In this impassioned takedown of the national security establishment, journalist and former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Arkin (Unmanned) excoriates military and civilian leaders for fostering a “perpetual-war machine” in the two decades since 9/11. He notes that the U.S. military has fought the “so-called war on terror” in 55 countries, at a cost of 11,000 American lives and more than $6.5 trillion, and claims that every country where fighting has occurred is worse off than it was 20 years ago. Laying the blame on a sprawling network of “establishment practitioners’’ in the military, intelligence, and law enforcement communities, Arkin delves into the network’s role in President Obama’s failure to wind down conflicts in the Middle East, the overhyping of North Korea’s military threat, and the development of massive intelligence-gathering operations that threaten the privacy of U.S. citizens. His solutions include more civilian control over the military and the creation of a “global security index” to measure whether the world is becoming more or less safe. Though lacking in narrative cohesion, Arkin’s compendium of national security dysfunctions builds a damning case against the status quo. Readers will be convinced that a sea change is necessary.
As former NBC News analyst Arkin demonstrates, America’s “endless” wars are perpetual by design and sustained by “a gigantic physical superstructure.” It’s gigantic enough, in fact, that the U.S. has an overbuilt military that, while capable of projecting martial power far from the nation’s shores, is not constructed to meet the demands of the wars that it will likely be fighting. “Our way of war,” writes the author, an Army veteran, “and our style of warfare has never been well suited for this counterterrorism fight.” For that reason, he adds, much of the brunt of the fighting is borne by proxy armies staffed by contractors, and those wars often multiply. At any given time, he writes, American forces are engaging enemies not just in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in numerous nations in Africa. The power of enemies there, as well as in North Korea, is vastly overestimated, by Arkin’s account. Whereas the Pentagon reckons that North Korea is “the largest artillery force in the world,” the author estimates that its presumed “21,000 howitzers and artillery guns” really amount to about 600 “that both function and can reach Seoul in a surprise attack.” In addition to pointing out the problems, Arkin proposes reforms—e.g., stronger civilian oversight over the military in a time when the institution has become accustomed to operating without it. Oversight implies control, and that requires the training of arms-control and nuclear-weapons experts who are “knowledgeable enough to challenge the generals and the status quo.” Another intriguing idea is a “global security index.” In the manner of a stock ticker, it gives constant, publicly available updates on real threats to the U.S. to guide military deployment—a use of force made all the more problematic, notes Arkin, by the pandemic.
Skeptics and critics of military overreach will find Arkin’s argument invaluable.
Goodreads, David Wineberg
It is pretty clear to the whole world that the United States keeps starting wars and never finishes them. William Arkin and E.D. Cauchi call them perpetual wars in their book The Generals Have No Clothes. But that’s just one tiny aspect of a much larger disease. It is a truism that since Korea after World War II, the US only knows how to win the war, but not the peace. Now, it appears not to be able to even win the war any more.
The authors have spent decades in and around the national security structure, and what they see is a disappointing kludge of overlapping, ineffective and drifting services, directed by mediocre men who spend the bulk of their careers not strategizing but fighting Washington for expanded missions and more funding.
For all their vaunted data gathering abilities, various national security agencies have completely different estimates (for example) of how many terrorists there are in the world. They range from the low tens of thousands to the mid hundreds of thousands – an absurd range for intelligence agencies. The truth is they don’t know, but they make decisions based on that lack of information anyway. Like the War on Drugs, the War on Terror is neverending and the world is most certainly not safer or more secure because of them. Just poorer.
That same misinformation and competition is employed to influence presidents, preventing them from taking decisive action. No better example exists than that of Barack Obama, who was stymied at every turn in his futile efforts to rationalize American operations overseas. The authors beautifully capture it in an uncomfortable and frustrating chapter that describes why wars will now remain perpetual.
War has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. US soldiers don’t die nearly as often, because fewer and fewer of them are deployed on the ground. Instead, for every soldier on the ground (there is no more talk of fronts), there are hundreds or even thousands of support staff keeping them going. From satellite data to drone cover to private security services to good old logistics, the way the armed forces structures itself would be unrecognizable to a General Eisenhower (the last general to win a war for the USA).
But if US soldiers are no longer actually battling an armed enemy, the wars just drag on until there are so many special interests involved they are not even allowed to stop: “This is how war never ends. It is kept alive by a million little line items and indistinguishable ‘counter’ missions to new and constantly changing ‘threats.’ For the national security establishment, pursuit of national security solutions—‘competitive advantage’ as the military puts it—is the end in itself, as important as actually bringing any conflict to a decisive close.”
