately, that singular moment of victory proved only temporary, as America’s incessant conflicts since Desert Storm in 1991 have shown.
In 1992, the year after the Soviet collapse, I found myself walking around the Trinity test site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where the first atomic blast rumbled and roared in July 1945. You might say that, before using two atomic bombs on the Japanese, this country used the first one on ourselves, or at least on all the creatures living near ground zero at that desert site.
“I have become death, the destroyer of worlds,” mused J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, after his “gadget” exploded, irradiating the surrounding desert in a historically unprecedented way. Oppenheimer himself emerged a changed man. He tried unsuccessfully to block the development of the far more powerful hydrogen bomb, an act of clarity and conscience for which, he would be accused of communist sympathies in 1953 and stripped of his security clearance. He and others who followed learned how unwise it is to resist America’s god of war and its drive for yet more power.
During that same trip in 1992, I visited Los Alamos National Laboratory, the site where those atomic “gadgets” were first assembled. Fifty years earlier, during World War II, America began to bring together its best and brightest to create a device more destructive than any ever built. They succeeded, in a sense, in tapping into the power of the gods, even if in a remarkably one-sided fashion, gaining an astonishing ability to destroy, but none whatsoever to create. Armageddon, not genesis, became and remains the Pentagod’s ultimate power.
Back in 1992, the mood at Los Alamos was glum. A national laboratory to create ever newer, more powerful nuclear warheads and weapons didn’t seem to have a promising future with the demise of the Soviet Union. Where, then, did the future lie? Perhaps the best and brightest could turn their thoughts from bombs to consumer goods, or computers, or even what we today call green-energy technologies?
But no such luck. So here I sit, 30 years later, a bit heavier, my hair and beard greying, having lost whatever faith I had. Why? Because the god I served always wanted more. Even now, it wants to spend up to $2 trillion in the coming decades to build “modernized” versions of the nuclear weaponry that I knew, even then, could only create a darker future.
Consider the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD. It’s an innocuous acronym for what someday will be hundreds of land-based nuclear missiles, one leg of this country’s nuclear “triad” (the others being the Navy’s Trident submarine force and the Air Force’s strategic bombers). Deploying the GBSD, the Air Force plans to replace its “aging” ICBMs with “youthful” ones, even though such missiles, old or new, were rendered redundant decades ago by equally accurate ones that could be launched from stealthy submarines.
No matter. Northrop Grumman won the contract at a potential lifecycle cost of $264 billion. Think of those future missiles and the silos where the present ones sit in flyover states like Wyoming and North Dakota as so many subterranean chapels of utter destructive power, serviced by dedicated Air Force crews who believe that deterrence is best achieved by a policy that once was all-too-accurately known as MAD, or mutual assured destruction.
Yet, before I bled Air Force blue, before I was stationed in a cathedral of military power under who knows how many tons of solid granite, I was raised a Roman Catholic. Recently, I caught the words of Pope Francis, God’s representative on earth for Catholic believers. Among other entreaties, he asked “in the name of God” for “arms manufacturers and dealers to completely stop their activity, because it foments violence and war, it contributes to those awful geopolitical games which cost millions of lives displaced and millions dead.”
Which country has the most arms manufacturers? Which routinely and proudly leads the world in weapons exports? And which spends more on wars and weaponry than any other, with hardly a challenge from Congress or a demurral from the mainstream media?
And as I stared into the abyss created by those questions, who stared back at me but, of course, the Pentagod.
Copyright 2021 William J. Astore