March/April 2020

A note from the Lowdown team: 

When we finished this issue of The Lowdown, COVID-19 was just starting to spread rapidly around the world. It’s a few weeks later now, and certainly life looks practically alien compared to back then. So even as our topic this month points to the heavens, our hearts are here on Earth—with the victims of this disease and the people on the front lines fighting it. We hope you’re holding up all right—we’ll be tackling the fallout of COVID-19 next month.

Cue Also Sprach Zarathustra, the otherworldly theme music for 2001: A
Space Odyssey. Bring on Capt. Kirk, Spock, and the whole intrepid Star Trek cast. And while you’re at it, toss in some Dr. Strangelove—for Donald Trump is on a mission to turn science fiction into official military policy. Or is it the reverse? Either way, he’s casting himself as a cosmic warrior with a heroic vision to turn the spectacular majesty of space into, as he put it, “the world’s new war-fighting domain.” How fantastic is that?

The 73-year-old, who cravenly got his rich daddy to help him dodge actual war during the Vietnam era, is now up on his high horse—in comic Napoleonic pose—demanding that the Pentagon, Congress, and we taxpayers set up yet another military bureaucracy for sending future youngsters to war. In typical Trumpian fashion, he apparently got this idea from TV, then refined it by consulting his top policy expert: His ego. “You know, I was saying it the other day,” he bloviated in March 2018 to a few hundred Marines that the brass had provided as an audience, “I said, ‘Maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it the Space Force.’ And I was not really serious. And then I said, ‘What a great idea.’

The Marines laughed, but the notion of being space-warrior-in-chief gelled in Trump’s languid mind. By June, he declared: “When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space.” Then he puffed himself up like a tin-pot potentate and bellowed, “I’m hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces.”

And away we go. This is really happening. In Trumplandia, though, appearance matters more than substance. So first things first: To date, America’s snappy new extraterrestrial warfaring department boasts two achievements:

1. The Logo. “After consultation with our Great Military Leaders,” the president tweet-revealed the “Magnificent Military’s” new logo. Good that our generals are focusing on such core tasks, but the emblem turns out to be … well, a weak knock-off of the fictional Starfleet Command’s badge. Ahem, actual Star Trek actor George Takei joked, “We are expecting some royalties.” Less funny is that Trump’s re-election campaign used the official Space Force insignia as a fundraising gimmick. In 2018, his political partisans got an email with possible designs. When they clicked on their choice, they were delivered to a page asking for campaign donations.

2. The Uniform. Navy whites, Air Force blue, Army green–what’s a fighting force without an identifying outfit? So, even before it has any official duties or structure, Trump’s fledgling Space Force grandly paraded its celestial colors for all the universe to behold. But, bizarrely, the ensemble was in the old Army camouflage pattern of splattered brown and green–sensible for a jungle war … but for patrolling the infinity of space?

If all this seems like silliness from a satirical sit-com, it is. Recognizing an artistic and commercial goldmine, Netflix has already wrapped up the first season of Space Force, a 10-episode sit-com about the scramble to construct a far-out military branch. “The goal of the new branch” the TV promo intones as the theme music from 2001: A Space Odyssey swells, is to “defend satellites from attack and perform other space-related tasks … or something.”

But seriously…

Cartoon by Brian Duffy

Let’s be clear: We do need to be vigilant about the very real economic and security issues that exist in the envelope beyond our blue marble’s atmosphere. For one thing, near space is chock full of satellites that our modern world relies on, not just for GPS directions to a new restaurant, but also for info on storms, data from bank accounts and health records, access to wi-fi networks, and even the simple ability to call home. Moreover, satellites can keep watch for military attacks, including those hurled at the 1,000-plus US orbiters. After all, we’re hardly the only national power beyond the stratosphere: 19 countries including China, Russia, India, and Israel have the technical wherewithal not only to launch satellites, but also to disrupt, disable, and destroy them.

Obviously, we need to pay attention. But, here’s the thing: We already do. Trump grandiosely gloats at public rallies and private fundraising events that he invented the Space Force (if not space itself!), but in fact the Air Force Space Command has existed since 1982. Indeed, the Pentagon presently spends a whopping $14 billion a year on space operations.

In contrast, The Magnificent Donald J. Trump Supreme Space Fighting Force has a drop-in-the-bucket budget of only $40 million. And, despite all the presidential bluster, the new entity:

  • is not a separate military branch (but remains inside the Air Force)
  • has no authority to hire its own personnel. It will borrow about 200 Air Force officers to, as Trump put it, “conquer the unknown”
  • has no space weaponry or combat troops
  • will not be operational until 2024
  • and has no real mission other than to add another layer of bureaucracy to existing programs.