Of course, it’s not just the military that is changing. The world keeps changing to the point where the biggest fear is convergence – alliances, mergers, arms, common cause – a million ways and reasons for the bad guys to get together, in new ways, with wider reach, better stealth and above all, better communications.
The result is scope creep. The armed forces now consider it their solemn duty to monitor and control ships at sea, planes in the air, the use of drones, the level of arms, the rise of popular movements, offshore communications, social media posts – pretty much any and all activity on Earth. Bad actors are everywhere on Earth for the military. For them, it is far less secure and safe than mere civilians believe.
Accordingly, there seems to be an agency specifically targeting every conceivable aspect of life. There are agencies combatting IEDs and agencies combatting WMDs. They all receive funding, and their primary battle is with Washington for more of it. That battle too is perpetual. They’re all tracking movements of people all over the world. When feasible, they call on sister services to make stops, inspections and arrests, at least some of the time. For now, they cannot start a war.
With more than 840 overseas bases, the US military is everywhere, spread thin, but menacing. The competition among agencies and services means they’re always on the lookout for something to do, to justify all the investment in them. And the fact that major takeover invasions are off the table means they will never achieve their goals, no matter how small. Terrorists will fester, insurrections will pop up, petty tyrants will try to grow their empires. And wars will be perpetual.
This new world order means the need for infantry is near zero. The armed forces have become so technical, they have no use for a general draft any more. They would have to reject seven out ten young draftees, because Americans are so overweight, out of shape, and uneducated. Instead, the military spends $2 billion of its allocation recruiting talented specialists to play those support roles running drones, monitoring and manipulating social media and searching unimaginable amounts of raw data for patterns, conspiracies and hard evidence.
I like that the book makes insightful recommendations. For example, in the case of North Korea, instead of appeasing Kim Jong Un while embargoing the country from all interactions with anyone but China (over which the USA has no control): “There is a danger that the North might think its only option is to lash out—a ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ mentality. Perhaps if we looked at the North’s weaknesses more realistically, we would better position ourselves to avoid this eventuality.”
There is a fine description of the North’s weaknesses, from its famous and gigantic (21,000) arsenal of guns which are so old and badly maintained they won’t work for more than about an hour, to its underfed and untrained soldiers who are in no position to defend the country, let alone invade another. They are not allowed to shoot more than five bullets year to keep trained on their weapons. On the other hand, the book makes no mention whatsoever of North Korea’s new nuclear weapons and the missiles it now has to deliver then, which makes their picture rather incomplete and possibly even useless.
Their most constructive recommendation is a GSX, a general security index the authors want to invent. It will assign values to everything everyone does, positive or negative. The index would fluctuate with every change, giving a far better indication of the safety and security of the planet at any given moment. It would be far more valuable than say the Doomsday Clock, which is forever drifting a few more seconds towards midnight, based on nothing more than anxiety.
Despite the authors’ intentions, the GSX is of course no mere index. It is not a simple algorithm, and no one has the smarts to write it. It would have to be a model at least as complex and difficult to run as modeling the weather for every point on Earth. It would require supercomputers, plural. The authors have not even attempted to go down that path or hazard how much computing power would be necessary to build it and keep it running, constantly updated with unanticipated moves by blocs, countries and even individuals. Plus the weather itself and climate change. GSX is the program to end all programs, not a mere index. It’s a nice idea only.
There is much more in the book, from civilian control of the military and how that plays, and the amazing fact that despite everything, no one in the massive national security apparatus was fired or even disciplined for the total intelligence failure around 9/11. Just like bankers after the financial crisis, the military and intelligence seem beyond reach. Too big to fail doesn’t begin to describe how out of control it is.
Where the book is best is in its evaluation of America’s stumbling military: “We deceive ourselves if we really think we are alleviating suffering today. We aren’t. And if ever there was a strategy behind perpetual war—to eliminate Al Qaeda or to bring governance and the rule of law to ungoverned places where terrorism gestated—today it is a distant and failed goal. Whatever happens in Syria, under Trump or his successor, ISIS isn’t being defeated worldwide. Whatever we do in Afghanistan, we are not eliminating Al Qaeda. Whatever we do against the Houthis in Yemen or Al Shabaab in Somalia or so many other extremist groups in other places in the world, the trends are that such groups are transforming into conventional armies and territorial dwellers. If we are to defeat them, we need a different approach.”
So The Generals Have No Clothes is powerfully written, by insiders, for the general public. It has its weaknesses, but it explains a lot of what ails the USA and needs to be addressed.