Military excess

Breaking news: “Trump says Pentagon Budget Too Big.”

Follow-up report: “Pentagon Agrees.”

This unexpected budgetary breakthrough comes because Donald The Dealmaker has failed in his Number One campaign promise…. [read on]

In short, there’s no need for this thing … except for Trump’s political needs:

1st and most obviously, the Space Force serves Trump’s immediate re-election ambitions. Mere mention of the name has become a reliable, almost Pavlovian, applause line at his political rallies, juicing his fanatical base to chant ecstatically: “Space Force … Space Force … U-S-A … U-S-A!”

2nd, the president’s sophomoric infatuation and overwrought rhetoric is an enduring godsend to a covey of space hawks who’ve long sought political cover to militarize the heavens. While such a potentially huge project (literally infinite in scope) would do nothing to improve US security, it would create new channels for officers to get promoted and would further expand the military-industrial complex, potentially shifting unlimited government and corporate funding (along with totalitarian levels of power) to America’s perpetual war machine.

“The president is actually giving us the gift,” exclaimed the Air Force chief of staff at September’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference. “When the president stated openly that space is a warfighting domain, and we have to dominate that domain, just like we do with every other domain, it opened the aperture for us to talk about what we as a service have been passionate about for years.”

Enjoying Hightower? How about a weekly email that gives you the full scoop?

So instead of a serving as a benign environment for all nations (as US policy has previously stipulated), space is being abruptly perverted by our impetuous president and opportunistic empire builders into a vast new theater for military supremacy and corporate exploitation.

When Trump handed them “the gift” in March 2018, assorted ribbon-bedecked officers wasted no time in beginning to pump up a gung-ho, macho mindset in the people whose job is to monitor and maneuver our Earth- orbiting technology. Just 18 months later, the chief of training for the Space Command gleefully gushed to the Washington Post’s David Montgomery that attitude alterations for new recruits were already underway: It’s a “culture we’re trying to build with those guys starting very young. Their fangs are out. …They’re wanting to fight against somebody … so they can hone their fangs and beat them almost every time.

US global sprawl: 177 nations wide

“Far-flung” doesn’t describe America’s war reach. Our military personnel, technology, and taxpayers’ money are in so many places that the political and military brass no longer admit how many troops are where, much less why. The New York Times, Washington Post, and others, however, have done recent surveys confirming current deployment numbers for: [read on]

“You see that you’re a warfighter,” beamed one bait-swallowing airman whose current job is helping stabilize GPS satellites. “Since space is the final frontier, we have to outpace our adversaries.” A 20-year-old computer encryption technician added that the new attitude “makes me feel pretty important to the warfighting effort.”

3rd–and undoubtedly the most significant booster for Trump’s Space Force whim–is the always-grasping network of corporate military contractors. While this fledgling “sixth branch” is presently a bad joke, the big weapons makers see it as a serious gift that will keep on giving and giving … to them. “A lot of new players are entering the space arena,” one salesman of big-ticket military paraphernalia told the Washington Post, while another added, “We’re excited to hear more about space.” I’ll bet!

Among the spacefaring profiteers who look at the wonders above (and see nothing more than wondrous dollars) are billionaires like Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and the SpaceX rocket outfit. Asked in 2018 about a US Space Force, he replied, “I think it’s cool.” More substantively, he pointed out that a military force patrolling beyond the troposphere “could be pretty helpful for maybe expanding our civilization. You know, expanding things beyond Earth.” Presumably including “things” like corporate power, climate crisis, and military might.

I repeat: Seriously?

Is this the highest use of our people and resources, the finest expression of our nation’s moral purpose? As always, this latest money-sucking contrivance for expanding human hostility is being pushed in the holy name of–Hallelujah!–world peace! The profiteers yawp that arming the Trump Space Force to the teeth to impose US domination of space will counter the malevolent ambitions of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, and thus provide the cosmic deterrent necessary to assure tranquility in the heavens. Warmongering, in other words, is their plan to prevent war. (How well has that worked out?) Still, fearmongering is the tried-and-true tactic for turning Congress into foam-at-the-mouth, budget-busting cheerleaders for a new war.

One problem with demonizing China and Russia for trying to weaponize space, however, is that both have been strong advocates for treaties that would ban any weapons in space–against the adamant opposition of our government. Sure, those “foreign devils” are hard to trust, but neither do they trust us not to become the “Master of Space” (especially when that arrogant slogan is already posted at the entrance to an Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs). This mutual distrust argues mightily for treaties, diplomacy, and genuine transparency to achieve an enforceable balance of power–not for another mindless, ceaseless arms race that benefits no one but global arms dealers and co-dependent pols. Unfortunately, at the moment, smart diplomacy is being trumped by frat-boy chest thumping.

So, off we go into a beyond yonder of space weaponry that will inevitably spawn, at the very least, high-tech ray-gun shoot-outs to destroy other nations’ satellites. Why would we do this? Do we not have enough wars? Have we learned nothing from Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other prolonged, costly, and ultimately pointless conflagrations that should give us pause about lunging into a real-live Star Wars?

War mania

👇 DO SOMETHING 👇

Military madness does not make us more secure. The Sustainable Defense Task Force of the Center for International Policy–a group of experts that includes retired military officers, ex-White House budget officials, and former Pentagon and congressional budget analysts–outlines an alternative defense strategy that “could save at least $1.2 trillion in projected spending over the next decade while providing a greater measure of security.” internationalpolicy.org

But permanent war does keep us from addressing urgent needs at home. The Costs of War Project at Brown U. calculates that, during the past 18 years, the US has spent $4.9 trillion on warfare. (Much of that–$350 billion per year–goes to corporate contractors, while thousands of military families qualify for food stamps.) The National Priorities Project fights for a federal budget that “prioritizes peace, economic security and shared prosperity.” nationalpriorites.org

Help your community understand the true costs of permanent war and militarization. About Face: Veterans Against the War is an organization of “post-9/11 veterans … organizing to end a foreign policy of permanent war.” How about booking an About Face veteran to come speak to your community? You can do that online. aboutfaceveterans.org

Our nation is suffering a decades-long compulsion to wage war. Not that the American people are crazed for constant and senseless military conflict, but the hierarchy has so rigged our war machine that it now operates on autopilot, perpetually dispatching our combat forces into hostilities with little reason, public awareness, or national consensus.

Ponder this: Since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the US has been in multiple wars every single day. How many can you name? Sure, we hear about the big conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, but here’s a sobering statistic: More than 240,000 US troops are now deployed for war in at least 177 countries and territories. I say “at least,” because, as the respected military publication Stars and Stripes reveals, nearly 44,000 additional troops are assigned to places the Pentagon lists simply as “unknown.” Of course, the hierarchy knows where these secret military actions are, but We the People are not to be told.

One of Trump’s biggest applause lines in the 2016 election was his pledge to get the US out of “endless wars.” Even I cheered him on that! It was such a popular promise that he’s reprised it at his many pep rallies, basking in roars of approval. In fact, no wars have actually ended, and all the while Trump has been quietly deploying more troops into more war zones.

Last fall, one of his deceitful ploys played out in Syria. Trump triumphantly announced he was pulling the entire US contingent of 1,000 combatants out of the mayhem of the war in that bedeviled land: “WE ARE BRINGING OUR SOLDIERS BACK HOME,” he tweeted in all caps to his faithful believers. But then his war secretary corrected the “commander” by saying that a couple hundred troops and a big stockpile of our weaponry would stay “to ensure we secure [Syria’s] oil field.” Promises aside, oil rules.

Wait, there’s more. The rest of our forces in Syria were not really coming home, but merely being shifted next door–to Iraq, on Syria’s eastern border. Also, former Trump Mideast war envoy Brett McGurk pointed out that Trump had quietly added 14,000 troops to the Middle East in the previous four months: “He can’t tell his political rallies that he’s getting troops out of endless wars when he’s sending 14 times the amount back into the region.” But he did.

Wait again. Another sleight of hand in the presidential war game is to twist the definition of “foreign entanglements,” against which George Washington cautioned future presidents. To reinforce that warning, Congress passed the 1973 War Powers Resolution. The act specifically bars trigger-happy presidents from injecting America’s troops and treasure into foreign hostilities without informing Congress and getting its timely approval. Yet, almost every president since has used semantic legalisms to slip out of this democratic requirement and wage war by executive fiat. Trump for example has us mired in Yemen’s horrific civil war, where we’re acting as pawns of the Saudi royals who are in the third year of a bloody assault to establish themselves as the region’s alpha dog. This war has directly killed more than 100,000 Yemenis and created an out-of-control famine that has left some 10 million civilians on the brink of death.

The White House, though, grinds ahead, ignoring the blood on its hands, the spreading humanitarian crisis of mass starvation, and any responsibility to our own rule of law (specifically, the War Powers Resolution). No need to seek congressional authority, the Trumpers assert, because they’re technically not waging a “war.” The US forces, drones, satellite targeting, strategic planning, etc., are merely “assisting” the Saudis, not directly doing the killing. In response, a bipartisan measure to force an end to our military involvement in Yemen (introduced by Congressional champions of constitutional rule Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna) passed in both the House and Senate last April. But President “Stop the ENDLESS WARS” vetoed it as a “dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities.”

War kills

To state the obvious, war is destructive, deceitful, brutal, Kafka-esque, and most often stupid–not only for the invaded, but also for the invaders. Consider some grim numbers that Brown University’s “Costs of War” project has tallied just from the official hostilities our military forces have been in since 2001:

  • $6.4 trillion extracted from the US budget
  • 801,000+ people killed from direct combat hostilities, plus several times that number killed indirectly from war- related disease, famine, lack of medicine, etc.
  • 335,000+ civilians mowed down, blown up, or otherwise killed as warfare’s “collateral damage”
  • 21 million displaced civilians and war refugees.

Trump’s plan to flee Afghanistan

It’s over. Dealmaker Donald says he’s ended America’s long nightmare in Afghanistan, finally halting 18-plus years of grinding war–the longest in US history. After more than 2,400 Americans killed (and another 20,000 wounded), more than 100,000 Afghans killed (and countless more maimed), and roughly $2 trillion wasted, Trump is crowing that he’s negotiated an end to that expensive and pointless military adventure.

Only … he hasn’t. [read on]

To this awful price, though, we must add incalculable, intangible costs. One is the bitter alienation of the very people our troops have been dispatched supposedly to “save” from Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, ISIS, and other bad guys. When our bombs, patrols, private contractors, drones, etc. inevitably kill thousands of civilians, and our government then lies about it, the resultant hatred is a recruiting bonanza for the other side. And we get more war. Likewise, truth and trust are killed at home when our politicians and generals glibly lie to us about the rationales and consequences of their warmongering, causing angry cynicism to fester in our own society.

Especially destructive is the creeping psychic effect of being in a ceaseless state of war–a state that conveys a subliminal message to the public that constant combat is normal and military adventurism is necessary (Terrorism! Must kill!!). So don’t question military spending, the rise of domestic surveillance, presidential saber rattling … or the expansion of the war zone into the infinity of space. This meek civic mentality has spread largely because of one insidious change in public policy: Removing citizens from war duty.

We The People have effectively been disengaged from the biggest commitment a national government can ask its citizens to make. These days “America” goes to war, but very few Americans do. Consider–compared to WWII, Korea, and Vietnam–how far removed we’ve become from any participation in “the war effort”:

  • Less than 1% of our population now serves in the military, and only about 10% of them are on the frontlines risking life and limb.
  • The rest of us are not even asked to sacrifice by paying for our wars and other big ticket hostilities, since they’re largely debt-financed–put on the national credit card for our children and grandchildren to pay off.
  • Worst of all, the public has been entirely severed from the fundamental life-and-death political decisions to fling our military into combat hither, thither, and yon. We’re no longer considered worthy of being told (or even lied to) about where, why, and with whom our flag has been committed.

With so few of us feeling the sting of war and so many sensing no direct accountability for what’s being done in our name, the public voice goes mute and protest slides to the fringes. Thus, the people’s authority over the horror of warmaking defaults to autocratic, profiteering warmongers (practically none of whom put their family members in harm’s way).

Yes, this is distressing. But instead of being depressed, let’s turn aggressive, help reenergize America’s grassroots peace movement, and put the people in charge of war policies. While this is not a fix-all (as we learned so painfully from Vietnam and Iraq, the people can be duped into the bellicose irrationality of war), it is nonetheless progress. If wars are “us,” it’s undeniable that America will get into fewer of them, and we’ll have a stronger incentive to get out of those proven deadly stupid. Throughout our history, courageous, progressive activism by individuals and groups has been the only reliable force both for ending wars (the Vietnam protests) and restricting their expansion (the SANE-freeze anti-nuke campaign).

As always, imposing a measure of democratic sanity requires organizing regular people to get in the face of power. Ask your congress critters: How many of the 177 foreign deployments and wars that America is currently in can they name? Did they vote for a $738 billion war budget larded with waste, fraud, and corporate giveaways–not to mention Trump’s Space Force boondoggle? How much campaign cash are they raking in from military contractors? The old rule of democracy-building still applies:

Question Authority. Then question Authority’s answers.

print
Psst! The print edition of my Lowdown newsletter is just $15 a year. Subscribe now-- and support the populist rebellion!
x
3
Articles Remaining